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July 31, 2005

Sunday Sermonette: Mark Twain

Today's Sermonette is a special edition for a special election in Ohio's 2nd Congressional District.

Draws on the cautionary tale of Jean "File Card Memory" Schmidt, whose encyclopedic recall for names and faces didn't extend to Coingate's Tom Noe or, even more unfortunately, to the paper trail connecting Noe and Schmidt.

Some people ask why we should be good without God. Secularist Mark Twain offers one of the many good reasons to be moral whether you believe in a higher power or not:

If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.--Mark Twain


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According to DeVoto in "Mark Twain in Eruption" he also said, "The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet."

Mark Twain wrote in his Notebook, 1902, "The low level which commercial morality has reached in America is deplorable. We have humble God fearing Christian men among us who will stoop to do things for a million dollars that they ought not to be willing to do for less than 2 millions."

Times do not seem to be achanging.

Twain's quip is partly in jest and partly a half-true argument that moral action benefits us in the long run. But the hard choices are always the moral actions that don't benefit us -- the faithfulness to a spouse when one could get away with an affair, or the commitment to a principle even to the point of risking death. For these choices, Twain's quip doesn't work. In all seriousness, what are some of the other "many good reasons"?

One simply acts like a gentlman.

The problem for most Americans who would have us believe that Christianity is their moral compass... is that far too many of them have a clue as to what Christianity actuall teaches.

This is an excerpt from an article that is well worth reading:

The Christian Paradox
How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong
Posted on Wednesday, July 27, 2005. What it means to be Christian in America. An excerpt. Originally from August 2005. By Bill McKibben.

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.


Strategic typos... meant to say:

"is that far too many of them don't have a clue as to what Christianity actually teaches."

If the only thing stopping you from commiting evil is diety worship, then I'm literally afraid to hang out with you.

If the only thing stopping you from commiting evil is diety worship, then I'm literally afraid to hang out with you.

"Why should I be moral?" is a weirdly interesting question. To be moral is to do what you should (or ought to) do. So the question reduces to, "Why should I do what I should do?" But if you saw no reason in the first place to do what you should do, then providing an answer to this question wouldn't help, since it would just have the form, "You should do so-and-so," -- specifically, you should be moral.

The problem is that there are really two senses of 'should': one is moral (you morally ought to do X) and one is prudential (it's in your interest to do X). "Why should I be moral?" usually means, "Is it in my interest to be moral?"

People often invoke God at this point, meaning, "Yes, if you don't want to fry eternally, you should be moral." Here I agree with mudkitty's point. If someone is trying to be moral only because they think it's in their interest to do so, then that person really doesn't understand morality and probably isn't very nice to be around.

Hmm. Funny that I missed the circularity in my use of "should." I often catch cynics -- the sort of people who think it's naive to expect the government to serve the public interest -- admonishing the objects of their criticism that they "should" be more realistic. Much to think about.

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