Who persecutes believers? Other believers


2:40 pm - December 20th 2010

by Dave Osler    


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Christians are the religious group that suffers most from persecution on account of faith, Pope Benedict XVI argues in his message for Word Peace Day. And when it comes to perpetrating that persecution, religious fundamentalism and secularism amount to pretty much the same thing, he adds.

As someone who defends religious liberty precisely on account of being a secularist, I must point out to His Holiness that evidence for either contention is somewhat flimsy.

Europe, Pope Benedict maintains, is steeped in ‘hostility and prejudice’ against believers. Well, I suppose there is no formula by which such impressions can be empirically confirmed.

But until Switzerland [40% Catholic] votes to ban steeples and Belgium [75% Catholic] makes it an offence for nuns to wear habits, I can think of a rather more obvious contender for the number one slot in the persecution stakes.

Elsewhere in the world, the Pope highlights the atrocity that cost the lives of 52 Syrian rite Catholic Iraqis celebrating mass at Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad in October. But who pulled the triggers in this dreadful crime? Clue: they probably weren’t paid-up members of the National Secular Society.

The corpse count bears comparison with the 42 Ahmadis slaughtered in Lahore last May, again during the act of worship. Again, the gunmen were motivated by sectarian hatred against a group that most of us would regard as fellow Muslims.

Nor were secularists notable participants in the threats to burn copies of the Qu’ran in Gainesville, Florida, or actually burning down the houses of Coptic Christians in southern Egypt, or the fighting in Nigeria that left over 300 dead in January.

Indeed, a recently-published survey of 198 countries by the conservative-leaning Pew Foundation found clashes between religious groups afflicted 87% of them. Oh, and the highly secular United Kingdom was named as one of the societies with the fewest restrictions on religious practice to be found anywhere on the planet.

If religious persecution is a major issue today, it is overwhelmingly caused when one group of religionists takes it upon itself to maim and murder other children of God. No amount of obfuscation from the Vatican can change that fact.

Happy Christmas, war is over.

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Reader comments


Good post, I’ve long thought that believers biggest threat is each other not us Atheists, a secular society is their best option if they wish to worship free from harassment or imposition….

There is nothing new in this, just the same old tactic of trying to draw some spurious parallel between secularism and religious fundamentalism. People of faith have, throughout history, spoken with forked tongues when it comes to toleration of the beliefs of others, so it is wise to take anything they say about “hostility and prejudice against believers” with liberal doses of salt.

As Dave notes above, and as history amply demonstrates over centuries, it is overwhelmingly a case of one bunch of believers oppressing, brutalising and killing off unbelievers.

Perhaps it;s not so much that Europe is steeped in hostility against believers per se…… it’s just that many non-believers are no longer prepared to tolerate the hostility and prejudice which are all too often shown by people of faith towards others, or their claims for special treatment in the name of their chosen belief system?

Dave,

Can I point out your evidence for religious persecution is pretty well all targetted violence from outside Europe. Pope Benedict was speaking, as you acknowledge, about religious persecution within Europe, where secularists are often involved in moves such as the bans you mention. Thus whilst your general point stands, it does not really address the specific concern you introduce at the beginning.

That said, you’re right that secularism is hardly a violent belief…

Well Watchman

It was BXVI who mentioned the Baghdad massacre, conflating it with alleged beastliness in Europe.

Rubbish post. I’ve debated Religion and Faith (RF) separately many times. Only the atheists continually interrupt, shout down and eventually turn nasty when challenged with the following:

“Religion is only the messenger for a faith in something greater than man”

Trust me, not the sort of debate to have over Christmas with atheists ! Don’t worry about religious people, they can’t separate religious dogma from faith. Rule 1 for those considering such a debate, never argue with a fool, others may not know the difference ! Rule 2 If in doubt, revert to Rule 1

7. the a&e charge nurse

Christians v Muslims – this time involving Ozzie PM, Julia Gillard.

‘Most Australians believe in God. This is not some Christian, right wing, political push, but a fact, because Christian men and women, on Christian principles, founded this nation, and this is clearly documented. It is certainly appropriate to display it on the walls of our schools. If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture.’
‘We will accept your beliefs, and will not question why. All we ask is that you accept ours, and live in harmony and peaceful enjoyment with us.’
‘This is OUR COUNTRY, OUR LAND, and OUR LIFESTYLE, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this. But once you are done complaining,
whining, and griping about Our Flag, Our Pledge, Our Christian beliefs, or Our Way of Life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other great Australian freedom, ‘THE RIGHT TO LEAVE’.’
http://www.themistsofavalon.net/t1401-australian-prime-minister-does-it-again#25847

Why, oh why can’t the gods simply organise a straightforward knock out competition to prove who is the greatest of all then we might avoid a few more centuries of pointless squabbling ……….. just a thought?

4

The Pope actually said that “every form of hostility to religion that would restrict the public role of believers in civil and political life” should be opposed as being essentially as bad as every form of fanaticism and religious fundamentalism.

However, the problem is likely to be with the definition of “every form” in his definition, as it will be interpreted in the widest sense by the Catholic church (and other faith groups) to try and stifle any meaningful criticism, including that in areas involving situations where their beliefs involve discriminating against others.

6

“Religion is only the messenger for a faith in something greater than man”

No..sorry, I (and a growing number of others) just don’t buy it. I’m quite happy to accept that the universe is more than wonderful enough without reference to some mongrelised hotch-potch of centuries old fairy stories, and the journey to understanding it lies in a rational examination of science.

Morality doesn’t require religion, and will indeed be much better off without it’s baleful influence.

@ 8. Galen10

Organised and structured religion is mainly about power and influence in a collective and unified context. Faith in a greater being belongs to the individual.

Not keen on that one, thought not ! Look carefully and you’ll find terrifying similarities with most political structures and established institutions.

‘That said, you’re right that secularism is hardly a violent belief…’

Its not even a belief – nor is it the same as atheism. Atheists are generally secular – unless they’re masochists – but secularists aren’t necessarily atheists.

Secularism is simply the seperation of religion from state; its precisely in societies without that seperation – theocracies – that minority religions face the most persecution.

10

Individual faith in some greater being is fair enough if it gets you through the day; I don’t much care what the faith is in… God, Thor, Faeries, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. If belief in the supernatural were only about harmless individuals trying to lead a better life, doing good deeds, and producing some interesting fables people probably wouldn’t be too bothered would they? The trouble is it doesn’t generally stop there does it?

I’m with W. K Clifford on this:

“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Ceighton, April 1887.

“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.”

J S Mill (letter to John Pakington, a Tory MP in March 1866)

“. . every great movement seems to start with a prophet and end up with a policeman.”

Quoted in, John Finney, Fading Splendour, DLT 2000, p.ix

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them. ”

Joseph Alexandrovitch Brodsky, 1991, Russian-American poet, b. St. Petersburg and exiled 1972 (1940-1996)

“It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” The Ethics of Belief, 1877

@6 weird point, and I’m not sure why you bother to make it except to separate yourself from the biblical literalists.

Presumably you mean it as some kind of sop to a metaphysical or spiritual world / existence / whatever ? That “great” is a bit ambiguous.

Regardless, faith is a crap way of making decisions. It boils down to “I’m going to believe this thing because I believe it very strongly. Evidence to the contrary won’t affect me. Lack of evidence to the confirmatory won’t affect me”.

Pointless. And look where it got the yorkshire ripper, poor sod.

You get a range of atheists, of course, and some do call for patently silly things – like for all religious people to be summarily executed. But most atheists of my acquaintance are also secularists, which is a great thing to work for in a country where not the entire population of the country believes a particular interpretation of a particular religion is true.

It doesn’t matter if everyone thinks everyone else’s beliefs on matters that – by definition – are irrelevant to the real world are complete junk, as long as everyone agrees to keep it to themselves. And oddly enough, that’s what secularists want.

A christian stuck a leaflet through my door the other night asking me to go to church – so I politely gave him it back. No biggie. I’m not offended, despite his proselytising behaviour. He did seem surprised to get it back, though.

14. Chaise Guevara

@ 6 Ted

“Rubbish post. I’ve debated Religion and Faith (RF) separately many times. Only the atheists continually interrupt, shout down and eventually turn nasty when challenged with the following:

“Religion is only the messenger for a faith in something greater than man”

Trust me, not the sort of debate to have over Christmas with atheists !”

Especially when they use nasty low-down atheist tricks, such as saying “prove it”.

@ 11. Shatterface. Wrong

There are only two religions in the world that seek to convert others. Christianity and Muslimism and neither teach atrocities. The rest are more ‘a way of life’.

Keep digging and you’ll find wars are actually caused by individual and collective power mad human beings and their greed driven behaviour.

That was fast. No true scotsman fallacy already.

Also the argument used in the Blair vs. Hitchens debate – it didn’t go well for him.

@ 14. Chaise Guevara

Not necessary, that’s what ‘faith’ actually is. Personally I’ve no wish to prove it thanks !

Ted – individual faith causes individuals to do very bad things too. If we take him at his word, it caused the yorkshire ripper to kill not a small number of prostitutes.

Sure, you can no-true-scotsman that too, but what’s the point?

Faith is as good as intuition as a way of being right about the world – because that’s exactly what it is. Can we agree on that?

19. Chaise Guevara

@ 17 Ted

“Not necessary, that’s what ‘faith’ actually is. Personally I’ve no wish to prove it thanks !”

Yeah, I know. That’s my problem with the whole shebang. But you were talking about “debate”, which goes further than stating your personal belief and then either shutting up or just saying it over and over again.

More to the point, you said that atheists “turn nasty” when “challenged” with the statement ““Religion is only the messenger for a faith in something greater than man”. But if you admit that’s just a statement of your personal belief that you cannot prove (and apparently don’t even want to prove), how does that constitute a challenge? Enquiring minds want to know.

20. Chaise Guevara

@ 18 Nick

“Faith is as good as intuition as a way of being right about the world – because that’s exactly what it is.”

In terms of accuracy (rather than end results), I’d say faith was worse. Intuition is based on instinct and, basically, applying an automatic Occam’s Razor to a situation that you don’t have enough information about. It can be wrong, but it represents the best attempt you can make. Faith tends to apply arbitrary rules that can skew one’s reaction to the world massively.

Hmm. I did consider “no better than”, but scrapped it because I was aiming for the best possible chance of an early resolution to a point me,you and ted are not actually going to agree on substantively (that faith is a “good thing” or somehow justified).

To me, they still work out as being the same thing, though – I see intuition as jumping to a conclusion based on prior knowledge (which religious people count their holy texts and faith-based beliefs as being) with very little in the way of critical reasoning in the middle.

‘Faith’, by the way, is a meaningless term used by religious campaigners to mask the fact that most of them have mutually incompatable beliefs but believe that those who lack superstition are a far greater threat.

@ 18. Nick. That’s fair enough.
@ 19. Chaise Guevara. Good point and accepted. The challenge is more about practising the teachings of Christianity or, any other recognised religion for that matter. I have a deep rooted sense of loathing for those who seek to identify with ‘the church’ and their personal behaviour.

And so you had this particular debate over christmas with some atheists, and we all agreed that the religious shouldn’t try to impose themselves on the non-religious, and vice-versa. Quite painlessly, and with no angry ranting anywhere to be seen.

Now if only this worked on street proselytisers, local evangelical churches, the pope, and those gouranga people.

25. Chaise Guevara

Ted – cool, you’re a lot more reasonable about this than I’d first thought. Guess I’m guilty of leaping to intuitive conclusions myself!

26. Chaise Guevara

@ 24

In defense of gouranga people, they’re quite fun. A mate of mine had a CD of theirs once. It was a load of rock songs where the only lyrics were “Hare” and “Krishna”. Silly stuff, of course, but at least it’s not Left Behind.

I remember walking down a high street the other day. Everyone was pointed ignoring or actively jeering at the Bible guy shouting that we were going to hell for enjoying ourselves, then thirty feet further down there was a big crowd of people watching a group of Hare Krishnas doing a cool dance.

“Faith is as good as intuition as a way of being right about the world – because that’s exactly what it is.”

Balls – intuation takes account of previous knowledge and subsequent observation. Intuition is the first step towards hypotheses and theory and ultimately open to refutation: if Einstein’s intuitive leaps had conflicted with the mathematical proof or later observations he’d have been forced to go back to the drawing board and ‘intuit’ something else.

28. Chaise Guevara

@ 21

“Hmm. I did consider “no better than”, but scrapped it because I was aiming for the best possible chance of an early resolution to a point me,you and ted are not actually going to agree on substantively (that faith is a “good thing” or somehow justified).

To me, they still work out as being the same thing, though – I see intuition as jumping to a conclusion based on prior knowledge (which religious people count their holy texts and faith-based beliefs as being) with very little in the way of critical reasoning in the middle.”

I think I’m using “intuition” differently to you: I’m defining it as “best guess” or something like it.

29. Chaise Guevara

@ 27 Shatterface

Terms are being applied differently. I think Nick’s talking about intuition of the sort that people don’t go on to test or sanity-check.

25

Fear not chaise…. no doubt the ravers and religious wingnuts will be along later to justify your earlier intuitive leap ;)

@ 24. Nick

For at least the last 30 years or more I’ve avoided raising the subject first with anyone as far as I can remember. I just let others raise it, sit back, say nothing and wait for others to seek my support to their views !

The rest is just a matter of asking open questions and avoiding statements of personal opinion. Above all, try and avoid closed questions as that only irritates people when faced with a restrictive yes or no reply option.

Similar tactics work on doorsteps during political campaigns too. That really is fun !

@ 28. Chaise Guevara

Rough but close enough, can’t argue with that.

33. Chaise Guevara

@ 30

“Fear not chaise…. no doubt the ravers and religious wingnuts will be along later to justify your earlier intuitive leap”

LOL. Yes, probably.

34. Chaise Guevara

@ 31 Ted

“For at least the last 30 years or more I’ve avoided raising the subject first with anyone as far as I can remember. I just let others raise it, sit back, say nothing and wait for others to seek my support to their views !”

I’ll admit that there is a tendency among agnostics and atheists (self included) to refuse to let the subject drop, even when the person they’re speaking with never wanted to talk about it in the first place. Rational minds can be annoyed by irrational beliefs, and the response does sometimes cross over into something like bullying.

Of course, this only applies to a religious person who knows what they believe and wants to be left alone. Anyone proselytising or demanding that society changes to suit their beliefs is obviously fair game.

34

..speaking of irrational minds, shouldn’t oldandrew be on the case pointing out that the Catholic church is entirely blameless, and the subject of a double stadard as LC has it in for them?…:)

fwiw any discussion I’ve ever had re:religion has always been instigated by the believer, and they are always the first to duck out of the debate/resort to logical fallacies or circular reasoning. Funny, that.

Does anyone here not use faith to get themselves through the day? I mean, we probably like to think that we determine our own actions but have we pored through the arguments of the free will believers against the determinists? We probably like to think our love for others is good and true, and that, indeed, we’re good people, but have we studied research into biological mechanisms that may or may not drive our seemingly intended acts? Plenty of studies imply the universe is a cold and loveless place of mechanistic and deluded beings. Sure, I’m not saying that’s right but who here’s desperate to find out?

Rational minds can be annoyed by irrational beliefs, and the response does sometimes cross over into something like bullying.

I’m not sure that “rational minds” is all that rational a belief.

Ah, the joy of semantics.

Intuition, as I see it, is simply a process of coming to a judgement about a novel situation based on your stock of pre-existing things-you-accept-as-true.

If you’re a scientist working at the very forefront of your field, your pre-existing stock of knowledge is going to be extremely tightly focused, and your intuitive leaps – which you then test – are going to right, more often than not.

Until your intuition tells you that this all-important signalling factor resulting related to cAMP /must/ be a big protein, so you spend years and loads of money looking for it, only to discover that the all-important signalling factor /is/ cAMP. (true, but somewhat arcane, story. Good to keep in mind if you’re of a biochemical bent)

My prejudices and prior experiences when it comes to religion, religious people, and their faith, is that the intuitive leaps they make are generally based on extremely shaky foundations, and there’s very little in the way of actually going back to critically examine the intuitive leaps that are made. So you end up with deep piles of untested woo.

The gouranga people are less mean-spirited and possibly more fun to watch than the christian fire-and-brimstone street preachers, but they’re still engaging in an activity that I find distasteful in the extreme. That said, I did buy a CD from them once.

‘In terms of accuracy (rather than end results), I’d say faith was worse. Intuition is based on instinct and, basically, applying an automatic Occam’s Razor to a situation that you don’t have enough information about.’

Intuition is unconscious processing and has little to do with Occam’s Razor, which operates at a far higher level of reasoning. Intuition is weighted in favour of survival: Occam’s Razor tells you that stripey pattern in the long grass is just sunlight; intuition says run like hell.

@BenSix

Not really sure what you’re getting at here: do you mean that to be a true atheist you have to analyse all the arguments between free will & determinism and be a molecular biologist to boot?

I think the rise of Scientology shows up religion for the fraud it is (and the FSM wonderfully parodies, of course).

No: I’m questioning whether “faith” is the domain of theists – I think people take it as a matter of faith that they act on their intentions; by a moral scheme et cetera – and that the fact of the universe need be a splendid thing, gloriously revealed by the “rational examination of science”.

@BenSix

Oh, ok. I don’t think what you talk about should be classified as “faith” though, not in the same way as Popes and Mullahs etc talk about it.
On the universe: I think Douglas Adams said, I can look at and admire a beauiful garden without having to believe in fairies at the bottom of it… and biologists specifically evolutionary types like Dawkins (and others before anyone screams) are working on finding out just why human beings seem hardwired for morality of a sort and admire stuff like beauty etc.

I don’t think what you talk about should be classified as “faith” though, not in the same way as Popes and Mullahs etc talk about it.

Well, it’s a comforting assumption that needn’t have scientific grounded. Sure, it doesn’t hypothesise burning bushes and chatty snakes but it’s still faith…

Well, as someone who does not believe in any religion, and whose philosophy on life is that there are 6 billion people standing on a piece of rock , flying through space and nobody knows why. May I say that I hope the intolerant religions go on attacking each other. Because the longer they attack each other the longer they will leave me alone.

46. Chaise Guevara

@ 38 BenSix

“I’m not sure that “rational minds” is all that rational a belief.”

Only if you get all absolutist about it. It makes sense as a relative concept. I don’t believe that the movement of celestial orbs can be used to predict the future* or that the month of your birth can be used to predict your personality and compatability with potential mates. Others do. I am hence more rational than they are, in this particular arena at least.

*Except in the sense of “we’re all going to die because that comet is going to hit us”.

‘Does anyone here not use faith to get themselves through the day? I mean, we probably like to think that we determine our own actions but have we pored through the arguments of the free will believers against the determinists?’

I think *we* have because I’ve seen you post on sites where such questions are asked, but since neither side has defined free will in any satisfactory way we tend to just get on with our lives. Free will is less a matter of truth or falsehood and more a background condition against which more pressing ethical matters are played out. If there’s no free will there’s really no point worrying about it – because what can you do?

And philosophical assumptions about the notion of self-hood and free will are not ‘beliefs’ in the sense of a belief in an afterlife or miracles or sin.

48. Chaise Guevara

40 Shatterface

“Intuition is unconscious processing and has little to do with Occam’s Razor, which operates at a far higher level of reasoning. Intuition is weighted in favour of survival: Occam’s Razor tells you that stripey pattern in the long grass is just sunlight; intuition says run like hell.”

You’re right: I shouldn’t have invoked Occam’s Razor. What I meant is that often we need to leap to conclusions based on incomplete information and previous experiences, from an evolutionary standpoint for the very reason you give above. Obviously it’s not a particularly valid philosophical position when you’re arguing about, say, the existence of God. And it can have some very negative outcomes (racism is probably partially a result of this, for example: “that person is not like the people I know: they must not be trusted”).

49. Chaise Guevara

@ 45 Sally

“May I say that I hope the intolerant religions go on attacking each other. Because the longer they attack each other the longer they will leave me alone.”

That’s neither very helpful nor very sensible. First they came for the Jews etc.

50. Chaise Guevara

I think Nick @39 puts forward a pretty solid analysis of intuition and what it means in different contexts.

Chaise -

Perhaps I’m being pedantic. One can have a more rational belief than another, yes – and pretty much everyone’s more rational than, say, my local weatherman – but I dislike the idea that there’s a certain people who deserve to self-identify as rational/sceptical etc.

Shatterface -

And philosophical assumptions about the notion of self-hood and free will are not ‘beliefs’ in the sense of a belief in an afterlife or miracles or sin.

Not as lurid or elaborate, perhaps, but the extent to which our acts are informed by, say, genes or our environment is an empirical question. Sounds like a belief to me. Again, I’m not trying to be relativistic – some guys/girls are wronger than others – but the absolute denunciation of “faith” seems odd and the notion that the universe is most fulfilling if seen through the lens of scientific rationalism seems, well – a bit of a faith. (To regurgitate a point I think I’ve made elsewhere, in Unweaving the Rainbow Dawks’ might show that a clearer understanding of, say, birdsong can enhance its beauty but I doubt the same is true of our emotions or morality.)

“That’s neither very helpful nor very sensible”

Neither is religious faith in my view.

So the longer they are bothering some other faith the longer they leave me alone.

China, anyone?

‘You’re right: I shouldn’t have invoked Occam’s Razor. What I meant is that often we need to leap to conclusions based on incomplete information and previous experiences, from an evolutionary standpoint for the very reason you give above.’

Intuition is how Grand Masters win at chess. Occam’s Razor is how computers win. Theists just know they’ll win because they are white and god is on their side.

55. Chaise Guevara

@ 52

“Neither is religious faith in my view. ”

True.

“So the longer they are bothering some other faith the longer they leave me alone.”

So basically, it’s ok for people to suffer as long as they’re religious? Charming as ever, Sally. I suppose you think all the problems in Israel and Palestine are a-ok because the basis of the dispute is religious?

If you’re prepared to write off the lives and wellbeing of people simply because they believe in something you don’t, you sound a lot like the brownshirt tory troll that you seem to think embodies everyone except you.

BenSix – it’s an interesting criticism, but we were (or at least, I was) talking about faith in the context of religion, rather than faith as a general strategy.

I’d imagine I have faith in some things, in some areas of my life – even if I can’t think of an immediate example that I can’t put forward. It’s irrelevant to the discussion, though, and (I hope) if those areas of faith were pointed out to me, I’d apply the Scientific Method(tm) to them.

Dear me….leave you lot alone while I go for a smoke break and now I need a psychiatry degree to understand these postings !

For me life is simple.

* I still don’t know what I don’t know about this subject.
* Faith in something greater than man will do for me.
* All religions appear to mean well but have some seriously dodgy edges to them.
* There’s only three groups of people in the world, good, evil and the rest of us live in some sort of inexplicable grey area.
* Religions had to be invented in order to explain death.
* Atheists intrigue me because nobody appears to know where they get their basic teaching of right and wrong from ? Put another way, mine is Christian teaching as a base reference point that (hopefully) determines my behaviour. Without that base reference point for behaviour, what makes me any different from a wild animal that kills and shags at will ?
* What are the starting points for an atheist ?

58. Chaise Guevara

@ 51 BenSix

“Perhaps I’m being pedantic. One can have a more rational belief than another, yes – and pretty much everyone’s more rational than, say, my local weatherman – but I dislike the idea that there’s a certain people who deserve to self-identify as rational/sceptical etc.”

I dunno. There are people who tend to support actions and policies based on rationalism and others who support irrational ideas based on their own prejudices. Take sex ed, for example: those in favour would (probably) reverse their opinions if the evidence showed that it was harmful. Those against are quite happy to do harm (or convince themselves that harm is not done) because the concept itself offends them. It’s not hard to call one of those camps “rational”. Scientific method FTW.

‘China, anyone?’

No thanks.

60. Chaise Guevara

@ 57 Ted

“What are the starting points for an atheist ?”

Morally? I’d go with:

1) Hurting people is bad.
2) Helping people is good.

Of course, we can (and will) go off and argue forever about the real-world applications of these maxims, but it beats “anyone who disagrees with you on certain subjects should be shown the error of their ways WITH FIRE”. Not that that’s your view, but it also applies to less over-the-top deontological moral statements.

“I suppose you think all the problems in Israel and Palestine are a-ok because the basis of the dispute is religious?”

No doubt many of the probems are religious, but do not underestimate the fact that the biggest problem is land theft. It is an old fashioned land grab.

What’s new?

Recall the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in August 1572?

“The massacre began two days after the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots. Starting on 23 August 1572 (the eve of the feast of Bartholomew the Apostle) with murders on orders of the king of a group of Huguenot leaders including Coligny, the massacres spread throughout Paris. Lasting several weeks, the massacre extended to other urban centres and the countryside. Modern estimates for the number of dead vary widely between 5,000 and 30,000 in total.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Bartholomew's_Day_massacre

How about the Thirty Years War 1618-48?

“The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history. The war was fought primarily in what is now Germany, and at various points involved most of the countries of Europe. Naval warfare also reached overseas and shaped the colonial formation of future nations.

“The origins of the conflict and goals of the participants were complex, and no single cause can accurately be described as the main reason for the fighting. Initially, the war was fought largely as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire . . ”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years'_War

Not to mention blaming catholics for the Great Fire of London (1666) or that the Gordon Riots of 1780 amounted to an anti-catholic pogrom.

To mention but a few occasions.

AC Grayling put it well when he said that where religion is on the backfoot it brings out the best in the faithful. Where religion lacks power over people the religious tend to devote greater effort towards charity and general niceness. Where they are in power they tend to devote their time to oppressing women, homosexuals or other minorities.

Ted – many atheists go in for secular humanism. There’s a common fundie-religious argument that, because morality is absolute and Jesus is the Way and the Truth, you can only be moral if you’re christian… however, it’s based on a lot of mumbling around the critical parts. Especially the bit where we note that people seem to have behaved reasonably well to each other /before/ the establishment of organised religion.

Personally, I see the development of human morality as being deeply rooted in our past as a social species who give birth to offspring that are extremely vulnerable in their early years.

I’m by no means a social darwinist or evolutionary determinist, but from that basis, you can construct a set of rules about interactions that maximise individual, group and species success.

If we were considerably less social as a species, chances are that we wouldn’t see killing other humans as being the great moral evil that it is to us. If we spawned a few hundred offspring at a time, the idea of parent-child bonding would probably seem a bit peculiar.

Obviously, in real life, you don’t go around consciously calculating the impact of your various moral judgements on your individual, group and species-level success. Mostly, you conform to what you were brought up to do – which in the idealistic case, is a set of finely-tuned heuristics for maximising success based on some tens of thousands of years of trial and error.

@ 60. Chaise Guevara

That’s fair enough. You’re the first atheist I’ve come across to provide some sort of credible reply to that point. I do however suspect you’ve educated many hundreds of people now !!

Also, while we’re all passing around links of people being mean to each other on religious grounds, here’s one close to my current place of residence:

http://ddickerson.igc.org/cliffords-tower.html

Of course, Market Weighton, just down the road, is the scene of the biggest abuse case in English legal history… and centred on the Catholic church.

*sigh*

It doesn’t reflect on religion generally, by itself, any more than Stalin’s activities do of atheists, of course, so all I can summon up is anger at the specific cases and outrage at the apologetics who pop up from time to time.

‘* I still don’t know what I don’t know about this subject.’

That’s a great start.

‘* Faith in something greater than man will do for me.’

Charlton Heston says something similar at the start of Planet of the Apes – and look how that turned out!

Placing anything above ‘man’ (sic) places human beings second to something else. That’s the first step towards regarding them as disposable in the interests of something else, be that a deity or a political system.

‘* All religions appear to mean well but have some seriously dodgy edges to them.’

That may actually be true: many religious people do mean well. However they don’t necessarily have to have religion to do good.

‘* There’s only three groups of people in the world, good, evil and the rest of us live in some sort of inexplicable grey area.’

We’re all various shades of gray: only religions present us with impossibly perfect examples of good and evil.

‘* Religions had to be invented in order to explain death.’

Or bad weather.

* Atheists intrigue me because nobody appears to know where they get their basic teaching of right and wrong from ? ‘

You know when you read the bible and it says ‘do not kill’ and you think that’s perfectly sensible but when it says ‘don’t wear mixed fibres’ and you think that’s bollocks or when it says kill witches’ you think ‘hang on a flipping moment’? What tells YOU which bits of the bible you should follow and which is nonsense? Well, that bit of you doesn’t actually need religion to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong.

‘Put another way, mine is Christian teaching as a base reference point that (hopefully) determines my behaviour. ‘

No it doesn’t, you pick and choose your beliefs (see above). Unless you are a fundamentalist your morality is only partly based on your faith.

‘Without that base reference point for behaviour, what makes me any different from a wild animal that kills and shags at will ?’

Is your faith the only thing stopping you from killing and shagging at will? I manage to get by without killing without hell and damnation. As to the shagging, I’m still working on it.

* What are the starting points for an atheist ?’

No gods, basically. Otherwise its a broad church.

68. Chaise Guevara

@ 65

Thanks, Ted. It’s good to be able to have a debate on this topic without it devolving into the usual mess of point-scoring and sniping on both sides.

A few more bits of history being overlooked:

At least 280 protestants were burned at the stake for their faith during Mary Tudor’s reign 1553-58. She was popularly know as Bloody Mary at the time. There’s a plaque on the wall of Balliol College, Oxford, commemorating the deaths of the Oxford martyrs (1555/6), Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, by burning.

The Spanish Armada of 1588 had a commission from the Pope to restore catholicism to England.

“Guy Fawkes could have changed the face of London if his 1605 plot had not been foiled, explosion experts have said. His 2,500 kg of gunpowder could have caused chaos and devastation over a 490-metre radius, they have calculated. Fawkes’ planned blast was powerful enough to destroy Westminster Hall and the Abbey, with streets as far as Whitehall suffering damage, they say.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3240135.stm

“In 1633, the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo Galilei, one of the founders of modern science, to recant his theory that the Earth moves around the Sun. Under threat of torture, Galileo – seen (right) facing his inquisitors – recanted. But as he left the courtroom, he is said to have muttered, ‘all the same, it moves’.

“Last week, 359 years later, the Church finally agreed.”
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg13618460.600-vatican-admits-galileo-was-right-.html

“The Witch trials in the Early Modern period were a period of witch hunts between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, when across Early Modern Europe, and to some extent in the European colonies in North America, there was a widespread hysteria that malevolent Satanic witches were operating as an organized threat to Christendom.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch_trials_in_the_Early_Modern_period

70. Chaise Guevara

@ 67

“Is your faith the only thing stopping you from killing and shagging at will?”

I always get a bit of a chill up the back of the spine when people suggest that they only fail to murder and rape to escape hellfire (interesting definition of “good”, that), but in fairness I reckon taking the religion out of the religious would not lead to such evil behaviour, for the reasons given by you r.e. picking parts of the Bible to believe and so on. Good post, btw.

71. Chaise Guevara

*70

Also worth a mention is the fact that the world isn’t divided into religious people and terrifying psychopathic nihilists.

Nick -

Fair enough: I’ll butt out.

Chaise -

I dunno – I tend to think that people who oppose capital punishment are generally more intelligent than its supporters but a study showed that both sides will accept misinformation that confirms their views. People like Steven Jay Gould, Michael Shermer and Christopher Hitchens are often considered – right or wrong – to provide a sceptical and rational perspective regarding certain issues but on others – or, indeed, those – they can be damned unreasonable. (Or in the former case, sadly, could.)

As for sources of moral sentiment without religious authority, try:

“Scientists have discovered that babies can start to make moral judgments by the age of six months and may be born with the ability to tell good from bad hard-wired into their brains.”
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/biology_evolution/article7120735.ece

Compare that recent news report with this passage from an essay in 1748 by David Hume:

“All moral duties may be divided into two kinds. The first are those to which men are impelled by a natural instinct … which operates on them, independent of all ideas of obligation, and of all views either to public or private utility. Of this nature are love of children, gratitude to benefactors, pity to the unfortunate. … The second kind of moral duties are such as are not supported by any original instinct of man but are performed entirely from a sense of obligation, when we consider the necessities of human society, and the impossibility of supporting it, if these duties were neglected. …. We shall only observe, before we conclude, that though an appeal to general opinion may justly, in the speculative sciences of metaphysics, natural philosophy, or astronomy, be deemed unfair and inconclusive, yet in all questions with regard to morals, as well as criticism, there is really no other standard, by which any controversy can ever be decided.”
http://www.constitution.org/dh/origcont.htm

74. Chaise Guevara

@ 72 BenSix

Popping out now, so I don’t have time to check the links, but I agree re confirmation bias. Apparently there was this study into “better than average” bias (the idea that people will rate themselves as being above average without evidence: i.e. the reason everyone thinks they’re a good driver). In this study, the concept of better-than-average bias was explained to the participants ahead of time. They were then surveyed and all said that they were much better at avoiding better-than-average bias than average…

I suspect we’re born with some kind of moral schema imbued in us but as each generation of humanity has replicated bigotry, tribalism, violence et cetera I’m not sure that it’s necessarily one that should be embraced! (Then again, I’m not too clued up on the subject so I could be wittering from my rump…)

“I suspect we’re born with some kind of moral schema imbued in us but as each generation of humanity has replicated bigotry, tribalism, violence et cetera”

Evolutionary wobbles are like that and – in the end – bigotry etc have not prevailed and we have developed social structures for care. But the credit for starting a national welfare state must surely go to Count von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German empire (1871-90), who launched not only state pensions for the aged but, in 1883, a social insurance scheme to cover personal healthcare costs:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_von_Bismarck#Chancellor_of_the_German_Empire

In the early 19th century, governments left schooling to the churches and to charities but the Education Act of 1870 created administrative structures to provide for universal primary education:

“A driving force behind the Act was a perceived need for Britain to remain competitive in the world by being at the forefront of manufacture and improvement.

“The Act was not taken up in all areas and would be more firmly enforced through later reforms. There were objections to the concept of universal education. One was because many people remained hostile to the idea of mass education. They claimed it would make labouring classes ‘think’ and that these classes would think of their lives as dissatisfying and possibly encourage them to revolt. Others feared that handing children to a central authority could lead to indoctrination. Another reason was the vested interests of the Church and other social groups. The churches were funded by the state with public money to provide education for the poor and these churches did not want to lose that influence on youth.

“The Act established the foundations of English elementary education. The state became increasingly involved and after 1880 attendance was made compulsory for children until they were 12 years old.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_Education_Act_1870

The churches and charities had failed.

I like that in order to become a “militant” a Christian/Muslim has to go on a murderous rampage on behalf of their faith, but an atheist can become a militant by writing a book questioning the existence of god, or wearing a t-shirt with a great big scarlet A on the front.

All I can say is that we need more aggressive secularism. It’s a Good Thing.

@4 “That said, you’re right that secularism is hardly a violent belief…”

Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were secularists but hardly pacifists. Obviously intra-group conflict happens, but there’s no evidence that if you supress or eliminate religion you eliminate conflict. Groups just find new dividing lines, class and secular ideology being the most obvious ones.

There is absolutely no need for a religious base for so-called morality and what we call morals did not have a religious origin. The chances of human beings surviving and passing on their genes is enhanced by living in social groups. We did not develop a sense of killing each other was wrong through believing it was immoral. Quite simply the social group works better if we refrain from killing each other. If we refrain from killing others it was more likely that others would refrain from killing us. Moreover, killing adults would leave children without a guardian. Natural selection and the survival of the species was the driver for what we call morality. Killing others outwith the group would have been acceptable because they were competition for calories. When we developed the ability to understand the logic that killing other groups increased the chances of other groups killing us we rationalised that killing was wrong and called it morality. Therefore, most of religious morality is nothing but natural selection and the survival of our species.

Ho hum. It was only a matter of time before Hitler and Stalin showed up. The former never renounced his Catholicism and the Vatican never saw fit to excommunicate him. The latter trained for the priesthood and merely substituted one millenarian faith for another.

As for the pope, one has to admire his sense of irony. When he came to Britain he condemned atheist oppression of Christians, which seemed to consist of a few mildly sarcastic tweets from Stephen Fry. Benedict spoke out at a memorial to St Thomas More, never happier than when torching a few heretics, ie other Christians.

Belief starts where knowledge ends.

Either you believe you know everything and are your own god, or you accept the limitations of your own mortality and that you are not the centre of the universe.

Either way everyone is a believer in some manner or form.

So this article is ill-considered politicised claptrap seeking to influence the balance of temporal and spiritual power.

79 – hardly secularists.

Hitler was, at worst, ambivalent towards christianity, and certainly not given to treating all religions in the same manner. *Definitely* not into keeping church and state separate – some suggest he wanted to set himself up as a deistic figure, i.e. -> theocracy.

Stalin actively worked to promote atheism as the religious position de jour – which isn’t secularist in the extreme. Secularism is all about the state /not taking a view/. It’s just as anti-secularist for the government to promote atheism as an ideology as it is to promote christianity.

Similarly, the Khmer Rouge actively outlawed religion. This just isn’t secularism.

@ 82. thomas. Yup that about sums it up. Time for some good English ale.

82 – “I don’t know” ( – yet) is a valid position for the “big unanswered” questions, and does not necessitate a deity. It doesn’t even /suggest/ a deity.

Abiogenesis and the big bang are probably the two major current things this refers to. Previous major things this might refer to are things like, why humans are so similar to apes; why the other planets follow such weird orbits around earth, obviously the centre of the universe; where there aren’t huge piles of turtle dung hanging around the sky; that kind of thing.

86. Just Visiting

Threads like this are LC at it’s best !
Cheered me up after packing my cases for the hols.

But the ‘where do morals come from’ still is one I struggle with.

_Survival of the fittest_ being the legacy of Darwin, is all about the individual.
And is the only mechanism to explain how humankind reached as far as we have.

But the left’s focus on society and the group, is coming at things from the other direction.

After countless generations of ‘breeding in’ those who could fight better (fast / strong), or run better, or farm better… (and breeding out those who weren’t) – shoudl we not apply the old adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”… so why do we on the left focus so much on including those that survival of the fittest would leave by the wayside?

I know it gives us a warm fuzzy feeling to be inclusive… but is that enough?

@ 86. Just Visiting

A couple of good points, only the extreme left and right reject all forms of religion in any significant numbers, most normal people are laid back about the whole subject or almost completely indifferent to it.

88. Just Visiting

Ted

You think so?
Could be- even His Holiness Dawkins has been saying surpirisingly positive things about religion – or rather one religionversus another:

“There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death. I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse.”

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article7085129.ece

But not sure Ted, you had that kind of compare+contrast of religions in mind?

86 – “survival of the fittest” is a funny one, because people always assume that fittest means physically fit.

In fact, it means best-adapted to a particular environment.

The environment humans spend most of their time in now is highly socialised – so being ‘fit’ in this context can easily mean having the ability to rub along with others, or the ability to do well in, say politics; physical wellness is rapidly becoming detached from the ability to survive, get a job, and start a family; and (in general) finds intelligence to be a Good Thing(tm).

Similarly, “survival” doesn’t refer to the individual (who never survives), but rather, to the transmission of the genes (and many would say also social behaviours and ideas – memes) that the individual carries.

‘Survival of the fittest’ sounds easy, but it’s not.

Why keep the “crips” around? – Why not ask one why they haven’t suicided for the good of the human race? See what kind of answer you get.

More generally, governments don’t get to decide what phenotypes are and aren’t allowed to be born. That way lies madness and general pain. Very basic eugenics (downs syndrome, tay-sachs, etc) is common in the developed world – but the choice always lies with the parents (or should do, anyway).

@86 if survival of the fittest is all about the individual, how come ants still exist?

BTW, the quote at 7 is some made-up bigot bullshit. That should be guessable anyway, but the big giveaway is that our beloved Julia is, famously, an atheist.

@ 83 – Well what is secularism then – just mild dissapproval of organised religion ? Secularists surely want to eliminate religion in the organsied sense from all social insitutions. The logical extension of that is supression/persecution/harrasement of those who practice it.

@ 86 I think as others have said it’s a development of the Darwinian implication that killing someone is ultimately bad for the species (as it reduces our global chances of survival) but that is complicated by the Selfish gene theory, the idea that given the choice, you will put the propagation of your groups’, and ultimately your own, DNA, ahead of “human” DNA. Hence “morals” can be seen as the social enactment of a biological imperative to avoid self destructive behaviour.

@ 86 – I think what you are saying is that “equality” is a wholly artificial construct that serves no usefull purpose and is not found anywhere in nature, which is why it has never worked, and yet some continue trying to create it ?

92 – not even close.

Secularism is the idea that the state should not interfere in religious matters, and religion should not interfere in state matters.

This is a *good thing* for governments, especially those that preside over a country containing more than one religion, and a *good thing* for religions, as long as they can cope with losing the ability to disproportionately influence governmental decision-making.

These dudes say it better than me:
http://www.secularism.org.uk/whatissecularism.html

There is a clear and obvious distinction between giving up undue privilege (as the CofE currently has in the UK) and suppression/persecution/harassment of a religion. Attempting to conflate the two is nothing more than a dishonest attempt to retain that undue privilege. One does not necessarily lead to the other, and I wouldn’t say that the former encourages the latter in any way.

Mind you, people generally are strident when they’re losing privileges.

People quite often use Hitler and the Nazis argument to attack non believers. But in the 1920’s if you characterised how religious a country is by church attendance, Germany would have been the most religious country in Europe. The fact they became a fascist state within ten years is pretty scary when you look at church attendance on the USA today.

As someone once said “when fascism comes to America it will be carrying the cross.

@96
“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
Attributed to Sinclair Lewis.

Secularists surely want to eliminate religion in the organsied sense from all social insitutions.

I think this is slightly overstating the case, but let’s assume it for now.

The logical extension of that is supression/persecution/harrasement of those who practice it.

Only if you have the mindset of a fascist.

I don’t think that government money should be used to promote stamp collecting, or that prominent stamp collectors should be given roles influencing public policy purely because of their hobby.

If that were currently the case, then I’d view it as an outrage and seek to get the laws changed. In that sense, I’d like to ensure that stamp collecting in the organised sense remains eliminated from government institutions.

However, that doesn’t mean I believe in the suppression, persecution or harassment of stamp collectors. Quite the reverse; some of my best friends are stamp collectors, and I have nothing against the pursuit.

You’re falling into the trap of “what isn’t compulsory is forbidden”. The thing about being a liberal is we don’t believe that. Some of our occasional allies on the illiberal left might, but they a) can go swivel on such issues b) seldom tend to be the secular ones anyway.

Actually the biggest persecutor of religious believers has been Communist regimes (not known for their piety!).

Enver Hoxha’s Albanian regime was probably the most determined secularist persecutor of religious groups.

From the OP, it seems the more intolerant tendency within Islam now is.

I can’t think of any Christian regimes who are persucuting religious minorities.

Well what is secularism then – just mild dissapproval of organised religion ? Secularists surely want to eliminate religion in the organsied sense from all social insitutions. The logical extension of that is supression/persecution/harrasement of those who practice it.

Secularism is the notion that the state cannot and should not interfere in private matters of conscience and religious belief. It is not just about keeping religion out of the state, it is also about keeping the state out of religion. You have secularism to thank for the fact that you are free to choose your own religious beliefs, rather than being required to conform to a state-mandated and state-controlled religion.

102. Flowerpower

john b @ 98

I don’t think that government money should be used to promote stamp collecting, or that prominent stamp collectors should be given roles influencing public policy purely because of their hobby.

Mmm. That equation of a hobby like stamp collecting with religious observance makes sense until one reflects that:

* I can’t think of any major politician whose motivation for entering politics were the values he acquired through stamp collecting.

* There is no major section of the citizenry whose primary identity is as stamp collectors.

* Stamp collecting is not associated with a range of charitable endeavours ranging from feeding the starving to helping the drug addicted via running half way houses for criminals and campaigning for world peace.

* Stamp collecting does not contribute much to the public stock of ethical reasoning.

* People have shown little inclination over the years to have their children educated by fellow stamp collectors.

* Stamp collectors didn’t run the hospitals that treated the poor before the NHS (and may have to run them again after it).

* Stamp collecting, though doubtless a passionate business, does not engender in its adherents sufficient passion to accept martyrdom, when push comes to shove.

Which to say the least suggests that religion and stamp collecting aren’t really all that analagous.

I’ll be less oblique. The Chinese government is not exactly noted for its tolerant and humane attitude towards religious institutions and believers. It is also not exactly a theocratic state.

Of course, that just proves Osler wrong; it doesn’t prove the Pope right. And, of course, he is wrong as well. To blame Secularism for religious persecution is laughable; as a serious political movement (it was once the case that millions of people across ‘Catholic’ Europe voted the way they did because they were ‘Secularists’, something reflected in the rhetoric and policies of the politicians they voted for) it is all but dead and has been for some time.

‘People quite often use Hitler and the Nazis argument to attack non believers. But in the 1920’s if you characterised how religious a country is by church attendance, Germany would have been the most religious country in Europe. The fact they became a fascist state within ten years is pretty scary when you look at church attendance on the USA today.’

I’m not entirely sure if that is actually true (I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but I do know that attendance in certain urban areas was about the lowest in Europe; Berlin especially) but I do know that the parts of Germany with the highest rates of church attendance were (and are) the heavily Catholic areas. Which were amongst the worst parts of Germany for the Nazis during the death spiral of the Weimar Republic.

@95

Nick, your link explains exactly why these conversations are mud-pits.

It ignores all the definitions of secularism used by everbody else in favour of the one convenient for the author of the page.

>There is a clear and obvious distinction between giving up undue privilege (as the CofE currently has in the UK) and suppression/persecution/harassment of a religion. Attempting to conflate the two is nothing more than a dishonest attempt to retain that undue privilege. One does not necessarily lead to the other, and I wouldn’t say that the former encourages the latter in any way.

Indeed there is much dishonesty around. Which is why the author you reference lays claim to a secularism as simply a separation of church and state, while working for an explicitly anti-religious setup. Those are two different things.

The distinction you draw is neither clear not obvious, which is why it is a mud-pit.

PS I’d be interested to see someone define “undue privilege”, rather than just coming up with generalities.

107. Chaise Guevara

@ 82

“Either you believe you know everything and are your own god, or you accept the limitations of your own mortality and that you are not the centre of the universe.”

Are you trying to imply that you have to either be religious or have a God complex? I hope not, because that would be silly.

On the subject of silly, on returning to this thread I notice that Matt Munro just couldn’t resist godwinning.

108. Chaise Guevara

@ 90 Cylux

” if survival of the fittest is all about the individual, how come ants still exist?”

I wondered about this myself, and apparently the only thing that can be considered “reproduction” in the hive lifecycle is the birth of a queen (or something like that). All other ants are clones. From an evolutionary POV, an ant hive really is a single individual.

109. Chaise Guevara

@ Flowerpower

“Which to say the least suggests that religion and stamp collecting aren’t really all that analagous.”

Not in all cases, but the analogy is fine for the purposes of this discussion. Here’s why:

“* I can’t think of any major politician whose motivation for entering politics were the values he acquired through stamp collecting.”

If someone becomes a better person due to their religion/hobby, good for them. But they should be appointed for their virtues, not for the reasons that they developed said virtues.

“* There is no major section of the citizenry whose primary identity is as stamp collectors.”

If there were, however, they could elect officials just like everyone else. Otherwise you’re counting them twice: once as part of the electorate and once as part of a powerful stamp lobby that the government decides to genuflect to.

“* Stamp collecting is not associated with a range of charitable endeavours ranging from feeding the starving to helping the drug addicted via running half way houses for criminals and campaigning for world peace.”

Nor is it associated with torture, oppression and all sorts of bad shit, but neither points are relevant. The fact that Stamp Collecter Smith is a tyrant/saint should not affect whether we give Stamp Collecter Jones a job; if it does, that’s prejudice.

“* Stamp collecting does not contribute much to the public stock of ethical reasoning.”

Nor does religion; and again irrelevant for the same reasons as above.

“* People have shown little inclination over the years to have their children educated by fellow stamp collectors.”

Irrelevant again, same reasons. Also, what people want their children to learn isn’t always indicative of what’s right. Many kids are raised racist, for example.

“* Stamp collectors didn’t run the hospitals that treated the poor before the NHS (and may have to run them again after it).”

Irrelevant for the same reasons as before.

“* Stamp collecting, though doubtless a passionate business, does not engender in its adherents sufficient passion to accept martyrdom, when push comes to shove.”

Ditto.

Basically, what you’re doing is providing a defense of religion. That’s fine, but it’s not a justification for biasing the system in favour of individuals who happen to be religious.

110. Chaise Guevara

@ 106 Matt

“PS I’d be interested to see someone define “undue privilege”, rather than just coming up with generalities.”

Off the top of my head, I believe it’s officially easier for religious organisations to get charitable status and all the benefits that pertain thereto than non-religious organisations. Not because of a general culture of prejudice, but due to old laws that mean the religiousness of an organisation counts as an official box-tick in the equation. Didn’t Hindus have to campaign to get the same treatment because the law was originally interpreted as only applying to monotheistic religions?

Another, more minor point, is that unless the law’s been changed CoE clerics can officially conduct a marriage and other ones can’t (and nor can, say, the Humanist Society). That doesn’t make a big difference in the grand scheme of things, but it does officially mandate a two-tier system, thus snubbing everyone that isn’t CoE in much the same way as gay couples are snubbed by having their marriages called “civil partnerships”.

Oh, and schools that teach religious dogma can get government funding, whereas a school teaching a secularly dogmatic position would fail the same test as this would count as political indoctrination, and (I think) state schools legally HAVE to be religious.

Matt – it’s only the version of secularism that the NSS has been agitating for, for the past 150 years. It’s not like it’s a definition that has any kind of traction, or anything.

I gave the link because it’s important that we know what each other means by secularism. If you’re using secularism to mean ‘religious persecution’, and you have no problems with the activities named as secularism in the aforementioned definition, then any disagreement we have on whether secularism is good or bad is going to be a pointless semantic argument.

I’d imagine Dave was using the same definition of secularism as I was. I strongly suspect the pope was /also/ using the same definition of secularism – because what he fears is not christian persecution in Europe (which doesn’t happen to any noticeable degree. Really. Honestly), but rather, the loss of preferential status that religious groups are undergoing.

As for undue privilege – the presumption in the establishment of charities that religion is a social good is one. There’s no particular reason why a cult of Baal, dedicated to nomming babies, couldn’t get charitable status in the UK. Or, more concretely, those disgusting Christian churches prevalent in Africa even today that beat, torture and kill young children for being ‘witches’.

How about the Bishop’s bench in the House of Lords? *That* is undue privilege – and it’s unfair to hindus, muslims and buddhists just as much as it is to atheists.

Do you know how many local council meetings start with a prayer to the christian god, and if you don’t join in, you’re made to feel unwelcome? Me neither – but it happens, and the NSS are surveying it and launching legal challenges as we speak.

The requirement for an act of worship in every state school in the land is just… weird. And the child can’t opt out. The parent must.

Undue religious privilege is really easy to define. It’s opportunities and power and preferences given to one segment of society and denied to others based on their declared religious beliefs, or lack thereof.

@104 Alun
there’s a joke from 1930′s Germany which goes along the lines of: What’s the difference between a Jew and a Christian? A Jew doesn’t go to synagogue on a Friday and a Christian doesn’t go to church on a Sunday.

@107 Chaise Guevara
No, you’re conflating two potential implications in the acceptance of mortality – that of religions and of being religious. One does not necessarily lead to the other.

Don’t you think there is something cult-like about celebrity and the cultivation of a public profile? Virtually every public figure I’ve ever met certainly left me with the impression they have a god-sized ego, and there’s definitely something ‘transcendent’ about the media representation they require.

@108
Close, the selfish gene theory boils down to genes finding ways to ensure their continued reproduction and existence. This manifests in either making an individual animal faster/stronger/smarter, and therefore more successful at “surviving by being the fittest”. An alternative method of surviving and ensuring reproduction is making groups of the same species, who would likely share the same genes, work together more efficiently, pool resources and to care and look out for one another.

Evolution is why we have a moral sense, we evolved as a social species that relied upon one another. We care for others, most definitely “of our tribe” (or family, if you prefer) but our big-brains and empathy allow us to widen that net to include strangers and even other animals. However we are still distrustful of those “not of our tribe”, because while they’re technically close genetically to us our genes still tell us – “not the same as you, my chances of being among their chromosomes is not high”, hence racism/xenophobia etc. As for why we decided one set of instructions is “moral” and the other “immoral” is probably because we quite like being cared for, and are not very keen on having us heads caved in.

114. Chaise Guevara

@ Nick 111

“a cult of Baal, dedicated to nomming babies”

Was Baal seriously into that?

“Do you know how many local council meetings start with a prayer to the christian god, and if you don’t join in, you’re made to feel unwelcome?”

I had absolutely no idea about that, although it makes sense in communites with a strong church-going ethic: who better to vote for as your representative in the community than the local vicar, who already serves that role in some respects? I agree that that’s pathetic and wrong, and arguably should be banned (the prayers, not voting for vicars).

“The requirement for an act of worship in every state school in the land is just… weird. And the child can’t opt out. The parent must.”

Yeah. Classic use of “parent power” to mean “I should have the right to inflict my prejudices on my child’s school, and on my child even when not at home”. The cynic in me mutters that that’s in fact the ONLY meaning of “parent power”.

Richard Dawkins has many faults and many merits, but if the God Delusion succeeds in its aim to spread the message that you shouldn’t label kids with their parents’ views, in my mind it’ll have been worthwhile.

115. Chaise Guevara

112 thomas

“No, you’re conflating two potential implications in the acceptance of mortality – that of religions and of being religious. One does not necessarily lead to the other.”

You’ve lost me, I’m afraid. Could you rephrase that?

“Don’t you think there is something cult-like about celebrity and the cultivation of a public profile? Virtually every public figure I’ve ever met certainly left me with the impression they have a god-sized ego, and there’s definitely something ‘transcendent’ about the media representation they require.”

Yes I do, but I’d warn you against treating a metaphor as fact. Big egos are not really god-sized (who was the last celebrity to demand genocide because some demographic offended them or got in their way? Or to claim to have created the heavens and the earth?), and the word “transcendant” is being used differently to the way it would in a religious context.

114

“Was Baal seriously into that?”

The jury is out on that one… some sources think both the Phoenicians and Carthaginians went in for it, others insist it was a vicious lie put about by the Romans who wanted to demonise them and justify their extermination of Carthage.

117. Chaise Guevara

113 Cylux

“Close, the selfish gene theory boils down to genes finding ways to ensure their continued reproduction and existence. This manifests in either making an individual animal faster/stronger/smarter, and therefore more successful at “surviving by being the fittest”. An alternative method of surviving and ensuring reproduction is making groups of the same species, who would likely share the same genes, work together more efficiently, pool resources and to care and look out for one another.”

True in general, but I’m pretty sure with ants it’s the fact that their reproductive cycle is so different from ours, so what we see as an individual (i.e. a distinct unit) is from an evolutionary perspective more like an organ or a cell in a single organism. My scientific summary is “ants are freaky”.

However, that doesn’t contradict what you say about group selection: there are plenty of reasons why herd/pride/tribe A, whose members cooperate, would be more likely to survive than h/p/t B, whose members don’t, and thus pass their genes on to future generations.

118. Chaise Guevara

@ 116

“The jury is out on that one… some sources think both the Phoenicians and Carthaginians went in for it, others insist it was a vicious lie put about by the Romans who wanted to demonise them and justify their extermination of Carthage.”

Calling your enemy a baby-killer is pretty popular as propaganda designed to enrage the ignorant. I’ve seen woodcuts from the English civil war showing roundheads putting babies on stakes. Given that the Romans are almost a byword for cunning politics, my instinct is to exonarate Baal on this one.

There were lots different deities called baal, of course. And probably lots of conflicting groups. Here’s what that supremely unbiased source, the old testament, has to say:

“They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons as offering to Baal” (Jeremiah 19:5).

*shrug*

120. Chaise Guevara

@ 119

By the Old Testament’s standards that probably counts as giving grudging respect…

@115 Chaise
Who can judge what is ‘god’ or ‘god-sized’ etc?

I certainly wouldn’t presume, but I’ll happily take yours for the purpose of the discussion.

It’s informative that you define a deity as a creator/destructor. But as an example I’ll give you any living icon, say Paul McCartney, Eddie Izzard or David Beckham, who’ve broken boundaries and been pioneers in numerous areas to attain their undisputed (if contended) position in the public eye, creating modern equivalents of ‘heaven and earth’.

Anyway, when discussing spiritual matters I think we’re in the realm of discovering truth, not fact, so any potential mis-match in word use (such as ‘transcendant’) should be taken as illustrative of where confusion starts.

You said: “Are you trying to imply that you have to either be religious or have a God complex? I hope not, because that would be silly.”

I said: “No, you’re conflating two potential implications in the acceptance of mortality – that of religions and of being religious. One does not necessarily lead to the other.”

ie there are three options – to develop a god complex (and tend towards dogma, where you think you are always right), to be religious (and tend towards zealotry, where everyone must always agree with you) or to accept other people as they are (and tend to disbelieve absolute definitions of truth, as no person has or can have a monopoly on it).

I won’t go so far as to suggest direct political or party political correlations, but I will ask you to reconsider which approach you take.

122. Chaise Guevara

@121

“Who can judge what is ‘god’ or ‘god-sized’ etc?

I certainly wouldn’t presume, but I’ll happily take yours for the purpose of the discussion.”

I was thinking the same thing when I posted. It’s actually less obvious than it seems at first what “god” really means.

“It’s informative that you define a deity as a creator/destructor. But as an example I’ll give you any living icon, say Paul McCartney, Eddie Izzard or David Beckham, who’ve broken boundaries and been pioneers in numerous areas to attain their undisputed (if contended) position in the public eye, creating modern equivalents of ‘heaven and earth’.”

The thing is, as you pointed out, it’s hard to define what you mean by “god” or “god-like”. So you can stretch the term so it includes successful and egotistic people, and the phrase will still make sense, but you’re at a point where no actually comparison of what most (Western?) people would probably understand to mean “god” in a thread about religion.

I might use the word “god” to describe an idol (Izzard fits, funnily enough), but in this context I’d want the word to mean something more than “someone who brings a smile to millions”. I guess the super-short answer is I can’t prove God’s existence by pointing to Izzard.

“Anyway, when discussing spiritual matters I think we’re in the realm of discovering truth, not fact, so any potential mis-match in word use (such as ‘transcendant’) should be taken as illustrative of where confusion starts.”

Hmm. If truth isn’t factual, what is it? I admit to second-guessing you here, but you sound in danger of declaring “truth” to be whatever you want to believe in, which obviously is meaningless.

“ie there are three options – to develop a god complex (and tend towards dogma, where you think you are always right), to be religious (and tend towards zealotry, where everyone must always agree with you) or to accept other people as they are (and tend to disbelieve absolute definitions of truth, as no person has or can have a monopoly on it).”

I pick three! I feel about truth/fact this way: we can try to be correct, and can certainly reach a position where one statement seems far, far more likely to be true than another, but what with solipcism and the ever-present possibility of a paradigm shift around the corner, real-world “truth” is not something I would claim to know (normal exception for Cogito Ergo Sum applies here). And I would certainly say that there is no such thing as a moral truth.

123. Chaise Guevara

*
“you’re at a point where no actually comparison *is being made with* what most (Western?) people would probably understand to mean “god””

Hang on there, Chaise, you’re slipping about a bit.

I think there’s a line from Indiana Jones which best sums up the difference between truth and fact. “Archaeology is the search for fact… not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, there’s a philosophy class down the hall.”

Empirical evidence-based knowledge uses an entirely different methodology from the logical progression of rationalism and provides different answers, but neither is necessarily more legitimate than the other – they both simply have different applications in different situations.

That’s not the same as saying truth is anything I want it to be.

The empirical tradition might use the example of what other people believe ‘god’ to be as it’s definition, but the rationalist will try to reconcile definitions of a deity to real situations.

The short answer is that different people believe different things, but everyone believes something (even Dawkins, just ask him about his wife…).

So in my longer answer I took your definition, and then contrasted it with possible equivalents in order to show how different ways of thinking create artificial arguments. Demonstrating the formal contrast is more illuminating than simply asserting the soundness, relevance or validity of one over the other.

And that’s where your call to justification with ‘most’ people lets you down.

Opinion is notoriously volatile, so democracy as a decision-making forum requires limitations to function effectively and reliably. Otherwise policies are made up on the hoof and junked as quickly as they become subject to the latest fad.

All people are wrong with astounding regularity (moreso the dogmatic and zealots), so the challenge for good government is to create a system of checks and balances which neutralise our weaknesses and inconsistencies.

On a moral sphere we can argue about the addition and subtraction of factual content, but I think whether or not you accept any proposition how you respond to it is still a matter of personal choice.

As for Eddie Izzard being a god of the comedy circuit – he’s admired and respected just as much for the trail he’s blazed as for any jokes he’s told. I’ve never been able to laugh at his routines, but I completely respect his commitment to his chosen tasks and his ability to work a crowd.

His ability to promote himself has enabled him to sell more tickets and use his fame for various causes, but do his arena tours provide a more enjoyable evening than your local spot shows? Does he get more satisfaction now than when he was struggling as a street performer in Covent Garden?

Anyhoo, I disagree with your statement of opposition to moral truth – morality is something we decide in hindsight as we see the consequences of our decisions. The theoretical framework built around these acts and facts is called ethics.

And that is something I think we should all learn to understand.

125. Chaise Guevara

@ thomas

“Empirical evidence-based knowledge uses an entirely different methodology from the logical progression of rationalism and provides different answers, but neither is necessarily more legitimate than the other – they both simply have different applications in different situations.

That’s not the same as saying truth is anything I want it to be.”

Well, I’d say rationalism and empiricism are generally used together to reach one answer. But no, that’s not the same as saying truth is whatever you want it to be.

“The empirical tradition might use the example of what other people believe ‘god’ to be as it’s definition, but the rationalist will try to reconcile definitions of a deity to real situations…

And that’s where your call to justification with ‘most’ people lets you down.”

I’m afraid that’s not an effective way to deal with linguistics. Appealing to the majority to “prove” either a factual statement or a moral position is, of course, fallistic. But language is carved of usage and convention, with a good dose (in English at least) of context thrown in there too. So if I say that most people are going to misunderstand what you mean by “god” in this context, that’s a valid way of pointing out that you’re being unclear.

Furthermore, you can reconcile definitions if you like, but that’s not the same as conflating two definitions in one sentence. For example: “Nothing is better than tea; I would therefore prefer nothing to tea”. The sentence becomes confused or even meaningless because two usages of “nothing” are conflated. The same happens when you connect “god” in the context of this thread to “god” in the context of a revered human being.

“Anyhoo, I disagree with your statement of opposition to moral truth – morality is something we decide in hindsight as we see the consequences of our decisions. The theoretical framework built around these acts and facts is called ethics.

And that is something I think we should all learn to understand.”

Two problems with that. Firstly, the “consequences” may lead to negative decisions. For example, a beaten wife may discover that the consequence of criticising her husband is being physically attacked. That doesn’t mean she’s wrong for criticising him.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, you can’t reach moral truth based on consequences alone, because you need moral assumptions to judge the consequences in the first place. We don’t say “that government policy led to many people being needlessly killed, therefore it is bad” unless we first presume that needlessly killing people is a bad thing. This is the is/ought gap: you cannot logically use a factual statement alone to prove a moral statement. Precisely because morality relies on these presumptions, there’s no way of determining a moral truth.

126. Flowerpower

Chaiese @ 109

Stamp collecting does not contribute much to the public stock of ethical reasoning.”

Nor does religion…

… as a matter of fact rather than opinion, you can hardly deny that religion has played a major role over the past few thousand years in developing ethical and moral systems.

You could argue that secular society now does it too. But there seems little point in denying the past.

@Chaise
“So if I say that most people are going to misunderstand what you mean by “god” in this context, that’s a valid way of pointing out that you’re being unclear.”

I’m hardly being unclear about not providing a personal opinion, which you’re trying to pin me down on.

Since people use standardised terms to support their own assumptions it opens up wide scope for confusion and argument – this is the maid/made or there/their problem. It’s not that most people are necessarily going to misunderstand what I mean, rather that there is no definitive consensus which covers both formal and informal interactions.

And secondly you’re mischaracterising my argument regarding morality. I didn’t propose a consequentialist morality, rather that any construction of a moral and ethical framework is only possible once you have the real consequences to compare with intended consequences and the procedures by which decision-making was undertaken.

So in your example of a beaten wife being beaten for criticising her husband for beating her, I would argue the right and wrongs of the situation can only be objectively adjudged on the practical level if we understand whether the criticisms were inflammatory and exacerbated the severity of the beating or whether she made them in a way which actually reduced the violence, given that I think all people will start with the assumption that violence is destructive and intrinsically bad.

On a comparative subjective level this enables us to measure the destructive power of the physical violence against the wife against the destructive power of the verbal violence against the husband (obviously this is a politicised area where different groups assert physical and psychological violence should be measured on different scales, but I’m more concerned here with the participants in the situation as they are the relevant decision-makers).

Anyway, interesting as this is, it’s going off at a tangent and losing it’s point.

I think we’re actually in much agreement that there are multiple variables to be taken into account which may or may not cancel each other out. This may leave the impression that the subject under discussion is meaningless or irrelevant, causing sizable segments of society to disbelieve the existence or validity of the it (such as in the case with a religious deity), but as a transposable debate it offers vast potential for understanding complex interrelationships.

As such discovery of proof for ‘god’ and the surrounding conflicts is less interesting to me than the provision of a methodological model for further discoveries, which would not be possible without an extreme logical inversion (of which this is the ultimate controversy). It’s the basis of an oppositional politics (which you might argue is a practical imposition of the dialectic model).

Inevitably all subordinate questions (such as who persecutes believers) will get dragged into the mire of partisanship, from whence perpetual division is inescapable.

Linguistically at least we can therefore see that Dave Osler’s original rhetorical question (“Who persecutes believers? Other believers”) is comic at every level in exposing his own prejudices.

Sadly Dave Osler fails to recognise Christians’ self-identity is defined by persecution precisely for occupying their apparently contradictory position, so he’s onto a losing argument before he’s even started (as is everyone once they begin to participate in party politics). Nevertheless as a functional paradox it works – you have to be wrong to learn how to be right.

Leaving aside his implicit political assumptions sprinkled throughout, all I think is important to ask is whether there is consensus on an accepted definition of persecution and opposition to it in all its forms, whether the groups specified are actually experiencing it, and what practical steps can be taken to prioritise the greatest possible improvement in the general situation.

And I certainly think all sane people will agree those questions do build a framework by which moral truth can be arrived at.

Dear me, philosophy is irritating. The only way to win, is not to play.

Sophistry aside, the main persecutors of the religious in modern Western Europe are undoubtedly religious themselves, and pursuing the persecution for religious reasons.

Nick,
it’s only irritating if you’re impatient.

Your assertion is somewhat lacking – what do you mean by persecution? what do you mean by religious?

I was beaten up as a teenager by a thug who incorrectly thought that I was jewish. I asked him what religion he was, he hesitated and said ‘I’m not religious, I’m English’.

How does that qualify?

The Soviet Union, and Communist China, both officially atheist countries, had persecuted religious minorities just as cruelly as anyone else in their time(think destruction of mosques and other temples in the Cultural Revolution, or the deportation of 1 million Muslim Chechens by the Soviets to Siberia; the torture and execution of Orthodox clergymen, etc, etc, etc..)

Who persecutes believers? Humans.


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