"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Morality: What’s culture got to do with it?

So I cross posted my last piece to my facebook notes, and a couple of days later, while sitting outside the pub, a friend of mine who read it said something like: “I agree with the sentiment, but if I was to critique it I’d want to know where moral relativism comes into it”.
It is of course an interesting question, because it is easy writing from a western perspective to define what is moral entirely in those terms. However as Brian pointed out we live in a multicultural society where issues such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are emerging into our society’s consciousness.
I think FGM is an apposite subject to explore cultural and moral relativism. For example by defining what its practitioners call “female circumcision” as mutilation I am already making a moral judgment. Also it is a practice often defended on religious grounds despite it not being mandated in any scripture.
This is key in one respect. By calling this process “circumcision” it is equated with a practice that is religiously mandated in the Jewish and Islamic scriptures, although in reality circumcision is to FGM like cutting your fingernails is to amputating your hands.
In some African cultures the practice is part of puberty, a right of passage with the “surgery” being performed by an older woman, sometimes with a sharp stone with which she cuts the clitoris and often removes the labia minora. In other cultures the clitoris is cut at birth or during infancy.
You might think (from our western perspective) that women in these cultures would universally condemn the practice as they would remember the painful experience themselves. But this is to underestimate the power of tradition.
The reality is that not only men but many women in FGM societies defend the practice on religious or cultural grounds.

So, if even the victims of this practice support it, who am I to say it’s immoral?
The first part of my answer falls directly out of my previous post. Universally we agree on fundamental axioms of morality, acting selflessly to another’s benefit is moral; acting selfishly to another’s detriment is immoral. So the first thing to establish is to whose benefit is FGM?
Whether religiously inspired or not (but I bet it was) the prima facia reason for FGM is to control the sexuality of women. It desensitises the clitoris so discouraging masturbation, and leads to lack of lubrication making sexual intercourse uncomfortable. In the most extreme cases the labia majora are sewn together making sexual intercourse impossible until the procedure is reversed, usually when the girl is due to marry.
From this perspective it is clear that FGM is for the benefit of men and preservation of the culture, not for the woman.
This is not to say that FGM’s defenders do not make a case for benefit to the woman. One is hygiene. They argue that reducing the mucus producing area of the vagina promotes cleanliness, but while they may have thought this centuries ago, we now know that vaginal secretions are vital for the health and cleanliness of the organ, so if it was a valid argument once it isn’t now.
They also argue that because the practice is culturally endorsed it guarantees the girls’ acceptance into the culture. The circularity of this argument hardly needs pointing out.
So if the practice is not for the benefit of the girl it fails on that basic moral premise.
The other reason the practise is immoral is that it is always done to minors. The girls who have to go through this have no say in the decision, are usually not old enough to be moral agents themselves, yet they must live with the consequences throughout their lives.
In this scenario FGM is a violation of their human right to self-determination.

But, what about the right of the parents or elders to pass their cultural heritage onto their children? It is important, some say to defer consideration of the rights of the child to preserve cultural integrity.
To this I would say that cultures, ideas, ethnic groups do not have rights: Individuals do. It is not defensible to impose a cultural concept on an individual who may well in later life wish to adopt a totally different one. At least if a child is brought up in a belief system they can, if they choose abandon it for another at some time. However a victim of FGM can never reclaim her clitoris, or the fully functioning human sexuality she was deprived of.

FGM is an extreme example of a cultural practice that the west may see as immoral while the third world (or indeed some cultural relativists) may defend, so it throws the relativist argument sharply into relief. However I think that the basic reasoning presented here could be applied to any practice detrimental to individuals in another culture, done in the name of that culture. This would put male circumcision performed for anything other than medical reasons in that bracket. Again there are plenty of people including circumcised males who defend it, and barring some rare complications such as meatal stenosis it may to many seem a trivial mutilation. That doesn’t make it right and neither does the cultural context in which it is done.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Morality: What's God got to do with it?

This blog was never intended for weighty philosophical essays and in any case compared to some atheist bloggers I’m a philosophical lightweight. However I’m going to have a go at the question du jour that seems to be popping up all over the atheosphere at the moment. To wit, on what, in the absence of God, do atheists base their morality?
First of all it is not at all self evident that religious people are any more moral in an objective sense than atheists are. Theists of a fundamentalist stripe define morality by edicts found in the scriptures they favour, but even the most literal of these pick and choose which to follow. As has often been pointed out, Christians who decry homosexuality on the basis of Leviticus cheerfully ignore the prohibition against eating seafood from the same source. In fact the bible tends to be used as a pic-n-mix stand for whichever morality suits the moment and the prejudice of the moralist.
Atheists of course reject scripture entirely as an infallible source of morality. This is not to say that there are not good moral lessons in scripture, it is just that as a human document codified in the ethics of the time inevitably there is some pretty horrible stuff in there too. So despite some theists’ claim that atheists lack a moral compass, theists and atheist alike are really facing the same dilemma.
Scripture aside, theists will also claim that there must be an absolute standard of good and evil against which we all measure moral worth. God, they claim, defines the rules and arbitrates between right and wrong. The obvious problem with this is that God is not seen to intervene in even the most ecclesiastic moral dilemmas. Witness the Anglican Church’s wrangle over the ordination of women or gay clergy. One might expect a bit of hands on divine guidance, but no. The cosmic umpire is A.W.O.L and his church is heading for schism. Once again the moral question is back to a matter of all too human opinion informed by selective reading of the scriptures, prejudice and confirmation bias.
The other problem with God given absolute moral standards is the Euthyphro dilemma. I won’t rehearse this in depth because the argument is already familiar to most atheists, but in a nutshell it asks the question “is something good because God wills it, or does God will it because it is good?” If the former anything deemed to be the will of God is assumed to be O.K and since scripture is pretty big on genocide, stoning rape victims, slavery and blood sacrifice that doesn’t seem to work by modern standards. If the latter, what external standard is God referring to?
So, if theists are really only fooling themselves about the source of their morality and atheists reject the source anyway, whence comes human morality?

At the root of human moral behaviour is altruism. Universally we agree that an individual who acts for the benefit of others is acting morally, whereas someone who acts in their own interest to the detriment of others is behaving immorally. The source of this uncontroversial attitude is, I argue, deep within our evolutionary history. We, like many mammals, and like the species that were our ancestors are social animals. Societies have hierarchies and relationships and interdependencies that require individuals to subsume their own interests to that of the group. Reciprocity between individuals requires the trading of favours and delayed gratification; "you groom me today, I’ll share my food tomorrow".
Successful individuals within successful societies will propagate genes leading to a level of altruistic behaviour that maximises their survival.
After many millennia, our species with its enhanced intelligence has codified this innate behaviour as morality. We know socially desirable behaviour when we see it, whereas theft, infidelity, murder, and usury all raise our moral ire because we are wired to punish this sort of behaviour within our own tribe.
The “within our own tribe” is important, because historically and to some extent today, we do not necessarily extend this sense of morality to outsiders. It has been seen as O.K to steal land, mates and resources from the tribe in the next valley just not from your own. This application of morality specifically to the in-group is strong circumstantial evidence that it is an evolved behaviour.

There are however more controversial types of morality. There are those who see moral issues with abortion, “deviant” sexual behaviour, intoxicants, modes of dress, promiscuity and blasphemy. All of these I would suggest are cultural and have more to do with command and control strategies adopted by those at the top of human societies. Historically, control has frequently been a function, either explicitly or implicitly, of religion, so various churches have espoused these deontological mores.
It is not surprising then that as the power of religion wanes, these command moralities have become the focus of much debate. Liberal Christians, atheists and agnostics in the main no longer see these things as inherently immoral. Socially conservative right wing types do, as does fundamental Islam and Christianity. These moral battle lines are of course approximations, there are liberals who disagree on abortion for example and conservatives who disagree on drug policy so one has to be wary of stereotyping. However, in general it is individuals who have a command mentality that still obsess about these things.
With the possible exception of abortion, many atheists I believe would see the above list as morally neutral, as long as these behaviours did not adversely impact on anyone else. Sexual behaviour either alone or between consenting adults is nobody else’s business, what intoxicants a person consumes is up to them, what they wear and how they express themselves is a free personal choice. However when sexual behaviour becomes rape, intoxication becomes abusive and free expression becomes violent they then enter the moral sphere. But it is these consequential behaviours that are immoral not the root behaviour.
To take one example, intoxication; if a person wants to drink alcohol that’s fine, but if that person knows that too much makes them violent getting that drunk becomes immoral, as is the act of violence. Now it might be pragmatic for that person to avoid drink altogether, but that doesn’t mean drinking is immoral for everyone all the time.
Atheists can take this rational approach to morality. The golden rules of “do as you would be done by” and “live and let live” are generally good enough as a guide, built as they are on our genetic predisposition for altruism.

Finally, I would argue it is not atheists who have a problem with finding a moral compass. It is in fact the religious, who are dragged backwards by scripture, written in primitive societies for the purpose of social control, that are not free to make rational and objective moral decisions. They are the people who obsess about what goes on behind their neighbours’ bedroom doors and somehow find it more moral to discriminate on gender and racial grounds than to “live and let live” for the greater happiness of all.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

UK Government responds to "Protest the Pope" petition

The Government had posted its reponse to the petition to protest the up coming visit by Ratzinger (AKA Pope Benedict XVI)to the U.K and in particular its funding by the taxpayer.
In full the Government says:
Pope Benedict XVI will visit the UK from 16 to 19 September at the invitation of Her Majesty The Queen. The visit is described as a Papal Visit with the status of a State Visit. The programme will include a number of pastoral events, which are the responsibility of the Catholic Church, as well as some significant official events, which will provide opportunities for issues of common interest to the UK Government and the Holy See to be discussed at the highest level.

The Holy See has a global reach and so is a valuable international partner for the UK Government. Our relationship with the Holy See enables us to address jointly a range of foreign policy and development issues. These include working towards delivery of the Millennium Development Goals, addressing the impacts of climate change, preventing and resolving conflict, and finding ways to encourage disarmament.

As with any bilateral diplomatic relationship, there are issues on which we disagree. The Holy See is clear on our positions on these issues. However, we believe that Pope Benedict’s visit will provide an opportunity to strengthen and build on our relationship with the Holy See in areas where we share interests and goals, and to discuss those issues on which our positions differ.

Since the visit has the status of a State Visit, and some parts of the programme are being organised by the British Government, a proportion of the costs of the Visit will fall to the Government. The costs can be divided into two categories: policing costs, which will be met by the State from existing policing budgets, and non-policing costs, which will be split between the Catholic Church and the Government. The total size of the costs at this stage is not confirmed but discussions are currently under way to decide the appropriate levels of contribution from the Government and the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of England and Wales, and of Scotland. Other parts of the programme, such as the Masses and other pastoral events, are the responsibility of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences. The direct costs of these events will therefore be borne by the Catholic Church.
Without rehearsing the issues again, my problem with this is that the "issues on which we disagree" also involve illegal acts committed by his Church on U.K soil. He and his organisation have conspired to conceal those acts and yet we are allowing him this publicity opportunity in our country and at our expense.
In any event the Pope's status as a head of state is contentious and it would be very easy for the Government to pass off all of the cost of this to the Catholic Church which can comfortably afford it.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Ordaining women is as bad as child abuse

To be honest I couldn’t care less whether the Catholic Church ever ordains women. It is a mystery to me why any woman would want to be associated with such a misogynistic organisation in the first place.
However if any further proof were needed of the depths of ethical hypocrisy the Vatican has sunk to, here is the pope’s response to the Anglican Church’s recent decision with the synod voting in favour of legislation to consecrate women bishops.
In this document, the attempted ordination of a woman is listed as a "grave crime" which would be referred to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is the same body that deals with the child sex abuse scandal and by implication they are equating the two.
The Church claims otherwise saying:
including the two issues in the same document was not equating them, but was done to codify the most serious canonical crimes which the Roman Catholic Church handles.
but this is totally ingenuous.
They are implying that not adhering to Catholic dogma is as serious (if “different”) a crime as sexually abusing a child and that is about as immoral as any religion could get on the matter in my opinion.
Ratzinger continues to shoot himself squarely in the foot every time he comments on anything and his whole rotten Church is being exposed for the sick institution it is.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Religion is disabling for Muslim children

Stoke-on-Trent City Council has issued guidelines to schools on how to treat Muslim pupils during the month of Ramadan. Based on recommendations from the Muslim Council of Great Britain it suggests among other things, that swimming lessons should not be scheduled during Ramadan in case pupils swallow water when they are supposedly fasting.
Other suggestions include rescheduling of exams to avoid Muslims being disadvantaged as a result of disrupted sleep patterns (many get up early so they can eat before dawn, they will not eat again until after dusk).
Now actually, these things don’t strike me as too unreasonable, especially since Ramadan usually falls in August through early September when most schools are on summer break anyway. But what is interesting about this is that the Muslim Council are implicitly saying that holding to the Muslim faith is a handicap when living in a non-Muslim country. These religious observances, rather than enhancing the lives of their children are in fact imposing a burden that requires special measures by the community to compensate.
What they are doing in fact is disabling children in the name of religious observance. The viral meme passed from parent to child rendering them less fit to compete in a non-islamic culture.
I am not suggesting that we should not accommodate this particular disability, any more than I would suggest that any learning challenged child should not be supported. After all it is not the child’s fault they have been saddled with this handicap, it is entirely the fault of their parents.
It is of course my contention that all religious belief is ultimately disabling wherever it is found, but when it exists in the culture that spawned it the effects are less pronounced because the accommodations are already in place, but the Muslim Council has here highlighted the truth of this by their own recommendations.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Do criminals need religion to go straight?

Once again a comment on the Today Programme’s “Thought For the Day” spot has got me thinking.
The 1st July speaker was the Rev. Roy Jenkins on the subject of reforming offenders in prison. The context that of Justice Minister, Ken Clarke’s proposed changes to sentencing

The bit that got me thinking was this
But rehabilitation, reform, working on the assumption that even the most crooked or the most inadequate can become different - for me, that has to be the ultimate goal; and it requires a great deal more faith and courage than building higher walls.
I've been humbled to meet a number of men and women recently for whom prison has prompted exactly that response: with lengthy criminal records, often fuelled by their need for drugs or alcohol, they've come to a point where they've realised that unless they change, they'll soon be dead. Sometimes through the care of a particular warder, a teacher, or a regular visitor, they've begun the slow climb out of their pit.
For some it's been an encounter with Christian faith which has shown them for the first time that they're loved, valued, and that God has a purpose for them even when everyone else seems to have given up on them, and they've all but given up on themselves. They have trusted the promise that Christ can make people new, and they have literally changed.
So why, I wondered, do people on the point of desperation to change themselves become vulnerable to religion? Is it in fact that atheism is a luxury for those with healthy minds and successful lives?
I understand that for people grappling with addiction, joblessness, poverty and homelessness religion offers a simple panacea; be good for God and God will look after you, if not in this life at least in the next. But is this what we should be offering such people?
For one thing it’s a bum steer. Even if it motivates people to change it does so in a way that puts the responsibility for success on God not the individual and as God doesn’t actually exist there are many likely to be let down in their efforts. For another, a secular humanist approach to offenders would show them that it is people and society that cares about them, in the here and now, not in some vague hereafter. Teaching offenders that would make them more likely to care about the damage they are doing to society by their recidivism.
Perhaps atheism and humanism seem too abstract or intellectual a motivation for goodness and hell fire and brimstone is the necessary infinite stick they need. If so it is a failure of our approach to rehabilitation that we cannot educate our prison population without resorting to superstition of this kind.
Religion is a poor moral compass with which to equip individuals already challenged in this area. For one thing if they embrace their new faith too fully and descend into biblical literalism they will find plenty of moral justification for all sorts of behaviour which if not exactly criminal would be socially undesirable. The tools these people need are a sound education, social and practical skills, critical thinking and a secular ethical framework underpinning it all. These are the things that offer true stability, not the irrational foundations of religious faith.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Popes' U.K visit approaches

At the risk of repeating myself I was reminded by an interview with John Patten that Pope Benedict XVI will visit England and Scotland on a four-day Papal visit from 16-19 September 2010.
The first thing to say about this visit is that the associated costs to the British tax payer are now estimated at 12 Million pounds which given our current dire financial straights seems a lot of money to be spending on a visit from a the head of an organisation as morally discredited as the Catholic Church. This is of course an estimate and given the level of protest that will rightfully surround this visit the security costs may well escalate beyond that. The Catholic Church itself is to raise a further 7 million which is fine if its congregation really want to stump up the money, but in my book they should be footing the entire bill.
Ratzinger is coming at the invitation of the Queen (formally at any rate) which seems to mean that the Government can distance itself from the issue of the child abuse scandal and the subsequent cover ups by the hierarchy including the Pope himself as a former Cardinal. But as Richard Dawkins said,
“This is a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence.”
and consequently should be called to account for himself and his organisation. Our government has a responsibility to confront him on this issue. Not that he’ll get any challenge from John Patten who referred to Dawkins’ purely factual remark above as “abusive”, failing to see the irony I suppose. This Jesuit educated apologist will no doubt be heard defending his spiritual master throughout the Papal visit.
There even seems to be some equivocation about meeting some of the U.K abuse victims. Bishop Nichols has come out with some particularly distasteful weasel words
It should be up to the Vatican to decide whether the Pope should meet some of those who had suffered abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy.
It's easy for people to call for some great public gesture, such as meeting victims, but that in itself is a difficult process for someone who has suffered abuse.
And we must not use those who have suffered abuse for some kind of public agenda.
So Ratzinger will avoid confronting this issue because he wants to spare the victims’ feelings? Come on! These people have self identified as abuse victims and I would guess are rightly very angry at the institution that has been supressing the truth for so long. They ought to be invited to a face to face meeting even if they refuse to accept that invitation, which would be damning enough for the Pope. But no, once again the Church is more interested in saving its own face than confronting its crimes.
The deadline on the Protest the Pope petition has expired and closed with over 12000 signatures. Currently the new administration has suspended the site which is a shame as I’m sure even more people would respond as the date for the visit approaches.
Remember, the child abuse issue is not the only reason to condemn this visit. As the Protest the Pope website explains
The Pope not only opposes the right of women to have an abortion but also their right to contraception to prevent the need for abortions.
He also opposes women’s access to IVF fertility treatment to give childless couples the chance of parenthood. He condemns potentially life-saving embryonic stem cell research.
Pope Benedict denounces the use of condoms, even to stop the spread of HIV, as well as claiming falsely that condom usage “increases” the rate of HIV infection. This puts millions of lives at risk.
He opposes legal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and their full protection in law against homophobic and transphobic discrimination
The Pope has authorised the Catholic Catechism, which condemns same-sex relationships as a “grave depravity” and “contrary to natural law.” In 1992, he criticised gay sexuality as a “tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil.”
All of which makes his plan to speak on “civil society” something of a sick joke.
We won’t get this visit cancelled it seems, but we should all do our best to make him feel as unwelcome as possible and challenge this immoral doctrine as loudly as possible.