Religion and Memes: Epilogue


(Continued from earlier.)

I see this shared a lot, and it’s probably the case that bringing it up is redundant, because my hope is you’ve become so sick of my writing about religious memes that you will never share them again out of simple fear of further boredom. But I wanted to say something extra about this meme, because I think it’s weird.

It’s weird because it is exactly analogous to saying “Some people take insulin because they have diabetes. I don’t have diabetes, so I don’t even need to take insulin!”

The idea that what we should be concerned about is desire and not action, that what separates the preterit from the elect, or the “self-damning” (his word) from the Penns, is some mysterious and unconscious internal purity, is anathema to me.

There’s an old legend I got from a Time Life Enchanted World book, and which I’m telling from memory. The king has to decide which of two warriors is the bravest. One, he learns after research, is completely fearless, like Chinese Gordon, and strides into danger as though contemptuous of death; the other is always terrified, but sucks it up and goes on the most dangerous quests and sallies anyway (like Raoul Wallenberg). It will not blow your mind, I trust, when the king chooses the second warrior. This may be doing violence to the word “bravest,” but it still feels right. What matters is how you play your hand, not just the miracle of being dealt shoot-the-moon cards.

All the people who share Penn’s words–do they disagree with this principle? Do they want us to ignore what we do and dig down to find what we would have done in…what, a state of nature? A hypothetical state of nature that none of us have been in, where no authority figures ever punished or chastised us, and we magically stumbled upon goodness and mercy on our own?

We have different value systems, my friends.


  1. So here I disagree with you. First off it seems strange to me to hear actions not desires matter in defense of religion against atheism. Although I recognize there are non-Catholic Christians to whom desires matter less, in my personal experience the idea that not only actions but also desires must be pure is one that I have heard almost exclusively from religious people and rarely from atheists.

    Secondly I realize these posts (and I guess this blog in general) exist in reaction to your facebook feed, which I can only imagine is some horrible echo chamber of self-righteous social crusaders doing their best to dismantle civilization, but outside of your facebook feed religious people do spend a fair amount of time claiming to have superior morals to atheists. It isn’t just as though non-diabetics were bragging about not needing insulin, it’s as though the diabetics spend a lot of time bragging about how great their insulin levels were to non-diabetics. It doesn’t seem unfair to me for an atheist to respond by pointing out that ‘hey, if you’re so moral why do you need threat of divine punishment just to do what I do everyday?’

    Let’s put it this way, imagine there is a prison and in this prison the prisoners are well guarded and incapable of committing crimes (so, unlike an actual prison). This prison has a zero percent murder rate, while the world outside the prison has non-zero murder rate. Sure outcomes are more important than desires, but if the prisoners started boasting about how they were morally superior to free men, I think we’d be right to call shenanigans on them.


    1. In general arguments about whose a better person are silly arguments, and outside of certain obvious choices (Jim Henson is a better person than Stalin (everyone seems to like Jim Henson!)) I don’t want to get caught in the quagmire.

      I nevertheless wouldn’t want to stand behind a statement that intent doesn’t matter at all. Wallenberg died saving Jews from the Holocaust and is pretty clearly a hero; if he’d done it because some hypothetical Elders of Zion were holding his family hostage, I’d feel less warmly towards him, although the amount of good he did would be the same.

      But we’re talking memes here. Anyone who makes a meme about “I thought of a reason why I’m better than you” should probably be made fun of, regardless of whether it’s an imaginary prisoner or Penn Teller (whom I usually like)..

      I understand that this whole sequence could be read as demographic point scoring (take that atheists! score one for gnostic mystagogues!) but I’m honestly trying to not play that game. I want to call shenanigans where shenanigans be.

      Your comments are always really good, so you should keep them coming.


      1. Well your blog posts are really good, so keep those coming too.

        I’m not sure I want to condemn saying “I’m better than you” since that is the subtext of about 30% of the things I say, but I do think saying “I’m morally superior to you” is just another way of saying “I’m more self-righteous than you” or “I’m more smug than you”. Who the hell thinks that is something to be proud of?

        I guess when I hear an atheist say something about atheistic morals, I just assume it is in response to common beliefs about atheism being immoral. Most people today may live and think like atheists,* but they still get quite shocked if one comes out and says one doesn’t believe in God. I’ve definitely gotten gasps from people when I’ve said it and (admittedly, not in the US) had a roomful of people point and laugh at me for thinking we came from monkeys (my response, “You think we came from mud! I can oversimplify your cosmology too!”) And the view that atheists have deficient morals is pretty common (in fact the Penn quote you criticize opens up with him describing Christians asking him essentially how can atheists be moral). I realize it may not be common among the people spreading these memes to each other and the quote in particular is designed more to make people who already agree with it to feel good about themselves than to convince people that don’t already agree with it (an issue I have with Penn in general, even though I do agree with him on most issues).

        *I realize this could be a controversial thing to say. All I mean when I say most religious Americans think like atheists is that their morals owe more to secular views than to what is in the bible or divine revelation. Example, the average American Christian thinks it is worse to own slaves (even treating them as Paul and the Pentateuch say one should) than to deny Jesus is the savior even though that moral prioritizing does not have a lot of biblical support. I don’t say this to point out that ancient Christian morals are not the same as my morals and therefore Christianity is wrong, only to point out that most modern Christians have morals more in line with modern atheists than with the people who founded their faith.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. If we come from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys? I came here from Connecticut, after all, and Connecticut is no longer there.

        I assume on Earth 2 another Hal has a friendsphere that’s full of memes about stupid evolutionists and how Nietzsche stole his ideas from John Calvin, and the God, guns, and guts made America great, and he and I are EQUALLY ANNOYED.


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