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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Horrible things are happening in France.

It’s really not a useful function of this blog to tell you about that. Other, better people have already given you much more useful detail about what’s going on, and I’m no better at picking the accurate and useful details apart from the misinformation and speculation than you are. All I can be is one more futile voice in the crowd, agreeing that it’s horrible when horrible things happen, and we all feel bad.

My one-time secondary blog would be relevant here. If we want to change things, to effect a world less imbued with anger and violence, less susceptible to such an apparent onslaught of attacks and hatred, a good place to start is to examine attitudes to the Other. To try to understand how tribalistic tendencies nurture fear and contempt toward those who, for whatever reason, don’t feel like “one of us”.

And god knows there are plenty of opinions on display at the moment about the Other, and their role in this latest tragedy.

For some, the Other is the Infidel, who refuses to submit to the true way through an inherent grotesqueness that makes them less than human. They deserve nothing less than death, and to serve as a message to the rest of the world.

For many, the Other is the kind of inhuman monster who could commit violence like this against innocent people. Examination of the mindset that could lead to such acts is therefore of no interest. They’re awful, broken people, the ones who did this awful thing, and deserve no sympathy. And maybe this means that some other folk who share some characteristics with the awful, broken people – their religion, say – are necessarily awful and broken too. They might not want to think that. But it seeps through.

For a tragically visible number, the Other is a big collective mass of Everyone Who’s A Bit Different From Me And Is To Blame For This Somehow. Refugees, whose camps are reportedly being burned. Muslims, who are already defending themselves against exactly this type of entirely predictable slur. People with suspiciously dark skin. You know, that lot. You know who I mean. Obviously these groups of individuals are all loosely connected at best, but who cares about nuance and meaningful distinctions when we’re under attack by Them.

For me, primarily, the Other is people who, at times like these, talk about the need to close ranks and close borders, to crack down on all those foreigners coming over here bring all their terrorism with them, to solve intolerance with intolerance, to face hate with hate. The Other is loudly proclaiming how a mercilessly authoritarian approach is the only appropriate response to atrocities like this, and that there’s no time for bleeding-heart lefty ideas like “free speech” and “compassion” when we need to make sure our people are safe.

Humanity and love for the Other: it’s a tough job, but someone’s everyone’s got to do it.

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Reformists and revolutionaries never seem to get along.

One side points to the horrendous and damaging things done by the state, and cites this as a reason we should abandon it. The other side showcases the necessary parts of life currently accomplished by means of the state, and declares that, because these things are necessary, the infrastructure currently providing and maintaining them is equally indispensible.

Atheists and secularists, similarly, point out the atrocities committed in the name of religion, as well as the less obvious harm it does to people’s capacity for rational thinking. Apologists highlight the many people inspired to do good things by their faith, and claim that, at worst, religious faith is a useful tool that can be misused.

Too often, one side gets stuck trying to deny the other side’s arguments have any validity at all. Secularists act as if our entire case would fall apart if we admit to a single instance of a Christian doing something nice because Jesus. Some people in my political sphere of engagement seem to fear it’d be a major defeat if they ever had to acknowledge that some people get into politics because they care about the folk around them and want to help.

I think a crucial way to be better at having this discussion is to learn to be more selfish, unreasonable, and idealistic.

We’re always told that we can’t have it all, we have to take the good with the bad, that there’s always going to be a downside and shortcomings to any attempt we make to solve anything. Obvious question, but: why? Why can’t we have the good things without the bad things?

Why are anarchists wrong to think that we should have things like roads, healthcare, firefighters, and other federated national services, but not also have to put up with a government that spies on everyone’s private correspondence, locks up hundreds of thousands of its citizens for non-violent offences, and murders thousands of foreign people with no meaningful accountability?

Why should we have to tacitly endorse all the colossal evil done in the name of religious faith, when people do good things for each other all over the world every day inspired by nothing more than secular humanism?

Why shouldn’t we get to pick and choose the positive bits from existing systems, be they religions or governments or whatever, filter out the negative traits, and make up our own system to just give us the good stuff?

We might never be able to eliminate every undesirable aspect of whatever improved systems we put in place, but when the fallout includes things like 9/11 and the NSA, it seems unconscionably complacent to shrug that off as simply being shit that happens. Maybe when the side effects are quite that bad, we should take this as a sign that the system doesn’t need “fixing”; we deserve a less broken system altogether.

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(Cross-posted to Tumblr, in response to theunitofcaring.)

I don’t personally experience their level of discomfort around people who believe in the existence of Hell in the same sickening way, but I find this an entirely understandable reaction.

It seems too obvious to even mention, but that’s almost never universal, so it’s worth spelling out: Hell, as generally described or conceived as a place of everlasting suffering, is the most evil idea that is possible to exist.

There are various other interpretations of what Hell is – “an absence of God” or what-have-you – which may or may not be more theologically rigorous than the colloquial usage. But the lasting image in many people’s minds is pretty much congruent with all those Renaissance paintings of lakes of fire filled with sinners. If you go there, you will be tormented without end. And whatever disagreement there is on what it takes to get sent there, this happens to a non-zero number of eternal souls.

Seriously, if you can come up with something even hypothetically more evil than that, leave a comment or something, I’d be fascinated.

So while there’s something horrifying about wishing that somebody would suffer such a fate, there’s an extra layer of grotesquery in accepting that such a self-evidently evil thing could be allowed to exist by a god who claims to love us, and who somehow still deserves our love in return. That it’s a sad necessity, or part of some great divine plan we’re not privy to, and not proof that this god is an abominable tyrant who we must never stop railing against.

All that said… I think the saving grace here is that most people just haven’t thought it through.

I can’t know what’s going on in other people’s brains, but I strongly suspect that many of those who profess a belief in Hell haven’t consciously, deliberately, formed a mental model of all the implications of that belief and truly accepted them. Far more likely that many of them are replacing the question with a different one, and answering that instead.

Rather than “What is an appropriate and reasonable punishment for people who do wrong?” they’re responding to something about how important it is to them to defend the integrity of their tribe, and how strong is the hate they feel toward the out-group. The feeling of enmity toward the other is interpreted as a wish for some non-specific ills to fall on said other, but in practice, they’re probably not imagining anything more appalling or painful happening to them than, say, death. (This is the same misunderstanding of scale as is often seen in the dust-speck issue, where people read “3^^^3” and think “billions, probably”.)

So, yeah. If you believe in Hell, then potentially we could still be friends, although it’s not exactly a great start. If you believe in Hell and we’re already friends, well, just know that I disagree with you on this even more than I disagree with you on politics, and we both know how out-of-sync I am on that front.

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I am so done with being in the middle of moving house.

We’re probably like 90% of the way through the overall, incredibly tediously and drawn-out process, if you count from the very start of the “hey let’s sell our house, oh and hey that other house looks nice let’s go and live there instead” impulse. But we’re currently stuck in an awkward interim bit where we’re moved out and into the in-laws’ guest wing, most of our stuff is boxed up, and we’re still waiting for the last bits of interminable legal wankery to be settled before we get to actually be living in our own home with our own stuff again.

I’ve got a bunch of half-started blog posts which I’ll get back to once I have a computer in a place where I can actually sit and work on things regularly again. Right now it’s sitting in an otherwise almost empty room, everything else having been packed up. The clacking of my keyboard has started echoing weirdly in here. I guess the curtains used to muffle that? I dunno.

Anyway. Christian Voice recently reminded me why I still read their blog. In an article about a suggestion to abandon the obligation for Christian assemblies in state schools, something which seems utterly bizarre that it wasn’t done years ago, they provide several unremarkable paragraphs of fairly straightforward, unemotional reporting on the objective course of events, and then completely out of nowhere they hit you with a sentence like:

However, it isn’t at all clear what ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural’ values would qualify as ‘inclusive’ nor whom or what they could be founded on if not on the God who brought this nation victorious through two world wars.

Wonderful.

And then a week later, they actually end up being largely in the right (though perhaps by accident) on another recent matter – the right to turn down a commission without having to justify yourself seems a fairly clear one in this case – and come up with an interesting point I don’t recall seeing in any other analysis. Could the bakery have claimed they were afraid of breaching copyright?

Also the continued insistence with which some people put the quotes around gay “marriage” is just funny.

I’ll be better at this again soon. Until then I’m getting a new kitten tomorrow so I don’t give a fuck about any of you anyway. Seeya, losers!

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Apparently I’m doomed to keep harping on about this for as long as the wrongness-on-the-internet continues.

In one of my sporadic Twitter conversations about atheistic morality the other day, the person I’d randomly picked on to start needling for justification of their incorrect opinion managed to get quite incisively to the heart of the matter. While questioning the purpose of doing good, or indeed doing anything, in a godless universe, he referred to my implicit assumption that caring for other people is a good thing, and asked:

Who says?

Which I think is what it always comes down to, with these people who continue to insist that an “objective morality” is something only a deity can provide, and that atheistic ethics are necessarily haphazard and lacking any solid foundation.

Never mind all the actual facts about how people behave in reality, which in no way support the claim that atheists are any less inclined toward benevolent behaviour than the religious. Clearly abandoning one’s ideological axioms based on reality isn’t on the cards for this guy, or we wouldn’t even need this discussion.

Leave aside for now the complete irrelevance of that issue to the empirical question of whether a god exists. He’s not visibly trying to argue that a god does exist. He’s not even particularly trying to argue that atheists are bad people, I think; just that they could be, at any given moment, not like religious believers, who have a solid foundation for their morality, y’see. Just don’t ask what the hell that means and what practical effects it’s supposed to have.

The point is, he poses a good question. Who does say that caring for other people is good?

Who says it should matter to me whether other people are suffering?

Who says it ought to make the slightest difference to my life if some other sucker knows only pain and desperation on his short and brutal journey toward death?

Who says it’s a good thing in any measurable way to help those in need, to soothe pain and provide happiness, to do stuff that’s morally right, out of love and compassion for my fellow man?

If throwing acid in a child’s face would directly benefit Winston Smith in some way, who says it should matter to him whether that child is permanently disfigured?

We obviously need someone out there, someone in charge, to tell us why these things should matter. Otherwise it’s all just arbitrary. It can’t really mean anything if we just make our own decisions based on love and kindness.

Taking the religious line, it’s God who says. Compassion for others is good because he says so. You should care for people because God says you should. Leaving children’s faces unscarred is morally correct, because God has ordained that the suffering of children is a bad thing (*cough*Exodus 12:29-30*cough).

But I don’t take the religious line. I’m an atheist.

And I say you should care about other people.

I say it matters what difference we make, how kindly we behave toward others, how much suffering we alleviate.

I say that nobody else has to tell you that these things matter, you can just fucking decide it, if you’re not an uncaring and inhumane monster.

If you’re waiting for someone else to set some rules which dictate that torturing children is bad, you are doing morality wrong.

The next time someone claims that only God can give an “objective foundation to morality”, remind them about this archbishop, who, during questioning about the sexual abuse of a child, recently claimed uncertainty as to whether, at the time, he understood that sexual abuse of a child was morally wrong.

Remind them about that, then ask what the fuck use a god-based “objective foundation to morality” actually is to anyone in the real world.

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Fred Phelps, former patriarch of the organisation perhaps most globally renowned for sincerely and consistently committing to its core principle of hating literally everybody else on the planet, has died.

His church made a name for themselves by parading as close as they were legally permitted to the highest-profile funerals they were able to attend, waving placards of hate and bigotry at anyone who’d glance their way, revelling in the ire they elicited from anyone with an ounce of sense or compassion.

On the surface, homosexuality seems to be their main bugbear, but the entire human race is an object of such apparent fear and revulsion to these people that just about every sin, real or imagined, committed by anyone not a member of their immediate family, gets swept into the blanket condemnation of “fag” or “fag enabler”. You needn’t have committed any crime more grievous than failing to belong to their insular clan of a few dozen extremist zealots, and you’re rendered an unperson in their eyes, dismissed with the most disgusting monosyllable their stunted minds can conceive. They incite people to shout and yell right back at them, and count every verbal tussle as a victory. They continue to be the gold standard of meatspace trolls.

They are all terrible people, and by all visible measures, Grampa Fred was the most cruel and hateful of the lot. He played a key role in keeping the church’s venomous momentum going, and in exacerbating the suffering of numerous grieving families at their most vulnerable moments. I suspect many will struggle to see much sadness in his passing.

Apparently there won’t be a funeral for anyone to vengeance-picket, but there was a counter-demonstration at the WBC’s latest protest. Here’s the sign they held up:

Yes.

That is unquestionably how you’re meant to do it. That is what we do when someone loses a family member. That is the sentiment we extend to the recently bereaved. We don’t withhold basic compassion, or lace it with sarcasm or passive-aggression or revenge-gloating, simply because it’s happening to the wrong sort of people.

So that’s one reaction that I found worth noticing. The other, also pointed out by the Friendly Atheist, is from Nate Phelps.

While some of Fred’s thirteen children have continued to be involved in the church, Nate was one of those who got the hell out of Dodge as soon as was feasible. He’s committed himself for years to campaigning against everything his family’s church stands for. Hemant highlights this line from Nate’s comments on the death of his father:

I will mourn his passing, not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been.

Nate’s pretty cool. As much as it might bring a sense of relief or even joy to many, it’s worth trying to remember that even the death of someone like Fred Phelps is a sad thing. It’s sad that his life was so dominated by bitterness and hatred, continuing along an inevitably miserable path to its equally bitter and hateful conclusion. It’s sad that his twisted infatuation with spite and malice never gave him a chance for him to claw back anything worthwhile from life, and now he never will.

The key thing, as well, is not to begrudge anyone who doesn’t feel inclined to be quite so magnanimous. I mean, the WBC are awful, and if I was ever going to be able to sympathise with the idea of seeking catharsis by performing the Macarena on someone’s burial plot, Fred Phelps is your prime candidate. For many people still taking the kind of abuse he was notorious for every day of their lives, it may all be too sore. You can understand why some folk feel entitled to their morbid jig.

But I’m a comfortably middle-class straight white guy, a position which sometimes comes with certain expectations. I have nothing invested in this, nothing that needs venting. The Westboro Baptist Church has never caused me any level of distress which I couldn’t nullify by changing the channel away from the Louis Theroux documentary I was watching. So I don’t need to find relief in celebrating Fred Phelps’s death. I have no excuse not to be the most betterest person I can be.

So. Compassion for the Phelps clan, and how they must be suffering to seek such solace in lashing out so violently. Compassion, too, for those bearing way worse emotional scars than me, at the church’s hand, and for whom it’s too much to expect them to dig deep into their hearts and find anything but resentment and frustration.

Love all the humans. Turns out the answer never really changes.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Shit, has it really been over a month since anything happened here?

2. Where the hell have I been?

3. How do I ever expect to get anything done if this is my general rate of productivity?

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I don’t like to say “atheist” because I feel like atheists have that same chip on their shoulder that people who feel like their religion is the only right thing have. It’s to know something, to think you know something definitively that, I feel, we as mere mortal humans can’t possibly know. I think it’s just as obnoxious.

Sarah Silverman is right. Atheists are totally obnoxious.

You know who’s especially bad though? Anyone who refuses point-blank to even consider sacrificing their only child on the altar of an unknowable deity. I mean, it’s probably not something I’d do myself – in fact, murdering children because of religious beliefs is something of a bugbear of mine – but the people who claim to know with absolute certainty that it’s wrong? They can be equally annoying.

Also, does anyone else get a little freaked out when chemists keep talking about carbon and calcium and aluminium and so forth, and just presume that those are all actual things? They seem pretty damn sure about that big table with all those elements on it, don’t they? I’m not saying that whole “air, earth, fire, water” thing didn’t have its problems, or couldn’t use some updating, but the extent to which some modern extremists so totally dismiss it in favour of their new paradigm doesn’t sit right with me.

And hey, here’s another bunch who wind me up: heliocentrists. Not all of them, by any means, just the hardcore contingent who put me off wanting to identify with the term myself. Sure, I go along with the claim that the Sun’s at the centre of the solar system with the Earth revolving around it, but is it so hard to even admit that it might be the other way around? That maybe this infinite and incomprehensible universe is stranger than we mere mortal humans can comprehend? The arrogance with which some people just tell flat-earthers that they’re “flat-out” wrong really grates on my nerves.

As if that kind of certainty were really possible within the limits of our human perception. It just comes across as narrow-minded.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Can you think of any other completely one-sided debates where it might be fun to occupy a smug middle ground?

2. How reasonable might it actually be that some people have come to this sort of conclusion about atheists?

3. Is this webcomic ever going to stop being relevant?

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