A Sermon On The Mount by Delos McKown (August 1996)

 This was delivered during the Lake Hypatia Independence Day festivities and sponsored by the Alabama Freethought Association, a Foundation chapter, at Mt. Cheaha State Park, the highest point in Alabama, on July 7, 1996, in the Al Alexander Activities center formally but illegally known as “the Chapel.” It is the first freethought function held there since Roger Cleveland won a legal settlement against the State for reserving its use for religion.

In a segment of the Sermon on the Mount, appearing in Matthew 5, Jesus is reported to have set six new teachings of his against six old Jewish teachings. The latter are introduced by such words as “You have heard that it was said by them of old time” and the former by “But I say unto you.”

Since both the teachings of old time and Jesus’ new teachings are predicated on the same profoundly mistaken views of human nature and of the world in general, it is unimportant for us here today to compare and contrast these teachings or to determine which is better or worse in some way or other. The point is that whether better or worse, in this way or that, both are lodged in an egregiously mistaken mythology — but in a mythology of enormous importance for us, because it is one of the wellsprings of Western culture. Another tributary, equally informative of our civilization and equally mistaken, also exists — the Greco-Roman.

In the following, I shall refer now to the one source and then to the other and back again and shall introduce each mistaken idea that has plagued our culture with the words “You have heard that it was said by them of old time.” I shall then introduce each modern, corrective idea with the words “But I say unto you.” We shall then have a new Sermon on the Mount, but on Mount Cheaha this time and in, of all places, deepest Dixie.

You have heard that it was said by them of old time that mind as an active agent precedes matter as inert stuff, but I say unto you that matter/energy precedes mind.

In the tenth book of The Laws, Plato, while trying to prove the existence of gods, posits the priority of mind (and all its kindred such as soul) over matter. He writes:

“Nearly all of them [i.e., unbelievers] . . . seem to be ignorant of the nature and power of soul, especially in what relates to her origin: they do not know that she is among the first of things, and before all bodies, and is the chief author of their changes and transpositions. And if this is true, and if the soul is older than the body, must not the things which are of the soul’s kindred be of necessity prior to those which appertain to body?”

Eliciting agreement, he continues:

“Then thought and attention and mind and art and law will be prior to that which is hard and soft and heavy and light; and the great primitive works and actions will be works of art; they will be the first and after them will come nature and works of nature, which however is a wrong term for men to apply to them. . . .”

Feeling the need to explain why “nature” is misapplied, he continues:

“. . . [T]hose who use the term mean to say that nature is the first creative power; but if the soul turn[s] out to be the primeval element, and not fire or air, then in the truest sense and beyond other things the soul may be said to exist by nature; and this would be true if you proved that the soul is older than the body, and not otherwise.”

If the Jews of Jesus’ time and before had not based their chauvinistic theism on intuition, animism, and tradition but had, instead, tried to think through the issues of theism versus atheism as Plato did, they would probably have reasoned much as he. The fatal flaw in this line of reasoning, whether Platonic or not, is that no human being of whom we know anything, including ourselves, has ever encountered a mind (or any of its kindred) apart from a functioning brain housed in a living, supportive body. Although one may lose one’s mind while keeping one’s head, one cannot be beheaded and retain one’s mind. Those who speak of the mind of God, unless they are willing to give themselves over totally to magic, had better be prepared to speak of the brain of God, of the nervous system of God, and of his body. Where, one wonders, are these to be found that we may inspect them and see how they work? Although Plato is to be respected for identifying the points at issue, he and all other theists have it backward. Matter/energy precedes mind, the latter being, almost certainly, derivative from the former.

You have heard that it was said by them of old time that there are two worlds, the physical world that meets the eye (and other senses), created and passive, and the world of spirits, entities of non-flesh, and non-blood, and non-material, i.e., ethereal, nature, agents active in both worlds, producing human weal and woe. But I say unto you that there is only one world, the natural world, the spirit world being a world in name only, a fictitious world created by human ignorance, emotion, and imagination. To say that there is only one world is not to deny cosmological speculations suggesting other universes than the one we know empirically, the one that constitutes our environment. It is merely to say that our universe and any others that may exist, though beyond our ken, are one in being natural, i.e., in not being the artificial product(s) of any spirit-entity or agency, however grandiose the human conception thereof.

Thales, presumably the first philosopher, is supposed to have said, “There are gods everywhere,” i.e., personalized spirit-entities explaining the powers and functions of nature. Surely, most of his contemporaries agreed as did the bulk of their descendants. Meanwhile, in Israel, cherubs hovered about the Ark of the Covenant, (Exodus 25:18-22), Seraphim levitated above the throne of the “sovereign spirit” (Isaiah 6:3-4), humans, unaware, entertained angels (Hebrews 13:2), and the prince of demons prowled about like a lion seeking whom he might devour (I Peter 5:8). Since the king of spirits is supposed to be from everlasting, and since he would have had no kingdom without spirit-subjects, we may assume that lesser spirits were present from the beginning. But what were they doing? Indeed, what have they ever done? Astrophysicists know nothing of angelic or demonic activity during the billions of years prior to our solar system’s formation. Geologists of the primitive earth detect nothing of them. Paleontologists find no evidence of their activities among prehistoric animals, and modern chemists and biologists cannot distinguish physical processes with spirits from physical processes without them.

The only science that has even a tangential relationship to “spirits” is human psychology, and here it is not a matter of inquiry into the nature of “spirits” but of inquiry into the mentalities of those believing in “spirits.” What are we to think of alleged entities that make their appearance only with the coming of the human animal, that do nothing objective, as it were, except in human lives, emotionally, and that appear to have no existence apart from human belief? The conclusion is inescapable: The spirit world is a world in name only, its denizens the creatures of human imagination.

You have heard that it was said by them of old time that we humans, unique in the world of animate beings, are living souls, but I say unto you that we are living meat, marvelous meat, no doubt, but meat nonetheless. What power has human meat to create within itself an alleged entity (called the soul) having non-physical properties, being, thus, akin to alleged entities in the “spirit world,” and being able either by its immortal nature or by divine miracle to live endlessly after the death of the body that houses it while on earth? This question does not deny the reality of consciousness or mind, does not hold in doubt the presence of reason and intentionality, and in no way questions the spirited aspects of our bodies, i.e., the emotional aspects underlying our personalities. As strange as it may seem, living human meat can, in varying degrees and mixtures, be optimistic or pessimistic, extroverted or introverted, bold or shy, ebullient or melancholy, elated or depressed. The philosophy of materialistic monism, when applied to humans, causes nothing in our lives to change. It merely denies that we are dualistic creatures compounded of flesh and non-flesh, of living meat and immortal soul.

You have heard that it was said by them of old time that there is a spiritual world, that there are spiritual people, spiritual knowledge, spiritual beliefs, and spiritual acts, but I say unto you that there is no spiritual world as such nor does the world of matter/energy in space/time have any objective spiritual dimension. What is called the spiritual is an illusion, but an illusion that feigns reality expertly.

Whatever “spiritual” may mean metaphorically, at base it refers to ethereal entities having minds and dispositions that, among other tasks, aid or afflict human beings. These presumed entities, it must be remembered, inhabit a kingdom ruled over by a supreme, and supremely good spirit, who dwells on high. Nor should it be forgotten that in Christian mythology, the king of good spirits is, for a time at least, resisted by the prince of evil spirits, of demons and imps that inhabit what might be called the infernosphere (sic) but that infest our world as well, causing evil, sickness, disease, and death. But, if all such “spirit-entities,” good and bad alike, are fictitious, what distinguishes the spiritual person from the non-spiritual person, spiritual knowledge from non-spiritual knowledge, spiritual belief from non-spiritual belief, and spiritual action from non-spiritual action? The answers are deceptively simple.

The spiritual person, unlike the unspiritual person, is a dualist who not only interacts with the physical world, as we all do, but also interacts through vivid imagination with a particular “spirit world.” When such imaginings are idiosyncratic, they are transparently eccentric or even mad, but when the imaginings and make-believe at issue are collective, are handed down by tradition authoritatively, are accepted by many (if not most) people, and are reinforced by hope and fear, such imaginings are opaque to the imaginer(s) and appear to be as real as anything in the physical world.

“Spiritual knowledge” is a misnomer. Nobody knows anything about “spirit-entities” as defined above, because so far we have discerned nothing to know. Moreover, when one claims to know something about sacred objects or theology all one knows is what somebody else believes or thinks. Believing in or thinking about sacred objects or theology cannot guarantee objective knowledge about the topic(s) at issue. Spiritual belief, though not a misnomer, is, nonetheless, not what most people take it to be. It is simply belief in this, that, or the other insofar as what is believed in is inextricably linked, in the believer’s mind, to the so-called spirit world. By this token, unspiritual belief is belief in any this, that, or the other, devoid of all reference to spirits and divorced from their alleged activities.

Spiritual actions must be divided into two, the ethical and the cultic. Respecting the former, an instance of promise keeping or of truth telling will appear to the ethical, but unspiritual, person to be morally right, but to the spiritual person, both morally and spiritually right, because the act at issue will be seen in light of what the “sovereign spirit” wants done. To continue, conspicuous service to one’s country or bravery in its defense will be viewed by the unspiritual person as simply patriotic, to the spiritual person as both patriotic and spiritual, because it is what the “king of spirits” expects. Further, whereas enjoyment of aesthetic experiences will be simply that and no more to the unspiritual person, these will be both aesthetic and spiritual to the spiritual person, because the “king of spirits” will be seen as having given us beauty to enjoy in nature, art, and music. Finally, moments of deep feeling, of, for example, inspiration, joy, or exaltation will be just that and no more to the unspiritual person, but to the spiritual person these will be both profoundly emotional and spiritual, because they will be seen as infusions of divine grace from the “sovereign spirit.”

Respecting cultic actions, the difference between the unspiritual and the spiritual could not be greater. The former do not bend the knee, bowing and scraping, before any unseen presence, ask no favors, in Jesus’ name, of the alleged king of spirits, do not suffer themselves to be submerged in water or have it sprinkled or poured upon their heads to effect a metaphysical change, participate in no acts of ritual cannibalism, and engage in no other magical practices. The former do any or all of these routinely — and even more.

You have heard that it was said by them of old time that miracles occur, but I say unto you that no past event can be known to have been miraculous, if by that is meant an event that was not or could not have been effected by natural causes or that occurred in defiance of natural law. Believers in miracles would not know one if they witnessed it, because criteria have never been developed to enable us to distinguish between a miraculous happening, properly understood, and an exceedingly rare, totally unexpected, and unpredictable, yet natural, happening. No event can be said to have had a non-natural, i.e., a miraculous, cause until all natural causes and conditions or combinations thereof have been ruled out. Believers, having no appetite for such work, never carry through with it.

Professor John Patterson, of Iowa State, once proposed not only how a miracle might be brought to pass but also recognized as such. He envisioned a large empty space where at a given time in answer to prayer a full-grown evergreen tree might appear out of nothing and hover in the air. Moreover, upon close inspection, this tree would be found to have right-handed DNA. The beauty of his proposal is that one would not have to rely on the vagaries of human testimony as to what is and what is not a miracle; there could be no chance of human trickery to dazzle and deceive onlookers into believing that a miracle had occurred when it had not; and in nature the double helix of DNA is always left-handed. Believers refuse to put their deity to such a reasonable test on the trumped up ground that he will not suffer himself to be tempted by mere mortals.

You have heard that it was said by them of old time that we humans have free will, but I say unto you that we have no such thing, if by free will is meant an inner power to motivate us to act apart from or to nullify all causal factors bearing upon us at the instant a choice is made or a decision taken. Put differently, metaphysical free will is an illusion. To deny metaphysical free will is not to deny the thousands upon thousands of uncoerced selections among alternatives that we have all made. It is to affirm, rather, that we bring our whole selves to the selections we make, and these selves are not just organic but social products as well. What we are includes our genetics, our developmental history in utero, our behavioral patterns and life experiences, our predilections, tastes, and aversions, our temptations and inhibitions, our desires and hopes, our aspirations and self-image — to say nothing of how we are and feel at the moment of choice. Even trivial external conditions prevailing at the moment of decision may play a part. Nine months after a power failure, lasting a night or two, the birth rate goes up in the affected area, and when frigid conditions occur and blizzards howl, the rate of outdoor crime drops.

You have heard that it was said by them of old time that we are all justifiably punishable in eternal hell for free will misused by the “primal pair” of our kind and that they subsequently bequeathed their fallen nature to us all, but I say unto you that responsibility thus conceived is morally monstrous, that there was no primal pair that misused free will in such a way as to become guilty thereafter merely for being human, that we inherited no fallen nature, and that hell is the contrivance of disappointed religionists.

Genesis alleges that the “sovereign spirit” dictated what the “primal pair” might and might not eat and threatened them with death should they sink rebellious teeth into the forbidden item. Here is a perfect example of an absolute monarch’s holding his subjects responsible, i.e., justifiably punishable, for bad behavior. However, when St. Paul seized upon this piece of naive fiction, he turned it into a horror story. He presumed that the primal pair’s original sin led to the total depravity of all humankind. Henceforth, the “king of spirits” not only holds us all responsible for our bad acts but also holds us justifiably punishable for being born depraved. Being held justifiably punishable merely for being born human is a moral monstrosity.

Whether or not there was ever a primal pair from whom homo sapiens issued, one thing is certain: This pair never selected a course of action in defiance of any verbal dictate announced to them in person by the “king of spirits.” Spirits, as previously characterized, lack the mechanism to announce anything.

The biological evidence that we are animals is now so overwhelming that no refutation thereof can be envisioned. Being animals, we are primarily what our genes make of us anatomically and physiologically. As such we are born, like other animals, possessing neither the property of goodness nor of badness — of fallenness or depravity. We are no more than morally neutral organisms belonging to the genus homo, the species sapiens. That we can acquire morality in a social context, much as we acquire language, in no way denies the moral neutrality we share, as organic entities, with other animals.

As for the origin of hell, well, its fabrication is transparent. Whenever religious zealots fail to find the facts or to muster the logic necessary to persuade unbelievers to believe what the zealots believe and intend that others shall believe, the eternal, fiery pit — the ultimate threat — is summoned. The farcical nature of this ploy can be seen when, for example, Christians threaten Muslims with the biblical hell and Muslims return the favor, threatening Christians with the Koranic hell.

You have heard that it was said by them of old time that a “king of spirits” has handed down absolute and universal moral laws for us to obey, but I say unto you that the existence of no being is in greater doubt than that of such a king, that even if this putative being has handed down absolute and universal moral laws, we lack the criteria for deciding which have issued therefrom and which from ourselves, and that what we often take to be absolute and universal moral laws are nothing but the relativistic, situation ethics of yesteryear.

Until and unless the universe is shown to be unnatural, i.e., artifactual, we need spend no time trying to determine which moral laws are of human origin and which are not. This is not to deny that some moral principles may approach universality. The philosopher, David Hume, believed that if there were any kind of action that would dependably elicit strong disapproval from human beings, regardless of time and place, then one would be on the track of what amounts to a universal moral principle. He thought, for example, that treacherously stabbing one’s benefactor in the back would be viewed as reprehensible by most people everywhere. From this issues the moral law, Do not betray a benefactor. Here is a law, if law it be, clearly based on shared human emotions and experience. In any case, it is to the consequences of moral principles, not to their point of origin, that we should look to substantiate their validity.

You have heard that it was said by them of old time that there is a savior who by his death redeems all who believe in him, enabling them to live forever in the “sovereign spirit’s” heavenly home, but I say unto you that apart from psychological phenomena, such as feeling saved, there is no reason to believe in such a savior nor in such redemption and that we shall be after death what we were before conception — nothing at all.

Except for the decrepit and those racked with pain, the desire to live on indefinitely is strong. Except for the hardhearted, the yearning is intense that loved ones lost may fare well in death and that there may, one day, be a grand and endless reunion. Except for the deeply depressed and those who have lost all hope that justice may prevail in this world, the need is great to live on in a better world that old scores may be settled and justice done. Except for the insensitive and the sociopathic, the need is immense to shed the guilt engendered by socialization and to be delivered from the angry demands of those who have been wronged and remain unforgiving. Given the obsessive nature of these deep emotional needs, it is not surprising that we humans should have devised for ourselves variations on a salvation myth, an epic of make-believe, that, for all practical purposes, ends with the words, “And they lived happily ever after.” But, alas, an old adage advises us that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.

Them of old time have given us Westerners a dominant religious paradigm as false as it is seductive, as stultifying as it is unscientific, as enduring as it is unsupportable. In the belief that truth is more functional than falsehood, even if not as satisfying emotionally, I bid you all to go forth to subvert the dominant paradigm. Perhaps as a first step you might consider aiding me in gaining the widest publicity and readership for my little sermon, as it were, on Mt. Cheaha.

Delos McKown is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University, where he was head of the Philosophy Department. A former Campbellite minister and a longtime Foundation member, his most recent book is The Mythmakers’ Magic: Behind The Illusion of “Creation Science.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation