Monday, June 29, 2009

The right to offend

I've been having some interesting conversations and thoughts about where the line is these days in terms of offending people by pointing out what I think are fallacies, flaws and inconsistencies in their beliefs. Religious people especially like to blur the distinction between themselves and their beliefs; it seems to be a commonly held position that faith based opinions should be respected regardless of their obvious flaws. This is strange to a rationalist like me, in no other field of human conversation are ideas respected simply because someone believes them to be true. Look at politics for example, sport, entertainment, there are as many opinions as there are people but somehow religion demands special treatment.

Other people say things like "aw leave them alone, think of all the good things that religions do", well yes that may be true but so what, many totally objectionable political parties do good things to, for example Hezbollah provides excellent health care and yet that is not a valid reason to give them a free ride when it comes to debate on the middle east. Another frequent claim is "you can't criticise religious stupidity because they aren't the only ones who can be stupid", absolutely, politicians can be incredibly stupid, as can financiers and sports people but just because MUFC donates money to UNICEF it doesn't mean I have to respect Christiano Ronaldo's views on abortion.

There are also people who have a misconception that I criticise religion because I have contempt for religious people or their beliefs, or that I "hate god", as I point out it is difficult to hate something you don't believe in. No, I attack religion because it represents a particularly nasty form of elitism or tribalism; it's like discriminating against people that don't walk under ladders but a thousand times more consequential. If religion truly were "just another opinion" like which coffee to buy, then no one would care, but no one says cappuccino drinkers should be killed or denied representation; alas no religion is that benign.

Atheist is a somewhat negative and meaningless term; I don't believe in fairies either but don't feel the need to be labelled as such, rationalist would describe me in a more positive way but unfortunately the ranks of the religious and the apologetic think it clever to label people like me "militant atheists", I have even heard the term "rabid atheists" used in this context. So what is it I do that is militant, well, I speak out, I express a well researched opinion, I don't accept things on faith, if someone asks I tell them what I think with honesty; ok I accept that some people find these things objectionable but are they really "militant"?

Here is a video on this subject made by FFreeThinker and although the sound is a bit hit and miss the ideas are nicely presented.


Makarios said...

"I don't accept things on faith,"

Oh come on!!!

Steve Borthwick said...

Makarios, example please?

Elizabeth said...

Steve, great post. I don't suppose you'd let me cross-post it in my blog?? It needs more attention.

Elizabeth said...

I don't like it either when people call me a rabid atheist or a militant atheist -- it's a meaningless phrase but designed to make me look extremist.

Steve Borthwick said...

E, no problemo!

Steve Borthwick said...

E, you know, it doesn't wind me up as much as when people say dumb things like "how can you have any morals" or "there are no atheists in foxholes" bla bla bla..

I think I am coming around to the view that if the religious have to resort to name calling then that just speaks to the quality of their arguments.

So, they can call me whatever they like, it's a step up from burning me alive which is what they used to do (such nice people).

Lisa said...

I agree, it's a great post, Steve, and a great video!

And it's a subject near to my heart, since I am accused of hurting people's feelings when I point out that their thinking is incoherent or inconsistent.

I loved the video because this person makes an excellent point about the double standard applied to religious people and non-religious people. When religious people do things, it's in the name of truth or god, and it's ordinary and accepted, or it's foundational to the country, yet if a non-religious person presents their views, they're gadflies and militant, getting in people's faces, disruptive, hateful. It's the usual load of nonsense and name-calling, even if you are correct and they have historically done much worse to the non-religious.

I guess we have to take our improvements where we can get them.

Elizabeth said...

I don't know, Steve, it still unnverves me when they go off on one of their 'how dare you mock religion' tirades but I must learn to be tough.

I liked the first of the video but I think he went on a bit too much about it and my attention wandered. You should do a YouTube where you get right to the point like you do in your writing.

Steve Borthwick said...

E, I agree it's unnerving, but that's because we are conditioned to subconsciously respect and fear religion IMO. I have come to realise that childhood indoctrination is an incredibly powerful thing.

I've not met anyone who was interested in talking about religion so far who ever had a decent argument for it. Most simply trot out the same tired and much refuted stuff, even theologians, and these guys are supposed to know the secret sauce!

I'm not sure about youtube, I think I have a face best suited to radio ;-)

Steve Borthwick said...

Lisa, thanks for your kind words, I think the general zeitgeist around atheism is improving albeit not as fast as I would like, I hope so at least, especially now that Bush has gone.

Oranjepan said...

Am I going to have to play devil's advocate?

I may not agree with it, but I will defend to the death the right to practise it etc etc.

I'm not bothered by people who have or do not have religious feelings (in fact I think the difference between the two is largely a matter of linguistics, although the consequences aren't), what does bother me is people who wish to impose their ideas through proselytising, rather than taking the time to discuss and debate - and that goes for people on all sides.

There are things we are incapable of proving (though that's more often than not a matter of practicalities) but are nevertheless certain - for example I was absolutely certain Brazil would still beat the USA even after they went 2-0 down and it piqued my interest to see how they'd do it.

Anyway, my point is that religion is largely irrelevant to this debate - it is about politics. If you start from a closed-minded position that religion or anything else is just one thing (whether you are a believer or not) then you will never engage with the full diversity of the subject.

There is liberal religion and there is conservative religion and the two are completely different in form, context and consequence.

This was my point when I raised up the spectre of the Michael Jackson cult - what is the difference between a cult and a religion? If they are untrue how are they still capable of moving people (as with the Stalin, Hitler or Khomeni etc personality cults, in highly dangerous ways).

Oranjepan said...

I don't think it is enough to say they are true or not - we must understand their mechanics AND allow them to be used in order that they aren't distorted in ways which impact the safety and security of society.

Religion is that tool at the back of your toolbox which you've never used and can see no possible use for - you could throw it away and save some space, but you can also be certain that the minute you do you'll realise you wished you hadn't because you'll find the use for it.

Isn't that the moral of almost every biblical story from Noah's flood onwards? Isn't that also the history which lead to the development of christianity? ie That the loss of faith in values sends a society into a pit of social depravity, distraction from the real issues and ultimately destruction from civil war or natural disaster?

So perhaps it would be safer to refine your opposition to the specific type of politics and dogmatism of religions.

Specifically I think that would be more coherent too - how many of us worship at the altar of mammon in the temples to consumerism we've set up (such as the Oracle) or the temples to communal athleticism (the madejski stadium) etc?

As computer programmers I'd expect you to recognise that the patterns of behaviour inherent in secular life are very closely mirrored in the religious calendar, and though the traditional conception of religion is almost childlike in it's simplicity it still has huge relevance to even the most irreligious among us.

Without the ritualised regularity in our daily routines (waking times, eating times etc) we'd each struggle to function in society, and society will struggle to function smoothly too. Look at the unemployed and homeless, or prostitutes and drug addicts, for example - their principle problems are caused by the chaotic nature of their lives. Disability too is problematic where lives cannot be sufficiently or adequately organised around individual needs to allow for normal integration.

I think it is not an adult conversation to describe 'god' as a delusion of reality or otherwise. 'God' was a cipher or code designed to help people avoid meaningless arguments which have no practical use. However language and politics have evolved so much since then that it is now the principle cause of argument! Oh, the irony!

Forgive my rant, but I don't consider myself on either side here and I think it is unnecessarily divisive and harmful to take sides when I think we should and do actually all agree all people are on the side of humanity (even if it doesn't look like it).

Steve Borthwick said...

Hi OP – I can rely on you to keep things on the straight and narrow!

Thanks for your comment, you are more than welcome to rant as much as you like here BTW, I find your points well made and not at all objectionable, I really enjoy these exchanges.

I agree with much of what you say but I think there are a couple of key points that are missing the mark and are foundational to what I’m trying to express.

I don’t believe this is about politics although I’d be interested to understand why you think it is. You are much better versed in that art than me; my definition of what politics actually represents is probably simplistic.

You are suggesting that my position is one of being closed minded, this is a common complaint and is a foundational point IMO; but I would argue that you have things exactly the wrong way around. It is the rational/scientific position that is the open minded position, we simply say that we want to know the truth; we will believe absolutely anything in that quest as long as you can show us the evidence for it. If Jesus materialised tomorrow in parliament square I would become a Christian no questions asked. Now, on the other hand you have religion which says, we already know the truth, there is no evidence but everyone has to respect us, or else.

So, what you are seeing is a reactive position, not a proactive one, if every religious person were moderate and benign then there would be no need for this argument, but religion embodies a way of thinking which makes that impossible, which is why I don’t believe you can equate this with politics. When you have “revealed” truth there is no negotiation and no compromise, the truth is not half way between the positions or something to be haggled for, a case of you can’t be half pregnant.

Religion makes claims about the world which are scientific, the existence of God is a scientific claim because either god exists in nature or he does not, either he influences the natural order or he does not. I think this is another foundational point, I am a scientist, and I cannot by definition take a political position on this. I will argue about this in exactly the same manner I would any other scientific question, i.e. produce some evidence or shut up. This may seem harsh and this would not be the approach I would take to a dinner party conversation (of course) I am not trying to offend, but if you make scientific claims on the field of play then this reaction is to be expected. Its how science works and it is not the same as politics. Science doesn’t care about tradition, utility, feelings or sensibilities, it only cares about evidence and what is true (to the best of our knowledge), this is the approach I am taking and I believe this is what is you are objecting to. So to say that god is a delusion is simply scientifically accurate, not a childish quip.

Steve Borthwick said...


We are probably all cultural Christians, we can’t avoid it but I’m not sure that is relevant to the matter at hand i.e. what is true.

You may argue that a scientific approach is not appropriate for every problem, I’d agree, but that’s why we have politics I suppose.

In terms of worship, you are using the term in a different setting to religion, I don’t believe the Oracle will offer me eternal life after I die, although a sufficient discount may be worth risking death for of course ;-)

This confrontational approach may be the wrong approach, I am happy to concede that I may be wrong and spelling it out for people in this way may win more enemies than friends, that would be a political perspective I suppose and not a scientific one. I guess you could say I am being true to my spots or perhaps just naïve, I like to think it is an honest approach though.

Oranjepan said...

OK, I'll expose myself a bit further here.

I have had a regular discourse with my uncle over religious philosophy. He is currently an RC priest doing missionary work in Kenya, before that was a capuchin monk. I take him as a reliable authority on matters of faith, if only partly because he introduced me to many of the areas which are coming under discussion here.

He doesn't believe in a 'tooth fairy in the sky' or ghosts or other superstitions (which he regularly encounters in highly virulent form in rural Africa where he is). His faith is very much of the worldly variety and it derives from a metaphysical conception of a layered existence rather than simple materialistic existence - it's not just that the universe is a wonderfully chaotic mass full of things (atoms and quarks and planets and comets and human beings and slugs etc), but that all of these things relate to each other and that there are laws which describe their interrelations and interactions; that there is a fundamental order to the universe.

Anyway, his experience on the frontline of faith is not one which fits your description and it's one which I find potentially more rational than the atheist view (although this doesn't convince me church-going is a worthwhile pastime). Perhaps it's because I like his view that life exists at the point where religion and physics overlap.

The post-death question is interesting and is one which regularly arises when we talk, but again I find it hard to disagree with his explanation using popular figures as an example, just as I used Michael Jackson.

'Heaven' and 'hell', he argues, are ways of describing the social or communal memory of an individual ie the reputation they leave behind. So the debate over what kind of legacy Michael Jackson leaves and how he will be remembered, according to the medeival mind, would be described as a struggle between angels and devils over his soul.

Now, his left-wing liberal religious viewpoint is certainly not shared by all in the communion, in fact the doctrinal disputes between the Franciscans and the other branches of Christianity are well entrenched. The current Pope took his pontifical title precisely because he wanted to demonstrate his adherence to benedictine conservatism, so some obvious tension should be immediately apparent.

Anyway if you want to find politics in the Roman Catholic church they are generally and best represented by the different monastic orders and the doctrinal interpretations they teach. The monastic movement nevertheless only represents the politics of the period from Constantine to Henry VIII, and the huge variety of theological and ecclesiatical differences has only proliferated since.

Different beliefs are what give rise to different institutions and practices, so even small variations in the church service are indicative of major underlying variations in politics (think of the ruckus over the common prayer book which kicked off the reformation).

Reading has always had one of the most diverse religious communities in the country (there is a thriving local religious blogosphere too) and it's fascinating to actually discover the range of views encompassed within it.

So to say christian religion is one thing and one way of thinking is simply not borne out by my experience.

Oranjepan said...

I think I need to ask you the fundamental question regarding Christianity - who was Jesus?

Was he a real historical figure? if so, who was his father? what was his ethnicity? who were his followers? what was his message? has this changed over time, and if so, how and why?

Though that's probably enough for a separate post.

On a separate point why atheism, not agnosticism?

Steve Borthwick said...

OP, Hey, I said you could rant, exposing yourself on the other hand... :)

Your Uncle sounds like a cool dude; I really admire people like that who actually walk the walk and engage with the real world, especially helping less fortunate people in the process. Although I must say, I'm less convinced that the motives of missionaries are always completely honourable, particularly Catholic ones when it comes to aids prevention et al.

The Catholic dogma that condoms are evil is a great example of what I mean; it is an irrational belief impacting on the real world and real peoples lives. This is the “way of thinking” that I’m talking about, i.e. a group of people (biologically identical to you and I) are claiming to know something that we cannot know, i.e. the mind of (their) god and what he wants us all to do in precise detail. It is “revelation” and in that sense all religions and religious people are the same. If they don’t believe in it then they are just paying lip service IMO.

What you seem to be arguing is that we shouldn’t point out the obvious flaw in this way of thinking, but rather support those Catholics who believe condoms are OK. Then slowly over time perhaps they will become the majority and the organisation will relinquish that dogma. There are two problems with this approach, firstly how many people have to die, and secondly why address the symptoms of the problem without addressing the cause when it is so blindingly obvious to everyone apart from Catholics what the cause is.

You say that not all religious people are the same, I’m not disagreeing, that is obviously true. But so what? the underlying process of religious thinking as it relates to a of a way of governing is flawed and dangerous. How else do you convince people to take it out of the educational, legal and governmental systems other than to point out the flaws? Accommodation has been tried for the last 5000+ years and we still have a lethal problem with religion, don't you think it is high time that the elephant in the room is tackled?

As I have said before, I am not in favour of any kind of draconian measure like the personality cults of the early 20th century tried; people should absolutely have freedom of thought. So, fill your boots as much as you like in private, but keep it out of the real world would be my manifesto.

Listening to what people believe about how the universe works is fascinating I agree, but you neglect to add that it's all pure fiction, calling something "metaphysical" explains absolutely nothing. Of course if you are interested in abstract ideas or anthropology (as I am too) then great, this is all "mind food", but such rationalisations are no more useful in the larger debate about the intersection of religion, politics and people than aboriginal stories of the dream-time or Inuit stories of Sedna the goddess of the sea.

Diversity is a good thing, I agree, but I don’t care a jot about diversity if I must give up reason to enjoy it.

Oranjepan said...

Well I can only point out to you that my Uncle actively disagrees with the Pope on the issue of contraception and in that in the diocese he works condoms are widely distributed by him and the other priests. There is resistance among the population and the heirarchy, but it is inaccurate to say the religion is entirely dogmatic because of misreported facts.

I'm also a big fan of Bill Hicks, where do you stand on his solipsistic pantheism? ("we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively")

Steve Borthwick said...

OP, Just thinking about your 1:27pm post (somehow we got out of sync there)

Jesus is a damn fine question! – I have done a bit of research on the historicity of him; with a scientific hat on I’d say no, there was no such person, at least not as described in the gospels. But there is evidence that this kind of wandering “guru” was in vogue at the time so there could have been “someone” but probably unprovable at this point. Certainly not supernatural but perhaps a radical and not someone who would have been popular with the authorities; a crowd pleaser, intelligent and manipulative, perhaps a Joseph Smith or an L Ron Hubbard kind of figure?

The sticking point for me on Jesus is the lack of unbiased contemporaneous accounts; sure we have Tacitous and Suetonius but they came many decades after Jesus and only mention him fleetingly compared to the other things they document in great detail. We also have Josephus and his “Testimonium Flavianum” but then we are talking a century later and there is simply too much likelihood that the whole account is a fake. Other than that I have not found anything else (other than the bible itself which doesn’t count) that describes anything of his life, miracles, events etc. Hardly compelling when you think of the momentous things that are supposed to have happened, for example in Matthew where he describes all the dead of Jerusalem coming back to life and wandering the streets after the resurrection, and we’re supposed to buy the fact that not a single Roman thought to write that down?

“Unlikely” would be a generous conclusion IMO.

As for his message, well, there are good bits and there are bad bits, although nothing particularly new that cannot be found in other cultures. The central theme of it i.e. admonishing man of his sins through an act of sacrifice is simply the metaphor of scapegoat and wholly immoral (from our 21st century perspective) IMO. When I ask Christians what they find so compelling about Jesus they always say “ah it’s in his message”, then I ask them to articulate what that is and after a bunch of nonsense about bowing and scraping and “god is love” etc. you are left with the “Sermon on the Mount” and an awkward silence, particularly when I point out that the central message of that existed in Confucianism thousands of years before.

I even have a good mate who has a Theology degree from Kings; we have had many debates over many pints and he can’t explain it without a boatload of unreasonable assumptions (like God exists) and meaningless logical gymnastics. So all I can conclude is that it’s a bunch of wish thinking and vested interest solidified by a process of childhood indoctrination, I am open to any new data, positive or negative of course.

Atheism vs. Agnosticism good point, technically I should call myself an agnostic because I agree that we should never say never, but that would be disingenuous IMO because I’m not a unicorn agnostic either so why make the distinction, I think clarity is more honest than technical precision WRT this topic perhaps?

Oranjepan said...

The question about Jesus leads me on to one of my favorite red button topics - the idea that Constantine's revelation before the battle of the Milvian Bridge was specifically of a form that he became convinced Octavian was the father of Jesus.

If Constantine recieved any actual evidence (contentious or otherwise) for this is not known, but understanding his belief in the political conception of the religion completely changes the complexion of Christianity.

Firstly it supports the Pauline doctrine of a universal church cutting ethnic ties (ie Jesus was only a half-jew), but it also provides an alternate worldly definition of a deity as the ultimate patriarch, which fits the traditional iconography.

I remain unconviced by the possibility because it would have to be taken as an article of faith (creating an odd paradox), but it would be hugely ironic if it were true because I think most Christians would start to see the church as a conspiracy in which they were implicated.

Anyway I thought I'd mention it in case it amuses you.

Steve Borthwick said...

OP, Your uncle sounds like a good man, more power to him, I'm intrigued to know what he finds so compelling about Catholicism?

Sorry I don't know Bill Hicks, so I did a quick YouTube, looks like the kind of material I would like; similar style to Lewis Black (who puts a Jewish slant on his atheism) some of the jokes are even similar particularly the creationist ones. George Carlin was another favourite American comic of mine.

Oranjepan said...

You don't know Bill Hicks!!! Now that is a crime.

Carlin was OK, but not to my taste. He pulled his punches by comparison (not to mention his perverse answer to political incompetence was to lie back and ignore it).

Steve Borthwick said...

What can I say, I'm not worthy... :)

Oranjepan said...

What can I say - I'm jealous, knowing that you you will be experiencing something wonderful for the first time.

Let me tell you, it will be a revelation!

Steve Borthwick said...

LOL; that good hey; I'll have to check this out.