Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category
The following is in response to a post on the Friendly Atheist blog, asking for short-and-sweet answers to common questions about atheists.
- Why do you not believe in God?
God-with-a-G means the Judeo-Christian God, I assume. I don’t believe in that “version” for the same reason I don’t believe in any of the others: no evidence for it that stands on its own merits, just “testimony” from fallible people.
- Where do your morals come from?
I don’t like the term “morals” at all: it reeks of prescriptive and proscriptive instructions, handed down from “authority”. I prefer to think in terms of “ethics”, sets of rules agreed on by a society of peers: doctors, lawyers, or… people.
- What is the meaning of life?
I think actions have the meanings you put in to them (the intentions behind them), and your life is the sum of your actions. In other words: a complex mess, just like life.
- Is atheism a religion?
About the only thing all atheists have in common is a lack of belief: they don’t necessarily share any other positive beliefs, or agree on anything else. That’s a “no”, then.
- If you don’t pray, what do you do during troubling times?
Talk to people who can help. I sorted out my philosophical positions on most things years ago, and that “armour” proved its usefulness when I was handed something real to worry about: I felt no need to turn to faith.
- Should atheists be trying to convince others to stop believing in God?
I don’t think so: it only leads to resentment and reactionary thinking. You can lead a horse to water, and all that, but you can also lead by example: be a good person, and tell the truth about yourself if asked.
- Weren’t some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century committed by atheists?
You can find plenty of evidence that Hitler was not an atheist, such as his statement about “doing God’s work” by trying to wipe out the Jewish race. Stalin is a more complex example: if you believe Khruschev’s “Secret Speech”, Stalin thought he was a god, and the Party was his Church.
- How could billions of people be wrong when it comes to belief in God?
Because people tend to do what’s easiest? If they are taught to believe from a young age, and live surrounded by fellow believers, what reason do they have to “swim against the stream”?
- Why does the universe exist?
“Why” is a human question: we want to know the reasons why things happen. It doesn’t mean that such reasons actually exist, or that “Why?” is a valid question to ask about the natural world. Does the universe care about our questions?
- How did life originate?
At this time I don’t believe anyone knows for sure: it was a very long time ago, so the evidence (if any is left) will be hard to find. Which does not mean that any religion has the Answer: that’s a “God of the Gaps” argument.
- Is all religion harmful?
I’m not qualified to talk about all religion, so I wouldn’t want to make any sweeping statements of that sort. What I do know is that much of the apparent good is not actually that good, in a wider context e.g. Mother Theresa, religious charities failing to spread the Safe Sex message.
- What’s so bad about religious moderates?
As people, I think they’re just people like me – this is not about who they are, but I have a problem with some things they do. Teaching children it’s OK to live their lives by “fairy tales” that have no evidence to back them, on the word of “authority”, is a grave disservice to the next generation of critical thinkers. They serve as “enablers” of religious extremism, much as friends and family of alcoholics can serve as “enablers” by buying the drinks.
- Is there anything redeeming about religion?
Religion has, at various historical times, provided essential services we would now expect from government. Laws, infrastructure, even “public health” (e.g. “don’t eat pork” when it was dangerous). It also provided a sense of community, something that atheists not really able to do successfully, yet. (We ask too many questions!)
- What if you’re wrong about God (and He does exist)?
If I ever meet up with one or more gods, I will have some harsh questions. Such as: “what the bleep were you thinking?”, or “where the bleep were you when your people needed you?” A god that just sat back and watched this planet gets no respect from me.
- Shouldn’t all religious beliefs be respected?
Certainly, as long as lack of belief is also respected. There should be no coercion, on any level, from anyone. Mandatory prayer, using my money to fund religious organisations, granting religion freedom from criticism… all forms of coercion. Basically, any intrusion of any particular religion, into an area it is not wanted, is a form of coercion, in my opinion.
- Are atheists smarter than theists?
It depends on what “smart” means. I think that atheists have done more thinking about the issues, but whether that’s “smart” or not is a “value judgement” I have doubts about. It could be that religious belief confers a long-term evolutionary advantage, which would be hard to argue against. See also Idiocracy.
- How do you deal with the historical Jesus if you don’t believe in his divinity?
That doesn’t sound hard at all: a real person, walking around 2000 years ago, saying things, perhaps performing magic tricks, is not a deal-breaker. Asking us to accept claims of supernatural powers is a problem, especially considering what we know about the history of the Church: a committee assembled an agreed version of events, based on written accounts, and included the supernatural claims that gave that Church its legitimacy.
- Would the world be better off without any religion?
Hard to say: maybe in the future, if people move that way of their own accord. My “no coercion” principle works both ways: actions have reactions, and even if I had the authority to take away someone’s religion, I would have no control over their beliefs.
- What happens when we die?
If I have a say in the matter, I hope I can feed a tree. A pear tree, specifically. I like pears. 8)
I had high hopes for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I really did. The previous series by creator Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing, is at the top of my favourite TV show list, even surviving Sorkin’s departure, lasting a full seven seasons. Studio 60, on the other hand, was cancelled after just one season. As with The West Wing, Ireland is not far behind the USA; there, the last episode went out about ten days ago, while I’ve just seen the penultimate episode here. The following might be considered a “spoiler”, so stop reading if you expect to see it later.
There is still one episode after tonight’s episode K&R Part III, and I’ll watch it, but it’s over for me. It was refreshing to see a Christian character on a prime time show who was not some holier-than-thou stereotype, the character of Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson). With Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) in surgery after pre-natal complications, and Danny Tripp frantic in the hospital waiting room (Bradley Whitford, another West Wing veteran), the show was already treading uncomfortably close to soap.
That was only half the drama, because the brother of show star Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry) is being held hostage in Afghanistan, and the press are camped on the studio doorstep, prompting colleague Simon Stiles to launch a Quixotic rant in their direction, and almost lose his job as a result.
Enough drama? Not quite: in this episode, the aforementioned Harriet pushed the “no atheists in foxholes” button I had hoped the show was canny enough to avoid. Danny is tearing out what remains of his hair, as Jordan suffers complications of her complications. What does Harriet do? She offers to “teach him how to pray”.
Why do I find this offensive? It’s a modern Hollywood cliché: treating religion as a “down home” value, something “real” in comparison to the “glamour” of modern life. It encourages the kind of religiously-intrusive behaviour I’ve seen for myself: preying on people in their time of need, offering delusional comfort and a distraction from their immediate concerns.
And Lo! Jordan doesn’t, well, “cross the Jordan”. She pulls through, and all is right with the world. To me, this was Studio 60′s Jump The Shark moment. If you follow the link, you’ll see how many other reasons other have to say it Jumped, but for me, that was it. I just cast my vote against “Harriet”.
I’ve heard it said that King Crimson, the band, is “a way of doing things”. I agree, but I would also apply that description to Rush, who have just released Snakes & Arrows. Far Cry is the first single:
Rather than tell you what the overarching theme is – which is not that simple to define – I’ll use the song Armor and Sword to illustrate the way a few well-chosen lyrics open up a world of concepts that lend depth to an album.
The first line also gave the album its name:
The snakes and arrows a child is heir to
Are enough to leave a thousand cuts
According to lyricist Neil Peart, the term “snakes and arrows” was originally a pun on the kids’ game “snakes and ladders”, and part of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:
To be, or not to be, — that is the question: —
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? — To die, to sleep, —
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, — ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.
This passage has Hamlet questioning his own will to live; is life worth the pain? As used in the song, the “thousand natural shocks” becomes an unnatural “death by a thousand cuts”: the slowest and most painful form of death possible, it has also become a metaphor for the slow degradation or destruction of something held dear against one’s will. By way of contrast, the soliloquy came early in Shakespeare’s tragedy, when Hamlet thought himself in control of his destiny, and “to be or not to be” was a question he could honestly answer.
In the game of Snakes & Ladders (US: Chutes & Ladders), the tumbling of a dice marks your progress up the board, from the bottom to the top, step by step. Your luck can land you on a ladder, sending you upwards quickly, or on a snake, on which you slide downwards. In the worst case, a snake can send you “back to square one”, literally. The lucky player makes it to the top first, winning the game against the rivals.
Our better natures seek elevation
A refuge for the coming night
No one gets to their heaven without a fight
In the Old Testament myth, a snake was the reason Adam & Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden, and (if you believe the Bible), our existence since that point has been a fight to re-enter that Heaven. It pays to be a “straight Arrow”, but the Snake is still with us, in the form of Sin, laying traps of Temptation to be resisted. In the Snakes & Ladders game, however, your progress is random, determined by the dice, so is there any meaning to be found in the fight to the top?
This is where luck adds an extra layer of meaning: in his album essay, The Game of Snakes & Arrows, Neil explains what happened next. When “Snakes & Arrows” was suggested as a possible album title, Neil went online to check if anyone else had used it, and found that there was once an Indian board game called “Snakes & Arrows”, the ancestor of “Snakes & Ladders” that was adapted by the British from the original.
Also known as Lila or Leela, meaning “play”, it’s a game based on a Hindu concept: the idea that life is a game, and the Universe is a playground for the gods; a puppet theatre in which spontaneous plays are improvised. All this is dharma, the will of the gods, with the random dice the sole deciding factor; I looked for any reference to karma, the idea that a person’s actions can influence their progress up the board, towards their particular heaven, but I found none.
So, if “no one gets to their heaven without a fight”, what are they fighting for? The lesson to be learned from Leela is that Life is a cosmic game, to be enjoyed for as long as it lasts.
The gods are just having fun; why should a human life be any different?
Snakes & Arrows, in its lyrics, casts a soft, sympathetic, yet unrelenting light on the difficulties people create for themselves, in their beliefs and the wars they get into over them. Yet, what we face is not a game; religious fanaticism in all its forms is subjecting our world to “death by a thousand cuts”, the “snakes” are the sins we burden our children with, and the “arrows” are the dangerous ideas we cultivate in them. As children grow into adults, the intellectual weapons can become real weapons, if we cultivate irrationality in them. Is this what we want?
It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit
It’s a far cry from the way we thought we’d share it
This is not a conventional review, but Snakes & Arrows is not a conventional album. The musicianship is excellent throughout, with Geddy Lee in particularly fine voice and his basswork is as complex as it needs to be, and no more. Neil Peart’s playing is less flashy, more rounded but still precise; Alex Lifeson stretches his playing in to new territories, with the instrumental Hope showing him to be a master of the acoustic 12-string too. There is no shortage of great musicianship in the world today – enough to make me pessimistic about my own work – so I look to bands like Rush for much more than that.
Neil once wrote “the spaces in between leave room for you and I to grow”, and I agree: hidden depths are revealed in works of art that require the audience to think for themselves; even popular works, such as Star Wars , Desparate Housewives, or the Harry Potter books, benefit from time to dig in and send out shoots in unexpected directions.
I defy any reviewer to fully digest a Rush album in a single listening; if they write their review too soon, it shows in its superficiality. There’s far more to be found in Snakes & Arrows, if you’re prepared to look below the surface gloss.
Today, in London, five people were convicted of plotting to bomb targets in and around London. Those would not have been suicide bombings; the modus operandi was taken from Timothy McVeigh’s bomb attack on Oklahoma city, with fertilizer-based bombs in vans triggered remotely. There are more details at BBC News.
One of the planned targets was the Ministry Of Sound, a famous London nightclub. Transcripts of conversations (also at BBC News) between the bombers go in to detail on why this might have been a target. Something about “slags” (loose women) i.e. moral judgment on the people in the nightclub. They drink alcohol, dance, have adulterous sex outside marriage; so they deserve to die, right? Quote:
… no one can even turn around and say ‘Oh they were innocent,’ – those slags dancing around…
This line demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Western society; more specifically, the emphasis on individuals and individual responsibility. It starts with the way the role of governments has evolved.
Today, a Western government has strictly defined limits on what it controls. It does not have Carte Blanche to decide what is a crime and what is not, even if it sometimes seems that way. It responds to what it perceives as the “will of the people”, expressed though the members of Parliament, who talk directly to their constituents. There is a certain level of party-politics involved, where individuals do not get what they want, but the electorate will only tolerate so much of that.
Are drinking, dancing, or adultery crimes in Britain today? No, they are not. Your religion might say otherwise, or you may even look down your nose in secular disapprobation, but it doesn’t matter: in a representative democracy you, as an individual, do not get to impose your personal sense of right and wrong on others. In a country as large as Britain, that would make everyone guilty of something.
Now imagine that the bombing had taken place, and each of the victims was a “slag” in every sense, committing all of the “crimes” the bombers imagined them guilty of. Firstly, how would you get your message across? Press statement? Videos of guys in masks? Dangerous: a lot of smart people would be looking for you – mock them at your peril – and every piece of information that slips out builds up a picture that can lead them to you.
So you get your message broadcast on the BBC and Channel 4: what effect will that have? It’s not enough for you to say that the victims were “slags”; do you have proof? You do? Enough to convince their family. OK, but then how does it follow that they deserve to die?
In a civilized society, like it or not, “morality” is insufficient justification for someone to die. It might be in Pakistan etc., but you’re not in Pakistan, and there is no general desire to impose Pakistan’s Sharia laws on Britain. The accusations would not be accepted, because the accusers have no authority to pass judgments.
The response from the family and friends of the victims would drown out any accusations. Why? Because the right to life of an individual takes priority. Britain no longer has a death penalty, even for the most serious of crimes, and (reminder) the actions the “slags” are accused of not even considered to be crimes. Here parents don’t kill their children when they violate moral standards; they discipline them, instruct them, and forgive them. There is such a thing as an “ex-slag”.
It follows, logically, the Ministry Of Sound bombing would not have got the message to the people of Britain. It would been the senseless murder of people innocent of any crime under the laws of the society they live in. Had they lived elsewhere, they would have behaved differently. If you don’t understand how individuals can behave that way without the collapse of society, you have a lot to learn. Start with the Analects of Confucius – 500 years before Jesus, over 1000 years before Mohammad – and his advice:
- The superior man governs men, according to their nature, with what is proper to them, and as soon as they change what is wrong, he stops.
- When one cultivates to the utmost the principles of his nature, and exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the path. What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.
Translation: coercion or violence will not change people; you have to deal with them as they are, and that works both ways.
Naturally, there are now calls for further inquiries in to the surveillance operations, to try to lay the blame for not catching these aspiring bombers sooner, and even the July 2005 bombers. You know what? I’m more than satisfied with the explanations, because it shows that surveillance is not 100% effective or comprehensive, and that there is still a chance of privacy in Big Brother Britain.
Once again I am reminded of The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand:
Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.
Today, we need governments and police forces to protect us from the actions of the uncivilized. The ideal civilization would need no policing, from without or within; a society of individuals who would know what to do, and why they do it. It would carry no burdens of fear or guilt, and require no coercion; it can not be forced into existence, but can only come about through the open-eyes acceptance of education and self-enlightenment. I will not live to see such a world, not as long as parents burden their children with their unjustified beliefs.
Assuming that you’re a “free thinker”, who has avoided or escaped the effects of childhood indoctrination in the religion of your parents or country (a whole ‘nother topic), and is free to decide what to believe or not: imagine it’s a trial, and you are the judge, who has to make a decision based on the evidence.
If you adhere to standards of evidence that would hold up in court, that leads you directly to agnosticism, which started with Thomas Huxley’s ideas: “the foundation of morality is to have done, once and for all, with lying; to give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibilities of knowledge.”
It’s a good place to start, but there’s some dispute about the “possibilities of knowledge”, what is knowable and unknowable. Huxley viewed religion as “beyond”, which is similar to the NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) proposed by the late Stephen Jay Gould. Richard Dawkins, however, strongly disagreed with Gould on this, and in The God Delusion maintains that theories about the existence of gods are theories about reality, to be subjected to the same scientific scrutiny as any theory would be.
Compare the following two statements:
- “I do not believe that there are any gods”
- “I believe that there are no gods”
The difference should be clear:
- the first could be called agnostic or atheistic, depending on who writes the definition. Going back to the Greek “A Theos”, which translates to “No Theism”, I’d say it fits both definitions.
- the second is the “hard atheism” stance, which I don’t agree with, because it assumes knowledge of the entire universe throughout its existence. Huxley – who coined the term “agnosticism” – hit the nail on the head in my opinion. Some dictionaries define atheism by this measure.
Now compare the following two statements:
- “I do not act as if there are any gods watching me”
- “I act as if there are no gods watching me”
The difference is not as clear, is it? I can say both those things about myself. This is to illustrate how philosophy doesn’t always translate in to the real world as neatly as we might think. So, philosophically, I could use either term to describe myself, but the “catchphrase” I came up with is think agnostic, act atheist.
I think far too much is made of the differences between agnosticism and atheism as philosophies. In this case, the differences between the two last-mentioned statements positions are no real obstacle to deciding how to live your life, on a practical basis.
One problem I see is when religious believers attack atheists with the assumption that they are “hard atheists”, based on simplistic definitions offered by their religious leaders, or even dictionaries (which are themselves a reflection of their time). The reality of modern atheism is far more subtle than that.
How many “hard atheists” (by the second definition) are there, anyway, and do you really need to make such a “statement of belief” to call yourself atheist? The “popular atheists”, from what I’ve read of their work, don’t fit that description. Dawkins in particular is happy to say “I could be wrong”, and so does Sam Harris.
Yet, far too often “allowing for the possibility of gods” is seen as a loophole to exploit, as if the person who says that is just waiting for someone to come along and convince them. Even when a person has an open mind, in a general long-term sense, getting them to adopt a religious belief requires evidence. Simply telling someone “you’re wrong” won’t work, because those are just words, written by people, and they express a view of reality, not reality itself.
This is why I say: think like a judge, or a defense attorney, when it comes to evaluating evidence, starting with what is and is not evidence in the strict sense. To be blunt:
- What you or someone else saw is not evidence.
- It’s totally convincing to you, and it changed your life, but it’s not evidence.
- What someone wrote down is not evidence. (The medium on which something was written can be evidence, but calling it evidence does not make the written words true.)
- Even when the source is a famous person, known for good works, trusted and believed by millions: it’s not evidence.
The word for all that is testimony, and that does not carry the weight of evidence in a court of law, for very good reasons. As any experienced judge or attorney will tell you: people can, and do, say anything to push their particular views or protect themselves, hence the emphasis on evidence that stands up regardless of human testimony.
Without that, and the freedom to decide without coercion (no tampering with the jury, please), I could not be confident in making a fair and valid decision; so I need to be strict in upholding my standards of evidence against expedience . To leave it up to chance, or “common practice”, or inertia, would be negligence on my part; an abrogation of my rights as a thinking human being, or my responsibilities as a judge in the matter before the court: is religious belief justifiable, based on the available evidence? The verdict, in this court, is a resounding No.
In the last half-year or so, several popular books have thrust atheism and atheists in to the media spotlight. The response from religious writers has been varied, with some turning away, and others becoming aggressive in their reactions.
One all-too-common response has been to start using religious terminology to describe atheists and their activities: “fundamentalist atheism”, “atheists sermons”, “crusades against religion”. (The word “crusade” is derived from the same root as “cross”.) This became very annoying, very quickly, and I soon learned to use such language to judge the integrity of an article on the topic.
The annoyance lies in the viewpoint, expressed subtly or unsubtly in such articles, that atheism is just another form of irrational belief. The implication, which I totally reject, is that atheists have dropped one form of irrational belief (a religion) and replaced it with another irrational belief. Then, by talking about it at all, they are “proselytizing”, they have become “evangelistic” about atheism.
The “F-Bomb” in such discussions is not the one you might think of, but “fundamentalism”. That is a false charge, a “straw man” theists string up to beat on. Refuting it is easy; all it takes is for the other side to pay attention, but all too often the sides in a debate end up talking past each other.
If you examine just one aspect of “fundamentalism”, the idea of beliefs that are solid and unshakable, you can see the problem straight away. Scientific theories are hardly immutable, or guaranteed, over time, and much of it can be counter-intuitive.
My beliefs are robust, with healthy roots, but they are not unshakeable. If I need to move them, I can; it would not be painful or destructive, all I would need is a good reason. However, in 25 years of acknowledged atheism (using the word), nothing has come along that would persuade me to adopt a belief in any supernatural entity. There is simply no evidence for it.
Now, some believers say “I have faith, and don’t need evidence”, and I need say no more about that. Others, however, say “but there is evidence, right here”. But what do we mean by evidence? This is, in my view, a key differentiator, and the main point of this article. Let me state clearly what I understand as evidence, and what is not evidence.
It starts with an understanding that mankind is not important. We and our big brains were not always here to look at the world the way we do, and as we evolved, we went through different levels of brain power on the way. Before there was abstract reasoning there was practical knowledge, on how to survive, then live, then enjoy ourselves and think beyond our immediate difficulties.
All of this is just a blip on the universal radar, the last minute in a 24-hour day. The stars, while not unchanging, have been steady enough for us to rely on, to make predictions on. This planet has been less static, over billions of years, but it is a rock of stability compare to people, with their self-centric view of the world. We are simply not that reliable, as witnesses, even over short periods of time, never mind over millennia.
What does this tell us about standards of evidence? In short: the most reliable evidence is which people can go to Nature for; if that connection is broken, because of time and distance. If the primary source for evidence is a person, or the work of a person, it can’t be trusted; it might correspond with nature, and then nature is the primary source.
An example of good evidence: Copernicus did not set out to overturn the established wisdom, that the Earth was the centre of the universe; he made observations, did calculations, and came to the conclusion that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Later, Galileo checked Copernicus’ work against the sky, came to the same conclusions, and got in to a lot of trouble. Note how the primary evidence was not Copernicus’ writings; it was in the skies, and the passage of decades did not diminish it. Amateur astronomers today can verify it with a minimum of skills and equipment, and do so regularly.
An example of bad evidence: scriptures, such as the Bible and Qu’Ran. They are books; that is, the works of man, and therefore devolved from nature by layers of human imagination and interpretation. Some say these scriptures are divinely inspired, and contain universal truth, but what supports such assertions? The books themselves? That is a circular argument. Authority? Authorities are still people, with their own wishes and failings. Positive results? People can do good, and bad, with or without religion – we have evidence of that from parts of world that have never seen a scripture of any kind.
So if you can’t trust scriptures, and can’t trust authority, what is left? Again, we can go back to nature. This is why Atheism is called a “naturalist” view of the world. Two different people can look at nature, one sees the hand of God, and the other does not. Who is right? Put the question more simply: one person sees something specific, or hears a specific sound, and the other does not. No, you can’t fairly claim that one person is blind, or deaf; that is evading the wider question.
The more rational explanation, based on experience of people and their capacity for self-delusion, is that the sound did not occur; the specific vision did not appear; that Nature does not need people, and their particular supernatural interpretations of it, to be what it is. It was here long before we were, and will be here after we have gone. We are fickle and unreliable by comparison.
There are scientists who adhere to scientific principles in their work, yet hold personal religious beliefs. It would be hypocritical of me to practice amateur psychology on them, considering how much I hate it when people try that on me, so I will merely allude to what others have said, on the ability of people to separate work activities from personal life, and don’t see much more significance there. I certainly do not accept that the existence of religious scientists – i.e. people – is any kind of validation of their particular religion. I don’t presume to know what they’re thinking, and statements from e.g. Francis Collins on the topic have been unsatisfying.
Lastly, going back all the way: religious believers have “creation myths” that (in their view) fully explain how the universe started. Scientists only have “theories”, such as the Big Bang theory, which was the logical result of empirical evidence (red shift of stellar spectra in all directions). Is that a complete, satisfying answer? No; there remains the question of what was “behind” the Big Bang, the question of causation. We’re trying to find out, but today we don’t know, and that’s a gap in knowledge that theists exploit. This is an issue I’ve touched on before; are you strong enough to tolerate uncertainty and say “we don’t know”, or must you fill a gap in your knowledge with … something… anything?
Since the middle of last week I’ve been feeling a lot better, and as the previous post hinted, the belated arrival of Spring in Dublin is also serving to lighten the gloom. So, let me take a little time to put down a controversial idea I’ve had for some time, but which I need to express carefully.
In my view of the world, one where religion and other beliefs are no justification for anything that harms anyone else, Israel is a major destabilizing force in the Middle East today. It is held together by the sheer will of a vigilant Israeli people, who have resisted onslaughts from all sides – military, political and economic – with the material support of the United States in particular. It is a country in which most young people – men and women alike – serve in the military, actively and in reserve.
After centuries in the wilderness of Diaspora, the state of Israel was founded in 1948, and since then has been the focal point of Islamic aggression. America’s support for Israel is an oft-given reason for the rise of Al-Qaeda terrorism. I have no patience for Islamic theocratic imperialism, the Allah-given drive to subjugate the world under the Mullahs. Though I am not keen on Nationalism in any form, I fully support the rights of the Israeli people, as any people, to self-determination, independence, and a homeland they can call their own.
But why, oh why, did they have to put the homeland there?
The answer is, of course, religion. One of the founders of Zionism in the United Kingdom, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, was a chemist whose process for mass production of acetone made a huge difference to British arms production in World War I: it was a major component of cordite, used in smokeless gunpowder. It gave Weizmann friends in high places, and direct influence over David Lloyd-George (Munitions Minister, then Prime Minister 1908-1915), and Lord Balfour (former Prime Minister, and Foreign Secretary 1916-19).
The Balfour Declaration of 1917, produced after a decade of urging by Weizmann, expressed Britain’s support for a “National Home” for Jewish people in what was then called Palestine. As reported in Lord Balfour’s biography (quoted in the Wikipedia article), Balfour had actually asked Weizmann, back in 1906, “why there”? His reply cited the historic connection of the Israeli people to the region, and he also said “anything less would be idolatry”. A curious turn of phrase: “idolatry”, as in “false worship”? As in Islam, this reverence for a mere piece of land explains much.
The wording of the Declaration is cautious, even conservative, insistent that no harm was done to existing non-Jewish people in the region. The idea of a sovereign state was played down at the time. Palestine was a British Mandate from 1920 to 1948, but Britain gradually lost control as their tacit approval of an Israeli state led to mass immigration. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the fallout from the Holocaust and further migration of Holocaust survivors in to the region, and Israeli attacks on British forces in the region, led Britain to call in the newly-formed United Nations to manage their abdication of control over Palestine.
The 1947 UN Partition Plan map is a mess, to be blunt; a compromise that tried to please everyone, and ended up pleasing no-one. The Wars of the next 30 years were the obvious instances of trouble, but there is a different kind of bomb ticking in Gaza; a demographic bomb. The Gaza Strip has a very high birth rate, and extrapolation of the 2005 UNESCO figures predicts a 44% population increase in 10 years, to over 2 million, with a population density approaching Hong Kong’s (5,700 per km²).
Today, I am concerned that the United States, having squandered most of its political capital in the Middle East, will leave Israel more exposed to attack. I thought the Hezbollah attacks on Israel in 2006 were insane, unrealistic, poorly planned and totally counter-productive; but they happened anyway. Israel will not be seriously endangered by such tactics any time soon.
No, my real concerns are long term; 10, 20, 50 years from now, when the USA may be hampered by oil shortages and domestic turmoil, and politically estranged from its allies far away. What happens when Egypt’s swing to the right puts an anti-democratic caliphate in place? When Saudi Arabia, its crude oil pipeline to the USA drying up, no longer needs to curry favour in Washington DC? When Lebanon becomes an extension of Syria, and Palestinian extremism distracts Jordan?
The fate of a small nation, isolated among enemies, without powerful allies, is a game that has been played out many times before, on paper, in computer simulation, and on the cold ground. The resolute Allies saw to Germany in World War II, but a more apt example is the Roman destruction of Israel in 66-73 CE; the impersonal, crushing response to a Jewish rebellion over religion.
I don’t know what the answer is; but if I was in charge of Israel’s long-term defence, I would be looking at every option, and a strategic withdrawal of the Jewish people from the region would be such an option. Then again, I am not one to invest a piece of ground with holy provenance; I would be left with mere history, and “I was here first” is no defence against an enemy who is equally tied to the same ground, for equally religious (i.e. irrational) reasons. An enemy who, by sheer birthrate and irrational blindness to consequences, has much to gain from Israel’s removal. I don’t like it – but that is no shield against reality, when it arrives.
A strange sight from Fort Collins, Colorado, on my walk last Saturday. I didn’t go inside the “Bible Superstore”, out of respect… who am I kidding? I didn’t go in because I knew I’d be at risk of falling down laughing, and making a fool of myself. How could there be such a thing as a Bible Superstore? I can just imagine the layout:
- Aisle 1: Bibles
- Aisle 2: Bibles
- Aisle 7: Bibles
- Aisle 8: Bibles
- Aisle 9: Bible Study
- Aisle 10: School Books (Intelligent Design)
On Sunday I moved to Denver from Fort Collins, and on Monday I took a flying visit to Colorado Springs by Greyhound Bus. From the bus station I grabbed a cab to my company’s offices; the cabbie looked like Jerry Garcia, and we got talking about Colorado Springs, since it was my first time there. When I asked about Springs’ reputation as a very Christian town, with churches visible everywhere, it was like setting a fire under him. He was what you can call a pantheist, meaning he had a general belief in a “universal power”, but he’d given up on organized religion many years before that. The recent scandals in the town, involving Ted Haggard of the 14,000-strong New Life Church, had made world headlines (such as CNN), and to the cabbie this was just the latest confirmation of his opinion that organized religion is morally bankrupt.
I spent the day with my North American counterparts and their manager, who are about the only people left in a cavernous office floor. Cubicle after cubicle of beige and brown, desks gathering dust, chairs upended, the carpet in the aisles grubby and faded. It was a beautiful day outside, so we all walked down the hill to a barbecue joint, where I had another huge but tasteless sandwich. (If the bread, meat and cheese have no taste, no volume of condiments can make a great sandwich!)
My presence seemed to bring out the worst in my colleagues, in a good way – if that makes any sense. They had a new face to pour out their troubles to, all the while keeping up a brave sense of humour that would not be out of place in a Dilbert cartoon. I got even more of the same from their manager, who took me back in to central Colorado Springs and joined me for dinner and a beer. (I had a nicely microbrewed oatmeal stout and a huge “Chicken Gringo” concoction, with cornbread and potato wedges, that I couldn’t finish.)
As I Twittered in from the bus station, on the way back to Denver: it was one of those days that confirms your suspicions and fears. My US colleagues feel just as threatened as we in Europe do, and as isolated and frozen out of the “career path” in my company. For most of the day I was just someone to talk to, a role I’m happy to play if it helps, and this time I’m sure it did. The manager treated me as an equal, and clearly needed someone to help him make some sense of what is going on.
My qualms about the my employer’s plans seem to be well-justified. I am not going mad, and neither are those colleagues of mine with similar concerns. I can’t really say any more, but what I can say is that there are changes coming my way this year. I’ve learned things I might not be supposed to know, but the effect will be to give me more time to prepare.
The last couple of days in Denver were a mix of gonzo walks and lazing around in my nice hotel room. I will say some more later, but right now I have an ice hockey game to go to, so I need to get my skates on.
It’s a new year, and getting close to five years since I started this blog (even though not all posts are up here yet). In that time I don’t believe I’ve ever said anything about Ayn Rand and Objectivism, or if I have it was a long time ago, so this is a good time to recap my position on it.
I first encountered Objectivism through the band Rush, specifically their lyricist Neil Peart, who adapted Ayn Rand’s Anthem for their 1976 breakthrough recording 2112. It’s hard to gauge just how “serious” he was about that, though he did express concern about how it led to attacks from journalists, in the UK in particular, where Individualism is associated with Capitalism. It made him persona non grata to Socialists. Peart’s writing has come a long way since then.
I’ve come to view Objectivism as a “starter philosophy”, or “my first philosophy”: one that doesn’t “scale” as one grows philosophically. This is not a bad thing in my view, since Objectivism serves the important purpose of introducing fundamental philosophical questions to an audience who might not think about philosophy at all.
I haven’t read all of Rand’s writings – far from it- but one important point I took away was the importance of living for oneself. At times she specifically cited pure altruism as a negative proposition, for example, and promoted a kind of “enlightened selfishness” that has clear roots in free-market economics. Take the “invisible hand” of laissez-faire economics as a principle, and apply it to ethics and actions, and the human race will improve its state and potentialities, according to Objectivist theory.
This is where philosophy collides with reality, in my opinion, since the human race has shown a distinct lack of competence in deciding just what is in its own self-interest. I’ve written, previously, on my opinion that people sabotage their own lives by excessive breeding. The growth of fundamentalist religions, especially Islam, show how people are prepared to accept restrictions and irrationality in the name of stability. (I’m just back from Dubai, where I was left wondering just how much genuine belief there was in Islam, outside the law, official statements, and social mosque attendance.)
Taking command of your personal philosophy is not a trivial matter; Christians would have you believe that morals will decline without the biblical dogma, so if you were to become an atheist, the onus would be on you to live a good life without biblical guidance, as an example to others. Can you be “selfish”, putting yourself first, while still being a good person and law-abiding citizen?
Selfishness does not preclude charity or other good works, since both benefactor and beneficiary gain something from donation. If your country is under threat, and you would suffer at the hands of an enemy, you have a reason to fight. The part that bothers Objectivists is the idea of being beholden to others where there is no benefit to you; slavery, blind faith, sacrifice in the name of duty or religion alone. If you take advantage of others, or commit crimes against them, have you – your personality and core beliefs – really benefited?
It follows, therefore, that I don’t quite understand how people can ever get so attached to Objectivism that it becomes canon or dogma. The term “Randroid” has been used to describe serious Objectivists, and there have even been “schisms” in the study and interpretation of Ayn Rand’s work. Is that what she was hoping for – a cult of personality based around her and her books? I don’t think so; in my view, this is against the spirit of free thought and personal growth she was aiming for. In her own words: “a blind follower is precisely what my philosophy condemns and what I reject”.
If living for yourself is a good thing, then so is thinking for oneself. If this takes you far away, philosophically, from Rand and Objectivism, would Rand object? If the philosophy you develop is anathema to some Objectivists, it is nevertheless yours, and if Randroids have a problem with that, it is their problem; not yours.
If I have one wish for 2007, it is that everyone in the world takes some time for serious thought, on their own behalf, about who they are, what they are doing, where they are going, and – most critically – why, without blindly accepting the word of any “authority”.
I’m back from London, a trip that finally allowed me to finish The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Airport lounges and the flights themselves were enough for me to put a major dent in it, with only a little left to finish this morning.
The book got a little heavy-going around the middle, but opened up nicely after that, and far more of it is positive and practical than the iconoclastic title would have you believe. It is more of a personal statement by the author than his previous scientific books, but I knew that going in, so the occasional lump of loaded langauge was to be expected.
The heading on this post is my attempt to summarise my position on religion in to a pithy soundbite – a take on “Think Global – Act Local”. I found myself fully in agreement the Isaac Asimov quote that I used here before, which says what I have been saying for years, but more effectively. Prof. Dawkins touches on this in the GD book, under “The Poverty of Agnosticism”: the way I see it, Agnosticism is acceptable as a philosophical proposition, but it just doesn’t cut the mustard in today’s world, where taking a neutral position is seen as passivity, a sign of weakness, a chink in the armour to be exploited by those with strong theocratic agendas they can enact without opposition.
The metaphorical door that could lead to belief in a God or Gods is closed, but not locked. It won’t be falling open by itself, no matter how hard the wind blows. If some agent is intelligent enough to figure out the handle, I will welcome it in for a cup of tea and a chat, but I’m not going to hang around waiting. I have things to do, and I’m going to get on with them.
However, there are dogs at the door: their howling is annoying, they are crapping on my doorstep, attacking my cats and stealing my chickens. I would like to be left alone, but I’m not being allowed to do my work. So: they should not be surprised when I open the door with a shotgun in my hand, and pepper them with rock salt.
I’ve seen some highly complex epistemological arguments about all the relationship between the concepts of Agnosticism and Atheism, but if we’re going to make any impact on the general population, the ones who don’t read Newsweek or The Grauniad, we need a Tabloid headline. I concede that Think Agnostic – Act Atheist might be a bit much, since it assumes people understand those respective concepts, but it’s something..?
Before I talk about some recent news reports, let me relate a story from my past that came to mind.
I spent my last two school years in a town different from where I had grown up, having left behind the kids I grew up with, and making a bunch of new friends. We were the nerds, the unpopular crowd; not because we had done anything particularly antisocial, more because we had other interests than working to acquire popularity. We were a motley bunch, with different attitudes, and guys coming and going.
One Monday morning, halfway through the last year, one of the “irregulars” called us together during the first break to relate some important news: he had gotten laid on the previous weekend. Details followed.
The reaction from the rest of us was hardly what he was expecting. Perhaps he had seen one or more “frat house” movies such as Porky’s, where horny students swapped war stories and made complicated plans to further their exploits, and thought that was reality. Most of the guys were indifferent, but I remember getting rather annoyed, asking “why are you telling us this” and “isn’t that supposed to be private”?
This was dismissed as jealousy on my part, but the experience he described hardly inspired envy. I considered telling the guys about my own experiences, from before I moved to that town, before I met them, but that would have been lowering myself to that level. It’s enough to say that I was cured of any romantic expectations by that time.
I did wonder about my reaction, though, and why I wasn’t happier for the other guy, regardless. I think family had something to do with it, having seen, first-hand, the damage caused by indulging in sex too young. By that time I was either an uncle already, or soon to be; I had also seen how passion led to rash decisions, and chronic problems that ruined whole families. At the time, however, I did not know what was wrong in such detail, and experienced only an acute unease. “What is wrong with me? Why don’t I get this. Why do people act so stupidly out of lust? Am I low on testosterone?”
The hormones explanation was the best I could come up with, and while I didn’t believe it fully, I could use it to laugh off questions such as “why don’t you have a girlfriend?” or “are you queer?” (No.) By the time I finished that final school year I had seen a few more unwanted pregnancies, and heard of some abuse: the “cherry on top” was doing some informal counselling for a female friend of ours who was pregnant with an additional complication: the father was a teacher at our school.
After that I just went to work, and by the time my parents got divorced, just over a year later, I had really had enough of dysfunctional families, horny teenagers, and irrational decisions, so I concentrated on my work, living in my company’s bachelor quarters. On my rare visits to bars and other social gatherings, I watched women responding to the guys who wouldn’t take no for an answer, who would chase them, cajole them, do everything short of clubbing them over the head and dragging them out by their hair. I didn’t care: I was the guy you always find “in the kitchen at parties”, cleaner-upper of the mess, the good listener, the shoulder to cry on. I was “sitting out the game”, since I had seen the prize and didn’t want it, and was happy to have avoided a “trophy”.
It wasn’t until much later, after more education, experience and observation, that I could put my concerns in to words. A throwaway remark I made, in the pub, somehow stuck with me: “guys who chase women aggressively are aggressive in general”. That was my problem: I wasn’t “aggressive” enough. Hormones again, or do I just think too much before I act? The correlation is positive, in my observations: I wish women were more discriminating, and less susceptible to aggressive approaches, because I have come away with the strong opinion that the guys who are more forceful in “hitting on you” – a worrying term on its own – are the guys more likely to use force against you.
This brings me to the news, about some disgraceful behaviour last week, see BBC News: crowds of horny men in Cairo, chasing women in the streets and ripping their clothes off. There is no suggestion that these were women were scantily-clad Westerners, so the Muslim clerics can’t use that excuse, like the Australian Imam who described women as “uncovered meat” last week.
This ties in to a wider theme I have touched on here before; in societies that value sons over daughters, the result is a a harder life for men, because of the competition for women. According to the article, many Egyptian men can not afford to marry, such is the effect of population pressures in Egypt’s limited arable land and urban area. Their demographic problems pale in comparison with those in China or India, but aggression is one result.
It’s Evolution, Baby: aggression gets you laid, you get to be a father, and pass your genes on to posterity. The most effective procreators are the most aggressive, the men not content to father a few children with a single woman, but who are pushy enough to spread their seed far and wide. The pointless violence and thrill-seeking seem to be mere side effects in the long term. In a recent article by “Fred” this tendency is bemoaned, but that is missing the point: sex is the overriding concern of young men and old Mother Nature alike.
Me? I’m not prepared to accept the side effects of sexual aggression on my part, so I expect to remain a childless bachelor. Just as well: if the likely futures of this world are overcrowding and violence, idiocracy and devolution, I wouldn’t wish them on any child of mine.
|You are an Atheist|
When it comes to religion, you’re a non-believer (simple as that).
You prefer to think about what’s known and proven.
You don’t need religion to solve life’s problems.
Instead, you tend to work things out with logic and philosophy.
Well, I answered a few questions, and that’s what it told me…