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:

Should Muslim women be free to wear the veil?

This is an argument that is much in the news lately. To this, I answer that essential individual freedom and autonomy dictates that Muslim women should usually be allowed to wear the veil if they so wish, so long as doing so causes no significant harm to others. However, in certain circumstances this should be called into question - for example, if it would likely have a deleterious effect upon them carrying out certain duties for which they are employed (as was the case with the Muslim teacher in the UK who lost her legal bid to continue to wear the veil in class). In such cases the rights of all concerned need to be considered, and a balanced judgment made taking into account the actual facts of the matter, and concepts of fairness, autonomy, and what is an essential or merely incidental aspect of an activity or job etc.

However, I think the real thing at issue here is whether Muslim women should be compelled to wear the veil against their wishes. This is the reality for many women in Islamic countries and, to a much lesser extent, in the West too. In these cases, women are being actively oppressed and subjugated by other members of their culture and religion (usually males). They are often ignorant, in that they don’t realise that not wearing a veil is a possibility at all. For those that do know this, they do not usually dare flout this rule, for fear of being ostracised, or even death. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the reality goes far beyond women merely being forced to wear a veil. In parts of the Islamic world, women are generally regarded as being inferior to men (of course, Christianity also preaches this, but the situation for women in the West has improved considerably due to the spread of secular morality following the Reformation and Enlightenment).

The Koran is quite explicit on such matters. For example:

“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them.” (4:34)

Such teachings result in often deplorable conditions for women in the Islamic world, with immoral patriarchal and sexist practices such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and honour killings being endemic. This is not to mention the fact that women are given fewer rights in general than men, and are often kept uneducated and in a state of servitude to their husbands.

Some may say that this is their culture, and for us to criticise it would be to act as cultural imperialists, and anyway who is to say that our morality is objectively better than theirs? However, I believe that those who would argue this way are blinded by their adherence to the flawed ideas of cultural relativism that they refuse to acknowledge the terrible injustices perpetrated on women in some Islamic cultures.

Such thinking is, I believe, profoundly mistaken for a number of reasons. Firstly, even though we have yet to reach a universal consensus on the best possible morality, no justifiable candidate based upon reason and actual facts will include such aspects as overt sexism, homophobia, oppression, subjugation, and inequality – as these are inimical to human happiness and flourishing. In fact, they will regard such things as being actually immoral. And yet these constituents feature heavily in the approved religious morality of some Islamic countries (as enshrined in the Koran and Hadith). Hence, I think that we are entirely justified in judging such moral systems to be deeply flawed, and, in places, actually immoral by any reasonable standard. By any reasonable lights, systems of morality can be objectively better or worse. I have more to say about morality here.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a commendable attempt to formally codify basic concepts of human rights. The treatment of citizens (women in particular) in many Muslim countries routinely breaches their human rights, as defined in this document. For human rights to be universal, they need to be applied universally. Therefore, if we subscribe to the Declaration, and are happy to criticise any breaches of human rights in the Western world, then we should be equally prepared to criticise them when they occur elsewhere.

It should be remembered that 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. And if ignorance of the true facts of the world, or failures of reasoning mean that its citizens do consider such a state to be good, then we should probably attempt by peaceful educational means to correct such failures and to encourage them to re-engineer their state for the better. And, in extremis, if there is proper just cause and if it could be executed justly, then there might be persuasive reasons to use military force to encourage such change. However, previous attempts at this have shown how unintended consequences can leave such states in a worse condition than they were before (at least in the short-term), and so any such action would first require a proper legal mandate, and overwhelming evidence that the end result would most probably be a society that is more free, happy, and flourishing.

It should be further borne in mind that nobody chose to be born into a particular culture and state. The misfortune of being born a woman into a repressive, misogynist society should not condemn one to eke out a miserable life under the rule of one’s father, brothers, and husband (arranged), and to have no freedom of dress, movement, and speech. Such women live under the threat of being beaten, or even killed, if they transgress one of the many religious and cultural rules that govern their existence.

Such cultural relativism is often born out of misplaced feelings of guilt for being (white) middle-class citizens of countries that are seen as being part of the ‘imperialist’ West. In such a worldview, Muslim states are seen as being victims of the West’s imperialist aggression, and can thus be excused anything. However, it should be remembered that aggression, intolerance, and lust for power are universal human traits, and are not unique to the West. Where we find abuses of human rights, we should condemn them consistently – whether they occur here, or in Muslim counties (or, for that matter, in communist countries). Whilst the West has its own problems with human rights issues, there is no moral equivalency between these and the problems in many Islamic countries. The residual problems of sexism, racism, homophobia and suchlike still present in our western democratic societies are in no way comparable to that in some Muslim countries, where one can be stoned to death for being gay, acting 'inappropriately' as a women, or the imaginary crimes of blasphemy and apostasy.

Moral and cultural relativism is a stance that is popular in some (particularly academic) 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 Saudi Arabia; but how about the women being oppressed – don’t they count in our calculations? By such means we are defining the correct morality for that society based upon what the powerful wish to impose upon the less powerful. It is truly mind-boggling that some sections of the liberal-left, which should be the supporter of such worthy aims as universal freedom and equality, have managed to re-engineer their worldview to such an extent that it now condones repressive, patriarchal, racist, and homophobic societies.

Getting back to the specific subject of the veil, I also believe that a very good case can be made for saying that parents should not be free to compel their female children to wear the veil - even in the West. We should recognise that children do not belong to their parents, and that they should be accorded rights of their own. In a liberal society, parents are not free to physically, mentally, or sexually abuse their children, or to take away their basic freedoms. Accordingly, I think that a very good argument can be offered for saying that forcing children to wear the veil amounts to abusing their basic human rights, in the same way that those men who force women to wear the veil are abuses their human rights. See this article for more discussion of this point.

If Muslim women in the West freely choose to wear the veil, then that is largely their concern – however irrational it might be to voluntarily impose such a restriction upon one’s freedom. There is every reason to believe that if such people knew the true facts of the world, and reasoned correctly based upon these facts, then they would eschew the veil. Nevertheless, respect for personal autonomy dictates that we should generally accord people the freedom to act irrationally, so long as it doesn’t cause significant harm to others. However, such people might pause to remember that it is only because they have the good fortune to live in an enlightened secular country that they have such a freedom to make this choice at all. Countless millions of women in the Islamic world do not have the luxury of being free to make such choices. These are the women for whom we should speak, as they are usually not free to speak for themselves.

Religious Morality


As I have discussed in previous posts, I feel that the metaphysics of the religious belief systems rests on decidedly shaky ground. When it comes to Christianity, for example, none of the supposed proofs for God’s existence is very convincing. Conversely, the notorious Problems of Evil and of Divine Hiddenness, and the lack of positive empirical evidence to support the God hypothesis and its predictions are major challenges for the Christian to explain. For more on that topic, I can recommend this, or for an introduction to atheism read this.

However, I take issue with the Abrahamic religions from a moral perspective too, as I feel that they have in numerous ways impeded human progress in science, philosophy, and ethics. The morality espoused within the Bible (the Torah, of course, being the first five books of the Old Testament) and Koran is often cruel, violent, vindictive, and ignorant, and has been used throughout the ages by fervent believers in order to justify the oppression, subjugation, torture, and murder of others. For example, the terrible behaviour of the Christian Church during the Dark and Middle Ages, with the Crusades, Inquisitions, and witch hunts is not an aberration, but rather is an empirical example of Scriptural literalism in action – as all of these acts can be easily justified by appeal to the Bible. I shall discuss this in more detail later, but see here for a list of Christian atrocities.

Whilst there are indubitably some words of wisdom contained within the Bible and Koran, these are not uniquely insightful, and are buried within a mass of other less worthy exhortations. It should be remembered that these books are often held up as being the sacred and inerrant word of a loving God. It is hard to reconcile this with the reality that the Bible and Koran are riddled with inconsistencies, absurdities, violence, and cruelty. Even some more moderate Christians and Muslims, as well as some non-believers, are prone to suppose that these books – whilst not inerrant - are generally filled with wise words and exhortations to do good, and that they form the basis of the best of our morality today. This, as I shall show, is far from being the truth.

1) Intolerance:

Now, onto the first of my issues with religion - that of intolerance.

Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are mutually incompatible, in that each makes a claim to its own infallibility and to the erroneous nature of the others. Each urges its followers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices – some of which are benign, but many are not. And, central to each of these religions, is a dangerous intolerance of the others, and of non-believers in general. This has been, and continues to be, a source of much oppression and conflict in the world.

In an age of many diverse religions, Christianity and Islam in particular thrived and expanded at the expense of the other religions of the day due to their religious intolerance and their central tenets of conquest and conversion by the sword. Whilst members of various faiths might today talk about respecting the other faiths, this is in fact contrary to the teachings contained in their own holy books (see here and here for example). Intolerance is enshrined at the very heart of the Abrahamic religions, and it is only by ignoring tracts of their own sacred texts that the faithful are able to accommodate those of other faiths or of no faith. Any such tolerance has been achieved by relaxing the adherence to the moral precepts ascribed to their own god, and has come about in the West because of the increasing enlightenment and secularisation of society in general, and of the Church’s loss of power. Predictably, Christian Fundamentalists, and Muslims in general are far less tolerant of people of other or no faith.

In my view, intolerance and a desire to impose one’s own belief system on others is religion’s worst characteristic. These are natural human traits, but religion formalises and justifies them, making matters much worse. My liberal attitude to personal freedom dictates that people should be free to follow a religion if they so wish (or to follow none), but I cannot accept people imposing their belief system upon others. In other words, I cannot tolerate intolerance.

For examples of religious intolerance, we need only refer to the source texts. For example, from the Koran:

“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

“Allah stamped wretchedness upon the Jews because they killed the prophets and disbelieved Allah's revelations.” 2:61

“Jews are the greediest of all humankind. They'd like to live 1000 years. But they are going to hell.” 2:96

“Kill disbelievers wherever you find them. If they attack you, then kill them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.” (But if they desist in their unbelief, then don't kill them.) 2:191-2

“"They [Christians and Jews] say: The Fire will not touch us save for a certain number of days. That which they used to invent hath deceived them regarding their religion." (The Fire will burn them forever.) 3:24

“Allah will punish disbelievers in this world and the next. They will have no helpers.” 3:56

“Don't believe anyone who is not a Muslim.” 3:73

“Those who ascribe a partner to Allah (like Christians do with Jesus and the Holy Spirit) will not be forgiven. They have "invented a tremendous sin." 4:48, 4:116

“Jews and Christians believe in idols and false deities, yet they claim to be more rightly guided than Muslims.” 4:51

“Have no unbelieving friends. Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them.” 4:89

And so on.

From the Bible:

“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

“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

“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. “Mark 16:16

“He that believeth not shall be damned.” Mark 16:16

“He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Luke 3:18

“The Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men.... The wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.” 1 Thessalonians 14-16


Hence, the Christian or Muslim who wishes to subjugate, covert, or kill others can find plenty of support for this course of action within his or her own holy books. In fact, if one is to adhere to these texts then it actually becomes one’s duty to convert or kill the so-called infidels (see here and here).

Intolerance is actually enshrined within the Ten Commandments, but I shall come onto that later.

2) Cruelty and violence:

The Bible and Koran are positively littered with examples of cruelty and violence, which amply illustrate the character of God/Allah. These are far too numerous for me to list here, so I would instead urge you to look at the following links. For a flavour of what you will find, I should perhaps let God speak for Himself –

“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;” Exodus 20:5

And, let’s not forget Jesus –

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34

Bible - and

Koran -

When you fully appreciate the amount of cruelty and violence contained in these supposedly sacred and inerrant books, the odious actions of some religious believers through the ages comes as no surprise. After all, there is abundant precedent for any action they should wish to carry out, no matter how heinous it might be.

Certainly, one can find examples in the Bible and Koran of goodness - for example, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount - and this has been an inspiration to some. However, the abundant verses exhorting the opposite have been the source of untold human suffering and misery for more than two thousand years.

3) Hell

And let's not forget one of the most abhorrent parts of the Abrahamic religions - the concept of Hell (and its obverse, Heaven). As a means of human control, one could hardly conceive of anything more efficient - salvation if you do what we say, but eternal damnation if you don't. Here is the system that God/Allah has implemented:

1) He has created Heaven - a place of eternal joy and happiness.
2) He created Hell - a place of eternal suffering and torment.
3) He created the material universe and the human beings within it (albeit unnecessarily old, large, and lethal to human life ).
3) He explained to humans (albeit in an ambiguous, vague, contradictory, unbelievable, and non-personal way) the criteria for determining whether they will go to Heaven or Hell when they die. The one overriding criterion seems to be belief in Him.
4) He then creates millions of people in such a way that they will reject Him, and will therefore be consigned to an eternity in Hell (Either by believing in false gods, or by believing in none. In fact, He created the universe in such a way as to positively encourage disbelief).

Note that the particular problem I am highlighting here is not that human beings have an inherent tendency to do evil (part of the argument from evil). Nor that many human beings will never actually be exposed to God's message (argument from divine hiddenness). But, rather, that God intentionally and knowingly created millions of human beings who will go straight to hell when they die. Compared to an eternity in Hell, the time that these humans beings will spend on Earth (during which time they will likely have some pleasure) is vanishingly small. So, for all intents and purposes, God created millions of sentient beings who will spend their whole existence in perpetual torment in Hell.

I say intentionally and knowingly, as God, being omniscient, surely knows in advance the choices that his creations will make. Further, being omnipotent, God could surely have made them in such a way that they would make such choices as would guarantee them a place in Heaven. Peoples' much vaunted 'free will' may mean that their choices are unknown in advance to themselves but, surely, God being omniscient knows in advance what these choices will be.

Note further that I am not highlighting the fact that our Earthly existence seems to be unnecessary, as God already knows in advance who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell. Rather, I am asking what kind of a God would knowingly create millions of human beings in such a way that they will fail His criteria for going to Heaven, and will therefore spend an eternity in Hell. Surely such a God is responsible for far more suffering (in fact, infinitely more, as these souls will spend an eternity in Hell) than any Earthly tyrant such as Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.

4) Dubious Moral Precepts:

The Bible and Koran contain the type of narratives and moral instructions that one would expect of ignorant and unsophisticated authors writing hundreds or thousands of years ago. With the Bible, for example, the composition of the various books began in about 1000 B.C. and continued for more than a thousand years. A great deal of oral material was included. The editors often worked in different locales and in different times, and were usually unaware of each other. Their work was primarily intended for local use and it is unlikely that any author foresaw that his work would be included in a "Bible."

No original manuscripts exist. There are hundreds of differences between the oldest manuscripts of any one book. These differences indicate that numerous additions and alterations were made to the originals by various copyists and editors. Many biblical authors are unknown. Where an author has been named, that name has sometimes been selected by pious believers rather than given by the author himself. The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are examples of books that did not carry the names of their actual authors. The present names were assigned long after these four books were written. In spite of what the Gospel authors say, biblical scholars are now almost unanimously agreed that none of the Gospel authors was either a disciple of Jesus or an eyewitness to his ministry.

The Old Testament is concerned with the Hebrew God, Yahweh, and purports to be a history of the early Israelites. The narrative abundantly illustrates the fact that they were a primitive, warlike, and barbaric desert tribe, intent on expansion into neighbouring lands (what is now Palestine) by conquering their peoples. It is no surprise, then, that they invented for themselves such a warlike, jealous, and bloodthirsty god (see this). They were far less sophisticated philosophically, ethically, and scientifically than the Ancient Greeks, for example - some of whose philosophy was later appropriated by Christian scholars.

The New Testament is the work of early Christians and reflects their beliefs about Jesus. It is an improvement upon the Old Testament but, nevertheless, its morality often leaves much to be desired. It should also be remembered that Jesus instructed his followers that they could not ignore the more barbaric teachings of the Old Testament –
“Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall nowise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:18-19

Here is an interesting article on the character of Jesus.

Let’s look at a few specific examples of the type of morality contained within the Bible. Firstly, the atrocious -


Blasphemers must be stoned to death.
"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

Sometimes God kills newborn babies to punish blasphemy.
"Because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die." -- 2 Samuel 12:14

For breaking the Sabbath:

"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


“And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? ... Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” -- Numbers 31:15-18

God’s character:

“The LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon.... And there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” Exodus 12:29-30

Rebellious children:

Children who refuse to obey their parents must be executed.
“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

Women’s rights:

“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing.” 1 Timothy 2:11-15

For a woman who is not a virgin on her wedding night:

"If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her ... and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate: And the damsel's father shall say ... these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. ... But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die." Deuteronomy 22:13-21

Now, to the ridiculous -

Eating seafood is forbidden:

"These ye shall eat of all that are in the waters: all that have fins and scales shall ye eat: whatsoever hath not fins and scales ye may not eat; it is unclean unto you." Deuteronomy 14:9-10

Clothes of mixed fibres are forbidden:

"Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together." -- Deuteronomy 22:11

I could continue quoting similar items from the Bible ad infinitum, and could find plenty of similar quotes in the Koran. Of course, liberal Christian apologists are fond of saying that one should not take quotes from the Bible ‘out of context’, or that they need interpretation. However, many appalling stories and moral injunctions are explicitly clear, and are not open to any other interpretation. What we need is not to 'interpret' them, but to ignore them - which is the reality of what liberal Christians do when they cherry-pick the passages from the Bible that accord with modern, liberal, secular morality, and ignore the rest (see this for some of the problems with such liberal Christians). Interestingly, one never hears Christians saying that any good moral instructions from the Bible should ‘not be taken out of context’, or need 'interpreting'. For more on Biblical interpretation, see the following post on my blog -

So, given the primitive and barbaric nature of much of the moral code contained within the Bible and Koran, we can reasonably ask whether we should still base our morals upon these books. The answer, of course, is that we shouldn't. The progress made on the subject of ethics during and after the Enlightenment has given us far better moral frameworks to choose from. For example, the various Consequentialist moral theories aim to maximise human happiness, and meta-systems such Secular Humanism go further still in that they specifically incorporate reason, justice, the search for truth, and the efforts to build a better world.

So, great progress has been made in the West over the last few hundred years when it comes to ethics (as well as in science, medicine etc., which were also held back or opposed by the influence of religion. Who now thinks that illness is caused by devils, or that the Sun goes around the stationary Earth, as the Bible tells us?). Society is far more democratic; people have far more freedoms; slavery is no longer permitted; women, people of other races, and homosexuals now have (nearly) equal rights; progress is being made on the subject of voluntary euthanasia and animal rights; and people now even have the choice to belong to religions other than Christianity, or to no religion at all. All of these moral improvements are due to the type of secular thinking that came about because of the Enlightenment, and they were always bitterly opposed by the Church – as we would expect, since they directly contradicted its teachings. Whilst some individual Christians were for change, the Church as a whole would only change in extremis.

Now to lay to rest a couple of tired old canards. Firstly, Christians are fond of saying that State-imposed atheism was tried in Communist Russia and China, and millions of people died as a result. The implication being that atheism is just as murderous as religion has been. However, this is a category mistake, as Christianity is an entire metaphysical and moral belief system, whereas atheism is merely the absence of belief in a god. The atheism that was imposed in certain communist countries was imposed by tyrannical, totalitarian regimes, and it is this that caused the large-scale murder – not the atheism on its own. When atheism is tied to a secular, humanistic moral framework – such a Secular Humanism – then the result is benign – unlike either the religious or totalitarian regimes which, in fact, have much in common. For more on Secular Humanistic morality, see here -

Secondly, one often hears from the religious that without a clear religious moral framework to guide us, we will become morally adrift, and then inevitably slide into crime and murder. It is interesting to note, however, that the evidence suggests the opposite. Surveys, such as this one ( have found that the level of religiosity in a society is positively correlated with rates of murder, crime, and general social problems and decay. That is, the more secular a society, the better its societal health is, as measured by rates of murder, crime etc. Now, one must be careful to not conclude that correlation implies causation, but it certainly does nothing to support the usual claims of the religious, and tends to do the opposite. In other words, we do not need a religious moral framework in order to have a healthy society.

Thirdly, the religious often seem to think that they have a monopoly on good morals. Leaving aside the fact that, as I have shown, much of the morality is not good at all, and that they best moralities we have found are secular, there are still problems with this line of thought. Foremost among these is that equally good or better moralities have arisen independently in many other cultures, and often predate those of Christianity or Islam. To take just one example, The Golden Rule is contained within the Bible, but is also found within other quite distinct cultures. E.g.

"This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you." from the Mahabharata (5:15:17) (ca. 500BCE)

"What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others." — Confucius (ca. 551–479 BCE)

Even amongst religious moralities, it can be persuasively argued that those promolgated by the Abrahamic religions are far from being the best. 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. It is not possible to 'interpret' Jainism in such a way as to justify mass murder, as is the case with Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

See this for more talk of morality.

5) The Ten Commandments:

Surely, you must say, if all else fails then at least the Ten Commandments are a distillation of all that is good. Well, let’s examine the evidence (NB. there is some variation between the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic versions of these commandments).

First Commandment: I am the LORD thy God and Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Is this really the basis of all our morals? Is this really the most important thing to remember for the happiness and wellbeing of society and individual humans?

Second Commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

Is this really at the heart of a moral, healthy, and happy society? It certainly seems to be important to God.

Third Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.

Again, is this pearl of wisdom the best that the supposed creator of the Universe could come up with? Will ignoring this moral stricture result in the breakdown of society’s morals? It certainly seems to exercise God inordinately.

Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Another vitally important point that God felt the need to communicate to humanity. Of course, as with the first three commandments, God in His ultimate wisdom declared that the penalty for breaking this Commandment should be death. How morally enlightened.

After that, we’re on to the usual Commandments that people remember about not murdering, stealing. Committing adultery etc. But, even if we ignore the first four Commandments, are these the best and most complete distillation of morality? I think not. For an analysis, see this -

or this -

There are many secular versions of the Ten Commandments that seem to me to be an improvement on the Biblical ones. This one came up straight away in a Google search, but there were many others -

All the evidence suggests that morality arises naturally from the cooperation that is necessary for the survival of a group animal - such as humans. The first glimmerings of our moral framework existed long before organised religion came along. The precursors to this behaviour are even witnessed amongst other animals. Religious morals were an early attempt to formalise this moral framework, but left much to be desired. We have progressed much since then, and have no need to continue to refer back to these religions for our morals, as the secular ones are far better and more complete.

For the record, I believe that some form of humanistic, liberal, and secular moral framework based upon Utilitarianism (attempting to maximise overall human happiness, however difficult it is to quantify), tolerance, personal freedom and democracy is the best that we have devised so far. Under such a framework, religion or lack of it becomes a private matter, and not one that is any of the State's concern.