Friday, April 28, 2006

[random][politics] Atheism and compassion

Yesterday I did something I haven't done in years (probably going back to my Usenet days...) - I took the bait offered by an Evangelical Christian blog that posited that atheists are less compassionate than theists. Now, I don't seek out religious sites, but the post was linked to by a blog I enjoy reading, and, well, given what I'd just written about Rabbi Gellman's Newsweek's article, I couldn't let it pass. I'm glad I did it - I found it quite educational. The blog's author had posted a piece about a single mother who is developmentally disabled, as is her child. How would an atheist respond to her needs, he wondered? Why, the cold heartless logic of atheism leads to disdain in the best case, euthanasia in the worst. An atheist could, he conceded, meet her physical needs, but what if all she wanted was for someone to pray for her? What if all she wanted was for someone to pray with her? Since no atheist could possibly do that, clearly a theist's compassion was superior. (The blog is here, and if you want to only read the comment thread, it's here.) But you see, when push came to shove, they couldn't really justify their stance. No, instead they tried linking socialism to atheism (bzzt! wrong answer!), and they tried laying the atrocities committed by the 20th century totalitarians at the feet of atheism (bzzt! wrong answer!), and spent much of the rest of the time trying to argue that since Christianity was the One True Faith, their version of compassion was superior to that of everyone else. Whoah, there boy! Since when did 'theism' and 'Christianity' become synonymous? And since when did 'not Christian' become the same as 'atheist'? Since when did 'Christian' and 'capitalist' become synonymous? This speaks volumes, does it not? So what happens to their hypothetical compassion when the woman's spiritual needs differ from theirs? Many fundamentalist Christians (like the site's author and the regular commentors) regard Catholicism as misguided at best, heretical at worst - what if the act of devotion that would make the woman happy was taking Communion with her? What if it was going to Confession with her? Lighting candles to the Virgin Mary? I have yet to get an answer that addresses this question. But let's take it a logical step further - what if she wasn't a Christian at all? What if the only way her spiritual needs could be met involved...
...going to a temple, being annointed with paint, donning a garland of orange and white flowers, and saying mantras to Kali, Shiva, or Ganesha? ...going to her ancestral shrine, sweeping off her parents' graves, leaving them food, lighting joss sticks for them, and burning ghost money for them so that their physical needs could be met in the afterlife? ...stripping naked and leaping over a fire, or dancing around a May Pole? ...laying out crystals and absorbing energy from a Vortex?
Somehow I doubt that their 'compassion', as they define it, extends that far. So how does that differ from an atheist's unwillingness to pray with her? I even offered that while I personally could not pray for or with her, I certainly wouldn't have a problem with finding her someone who could. Heck, if I was involved enough in this woman's life to know about her needs and spiritual concerns, I probably wouldn't even have a problem with driving her someplace where she could have her spiritual needs safely met. Would they drive her there, knowing that she was about to engage in actions that, as they see it, condemn her to Hell? If not, why? It's all about meeting her needs, isn't it? I'm not going to say that the compassion of atheists is superior to that of theists - but what I will say is that everyone's compassion has limits. And I think that being aware of those limits helps us be less cruel - more compassionate - regardless of what we believe. If my personal philosophy leads me to a conclusion that is similar to yours, I can only see that as a Good Thing, regardless of how you arrived at that conclusion. I don't care if we share the same path, nor do I insist that others follow my path and my path only. But if we arrive at the same conclusion through different paths, why is it so important that the way I get there matches your way? Expending energy on nonsense like this when there are bigger problems that we all face is foolishness.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a christian guy, but i have a question that has nothing to do with this topic haha. Recently i've been really interested in programming,(i would've asked a friend but none of them know anything about programming) i have visual basic 6.0 but i want a really good book that teaches VB for beginners. I've been trying to find someone to ask on blogs, and out of all places its this place haha. Do you guys have any book suggestions? I noticed on ur profile u guys like programming. Thanks for taking your time to responde.

4/28/2006 11:04:00 AM  
Blogger protected static said...

No 'you guys' here - just me, and I think you might have just made my day ;-)

My advice? Skip VB6 entirely. It's a dead language. If you're interested in doing Microsoft development, MSFT has committed to the .NET platform; you can download free 'express' versions of any of Microsoft's .NET languages here. Microsoft also has a decent site called Coding4Fun which has a lot of useful material for casual programmers.

VB6 is a safe language to putter around in, but it makes it very easy to pick up some bad habits. If you're dead set on VB6, then honestly pretty much any of the intro VB books are going to tell you more or less the same thing: SAMS, "For Dummies", etc. I've gotten rid of almost all my VB6 books at this point - but the best ones were the ones I could refer to as-needed at work, the more practical the content, the better. These books aren't the best way to learn a language, unfortunately.

A good overall book about programming is Code Complete. I love this book, but the 1st edition (which I own) would be a little dated for someone starting out now. I don't know how well the 2nd edition holds up.

IMO, a far better way to learn is to take a community college course or a short-term non-credit/extension course offered by a 4-year institution. They'll teach you the basics, with the added benefits of a.) having an instructor you can pester with questions and b.) using a language that's actually in use in the 'real world', such as VB.NET or Java. If you've got the extra money, you can take a course offered by a 'real' training center - but the difference in $$$ (often a difference of $1000 or more) is only justified if you're serious about making a go of programming as a living. Prospective employers are more likely to take courses from one of those sites more seriously than from a CC, even though in my experience, the difference in quality can be negligible.

Hope that helps; if it doesn't, feel free to ask more questions... Thanks for stopping by.

4/28/2006 11:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding to my ? static. Yeah I read online that VB6 is the most popular programming, and prob the easiest to learn, that's why I picked it bc its easy to learn. They also said that even though the .Net version is growing fast in popularity, that VB6 well still be around for a long time. I was thinking about C++ but seemed too hard for me. But I will look into Java and VB.Net version. Is VB.Net somewhat similar to VB6? and is Java hard to learn for someone like me? So if I had to pick one, you would suggest VB.Net? or Java? I was also interested in web design , there's so much I want to learn but little time haha. And I will look at those website you gave me, thanks a lot for your help and maybe next time I'll type something that has to do with your blog haha. Thanks, take care.

4/28/2006 04:04:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

Expending energy on nonsense like this when there are bigger problems that we all face is foolishness.

We all gotta do something.

No really - we - that is Liftport - get that question. Why are you focusing on this when there are these problems and that woe .. if only you applied yourself to the problem I'm worried about (they continue) the world would be a better place.

I have to mentally shrug. We can't all be doctors or aid workers in Sudan or curing bilateral frostbite. Some of us choose (metaphysical alert) different paths. You develop softare, centuri0on blogs the Gospel, and so on.

Anonymous, I am not a developer or coder and my scripts are not elegant. I have made a decent living from not following the herd in IT.

When the world was on the Netware 3.11 bandwagon and the sure meal ticket was to be a CNE I was a Banyan Vines guy. When the world changed it's mind and being a MCSE was 'the' thing I drifted into Unix administration.

Currently I stradle a bizarro world where I'm the Solaris / Windows sys-admin at the day job. It pays the bills.

What I mean to say is there is profit in not following the thundering herd. Anyone can be a county firefighter - and you get paid poorly. Move up the ladder and become a HAZMAT specialist - not many can or want to do that and the pay is better. Far, far up the scale is the now deceased Red Adair and there is only one of him. And boy did he rake in the bucks.

4/28/2006 04:25:00 PM  
Blogger protected static said...

What he said.

I'm happiest doing, well, things that make me happy. No big mystery there, right? And when I've worked for companies where I wasn't working on anything particularly meaningful, I was happiest when I had relatively wide creative control.

Take away both, and I'm miserable. At that point, you're just twiddling bits to collect a paycheck, and that's a soul-killer.

As it happens, I'm working on a project that (if it pans out) could have some small positive effect on the world - and that's cool. It won't be earth-shattering like a successful space elevator has the potential to be, but that's okay - we can't all be un-rocket scientists ;-)

I'm getting paid to: a.) do something I like (program), b.) possibly Do Some Good, and c.) keep learning stuff. I'm not earning as much as what I could in a more traditionally 'corporate' environment, but thems the tradeoffs.

It doesn't matter what language you learn - what's more important is figuring out what you want to do 'when you grow up'. I've evolved from working with proprietary niche languages to VBA/MS Office to VB6/SQL Server to C#/Java/various flavors of SQL.

And no - I still haven't figured out what I want to be... This works for me now: I'm paying the bills, I have something left over for some luxuries and for my future, and I'm having a good time doing it.

On a more practical note: Java & VB.NET are safe, corporate-friendly languages. Perl and PHP are great, flexible, web-friendly scripting languages. C++ lets you get close to the machine, and do some stuff that Java, VB.NET & C# can only dream of. Hard-core game or simulation programming? Mostly C++. Business software? VB, Java, C#.

But the rub is that this is only true now. In five or ten years, things might be (probably will be) very different, and you might find yourself having to reinvent yourself all over again. I've certainly done it - twice now.

Get your feet wet however you choose. To gank an entirely overused and commercialized phrase, just do it.

4/28/2006 07:14:00 PM  
Blogger I'm gone said...

I just wanted to post a comment about the article on atheism and compassion. I am, what I would call myself, a born again Christian. While I disagree with a lot of the arguments presented by atheists, I'd like to point out that your article was very logical and made a whole lot of sense. I think the problem was that the other guy essentially "didn't think things through", assuming that compassion was limited to one act. Thank you for pointing that out. While I do defend the Christian faith, especially from a logical perspective, I find that there are a lot of well-meaning, yet personally opinionated, Christians that do more damage than good sometimes. I hope that your experience with one such person doesn't limit you from ever hearing what other Christians or theists might have to say. It would be the same as if I heard an argument from one atheist, who doesn't necessarily hold the exact views of all atheists, and I dismissed atheism as a whole because the former had poor arguments.

Thanks for hearing me out.

5/18/2006 11:17:00 AM  

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