Friday, June 22, 2007

Does "faith" trump democracy?

There is a case in the high court (UK) at the moment playing out in the media involving a Christian girl who claims that she has been discriminated against because her school does not allow her to wear a “chastity ring” (on her finger) as jewellery breaks school uniform rules. Her argument is that this ring is somehow part of her faith and that since the school allows children of other faiths (i.e. Muslims, Sikhs etc.) to wear specific articles then she is the victim of discrimination. I can only fantasize about how much this case is costing; apparently she is being “funded” by private sources (her father is some kind of minister so I’m sure the congregation has been dipping into their pockets), but I’m pretty sure the school will need to be defended from public funds.

Putting aside for a moment the “playground logic” transparently on display here, i.e. those nasty Sikhs can wear their trinkets but us good Christians can’t wear ours; It seems entirely possible to me that this case is some kind of pre-meditated religious stunt as the "offence" claimed by the defendant seems so utterly trivial; the father of the girl more or less admits as much by saying “there are bigger issues at stake” also, somewhat surprisingly, the father happens to be the UK distributor of these (US supplied) rings in the UK. However, before the cynic in me takes over I think it would be interesting to try and explore what these “bigger issues” might be and so I thought I would try and outline my perspective on what I have seen in the media so far in order to attempt to make some sense of this.

Firstly, let me give this family the benefit of the doubt; i.e. that this is not some cheap marketing stunt to promote the sales of this particular line of jewellery, that said, what other reasons could they have for wanting to take this case to court?

They are clearly religious people, in fact their whole livelihood seems to depend upon the Christian religion since the father is a minister/preacher and apparently has at least one side line business of selling these Christian “chastity” rings (not sure what particular flavour of Christians they are, but that’s not relevant to my argument)

Since their livelihood depends on religious faith then clearly they have a vested interest in ensuring the survival and one would assume expansion of their particular religion. The girl claims to follow this same religion also, she claims to have “always been” a Christian. I can only conclude that since it is unlikely that her religious beliefs were planted in her as a zygote then I must assume that her family indoctrinated her in it from birth onwards and that they probably all feel as if they are showing solidarity for "their team". I would certainly not find it credible to think that her religiosity is identically aligned to that of her parents (and presumably her family & peer group) through pure chance?

So far I have not heard any “evidence” (i.e. the substance of legal argument) for any physical necessity for wearing this ring, for example she is not saying it is essential for her blood circulation or that it alleviates her arthritis or perhaps if she removes it her finger will fall off, the argument is clearly that she wants to (or must?) wear this adornment because of her “faith”. Therefore, the crux of her argument seems to be that all faiths should be treated equally, i.e. if Sikhs can wear bangles, then Christians should be able to wear rings. Superficially this seems to be an argument about “fairness”; could it be that simple? Unfortunately, I think not.

I think there is enough evidence in the press and the literary world currently to assert that Religion (certainly in the UK & USA) feels under attack from secularism and atheism; there seems to be a real shift in the zeitgeist going on at the moment (see previous post) the publication of half a dozen books (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris et al) criticising religious concepts are topping best seller lists around the world, and the media has subsequently grasped the topic in true Pavlovian style. The bottom line is that there are many intelligent, coherent and thoughtful people bashing the whole notion of religion right now and I think this case is partly a knee-jerk response to that movement. As an aside, it seems incredible to me that a few books can shake something so supposedly “true” and so engrained, but clearly their cages have been rattled, perhaps their sensitivity belies a fundamental weakness in their position (as an atheist I sincerely hope so) or perhaps it is only the fringe elements of religion that feel exposed, who knows, but I’m not na├»ve enough to realise that the old adage of “any publicity is good publicity” applies also.

Beneath all the rhetoric, it seems clear to me that what these people are arguing for is the notion that “faith” trumps democratic rules, of course in this I am assuming that the school rules were arrived at democratically, and certainly no one so far is arguing that they weren’t. Because of this we also have to assume that they believe that all “faith” (as opposed to religions) must be treated equally; otherwise presumably they would be advocating elitism for their own faith which I’m sure good Christians would not do. This raises another question in my mind, exactly what is this “faith” concept that these people seem to fling around so liberally, well, since they cannot provide any concrete reasoning that wearing these adornments is physically needed then I have to assume that what they mean by faith is a belief in something with no “worldly” evidence or justification for it, i.e. “I believe this, well, because I do and I don’t have to provide any justification for it other than I consider it to be true”, seems unavoidably childish to me, but OK let’s run with it.

So, they seem to be advocating a principal which says, anyone can have a “faith” that something (anything?) is true, all faith is equal and that a faith is important to those that have it such that there needs to be outward & visible “signs” to everyone else that they have that faith. Consequently everyone else in society has to somehow recognise and respect faith, seemingly, just because it is called a “faith” and regardless of whether the actions or statements precipitated by it break democratically derived rules or not.

Hypothetically then, if I subscribed to the “Jedi” religion (as all good star wars fans should) then it clearly becomes my inalienable right to wear a cape, long boots and a light-sabre to school as an outward sign of my faith. Of course if anyone else objects to this then I don't need to provide any evidence or justification that Jedi religion is true or that these adornments are necessary I can just say "back off, it's my faith". Fantastic, now anything is now possible, if people disagree with me then I can say my faith (being divinely authorised by Yoda of course) necessitates me to lock them up and torture them until they take the Jedi oath, perhaps threaten their families or steal their money, invade their countries, enslave their people, oh, hold on, that's already been done before hasn't it.

Is this attitude really what the human race needs or wants at this point in the 21st century, isn’t this just divisive, infantile and irrational?

Obviously I am exaggerating to make a point here but it seems obvious to me that “faith” in this case is aligned with more mundane concepts such as status, wealth and politics, clearly these people want to protect and expand their livelihoods, clearly they want to promote their own religious “club” against competition with other clubs, clearly they feel that their community should have some special “status” in our population over and above normal democratic representation. None of these desires needs to invoke anything supernatural to be understood by everyone else, they are transparent and obvious, wrapping it all up and invoking “faith” to get your own way, seems to be totally contrived and dishonest to me.

However, what really keeps me awake at night are the more sinister (and conspiratorial) conclusions I could draw i.e. that the "faithful" (in all their wonderful diversity) are working some kind of political campaign against the secular and the godless, perhaps they have reached some kind of tipping point and are pushing back against democracy in the name of their "faith" based world-view. The minions of religion are heading the rallying call and rising up against the gains of democracy, science and the enlightenment of the last 400 years; perhaps they really do want to drag us all back to the theocratic dark ages? I think there is tangible evidence of this in the USA, gladly less here in Europe, however I don't think anyone would dispute that there are real problems ahead in the Arab/Iranian world.

If such trivial erosions of common sense, as superbly demonstrated by this case, somehow aggregate (planned or not) then I believe we are in danger of providing a slippery slope for the cult of "faith" to subvert our hard won secular system and wither our own "rational" brains. I feel it is time in this country (UK) that we had a clear separation of church and state, if we regress backwards at this point and cave in to the irrational demands of the faithful then all I can say is, (ironically) God help us.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Enlightenment 2.0

Anyone who follows the literary scene cannot have failed to notice the recent surge in books on Atheism, or tomes that criticise the notions of religion and god. Previously marginal Authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Victor J Stenger among others have all contributed to a noticeable shift in the moral zeitgeist towards rational thinking and the principals of the enlightenment. The perspectives vary, Dawkins and Stenger hit the subject from a scientific promontory (although Dawkins is somewhat more poetic than most scientists I know); then from the intellectual stand we have Hitchens, a hard drinking, straight talking Oxford man; an ex-brit (now a US citizen) who woos American audiences with his plummy accent, photographic memory for pithy quotations and withering put downs.

The objections fall under a couple of main “themes”, although all the arguments are rich and deep and need to be given the benefit of some time to sink in; Here I attempt to summarise them (in no particular order)

  • Religion is empirically wrong because god doesn’t exist (or at least is highly unlikely); there is no evidence for a deity in nature that can be tested scientifically.
  • Science gives us all we need to know regarding how nature (actually) works; supernatural forces are not needed; Darwin, Einstein, Newton et al, science doesn't know everything yet but the “gaps” are getting smaller everyday.
  • Religion is clearly and obviously man made and represents (at best) wishful thinking or (at worst) hucksterism and evil, hundreds of years of inquisitions, war, ethnic cleansing, shams, discrimination and death provide illustrations of the effects of that these kinds of philosophies can precipitate.
  • Our morals don’t come from religion (or god); they clearly come from our collective zeitgeist, they are obviously not absolute because they change over the years, for example our changing views to slavery, woman’s rights, homosexuality, human rights etc.
  • It is in the best interests of humanity that religion and government should be utterly separate or tyranny almost always follows.
  • Faith is not a virtue; it is at best harmless delusion and at worse intellectual dishonesty and often represents laziness and discrimination against free thought and criticism.
  • Religion should not have a special dispensation from debate and criticism (as it seems to have in society); beliefs are not sacred and the onus of “proof” is on the believer to evidence what he believes and not the responsibility of the unbeliever to “prove” him wrong.
  • The destructive quasi-atheist regimes of the 20th century (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot etc.) were primarily personality cults that aped the dogmatism of religion for the same goals i.e. domination and control of the masses.
  • Religion is a function of the entirely random location of your birth, i.e. if you are born in the USA chances are you will be a Christian, if you are born in Iraq you will be a Moslem, in India Hindu, in Japan Buddhist etc.; it has nothing to do with the “truth claims” of these religions.
  • You don’t need religion to be charitable, good, moral and socially acceptable; in fact the evidence shows that fewer crimes are committed (proportionally) by atheists than believers.
  • Just because lot’s of people believe in something (with no evidence) it doesn’t mean it is true, the top 3 religions have millions of followers, but, logically they can't all be right.

On the opposing team we have had a string of rebuttals from religious writers of various denominations and flavours attempting to disprove, dissuade and generally divert attention from these outpourings, without any noticeable success in my opinion.

Generally their arguments fall into predictable intellectual buckets, something like,

  • Religious people do good things (some times); therefore religion must be good and true.
  • The religious people who do bad things in its name aren’t really religious.
  • Mainstream religion is not represented by a small minority of fundamentalists causing trouble around the world.
  • God cannot be scientifically proven because he is outside the realm of science.
  • Atheists can’t have any purpose in their lives, only religion provides this.
  • My god is not who you (the Atheists) describe; I have a personal relationship
  • Atheists don’t understand faith; and can’t unless they believe themselves.
  • Billions of people believe it (religion) therefore it must be true
  • I have personally experienced (or believe in) miracles; surviving a plane crash or being cured of a disease, stopping drinking etc. therefore god must exist.
  • If God doesn’t exist where do we get our morals from?
  • The natural world (or aspects of it) is too complicated for me to understand therefore God must have made it
  • Society without religion is a bad thing; just look at Stalin & Hitler
  • Science doesn’t know everything; therefore God must exist to explain the things we don’t know.
  • I need faith; I get comfort from my faith; I have faith that I am special; God loves me; God looks after me; God will give me eternal life etc.

This covers the main points (that I can recall), of course there are plenty of more complex philosophical points of view that professors of divinity and followers of every hue trot out to refute the logic of the Atheist position, but frankly I don’t understand them, or more accurately, they make no sense to me.

I find this debate a fascinating one; not just because I am an Atheist, but simply because I am a human being trying to make sense of the world just like everyone else and I really care about the truth. I think this is an important debate, plenty of people I know have a dismissive approach to it, i.e. “who cares, people can believe whatever they like kind" of attitude. For years I adhered to this viewpoint however recently (and particularly since I have had children of my own) I see the faith based dogmas of the world encroaching everywhere, religious faith (of all kinds) seems to be resurging around the world and I think polarising societies wherever it surfaces, suicide bombers, civil war, persecution, anti-science, pseudo-science, hucksterism the list goes on and on. Of course bad people do bad things; I’m not saying that all religion is de-facto a bad thing but I am starting to think that the negative aspects outweigh the positive ones.

If I had to recommend a book from this list (or two) then I would have to steer the reader towards Dawkins and Hitchens, I believe that these two authors provide the largest spread of mainstream ideas from the scientific and humanist camps, the titles in question are “The God Delusion” (Dawkins) and “God is not great” (Hitchens); both well written, thought provoking and utterly compelling.