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my big book of little catastrophes
I ate WHAT?
choose atheism 
5th-Feb-2006 11:09 pm
Imagine there's no heaven,
It's easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today...

Lots of talk lately about the Danish political cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed and how all these Islamic fundamentalists are going bonkers over them. Burning embassies, blowing things up, threatening jihad. Just lovely. There was a big discussion over in allamericanjock's journal that got me thinking. Greg sez: "I concede their right to their own religious beliefs... But they simply don't have the right to have a spaz-out temper-tantrum that involves a BODY COUNT whenever they get offended."

All of the arguments I've seen dance around (or flatly ignore) the fact that all religion fosters irrational and often destructive behavior. Freedom of religion is bunk. The real reason people concede religious freedoms is out of fear that their own religion will be persecuted too, so they support a blanket protection of religious choice in the hope that they'll be protected along with all the other "false" religions. Secretly, everyone thinks people who follow other religions are crazy or stupid. Maybe everyone is right.

If you took statements people made about god or religion and replace those words with something mundane like "cheese", those people would sound absolutely bonkers. The whole concept of faith is intrinsically irrational. To be religious you either need to be a fundamentalist and believe in things that are provably false, like the world being only 6000 years old and all the animals on the planet but those on Noah's ark being wiped out in a flood, or have the sort of intellectual dishonesty to follow a belief system that you know is based on false assumptions. Frankly I think I prefer fundamentalism to self-delusion. Choosing to believe something you know is false because it makes you feel better or gives your life meaning is utter bullshit. Someone who can do that can choose to believe anything and is capable of anything, and I mean that in the lets-declare-genocide-on-the-infidels sense of anything.

When belief systems come into conflict, it usually ends up being an issue of might makes right. There is nothing intrinsically better about our beliefs that life is more important than faith, honor, obedience, or any number of other things that are highly valued in other cultures. allamericanjock states that just because Islamics are offended doesn't give them the right to kill people. That is according to our Western values and belief system. Their belief system says they do have that right, and in fact are compelled to do so. We will never resolve those different perspectives in conversation - the only real resolution comes from the physical power to impose your values on someone else.

Around last Thanksgiving I heard one of those NPR "This I Believe" segments that really caught my attention. It was the astoundingly cogent Penn Jillette speaking on why he believes there is no God. You can find the whole transcript online at npr.com, but I'll quote the relevant part here:

Believing there's no God stops me from being solipsistic. I can read ideas from all different people from all different cultures. Without God, we can agree on reality, and I can keep learning where I'm wrong. We can all keep adjusting, so we can really communicate. I don't travel in circles where people say, "I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith." That's just a long-winded religious way to say, "shut up," or another two words that the FCC likes less. But all obscenity is less insulting than, "How I was brought up and my imaginary friend means more to me than anything you can ever say or do.

I don't often try to engage someone in discussion over the irrationality of their religious beliefs because I don't think it's productive to try and talk sense to a crazy person. But imagine how peaceful and productive the world might be if people gave up the irrational, superstitious bullshit of religion. That is why I don't concede anyone the right to their religious beliefs. And if anyone takes offense at that, that's fine by me. Maybe it will get them thinking for a change.
6th-Feb-2006 08:05 am (UTC)

  1. I want to start a new religion, called the "Cheese" religion. It will be a mixture of doctrines, traditions, and texts from Judaism, Islam, and Christianity... only it will replace every occurance of the word "God" with the word "cheese." Do you think it will catch on? ;-)
  2. "The real reason people concede religious freedoms is out of fear that their own religion will be persecuted too, so they support a blanket protection of religious choice in the hope that they'll be protected along with all the other "false" religions." That is a super, super, extremely good point!!! And you're right, it doesn't get pointed out enough. It's like when we had the cold war with Russia: we didn't respect their ways, we just didn't want them to retaliate.
  3. "allamericanjock states that just because Islamics are offended doesn't give them the right to kill people. That is according to our Western values and belief system." True, but I think it's important to note that it's also part of our secular belief system. To the extent that we increasingly live in a multicultural society, secular culture CANNOT EXIST without this kind of tolerance.</ul>
6th-Feb-2006 08:26 am (UTC)
Tolerance is yet another of our cultural values. You're now defending one facet of our cultural belief system with another facet of that same system. No part of our system is intrinsically better than Islamic fundamentalism - it just works better for us. Whether beliefs are secular or sacred, they are still beliefs.

Now, I'm not poo-pooing our cultural values. I think we have a pretty good set of values and I like tolerance and diversity, but that's not the point. The point is that a bunch of angry, violent people have different and conflicting values, and we're not going to be able to come to terms with them because our beliefs and values don't make sense to each other.

No, I don't know what to do about it. If I did, I'd be a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Price.
6th-Feb-2006 08:47 am (UTC)
"No part of our system is intrinsically better than Islamic fundamentalism."

Yes, it is.

I'm sorry but grotesque oppression and violence are simply NOT OK.

Sorry if that comes across as arrogant.

Plus, you ignored my main point: that tolerance is a secular value in our culture, not a religious one.
6th-Feb-2006 03:40 pm (UTC)
tolerance is a secular value in our culture, not a religious one.

Actually, I don't think it is; it's deeply rooted in religious prejudice. Our tolerance is directly proportional to the extent in which people believe in the same values and the same god, preferably the protestant and not the popish one. We are not, and never will be, tolerant of the Islamic attitude towards and treatment of women, while at the same time completely failing to acknowledge that there is a vast number of Christian fundamentalists in this country who hold much the same views and treat women in much the same manner within the *legal framework* they are provided, as do the Muslims they despise in the countries they live in. Our legal code is different--again, based on religious beliefs-- but that doesn't make it more valid than any other legal code except within the context of our own beliefs. F'instance, ethically, I equate a country practicing the death penalty with the third world and religious extremism, because I was raised in cultures that hold that view and I have never been able to find a philosophical justification for state-sanctioned murder. Apparently, the majority of people in this country have though. Islamic law and thought embodies a philosophical justification for the murder of adultresses; so what exactly makes that justification less valid than our justification for the death penalty as applied in the United States? Because we believe that murder is a more heinous crime than adultery? Who says? The Bible? Our own cultural beliefs? The US laws of inheritance?
6th-Feb-2006 04:47 pm (UTC)
You're talking about the implementation and execution: the fact that "freedom of religion" is (certainly) imperfectly implemented in our society is DEFINTELY a function of religious prejudice. But the value itself -- the idea that people should be able to believe and practice whatever religion they want as long as they aren't preventing others from doing the same thing -- is completely secular, and political in its origins.

At least, that's how it seems to me.
6th-Feb-2006 03:05 pm (UTC)
No part of our system is intrinsically better than Islamic fundamentalism - it just works better for us.

I have to agree with Greg here. I think because of our bloody history and because of colonialism and "white man's burden" and all the nasty mess that goes along with it, we have become very uncomfortable, and probably rightly so, asserting "universal" truths. But I do believe that, yes, intrinsically, our ideals about human rights (and not necessarily our practices in any particular instance) are "better" than some those of some others, including our own past of intolerant rule by religious superstition which so many in our current society seem to miss terribly. E. g., I think our notion of equality between men and women (and believe me, I know it is still only partly more than a notion) is indeed intrinsically better than cultural norms of male dominance.
6th-Feb-2006 04:43 pm (UTC)
There's a several month conversation we could have about post-structural philosophy and whether anything has instrinsic value. My philosophical perspective is that "better" is a measure of a value system, and all value systems are subjective. There is no truly objective measure that says equality is better than slavery or tolerance is better than genocide. That doesn't mean I don't believe equality and tolerance are good things - it just means that I'm taking responsibility for those beliefs rather than relying on some objective authority to justify them.

I also am a fan of memetics, and consider ideas and belief systems to be maleable things that evolve over time in response to environmental pressures. But that's yet another lengthy conversation. Wish you lived closer so we could spend a few months or years talking these things over...
6th-Feb-2006 04:54 pm (UTC)
Who is relying on some "objective" authority to justify anything?

When I said grotesque oppression and violence are not OK, I didn't provide a justification, and I did not appeal to an authority. I didn't say that they aren't OK because some God or gods said so. I didn't say that they aren't OK because of some ancient writing somewhere. I just said that they aren't ok.

The problem with your philosophy is that its extreme relativism leaves you floundering in a kind of moral impotence.

Not to mention the fact that it's not how you really live your life: if you were confronted with a real-life situation, where it was your life or your family's at stake, I'm pretty sure this "oh.... no philosophy is realy better than any other!" crap would go RIGHT out the window.
6th-Feb-2006 05:12 pm (UTC)
Oh no no no... now I'm morally impotent! Is there some kind of moral viagra I can take?

Understanding that value is not inherent but comes from our own perspectives does not mean that I'm prone to moral relativism or can't fully embrace a particular system of morality. It just means that I acknowledge that ultimately my own thinking is the source of those values, not the ten commandments or whatever. Trust me, I'm with you that religious intolerance and violence are bad things. My argument wasn't meant to justify the views of Islamic extremism, but to say that those people have their own belief system that is just as important to them as ours is to us, and that there is no way to convince them to follow our beliefs because there is nothing inherently more true about our beliefs than theirs.

Fundamentally I think taking intellectual responsibility for my values and beliefs gives me a stronger moral foundation than someone who accepts such values without critical examination. It doesn't mean I don't embrace them them as strongly. (At least I hope it doesn't!)
6th-Feb-2006 05:17 pm (UTC)
And I think there is a big difference between having critical examination of one's values, and saying "oh, no system is really any better than any other." And, by extension, it's wrong-headed to assume that just because I say that I firmly believe our system is better, that therefore I have not examined it critically.

(I know you didn't say that outright, but that could be read as an implication of your arguments up to this point.)
6th-Feb-2006 04:58 pm (UTC)
sure and it's an on-going conversation and a very sophisticated argument. i think you can just get too clever heading down those pathways. our collective understanding of human rights, emerging from i suppose the enlightenment, and i guess what you could call a "western" value system, is intrinsic to our conception that there is in fact a "right" way and a "wrong" way to treat fellow human actors. i readily agree that another person or society may not share our framework for judging, but that does not mean we have to defer to their judgments or even grant them equal weight. post-structuralist thought arose in part as a necessary antidote to a certain poisonous kind of thinking that emerged from a sense of cultural superiority, but i also believe there's a good rational basis argument for most of the concepts enshrined culturally as human rights in the western system.
6th-Feb-2006 05:42 pm (UTC)
i readily agree that another person or society may not share our framework for judging, but that does not mean we have to defer to their judgments or even grant them equal weight.

I wholeheartedly agree. My point isn't that their system is as good as ours. It is that since these things are fundamentally based on the context of that framework for judging, there's no way we can rationally argue to them that our values are as good as theirs. Either we agree to live and let live (something they don't seem to want to do), rely on physical arguments to defend ourselves, or over time try to influence their beliefs and values until they are compatible with our own.

but i also believe there's a good rational basis argument for most of the concepts enshrined culturally as human rights in the western system.

Yes, and all those arguments are based on fundamental values and assumptions (that I happen to agree with). It's turtles all the way down!
6th-Feb-2006 01:00 pm (UTC)
i have my dolly covering the song....
6th-Feb-2006 04:45 pm (UTC)
Oh I'd love to hear that. I bet her cover is lovely.
6th-Feb-2006 01:54 pm (UTC)
well yeah in general religion is dumb. but that doesn't mean that spirituality is dumb or that even rational people might not have legitimate trouble giving up their religions for the few logical benefits they do provide.
6th-Feb-2006 04:04 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, I have to agree with you there. I didn't say there were no benefits to religion - having a sense of meaning for your life is comforting, a strong community is supportive and can help you through hard times, a powerful belief system can give you a sense of direction and purpose, etc. But you don't need to believe in God or have a religion to get those benefits.

And while I decry religion I'm actually a pretty spiritual person. I think that there are plenty of things about life that are mysterious and it is good for us to delve into those mysteries to learn more about ourselves and our world. But giving up my rational self and embracing superstition is not something I can easily do, and I think people who do are missing out on learning things that are actually true about themselves and the world.
6th-Feb-2006 09:21 pm (UTC)
right on!
(Deleted comment)
6th-Feb-2006 04:33 pm (UTC)
This is the kind of reaction that makes me reluctant to engage in this sort of conversation. Your comment is filled with illogical statements, you put words in my mouth, and you assert things that have no basis in anything but your own beliefs. I understand that people feel strongly about religion and that no one likes being called irrational, crazy or stupid. The point of my post was not to be insulting or to make religious people feel bad - it was to share some of the thoughts I've developed over decades of thinking about these issues. Yes, some of what I said are my own beliefs. There may be a God, but I'll never know it. What I do know is that all religions are based on foundations of superstition and dishonest thinking. Or are you trying to argue that it makes sense to pick and choose the parts of a belief system that you are comfortable with while ignoring the parts that are provably wrong?

There's a lot you don't know about the thinking that got me to this point. Did you know I'm an ordained minister and perform weddings for friends, and that I've studied a lot of spiritual systems and religions? I grew up Jewish, went to a Christian parochial school that included weekly worship services, spent time in Wicca, did Zen meditation, etc. I'd hazard a bet that I'm much more educated on this topic than you are. But I doubt that matters to you.

I don't actually mind if people believe in God. It's an open question and I don't actually know the answer. (If you read my post again you'll note that I never claim there is no God.) What I do mind are religious belief systems, and people who have to force their irrational beliefs on others.
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6th-Feb-2006 06:05 pm (UTC)
Belief in God is one thing. A religious belief system is another. I don't see why someone should be exempt from expectation of responsible, rational behavior just because they harbor a particular religious belief. Burning down an embassy because you were offended by a depiction of your religious patriarch is not acceptable, no matter how strong your religous convictions. And executing a teenage boy because he is gay is murder, and is not excused because your religion's dogma says it is an offense to God.

In the USA we deny Islamic fundamentalists the right to execute people for being gay - is that denying them their religious freedoms? But we do allow the Boy Scouts and Salvation Army to discriminate against gays in their hiring practices. There's a whole spectrum of homophobic actions in between those points - at what point does religious intolerance of homosexuality become ok?
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6th-Feb-2006 06:51 pm (UTC)
I was just using those homophobic actions as examples. I wasn't trying to make this about sexual orientation or any particular religion.

I know that I can't tell others what to believe and probably no one should be able to do that anyway. But I do think that we give religious beliefs a special pass that we wouldn't give any other beliefs with no rational basis. That's really what I was trying to say. We should think as critically about our religious beliefs as we do about any other belief, and hold them to the same standards. And I think when one does that religious beliefs usually end up looking pretty silly. Certainly other people's religions do.
7th-Feb-2006 10:09 pm (UTC)
Hmm... am I having some serious visual problems? I was looking forward to reading some interesting comments, but they all appear uhh.. blank.
7th-Feb-2006 10:19 pm (UTC)
I see about 20 comments besides yours. Are you still not seeing them?
7th-Feb-2006 10:49 pm (UTC)
even my own comment is just a big blue square - hmm.. maybe there are blue letters on a blue background or something? I dunno - am I the only one that has this weird issue?
8th-Feb-2006 04:10 am (UTC)
try adding ?style=mine to the url. maybe my style is doing something ugly to your browser.
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