Belief Is Not Knowledge

There has been a bit of a fuss made in certain quarters of the media in the last week regarding the debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury & head of the Church of England) in which Richard Dawkins stated that he could ‘not be sure’ of the non-existence of god. This has, as you may have been expecting, been leapt upon by sections of the socially conservative press such as the ‘Daily Mail’ as proof that atheists do not believe what they say they believe.

I really should find it surprising that people would jump to this sort of conclusion but it does show the sort of thought processes religious people have. ‘Believe’ and ‘Know’ are words with differing meanings and should never be confused. A religious person may confuse them because their beliefs are so dear to them that they think they know them to be fact but a skeptical scientific mind should see no confusion here. I believe that there are no £10 notes in my wallet at this moment, I haven’t checked yet, so I cannot know for certain. I believe the Earth orbits the Sun once a year, I do not have a telescope or the knowledge to do the measurements and calculations to prove it so I cannot truly know. I believe there is no divine or supernatural presence anywhere in (or indeed out of) the universe but as yet no experiment has even been conceived (other than death) that would prove or disprove this hypothesis to the satisfaction of both sides of the argument, so I cannot know.

This does not make me an Agnostic, I am an Atheist because I know what I believe, not because I know what I don’t know, this would make everyone on Earth an Agnostic which makes the label utterly redundant. However a religious person would ascertain that what they believe, they also know, which just exemplifies the closed-minded attitudes prevalent among religious people worldwide. Unless a theory has passed experimental tests, it cannot be considered a fact and must always be questioned if new experiments bring the original theory into question. Having blind faith in anything after contradiction by experience seems a recipe for disaster.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWN4cfh1Fac

Sorry for the rather crude method of posting the link but I haven’t yet worked out how to properly embed.

Just a short one this time, thanks for reading.

Rowan

All Morality Is Relative

I think the starting point in a piece like this should include a definition of what is meant by ‘relative morality’. To me the term encompasses a belief that what one person believes to be morally right cannot be proven to be morally wrong by another because it would involve nullifying the first persons belief system. This allows the acceptance of judicially sanctioned torture and mutilation in foreign cultures without condemnation on the basis that we cannot know any fundamental ‘truths’ about morality, that every person or state’s individual morality is equally valid.

I do not think this is a sustainable point of view in the modern world where, due to worldwide media and globalisation, we all occupy the same global space and time. This is not the same as a refusal to condemn the murderous and barbaric acts of much of the European nobility during the middle ages, the rulers of those times had no access to the moral education available in more modern times. We all know now that religious persecution is wrong but there is a huge difference between the execution of Socrates for impiety (among other things) in classical Athens and the execution (often public) of an apostate in a modern Arabic country (or indeed the media character assassinations of ‘unbelievers’ by irrational sensationalist journalists who know better but choose to forsake their ‘Christian’ morality to get better copy).

The opposing view to moral relativism is known as ‘absolute morality’, which, to me, is defined by the belief that actions and beliefs are always either wrong or right independent of the contexts of culture, time or emotion. We all, from whatever cultural background, believe murder to be wrong; this is often used as evidence for ‘god-given’ morality, how could so many nations and cultures share the same moral notions without a divine cause?

As it turns out, quite easily. My dog is quite large and powerful, he would easily be capable of killing other, smaller dogs if he so wished, I have never trained him not to and he is not (as far as I know) religious, yet he is yet to so much as bare his teeth at another dog. Even dogs that are naturally aggressive will not kill other dogs without provocation and/or training, did god give them that morality? He must also then have given my cat the moral compass that allows him to catch a mouse and play with it until it eventually dies of fright, maybe god allows torture for fun but not murder.

Despite the bestial tangent, there are a number of holes in the argument for the kind of god-given absolute morality preached by so many modern Christians seeking to combat the inevitable social liberalism that comes with scientific advancement (independent documentary evidence backing up bigoted beliefs is hard to come by). Firstly, if this morality is truly absolute, unchanging with time or context and given by god, why are there so many biblical tales of apparently ‘righteous’ men doing terrible things that we would today find abhorrent? Lot seems to have been quite willing to offer up his two daughters for gang rape as long as his guests (who he did not at the time know to be angels) were spared the same ordeal. Despite Jesus’ calls later for us to honour our mother and father, it is not hard to see why a child of Lot could become a sexual deviant as shown by their later incest. Joshua commits a string of heinous war crimes that amount to genocide and the ethnic cleansing of an entire nation on the basis or religion and race, which were (at the time) interchangeable due to the prohibition of intermarriage. Many of the laws and punishments given in the early chapters of the bible would be considered horrendous by modern standards, yet they were apparently gifted by god to his ‘chosen people’. How fair, true or ‘moral’ could these laws have been if we are told by a controversial later Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth that the greatest commandment was the love of god and the so-called ‘golden rule’ or treating others as you would wish they treat you (I’m guessing god forgot to tell Joshua that last bit, or maybe he changed his mind later). Jesus also tells us that enforcers of the law must themselves be ‘without sin’, which seems to have gone unheeded throughout history; that charging interest on loans or money exchange is wrong, a belief understandable without a modern knowledge of economic inflation; forgiveness, asceticism and humility feature in all four of the Gospels although they seem to be much less popular with the organised church at large yet he seems to have been peculiarly quiet on homosexuality, despite the modern Christian obsession with the topic.

It seems to me, an outsider from Christianity (although formerly a church-going, confirmed Anglican, believer) that despite the name ‘Christian’, the belief system of most of the followers of Christ since the establishment of the orthodox early church in the 4th century C.E. have owed more to the teachings of St Paul and the Torah rather than the Gospels which seem instead to have been used both as proof of the miraculous power and the historical authenticity of a man for whom we have very little other evidence.

Despite the clear problems with a belief in an absolute morality prescribed by god, the arguments between absolute and relative morality are not confined to the religious sphere. Many atheists are not, as some would have you believe, true moral relativists. Many modern humanists do believe that there are absolute moral boundaries, they just tend to have differing opinions to religious groups as to where these boundaries are.

I do not think this is the end of the story however. I believe that these ‘absolutes’ are not truly absolute. They can and do move with time, they are in a constant state of flux, affected and moulded by us just as we are moulded by them. Until fairly recently in Europe and still in most of the rest of the world, homosexuality was and is socially unacceptable and/or illegal. What has changed our value system to permit this behaviour in modern Britain? With the gradual relaxation of religious orthodoxy in previous centuries the level of tolerance in the general population progressively increased and a sense of ‘live and let live’ came to pass. Eventually it became clear that allowing those previously known as sexual deviants to fully participate in society was of detriment to nobody and most of us now wonder what all the fuss was about. This has made Britain a better place to live, constant hatred and persecution on the basis that god may have said it to someone thousands of miles away and thousands of years ago cannot be of any benefit to anyone.

Our morality is exactly that, ours. Not ours to choose, not consciously anyway, its is ours because it is both unique to us and uniquely made by us. All our societal knowledge and experience, our successes and failures, our fears and hopes all pooled together and shared through the new media. Just as a person entering middle-age often mellows with their accretion of wisdom, so too should humanity as a whole. Despite the ‘mid life crisis’ being experienced by religious zealots worldwide, there can be no going-back on this. Pandora’s box is indeed open and no amount of pious screeching will make me disbelieve what I know to be right.

All morality is absolutely relative.

This is a follow-up to a previous piece – “The True Origins Of Morality” – http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-2N

Thanks for reading.

Rowan

Alain de Botton Is Just Wrong

Alain de Botton has had a lot of media coverage recently over his various atheistic ideas ranging from ‘Atheism 2.0’ to his ‘temples for atheists’. The underlying reasoning behind all his theories on how atheists should proceed with living a fulfilling life in the 21st century seem to be based on the presumption that we are missing something invaluable to human happiness and we should borrow aspects of ritualistic religious behaviour to fill this void. I would argue that he is fundamentally wrong on nearly all the ideas I have recently heard him espouse.

I cannot remember what order he puts his points across so I shall choose them in my own arbitrary manner, the first being one of architecture. Granted, some of the most wonderful buildings ever built were done so in the name of one religion or another but my disbelief in the factual existence of any of the divinities to which they are ascribed does nothing to diminish the feeling of awe that I (and I’m sure many other atheists) feel when entering these places of worship. From the Temple of Kukulkan of Chichen Itza in Mexico to the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The world is full of spectacular architectural marvels that could not have been built without the slavish religious devotion so often evident in early civilizations (along with the iron fist of authoritarian, autocratic state power) but there are also many magnificent buildings throughout the world that are and have always been secular. The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Big Ben & the Houses of Parliament are just some of the examples in my own city, London. The Great Wall of China, The Sydney Opera House, The Hermitage in St Petersburg, or the Colosseum of Rome are examples of worldwide secular architecture throughout history, showing that the lavish and the ornate need not only be reserved for religious buildings. Some of the most important buildings built in historical times were religious because religion was important to the people who built them but these techniques were also used for all important buildings of the time.

Modern religious buildings tend to be far smaller, simpler and less imposing than the grand cathedrals of the past whereas large-scale secular architecture grows ever more cutting-edge with swathes of sparkling glass and metal in unconventional shapes, forming the corner-stones of a modern city’s skyline. Tourists are quite literally falling over trying to capture the Gherkin from the right angle, Grandiose secular architecture is very much alive and well Mr de Botton.

Despite the exterior values of the modern shapes we see rising into the sky in cities around the world, many of them are not open to the public or have interior spaces that are restricted by floors and ceilings, not much of a replacement for temples you might say. What then, are Wembley, Lord’s, The O2 Arena and The Royal Albert Hall if not the secular temples where people with a common love for non-religious rituals congregate to celebrate, cheer and applaud that Mr de Botton suggests we need for fulfillment in our modern lives. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country alone gather every weekend to worship their local (or otherwise chosen) team and millions more watch on television as the drama is played out on the pitch and the emotion streams from the stands. Cinemas, theatres even backroom stages in pubs, all are filling the apparent emptiness spoken of by Alain de Botton. You do not have to be an atheist to visit (and enjoy) any of these places, just as you do not need to be a Christian to visit St Paul’s Cathedral and nor should you. The point of them is that they are for everyone. Not being a rugby fan may make me not want to go to Twickenham on a matchday but just like religious buildings it is my choice whether or not I take part in the ritualistic experience, nothing inherent in the building is stopping me.

Another of Alain de Botton’s religious aspects that he would like to see adopted from religion is a sense of community, a feeling of belonging to a group, of being part of a whole, believing you will be supported in your time of need. This point overlaps with my last paragraph about secular temples. Supporters of football (or other sports) often feel a very strong sense of community, coming together at the same time every week, wearing similar colours and having the same heroes and rivals, not unlike many religious congregations. Here the comparative analogy continues, as with all communities, the closer the bonds between its members, the higher the perceived differentiation between the community members and the rest of society, the more a sense of ‘otherness’ can develop. It is this sense of a community’s members being separate from those in other communities that can be damaging, with a sense of superiority leading to bigotry and discrimination. As we have so often seen in the sporting world, a strong bond between group members can often have devastating effects when groups come together in public. This is one of the things our modern society has tried so hard to eliminate from our lives, why would we welcome it back?

Until the modern period, a person’s community was generally defined by geographical location, although trains made mass travel to other parts of a country and even continents possible, the majority of the population spent almost all their lives in a relatively small area unless they migrated to a city where they joined another community of immigrants. A feeling of difference to other communities was not a problem because of the rarity of wholesale interpersonal exchanges between the communities, any negative effects were more than outweighed by the positive effects of solidarity. The effects of cheap travel, immigration and increasing religious, racial and sexual tolerance have meant many different cultures and belief systems living side by side. In the modern world, feelings of difference or exclusion from one’s neighbours can never be regarding as positive contributors to human happiness, well-being or fulfillment.

However, I think the fundamental mistake made by Alain de Botton is his thinking of atheism as a religion. Grouping all the people of the world who have no belief in any god, divinity or spirit together and then assuming that there is any sort of coherent ‘whole’ is oversimplifying human nature. One might as well presume that fascism and communism can be grouped together as they both opposed organised religion and the power it has over populations. Religious congregations stay together because they share much more in their belief system than the existence of god, that’s why there are so many denominations and why the Roman Catholic church cannot tolerate any dissent from papal authority. As an atheist, I don’t want to be considered to be necessarily belonging to any group, or for people to assume that because I don’t believe X, I must believe Y.

‘Religion for Atheists’ is pretty much the perfect definition of an oxymoron, I won’t be upgrading to ‘Atheism 2.0’ because I don’t belive there can be an accepted orthodox version of a system of non belief and I don’t need a temple, I’ll stick with the Kennington Oval.

Thanks for your input Alain but you can count me out of your cult.

Thanks for reading.

Rowan

Economic Sanctions Will Not (And Cannot) Work In Iran.

The aftermath of the “1st Gulf War” of the early 1990s was the first time I remember hearing the phrase “Economic Sanctions”, which were to be used against the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, with the intention of pressurising the then dictator, Saddam Hussein into cooperation with UN weapons inspectors. At that time I was in my early teens with a still highly idealised and polarised world view, the cold war with its threat of nuclear oblivion was still fresh in the collective memory and the modern financial superpowers of China, India and their smaller neighbours were still thought of as stagnant economic backwaters. The continued dominance of Western industrial imperialism seemed unstoppable, communism had fallen in almost all of Eastern Europe and the devastating military power of NATO had just been in evidence. It seemed to us that the only way to power and success was by working with the West, that fighting was futile and could only postpone the inevitable fall. The political opinion of the time (having just witnessed the events following the fall of the Berlin Wall) was that large-scale military conflict would be no longer necessary, that external political pressure and internal civil unrest would be the modern, safer (for the West) and cheaper (for the West) way to wage regime changing wars. It was on this background that economic sanctions were proposed and agreed against Iraq. Knowing that the Iraqi economy was (and still is) highly dependant on the export of crude oil to the Western powers who would be implementing the sanctions, the collective opinion in the UN was that Saddam Hussein would be forced to cooperate with the weapons inspectors or risk losing power completely in a violet coup d’état brought on by the impoverishment of the civilian population.

As we know, this is not how it happened.

While it is unquestionably true that economic sanctions on a country such as Iraq in the 1990s can and often do have the effect of reducing their power on the world stage by crushing the financial muscle available to them and driving their economic development backwards, the supposition that this is probable or even likely to lead to inevitable rebellion and regime change is at best questionable. Crippling the economy of a rebel state may make its leader unpopular with its population but the financial losses imposed upon Iraq led to a humanitarian crises with a disputed but huge number of children and vulnerable adults dying or being severely affected by malnutrition and a lack of both clean water and medical supplies (between 200,000 and 500,000 child deaths), the per capita yearly income in Iraq fell from over $3,500 to less than $450 in the years leading up to 1996. The outside world was not unaffected by the suffering caused by the sanctions and various UN resolutions were passed allowing Iraq to trade crude oil in return for humanitarian aid. However, while much aid was bought using this system, it all had to come through centralised government agencies, further strengthening the dictator’s control over his people and making civil unrest (let alone open rebellion) nearly impossible. Without Saddam Hussein’s blessing, the populace of many areas would have starved to death, they were simply not strong enough to even consider a popular uprising. The sanctions had not just failed in their attempts to get Iraq to tow the line and cooperate with the UN resolutions, they had caused millions of ordinary Iraqis pain, misery and suffering, while further reinforcing the vice like grip Saddam held over the country.

Now the new fear, as perceived by Western governments, is the proliferation of nuclear armaments spreading to Iran, a volatile theocracy openly opposed to “Western Imperialism” and the state of Israel (also a nuclear power). This opposition is not without cause, the Western backed Shah of Iran was openly put in place following the nationalisation of the country’s petroleum industry by a democratically elected government. The Shah went on to be increasingly autocratic and brutal becoming ever more unpopular until the islamic revolution of 1979. Western governments have almost all been unilaterally opposed to the government in Tehran since this time and mistrust of Western governmental policy has become embedded in the political structure of the country. Despite Iran’s protestations that their nuclear programme is wholly for civilian purposes, it is widely recognised throughout the international community that the level of uranium enrichment being pursued could easily result in the manufacture of weaponry; combined with the use of Iran’s domestically produced missiles, a large number of countries could theoretically become vulnerable to attack.

However, despite the continued hostility of the Iranian government towards the West, when asked (in confidence) many citizens will express a belief in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the US. The general population in large Iranian cities like Tehran live highly modernised lifestyles, compared to the states surrounding them (due mostly to revenues provided rom state oil exports) and have much more political and expressive freedom than most islamic states (partly due to the differences between Shiite & Sunni attitudes to discussion). Contrast this to Pakistan (a current nuclear power) where scenes of celebration following the September-11-2001 attacks were broadcast worldwide, large sections of the country are under tribal rule and corruption is rife throughout both the military and political establishments. It is however, a democracy which, although unstable, has a stated (though not always actioned) aim of aiding Western military forces in their pursuit of the Taliban and other religious fundamentalist and fanatical organisations hostile to Western involvement in Islamic politics.

We have recently seen various military maneuvers in and around the strait of Hormuz both by the Iranians demonstrating that they could close it and the Americans showing that they could keep it open. Given the stated Iranian military aim of deterrent rather than engagement and the American desire to sustain stability in the region I don’t believe that this posturing and flexing of muscles is likely to come to anything more than slightly heightened tensions between neighbours. The idea that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be used as any more than almost all have them have ever been used for (a deterrent) I find equally implausible. The Iranian government may be theocratic but they are not suicidal. Neither are they genocidal, whatever you might hear in loaded news reports. The only overtly aggressive statement to come out of Tehran in recent years was the highly dubious Farsi translation of a speech by President Ahmadinejad when he appeared to predict the elimination of the Israeli government, although he did not say how or when. Given that the president is not the “Supreme Ruler” and the verbally belligerent yet reluctantly pragmatic approach normally taken by such states in foreign affairs, a nuclear Iran could well be a stabilising influence on the region to counterbalance the military and diplomatic power of Israel.

It should also not be forgotten that nearly 60% of all Iran’s exports go to China, India, Japan and South Korea, not Europe and North America. With these figures set to rise as the Eastern economies grow more rapidly than their Western counterparts, stricter restriction on oil exports to the West will most likely result in strengthening bonds between Iran and the Far East, further loosening any controlling influence Western governments may feel they have in the region.

It is my belief that only by engaging with states like Iran on an equal diplomatic basis rather than treating them like errant teenagers needing to be ostracised from the community can stability, peace and equitable, sustainable development be achieved, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world. I do not mean in a Kissinger “Realpolitik”, condescending way just to deal with them because one has to. Treating another’s opinions or values as equal and as valid as yours is fundamental to a belief in democracy and free speech. Persuasion and debate through the use of evidence are the only tools needed here, not intimidation and coercion with threats of force. We should not be surprised if others are offended and defend themselves aggressively if they perceive us as aggressors trying to change them forcibly, if we listen we’ll probably see that most of us want the same things in life, just wrapped up a little differently.

Thanks for Reading

Rowan

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