Updated: Sep 3
There’s this new show on HBO I’ve been watching, The Night Of. It’s managed to completely capture me after just three episodes but in a horribly uncomfortable way. Most of the show is from the perspective of a college-aged young man in New York City. He appears to be a really thoughtful, smart, hardworking kid who loves his family deeply. The show follows him as he takes a few risks one evening, no worse than anything you or I have done in our youth, and ends up wide-eyed and trembling with utter terror in cuffs in a holding cell, under suspicion of committing a murder it seems he did not commit. As you follow him through the events that lead up to this, your body can’t help but fill with the turbulent boil of adrenaline. The hairs on my arms stood on end, and my eyes glassed over watching this naive, nerdy kid whose mom still does his laundry, stumble into a situation he may not get out of. With my heart pounding, I couldn’t help but coach him from my end of the television screen, clutching a pillow and trying to ignore my racing heart. I felt for the kid. I feel for the kid.
Watching something like this, whether it’s in real life or very expertly portrayed on screen, you relate to the individual. You recognize the emotions he’s experiencing, and you almost feel a phantom version of them yourself. A situation as desperate and hopeless as a good, young kid getting wrongfully convicted of murder can haunt you for days because you feel the injustice so deeply. You can’t help but picture yourself in that situation – what would you do? What would you say? It’s stressful for the viewer, just like it was stressful for the viewer watching the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, or the Terminus episodes of The Walking Dead.
If their viewers didn’t have empathy, shows like these would fail miserably when they tried to produce those feelings in its audience. As empathetic creatures, we recognize the emotions another is going through, and feel it even more powerfully when we’re witnessing these things happen in real life. That’s why Serial was the number one podcast in the world for a long time; that’s why Making a Murderer captured the attention of just about everyone. We feel for other people – we see the pain on their faces, we know how we would feel in those situations, we can relate to them and the negative feelings they’re experiencing as a result of the bad spot they’re in. We can do this because we are full of empathy, and for those of us who are fully-functioning, this is the infinite resource from which our morality springs.
We don’t kill because we know how it would feel if one of our loved ones was taken from us that way, and we don’t want other people to feel that. We don’t rape because we have an idea of how it would feel being violated like that, and don’t want other people to experience that. We don’t steal because we know how it would feel to be stolen from, and we don’t want other people, be them strangers or not, to have to deal with that. Empathy is the driving force behind morality. Empathy guides us. Empathy gives us a good gut feeling about what is right and what is wrong. Empathy is what drives us to develop much of our legislation and what colours the way our society is set up.
The Christian, however, believes strongly that morality can come only from God. The Muslim believes the same about Allah. They happily ignore their innate empathy in favour of their interpretation of God’s word. If their empathy is at odds with what they believe God wants, God wins out, because God is the source of objective morality.
This is a problem because it leaves the doors open for the faithful to be convinced that anything could be moral if God appears to have condoned it. Just make a good enough case that God said so, and suddenly we have ISIS.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Here’s what a Christian had to say while on Dogma Debate:
David Smalley: In your Christian worldview, where you can have right from wrong, you can have morally good and morally bad because you have a moral arbiter. So, you play by different rules than I do. You can say what’s good and bad. I can’t. I’ll give you that for a moment. Now, assuming that I can’t say what’s right and wrong, and you can, by your own Christian values, does your god meet the Christian standard of good?
Christian: That’s definitely an interesting question. I’ve already kind of conceded, I have some serious questions and issues when I read the Bible. I’m very liberal in the way that I look at it –
David Smalley: Hey, hey, Dallas, I just asked you a question. Does God live up to the Christian standard of good?
Christian: Well, he would have to.
David Smalley: No, no he doesn’t have to. He’s God, he doesn’t have to do anything. He could be a total tyrannical douchebag and still say, ‘you have to believe me and you have to be a Christian in order to go to Heaven’. He doesn’t have to live up to the same standards that humans do. So, my question is, do you believe, if God were suddenly here and still acted the same way he acts from the Old Testament through the New Testament, would he be considered good by Christian standards?
David Smalley: Okay. Well, that brings up some good questions, then, because my favourite story which I’ve already mentioned earlier in the show, of God telling Saul to go wipe out the Amalekites. It’s 1 Samuel 15:3. And he tells him to wipe out the Amalekites and he says do not spare them, kill every man, woman and child. And then he says kill nursing infants, kill donkeys, camel, oxen, wipe everything out. Now, with all the powerful options that you know that god has available to him, does that sound like the Christian thing to do?
Christian: It’s certainly problematic, I agree.
David Smalley: Doesn’t sound very Christian to me. I know if Obama said that, if Obama said, “Hey, I’m tired of dealing with Syria. Marine corps, I want you to go wipe out everything. Kill the camels, kill the kids, kill everything.” It wouldn’t just be Fox News jumping all over him, everybody would jump all over him and say, “what the hell are you doing?” That’s not a leader, that’s not respectable. That certainly isn’t the Christian thing to do, it’s not the American thing to do to go wipe out innocence.
Christian: Sure, but you're talking about a man versus God in that specific scenario.
David Smalley: And that’s why I said he doesn’t have to play by the same rules. So, I’m perfectly fine with you saying, no, God would not be considered good by the Christian standards because he plays by different rules, so he can do whatever the hell he wants.
Christian: Well, the Christian standard is essentially to follow what is god’s standard and according to Christian theology god, by nature, is good, and there is objective good and evil. The whole Christian theology, as far as the big picture goes, is basically, not only following god, but the understanding that god by nature is good and any opposition to that is evil.
Here you have a Christian, and not even a particularly devout one, definitely not an extremist, nor a fundamentalist, presented with the act of wiping out an entire people, including “nursing infants”, who has explained it away as good, simply because God. He has abandoned his own empathy, which we all know he feels when asked this question. He ignores it, buries it as deep as it will go so that he can force himself to say that a god who did these things is good. This is the problem with faith. This is the problem with religion. It makes otherwise good people accept horrible things. It can lead otherwise good people to ignore their innate morality; to abandon it and commit heinous acts because they have convinced themselves that God has commanded it, and god is nothing but good.
Every healthy human being can see that the god of the Bible, or the god of the Quran, or any of the other gods humans have worshiped throughout history, are evil. They commit acts of genocide, they slaughter with abandon, cast down the harshest of punishments for the mildest of crimes and are anything but the benevolent father-figures religious people want to believe they are. They are heinous, atrocious excuses for human beings let alone deities and yet, millions of us worship them unquestioningly.
The god of the Bible requires you abandon your empathetic nature. The god of the Quran requires you to ignore your innate human compassion. Religion turns you away from morality. It doesn’t lead you to it. It requires that you accept the heinous acts of god as inherently good, and so you have no morality at all. You can be talked into accepting anything as good, so long as god commands.
When you witness someone else experience great pain, fear or discomfort, whether it’s the wrongful conviction of a character in a television show or just your friend getting kicked in the junk, you feel that empathy. It’s there. You can’t eliminate it without severe mental illness or drug abuse. Whether you believe in a cruel god or not, you feel that empathy. You can feel your innate morality.
If you believe the Abrahamic god to be good, then your religion has forced you to ignore that morality. It has forced you to give up a part of your humanity; of your compassion. The only thing that will ever replace what you’ve lost, is to leave your faith behind and never turn back.