Q&A with Terry Firma
Why this blog?
Nothing is quite as funny to me as people who say one thing and do another. So I thought it might be entertaining (if sometimes a little horrifying) to chronicle the misdeeds of the faithful. Think of Moral Compass as a public notebook of atrocious behaviors that are either
• committed in the name of religion, or
• committed by religious people who, by virtue of their belief in God, insist that they are better than non-believers.
Why is it called “Moral Compass”?
People of faith often insist that you must be religious in order to have a “moral compass,” a solid sense of right and wrong. I don’t think that’s true. At all. This blog is a reminder that the moral compasses of religious believers could use a little recalibrating, to put it kindly.
Are you saying that religiosity is responsible for the crimes and bad behavior you write about?
Not necessarily. I certainly do not blame all believers for religion’s worst excesses. Instead, the idea is to chronicle what the religious are capable of despite their professed faith. It’s the hypocrisy of the violators that bothers me roughly as much as their bad behavior does.
To clarify, an atheist axe murderer is no better than a Christian one, and vice versa. The difference is that the believer has most likely always claimed to have a superior, god-given sense of right and wrong. That pretension is silly, so I love writing about moralistic blowhards — especially clergy members — who commit the very sins they’ve always preached against. These hypocrites are analogous to IRS employees who cheat on their taxes, and to cops who sell drugs. Such evildoers are surely deserving of more scorn than your average tax dodger, street dealer, or churchgoer.
Was there a particular event that caused you to launch Moral Compass?
Her name was Lama al-Ghamdi. She was tortured, raped, and killed by her father, a religious authority figure. Lama was five. She was the spark that lit my fuse.
There’s also the fact that I’ve long been fascinated by facades and deception. We all present an “improved” face to the world (Facebook, anyone?), but some people take it to a whole new level. I saw three documentaries this past year that fascinated me no end: Kumaré, The Impostor, and The Woman Who Wasn’t There. They’re all, in different ways, about self-delusion, and about the intoxicating power that comes with exploiting other people’s fears and emotions. You can probably see how religion is one facet of that phenomenon. Anyway, those three films motivated me to pay closer attention “that man behind the curtain” (to use another movie reference).
Who are you?
I’m a lifelong written-word junkie with a journalism degree from Europe, and have worked extensively in publishing on both sides of the Atlantic. For years, I was the editor-in-chief of a couple of Manhattan-based trade magazines. In addition, I’ve written hundreds of feature stories for A-list consumer publications, including Maxim, Wired, Rolling Stone, Vogue, Playboy, Reason, and the New York Times.
Are you anti-religion?
No. First of all, I can’t be mad at what helps other people deal with sorrow and existential fears. Also, my motto has long been “different strokes for different folks.” My wife is a Christian — with a master’s degree in theology, no less — and one of my best friends is a preacher. In fact, though I’ve never done a careful tally, I’d guess that most of my friends are religious. I love them, and I love that they practice what they preach — stuff like unselfishness, kindness, forgiveness. They neither speak in Bible verses, nor blithely condemn others whose lives and beliefs are different from theirs. They’re my kind of people. It’s those who do the opposite that I have a problem with.
Shouldn’t we all be respectful of each other’s religion?
Do you think religion is mostly a force for good or a force for bad?
I don’t know. The polemicist Christopher Hitchens, who I do admire, made a compelling case for the latter. I’m not quite as harsh as he was, though.
I’d love to live in a more rational world, and it does disturb me greatly that billions of religious people are being told by their clerical authorities to oppose various things that would provably alleviate suffering all over the world. Medical breakthroughs like embryonic-stem-cell research come to mind; plus anti-AIDS and anti-poverty initiatives like the distribution of condoms in Africa and beyond. If I’m honest, I sometimes find myself wishing for a world without organized religion.
Then again, I suspect that strife, violence, and division are the inevitable result of how we mentally organize and identify ourselves, and that tribalism is at the root of that. People will always find ways to be tribal — and to be douches together, fighting other tribes of douches. They’ll do it with or without religion. So I’m not 100 percent sure that there’d be a positive net effect if we somehow managed to do away with organized faith.
Are you an atheist?
Maybe “agnostic” fits better, because that word acknowledges that I can’t know, with absolute certainty, that there’s no god. However, a dispassionate look at the available evidence just doesn’t suggest that there is. I’m willing to change my mind (but bring your A-game; no flim-flam accepted). Until I do, you can call me a secularist, a humanist, an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or all of the above. I quite like ‘atheist’ because it’s direct and unapologetic.
Were you raised that way?
My parents weren’t religious, but neither were they hardcore about not believing. They easily shrugged off false claims of authority, and had an enviable talent for ignoring all manner of baloney. I don’t think they ever took religion seriously enough to deem it worthy of more than a rare and casual mention.
Are you a liberal?
No, not in the way the word is understood nowadays. I’m mostly a free-minds-and-free-markets classical liberal, with a deep appreciation for the concept of personal liberty and a profound distrust of authoritarians. But I don’t follow any strict political ideologies. My liberal friends often think I’m a wingnut, and my conservative friends frequently assume I’m a pinko.
Are you more wary of certain religions than of others?
I live in the United States, a country steeped in Christianity, and that’s the faith that can get under my skin like a horde of jigger fleas. I guess that’s because the policies and laws based on so-called biblical values are the ones that are most likely to affect me, my wife, our young children, and our neighbors and friends. But in the scheme of things, geopolitically and historically, American Christianity is now relatively harmless and relatively enlightened.
Not so Wahhabi and Salafi Islam. On the whole, Islam currently represents a much more pressing assault on liberty and human rights than any other major religion. Of course, I have no serious beef with Sufis, nor with moderate Muslims who support freedom of expression, equal rights for women, et cetera.
Of the Abrahamic religions, I probably like (non-orthodox) Judaism the best, mostly because Jews don’t tend to proselytize. Any religion that leaves non-adherents the hell alone is way cooler than the others, in my book.
Why do you single out religious hypocrites? Aren’t there hypocrites everywhere?
You’re right, there are. But here’s the thing: Religious hypocrites often get a pass because they’re religious. Most people, even non-believers, don’t want to be seen as criticizing religion. Questioning the tenets of the faithful? That’s don’t-go-there territory. I don’t quite know why. Religion, and the religious, shouldn’t expect to be above scrutiny.
The other day I had lunch with a friend, a former bishop in the Mormon church (an institution he has since abandoned). He told me that fellow believers would come asking him for God’s forgiveness. One of them had a goat to which the believer had taken a serious shine. Yes, that way. The goat lover suspected (rightly or wrongly, I don’t profess to know) that the Mormon God frowns on making whoopee with farm animals. However, he asked my friend if diddling the goat would be OK after all if he used a condom; as in that case there would be, as he pointed out a bit triumphantly, “no flesh-to-flesh contact.” True story.
The idea is not to paint Mormons as goatfuckers (everyone knows that distinction belongs to Muslims — bada-DUM!)1, but to make the point that it’s rather common for the religious to look for cuh-razy loopholes despite their avowed moral principles.
Isn’t that a pretty extreme example?
Oh, I’ve got others. Have you heard of the Muslim practice of nikah mut’ah, widely accepted among Shias? The term means “pleasure marriage,” and that’s exactly what it is. Muslims who consider it an unequivocal mortal sin to visit a prostitute have no problem arranging a fifteen-minute marriage so that, upon payment of a (ahem) “dowry,” they can have a quickie without feeling guilty. You almost have to admire the creativity.
Do you think that atheists are more moral than believers?
Then why don’t you chronicle the crimes and misdeeds of atheists too?
This blog shines a spotlight on believers who break their own shared rules in often horrific ways. By contrast, atheists have no holy book or shared orthodoxy to violate.
Don’t get me wrong: there are bad people — even evil ones — in every group. Atheist evildoers are not one iota more virtuous than Christian or Muslim or Jewish ones, nor are their crimes more excusable. But at least they don’t pretend otherwise. So there.
What’s your biggest challenge?
First let me tell you what isn’t: Finding material. Once you keep an eye out for news stories about “faith’s epic fails,” they’re everywhere. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, taking candy from a baby, or any other metaphor that means “embarrassingly simple.”
As for the hardest thing… I guess that would be to not let the site get too depressing. We try really hard to inject some humor into our posts, to keep it light. Some stories, like the one about the Amish beard-cutting gang, are obvious comedy gold. Others — like kids getting starved, raped, mutilated, or killed in the name of religion — not so much. There are days when the volume of news reports about reprehensible behavior by people of faith grinds me down. It’s sometimes difficult to find funny nuggets amid all the darkness and dreck, but I have to — simply to keep my own spirits up, and also to entice readers to come back.
If you don’t get your morals from religion, how do you know what’s right and wrong? What’s to stop you from doing evil?
As an atheist, I must say that this is the least favorite question I sometimes get asked. Not because it’s hard to answer, but because the bar is so outrageously, disappointingly low. I’ll let Penn Jillette explain:
Here’s a nicer way of describing it: We are moral because we can’t really thrive and advance without being at least somewhat sociable and coöperative. There’s a reason most people don’t become hermits. We need others. Not just to procreate, but to collaborate with, for all kinds of practical purposes. We reap what we sow. If we don’t love others, they probably won’t love us back. If we show them no kindness and empathy and support, they are unlikely to show us kindness and empathy and support, too. These things are not just feelgood emotions. They are necessary for our survival.
Thousands of years ago, in times predating today’s religions, we joined forces with others to build hunter-and-gatherer communities. If you weren’t a helpful part of such a group, you probably weren’t very popular. If you grouched and slacked and mooched long enough, you might even be exiled. So there are clear reciprocal advantages to sharing, and to helping others, and to fishing, hunting, and building together. Those who violated the social contract would quickly find themselves without food if food got scarce, and without care if they got wounded or sick. That’s pretty much the mother of all incentives to be good. It has nothing to do with Jesus or Mohammed (PBJOMG).
To be good, at the “tribe” level, always meant: don’t murder, don’t rape, don’t steal, don’t make others suffer needlessly, and don’t be a selfish pig; and do try to treat others as you would like to be treated. Those were the general rules and expectations in the millennia before Christianity, Islam, Judaism, et cetera; they’re still perfectly valid today.
OK, but in a moral sense, there can’t be an advantage to not believing in God, right?
That’s debatable. Many atheists believe that for good people to do do good, you don’t need religion; but that for good people to do bad, religion works like nothing else.
I look at it this way: Because I don’t believe in god(s), I have no confessor or savior to wash away my sins. So if I fuck up, it’s on me. My misstep will haunt me. My guilt will gnaw at me. No shortcuts to (self-)forgiveness are available to me. I can’t go to church to pray and tell Jesus how sorry I am, and then walk out with both the pastor’s blessing and with the knowledge that Christ, who died for my sins, has already forgiven me.
I’m responsible for what I did. That’s good, because it’s a very powerful deterrent. As unlikely as it may sound to the religious, not believing in a god, for me, is what keeps me on the straight and narrow. I think I might be a worse person if I could buy cosmic forgiveness for absolutely anything with just a few prayers.
That doesn’t mean I think you are probably a bad person if you believe in God. Not at all. I’m just telling you what works for me.
Write all you want about the evils of faith. Fact is that most believers are good people.
Most believers certainly aren’t anywhere near as wicked as the pious murderers and devout rapists that populate my blog posts. But when I read the news, or history books, it does seem self-evident that vast numbers of people suck at religion. Even the non-violent adherents do, to some extent. Here’s a pretty good comic that sums up how I feel.
God wants people to be good. If they misbehave, that doesn’t prove He doesn’t exist, now does it?
This blog isn’t about whether the problem of evil disproves the existence of God (if you’re interested in that discussion, start here). It’s simply about people who claim that he absolutely does exist, and that they are proud to follow his rules … and who then turn around and steal from the collection box, or murder someone, or rape a little kid.
I’m quite offended by something you wrote.
I write to inform, surprise, inspire thought, and entertain. I don’t set out to wound, but I do have a sense of humor that’s not shared by everyone, and I’m OK with that.
You’re not? That’s fine too. Some people hate broccoli, or country music, or the color fuchsia. It’s neither a virtue nor a shortcoming to dislike something. The sooner we all stop pretending that being offended by something we don’t happen to like entitles us to a higher level of rectitude, the better off we’ll all be.
There’s simply nothing respectable about the word “offended.” On the contrary. It’s a ransom note, with the ransom being an instant apology. I’ll pass.
The marvelous Stephen Fry once summed it up like this:
While I’m sharing my affection for the man and his low tolerance for the easily piqued, I might as well toss this one in too (click to play):
It is a misfortune that many people think it is a mark of saintliness to be easily shocked; whereas the greatest saints are the people who are never shocked. They may be distressed; they may wish things different; but to be shocked is often nothing but a mark of vanity, a desire that others should know how high one’s standard, how sensitive one’s conscience is.
Why do your banners look vaguely familiar?
My illustrator noticed that “Moral Compass” sounds like “Mortal Kombat,” the arcade video game. That was a nice cue, we agreed; after all, religious believers whose moral compass is broken will often resort to stupid violence. So he took some inspiration from Mortal Kombat in designing and drawing the three banners that rotate randomly at the top of this blog. (Reload the page a few times to cycle through all three.)
Is Moral Compass a one-man operation?
I started Moral Compass in February of 2013. Soon, two fellow bloggers, my friends Hittman and John Henry, had jumped on board, and we also found a European correspondent, Dutch journalist Bert van Manen. A fifth (silent) partner donates server space, bandwidth, and technical support, for which we are immensely grateful.
Do you make money off this blog?
Moral Compass costs us money. There’s electricity, heating, hosting, bandwidth, computers, software, subscriptions, registrar fees … and of course, the purchase of sacrificial virgins to keep our Lord Satan happy. We pay for it ourselves, and I personally dedicate between 20 and 30 hours a week to this blog. That’s time I’m not spending on making money.
Like you, we’re not big fans of ads, so you currently don’t find any on this site. That may change as our expenses rise.
I love what you guys do, and I’d like to show it. Do you take donations?
You’re sweet. Thank you. Just click here and think generous thoughts:
I have a question about atheism, and I’ve picked you to answer it. Ready?
I can probably save both of us a bit of time by directing you to the excellent Atheism FAQ on reddit. Absorb the information there, and mull it over. If, after that, you still have an honest question (not a sermon, a diatribe, or a conversion attempt — an honest question, born out of genuine curiosity), then sure, fire away.
I have a suggestion for a blog post. Or I’d like to tell you you’re surely going to hell. Or I want you to receive fourteen million dollars from a Nigerian prince. Can I write to you?
By all means: terryxfirma at gmail dot com. But no spam, or there’ll be smiting.
Will you write me back?
Probably, if you’re not a dick.
1 Totally kidding. I wouldn’t want to end up like this guy, would I?