"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

Friday, 20 December 2013

HuffPo mangles moral philosophy to argue against atheism

The Huffington Post has an article by Pastor Rick Henderson titled Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist in which he makes a superficially coherent argument that given naturalism, the default assumption of atheism, it is impossible for atheists to have objective morals and stay consistent to their world view
"Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations: 1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces). 2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics. 3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will. Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism. Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value. "
This is all true as far as it goes but is also question begging. Henderson is assuming that only an external conscious agent can give meaning to events and also that meaning requires objectivity, neither of which is self-evident.
"A good atheist -- that is, a consistent atheist -- recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him "good" in the moral sense is nonsensical."
Again the conclusion is already in the premise that to be morally good requires moral objectivity and moral realism. He’s also equivocating as he is allowing “good” to serve as “consistent” and also “moral” which is how he arrives at his contention that there are no good atheists, either an atheist is moral (by objective standards) and therefor is not really an atheist or is consistent in which case not objectively moral.
O.K! In the first place it is true that many atheists live as if morality is objective, even if we know philosophically that it isn’t. Henderson correctly points out that one argument for the existence of our moral sense is evolutionary but denies this confers moral objectivity, which of course it doesn’t, but it doesn’t have to. Most atheists also behave as if they have free will despite there being good philosophical reasons and increasing neurophysiological evidence to suggest we don’t. But evolution doesn’t work that way; our sense of agency and our sense of moral objectivity are probably innate as stopping to philosophise about either would have no survival advantage in the environments where they evolved. It is not being a bad atheist to appear to hold objective moral values.
Secondly, “meaning” is a human construct. It is incoherent to talk about the meaning of events without a conscious meaning making observer but there is no reason why that observer has to be an omnipotent creator god. The benchmark for moral objectivity is as true for gods as it is for us as the Euthyphro dilemma points out. If gods are responsible for morality the subjectivism is theirs not ours but still says nothing about moral realism. We are perfectly entitled to be the arbiters of meaning since, as far as we know, we are the only entity that finds things meaningful. If we ever meet another meaning making sentient species no doubt we will have to negotiate
Thirdly, moral subjectivity does not entail moral relativism as Henderson contends.
[assuming]"…morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible. Because morality is the construct of a social group, it cannot extend further than a society's borders or endure longer than a society's existence."
“Society’s borders” are porous and flexible. Just as we would have to negotiate with an alien species, should we encounter one, we must also negotiate with neighboring cultures. Even if the moral basis of a behavior is subjective outcomes aren’t, which is why utilitarianism is the go to meta-ethic of choice for resolving these conflicts. In fact the only situation where ethical dilemmas cannot be approached this way is when the contentious behavior is religiously motivated.
Lastly, at least for the purposes of this post, the other bit of question begging in Henderson’s argument implies theism fares better than atheism in this respect. But the religious are just as subjective as they have to explain why the moral examples in their scriptures are correct, especially in circumstances where they patently aren’t. The Bible for instance condones rape, genocide, stoning, slavery, polygamy, and infanticide to name a few which would not pass most people's moral intuition. In fact a holy scripture that was morally consistent for all people at all times and under all circumstances would be the strongest physical evidence that such a religion was true, which is probably why there isn’t one.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The political obfuscation of Islam

I’ve always assumed that most people are able to make a clear distinction between the actions and beliefs of the majority of Muslims and the radical agenda of Islamists but having spent some time online looking at responses to the gender segregation debacle prompted by UUK it seems that many people from all over the political spectrum are confused on this point. This is unfortunate because it allows both the far right and the liberal left to be ensnared by extremist rhetoric and duped into playing into Islamist hands.
Islamism is not the practice of Islam but a political and ideological movement that seeks to establish as extensive a Muslim Caliphate as it can achieve. Its theocratic aims are to enforce a particular narrow interpretation of Islam upon all Muslims and to make certain aspects of dress and misogynistic culture normative wherever Muslims live. It should not have to be said but not all or even a majority of Muslims are Islamists. What may be less obvious is that not all Islamists are Muslims but more on that later.
The far right as represented by organisations such as the EDL are prone to type 1 errors falsely and indiscriminately seeing Islamists behind every Mosque wall and attacking any visible sign of Islam on British soil as “creeping sharia”. This attitude filters down into main stream conservative politics via UKIP and the right rump of the Tory party and can produce a genuine and legitimate sense of persecution in the moderate Muslim community which easily spills over into cries of racism as much of that community consists of Asian immigrants and other people of colour.
The conflation of race with Islam is of course exactly what the Islamists want. They know full well that this is one of the quickest ways to shut down criticism not only of Islam in general but of their extreme interpretation of it making it hard for mainstream political discourse to tackle the real problems that do arise.
This brings me to the other end of the political spectrum where the left are prone to type 2 errors, failing to identify Islamism where in fact it does exist. The recent advice from UUK supporting gender segregation was an example of exactly this. Despite having a wealth of experience in equality law and equal rights Nicola Dandridge naively fell for a culturally relative narrative spun by pro –Islamism groups such as The Islamic Education and Research Academy that freedom of religion for Muslims requires them to be able to sit apart in public meetings. This is not a universal Muslim view and many would argue that it is not a requirement of Islam at all and in attempting to be accommodating and politically correct Dandridge is being as duped as the EDL into advancing the Islamist’s agenda.
The same is true of those who refuse to contemplate restrictions on wearing the Burqa or Niqab in public spaces. It is Islamists who are trying to normalise worldwide a style of dress originally confined to Saudi Arabia that would have rarely been found in Asian Muslim countries and it should not be treading on anyone’s cultural or religious toes to restrict its appearance here. Many Muslims are of the opinion that Islam only requires ‘Hijab’ which refers to any modest dress and is also a name for the headscarf, varieties of which are ubiquitous in the Islamic world, so we should not aid and abet Islamism in defining what it is socially acceptable for diverse Muslim women to wear in public: Purdah is not a religious duty and this is why I say that not everyone promoting Islamism in the U.K is a Muslim because liberals buying into this myth are unwitting Islamists.
So it is that both the cultural relativists of the political left and the xenophobes of the right are doing the Islamist work for them by providing cover for extremism in the first case and the appearance of persecution in the second and this helps nobody’s cause but the Islamist and helps least of all the majority of moderate British Muslims who are content to keep their religion at home and in the Mosque.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Scientology is officially a religion in the U.K

The Supreme Court in the U.K has made a landmark ruling in a legal case brought by Louisa Hodkin, a scientologist seeking the right to get married at the Church of Scientology chapel in central London. The ruling means that Scientology, the belief that human bodies are occupied by the immortal spirit aliens called Thetans, is now officially recognised as a religion in the U.K.
The cult was founded by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the early nineteen-fifties following his promotion of a flawed but financially lucrative pseudo-psychological self-help program called Dianetics and has acquired, over the years, some very high profile celebrities as adherents. The ‘religion,’ as I suppose we must now call it, does not mandate a belief in a god or any higher power, which prior to this ruling was the touchstone for recognition as such in this country.
The situation raises a few interesting issues not least because several other European nations are explicit about the cult status of Scientology and Germany even monitors their activities as potentially subversive. However, in the U.S Scientology has long held religious status making it eligible for significant tax breaks on its buildings, operations and staff, a situation that to some extent may now obtain here.
One common objection to the religious status of Scientology is the obvious absurdity of the beliefs it espouses but actually I do not see this as a legitimate concern. For one thing Scientology is not really any more absurd than the mainstream religions, it’s just that ideas such as transubstantiation, resurrection and virgin birth are so culturally engrained that we are somewhat immune to them. Nor is it a particularly strong argument to say that Scientology is too recent an invention. Mormonism has only a slightly longer history (at least in comparison with Islam and Christianity) and an equally shady and disreputable founder but is accepted as a proper faith.
Personally I see no problem with Scientology being defined as a religion and confidently expect that since god belief is no longer a criterion for that status we can expect a flood of applications from Wiccans, Satanists, Pastafarians and others for similar recognition: they should get it. Hopefully the more the mainstream religions become associated with all the other unsupportable belief systems clamoring for attention the more they will be seen for the charlatans they are
Also I have a solution to the tax exemption problem. At the moment in the U.K buildings registered for public worship are eligible for Business Rate Relief which should every cult become a recognised church may impose an unsupportable burden on the taxpayer. So I propose that we withdraw this exemption entirely from all religions, including the Church of England, as it was never fair that these institutions should be supported by anyone other than their congregations in the first place.

Nicola Dandridge attempts to justify gender apartheid

Nicola Dandridge is the chief executive of Universities UK the organisation that has issued the appalling advice to colleges hosting religious speakers who require their audiences to be segregated by gender, and she appeared on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today Program where she attempted to defend, to presenter Justin Webb, the assertion that gender segregation was justified under certain circumstances.
Nicola Dandridge
Her argument was framed as a human rights and freedom of speech issue limited to occasions when the audience or participants of a particular meeting or lecture had agreed that gender segregated seating was appropriate or desirable. She was adamant that this was entirely different to segregation by race (which in any event would be “illegal”) and that UUK were prepared to publish legal advice that stated that refusing such a gender segregated meeting would be a violation of free speech. Interestingly, the only politician prepared to comment on the issue was former Home Secretary Jack Straw who very much doubted that a challenge in the high court to such a refusal would have a chance of succeeding. He also confessed to being “shocked and appalled by the decision of Universities UK”.
The first thing to say is that the original case study does not make any reference to the wishes of the participants in a meeting but only supposes that the visiting speaker is insisting on a segregated audience. That Nicola Dandridge reframed the advice in this way suggests that UUK are less sure of their ground but are not prepared to backtrack. But whatever, the argument still does not fly. There is no universal human right to non-association and nor should there be. If you are the kind of person who does not want the company of a certain gender, creed or race, your only right is to avoid places where those individuals go. Universities are open publicly funded spaces and whether or not the speaker is a Muslim or Haredi Jew, or even if most of the audience are, the fundamental principle should be one of equal and open access to all parts of the auditorium.
Dandridge also insisted that universities were not being advised to “enforce” gender segregation, but this is disingenuous. Social norms will always compel people to follow the stated protocols and if you happen to be, for example, a Muslim woman in that situation there is zero chance that you will risk the disapprobation of your peers by bucking the system. The very act of offering segregated seating, even if mixed areas are also available, will mean that at least a proportion of the audience will be compelled to segregate whether they really want to or not.
In no other secular public space would this be considered an option. Try and imagine a cinema, a cafĂ©, a train or a waiting room where the sexes were banished to opposite sides and you’ll get the point. It is not enough to claim that no-one is being disadvantaged. O.K women are not being sent to the back of the bus here but in the week when we are honouring the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela it is apposite to recall that “separate but equal” was the apologetics of apartheid and should have no place in 21st century society.