Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Carl Sagan's Invisible Dragon-Why Your Word Isn't Enough

This piece begins with a selection from chapter ten of Carl Sagan’s book "The Demon-Haunted World" It is followed by some personal thoughts of my own.

Sagan writes,
“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.”
            Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!
            “Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle—but no dragon.
            “Where’s the dragon?” you ask.
            “Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”
            You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.
            “Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”
            Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
            “Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”
            You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
            “Good idea, except she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”
            And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.
            Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same things as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.
            The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility.
            Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerges you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative—merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”
            Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons—to say nothing about invisible ones—you must now acknowledge that there’s something here, and that in a preliminary way it’s consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.
            Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you they have dragons in their garages—but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I’d rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient Europeans and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths at all…
            Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they’re never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself: On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such “evidence”—no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it—is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion." 

When examining religious issues such as the existence of God, revelation, visions, miracles and biblical interpretation it is amazing to see how much they have in common with issues such as alien abductions, witchcraft, psychics, channeling past lives and magic. For while the specific claims surrounding these issues vary greatly the believers’ justifications for supporting such odd ideas are all fairly similar. Scientific tests become suspect, contradictions are explained away, questions are side-stepped, logic is bent or disregarded, lack of evidence is ignored and the skeptic’s inability to disprove what the believers themselves have intentionally made irrefutable becomes undeniable proof to the believers of the validity of their insubstantial ideas. And in spite of the skeptic’s reasonable and vigilant approach in examining everyone’s claims in the same fashion it is the skeptic that is viewed as hard headed, arrogant and somehow shallow.

It amazes me how much confidence people place in their own personal experiences while they so quickly reject the experiences of others, unless of course those people’s experiences validates their own perceptions. The evidence the normal person demands when facing wild or odd claims all but disappears once one’s own feelings and pre-existing beliefs become involved. The reality of human fallacy should not count simply against those one already disagrees with it must also be turned inward. Sagan speaks of the large number of women who have reported being impregnated by aliens. These women all had explanations for why they had no alien babies to show or other proof to offer. Many explained that the aliens had come and taken the babies away or that the babies just looked like normal human babies and we couldn’t tell the difference. Presented with these stories most Christians would laugh a little and hardy give them a second thought despite the amazing similarities these stories have to a different story where a woman made odd claims about being impregnated incorporeally, which they believe without question. The same proofs that can be offered for believing in the immaculate conception (personal experiences and a written account) can be offered for believing in these women’s extraterrestrial conception yet one is believed without question and one is quickly rejected for lack of proof. Funny how that works.

Yet despite the scientific failings of all of these groups (alien abductees, psychics, Christians, faith healers, witch doctors, magicians, etc) to prove their assertions it is only the skeptics who remain open to listening to and examining the claims they all make and who are then ready to change their minds if valid evidence presents itself. Most in these groups have made up their minds as to what beliefs to accept without question and what beliefs to reject out of hand but the skeptic does neither. Instead the skeptic conditionally accepts as true that for which the best evidence exists while remaining open to new ideas refusing to reject any without proper examination. 

So do I believe in aliens, magic, witches or God? No because as of yet there's no reason to. As Sagan said about his dragon, "what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same things as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so." So I must ask is God truly anything more than an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon? Well only based on your say-so, which without further proof is as good as saying no he’s not. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

One Brief Moment-Who Needs Jesus?

. It was a fairly mild trail and most of my co-workers kept to the lower path that traveled around the mountain. One could just circle the entire park without going too far up if one so desired but I wanted to go up to the top while I was there. I discovered that there were actually multiple peaks none of which was too high still I wanted to go up at least one of them. So my co-teacher, another teacher and I headed up to the top. From the top I was actually able to see North Korea across the river. I never quite realize how close I lived to the boarder between North and South Korea.
Yesterday I went on a hike with all my co-workers near were I live on Shimhak Mountain

Now at the trail head were we began and finished there was a Buddhist temple and the largest statue of the Buddha that I have ever seen in person. I have no idea how tall it was? My guess would be around 40 feet (just over12 meters). As I looked at the statue I saw that there were multiple people circling it with there palms pressed together. It became clear to me that they were praying and my co-teacher soon confirmed that. I watched for awhile and they all moved at the same steady pace around the Buddha being very intentional with where they placed their feet as if they knew exactly where they were supposed to step. There were also mats near the statues which people took and laid down in front of the Buddha at which point they bowed down with their face completely touching the ground while raising their hands with their palms facing up. After a short time they would stand all the way up, raise their head and look at the statue and then do it all over again. They would repeat this same action multiple times.

My teacher then showed me that on the wall surrounding the entire courtyard of the temple there were individual pieces of wood all identical in size with Korean writing painted on them. They were hanging in perfect lines across the entire length of the wall with five or six rows from top to bottom. My co-teacher explained that people wrote their prayers and petitions to the Buddha for various things on those pieces of wood and then hung them on the wall. He read me some of them and most were simple prayers asking for different things such as the health of a loved one, help on a test and there was even one were a little girl had asked that she would be able to stop fighting with her brother. I walked over to the temple itself and looked inside and saw that there were multiple statues of the Buddha inside. There was one large statue in the center surrounded by smaller ones and just like I had seen outside by the large Buddha there were people bowing down in front of the statues, faces touching the ground with their hands lifted in the air palms up.

One of the teachers I was with actually walked around the statue and wrote a prayer on one of the pieces of wood to leave hanging at the temple. As I walked around looking many of the people there smiled at me as they exited the temple offering me a sense of calm as I observed. They were acting upon their beliefs and I could see as they left the temple that they looked refreshed and at peace.

As I contemplated my surroundings I found myself standing in a part of the world that for most of its history had been untouched by Christianity. I was staring at a beautiful temple surrounded by carefully constructed gardens and a giant statue honoring the Buddha but what stood out was the genuineness of the people I watched as they participated in religious rituals that have been practiced over multiple millennia and, which were vital in shaping who they were as people both culturally and individually. And this brief moment reminded me why I have rejected Christianity’s claim of religious superiority as expressed in Christ’s words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me,” (1) because it made one simple fact crystal clear: these people, like their ancestors before them, don’t need Jesus or his God to live good, meaningful lives.

(1) John 14:6-The Gospel of John is of little value in constructing a picture of who the historical Jesus really was and can’t be relied upon to determine what Jesus’ actual words or deeds were. The book is the theology of the author placed into the mouth of Jesus. It’s all but certain that the historic Jesus never said these words. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Is Morality without God Possible?

I recently wrote a piece claiming that the non-religious person who acts in the “right” way can be seen as more virtuous then the religious person who acts in the same way simply due to the separate reasons for their actions. (see here) This claim can be attacked from many angles and it should be but the main intention of the piece behind the hyperbole was to specifically criticize the idea that God must be viewed as the author of morality and therefore obeyed because his commands are moral. My cousin provided a very valid and difficult question after reading my thoughts and this piece is my attempt to both answer his question and to give further evidence in favor of my original position. My cousin said: 
"Zach, just thought I'd throw a comment in here for thought. I follow your blog often and think you bring up some good questions. Where does the concept of morality come from? How does an atheist decide what the "right thing to do" is? Doesn't just the mere notion of morality imply that it isn't something we can determine but must be outside of ourselves...something all humans regardless of religious/nonreligious bent must either be in compliance with or not...therefore implying some absolute. The simple fact that we have a concept of what is right and wrong I would argue implies that we understand there is a greater natural law that covers us all...therefore there is good, and there is bad...and regardless of what we as humans are trying to accomplish with them, good and bad remain constant. So if good is always good and bad is always bad then we must ask how there could possibly be some natural law or absolute morality without acknowledging some singular greater power that must have created that order...right? It would be impossible for an atheist to "do good" were there not an established and absolute moral code by which "good" was defined. Because of that...I think that "because God said so" is actually the same reasoning as "because it's the right thing to do". What are your thoughts? your cousin Brian."

So let’s begin with the question do we need God to have an objective morality? Only after answering this question can one move on and discusses how an objective morality can be ascertained without God. My answer is no, we do not need God to have an objective morality further I would say in order to have any kind of objective morality God, if he exists, cannot be the source of it without pushing ethics into the realm of relativism. (From this point on please realize that when I use the term God I am referring to the traditional God of the Abrahamic faiths who is described as omnipotent, omniscient and all-good. The possible existence of a first mover or some deist type of God is not important here)

Now most who disagree offer some sort of view that objective moral standards or moral laws require the existence of God and that without God and his authority there would be no absolute moral standards that humans would need to follow. This view rejects the possibility of an autonomous morality apart from God and thereby necessitates that God reveals his will to us so that we can know what is moral. Whereas if God does not exist we are left with either nihilism (there are no truths about ethics) or relativism (moral truths are relative to the outlook or beliefs of a given culture or individuals). In short morality is inseparable from God. But I don’t think it’s that simple.

If God exists he can have multiple roles concerning morality. The first one, and the one most important to this piece, is a metaphysical role. In this role both the existence and nature of morality depends upon God’s existence and his will. It is God’s will that determines what is moral; good and evil. The second role God can play is an epistemological role meaning he provides us with crucial knowledge about what is morally good and evil. God can play this role whether or not he plays the metaphysical role. Clearly those who believe God is the metaphysical author of morality must believe God is also the epistemological source for our knowledge about what is moral. But even if one does not believe God’s will is the metaphysical source of morality that defines what is good and evil one can maintain that it is still a trustworthy indicator of what is. Finally, God can play a motivational role in ethics. This would be when God provides various incentives or reasons to be moral such as the common idea of heaven and hell, which gives people prudent reasons to be moral.

While there are valid reasons to believe God plays some or all of these moral roles I think that most people who believe in God’s metaphysical authorship of morality have failed take into account what the implications actually are. If we look at Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates and Euthyphro discuss the idea of what is good and Euthyphro says that what is good is what the gods love. Now the question that arises from this and has continued down through history is: Is something good because God loves (commands) it or does God love (command) it because it is good? If the latter is true then what is good or right can be defined by something independent of God and God’s authority is not needed to underwrite morality therefore morality is autonomous from God. But if the first part is true and God defines what is good then God can make any act moral or immoral based simply upon his preference. Actions such as killing, lying and stealing only become immoral if God says not to do them likewise actions such as giving to the needy, feeding the hungry or helping the sick only become moral if God says to do them simply put all acts are amoral until God speaks. Similarly genocides, slavery, inquisitions and the holocaust are all morally neutral events that can only be seen as good or bad based on God’s desire at a given moment. Once one sees this, whether or not they believe God would or would not command us to do certain things, the counterintuitive implications of God’s metaphysical involvement in morality starts to become clear. A God who defines what is good (love, justice, etc.) based upon his own will is thereby above what is good and cannot be defined by it, calling God good (loving, just) becomes a hollow statement like saying God is God and the fact is that if this is true then in principle any action is permissible, in short morality is relative. 

Moral relativism is the idea that truth is relative to the social mores of various cultures or to the individual wills of people and if we accept God as the creator of morality moral relativism is true the only thing that differs is whose will matters, it is God’s will instead of people’s but the actions themselves are still decided based on an individual’s (God) partiality and inclinations. This is why one could (and many do) argue that Moses’ genocide of the Minidites was moral and Hitler’s genocide of the Jews was immoral because genocide itself is not the issue the issue is whether God commanded it at that given time or not. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.” and if he was right and if God is the author of morality then by definition he was acting morally. Again one cannot point to God’s goodness (his nature) as a reason he would or would not command something without implying goodness has some sort of inherent quality independent from God that makes him favor it. The fact is that once God is placed above morality as its creator he cannot be defined or even described by it.

God’s metaphysical involvement with morality can now be seen for the problem that it is to Christians who would try and explain what is right and wrong to those who do not already agree with them because if morality is not autonomous from God then the only way to determine what is moral is by authority, specifically God’s. The only moral argument that Christians ultimately have to support any action becomes “because God says so.” Any attempt by a Christian to demonstrate how certain actions can be shown moral or immoral apart from specific divine commands will fail unless the Christian is willing to agree that morality is autonomous of God, though the Christian can still maintain that God is a big help in showing us what it is moral. Some Christians have done this like Thomas Aquinas who forwarded a natural theology that claimed moral properties depended upon their own nature not God’s will which allows morality to be determined apart from God’s specific revelation. So whether one is a theist or not I believe one must be willing to admit that not only is an objective morality possible apart from God but it is necessary or forfeit the idea of an objective morality altogether.

Before moving on I want to add that if one does accept the metaphysical role of God in morality one must still answer two questions: how do I know what God’s will is and why should I obey it? The answers to these two questions go back to the other two roles God can play in morality; epistemological and motivational. The second question, “why should I obey God’s will?” is easy to answer. God is omnipotent and he will punish you if you don’t obey him whereas he will reward you if you do obey. As reasonable as that is it also makes it clear that self-interest and prudence become very important factors in acting morality. This is not necessarily a bad thing but many people, particularly in the modern period, would not like the sound of this idea yet the fact remains that this has been orthodox teaching throughout the history of the Church. Heaven and hell have always been the Church’s central and most effective apologetic tools.

The first question, “how do I know what God’s will is?” is the difficult one to answer and one that I believe again demonstrates the futility of religion in providing a sound moral foundation. To determine the will of God, when it cannot be attained naturally (independent of God), means one must rely upon divine revelation to know what is right. But every religion offers its own scriptures, miracles, prophecies and personal experiences to justify their claims as knowing the will of God for humanity but none of them provides a way to test the validly of their claims against the competing claims of other religion. Whether it’s the Tanak, the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon or numerous other scriptures all of them say they are given by God and explain God’s will yet none of them can be verified apart from themselves and none of them provide a noticeably better case for themselves in comparison with the others. In short their competing claims cancel each other out to those on the outside trying to determine what God’s will actually is. In addition all of these scriptures command both good and evil things. The Bible in particular is filled with competing worldviews and contradictory morals, which even those who accept it’s authority constantly fight over (often violently) trying to determine its meaning in any given context. I would argue that it is not in fact scripture that leads people to their knowledge of morality but rather their knowledge of morality that leads people to their interpretation of scripture. I recently read an essay were the author compared the Bible to a Rorschach test. The passages people choose to emphasize reflect as much as they shape their moral character and interests.

Further compounding this problem is the simple fact that if God truly is the source and author of morality one would expect that both religious people and religious nations would be more moral then atheists/agnostics and secular nations but that simply is not the case. Not only is there no proof that religion makes people or nations better then their more secular counterparts there is a long history demonstrating how religion makes people and nations do horrible things; Moses’ slaughter of the Midianites, the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch hunts, Sunni vs Shiites, 9/11 and many, many more. In the end the religious don’t have a leg to stand on when they claim God is needed to make society better, history shows otherwise.

So whether or not God exists, the existence of an objective morality requires an independent source from God. So if morality is autonomous of God and it can be objective the question is how do we know or find this objective moral standard? As I enter this section let me say straight out that I do not have a clear cut answer to this question. What I do have, as I have shown, are clear cut reasons to reject the idea of the need for God in morality, particularly in a metaphysical role and reasons to believe that an objective morality remains possible. So while I do not have all the answers one would want to these questions I have more then enough reasons to leave behind the beliefs of my past. I would say that not being certain of the truth is no reason to hold on to what is patently false no matter how comfortable it makes you feel.

Before moving on let me make a quick distinction between moral absolutism and moral objectivism. Moral absolutists believe that there are moral principles, relating specifically to human actions that cannot be overridden and therefore must never be violated in any situation. Issues such as the consequences of the actions, the character of the person committing the act and the motives of that person ultimately do not matter for moral absolutism. The simple fact is that there are actions that are always right and actions that are always wrong. This is what I believe most people think of when they think of an objective morality. An example would be Immanuel Kant. Kant’s first moral principle is called the Categorical Imperative: “Act so that the maxim of your action could become a universal law of human conduct.” One of the logical consequences Kant drew from this was that one is never justified in telling falsehoods. That sounds fine but it creates problems when accepted. As an example if an absolutist were helping Jewish people escape death in Nazi Germany by hiding them in their house and a solider came to the door and asked them if there were any Jewish people in the house then the absolutist must tell the truth (yes there are) or simply not speak because it is never okay to lie. Moral objectivists need not go that far and do not posit any principles that can never be overridden, at least not in unqualified general forms. So I reject moral absolutism while maintaining a belief in moral objectivity.

Now there have been many people much smarter than I who have believed that morality could be both autonomous and objective without God’s divine authorship so I want to look briefly at some those people’s moral ideas. It’s also worth noting that many of those people still believed in God. Since I mentioned Kant I will start with him. For Kant ethics were autonomous from God and God just like humanity had to obey the same moral principles. Morality is an intrinsic good and reason is the guide for us to find these principles. Morality can be known a priori (deduced) therefore everyone can find it. Further morality can have no purpose outside of itself, which means one must do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Following the Categorical Imperative, which we already looked at Kant’s second moral principle was, “Treat every man as an end and never as a means only.” This idea can be seen as a simple form of the principle of the rights of man though it remains vague not helping demonstrate what one should do whenever two people’s interests conflict but it’s still of value in postulating morals without God.

Now I believe Kant has some great ideas, particularly the value he places on reason, though he has his own definition of what reason is, but a lot of his system I cannot follow (both due to my limited understanding of it and its practical implications). For one Kant believed that both God and immortality were necessary for ethics to work. Immortality is necessary because Kant believed that anything one “ought” to do implies one “can” do it therefore since we ought to be morally perfect we must be able to be morally perfect and clearly this life is not enough time for that to happen so there must be some type of afterlife in which we can continue in our progress to perfection. God is necessary to be a moral scorekeeper and enforce the moral law, basically rewarding each according to his or her work. I clearly do not agree with these ideas. Another problem I see is that Kant limits the goal of moral perfection to the individual. I agree that no person can achieve moral perfection in their lifetime but I think the goal of perfection must be viewed as a social goal as much as an individual one. As social animals I believe humans must view our moral striving as more then separate exclusive attempts to become perfect. Rather our moral progress is communal as we are both affected by those around us and as we affect those around us especially those who come after us. If one seeks only the perfection of ones own self then yes that one person will fail (plus is that goal truly moral?) but if one works for the betterment of humanity as a whole then I believe one’s individual life can be a moral success upon death. On the practical side Kant’s ethics are divorced entirely from the consequences of ones actions; morality is its own end. Thus Kant rejects any type of utilitarian ethics which views morality not in purely metaphysical terms but also based on the consequences of one’s actions.

I do believe the consequences of one’s actions matter and examining those consequences provides us another good foundation for identifying right moral actions without God. The most famous system that determines what is right and wrong based primarily on the consequences of our actions is utilitarianism. Unlike Kant’s system which examines only the rightness of an action itself utilitarianism views the right act as the one that produces the best effects. Thus in the previous example concerning whether it is okay or not to lie to the Nazis for the sake of the Jewish people you were trying to help, a utilitarian would argue that one should lie and that lying is the moral thing to do as it will produce the best results. Happiness becomes a key goal in utilitarianism. This is often scoffed at by religious people who connect this word mostly with fleeting forms of physical pleasure but what makes humans, both as a group and as individuals, “truly” happy is a complex question that often leads people to the same virtues proclaimed by most religions, while also avoiding their vices. Some philosophers have sought to combine elements of both Kantian and utilitarian ethics. 

One philosopher who helps demonstrate this is Kai Nielsen. First he says that belief in God is not necessary for moral action. Nielsen notes that while there may be a historical relationship between religion and ethics, there is no theoretical connection between them thus ethics may stand independently of any theological considerations. Nielsen states that there are intrinsically good things in life that are worth living for and that provide happiness. He believes that both secular and religious ethics revolve around similar principles of justice, respect for others and benevolence and that our common nature and quest for the good life is the only grounding morality needs. And despite the hardships of life and the difficulties we must face we should face them without needing to accept the unaccountable mystery or absurdity of religion.

There are other moral theories, which do not need God as a foundation (see Rights Theories like John Locke’s and John Rawls’ or the Virtue Ethics of Aristotle) but just looking at the few ideas I did I believe one can began to see very valid starting points for morality that make no mention of God. For myself I believe that through the use of human reason and empirical observation true moral actions can be “discovered” or made. As I approach moral issues I usually begin as a historian, attempt to be a philosopher and wish to be a scientist.   

I always start with history. I believe one must take into account the evolutionary model of human existence and see the development of morality in connection with social communities. Ideas of right and wrong developed in connection with humans’ interactions with one another. Even though religions have changed this, practically speaking I’m not certain that there are any right or wrong actions one can commit if one is alone, separated from any human community. Think of one person existing on the moon by themselves what is right and wrong for that person to do, morally speaking? Justice, benevolence and respect are all values that only make sense in a communal setting. Likewise killing, stealing and lying all require multiple participants; at least one person doing the wrong and one person being wronged. I believe seeing this helps us explain the growth of morality in history. And like I said when I was critiquing Kant I believe morality must be seen as a social goal as much as an individual one. Now the fact that morality has a natural, not supernatural origin does not negate the possibility of an objective morality. Certain values are necessary for communities to survive and the larger the community becomes the more clearly these values can be seen and express themselves. Obviously cultures have displayed vast differences when it comes to moral actions but quite often there remain commonalities in the moral intent of their actions. Herodotus (485-430 BCE), a Greek historian, documented the existence of cultural relativism very early on, which leads to the question of whether ethical relativism must follow? He observed:
"For if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring their own; so convinced are they that their own usages far surpass those of all others. Unless, therefore, a man was mad, it is not likely that he would make sport of such matters. That people have this feeling about their laws may be seen by very many proofs: among others, by the following. Darius, after he had got the kingdom, called into his presence certain Greeks who were at hand, and asked—“What he should pay them to eat the bodies of their fathers when they died?” To which they answered, that there was no sum that would tempt them to do such a thing. He then sent for certain Indians, of the race called Callatians, men who eat their fathers, and asked them, while the Greeks stood by, and knew by the help of an interpreter all that was said—“What he should give them to burn the bodies of their fathers at their decease?” The Indians exclaimed aloud, and bade him forbear such language. Such is men’s wont herein; and Pindar was right, in my judgment, when he said, “Custom is the king o’er all.”

If we look simply at the actions of the two groups we see that the Greeks burned their dead while the Callatians ate theirs. Now if we ask who acted morally we could look to the sky hoping God tells someone what he wants (though he could want contradictory things for each group) or we could examine how one’s culture affects one’s beliefs and actions. Now while each culture acted differently in regards to their deceased both acted based on similar moral principles, that of love and respect for one’s community and elders. The fact that neither side would even think of changing their custom demonstrates how strongly their convictions of love and respect lied beneath their differing actions. This is just one tiny example but I use it to illustrate that I think there is a difference between understanding cultural differences and simply resigning ourselves to the idea of ethical relativism.

Moving on from history I then try to jump into philosophy. I rely on what I have seen and studied in an attempt to explain why people acted as they did, what worked and what didn’t and thus determine how we should act now; I use the particulars to look for universals. Here my philosophical weaknesses become clear for while I still believe moral objectivity is possible as of yet I am unable to describe a fully functional philosophical system that clearly lays it all out. Of course I’m not sure anyone (religious or not) has yet, though some systems have done a lot better then others.

Finally I tend to value science and its methods as the best tools for discerning a true objective morality. Science values evidence over authority and I believe that difference is the difference between having an arbitrary morality based upon authority that cannot be questioned or corrected (God’s) and an objective morality based upon evidence that is open to examination and modification. Evidence is vital to ethics because the choices that people make are based on the facts they have and having the wrong information often leads to the wrong actions. The right thing to do for someone who knows they are treating a person with epilepsy is very different from the “right” thing to do for someone who believes that they are saving a person possessed by a demon. We have come to better understand the world around us, not thanks to God or any divine revelations but rather though the use of our reason so it is by gaining a greater understanding of the natural world, not the supernatural that allows for continued progress in the field of ethics. Science is about discovering the truth that is already around us not inventing truth for its own purposes. Whether it’s learning about medicine and diseases, weather patterns, psychology, biology, physiology or numerous other sciences the information (the facts) that we learn enables us to have a more objective view of reality and so to a more objective view of morality.

Clearly I have not been able to define or describe a complete system of objective morality further I can’t even say for sure that there is such a thing as an objective morality, there certainly isn’t if God is in charge, yet I believe there is one. But I do not think that means morality must be some metaphysical reality outside of human existence that would be true even if humanity didn’t exist, like mathematics or logic rather I believe morality is tied to humanity and cannot be seen as something outside of our communal selves. In that sense morality is not a natural law of the universe but rather a natural law of human existence. Ethics is the study of what ought to be not what is and as such it is tied to human potential, our potential to rise above our insignificance and powerlessness in the universe and create, think, judge, and live committed to inspiring ideals and I find that exciting. True morality is not to be found arguing over the fickle wishes of an unseen and speechless deity but rather by rising up to learn about the world we live in and working together for the betterment of the people around us and thus of people everywhere. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bertrand Russell-Are the World’s Troubles Due to the Decay of Faith?

This is an essay written by Bertrand Russell. It was first published in 1956 in The Rationalist Annual by Watts and Company for the Rationalist Press Association.

It addresses the ago old cry of Christians that our world (nation) is growing worse due a continuing loss of faith in the Christian God. This is particularly true in the United States where many Christian groups never tire of pretending that America was founded as a Christian nation and that everyone must turn back to their God in order for all to be right with the country (meaning for America to be/remain the dominate military and economic power in the world)

This essay was written over 50 years ago and yet it remains very relevant to our current times. Russell addresses the problem of fanaticism, then connected with the Marxism of the Soviet Union but is just as applicable to today concerning Islamic Extremists. The essay presents a wonderful historical snapshot of the early 20th century and religion's (faith's) place within it.

It reads fairly quickly, for Russell, and is well worth the time.

Are the World’s Troubles Due to the Decay of Faith? by Bertrand Russell

There is a theory, which is winning widespread acceptance in the Western World, to the effect that what is afflicting the nations is due to the decay of religious faith. I think this theory completely contrary to the truth. In so far as faith has anything to do with the matter, there is a great deal more faith in the world than there was at a somewhat earlier time. But, in actual fact, the chain of causation which has led to the perilous position in which we find ourselves is, as I shall try to show, almost wholly independent of men’s beliefs, which are an effect rather than a cause of what is amiss.

What has happened in the world since 1914 has proceeded with a kind of inevitability that is like that of Greek tragedy. It is an inevitability derived, not from external circumstances, but from the characters of the actors. Let us briefly trace the steps in this development.

The Germans in 1914 thought themselves strong enough to secure by force an empire comparable to those of Britain, France, and Russia. Britain, France, and Russia combined to thwart this ambition. Russia was defeated and, in the Revolution of 1917, abandoned its traditional imperialistic policy. The West had promised Constantinople to the Russians, but, when the Russians made a separate peace, this promise fell through. Britain and France, with the help of America, defeated the Germans after the Germans bad defeated the Russians. The Germans were compelled to accept the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and to profess a belief in their sole war guilt. They were “wicked” because they had made war. The Russians were “wicked” because they had made a separate peace, and, still more, because they had repudiated their war debts. All the victorious nations combined to fight Russia, but were defeated, and were somewhat surprised to find that Russia no longer loved them. The Germans, meanwhile, suffered great distress, which was much aggravated when the folly of the American republican government brought about the Great Depression. Suffering produced hysteria, and hysteria produced Hitler. The Western nations, hoping that Hitler would attack Russia, did not oppose him. They had opposed the comparatively blameless Weimar Republic, but in befriending Hitler they proved to all mankind that they were totally destitute of moral standards. Hitler, fortunately, was mad, and, owing to madness, brought about his own downfall. The West had been delighted to accept Russia’s help in bringing about this result, and, whereas at the end of the First World War Russia and Germany had been alike weak, Russia at the end of the Second World War was strong. Britain was traditionally hostile to Russia, but from 1907 to 1917 had been forced into a semblance of friendship with that country by fear of Germany. At the end of the Second World War a quite new international pattern developed. Western Europe had ceased to count. Russia and the United States were alone powerful. As has always happened in the past in more or less similar situations, these two Great Powers were mutually hostile. Each saw a chance of world hegemony. Russia inherited the policy of Philip II, Napoleon, and the Kaiser. America inherited the policy which England had pursued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In all this there was nothing new except technique. The conflicts of Great Powers were just what they had always been, except that technique had made Great Powers greater and war more destructive. The situation would be exactly what it is if Russia still adhered to the Orthodox Church. We in the West should, in that case, be pointing out what we consider heretical in the Greek Church. What our propaganda would be can be seen by anybody who reads the records of the Crimean War. I am not in any way defending the present Russian regime any more than I should defend the Czarist regime. What I am saying is that the two are closely similar, although the one was Christian and the other is not. I am saying also that, if the present government of Russia were Christian; the situation would be exactly what it is. The cause of conflict is the ancient clash of power politics. It is not fundamentally a clash between faith and un-faith, or between one faith and another, but between two mighty empires, each of which sees a chance of world supremacy.

Nobody can pretend that the First World War was in any degree due to lack of Christian faith in the rulers who brought it about. The Czar, the Kaiser, and the Emperor of Austria were all earnest Christians. So was Sir Edward Grey, and so was President Wilson. There was only one prominent politician at that time who was not a Christian. That was Jean Jaures, a socialist who opposed the war and was assassinated with the approval of almost all French Christians. In England the only members of the Cabinet who resigned from disapproval of the war were John Burns and Lord Morley, a noted atheist. In Germany likewise the only opposition came from atheists under the leadership of Liebknecht. In Russia, when the atheists acquired power, their first act was to make peace. The Bolsheviks, it is true, did not remain peaceful, but that is hardly surprising in view of the fact that all the victorious Christian nations attacked them.

But let us leave the details of politics and consider our question more generally. Christians hold that their faith does good, but other faiths do harm. At any rate, they hold this about the communist faith. What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm. We may define “faith” as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of “faith.” We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence. The substitution of emotion for evidence is apt to lead to strife, since different groups substitute different emotions. Christians have faith in the Resurrection; communists have faith in Marx’s Theory of Value. Neither faith can be defended rationally, and each therefore is defended by propaganda and, if necessary, by war. The two are equal in this respect. If you think it immensely important that people should believe something which cannot be rationally defended, it makes no difference what the some-thing is. Where you control the government, you teach the something to the immature minds of children and you burn or prohibit books which teach the contrary. When you do not control the government, you will, if you are strong enough, build up armed forces with a view to conquest. All this is an inevitable consequence of any strongly held faith unless, like the Quakers, you are content to remain forever a tiny minority.

It is completely mysterious to me that there are apparently sane people who think that a belief in Christianity might prevent war. Such people seem totally unable to learn anything from history. The Roman State became Christian at the time of Constantine, and was almost continually at war until it ceased to exist. The Christian States which succeeded to it continued to fight each other, though, it must be confessed, they also from time to time fought States which were not Christian. From the time of Constantine to the present day there has been no shred of evidence to show that Christian States are less warlike than others. Indeed, some of the most ferocious wars have been due to disputes between different kinds of Christianity. Nobody can deny that Luther and Loyola were Christians; nobody can deny that their differences were associated with a long period of ferocious wars.

There are those who argue that Christianity, though it may not be true, is very useful as promoting social cohesion, and, though it may not be perfect, is better than any other faith that has the same social effectiveness. I will admit that I would rather see the whole world Christian than Marxist. I find the Marxist faith more repellent than any other that has been adopted by civilized nations (except perhaps the Aztec’s. But I am quite unwilling to accept the view that social cohesion is impossible except by the help of useful lies. I know that this view has the sanction of Plato and of a long line of practical politicians, but I think that even from a practical point of view it is mistaken. It is not necessary for purposes of self defense, where rational arguments suffice. It is necessary for a crusade, but I cannot think of any case in which a crusade has done any good whatever. When people regard Christianity as part of rearmament they are taking out of it whatever spiritual merit it may have. And, in order that it may be effective as rearmament, it is generally thought that it must be pugnacious, dogmatic and narrow-minded. When people think of Christianity as help in fighting the Russians, it is not the Quaker type of Christianity that they have in view, but something more in the style of Senator [Joseph] McCarthy. What makes a creed effective in war is its negative aspect, that is to say, its hatred of those who do not adopt it. Without this hatred it serves no bellicose purpose. But as soon as it is used as a weapon of war, it is the hatred of unbelievers that becomes prominent. Consequently, when two faiths fight each other, each develops its worst aspects, and even copies whatever it imagines to be effective in the faith that it is combating.

The belief that fanaticism promotes success in war is one that is not borne out by history, although it is constantly assumed by those who cloak their ignorance under the name of “realism.” When the Romans conquered the Mediterranean world, fanaticism played no part in their success. The motives of Roman generals were either to acquire the gold reserves of temples with a view to keeping half for themselves and giving half to their soldiers, or, as in the case of Caesar, to gain the prestige which would enable them to win elections in Rome and defy their creditors. In the early contests of Christians and Mohammedans it was the Christians who were fanatical and the Mohammedans who were successful. Christian propaganda has invented stories of Mohammedan intolerance, but these are wholly false as applied to the early centuries of Islam. Every Christian has been taught the story of the Caliph destroying the Library of Alexandria. As a matter of fact, this library was frequently destroyed and frequently recreated. Its first destroyer was Julius Caesar, and its last antedated the Prophet. The early Mohammedans, unlike the Christians, tolerated those whom they called “people of the Book,” provided they paid tribute. In contrast to the Christians, who persecuted not only pagans but also each other, the Mohammedans were welcomed for their broad-mindedness, and it was largely this that facilitated their conquests. To come to later times, Spain was ruined by fanatical hatred of Jews and Moors; France was disastrously impoverished by the persecution of Huguenots; and one main cause of Hitler’s defeat was his failure to employ Jews in atomic research. Ever since the time of Archimedes war has been a science, and proficiency in science has been a main cause of victory. But proficiency in science is very difficult to combine with fanaticism. We all know how, under the orders of Stalin, Russian biologists were compelled to subscribe to Lysenko’s errors. It is obvious to every person capable of free scientific inquiry that the doctrines of Lysenko are less likely to increase the wheat supply of Russia than those of orthodox geneticists are to increase the wheat supply of the West. I think it is also very doubtful whether nuclear research can long continue to flourish in such an atmosphere as Stalin produced in Russia. Perhaps Russia is now going to become liberal, and perhaps it will be in the United States that bigotry will hamper atomic research. As to this, I express no opinion. But, however this may be, it is clear that, without intellectual freedom, scientific warfare is not likely to remain long successful.

But let us look at this matter of fanaticism - somewhat more broadly. The contention of those who advocate fanaticism without being fanatics is, to my mind, not only false, but also ignoble. It seems to be thought that unless everybody in a nation is compelled, either by persecution or by an education which destroys the power of thought, to believe things which no rational man can believe, that nation will be so torn by dissensions or so paralyzed by hesitant doubts that it will inevitably come to grief. Not only, as I have already argued, is there no historical evidence for this view, but it is also quite contrary to what ought to be expected. When a British military expedition marched to Lhasa in 1905, the Tibetan soldiers at first opposed it bravely, because the priests had pronounced charms which afforded protection against lead. When the soldiers nevertheless were killed, the priests excused themselves on the ground that the bullets contained nickel, against which their charms had been powerless. After this, the British troops encountered little opposition. Philip II of Spain was so persuaded that Heaven must bless his warfare against the heretics that he neglected entirely to consider the difference between fighting the English and fighting the Turks, and so he was defeated. There is a very widespread belief that people can be induced to believe what is contrary to fact in one domain while remaining scientific in another. This is not the case. It is by no means easy to keep one’s mind open to fresh evidence, and it is almost impossible to achieve this in one direction, if, in another, one has a carefully fostered blindness.

There is something feeble, and a little contemptible, about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only be-cause they are comforting. But he dare not face this thought, and he therefore cannot carry his own reflections to any logical conclusion. Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed. He therefore adopts persecution, censorship, and a narrowly cramping education as essentials of statecraft. In so far as he is successful, he produces a population which is timid and unadventurous and incapable of progress. Authoritarian rulers have always aimed at producing such a population. They have usually succeeded, and by their success have brought their countries to ruin.

Many of the objections to what is called “faith” do not depend in any way upon what the faith in question may be. You may believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible or of the Koran or of Marx’s Kapital. Whichever of these beliefs you entertain, you have to close your mind against evidence; and if you close your mind against evidence in one respect, you will also do so in another, if the temptation is strong. The Duke of Wellington never allowed himself to doubt the value of the playing fields of Eton, and was therefore never able to accept the superiority of the rifle to the old-fashioned musket. You may say that belief in God is not as harmful as belief in the playing fields of Eton. I will not argue on this point, except to say that it becomes harmful in proportion as you secretly doubt whether it is in accordance with the facts. The important thing is not what you believe, but how you believe it. There was a time when it was rational to believe that the earth is flat. At that time this belief did not have the bad consequences belonging to what is called “faith.” But the people who, in our day, persist in believing that the earth is flat, have to close their minds against reason and to open them to every kind of absurdity in addition to the one from which they start. If you think that your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument, rather than by persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based on faith, you will realize that argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force either in the form of persecution or by stunting and distorting the minds of the young in what is called “education.” This last is peculiarly dastardly, since it takes advantage of the defenselessness of immature minds. Unfortunately it is practiced in a greater or less degree in the schools of every civilized country.

In addition to the general argument against faith, there is something peculiarly odious in the contention that the principles of the Sermon on the Mount are to be adopted with a view to making atom bombs more effective. If I were a Christian, I should consider this the absolute extreme of blasphemy.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Power of Geography-Favorite Foods and Religious Convictions

Kimchi is any one of numerous traditional Korean pickled dishes made of vegetables with varied seasonings

One of the hardest things about living in Korea has been the food. The majority of it truly is foreign. Not just the various mixtures of ingredients or presentation of them but the very ingredients themselves are often completely unknown substances to me. More than once my co-teacher or another Korean will ask me if I like a certain food and the answer more often then not is simply, “I don’t know? What’s in it?” They then describe the dish and it’s ingredients to me and I am still left scratching my head because I don’t know the bulk of the items they listed. It has gotten to the point where I’ve stopped even asking what’s “in” something and instead just eat it and see what I think. Now I can say there is a lot of Korean food , a good deal more then I expected, that I think is just fine but as of yet I still have not eaten anything that I could see myself one day craving. Basically, I have not developed any new favorite foods here.

Now as I was thinking about this I couldn’t help but compare food with religion. Growing up I developed favorite foods based on the foods I was surrounded with. It was impossible for any Korean food to become one of favorite foods because I never had any of it. For all intent and purposes Korean food did not exist for me. And the same was true with religion. I was only exposed to a few religions growing up (variations of Christianity and Judaism) and as such could only pick from one of those which I would believe in. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and many other religions just like Korean food simply did not exist. Clearly one can only choose a religion that one is exposed to and not surprisingly a majority of humans end up “choosing” to follow the religion they were born into. Your affinity for your specific religion, similar to food, is usually developed early in your life often before you can truly understand why (before you have been taught the right answers as to why) you believe it.

Now many people grow up and their favorite foods change as they are exposed to more things likewise some people change their religions or at least their beliefs become more sophisticated as they try to explain to others, and themselves, why they believe certain things. But at the end of the day few people completely separate themselves from the foods/religions they were born into particularly with religion for unlike food most people do not try new religions once they have picked their favorite and unlike food most religions will not allow you to have multiple favorites.

Also as you grow up you often come to discover that the food you like is not always the same as the food that is good for you and often the things we like the best are in fact bad for us. I would argue that religion is like food that is bad for you. It tastes wonderful; telling you that you are eternally significant, assuaging your fears about death, promising you earthly and heavenly rewards and offering you explanations for the evils in the world (often ones that encourage you to do nothing) but in the end it is not good for you and your ethical/moral growth.

Obviously I’ve taken this analogy a little far but all in fun. The simple fact is that most people’s religious beliefs are what they are simply due to where and when they were born, nothing special or mysterious just simple geography.

Eel Dup Bop is broiled eel atop a bed of sautéed vegetables on rice

Thin Egg Noodles with yellow chives, bean sprouts, mushrooms

Mandu Jungol is spicy, red and hot. It's a large bowl filled with dumplings, zucchini, mushroom, scallion, and udon noodle. Then it is placed atop one of those mini gas ranges and kept bubbling and hot

Octopus and Potatoes

Kimbap is steamed white rice (bap) and various other ingredients, rolled in gim (sheets of dried seaweed)

Ojingeo Bokkeum is spicy stir fried squid

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Maryam Namazie-When the Hezbollah Came to My School

This is a very valuable piece written by a woman who grew up in Iran and has since rejected the Muslim faith. She offers a great perspective for critiquing both Islam, particularly it's political forms, and religion in general. More information about the author is at the end of essay.

When the Hezbollah Came to My School by Maryam Namazie

I don’t remember exactly when I stopped being a Muslim. Looking back, it seems to have been a gradual process and a direct result of my personal experiences, though I would like to think (or hope) that I would have eventually become an atheist.

Having been raised in a fairly open-minded family, I had no real encounter with religion that mattered until the Islamic movement took power on the back of a defeated revolution in Iran. I was 12 at the time.

I suppose people can go through an entire lifetime without questioning a religion they were born into (out of no choice of their own), especially if it doesn’t have much of a say in their lives. If you live in France or Britain, for example, there may never be a need to actively renounce Christianity or come out as an atheist. But when the state sends a “Hezbollah” (the generic term for Islamist) to your school to ensure that you don’t mix with your friends who are boys, stops you from swimming, forces you to be veiled, deems males and females separate and unequal, prescribes different books for you and your girlfriends from those read by boys, denies certain fields of study to you because you are female, then you have no choice but to question, discredit, and confront it – all of it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Christianity (or any other religion for that matter) is fundamentally different from Islam; it appears tamer (at least today) only because its social status has changed.

A religion that has been reined in by an enlightenment is very different from one that has political power and is spearheading an inquisition. That’s why anything from “improper” veiling in Iran, downloading information on the status of women in Islam by Perwiz Kambakhsh in Afghanistan, publishing caricatures of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, to the name to name of a teddy bear in the Sudan becomes a matter of life and death (often with Western government complicity).

While political Islam kills and maims indiscriminately, here in the West its acts of cruelty and terror are repeatedly portrayed and excused as “offended Muslim sensibilities.” Rather, though, it is Islamic states and the political Islamic movement that take offence.

I mean, we are all offended at least some of the time. The religious, of course, are offended more often than not. But most of us – religious or not – never resort to death threats and suicide bombings. If it were really a question of “offended Muslim sensibilities,” we would all be living in fear, given that the transgressions that give offence include anything from holding hands or being unveiled in public to dancing. If it were so, political Islam’s first victims would not be those who are Muslims or labeled as such.

Violence and terrorism of the Islamic kind are used as a tactic and pillar of the political Islamic movement, and have nothing to do with the sensibilities of an oppressed people or “minority.” Claims to the contrary imply that people – often at the frontlines of resisting political Islam in places like Iran and the Middle East – freely choose medievalism and barbarity. Rather, in my opinion, equating the intimidation and terror imposed by political Islam to the expression of “Muslim sensibilites” is part of the effort to impose these sensibilities from above. If they were really part of people’s own sensibilities and beliefs, Islamic states wouldn’t need to resort to such indiscriminate violence, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa where political Islamists are often in charge of the state, the educational and legal systems, the army and so on. They wouldn’t need to stone women to death, arrest millions for improper veiling, and kill apostates and heretics.

This raises the question of whose sensibilities are deemed to be Muslim – the Islamic state of Iran’s or the “badly veiled” woman’s?

The Hezbollah who arrived unannounced at my school to impose the Islamic cultural revolution, as they called it, and to segregate boys and girls, purge textbooks, sack teachers, as at all other schools, universities, libraries, and so on in Iran at that time, was very much part of the systematic imposition of so-called “Muslim sensibilities” by the state from above on the population at large. And wherever this imposition was met with the resistance of the people it feigned to represent, there were more like him – herds of Hezbollah thugs with the full backing of the sate – to make sure the resistance was crushed.

As the late Marxist thinker, Mansoor Hekmat, said: This phenomenon “is not rooted in a revival of Islam as an ideological system. This is not ideological Islam; rather it is political Islam based on specific political equations. Clearly, with the rise of the power of political Islam, pressure to revive religious appearances in society intensifies. This, however, is a political pressure. The people sometimes yield to these pressures. This Islamic ‘renaissance’ is backed by violence and terror, which takes one form in Algeria and another in Iran.” (1)

That the imposition of political Islam is a result of political pressure from above rather than below is an important point. Otherwise, when an oppressive and reactionary political movement is deemed to be one and the same with an oppressed people or so-called minority, it makes it more difficult to resist. In such a climate, any criticism in the West of the political Islamic movement is deemed offensive or Islamophobic. (Of course, in countries under Islamic rule, there is no time for such sensitivities and niceties.) The argument is that the right to offend skips over the question of whether we are right to offend. Apologists for political Islam argue that we must consider the minority status of those whose sensibilities are being offended and that, while one may have a right to offend, doing so is irresponsible and unnecessarily hurtful. It is, they say, even racist.

In fact, though, this has nothing to do with protecting the “Muslim minority” and combating racism. Demanding that those deemed forever minorities have full citizenship and universal rights, and calling for an end to cultural relativism and a policy of minoritism, will go a lot further to combating racism than limiting free expression. In fact, it is racist to equate all those deemed or labeled as Muslims (when there are innumerable characteristics to define us all) with one of the most reactionary movements of our times. This is of course not to deny that racism, including against Muslims, exists, but racism exists because of the profitability of racism for the class system and not because of critical thought and freedom of expression, however offensive. The argument against free expression also conveniently ignores the fact that the political Islamic movement is a global one with state power.

In reality, “offended Muslim sensibilities” is the catchphrase used by a powerful political movement backed by state power and its apologists to deny and restrict freedom of expression in the society at large and prevent criticism. Defining certain expressions and speech as off-limits is a tool for the suppression of society; saying speech and expression offends is in fact an attempt to restrict it. This is ludicrous when you think about how the concept of freedom of expression and speech was a gain for the powerless vis-à-vis the powerful and very often vis-à-vis religion and, more generally, a legal protection of citizens against state power and abuse. Especially so when you consider that the political Islamic movement deems a woman as worth half a man, sees gays as perversions, sex outside marriage as punishable by death, and so on and so forth – but it is criticism of it that is offensive!

Offensive or not, Islam and political Islam must be open to all forms of criticism and ridicule, particularly in this day and age. Not a second passes without some atrocity being committed by this movement. It hangs people from cranes and lamp-posts; it stones people to death – in the twenty-first century – with the law even specifying the size of the stone to be used; it murders girls in cold blood at their school gates. It must be criticized and ridiculed because that is very often all that a resisting population has to oppose it. That is how, throughout history, reaction has been pushed back and citizens protected. And so it must again.

1. The Rise and Fall of Political Islam (2001)

Maryam Namazie is the spokesperson for Equal Rights Now - Organization Against Women's Discrimination in Iran and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. She is especially known for her activities for women's rights, asylum seekers' rights, and gay rights, and for her opposition to political Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran

Morality without God-How the Virtue of the Nonreligious Surpasses that of the Religious

Can one be moral without religion? Most Christians would say no and in fact they rely heavily upon that argument to both explain the need for religion and also to validate their desire to shape and control the societies in which they live. Now those who would call themselves rationalists, freethinkers or atheists have started to become more vocal in their attack upon the moral validity of religion. Both sides often end up accusing the other of offering nothing of value to issues of morality.

Now I obviously disagree with those who believe religion is the only way to be moral but I’m not willing to go so far as to say that religion cannot lead people to live good, moral lives. What I will say quite confidently is that religion, at its best, gives people bad reasons to do good things. Two people, one religious and one not, can commit the exact same moral act and I would argue that the person who acted based upon their religious convictions did the right thing for a worse reason than the person who needed no religious conviction to commit the same act. The religious person acted because God said it was the right thing to do while the nonreligious person acted simply because it was the right thing to do. The problem I see is that the religious person does not need to examine the act itself but rather is encouraged not to ask unnecessary questions (have faith) as to why they should act in such a way. Neither the context nor the effects of their actions make a difference because they have been told what to do. The nonreligious person, on the other hand, must think about why they should act a certain way. Both the circumstances and consequences of their actions become vital issues in determining what act is, actually the right thing to do. Again both people, the religious and the nonreligious, may end up doing the exact same thing but in the end it is the nonreligious person who does it because of the fact that it truly is the right thing to do and that is far better.

One of Christianity’s favorite analogies for humanity’s relationship with God is that of a parent and a child. We are told God loves us like his children. He cares for us and provides for us. While that may be fine and good it creates a problem with how the Abrahamic God relates to us when it comes to morality. The fact is that this God treats us like children concerning virtue, which limits our ability to be moral agents responsible for making ethical decisions. If one were to ask this God why we should act in a certain way, like a normal child would ask their parent, he would provide one of two answers; the first and most common answer is “because I said so and I know best.” The second and equally important answer is “because I will reward you if you do it and punish you if you don’t.” Now these are answers that are commonly used with little children and for a time they are answers that are okay but eventually they are no longer sufficient if a child is to make true moral choices. For while both reasons can lead a child to act in a virtuous way neither reason enables the child to choose in a virtuous way.

Sadly, the Abrahamic God neither wants us to grow up nor helps us do it. He dilutes the moral actions of those who do as he commands because he encourages blind, thoughtless obedience by stroking our egos, you’re special so do as you’re told and by playing on our greed and fears promising prizes (earthly rewards and heaven) for obedience and threatening punishment (earthly afflictions and hell) for disobedience. Jesus’ ethics are built upon a foundation of reward and punishment. Little more then self-interest is needed to do as Jesus commands though of course one must also actually believe what he promises and threatens. By no means does this signify that Jesus’ ethics are worthless or wrong (though some of them are) but it does denote that the person who does the same thing as Jesus with no need of reward or fear of punishment is a person I would consider far more virtuous and worthy of imitation.

Doing the right thing because one was commanded to do it is good, doing the right thing because one chooses on their own to do it is far better.