On Religion; The Consequences of Believing in Things that are not True

H. L. Mencken once said, “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” In general, I suspect he was right. In an ideal world, one could simply point out that belief in a God or gods is irrational, as Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Sam Harris have lately so eloquently tried to do. The rest of mankind would then recognize that their beliefs in supernatural beings were untrue, and drop them, sparing the rest of us a great deal of grief. Alas, the species being what it is, that isn’t about to happen. Quoting the Sage of Baltimore once again, “The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.” At best, we can point out what those costs actually are, in the hope that a happy few will come to their senses. In the case of religion, the costs of believing in something that is untrue are abundantly obvious in our day. One need only recall the fate of the twin towers, and the almost daily images we see of the mayhem caused by suicide bombers. We can follow Mencken’s advice about the other fellow’s religion when, as in the case of Christianity today, its adherents are rather less fanatical than they were at, say, the time of the Hussite Wars, or the crusade against the Albigensians, or the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, or in the many centuries during which tens of thousands of innocent women were burned and hung as witches. However, when, as is the case with Islam today, the fever breaks out anew, and the other fellow concludes that his God wishes him to commence killing the rest of us and to stuff his religion down our throats by seizing control of state power, we can hardly afford to look the other way.

There are adherents of every religion whose tastes do not happen to run to slaughtering their fellow beings. Such is the case with Islam today, and, in accord with a long established historical pattern, they assure us that those who are actively trying to kill us are not “real Moslems.” That is little comfort to the rest of us, as those same murderers assure us that they are the only true Moslems, and are not behind hand at quoting line and verse of their scriptures to justify their mayhem. In the end, they attack the rest of us because of their religious beliefs, whether others happen to interpret those beliefs differently or not. It seems to me that it would be safer for all concerned if, rather than arguing over the details of beliefs that are fundamentally untrue, one jettisoned them root and branch in favor of a more probable point of view.

One can find a typical example of the religious outlook of one of the “pacific” believers in Islam at Harry’s Place. The article is thoughtful and well worth reading. It contains most of the usual rationalizations. For example, as already noted above, it seeks to “excommunicate” the adherents of violence, referring to them as “Islamists,” rather than followers of the true Islam. The author informs us that, “… there is no mention of statehood in the Quran, nor are there pre‐ordained political principles prescribed in any of the Islamic holy texts that Muslims are required to follow. Islamists, however, will argue that Muslims are only allowed to follow and participate in one type of political system, and that all other political systems and ideologies are ‘un‐Islamic’. This is quite unprecedented and lacks historical or scriptural justification.” This is a dubious assertion, and becomes less credible the more one reads the Moslem scriptures. Do they not call for different rates of taxation for Moslems and non-Moslems? Do they not call for specific forms of punishment for given crimes when the specification of such punishments is a function of the state and the political system it is based on? Were not early Moslem visitors to England mystified by the British parliament, noting that all had been set down once and for all in the Moslem holy books, making such functions unnecessary? In a word, the worthy author may assure us that his view of Islamic principle is different, but Islamic practice since the time of the prophet has been something entirely different from the benign picture he seeks to paint for us.

In his closing lines the author assures us, “Despite the fact that since 9/11, 7/7 and the Madrid bombings Islamism has come to dominate the world’s headlines in the West, the vast majority of the world’s Muslims continue to believe Islam is not a political ideology and do not pursue the revolutionary goals that Islamists have projected onto it. In the Quran Islam is described as ‘Deen‐al‐Islam’ which translates as ‘religion of peace’.” Be that as it may, wherever Islam has gained the upper hand, it has served as the incubator from which the terrorist brood has hatched. For that matter, it is absurd to refer to it as a “religion of peace.” In what manner, after all, did it become the dominant religion in so many countries? Did it overcome its rivals in Arabia peacefully? Did it gain control of Egypt peacefully? Did it gain control of Syria peacefully? Did it gain control of Iran peacefully? Did it gain control of what is now Turkey peacefully? Did it gain control of North Africa peacefully? Did it gain the upper hand in Spain and Sicily and then lose it again by peaceful means? What about Palestine? Are its current claims to control that territory based on an original, peaceful occupation of the land, or a seizure from the previous owners by force?

One might prefer Christianity to Islam because its scriptures seem to be more genuinely amenable to the separation of church and state that our author assures us characterizes the “real Islam” as well. Unlike Islam, it has produced some very substantial thinkers to vindicate that point of view, such as Roger Williams and Marsilius of Padua. It is for that reason that I consider attempts to limit Muslim encroachment, such as we saw manifested in a recent Swiss election, in a rather more positive light than those who seek to simplistically portray it as an attack on “freedom of religion.” When we see vicious acts of terrorism worldwide justified in the name of Islam, it takes willful self-deception to conclude that all this has nothing to do with the “real” Islam, and that there will be no social or political consequences of treating it as “just another religion.”

In the end, it seems to me that life would be a great deal more pleasant for all of us if we stopped basing our actions on erroneous beliefs in supernatural beings in general, and started basing them on an interpretation of reality that, if not certain, is at least not palpably false.

The Christian Right Circa 1839

The Christian right is fond of associating itself with our Founding Fathers. In fact, had they lived at the time, they would have found themselves in the very opposite camp. That camp had a name that should be familiar to every American schoolchild: Tories.

Then, as now, they had a penchant for considering themselves just a little more “equal” than their fellow citizens. Then, as now, they also had a penchant for stuffing their religion down other people’s throats. They were a lot better at it then, though, because they had a lot more power. They continued to have that power for many years after our Revolution. The following excerpt from the London “Quarterly Review,” organ of the Tories in 1839, will give you an idea of the consideration they showed their fellow citizens when they had the upper hand. Referring to the perceived immorality of the lower classes in Austria at the time, it draws some “lessons” for English society:

In such a state of things, who can deny the absolute necessity for religious education? Teach the lower orders in England to read and write, and unless they are very narrowly watched, the first use they will make of their accomplishments will be to spell over the pages of a newspaper. Talk to them of the value of intellectual acquirements, and the odds are that you will only make them discontented with the lot in which Providence has placed them, and prone to listen to the first itinerant demagogue who may think fit to rail against the unequal distribution of wealth or the recognised distinctions of society. It has been said that they will learn it time to understand the advantages of these distinctions, and perceive that the welfare of the community, themselves inclusive, is bound up with the institution of property; but our firm conviction is, that the time they are able to set apart for reading is utterly inadequate to such a result, and that, whilst man is man, those who earn their bread by the sweat of ther brow must be content to take political conclusions upon trust. In the case of monarchy, for example, you may always teach them to shake off the prejudice, you will never teach them the value of the principle. It were well, therefore, if such topics of inquiry cound be altogether excluded, but they cannot: all we can do is to make moral training go hand in hand with intellectual cultivation, and give the general superintendence to the body most interested in the preservation of order and best qualified to instil a proper sense of religious duty – the Church.

Thus the genuine intellectual forebears of today’s political Christians. They were defanged in America by men like Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Paine, men who had nothing in common with them intellectually. Fortunately, they were eventually defanged in England as well. May they always remain so. It will be better for all of us, including them.

Islamophobia and Criticism of Religious Belief

In an article on freedom of expression, Phyllis Chesler writes, “The greatest danger is a closed mind and a finger-on-the-trigger. The minds are closing all over Europe; rather late in the day, a small resistance emerges. American minds have also been shutting down for many years.” She refers to the problem of self-censorship in discussions of issues of race and religion. Focusing on the fear of being accused of Islamophobia, she cites the following test for the same devised by former Green Party presidential candidate Lorna Saltzman:

Lorna Saltzman’s Test

Do you favor equal rights and treatment of women and men?
Do you oppose stoning of women accused of adultery?
Do you favor mandatory education of girls everywhere?
Do you oppose slavery and child prostitution?
Do you support complete freedom of expression and the press?
Do you support the right of an individual to worship in her chosen religion?
Do you oppose government- and mosque-supported anti-Semitic publications, radio, TV and textbooks?
Do you oppose the wearing of burqas in public places, schools and courts?
Do you oppose segregation of the sexes in public places and houses of worship?
Do you oppose the death penalty for non-Muslims and Muslims who convert to another religion?
Do you oppose “honor” killings?
Do you oppose female genital mutilation?
Do you oppose forced sexual relations?
Do you oppose discrimination against homosexuals?
Do you support the right to criticize religion?
Do you oppose polygamy?
Do you oppose child marriage, forced or otherwise?
Do you oppose the quranic mandate to kill non-Muslims and apostates?
Do you oppose the addition of sharia courts to your country’s legal system?
Do you disagree with the quran which asserts the superiority of Islam to all other religions?

Saltzman’s test certainly avoids the problem of self-censorship, but I suspect it contributes more to the problem than to the solution. Although, as Chesler points out, it was written “tongue in cheek,” the implication is that all the questions accurately characterize Islam. While I am no Islamic scholar, I have little doubt it does not. For example, to the question, “Do you support the right of an individual to worship in her chosen religion?” one could cite the words of the Quran, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” I find no mention of female genital mutilation in the Quran. There is no Quranic mandate to kill non-Moslems and apostates, although there is a strong tradition in favor of the latter. According to the Quran, “These! Their recompense that the curse of God, and of angels, and of all men is on them!” A curse is not the same as a death sentence. As for the former, there are certainly belligerent passages in the Quran against infidels. However, it also says, “And fight for the cause of God against those who fight against you: but commit not the injustice of attacking them first: God loveth not such injustice.” As for the last question, it is hardly uncommon for religions to assert their superiority over others.

In a word, Saltzman manner of taking issue with Islam corresponds to the fashion currently prevailing in political “discussions.” This consists of replacing rational argument with villification of one’s opponent by associating them with some commonly recognized evil, such as, in this case, female genital mutilation, child prostitution, “honor” killing, etc. Instead of taking issue with an idea, the goal is to demonstrate that the “other” belongs in an out-group. As usual, this familiar manifestation of the Amity-Enmity Complex sheds more heat than light. It is particularly inappropriate in the case of religious differences, where it approaches the bigotry that it claims to oppose. Moslems and Moslem organizations are sometimes reckless in their accusations of Islamophobia, leveling it at anyone who criticizes their religion. Harry’s Place, hardly a haven for right wing bigots, has documented numerous examples of this tendency. They are certainly crying “wolf,” but the problem won’t be solved by confronting them with a real wolf.

Religious bigotry is real. It is a manifestation of an aspect of human nature that has been singularly destructive throughout our history. Unless we control it, it is likely to become even more destructive in our future. Moslems can point to as many instances of real bigotry and discrimination as adherents of other religions. However, when they dismiss anyone who takes issue with their doctrines as an “Islamophobe,” they sacrifice the credibility necessary to fight real discrimination.

The discussion of religious differences cannot be put out of bounds. This should be as obvious to religious believers as to those who, like myself, are not. It is hard to imagine a subject concerning which it is more important for us to “get it right.” After all, the nature of our religious beliefs will have a profound effect on our goals, behavior, and the manner in which we deal with others in this life. If religious believers are right, they may also determine whether we will be surrounded by pleasures or suffer unimaginable tortures for billions of years into the future. In a word, Chesler has a point. These are matters of overriding importance. If we are to arrive at the truth, we must be free to think about and discuss them freely. Considering what’s at stake, we simply cannot afford self-censorship. If religious believers are really convinced of the truth of their doctrines, they should be the last ones to fear criticism of their beliefs.

As I pointed out earlier, I personally take issue with all forms of religious belief. Most of my own reasons for rejecting religion in general were brilliantly set forth more than 250 years ago by Jean Meslier in his Testament. He focused his criticism on Christianity, but the logic of his arguments is, if anything, even more powerful in the case of Islam. For example, Moslems believe that God created human beings knowing in advance that he would eventually subject most of them to incredible tortures lasting not just for billions and trillions of years, but for an inconceivably long time into the future. Such a being does not correspond to the elementary notions of justice that He, presumably, was responsible for creating in our minds. He is supposed to feel emotions such as anger and love that are certainly understandable as human traits that have evolved because they have promoted our survival, but would seem to have no rational explanation as mental traits of a supernatural being. In particular, he is supposed to be capable of furious personal anger at human beings, infinitely inferior creatures he created himself. It is hard to imagine what reason he could possibly have for feeling such emotions, seemingly as irrational for him as feeling personal rage at some obscure harmless bacteria would be for us. Presumably, if God gave us a brain, his intent was that we should think with it. If we do, these and many other logical objections to Moslem doctrines must occur to us. It would seem that anyone who honestly believes these doctrines would not fear criticism, but would be glad to answer it in the interest of saving their fellow creatures from a terrible fate. If, instead, they meet all such objections with cries of “Islamophobia,” and threaten their fellow Moslems with death if they change their minds, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they are not interested in promoting the truth, but rather the illegitimate power of those who profit from falsehoods.

Consequences: The Great Question of Should, Part III

In two earlier posts I explored the consequences of the subjective nature of morality. We have already explored some of the ramifications of that conclusion as far as the individual is concerned. In this post we will continue that discussion.

I touched earlier on the virtual impossibility of amoral behavior. We are wired to be moral creatures, and there is a moral context to all our interactions with other human beings. It is for this reason that the argument that religion is necessary because without it we would have no reason to act morally is absurd. We don’t need a reason to act morally. We just do because that is our nature, just as it is the nature of other more intelligent animals that act morally even though they can have no idea of the existence of a God.

Morality did not suddenly appear with the evolution of homo sapiens. Rather, it evolved in other creatures millions of years before we came on the scene. I suspect the expression of morality in human beings represents the interaction of our high intelligence, which evolved in a relatively short time, with predispositions that have undergone only limited change during the same period. One interesting result of this is the fact that we consciously perceive morality as a “thing” having an objective existence of its own independent of ourselves. An artifact of this perception that we have noted earlier is the adoption of complex “transcendental” moral systems by some of our most famous atheists, who obviously believe their versions of morality represent the “real good,” applicable not only to themselves, but to others as well, in spite of the fact that they lack any logical basis for that belief.

We all act according to our moral nature, almost unconsciously applying rules that correspond to a “good” that seems to be external to and independent of ourselves. I am no different than anyone else in that respect. I can no more act amorally than any other human being. I act according to my own moral principles, just as everyone else does. I have a conscience, I can feel shame, and I can become upset, and even enraged, if others treat me or my own “in-groups” in a way that does not correspond to what I consider “good” or “just.” Anyone doubting that fact need only look through my posts in the archives of at Davids Medienkritik. I behave in that way because it is my nature to behave in that way. In fact, if I tried to jettison morality and, instead, rationally weigh each of my actions in accordance with some carefully contrived logical principles, I would only succeed in wasting a great deal of time and making myself appear ludicrous in the process.

However, there are logical consequences to the conclusion that good and evil are not objects that exist on their own, independent of their existence as evolved mental constructs. In the first place, they evolved at a time when the largest social groups were quite small, containing members who were generally genetically related to each other to some extent. They evolved because they promoted the survival of a specific packet of genetic material. That is the only reason they exist. The application of moral standards to the massive human organizations that exist today, such as modern states, is, therefore, logically absurd. Morality evolved in a world where no such organizations existed, and the mere fact that it evolved did not give it any universal legitimacy. We nevertheless attempt to apply morality to international affairs, and to questions of policy within nations involving millions of unrelated people, in spite of the logical disconnect this entails with the reason morality exists to begin with. We do so because that is our nature. We do so not because it is reasonable, but because that is how our minds are programmed. Under the circumstances, assuming that we agree survival is a desirable goal, it would seem we should subject such “moral” behavior to ever increasing logical scrutiny as the size of the groups we are dealing with increases. Our goal should be to insure that our actions actually promote the accomplishment of some reasonable goal more substantial than making us feel virtuous because we have complied with some vague notion of a “universal good.”

When it comes to our personal relationships with other individuals or with the smaller groups we must interact with on a daily basis, we must act according to our moral nature, because, as noted above, it would be impractical to act otherwise. In such cases it seems to me that if our goals are to survive and enjoy life in the process, we should act according to a simple moral code that is in accord with our nature and refrain from attempting to apply contrived “universal moral standards” to our fellow beings that are absurd in the context of the reasons that promoted the evolution of morality in the first place. In other words, we should act in accordance with the well understood principles of what H. L. Mencken referred to as “common decency.”

In the process, we should not lose sight of the dual nature of our moral programming, which can prompt us to act with hostility towards others that is counterproductive in the context of modern civilization. It would behoove us to take steps to channel such behavior as harmlessly as possible, because it will not go away. We cannot afford to ignore the darker side of our nature, or engage in misguided attempts to “reprogram” ourselves based on the mistaken assumption that human nature is infinitely malleable. We must deal with ourselves as we are, not as how we want ourselves to be. The formulation of complex new systems of morality that purport to be in accord with the demands of the modern world may seem like a noble endeavor. In reality, the formulation of new “goods” always implies the formulation of new “evils.” It would be better to understand the destructive aspects of our nature and deal with them logically rather than by creating ever more refined moral systems. To the extent that they fail to take the innate aspects of human behavior into account, these can be dangerous. Consider, for example, the new moral paradigm of Communism, with its “good” proletariat and “bad” bourgeoisie. The practical application of this noble new system resulted in the deaths of 100 million “bourgeoisie,” and what amounted to the national decapitation of Cambodia and the Soviet Union. In view of such recent historical occurrences, the current fashion of demonizing and reacting with moral indignation to those who disagree with us politically would seem to be ill-advised.

Morality is an evolved trait. Our problem is that we perceive it as an independent object, a transcendental thing-in-itself, something that it is not and cannot ever be. We must act according to our moral nature, but let us consult our logical minds in the process.

The “Christian Nation” and the Quarterly Review

The “Christian Nation” zealots are among the most absurd of the gaudy flock of historical revisionists that have come and gone since the founding of the Republic. For them, the Enlightenment never happened, and Thomas Jefferson was a “good Christian.” In fact, if they’d lived at the time, the chances are vanishingly small that they would have been found among Washington’s ragged levies at Valley Forge. Rather, they would have been what the devout conservatives who actually did live then generally were; Tories.

The spirit of today’s Christian right was alive and well in those days. However, one looks in vain for it in the letters of Jefferson, the essays of Thomas Paine, or the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. The pages of the British Quarterly Review are a much better place to look. It was the Tory organ of the first half of the 19th century, and there the Church of England clerics found a congenial soapbox for what passed as the “Christian nation” doctrines of the day. Still possessed of great power at the beginning of the century, they somehow sensed that the tidal wave of the Enlightenment was heading their way and would eventually swamp them. At first, they reacted with an almost hysterical fury. We will spare our gentler readers the shock of such fulminations and move on a few decades. In the December 1839 issue we find an article by a cleric of the now somewhat milder, more plaintive, and more desperate COE, already chastened by the spirit of the times, but still stubbornly insisting on its right to dictate religious belief to the many. Coincidentally, the same issue included an account of the voyage of HMS Beagle, whose crew, we are informed, included one Charles Darwin, “the grandson of the poet.”

It’s obvious the world view of the Archbishop of Canterbury has come a long way since 1839 as it relates to matters of individual freedom of worship, for we read,

What, then, is the false principle which the State is now required to establish? It is, let us remember, not the original principles of Dissent, the right of religious societies to frame their creed and forms, and to impose them on their members, without reference to the Catholic Church (here, the COE). This was evil enough. But beyond this depth there is a deeper still; and the modern claim is made for individuals. It is the right of private judgment, without reference to any society or human authority whatever; in other words, the absolute supremacy, in religion, of the will and the fancy of the individual.

and,

No elevated truth can be maintained without a combination of men to guard it from each other – to hold it up in the face of the world – to transmit it from one generation to another. With religious truth will perish all truth. The right of private judgment will be carried out to its full extent. There will be no even seeming truth but the opinion of the individual – and when that has changed, as it must do, over and over – what will remain?

In other words, when it came to individual freedom of religion, the clerics of the COE then occupied, more or less, the same ideological ground as the mullahs of Iran today. However, when it came to the matter of separation of church and state, they were eerily close to the Christianists of today. According to the Quarterly’s worthy cleric, if the state failed to establish religion, and not merely the Christian religion but the one, unique, true doctrine of the COE, then, as Louis XV would have said, après moi, le deluge:

If the State – the supreme power – the collective wisdom of the nation, as it is supposed, may not interfere with such matters, may not pronounce on religious truths, no lesser power or wisdom can pretend to do so. All human authority must be abolished in religion. This must be the point to which concession will finally be driven; and they are the best logicians who take this ground at once. This is that principle of Dissent which the State is now called on to establish; and when it is established, what is to become of the State itself?

And what of that bugaboo of moral philosophers, the need for an “objective” basis for morality? The Quarterly supplies the answer:

What police will be sufficient to keep peace and order among nearly a whole people released from the restraints of religion? What moral laws can be substituted which they will recognize and binding when religion is discarded – who will maintain these laws – what shame can be expected when the highest authority before them has abdicated its right to censure – how the tone of public opinion can be kept elevated, when the organ which expresses it is daily sinking?

This from a man writing at a time when there were ten times as many brothels per capita in London as there are now. Why, without an established religion, the State itself must face instant annihilation:

Strip a ruler of these – prohibit him from professing religion – withdraw the name of God from his acts and his laws – compel him in the highest functions of life to declare himself willingly an atheist – or enslave his conscience to conceal on the throne what it is man’s highest duty and glory to proclaim in the cottage – his relation to his Maker; – and beyond a temporary enthusiasm, or the passion of an army for its general, as of France for Napoleon, he has nothing left to attach his subjects to himself; and the bond which holds society together will fall to pieces.

and,

…he who, as the ruler of a state, is not religious – openly and avowedly religious – must believe that the knowledge of God forms no part of man’s wisdom; that the favour of God is no security for his happiness; that the will of God is no rule of his action, and union with God no object for his affections. He must think so for himself, and therefore, for those whom he governs; and he will endeavour to direct his own mind and theirs to some other objects, to money, or manufactures, or comforts, or conquests, or something which he does think good – the highest good of their nature – and cut them off from God. He will make them idolaters and atheists, and be an idolater and atheist himself.

Are you beginning to see yourselves in the mirror, my “Christian nation” friends? Is it beginning to dawn on you what side of the political fence you would have really been on? Cutting to the chase our clerical scribbler finally gives us an inkling of where the shoe is really starting to rub:

The first thought of relief turns naturally to the State. It alone can command funds adequate to the emergency of the moment: and funds which can never be employed so well as in serving God, promoting piety, restoring peace and unanimity to a distracted people, teaching them obedience to man by obedience to God, and placing over their crimes and passions the best of all controls, the control of religion.

After countless religious wars, both civil and external, after the murder of millions of “witches” and “heretics,” after the mass slaughter of the Crusades, after the Jewish Holocaust, and the countless “minor” acts of genocide against the Jews that preceded it, after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, after the slaughter of the Albigensians, after the annihilation of countless nameless “heathens” in the Teutonic Knights’ “Drang nach Osten,” and after oceans of blood have been shed over the details of the sacrament of Communion, and countless other such episodes in our history, this seems a somewhat dubious conclusion.

Alas, now, as Alex said in “A Clockwork Orange,” “comes the weepy part, oh my brothers.” It turns out that we and our dear Australian allies were even then dangling like spiders over the flaming pits of hell:

We have emptied the sewers of our population on two vast continents. Two gigantic empires – the Frankensteins of our own creation, which will soon turn upon the author of their being – are shooting up under our eyes, and developing, even in their infancy, a maturity of crime, and a calculating selfishness, which makes even crime more formidable. They have wealth, commerce, arts, intellect, everything which can enable them to cast their shadows on the old empires of Europe, and even to turn the balance of the world. But we have given them no religion. All sects have been fused together in their formation. The government, to meet the popular will, has abdicated its own religious functions. And we may see in them, as in a glass, the reflection of our own coming fate; with these differences, indeed, that we have thrown away, while they never possessed a Church.

Aha! Does Abu Ghraib seem like such an anomaly now? It’s alive! It’s alive! But, do not sneer, dear reader. It seems that, if we had only paid the ecclesiastical piper his due, we would have spared ourselves a world of grief. The Uplift, which has plagued us lo, now, these many years, would have vanished like a miasmal mist:

Voluntary societies are the chief obstruction to a right view of the Church. We want no new combination of Christians for propagating the Gospel, or diffusing Christian knowledge, or converting the Jews, or building schools; no Bible societies or Temperance societies, or anti-cruelty to animals societies, or peace and war societies. We have already a society formed for these very purposes by God himself. The Church comprehends them all.

Oh! Nowww I get it! Alas, as a citizen of one of the two Great Frankensteins, almost two centuries further along the path of perdition we have all been following, I rather suspect that a donation to the COE would be a trifle late at this point.

Places where the Enlightenment Never Happened…

That would include Iran. And who can blame them, after all. According to the Holy Qu’ran,

How shall God guide a people who, after they had believed and bore witness that the Apostle was true, and after that clear proofs of his mission had reached them, disbelieved? God guideth not the people who transgress.
These! their recompense, that the curse of God, and of angels, and of all men, is on them!
Under it shall they abide forever; their torment shall not be assuaged! nor shall God even look upon them!…

The rulers of Iran are but acting according to what they honestly believe. They cannot be “evil” for having such beliefs, because no one can voluntarily disbelieve that which they honestly believe to be true. If, then, we would not have similar laws, it would behoove us to maintain the wall of separation between religion and the state.

Consequences: The Great Question of “Should”

Whether one believes in a God or not, there can be no logical basis for the claim that one should do anything. When I speak of should here, I am speaking of an objective imperative, not a subjective feeling. To illustrate this, let us conduct a thought experiment. Imagine an intelligent, omniscient Mind, unconnected with any life on earth, or with any of the gods or other supernatural beings mankind has come up with over the years. What possible logical basis could such a Mind have for the conclusion that any particular human being on the planet Earth should do anything? Furthermore, what logical basis could that Mind have for the objective conclusion that any particular human being on the planet earth was morally good or morally evil because it acted in one way, or refrained from acting in another? I contend that there can be no such logical basis.

Let’s assume there is a God. If the God planted morality in the brain of the human, it would not serve as a logical basis for the claim that the moral code in question was, therefore, endowed with absolute, objective validity. The Mind might logically conclude that the human was or was not acting according to the God’s mental programming, but would have no basis for making any moral judgments on account of it. Suppose the human in question had certain knowledge of the existence of the God, and was also perfectly aware of the moral law laid down by that God without any ambiguity, and the Mind was aware of this as well. It would still have no logical basis for the conclusion that the human was objectively good or objectively evil, depending on whether it obeyed the moral law or not. It might observe that the human was rebellious, or that the human’s actions annoyed the God, but that would be no basis for the conclusion that the human was genuinely good or genuinely evil. It would take note of the fact that the human did not create itself, but was created by the God. It had not chosen to be created, and had played no role in the creation of any moral law. The Mind might further note that the God, for inscrutable reasons known only to itself, intended to subject this infinitely inferior being, which the God itself had created, to a terrible torture for billions and trillions of years if the human didn’t do what the God wanted. Under the circumstances, it might conclude that the human was not acting logically if it chose to ignore the law, but, again, it would have no rational basis for concluding that the human was really, objectively evil for choosing to ignore the God’s seemingly irrational whims.

If, on the other hand, no Gods or other supernatural beings existed, the case would be clear. The Mind could have no basis for concluding that morality had an independent, objective existence of its own. As a consequence, it could have no rational basis for the conclusion that a particular human was good or evil depending on whether it obeyed some arbitrarily chosen moral code or not.

In other words, good and evil have no independent existence, other than as subjective mental constructs. Nothing is absolutely, objectively good, or absolutely, objectively evil. From our own, human point of view, that puts us in a quandary, because we perceive morality as objective and absolute. Why? Morality did not suddenly spring into existence with the evolution of man. It had evolved in other creatures millions of years before we arrived on the scene. It still exists in many other species besides ourselves. Morality evolved because it promoted survival. It would not have functioned very effectively if it had evolved as something that creatures lacking even our limited mental skills were to act on only after long philosophical deliberation. Therefore, it evolved as something perceived as absolute, as having a real, objective existence. It was in that form that it most effectively promoted survival.

That is why the great scientists mentioned in earlier posts, not to mention many others among our best thinkers, speak of good and evil as real, objective things rather than mental constructs. That’s the way they experience them, just as everyone else does, and, like most of the rest of us, they probably haven’t taken the time to seriously consider whether there is really any logical basis for perceptions that seem so self-evident. We must, necessarily, live our lives as moral beings, constantly applying moral judgments to our own actions and those of others, because that is the way we have been programmed in the process of our evolution. How, then, should we respond when we really do start looking for the rational basis for our perception of the world in terms of good and evil and come to the logical conclusion that morality is merely subjective? Should we decide to live our lives as purely logical, cerebral beings? We can no more do that than live outside of our own skins. What, then, should we do? We will consider the matter in a later post.

Religious Education in Russia

Now that we’ve put Biden in his place, let’s get on with criticizing Russia. It appears the quote by John Stuart Mill on my banner was well chosen for this topic. Bruce Chapman at Russia Blog linked to this article in the St. Petersburg Times about the introduction of religious education in Russia’s schools. According to the article:

Medvedev said preteen students at about 12,000 schools in 18 Russian regions would take the classes. They will be offered the choice of studying the dominant Russian Orthodox religion, Islam, Buddhism or Judaism, or of taking an overview of all four faiths, or a course in secular ethics.

Students and their parents must be allowed to choose freely, Medvedev said in addressing top clerics and officials at his residence outside Moscow. “Any coercion, pressure will be absolutely unacceptable and counterproductive,” he said.

In fact, the state is, by its nature, an instrument of coercion and pressure. Our founding fathers knew this and realized that, even in a democracy, the rights and liberties of minorities must be protected. Separation of church and state was one of the wise steps they took to preserve those rights and liberties. Once the state gets involved in the religion business, some belief systems are bound to be favored over others. The article admits as much, noting that,

Medvedev emphasized that the classes will include only “the largest of Russia’s traditional religions” — Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. He omitted other faiths, such as Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, which the Orthodox Church accuses of proselytizing.

Orthodox Patriarch Kirill seems to have no illusions about where this “free choice” system is heading. As noted in the article,

Church and state are officially separate under the post-Soviet constitution, but Orthodox leaders seek a more muscular role for the church, which has served the state for much of its 1,000-year history.

“School prayer” often seems like a great idea to those who assume they will be able to dictate exactly what form the prayers will take, and to what God. Considering all the grief and mayhem that established religions have caused throughout history, one wonders why we are still even having this debate. As late as the 19th century, in a land that prided itself on the “rights and liberties of Englishmen,” the Church of England arrogated to itself the right to dictate what citizens should and should not believe, and condemned freedom of thought in matters of religion. I will document this in a later post. In France, the struggle against Catholic obscurantism in education went on well into the 20th century.

According to Chapman,

On the other hand, there is something to be said for students learning more about the religious heritage of their country. If the Russians are erring on one side of that objective, Americans may be erring on the other. If nothing else, comparisons of results should be interesting.

I assume he’s speaking of the United States here. In spite of the fact that several of the best thinkers among our founding fathers, including the authors of our Declaration of Independence and “Common Sense” were deists, and that many others denied the Trinity or were otherwise skeptical in matters of religion, there is no doubt in my mind that any serious attempt to teach our “religious heritage” in the public schools would amount to giving official sanction to the gross historical impostures of the “Christian nation” zealots. No thanks.

On the other hand, I also consider it unwise to completely avoid all mention of religion in the schools. In fact, our history is inexplicable without some knowledge of comparative religion and ethics. However, if they are to be studied, emphasis should be placed on understanding the differences between the different systems, as well as the arguments on both sides, rather than the clumsy attempts at syncretism and glossing over of disparities so characteristic of modern “progressive” political correctness.

Atheism, the Amity-Enmity Complex, and the Clouded Crystal Ball

Forgive me if I sound like the Pharisee in Luke 18.11, but sometimes I just have to shake my head. I just had one of those “shake my head” moments while reading some of the stuff Sully’s guest bloggers have been putting up. It’s not them I have a problem with. Bless their hearts for linking to posts on something other than Sarah Palin or Obamacare. No, this time its the stuff in the links that set me off. First, there’s this about chimpanzee behavior. Here’s what Sully would call the “money quote.”

[C]ooperation in chimpanzees is highly constrained. Chimpanzees will cooperate only with familiar group members, with whom they normally share food. If they don’t know or like a potential partner, they won’t cooperate no matter how much food is at stake. Humans, however, make a living collaborating, even when it’s with people they don’t know and in many cases don’t particularly like. (Do you have a boss?) This high level of social tolerance is likely one of the building blocks of the unique forms of cooperation seen in humans. So perhaps a lack of tolerance is one of the main constraints on chimpanzees’ developing more flexible cooperative skills.

In looking through the article itself, one finds similar stuff, such as,

So perhaps a lack of tolerance is one of the main constraints on chimpanzees’ developing more flexible cooperative skills. But humans have another closest relative, one who is usually forgotten and may be more like us than we know.

It turns out this little known relative is the bonobo. Apparently these creatures have not only all the ideal characteristics of the noble savage, but have up-to-date politically correct features that Rousseau never dreamed of, such as freewheeling sex lives including both hetero- and homosexual relationships. According to the article,

In contrast to chimpanzees, who live in male-dominated societies with infanticidal tendencies and other forms of lethal aggression, bonobos live in societies that are highly tolerant and peaceful thanks to female dominance, which maintains group cohesion and regulates tensions through sexual behavior.

Ah, yes, I’d almost forgotten, female dominance. It just gets better and better, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more:

So what we have are chimps who cooperate but aren’t very tolerant, and bonobos who are very tolerant but don’t really cooperate in the wild. What probably happened six million years ago, when hominids split from the ancestor we share with chimpanzees and bonobos, is that we became very tolerant, and this allowed us to cooperate in entirely new ways. Without this heightened tolerance, we would not be the species we are today.

So, in other words, even though our “tolerant” history is one long, unbroken series of violent conflicts and wars, and virtually every tribal group we’ve ever studied or encountered exhibits anything but “tolerance” towards neighboring tribes, we are perfect candidates for whatever Brave New World the idealists among us care to come up with because, after all, some of us get along with our bosses.

I don’t mind people disagreeing with me, but when they claim to be experts in animal and human behavior but have apparently never even heard of something as elementary as the Amity – Enmity Complex, and speak of human beings as all warm, fuzzy, and tolerant as if it were so palpably obvious that one couldn’t possibly think otherwise, well… I have to shake my head. What can you say? Murmur, “Hey, whatever fits the narrative,” and just move on.

As an interesting aside, back in the days when Ardrey was writing, the behavior of the poor unoffending chimpanzees was adjusted to fit the narrative from the opposite end. For example, in this piece, written back in 1973 by one of Ashley Montagu’s behaviorist pals, after trivializing Ardrey’s work as the “Killer Ape Theory,” the author tells us that,

The balance of Ardrey’s 357-page book is taken up with indirect suggestive evidence and descriptions of territorial and aggressive behavior among animals far removed from man’s line of evolution. Curiously, Ardrey discounts behavioral studies of man’s two closest living relatives, the gorilla and the chimpanzee both of which are remarkably amicable and non-combative animals.

And you thought these latest revelations about how the “remarkably amicable and non-combative” chimpanzees really behave vindicated Ardrey. Wrong! If the chimpanzees won’t cooperate, one can always pull a bonobo out of ones hat. Again, whatever fits the narrative.

Moving right along, there’s this about fundamentalism and atheism. Again, here’s the “money quote,”

Equating fundamentalism with terrorism is loose thinking, but the biggest drawback is the loss of historical memory that making the parallel entails. Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to “Enlightenment values”.

Other than the gross historical ignorance implicit in the claim that Lenin and Mao are somehow the quintessential representatives of “Enlightenment values,” and the notion that it’s somehow OK to lump anyone who doesn’t believe in God in with the most rabid, fanatical true believers in history because, after all, they’re all “secular,” does it never occur to people who make such statements that, after all, the truth matters?

If it is true that there is no God, your need for a purpose won’t magically create one. If it is true that there is no God, your belief that one is necessary if human beings are to act morally won’t magically create one. If it is true that there is no God, your personal inability to understand the physical universe without a divine “first mover” won’t magically create one. Similarly, if it is true there is no God, you will not magically create one by virtue of the fact that you’ve somehow convinced yourself that because a equals b and b equals c, therefore atheists are responsible for every crime in recorded history.