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Facts, Logic, Morality

September 18, 2017 2 comments

I recently spent some time with a colleague discussing how to deal with a fundamentalist Christian’s irrational ideas that he had recently become aware of. I have to say that this fundy keeps his crazy ideas pretty much to himself and is otherwise a perfectly pleasant and reasonable person, so there was no real need to try to “convert” him, but sometimes the need to try arises – such as in a debate situation – so I thought I might describe my technique here.

I have had varying degrees of success with this in the past, from complete rejection (because some people are never going to change their views) to moderate success (for example, a person admitting to changing his opinions, or one who was on the road to enlightenment: that is, believing the same thing as me, and I am fully aware of how arrogant that sounds).

But where I have had some successes it has never been using just one technique. In addition, it is never easy to tell which method of persuasion is likely to be effective for a particular individual, so I have created a three step process which formalises by debating technique…

Step 1. Use facts.

My first instinct when debating controversial issues is to use facts. In general the issues I support can be easily supported with good evidence. But most people who believe in irrational ideas didn’t get to that point by following the facts, because there never are many supporting them. So it often follows that they can’t be moved by using facts either.

In addition there are always facts on both sides. Sometimes the “facts” on one side are barely facts at all (hence the quotes) but many people will believe an extremely doubtful or weak fact if it supports what they want to believe, even if there are a hundred which are much more certain against them.

Step 2. Use logic.

When step 1 fails it is often useful to try a process of logic. A complex idea can be broken down into a series of steps which logically follow and are difficult to deny. There doesn’t necessarily have to be any facts involved in this because logic usually transcends facts.

Step 3. Use morality.

If both facts and logic fail a good backup strategy, depending on the actual subject under discussion, is to use a moral or ethical argument. While morals vary from one person to another to some extent, there are common concepts shared by most people, including fairness, non-violence, and freedom.

So now I should give an example. Obviously I’m not going into details because half my readers won’t have even got this far and are unlikely to want to read 20 pages on the subject, but I will use a very condensed version of how I would handle the issue. So here’s an imaginary debate between me and a fundamentalist Christian…

Fundy: The Bible says that God created humans, so evolution cannot be true, and following events described there it makes it obvious the world is only 6000 years old. The Bible also says that it is the inerrant word of God and that the devil is always trying to find ways to deceive us with false truths. Without the Bible to guide us we will have no moral compass and there will be increased violence and evil around the world.

Me: You say that evolution cannot be true yet almost every expert in the world has concluded it is. Also there are many lines of evidence which anyone can understand which show evolution is an accurate theory to describe the variety of life on Earth. The age of the world cannot possibly be that short and I can show you evidence from geology, biology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and many other areas of science to show it is almost 14 billion years. The time light has spent travelling from distance galaxies shows this, for example. Let’s get these fact-based claims out of the way before we move on to the other stuff.

Fundy: But the Bible has been shown to be accurate, so how can it be wrong? Also there are many scientists who don’t believe in evolution or an old Earth. Here is a list of URLs for you to look at. Not following the Bible leads to you rejecting God’s offer of salvation and you just don’t want to admit his authority.

Me: The Bible is full of errors if you are prepared to accept scientific and historical evidence. For example, there is no evidence at all of major stories like Genesis, the Flood, Exodus, etc. These so-called scientists you cite are not publishing in scientific journals so I would say they are not practicing scientists. In fact most of them work at Answers in Genesis. If they are only looking in one place they will never be able to look at all the evidence. Let’s keep to facts and forget about God’s salvation for now.

Fundy: You have your facts and I have mine. Many serious researchers are religious and you cannot reject their research so easily. Also science changes all the time. Who can tell when a new theory might come along and contradict the Big Bang or evolution? You say yourself that science can never prove anything with 100% certainty, so why are you so sure that science is right and religion is wrong?

Me: Instead of just offering an opinion on who is doing science and who isn’t, we should look at a standard which is widely accepted. People who are engaged in science publish in reputable journals. Anyone who isn’t doing that isn’t really doing science. They might still be right, but based on past experience the scientific consensus is far more reliable than anything else. And you are right, we can never be 100% certain of anything, but it is still reasonable to accept a theory which is 99% likely to be at least a good approximation to the truth (like evolution), instead of one we can be 99% certain is wrong (like creation).

Fundy: You may say that but because you have no moral basis for your views they are really arbitrary. Without God to guide you and tell right from wrong, how can your views be taken seriously?

Me: Well this gets back to an old question in philosophy regarding the goodness of god. But first, let me say that using a god who probably doesn’t even exist as the basis of your morality seems worse than admitting that we really don’t even have a basis. And even if we pretend that your god does exist, how do we know he is good? Is it because he says so? And if your god is good, is he good because he’s god, or is he god because he’s good? In other words if we know he’s good then there must be some external criterion to judge that against, in which case why do we need a god anyway? And if whatever he does is good because he’s god then that seems a dangerous view to take because any dictator could make that claim.

Fundy: Wait, what? We know God is good because that’s one of the reasons we know he’s the one true God. Can you not see the logic in this?

Me: All I can see is a circular argument: God is good because he’s God. How do we know he’s God? Because he’s good. How do we know he’s good? Because he’s God.

Fundy: You know, that is a ridiculous simplification of a position that theologians have been debating for centuries. Do you really believe you have the answer to such a deep and meaningful problem?

Me: Well, yes. I think it really is that simple. The only reason it becomes complex is because many people want to reach a conclusion that supports the existence of a god. If they just followed the evidence they would see that it’s really quite simple: that there is no good reason to believe a god exists.

Fundy: The Bible talks about people like you who use false logic to try to lead believers away from the truth. You do realise that you are risking eternal damnation for your excessive pride and inability to accept the authority of God, don’t you?

Me: I know that according to the narrative of the New Testament your god prefers to inflict people who refuse to accept his dominance with eternal torture. This is the same god who is advertised as being the “God of love” and who has a prophet (Jesus) who preaches understanding and acceptance. This seems somewhat contradictory to me.

Fundy: God gives you the choice of believing in him or not. If you don’t accept his offer you deserve all you get. He sacrificed his son so that you could have this hope of salvation, yet you refuse to take it.

Me: It’s not a choice I make. I simply cannot believe your god exists. Should I pretend to believe when I really don’t? Would God not know that I’m not being honest with him? And if your god wants me to believe in him why doesn’t he make his presence more obvious? Why do I have to rely on faith which I cannot force myself to do that?

Fundy: His presence is obvious to most of us. Why do you think that most people in the world are Christians?

Me: Actually, they’re not. Only a third of the population identify as Christians and even then that is purely a matter of their societal norms. You are a Christian because that is the history of the country you were born in. If you were born in India you would almost certainly be a Hindu. If you were born in Iraq you would be a Muslim. It seems that the god you follow depends on your culture, not on which (if any) god really exists.

Fundy: Well you seem to have convinced yourself that these false beliefs are true. I have tried to show you the truth but your pride prevents you from accepting it. Don’t complain when you end up in Hell.

Me: Am I a bad person? Have I been guilty of any terrible crimes? I donate to charities, I am a productive member of my society, I don’t harm any other people. Why do I deserve eternal damnation from this “loving God” of yours?

Fundy: God is just, and he is only doing what you deserve. It is not for me or you to judge whether he is right or wrong – he is God and can do whatever he likes.

Me: So a person who spends his whole life torturing, killing, etc and then accepts Jesus as his saviour shortly before dying goes to heaven, but a person who spends his life doing good, but cannot accept the teaching of your religion because there is no evidence, suffers forever. If that is how your god works then, even if he did exist, I would not accept him.

Fundy: And there’s the proof that you are evil.

Me: OK, let’s leave it there. Thanks for the discussion.

As you can see, in the fictitious example above (but one based on real experience) the fundy isn’t converted on the spot, but I would hope that amongst the points I made: that the evidence is against him, that logic is against him, and that an understanding of basic fairness and morality is against him; there might be something to make him a little bit less certain than he was.

Or, maybe, he might exhibit the backfire effect and just “double-down” on his beliefs because they are shown to be probably untrue. But the three pronged attack makes that less likely because I have found that the final argument (the unfairness of God’s punishment) often gets through to people when the more rational points don’t.

Whatever the end effect is, debating this way is fun, and any progress – no matter how small – is OK with me.

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Don’t Take it Seriously

September 12, 2017 2 comments

They say that people who cannot laugh at themselves leave the job for someone else. I think there is a lot of truth in that idea because too many people take themselves, and their beliefs, far too seriously, and they don’t usually look good as a result.

In the end, most everyday issues which people get upset and very serious about are really unbelievably trivial. As an amateur astronomer and science enthusiast I know enough about the universe as a whole (or maybe even the multiverse) to know that practically everything that people take so seriously is nothing more than the tiniest, most frivolous absurdity when you look at the big picture.

To provide examples I would like to pick on some of my usual targets: managers and other bureaucrats, and religious people.

Recently I commented that a good test for Muslims who would like to move to New Zealand to live would be to have them prove that they don’t take their religion too seriously by eating a pork sausage. That was deliberately provocative, because eating pork is haram (forbidden) by the Quran, except in extreme circumstances such as starvation.

Why would I want to impose such an offensive (according to some people) test? Well, I wouldn’t really, of course, because it was a rhetorical point I was trying to make, rather than a serious one, but this does show how a non-serious point can be effective. Maybe a better test would be to have them have a laugh at a cartoon featuring the prophet Mohammed. Yes, I’m only somewhat more serious about that.

But why have a test at all? Well, people who have extreme views on religion tend to be dangerous. They might be more likely to carry out terrorist acts, for example, because despite the protestations of the politically-correct left, religion is the major motivating factor for most terrorists.

And even if their serious religious “philosophy” doesn’t motivate them to wanting to blow themselves up, along with whatever other innocent people might be in range, it might still encourage them towards other regressive ideas, such as being against equality for women, wanting to punish homosexuals, or wanting to enforce their primitive social standards on others.

Naturally, I would not want anyone to think that this process would stop at Islam. Extremist Christians would also need to be vetted by a similar process. I have plenty of “offensive” cartoons featuring Jesus that they could have a little laugh at. For example: Jesus is hanging on his cross, after a while he dies and the Romans dangle him on strings from the cross like a puppet and reanimate him, people see this and think Jesus has risen from the dead, and the Romans think it’s hilarious!

And it could go beyond religion, too. For example, Apple zealots, like me, could be challenged by having to laugh at a cartoon of Jony Ive making some pretentious pronouncement about his design philosophy (I just Googled that and there are plenty out there).

Many might say that an “offensive” computer cartoon hardly rates at a similar level to an “offensive” religious one, but I disagree. If someone takes their religion more seriously than I take good design of computer technology then they are taking it too seriously, and that’s my whole point. After all, their religion isn’t actually true, so treating it with a bit less sincerity seems entirely sensible.

I know religious people who I like to gently and respectfully debate regarding their beliefs, and I expect to get the same back again. If someone wants to criticise me based on my “beliefs” (I am atheist, pro-science, liberal but anti-political correctness, pro-Apple) then that’s fine – I don’t take it too seriously, at least as long as they don’t.

When I look at the latest HST image of the universe and see thousands of galaxies in a small area of sky smaller than the Moon, and I realise there are hundreds of billions of stars (and presumably hundreds of billions of planets, and probably life, and maybe intelligent life, and just possibly some civilisations far more advanced than ours) in each one, then it’s pretty hard to take the inane assertions of any religion seriously.

It’s also hard to take any debate on what the best type of computer is seriously, it’s hard to take any pathetic rules and regulations created by bureaucrats seriously… hey, let’s just take this to the logical conclusion: you cannot take anything seriously.

So lighten up everyone. We live in a magnificent universe and our problems, thoughts, and beliefs are of no consequence at all, really. Why not just accept the obvious absurdity of human existence and not take things so seriously.

Forget About Growth

August 23, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently read a brief report on how an individual could make the greatest contribution to minimising climate change. This has been a controversial subject for many years now but the need to act is now more accepted.

So it seems that the world is gradually coming around to the idea that climate change is real and – even more gradually – to the idea that we need to do something about it. Even Donald Trump’s latest opinion is that is something that needs to be acted on, but he would prefer not to it through Paris Agreement.

So people who don’t accept climate change as real are probably increasingly irrelevant, and the discussion on what to do about it is where the real conflict now happens. Unfortunately it is now too late to fix the problem relatively painlessly and only difficult options remain. So the people who refused to accept reality in the past have now got us to the point where they now don’t want to act because it is too hard, but that is only because of their past obstructiveness.

But this post isn’t primarily yet another lecture on climate change. I like to tackle the really big subjects so this goes beyond the biggest problem facing modern society and looks at the cause of it, and most of the other major problems we have.

Getting back to the report: it listed several actions an individual could take and showed how many tonnes of CO2 emissions per year that would save. Upgrading to low energy light bulbs would save 0.1 tonnes, recycling would save about 0.2, going vegetarian about 0.5, buying only green energy 1.5, avoiding a trans-Atlantic air trip 1.6, and having one fewer child 60 tonnes.

The methodology used to generate these numbers could be debated, but the overall message is still relevant: that the real source of most of our problems is that there are too many people! When having one less person in the world saves six times more CO2 than all the usual energy saving efforts combined this should be obvious.

There is nothing inherently wrong with burning fossil fuels, we are just burning too much. A certain amount of rain forest clearance is sustainable but it is just happening too quickly. The environment can cope with some level of pollution but not the levels we generate now. Famine primarily happens because there are too many people for what the land can produce in food. Many conflicts happen because populations exceed the levels a country can cope with.

I can remember that a few decades back population control was one of the most commonly discussed issues in environmentalism but now it is hardly heard. What has changed?

That’s hard to know, for sure, but I think a major factor is capitalism’s constant need for growth. We have seen this everywhere. Unless business is growing we have a recession. The idea that the economy might have reached a point where is it sufficiently healthy and we don’t need any further growth just seems impossible to contemplate.

Growth in itself isn’t always problematic – although it often is – but the way that growth often happens is. Here in New Zealand it has mainly been achieved through increased population . We keep hearing that our economy is healthy and growing but, of course, it isn’t. Measures, such as per capita GDP, which calculate the economic contribution for each person, have not changed, and some have actually gone backwards.

So there is no growth except in population, and increased population is causing many social and environmental problems, including poverty, homelessness, and traffic congestion.

New Zealand has a small enough population that even quite significant percentage increases can be absorbed without causing a total disaster, but the same phenomenon in other countries which already have large populations is a bigger problem, and each country affects all the others.

Water pollution is a major issue in New Zealand. Why do we have that? Because we have too many dairy cows, and the reason we have those is that there is a good market for milk powder to feed all the Chinese people who are suddenly participating in the global economy. And the effects of overpopulation is much worse in India and some other countries.

We have too many cows because farmers can make more money by cramming more cows into land which previously was not used for dairying. They are prepared to do this while destroying our environment because, in capitalism, too much is never enough.

There are other causes of overpopulation, of course. I have already blamed capitalism so you might not be surprised to hear the next culprit I will accuse is religion! There is no doubt that religious beliefs such as an aversion to birth control and a need to have large families to increase the number of members of your particular church are a problem (yes, I’m talking about you Catholicism and Islam).

And to make matters even worse, the increased birth rate because of this is often in exactly the countries which are already struggling with famine, civil war, and other significant issues.

We need a bit more rationality in this world. I don’t mean I want to have everyone walking around like robots or Mr Spock, I just mean we could do without the more extreme cases of irrationality which cause a lot of harm to society in general. And the pursuit of growth for no good reason would be a great place to start.

Waking Up

August 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I have already mentioned in some past blog posts how interesting I find the ideas of neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris. I recently started listening to his podcast “Waking Up” and before that had read a lot of material he has produced (including the books The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation) and watched many of his debates and lectures on YouTube.

It must be tempting for some of my debating opponents to say “of course you like Sam Harris – he is another militant atheist, just like you” but it goes beyond that. I find everything he says genuinely thoughtful and he doesn’t just fit in with a stereotype such as materialist, anti-theist, or liberal.

I like this because I am always suspicious of people whose ideas closely match a particular political, religious, or philosophical “clique”. For example, in the past it intrigued me how libertarians always supported the idea of free markets but rejected the truth of climate change.

Those two things aren’t really linked in any meaningful way, but if you found someone who thought a laissez-faire economy was a good idea they would probably also think that climate change was a conspiracy. That is not so much true today because climate change is becoming increasingly difficult to deny, but it was common 10 years ago.

And with conservatives it might be common to find other ideas such as aggressive military intervention and being anti-abortion associated. These really do not seem like they should be linked in any way, yet they are.

Finally – and this is something I might have been guilty about in the past before I “woke up” – liberals are also susceptible to this phenomenon. Many would (and still do) believe in strong environmental protection while also being against genetic modification. A strong case could be made that in order to protect the environment genetic modification is almost a necessity, although I admit there are other options as well.

My point here is that it is unlikely that individuals have some to these conclusions based on deep and unbiased examination of the facts. If they did I would expect to see a lot more variation in how the ideas I have listed are linked. For example, there should be a lot more environmentalist who strongly support research into genetic engineering.

It seems far more likely that these ideas have come about as a result of them being “absorbed” from other people in their social group. So if you live in a conservative environment you would absorb diverse attitudes such as being anti-abortion, pro-guns, anti-welfare, etc, while if you came from a liberal environment the exact opposite would be true.

Both Harris and I seem to be less easily classifiable into commonly recognised groups. We get quite strong negative feedback (often it is genuine abuse and threats) from all sides of the political spectrum. Of course, Harris is a well-known public intellectual and I am just an obscure blogger, but I would still like to think we share a lot in common.

So to give you an idea of why I count myself as a “rationalist” rather than any of the more traditional groupings, such as “conservative” or “liberal” or “libertarian”, here is a list of my attitudes on some contentious subjects…

Equality. I think everyone should get a fair chance to succeed and utilise their talents, but I am very suspicious of political correctness and affirmative action. I would be far happier seeing equality achieved in ways which don’t simply give advantages to “minority” groups even if there is good reason to think they are disadvantaged in some situations currently.

Environmentalism. I strongly support environmental protection. I think a natural consequence of unfettered capitalism is the destruction of the environment, so capitalism must be controlled. I tend towards the idea that we must move on from capitalism completely, but in the interim controlling it is sufficient.

Immigration. I think it is good to have some variety in the backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs of people in every country, but I don’t want that to extend to people with extreme beliefs that might destroy the positive character a country already has. For example, for a Muslim to come to New Zealand they should first prove they don’t take their religion too seriously by eating a pork sausage or some similar test!

Free Markets. I understand why people don’t want their government controlling the economy in too fine detail (or at all in some cases) but I can’t see the advantage in handing over control to large corporations which are probably even less likely to have the best interests of the majority in mind. So I think markets should be controlled where it makes sense but not to a ridiculous extend such as where obsolete industries are artificially kept running.

Abortion. I am conflicted here. The problem is that there is no obvious point where a cell becomes a foetus and a foetus becomes a baby. I think abortion in the very early stages of a pregnancy is OK but how to determine where the point is when a distinct, conscious individual is involved is difficult to determine.

Gun Control. I understand that the best way to avoid gun deaths is to eliminate guns and that is at least partly practical in some countries. But in others, such as the US, that chance has passed so guns must be accepted as a necessary evil. It should be necessary to prove a high degree of competency in using one before a license to own a firearm is issued though. I know that the “bad guys” will just get guns without a license, but at least the legal owners will have a higher level of skill and that might make the defensive advantage of guns greater.

Racism, Misogyny, Xenophobia, etc. I reject the idea of being biased against anyone because of factors such as race, gender, or country of origin. I also know that scientific tests show that everyone is biased in exactly these ways, often subconsciously! But at least knowing that, a person can try to overcome that bias. But, I also reject the over-use of these terms. For example, saying I don’t want a fundamentalist Muslim allowed into the country isn’t racist because Islam isn’t a race, it’s an idea. I reject bais against people, but not against ideas.

I hope that by looking at those opinions I could not be easily labelled with any of the traditional stereotyped political identities. I see some good points in all political positions and yes, I’m not afraid to admit that I agree with a few things controversial figures like Donald Trump have said.

And unlike most of my opponents I can justify my opinions with rational reasoning, not with simple-minded dogmatic hypocrisy which I so often see from people who obviously identify with one political movement. Instead of trying to fit in with that identity and to impress their friends with similar beliefs they should learn to think for themselves. They should wake up!

Don’t Fool Yourself

July 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently started listening to Sam Harris’ podcast, “Waking Up”. It’s an interesting mixture of stuff which varies from the somewhat odd (his ideas on the use of drugs and meditation) to extremely perceptive and compelling.

Harris is a well known “militant atheist” and critic of religion, especially Islam, so his ideas fit in well with a lot of mine. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he says, or accept every point, just because it reinforces my own ideas of course, but it does mean his style of thinking and debating matches mine.

The topic of a recent podcast – featuring evolutionary scientist and writer Jerry Coyne – which I want to comment on here is whether science and religion are compatible.

Many people would say they are, first because (they claim) that science and religion have different purposes and are used to achieve different goals, second because many scientists are also religious, and third because the two use different methodologies to achieve similar ends. These all seem fairly reasonable at first, but are they really?

Well no, they’re not. I don’t think science and religion are compatible at all, and I’ll explain why.

What about the claim that the two seek to examine completely different areas of knowledge? Traditionally the view, which goes back to 1920s, is that science is concerned with the general conditions regulating the physical universe, and religion examines moral and aesthetic values. This is wrong on two counts.

First, almost every religion makes truth claims about the physical universe. They tend to have creation myths, for example, which undoubtedly conflict with science. Not every believer takes these stories seriously, but a lot of them do, and until the stories were shown to be wrong everyone believed them. They are definitely an important part of religion. So that’s one obvious source of conflict.

The usual justification for this is that those stories aren’t “real religion”. For some reason Stephen Jay Gould held this view, for example, but surely this is a case of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, and even most theologians reject it.

Additionally the second part of the claim is untrue. I don’t believe that the purpose of religion is to examine moral and aesthetic values. That is philosophy’s role, surely. So religion really has no purpose because it tries to usurp science’s role in truth-based areas and philosophy’s in others!

Moving on to the fact that many scientists are religious. Francis Collins is often given an example, who is a well respected geneticist but also an evangelical Christian. Surely if he exists in both the scientific and religious worlds like that they must be compatible?

Not necessarily. Many people compartmentalise their lives and live almost as if they have two personalities. I have heard Collins try to justify his religious beliefs in rational terms and to be perfectly honest it was pathetic. Clearly that aspect of his life is completely separate from his science. I’m fairly sure, for example, that he has never written a paper justifying a scientific discovery because Jesus told him something in a dream or that it says so in the Bible.

Equally I’m fairly sure he has doesn’t use scientific logic and rationality in the religious component of his life (as I said above, the interviews with him on that topic make that abundantly clear).

Coyne compare it with the Catholic church. It’s like saying that Catholicism and pedophilia are compatible because some members of the church practice both. If they want to use that logic to associate religion with positive things like science, then they have to use it to associate it with bad stuff too. Oddly enough, it usually doesn’t seem to work that way!

There’s one other point here too. That is that religious belief becomes less as people become more senior in science. Also, according to surveys I have seen recently, even though a large fraction of scientists identify as Christians, only a small number think a personal god exists. You really have to wonder whether most of them are “real Christians” or just use the label through habit or to avoid the difficulties that non-religious people face in some countries.

Finally I will tackle the idea of different methodologies. Broadly science uses observation and experiment and religion uses faith and revelation. It’s no secret that I think that the very idea of religion’s epistemology is completely absurd and I can’t see how any intelligent person could give it even a moment of serious consideration. But the point is, that even if you can take it seriously, it is completely contrary to what science uses so surely this counts as a point of conflict.

On that subject I need to mention Richard Feynman, who is possibly my favourite scientist of all time, and who said this about science: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Clearly that doesn’t apply to most areas outside of science.

So it seems totally indisputable to me: religion and science aren’t just incompatible, they are practically opposites. Anyone who disagrees is apparently not following Feynman’s advice!

Criticise the Idea

June 22, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about some of my recent blog posts and I have come to realise that they could be interpreted as me having a rather simplistic view of some of the topics I have discussed, especially in relation to beliefs I disapprove of, like capitalism and Islam.

There are two major nuances regarding my thoughts on these topics: first, nothing is ever entirely bad, or entirely good; and second, even if I think the belief is wrong that doesn’t mean I condemn all of the people who practice that belief.

So the anti-capitalism rant in my previous post wasn’t meant to suggest that all business owners or other people who participate in the capitalist system (which is all of us to some extent) are bad. What I meant is that capitalism has a lot of negative consequences, along with some good ones, and that I believe that, on balance, we could do a lot better.

There are a lot of greedy, self-centered, sociopaths who are deeply involved in capitalism, but there are many reasonable, hard-working, moral people too. The problem is that the core tenets of capitalism include pursuit of maximum profit, winning against competition, and minimising non-monetary elements of doing business, and by systematising and normalising what I (and a lot of other people) see as negative attributes it encourages anyone who has an existing propensity towards them.

So if a person has a natural tendency towards what otherwise might be thought of as anti-social behaviours, like greed, then that will be rewarded by participating in a capitalist system. That person will do well in such a system where a more generous, sharing person might fail.

There are some possible good outcomes of being greedy too. It might drive a person towards creating a bigger, more efficient company which might employ a lot of people or produce products more effectively, for example.

As I said, it’s about balance and I think that on balance we could do better than capitalism. But that’s not to denigrate the efforts of the minority of participants who used it for positive ends. There are a few obvious, high-profile examples, such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, but I’m sure there are many others we never hear about, as well.

And exactly the same argument applies to Islam. Many Muslims are great people but I believe that the underlying philosophy of Islam (and most other religions) leads to many negative consequences.

Religions tend to encourage people to believe their core dogmas and not look for anything better. It makes them think they already know everything worth knowing. Humanity has progressed through exactly the opposite attitude to this.

And they tend to make their followers feel like an “in-group” and everyone else is in some way inferior because they don’t share the special knowledge pertaining to that religion’s beliefs. Surely, we don’t need any more reasons to separate people into competing cliques than what we already have.

And they discourage free thought. Religions tend to tell people the facts are all recorded in a holy book or in the beliefs of religious leaders. If someone believes that why would they ever question potentially dangerous or incorrect beliefs? There’s a very good reason the metaphor of sheep is often used to describe religious followers.

So again there are plenty of religious people who haven’t fallen into any of the traps I described above, but undoubtedly religions make that far more likely, simply because of their underlying nature.

In summary, nothing is all bad or all good, but that doesn’t mean that criticising things that are bad on balance can’t be justified. And criticism of an idea does not automatically equate to criticism of people who hold that idea, but if the person is implicated in by an idea they hold that is just an unfortunate side effect. I always try (but don’t always succeed) to criticise the idea, not the person.

Islam Again, Again

May 31, 2017 7 comments

I said in my last post that I had some thoughts on terrorism and its causes, mainly after thinking about the Manchester attack. I think the there are two big problems which have lead to poor analysis of the situation: first, people tend to form conclusions based on their existing political beliefs instead of trying to reach an unbiased verdict; and second, they tend to look at things too simplistically instead of accepting that there is never just one cause for a complex social phenomenon.

In the last post I briefly mentioned my initial reaction when I first heard about the attacks. That was that it was probably “Islam again”. By that I meant that Islamic beliefs were likely to be an important part of the motivation for the attack. And that was clearly the case. But what I didn’t mean was that Islam was the only cause or that all Muslims should share equal blame.

Another important point is that, no matter how evil these attacks are, they really don’t represent a great threat when looked at statistically. There are plenty of stats out there to show this.

For example, the Washington Post reported that on the day that 130 people died because of the Paris terrorist attacks, roughly three times that number of French citizens died from cancer. They also say that in the US more people have been killed by being crushed by furniture than by terrorist activity since 9/11.

Those numbers should be accepted but that doesn’t mean that taking terrorism seriously isn’t important. It could be that because terrorism is treated as if it is far more dangerous than it really is that it has been kept under control to some extent. And disease, road deaths, and work related accidents are just an unfortunate side effect of people living their lives. Terrorism is far more malicious and deliberate and has no positive side making the losses a bit more tolerable.

So a death from a road accident and a death as a result of a suicide bomber aren’t really equivalent. People shouldn’t be scared of terrorism, but they shouldn’t become complacent and they should make their abhorrence of it clear even if they are unlikely to be affected by it directly.

I think I have made a case for treating terrorism and terrorists with the utmost contempt, what about the more difficult question of what or who to blame? Is Islam actually the problem?

Well yes and no. As I said above, all complex political or social issues have multiple causes. But the statistics make it very clear that Islam is a major factor. Find a list of terrorist attacks and you will see that the vast majority would be carried out by Islamic groups or individuals motivated by Islam. This cannot be denied, and I don’t think it can be denied that Islam is one of the most significant causes of terrorism.

People will say Islam is a religion of peace, of course, but that has become more a knee-jerk reaction than a statement which is the result of serious and considered thought. I don’t think it is a religon of peace at all. In fact, there are many reasons to think that it is one of the more violent religions. It’s true that most Muslims don’t act on these more aggressive aspects of their faith, but that doesn’t mean that they are not there and that they don’t encourage people with a predisposition to extremism.

Another excuse offered by Muslim apologists is that many of the problems in the Islamic world are caused by the unwanted meddling of the West, especially the US. I totally agree. I think US foreign policy is one of the biggest causes of political instability around the world today. But does the fact that a major power interfered with the politics of your country give you the right to kill innocent children at a pop concert in a different country? Only an incredibly sick-minded person whose human decency has been warped by a vile ideology could believe that.

Not many people would be prepared to sacrifice their own life and take those of many innocent people without some incredibly powerful ideology being involved. No one is going to strap on a suicide vest after considering a problem rationally. To do that takes something like strong political views… or religion, of course. The problem is currently Islam, but any Christian who thinks they can take the high moral ground on this should have a look at the history of their own faith and maybe reconsider that thought.

So was it Islam again? Yes it was, but it was also political frustration caused by western interference again, and it was many other things again too. Should there be greater scrutiny of Muslims because of this sort of event? Yes, but it should be in proportion to the potential threat.

These things are nuanced, and neither side: neither the people who always spring to Islam’s defence, nor those who automatically condemn all Muslims, are right. The truth is somewhere in between. Sure, it was Islam again and it will continue to be Islam again, but what our response should be to that fact is the real issue.