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20130118-0632321Okay, I love Condescending Wonka as much as the next connoisseur of sarcasm, but sometimes its difficult to separate the crap he rightfully calls out from the crap he obscures in the process.

Case in point?

Look to your left.

The thing about this gem is that it skewers a pretense for which I have absolutely no sympathy. I’ve been asked far too many times why I don’t commit great acts of cruelty dishonesty, or outright villainy, all on the assumption that failure to believe in God apparently means you are well on your way to doing the worst things imaginable. It’s a pretty common theme in the amateur apologetics camps, and some folks keep coming back to it no matter how often (or how reasonably) you answer their questions.

And yes, the people who insist that all sense of morality goes out the window once you walk away from God scare me, …more than a little bit.

So, I have no sympathy for the mindset mocked by this little meme, none whatsoever.

But Wonka’s argument here is a little troubling in itself, because of course nobody really does figure out that murder is wrong, all by themselves. It might be easier if the category in question were simply ‘killing’, but it isn’t. It’s ‘murder’. And murder is a social construction. (How many people are really against ‘killing’ in all its forms anyway, or even ‘killing sentient creatures.’ No. Most of us are quite willing to kill under the right circumstances, even if we might find it difficult to do so.

Attempted-Murder-500x346If you’ve ever tried to sort the difference between killing that is acceptable from killing that isn’t you can see how very quickly a simple question leads to a very complex maze of possible answers. Issues of self defense, defense of others, and military or police service all skew the simple answer in a variety of ways. Add in possible mercy killings and a mix of government and business polices that lead accidentally or by design to deaths of innocent people in one part of the world or another, the whole damned thing gets that much more messy.

I’m not even suggesting that you can’t sort the mess. What I am saying is that social conventions are a big part of the means by which this mess does get sorted. We don’t figure out that murder is wrong all by ourselves; we learn what murder is from those around us. Others are actively involved in helping is form an orientation towards the prospect of killing another person, helping us decide when and under what circumstances we would be willing to do so.

It’s worth noting that references to God(s) serve as a pretty common part of that social process by which this and other moral questions are sorted out for a lot of people. One could question, as I do, whether or not gods are an essential part5 of that equation, and even conceding the role that gods do play in communicating ethics for many people does not entail belief in the literal existence of any of them. But there is a big difference between suggesting you can be good without God, or even questioning the role of divine entities in ethical lessons and the pretense that it’s all so perfectly obvious you can settle the whole matter all on your own.

It’s a particularly obnoxious fellow that insists we would all go conky-wobble with each other in the absence of God. More reasonable theologians have asked whether or not non-believers can produce an adequate explanation for the ethics that we do have. …I think the answer is yes, but that’s a response to a different kind of discussion. It’s hard to tell what to do when one runs into someone who insists that we are all one god shy of an shoot-out at the K-Mart Corral. Their position is crap, and their arguments are profoundly disturbing.

Still, it isn’t quite true that each of us handles the moral questions of life on the strength of our own individual conscience alone. We get a lot of help from our friends and loved ones.

The answer to both Wonka and the target of his abuse turns out to be the same; it’s more complicated than that.