Some questions from a believer

When I linked to my most recent Daily Maverick column on Google+, Mike Smuts responded with a lengthy comment that included some interesting questions. I thought I’d respond to them here, seeing as not everyone who read the column might spot the conversation on Google+. Mike’s full comment is posted at the end, but because of it’s length I’ll start with only his questions, with my responses interspersed.

1) Can non-believers, especially atheists, be ‘fundamentalist’ in their views?

Of course, they certainly can. Being an atheist doesn’t guarantee that you’re sensible, fair or rational. In particular, it doesn’t guarantee that you are also skeptical of easy answers, or that you apply something like the scientific method to your own beliefs. So, for example, many atheists might be fundamentalist in their approach to various other emotive issue – perhaps climate change or fracking. They might also be fundamentalist in their blanket rejection of any possible good coming out of religion, which can lead them to be hostile and demeaning towards people who don’t share their views. They might believe in things which are (to my mind at least) as implausible as gods are, like a soul or free will.

Having said that, when atheists are fundamentalist, they cause offence and irritation. Religious folk who are fundamentalist cause death. And I do also think that fundamentalist is less likely with atheism than with religiosity, seeing as many (if not most) atheists are also skeptics.

2) I have come to view the bible not as a science or history handbook / manual (e.g. on the matter of evolution). I also accept that on those two subjects the bible is not a good source either. Also, many of the laws, etc. from the old testament, as well as the (indirect) acceptance of slavery in the new testament and other matters, I believe have to be viewed as having been crafted in an ancient world context and not applicable or at all acceptable, rightly so, in our time and age. Surely the God of the bible would also have known that the earth is actually round and circling around the sun, totally at odds with the bible’s description thereof. Yet he/she/it chooses not to point this out to the poor sods who are convinced otherwise (except for the Greek philosophers, et al).

Agreed. Not to mention the simple stuff like “women are not inferior to men” and “keeping slaves is a bad thing”.

As such, as a Christian, I’m potentially on a slippery slope. So I have the choice to reject the teachings of the bible out of hand (a completely logical choice), or to take a different approach to it. One where I approach it critically. I’ve chosen the latter. That’s why I referred to being more comfortable with ‘questions’ rather than ‘answers’ earlier on in this (very long) comment. If one for a moment ignore the ‘Christians’ for whom it is a purely nominal exercise, a cultural orientation if you like, would this not be a better route for Christians to pursue, as opposed to a fundamentalist literal interpretation of the bible? I’m directing this question to you in the context of your statement that “…it should be worrying for “believers” and “non-believers”, theists and atheists that the “Don’t Really Know” is so cluttered and so overwhelming”. Where the ‘don’t really know’ is a function of ignorance it is obviously problematic, but could it not be a function of acknowledging that in matters ‘spiritual’ we simply cannot ‘know’ in a scientific absolute manner? If so, is that not a good thing?

Yes, your route is a better route than the literal, fundamentalist one. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best route. Imagine a fresh world, without the centuries of privilege that religious viewpoints have enjoyed. Here, you have the choice between picking up a strange text that includes a bunch of weird injunctions, bad science and so forth, but which also contains passages that are inspirational. First, there are plenty of modern books like that around – Deepak Chopra and Rhonda Byrne come to mind. You’re using the book you are because it’s embedded in your culture, not because you’ve been able to make an objective choice that it’s the best book, despite it’s flaws.

Second, there are books that can serve these purposes without including a bunch of false/outdated claims. There are other sources of inspiration, awe, wonder and moral guidance. And all of these things speak to functions and events in your brain, not in your spirit. Your approach of thinking this sort of religious practice to be a “function of acknowledging that in matters ‘spiritual’ we simply cannot ‘know’ in a scientific absolute manner” not only gives extra credence to a particular way of “not knowing”, but is also somewhat circular in assuming that we can’t “know” in spiritual matters. We can’t “know” that leprechauns don’t exist in a scientifically absolute manner either – but we have no good reason to believe that they do. All that we do know about the brain gives not a shred of support to the existence of a soul. Yet, somehow this idea is still treated more seriously than the claim that leprechauns exist.

And it’s easy to see why. We would like to be immortal, we would like to be reunited with loved ones in the hereafter, and we might like to have a better life after death than the one we have now. I understand all that. But wishing for it to be so doesn’t make it the case. It’s far more plausible that we are born and then die, and if we apply the same level of critical thought to claims regarding souls as we do with regard to claims regarding leprechauns, we would all agree on this. But we can’t apply the same level of critical thought, because we’ve experienced centuries of brainwashing involving various metaphysical notions, where we now see them as innately plausible rather than implausible.

Lastly, I’m really not that bothered by believers like you. You’re unlikely to bomb abortion clinics or fly planes into buildings. But those that do that sort of thing count you among their number, and that number is used to buttress claims for teaching creationism in schools or other ways of making religion interfere with public life. That number is cited in censuses, and politicians can then say “we are a Christian country”, and act accordingly. And in general, these attitudes don’t contribute to fostering critical thought in terms of things like science, and might support truly dangerous beliefs involving prayer, homoeopathy or attachment therapy rather than medicine. They don’t contribute, in that they create a space for beliefs walled-off from the usual standards of critical enquiry.

3) I’m not bothered with defending Christianity, I believe it’s more than capable of surviving on its own. I’m more worried about increasing a more intellectual and critical approach amongst fellow ‘believers’ and (more negatively framed) opposing fundamentalism. I could however not fail to take notice of what I perceive to be a very aggressive movement amongst atheists in combating religion, which in the ‘West’ would mostly focus on Christianity. I accept that if atheists view religion as ‘evil’ (no pun intended) they would be very motivated to take it on. But why this, dare I call it ‘religious fervour’ in doing so? Am I simply connected via social media to a fringe group of atheists who try and nuke religion around every corner and on every subject or is this indicative of a larger atheist movement? I suppose being atheist rather than agnostic imply opposing something, opposing theist faith, but isn’t it getting a bit obsessive? In addition to statements such as ‘relax, there’s no God’, which has some indirect positive message, does the movement offer anything of real value – other than opposing religion? Is it not fundamentalist in this absolute approach it takes? Perhaps in the same way that anti-racism, while honourable in principle, may end up ignoring culture, class, etc. in an absolutist approach to the subject?

Some atheists are more angry than others. Some strategies to counter religious beliefs are more productive than others also. Being angry has worked to convince people of the flaws in religion, and being polite has also done so. It’s a strategic choice. Mine is (most of the time) to be polite, but I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with being hostile, by definition. The key problem here is, again, that your question comes from a position of religious privilege, in that there is plenty to be angry about. Organised religion protects child abusers, for example. It can encourage homophobia, and teaching nonsense to kids in schools. As I’ve argued on this blog on numerous occasions, it can infantilise us- particularly with regard to our ability to reason about moral judgements. Read Greta Christina on this – she’s got a litany of reasons why we’re angry.

This is the question where I strongly doubted your sincerity. It’s a very easy dismissal of atheist concerns to label us as angry or aggressive, because it allows for religious folk to appear to be the reasonable ones, who’d be willing to hear us out if only we behaved. Does the movement offer anything of real value? A bizzare question. First, because much of the good any person does is not because they’re religious, but because they are inclined to do good. Second, because you should ask whether religion, on balance, offers anything of real value that can’t come from elsewhere, at lower cost to the species (cf. why we’re angry). And third, isn’t encouraging rationality, and trying to eliminate unfounded beliefs “of real value”?

Try this thought experiment: Someone comes to you, and expresses views that you think are completely unfounded, and wrong, and are known to result in various forms of social ill. But the views comfort them, provide them with a framework by which to understand life and so forth. They might even have books, written by people they consider their spiritual leaders in these regards. You present them with all the evidence supporting your view, which obviously outweighs theirs. Their texts are pre-scientific, and their views are simply the result of ideological blindness as far as you can tell. But they have faith in their viewpoint, and are unpersuaded. Now imagine that this person is a racist, or a sexist, and that those are the views they are defending. And now, tell me how you’re different. And then, think about the double-standard – it’s not okay for them to hold the views they do, contrary to all available evidence, but it is for you?

Of course, religion can (in general) not cause the harms those beliefs do. But it also can do so. And until everyone who is religious is simply religious in the fuzzy way the Dakwins study revealed, it will keep doing so, and be allowed to get away with it because it’s been given immunity from the usual level of critical enquiry.

4) Is it not a sign of progress when Christians can’t be all bunched into the ‘evolution is evil’ corner, but actually start displaying less fundamentalist, even intellectualitst, tendencies?

Sure, and I suppose I’ve mostly answered this above. The point of the Dawkins data – as well as reported experience of people in the UK, Norway, Denmark, etc. is that religion is more and more a personal thing, or a social club, or something equally innocuous. So yes, it’s a sign of progress. But as I said in the column which prompted your comment, at one extreme this isn’t really religion in the typical sense anymore. And as I said above, these sorts of “believers” don’t really bother me, and they are going to keep increasing in number, which is great. But until it’s no longer the default that, for example, interfaith bodies are consulted by governments (with no secular representation), or that politicians can appeal to centuries-old texts to justify discrimination or bad educations, we’ve still got work to do.

The full comment:

I think I may actually lose a couple of followers with this comment. That’s because I’m actually a ‘believer’, but mostly interact with ‘non-believers’. This is not due to some secret mission to convert anyone, rather I enjoy a more philosophical and intellectual approach to life. Something sadly missing in discussions with many (not all) Christians.

Yet, in some ways I can identify fully with some of the results in the poll you mention. For me this is not so much a case of ignorance to the bible’s contents, but rather a more modern approach to my faith. A faith in which, ironically, I’m much more comfortable with questions than absolute answers.

I’ll try to explain and keep it short(ish). I think post-modernism, the information revolution and many other factors have presented a challenge to Christians. A very healthy and necessary challenge. Furthermore our history in South Africa of having had a ‘Christian-Nationalist’ system didn’t do Christianity any favours. The irony is that it substantially watered down discussions around faith, religion, etc.

While I fully realise the conflict in this statement, I can fully understand that based purely on logic one should reject faith of any kind in anything that cannot be either scientifically proven or logically argued. It’s also incredible how quickly the first natural philosophers, through reason only, were able to theorise the existence of atoms. More than a 1000 years before the first electron microscopes came into being. They were able to do this once they (mostly) rejected the idea that fables or myths were a viable avenue of understanding the physical world / cosmos.

I’m not going to try and justify faith or my believe here. It’s a personal choice for me. Suffice to say that with some exposure to non-believers I have long since dropped the idea of non-believers going to hell or facing some eternal punishment. I have gotten to realise that judging someone on their believe or non-believe alone is about as reliable as judging someone on skin colour, language or eye colour.

It’s in relation to the last paragraph that I’m actually engaging with you here. As a ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ individual coming from a Christian background and ‘Christian-nationalist’ environment (the latter still exists in many South African’s heads) the fact that most of the people who were also ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ tended to be non-believers influenced my view of believers to a great degree. I’m obviously referring to Christian believers as that reflects the context I have experience of. Thus, without conscious contemplation of the matter, I started to accept that Christians were behind the curve, conservative and often fundamentalist.

Now, I’m not saying that the previous sentence doesn’t hold, at least, some truth. But, in the same way that many (not all) ANC politicians seem to believe that racism is the sole domain of whites, I made (what I believe to be) the paradigm error that fundamentalism and its lessor cousins of prejudice and others were the sole domain of Christians (or other believers).

At this point I should perhaps point out that many of the ‘non-believers’ I refer to above would have been agnostic rather than atheist. Then I moved away from the city to the platteland about ten years ago and my ideas of ‘non-believers’ got a bit shaken up. I was suddenly thrown into a very small pond. In such a small pond one can’t be very selective of who you make friends with. This is both a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ thing. On the ‘good’ side you’re forced to befriend people with ideas you’d normally be isolated from. On the ‘bad’ side you have to stomach things that you personally may detest, in my case it means, amongst other things, to stomach racism and homophobia (of course I’m not saying ‘accept’ or ‘keep quiet’ about). You also discover that the very same people who have these (for me) ‘shady’ qualities also embody some other very exemplary qualities, from which you can learn and by which you can be enriched.

Basically my idea of non-believers got shaken up because here I was no confronted with non-believers, including atheists, who were not in all aspects (in my view) ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ or the like. In fact, I found many to be, in relation to some matters, fundamentalist… That was a shocker to me.

What follows is not meant as trick questions, I’m genuinely curious to get your take thereon. If you actually read this far into my comment and are willing to spend some time on this somewhere in future I’d welcome slightly longer answers than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

1) Can non-believers, especially atheists, be ‘fundamentalist’ in their views?

2) I have come to view the bible not as a science or history handbook / manual (e.g. on the matter of evolution). I also accept that on those two subjects the bible is not a good source either. Also, many of the laws, etc. from the old testament, as well as the (indirect) acceptance of slavery in the new testament and other matters, I believe have to be viewed as having been crafted in an ancient world context and not applicable or at all acceptable, rightly so, in our time and age. Surely the God of the bible would also have known that the earth is actually round and circling around the sun, totally at odds with the bible’s description thereof. Yet he/she/it chooses not to point this out to the poor sods who are convinced otherwise (except for the Greek philosophers, et al).

As such, as a Christian, I’m potentially on a slippery slope. So I have the choice to reject the teachings of the bible out of hand (a completely logical choice), or to take a different approach to it. One where I approach it critically. I’ve chosen the latter. That’s why I referred to being more comfortable with ‘questions’ rather than ‘answers’ earlier on in this (very long) comment. If one for a moment ignore the ‘Christians’ for whom it is a purely nominal exercise, a cultural orientation if you like, would this not be a better route for Christians to pursue, as opposed to a fundamentalist literal interpretation of the bible? I’m directing this question to you in the context of your statement that “…it should be worrying for “believers” and “non-believers”, theists and atheists that the “Don’t Really Know” is so cluttered and so overwhelming”. Where the ‘don’t really know’ is a function of ignorance it is obviously problematic, but could it not be a function of acknowledging that in matters ‘spiritual’ we simply cannot ‘know’ in a scientific absolute manner? If so, is that not a good thing?

3) I’m not bothered with defending Christianity, I believe it’s more than capable of surviving on its own. I’m more worried about increasing a more intellectual and critical approach amongst fellow ‘believers’ and (more negatively framed) opposing fundamentalism. I could however not fail to take notice of what I perceive to be a very aggressive movement amongst atheists in combating religion, which in the ‘West’ would mostly focus on Christianity. I accept that if atheists view religion as ‘evil’ (no pun intended) they would be very motivated to take it on. But why this, dare I call it ‘religious fervour’ in doing so? Am I simply connected via social media to a fringe group of atheists who try and nuke religion around every corner and on every subject or is this indicative of a larger atheist movement? I suppose being atheist rather than agnostic imply opposing something, opposing theist faith, but isn’t it getting a bit obsessive? In addition to statements such as ‘relax, there’s no God’, which has some indirect positive message, does the movement offer anything of real value – other than opposing religion? Is it not fundamentalist in this absolute approach it takes? Perhaps in the same way that anti-racism, while honourable in principle, may end up ignoring culture, class, etc. in an absolutist approach to the subject?

4) Is it not a sign of progress when Christians can’t be all bunched into the ‘evolution is evil’ corner, but actually start displaying less fundamentalist, even intellectualitst, tendencies?

My sincere gratitude if you read all the way to this point! If we can have a constructive discussion on this I’ll appreciate it. I’m not looking for the shallow kind of to-and-fro one often encounter on the internet. I trust that my comment is above that

The South African Charter on Religious Rights and Freedoms

Originally published in Daily Maverick.

While lacking the high-profile support and marketing opportunities that Primedia and others lent to the Bill of Responsibilities, there’s another document doing the rounds that is even more wrong-headed – if such a thing is at all possible. It’s called the “South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms”, and according to one of its drafters, Rassie Malherbe, is intended to “flesh out the right to freedom of religion in the Constitution”.

This fleshing-out is apparently required due to the fact that “constitutional rights are described in cryptic, vague and general terms” (pdf). Sections 9, 15, 31, 185 and 186 seem fairly clear to me, and when read in conjunction with sections 10 and 12 of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, it’s quite difficult to understand how religious belief could be better protected.

Of course, I’m assuming that religious beliefs should be treated as merely one form of belief competing with others on the ostensibly level playing-field provided by an impartial state. As matters stand, I’m already a candidate for appearing before the Equality Court for communicating words “that could reasonably be construed to demonstrate a clear intention to be hurtful” when speaking of religion.

Churches already enjoy preferential treatment from the taxman, while non-theistic organisations do not. The religious voice carries a disproportionate weight in debates around whether TopTV can screen pornography. On a more trivial note, for those who suffer from unpredictable thirsts for alcohol or who struggle to plan ahead, moral standards set by religion dictate the terms of liquor licences. One could go on, but the upshot of these facts is that many claims for religion requiring more protection are tenuous at best.

More worryingly, these sorts of charters have a history of allowing for discrimination against the non-religious, rather than simply proving equal protection for all. The UN resolutions on “Combating Defamation of Religions” that have made regular (and sometimes successful) appearances before various UN commissions and councils bear notable similarity to blasphemy laws such as those enforced in Ireland.

Under such laws it’s not only the case that you can (somehow) defame an idea or ideology rather than a person, but you can also go to jail for doing so. Presumably, the South African Charter would hope for such a future also. One of its clauses (6.4) states: “Every person has the right to religious dignity, which includes not to be victimised, ridiculed or slandered on the ground of their faith, religion, convictions or religious activities. No person may advocate hatred that is based on religion, and that constitutes incitement to violence or to cause physical harm.”

While the second sentence of the clause quoted above might be controversial for some, it’s nevertheless already entrenched in the Bill of Rights and Equality Act. So the Charter adds no protection by repeating it, assuming the Charter becomes law as intended by its drafters. But to demand protection from victimisation or ridicule is surely a step too far, especially when read in conjunction with something like 2.2: “Every person has the right to have their convictions reasonably accommodated”.

If reasonable accommodation comes to mean immunity from criticism – which it certainly could, with a broad notion like “victimisation” being very much an eye-of-the-beholder sort of thing – it would only be the religious that truly enjoy the rights to freedom of thought and expression afforded to us in the Bill of Rights. Those who want to express negative sentiment with regard to religion (and other categories like culture, which are also included) are of course not victimised as a result of having these protections withheld.

It goes further, as these things often tend to. On the grounds of religious belief, you can refuse to deliver “certain services, including medical or related (including pharmaceutical) services or procedures” (2.3b). And “no person may be subjected to any form of force or indoctrination that may destroy, change or compromise their religion, beliefs or worldview” (2.5) – but the same would of course not apply to that kid in the classroom who has doubts that women were magicked into existence from the rib of a man.

Furthermore, the state, including the judiciary, must “respect the authority of every religious institution over its own affairs” (9.3), and parents “may withdraw their children from school activities or programs inconsistent with their religious or philosophical convictions” (7.1). For a document that’s drafted partly in response to constitutional rights that are allegedly “cryptic, vague and general”, you’d hope for some more specificity in this charter. There is little to none of that, and I’ve only highlighted six of the thirteen clauses that are obviously problematic.

At the launch of this charter in October 2010, Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke stopped short of endorsing it, saying that it might one day be a matter before the Constitutional Court. He nevertheless welcomed the initiative, and it seems likely that our new Chief Justice would be similarly inclined. As yet, though, there’s been little progress, and the charter has yet to be presented to even a parliamentary committee. But there are signs of life – a January article in Beeld spoke of it in positive terms, and callers to Radio Sonder Grense later that month seemed particularly enthused.

Perhaps most troubling, last week the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau issued an invitation for applications to write a paper on the right to religious freedom and belief in Commonwealth countries, in order to inform the proposed Commonwealth Charter. In this invitation, the South African charter is highlighted as an example of best practice. So even if it never reaches our parliament, there’s now a chance that other parts of the world will have the sensibilities of Malherbe and others imposed on them.

There’s no question that we need to tolerate diverse and dissenting views, and I’m sympathetic to the reality of many religious people feeling persecuted or victimised for their beliefs. Some instances of such victimisation are clearly unjust and immoral – but they are also usually already illegal and not meriting further legislation. This is part of the point of a broadly secular set of laws: that once we start creating special protections for one interest group, we have no principle by which to refuse doing so for all others.

Instead, ideas compete on their merits within a framework that attempts to give everyone an equal chance to air their views. Charters like this one hark back to a world in which a default privilege was afforded to the dominant view, and where that dominant view was a religious one. While that view is still dominant in this country as in many others, that dominance results at least in part from peoples choices and their freedom to make those choices. Let’s not entertain the nonsense that this freedom is threatened to such an extent that it can – or needs to – be protected through granting one view the sorts of protections all others lack.

TopTV plans to “release a flood of filth into our communities”

Or so says Errol Naidoo, in any case. I wasn’t planning to say anything about TopTV’s plans to launch 3 porn channels (provided by Playboy TV), because besides this involving TopTV rather than Multichoice, the salient details are identical to those in the DStv porn saga last year. But a few people have enquired as to my views, so here they are.

First, it remains true that we have no compelling evidence that pornography necessarily causes harm in itself. I can’t dispute that some people have had miserable lives, or been exploited and abused in the production of pornography. It’s true that it’s an industry which conduces to trafficking, and it’s plausible that it might lead some consumers to dysfunctional attitudes towards sexuality, gender equality and so forth. These are unwelcome and regrettable correlates of porn.

But as one can’t seem to say often enough, correlation doesn’t equal causation. The fact that many people consume pornography from within healthy relationships, or as singletons who are not disposed towards seal-clubbing, satanic rituals or violence against women and children shows that it’s possible for porn to come without these complications. Which tells us that as much as some production and consumption of porn can come with problems, those problems can be addressed directly without needing to shut down an entire industry. If it ends up being true that these problems are inescapably part of porn production, then I’d agree that porn should be more strictly controlled, and perhaps even eliminated (if that were possible). But they’re not, or at least we have no good evidence that they are.

Which leaves us in a position of having to balance various interests. On the one hand, we have TopTV (or Multichoice), who want to make money. They do this by offering a service that consumers want, in this case porn. If they’re wrong, and consumers don’t want it, then the channels will most likely be pulled. But what they are planning to offer is legal, and they are entitled to do so. Of course they should (from their own self-interested point of view, as well as from the point of view of not causing needless offence) do so in a responsible way. Their plan is to offer these 3 channels as an opt-in service at an extra cost each month. So, parents need to choose whether to allow these channels in their homes or not.

This is stage 1 of the firewall that protects the innocent, fragile children. Unless a parent chooses to subscribe, Jenny and Johnny won’t be exposed to any part of the “flood of filth”. Then, in stage 2 of the firewall, each viewing of one of the porn channels requires the viewer to enter a PIN code. A parent could change this code every day, if they so choose. What this firewall adds up to is that, if Jenny or Johnny end up watching any porn on TopTV, it’s the fault of the parents, not of TopTV.

Naidoo might of course say that this shouldn’t be broadcast even to parents (or adults). For consistency’s sake (although I’m not sure if he’s familiar with that concept), he might also have to say that there can be no violence on TV. There should certainly be no booze on TV – and perhaps there should be no cars on TV, seeing as those can also be used irresponsibly. But none of this really matters to Naidoo and his ilk, seeing as personal choice needs to make way for his fascist world of obedience to the dictates of God. Well, not your god, perhaps, but the one that he insists you believe in. You know, the homophobic one.

He also says that these parental controls aren’t sufficient because:

Despite TopTV’s assurances of parental controls, it will not stop sexually depraved adults from sexually abusing women and children. The majority of the 55 000 rapes of women & sexual abuse of 25 000 children in SA every year, are perpetrated by TopTV’s target market – adult men!

He’s right. TopTV’s parental controls won’t stop sexual abuse, because we’ve got no reason to believe that a) TopTV’s porn will cause their target market to want to go out and rape women or children, and b) all these people already have access to porn, for god’s sake. In the course of his “research”, surely Errol has come across porn that would make whatever PlayboyTV provides look like scenes of Bambi running through a forest?

Naidoo closes his December 8 newsletter with this:

I appeal to you to urgently write to TopTV CEO, Vino Govender and inform him that you will stop paying your subscription fees, cancel your contract or support a targeted boycott of TopTV advertisers if he launches his proposed porn channels in South Africa.

Email Vino Govender at [email protected] and copy in Melinda Connor at [email protected]

Christian consumers stopped Multichoice from launching a 24 hour porn channel on DStv last year. You and I can do it again! Christian citizens must stand up and do what is right!

Before you take a well-deserved holiday with your family – please consider the families that will suffer because of TopTV’s greed. Please encourage your family & friends to write today!

PS: Please forward this email to your family & friends and NOT TopTV [my emphasis]. Please also join us on the official FPI Facebook page for more updates and info about TopTV’s evil agenda.

Perhaps he doesn’t want TopTV to have advance warning of the tsunami of self-righteousness heading their way. I don’t know. But there’s the CEO’s email address. Feel free to write to him to express your support for freedom of choice. Or to say that, even though you don’t like porn yourself, you commend him for his efforts to ensure that it reaches only it’s target market, rather than innocent bystanders. And if you want to mail the other public protector, Errol Naidoo, you can do so here: [email protected]

Martin Amis on religion

From his collection of essays related to 9/11, The Second Plane (The Voice of the Lonely Crowd, p.14/15):

The twentieth century, with its scores of millions of supernumerary dead, has been called the age of ideology. And the age of ideology, clearly, was a mere hiatus in the age of religion, which shows little sign of expiry. Since it is no longer permissible to disparage any single faith or creed, let us start disparaging all of them. To be clear: an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful. It is straightforward – and never mind, for now, about plagues and famines: if God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.

Moral absolutism: deontology and religious morality

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Moral debate

Originally published in The Daily Maverick.

It is difficult to have any misconceptions about Immanuel Kant’s position on certain moral issues. His thoughts on whether it is permissible to lie are perhaps the most striking example of his moral absolutism. If the title of his essay “On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives” doesn’t make the absolute impermissibility of lying clear in itself, the notorious case of the enquiring murderer certainly will.

But first, how did Kant get to absolute moral principles – ones which are not relativistic, and that apply to us all, no matter what our preferences or circumstances might be? In a very simplified form, the argument goes like this: While moral theories like utilitarianism speaks of happiness as the goal of morality, Kant instead focussed on what we need to do to be worthy of happiness at all. In terms of morality, this involved doing what was right, regardless of whether it made one happy or not.

How do we know what is right? Compare what Kant referred to as hypothetical imperatives and the stronger categorical imperative. Hypothetical imperatives derive their force from relevant desires – for example, my desire to not get wet results in the imperative to carry an umbrella. However, if I lacked that particular desire, the imperative would have no force. By contrast, categorical imperatives derive their force from reason and are binding on us all, because they are products of a principle which every rational person must accept (at least, according to Kant).

That principle is the Categorical Imperative, which (in one formulation) says: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. This summarises the procedure for deciding whether something is morally permissible. We should ask ourselves what rule (maxim) we would be following by performing the action in question, then ask whether we could will (in other words, make it so, rather than simply imagine) that everybody followed that rule.

In other words, what we are being prompted to consider is whether the rule in question could be universalised. If it can be, then the rule may be followed, and the act is permissible. If I chose to borrow money from you that I had no intention of repaying, I could ask whether the rule “it is permissible to borrow money without intending to repay it” could be universalised. For Kant, the answer is obviously “no”, in that this rule is self-defeating – it would effectively eliminate commerce.

So reason itself is meant to lead us to categorical imperatives involving repaying debts, and also not lying, in that a rule permitting lying would, according to Kant, make communication impossible, or at least futile (given that much communication is premised on the sharing of useful and true information). An early challenge to this prohibition on lying came from Benjamin Constant, who pointed out that according to Kant, one is morally obliged to tell a known murderer the location of his intended victim, if he were to request that information.

A lie intended to divert the murderer is impermissible, because it’s possible that unbeknownst to you, the intended victim has in fact changed location, and is now in the place you identify in your lie. This thought experiment can easily be modified to make an answer such as “no comment” equally revelatory – and therefore leaving us responsible for the death of the victim in both these cases. Or not, at least according to Kant, who said that so long as you tell the truth, it’s the murderer who has done wrong, not you. You’ve done what’s morally obliged by reason, consistency, and the categorical imperative – you have acted from a “good” will.

Some readers may want to bite this particular bullet, and agree with Kant that the only way we can avoid moral rules becoming the victims of subjective preference or other forces is to treat them as absolute. I’d however be willing to place a wager on most of you thinking that there’s something absurd about no allowing us to lie to an enquiring murderer, simply because doing so would introduce cost-benefit analysis into our choice. Of course we’re not all equally good at such analyses, and of course some situations don’t lend themselves to these calculations as well as others.

Regardless, it’s reasonable to suspect that most people would agree it’s morally permissible to lie when doing so appears guaranteed to save an innocent person from murder. And if you do agree, then you admit that at least some moral principles are not absolute, but are instead ideals to be followed as closely as possible. Or, you might say that it’s unreasonable for Kant to formulate the maxim or rule in such absolute terms: what’s wrong with a maxim like “don’t lie, except when you can save an innocent life by doing so”?

For Kant, what’s wrong is of course that this sort of maxim appeals to consequences, and thus offers us no absolute – rather than context specific – guidance. It opens the door to a potentially infinite number of revisions and subtle qualifiers, and leaves us in exactly the moral mess that he thought he was clarifying with his deontological (duty-based) ethics. But an inflexible set of rules that don’t appear to account for what can be known (like when you know that a lie can save a life), or that don’t allow for any ranking of rules (if all rules are absolute, what would one do when a rule to tell the truth conflicts with a rule to save lives) is an unsatisfactory attempt to clean up that mess.

This is of course why most ethical frameworks – the ones that seem to summarise our behaviour, rather than the ones discussed by moral philosophers – allow for some sort of hierarchy of principles, or exceptions to rules such as the “white lie”. We know that life is more messy than the ideal existence imagined by a very anal-retentive Prussian, whose daytime walks were so regular that (according to legend, at least) locals used to set their clocks by him as he passed by their houses.

While all but a handful of existing Kantians are probably behind a desk at a philosophy department somewhere, we still have a large number of deontologists in our midst. This is because the other historically popular route to absolute moral rules is through religion, and the Abrahamic religions in particular. I’ve perhaps said enough about the absurdity of basing contemporary moral reasoning on the superstitions and lacks of knowledge of our ancestors in previous columns, so will make only a few simple points here.

First, as Plato argued in Euthyphro’s dilemma (around 399 BCE), propositions can’t be right simply because they are commanded by God, because this could make anything potentially “right”, if God had that particular whim. It would strike most believers as implausible that God commands them to cut off their ears – and rightly so, seeing as the immediacy of the harm should make any non-immediate (and untestable) rewards for doing so less attractive. Believers might of course respond that God would not command this. But this is precisely the point: We expect some conformity between the commands of God and what we can understand as rational or reasonable, and this shows that instead of what God commanding being right (by virtue of the command), God instead commands what is independently right.

Second, the Golden Rule – which strikes us as an absolute principle, and one which is common to many religious outlooks – is also far from absolute. It’s also far from being derived via religion, given that reciprocal altruism can be observed in many non-human animals. The idea of “doing as you would be done by” is however of little use if we were to apply it in all situations, without any recognition of context. As Simon Blackburn points out, imagine the criminal asking the judge “how would you like to be sentenced?” In other words, there are cases in which we think applying the Golden Rule to be inappropriate, because it’s been superseded by some other moral judgement – again showing that we do rank these things in practice, rather than treat them as absolute.

Both of these versions of a deontological morality fail, often because they provide easy answers to questions that should be understood as difficult. It is of course often politically desirable to give people answers that correspond to an imagined black and white world. But that is not the world we live in anymore, now that more of us have educations, and now that we find no compelling reasons to subjugate ourselves to edicts and forces that are not intelligible.

They fail also by offering moral confusion where there should be none. Consider policy decisions like whether to allow euthanasia or gay marriage. Both are cases in which one has to work very hard (with little reward) to understand how they can ever be considered immoral practices in themselves. For surely morality has to have something to do with making life better or worse? If I prefer for my life to end, not allowing euthanasia makes my life worse than it could otherwise be, and it seems immoral to deny me that right. And even if you want to object that having myself euthanased could make life worse for some, by (for example) causing my wife distress, consider instead the case in which I’m a widower, and have no other family? Again, the context changes the analysis – or at least it should.

Most importantly, defining morality as necessarily absolute and objective is an illegitimate way to privilege religious morality, even as it continues to become less and less useful to people living in a modern world. Not only less useful, but also potentially harmful, in that our moral sensibilities atrophy further every time we think a dilemma should not be debated – or cannot be debated – because of some absolute principle we’ve never allowed ourselves to question.

And just as religious morality should be considered part of our intellectual history, rather than inform our actions in the present, so too for much of secularists are inclined to call “Enlightenment reason”. While the Enlightenment project did the species an enormous favour at the time, our knowledge of cognition in the 18th century should not be considered a permanent guide to how to live. Reason, for Kant, was absolute and transcendent, but in reality it is probably no such thing.

There is no unified locus of rationality in the brain, and no disembodied faculty of reason – our will is tied to established habits, and also seems to follow after our emotional moral judgements, rather than generate them. As Jonathan Haidt suggests, the emotional dog wags the rational tail – we form emotive reactions, and then construct post-hoc rationalisations to justify them. John Dewey’s characterisation of the self as an “interpenetration of habits” should remind us that some of the very concepts of morality (like “person”) are metaphorical – they have no necessary and sufficient conditions.

For moral theory to make sense in light of what we now know about how we reason, it must take the work of people like Haidt, de Waal, Harris and Binmore into account. Of course the answers are going to be messy, at least for now. But so are we, and so is the world we live in. If you don’t want to help with cleaning it up, so be it – but standing on the sidelines reciting dogma (religious or otherwise) is simply getting in the way of important work. And that’s surely not morally good, on any definition.

Utter awesomeness from Rev. Peasboro

This is old news, but I just heard about it yesterday via The Doctor and Derren Brown: In a book published in 2000, Reverend Jim Peasboro alerts us to the frightening possibility that our PC’s (he doesn’t mention Mac’s, so you trendoids are perhaps safe) may be possessed by demons. Oh yes, “demons can possess anything with a brain, including a chicken, a human being, or a computer”, and “any PC built after 1985 has the storage capacity to house an evil spirit”.

I wonder if this has to do with the decreased costs of storage. Perhaps your average demon takes up 20 megabytes of hard drive space, and that limitation would have been crippling in 1985, when Commodore’s Amiga 1000 sold for $1,295 dollars (without monitor), and hard drive space maxed out at 40MB or so. Nowadays, of course, your PC could house thousands of demons, who could take advantage of the multiple CPU’s in your machine to get up to some serious mischief.

Antivirus manufacturers have been slow on the uptake here, unfortunately. I can find no mention of possession in the documentation for mine, but perhaps I’m using inferior software. One in 10 computers in the US is infected by a demon, but the South African rates are likely to be lower, seeing as I imagine the demons to transport themselves via ADSL, and our connections are much slower than those in the US – your demon might still be in transit, perhaps at a Telkom substation somewhere.

The good news is that “Technicians can replace the hard drive and reinstall the software, getting rid of the wicked spirit permanently”. While the snippets from the book aren’t clear on what stops your computer from being re-infected after this process, I imagine that the Rev. Peasboro answers this question in the book itself. My guess would be that he’s trained a select bunch of technicians in this process, who will guarantee inoculation for a small(ish) fee. I’ll look into the matter of accreditation, as us South Africans can’t be left exposed to these sorts of mortal dangers. We can’t be asked to take the risk of our PC’s suddenly uttering a “stream of obscenities written in a 2,800-year-old Mesopotamian dialect”, now can we?

Good without god

Over at Talking Philosophy, a post by Jeff Mason has generated a few interesting comments. The post itself is interesting (hence the comments, I suppose), but one comment (by Tom, a self-professed religious believer) is perhaps particularly interesting. Here’s an extract from the comment, followed by some general comments in response:

religion, particularly belief in a deity, is an incredibly useful concept the human mind uses to funnel its understanding of many issues into language which is not only powerfully symbolic, but also compact and economical. Finally, religion tightens the concept of duty due to the psychological implications (a la Pascal Boyer) of a personal god in relation to our intuitive psychology of each other. Continue reading “Good without god”

Frontline Fellowship: Lying for Jesus

So, the Frontline Fellowship (of which Peter Hammond is Director) has posted a description of the debate that was meant to happen recently. Here’s how it starts:

Atheist Abandons Argument
Just two hours before the scheduled debate the Atheist Association lecturer, Jacques Rousseau, cancelled his involvement and withdrew from the debate. The organiser was then compelled to change the venue from Jameson Hall to a different venue nearby.

Apparently, the event ended like so:

Over 100 students responded to the challenge to commit themselves to full-time Christian ministry. Many of those expressed their conviction that they were called to be missionaries to university campuses. The atmosphere at Campus Harvest was electric.

These 100 students will no doubt undergo rigorous training in hyperbole, hysteria and deception, judging from the article. All I can do is to – again – point out that if these students are at all interested in an education, and the facts, they can avail themselves of the evidence in the form of the correspondence leading up to the debate here.

Varsity – reporting on the blasphemy debate

Today’s edition of Varsity, the student newspaper at UCT, carries an article (see end of post for a scan of the article) reporting on the debate that was meant to occur last week. Contrary to my fears, it’s a balanced and sensible account of what happened in the lead-up to the non-event. There are, however, a few details from the article worth commenting on.
Continue reading “Varsity – reporting on the blasphemy debate”