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Authenticity and Atrocity

February 7, 2010

In discussions about authenticity and (more often) ethics or morality, people try to raise up objective morality systems. They bring up truly egregious and atrocious actions in an attempt to get others to sympathize that these actions are just “so terrible” that their wrongness must be etched into the universe somehow.

These people want to propose some kind of argument against subjective morality and/or relativism, and/or personal authenticity, or whatever else. After all, what do you do if someone authentically wants to rape children?

Most answers to this question are pretty damaging. Some answers make you look absurd. Some make you look heartless. Others yet make you look as morally bankrupt as the child rapist him (or her)self.

Perhaps I’ll make a case that’ll paint me as the third kind.

In my discussions of authenticity and subjectivity, I try to speak out that these things matter the most. It matters that I am being honest with myself. That I know what I believe or feel, and recognize what I truly believe or feel. As a result, I view things that are “honest with myself” as being “good.” I recognize that, because “honesty with self” can differ (“self” is different for every person…), what will be seen as good will probably differ as well. The problem we often get into, I think, is that we want to insist that what we think is good is objectively good. But we were never using an objective measuring stick in the first place. We were using what we personally felt or believed. What made sense to us.

So, when I finally realized what it means to say, “I don’t believe in God,” and when I was able to chew through this phrase and my own self, I was also able to say, “I don’t believe atheism and unbelief are as bad as everyone else seems to think they are.” To me, I could either say this or say, “I believe my core self and core beliefs are wrong and should be destroyed.” I thought, and still think, that the former is personally more healthy than the latter.

I think that in my life, going through a search for authenticity has been positive and beneficial. I haven’t seen “bitter fruits of apostasy,” and I seem to be doing well in school, work, etc., I have opportunities for growth and improvement, and I work to get better each and every day. I’m not falling through a bottomless pit, decentered from any kind of “good”. I don’t just languish at a plateau, thinking I’m perfect as it is, either. I brook improvement each day.

But I could see that some would disagree. Some would insist that atheism, for example, could never be good or lead to good. Wickedness never was happiness. Some would insist that I left something definite and I will never be able to get that back unless I turn and find God. I imagine these kinds of people would span a spectrum…a spectrum from people at one end who view atheism as an unfortunate difference of opinion (Oh, you like chocolate cake instead of cheesecake?) all the way down to people at the other end who view atheism as an utter atrocity.

Atrocity. That’s important.

If what I find to be the authentic me (and my paradigm and anchoring engine for personal progress, discovery, and improvement) can be seen by others as atrocious, then couldn’t it be possible that what I see as atrocious, others could see as authentic for them?

And so here we come to the idea of the atrocious. The child rapist. (Or the adult rapist, for that matter). Insert any criminal you find utterly sickening. Now, imagine that these individuals feel that their actions are authentically them. So, what would you have them do? Would you have them pursue authenticity or reform themselves? What would you, as a member of outside society, do? Would you assist them in their pursuit of authenticity or try to stop them at every turn?

The first thing I want to do with this analogy is say, “It couldn’t be!” How could someone believe something so atrocious is what is authentic for them?

But this is a non-answer. After all, my critics could ask the same: “How could anyone find atheism authentic for them?” Any quibble I have on the difference between the two would just be attempting to appeal to something that I already find valuable.

In my life, I have chosen to defy the norms and pursue authenticity. I don’t think atheism is bad in the slightest, so I still don’t think the rapist analogy holds for me. But I must also realize that for some people, I am no different than the rapist. No less atrocious. Some of these people think that my sin is so vile that it will lead to my eternal damnation.

But I don’t think it is my role to defy myself. I think this is suicide. When we submit to some outside source and say we will be what rings true to them instead of what rings true within us…we are backstabbing ourselves. Annihilating ourselves. Killing ourselves. Our selves only ever wanted us as their ally and supporter, and when we refuse to be that supporter, it dies the most gruesome death (and you see it front and center!). And I disagree with that. We should be our allies.

How many gay men and women have killed themselves? And why? Because outside sources said that their very essence deserved to be extinguished from the face of the earth, and they listened.

I don’t believe homosexuality is an atrocity, so I am not saying I believe the analogy holds here. But when I look at a history of homophobia and a history of suicides, I see the potency and destructiveness of the idea that would link one as being just as terrible as the other.

Ultimately, I have to side with authenticity. No matter how drastic the consequences. No matter how socially unpopular (or villainous) that makes me seem. If there is a god, and he wills that nonbelief is something that merits eternal hellfire, then I still have to side with authenticity. If it is a choice between annihilating myself and letting whoever the power that is try to annihilate me, then I say: try and catch me! Even if it is likely that the omnipotent god already has.

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  1. Rape is bad not because it is unpopular but because it violates another person. It is very different in that regard from consensual adult sexuality.

    What I find puzzling is that we are forgetting the baseline, core values that tie us together. These principles include the freedom of self-determination (“the pursuit of happiness” or the right of quiet enjoyment) and the rule of law (protection from injustices of the state and from violence by individuals). Efforts to destroy the distinction between Church and state erode and destabilize this foundation. Pluralism is *essential* for peaceful coexistence, and it requires secular principles in order to be sufficiently inclusive.

    Believers are often threatened by nonbelievers. The fact that you don’t believe in God and have not yet been struck by lightning is disconcerting. Or as Oscar Wilde put it, “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attraction of others.”

  2. I think you run into problems when you define the “self” as the isolated individual. If you truly were an isolated individual, living in some cave never interacting with another being (human, plant or animal) throughout your entire existence, then one could say that true authenticity is doing whatever the hell you feel like.

    But no one exists like that; no one could exist like that, simply by virtue of the fact that you come out of somebody’s womb and spend at least the first few years of your life more or less helpless. We are interconnected. So true authenticity has to have a social dimension.

    It should also, BTW, be self-evident that my interconnectedness with you has nothing to do with whether you are an atheist or not.

  3. MoHoHawaii:

    I agree. On the other hand, this idea of “violating other people” being bad is a popular one. In a different time (or rather, under different conditions with different statuses), the idea of violation might never come into consideration (if the individual is treated as subhuman…)

    John G-W:

    I actually think that the “self” is influenced and impacted by social interactions. After all, our likes, dislikes, tastes, preferences, etc., aren’t formed in vacuums. They are noticeably influenced by where and when we’ve grown up.

    I don’t ignore/miss this. Instead, I focus on the times when such “socialization” is incomplete and we — somehow — have a stroke of individualism.

  4. “In discussions about authenticity and (more often) ethics or morality, people try to raise up objective morality systems.”

    I am one of these people. I like the idea behind existentialism, with freedom of the individual being the preeminent ideal, but I feel (so I guess what resonates or is authentic) to me is that there is a baseline for morality — which just happens to adhere to what I think is right and wrong now that I’m a godless liberal, and that I have no justification for without an external source to anchor to (God, why hast thou forsaken me again?).

    So, I take an apologetic stance. Any system (for example existentialism, however its adherents would probably insist that it is not a system) that claims truth is flexible or relative is asserting a truth and is either in contradiction or caught in some form of paradox. If they can play games with reality to justify their position (a position I quite like) then so can I. I love apologetics.

    It seems like we’re creeping toward a higher level of morality (I’m sure I stole this idea from someone else). If morality had an IQ test then the average score would be higher today than say for the peoples of the middle ages. We’re more tolerant, speaking collectively and not individually. I think the idea of the light of Christ or Jiminy Cricket hasn’t worn off for me yet. It’s too soon since my departure from TBMism. I feel strongly that there’s an underlying morality and that’s about it. If individuals are so important, then we need to protect them from each other, even from themselves. I just started reading 1984 this week. OK I need to go away and think about this, ’cause that was terrible. Like Arny says I’ll be back.

  5. loren:

    What you say about contradiction/paradox is only necessary for *truth* relativism. (And that’s basically in your statement: any system that claims *truth* is flexible or relevant…)

    But that’s not what people who oppose objective *morality* are doing. They aren’t proposing *truths* are relative.

    In fact, if I would go through your statement, I’d suggest that you’re not *really* suggesting an objective morality at all. You feel (and what resonates within you, or what is authentic) that there is a baseline of morality.

    I can completely agree with that on a personal level. Nothing about that statement suggests an objective or universal morality, though — *especially* when you already qualify your words with “which just happens to adhere to what I think is right and wrong now.”

    If we are chasing to a higher level of morality, then that means morality isn’t set in stone, isn’t objective. Can we chase a higher level of physics? Well, no. We can only chase a better *understanding* of the physics we already have. The question is if you believe morality to be something like physics — built into the way the universe is — or not. I don’t. I think that if subjective beings (like humans) weren’t here, there would be no morality, because morality originates and is projected by subjective beings.

    I would agree (personally) that we are more tolerant, etc., etc., But then, I have to recognize those are going by *my* subjective values (e.g., what I also happen to think is right and wrong now that I’m a godless liberal.) Others might not even be convinced that tolerance is worth valuing! (That’s why you have to qualify: “speaking collectively and not individually.” Because you know individuals who not only are intolerant…but don’t value tolerance as a virtue!) I’d say societies still have several realms of entrenched intolerance. I was talking to a friend (who happens to be a conservative Christian), and she remarked that where I saw a trend of better values, she saw a remarkable decay in family values, work ethic, and the persistence of morality (tolerance, to her, is not such a good idea when applied to “deviants”.)

    I mean, there *could* be an objective morality, I suppose. I just don’t see much reason to believe it, especially when the terms we most commonly use seem more like subjective morality in various levels of disguise.

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  1. Authenticity to Self: A sure sign of self-centered depravity? « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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