On Tolerance

I like to describe myself as a tolerant person. Not tolerant in terms of being patient with incompetence or having a high pain threshold, I tolerate difference. I have no problem with people thinking differently, looking differently or acting differently to the way I would (or at least the way I’d like to think I would). I think that tolerance of the differences between people is a fundamental part of any modern, humane society. I think many of the world’s problems could be solved if the starting point was tolerance and the next step was discussion. I’d like others to be tolerant of me in the same way that I am tolerant of them. Many are not.

“Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves” – Bertrand Russell

It is not just religion that breeds intolerance and bigotry (although that is the largest driving force behind it in the modern world), uninformed ideology can also contribute, although many of the features of religion are present in fascism and communism and some would describe them as secular religions. There is an underlying force behind all of this, when people become divided on any grounds and the two sides become somehow ‘other’, it becomes all to easy for those in authority driving the divide to dehumanize the two sides, separating them still further. Humans are tribal by nature and putting people into boxes which suffice to summarise their entire character without any direct contact happens without any conscious effort. There are clear evolutionary benefits from this tribalism, being more wary of people who have less genetically in common with you is an obvious way of keeping you (and your close family) safe. People from other tribes who are not related to you will ‘look after their own’ first and if this means an action that is detrimental to your safety, so be it. Altruism towards people who you have less genetically in common with at the expense of those with whom you share more genetic material doesn’t work in evolutionary terms. It seems perfectly natural that when people are separated into groups, the feelings or needs of the group to which you belong become more important than those of another.

The easiest and I think most obvious way of combating the inherent tribalism within all of us is to cut it off at its source. The only reason people are ever seen as different or ‘other’ is because they are (but only in a geographic or social sense). Separating people of difference without encouraging a full and all-encompassing mixing (to avoid dilution and assimilation) is the theory behind multiculturalism, it doesn’t work and only serves to strengthen the feelings of difference. It has been tried in almost all major cities in Western Europe and many others around the world. When people are allowed to mix naturally without the fear of their own culture being in any way harmed or lessened by pressure from outside, the ignorance that exists between separate groups evaporates and the clear common ground that exists between all people regardless of race, culture or religion becomes apparent.

What exactly do we mean by tolerance? To some it may mean voting for a candidate who believes that homosexuality should not be illegal, to others it means smiling through gritted teeth while your son brings home his first boyfriend, while to others it means being the proud parent at your son’s gay wedding. Personally, to me tolerance means treating people in an equal way whatever difference they may have from you (or each other) to the point of ignoring the difference, not even noticing it. A person’s choice (or inherited genetic tendency) of lifestyle, should not be judged by the way it affects them but by the way it directly affects those around them, not in a ‘I don’t approve’ way but in a ‘their children aren’t safe’ or a ‘driving like that is dangerous’ way. Not doing what you would do in a given situation is not grounds for persecution, doing something that has negative affects on other people is. Maybe ‘acceptance’ is a better word to use but tolerance is the word in common usage on the subject so I’ll continue with that.

What are the limits of tolerance? Should I tolerate unlawful behaviour? Unethical practise? Cruelty?

No, these are not things I think anyone should tolerate. They all have a clear victim, all freedoms of action have a boundary around which stand the other members of society who could be affected by those actions. Granted there are many examples of ‘victimless crimes’ such as drug use but I don’t really want to get into the whole ‘legalise drugs’ issue. Suffice to say that in this piece I mean crimes that have a clear victim (I would include children of substance abusers in this category). Poor ethics are not constricted to the corporate world, we all know examples of religious leaders driving expensive cars and wearing designer suits, while the charities and causes they claim to support struggle with lack of funds (or no funding at all if they dare to break one of the requirements set down by the church). There are many examples of cruelty that are only permissible in law due to dietary restrictions, or bodily requirements placed on the religious. These actions are still cruel, whoever or whatever orders you to do them. Tolerance does not extend to allowing actions against an unwilling victim (I include all children in this) or to slaughter any animal in a way that causes any more than the bare minimum of suffering and for any reason other than necessary pest removal or food.

These are so far examples of toleration with regards to behaviour, what about tolerating intolerant thoughts and views?

Many people may disagree with me on this but I cannot allow the suppression of intolerant views to be more important than the freedom to express them. I do not believe that they are (or can ever be) correct or valid but for tolerance to be truly tolerant it must cover all members of society not just those who I agree with. It is only through frank and open discussion that the enemies of tolerance and freedom can be engaged, silencing one’s critics without exposition is a surefire way to encourage them, ensuring their continuance. Deconstructing and refuting their arguments in front of those they are attempting to convert in the most public forum possible is the only way to show people the falsity of their claims. The irony of the religious fanatic standing on a street corner screaming about the evils of free speech is not lost on me but it almost certainly is on him or her. However, tolerance of this sort is not really comparable to the tolerance spoken of above, if a person has views you do not agree with it is not only your right but also your duty (time and place allowing) to challenge them, point out any errors, inconsistencies and errors before expressing your own opinions and backing them up with the reasons you hold them and any evidence to support your claim. Just shouting ‘Shut Up You Nutter!’ before walking off without giving them the option of reply won’t convince anyone of anything other than your own intolerance and inability to accept criticism.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire

We all live here, in this now global society, it is no longer enough to peer through the once murky camera lens of a far away country, wondering how people could treat each other like that. Metaphorically walking by when one witnesses harassment, bullying or victimisation of any member of society be they part of a vulnerable minority or just unlucky enough to be surrounded by ignorant idiots is not an option anymore. It is only by standing up and confronting the peddlers of hate head on that we can start to build a world we would be proud for our children and grandchildren to live in.

We are not just members of society, we are society.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Advertisements

Why An Atheist Speaks About Religion Every Day

In my personal experience, when questioned about their religious beliefs, most people seem to find it difficult to reconcile their underlying mistrust of global religious institutions with an inability to wholly reject the notion of an omnipotent god (clearly this is only people I converse with in ‘the real world’, most people I only know through their online personas have much more polarised opinions on the matter). This is not normally a result of independent inquiry, concluding with a summation of available evidence but a relic from the mild Christian schooling most of us were subject to through our childhood (or not so mild in some cases).

I personally went to Church of England schools and although I was taught the literal truth of many bible stories, I’m not sure if any of my classmates every went on to believe those literal truths into adulthood. Certainly many of us realised the hypocrisy of religious classes teaching us the insignificance of material wealth while all other teachers pushed us to succeed in their subjects to facilitate the accumulation of that wealth. This left very few in the school who could be classed as truly ‘devout’, of which I was one (however surprising you may find that). However, when my religiosity in my teenage years led me to read the bible along with much of the apocrypha, I was interested to find out why the apocrypha had been proscribed and how many of the beliefs of the modern Christian churches have been established from the diverse and often heretical beliefs and practises of early Christians. I felt it my duty as a Christian to attempt to discover as much as I could about the original meaning behind the scriptures and decided to read as much as I could about all ancient and classical near-eastern belief systems. Nobody with a logical or scientific way of thinking like me could do this without losing all belief in the literal validity and veracity of any and all religious books.

Most people seem to have been whitewashed with a kind of ‘soft’ Christianity, which leaves the way open for tolerance of others’ sin, providing those are only the personal sins that do not directly interfere with the lives of others. I use the words ‘soft’ and ‘pious’ in this context so as not to be confused with moderate or fanatical, a person can be moderate and pious or pious and fanatical but not moderate and fanatical. It is really to describe the depth of the subjects religious belief rather than the strength of their opposition to those who have differing beliefs to their own. Despite the underlying racial or sexuality based bigotry inherent in almost all cultures and the subsequent loose definitions of ‘good’ or ‘just’, most people try to adhere to the pre-Christian teachings from the philosophers of the classical world:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” – Marcus Aurelius

While there is nothing wrong at all with the views expressed in the quote, indeed I believe the world would be a much better place for all of us if a lot more people thought along those lines than the ones they do, this is not a Christian worldview. The idea that one should live what the Stoics (and Aristotle before them) referred to as ‘the good life’ has been around long before it was ever written down, living in a way that benefits those you live with and around and deriving pleasure from this existence without the necessity of any higher power or authority to dictate the minutiae of everyday lives is the philosophy of the first humans to live in groups larger than immediate families. It is not compatible with any of the 3 major monotheistic/Abrahamic religions that dominate the vast majority of the world’s landmass. Understanding the truth of the quote yet referring to yourself as a Christian, Muslim or Jew is the sort of religious belief born of ignorance and apathy, a way of thinking cobbled together piecemeal over a person’s lifetime without recourse to logical analysis or critical thought.

What is not always apparent however, is the far darker side to this form of religiosity, while the individual believer may have ‘soft’ beliefs, those that harbour much stronger feelings toward their religious doctrine are to be praised for their piety. It allows for a reverence towards religious buildings, leaders and institutions far beyond that of anything secular. It allows for special status and exemptions, breeds a culture of divergence and holds up the pious and devout as examples, role models for children or paradigms of virtue to be imitated by the masses. Those holding ‘soft’ religious views think they know what is taught in the books they have little knowledge of, do not feel strong enough to follow those teachings to the letter, yet they feel an admiration for the celibate priest or the veiled woman who claims to be following the right path. It is the ignorance of so many ‘soft’ believers that offers protection to all religions, the belief that religious faith and piety is somehow special among human character traits and cannot be criticised, even when it interferes with other social norms we have established. Genital mutilation of children and the inhumane and painful killing of conscious animals is not only condoned but also a necessary part of being a member, domestic abuse and rape are routinely unreported or blamed on the victims and the image of the institution is far more important than the risk posed by known sexual predators to vulnerable children.

It is not just the perpetrators of these actions who are to blame for their continuance, it is the willful religious ignorance of the vast majority of citizens throughout the Western world that allows these despicable practises to go unchecked. This is why I believe that religious education is very important and should be taught in all schools, not just the bits that help indoctrinate children into a particular religion but all the nasty and disgusting bits of all religions. More importantly still is the context of those who originally wrote the texts and the content of the texts that didn’t make it to the final draft. Only by undermining the ‘god-given’ authority of a religious text can its content and meanings ever be tested in a productive way.

This is not about race, culture or ethnicity, all the far-right parties in Europe profess a strong Christian belief. I couldn’t care less about your genetics or if you prefer to eat with sticks rather than cutlery. Believing that your god gives you the right to commit acts of cruelty counts for nothing with me, cruelty is cruelty no matter who commits it or by what orders. ‘Just following orders’ was not a valid defence when used by Nazi concentration camp guards and whether your commanding officer is yahweh, allah, god, Hitler or Stalin means no difference to me. Allowing people who profess to be good to act in evil ways is no better than collusion.

“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”
“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” – Voltaire

These are the reasons that I, as an atheist bang on about religion every day even to people who don’t want to hear it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

The Plight of the British High Street

A walk through my local High Street tells an all too familiar tale. Nationwide there are hoards of empty units, boarded up shops and ‘To Let’ signs throughout areas that not too long ago were bustling retail parades, bursting with shoppers all too willing to part with their hard-earned cash in exchange for items they didn’t need and a feeling of satisfaction with having ‘made something’ of their lives. This has now gone. High Streets are now the domain of businesses with nowhere else to go. Post-Offices, Banks, Estate Agents, Chemists and Newsagents are still there but there are some new kids on the block. Poundshops, Gold Exchangers, Second-Hand buyers and sellers are nestled in between the ever-expanding franchised fast-food outlets and the odd independently owned, overpriced boutique, selling worthless tat to people with more money than sense (or taste).

It’s very easy to put this down to the current financial hardship being felt by almost everyone not a professional footballer or hedge-fund manager but I think this is a much deeper shift in attitudes toward shopping and town centres. It is true that the global economic downturn has put extra pressure on small High Street shops but the emigration of major retailers to ‘out-of-town’ aircraft hangers in retail parks on motorway junctions is not new, I remember them starting in the eighties. Equally, the influx of service providers and discount stores to fill the void left by the large retailer’s exit is a change that has been progressing slowly for decades, the recent recessions have merely accelerated the process.

Blame for the decline in High Street popularity is also put on local governmental decisions to allow these lager superstores to operate far enough outside town centres to benefit from cheaper land and rates while still being near enough to them to be in active competition. This could be a valid criticism given that it is local authorities who set both the business rates paid by the units in the town centres and the parking rates for their customers but while I accept that much local governmental policy is misguided, I cannot understand why any council would be driving business out of the town centres while facing cuts to their own budgets. Also, dropping rates to keep some shops in business would amount to a subsidy, propping-up an otherwise unprofitable enterprise, something I do not believe any local authority should be doing with private sector businesses.

Another factor needing to be taken in to account when assessing the situations discussed above is the rise of online shopping. Online retailers have seen well above inflation growth year on year regardless of recession. People are becoming ever more comfortable buying things online and retailers ever more sophisticated in their marketing and delivery strategies. Gone are the days of worrying about being stuck with an item you don’t want because the picture online made the product look nothing like the reality and not being able to return it. Delivery times can often be set at the time of order to fit in with one’s lifestyle and the rise in online competition has forced most retailers into abiding by an easy returns policy. Christmas shopping in December used to be an absolute nightmare but I wouldn’t know now as I haven’t done any gift shopping in actual shops for years.

Changes in the local business landscape should not be seen as all negative, the decline in daytime activity in town centres has been counteracted by a rise in nightlife as pubs, bars and restaurants flourish, offering people a temporary escape from the depressing news headlines and the even more melancholic soap-operas or reality TV epidemics currently offered up as weekend night-time entertainment. It’s not just in the darkness that these changes in activity are evident, the empty units are nearly always near offices, colleges and schools, making them attractive to the glut of deep-fried poultry providers with near identical names (normally based on an American State), offering their fare to any who are unaware or uncaring of the resulting arterial damage its consumption entails.

At root, all these changes are not the result of policy change or government ideology, they are the result of a basic economic model. Give people choices and they will make them, if you are able, as a retailer to offer a more popular option than your competitors you will be more successful. High Street shops are there not as an aesthetic distraction as you drive through on your way to the cheaper and more convenient superstore down the road, they are there as businesses to make money. One cannot have the convenience of local shops while being disinclined to use the regularly, if you think that the superstore is causing the decline in your local high street, you are wrong. It is you, the users of your local shops who have the collective power over their success or failure. As the saying goes: if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.

Even more so than with politicians, we don’t just get the High Streets we deserve, we actually get the High Streets we want, even if we don’t know it yet.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

P.S. – Wow, when I had the original thought for this post it was supposed to show my positive feelings towards the changes in our town centres and how I wholly embraced them but having read it back it’s incredibly negative. I don’t actually feel the way I come across, I quite like the idea of service based High Streets and shops being conveniently out-of-town but I suppose I’m too grumpy to get my positivity communicated in a comprehensible way without appearing sarcastic!

Why You Can’t Argue With God – Part 2

Once again I have been doing what I said I wouldn’t, arguing with those who cannot be argued with. I really should stop commenting on posts by people who have no interest in listening to my point of view. It’s normally quite clear from the post how strongly their opinions are held and how loosely they are based in factual knowledge, I don’t know what it is but once I click the ‘atheism’ tag and scroll through looking at some of the utter rot that is being spouted, despite the underlying knowledge that my attempts at education will be futile, I simply cannot help myself.

Having said that, if you’re able to not comment, there are a lot of posts out there with a high comedic value. One of the best logical arguments I heard recently was this (paraphrased) :

  1. All universal physical laws must be the equally applicable, regardless of space and time.
  2. Humans have not visited and checked these laws everywhere in space and time, therefore:
  3. All universal physical laws do not exist.

I really didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I understand the philosophical argument about whether or not a falling tree makes a sound if nobody hears it but this is based on the definition of sound. If one defines sound as the electrical signals from the ear causing a sensory perception of sound, clearly there must be a hearer for a sound to exist. If one defines sound as a wave of varying atmospheric (or another medium) pressure, all actions produce a sound regardless of who or what is present to experience the sensation. Going back to the reasoning above, one can assume from this reasoning that gravity did not exist before Newton and is different on Mars. Does water flow uphill on the moon? Would it also be reasonable to suggest that all medical knowledge of internal anatomy is rendered obsolete due to our being unable to check before surgery? It goes against the inductive reasoning on which so much of modern science (since the renaissance) is based. Inductive reasoning is not perfect, far from it, the classic ‘white swan’ example emphasises that point but without it we have to act as though we are entirely without knowledge. The argument above would suggest that anything that is yet to be disproved must be incorrect, by this reasoning we can assume that all religious belief is wrong (at least we agree on something) and also that atheism is wrong and that all future religious theories will also be wrong. This is quite a bleak post from a Christian!

Another post I commented on recently contained a curious form of circular reasoning to justify my atheism in his eyes. His piece ended by telling his readers that god was available to anyone who would ‘let him in’ but would not enter uninvited, thus would not be available to the unbeliever. When I pressed him on the difficulty of believing in a god who refuses to show itself to anyone who does not already believe, he told me that my actions and thoughts would determine whether or not god would choose to ‘show himself’ to me. This of course raises the question of all those who have either so little knowledge of the Christian god as to be unable to ‘let him in’ or who have been taught about Christianity in a way that did not indoctrinate them into blind faith, leaving the possibility of god’s non-existence open. How could a person who was ignorant of god or another who was sceptical of his existence ‘let him in’? In short, one cannot believe in god unless one already believes in god.

There have been a number of others:

  1. Finches turning into finches doesn’t prove that apes turned into humans. No it doesn’t but it does show that time, separation and differing selection pressures cause species to change, if you allow this, why not speciation given tens of millions of years? Surely the argument is not different in scope but merely magnitude?
  2. The lack of a known census during the time of Herod in Judea is merely a problem with archaeology not with the accuracy of scripture. So one book written decades after the event is true and all other contemporary sources missed something as important as a census requiring some citizens to travel hundreds of miles to their birthplace? Very credible.
  3. You can’t judge the actions of god or anyone doing his bidding in the Old Testament because you only have a human mind and cannot begin to understand the bigger picture, also you are only using your own sense of morality which cannot be used to judge a being as great and good as god. The ‘bigger picture’? Are you having a laugh? Every single part of the bible takes place within several hundred miles of Jerusalem and is almost entirely centred on an insignificant semi-nomadic tribe who decided to segregate themselves from their neighbours by mutilating their young boys and refusing to eat certain food types. There is no ‘bigger picture’, the bible is about a very small picture in global terms, let alone the galactic scale. I don’t have to use my own sense of morality to judge the actions of god because that would be unfair to god, I can use his as laid down in his book. By his own standards, the ones he expects us to live by, god is a nasty, vindictive, spiteful character who jealously demands total reverence without giving anything in return. A god who sees fit to let his ‘chosen people’ become invaded, conquered and enslaved or murdered on more than one occasion. All things that he explicitly tells people not to do.

Essentially commenting on some posts is not only pointless, its counter-productive because you will be outnumbered by other commentors and it is impossible to properly answer questions put to you in such a small space. There is no hope for persuading them round to your point of view anyway, if they made their judgements based on evidence and reason you wouldn’t have to argue with them about the existence of god.

I have determined a few rules for my comments in the future. Never comment on any posts where the writer speaks about or clearly believes strongly in any of the following:

  • Creationism, both Young and Old Earth
  • Intelligent Design (ID)
  • Original Sin
  • Human Souls
  • Heaven & Hell
  • Any form of Contraception being comparable to Murder

Also, avoid commenting on any posts attempting to refute the validity of or denying the existence of these:

  • The Big-Bang Theory
  • Darwinian Evolution by Natural Selection
  • Climate Change
  • Inalienable Human Rights Regardless of Sexuality or Gender

If you can give me any tips in my quest to reduce my (self-inflicted) frustration by telling me of any other topics I should avoid I’d be glad of the advice.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

%d bloggers like this: