Category Archives: Ethics & Human Nature


2014-04-29

Fighting Words: How Religion Causes Violence

by Neil Godfrey

FightingWordsI have just completed reading Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence by Hector Avalos. The argument is not quite what I expected but it was certainly clear and logical and has given me a new perspective on the way religion and religious conflicts function in our communities and the world at large.

Now I have been one of those atheists who does not see religion in and of itself as evil; I quite understand and to an extent sympathize with people’s attachments to their faith. There was a brief time in my past when I had an essentialist view of religion and saw its irrational and exclusivist belief systems as an evil blight on our society but I have long since tempered my outlook. Too soon, I think I can hear Hector Avalos objecting. Not that religion necessarily causes violence. Clearly it doesn’t always and there are times when religion is used for the benefit of others. But “as a mode of life and thought” Avalos argues that religion is “fundamentally prone to violence”.

Avalos begins with the axiom that it is scarcity of resources that so often lead to violence. Even the fear of imminent scarcity or the mere perception of an imagined scarcity can be enough to provoke war. Land can be a scarce resource. (We might add “oil” as another and let myself be sidetracked for a moment by referring to a recent Guardian article that has appeared on the web, Tony Blair’s Islamist obsession is a smokescreen to defend ‘blood for oil’, by Nafeez Ahmed.) Resources do not have to be tangible. A sense of security, for example, can be a scarce resource.

Hector Avalos argues that many scholars have misunderstood the nature and function of religion in conflicts by thinking of it as “essentially good” while violence associated with it is considered a perversion of its true values. Rather, Avalos argues, we need to understand that religion itself has the ability to create scarcity of resources — imaginary ones, or at least those that are unverifiable by normal methods — and it is this function that can be the trigger to violence.

The difference between scarcity caused by religious beliefs and other types of scarcities is that the former are unverifiable while the latter are clearly real to all. This is what makes religious violence morally worse than other forms of violence: religious violence is about imaginary or unverifiable resources (e.g. an offended deity) while other types of violence are seeking to exchange blood for something real (e.g. self-preservation).

Religion, as a mode of lie and thought that is premised on relationships with supernatural forces and/or beings, is fundamentally prone to violence. . . . Since there are no objective means to adjudicate unverifiable claims, conflict and violence ensue when counterclaims are made. As such, the potential for violence is part of every religious tradition. . . . (Loc. 5119)

The solution, Avalos, argues, must begin with

making believers aware of how religion can create scarce resources. (Loc. 4834)

Let’s explain. It was a new concept for me, too.

read more »


2014-04-22

Meetings, Bloody Meetings

by Neil Godfrey

Sorry-The-English-and-Their-I loved the dry wit in the final sentence of this paragraph of a book I have for bed-side reading, Sorry! The English and Their Manners by Henry Hitchings:

Beside the encounters I’ve so far dealt with, there is another kind of meeting: a formal assembly. In the Middle Ages meetings were armed encounters: local disputes were settled by means of a ‘moot’ at which proposals were approved with a banging together of weapons — or dismissed with groans. These attempts to negotiate arguments gradually became less military in temper. During the Renaissance, urbanization and political centralization gave rise to a more parliamentary style of meeting, over which courtiers presided. Urbane discussion became the mechanism for resolving or curtailing differences and achieving solidarity. Yet even in the nineteenth century the word meeting was a euphemism for a duel — a hangover from a less bureaucratic age. And today meeting is associated with other ways of taking lives or at least sapping vitality. (pp. 50-51)

How can any discussion of the pain of meetings avoid the old John Cleese classic . . .

read more »


2014-03-25

What The Hell Do People Believe In If They Don’t Believe In God?

by Neil Godfrey

Stephen Fry explains what the meaning of life is to him as a nonreligious person. In three minutes.

ht/Upworthy


2014-03-18

Who Needs God to be Good?

by Neil Godfrey

Pew Research Center surveyed 40,000 people across 40 countries between 2011 and 2013 to find what proportions of populations believe it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. The results (and explanation of how they conducted the survey) are online here.

As probably expected, the more highly one is educated the less likely one is to believe that belief in God is necessary for morality.

Also depressingly as expected, the USA is the exception among affluent nations, being the only such country where a majority of the population believes one can only be a moral person if one believes in God. Atheists be damned.

Tables follow: read more »


2013-12-05

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 4)

by Tim Widowfield
Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...

When we minimize and explain away slavery or talk about it as an abstract concept, we demonstrate our lack of empathy for its millions of victims. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christianity and slavery: why does it matter?

As I made clear early on in this series, I contend that the institution of slavery in the Greco-Roman world was more terrible than we can imagine. In addition, we can’t deny the evidence that early Christians were generally ambivalent about it, or at worst, condoned it. Moreover, rich Christians continued to own slaves after they converted. We can, in fact, corroborate these assertions not only from ancient writings, but from certain artifacts that still survive.

Investigation of current Christian attitudes toward ancient slavery reveals a surprising number of people who prefer to remain in a state of denial. Recall from part one Thomas Madden’s unsubstantiated assertion that “Christianity . . . considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong.” Not only can we find no clear written evidence from the New Testament or patristic literature to confirm his claim, but we have solid written and archaeological evidence that disproves it.

The crime of running away

Jennifer Glancy begins her book, Slavery in Christianity, with the following few sentences that, for Christians (and ex-Christians like myself) are as sobering as an ice-cold shower:

Sometime in the fourth or fifth century, a Christian man ordered a bronze collar to encircle the neck of one of his slaves. The inscription on the collar reads: “I am the slave of the archdeacon Felix. Hold me so that I do not flee.” Although the collar purports to speak in the first person for a nameless slave, the voice we hear is not that of the slave but that of the slaveholder. Felix, enraged by a slave’s previous attempts to escape, ordered the collar both to humiliate and to restrain another human being, whom the law classified as his property. The chance survival of this artifact of the early church recalls the overwhelming element of compulsion that operated within the system of slavery, with its use of brute paraphernalia for corporal control. (p. 9, emphasis mine) 

The words “chance survival” might lead the reader to think such collars — which gave license to the finder to detain the slave by any brutal means necessary, and which were lovingly adorned with crosses and chi-rhos — were rare. But they weren’t. True to form, some scholars have decided to interpret the existence of such collars as a good thing. They posit that it means Christian slaveholders stopped the practice of facial tattooing. In other words, “Baby steps.”

However, in the (ridiculously overpriced) book, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425, Kyle Harper notes:

read more »


2013-11-14

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 3)

by Tim Widowfield

Interpreting Philemon

English: The apostle paul reading by candlelig...

The apostle paul reading by candlelight, with a large open book leaning on a skull, seen from below. Mezzotint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had intended next to describe the wretched state of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world, but I promised we’d cover Philemon first. The epistle to Philemon is one of those few books you can refer to simply by verse number, because there’s only one chapter. With today’s online Bibles you’ll frequently see references to Philemon 1:1, but traditionally, you could just refer to Philemon 1. (Quick trivia question: What are the other four single-chapter books in the Christian Bible?)*

Because this tiny letter seems to offer a glimpse of real people and real events from the first century CE, Philemon remains one of the most tantalizing books of the New Testament. We can only guess exactly happened before and after the letter. How did Onesimus end up with Paul? What did Paul expect Philemon to do with his returned property, and did he do it? How had Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” become “useless” to Philemon? Was he a runaway slave? Or had he committed some act that displeased Philemon, who subsequently dismissed him?

Throughout the centuries, scholars have debated over Paul’s ultimate intentions, offering (as I mentioned in earlier comments) a wide range of interpretations. Did Paul want Philemon to free Onesimus or not?

Why didn’t he just come right out and say it?!

A voluntary act

Paul assures his recipients that he is certainly in a position to compel Philemon to “do the right thing” (whatever that is), but prefers that he reach this decision of his own accord.

24.  but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. (NASB)

So one could argue that Paul wanted Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, and free him. And he wanted his slave-holding friend to come to that conclusion on his own, because a coerced good deed is less desirable than turning away from evil and carrying out a righteous act with a free and open heart.

That’s one way to approach it.

However, we should recall that normally when Paul learns of sinful behavior among his congregations, he does not gently prod them into changing their ways.  Consider the man in Corinth accused of incest (viz., fooling around with his father’s wife). Paul doesn’t coyly intimate what they should consider doing . . . maybe . . . perhaps, if it isn’t too much trouble.

No, he blasts them, and tells them exactly how to handle this guy:

read more »


2013-11-11

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 2)

by Tim Widowfield

Unlike other religions?

We noted last time that Thomas Madden in his course on early Christianity claimed, “Unlike any other ideologies at the time, Christianity also considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong.” He said that attitude stemmed from their belief that: “Unlike other religions, Christianity held that all people, men or women, free or slaves, were the same in God’s eyes.

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran.

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we will see, and as you probably already know, most Christians until relatively recently did not see slavery as inherently wrong. Further, despite Madden’s sweeping statement to the contrary, we do know of one Jewish sect that actually did condemn the practice. According to both Josephus and Philo, the Essenes did not keep slaves. As Philo wrote:

There is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, serving one another; they condemn masters, not only as representing a principle of unrighteousness in opposition to that of equality, but as personifications of wickedness in that they violate the law of nature which made us all brethren, created alike. (Quoted by the Jewish Encyclopedia from Philo, Vol. VI, Loeb Classical Library)

Granted, the Essenes set themselves apart from general society, dwelling in communes, keeping all things in common, and living as “free men.” So one could argue that since they lived in their own little world, they didn’t have to worry about letting loose a “frightful revolution” (in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia).

However, the fact remains that the Essenes, not the Christians, were one of the few (if not the only) communities or sects in the ancient world who, it was believed, unequivocally condemned slavery. Moreover, they put their money where their mouths were.

[T]hey emancipated slaves and taught them the Law, which says: “They are My servants (Lev. xxv. 42), but should not be servants of servants, and should not wear the yoke of flesh and blood.” (Jewish Encyclopedia)

They pooled their resources and purchased the freedom of enslaved Jews. That’s pretty remarkable. Of course, we should temper our respect with the textual evidence that the Qumran community may have indeed kept slaves. Jennifer Glancy writes:

read more »


2013-11-09

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 1)

by Tim Widowfield

Not so great courses

Several months ago, I purchased a course on ancient Christianity through audible.com. You might find the title intriguing (I know I did) – From Jesus to Christianity: A History of the Early Church — which reminded me of Paula Fredriksen’s book, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ. In no other respect do these works resemble each other, not in clarity, accuracy, or depth.

English: Dr. Thomas Madden

English: Dr. Thomas Madden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thomas Madden may be an expert in medieval and renaissance studies, but his understanding of the Ancient Near East and early Christianity is superficial and slanted toward a confessional, orthodox, if not specifically Roman Catholic, viewpoint. As we’ve said many times here, bias does not inherently make somebody wrong. We all have particular points of view; however, we should acknowledge other points of view and strive to present them fairly. Madden, unfortunately, seems completely unaware of other perspectives.

When I buy courses and books, in the back of my mind I hope to find something new and interesting that I can blog about. However, as I alluded to above, Madden’s course is so superficial as to be devoid of blog-fodder — except for a few outright mistakes that made me shake my head and grumble. (I wonder how crazy I look, walking through airports, earbuds in place, muttering softly to myself in disgust — like Popeye in a Max Fleischer cartoon.)

What a ridiculousk situation!

What a ridiculousk situation!

As a brief aside, we should note that Madden’s wretched course is emblematic of a trend in publishing. The latest history and religion courses released by The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company) and The Modern Scholar (part of Recorded Books, LLC) are more conservative than ever — a comfort to a public that prefers confirmation of its beliefs over learning. Listeners to these courses will learn, to their relief, that Paul certainly wrote all of the epistles attributed to him and that the Documentary Hypothesis is false. Madden, a frequent contributor to such publications as The National Review and Crisis Magazine, as well as an apologist for the Crusades and the Inquisition, fits right in.

Comforting the comfortable

Given the underlying purpose of Madden’s course on the history of the church — namely, to comfort the faithful laity by regurgitating the party line — nothing should have surprised me. I thought I’d heard nearly all of the pious lies proffered by Christian apologists, but I wasn’t prepared for this one.

read more »


2013-06-10

About Justice, Love, and Peace . . . and That “Nice Guy” from Emory

by Tim Widowfield

Catching up

I’m still catching up with all things Vridar after having been on the road for awhile. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer a certain “dbg” who seemed quite unhappy with my post on scholarly consensus. I’m happy to see that Neil engaged with him and for the most part said the same things I would have said.

We still have no confirmation that Mr. dbg was in fact David B. Gowler himself. Indeed it is possible, given his habit of referring to Gowler in the third person, that the commenter is merely a fan who happens to have the same intials, and who happened to commandeer Dr. Gowler’s email address for a brief period. Neil tried to get dbg to “confess” his identity without success. So the mystery remains unsolved.

Appreciating Jesus’ message

What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?

What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?

Mr. dbg first complained that his comments in the preface to What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus? in no way indicate a personal faith in Jesus Christ. He commented:

I’m sorry, but expressing appreciation for Jesus’ “message of justice, love, and peace” is not the same as “personal faith in Christ” (including the pre/post East[er] Jesus distinction). The same thing could be said about Gandhi, or Dr. King, or a host of other people. I think the book (Gowler’s) clearly was written from a historian’s perspective, not a faith perspective.

Yes, Gowler’s book was not written from a confessional perspective. I normally shy away from such books, since they’re entirely useless to me. However, if Mr. dbg had read more closely he would have known that I was talking about people who believe in Christ as their savior and who simultaneously endeavor to write scholarly works from an academic, historical, nonpartisan perspective.

I could just as easily have quoted from an earlier paragraph in WATSA the Historical Jesus:

If we listen to the voice of Jesus, we can still hear the prophetic message of this first-century peasant artisan who proclaimed not only a message of hope for the oppressed but also one of judgment upon an exploitative, dominant class. That prophetic voice should haunt Christians like me who live in a nation that dominates the world politically, economically, and militarily. (p. viii, emphasis mine)

read more »


2013-06-07

End of Faith and Other Pulp Fiction

by Neil Godfrey

harris-atranSam Harris in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation has written a lot of uninformed nonsense about religion in general and Islam in particular. Don’t misunderstand. His logical arguments against religious belief systems are entirely valid. For a time when I was in the process of recovering from my own religious experiences I would have endorsed almost everything he wrote. Even mainstream Anglican pabulum was a threat to humanity because it lent social respectability to religious faith and the Bible, and that made it possible for extremist cults — who also claimed faith and the Bible as the foundations of their seriously harmful systems — to germinate. (I was focusing on the intellectual constructs as the easy and obvious target, failing to realize that there was something far more significant at the root of religion.)

At the same time I was going through that phase I could not help but notice a niggling doubt in the back of my mind. Yes, my argument was entirely rational, and borne of experience. But was it the whole story? If there had been no notion of faith or the Bible in any religion, would that really mean we would be living in a Utopia? Was it really only social respectability for faith and the Bible that cults fanned into something monstrous? Was there not also a shared dream of a better world? Should such idealism also be condemned? Was there not also a shared belief in the rightness of doing good? Even the dreams and the morality of the cult could be turned into destructive weapons. But they could also be used for much good, too.

Cults may sprout out from mainstream religions but it does not follow that they are the cause or to blame for them. A host to a parasite is hardly to be blamed for the parasite.

Religion is not going to disappear, or if we believe otherwise, it certainly won’t be demolished by rational answers to its teachings of faith and belief systems. I guess that thought was beginning to dawn on me when I started this blog and that’s why I’ve never been interested in any sort of “anti-Christian” or “anti-religion” crusade of any sort. People will respond to precision arguments and new questions when they are ready. Crusading against irrational beliefs — or against even rational ones based on false data — will rarely accomplish much more among the believers than to send them scrambling for better reasons for holding fast to those beliefs.

That is, polemics like those of Sam Harris are based on a misunderstanding of the very nature of religion and may in fact be backfiring and strengthening religion’s power in the world. It’s only in recent times that I’ve begun to truly grasp this.

So it was with some relief that I read a fact by fact rebuttal of Sam Harris’s diatribes against all religions and Islam in particular. The following (as well as the title of this blog post) is based on a section of Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human by Scott Atran.

Fact One: read more »


2013-03-26

The free-will myth: further evidence that conscious “decisions” are made unconsciously in advance

by Neil Godfrey

Jerry Coyne has published another post discussing another recent experiment that stacks more evidence against the notion of us freely making conscious choices.

It is based on a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Predicting free choices for abstract intentions.

Jerry raises the obvious social implications for this theses, including one that has particularly interested me for some years now — the foundations of our entire legal system, based as it is on the concept that lawbreakers/anti-social criminals are freely (consciously) responsible for their actions, and the requirement to punish for making decisions that cause harm.

On the other hand, the enforcing of rules with threats of punishments is a fundamental part of all social behaviour in probably all social species. Is it possible, or is it even really ethical, for us to be able to accept that our Jack the Rippers should be treated and cured — as opposed to punished — when caught? I hardly think so.

What will a social species do when or if it is eventually confronted with the evidence that the decisions of its members are somehow determined and concluded before those decisions register in the consciousness?


2013-02-11

Our Moral Nature

by Neil Godfrey
An infant

An infant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another fascinating Radio National program worth sharing is Babies and a Sense of Morality in the latest edition of the Health Report.

Highlights:

Babies can recognize good and bad behaviour, and demonstrate that they believe good behaviour is preferable, and even believe that it is right to punish bad behaviour.

The experiment involved exposing babies to puppet shows — no words — in which there were three actants. One was attempting to do something such as push a ball up a hill or open a box to get a toy. Another was a helping agent who assisted the first one with the task. The other was bad, attempting to thwart the first one achieving what he wanted.

The babies demonstrated their preference for the helper.

When they saw a show in which someone was bad to the bad puppet, and another was good to him, they demonstrated a preference for the one who was “rightly bad” for punishing the bad guy.

These are behaviours in babies from 3 to 8 months old.

Check the audio file to find out how they conducted the experiments.

I’m not surprised by the findings. (I am surprised that they could figure out how to do experiments to test for such things.) Anyone who has spent time observing the animal kingdom knows that among social birds and animals there are the same basic moral norms governing their social systems as we have in ours. And they have their own protocols for administering punishments for the rule-breakers, too. The same fundamental morality seems to be part of our nature. It’s all about helping our neighbour and punishing behaviours that are harmful to that ethic. There are human universals that cross all cultures that confirm the same thing.

We don’t need no commandments from gods and preachers to teach us what’s right and wrong. read more »


2012-12-24

Richard Dawkins’ Al Jazeera Interview on Religion

by Neil Godfrey
Professor Richard Dawkins at a book signing fo...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard Dawkins is confronted with all the hard questions and criticisms he has raised with his book The God Delusion in an interview on Al Jazeera — with an otherwise very intelligent interviewer who, it turns out, believes Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse!

The questions he faces pull no punches and I personally thought the interviewer had the better of him when it came to citing the evidence for the motivations of suicide bombers. Richard also faces all those other criticisms his book has provoked — is religion a force for good or evil, faith, science, liberal religion, atheism, what is the worst form of child abuse, facing up to the good done in the name of religion, the meaning of life . . . . .

Special Programme — Dawkins on Religion

(Unfortunately I cannot embed this video. If anyone can tell me how, do let me know. . . . )

Tim has since embedded the video in the Comments section below.


2012-08-11

Evolved Morality

by Neil Godfrey

I  loved this video clip of Frans de Waal’s talk, Moral Behavior in Animals. (It was recently linked on Jerry Coyne’s Evolution is True blog.) It demonstrates that more animals than humans have evolved moral attributes of empathizing with others, offering others consolation, “prosocial” tendencies such as caring for the welfare of others, and a sense of fairness. The talk begins by balancing the themes we used to hear so often about our nearest animal relatives being so aggressive and territorial by showing that they also “believe in” reconciling after fights.

Or if you are short of time and want to jump to the funniest part where we see outrage over an unfair deal . . . . .