Dear Archbishop Nienstadt

Archbishop Nienstadt: thank you for your opinion on what you consider “detrimental” to society. Allow me to respond by noting what I find truly detrimental to the peaceful, collaborative society I live in.

The society I inhabit depends on our ability to live together in harmony. This means I refrain from marginalizing any group of people simply because they are different, because they hold different beliefs, or because ancient texts force me to. That may be what society used to mean, decades and centuries ago, when we trusted religious authorities to inform us who God had told them we were supposed to hate. But we no longer live this way. If we intend to live together in unity and peace, we must recognize that we are all too different and living too closely together for the exclusionary attitudes of the Middle Ages to ever hold sway again. Good riddance.

This means we treat each other with respect, it means we don’t bully each other, it means we respect the rights of those who, historically, have had those rights trampled on, and we uphold human rights FOR ALL when they are under attack. It means we support each other, and it means we do not organize witchhunts to attack, discriminate and remove rights from people who are different.

It means we do not impose our religious visions on people who do not share them.

What I personally find “detrimental” to this society is bigoted and hateful attitudes towards my friends: wonderful people who have provided stability, friendship, love and support to my community for years. What I find “detrimental” is people spreading lies and divisiveness, particularly when they do so from an unwarranted position of authority, and “in the name of” someone who would most likely be disgusted at the hatred you promulgate as your interpretation of his message of love and compassion for EVERYONE. What I find “detrimental” to the society I live in is people who actively try to force it apart.

Archbishop Neinstadt: I don’t recognize you as a spiritual or moral leader, and with very good reason. You don’t speak for me, you don’t speak for my friends. My sincere hope is that you don’t speak for more than a small fraction of the people of Minnesota, the majority of whom I have found to be loving, caring and respectful, regardless of who they choose to love.

You have the right to hold an opinion and express it, despicable as many of us find it. I fully defend your right to do so, as I would expect you to defend my right to express my opinion on your views, which I trust you can infer. What I don’t defend, and in fact I will fight to defeat, is any and all work you do to impose your antiquated views of what is “detrimental” to society on those of us who have looked around and recognized the 21st century is already upon us.

Archbishop Neinstadt, you are free to recognize the 21st century, and this is your opportunity to do so. It does mean giving up your claims of absolute ownership of morality, but in any case that is ownership your organization long ago renounced any valid claim to. To mix and match metaphors a little: the beams in your eyes have been far too damaging to the glass houses you live in. A little humility in admitting that your organization’s “infallible” interpretations of your god’s will over the course of the past two thousand years have been… let’s just say “less than stellar”, might help you understand why you are wrong in this case too.

While my hope in this regard is not tinged with undue optimism, I would ask that you join the 21st century and work with the rest of us, enlightened Catholics and non-Catholics alike, in affirming basic civil rights for all. There can be nothing detrimental in a society in which we are all, each one of us, free to find happiness, stability and love with the partners that we choose; and furthermore, to know that our unions are granted the recognition, respect, and all appropriate rights necessary to promote the ongoing stability of our society.

With hope that you decide to judge less in the future, lest you yourself be judged, I remain (unfaithfully) yours.

-d

Emergent properties of society

Empathy (software)

Empathy as communication (image via Wikipedia)

Morality and purpose are emergent properties of society.  They are not externally-imposed by an entity above/beyond itself (the “self” being either at the individual or societal level) any more than the organization and physical structure of an anthill is imposed by an external ant deity.  They emerge from the interaction and collaboration (and sometimes conflict) between the individuals that form it.

When someone asks you what the “purpose” of your life is if you are an atheist, the perfectly acceptable answer is that (at the simplest level), your purpose is to assist in creating and maintaining an environment in which the genetic material of your overall species survives and flourishes (sometimes even at the expense of your personal genetic code).  As such, it can never really be an individual, isolated purpose, since there is no purpose that is independent of defining your role and level participation in society, even if that participation is to reject it and live as a hermit.  At a higher level, this translates to helping your community thrive; this, by the way is why altruism appears at the societal level, since altruism only makes sense if you assume the existence of an independent recipient.

Your “purpose” is the process of discovering what your role will be in that society, which can be something as simple as being a good father or mother to your children, or a more complex role, e.g. driving change at a large scale, where the number and nature of your relationships to the other members of the society you are affecting are far more convoluted.

In the same way, when someone asks you how you can have morals without  a religious book telling you what they are, the perfectly acceptable answer is that living in a society allows you to interact with other people and understand how their actions make you feel.  Because we have evolved a finely honed “theory of mind”, we can at the same time imagine how others would feel as a response to our actions.  In other words, we have empathy, which is the very characteristic that has made a collaborative society possible in the first place.  No empathy, no society: no empathy, no morality.  It’s a very simple step from there to the Golden Rule, which was around in multiple forms centuries before it appeared in the New Testament, and can be expressed thus: when dealing with other people, always imagine yourself in their position.  Strive to make that interaction a positive one.  We couldn’t do that unless we had empathy.

But as an emergent characteristic, this goes both ways: yes, we can’t have a society without empathy, but at the same time we can’t have empathy without society either.  We can’t have purpose with society, and we can’t have society unless our purpose is tied up in it.  Morality and society are equally intertwined: they define each other, and are in a sense the different sides of the same coin, which cannot exist independently.  To ask “who gave you your purpose/morality” with the assumption that there has to be an external “cause” or creator of that purpose or morality is the equivalent of asking which religious authority the ants consult when deciding the role they will have in the colony, and which holy book they read to discover how to build the anthill.

You can live a purpose-driven, moral life without a God imposing that purpose on you.  All it requires is that you participate in your surrounding society: the method in which you do this is up to you.  I would hope that you, as a human being with a developed sense of empathy, recognize that it is in your own best interest to participate in a positive way, to help build up and not destroy: only someone who hasn’t fully considered the consequences could think that abandoning purpose and morality is a natural consequence of no longer believing in a deity.