If I get a bit bored and there’s nothing to watch on TV (that is, most of he time) I often go on a trolling expedition on YouTube. I like to find a controversial video and leave some comments there to deliberately aggravate my philosophical opponents, such as religious fundamentalists and political conservatives.
Some of the best places to find sources for these “debates” are YouTube videos involving Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. If you have read this blog in the past you will know I am a great fan of “the Hitch” and have commented on his vicious and unstoppable wit on many occasions (most recently in an entry titled “Thank You Hitch” from 2012-01-06 shortly after his death from cancer).
The latest video I watched was “Hitchens versus Hitchens” where Christopher Hitchens (aka “the Hitch” – there was only one *the* Hitch) debated his brother Peter Hitchens who is also a well-known essayist and commentator but with a very different perspective on politics and religion.
Initially I thought Peter Hitchens was a fairly intelligent, reasonable person but as the debate progressed he became more and more desperate to score any points and it became obvious that a lot of his opinions are in fact just as nutty as most other political and religious conservatives. For example, he denies global warming and supports intelligent design without having any apparent knowledge of either.
So it soon became obvious that this was yet another debate where the Hitch was giving his opposition a good old fashioned thrashing, maybe the best since another recent video I watched where Hitchens and Stephen Fry destroyed a Catholic bishop and conservative politician by swinging the vote from 678 for 1102 against, to 268 for 1876 against (they were debating against the proposition that the Catholic Church is a force for good – yeah I know – too easy!)
The Hitchens versus Hitchens debate included many topics, but the section on religion was the most interesting I think. The Hitch didn’t spend a lot of time on the idea of whether Christianity was true and whether there is any evidence supporting it (which is an interesting subject in itself but not one which either side was focussing on this time). Instead he concentrated on the philosophical aspects of belief, especially relating to morality.
This is a more interesting subject in many ways because really the truth of Christian belief and the evidence for God is fairly well settled (most Christian beliefs are myths and there is no evidence for a god) whereas the moral aspects of religion (especially Christianity) are a bit more open to debate.
So here are some of the Hitch’s points (along with my interpretation and commentary on them)…
He sees religion as a form of slavery or totalitarianism, and uses North Korea as a comparison. But religion is much worse because God knows more about you than any despot can ever know, and you cannot even escape his influence after death because that’s when he really gets judgmental!
I’m sure there are many moderate Christians who don’t see it this way, but by doing that they are rejecting the essential doctrine of their belief: that God knows all of your actions and thoughts, and judges you accordingly. Hitchens (and I) would suggest this whole idea is quite malicious.
Christianity claims Jesus was sent to save us. But from what? And he supposedly takes the blame for our sins, and we are all sinners and born into sin. Does this not sound like a form of mind control where the victims are told they are lacking in some way but if you just do what you are told everything will be OK? Obviously this is also hideously hurtful and manipulative.
Many believers think morality is impossible without a religious belief. Hitchens obviously rejects this whole notion. I would take it further and say the opposite: you can’t be moral if your source your morality from a religious belief. Why? Because morality cannot be just lifted from an old book written by a particular group of people with a particular personal perspective in the past, it has to be carefully considered and arrived at by the individual. And I know that not everyone will get to exactly the same place but most sane, sensible people do agree on what is moral to a remarkable degree.
Not every religious person just takes their entire morality from their holy book. Many pick and choose what to accept. But if they do that then surely they are rejecting one of the most important aspects of their belief system and are no longer getting their ultimate moral rules from their religion. Anyone who creates a personal morality by parroting something from an old book is lazy, ignorant and often immoral.
In the past religion was a best attempt at explaining the world and creating rules for living. It turns out that it wasn’t at all successful with the first aim and only slightly better with the second. We now have other tools to tackle these issues: science to explain the world, and philosophy to deal with morality and other less well defined issues.
It might be that these tools are in turn replaced with something even better in the future, but at the moment they are the best we have. Anyone who insists on continuing to use religion to explain the reality of the world (such as insisting that creationism is an explanation for life on Earth) or to provide moral answers (such as saying homosexuality is an abomination because the Bible says so) are being wilfully ignorant and usually bigoted as well.
Hitchens used to ask his opponents and audiences a question to make these points on morality a bit less abstract. He would ask people to name a good or moral statement or action which can only be made by those who believe in a god, then to name a stupid or evil action which only believers could make. Few people could come up with anything very convincing to answer the first question but everyone could immediately think of examples of the second.
As an example of a bad action which requires religious belief consider this obvious example: only people who think they will get a reward in the next life will sacrifice their lives by joining a crusade or becoming a suicide bomber. That’s not the sort of behaviour a non-believer is likely to indulge in.
But answers to the first challenge are a lot more difficult to find. A common one was exorcism. Only believers can perform this rite. But surely this cannot be counted as a good action, and the fact that some believers dared to even suggest the idea shows how out of touch they really are.
Another answer was a lot better though. One person suggested that great poetry and other art was created by believers. That is a good point. There is a lot of great art, music, architecture, and poetry which was created directly because of religious belief.
There is a counter to this argument though. A lot of great art hasn’t been inspired by religion too, and some which seems like it might be in fact wasn’t. For example, Verdi wrote his Requiem even though he was an atheist (or agnostic if you prefer that). At the very least you would have to say that people are inspired by many things, including religion, so if this is the only positive it hardly seems worth it!
The Hitch was a great debater and extremely knowledgable about most of his topic areas (he certainly knew his religion, history and politics but was weak on science and technology and sometimes didn’t respond to questions around areas such as cosmology and biology very well) but maybe his greatest advantage was just that he was right.
As I have said in the past to people who have complimented me on my debating skills: it’s a lot easier when the facts are on your side!
Yes, it’s Easter and who does care? Actually, despite the title, by the time I post this it won’t be Easter any longer, but give me a little bit of poetic license here, OK?
My point is that the primary meaning or Easter is supposed to be a religious one, marking the alleged crucifixion and alleged resurrection of Christ, and before that a pagan celebration of Spring (which explains many of the symbols of Easter, such as eggs and bunnies) but all that now seems lost and it has reverted to what all holidays have become: some time off work with some sort of commercial angle overlaid.
I agree that if you look you can find a few of the religious elements still there, for example some members of certain churches re-enact Christ dragging his cross to the place of the crucifixion. Naturally, I don’t take this seriously (see later) but it is an interesting ritual which I think adds a certain amount of cultural colour to what is otherwise just another long weekend.
Apart from some photos of that event in the local newspaper, a couple of days with most shops closed, and a slight change in programming on the radio station I usually listen to, you would barely know Easter had any significance, in a similar way to Christmas as I have mentioned in previous blog entries.
But I will ignore the modern interpretation of the Eater season and move on to critique the original Christian story associated with it. Did the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ even happen, does the story even make any sense, and should we care?
Well for a start I have to say that I remain skeptical even about the existence of Jesus. I think the most likely truth is that the stories we know about him originated from a real person, or several people, but they have been grossly exaggerated and enhanced in the re-telling. I also think there is a fair chance the stories are essentially entirely fictitious but I have moved more towards the “fiction based on fact” hypothesis recently.
Why am I skeptical of the whole thing? The only extensive stories about Jesus come from the gospels and various other religious writing, such as the letters of Paul. Oddly many Christians don’t realise that the four canonical gospels of the Bible were chosen essentially randomly from a much greater number, some of which are barely recognisable as the same story. There is even extensive variation amongst the four which survived. For example the “guiding star” story only appears in 1 (Matthew) out of 4 of them. Either 3 didn’t think it was important enough (really?) or Matthew just made the whole thing up!
Actually, that’s another point I need to make. No one knows who wrote the gospels, so Matthew didn’t actually write Matthew. No one seems to know who did or when. But we do know that they were all written many years after the events they allegedly describe and were unlikely to have been written by witnesses (if the events happened at all).
There are mentions of Jesus outside the Biblical writings (Josephus, Tacitus, etc) but they are all very weak and the passage which might be seen as most convincing (from Josephus) is generally regarded as a fake added by later Christians. If the story was so great and made such an impact then why did they feel the need to do this?
So the descriptions we do have are of a religious nature so are hardly going to be accurate. They were often written by unknown authors at unknown times. They copied off each other and (in theory) off currently unknown other documents. They were written by people who never met Jesus (believe it or not, Paul never met him). The evidence outside of the Christian writers (Josephus, etc) is second and third hand, written years after the alleged events, and very weak in every case. And finally important events which could be used to confirm the stories (the star, the eclipse, the dead rising from their graves) are never mentioned anywhere else.
When you think about it the whole story really sucks. You would have to be crazy to believe it! And yes, I know that many historical figures have very little good evidence supporting their existence, but when there are obvious exaggerations in stories about other figures we are at least very skeptical about them which is all I am suggesting should be the case here as well.
But let’s forget all of those points and accept the story at face value. The essential message of Christianity is that Jesus was sent to save us and died to achieve that purpose. Not only that, but many people believe Jesus was God – maybe a sort of avatar (they are common in other religions). Does this make sense?
The story is essentially this: God created humans as sinners and knew they would sin (he is supposed to be omniscient) then sent a version of himself so that he could die to save humans from sin (didn’t he try that previously with the Flood?) which he himself created (he created us in his image). And things are exactly the same before and after this event (there was crime, violence, disease, and early death both before and after Jesus). Huh? This is supposed to make sense how exactly?
Christianity is very good at using fear and guilt as tools of oppression. People are supposed to accept Jesus or they will go to Hell. And just in case that threat doesn’t work they should accept him through guilt because he died for our sins. The whole thing is totally absurd and anyone who really believes this crap is bonkers!
Maybe a person roughly recognisable as Jesus really existed, and maybe he was crucified. But we don’t owe him anything. Many people were crucified at that time and we have forgotten all of them. Most likely the whole story is entirely fictitious of a greatly embellished version of a real story. Either way, who really cares?
In general tolerance is a good thing. I know I have ranted on many occasions against various groups in society in this blog but in general I am not absolutist about it.
For example, I think that big business is extremely dangerous but I still want corporations to exist, just with tight controls on the excesses of their behaviour. Without big corporations we wouldn’t have many of the valuable products and services we depend on. However they do have too much freedom and influence in politics, none of them pay their fair share of tax, and they should be forced to follow environmental and social objectives as well as the financial ones.
And I find the ignorance and arrogance of many religious people almost unbelievable, but I don’t want to eradicate religion. That’s because it is socially valuable to some people, it has many interesting stories and customs, and it is an alternative world view from mine and I celebrate diversity rather than trying to eliminate it. I do however want religion controlled. Creationists have no right to have their beliefs taught in a science class for example, and I reserve the right to debate and ridicule anyone who believes in nonsense.
That’s my customary introduction, so what is the actual rant… I mean topic of discussion… going to be today? It’s about when there is too much tolerance.
In the past I have defended Islam against many of its attackers. A rather nutty right-wing friend of mine sends out a lot of anti-Islam material and I often reply pointing out that it is usually inaccurate and exaggerated. That is still true, but taking the opposite view – that Islam is basically reasonable and benign – is not correct either.
One of my many sources of news and information is the BBC world service. In a recent podcast they reported on several issues affecting the world and a pattern I immediately noticed was the negative effects of religion, and Islam in particular.
The first item was from Iraq. It reported that religiously motivated violence there in recent days resulted in the deaths of at least 50 innocent people after bomb attacks. While the death rate is well below its peak in the year 2006 it is still running at about 300 per month.
There is a political element to this clearly but fundamentally this is a religious problem, and it’s not even Islam against another religion, it is one sect of Islam against another! Shiite neighbourhoods of Baghdad, especially places where innocent people meet such as bus stations and restaurants, are being targeted by Sunni radicals. How can anyone really claim this is a religion of peace?
I do need to point out here that the most significant contributor to the current political instability in Iraq is the American invasion of 10 years ago and that was partly motivated by ridiculous Christian religious beliefs of the president at the time. I also have to point out that the Muslim versus Muslim violence in Iraq has parallels with the Christian versus Christian violence in Ireland not that long ago. So Christians shouldn’t feel to smug when they see Muslims acting this way.
The second story was about sectarian violence in Pakistan. In this case it was Muslims murdering members of a slightly different sect to their own again but here they have gone one step further and are terrorising Christians as well. A crowd of Muslims rioted and destroyed 100 homes in a Christian area because of some perceived insult to their beliefs.
But these devoutly religious people don’t stop there. They also do targeted killings of high profile people who belong to a different branch of Islam. A Shiite eye surgeon and his 11 year old son were shot and killed. I guess that’s just what the extremists’ faith told them they should do. Praise be to Allah!
This extreme behaviour in Pakistan is being more tolerated by moderate believers so in many ways it is them who are to blame. Anyone who is a Muslim and doesn’t accept part of the blame for the actions of the more extreme elements in their religion is just denying the facts. It’s the religion itself which is to blame. It is fundamentally intolerant. Anyone who denies this should be asked “what is the official Islamic punishment for apostasy?” (in case you don’t know, it’s death).
The saddest thing I heard was the tortured question of a relative of one of the victims when he asked “can God accept that?” Even after everything going so wrong and there being zero sign of help from his imagined deity he still believes. Well if faith is all about killing people who just happen to have a slightly different interpretation of an idiotic belief than you, and then wondering why your god didn’t help you, then you can keep it. Give me rationality over faith any day!
I’ve made no secret in the past of my attitude to religion in general and to the Catholic Church in particular. I will just reiterate it here though. I think religion is primitive superstition and an embarrassment in the modern world, although I do admit it has some good points too, such as doing a certain amount of charity work and providing a community for many people. And, in the past, Catholicism has been the greatest evil the world has ever seen, although again I admit it is now relatively benign.
So what’s my actual point? Well I want to comment about the new Pope, of course. Whatever you think of religion and whatever you think of Catholicism there is no doubt that the Pope is an important leader. He is the leader of the second biggest group of people on the planet today (there are about 1.2 billion Catholics but almost 1.4 billion Chinese, so by this standard Xi Jinping is slightly more important) and that cannot be ignored.
I’m very much an individualist myself and I’m quite disinterested in leaders’ beliefs and opinions, but I do realise that the majority of people are (to put it rather unkindly) barely better than sheep and would prefer to assimilate their beliefs and moralities from an esteemed leader rather than think for themselves (well, I did say that would be unkind).
So given that many people will just incorporate the ideals of the church leadership it is important that the leader is a good person. It’s far too early to know the details of the attitudes of the new Pope but I think, despite the necessity for a predisposition towards superstition, he is a good person with an interesting and positive personality and certainly seems preferable to the previous holder of that office.
But why is the Pope always old, white, and male? I think it’s time the Catholic Church modernised a bit and had a young black woman as Pope. And just to make things even better, let’s make her a lesbian as well! Yeah, that should drag the antiquated, creaking structure which is the world’s biggest religion into the 21st century! Currently they haven’t even made it as far as the 20th, or 19th, or 18th, or… well, you get the idea.
I’m not totally serious about the suggestion above, after all these things probably need to happen one step at a time, but surely they could make a bigger effort to modernise the institution.
Everyone has positive and negative personality traits, so what are the good and bad points of Pope Francis? He does have some conservative political ideas, especially around issues of sexuality so I guess equal rights for gays and a more progressive attitude to contraception are probably too much to hope for.
Here’s a quote which shows this backward attitude: “Let’s not be naive, we’re talking about a simple political battle; marriage equality is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
That comment shouldn’t be a surprise of course, and to be fair I do have to concede that marriage equality is more a symbolic issue than a practical one, but I would have thought that the central message of Christianity, tolerance and forgiveness, would tend to fall on the side of allowing a couple to marry whatever their sexual preferences.
But he does seem to have some real socially progressive attitudes too. He genuinely seems to care about the plight of the poor and even the environment which is an issue Christianity doesn’t seem to have traditionally concerned itself with too much (after all, how much does Jesus have to say about environmentalism in the New Testament?)
I do have to say though that the thing I like the most is just that he seems like a nice person. He isn’t haughty and disconnected like previous Popes. I see him more like that other extremely likeable religious leader, the Dalai Lama, who is also a friendly, unpretentious person, and who it is almost impossible not to admire in some ways.
Pope Francis has showed that he really doesn’t want to be treated as something beyond any other human. He talked to school kids and commuters in a seemingly natural way. He returned to the hotel he was staying at to get his own luggage and to pay his bill. He looked uncomfortable when the cardinals knelt and kissed his hand (I could make a joke about that but let’s avoid nasty innuendo!) And he tours in a standard car instead of the armoured Pope-mobile.
Yes, I find myself liking him, although I totally disagree with his mindless acceptance of Catholic dogma. Still, he is the Pope, what else would I expect?
In a recent on-line discussion my opponent demanded respect for his beliefs. When I said that I didn’t automatically hand out respect for anything he accused me of being a robotic non-human and hating babies or some similar nonsense. When I pointed out that it was ideas I was withholding respect for and not people the conversation just stopped.
It’s funny the way that often happens when people realise they have been totally out-maneuvered. In fact in another recent debate I couldn’t resist firing a parting shot just to show how much my opponent had been owned. His last comment was something like “well played by skilled debater” to which I replied “I’m not that great at debating. I just have the unfair advantage of having the facts on my side”. Yes, I didn’t hear from him again either!
So getting back to respect. Many people demand that all ideas should be respected but I don’t think they are right and I think, if they really thought about it, they would realise that it’s not really what they should want either.
Here’s why: If something is too easy it loses it’s value. If I automatically offer my respect to any new opinion, theory, or belief I hear then how does anyone distinguish between those and the beliefs which have greater value? Must I offer respect to someone who thinks the Earth is flat? If I do and also offer respect to someone’s Christian views then that doesn’t really mean anything regarding that person’s ideas does it?
I don’t really think most religious people really want me to offer their ideas automatic respect. If I respected mainstream Christianity then surely I should also respect militant Islam as well. After all, if I am going to respect them before I examine their underlying philosophy then how would I tell which is peaceful and which is violent?
The same might apply to people. Should I respect everyone I meet? In general I try to because I try to base my opinions (either positive or negative) on ideas, what people say, what they believe, and how they reason, rather than who they are. Of course that is an ideal which no one can fully live up to on every occasion.
So instead of demanding respect people should show why they deserve it. I think this has been a tactic used by religious groups for many years. By demanding respect they make it more difficult to point out just how plain stupid a lot of their ideas are.
Also I’m not saying I only respect people who agree with me. If someone can make a reasoned, sensible argument against mine then I will respect them for it. Even if they get to the point of saying they have no answer to what I’m saying but prefer to continue to believe in a religion through simple faith I will have some respect for that too. At least it’s honest, although I would have to add that I find it hard to respect faith itself.
There is one other aspect to this too. Respect isn’t just a simple yes/no thing. I don’t just have or not have respect for something. I have varying levels of respect. When I first discover a new idea I would try initially to start with a moderate level. If the idea is supported by elegant reasoning or impressive facts my respect would increase. But if it turned out to be supported by circular logic and myths then my respect would decrease.
But nothing would ever reach a level of respect where I would no longer question it. Yes, that even applies to the greatest scientific ideas like relativity and evolution. I do have great respect for these theories but it’s not total. Conversely even the most stupid nonsense, such as creationism, doesn’t deserve zero respect (although it would be close to zero) and I would be happy to be persuaded to move it up the scale if there was ever any real evidence found to support it.
As you can probably tell by the criteria I described above, I do value truth above all else. So that’s one of the most important things I look for when assigning respect. Other people might look for something else but it seems to me that if an idea isn’t true it’s hard to be respectful towards it.
But whatever the details of the process one thing’s for sure: you have to earn respect, not demand it.
I recently listened to a podcast where the the co-founder of “Atheist Ireland” was interviewed. Ireland is a modern western country but, as we all know, it has had a long tradition of problems with religion. Ironically all the “troubles” have been caused by conflict between one sect of the religion based on the teaching of the so-called “Prince of Peace” against another sect of that same religion. I know there is a strong political element to this conflict as well, but it really doesn’t lend a lot of credibility to either the Protestants or the Catholics.
Bizarrely (and I really need to check my calendar when I hear this to see if it is 2012 or 1012!) Ireland recently introduced a new blasphemy law. The new law defined blasphemy more precisely than the existing one (presumably when that was introduced it was just assumed that everyone would know what blasphemy was). The new definition is something like this: “it is an offence to publish or utter material grossly offensive or abusive in relation to matters held sacred to any religion, causing outrage.”
There are at least two problems with this. First, it is still rather vague and subjective because know one knows what the standard is for something to be “grossly offensive”, for example. And second, it incentivises outrage. If a religious person objected to a statement by another person all they have to do is feign outrage and instantly the problem is passed on to the person who made the statement rather than the person who didn’t like it.
If anyone makes a statement which I find outrageous – and I often do hear this sort of thing from far right nut jobs who genuinely make statements offensive in both their bigotry and their lack of truth and intelligence – I don’t instantly think I should be able to persecute that person using some arcane law. I ridicule the person making it by showing how wrong they are. Surely that approach is far more effective!
But there’s a problem in this approach for the religious people. In my case I am right and the nut job is wrong, but in the case of blasphemy the person making the “offensive” statement is usually right and there is no defence against it. So why do the Irish need a law to protect those who are wrong? Presumably this has occurred through pressure from the church or because the law-makers themselves are religious.
And for those more conservative people who might try to defend these laws think about this: perfectly reasonable criticism of religion causes gross over-reaction in less morally developed Islamic countries. Need I mention the violence (both real and threatened) as a result of the Jyllands-Posten Danish cartoons or Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”?
I believe that more reasonable nations (and Ireland should be in this category) should be setting an example in this regard. Free speech should be protected and that should act as a force reducing similar laws in more extreme countries and might stop attempts at having religiously motivated laws being introduced through the UN as is currently happening.
I’m not saying that people should be free to say anything. It shouldn’t be possible, for example, to use free speech to incite violence against your opponents. But which side in this controversy does that? Is it the blasphemers? No, in fact it is the people who are allegedly insulted who really need to have their hate speech curtailed.
To give an example of how utterly absurd the whole notion of blasphemy is I will quote a case from India where a free speech campaigner (actually the chairman of the Indian Rationalist Association) explained a mysterious “crying statue” near a church in India as capillary action from faulty plumbing from a nearby toilet. Wow, the symbolism there is almost too good to be true!
Needless to say the Catholic Church was outraged. But there are two possibilities here: either that explanation is true, or it isn’t (and possibly a real supernatural event is responsible). Any reasonable person would have checked the explanation and found it true and said “oh yes, you’re right, that was embarrassing” or found it untrue and said “see, the skeptics can’t explain this truly amazing phenomenon”.
But with blasphemy laws the truth is irrelevant. The church can make up a load of total nonsense and doesn’t even need to defend it. They just persecute their critics instead. In this case the person involved was facing 3 years in prison and had to leave country after police tried to arrest him. Arrest him? For offering an explanation to a mystery? Really?
Of course the Catholic Church regularly criticises other superstitions, such as Islam, when they do the same sort of thing to defend their ignorant beliefs. But there’s one thing that religion is supremely good at: hypocrisy!
But while religious extremism seems to be growing in some parts of the world the trend is more positive I believe. Religion is slowly dying. It would be unfortunate if it ever disappeared completely because it is a fascinating social phenomenon, but it needs to be kept in its place: away from any possibility of affecting decisions which should be made based on reality, and not fantasy.
A recent survey in Ireland found the following interesting statistics: in the last 20 years the number of non-religious people has grown by 400%, half of Roman Catholics don’t believe in Hell, 15% of them don’t think Jesus was the Son of God (isn’t that sort of an important part of Catholicism?), and (this is just too good) 8% don’t believe in God!
So even though the vast majority of people in Ireland still identify themselves as being religious I would contend that that is more a label of convenience and habit more than one of any real thought. How can you claim to be a Catholic yet reject the most fundamental tenets of the faith? It’s just bizarre, but religion is always bizarre because the basic beliefs never make sense in the first place!
A final criticism answered in the interview was the one that atheism is sterile, devoid of feeling, and lacking in any meaning or wonderment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reality is so much better than fantasy. The truth of the universe is infinitely grander than any silly creation myth. The understanding of how the world really works and the questioning of all current understandings is a far greater thing than just simply accepting what a religious leader or an old book tells you to believe. Only someone who has freed themselves from religious dogma would understand this.
As the interviewee said: the idea that a god felt it necessary to tell one person in one tribe on one planet in one solar system in one galaxy in the whole universe that he shouldn’t pick up sticks on a Sunday is just unbelievably bizarre!
Yes. As they say: blasphemy is a victimless crime.
A few weeks back there was a debate at CERN (the European nuclear research organisation which runs the Large Hadron Collider) between science and religion about the origin of the universe.
The first speaker was research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University, Andrew Pinsent. He thinks that science risked “trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy and that “science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas”.
What did he mean about turning society into a machine? Few scientists would suggest that we should completely ignore fiction, mythology, and non fact-based ideas. But these ideas should be kept away from investigations of the truth. But religion has no place in science and technology. It has little place in politics and management. Maybe it has a place in society as a whole but it really needs to learn that place: we don’t live in the Dark Ages any more!
And the idea that science is not great for producing ideas is also interesting. You could possibly make a case to say that science itself doesn’t produce ideas, it just tests them, but I think that is going too far. New ideas naturally arise from scientific research and the idea that anyone could deny this is just bizarre.
There is also the point that not all ideas have equal merit. A scientific idea which attempts to explain the origin of mass is based on real world phenomena, it’s testable, and it potentially produces practical results. A religious idea which tries to explain something like why god let’s bad things happen is useless. It is based on an assumption that god exists, it can’t be tested so we would never know if it’s true or not, and it has no practical application even if it was true.
It seems that we are seeing the last desperate attempt of religious people to maintain a small amount of relevance in a world which has, in reality, passed them by. Religion just doesn’t matter any more. But many people can’t accept that. In fact, because of the inevitable demise of their belief system, religious people are turning more to fundamentalist and extremist ideas in a last desperate attempt at survival.
The director of CERN explained how the Higgs discovery provided a deeper insight and understanding of the moments after the Big Bang and hoped that people from very different backgrounds would be able to start to discuss the origin of our Universe.
But that’s a false hope, really. A belief system dedicated to discovering facts which are closer to the truth and one determined to warp the facts into an archaic system of myths are unlikely to agree on anything.
That didn’t stop another person from the religious side (notice how this becomes a competition between competing sides) saying that the Higgs particle results raised lots of questions about the origins of the Universe that scientists alone can’t answer, and that they need to explore them with theologians and philosophers.
There might be a small role for philosophers but it’s hard to see how theologians – a group who are dedicated to treating ancient myths seriously – can possibly have any meaningful input into the process. In reality they can’t, of course, but I’m sure the scientists were too polite to say so.
People who study myths dont generally ask atomic physicists for their input. What possible input could they provide? If an old story says a particular character did one thing or another then what contribution could someone who studies the reality of the quantum world offer? But for some reason the opposite, which is even more ridiculous, seems to be OK.
I guess it all gets back to the undeserved respect which religion has demanded for so long. A few hundred years ago you had to believe their myths or they would just kill you. Then you had to believe their myths because they fooled everyone into thinking that religion and morality were somehow connected. And now they demand respect because that’s just what is portrayed as fair and reasonable.
Well it’s time to stop. Some beliefs deserve respect and some don’t. If people want to believe silly, ancient myths then let them. If they even want to create academic disciplines around these myths then even that’s OK. But we shouldn’t be taking their silly ideas as seriously as this. That just fools them, and most of the population, into thinking they have an opinion worth hearing.
Well I’m afraid the truth is this: they don’t.
There’s a lot of spiritual mumbo-jumbo around today, especially related to groups which no one wants to offend like indigenous cultures and traditional religious groups. But just about everyone is afflicted with this sort of nonsense to some extent. This was a point made in a recent opinion piece I read which compared Maori spiritual nonsense, such as the belief in taniwhas (Maori water monsters), with the equally unsubstantiated beliefs of the majority culture.
There are a lot of things which could be seen as mumbo-jumbo when they are analysed critically. New Zealand’s national anthem would be a good example. The word “God” appears no less than 11 times in the English version of this rather insipid example of a national song, and as far as I can tell the Maori version is perhaps even worse (the lyrics have only a superficial resemblance to the English version).
Compare this with the Australian anthem which has no references to god or any form of religion at all (although there was an attempt at one point in the past to insert a “Christian verse” which was wisely rejected). Also, I know that there have been some who have commented on the anthem as being “dull and unendearing to the Australian people” but it could be a lot worse. They could have one like ours!
So I some people might criticise me for not singing the Maori version at special events but I refuse to participate in the English version too, so my objection is more to the superstitious content and bland nature of the song rather than to political correctness. Yeah, actually, I can’t sing either, so it’s probably best for all concerned that I abstain from this practice anyway!
The anthem seems to consist of a series of requests to God to protect our country, make it more admired, more peaceful, shielded from potential enemies, more blessed, more full of love, etc, etc. It’s rather weak and pathetic really. Shouldn’t we all be aiming at doing that sort of thing ourselves instead of relying on a non-existent entity we inherited from the distant past?
And yes, few New Zealanders have much religious faith and I think very few would ever consider relying on a god to make the country better. The national anthem is a load of mumbo-jumbo, I don’t think there’s much doubt about that.
Most people avoid overt criticism of religion such as I often indulge in. Actually, I should be more accurate here: they avoid criticism of the dominant religion – in New Zealand’s case Christianity – but many enthusiastically criticise other, less favoured religions, with Islam usually at the top of the list.
Yes, some Muslim practices seem backward and absurd to us, but those people who attack Islam so willingly should be a bit more careful about their criticism. This is not because any religion deserves automatic respect or protection but because many of the people who point out the absurdities in one religion actively participate in, or at least respect, similar beliefs in another.
Certainly Christianity isn’t immune from belief in mumbo-jumbo and participation in ludicrous activities. Here’s a list of a few Catholic beliefs and practices which are supported to varying degrees by different types of Catholics: exorcism, self-flagellation, wearing the cilice, and transubstantiation. And don’t think this sort of thing is restricted to just one form of Christianity, crazy stuff like speaking in tongues is common in many fundamentalist sects.
I would suggest that any of these are as silly as what Muslims are criticised for. What is sillier: believing that 72 virgins await you in paradise or believing that during the Eucharist, the bread and the wine is changed into the body and the blood of Jesus?
Note that the problem of Islamic extremism and violence is a different issue. I fully agree with those who think that Islam is the biggest threat to world peace today, but in this blog entry I am restricting myself to discussing superstition rather than violence, although the two are often connected.
In an ideal world superstitions and other irrational beliefs wouldn’t give anybody special privileges. But if you are going to deny one group special treatment because they just happen to believe in something totally nonsensical then you should apply the same standards to everyone else. The conservative commentators who ridicule Maori belief in taniwhas would never apply the same level of criticism to the beliefs of mainstream Christianity.
They should be more consistent if they want to be taken seriously. But I suspect that their comments aren’t aimed at the sectors of society who think logically and deeply about the subject. They’re probably more aimed at those who would agree without realising how hypocritical they are being. And those people just love this sort of stuff!
I recently listened to an interview with Phil Zuckerman, who is the professor of Sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He has recently written a book called “Faith No More” criticising faith in religion, a theme which I have taken up here in this blog on more than one occasion!
So what were his points? Mostly stuff I have covered in the past, but there were a few new arguments which I haven’t really mentioned before. So what follows is a list of his points and my commentary on them.
How many non-religious people are there in the world? A conservative estimate would be 500-750 million but there are many more who label themselves as belonging to a religion in surveys and their national census, but don’t participate in religion in any way and are essentially atheists or at least agnostics (or maybe more accurately just don’t care).
So without doubt there is an increasing number of secular people, but there are more fundamentalists too. What is going on here? It seems that as religion is increasingly threatened by science and secularism some elements become more hardened against that change and become even more irrational and dedicated to their belief system.
Fundamentalists tend to appear in socially stressed areas, such as the Middle East (the home of Islamic crazies) and the Southern USA (the home of Christian nutters). Please note: the terms “crazies” and “nutters” are mine, not Zuckerman’s! He was a bit more diplomatic, but that’s essentially what he meant.
Most strongly religious people (that’s the more diplomatic term) are born into a belief system and the birth rate of a population tends to be inversely proportional to its degree of belief in rationalism. It’s no accident that so many religions discourage birth control. That’s a primary mechanism the religion sustains itself through. Religion is a meme – like a virus of the mind – and successful religions have evolved mechanisms to create more hosts for infection. Having a higher birth rate is a very obvious one and I think that is undeniable especially when considering groups such as Catholics and Muslims.
But despite all of the obstacles there are more people than ever escaping from the belief system of their birth. Zuckerman has examined the mechanisms underlying these changes but there is no one reason which is easily identifiable.
For many people religion just stopped making sense. They noticed the inconsistencies and lack of logic in almost every religion. They suffered the psychological pain and loss as a result of unanswered prayers. They became more educated in the philosophy of theology. They were influenced by their friends who might have been non-religious yet were happier and more balanced than most believers. They realised that their own morality was better than that offered by their religion, because they realised religious rules are based on punishment and reward rather than being primarily based on care for others.
In most cases the conversion process was slow. It typically took 3 to 5 years but it happened even if the person involved didn’t really want it to.
There are several correlations between a person’s religious belief and other factors. There is a strong correlation with lack of religion and bright, intelligent, knowledgable people. Yes, the smarter you are the less likely you are to be religious. This doesn’t mean there aren’t bright people who are believers and stupid people who are non-believers but it does mean there is a strong trend. Naturally atheists like myself love quoting this correlation!
Interestingly in every study, irrespective of country, race, education, or other factors, men tend to be more secular than women. No one seems to know why. Of course it is easy to offer some stereotyped view like women being more emotional and men more rational but I would hate to even suggest that as a possibility!
Secularism isn’t just another religion as some believers like to say. There is a genuine difference, apart from those mentioned above (intelligence, etc). Non-believers really are more open to ideas and less restrained by a single belief. Studies show that religious people usually limit their kids to experiencing their own religion, but seculars tend to say “try them all” (or none).
It’s not as simple as it would appear up to this point though. Religion offers some benefits such as the increased charitableness of church-goers and the increased sense of community which often results. These are good outcomes even if they are for the wrong reasons.
But look at the big picture. Compare secular and religious countries. The places which are less religious are happier, they have the lowest crime rates, the best health care, the best child care, and are the most democratic and stable (according to a Gregory S Paul study).
The conclusion is clear: we need faith no more.
I try to avoid following the common stereotyped arguments used against distinct groups of people especially when those arguments are based on ethnicity, gender, age, religion, politics, philosophy, or any other belief. Of course I don’t always succeed and I do tend to be critical of religious groups and conservatives more than others. I think this is justified, but that is debatable.
I have regularly defended the people that the political right like to portray as being the cause of all of our problems: the unemployed, the left, unions, and Muslims. Yes, even though Muslims are members of one of the world’s biggest religions I have still defended them against what I thought were unfair attacks from conservatives and others.
I don’t like Islam, but I still object to people bundling the moderates in with the extremists, deliberately exaggerating the threat of Islam, and criticising Muslims for doing the same things which Christians have done in the past (and in some cases continue to do today).
But there is a limit. There is a point where any argument for religious freedom and tolerance is surpassed by the argument which says that a religion just has too many problems, causes too much violence and intolerance, and on balance just isn’t a good thing for human society as a whole.
Maybe that limit has been reached now. Some groups within the Muslim religion have been responsible for unacceptable behaviour in the past: the riots over the Danish cartoons, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the 9/11 attacks, amongst many others, and now the latest wave of violence – ostensibly as a result of an insulting movie – is affecting the world.
I have watched the movie “The Innocence of Muslims”. It is laughably pathetic and more of an insult to the Christian group who had it made – by a producer of pornographic films apparently (honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up, but this is where religion can take people) – than anyone else. A sensible approach would have been to laugh at it and point out how ridiculous it made the makers look.
But that wasn’t what happened. Instead a bunch of religious fanatics – very few of whom had even seen the movie – went on violent riots across the world. When your whole life is based on an absurd belief you will always react irrationality. That is the danger of religion.
So that really gets one thing out of the way: Islam, like all conventional religions, is nonsense. It’s based on mythology with a bit of history thrown in, but so is Christianity and all other religions, so that isn’t necessarily an argument specifically against it.
Conversely, like all other religions, Islam adds variety and cultural diversity to the world, and it gives many people a philosophical and social basis to their lives, so it is a good thing from those perspectives.
Whether Islam itself is a religion of peace or not is debatable. But what isn’t debatable is that a huge amount of violence occurs around the world because of it. Whether the motivation behind the violence is political, social, or economic is irrelevant, the fact is that religion is used as a motivating factor to make people do hideous things.
I would like to present some quotes here which illustrate my point…
Religion: It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own. – Sam Harris
Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities. – Voltaire
It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere. – Voltaire
I think these are very true, but a quote means nothing on it’s own so let me try to justify the truth of these and say why I think they are relevant.
If you examine what religious people actually believe it is ridiculous. If anyone had these ideas and genuinely believed them without being part of a religious group they would probably be labelled insane. Note that this criticism applies fairly equally to all the world’s “great” religions, including Christianity and Judaism. I realise there are people who only take the religious stories as metaphors but are they really religious? I don’t think so. So I think the Sam Harris quote is well supported.
Rational people rarely resort to violence. I’m not saying it never happens because sometimes the only rational approach to an attack by an irrational group is to use violence in defence. But as soon as people start believing something which is absurd they can be manipulated into doing atrocious things. The history of Christianity is littered with examples. Anyone who is irrational enough to believe in witches can easily be convinced that murdering them in a terrible way is OK, for example. So I think the first Voltaire quote is also supported by both history and current events.
There is no doubt that many people become prisoners of their belief system. Their religions tell them what they can and cannot do, what they can and cannot believe, and even how they should think about the world. Religion is the ultimate prison and I believe the prison the whole western world was thrown into by the Church during the Dark Ages is the greatest atrocity even committed on the human race. Now it is the Muslim’s turn to be imprisoned by their religion but, as Voltaire observed, you cannot be freed from a prison when you believe the prison is really a paradise.
There is a case to say that Islam is the greatest threat to the world today. Not because it is particularly bad as a religion or because Muslims are more evil than any other group, but because it has got to the point where it is taken too seriously and has too much power, just like Christianity did during the Dark Ages. If anyone who supports greater power for other religions – Christian conservatives for example – want an illustration of why they are wrong they should just look at the Islamic world today.
Is that where they want to go? Really?