Archive for the ‘Freethought’ Category

North American Imams speak out, but is it too little, too late?

January 11, 2010

The CBC reported last week that a group of Muslim imams issued a fatwa, a religious edict, against attacks on North America.

A group of Canadian and U.S. Islamic leaders on Friday issued a fatwa, or religious edict, declaring that an attack by extremists on the two countries would constitute an attack on the 10 million Muslims living in North America.

The fatwa is largely a response to the attack on December 25th when a Nigerian man attempted to detonate a bomb on an inbound US flight coming from the Netherlands.  The press article contains some statements that many have been waiting to hear for a long time:

“In our view, these attacks are evil, and Islam requires Muslims to stand up against this evil,” the imams said in their fatwa.

The imams said it is a duty of every Muslim in Canada and the U.S. to safeguard the two countries.

“They must expose any person, Muslim or non-Muslim, who would cause harm to fellow Canadians or Americans,” they said.

“It is religious obligation upon Muslims, based upon the Qur’anic teachings, that we have to be loyal to the country where we live,” said Soharwardy.

These statements represent a shift in liberal Islamic thinking.  Since September 11, 2001, there has been a long-standing tension between those who identified the attacking terrorists as religiously motivated and those who defended Islam as a religion of peace.  What many have been asking for has been that liberal Islamic leaders be more proactive in denouncing acts of terrorism, while said leaders have seemed hesitant to speak out against those of the same faith.

Still, there are some serious questions still on the table.  Is this fatwa anything more than a bit of hand-waving?  Given that the fatwa was issued by North American Imams (almost exclusively Canadian), will it be closely followed by the typically less moderate Muslims in the Middle East and Africa?  If this fatwa will be followed by Islamic followers of all nations, why did it take so long to be issued?

Even more disturbing to me is the reasoning behind the fatwa.

Calgary Imam Syed Soharwardy, founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, said attacks on Canadian or U.S. soil are essentially attacks on Muslims.

Perhaps I’m misreading between the lines, but that appears to me to suggest that the attacks are wrong because they’re against fellow Muslims.  This is not at all suprising to me (like many faiths, Islam has a special focus on in-group thinking and ethnocentrism), but it should be appalling to most with a conscience.  The reason the attacks are wrong is because they’re against innocent human beings.  It doesn’t matter whether there’s 0 or a billion Muslims living in North America; the attacks are every bit as unjust no matter the Muslim body count.

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The trouble continues in Uganda

January 11, 2010

About a month ago, I reported the law suit against Leo Igwe for attempting to derail the practice of religiously-supported witch burning in Nigeria.  Unfortunately, Nigeria is not the only place that superstition and a belief in supernatural religious practice has led to the untimely demise of many seemingly innocent people.

Newstime Africa reports that a Ugandan government official has acknowledged that child sacrifices have been on the rise.  Where we normally see these sorts of extreme tactics negatively correlated with welfare, we see the opposite in this case: because the sacrifice of children is supposed to lead to greater financial success, those who are doing well personally are even more committed to sacrificing children as, by their view, they’re receiving confirming evidence.

Human sacrifice is on the increase in Uganda according to a government spokesman. This barbaric crime is directly linked to rising levels of development and prosperity, and an increasing belief that witchcraft can help people get rich quickly. Witch doctors claim they have clients who regularly capture children and bring their blood and body parts to be consumed by spirits. One witch doctor confessed for the first time to having murdered about 70 people, including his own son.

This continues the trend of limited critical thinking skills being demonstrated even at the highest levels of Ugandan society, following in the wake of proposed legislation to make being gay and HIV positive a crime worthy of the death penalty (legislation designed, in large part, by “The Family”, a US consortium of Christian politicians).

The atheists I can’t quite agree with (but would most certainly protect!)

January 4, 2010

When someone describes themselves as an atheist, they’re not telling you very much. It tells you nothing of their morality and nothing of their intellect.  Within atheism there are a lot of rifts because the term is so limited in scope.  Popular battles include: social liberalism vs classical liberalism (or libertarianism), whether or not religion is a net positive impact in the world, and whether deconverting the religious is best accomplished by a less confrontational standpoint (a la Michael Shermer or Paul Kurtz) or by a view that refuses to give any ground (a la Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, or PZ Myers).

There is one type of atheist, though, that I, and indeed most, atheists cannot agree with: the Raelians.  A Raelian is someone who believes, at a minimum, that life on Earth was created by uber-intelligent extra-terrestrials, known as the Elohim.  Typically Raelians have a strong commitment to cloning.   One example is that some believe that Jesus Christ was resurrected not by a divine and personal creator, but by the cloning power of the Elohim.  Further, the Elohim are recording our DNA and memories so that we could be cloned one day if necessary.

This is all developed from an attempt to corroborate more supernatural religious concepts with more materialist explanations.  Noah’s ark is really just a story about the DNA and cloning lab on a spaceship; the Garden of Eden was a lab on Earth; the “great flood” was the product of a nuclear explosion created by the Elohim; and all of history’s prophets were directed or contacted by the Elohim themselves.

Most importantly, for some, this answers the question of where life came from.  Let’s forget, for a moment, about whether or not there is any evidential basis for such arguments.  Sure, life on Earth came from aliens, but where did the aliens come from?  If the aliens were produced by a chance assemblage of chemicals and evolved slowly over time (which seems, to me, the most likely hypothesis for ANY alien life we would discover), why not just posit that this happened here on Earth without introducing fantastical ideas of ET scientists?  Some Raelians will argue that the universe is infinite, in both time and space, and thus asking where or when life began is an utterly non-sensical question: it just always was.  Unfortunately, modern cosmology doesn’t seem to confirm this opinion for the time being: it points to a specific moment at which time and space came to be.

Why is this of any relevancy to me?  Well, it’s not really, except that there are still countries so theologically warped that any atheist or apostate (one who has left the Islamic religion) deserves to be sentenced to death.  Such is the case of Negar Azizmoradi, the Iranian leader of the International Raelian Movement.  She fled Iran after publicly declaring herself an atheist, thus saving her life.  Unfortunately, she went to Turkey where she was arrested for having an improper passport.  Now the Turkish government is deciding whether or not she should be sent back to Iran; it seems Turkey has a history of declining those seeking asylum.  Unfortunately for Azizmoradi, being sent back to Iran would be a death sentence that no human being deserves, no matter their professed faith.

Though I disagree greatly with the validity of Raelianism, I cannot help but feel deeply for Azizmoradi, for whom the prospects do not look good.  What a shame that the “superior morality” of religion is paving the way for seemingly well-intentioned individuals to lose our only chance at life, love, and liberty.

Religious Superstition taken to the extreme in Africa

December 5, 2009

For about 6 months now, the Center for Inquiry has been battling against a practice that seems rather archaic here in North America: witch burning.  Led by Norm Allen, the executive director of African Americans for Humanism for CFI, there has been a growth in skepticism, particularly amongst the youth communities.

News comes today, however, of a law suit against CFI’s Nigerian representative, Leo Igwe.  In particular:

The suit, scheduled for a hearing on Dec.17, is seeking an injunction preventing Igwe and other humanist groups from holding seminars or workshops aimed at raising consciousness about the dangers associated with the religious belief in witchcraft. The suit aims to erect a legal barrier against rationalist or humanist groups who might criticize, denounce or otherwise interfere with their practice of Christianity and their “deliverance” of people supposedly suffering from possession of an “evil or witchcraft spirit.” The suit also seeks to prevent law enforcement from arresting or detaining any member of the Liberty Gospel Church for performing or engaging in what they say are constitutionally protected religious activities. These activities include the burning of three children, ages 3 through 6, with fire and hot water, as reported by James Ibor of the Basic Rights Counsel in Nigeria on August 24, 2009. The parents believed their children were witches.

Hopefully the law suit will be laughed out of court.  Religious superstition should not be permitted to override a human’s right to live, and kudos goes to CFI for their continued battle in often hostile environments to spread science and reason to those who need it most.

Why I don’t celebrate Christmas

December 2, 2009

“‘Tis the season to be jolly” the popular Christmas carol begins.  Indeed, Christmas day is one of the most enjoyed holidays of the year, from the gift-opening on Christmas morning to the family feasts that fill our gullet till our belts need loosening.  So what could possibly prompt a person to walk away from such a celebration?

For me, it has been a fairly gradual process.  The magic of the season undoubtedly dissipates for all of us as we grow older, but my reasons are about much more than a process of maturation.

First, the religious background of Christmas.  As an atheist, I have no religious affinity to Christmas.  The certainty with which the birth of Jesus is presented doesn’t resemble the reliability of the New Testament.  The celebration itself, done on December 25th, is misplaced: the account of Luke suggests that if Jesus did actually exist, he was probably born in the spring or summer.  In it’s original celebration, Christmas was usually celebrated at the beginning of January.  So celebrating the day as the birth of Christ seems, to me, a mischaracterization of history.  Even if such an account were accurate, I wouldn’t celebrate Christmas for the same reason I don’t practice any other religious holidays: I don’t believe the tenets on which they are based.  The best holiday would be one in which we could all celebrate no matter our religious affiliation (or lack thereof).

Certainly Christmas has its less Christian aspects.  The Christmas tree is a pagan concept.  The story of Santa Claus is undoubtedly secular in nature.  The animated Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was an annual favourite of mine as a child, and still holds a certain clutch on my unfortunately oft-nostalgic mind.  Still, tradition and a good story are not enough to keep me celebrating a holiday.

I don’t exchange gifts, either.  The social pressure to keep this practice up is tough to escape.  Still, I see a lot of good reasons for not exchanging gifts, and have thus far been able to resist such pressure.  There is the more practical aspect: if I need to get something, no one is likely to get me precisely what I need.  Further, I shouldn’t really be getting something just because it’s a day on which you give gifts.  If I need something and reach out to you at any time of the year, there’s no reason why a gift can’t be given then.  If I don’t need anything, you needn’t buy me a gift.  Truth be told, neither of us really needs anything.  I think here of the argument Peter Singer has often put forward: spending lavishly on the haves is basically an unethical or immoral action against the have-nots.  If there is someone who needs something at Christmas (or any time of the year), it almost certainly is not you or I.

What can be enjoyed during this season?  Well, I say there are two practices I find unobjectionable about the holidays, and we need not wait for Christmas to put them to work:

1. Take a moment with friends and family,

2. Give to those who are in need.

Reason’s Greetings!

Evolution, Morality, Atheism, and Invoking Godwin’s Law

November 29, 2009

Undoubtedly one of the most frustrating arguments I engage in with the discussion of atheism is that of how one finds (or knows) their moral compass. Almost every religious apologist (William Lane Craig, being a prime example), seeks to undermine natural morality because it supposedly leaves only one alternative: religion and, more specifically, god provide us our morality. This claim, I think, is false on its face. Looking at most cultures, we see morality that converges on a common principle: do onto others as you would have them do onto you. I think the general perception in the West is that this sort of wisdom was given to us divinely by Christ, but I find it more compelling that the Chinese philosopher Confucius espoused this principle 500 years before Christ, without resorting to god or organized religion to develop such an idea:

“Adept Kung asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”
The Master replied: “How about ‘shu’ [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?””
– Analects XV.24

Still, the argument often goes that not believing in god but believing in evolution will lead to doing things we would consider immoral. To support such a point, it is often said that Hitler was an atheist, and that his practice of Eugenics (artificially selecting the “lesser” individuals to permit reproduction amongst only the “finest” humans with the purpose of creating a “better” human species) was directly tied to his belief in evolution. Thus, it follows that atheism and evolution can be seen as intellectual positions that in some way endorse or promote immorality.  Personally, I am of the opinion that those who are using Hitler as a key part to their argument are not only mischaracterizing the position they are challenging, but also reducing the real evil committed by Hitler.  Interesting though this argument may seem (and perhaps even plausible to some), I think a careful look at facts, not hyperbole, best explains why this is simply incorrect.

First, let’s speculate a moment on whether or not Hitler believed in evolution. One wonders why, if Hitler believed in evolution and was an atheist, the Nazis adhered to the following guidelines in book banning:

When Books Burn: Lists of Banned Books, 1933-1939

“6. Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism”

“c) All writings that ridicule, belittle or besmirch the Christian religion and its institution, faith in God, or other things that are holy to the healthy sentiments of the Volk.”

Hitler’s literary work, Mein Kampf, also has a similar leaning:

“Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

“What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people, . . . so that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe.”

“The undermining of the existence of human culture by the destruction of its bearer seems in the eyes of a folkish philosophy the most execrable crime. Anyone who dares to lay hands on the highest image of the Lord commits sacrilege against the benevolent Creator of this miracle and contributes to the expulsion from paradise.”

The faith of Hitler has long been a matter of debate because parties generally assume that if we can put Hitler on the other party’s side, we have won the argument.  The general consensus among historians is that Hitler was probably an atheist who manipulated the religious devotion of the German citizens, while presenting himself as a sort of Messiah, to achieve his goals.  Some consider that a “win” for theistic morality, though I think it speaks more to the manner in which adherence to irrational religion can be manipulated; in other words, it speaks to the element of danger involved in forming beliefs that aren’t grounded in reason or science.

But let’s consider exactly what is being suggested here: if person P believes claim C and claim D, does it follow that every person who believes claim C also believes claim D? On the contrary, I think it is clear that we develop our beliefs for a wide range of reasons, and this often creates an asymmetry between multiple claims. It doesn’t take much work for us to discover some beliefs at which we arrived for reasons we would discard immediately for other claims. In the context of this conversation, I think it can be said that we should assess claims not by comparing the actions of others who believed that claim, but by assessing the claim itself. Thus, if we want to determine whether atheism or evolution leads to immorality, we should be assessing atheism and evolution, not the behaviour of those who professed belief. After all, it is perfectly possible for us to take factual information and distort it to support irrational actions or conclusions; in fact, this is the usual religious explanation for why so many bad things, historically speaking, have been done in the name of god.

So now, let’s actually assess whether or not it is possible to be moral without god if we are the products of evolution rather than a divine plan.

It is pretty obvious that most atheists are perfectly able to reconcile their lack of belief with a desire to be good to other people. That is a simple fact borne out by interacting with people of such disbelief. Being a young, white male living in the Western world, I am a part of the largest growing group in religious polling: those who check “None of the above.” Yet, we see that people you know are atheists, and people who are closet atheists, are certainly capable of functioning morally in society.

Of course, it is completely possible that these people are acting irrationally; perhaps their lack of belief really does mean that they should rape, pillage, and plunder, but they have been coerced by the religious aspects of society to behave in what is typically considered a moral manner. Nonetheless, I think understanding our evolutionary background doesn’t hinder us from being moral; it gives a real account of why we are good to others.

I will now pose a hypothesis; I call it a hypothesis simply because I’m not current enough on the literature to claim authority, though I know much of this hypothesis has been advanced successfully in the past, and I believe that evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology supports such a hypothesis.

Many moons ago, we were tribal animals. With scarce resources and high competition, we learned that we could be more successful hunter-gatherers if we pooled our skills with others and worked as a team. As one group formed, so did another, and instead of a battle of the individual, we had battles between tribes. This was the first step in developing our moral sense. Within each group, a certain type of conduct was necessary; failing to behave in a way that was condoned by the rest of the group would result in you being ousted, now having to fend against competition with groups as a lonely individual. I would consider this the beginning of codefied rules, as informal as they may have been. Having established that a group code would have inevitably formed, we must wonder how they came up with rules we generally consider to be good or moral. Here, I think the answer is obvious: any actions that are detrimental to the group’s success would be considered wrong. So murder within the group goes out the window; killing off your group members would defeat the purpose of forming the group in the first place. We can also extrapolate our desire to remain in the group to a more individual perspective as well: staying within the group will result in our personal success; we are more likely to stay in the group if none of the members of the group dislike us; and the members of the group are unlikely to dislike you if you do nothing to warrant it. Initially, this was likely a reactive position: we weren’t able to reason it out in advance, but discovered it after a multitude of bad “social experiments.” It wasn’t until much later that we were able to determine such things proactively using our limited intellect, prior to taking action.

So within the group, I think we’ve established that there were good reasons for being moral. A common question is: why would we extend the same rules to those out of our group, particularly to those who are not of our lineage? The answer here is actually a little disappointing. First, we don’t do this very well; humans are very ethnocentric and often cave to in-group thinking. Still, our social nature that was established in our more primitive times encourages us to extend morality and general decency to those who we interact with. The field of neuroscience, where the brain is scanned and images are generated highlighting areas of activity, have shown repeatedly that we respond very well to doing altruistic acts: when we do something for someone else, the areas of the brain associated with satisfaction and pleasure “light up.” We see similar behaviour in other social species as well.

Aside from that, we have some very real evidence that tells us that behaving in what is considered a moral manner is a beneficial plan for us to be successful, and not just pleasing to us personally. Many game theory experiments have shown that a Tit for Tat method, or generally being altruistic until you get burned, will, over the long haul, provide you with greater success, even if we define success in terms of acquiring resources. I think we can go out on a day-to-day basis and experience the same thing: people will generally do better by you if you do better by them. Certainly, there are those who “get away with it”, but that is rarely a good plan for long-term success. What is often called Karma is nothing other than our inability to escape from our past misdeeds; it is the deserved punishment from society for abandoning what is ultimately the best course of action for all of us.

So it seems clear to me that atheism and evolution are perfectly congruent with being a moral person. Our ability to survive and pass on our DNA is better advanced by behaving morally in society than it would be to behave immorally. Still, three issues seem to me to be on the table.

1. Haven’t we made mistakes in the past? Hasn’t our moral sense misguided us many, many times throughout history? If specific morality hasn’t been revealed to us divinely in a simple set of rules (say, the Ten Commandments), how do we determine what is right? Though I think we can argue that the following the golden rule or perhaps John Stuart Mill’s “harm-principle” is something we can intuitively agree on, I want to question whether the divine revelation of moral principles has actually been practiced, or if it works any better. Is it not true that there are extraordinary disagreements on what constitutes morality amongst the religious, even within a particular sect? Is it not true that what is considered moral has changed over time even within a particular sect? I think here of the abolition of slavery, which has significant support from the Bible but was discarded because we discovered it to be immoral. Or, more recently, I think the unfortunately gradual shift on the morality of same-sex attraction, particularly in liberal Christianity, shows the same thing. My point is that even the most steadfast rules asserted by the religious require interpretation and value judgements. We are always discovering more about what works best in a moral sense, and we are always re-evaluating whether our rules and goals are consistent with what we see to be true in natural reality. This is why morality, whether secular or religious, has always been evolving, and will continue to do so in the future. It is up to us as a species to recognize our commonality with all other homo sapiens sapiens, and rationally determine what is the best moral approach for ensuring the best opportunity for success for all.

2. Was Darwin’s theory (though it should rightly be credited to Alfred Russell Wallace as well) really the catalyst for Eugenics? Though I have already argued that in the case of Hitler this is untrue, I would also say that Darwin’s theory had nothing to do with Eugenics whatsoever. Eugenics is the practice of artificial selection (as opposed to Darwin’s theory of natural selection) and this concept is something we understood long before Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. In fact, it was how we were able to domesticate dogs from wolves. Where Darwin changed our understanding was in how the constant tinkering and refining of natural selection produced all species, whereas Eugenics suggests that artifical selection will produce a more successful single species. These are two very different things.

3. If evolution is real (which I believe the evidence supports), wasn’t Hitler still justified in practicing Eugenics? Though we may have disagreed with his stance on a personal basis, could it not be argued that he is attempting to do what is ultimately best for all of us? I say, emphatically, that he could not be more wrong. Our knowledge of nature and of ourselves is incredibly insufficient. We are not in a position to know what is best now or will continue to be best in the future; that is something that remains to be seen. Suppose, for example, that we killed all people with a certain genetic defect. Suppose, however, that a future mutation of that specific gene would allow us to survive through unprecedented changes in our environment. Exaptation and adaptation have shown us again and again that how old parts can be cobbled together to serve new, important purposes. Indeed, I think the best way of ensuring the continued success of the human species is to maintain as diverse a gene pool as is reasonably possible; only by having many alternatives for nature to select from can we be certain that we can respond, in some way, to changing environmental conditions and stave off our own extinction.

It seems quite clear to me that the arguments put forth to discredit atheism do not only a poor job of its stated goal, but fail to put forth a positive argument for theistic morality (such as properly answering the Problem of Evil or Euthyphro’s Dilemma, or the misguidance given in many passages of divine text, whether its the New Testament, Old Testament, Koran, etc). To those who are moral and feel that their morality was only discovered through divine text, I encourage you to give yourself more credit, but I have no quarry with anyone who seeks only to be a good person. It is only when one attempts to take a moral high ground without justification that disagreements will arise, and hopefully that is something we can escape when we look at the evidence and arguments for each position through the shining light of reason.