Tag Archives: Religion

Why America is NOT a Christian nation in logic anyone can follow

The evidence that the constitution of the United States was crafted to keep religion out of politics is fairly straightforward. This fact however does not stop those in power who want to wedge their beliefs and preferences into public discourse and laws.

Religion is a powerful force in human affairs. It not only motivates individuals, it can move entire groups and nations to act in ways both good and bad.

It can also be divisive — subjugating the needs and rights of others for an interpretation of an ancient text which the adherent believes is the divine word of the creator of the universe.

So why am I addressing this issue? The tipping point for me was reading about how Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is trying to ban same-sex marriage in his state for purely theocratic reasons.

The lengths Conservative Christians and sympathizers will go in order to argue that they and their views deserve special privileges because they are Christians is astounding.

We could go back and look in depth at the history of the US, the founding documents and invoke all kinds of arguments. Ultimately though, the best arguments against such horrendous attempts to overhaul the United States are very simple.

So let’s dive straight into Roy Moore’s flawed reasoning and I’ll demonstrate, in terms everyone can verify and understand, why America is not a Christian nation in the legal sense of the word.

When asked “Are laws themselves superseded by God?” Chief Justice Moore said:

CLAIM ONE: “I think you’re correct in saying that,” he answered. “This is a Christian nation by the fact that 90% of the churches in America are Christian churches and it’s certainly founded upon Christian principles.

I’m sure most churches in America are Christian. That wasn’t the concern of the founding fathers. The establishment clause preventing the government from favoring or discriminating on the basis of religion was largely to prevent one religious group rising up above all the others.

Furthermore, the constitution guarantees equal treatment under the law regardless of religious affiliation. The appeal to a majority is just an attempt by Roy Moore to lend his arguments credibility that they don’t deserve. It’s also a form of bullying.

CLAIM TWO: “The supreme law of the land is the Constitution of the United States which recognizes many of those principles.”

Here’s the kicker — the Constitution is overtly non-religious (secular) and in a fatal way to Christianity.

Compare the very first of the Ten Commandments to the first amendment to the Constitution.

First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”
First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment (the very first issue the founding fathers felt they needed to address) directly contradicts the First Commandment, presumably the most important commandment to Yahweh.

CLAIM THREE: “Our freedom to believe what we want comes from God. When it comes from God, no man or no court, can take it away. That’s a God-given right under the Declaration of Independence, which is law itself.”

This is ignorance and wishful thinking in its extreme. Again, taking the First Commandment, God has clearly said you have freedom to believe in one god only. That’s not freedom,that’s coercion.

If history is a guide, the human species only attains freedom after fighting off the oppression of autocratic regimes. Multitudes of humans have met their demise bringing this fight. Christianity, as a monotheistic religion, has autocracy as a fundamental principle.

You can’t argue that freedom comes from God and then advance a book he supposedly inspired that is filled with punishments and inducements for disobeying his rules, especially when some of those rules fundamentally oppose basic human rights (such as self determination).

“Why must they continue to flog dead arguments?”

But despite all this obvious evidence, conservatives still try to bring religion to the table. Why? Because it gives them unchallenged power to control the populace. They can justify whatever backwards and regressive laws they like, no matter their real world consequences.

The ambiguity of religious texts means they’re able to pick and choose their interpretations and become righteously indignant to those who stand in their way. In many cases, this feeling of moral superiority and absolute certainty has led to genocide and war — both civil and with other nations.

The religious impulse to absolutism sows the seeds of dictatorship. Just listen to the likes of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. They explicitly want to force everyone else to comply with their beliefs. This is not the role of a public official who is in power to represent the people… ALL people.

Constitutional protection was established so that no one could use their own religious interpretations to enforce their own theocratic versions of the law.

The irony is, most conservatives who buy into this “Christian Nation” fallacy are highly critical of nations that employ the same ideology, but in a different religious background.

They must be envious of government officials in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nations where they can enforce theocratic law in ways that contravene most basic human rights.

CONCLUSION

What escapes these fundamentalists is that by saying freedom comes from God (the one they believe in) they’re ignoring their own rule book — the Ten Commandments, which categorically states you are free to believe in only one god — Yahweh.

This coercion is intrinsic in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, where many passages point to the death of all who oppose the will of Yahweh.

Freedom makes no sense when it comes with strings attached as it does with monotheistic religion. God quite clearly states that their can only be one true deity. All others are strictly prohibited.

The founders of the US knew this and went on to make the very first amendment to the constitution in direct opposition to what the creator of the universe laid out in the first commandment.

Hence… America is not founded on any religion. The humanistic philosophy that underpins the founding documents strictly prohibits the state from religious  meddling.

Being products of the Enlightenment, they knew full well what religious tyranny look liked and realized the only true way to ensure everyone is equal under the law was to scribe a secular constitution that prevented such abuses.

Advertisements

Putting and end to being offended

In the wake of the Charlie Hedbo massacre in Paris recently, debates have raged throughout the Western world regarding the free expression and its role in society.

Many conversations have been outright condemnation. Sadly, a good number of other conversations have gone: “Nothing justifies murder, but…”

“We shouldn’t attack ideas with satire and ridicule for fear we might provoke outrage,” they say. This just hands power back to the thugs by giving them exactly what they want — control of others by fear and force.

But here are the facts: Words do not do any intrinsic harm. Ideas don’t have feelings and don’t deserve respect. People deserve respect.

Two things are at play here:

(1) People honestly believe that violence is permissible if someone is provoked

Pope Francis clearly believes this — the paragon of virtue of the Catholic Church supports the wife beater’s (she made me do it) defence, saying: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

It should be no surprise that a Catholic official is in favour of violence towards those who the Church deems as “opposition” (just look at Church history), but this is the meek and mild saviour of the Church speaking! The most popular Pope for a long time because he has appealed to the liberal and non-Catholics.

The kind of revenge society that Pope Francis is advocating is not the sort of society reasonable people want to live in. The idea that violence is justified for any reason other than defense  is simply barbaric. We condemn the kids who inflict physical punishment on the playground; we try to stamp out bullying, yet some of us are quick to say that inciting violence if insulted is okay. Progress in human rights, justice and ethical living since the Enlightenment has been away from this kind of meathead justice.

Violence is never the right answer to words and ideas we don’t like. Better ideas and better words are.

(2) People like to gain control by being reflexively offended

In recent years it has become fashionable for some to try to silence others and exert control on public discourse by playing the “I’m offended” card. The notion being that we all must have our feelings protected and if “I say I’m offended then you’d better just stop”.

But the world is constituted in such a way that this is clearly an absurd position. Just look at the droves of American Idol contestants in genuine shock and denial after receiving negative comments about their lack of singing talent. This is likely the first time they ever received any negative feedback because their so-called friends are constantly pumping them up and egging them on to “pursue their dream”.

You have the right to be offended but you don’t have the right to silence people in public discourse just because their arguments are inconvenient or uncomfortable to you. For if it is acceptable to silence others for your benefit, then it must be fine for others to demand that same level of respect of their beliefs from you.

If we try to change the world to conform with our wishes we are in a head-on course with disappointment and suffering.

It is impossible to not offend someone, somewhere. For some, the mere existence of atheists is offensive. Others just can’t be offended at all, though they feel revulsion at things done in poor taste. The thing is, ideas and concepts aren’t intrinsically offensive, people get offended.

Be not offended

Have you ever noticed that if you take two very similar people (similar interests and stations in life) and tell them the same thing they will respond differently? That’s because it’s not the words or the message that matters, it is the meanings people derive and layer on top of the message.

Words do not injure; words merely carry meaning and that meaning can only lead to injury if it is perceived to be so in the mind of the receiver.

Despite this, it blindingly obvious that when we lash out in response to things we don’t like it is because at some level we believe ourselves to have been injured in some way.

This is probably due to the fact that people identify with their beliefs and the more conviction and importance they assign those beliefs, the more sting they’re likely to feel if their beliefs are challenged. While they maybe ideas to us and we might even recognise them to be in error, to the person who holds the belief it is a matter of utmost importance. This is particularly the case when it comes to religion, primarily because those kinds of ideas are at the root of a person’s identity.

How the Stoics handled insults and criticism

As usual, the Stoics had some of the better insights on dealing with anything people had to say, positive or negative. This was because the Stoics knew that too many people place too much importance on what people thought, to the point where it would derail them emotionally.

Many of the following Stoic approaches to handling insults have been used with great effect in anger management classes and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The Roman Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius prepared himself for the hostile life in Roman Politics by reminding himself not to be surprised that people ware scoundrels:

“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill”.  People do not choose to behave they way they do so “[t]hat men of a certain type should behave as they do is inevitable. To wish it otherwise were to wish the fig-tree would not yield its juice.” – Meditations 2:1

Much of the shock we experience from the actions and words of others is because we at some level we think people shouldn’t be nasty or provocative. This is however, an unrealistic expectation and Aurelius’ morning reminder posted above is an antidote for such idealistic delusion.

We can’t control other people, but we can control our responses to them.

Another very effective way of dealing with comments is to refrain from thinking of them as negative or positive in the first place. After all, it is the assignment of meaning to statements that governs our emotional response.

“Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” – Meditations 4:7

The above quote reveals a central theme in Stoic training that survives today in modern CBT: Don’t allow your initial impression to catch fire and turn into a full-on emotional outburst. Ultimately, we have the faculty of reason that can pour water on the sparks of emotional fires thereby keeping our equanimity and calm.

Epictetus says it much more eloquently:

Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’. Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all–’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you. – Enchiridion 1.5

Ideas don’t deserve respect, people do

In a civil society it is our duty to challenge ideas and allow the best ideas to make to survive while discarding those that are subversive, harmful and factually wrong. This can only happen with reasoned debate and inquiry free from corruption.

Words, ideas and pictures don’t have feelings, they can’t endure suffering and can’t be offended. Ideas deserve no special treatment for if they did then the idea that Earth is center of the universe or the ideas of alchemy would not be cast on the trash heap of history as they should be.

This is the big point that people like Pope Francis don’t get: we have only made moral and scientific progress — away from barbarism and the archaic notions that hold humanity back, by criticising ideas, holding them up in the light of day and seeing whether they’re valid, invalid, helpful or harmful.

However, ideas do carry power — power to change society, transform lives and shift wealth. This means people and and heads of corporations and institutions such as religions are motivated to suppress, deny and rubbish ideas that don’t serve their purpose or will lead to a loss of power. This is why we need freedom of speech — to avoid abuses of power in all its guises.

summary

Some things will offend people, regardless of how tame they maybe. You can’t not offend people. If we had a society that remained tight lipped over important issues for fear someone may cry “offense” then that lack of honesty and transparency would be allow all kinds of abuses and toxic ideas to flourish. The bullies would win.

The main take away points:

  • Words, pictures and actions are not inherently offensive, we become offended.
  • Words and ideas don’t deserve respect but people do
    Ideas don’t have feelings.
  • Trying to bend reality to meet our expectations is a flawed strategy.
  • Remind yourself daily, as Marcus Aurelius did, that you will encounter people who are rude, critical, irrational and outright nasty. Expect insult and avoid injury.
  • Repugnant ideas should be met with counter ideas in a civilised society, so that we can make moral progress.
  • Violence is only justified when meeting violence, never because we don’t like the words or ideas of others.

Stoic week 2014 and the necessity of philosophy

Philosophy has been a source of strength and wisdom throughout the ages — two things sadly missing from our modern world.

Next week is Stoic Week 2014 — an event organised by researchers and Stoicism enthusiasts from the University of Exeter in the UK. In its third year, Stoic Week is both an experiment and a chance for people to “try on” a different philosophy of life.

If you don’t do anything for Stoic week but get the Stoic Week Handbook, you will still receive tremendous value from the event.

Ancient philosophy is important today because our modern cultural ideas have a lot to answer for. For one, we’re taught to worship our emotions. We’re told we should have that new pair of shoes, eat that cake and basically reward ourselves for getting up in the morning.

We are also taught that everything should basically go our way and if it doesn’t this is cause for disappointment. Having ones plans disintegrate right in front of their eyes will unhinge many people, leading to frustration, anger and despair.

Philosophy, particularly the Stoic School informs us that we’re misguided in valuing pleasure too highly and for shielding ourselves from discomfort. The remedy? Start by assessing your expectations.

Expectations — the tranquility destroyers

Recently, I heard an interview with Tony Robbins where he said “If you want a better life trade expectations for appreciations”. Expectations are simply delusions we have about how things ought to go. Expectations set us up for frustration and disappointment.

For one, having expectations relies heavily on our ability to (a) sum up the reality of a situation in order to (b) make realistic predictions about how things will turn out. Human minds are unreliable in both these instances. Sure we can use experience to come up with reasonable estimates about how reality will work out but the universe is far more complex and chaotic than we could ever account for.

The point that Stoic philosophers repeatedly asserted the importance of knowing what is within our power to control and what isn’t.

“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” – Epictetus

A key Stoic maxim is that to have a good life, one must “live according to nature”. In other words, things that happen and the things we have in our life come from providence and can just as easily be taken away. Fretting over things that happen is contrary to nature. Trying to control what is outside ourselves is the source of human suffering.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius asserts often in his Meditations that our concern and despair for things that happen as a matter of natural course of the universe is misguided and pointless. He often mentions that we’ll soon be dead so what’s the point of suffering for no reason.

“… But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.” – Aurelius, Meditations.

Freedom comes from within

If we allow ourselves to be swept away by the impressions (thoughts/appearances) then we have given away our freedom.

Epictetus was the most forceful in this respect. He repeatedly reminds us in his Discourses of the need to be on guard from ‘impressions’ or appearances. In fact the opening lines of Epictetus’ Enchiridion (The Handbook) proceed as follows:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This is where ancient philosophy meets modern therapeutic practices such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Freedom, Epictetus says, flows from the ability to step in between impressions and not be bold over by passions that flow from those impressions. Epictetus wants us to realise that we have control to step in and judge impressions, delay judgement, exert self-control and gain freedom from being swept away by external things and events.

“Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” – Epictetus

A prescription for a better life

How then do we put expectations aside and not be swept away by external events and circumstances? The Stoics devised a number of practices to fully integrate philosophy into the fibre of your being.

Realign your perceptions with reality

Firstly, do a thorough analysis of what is in your power to control and what isn’t. Then discard all concern for those things you can’t control. This practice is connected with the Stoic conception of values. Truly good things are not conditional — they are intrinsically good. These are the virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance (self control).

Realign your expectations

In Western society we are sheltered from the world in many ways. We find innovative ways to avoid thinking about death, we expect things to go well and we constantly seek comfort. It seems somewhat strange then to question these societal norms.

But keeping ourselves in a suspended state of comfort and ignorance just means when things go wrong in life, and they will, we are more likely to not have the courage, strength and wherewithal to navigate through the difficulty and emerge victorious on the other side.

Enter the most prized (in my opinion) Stoic exercise: Praemeditatio futurorum malorum — Anticipation of future difficulties (literally: future evils).

Spend time occasionally contemplating misfortune, including losing the people and things we love. Imagine losing these things in a sort of detached way, not in a way that causes anxiety. The goal is to make sure you are fully aware that these things can and do happen in life and to be prepared should they happen.

This one exercise will recalibrate your expectations and help you develop a deeper sense of gratitude for everyone and everything in your life. By contemplating what life is like having lost the things and people in your life, you are more fully able to feel joy and gratitude in the present. Positivity through negative thinking… I like it!

Both Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Marcus Aurelius devised negative thinking practices to handle the rudeness, annoyances and challenges that arise in everyday life.

Aurelius, who was embroiled in the turbulent political life of Roman Court, used exercise below to keep an even keel.

Aurelius morning exercise

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

Seneca On Anger

Seneca speaks quite timelessly in his essay On Anger about the need to accept the fact that things don’t always go our way in order that we be at peace with them. Seneca’s rather insightful observation is that anger not only had dire consequences if not controlled, it also resulted when we were shocked by events that happen.

Here is a good exercise to demonstrate the power of Seneca’s insight. For most of us living in cities, this will be of particular benefit.

Spend a few minutes every morning thinking about and even expecting people to cut you off in traffic, being stuck in traffic, being late for a meeting… Expecting people to be in a rush and inconsiderate on the road.

Expecting people to let you down, be rude, greedy, impatient and obnoxious inoculates you against these things. They are after all, to be expected as the natural course of things.

Can we at least learn something from this Mayan apocalypse mumbo jumbo?

The failed Mayan apocalypse ramblings could be a positive awakening for humanity, but it won’t be. Read on for why I’m not optimistic.

Sorry but I can’t not talk about the supposed Mayan apocalypse hubbub. I just think that we can learn some lessons from this whole thing. I mean, we laughed at Harold Camping for his absurd pronouncements about the end of the world last year (twice as the math was slightly off).

For starters, the Mayans never made such a prophecy. Even if they did — so what!? The obsession with what the Mayans may or may not have said/thought seems in part to be due to the romantic (false) notion that ancient societies were in some sort of wonderful place, in harmony with nature and the cosmos.

My basic premise

Claims such as those made about a mysterious Planet X destroying the Earth or any other apocalyptic ramblings fail because those making/believing such claims are arriving at conclusions from a faulty epistemology.

Check this list of failed predictions of apocalyptic events (Wikipedia).

Remember, ancient peoples were ignorant of many basic facts that we take for granted today. In fact, you only have to go back a few hundred years to see how primitive our collective human understanding really was. It wasn’t long ago we had no idea of: the germ theory of disease; sun centered solar system; expanding universe; DNA and heritability; evolution and the origin of species; radio waves; electricity; gravity… We were blind to so much.

Misconceptions galore — A Primer on Knowledge

A claim I was presented with recently went as follows (paraphrasing):

“At one time, the research of the day showed that the Earth was the centre of the universe”.

I hear similar statements from people quite a bit. The idea that science is somehow flawed because our understanding of the world was primitive at one point is really unconvincing.

Claims such as “the Earth is at the centre of the universe” stem from primitive intuitions based on limited data — such claims come before research is done.

Remember, science isn’t a “thing”. The word is a noun for a process of fact checking and observation. At one point knowledge on a subject is minimal. The scientific method helps us grow a body of reliable knowledge and increases our understanding. This is what makes science a reliable and valid epistemology.

Therefore (and this is the key point): Human understanding improves over time.

That means, we cast off that which is shown to be false and accept that which we find to be true.

Science has allowed us to open our eyes, lift the veil of ignorance and reveal a world that rich and wonderful and even more important — science has shown us that it is comprehensible, even to our limited brains.

“But science changes over time”

Wrong. Knowledge changes over time. Science is just the method we use to acquire knowledge/discard hypotheses. This is a good thing.

The Mayans had a primitive understanding of reality

The Mayans, like all ancient cultures were superstitious, attributing all manner of natural phenomena to gods and mystical beings. Human progress has been a long history of superstitions being replaced by real knowledge and understanding.

I think we can learn some valuable lessons from these facts about our collective understanding of the universe in which we live, and yet another failed end of the world hypothesis:

  • Knowledge improves over time.
  • The process by which we accumulate claims has changed: We now can produce reliable information about reality through validation and testing.
  • Ancient cultures did not validate claims through a stringent process of checking facts.
  • They didn’t have sophisticated tools to investigate reality and therefore couldn’t be expected to ask better questions.
  • Ancient cultures were largely ignorant of basic facts about the natural order.
  • Ancient cultures did not have privileged information that we don’t know now (as much as we would like to romanticise and claim they did).

Ergo… We must ask ourselves, “How does the ancient claim/philosophy square with our understanding of nature today?”

Ignorance and default thinking

People can still choose to believe that lightning is still mandated by higher powers and that cyclones and earthquakes are sent by gods but this thinking is now optional. When people didn’t know better they defaulted to the supernatural claim. That’s just part of being human.

Conclusion — why nothing will change

If human knowledge improves over time then we can’t look back into the deep past and expect to see great understanding of reality. Even if an ancient culture claimed something about today, that isn’t a reason to believe it (again the Mayans didn’t make an apocalyptic claim, people interpret it that way today).

Here is a prediction: Those invested in the Mayan apocalypse nonsense will probably not change their beliefs even after yet another failed attempt to predict the end of the world. That is just human nature, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in action

What we will see is more ad hoc justifications on and beyond 22 December 2012.

Then the next craze will hit town and the we will be entertained/bemused at yet another prediction stemming from flawed epistemology and more lame justifications.

“That’s just what I believe” inadequacy

With the US Presidential Election just days away, I thought it timely to look at one of the most annoying statements politicians can make (indeed people generally).

Disclaimer: Though there was an emphasis on Republican politicians in this article, I by no means think the phenomenon described here within is confined to any one group (Democrats do this too). We all think our beliefs are right and wonder how others can’t see it. Politicians, however are in the best position to screw others over because of what they think is right.

Sitting in a hotel room in Berlin in September last year and flicking through the TV channels to find an English speaking channel, I happened upon Piers Morgan’s show on CNN. The guest that night — Rick Santorum — the uber-conservative Republican, who was then campaigning for the Republican Primaries.

Piers didn’t really test Santorum too much with his questioning but what did pique my curiosity was a statement Santorum made regarding the theory of evolution. At the time I didn’t realise that this would be the first time of many that I would hear Santorum say these words:

“That’s just what I believe”.

It was of course in reference to the fact that Santorum didn’t believe in evolution and that he believed the everything was created by God (in 6 days).

Think about that statement “That’s just what I believe”. As an interviewer, it would have been nice to hear Piers say “Okay, but you do understand that you can’t force that view on everyone else?” Of course, aligning himself with religious conservatives, Santorum did want to force public schools to teach creationist garbage as science, setting back science education 200-300 years.

I have since learned that when Santorum said it was “just what I believe” he means, “and if you disagree you will pay when I rule the land”.

That’s Just what you believe — so what?

Given that people can believe anything (as Santorum himself shows) we should put little stock in what people believe.

“Oh you believe that taking vitamin C intravenously will cure influenza?”
Or “That face on Mars is obviously a sign of intelligent life”.

People believe a great many things, which is interesting but simply not enough, especially if you’re going to represent a diverse populous as a political representative.

Which is my point really. What right does one have to legislate on the basis of what they believe when it is contrary to fact; marginalises and restricts the rights of others?

I’m picking on Santorum because he was the Republican candidate who was most over-confident of his own beliefs about the world, but the others all exhibited the same pattern.

When confronted with an issue where their statements/policy platform were not supported by evidence, politicians (at least in the Republican primaries) claimed “that’s just what I believe” in an effort to put a full stop on the conversation. No rational justification needed right?

Sorry — you really do have to provide factual justification for your statements

No idea is so great to be immune from criticism and justification. If you think evolution is sent from Satan then we’ll need to fact check that. Hell exists? We gonna need co-ordinates and a map thanks.

If you think the potential foetus from a “legitimate rape” (?!) will be terminated by the woman’s body automatically by some magic means, you are proving to us all that your grip on reality (Tod Akin) is tenuous and that you sir should not be in power.

Again, what you believe is really not that interesting (it is irrelevant) unless it correlates with reality.

It’s politics stupid

Yeah I get it… Politics is about value judgements, but what are value judgements decided on the basis of beliefs and outright fantasies of a political elite?

If we as a species are to evolve (yes evolve) beyond our innate stupidity and ignorance, facts and evidence are really, really important.

So, “that’s just what you believe?” is fine, believe whatever you want — Just don’t inflict your warped reality on the rest of us. Cheers.

Gay rights denial — the untiring bigotry of the pious

In my last post, I commented on how religious moral systems are inadequate in the ways in which they fail to properly account for the real world. Here, we’ll look at the issue of gay marriage as an example of where monotheistic attempts at morality are flawed and ultimately fail us.

In spending too much time and concern with imagined transgressions and harm, religious moral views  steer us away from the actual conditions humans and other animals actually experience. This shift in emphasis from real to imagined often creates more harm than good.

Opposition to gay marriage on religious grounds shows what is wrong with religious conceptions of morality and why secular morality is far superior in practice.

The nature of moral arguments
Whether an argument is moral or not is not determined by who says it, the volume they say it at or the numbers of people who support it. In other words, authority, power and popularity do not make moral arguments valid.

Valid moral arguments must have sound logic and valid reasons.

Pious opposition — Invalid reasons; bad logic

When you strip away the bad logic and invalid arguments, it becomes apparent that homosexuality and same-sex marriage are not moral issues.

Ask an opponent of gay marriage the following: “Can you tell me a valid reason why you as a heterosexual can marry and have all the benefits that come with it, whereas homosexual couples cannot?” What you will hear in return is a bunch of invalid reasons, including:

  • The claim that gay marriage offends God (really? You know that how???)
  • Others will elaborate and say the bible specifically says that the gay lifestyle is immoral and the penalty is going to hell (the Bible does not actually make this explicit claim).
  • Still more assert: “I don’t want to offend the (presumably loving) being that made the rules”.
  • Here is the kicker — a startling claim made by one NZ Herald respondent: that the dictionary definition of marriage doesn’t say anything about same sex couples marrying (as if moral progress is made via lexicography).

Facts
The gay lifestyle is a consequence of being gay. Many believers claim that being gay is a choice, despite the fact that all evidence points to the contrary — that sexual preference is a complex mix of developmental and genetic factors. There is a clear reason for this denial:

Homosexuality is as much as a choice as is heterosexuality. This fact poses a conundrum for the believer — being gay must be a choice or else our God is an asshole — why would God create people with the specific intention of persecuting and condemning some on the basis of a trait that God himself created? This cognitive dissonance explains why believers will deny the reality that homosexuality is not a choice.

Failure by the religious to acknowledge the fact that gay people are born gay amounts to condemnation on the basis of innate identity. This is immoral.

Condemnation on the basis of the sexual orientation a person is born with is morally the same as discrimination on the basis of colour.

Pick your flavour — biblical moral relativism

The Bible is a deeply flawed book filled with contradictions. This in part explains part of its success as a guide for believers. You can pick and choose those parts that confirm what you wish to be true while ignoring the other, contradictory and less convenient passages.

For instance, the books of the Bible gay marriage opponents point to as evidence for their position (one man one woman) also advocate polygamy among numerous other marriage arrangements, including a gem from Exodus which says a slave owner can assign male slaves to female slaves (how moral of those slave owners!) This cool infographic shows marriage according to the Bible.

Vile, evil and immoral commands in the Bible
Perhaps the most quoted biblical warning against homosexuality comes from Leviticus 20:13 (following an earlier warning from Leviticus 18:22): — “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”. What a loving God! Interestingly, in this same book we find passages that prohibit men from shaving their heads or trimming their beards (Leviticus 21:5); and if a priest’s daughter “plays the whore,” we are instructed in God’s infinite loving wisdom to burn her to death.

Upon reading the Bible it is clear that if we are to live our lives based on bronze-age edicts in Leviticus (Deuteronomy, Numbers, Genesis…) we are advocating for a regression back to primitive, morally repugnant times.

Conclusion

Progress in human rights has always had its challenges. Staunch defenders of the status quo is to be expected, but in the areas of human rights, moral and scientific progress, religious opposition has always been an impediment.

From slavery, the oppression of women to barbaric acts such as stoning people for working on the sabbath — we no longer accept these biblical definitions of roles and justice. We (at least in my country) have simply moved on — and a good thing too. These ideas do not deserve respect and for the most part are positively immoral.

When the issue of “should we grant homosexual couples the same status we enjoy as heterosexuals” is finally put to rest, let us look back in 20-30 years to celebrate the victory of compassion over the scornful who tried in vain to convince us that they acted morally.

For more on the science of sexual orientation:

Bible in Kiwi schools? For what reason?

The Bible does have a place in New Zealand schools but it must be in a context of criticism and ethical philosophy — not for the indoctrination of minds into a narrow, dogmatic and exclusive viewpoint.

A handful of correspondents to the NZ Herald on this issue have pointed out that religious instruction should cover a range of world religions — what they believe and how their faith is practiced. This is a good platform, and one that flushes the religious fundamentalists out from behind the bushes.

Under the guise of “values education”, Christians seeking to teach the Bible in schools are primarily concerned with bringing ‘sheep’ to Jesus. This is not values education and unnecessary to lead a good moral life. This does, however fall under the category of indoctrination and does not belong in public schools.

Ethical teaching — a good idea

The teaching of ethics is an absolutely fantastic idea. In fact, I would say philosophy generally is under taught in schools and reflection on the ideas of some of the greatest thinkers throughout the ages can only enrich the lives of students who study them.

Philosophy begins where religion ends, just as by analogy chemistry begins where alchemy runs out, and astronomy takes the place of astrology.
Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great”

Moral thought existed before the Bible and was even more important after because then it was possible to reflect on whether its ideas had moral weight. This basic requirement of any ideas — that they be critically analysed — was met with resistance when applied to the Bible. Those daring to question religious ideas persecuted and outright murdered by those privileged by Christian beliefs (notably the Catholic Church).

morality is Not the unique domain of religion

…religion gives people bad reasons for acting morally, where good reasons are actually available. We don’t have to believe that a deity wrote one of our books, or that Jesus was born of a virgin, to be moved to help people in need. – Sam Harris, http://www.samharris.org/

Morality is not dictated from on high. Moral progress is possible because of critical reflection on behaviour and the consequences of our actions.

Secular morality is concerned with the suffering of sentient beings out of basic empathy and compassion, not because we are commanded to. This includes the experiences of non-human animals as well. This necessarily requires the understanding of the experiences of others (the basis of empathy) and therefore the acceptance of differences.

The Bible is not a reliable manual on morality because it does not teach understanding; instead it inspires the believer to be incredibly judgemental and conceited (hey, I’m only speaking on behalf of the creator of the universe here). The Bible contains many immoral acts — some by God, others commanded by him. The Bible doesn’t mind slavery, glorifies rape and incest in places and stresses ‘obedience or else’ threats from a supposedly ‘loving’ God.

Hence, the Bible is a ‘pick and choose’ book — the choosing done on the basis of personal opinion using an obvious external; standard of morality. This makes biblical morality a perfect example of the moral relativism that is often claimed of non-religious morality (also evidenced by the fact that different denominations cannot agree on basic doctrines and interpretations).

literature and philosophy are superior to holy books

We have had to ignore the Bible on so many fronts in order to progress passed our innate petty, fearful and xenophobic traits. The following is a short list of areas where we have sought moral and human rights progress only to be confronted by religious opposition:

  • The abolition of slavery
  • Women’s rights and equality
  • Women’s health and sexuality (and therefore the alleviation of poverty and emancipation of women from being male property)
  • Progress away from racism
  • Gay and lesbian rights
  • Environmental concerns and conservation
  • The ethical treatment of animals
  • Treatment of non-believers and rival religions…

Progress in these areas requires ignoring the pronouncements of holy books. Indeed, in the case of the Bible, the above items are either not addressed or it advocates diminishing the rights of others — thereby causing more harm in the process.

In religion there is no mechanism for internal improvement of moral codes. After all, how can you improve on God? The emphasis is on inflexible rule dictation with the presumption of truth not requiring external validation. These have shown to be impediments to scientific and positive social change.

Literature is far better at approaching moral conundrums and dilemmas while philosophy enriches our moral intuitions by questioning beliefs and assessing how actions impact individuals and societies in the real world.

Religion is optional and not necessary to teach people to be virtuous and so belongs in NZ public schools without privilege; requiring the same criticism we apply to all philosophical ideas.

Next post – the finer points of morality and why religions have utterly failed us in that respect.

Further resources