Wednesday, January 23, 2008

CFI London - Opening Ceremony

On Friday 18th January I attended a very interesting day of events for the CFI London Inauguration ceremony (in association with the South Place Ethical Society). Paul Kurtz spoke at the event, as did Stephen Law, Julian Baggini, Nigel Warburton, and others. Richard Dawkins even did an impromptu Q & A session. I have a few nuanced thoughts on some of the issues raised in the talks, and will elaborate on these here.

Stephen Law – Secularism: a Simple Test

His presentation was interesting and enjoyable - definitely one of the better talks of the day. My thoughts relate to a question that I asked him on the possible objection of the religious that secularism could be objected to on the grounds that it is an imposition upon them. Therefore, at the very least, we could be accused of hypocrisy, since we resist having the views of the religious imposed upon us.

My opinion is that a secular state is the best compromise when you have many competing religious and non-religious ideologies in a society, as it prevents the supporters of one idea from gaining total power and suppressing all other dissenting ideas. I think that a healthy society should allow for a marketplace of ideas, with the (perhaps unrealistic) hope that the better ones will eventually win out, but not by suppressing the others. The only ideas ruled out of court in such an environment would be those that violate people's basic human rights (a slightly slippery topic that I address more here), or the harm principle.

So, for example, intolerance of and discrimination against others based upon their sex, race, or sexual persuasion would not be tolerated, whatever the teachings of the ideology in question might say to the contrary. The reason for this is that these characteristics of a human being have no relevance to the ethical treatment that they should expect to receive from others. In other words, they are entirely arbitrary distinctions, and thus have no moral bearing whatsoever. One might as well discriminate against others based upon the fact that they are tall, have curly hair, or were born in Belgium. In order to justify such discrimination, I would need to do a lot of work to show why possession of any of these particular characteristics makes such people deserving of less moral consideration. I can't just make it so by my own fiat. If we allow people to discriminate against others based upon morally irrelevant criteria, then history shows that we are legislating for mass oppression, and possible genocide. In general terms, we are increasing the total sum of human misery, which is the antithesis of an enlightened morality.

There are, of course, morally relevant criteria for discriminating against others. We discriminate against children by not allowing them to drive, for example. But this is for the very good reason that allowing this would most likely lead to a big increase in road fatalities. We discriminate against convicted murderers by restricting their freedoms of movement. But, again, this is for the very good reason that not placing this restriction upon them very much increases the chances of them killing again. We discriminate against people with no medical knowledge when we prevent them from becoming surgeons but, again, the reasons are obvious and justifiable.

Despite what I have said, some religious people would attempt to justify their treatment of women, homosexuals, or non-believers based upon what is written in their holy books, taught by their religious leaders, or what they just 'know' that their god wants. This strategy fails, however, for the following reasons:
  1. The morality's authority rests upon it being of divine origin. Without that, it becomes just another human creation, with no particular reason to obey it. Unlike a secular morality, for which we can attempt a justification by appeal to reason and evidence, the morality of divine commands rest entirely on the presumption that it is handed down by god. Take this away, and you are left with nothing. However, there are very good reasons for doubting that such a divine lawgiver exists at all. So, there seems to be no reason why I or anybody else who doubts god's existence should unquestioningly follow such a morality, or allow it to be imposed upon us or on society as a whole.
  2. Furthermore, the believer also has no way to know for sure that their god exists. They cannot rely upon philosophical arguments for god's existence, or upon historical evidence of events, miracles or suchlike, since these are all highly contentious. Nor can they rely upon the fact that they are told about god by authority figures in their religion, since these people may themselves be wrong. As to the belief that they communicate with god by prayer or otherwise, they can never know for sure that these feelings are not just a product of their own mind. And the final knockdown argument here is that even if we were to grant, for the sake of argument, some supernatural communication, the believer has no way to ever know that they are not being deceived by some evil demon. If they are being deceived in such a way, then they would have very good reason to not follow the demon's moral commands, since we would expect such commands to be bad. Hence, believers cannot absolve themselves of moral responsibility by thinking that they are just following the commands of their god. They are in the same position as non-believers, in that they must justify their morality by reference to some other moral yardstick.

I list several more reasons for rejecting religious morality here, so I won't repeat myself. Suffice it to say that the case for a divine command theory of morality is very weak.

In the secular society that I propose, free speech would not be curtailed, unless it causes direct harm to others. Moreover, in this context, taking offence does not count as harm. To see why, consider that in any society where a marketplace of ideas is encouraged, people will inevitably take offence at the opinions of others. In particular, different religions make contradictory and incompatible claims about the world, and what we should think, say, and do. Therefore, believers from different religions risk causing offence to each other just by following their own rules. And, of course, non-believers risk causing offence by not following the strictures of any religion. The only way around this is for one religion to gain total control, and force all people to adhere to it - a theocracy. However, this is the worst case scenario for all non-believers and believers of other religions. So, even for the religious, a secular free society gives them the best chance to coexist.

However, by their very nature, many religions are intolerant and crusading, and would dearly like to dominate a society, so we must be very careful in a secular society to not start along the road to appeasement, where we gradually concede our hard-won freedoms. The best way to avoid this is to allow vigorous debate on all ideas. Ideas and beliefs must always be open to criticism and ridicule, for that is part of the process towards winnowing out bad ideas and false beliefs. There is a difference between criticising a person, and criticising their ideas and beliefs, and I have no obligation to avoid doing the latter in order to respect their sensibilities. The reason for this is that beliefs are actions waiting to happen. As Voltaire said: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities". The men who flew the planes into the Towers on 9/11 believed absurdities, and committed atrocities. I think that society has an obligation to allow such absurd beliefs to be attacked by others, in the hope that people will see them for the crass and dangerous nonsense that they are. If we tolerate intolerance, then we sow the seeds of our own destruction.

Of course, there is one other way that, in principle, might be better than a secular society. If we imagine for a moment that we are in possession of the truth regarding the universe, morality, politics, human nature etc., and know how to organise, run, and educate a state in accordance with this knowledge. In such a case, should this not trump a secular state - in which competing ideas are allowed? After all, if people are allowed to indulge their false beliefs, then you risk having your progress towards the ideal state retarded or reversed. Under this scenario, it is for the benefit of everyone if they are forced to comply with the ideal. This is what Stalin and Mao thought, and is what many religious fundamentalists think too.

There are, however, two very big problems with this line of thought. Firstly, as history has shown in the case of communist states and theocracies, human nature is such that implementing these ideologies always leads to totalitarianism and oppression. This then becomes self-refuting, since such an oppressive and totalitarian state cannot reasonably be held up as the best one conceivable (unless by some very skewed moral yardstick). Moreover, there is no evidence that sticking with the plan eventually removes the need for totalitarianism. Rather, it seems to become self-perpetuating, with a small ruling elite exercising complete control over the lives of all the other citizens.

Secondly, there is no way to be absolutely sure that one's 'truth' is actually true. This latter statement would be denied by some fundamentalist religious believers, who do feel that they have a monopoly on the truth, and have a (literally) god-given right to impose this on others. Some such people would like to see society run according to their religious rules, with no opposition from competing religious or secular ideas. According to their thinking, it does actually make perfect sense for them to strive for this goal, since their god (who supposedly created the universe, and set up our moral code) commands it. If you are that sure of being in the right, then it must indeed seem that you are on a mission. Such a course of action, though, does necessarily presuppose that one is absolutely sure of the veracity of one's position. Without this, one would be guilty of a terrible injustice.

However, as I have shown, the burden of proof has definitely not been met by the religious apologists. Further, even if one could somehow meet the burden of proof required to support the existence of some inscrutable universe-creating entity (e.g. by using the fine-tuning argument), then it does not in any way follow that this universe creating entity is Yahweh or Allah. A great deal more work needs to be done in order to reach this conclusion.

Many people justify their belief in god by reasons other than the intellectual. They might, for example, believe that they commune with god, through prayer or otherwise, and that these religious experiences offer incontrovertible proof to them of god's existence (coincidentally, almost always this is the god of their local culture). They often say that if we atheists were open to such experiences, then we would also know that god exists. However, there are alternative explanations on the table that cannot be ruled out. As I have already said, perhaps their religious experiences are all in their mind. How might they persuade us otherwise? Perhaps they have knowledge that they could not have acquired from any other source? Perhaps there is good evidence of prayers being answered? If so, then no evidence of this has yet been forthcoming, and intercessionary prayer studies are either negative or inconclusive. And, as I said earlier, they can never actually be sure that they are not being deceived by some evil demon (not that I think these exist either).

Consequently, I believe that for believers to pursue a totalitarian strategy based upon the supposed commands from their god is indefensible, as its premises are so open to doubt. It goes without saying that we atheists need have no confidence that the believers are party to some great cosmic truth, and should therefore resist any such impositions. A secular society is in the best interests of us all, so this is what we should strive to achieve and maintain.

Mark Vernon – A Case for Agnosticism

One of the other presentations at the CFI event was by Mark Vernon, entitled: ‘A Case for Agnosticism’. I have read some of Vernon’s articles on the Guardian’s CIF site, where he seems to imply that he has adopted the intellectual and moral high ground by deciding to be agnostic rather than atheist (he was formerly a priest, then an atheist, and now an agnostic). I was therefore interested to hear what his case would be for this position.

Well, he does come across as an affable enough chap, but his arguments were very weak in my opinion - consisting of little more than non sequiturs, repetitions of the tired old canards about ‘militant’ atheism and scientism, and the need for religion to underpin morality. I don’t have a transcript or recording of his presentation, so I hope that I am not misrepresenting him here, but his arguments for agnosticism seemed to boil down to the following:

The ‘new’ atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens etc. are militant and aggressive. Therefore Vernon does not want to be an atheist.

Well, it doesn’t take too much effort to figure out why this is a non sequitur. The belief in the existence of god is a metaphysical position, and its veracity or otherwise is not in any way connected to whether ones likes the people who believe it. After all, Hitler probably believed that London is the capital of England, but the fact that he was a nasty piece of work in no way disproves this belief, or causes me to reject it. For the record, I don't find the so-called militant atheists to be objectionable. Rather, I feel that they are merely attempting to take part in this debate with an honesty and passion that is the norm in political and other forums.

Some religious people are very nice (some nuns in the north of England were mentioned in support of this claim), so Vernon does not want to be an atheist.

Again, this is a non sequitur. Some religious people are kind, altruistic, and selfless. But, so are some atheists. The converse is also true. More importantly, the existence of god cannot be inferred from the existence of some nice religious people – the two are entirely independent of each other. As to Vernon’s implication that religion is needed for morality, I have refuted this ubiquitous fallacy elsewhere.

Atheism requires one to be absolutely sure that god does not exist. The non-existence of god cannot be proved, therefore Vernon's agnosticism is the best option.

This tired old canard is repeated ad infinitum, often in the related form that atheism is a ‘faith’ position too. There are three fundamental problems with this line of thinking. Firstly, atheism does not call for such a proof of god’s non existence. Once we move away from the a priori truths of formal logic, and into the outside world, absolute proof of hypotheses is no longer possible. If absolute proof was required, then atheism would cease to have any meaning at all, as it would be an untenable position. If one has no good reasons for believing in god, and lots of good reasons for disbelieving (which is how I would assess the actual situation), then one can be classified as an atheist. Thus, the atheist does not profess absolute certainty that god does not exist but, rather, believes god’s existence to be so unlikely as to be practically negligible.

If we were to follow Vernon’s example, then we would have to be strictly agnostic about the existence of an infinite number of entities. According to his logic, as long as we couldn't prove their non-existence, then we would need to adopt an agnostic stance. Is he similarly agnostic about the existence of Neptune, Thor, and fairies? I have no good reason to believe that they exist, and plenty of good reasons to believe that they don’t. Therefore, as with the Christian god, I dismiss them as possibilities, even though I cannot prove their non-existence. The discovery of good evidence to the contrary might lead me to revise my position, but for now I am happy to reject their existence.

Secondly, agnosticism is the absence of knowledge, and this implies that we are therefore unable to make any judgement at all. We must adopt a state of complete indecision regarding the hypothesis in question. However, this is generally not the case in practice. When assessing a hypothesis, such as the existence of some supernatural being, we are usually able to make a judgement by weighing up the evidence for and against it, looking at whether we can confirm predictions made by the hypothesis about what we would expect to find and not find, and by examining its plausibility and parsimony. These afford us degrees of certainty about the hypothesis in question (from highly unlikely, such as the belief that Elvis is still alive, to highly likely, such has the belief that the Earth is not flat). Whilst we can never absolutely prove that god exists, or absolutely disprove it, I believe that we can be very confident that it doesn't. Hence, atheism is justified. And, when you think about it, how else can we show that something does not exist than to find no evidence of its existence when we look for it in the expected places?

One final point is that the burden of proof rests with the theist here, since they are postulating the existence of some supernatural entity and realm (a la Russell’s teapot). When physicists postulate the existence of atoms, which we cannot see with the naked eye, they are able to give us highly credible and convincing evidence and arguments to support their claims, that we can check for ourselves. When theists talk about god, they are able to offer us nothing in support of this claim other than some deeply flawed metaphysical arguments, a few highly contentious historical documents, and very subjective and unverifiable feelings of talking to god. This fails to come anywhere near to meeting the burden of proof required.

Scientists do not know how and why the universe began, or even if it has always existed. Because of this great mystery, Vernon chooses to be an agnostic.

As Stephen Law put it very succinctly when he questioned Vernon, Sherlock Holmes may not know who killed the murder victim, but he may nevertheless be able to conclusively rule out the butler. And so it is with god. We may not know the origins of the universe, but I think that we can be pretty sure that it wasn't created by the Christian god. To believe so creates more questions than it answers, and is so arbitrary. Why choose this god, and not one of the multitude of others that have been hypothesised? It seems to be nothing but special pleading.

I should say that I am not really happy defining my beliefs in reference to somebody else's metaphysical framework with which I disagree. Therefore, I prefer to think of myself as a naturalist rather than an atheist. There are an infinity of supernatural agents whose existence I doubt, but I do not define myself in their terms. One further point is that people sometimes tend towards agnosticism as it seems to be the middle ground - neither at one extreme nor the other. So, in some sense it seems more reasonable and less arrogant. However, it should be remembered that sometimes the extreme position is the correct one. For example, if I believe the earth to be round, and you believe it to be flat, the truth is not somewhere in between - the earth's a little bit round. Rather, the truth is one of the extreme positions. Such, I believe, is the case with atheism.

So, to sum up, I found Vernon’s case for agnosticism to be weak and specious, so I am not convinced.

Daphne Hampson – Enlightenment 2008

Perhaps the strangest talk of the day was that by Daphne Hampson – a theologist, feminist, and postmodernist. As one might expect from the confluence of such ideologies, her religious views are far from mainstream.

She believes Christianity to be deeply patriarchal and sexist, and the resurrection of Jesus to be untrue. Therefore she rejects the Christian faith. So far, so good. However, she still believes in some concept of god, the power of prayer, and other supernatural actors and actions. In her words:

"I am a Western person, living in a post-Christian age, who has taken something with me from Christian thinkers, but who has rejected the Christian myth. Indeed I want to go a lot further than that. The myth is not neutral; it is highly dangerous. It is a brilliant, subtle, elaborate, male cultural projection, calculated to legitimise a patriarchal world and to enable men to find their way within it. We need to see it for what it is. But for myself I am a spiritual person, not an atheist. I am amazed at this 'other dimension of reality' in which there is; which allows healing, extra-sensory perception, and things to fall into place. I am quite clear there is an underlying goodness, beauty and order; that it is powerful, such that we can draw on it, while we are inter-related with it. I call that God."

Christians criticize Hampson for privileging Enlightenment values such as reason over Christian orthodoxy. However, her reason seems to be applied rather inconsistently, in that she uses it to reject Supernatural events such as the Resurrection, but fails to apply it to questions of god’s existence, the effects of prayer, and the existence of ESP.

As befits a follower of continental philosophy, Hampson’s concept of god seems to be obscure and devoid of meaning. She defines her god as some fuzzy, nebulous “underlying goodness, beauty and order; that it is powerful, such that we can draw on it, while we are inter-related with it”. This amounts to no more than some vague teleological speculation about some inscrutable other dimension, and is not worth our trouble to analyse any further. Nevertheless, her proposition of some ‘other dimension of reality’ does include such features such as intercessionary prayer and ESP - which are open to empirical testing, and thus falsification. Moreover, when such testing has been done, the results have not supported these claims. See, for example, this article about the results of a large study into intercessionary prayer. When Hampson was challenged by a member of the audience about testing her claims scientifically, she gave a rather waffling and unintelligible answer.

I would suggest that her hypothesis has already been falsified beyond reasonable doubt (although this could change in light of some future evidence), and feel that she is being rather disingenuous if she will not concede this. Perhaps she needs to apply some of her much-vaunted reason in order to correct her erroneous beliefs.

As one final point, I noticed that Hampson mentioned some innocuous word or other (innocuous to me at any rate but, then again, I am a man) that she thought was intrinsically sexist, and this put me in mind of Luce Irigaray – another postmodern theorist. She famously said that Einstein’s equation E=mc2:

“privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather its having privileged what goes the fastest ... “

I never cease to be amazed at the contrived examples of sexism given by some feminists. But what really dumbfounds me is incredible feat of mental gymnastics evidenced by some liberal-left feminists in being at once hyper-sensitive to imagined sexist transgressions in Western society, but in a state of complete denial when it comes to some of the most egregious examples of genuine sexism. I refer of course to some of the deeply patriarchal and intrinsically sexist Muslim cultures, in which women are routinely subject to genital mutilation, honour killings, forced marriages, severe restrictions on the freedoms of movement, dress, and speech, and chance of an education. Such liberal-left feminists are so blinded by their adherence to the deeply flawed ideology of cultural relativism that they refuse to acknowledge the terrible injustices perpetrated on women in many Islamic cultures.

Such thinking is profoundly fallacious, for a number of reasons.

  • Firstly, even though we have yet to reach a universal consensus on the best possible morality, any such system is unlikely to include overt sexism, homophobia, oppression, subjugation, and inequality. And yet these constituents feature heavily in the approved morality of radical Islamic countries. Hence, I think that we are entirely justified in judging such moral systems to be reprehensible. 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 are happy to criticise any breaches of human rights in the Western world, 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.
  • 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.
  • I would go as far as to say that such cultural relativism is a form of insidious racism: “we wouldn’t want to live like that, but it’s alright for them as it is part of their culture”.
  • 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 (or, for that matter, with those of the current and former communist countries). The residual problems of sexism, racism, homophobia and suchlike still present in our western democratic societies are in no way comparible to that in some Muslim countries, where one can be stoned to death for being gay, acting 'inappropiately' as a women, or the imaginary crimes of blasphemy and apostacy.
  • 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 reengineer their worldview to such an extent that it now condones repressive, patriarchal, racist, and homophobic societies (for a notable counter-example of someone from the liberal-left who condemns oppression and exposes nonesense, see here).

Azar Majedi - Minority Rights vs Citizen Rights

Azar gave an impassioned presentation, in which she argued that we must resist the imperialist ambitions of political and religious Islam, not turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses happening in Muslim countries, and not appease radical Muslims who live in the West.

She has a particular issue with attempts to instigate Sharia Law in the West. In this, I agree with her unreservedly. 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 probably do little 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.

I have much more to say about Islam here.

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