Thursday, November 22, 2007

Biblical Interpretation - part 2

In response to an article on the Guardian Comment is Free site, I made some comments that cover related ground to my previous post. Here they are.

In response to the comment “Fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists share the same delusion: they take the Bible far too seriously.”, I said:

I agree that Fundamentalist Christians take the Bible far too seriously. However, I would extend this to all Christians. By contrast, I do not take the Bible seriously at all. This is because I believe it to be just a book written by humans, and disagree that it contains any divine message, since I doubt the existence of the Christian God (for the record, I also doubt that the historical Jesus ever existed). However, I am forced to refer to it if I want to debate Christians, since so many of them continue to justify their beliefs and actions by reference to the Bible.

That Christians have felt able to do this has historically allowed them to justify the oppression, torture, and killing of so-called heretics, apostates and other undesirables. Even such Christian luminaries as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther felt justified in sanctioning such atrocious actions by reference to the Bible. Perhaps you feel better qualified then these religious scholars to determine how the Christian faith should be interpreted.

“But you still seem strangely hung up on the letter of the text.”

As I said previously, I am only responding to those Christians who insist on quoting chapter and verse in order to justify their beliefs and actions.

“Most Christians couldn't care less about Leviticus, frankly: they haven't read it, and wouldn't know what to make of it if they did.”

Let’s face it, most Christians have barely read the Bible at all. Rather, their epistemology consists of one of the varieties of Christianity that they have taken as an off-the-shelf package (most likely the one into which they were born), and then made their own unskilled adjustments to.

Beyond that, those people who tend to see the world in black and white terms, and who wish to justify their own tendencies towards intolerance and smiting their neighbours will find plenty of support in the Old Testament. They might further believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, will generally ignore the fact that it is full of contradictions and inconsistencies, and will have a faith that is largely unshakable in the face of contrary evidence.

On the other hand, those who see the world in much more grey terms, and who wish to justify their liberal tendencies will find more material in the New Testament. They will probably refer rather less to the Bible, as they are aware that it is a can of worms. However, they work very hard to come up with theological justifications for ignoring whole tracts of the Bible (including most of the Old Testament), and interpreting much of what remains. Nevertheless, when they do find something that they agree with, they will happily quote it – as if it can be used to justify some moral precept or other. This rather ignores the fact that it is rather ridiculous to attempt justify some moral or epistemological belief by reference to the Bible if, at the same time, they are forced to ignore all the passages that flatly contradict what they are saying. It is nothing but cherry picking. Anybody who attempted to do such things in other areas (science, law etc) by reference to other books would be laughed at.

Nevertheless, for atheists and people of other religions, they are far preferable to the first sort of Christian, since they are far less inclined towards oppression, torture, and killing. They are also far more likely to doubt their faith. Fortunately, in the more secular Western societies, this type of liberal Christian is currently in the majority.

Most Christians will then also go through such mental pirouettes as are needed in order to reconcile contradictions such as:

1. They believe that their god is onmibenevolent, but the god of the Old Testament is clearly described as a jealous, vindictive, petty, and bloodthirsty tyrant.

2. They further believe that their god is omniscient and omnipotent, and yet it allows a vast amount of human and animal suffering in the world – both man made and natural. The system created by their god is one in which animals must kill and eat each other in order to survive, and most humans and animals throughout all history have led short, painful, and brutish lives. They attempt to explain this away (theodicy) by appeal to such things as human free will (which, in the face of determinism is likely illusory, but is anyway irrelevant in the case of suffering caused by natural disasters etc.), or the benefits of suffering in terms of encouraging more virtue (an abhorrent idea that is just an entirely ad-hoc excuse, and anyway doesn't come close to justifying the vast quantity of suffering in the World, and its indiscriminate distribution. And, why should the cultivation of virtue or courage be worth all that suffering? Couldn't God just make us virtuous or courageous from the start?).

3. They believe that God wants us to understand his message, and thus to be saved. And yet, he only revealed this message to a tiny number of people in the distant past. Furthermore, this message was, or has become, confused and ambiguous. Moreover, the evidence for his existence is very weak. Hence, millions of people have never heard this message, or have rejected it. They will therefore not be saved, as they either have some other religion, or no religion at all. How could an all-powerful and all-loving god allow this state of affairs to persist?

4. They believe that their god would create a universe that is unimaginably old, huge, and lethal to life just so that one species of lifeform could eventually evolve on a planet orbiting an ordinary star – amongst countless billions of stars in billions of galaxies. The stated purpose of this lifeform’s existence is just to give praise to this god.

5. They believe that they can communicate with their god by means of prayer, but only seem to receive banal, unverifiable, or contradictory messages. For example, some are apparently told to help relieve human suffering, whilst others are told to rape and murder women.

6. To quote Richard Carrier, they believe that there is a "disembodied, universally present being with magical powers; that this superbeing actually conjured and fabricated the present universe from nothing; that we have souls that survive the death of our bodies (or that our bodies will be rebuilt in the distant future by this invisible superbeing); and that this being possessed the body of Jesus two thousand years ago, who then performed supernatural deeds before miraculously rising from the grave to chat with his friends, and then flew up into outer space." This they believe in the complete absence of any remotely compelling evidence.

7. They believe that their religion is the source of human morality, and that without it we should all lose our moral compass. This is despite the fact that such basic moral foundations as reciprocal altruism and prohibitions upon murder are present in almost all societies - primitive or complex, Christian or otherwise (and is even seen in some primate societies). Moreover, the Ancient Greeks had a very well developed ethical system long before the Christians came along. Further, there is very good data that shows a strong positive correlation between a society’s level of religiousity and the prevalence of all sorts of ills – crime, illiteracy, mortality rates etc. This doesn't necessarily imply a causual relationship, but it does completely undermine the idea that morality is dependent upon religion. More on the subject of morality here.

8. In the face of such weak reasons for believing in this god as opposed to any other, or to none, they say that unquestioning belief by ‘faith’ is a virtue. Moreover, those who choose not to believe by means of faith run the risk of everlasting torment in a Hell created by their omnibenevolent god. As St. Anselm of Canterbury said, theology is fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). This neatly summarises its baselessness. Furthermore, why should this type of faith (i.e. belief contrary to, or in the absence of evidence) be seen as something that is intrinsically valuable? Why would God wish to cultivate such an apparently counter-productive tendency? Of course, it is very convenient when your central thesis is one that does run counter to the evidence.

“Law, I'm not so sure”.

On reflection, I’ll grant you that. Science is to me much closer to the ideal model for how to seek knowledge. To quote Richard Carrier (by the way, I would highly recommend reading the whole article), this is how it works:

“Long ago, people could make up any theories they wanted. As long as their theory fit the evidence, it was thought credible. But an infinite number of incompatible theories can fit the evidence. We can design a zillion religions that fit all the evidence, yet entail Christianity is false. And we can design a zillion secular worldviews that do the same. We could all be brains in a vat. Buddha could have been right. Allah may be the One True God. And so on, ad infinitum. But since only one of these countless theories can be true, it follows that the odds are effectively infinity to one against any theory being true that is merely compatible with the evidence. In other words, not a chance in hell. Therefore, we cannot believe a theory simply because it can be made to fit all the evidence. To do so would effectively guarantee our belief will be false.

Fortunately, people came up with what we now call the scientific method, a way to isolate some of these theories compatible with all the evidence and demonstrate that they are more likely to be true than any of the others. The method works like this (and this is very important): first we come up with a hypothesis that explains everything we have so far observed (and this could be nothing more than a creative guess or even a divine revelation--it doesn't matter where a hypothesis comes from); then we deduce what else would have to be observed, and what could never be observed, if that hypothesis really were true (the most crucial step of all); and then we go and look to see if our predictions are fulfilled in practice. The more they are fulfilled, and the more different ways they are fulfilled, the more likely our hypothesis is true.

But that isn't the end of it. To make sure our theories are more likely the true ones (as any old theory can be twisted to fit even this new evidence), they have to be cumulative--compatible with each other--and every element of a theory has to be in evidence. We can't just "make up" anything. Whatever we make up has to be found in the evidence. For example, when Newton explained the organization of the solar system, he knew he was restricted to theories that built on already proven hypotheses. Every element of his theory of the solar system was proved somewhere, somehow: the law of gravity had an independent demonstration, the actual courses of the planets were well observed and charted, and so on. Nothing in his theory was simply "made up" out of whole cloth. He knew the data on planetary behavior had been multiply confirmed. He knew there was gravity acting at a distance. The rest followed as a matter of course.”

Of course, science is a human endeavour, so it is inevitably subject to such human failings as jealousy, petty rivalries, deference to authority, dogmatic attachment to one’s pet theory etc. However, and this is very important, science is ultimately self-correcting. That’s what makes the scientific method so useful.

Furthermore, and contrary to what the layman might believe, all of science’s theories and laws are only provisional. No matter how well accepted a theory is, and how many times it has passed rigorous testing, the evidence may still be found to refute it. As Popper said, any proper scientific theory should be falsifiable. Hence, scientists are (or should be) never entirely sure of any scientific knowledge. By contrast, what would it take to falsify your Christian belief and cause you to reject it (if, as I assume, you are a Christian)?

“It's about the sort of person who craves certainty, I suppose”

I suspect that you are alluding to the ubiquitous view amongst theists that atheists are fundamental in the disbelief in God. However, in my case (and of other atheists that I know), I am not certain that the Christian god doesn’t exist. Rather, I believe that the arguments for the existence of Christian god in particular (as opposed to some inscrutable universe-creating intelligence) are very weak. They are either logically flawed, or require the inclusion of huge numbers of entirely ad-hoc assumptions in order to square them with the evidence. This process makes the theory unfalsifiable, since the appearance of more contrary evidence will just be explained away by inventing more ad-hoc assumptions. Moreover, the arguments against the existence of the Christian god in particular are very strong.

Hence, I see no reason to favour the existence of the Christian god over an infinity of other gods (or universe-creating intelligences) that I could make up. So, whilst I am not sure that the Christian god doesn’t exist, I consider this likelihood to be so remote as to be safely discounted as an explanation for the existence of us and the universe. The fact that millions of people believe it to be true makes it no more likely to be so. Since millions of religious people have mutually exclusive ideas of creation, it is guaranteed that millions of them are wrong. I would argue that they are all wrong.

The latest scientific thinking is pointing towards the idea that our universe may be just one in an infinite ensemble of island universes that may have always existed. However, we may never be able to know this for sure. So, questions about the any meaning in the existence in the universe may never be answered. In fact we may never know if asking questions like this make any sense at all. On the small scale, we may never be able to penetrate to the smallest constituents of matter, or even know whether such constituents exist. So, in the face of such uncertainty, I am humble in my lack of knowledge. However, I still think that in the (possibly fruitless) search for answers, the concepts of the universe-creating Christian god can be effectively discounted.

“Hang on a minute. How much oppression, torture and killing have Christians been doing lately? That was years ago. Always with the Inquisition”

I think that history, together with a cursory look around our world today, confirms that any totalitarian regime with a dogmatic attachment to a belief system inevitably leads to the oppression, torture, and murder of certain of its citizens. This was the case with Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, and any number of past and current theocracies. The power of Christianity in the West has been very much reduced during the last few hundred years. However, when it had more power, it used it to enforce conformity to its rules (often under pain of death). Evidence from current theocracies (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan etc.) suggests that this tendency is still alive and well. Even in the States, whilst a lack of religion won’t get you killed (unless at the hands of some lone fundamentalist), it is used in all sorts of insidious ways to make life difficult for atheists. In a recent survey, atheists were identified as the most hated minority in American society.

What I and other atheists are on our guard for is any evidence of a slide away from a secular society, as that is the route away from Enlightenment values such as equality and freedom of speech. We need to be very careful to preserve an effectively secular state (not atheist but secular), as this gives the greatest freedom for all – religious and non-religious alike. If any one religion achieves too much power, then human nature dictates that it will inevitably attempt to coerce others into adherance to that religion.

By the way, it is a fallacy that the atrocities of the communist states in the 20th century are the inevitable result of atheism. Atheism is not an ideology; it is just the absence of religious belief. What happened under Stalin and Mao were the results of totalitarian regimes that held a dogmatic attachment to communist ideals, and set their leaders up as quasi-gods. What I would propose instead is a secular state that is run along humanistic lines. To paraphrase Sam Harris, nobody was ever killed because we became too reasonable.

“I'm not sure about that either. In the sense that they doubt they have all the answers, certainly”

That is indeed what I mean. It seems to me that some liberal Christians must have an unresolved conflict going on in their minds. They would like to believe in some of the fantastical tenets of Christianity (existence of God, virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, heaven etc.) despite the lack of any good supporting evidence but, in the final analysis, can only justify doing so by means of faith.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Biblical Interpretation

This post is in response to a post on Stephen Law's blog - see here. Stephen was referring to a book called Outrageous Tales From the Old Testament, and somebody left a comment to say that:

"...I would just like to say that I find that Christian fundamentalists and secular fundamentalists read the bible in the same way. How do they read it? Entirely without sophistication, unable to appreciate irony, humor, metaphor, or purposeful moral ambiguity. They leave everything they may have ever learned about literature behind them..."

Comments along these lines are often heard from liberal Christians, who believe that the Bible requires their particular interpretation in order to be understood correctly. Here is my reply:

There are a number of problems with such interpretation in general, including, but not limited to the following:

1) Many Biblical passages containing contradictions, absurdities, atrocities, or intolerance of one sort or another are, on the face of it, explicitly clear in their meaning, and are not really open to any alternative interpretations.

2) It might be someone's opinion that such and such Biblical chapter or verse should be interpreted metaphorically or ironically. However, the onus is surely upon this person to justify why the passage should be interpreted in such a way, and not as it is explicitly written. For example, try to do this with the following Biblical quotes:

"He that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him." -- Leviticus 24:16

"They found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. ... And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones.... And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses." Numbers 15:32-56

"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Exodus 22:18

“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Lev.20:13

“Whosoever would not seek the LORD God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.” 2 Chronicles 15:13“

“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.” Deuteronomy 13:6-10

“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” -- Deuteronomy 21:18-21

3) It is evident that the Liberal Christian only feels the need to ‘interpret’ those passages in the Bible that do not accord with our current knowledge and morality e.g. those containing absurdities or preaching intolerance or hatred.

4) If we are to allow the text of the Bible to be interpreted in such a subjective and personal way, then how are we to discriminate between what can and can't be interpreted in a way other than it is written?

For example, perhaps the rejoinders in the Bible to do good were meant to be ironic, and not to be taken literally? Perhaps the resurrection of Jesus was only metaphorical? Perhaps Jesus didn't exist at all, but was only a myth that was intended to be symbolic? Perhaps even the whole concept of God himself was meant to be interpreted metaphorically?

5) For me, as an atheist, I have no qualms about ignoring what is written in the Bible, as I consider it a ragbag collection of myths, superstitions, historical events, and often highly dubious morality. However, surely the self-professed Christian does not have this luxury?

For example, if God actually does exist (as the Christian must believe), and did explicitly command that Sabbath breakers (or gays, or witches, or people of other religions) should be stoned to death, and the liberal Christian ignores this injunction (thinking it to be ironic or metaphorical), then surely they are running a terrible risk? For, if this command was not intended to be interpreted or ignored, then the liberal Christian risks spending an eternity in Hell? To rework Pascals' Wager, if the Christian unnecessarily keeps the Sabbath, then they have little to lose. However, if they mistakenly do not keep it, then they risk an eternity in Hell.

Furthermore, if these commands were issued by God, then who do the liberal Christians think they are to presume to know better than an omniscient and omnipotent being?

And, on a lighter note, here is a bit of fun to finish with.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Some thoughts on morality


Much has been written on the subject of morality and ethics. From Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, through Kant and Mill, to an abundance of contemporary philosophers (e.g. Singer and Rawls) – many have considered this thorny issue. And, let’s not forget the theists, who often seem to believe that they have a monopoly on the subject. It is not my intention in this post to discuss these writings in any detail, nor to endeavour to build a complete system of morality from the ground up. Rather, I would just like to give a few of my own thoughts on the topic, from a naturalistic perspective.

Roots of Morality

I believe that the fundamentals of our morality evolved by Darwinian Natural Selection. They were not decreed by some divine lawgiver, nor are they somehow fundamental properties of the universe in the way that physical laws seem to be. Such concepts as good, evil, compassion, justice, love, hate and so on are purely human concepts (although other animals likely feel some sorts of emotions). They are not somehow built into the fabric of the universe, and do not exist independently of us in some absolute or Platonic sense. On the contrary, I think that all the evidence suggests that the universe is entirely indifferent to the existence, actions, and fate of human beings and our petty concerns.

The Religious Explanation

Of course, Christians, Jews, and Muslims would say that morality is handed down by their god. I have discussed religious morality elsewhere, so I will not dwell on that subject here, but there are some obvious objections to this suggestion:

  1. This presupposes the existence of their god. However, I consider the existence of God to be extremely unlikely. I can’t say conclusively that God doesn’t exist, and certainly couldn’t prove such a claim. Nevertheless, based upon evidence and reason, inference to the best explanation leads me inexorably to the conclusion that the Judeo-Christian God almost certainly doesn’t exist. Hence, I cannot accept moral rules for no reason other than that they are supposed to emanate from such a divine entity.
  2. Even if we were to grant the existence of God, we are led to ask questions along the lines of Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma. Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God? If the former, then we can help ourselves to this morality without reference to God at all. If the latter, then God could have commanded murder to be morally good, for example, and we should have to obey that rule - since it comes from God. To say that this problem is illusory, as God would only ever command good is just begging the question.
  3. The God of the Bible is shown to be a jealous, bloodthirsty, cruel, and vindictive megalomaniac. If such an entity exists, I see no reason why one should wish to obey its moral strictures – other than out of self-preservation due to a fear of eternal damnation.
  4. The moral and ethical guidelines in the Bible (and Koran) are often contradictory, and are open to multiple interpretations. So, how are we to determine exactly what morality is espoused therein? Moreover, why were such supposedly important messages for humanity not communicated in a clear and unambiguous fashion - one that is not open to multiple and often conflicting interpretations?
  5. Of the moral guidelines that are more clearly expressed in the Bible, many deal with matters of seeming unimportance – not eating shellfish, not wearing clothes of mixed fibres etc. Others are cruel and disproportionate in that they specify a penalty of death for such supposed transgressions as blasphemy, picking up sticks on the Sabbath, being a witch, talking back to one’s parents. It is clear from the Bible that God’s most important message to mankind is that we should worship Him (in very specific ways), and no other gods. Of course, the penalty for not doing this is death (and, while we’re on this subject, why is it that God needs to be worshipped constantly? Is He really so insecure or such an egoist?). Let’s not forget those twin concepts of Heaven and Hell, as introduced by Jesus. Now one can be punished eternally for not following some arbitrary religious guideline or other, rather than just being put to death for it.
  6. It is worth considering who is the more moral: the Christian who does good in order to go to Heaven rather than Hell, or the atheist who does good out of altruistic motivations alone? Kantian ethics suffers from a similar failing, in my view. The more moral person is not the one who blindly obeys rules out of a sense of duty, but who freely chooses to be good out of compassion towards their fellow human beings (and other animals), and a desire to bring more happiness and less suffering to the world.

What morality is: the evolutionary explanation

I think that we have an innate sense of morality, and that this is derived from our evolutionary heritage. Our cultures and intellects have given us additional moral drivers, and modified existing ones, but I think that the roots of our morality are evolutionary. My position on this is broadly in line with that of sociobiology. When our primitive ancestors started to form groups, their chances of survival were increased by acting in certain cooperative ways, and decreased by acting in others. Clearly, those who acted in those ways conducive to survival were more likely have offspring and to pass on their genes. Hence, tendencies towards these actions were selected for by evolution.

For example, the so-called Golden Rule clearly has a survival advantage for each member in a group if all group members adhere to it. In fact, it has been demonstrated in game theory that the principle that gives the best result for individual group members is one in which a member will initially cooperate with another member, but will henceforth copy the last action of the other member in a tit-for-tat fashion – either cooperating or not. The theory behind this is known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Lo and behold, examples of this type of behaviour are indeed witnessed in nature, and can quite clearly be seen to be precursors to our own morality.

I am not a Social Darwinist, so I don’t advocate blind adherence to the morality that we evolved naturally. This is sometimes known as the is-ought problem. That there are evolutionary explanations for the fundamentals of our morality doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to improve upon this natural morality by applying reason to the matter. However, I think that considering the roots of morality is instructive, as it shows that morality does not exist as some abstract ideal, as part of the fabric of the universe, with rules that are intrinsically good and that we have an absolute duty to follow (in the way that the religious might suppose, and as Kant reasoned). Rather, the roots of morality have a much more mundane biological explanation.
At its core, most of our morality was originally fundamentally selfish. We evolved such traits as altruism and compassion because, in a group situation, these increased the chances of us passing on our own genes (or, possibly, of our close relatives passing on their genes). We know what it is like to feel compassion towards others, and now rationalise it in terms of preventing suffering in others, but that is not the origin of the compassionate urge. In a group, helping others when they are in need is likely to be repaid by them helping you when you are in need. Hence, you benefit more than you would if you do not help others in the first place. This also explains why we feel greater feelings of compassion and altruism towards those who are amongst our local group, rather than towards than those who are more removed from us – as, historically, these people were more liable to help us in return.

Arguably, this is a moral standard that we can certainly improve upon, by increasing the consideration that we give to those who cannot help us in return - such as those in third world countries, and those not yet born (e.g. by looking after the environment).

Now, at this point I should address a few potential criticisms of what I have just said. I am not maintaining that altruism is illusory, or that people in general make conscious choices to be altruistic in order to give themselves some benefit e.g. happiness or relief from feelings of guilt. Rather, I am saying that altruism does exist, and that people have an urge towards it, but that this urge is subconscious. They are not generally engaging in some conscious cost/benefit exercise to determine what’s in it for them, and of course people now make intellectual decisions to be altruistic as they reason that it improves the lot of humanity. However, the root of the innate altruistic urge is intrinsically selfish, in that it maximises the chances of us passing on our own genes. So, this urge is programmed into us in the same way that love is, for example.

Some (particularly religious) people would maintain that love exists in some ideal Platonic sense, but I would contend that it evolved as a biological mechanism to encourage long-term mating behaviour (which increased the chances of our offspring surviving). Of course, as we are intelligent social beings, we have explored and expressed these biological urges by creating great works of art, poetry, music and so on but, at their root, these feelings are much more primal. Nevertheless, love does exist, and it is not something that we have conscious control over.
Another objection might be that genes cannot be responsible for specific behavioural examples – helping somebody across a road, being particularly attracted to film stars etc. However, this is to fail to understand Darwinian Theory. Evolutionary advantage is gained by altruism in general, and by being attracted to mating with successful, talented people. The general principles explain the specific examples. Nor am I making some simplistic statement that our behaviour is solely controlled by our genes. Clearly, both genes and environment will have an impact on how we behave. Nevertheless, I believe that our genes have had a far more significant impact on the development of our morality than many people would credit.

Another point worth mentioning is that our intellects and the cultural and ideological aspects of our societies have clearly had an impact upon our personal and societal morality, and there are now clear differences in apparent morality between societies and groups within societies. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the evolutionary roots of morality predate any changes due to intellectual, cultural, or ideological drivers.

Some people are very uncomfortable with the sociobiological explanation of our behaviour - pointing to the dangers of eugenics and social Darwinism. However, these quite different viewpoints should not be confused. As I said earlier, I am not stating that our morality now should be based solely upon that which developed naturally. On the contrary, I believe that there is plenty of room for improvement. What I am instead doing is giving a partial explanation for what is observed to be the case. Furthermore, the fact that what I am saying may offend the sensibilities of some people (due to them mistakenly conflating my views with those of the eugenicist) has no bearing whatsoever on its truth or otherwise. In other words, our evolutionary heritage helps to explain what our moral tendency is, but it doesn’t deal with what it ought to be.

The problem with relying on innate morality

We might try to justify moral rules based upon our moral intuition, as Louis Pojman seems to do regarding not torturing others for fun (in his essay Ethical Relativism versus Ethical Objectivism). However, this seems to be a dead end to me. Firstly, as I have said, I think that our basic moral intuitions are a result of evolutionary drivers and, as such, they were those that gave us the greatest chance of reproducing in a group environment. So, all that Pojman seems really to be saying is that torturing others for fun goes against the kind of moral intuitions that evolved to give humans the greatest chances of survival and reproduction in a group. This might well tell us something useful about morality, but I think it comes nowhere near to standing as a moral rule in need of no further justification.

Secondly, some of our moral intuitions are things that we would no longer consider to be desirable. For example, we have a very strong innate tendency towards xenophobia, as this clearly gave us some survival advantages in the past. I think the evolutionary root of xenophobia is the strong distinction between us and them that was the price any community or group needed to pay for the internal trust and harmony required for the continued survival of the group in competition with other groups, thus maximising the reproductive success of the group members. However, I would argue that this is no longer a good moral intuition in today's world, as it tends to cause more overall misery. So, just because we have some moral intuition or other, I don't think it follows that this intuition is necessarily 'good'.

So, whilst I think we have little choice but to use our innate moral sense as a guide to behaviour, I believe that we can still improve upon this by applying reason to the problem. Furthermore, I believe that to state that some moral intuition or other that evolved in humans exists as some absolute moral rule independent of us and needs no further justification is fallacious.

What we ought to do: a rational approach

It seems clear to me that there exist no absolute moral principles - things that are not derived from more basic moral principles, and which stand in need of no justification. To put it another way, I don't believe that morality is built into the fabric of the universe. Whilst we can have empirical facts about physical aspects of the universe, I think that moral rules are necessarily judgements. Understanding how morality evolved through natural selection lends further support to this. Unlike the Deontological systems of ethics (e.g. religious, or Kantian ethics), I would contend that there is no ultimate moral yardstick. There are no moral rules that can be shown to be absolutely good – no Categorical Imperatives, as Kant would have it. We might attempt to define absolute moral rules, but by what method of reason can we justify them as such? For example, there is no fundamental property of the universe that makes killing wrong, and no universal rulebook that states it to be so (I ignore divine commands here, for reasons that I have stated in another blog post). I might attempt to justify making killing wrong by appealing to some other rule but, at each stage, I can ask what makes this other rule an absolute. We end up with an infinite series of justifications – never arriving at the one basic rule that is asbolutely right without justification.

Now, I am not making a case here for Moral Relativism, or for Nihilism. Moral relativism is a stance that is popular in some circles, but a little thought demonstrates how problematic a position it is to defend. According to moral relativists, there is no objective moral truth, only truths relative to social, cultural, historical, or person circumstances. However, the moral relativist now has to swallow some pretty unpalatable conclusions, or else explain why they cannot legitimately be deduced from the premises of moral relativism. For example: slavery was morally right in the American Deep South; killing Jews was morally right in Nazi Germany; the Stalinist purges were morally right in Communist Russia; the inclinations of certain US leaders to impose their views upon other countries by force is morally right for them; oppression of women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan is morally right for them.

In fact, if we dig a little deeper here, we can expose some more problems with moral relativism. Firstly, how exactly do we determine the society, culture, or group that the morality is true for? For example, we might suppose that oppression of women is moral in Iran, but how about the women being oppressed – don’t they count in our calculations? In fact, culture and state is a transient and mutable thing – a set of traditions, religious and political ideologies, and individual, tribal and group power struggles. If a culture or state is oppressive, patriarchal, or tyrannical, there is no reason why its citizens should be forced to endure it. We are defining the correct morality for that society based upon what the powerful wish to impose upon the less powerful. It should be further borne in mind that nobody chose to be born into a particular culture and state. It was purely chance that governed where they were born, and they shouldn’t be condemned to a miserable life under some totalitarian regime because of this.

Following on from this, defining the correct morality in terms of the society or culture has the effect of rendering morally wrong anybody fighting for moral change within that society. So, according to this view, the (slavery) abolitionists were wrong since they were fighting against the accepted societal morality, and the suffragettes were wrong, as they were fighting against accepted societal morality etc. In fact, it would seem that only a non-relativist can be truly tolerant, since they can hold it as an objective property of any good morality that tolerance must be enshrined. By contrast, the relativist has little choice but to accept intolerance as moral for any society in which it is normative. A point usually lost on relativists is that if our morality is such that we wish to impose universal freedom and equality upon other societies, then that morality is true for us.

I think that these examples expose moral relativism for the absurdity that it is. As a system of ethics, I don't think that it gets off the ground. The moral relativist and I would concur that there is no absolute moral truth. However, I would go on to reject the idea that moral truth exists in a relativistic sense either. Nevertheless, in the absence of an absolute moral truth, I believe that, under almost any rational definition of morality, it is still possible to say that some moral systems are better than others. Hence, our task is to discriminate between the possible candidates, and try to determine what characteristics a moral system should possess in order to be a good one. Oppression, intrinsic inequality, and support for wholesale slaughter of the innocent are unlikely to be part of any such good system.

I am advocating more of a moral pragmatism. Once we accept that there is no absolutely correct morality, we can move on in our quest to build a good morality. This morality could then be applied universally. In practice, I think that the only way to make any progress on such a quest is to define some basic moral axioms, and then attempt to derive our morality from these. We should attempt to choose the most fundamental and universally agreeable moral axioms that we can, and then try to rationally derive a morality from them. In line with what I said earlier, I don't think that it is possible to come up with axioms that will all be absolute and in need of no further justification. However, I think that we have no choice but to start with some 'brute facts', as I think that nothing else is possible. Here are mine:

Axiom 1: all people desire to lead happy and flourishing lives (with a very few exceptions)
Axiom 2: all people count for one, and nobody counts for more than one
Goal: our morality should aim to give the most people the best chance of achieving the desire from axiom 1, but whilst not violating axiom 2

I cannot fully justify these, but this is to be expected since I don't think that there are any objective moral facts in the sense that they exist independently of human beings (as part of the fabric of the universe). Nevertheless, I think that axiom 1 is probably an empirical fact due to basic human biology and psychology. Pleasure, happiness, and pain are basic survival mechanisms; as the former two are associated with courses of action (eating, sex, thinking, cooperating with others etc.) that are conducive to my continuing to survive (and pass on my genes), and the latter is not. Hence, human beings evolved strong instricts and desires to encourage happiness (in its many forms), and avoid pain (in its many forms).

The second axiom just encapsulates a basic concept of equality amongst human beings i.e. everybody's interests should be considered equally when making decisions. Our goal is to give as many people as possible the best chance of realising this basic desire to lead a happy and flourishing life.

I don't think that this morality fits neatly into any of the standard categories i.e. objective, subjectivism, intersubjectivism. It is not objective in the usual sense, as there are no objective moral truths that exist in the universe independently of human beings. However, it is objective in the sense that it is objectively true that certain ways of acting are more or less likely to lead to our goal. Moreover, these types of objective moral facts exist independently of human opinion on the matter - whether the opinions are those of individuals (subjectivism) or of societies (intersubjectivism).

For example, I don't think that there exists an objective moral fact in the universe, independent of human beings, that indiscriminate torture and murder is bad. However, I do think it is objectively true that for any society to allow indiscriminate torture and murder would lead it away from the overall moral goal. This I believe as I think that our shared evolutionary history is such that there are certain core biological and psychological facts about human beings that we all share (with a very few possible exceptions).

Therefore, such moral facts as we can establish from my axioms are universally true - regardless of any apparent variation in individual or societal opinion on the matter. If some individual within a society, or the society in general thinks that indiscriminate torture and murder is a good moral rule to have, then they are simply wrong by the morality that I propose. This I assert, as having this moral rule would in fact lead inevitably to less overall human happiness and flourishing within that society. Hence, I reject subjectivism and intersubjectivism.

I think that we should be able to derive some of Kant's Categorical Imperatives from my axioms. For example, why should people not generally treat others purely as means to an end? Because to do so would result in other people withdrawing their goodwill and help, resulting in a lack of reciprocal altruism within the society. I would contend that this withdrawal of goodwill would result in a decline in the overall happiness and flourishing within the society - thus moving away from the overall moral goal. So, not treating others purely as means to an end is not a fundamental axiom, but I think that it can be derived as a good rule of thumb.

One might object to my first axiom by stating that there is a paradox in that to achieve the best results in terms of happiness you should not have it as your conscious goal. However, the paradox only applies if you pursue happiness directly. I am suggesting instead that we discover what tends to lead to more happiness, and do that. Happiness will then tend to follow. And this can be applied universally to maximise overall human happiness and flourishing.

Another objection might be that truth is a greater aim than happiness. However, whilst I do think that truth is generally to be considered a good, this is because its promotion tends to lead to more happiness. As such, I think that it is a derived value, and therefore less fundamental than the promotion of happiness.

Now that we have defined our starting point, we can return to our earlier conundrum, and derive the fact that killing is morally wrong as, in general, it does not maximise happiness and flourishing, and minimise suffering. The process of being killed will likely involve suffering, and the fear of being killed will likely cause great mental anguish. Furthermore, in the case of self-aware, sentient beings, we are thwarting their future life plans and desires and preference to continue living, depriving them of potential future pleasure, and causing mental pain and suffering to their friends and family. Much of this can be extended to include other sentient animals too, so their killing is also morally wrong within my scheme. Under such an ethic, the unnecessary killing of sentient animals for food, sport, or experimentation becomes analogous to doing so to mentally disabled humans who have a similar level of mental development. This is something that most of us would rightly find to be abhorrent.

In the case of non-sentient animals though, the rule against killing becomes harder to defend, other than on the basis of not causing them suffering. In this sense, I think that there is a sliding scale of wrongness when it comes to killing animals - based upon their level of sentience.

And why, exactly, should we live life in a way that attempts to maximise overall happiness? Because leading life in this way will likely increase our own chances of leading a happy and flourishing life. So, there is no need to have some universal lawgiver whose rules we must obey if we want eternal bliss rather than eternal suffering. Rather, we should live our lives in a way that encourages happiness in general, as it will promote our own happiness and flourishing.

Is Happiness Everything: a couple of thought experiments

One might object that maximising happiness might not always be the most moral thing to do. Firstly, as I stated earlier, I do not presuppose that maximising happiness is an absolute and transcendental rule, but rather a provisional axiom that I am using in order to derive a moral system. However, if we were to argue against using this axiom, we might take a number of routes.

We might, for example, argue that if we could make everyone permanently happy by injecting them with a happy-drug, would it be morally right to do so? The answer being sought is, of course, no.

However, this thought experiment only succeeds in refuting the idea of maximising a simplistic and caricatured version of happiness. We need to go back to the biological roots of happiness to see exactly why this is so. The thought experiment presents happiness only in terms of being a blissed-out zombie. However, in biological terms, many different things produce feelings of happiness, and these feelings come in many different flavours. For example, security, intellectual stimulation, appreciation of beauty and art, love, sex, eating and drinking, exercising, freedom from pain, exploring, achievement, and altruism can all produce different categories of happiness. The reason that there are many causes and varieties of happiness is due to the fact that, for a complex and social animal such as ourselves, many activities and courses of action increase our chances of survival, and hence of passing on our genes.

We’ve already seen the benefits of altruism to our survival. Getting happiness from eating and drinking, and from sex are pretty obviously beneficial to our chances of survival, as is being secure (i.e. out of the way of predators). That we get pleasure from such things as exploration and intellectual stimulation results from the fact that these things gave us a survival advantage, and were thus selected for by evolution. Some things are equally obviously a by-product of some other genetic predisposition. For example, appreciation of art does not, in itself, give us a survival advantage. However, it might be a by-product of us finding certain natural things more visually appealing than others (e.g. landscapes that offer us better survival prospects, potential mates who are healthy etc).

So, to maximise happiness is to maximise all of these varieties of happiness, and all others – not just to maximise some narrow form of physical pleasure. So, the thought experiment is fundamentally flawed. Imagine that we re-phrase the thought experiment to give somebody a drug that would maximise all of these forms of happiness. Some unhappiness would still be required, as this would push us to avoid things such as pain, starvation, and dehydration; and would also help to drive us to seek out a good place to live, a suitable mate etc. However, the drug would minimise these unhappy feelings as much as would be consistent with allowing the person to function otherwise unaltered in their daily life. In such a scenario, it is not at all clear why we would be morally wrong to administer this drug. In fact, I would predict that many people would clamour for such a drug – witness the situation with Prozac.

The only valid objection would be that of doing the drugging secretly. However, I think that, even then, a good case could be made for doing it. The whole idea of positive versus negative freedom is much debated. Nevertheless, in this case one could argue that, instead of having sinister totalitarian undertones, secretly giving somebody this drug would be analogous to secretly rigging a lottery to allow the person in question to win. Although we have deceived them, the outcome is the one that they would have chosen anyway – assuming that they were able to experience both situations and make a rational choice.

Of course, in totalitarian regimes, the rulers believe that they know what is best for the people, and impose it upon them. The big difference in my scenario is that the thing being imposed is so elemental and in accordance with our biological functions that it is rather like decreeing that people continue breathing – it is what any rational person (who does not wish to die) would choose to do anyway.

We might consider a reversal of the thought experiment, and consider a situation in which somebody has been given such a drug since birth, and has thus enjoyed a life of maximal happiness in the form that I have described. To them, that is the only life that they have known. Would we be morally right to permanently withdraw this drug, and commit them to a life with all of the unhappinesses that we know?

A second thought experiment that seeks to refute the axiom of maximising happiness is the case of a transplant patient. To quote Stephen Law:

“Suppose you’re the doctor in charge of six patients. The first has a minor medical condition easily cured. The others have failing organs and will soon die without transplants. No replacement organs are available. But then you discover that the first patient can provide perfect donor organs. So you can murder the first patient to save the rest. Or you can cure the first and watch five die. What is the right thing to do?

A simple utilitarian calculation suggests you should kill one patient to save the rest. After all, that will result in five happy patients and only one set of grieving relatives rather than one happy patient and five sets of grieving relatives. Yet the killing of one patient to save the rest strikes most of us very wrong indeed.What this case of brings out, it’s suggested, is that the right course of action is not always to maximize happiness. Indeed, it’s said that such cases demonstrate that human beings have certain fundamental rights, including a right to life, and that these rights ought not to be trampled, whatever the consequences for happiness.”

On the face of it, this does seem like a valid objection. However, a little bit of thought leads to the conclusion that to implement such a system would lead to a huge increase in general unhappiness, as healthy people live in fear of having their organs forcibly removed - a fate that would then often befall them in practice. So, it seems that the respecting of so-called basic human rights to life are essential in a society that attempts to maximise happiness overall, and the approach that I outlined is not falsified by this thought experiment.

Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, more robust formulations of utilitarianism allow for such derived principles such as equality, right to life etc. to be taken as basic rules, unless there is a very good reason for breaking them. For example, it would be considered justifiable to kill a person who is about to explode a bomb that will kill many innocent people. However, in the case outlined in the thought experiment, the healthy person would not be killed.

Another apparent counter-example to utilitarianism is again courtesy of Stephen Law. It describes Nozick’s Experience Machine as follows:

“Here’s one last apparent counter-example to utilitarianism from the contemporary philosopher Robert Nozick. Suppose a machine is built that can replicate any experience. Plug yourself in and it will stimulate your brain in just the way it would be stimulated if you were, say, climbing mount Everest or walking on the Moon. The experiences this machine generates are indistinguishable from those you would get if you were experiencing the real thing.
For those of us that want to experience exotic and intense pleasures this machine offers a fantastic opportunity. Notice it can even induce higher pleasures - the pleasure gained from engaging in a philosophical debate or listening to a Beethoven symphony need be no less intense for being experienced within a virtual world. Many of us would be keen to try out this machine. But what of the offer permanently to immerse yourself in such pleasure-inducing world? Most of us would refuse. Someone who has climbed Everest in virtual reality has not really climbed Everest. And someone who has enjoyed a month-long affair with the computer-generated Lara Croft has not really made any sort of meaningful connection with another human being.
The truth is we don’t just want to “feel happy”. Most of us also want to lead lives that are authentic. Someone who (like Truman in The Truman Show) had unwittingly lived out their whole life within a carefully controlled environment might subjectively feel content and fulfilled. But were they to be told on their deathbed that it had all been a carefully staged illusion - that there had been no real relationships, that their “achievements” had all been carefully managed - then they might well feel that theirs was, after all, a life sadly wasted.

Again, it seems that what Layard calls “feeling good” is not, ultimately, what’s most important to most of us. Nor, it seems, is arranging things to maximize the feeling of happiness always morally the right thing to do. Secretly plugging everyone into a deceptive, Matrix-like pleasure-inducing virtual world would surely be very wrong indeed.”

This is an interesting thought experiment, but the objection to it is immediately apparent to me. The issue that people would have with living permanently in the experience machine is due to their failure to properly understand what the experiment entails, and the feelings of apprehension, fear, anxiety and so on that stem from this failure. In reality, all that we experience is through our brain. Everything that forms part of our experience of life – sight, sound, smell, touch, pain, pleasure, thought etc. is taking place within our brain. The rest of our body allows us to move about, and acts as a sensory input to our brain but, ultimately, everything that defines us and our life is happening in our brain.

Given this, the objection to the experience machine is not at all obvious any more. All we are doing is changing the source of the external input to our brain. Instead of coming from our body, it is coming from the experience machine. Furthermore, the experiences that we would have would be far more pleasurable than our ‘real life’.

One could further object that, whatever the source of the input to our brain, we would be swapping life in the real universe, for life in an artificial universe. However, given the fact that we cannot ever be sure that the universe ‘out there’ actually exists (we might already be a brain in a vat, or we might already be living in a simulation), perhaps it might be worth choosing to live a virtual but supremely pleasurable life?

I think that people imagine living permanently without their friends and loved ones, and other aspects of their life that they enjoy now, and decide that they would not want to do this. However, this is a failure to understand what the thought experiment entails. For, in order for the experience machine to provide for complete happiness, it would have to either duplicate our existing loved ones, or create new ones. Furhermore, any memory of our current lives would be wiped out, so we don't feel a longing for it. So, once in the machine, we could not be aware that we were living this virtual life, or it would cease to provide maximal happiness. Further, that we had lived our life in this machine would never be revealed to us, so we would have no feelings of having lived a fake life. This is a similar fallacy to that when people fear their own death (rather then the process of dying, which might indeed be unpleasant), because of the fact that they would never be with their loved ones again. Of course, in death, we exist no more, so we do not go on, but without our loved ones.

In such a scenario, it is not at all obvious to me that it would be rational to reject the chance of living in the experience machine. The thought experiment is just far too simplistic.
In summary, I think that the case against some robust form of utilitarianism has not been made. Hence, I still believe that I am justified in making the maximising of happiness and minimising of suffering my provisional axiom from which all morality is derived.


To summarise, I believe that there is no absolutely correct moral system per se. In particular, the moral systems advocated by the Abrahamic religions suffer from a number of fatal flaws that render them more bad than good. They have merely appropriated our innate evolutionary morality, combined it with ideas from earlier thinkers, and repackaged it as their own. In the process, strict moral rules and punishments for imaginary crimes such as blasphemy were added, and belief in certain things without evidence (i.e. faith) was elevated to a virtue.

The roots of our morality lie in our evolutionary history, and came about as a way of maximising the chances of us passing on our genes. There is no absolute moral yardstick, but we can still strive to create a good morality by deriving it from some basic, rational, axioms. I think that some form of Utilitarianism will likely be at the heart of any such moral system.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Religious experiences - part 2

This follows on from my previous post on religious experiences. In this post I will consider how one might react to having such an experience oneself, and is a response to a post on the Philosophers' Magazine blog.

I think that how one reacts to a prima facie religious experience in one’s own case has much to do with one’s existing basic metaphysical framework. If one is already a religious believer, then the experience will probably just reinforce this existing belief. If one is not a believer, but is inclined to be credulous, then the experience might encourage religious belief. However, if one is of a sceptical nature, then I think that one would likely try to rationalise the experience.
For example, I would be inclined to rationalise any such experience in myself as follows:

• I am aware that the brain is capable of creating hallucinatory and other experiences that can seem to be extraordinarily authentic. So is it intrinsically more likely that my experience was a product of some mental state or other, or that it was God communicating with me? That is, which of these prior probabilities is the greater?
• I am aware that many people throughout history and in all cultures have claimed similar experiences, but have attributed them to different gods (or devils, spirits etc). What reason have I for thinking that my particular experience is veridical (other than the fact that I am the one experiencing it), when it may conflict with many of these other experiences (mutually exclusive gods etc)? Would it be just special pleading on my part to say that mine is veridical, where many of these others are not?
• Is there anything about my experience that I can verify or test in some other way? Have I been given any information that I didn’t know beforehand, and that I couldn’t have possibly come to know by any other means? Some previously unknown scientific or mathematical knowledge, for example. The more extraordinary and counterintuitive the information the better for testing this. After all, it should be no problem for God to give me such information, although theists might argue that by doing so He would be giving me less opportunity for faith. However, even if we were to even grant that this argument coheres, it doesn’t help me to decide for myself whether the experience is veridical or not. Also, if God wanted to give me the greatest opportunity to have faith (by providing me with no evidence), then He perhaps shouldn’t have communicated with me at all, as any such communication might be interpreted as constituting evidence.

In my case, I feel that my current worldview (Metaphysical Naturalism) has a strong foundation – both epistemologically and empirically. This I have determined not by taking it to be self-evidently true, or by having some dogmatic attachment to it. Rather, I have sought to test it as thoroughly as I am able, in order to see if it fails – which it so far has not done. So, if I was to have a prima facie religious experience, I would not be inclined to change my whole worldview to the Christian one (for example), based upon that one experience. To me, this would be analogous to throwing Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection out of the window if one fossil was found that is apparently out of sequence in the rock strata. The evidence for Darwin’s theory is so strong that I would want to subject this apparent contradiction to very stringent tests and analysis before making any such decision. And so it would be for my prima facie religious experience.

It might be superficially tempting if I had such an experience to presume it to be veridical. However, as I feel that the Christian worldview makes a number of extraordinary claims (existence of God, resurrection of Jesus, existence of the soul, afterlife etc), I would have to decide if my apparent religious experience constitutes the extraordinary evidence that I would need in order to completely re-structure my worldview. In my case, I think it is unlikely.
If I was to consider my religious experience as being good supporting evidence for the Christian worldview (for example), I think that I should be prepared to examine the worldview as a whole, and consider all of its implications before making such a decision. The point is that the Christian worldview comes as a package deal. Whilst there are variations between the beliefs of the different denominations, there are still certain basic core beliefs that need to be signed up to if one is to be considered a Christian at all. Therefore, before taking my religious experience to be veridical, I should be able to justify belief in these other tenets too, or my worldview would be in danger of being incoherent or inconsistent.

For this reason, I think it would not be reasonable for me to adopt the Christian worldview, without further analysis, based on a prima facie religious experience. Even if we could somehow discount the possibility of my experience being due to a mental aberration, it might have been some other god, or a Cartesian demon, or somebody communicating with me telepathically, or it might have been a glitch in our universe-running simulation, and so on. Not that I think that these possibilities are at all likely either, but rather that there is much room for doubt and rival interpretations here.

After all, how can I know for sure that it is the Christian God that I am hearing, rather than any of these other possibilities? I think that for me to profess certainty in such a situation would be irrational. After all, in such a case, what would ever convince me that my religious experience has some other explanation? If I am absolutely impervious to any contradictory evidence or reasoned argument, then I think I could justifiably be accused of being doubly irrational. Firstly, in admitting no doubt that the voice I hear in my head is that of God, rather than any of the other multitude of possibilities. And, secondly, the refusal to consider the hypothesis falsified in light of contradictory evidence or argument.

And another point. Would the claims of somebody that God told him to murder women be considered veridical? How about if no other signs of psychosis could be found? What would Christians such as Stannard make of such claims, I wonder. Presumably he would consider them to be false - but how would he justify that opinion without being accused of special pleading, by suggesting that his voices are real, but any contradictory ones are false?

He might say that the murderer’s claims couldn’t possibly be true, since God would never command such a thing, as God is perfectly loving. However, there are several problems with that type of explanation:
  1. It might all be part of God’s bigger plan that the murderer kill these women. We are not in a position to judge what such a plan might be, or why this might be to the greater good. This excuse is amongst the standard repertoire of Christian apologetics when attempting to explain failed predictions in the Christian hypothesis (too much suffering etc).
  2. God is described in the Bible commanding many atrocities, so there is some precedent here.
  3. It begs the question, since it assumes the voice is God’s if it conforms to what he would expect God to say, and cannot be God's if it does not. But that all hinges upon one assuming that God exists and has such a character in the first place. What if Stannard is mistaken about these?

And, as outsiders, how are we to judge the merits of these competing claims? Are Stannard’s claims intrinsically more veridical than the murderer’s? On what grounds might we ever make such a judgement in a non question-begging way? Of course, one hypothesis is that people think that they hear God tell them exactly what they want to hear. So, nice people such as Stannard only hear nice things, but violent deranged people hear these types of things from God. And, in the latter case, such utter lack of doubt that God really has told them these things is extremely dangerous. However, their argument for acting on these supposed commands from God is no more nor less coherent than Stannard's own.

And I should further point out that there have been studies that have attempted to verify the power of prayer. However, one of the biggest of these (and one that Stannard referred to, before the results were out) did not have a good result for the Christian hypothesis. See this

Yes, I know, excuses can be found. Nevertheless, one has to admit that so far we have nothing substantial to go on other than what believers tell us is going on in their heads.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Particular problems with Islam


The Islamic world is, in terms of its worldview, analogous to the European Christian world from the Dark or Early Middle Ages, in that it has undergone neither a Reformation nor an Enlightenment (although it has undergone schisms, such as that between the Sunni and the Shia). As a consequence of this, the metaphysics, morals, and practices of mainstream Muslims are far more strongly shaped and guided by their religion than are ours in the West. As such, we would consider even mainstream Muslims to be fundamentalist in their outlook. For them, the Koran and Hadith (purportedly recounting the words and deeds of Muhammad), often as interpreted by their local Imam, provide the framework for the way that they live their life. In other words, the Islamic world is, in general, more fundamentalist than the Christian world is now, as it has a more rigid and literal interpretation of its holy books. Furthermore, much of the West is now only nominally Christian, being largely secular in practise.

Of course, one must take care not to view the whole Islamic world as a homogeneous mass. The degree of religiosity within and between Muslim countries falls within a broad spectrum, just as it does within and between Western countries. Furthermore, there must be many people who live under the oppressive regimes in countries such as Iran who would choose to live a more secular existence if they were free to. However, few in such circumstances are willing to dissent openly, particularly with regard to religious matters (and especially if Sharia Law operates, as in Iran and Saudi Arabia), since this might lead to imprisonment or even death (see this for more information). It is their profound misfortune to have been born into such an oppressive society.

Nevertheless, it is undeniably the case that the average level of religiosity in Islamic countries is far higher than that in Western countries (see this). Consequently, the percentage of people in such countries who we would consider religious fundamentalists (who should more accurately be called scriptural literalists, since the justification for their beliefs is to be found in their holy books) is correspondingly much higher than in the West.

No Enlightenment

Islam has had periods of enlightenment, with a small 'e'. For example, Muslim scholars invented algebra, translated the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and made contributions to the early sciences.

However, the Islamic world has not had an Enlightenment, with a capital 'E'. That is, there has been no analogous revolution in the thinking within the Islamic World that has given people the freedom the criticise the Koran, to contemplate and formulate a secular morality, and to develop ideas of democracy, equality, and law that ignore or contradict the religious teachings of the Koran and Hadith.

In the Islamic world, there is no history or practice of free inquiry, thought or expression; or of Koranic Criticism. In fact, in many parts of the Islamic world, such acts would likely qualify you as an apostate or a blasphemer – the penalty for which is death (strictly speaking, the Koran is ambiguous about the punishment for apostasy, but the Hadith is rather more explicit: "Kill whoever changes his religion." Sahih Bukhari 9:84:57).

During the European Dark Ages free inquiry, thought or expression were not tolerated, and the Church’s authority was absolute. Scientific and philosophical progress that been made within Ancient Greece and elsewhere now stagnated or regressed, and countless thousands of people were tortured and executed for imaginary crimes. Of course, this continued into the Middle Ages and beyond with the Crusades, Witch hunts, Inquisitions, religious wars and so on (all sanctioned or fully supported by the Church), and only started to change with the weakening of the Church’s grip on power, and the general decline in religiosity, during the Reformation and subsequent Enlightenment. This led to the consequent great advances in the areas of reason, rationality, science, and ethics.

In much of the Islamic World, the religious authorities have far greater power over what the populace learn, over their everyday lives, and over what they are permitted to say and write. However, it is incorrect to say that Islamic fundamentalism is a result of a lack of education per se. Many of the Muslim suicide bombers and other Jihadists have been middle-class and well-educated. Rather, it is the Islamic worldview - including a far more literal interpretation of the Koran and Hadith, and lack of any real secular, liberal thought that is to blame. For, in the Islamic World, education necessarily includes a thorough indoctrination in Islam itself, and many apparently secular subjects are given an Islamic interpretation.

It should also be remembered that much of the intelligentsia in the Islamic World gives the impression of being similarly fundamentalist (by our standards) in its worldview, with Islamic philosophy often consisting of an attempt to harmonise reason and the religious teachings of Islam (an exercise in futility, if ever there was one, as faith itself is the belief in a proposition or belief system without proof). This is analogous in a sense to European Medieval philosophy. Osama Bin Laden and others have been inspired by some of these writings. As was the case with the Enlightenment in Europe, any move towards secularisation is probably going to come first from these intellectuals, and then filter down to the general population.

It should also be noted that religious fundamentalism on its own is not sufficient to promote violence. The Jains, for example, are strongly committed to compassion for all life, human and non-human. They consider that to kill any person, no matter what crime he may have committed, is unimaginably abhorrent. Therefore, fundamentalist Jains pose no threat of violence in the way that fundamentalist Muslims (and Christians) do. It is the fact that Islam contains so many entreaties to violence and conquest that makes fundamentalist Muslims such a potential threat.

Religion in the Western world may appear benign now, but it was not always so, and is still not so in some of the theocratic Islamic countries (for example in Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia).

A religion of war

In the case of Islam, the particular combination of such a warlike medieval worldview (in which some of the faithful fervently believe it is their holy duty to convert or kill 'infidels', and that the reward for dying in the process is a place in Paradise) and access to nuclear weapons would seem to be a particularly deadly one. It is not necessarily the case that Islam is, at its core, intrinsically more dangerous and warlike than Christianity - although one could make such a case. However, its followers are far more fundamentalist. By the way, it is a misnomer that the word Islam itself means ‘peace’. It actually means ‘submission’.

Some may doubt that Islam is, at its heart, a religion of war. However, to such people I would urge reading the Koran and Hadith. There you will find countless verses in the following vein –

“Slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out ... if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.” 2:191

“Warfare is ordained for you, though it is hateful unto you.” 2:216

“Fight in the way of Allah who sell the life of this world for the other. Whoso fighteth in the way of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, on him We shall bestow a vast reward.” 4:74

“Those who believe do battle for the cause of Allah; and those who disbelieve do battle for the cause of idols. So fight the minions of the devil.” 4:76

“If they keep not aloof from you nor offer you peace nor hold their hands, then take them and kill them wherever ye find them. Against such We have given you clear warrant.” 4:91

“Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.” 9:5

“O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites! Be harsh with them. Their ultimate abode is hell, a hapless journey's end.” 9:73

“O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you.” 9:123

And so on. Of course, the Bible is full of similar exhortations. The difference is, as I have said, that the Christian world has been forced to moderate, and has moved in a much more secular direction than has the Islamic world. This makes Islam far less amenable to reason and rationality, as unquestioning belief in dogma is always the enemy of reason. After all, if you believe the Koran and Hadith to be the inerrant word of Allah, then why would you not spread Islam by force, as these books instruct you to do?

To be sure, there are fundamentalist Christians in the Western world too, but they are in a much smaller minority. And, of these, virtually none is seemingly willing to kill him or herself in the cause of Christianity, in the way that some Muslim extremists are willing to do in the name of Islam. Of course, a few centuries ago, the fundamentalist variety of Christian was not in the minority. Having said that, the fact that some leaders of the only superpower seem to see themselves as being on a religious Crusade can only further inflame an already bad situation.

And, what of the oft-heard claim that the Koran explicitly prohibits suicide terrorism? In reality there is but one such passage, and even that is somewhat ambiguous:

"Do not destroy yourselves" (4:29)

Against that one sentence, we need to balance the multitude of others exhorting followers to spread Islam by the sword, and to kill infidels. Perhaps some Muslims do think that the Koran is much more explicit than it actually is in prohibiting suicide terrorism. However, these are scarcely going to be the same Muslims who would be likely to engage in such an act. For those so inclined, this vague prohibition will count as nothing against all of the passages encouraging Jihad. And, to such Muslims, it is not suicide anyway but, rather, death in the wholly justifiable cause of Jihad. Such suicide bombings are even known as "sacred explosions".

Nuclear weapons

That an intelligent but belligerent species such as ours would eventually invent nuclear weapons was perhaps inevitable. However, that they do exist now puts our very survival as a species in a very precarious position. The principle of Mutually Assured Destruction seems to have been what has so far kept the fingers of world leaders away from the red buttons, however deplorable that may seem. Whilst we have teetered on the brink of annihilation for the last fifty years or so, we have never tipped over the edge. However, once nuclear or radiological weapons start to fall into the hands of religious extremists, who are willing and ready to martyr themselves in the name of their god, it is hard to see what would stop them from being used. How this scenario can be prevented should be uppermost in all of our minds. See this for more information. Of particular concern here should be the security of the nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union, and from Pakistan.

Of course, we don’t only have to worry about terrorist groups obtaining nuclear weapons. In the case of Iran, we have a country with a fundamentalist Muslim leadership that is widely suspected to be working on a covert program of nuclear weapons development, although it maintains that its nuclear ambitions are purely peaceful. Accusations of hypocrisy come from some Western commentators, who say that we are not in a position to criticise Iran's suspected nuclear weapons development, when we have our own nuclear weapons. This however, is a case of misplaced egalitarianism. What really matters here is the motivation behind Iran's suspected nuclear ambitions, and the likely result if they were to succeed. We can only speculate, but statements such as this by Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, perhaps give us an idea (however you choose to interpret it).

Based upon statements such as this one, I think that the world would likely be a significantly more dangerous place if Iran possessed nuclear weapons. In particular, there would seem to be a distinct possibility of a nuclear conflagration between them and Israel (who are widely believed to be a nuclear state, although they have never formally admitted this), which might then escalate.

Against the charge of hypocrisy, I would say that pragmatism is more important here, and that hypocrisy, if this is what it is, disproves nothing anyway (for example, if a smoker advises somebody else not to smoke, that advice is not rendered invalid by virtue of the hypocrisy). The reality is that the current nuclear powers are not going to completely relinquish these weapons (although we should still push ahead with the NPT), but that standing by while certain unpredictable and belligerent states develop them is dangerously misguided. Ask yourself the following: if you knew for sure that as soon as Iran achieved nuclear weapons capability that it would launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Israel, that Israel would retaliate, and that other nuclear powers would be drawn in, would you still think it only fair and proper that Iran be allowed nuclear weapons? I doubt it. So, as I said before, the important questions to ask are what is Iran’s motivation, and what would the likely results be. Based upon statements emanating from Iran’s leadership, I would suggest that their reasons for wanting nuclear weapons are not purely defensive ones.

There has been a certain balance of power with the existing nuclear states, and none has been prepared to risk its own destruction by launching a pre-emptive attack, but I think that a nuclear Iran would be dangerously unpredictable. Would the Mutually Assured Destruction principle work with a religious fundamentalist such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for whom the ideas of martyrdom and Jihad are quite reasonable? This is a salient question. When we consider this, and the possibility of other country's weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, we can see that, for the first time in history, nuclear weapons might be controlled by people who are utterly convinced that they would go straight to paradise if they were to die in the name of their religion.

The Liberal Left stance

In cases of terrorism by Muslim fanatics, a typical Liberal Left response is to excuse the actions of violent Muslim fundamentalists as being justified responses to Imperialist actions of the West, and to label any criticism of Islam as just Islamophobia. So blinded are they by their hatred of the United States (and the UK) and its activities that they will seemingly side with any regime with which it quarrels - not matter how fascistic or oppressive it might be. They seem unable to comprehend that the Islamic states they are siding with are the sort of oppressive, totalitarian regimes that their liberal principles should wish them to see changed. After 9/11, some commentators even wrote that the US had it coming - which is a blatent example of the type of facile moral equivalence and relativism too often found with the liberal Left of today.

Refusing to ever acknowledge or consider that it is their religion that is at the heart of the problem with the extremists will only allow the situation to worsen unabated. It is not that a peaceful religion has been hijacked by extremists but, rather, that the so-called extremists are merely taking literally the tenets of a dangerous belief system as they are written in the Koran and Hadith. In that sense, the Liberals are like the French intellectuals of the 30’s who refused to accept that Hitler and the Nazis were bent on world domination, and that their Final Solution would involve the deaths of millions of Jews and other so-called undesirables.

Whilst the Liberal stance might at first glance appear to be the noble one (and it is the one to which I would normally gravitate, as a Liberal freethinker myself), it must be tempered here by appeal to reason and evidence, and a willingness to face the truth, however uncomfortable it might be. Its proponents must avoid self-delusion, and political correctness masquerading as fairness and concern to avoid discriminating against others.

Liberal commentators are fond of saying that Islamic terrorism against Western targets is a direct result of our own aggressive actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. However, such actions by the US and others merely add to the problem, rather than being its root cause. In my view, this root cause is in fact the Muslim religion itself - and the rationale behind these terrorist actions is, in reality, the project to establish a worldwide caliphate founded on Sharia law, with the ejection of the infidel from Muslim lands being merely an intermediate step in this aim. See this article, and this one too, for more on that topic.

To be sure, not all Muslims are fundamentalists. There do exist more moderate Muslims, particularly in the West, and we should be thankful for this. I would urge them to speak out against Muslim fundamentalism, to encourage religious moderation wherever they can, and to work with others in the West to help to find a solution to extremism - as some are already doing. However, the voice of Islamic moderation is all too often conspicuous by its absence.

There is no shortage of verses in the Koran urging Muslims to spread their religion by the sword (see my earlier quotes from the Koran, and those from another post), and seemingly no shortage of Muslims willing to carry this out. This will to impose one's religion upon others is at the heart of Christianity too, but an increasing secularisation and weakening of the Christian Church's power in the West means that Western governments can no longer openly call for this.

Moderation and Iraq

We can only hope that the Islamic world moves towards moderation, if not outright secularisation, although there is little evidence that this is actually happening. And in Western countries such as the UK, France, and the Netherlands, the younger generation of Muslims is often becoming increasingly radicalised. The return to fundamentalism of these westernised and often well-educated young Muslims is fuelled by a mixture of youthful bravado and rebellion, the need to be part of a group, indoctrination in Islamic ideas of violent jihad, and a backlash against the current US-led activities in the Middle East. This last item is particularly misguided as, however foolish, naïve, and self-motivated were the actions in Iraq, the vast majority of the killing in Iraq now is Muslim by Muslim (Sunni vs. Shia). This centuries-old intra-faith tension had lately been kept in check by the despotic Sadam Hussein (a Sunni who particularly oppressed the Shia and Kurdish populations. Interestingly, Iraq was nominally run as a secular state under Saddam Hussein, which particularly ired neighbouring Islamic states), but erupted as soon as he was removed. So, rather than seeing that the real problem is with the dangerously deluded Iraqi Muslims who want to kill each other over rival and ancient interpretations of Muhammad's successor, these radicals instead choose to lay the blame solely with the Western forces who gave the Iraqis this dubious freedom.

It should be noted that most of these radical young Western Muslims were born in the West, and many have never even set foot in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are neither poor, nor uneducated, they are not oppressed, and they are not living under an occupation. The only real connection that they have is through their religion. Of course, what these Muslims really object to is the presence of the 'infidel' on Muslim soil, as well as a general and misguided disgust at the West’s morality (see this). They often appear much more fundamentally opposed to coalition troops in Iraq than are many Iraqis - perhaps because they didn't have to live under the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein.

Although there is little doubt that the invasion of Iraq was carried out mainly for the benefit of US interests, the Iraqi nation might benefit too, by getting rid of a despot, and by getting some sort of democracy instead. A perfect case of an ill-motivated action nevertheless having the potential to produce desirable consequences. However, many Muslims within Iraq and elsewhere are so caught up with the religious, sectarian conflicts and with their obsession with infidels that they are blind to this. Of course, there has also been covert (and often not so covert) support for insurgents and interference in Iraq from neighbouring Sunni (e.g. Saudi Arabia) and Shia (e.g. Iran) dominated countries.

Just War Theory alone probably dictates that the invasion of Iraq should never have happened. Moreover, it should have been clear to anyone with an understanding of the region’s history and religion that removing Saddam Hussein would likely lead to the type of bloody Sunni/Shia conflict that we are witnessing now. Nevertheless, since the invasion did take place anyway, the Iraqi population was given an opportunity to improve its overall lot by installing some sort of democracy, and improving personal freedom for its individual members. However, those people willing to work towards this end are being coerced (or killed) by those too blinded by religious hatred and personal ambition to be willing to grasp this opportunity for the benefit of the population as a whole.

Of course, no country has a perfect democracy (if such a thing is even theoretically possible), nor universal personal freedom of thought, expression, and action (within reason), but any move towards this is likely to be an improvement, as an increase in individual freedoms and rights is conducive to an improvement in the potential for overall happiness. As such, greater individual liberty and freedom equates to the country being run under a better moral framework. Of course, the idea of a democracy itself can be a paradox, as the population of some fundamentalist countries would perhaps vote for an oppressive, theocratic regime anyway if given the chance. Let's hope that this doesn't happen in Iraq.

One interesting and encouraging thing to note is that a majority of Iraqis indicate that they prefer the current leadership in Iraq than Saddam Hussein's regime. See this.

A tale of two moralities

As to the problem that some Muslims have with West's morality, perhaps we should take a moment to compare two systems. Firstly, the Islamic ethical framework (much of what I will say here applies equally well to the Christian system). This is a duty-based system, in which the concepts of right and wrong are those as laid out within the Koran and Hadith. In this system, it is our duty to obey these strictures, whatever the consequences might be. This framework has several major flaws:

  1. Firstly, the Koran and Hadith contain many contradictions and inconsistencies, and are open to multiple interpretations, so it is not unambiguously clear what these rules actually are (this is despite the fact that many Muslims contend that the Koran is inerrant).
  2. Secondly, is it the case that these moral imperatives are good because Allah says they are; or does Allah command them because they are morally good? This is an important distinction. In the latter case, the implication is that this good morality exists independently of Allah, and so we could discover and describe it completely without reference to Allah at all. In the former case, morality becomes somewhat arbitrary, since Allah might have ruled that murder is good, for example, and we would be forced to accept that. In fact many of the rules supposedly given by Allah do seem to work along these lines. For example – the inferiority of women is enshrined; calls are made for punishment or death for homosexuality (whilst different opinions exist regarding the theory of this matter, as there are multiple interpretations, the practice is that many homosexuals have been executed in Iran and Afghanistan); calls for severe penalties (including death) for adultery, blasphemy and apostasy etc.
  3. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the whole system of Islamic ethics presupposes that Allah exists and is benevolent. If Allah is not benevolent, then why would acting in accordance with his or her will be considered morally good (and, based upon this, Allah does not appear to be benevolent at all)? Furthermore, the metaphysics of Allah’s existence rests upon very flimsy philosophical ground and, as such, is almost certainly false. Even the most basic god hypothesis, akin to pantheism, is far from being a good explanation for our existence (see my other post here). But, once all sort of other ad-hoc characteristics are attributed to one’s god, as with the Muslim and Christian god, then its existence is virtually ruled out. The only positive evidence for the existence of such a god is that the universe exists, and so do we, but that argument can equally be used to support the existence of an infinity of other ‘gods’ (the Bible and Koran don't really count, as we can't substantiate extraordinary claims based upon such flimsy historical evidence. Furthermore, religious experiences count for naught too, see my post here). So, on this argument alone, the probability of any one specific god existing is effectively infinity to one against. Furthermore, when we examine the predictions entailed by the characteristics attributed to God/Allah (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence etc.), we find that these are not borne out by the evidence of the universe as we find it (too much evil, God’s silence etc).

By comparison, I would advocate a consequentialist system of ethics, of the type often espoused by Secular Humanism. Such a system does not depend upon the existence of any supernatural entity for its validity, since it is secular. It is not dogmatic in the way that the Islamic system is, but is provisional and subject to revision as our ethical understanding improves. It judges the morality of actions based upon the likely consequences of such actions, and aims to maximise overall human happiness. Liberty, personal freedom of speech and thought, and democracy are emphasised.

Under the Islamic system, liberty, free speech, thought and action are not tolerated where they might go against the rules imposed by Allah. By contrast, the system I am advocating encourages liberty, free speech, thought and action, so long as it does not cause harm to others. This concept was detailed by John Stuart Mill – see this and this. Under such a system, giving offence does not constitute harm.

This has to be so under a properly constituted liberal system. To see why consider, for example, that the views of a Christian might cause offence to Muslims, since Muslims regard Jesus as being merely a secondary prophet (and not the son of God), but Muhammad as being the true prophet, and vice versa; the views of Jews might cause offence to both Muslims and Christians, since they deny the divinity of Jesus (as well as supposedly having crucified him) and the revelation of Muhammad, and regard themselves as God’s chosen people; and the views of non-believers, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. might offend Muslims, Christians, and Jews for a multiplicity of reasons.

Hence, there are really only two coherent possibilities here: a totalitarian system, such as a theocracy, in which no dissent from the (religious) rules is tolerated (which would be the favoured system of many fundamentalist Muslims and Christians, for example); and a liberal system in which giving offence is always allowed. Anything in-between is inconsistent and impracticle. Therefore, as long as you allow any religious (or, to a lesser extent, political) freedom at all, then you run the risk that somebody is going to be offended. This is an unavoidable consequence of liberty, and so the best solution is to allow complete freedom of speech, except in cases where direct harm is caused to others (for example, falsely shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre, or spreading malicious lies about somebody).

Here are a few practical comparisons of the two ethical systems under discussion:

1) Under the Islamic system blasphemy is a serious crime, since it breaks sacrosanct rules from the Koran and Hadith. Under my system, it is not a crime at all, since it is covered by the right to free speech and thought.
2) Under the Islamic system apostasy is a serious crime, since is breaks sacrosanct rules from the Koran and Hadith. Under my system, it is not a crime at all, since it is covered by a person’s right to free speech and thought.
3) Under the Islamic system homosexuality is often considered to be a serious crime. Whilst the Koran is somewhat ambiguous on the subject, the Hadith is rather more forthright ("Kill the one that is doing it and also kill the one that it is being done to"). Under my system, it is not a crime, since personal freedom dictates that consenting adults should be free to indulge in whatever sexual practices they wish in private. Furthermore, mounting scientific evidence suggests that homosexuals are very likely born that way, which poses a problem for the religious person who disapproves, since the implication is that God/Allah created people a certain way, and then ruled that their likely behaviour is not allowed, and is punishable by death (not to mention eternal damnation). This is but one of the many inconsistencies in the religious moral framework (another is that God created many people who He must know would choose to believe in another god, or the same god under a different name, or no god at all, and then consign them to an eternity in Hell for this ‘crime’).
4) Under the Islamic system, women are usually seen as being inferior to men, and as being potential temptresses who should cover themselves. Not doing so is a crime in most fundamentalist Islamic countries. In my system, women (as well as homosexuals, and people of all races) are entitled to equal rights, and may dress as they please, since this is part of their right to personal freedom. This is a result of the type of views held by some Muslims.

Now, the actual ethical systems in place in Western countries do not attain the standard of liberty and freedom that I am advocating (sometimes for religious reasons). Nevertheless, despite many imperfections, they are much closer to the system that I am advocating than to the Islamic system. In theory, if not always in practise, concepts of personal freedom of thought and speech, liberty, democracy, and equality are now enschrined in law, and are generally understood as being basic human rights.

So, in my view, the system of ethics I am advocating is a far more enlightened one than the Islamic system, as a result of the great advances in ethical understanding that took place during and after the Enlightenment. At its core, it attempts to maximize human happiness; unlike the Islamic system, which compels people to follow certain (supposedly god-given) rules, whether this makes for greater happiness or not. The result of this is the much greater potential for human misery under the Islamic system, since people have far more constraints upon their personal freedoms, and run the risk of being punished for the many ‘crimes’ that are peculiar to that (and similar) system – such as blasphemy, apostasy etc.

In my system, people should be treated equally; and be free to think, say, and do what they want (with certain reasonable limitations placed upon these last two, such as not having the freedom to murder). Furthermore, what people eat and drink, what they smoke, how they dress, and how and with whom they choose to have sex in private (so long as both parties are consenting adults), for example, should be none of the state’s business, as these are victimless crimes. As such, they should not be enforced or punished by law (the crime surrounding drugs, for example, is almost entirely due to their prohibition - but that's another story).

Some Muslims (and some Christian’s too) feel that the West’s ethical system is morally depraved. However, for the reasons that I have stated, I think that this criticism could much more legitimately be levelled at the Islamic ethical system. Even many Westerners feel that our morals are getting worse. This displays a gross historical ignorance. Not only have societies been saying that about themselves for thousands of years, but it ignores the fact that there is far more equality, freedom, social welfare, and democracy now than ever. See this, for example. In fact, our society has become increasingly liberal in its attitudes to personal freedom, and it is aspects of this necessary freedom that others find so problematic, since they feel that people should conform to some authoritive and restrictive moral behaviour (often based upon religious tenets).

It is a mistake to apply cultural relativism to the Islamic system, and state it is their system, so who are we to criticise it. The reason that I can criticise it is that nobody chose to be born into such a system. However, having been born there, many people live a life of oppression and subjugation, since there is no way out for them. Why should people be compelled to live like that? I speak for those people.

The way forward

We need to find a way forward with the problem of Muslim extremism, and quickly, or the future for humanity looks bleak. Appeasement, however, is not the way forward. The West’s moral and other advances in terms of tolerance, personal liberty, and freedom have been fought for long and hard, and we shouldn’t be ready to give them up so easily. In a recent survey, 32 percent of UK Muslims questioned felt that, "Western society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to bring it to an end". For reasons that I have discussed at length, I think we should strongly resist any such aim to impose an Islamic moral code, or caliphate.

Even apart from the well-known terrorist acts, there have also been many high-profile examples of Muslims attempting to curb the right to free speech within the West (this right is already not as universal as it should be). For example, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie; the recent controversy over the Danish cartoons; and the murder of the Dutch film director, Theo Van Gogh. In a liberal society, every idea and belief has to be open to discussion, criticism, and ridicule. Religion is not exempt (see this and this).

As another example, a recent poll in the UK indicated the 40% of the Muslims questioned would like to see the introduction of Sharia Law into parts of Britain. This is something that we should oppose unreservedly, as by allowing it to be introduced we would be permitting the removal of what we would call basic human rights for those people under its proposed rule. Whilst we can do nothing to remove it in places such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, we should never permit it to exist in the West. The rights of those who would be condemned to death for imaginary or non crimes trump the rights of those who wish to impose such penalties. Benign cultural differences should of course be tolerated in pluralistic societies such as ours, but we must draw the line at the abuse of basic human rights.

Sharia Law codifies and enshrines into law the type of barbaric rules found in the Koran and Hadith (similar ones can be found in the Bible as well), such as the inferiority of women, strict limitations on free speech, and penalties of death for apostasy, adultery, and homosexuality. Those in any doubt as to how it operates in practise should read articles such as this.

Nor, as I have said previously, is ignoring the problem, or blaming it all on the West the way to go, as this is merely simplistic and misguided. After all, where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? They have suffered an occupation far more brutal than anything imposed upon the Muslim world by the West. Or, for that matter, where are the Palestinian Christian suicide bombers? They have been subject to the Israeli occupation too. The answer is that invasion and occupation alone are not a sufficient condition to produce suicide bombers. For that, you also need a literal interpretation of a dangerous set of beliefs.

I should add that this article is not racist, since I am not talking about any one race of people. It is religion in general, and more specifically the Muslim religion (since it is a warlike religion and currently has a more fundamentalist following than Christianity, the other main warlike religion) that is the problem. Religion, or lack of it, should be a private matter, and not one for the state to concern itself with.

The conclusions discussed in this post have been reached by examining the empirical evidence, and then applying the methods of reason. Anyone who wishes to dispute my conclusions must dispute either the evidence, or my chain of reasoning. It is not sufficient to state that the conclusions are wrong, based upon the fact that you find them unpalatable.

For more on this topic, I would suggest the following links.

Problems with Islam:

The problem with the Liberal attitude to Islam:

The absence of an Enlightenment in the Islamic world:,1518,398853,00.html

The problems faced by People trying to renounce their Muslim faith:,1518,468828,00.html

The effect of medieval Christianity on science: