Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Reason, religion, and reality

Discussion of religion is becoming more and more hazardous in the 21st Century as believers of various stripes all over the world engage in increasingly irrational, aggressive, and violent antics in the name of their faiths. Apologists for the creeds in question, or for religion in general, are fond of saying “Ah! But you see, what these misguided people are doing isn’t the TRUE Christianity, Islam, etc. They woefully misunderstand the lofty teachings of their faiths.” On the contrary - it is abundantly clear that religion makes otherwise good people do bad things.

What, in fact, IS religion? And how “real” is it? I am increasingly coming to realise that religion, like all other constructs of the human mind, has no objective reality outside the imaginings of those who profess it. Of course, the actions religious belief generates impinge, often horrendously and disastrously, upon millions of non-believers; but the reality of religiously motivated behaviour does not make religion itself, or the existence of a supernatural deity, any more real.

To clarify: unless one believes in Platonic universals, there is no “perfect” archetypal Judaism, Roman Catholicism, or Islam “out there” in the abstract, any more than there is a perfect archetypal Platonic table or chair. Institutionalised religions have history, traditions, possessions, priests and other functionaries, but these do not make the religion any more “real” than it is in its individual living believers’ brains.

Religions are based upon faith, not reason. At some point – however sophisticated their self-regarding arguments – all religions demand the suspension of reason and a crucial leap of faith. They have no room for sceptical doubting Thomases. That being so, they will always attempt to ring-fence their “sacred” doctrines from reasoned criticism, which they denounce as blasphemy or - in the case of lapsed believers - apostasy, and regard as heinous crimes, sometimes even punishable by death.

So even if we confine this discussion to the three monotheistic religions, we are confronted with the spectacle of a myriad of conflicting sects each claiming that they are the “true” brand of the religion in question, and that those who disagree with them are wicked heretics: “My doxy is orthodoxy; your doxy is heterodoxy.”

What is the non-believer to make of all this? In the first place, we should be very wary indeed of taking sides with any religion, creed, or sect against its self-designated enemies of the same or other religious traditions. “A plague on all your houses” is the only rational response. We should seek to confine the propagation of religious dogmas to those which do not incite hatred of other faiths, or of non-believers, and which are privately funded. The state should give no public countenance to, and much less subsidise, any religious education. On the contrary, the state should ensure that all children, whatever their religious or community background, are educated in a cohesive system of national education which treats all religious beliefs even-handedly and encourages children to think about them, and everything else, in an open-minded way.

Above all, we must recognise that what religion means to those who count themselves as believers is the only “real” aspect of the whole business. If Catholics are brought up to believe that theirs is the only “true” faith, and that Protestants are wicked heretics, and vice versa, the results will be as we have seen in Northern Ireland for the past couple of centuries and more. If Muslim youths continue to be indoctrinated with the notion that Allah commands them to prevail over “infidels” by whatever means necessary, all we can expect in the foreseeable future is far worse threats of terrorism and sporadic violence than we have yet experienced. If “twice-born” Christians in the USA and elsewhere believe that a nuclear Armageddon in the Middle East will result in their being wafted up to heaven in Rapture, it behoves all who do not share that delusion to do everything possible to disabuse them of it and to abort any possibility of such a scenario occurring.

It has been said that people who believe nonsense will experience awkward consequences. Unfortunately, it is not only the believers in the nonsense who suffer because of it. Indeed, it is those of us who simply want to be left alone in peace to think what we choose and to live as we wish who have most to fear from religion. As a society, we cannot afford to extend tolerance to the intolerant, or to pay respect to the disreputable.


Bodwyn Wook said...

ANTICANT, Most interesting. I've just a couple of odd throw-away bits to stick in at a dead run through (on my way to go feed a load of highly-redundant-more-than-somewhat [!] horses & a small cat-herd):

IT Is of course so, that religion all-too-often 'makes' people do bad things (at least in those cases where they, themselves, do not choose to be a shower of bastards). In that connexion, it is only to be noted that science /qua/ science furthermore /enables/ this same class of people to do bad things -- I am thinking, of course, of the Auschwitz princes of medical research as a notable example of, precisely, late-modern age science at /its/ raving 'best'.

THE Question is, as my teacher in Morocco, MuHammad Nejmi, many years since said, all the difference in the world between unregenerate persons; and, those upon whom the interior gifts of any particular /form/ (whether religious or scientific) have been allowed to work. The goal in any development necessarily must involve in other words the (finally rather restful!) relativisation of the God-almighty /ego/....

AS To any (hoped-for?) non-existence of the platonic so-called 'forms', it need only be pointed out, I think -- and, on this point at least, I /am/ a 110% materialist! -- that such things as concepts, 'thoughts' and /notions/, all these are substantially 'real' insofar as they most certainly /do/ exist; and, specifically, they physically exist as coherent fields of electromagnetic activity; which, indeed, may be furthermore verifiably measured by brainwave-machinery and so forth.

PRECISELY To this extent, such figments as 'God' and /atheism/, all these are real /things/.

MOREOVER, These pesky phantasies all (/NB/) endure in Dr Hawking's by-now-famous 'light-cone'. It is, therefore, in the physical laws of inertia that we may best, perhaps, account for the fact that the hysterias of religion /and/ the reductive fundamentalism of a Dawkens so irritatingly persist.

THE /Tertium/ of course is, now that the modern age is over, we may confidently expect the fruits of modernism, such as parliamentary democracy, science and /cet/, all now to begin to pass away. Their work is done. Likewise -- on a longer rhythm -- religion is at its end, w/islam. At most, we may expect another five hundred years in which religion, as such, can yet act a powerful mould of culture.

IN The new age now beginning, I perceive that the work of the new culture will be to take in new directions (and, into new dimensions) the necessarily-unfinished business of the penultimate late-mediaeval period & the 13th century most notably.


B Wook, Old Cop

Richard W. Symonds said...

Substitute the word "Politics" for "Religion" and you get much the same result...

Anonymous said...

It sounds as if you have fallen in love with your own intellect and forgotten the true source of your abilities. God is love, regardless if you acknowledge Him.

Emmett said...

SOME Interesting reading, with hints of a direction for possible future and, dare one say it, post-human development in, precisely, /awareness/, may be found in the books of the late Idries Shah (pbuh). This Afgahn man did much to demonstrate the many links between, for instance, islam and western culture. I think, at least if one has not been put off mahometans by the made-for-Tee Vee 'terror-war' (mainly, the ageing "baby-boomers" of my wholly-otiose & non-achieving generation are in stark terror of, you guessed, complete & utter, and now starkly irremediable, historical /insignificance/ -- plus, of course, an obscene end to all the delightful leering at kiddie-porn, in their computers!), that there is much more going on than meets the eye, and really that all /is/ well. Although most certainly /not/ for our crude and scared, death-bound, molecular bodies....

ALL For nonce,

B Wook, CC [/retd/]

anticant said...

Welcome aboard, Mr Wook, and many thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'll respond at length later - it's the middle of the night here now. Meanwhile, I'd be glad of your e-mail address.

Anonymous - if "God is Love", it's a pity that the message still hasn't got through to more of his professed followers! There's nothing 'supernatural' about love, any more than there is about hate - they are both human - all too human, Nietzsche would have said. I agree with Stendhal that the only excuse for 'God' is that he doesn't exist except in human imagination.

There's nothing 'supernatural' about politics, either, Richard, so I fail to see the point of your comment.

toby lewis said...

Most faiths have a benign and a terrifying strand.

Using this premise I've just written an article stating presumptuously that it is unlikely Islamic Fundamentalism will triumph.

Jose said...

I agree wth you, Toby, and that's is proved by the Catholic Church. Fundamentalism in the Catholic Church made for multitude of branches to grow from that trunk, starting by Luther's Protestantism, which weakened the in other times powerful belief.

toby lewis said...

It is perhaps hardly reassuring that these sometimes terrifying dogmas disappear over decades, centuries and millennia but if you take a long term view of things it gives some comfort. My hope is that the current strand of Islamic Fundamentalism resembles Fascism rather than the Catholic Church if only for the difference in longevity. Let's face it Catholic Fundamentalism hardly moves the world these days.

anticant said...

You are quite right, Toby, and you make some excellent points in your EE article. The current problem with Wahabbi'ist Islamic extremism is that it is being actively spread around the world by Saudi Arabian petrodollars to a receptive audience of disgruntled young men who have grievances - reasonable or otherwise - against the West. Until this poison is drained off by clipping the Saudi claws I fear that this brand of fanaticism will continue to flourish. But it is difficult to envisage the West - and particularly the oil-hungry USA - doing anything to upset the Saudis. So we are in fact financing our own subversion. A mind-boggling situation.

anticant said...

Yankee Doodle has a post, "Jihad, Inc. Pt. II", on his blog which I urge everyone to read. If his information is correct, terrorists, and the mafia, have penetrated 'legitimate' financial operations and businesses such as the international oil trade to a far greater extent than is generally realised. Al-Qaeda are certainly not short of money, despite Bush's post-9/11 boast that he would dry up their resources.

Blair's recent suppression of the corruption investigation into British AeroSpace contracts with the Saudis as "not being in the public interest" is another bleak pointer to the extent to which extremist Islam is getting a grip on our economic and political throat.

Jose said...

Ressemble Fascism, Toby? I am afraid Fascism has no end, it'll always be there. In fact the great fight now could be in the region of Fascism vs Fundamentalism. Unfortunately we are included in the Fascist side.

And, Anticant, I slightly differ from your standpoint re the Saudis. I think the Saudis are being forced by Al Qaeda to pay them for their non-intervention in Saudi inner affairs, but they are not actively engaged in the fight. And the Jordanians, and the Egyptians, why should we leave them aside? And almost all the other Arab autarchies of the region?

If we think carefully on this issue, it will be those autarchies that'll lose the most if rebellions were fomented by Al Qaeda in their countries. Something which as you can see is not happening.

anticant said...

Surely what matters most is not what we think of Islam, but what Muslim believers think of us and our values. Obviously there are many different ethnic and political strands, but there is no tradition of dissent, or tolerance, within any sector of Islam as far as I am aware. The Koran and other holy scriptures are universally regarded as the literal word of Allah.

I agree with you, Jose, that there must be differences of opinion and policy amongst Muslims. But in the end, they are all true believers and we are 'Infidels' and therefore inferior in their eyes. So can there be peaceful co-existence?

Thanks, Toby, for drawing our attention to the Garton Ash article. As usual, there are a wide variety of sensible and nonsensical comments, which are well worth reading.

anticant said...

Thanks for your insights, Chief Constable Wook/Emmett. Although you’ve retired, I hope you’ll do a bit of part-time patrolling around my arena now and then, and maybe lend the burrow beadle a hand when Zola gets overly obstreperous.

As you observe, anyone who forgets their common humanity – whether because of religious fanaticism or scientific overkill – is liable to behave badly, and far too many are doing so worldwide at this juncture in time. Unfortunately, being considerably older than you, I don’t anticipate being around long enough to see the denouements of all our present discontents, but I remain stubbornly optimistic that the slow and tortuous trail towards greater democracy and tolerance of the past 250 years won’t be swamped by the malign reactionary forces we are currently experiencing.

Your Moroccan teacher was very wise. There’s all the difference in the world between the supposedly “God-driven” egotism of unregenerate persons, and those who seek to cultivate their interior gifts of spiritual potential through meditation, whether theistical or otherwise. The Eastern traditions – especially Buddhism – have an enormous amount to teach us Westerners about this. Their study was becoming more fashionable in the 1960s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s, but unfortunately got swamped by the new wave of materialist consumerism unleashed by the Reagan/Thatcher era. [You are right about the baby-boomers: a selfish, cowardly lot.]

I like Idries Shah too, and there is much valuable insight in Sufism.

Much material for further discussion here.

Jose said...

You'd be surprised, Anticant, if you spoke with Muslims. As happens with people of other faiths, there are cracks in Islam, too.

What is really dangerous is to generalise. Because generalisations tend to create more extremism. Not all Muslims are fanatic, what I can assure you is that Ultra-Capitalists are. And I believe the real danger is in the latter, although the former be accused of all the wrongdoings occurring in the world.

An excessive criticism of everything American will surely provoke antagonism, which is what is being sought in this confrontation with Islam. Stirring patriotic feelings would always erect walls or give way to aggressive attitudes.

As you certainly know power is the most precious asset that is sought by everybody - well not everybody because at least I'm not after it -and there are people among Muslims who are interested in power, to which end they use the religion, but I must repeat they are people like us with the same virtues and the same flaws we have.

anticant said...

Why do you think I would be surprised, Jose? Do you imagine I don't know any Muslims, or talk to them? I live in a heavily Muslim area of London, and there is a big mosque just up the road. I have had Muslim neighbours for twenty years. I had a very nice Muslim woman carer for some weeks when I first came out of hospital, but she was a Westernised, not a 'religious', Muslim. Her husband, however, was: he would never enter our house, and she suddenly stopped working for us, totally unexpectedly and inconveniently - I believe because we didn't pass muster with him, although she never explained.

I am well aware that it is dangerous to generalise. I am sure that there are millions of peaceably inclined, benign Muslims around the world [I am about to post a moving statement by one of them] - but I do not believe that they will ever make an effective stand against the jihadist fanatics. You are almost certainly deceiving yourself if you believe otherwise.

You say it is dangerous to generalise, and then blithely assert that all Ultra-Capitalists are fanatic. This is piffle. There are many glaring flaws in capitalism, but it is the only sustainable system of production and distribution that has given us the standard of living that we now enjoy. Unlike Islam, capitalism has built-in corrective mechanisms which have failed recently, but which an increasing number of Americans and Europeans are now realising must be restored.

I repeat - all religious belief is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense. The sooner humanity has the common sense to jettison it, the better for us all.

Richard W. Symonds said...

"All religious belief is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense" - Anticant

"Nonsense" - Richard

anticant said...

And "Socialism", of course, is another piece of pernicious pseudo-religious nonsense, Richard. A crusty old don at Cambridge once memorably described a socialist as "a blindfolded man in a darkened room hunting for a black cat that isn't there".

Richard W. Symonds said...

I know the origin of that quote, Anticant, and it has nothing whatever to do with Socialism', and everything to do with one of your 'hang-ups'...Ministers of Religion.

I repeat : you are talking nonsense AC :

"Socialism", of course, is another piece of pseudo-religious nonsense".

I repeat again : you are talking nonsense AC.

So the English democratic socialism of Orwell and Joad, and the Fabian socialism of George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells, and the socialism of Einstein and Russell...are all "pseudo-religious nonsense".

You are either winding us up, or losing it big time...

The next thing you'll be telling us is that "Capitalism" (as well as "Socialism") is just "pseudo-religious nonsense" !

Nonsense, AC.

anticant said...

Unlike most other 'isms, Capitalism, Richard, actually exists and functions. In its sadly flawed fashion, it keeps us all in the state to which we are too accustomed [selfishness, consumerism and all that].

Socialism is a pseudo-religious economic hypothesis which has never been realised and is most unlikely to be. It has no essential connection with social justice - which is what really matters, and which we can strive to achieve without unreal utopianism.

Whether or not I'm winding you up, you do rise like a fresh trout, don't you? Think I'll set up a political bait stall: humourless lefties angled for and truly hooked!

Jose said...

Perhaps I should have said Arab Muslims, Anticant. My fault. Lack of education in many regions have caused religions to become a fundamental factor in the lives of people. We have the example of Latin America and their fanatic use of Christianity, as compared to the use given in Spain of the same doctrine. You yourself give examples with the assistant that worked in your house and the fireman in New York, but Arabs are diametrically different, and I am not deceiving myself if I say that it is not so easy to make Arabs move (you have the millions of Arabs living in Iraq, or Palestine, who do not take part in the jihads you so frequently speak of). Skinheads, the purest and youngest expression of fascism, prop themselves on religion for their actions. The ultra Rightists do likewise. We have many examples of these in Spain. Fortunately the general feelings of the country will not allow for these cases to proliferate. But I can tell you that among the immigrants living here perhaps the Muslim Arabs are the most civilised, the worst aspect of immigration being acted by those immigrants arriving from Spain's ancient colonies in America in terms of population::delinquents pro-rata.

You know by experience that those who shout louder are never right, and this maxim can be applied to Muslims, Christians, etc, etc.

One other aspect of the question is the behaviour of the governments in the host countries, which should apply the full force of the Law and which must forget any more-than-probable likelihood of being dubbed racists.

The Law and the coexistence can make wonders with the attitudes of the newcomers.

Richard W. Symonds said...

AC, I like the idea of being a "trout" - especially a "fresh" one - swimming freely in the sea of life !

And I have just become one of those "fish" who might continue to rise to your "political bait", looking for thought for food, but will always see that hook hidden within.

anticant said...

JOSE - You may have forgotten that I had a [Christian] Arab grandfather, born in what is now Lebanon, so I do have some awareness of the Arab temperament and characteristics.

For far too many people, religious indoctrination takes the place of proper education in rational thinking. We had two other examples recently - two charming ladies [I think Somali] who were sent to us by care agencies. Both refused to work for us because we were men.

As you say, these attitudes will never be changed unless the government gives a lead - but currently the British government are heading in the opposite direction, providing money for separatist religious schools to be set up which will inevitably prolong and exacerbate the divisions between people.

Jose said...

That's the sore finger in the British hand: the government. And that is one of the issues the next election campaign should try to redress. The Law must be respected by all, it is disgusting that the government who swore allegiance to that Law forget their oath. An indubitable proof of weakness, or something worse.

anticant said...

Issues highly unlikely to be addressed by any of the major political parties, all of whom are wooing the Muslim vote [which, until the Iraq war, used to be safely in Labour's pocket].

The danger of this situation is that obnoxious fringe groups like the BNP, who can afford to express candid views on these matters, will strike a chord with a public opinion that is increasingly veering - with good reason - in an anti-Muslim direction.

This is how Nazism gained a foothold in the latter years of the Weimar republic, and we would all do well to study carefully the history of those times in Germany if we wish to avoid a 21st century resurgence of Fascism.

Jose said...

I suppose the other political forces are on the watch about the BNP not to let it get more clout than is convenient, but as you say this attitude by the Labour government is extremely dangerous.

They ought not to propitiate extremisms of any kind.

anticant said...

If the BNP increases its support by saying things that a lot of people are thinking [whether rightly or wrongly], what can the larger parties do about it?

It's not just that they are scared to grasp nettles, they don't even acknowledge what the actual problems are.

No-one wishes immigrant communities to give up their traditions and beliefs, but there must be a willingness on their part to integrate with the wider community to some extent, and to respect its traditions - such as free speech.

As things are, 'multiculturalism' is a busted flush in Britain.

And most people are bored silly with the inanities of both New Labour and the Conservatives, so it won't be surprising if there is an even lower turnout at the next general election.

Jose said...

Irrespective of feelings, there is one duty we should never neglect and that is the right to vote, for whomever or blank, but vote.

I stress that right is a duty, by all means it is the only democratic right we are still allowed to use.

anticant said...

I agree. I think the vote should be made compulsory, with a "none of the above" box included on the ballot paper. It is a "democratic deficit" issue.

Unfortunately, the historic struggle to win the vote, like so many other freedom issues, is quite unknown and unappreciated by most people today.

Jose said...

You are quite right there, Anticant, people resting on the laurels won by our predecessors.

Emmett said...

I Find it interesting to swan around 'on-line' and see what's up -- a fascinating discovery I've made is of Radio Yabiladi, in Morocco. A close listen to this music-link will reveal that the whole made-for-Tee Vee 'Terror War' is what the old farmers here in southern Minnesota would describe not-inappositely & in perfect American as "a crock of shit!" It mainly is happening because these "dumb bastards" with whom I grew up here mostly, in this misconceived and wholly-professionalised, and therefore wholly-useless, "baby boom" generation /are/ in stark terror -- of their utter & irremediable, wholly God-damned, historical insignificance.

THESE 'Neo-con' goofs, especially, yearn for our old dads' 'cold war' & they can't stand themselves after forty-odd years of cocaine-sniffing and Trying To Lay The 14-Year-Old Babysitter. It's a load of perverts trying, now, to pervert history & the american constitution....

ANYHOW, If you will have a listen to Radio Yabiladi, it shall be quite clear, I think, that on demographics alone these young mahometans now are going to do in short order to /their/ old folks what we did to ours, about religion, in the 1960s -- and, therefore, that all that the bedwetter Bush had needed to do is to have /waited/.

WAITING, Of course, is foreign to the american 'spirit' -- like these 'illegal' Mexicans on whom the post-modern professional classes here in all quarters utterly depend, simply to get wiped regularly their caucasoid arses....

/SIC Transit libertas/, eh?

Wook, CC & Aged Cynic

anticant said...

Hi Emmett -

Have you a link to Radio Yabiladi?

anticant said...

Emmett has e-mailed me the link to
Radio Yabiladi

Emmett said...

ANOTHER Test, merely, Antimacassar -- Wook