Tag Archives: faith

Not Telling Anjem Choudary to Shut Up.

18 Jan

It was recently reported that Anjem Choudary had claimed that Muslims don’t believe in freedom of expression.

My immediate response was to suggest that if Mr Choudary doesn’t believe in freedom of expression, then he should shut up.

I’d like to expand on that a little.

Essentially the argument would run as follows.

Mr Choudary is reported to have claimed that Muslim’s don’t believe in freedom of expression.

If this statement appears to be excessively cautious it is worth bearing in mind two things;

1/ Anjem Choudary is a controversial figure and there is a certain class of journalist who would not be above misrepresenting, or even inventing comments that are attributed to him.

2/ It is stock in trade for controversial figures to make controversial statements and then, when challenged about them, to deny ever having made them. Or claim that those comments were taken out of context and that they somehow didn’t mean what they appear to mean when taken in context.

Mr Choudary would doubtless identify himself as a Muslim.

Others may claim that Mr Choudary isn’t a real Muslim and doubtless there are many Muslin’s who disagree with him on various points. This is not relevant to my argument, however, because what is important for my purposes is that Anjem Choudary would claim to be a Muslim and, as a consequence, the claims he makes about Muslims apply to him.

Therefore, and assuming the above to be correct, Mr Choudary does not believe in freedom of expression.

It is inconsistent (if nothing worse) to exercise a right that one does not believe in.

Mr Choudary, assuming the above to be correct does not believe in freedom of expression.

Therefore it would be inconsistent (if nothing worse) for Mr Choudary to exercise the right to freedom of expression.

(Outside of logic, consistency is not always a virtue, but inconsistencies between stated principles and actual behaviour are seldom commendable).

This brings me back to my immediate response to Mr Choudary’s reported statement, that if he doesn’t believe in freedom of expression, then he should shut up.

Except, of course, that I am not really telling Anjem Choudary (or anyone else) to shut up.

In the first place, my statement was conditional. That is it all hangs on the word ‘if’. It is only if Anjem Choudary doesn’t believe in freedom of expression that he should shut up. If he believes in freedom of expression, then of course he has every right to exercise that freedom, even if he uses if to talk complete and utter crap.

In the second place, I do believe in freedom of expression, therefore, and as a matter of principle, I’m not generally in favour of telling anyone to shut up.

Nor am I greatly in favour of condoning violence as a response to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, as Pope Francis seems to be.

I do not believe anyone should expect a punch, as the Pontiff apparently does, as a response to anything the say, or write, or draw. And here, the law seems to be in agreement. If I were to act on the Pope’s apparent position and punch someone because they said something offensive about my mother, then I would expect to be charged with assault.

I would also venture to suggest that if I were to punch a hypothetical creationist in response to some comment about the theory of evolution by natural selection that I happened to find exasperating, then I suspect that both Pope Francis and Anjem Choudary, amongst many others, would be incensed by my violent suppression of this hypothetical creationist’s expression of their religious faith.

And this, I think goes to the heart of the whole thing.

No one would try to suggest that I would be justified in punching anyone because they made a disparaging comment about my favourite TV programme. Nor would I expect much sympathy from the Pontiff, or anyone else, if I assaulted someone over a dispute about politics, philosophy or the price of cheese. And I doubt if even Anjem Choudary would object to the freedom to express an opinion about any subject other than religion.

It is only in matters of religion that these men of faith find that freedom of expression is problematic.

(Pope Francis was also reported to have suggested that anyone making an insulting comment about his mother should expect a punch. I would respectfully suggest that this is nothing other than a red herring, however. The Pope may well be deeply protective of his mother’s reputation, but I doubt if he would really punch someone for making a derogatory remark about her. It’s clearly freedom of expression when it comes to religion that he’s talking about).

Of course all this comes in the context of the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo and what it all boils down to is men of faith claiming special privileges for faith. And incidentally indulging in a spot of victim blaming.

Their position can be boiled down to the following.

Faith is really terribly, terribly important.

Faith deserves a specially privileged position in the world.

Faith is so important, in fact, that if anyone questions, challenges or makes fun of faith then a violent response is not only justified, but even commendable.

The satirists at Charlie Hebdo regularly made fun of religion.

This was an attack on faith.

This is not acceptable.

Therefore it was perfectly all right to shoot them.

Of course, Pope Francis would reject any statement quite this stark, but he was, in effect, saying that the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack were asking for trouble and that, to some degree, they deserved what happened to them.

One wonders how he feels about Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for ‘insulting Islam’. Perhaps he would feel that this sentence is excessive, but it is implicit in his position on insulting faith that some degree of violence would be justified. Perhaps a punch, rather than 1,000 lashes, but the difference is one of degree, not of principle.

As for Anjem Choudary?

Well, I don’t know, and don’t care enough to find out, whether or not he has actually condoned the murder of satirists. I respect his right to say what he wants on this or any other subject, even if he does not respect mine, but I also claim the right not to pay any attention to it.

And maybe that’s the point.

I won’t punch anyone for insulting my mother, I’ll probably just ignore them. I won’t punch someone for mocking or disagreeing with my beliefs. I might argue with them, but I won’t resort to violence. I believe in freedom of expression and the price I have to pay for that belief is that I have to put up with people saying things that I disagree with or that I find offensive.

I don’t think that price is too high to pay, but it would seem that some, notably men of faith who would doubtless claim moral and spiritual superiority over an atheist like myself, either can’t, or won’t, pay that price.


Talking About God (Or Not) Part 3

6 Feb

“Religion is unique in its power to make good people do bad things.”

This is, in my opinion, one of the sillier things said by more or less intelligent people on the subject of religion.

The reason I think it’s a silly thing to say (in spite of the many hideous things that have been done, apparently, in the name of religion) is because it seems to me that this apparently uncomplicated sentence takes a number of complex ideas and treats them as though they were very simple.

To begin with, what exactly do we mean by ‘good people’.

Most of us have met people that we think of as being ‘good’ and in general we tend to think that we would know a good person from a bad person when we meet one (or at least that we could make some kind of assessment once we’d been able to get to know them), but how would you define a ‘good person’?

Is a good person someone who is entirely free from any bad qualities? (Hopefully not, because then we’re going to be a bit short on people that we can call good).

It seems more plausible, then, to say that a good person is someone who, in spite of a few flaws and failings, is generally speaking more good than bad.

That being the case, even a good person will have some qualities or attributes that are not good, so it shouldn’t require too much explanation if, every now and then, they do something bad.

It’s also true to say that opinions differ as to who’s good and who’s bad. After all there are some people who see Osama Bin Laden as a virtuous and heroic figure. (Not a view I share, but it has to be noted that it is certainly a view held by some people).

When we’re talking about ‘bad things’, as in things that people do that are bad, there will be similar problems. Opinions differ as to which things are good or bad depending on your perspective, and opinions also change over time.

So we can say with certainty that William the Conqueror invaded England in the year currently designated as 1066 CE.

That is a matter of fact, and it always will be.

What’s more problematic is whether or not William himself was a good man and whether or not his invasion and subsequent reorganisation of England was a good or bad thing.

And as if that wasn’t enough, we then come to the idea that religion ‘makes’ people do things.

We can be absolutely certain that some people will claim that they are motivated by their religious faith. And to some extent, I suppose, faith must play some part in the motivation behind someone’s actions if religion is at all important to them. But the extent and nature of the role played by faith as a motivating factor can be hard to assess.

For example, Hernan Cortez was certainly a Roman Catholic in the sense that he was raised in that particular faith. My understanding is that he did have some genuine religious faith. I don’t think he was a complete hypocrite when it came to religion, so you could argue that religion played some part in his motivation when he invaded Mexico. (As I recall the Pope at the time was quite pleased with his efforts in delivering so many new souls to the faith).

On the other hand, we also know that ambition and greed also played their part in Cortez’ thinking.

(As did a fair amount of fear, I suspect. He was disobeying orders in launching his expedition and he was not well liked by all of his superiors so he could have expected pretty short shrift if he had returned with anything less than a dazzling success. His force was also vastly outnumbered and he could expect no mercy from the Aztecs, or even some of his allies if he’d been defeated).

Cortez may seem like a bad example, in a way, because religion never seemed to be his major motivation, but you could look at the leadership of the First Crusade and see a similar messy tangle of motives.

For example, there seems to be little doubt that Raymond of Toulouse was motivated very largely by his faith. He was a wealthy and important man in France and he sold up all his interests in order to go crusading with the clearly stated intention of never coming back to France.

Having said that, he also had more secular interests as well. (Other leaders of the Crusade, notably Bohemond, were clearly much more venal in their outlook, but even Bohemond probably wouldn’t have set off for Jerusalem without Urban II’s call for Holy War).

So to put it briefly, all sorts of people do things for all sorts of reasons and to say that religion ‘made’ them do something is naive to the point of stupidity.

One last point.

Even if we ignore all the complications that I’ve cited above, there is one final point that should be painfully obvious to anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to the history of the 20th Century.

Religion isn’t the only thing that ‘makes’ people who might generally seem to be good, do some hideously evil things.

Think about the Cold War for a moment.

Not only were our political leaders willing to blow the entire planet to hell over a difference of opinion regarding relatively transient socio/political and economic systems ( I’m not for a moment trying to understate the sheer horror of Stalin’s USSR, but think about it, the Soviet system was never going to last for more than a few decades, while global thermonuclear holocaust would have been about as permanent as anything I can think of), but both sides in the conflict played some really nasty little games in their Third World proxy wars.

(As a matter of fact, even though I would always agree that the West was preferable to the Soviet Union in terms of how people were treated on either side of  The Iron Curtain, when it comes to the reality of their policies in, and towards, developing countries, I’m really and truly not sure there was very much to choose between the two sides).

But then again, the Cold War was never really about a debate over political policy or economic theory.

It was just the same old same.

Young men killing to keep old men in power. Innocents dying in their millions of violence and contempt and the whole thing praised as ‘duty and service’ by a bunch of self-righteous clowns who are always willing to pay any price for the particular brand of exploitation that they call freedom. Just as long as it’s paid out in other people’s lives.

But the worst of it is that the footsoldiers on either side  of the Cold War (as in all wars) were not necessarily evil people.

Some of them probably were just bad people doing bad things because that’s what they wanted to do and Cold War politics just gave them an excuse for it. But many of them must have genuinely believed that what they were doing was justified (or at least necessary) in the context of the historical situation that they found themselves in.

So back to good people doing bad things. (Yet again). 

And this time it was all for truth, justice, freedom and the folks back home (wherever that home might have been) and religion, if it played a part at all, was really only a bit player.

So all I can really say in conclusion is that when you’re so right that it’s worth killing someone, then you’re wrong.

Talking about God (Or Not) Part 2

17 Jan

Recently I came across a comment to the effect that the evidence in support of the existence of God was ‘overwhelming’. The contributor gave no indication of exactly what he considered this evidence to be, but I can’t criticise him for that, he was replying to a post on someone else’s blog, so he probably didn’t feel able to go into too much detail. Maybe I should have followed the link to his blog to see if he’d expressed his views at greater length elsewhere.

I was tempted to take issue with this comment, but I wasn’t. As I’ve indicated, it was a comment on someone else’s blog and I’m not sure about the etiquette of  commenting on the comments left on other people’s blogs. Maybe I’d be encroaching on the blog owner’s prerogatives. Besides, I wanted to comment at some length and I thought maybe I should save it for my own blog.

As an atheist, obviously I don’t think that the evidence for the existence of God is overwhelming. If I did, I wouldn’t be an atheist.

I accept that many people find the evidence for the existence of God convincing, but I suspect that this is largely because they are already convinced that God exists.

I seriously doubt that anyone who came to the question with no preconceived ideas on the subject would find that evidence convincing, but then again, I can’t claim to have come to this question with no preconceived ideas on the subject. I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember.

As I’ve said in an earlier blog, I don’t believe that most people arrive at a conclusion on whether or not God exists as a result of a rational (and possibly not even an entirely conscious process). It’s my impression that people become atheists or believers at a very early age and once they’ve become one thing or another evidence and argument is used to support the position they’ve already reached. This is why, in my opinion, most debates on the subject very quickly become entrenched and acrimonious.

But enough of that, time to move on to something new.

One of the things I’ve been reminded of recently is the way that a discussion about whether or not God exists tends to veer off into a discussion of whether or not religious faith is a good thing (Which itself can deteriorate into slanging match over the alleged vices and virtues of atheists and believers).

As an atheist I suppose it might be expected that I would come down on the ‘religion is the source of all evil’ side of things, but, as a matter of fact I don’t.

In fact, I think the question is unanswerable in practice and pointless in any case.

In order to answer the question of whether or not religion is a Good Thing, I suppose you could draw up a list of all the good things associated with religion and then another list of all the bad things. Then you’d have to compare the two lists and decide on balance whether the good outweighed the bad.

I think the difficulties involved in this process should be obvious, so I won’t labour the point. Obviously you’re going to have no real agreement as to the extent that either good or bad things on your lists are dependant on religion, you will also struggle to reach agreement as to the relative importance of any given item on either list in relation to other items on the opposing list. You may also find a surprising lack of agreement as to which list, good or bad, certain items should go on.

In other words, your chances of reaching agreement at any stage in the process are remote to non-existent.

An alternative strategy might be to look for examples of societies, communities or even individuals that have been either atheist or religious and compare them. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the detail, but I think the problems associated with this are comparable to those I’ve outlined above.

Hence my conclusion that the question is unanswerable in practice.

I think the question is probably pointless because the plain fact is that religious faith is a feature of human life and all human societies that I’m aware of (even where it’s officially banned) and I don’t see that changing in a big hurry.

I think there was a period during the mid twentieth century where religious belief seemed to be in decline and it didn’t seem to be impossible that some day religion would simply fade away, but towards the end of the twentieth century there was a resurgence in religion and, as of now, it looks as though it’s here to stay. (Equally we could say that atheism isn’t likely to just fade away either).

I’m all in favour of dialogue, but I don’t see the point in conducting two parallel monologues where actual communication seems to be at a minimum and exasperation seems to be at a maximum.

I should also admit that I’m as prone as anyone else to the temptation to correct other people when I think they’re wrong, but as I’ve said, although I belive that there is no God, I see no realistic prospect of changing anyone else’s opinion on the subject. The most I can do is, perhaps, to reassure someone who is already an atheist but not comfortable about it. Or possibly to exasperate believers. And even if I could talk someone out of their religious beliefs, would that make them better or happier people? I doubt it.

So given that I seem to have decided that there’s no point in arguing about whether or not God exists and also that there’s no point in the debate about whether or not religion is a good thing, what are we left with?

Well,  maybe we could try treating each other with a bit of respect?

(It’s unhelpful to imply that people who believe in God are deluded, nor is it accurate to suggest that atheists are any more prone to immorality, or amorality, than believers).

Maybe we should concentrate on debates where some kind of progress is possible. (I’m well aware that philosophers are still debating many of the issues first raised in Ancient Greece, but the fact that they haven’t reached a conclusion and don’t seem likely to, doesn’t mean that no progress has been made or that none is possible. Simply clarifying the question and the significant issues arising from it is also progress).

And if we can’t manage that, maybe we should take Voltaire’s advice and cultivate our gardens without arguing.

Although maybe all I’m really saying is that I think a civilised and informed debate on these subjects could be a lot of fun, but I’m sick to death of the way it always seems to fall into one kind of rut or another.


Talking about God (Or not)

5 Dec

I tend to the opinion that debating whether or not god exists is pretty pointless. In my experience the debate tends to get bogged down in entrenched positions and very quickly becomes acrimonious.

I suspect that the reason for this is that for some   people it’s perfectly obvious that God exists and for others it’s equally obvious that God does not exist and I think people on both sides of the debate tend to get frustrated because  people on the other side just don’t seem to get it. This can be especially infuriating when ‘it’ seems to be so blindingly obvious.

So I have no intention of rehearsing, yet again, the arguments for and against the existence of God. If you’re interested in the debate, you’ll find plenty of other opportunities to follow or participate in the debate elsewhere.

Having said this, there are a few comments that often seem to be made about atheists that I would like to address. The reason for this is that I have come across these comments (yet again) in fairly quick succession and I didn’t have an opportunity to respond directly to the people who made them.

So here we go.

1/ Everyone really knows that God exists, when people claim to be atheists, they’re just being difficult (or ungrateful).

I can’t speak for everyone who claims to be an atheist. All I can really say is that I genuinely believe that there is no God, and that to me the idea that God exists really doesn’t make any sense.

(I’m perfectly well aware that to other people the existence of God appears to make perfect sense and that to them, my understanding of how things work would make no sense, but that isn’t the point I’m dealing with here. All I’m really saying at this point is that some people genuinely don’t believe in God and it’s just plain wrong to suggest anything else).

2/ Everyone is born with a belief in God and it’s something that has to be educated out of them if they’re going to become atheists.

I can’t speak to what everyone believes at birth. I don’t even recall what I believed when I was newly born. (This is always assuming that I had any beliefs at all at the time). If you think about it you’ll probably find that you can’t remember anything before the age of three, (and probably not much before the age of five), and if you can think of a way to ask a newborn baby about his or her religious opinions then you’re a lot more ingenious than I am.

So all I can really say is that I have no recollection of ever having had any faith in God. As for having a belief in God educated out of me, this is simply absurd. My mother was a devout, if idiosyncratic, Christian and my father was completely enigmatic on the subject of religion. All I know is that he insisted on other people’s religious beliefs being treated with respect. So no one had any interest in ‘making’ me an atheist. My mother would have preferred me to be a Christian and my father never expressed a preference on the subject.

I should probably add that I’m not convinced that anyone can be educated either into or out of genuine religious belief. (As opposed to religious practice, which is easier, although still not easy, to enforce or suppress).

3/ Atheists are uncomfortable with their atheism and therefore seek to convert everyone else to their beliefs (or lack thereof).

Again, I can only speak for myself here, but I’m perfectly comfortable as an atheist.

I have a world view that makes sense to me and seems to be fairly coherent and consistent with the observable facts. I do recall having experienced a certain degree of angst as a teenager, but I think teenagers are entitled to be a bit angsty and anyway, all this angst probably had more to do with hormones than any doubts about my atheism.

I should also point out that I don’t proselytize. I dislike it when other people try to push their ideas on me and to me it just seems like good manners to respect other people’s right to form their own opinions and beliefs.

4/ There are no atheists in foxholes.

I could be terribly literal-minded here and ask if anyone’s ever done any comprehensive research into the beliefs of people while they’re occupying foxholes, but I won’t bother.

The thing that irritates me about this cliché is the assumption that seems to lie behind it. IE that atheists are simply people who haven’t really been tested and that in the face of death or some similar ordeal they would inevitably give up their foolish opinions and fall back on the comfort and solace of religious faith.

It would be disingenuous of me to cite CS Lewis at this point. (His account of his religious experience indicates that he was raised as a Christian, but lost his faith following the death of his mother when he was a boy. He goes on to relate that he was an atheist during his service in WWI on the Western Front. He was in a trench rather than a foxhole, but this point doesn’t seem to be significant to me. Finally CS Lewis, according to his own account, returned to his Christian faith following a series of discussions with his friend JRR Tolkien).

The reason why it would be disingenuous to cite this example (although it does seem to support my position) is because I’m a little sceptical of what CS Lewis is saying here. (I fully acknowledge that I’ve offered a very abbreviated version of his story here and I am also aware of the fact that I have no way of knowing what was happening in the mind of CS Lewis, and that it is therefore impertinent of me to question his version of events). But the fact remains, I’m simply not convinced that anyone becomes a Christian, or indeed an atheist, on the basis of reasoned argument. (I may come back to this at a later date).

So again, I will simply fall back on my own experience. I have never been in a foxhole or a trench and I have never faced any imminent risk of death (Or at least not since I stopped driving anyway). Having said that, I have not led a particularly sheltered life and so far nothing that’s happened to me has even come close to making me believe (or even to want to believe in God).

Of course you could argue that if I ever did find myself in a foxhole, or some similar predicament, then things would be very different.

Well, there’s no real way of knowing that for sure, but if I did turn to belief in God as the result of extreme duress, then any such belief would certainly be salutary and almost certainly transient and therefore, of no lasting significance in my overall world view.

I should probably acknowledge at this point that the above views are not necessarily held by everyone who believes in God. And I suppose I could go further in admitting that some, or all, of the above views may apply to some atheists some of the time.

To conclude, I certainly don’t hold that atheists are necessarily better, more intelligent, more rational or more tolerant than religious people. In point of fact I would suggest that knowing what someone believes, or claims to believe, about religion tells you nothing about their intelligence, integrity, amenability to reason or indeed the morality of their conduct.