Category Archives: Ethics & Human Nature

Are you “politically correct” or are you “an arsehole”?

I used to have this tireless insistence on sticking to my principles and changing for no-one.

If you don’t like me, fuck you! I know who I am and I know what I mean and I’m not responsible for other people’s interpretations. And if you can’t see my point of view, you’re just too dumb, or too sensitive, to understand it.

But the world doesn’t work that way. Your words and actions have real effects on the people around you, especially if you have a large public platform. And you should give a shit about the impact of your words and how you make other people feel even if you don’t agree with their reasoning.

Sam Harris would call this “political correctness”. I call it “not being an arsehole”.

T1J — 12:00-12:37 @….

Why are our enemies always so irrational, crazy, deluded, risk-seeking, suicidal and just plain nuts?

Another notice via Mano Singham of a worth-while article by a “politically conservative” writer, Stephen M. Walt. (Though I think Mano has mistakenly linked to an article about Walt’s article and not the Walt article itself.) Some of Walt’s words of wisdom as cited by Tom Boggioni …..

Noting a New York Times piece that marveled at Kim’s transformation, Walt dismissed it out of hand.

“America’s self-defeating tendency [is] to portray adversaries as irrational, crazy, deluded, risk-seeking, suicidal, or just plain nuts,” he wrote. “Instead of seeing foreign-policy disputes as the product of straightforward conflicts of interest or clashing political values, even well-experienced U.S. officials and knowledgeable pundits are prone to seeing them as a reflection of personality defects, paranoia, or distorted views of reality.”

“Similarly, many Americans continue to view international terrorists as deeply disturbed, irrational, deluded, or simply crazy individuals, instead of seeing them as politically motivated, calculating, and more or less rational actors who have adopted a particular tactic (sometimes including the use of suicide bombers) because they believe (with some basis) that it offers the best chance of realizing their political aims,” . . . . .

He then wrote,

“Some of the individual attackers may indeed be driven by wholly fictitious beliefs, but to dismiss these groups and their leaders as simply crazy underestimates their own resilience, strategic behavior, and capacity to adapt.”

It’s always been this way, hasn’t it? During the Cold War era weren’t we always being told how deluded the various liberation and anti-imperialist movements were — they had fallen for the crazy communist propaganda. And the Palestinians, too, are irrational, crazy, deluded, suicidal hate-filled terrorist lovers who just want to kill Jews. And as for those Muslims, well, ……

 

Free Will Debate between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris — and a plea to a third party…

I used to be fascinated by the question of free will. I still am, but it is some times since I have read the various debates. I see that Richard Carrier has posted a review of an online debate between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris at Dennett vs. Harris on Free Will that will be of interest to some.  (As you may guess from my recent post addressing Harris’s views on another matter, I think Sam Harris comes out as the less clear thinker in such a debate.)

I don’t know if I have Richard Carrier’s attention with this post but just on the off-chance I do, with well-meaning intention I would like to add another comment on an unrelated matter. Carrier writes:

In his response, after 200 words of introduction, Sam Harris first burns 600 words complaining about Dennett being mean to him, treating criticism as an affront to his dignity that requires elaborating on for some reason. This is not a good start. It is usually a red flag for not having an actual defense. It’s the sign of a hack: If you can’t rebut content, complain about tone.

And concludes with:

Maybe some day Harris will realize all the mistakes he made here, and how he may be making them elsewhere too. The outcome will be marvelous.

Richard Carrier knows what it is like to have critics treating him and his works unfairly, very unfairly, even falsely, “being [extremely] mean to him”. Richard is known not to shrink back from complaining about such treatment in some of his response. Now in Richard’s case complaining in such cases about “tone” is not a sign that he has no “actual defense” or that he is “a hack”. But that’s not how people tend to react. Complaining in the heat of the moment about tone and unfair treatment can create the impression of being shrill. It certainly robs one of the moral high ground one has just gained by being the subject of bitter and false accusations. That moral high ground becomes evident by a response that shows up one’s attackers for what they are. The moral high ground is clear for all when an unprofessional attack is confronted with a professional and civil response.

I think it is a shame that John Loftus (an anti-Christian polemicist) and Richard Carrier cannot work harmoniously and supportively together. Recently, for example, John Loftus in his post Dr. Wallace Marshall Highly Endorses David Marshall’s Book, “Jesus is No Myth” added this disappointing remark:

Richard Carrier thinks this book is bad to say the least, but I find Carrier to be shrill, very offensive and exaggerated in defense of his own work.

Richard, you know you have the method and logic on your side (generally) so there is no need to display anything but the sound method and logic of your arguments against the criticisms. People don’t “work” in an ideal righteous and rational world of our own liking. The most devastating and memorable critiques I have seen against unfair or obtuse critics come from scholars like Michael Goulder, for one, who always responded with scholarly but wry wit. The punch line usually came towards the end — leaving room for readers to be impressed by the devastating logical dismantling of the opponents.

Another scholar I like and who demonstrates calm, devastating critique in a scholarly manner is Crispin Fletcher-Louis. He has the ability to demonstrate, for example, that Larry Hurtado is an apologist some of whose arguments are without merit in the scholarly world by calm scholarly prose:

If, as we have argued here, the New Testament nowhere in fact presents direct evidence to support Hurtado’s account of religious experience in christological origins then, for his thesis to have any credence, he surely has to explain why it is that the early Christians buried the evidence for what really happened and created so thoroughgoing an alternative story.

Fletcher-Louis, C. (2009). A New Explanation of Christological Origins. Tyndale Bulletin, 45. pp. 200f

Ouch! That’s a professional way to say that Hurtado’s argument is baseless and flies in the face of all the evidence for which there are other far more cogent explanations, that Hurtado is arguing like an apologist despite his claims to be doing otherwise.

There are a number of points where I think Richard goes beyond the evidence, too, and that his main arguments would be stronger without some of those loose bricks. I have had to tidy up a few of my own in the past. But that’s not the main point here.

The main point is a plea to do a Saul to Paul turnabout. It’s okay for those “on the top” in the professional world to display their bigotry, bias and falseness. What puts the spotlight on those warts is a calm and scholarly and professional rebuttal of the content, ignoring the “tone”. The contrast is immediately evident. Those “on the bottom” of the pecking order can never afford to look like the aggressor or as if they are prepared to get as dirty as their opponents. I know. I sometimes in the past crossed the line in responses to a few critics whom I considered blatantly dishonest — and it always backfired.

End of plea.

 

Why We Connect Moral Judgments to God(s)

. . . . religious concepts are parasitic upon moral intuitions 

How is it possible to live a moral life if we don’t believe in a god?

Without belief in God, some believers shriek hysterically, we would have no moral code. We would believe we would be free to kill and steal and do all sorts of other horrible things.

Christians, Muslims, Jews claim that their God gave humanity its moral laws or codes. Other believers attribute moral interests to their respective deities, too. Gods are so interested in the morality of our actions, we are told, that they will even punish or reward people according to whether they have been good or bad.

What follows is from a book first published a decade and a half ago so others more in the know may be able to contribute more current insights or simply alternative explanations. Pending those updates here is Pascal Boyer‘s explanation for why people connect moral interests to gods or spirits or ancestors that he set out in Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

Boyer writes:

[W]e know that religious codes and exemplars cannot literally be the origin of people’s moral thoughts. These thoughts are remarkably similar in people with different religious concepts or no such concepts. Also, these thoughts naturally come to children, who would never link them to supernatural agency. Finally, even religious people’s thoughts about moral matters are constrained by intuitions they share with other human beings, more than by codes and models. (p. 191)

Boyer begins by addressing the many cross-cultural studies that demonstrate beyond all doubt what all parents have always known: that even young children have moral intuitions. They don’t need to be taught by a thunderous voice from heaven that it is wrong to intentionally deceive someone else with misleading information. No-one taught my infant that it is wrong to lie before he  told his first lie with clear signs of associated guilt. Further, young children know the difference between “moral principles” and “conventional rules”. In a classroom, for example, they know the difference between shouting out in class and stealing someone’s pencil case. They also know that stealing an eraser is not as serious as hitting others.

Most significantly, they know that

social consequences are specific to moral violations. (p. 179)

If they forget or disregard an instruction not to leave their notebook beside the fireplace they will not be surprised or troubled by the worst consequences in the same way they expect to suffer social ostracism or condemnation for being caught stealing.

So experimental studies show that there is an early-developed specific inference system, a specialized moral sense underlying ethical intuitions. Notions of morality are distinct from those used to evaluate other aspects of social interaction (this is why social conventions and moral imperatives are easily distinguished by very young children). (p. 179)

There is something remarkable about such moral intuitions in the story of our development to maturity. Certain actions are seen as immoral for their own sake no matter what, and that understanding does not change into adulthood. Stealing an eraser is wrong, period. Now there might be circumstances where you, the thief, think stealing it is justified — the owner doesn’t care; its owner stole something from you earlier so stealing the eraser is rationalised as “just deserts”; etc. — but the fact remains we know that stealing the eraser is nonetheless a moral breach.

So it is all the more interesting that no such change is observed in the domain of moral intuitions. For the three-year-old as well as for the ten-year-old and indeed for most adults, the fact that a behavior is right or wrong is not a function of one’s viewpoint. It is only seen as a function of the actual behavior and the actual situation. (p. 180, my highlighting in all quotations)

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Witch Hunts, an Economic Explanation

I just read an interesting article, How Medieval Churches Used Witch Hunts to Gain More Followers, by Becky Little discussing another article by two economists arguing that “the Catholic and Protestant churches promoted themselves by persecuting witches.”

The original article, Witch Trials, is by Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ and is available as a pdf download. Their abstract:

We argue that the great age of European witch trials reflected non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share in confessionally contested parts of Christendom. Analyses of new data covering more than 43,000 people tried for witchcraft across 21 European countries over a period of five-and-a-half centuries, and more than 400 early modern European Catholic-Protestant conflicts, support our theory. More intense religious-market contestation led to more intense witch-trial activity. And, compared to religious-market contestation, the factors that existing hypotheses claim were important for witch-trial activity — weather, income, and state capacity — were not.<

No doubt historians will debate the economic interpretation, but it looks like one more perspective to consider. I have not yet read the original article since I will need to set aside some decent time for it given the detailed datasets attached to it that would need to be analysed.

One interesting point at a glance is that the Catholic nations appear to be significantly “less guilty” than the Protestant ones.

Humans!

Kensington council warned of ‘criminally lax’ safety standards years before Grenfell Tower fire

If only we would target criminally negligent authorities, managers and owners the same way we target terrorists.

If there is no God, is murder wrong?

Michael Shermer (head of The Skeptics Society and whose book Why People Believe Weird Things I liked; some of its arguments actually apply to many Christian believers, academics included) has posted a video challenging the fundamentalist/conservative Christian claim that without God there is no secure basis for morality.

Dennis Prager, someone better known to US readers, posted the usual dogmatic nonsense @ ‘If There Is No God, Then Murder Isn’t Wrong’.  (See below for the video)

Now Shermer has responded with – ‘If There Is No God, Is Murder Wrong? He pretty much knocks out the argument with his first question or point one of four. Happily both videos are short.

Paul and Eschatalogical Morality

In a recent post (What a Bizarre Profession), Neil cited James McGrath over at The Pigeon Trough, discussing Paul’s admonition to the Romans not to resist the powers that be.

13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  (NASB)

English: The Apostle Paul
English: The Apostle Paul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naturally, McGrath mainly wished to take a few fizzling fusillades at mythicists, and that’s no surprise. What did surprise me was the number of respected scholars who actually take the scripture so seriously (if not literally), they feel obliged to tie themselves into rhetorical knots over whether and when to refuse to submit to governing authorities.

As Neil rightly said:

This human universal owes precious little to a few words written from a vaguely understood context and provenance in a civilization far removed from ours.

But even if he had written more clearly, and we fully understood the context of Romans 13, would we have any reason to consider Paul a trustworthy advocate for ethical behavior?

The question intrigues me, so I thought I’d compile a little list of reasons we might not want to trust Paul’s advice.

♦ Imminent Eschatology

Paul was clearly a believer in the imminent eschaton. He seems to have arrived at this belief by analyzing recent events, especially the resurrection, in light of scriptural reinterpretation. We might find his method somewhat odd, since he could have cited the teachings of his Christ instead. However, Paul either chose not to mention Jesus’ predictions concerning the coming of the Son of Man and the destruction of the Temple, or else he was unaware of them. read more »

Evolution of Innate Morality

Rosa Rubicondior blog discusses the New Scientist article, Monkeys and dogs judge humans by how they treat others

See Evolution of Innate Morality

Is your dog capable of moral judgements? Is it watching you and evaluating your trustworthiness?

According to a team of researchers from Kyoto and Hokkaido Universities, Japan, it might well be doing so.

Almost to a man or woman, theists will tell you that if gods provided us with anything, they provided us with morals. Neither Christians, Muslims or Jews seem to be able to understand how we could possibly have got morals from anywhere other than their holy book, revealed, so they claim, to mankind specifically to tell us how to behave and what rewards of punishments we could expect to ensure compliance.

Video from the New Scientist page:

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Radicalisation — whether extreme sports, cults or terrorism

Yes, time for me to finish blogging on what the research has shown about how radicalisation works, how people are recruited into terrorist organisations, religious cults, . . . even extreme sports . . .  As Jason Burke (whose works I have blogged about here, most recently on “the new threat“) points out: it’s all the same mechanics.

https://twitter.com/burke_jason/status/830797108059971585

 

https://twitter.com/PeterRNeumann/status/830462741987131393

 

Now to complete those posts on Friction, How Radicalization Happens to Them and to Us

Religion and Understanding the Zealots, Theirs and Ours

A few weeks ago in the course of explaining why I called this blog “Vridar” I posted a few remarks about American author Vardis Fisher. The name “Vridar” was Vardis Fisher’s fictionalized autobiographical name in the last novel of his Testament of Man series, Orphans of Gethsemane. I was pleased to read last evening that I am not alone in my interpretation of some key aspects of Vardis Fisher’s life and interests . . . and I wonder if I even share some of his reasons for taking a special interest in the violence and trauma arising from the politics of the Middle East. The bolding in the critic’s quotation is, of course, my own.

In a period of the resurgence of fundamentalist religions in many parts of the world, Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man may be a text of some significance.

Fisher, raised by a strict Mormon mother on a solitary Idaho homestead, commanded a more sympathetic view of zeal than could most American intellectuals of his time. Possessed of a dual consciousness, Fisher rejected the rule-bound exclusivity of any self-appointed “chosen” people, but was all the same drawn to the passion of the prophet. In Testament of Man, he carried out his own arduous quest — to understand the moral development of western humanity. He donned the prophet’s mantle to warn against the dangers of fanaticism. Chronicling the spiritual development of his forebears, Fisher created a prophetic work [i.e. the Testament of Man series of novels] mourning the lost opportunities of Judeo-Christian tradition. He identified those points at which, in his opinion, a wrong turn was taken, a wrong road chosen.

In dishonoring the Mother, demonizing the “other,” [in  privileging law over ethics, and failing to synthesize love of wisdom with love of God, humanity set a course that has led to Inquisition and Holocaust. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, that course has yet to be adequately altered. Religion and reason have yet to be reconciled, and Reuben’s passionate appeal in The Island of the Innocent has yet to be answered: “But there’s a job to be done or there’ll be no Alexandrias. We’ll have a world of Jerusalems”(63).

Zahlan, Anne R. 2000. “A World of Jerusalems”: The Middle East as Contested Space in Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man.” In Rediscovering Vardis Fisher: Centennial Essays, edited by Joseph M. Flora, 191-207. Moscow, Idaho; University of Idaho Press.

The four novels set in historical Palestine that Anne Zahlan discusses are

  • The Divine Passion (1948)
  • The Valley of Vision (1951) — set in the kingdom of Solomon
  • The Island of the Innocent (1952) — set in the time of the Maccabean revolt
  • Jesus Came Again (1956)
Although it can be tiresomely didactic, The Island of the Innocent serves as the philosophical centre of Fisher’s monumental sequence. At novel’s end, all hopes for a marriage of the best Judaic and Hellenic principles are buried with Judith and Philemon. The work’s repeated debates as to the merits of reason and faith, beauty and righteousness end in violent encounter and the tragic failure of synthesis at the heart of the Testament of Man. Zahlan, pp. 201f.

The anthropology and sociology that informed Fisher’s views have been superseded in the academic world but read as human dramas they have not lost their relevance for today. Of The Island of the Innocent Zahlan writes,

The Island of the Innocent is a daring book. Perhaps only someone raised among Mormons withdrawn from a world of “Gentiles” could, in the last 1940s and early 1950s, have written such a work. In the years after World War II when the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust were being exposed, Vardis Fisher had the courage and clear-sightedness to maintain an adamant opposition to exclusivist religion and politics. Having been exposed as a boy to theocratic-fortress mentality, he could insist on the need to resist the powerful temptation of a tribalist response to even the most extreme persecution. (p. 201)

The tribalism permeating so much of Israeli society and politics is no less problematic today.

Rejecting or misunderstanding teachers such as Joshua [Jesus], the people of Vardis Fisher’s Holy Land continue in the erroneous ways of their ancestors and base three major religions on rejection of the Mother and deification of the Word.

Fisher’s Middle East focuses on Jews and centers on Jerusalem. . . . His concentrating of theological, ethical, and political struggle on the Jews does not, however, unreasonably privilege Jewish perspectives. In fact, he dwells on dissensions among Jewish believers as, in later volumes of the Testament, he emphasizes divisions among Christians: Hasidim contend with Letzim, and Essenes with Pharisees, as do the factions of the early church among themselves. A onetime citizen of the Mormon Zion, Fisher no more endorses ways of thinking such as those that underlie right-wing movements in contemporary Israel than he does any other exclusivist ideology. To the degree that he deals with the historic relationship of the Jews with other peoples, Fisher foregrounds tensions similar to those that plague the Middle East today.

Interestingly Anne Zahlan introduces another scholar who has also influenced my views, Edward Said, and as I have done in posts here singled out a tragically ironical point that Said makes about antisemitism:

In the second half of the twentieth century, Said explains, the “myth of the arrested development of the Semites” underwent a curious bifurcation: “[O]ne Semite went the way of Orientalism, the other, the Arab, was forced to go the way of the Oriental.”15 In the aftermath of World War II, anti-Semitic hostility has been redirected to Arabs; Israelis now serve the western imagination as new colonial heroes who stand in for “white men” in a depraved Orient. Some of Fisher’s depictions of “the Syrians” and “Antiochus of Corinth” fit an updated Orientalist model of cruel barbarians besieging devout Hebrews, but the author of the Testament of Man takes no stand above or distant from the Semitic peoples he describes. . . . 

Portraying the Middle East as he does, Fisher looks not only back but also “ahead” to . . . his own [world]. He depicts the birthplace of western civilisation was a battleground, painting a picture colored by pained awareness of the failings of his own culture. (pp. 205f)

So I’m not alone in my dual interest of religion and politics, in particular seeking to understand the roots of religion and the violence of religiously minded people today — all the while idealistic enough to do my little bit for a world of Alexandrias competing with the Jerusalems.

 

 

 

 

The Games and Tricks We Play with Words

Remember Don’t Think of an Elephant! and its co-author George Lakoff and then go to Trump Means Exactly What He Says: Trump is swaying millions with his calculated rhetoric also by Lakoff. Lakoff takes the time to dissect Trump’s seemingly casual throw-away words and helps us understand a lot about the subtleties of communication. We can often sense that something’s not right or that there’s a message being conveyed that is not being explicitly stated, but Lakoff’s analysis helps us identify why we can sense that and puts a spotlight on the mechanisms by which that unstated message is being conveyed:

Here’s his analysis of Trump’s suggestion that many took as a call to assassinate Hilary Clinton:

Here is the classic case, the Second Amendment Incident. The thing to be aware of is that his words are carefully chosen. They go by quickly when people hear them. But they are processed unconsciously first by neural circuitry—and neurons operate on a thousandth-of-a-second time scale. Your neural circuitry has plenty of time to engage in complex forms of understanding, based on what you already know.

Trump begins by saying, “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment.” He first just says “abolish,” and then hedges by adding “essentially abolish.” But having said “abolish” twice, he has gotten across the message that she wants to, and is able to change the Constitution in that way.

Now, at the time the Second Amendment was written, the “arms” in “bear arms” were long rifles that fired one bullet at a time. The “well-regulated militia” was a local group, like a contemporary National Guard unit, regulated by a local government with military command structure. They were protecting American freedoms against the British.

The Second Amendment has been reinterpreted by contemporary ultra-conservatives as the right of individual citizens to bear contemporary arms (e.g. AK-47s), either to protect their families against invaders or to change a government by armed rebellion if that government threatens what they see as their freedoms. The term “Second Amendment” activates the contemporary usage by ultra-conservatives. It is a dog-whistle term, understood in that way by many conservatives.

Now, no president or Supreme Court could literally abolish any constitutional amendment alone. But a Supreme Court could judge that certain laws concerning gun ownership could be unconstitutional. That is what Trump meant by “essentially abolish.”

Thus, the election of Hillary Clinton threatens the contemporary advocates of the Second Amendment.

Trump goes on: “By the way, and if she gets to pick [loud boos]—if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Here are the details.
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So you’re not a bigot? Why, then, dehumanize the other?

Stroop_Report_-_Warsaw_Ghetto_Uprising_06bScene 1 — dehumanizing refugees

One October morning in 2001 while having coffee at a bustling university refectory I was intently focused on a major story in The Australian newspaper. Claims had been made by leading government figures, including the Prime Minister, that some desperate asylum seekers on a leaking boat had attempted to coerce a naval vessel into taking them to Australia by threatening to throw their children overboard if their request was denied. Some did actually carry out their threat. Children were tossed into the ocean in order to force our sailors to carry out the refugees’ demands.

I did not need to wait for the eventual official inquiry to know that the claims were false. I was a parent and I knew many other parents. I know how parents behave. They do not do what our Prime Minister was telling us that these particular parents did. I could not bring myself to believe that Muslims parents lacked the parental devotion to their children that we find throughout the human race, indeed among probably all mammal species.

But these asylum seekers were Muslim so many Australians did believe the official government sources.

More recently I seem to recall reading about a directive from a government minister for reporters to be kept away from refugees so they unwelcome arrivals could not have their human faces displayed to the wider public.

Scene 2 — dehumanizing SDAs

Twenty years earlier Australians were again deeply divided over the news that parents belonging to a religious cult, the Seventh Day Adventists, had taken their infant child out to central Australia and murdered (many said sacrificed) her. At the time I belonged to a cousin cult, the Worldwide Church of God, and I knew several Seventh Day Adventist. Other members I knew well and I understood very well the strong effort the parents maintained to appear stoical when confronted by the media and again in the court hearing, because such a front how members are trained to act in public in the face of hostile pressure. We knew that the probability that the parents really murdered their own infant was small compared with the probability that much of the purported evidence for their guilt was fabricated in the minds of a public (and jury) ignorant of and hostile towards religious cults.

It took thirty-two years for the parents’ names (or in particular the mother’s name) to be exonerated and the cause of the baby’s death to be officially stated to be the result of a dingo attack. I know people today who still refuse to believe in the mother’s innocence, and I really don’t want to know them.

Scene 3 — humanizing Hitler

I have never seen the 2004 film The Downfall (Der Untergang) but I recall reading about the controversy it was causing. Many were criticizing it because it was thought to “humanize” Hitler. In principle I thought the idea admirable. We should see Hitler as a real human being, as one of us. How else could we ever really understand him, and understand how humans can create so much terror? Always viewing him as a monster, unlike the rest of us, as one whom we can theorize might justly have been murdered in his cradle, does not strike me as the best way to understand how people can create the events of the 1930s and 40s.

Scene 4 — dehumanizing Asians

I grew up being taught that Asians, and especially the Japanese, had a cruel streak in them that was alien to most of us white people. I don’t recall ever challenging that teaching because I knew it was the belief of a generation who experienced the Second World War and for whom the treatment of POWs by the Japanese was fresh in their memories. But as I grew older I came in contact with Asians in a very different context and could not bring myself to believe that their human nature was any different from mine. I was also learning about cultural and historical differences, and even learning that our white soldiers were capable of extreme cruelty themselves in the “right” circumstances.

Pausing to understand

A few days ago a new book I ordered arrived in the mail: Why would anyone believe in God? by Justin L. Barrett. In the Preface the author writes: read more »

Atheism without the extras, please

voltaireWhen Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and those absurdly provocative big bus advertisements for atheism burst on the scene I loved it. Wow! A loud voice shouting back at what had been a steady rise of conservative and fundamentalist religion’s popularity and even political influence — what a refreshing turnaround. So refreshing that at first I tried to overlook a few lines by both authors that betrayed a certain ignorance of the religious mind, but that could not last. It was Sam Harris’s End of Faith that disturbed me enough to want to do my bit to publicly share evidence-based understandings of the causes of Islamic and other terrorism. It hurt to see public intellectuals promoting both atheism and ignorance about religion and human behaviour in the one breath.

New Atheism enters the 21st Century straight from the 18th

This blanket attack on religion and the irrational in human behaviour was all very fine and wonderful and in may ways “a very good thing” back in the days of the Enlightenment. Écrasez l’infâme, crush the infamous, especially the clergy, Voltaire demanded in every letter. But the Enlightenment also ushered in a new wave of learning that has deepened our understanding of how humans work and even what religion actually is. It’s crazy to carry on the war cry of Voltaire and the other philosophes as if we have learned nothing about what makes people religious in the first place.

Of course we ought to do whatever we can to écrasez l’infâme wherever we can, but if our intention is to rescue our fellow creatures from bondage then it must follow that we do so with understanding, even some brotherly or sisterly compassion. If we don’t seriously make an effort to inform ourselves of what scientific research has been learning about religion, religious ideas, and human proclivities in these directions, then we risk sounding like ignorant bigots. Or maybe it’s healthy to temper our activism with good old common sympathy for our fellow creatures. I happen to be one of those who, on becoming an atheist and then looking around for a new sense of place in the world, concluded that we, all of humanity, are made of the same stuff, living on the same rock, all with the same fate, the same desires and needs, and that the best thing we can do in our short time here is to help make life a bit more comfortable for any and every one else we pass by. Many others had found this place long before I did and I know many others continue to do so.

Zeal for righteousness belongs to the cults. In modern parlance that phrase can be translated as devoted to principles. In one sense a principled life is (another) good thing, but principles also kill. Ideologies are grounded in virtuous principles. To live with a sense of common humanity, with compassion, is far better than a life focused on abstract principles.

The more I listened to Hitchens and Dawkins the more I felt that they were losing their compassion and understanding. It is too easy to sound like an brain dead bigot if we are too busy attacking religion to have time to learn something serious about it and why people embrace it.

20120828-A_theismCropped
http://phawrongula.wikia.com/wiki/Atheism%2B

ftbAtheism+ — the morality police, judge and hangman

Then there’s that break away from the New Atheists, the morality police. Merely attacking religion in the manner of the eighteenth century deists and atheists is not enough for these people. They need to attack morals, too. which in practice means attacking persons they deem to be falling short of the higher secular values atheists are supposed to be gifting to the world. I had not fully realized the nature or origin of this particular group of atheists until I read James Lindsay’s blog article, Atheism+: The Name for What’s Happening to Richard Carrierread more »