Saturday, May 31, 2008

Karma comedians

by The Guardian

HASSERS commented on the Sharon Stones' karma (wiki) comments here.

Claims about karma are completely unfalsifiable. I therefore ignor them.

Karma comedians

Stone's claptrap about China is of a piece with a thriving industry dealing in unscientific nonsense

By: Ariane Sherine

So Sharon Stone thinks the Sichuan earthquake was caused not by friction between tectonic plates on the Longmenshan fault, but by Beijing being "not nice" to the Dalai Lama. Given that Tibet has been under Chinese rule since 1951, karmic retribution must have a 57-year time lag, but that didn't stop Stone musing on the seismic catastrophe: "I thought, 'Is that karma?' When you are not nice, bad things happen to you."

Bad things did happen: within 24 hours of her statement, the Xinhua news agency had dubbed Sharon the "public enemy of all mankind", perhaps an epithet more suited to US televangelist John Hagee, who in 2005 announced that God unleashed Hurricane Katrina because He was cross after a "homosexual parade". And, to prove that retribution-based stupidity hasn't bypassed the UK, Glenn Hoddle also asserted in 1999 that "some people have not been born [with two hands and two legs and half-decent brains] for a reason ... the karma is working from another lifetime. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow, you have to reap."

Worryingly, though all this lunacy generated the ridicule it deserved, the last few years have seen a spate of new age "self-help" books blaring out an identical, if less targeted, message: that everything in an individual's life is created by them. From infamous bestseller The Secret (DVD excerpt: "everything that's coming into your life, you're attracting into your life") to weirdo-manual Ask And It Is Given, which channels "the teachings of the non-physical entity Abraham" (sample chapter title: "Unwanted things cannot jump into your experience uninvited"),
the philosophy is the same: whatever is happening to you, it's your fault.

It's religion for the non-religious, with all the shame, guilt and illogical pronouncements but none of the community. Instead of acts of God, we are told there are no accidents; instead of God's will, all happenings are manifestations of our own consciousness. And
many people accept either the religious or new age explanations because, given the devastation caused by disasters and traumatic events, it's less scary to think they are a response to wayward human behaviour.
That way, if we just change our actions, we won't have to fear pain and suffering in the future.

In truth, we can only make sense of the world by rejecting these ideas and the more pervasive "everything happens for a reason" mentality, and by accepting that life is random and unjust.
Bad things happen to kind people every day, for no reason at all. Our chances in life are largely predetermined by our place of birth, and religious people are as likely to die in tragedies as atheists.
Earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes hit for scientific reasons alone; to attribute them to the wrath of God or "the universe" is to deny the victims of these catastrophes their innocence.

Paradoxically, though Stone apologised for her errant statement - which seemed more an ill thought-out comment on China's treatment of the Dalai Lama than an intentional slur on the victims of the disaster - she has been pulled from the country's billboards, and her films are now banned in its cinemas. The authors of books like The Secret have profited from pushing sinister anti-scientific nonsense on to the disadvantaged, sick and desperate, but have never been forced to deliver an acknowledgement or apology, let alone been penalised. And homophobe John Hagee has become a millionaire by driving the fear of God into the weak and gullible while also endorsing John McCain, who might just become the next US president.

"Is that karma?" No, Sharon. It's anything but.

· Ariane Sherine is a television comedy writer

Born-again secularists - US elections 2008: Could we be witnessing the end of political pandering on religion?

by Dan Kennedy

via NSS Newsline 30/5/08


May 27, 2008 7:00 PM

And so it came to pass that a trinity of presidential candidates sought to sway the multitudes with their professions of godly piety. And, verily, they were humbled for their arrogance, each in his own way.

Maybe it's too much to hope for, but could we be witnessing the end of political pandering on religion? At the very least, we've seen that trying to persuade voters that you're on intimate terms with the Big Guy isn't nearly as risk-free as has been generally supposed.

Leaving aside Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister who got about as far as could be expected (that is, not very),

three serious contenders held their hands over the burning bush during this campaign. Each came away seriously singed.

The last shall be first, so I'll start with John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, whose come-to-Jesus moment arrived late last week. McCain had sought to rectify a perceived weakness - his evident secular orientation - by obtaining the endorsement of two rather exotic specimens in the religious right's bestiary, the Revs. John Hagee and Rod Parsley. Given that McCain had alienated some evangelical voters eight years ago by accurately describing the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance", McCain's move was seen as a necessary if distasteful exercise in reaching out to the Republican base.

But then Hagee and Parsley went off, as such types often do. We learned from Hagee that Adolf Hitler was an agent of God, sent to earth to exterminate six million Jews and thus hasten the founding of the state of Israel. We learned from Parsley that the United States had been created, in part, to destroy Islam. And, finally, we learned from McCain - praise the Lord! - that he no longer counts Hagee and Parsley among his supporters. Fortunately for McCain, the headlines were few, as his revelation coincided with Hillary Clinton's idle musings about Robert Kennedy's assassination.

Of course,

the Democrats' all-but-official nominee, Barack Obama, had his own religious come-uppance earlier this spring when his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, revealed himself to be an egomaniacal ranter
whose signature phrase - "God damn America!" - will be heard at least as often as "Yes we can!" right up until Election Day.

After weeks of dithering, Obama finally climbed down from the cross and crucified Wright. But Obama today is a seriously weakened candidate, and his long association with Wright has more to do with that than anything either Hillary or Bill Clinton has said. Democrats who had been salivating over the prospect of having a nominee, at long last, who is at ease when talking about his faith are now left to ponder the old maxim of having gotten what they wished for.

Finally, consider Mitt Romney, who last December delivered a nationally televised address about his Mormonism. Romney's speech was compared in some circles to John Kennedy's 1960 appearance before a Protestant ministers group in Houston. But whereas Kennedy made essentially a secular appeal - assuring the ministers, and the country, that his Catholicism wouldn't interfere with his ability to govern - Romney took the opposite route. (Note: I am not related to John Kennedy.)

The gospel according to Mitt was that Mormonism is an awful lot like evangelical Christianity, especially of the sort practiced by Republican caucus-goers and primary voters. The evangelicals were having none of it, and Romney - having indulged in outright bigotry against non-believers, as David Brooks of the New York Times observed - could not credibly demand that others not engage in anti-Mormon bigotry. Romney faded away, though he's now back in full pander mode, trying to push McCain into making him his running mate.

The original sin in this long, unedifying religious drama may have taken place in 1976. That's when Jimmy Carter, the first self-proclaimed born-again candidate to run for president, told an interviewer that he had "committed adultery in my heart many times". Carter was trying to make a rather sophisticated theological point, but he'd have been better off keeping his mouth shut. Since then, we've suffered through everything from Ronald Reagan's embrace of the religious right, to Al Gore's claim that he often asked himself "What would Jesus do?", to George Bush's identifying "Christ" as his favourite political philosopher. Enough.

Religion is a matter of faith and belief, and few expressions of religiosity make sense outside the community of fellow-believers. Consider that the idea of a first-century Jew's being executed to expiate the sins of the world, and then coming back to life three days later, would not make an awful lot of sense if it were introduced to voters as new information in the midst of a presidential campaign.

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," John Kennedy said nearly 48 years ago. That belief is starting to look more sensible with each passing day.

De-Baptise Yourself! Make It Official!

Liberate yourself from the Original Mumbo-Jumbo that liberated you from the Original Sin you never had. You can display your Certificate of De-Baptism proudly framed in your hallway (porch, loo, lean-to, etc.) as an outward sign of the inner rationality that inspires your being.

Britain’s phoney war on terror

May 25, 2008
via NSS Newsline 30th May 2008
We are too concerned with multiculturalism and political correctness to combat the threat of Islamism effectively.

After spending time recently with senior Pentagon officials and other Americans involved in counter-terror-ism, I was struck by the global scope of their concerns. Above all I was reminded how different their attitudes are from those of their British counterparts, still obsessed with “community cohesion” and the “radicalisation” of young Muslims.

In Britain the views of the nonMuslim majority are largely ignored - or lead to them being branded as potential “Islamophobes”. In the United States the unthinkable and unsayable are debated openly.

Last month, for example, the Senate committee on homeland security

heard evidence about the likely effects of a terrorist nuclear attack on Washington. It started with a chilling scenario: a 10-kiloton bomb in a truck beside the White House.

First, the committee was told, it would kill about 100,000 people and erase a two-mile radius of mainly federal buildings. Most of the casualties would be burn victims, the majority of them African Americans who worked for the government.

About 95% of them would die in agony, because capacity to treat such cases is limited to about 1,500. Since the winds blow west to east, the ensuing radioactive plume would drift towards the poor black neighbourhoods of the capital’s southeast, where there is only one hospital. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the committee, concluded: “Now is the time to ask the tough questions and then to get answers as best we can.”

I can’t help wondering what preparations for such a nightmare scenario are being made here in Britain. Does anyone know if our parliamentarians are asking similar questions?

As the main target of jihadist violence, the United States has a sober estimation of the threat we face and a polyvalent strategy for dealing with it.

In Britain use of the phrase the “war on terror” has been proscribed by the Brown government;
local representatives of the global jihadist insurgency process through British courts in startling numbers. A recent Europol report showed that in 2007 the British arrested 203 terrorist suspects, against 201 for the rest of Europe.

By contrast, the United States is fighting a global war - against an Al-Qaeda-inspired nebula of extremists - with arms and ideas and a vast array of analytic intelligence. In essence, America wants to destroy Al-Qaeda as a brand. One strategy is to highlight the moral squalor of those who denounce the West, which means exposing the criminal underpinnings of jihadism - including reliance on conflict diamonds, counterfeiting, drug trafficking, fraud and robbery. Yet

the British government has done almost nothing to undermine the noble self-image of the jihadists in the eyes of those who are drawn to Osama Bin Laden.

Elsewhere in the world jihadists are going through “deprogramming” courses in which they are given authoritative instruction in a religion most of them know only as a handful of banal slogans. The combination of aid from the West and rehabilitation schemes explains why southeast Asian jihadism is now in disarray.

The use of military force, aggressive counter-terrorism measures and diligent police work is also indispensable to defeating the insurgency; after three years of horrendous death tolls in Iraq, the United States has at last succeeded in turning the “Sunni Awakening” movement against the foreign Al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists, many from Libya or Saudi Arabia. It turns out that local people had balked at such Islamist customs as breaking the fingers of smokers and shooting anyone selling alcohol. The Sunni counter-insurgents may not relish US occupation, but they like the jihadist reign of terror even less.

No European country faces the global challenges confronting the United States, but because of its success in integrating Arab immigrants, America largely faces an external threat. Europeans face one hatching among second or third-generation north Africans, Bangladeshis or Pakistanis, not to speak of indigenous converts.

Europe can be weak in combating terrorism at a political level, largely because of the effects of officially decreed multiculturalism
and a failure to do much about the impact of population movements on the host culture and economy. Not surprisingly, the failure of European governments to get a grip on what are still relatively small Muslim minorities provokes exasperation in America.

Many of the 1.6m Muslims living in Britain, for example, still do not seem fully to appreciate the outrage that a finger-jabbing minority causes at home and abroad with each escalating demand for Islamist enclaves.
Like a perennial student, new Labour favours debate and dialogue. But in dealing with the Muslim Council of Britain, the government has unwittingly accepted as “community” interlocutors men who have blamed Islamist terrorism primarily on British foreign policy, while failing to condemn suicide bombing outside the UK.

Hardly anything is being done to stem the flow of Wahhabist money and its intolerant ideology not only into mosques but also to university “Islamic studies” programmes. Others are also complicit in this process. Did banks think about the cultural implications of sharia-compliant finance, noticeably absent in Egypt? This was allowed by Gordon Brown without triggering the public outrage that attended the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sly unclarities about sharia.

The police seem to be turning a blind eye to “honour crimes” and to the informal resort to sharia, even when this involves manifestly criminal offences.
They have preferred to turn on the makers of a Channel 4 documentary about homegrown extremists, accusing the producers of distorting the views of Muslim clerics, rather than to investigate the extremists themselves - leading Channel 4 to sue the police for libel and win.

A robust response to the jihadist threat is also stymied by ideologue lawyers who have made a decent living out of defending terrorists and by judges who, with honourable exceptions, seem to have greater allegiance to abstract notions of human rights than to our primary right of not being blown to pieces.

Attempts to free Abu Qatada, the alleged Al-Qaeda spiritual leader in Europe, amounted to a national disgrace. Lawyers claimed that if he were deported to Jordan, he might be tortured (despite agreements to the contrary). They also claimed the Jordani-ans might produce witnesses who had themselves been tortured.

Judges have recently undermined the government’s attempts to interdict terrorist financing - even in the case of a dangerous Al-Qaeda operative known for legal reasons as “G”. And it was judges who subverted the regime of control orders that was introduced at their own behest after they had released detainees from long-term custody in Belmarsh. Even the Royal Navy is reluctant to detain Somali pirates on the grounds that their “human rights” might be infringed in Saudi Arabia, Somalia or Yemen.

The government’s recent attempts to sponsor British citizenship and values to counteract the multiculturalism propagated by a previous wave of state patronage seem tired and unconvincing. There is little sense in asking Muslims to “become us” when that evidently implies to them a culture of considerable coarseness: binge drinking, crime, drugs and chronic family breakdown. Why shouldn’t they insulate themselves within the various ghettos that Britain has complacently allowed to form?

One has yet to hear a British politician of any stripe talk about what changes he wishes to see in the Muslim world – for example, in Saudi Arabia, to which we sell arms in return for passively accepting their citizens’ funding of subversive religious activities in Britain.

By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to give north Africa (and Israel) EU associate status suggests that he has expanded his horizons since 9/11. Meanwhile, anything that serves to strengthen liberal Muslim voices in Indonesia or Turkey is worth encouraging. It may be that the dictators - the Assads, Bouteflikas, Mubaraks, Gadaffis and others - will cling to power longer than optimists imagine. But if they don’t, how will the West help those moderates - judges, lawyers, journalists, liberals and socialists - who find themselves in temporary oppositional coalitions with fundamentalists? How do we ensure such a coalition does not go the way of the one that toppled the Shah of Iran, after which Khomeinites imprisoned or murdered their secular allies?

The one British politician who grasps the need to be as frank as our American cousins about the threat from terrorists who are actively plotting indiscriminate slaughter is not the prime minister, who appears to be locked into the globalising vapidities that thrill Davos seminars, but

David Cameron. The leader of the opposition understands the existential threat from jihadism and has comprehensive ideas about how to combat it that will link foreign, defence and security policies. He is fully conscious of the need to balance ancient liberties with the right to stay alive.

Like the United States, Britain needs a dedicated border police and defences against terrorism that begin when someone buys an air ticket. It needs to dismantle the bureaucratic residue of state multiculturalism, and the deportation of foreign agitators is essential. Any appeal they may mount should take place after they have been deported.
As for human rights lawyers - they can pay for their own.

A more imaginative approach to the Muslim world should go hand-in-hand with a clearer statement of what the domestic majority is not prepared to tolerate. That is the difference between a properly thought-out strategy and the government’s clue-less alternation between appeasement and knee-jerk authoritarianism.

This is an edited version of a longer article that will appear in Standpoint, the new cultural and political magazine that will be launched on Thursday

Tim Scanlon on Free Speech

In this bonus episode produced in association with the Open University, Tim Scanlon discusses the limits of free speech with Nigel Warburton.
Direct download: Tim_Scanlon_on_Free_Speech.mp3

A transcript of this episode is available from
or see below:-

For John Stuart Mill the limit of freedom of speech in a civilized society was roughly the point where a speaker was inciting violence. But perhaps it isn't as simple as that.

For free speech, in the well-known example, doesn’t entitle us to shout "Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Where then should we draw the line, and why?

Tim Scanlon, Professor in Harvard University’s Philosophy Department, has spent much of his career reflecting about issues of toleration and free speech. His initial writings on the topic stressed that the value of free speech lay in autonomy – in particular, the right of individuals to have access to information so as to be able to think for themselves. Now he has a more nuanced view – which takes into account the interests of both speaker and listener, and empirical considerations about the danger of granting powers of regulation to the state.



David Edmonds: This is Ethics Bites, with me David Edmonds.

Nigel Warburton: And me Nigel Warburton.

David: Ethics Bites is a series of interviews on applied ethics, produced in association with The Open University.

Nigel: For more information about Ethics Bites, and about the Open University, go to

Nigel: Tim Scanlon, welcome to Ethics Bites.

Tim Scanlon: I’m glad to be here. Thank you very much.

Nigel: Now the topic we’re focusing on today is free speech. Presumably you’re an advocate of free speech at some level, but let’s start by getting clear what do we mean by free speech?


By free speech I mean the need for restrictions on the way in which governments can regulate speech.
Whether speech is free in a further sense, that is whether people have opportunities, is a very important thing, but it’s not the issue of free speech.

Nigel: That’s really interesting, because you immediately began by talking about regulation and controlling what can be said.

Tim: Well certainly speaking is not without costs: what people can say can cause injury, can disclose private information, can disclose harmful public information. It’s not a free zone where you can do anything because nothing matters. Speech matters. But because it matters it’s very important that governments who want to regulate speech, for example to prevent things that would be embarrassing to politicians, or otherwise upset the government, it’s important that that power should be restricted.

Nigel: The word speech seems to imply something spoken, but clearly speech stands for expression here, it’s not just speech is it?

Tim: No, it’s not just speech. In one respect, what defines our thinking about free speech is not the particular acts that constitute speech, but rather the reasons one has for wanting other people to notice – for wanting to make some kind of communication with others. Speech is just one way of doing it. How you dress, how you act in public. All those things can signal to other people your values, what kind of life you favour, and the fact that the way you act, as well as the way you speak, can signal those things provide reasons for other people to want to prevent you from doing those things - because they don’t want those signals to be out there in the public space. The question of free speech is the question of how that impulse to regulate what can be out there in the public space need itself be controlled.

Nigel: Ok, well let’s think about the justifications for controlling free speech. You’ve devoted quite a lot of your life to thinking philosophically about the limits of toleration. What’s the philosophical underpinning of your position?

Tim: Well one philosophical underpinning in driving any of this has to be understanding the reasons why people should care about having these opportunities that might be restricted. I began by talking about how free speech has to do with limitations on government power. But of course the value that’s at stake is affected by things other than what the government does, it’s also affected by how corporations can control access to television and other important media. So here we have two sides. On the one hand, philosophically one of the first things you want to do in understanding free speech is to understand what are the values that are at stake, why should we care about it? That’s much broader than the question of government regulation. On the other hand, if you think mainly in terms of constitutional provisions, restrictions on the law, there we’re talking particularly about government.

Nigel: Often people talk about free speech as arising from individual autonomy.

We should have a freedom to be who we are and to express ourselves in the way that we wish to. It’s a basic right of humans to express themselves...

Tim: I don’t know if I want to say it’s a basic right.

I want to say that people have reasons, all kinds of reasons, to want to be able to express themselves. Although when we’re talking about the permissible limits on speech we need to focus not only on the interests that people have in wanting to get their own ideas out there, but also the interests that people have as potential audience members to have access to what other people want to say. Philosophical discussions of the topic divide, to some extent, as to whether they focus mainly on speaker values or audience values, and I think it’s important to take both into account.

Nigel: OK, well with speaker values the justification tends to be in terms of autonomy; but with audience values we start talking about the consequences for the audience. The classic case there is with John Stuart Mill talking about the limits of free speech being set at the point where you harm another individual.

Tim: That’s true although, in a way, autonomy based views on the whole tend to focus on audience values - because it’s the audience who wants to have access to information to make up their minds. In so far as autonomy refers to the interests we have in being able to form our own opinions about how to live, what to do, how to vote, an autonomy based view tends to focus on audience values. By and large we think of speakers as already knowing what they want and what they value, and wanting to express it. That’s a kind of freedom: but it may not be helpful to call it autonomy. In general, it’s a case of once burnt twice shy. That is, having originally in my first publication given a theory of free speech that focused on autonomy, I’ve since come to think that it’s a word that’s probably a good idea to avoid. Because it can mean so many different things. On the one hand it can mean freedom, that is the ability to do things, on the other hand it can be a particular value, or in Kant’s case a particular inner power. It’s a misused word so I like to avoid it.

Nigel: Perhaps it would be easier to focus on a particular case to bring out the sort of considerations that are relevant here. If we take the case of people expressing contempt for a particular racial group - some people might argue that is a consequence of free speech that people should be allowed to say offensive things. How would you approach that case.

Tim: Well there seems to be a divide on this across different countries. That is, in the United States the law and much of academic opinion is much more in favour of the idea that free speech is incompatible with having laws that ban speech simply because they’re offensive - laws for incitement against racial hatred or expressing contempt for other groups are by and large held to be unconstitutional in the United States whereas in Britain, France, Canada, laws are quite different.

Now I’m in this sense typical of my country. I’m inclined to be rather suspicious of laws that restrict speech on the grounds that it gives offence to a particular group. Not that I favour speech that does that, I think it’s terrible; the question is whether you want to have a law that restricts it. And the natural question is why on earth shouldn’t you? After all it does harm people. Immigrant groups, racial minorities, are in a vulnerable position – vulnerable because they suffer from status harm. Widespread opinion that they are in some way inferior, ought not to be associated with, ineligible for various jobs, and so on.

So why shouldn’t speech that supports and perpetuates those attitudes be restricted? The problem is that there are so many ways in which speech can be offensive to different people, that if we start allowing offence to be a ground for restriction it’s very easy to generalise it, and the restrictions on speech, particularly on political speech, become too tight in my opinion.

Now there’s an empirical question here, and I think the jury is out. Canada has laws against speech that foments racial hatred, and Britain does, and so on. So against the free speech advocates of my sort you can say, well they have these laws, the sky hasn’t fallen. Political speech continues. On the other hand race relations haven’t improved much either. So the jury is to some degree out. And with respect to the UK I think it’s fair to say that a somewhat greater tolerance for restrictions on expression hasn’t served the political culture well. There’s also much more tolerance of restrictions on disclosures of official secrets and so on and I think these haven’t helped political discussion in the UK. So I think the US has benefited to some degree to what might seem to some people an overly rigorous protection of free speech.

Nigel: That strikes me as a slippery slope argument: the idea that you can’t take one step down the slope without ending up at the bottom. So you can’t take one step by restricting certain sorts of hateful speech because the consequence will be that all kinds of other sorts of speech will be restricted.

Tim: Well in the first instance it’s not a slippery slope argument. It is a question about what would be the effect of having that particular restriction. So I think the case turns on that. I then move to saying if you look more generally, the more permissive attitude towards restrictions on speech hasn’t been a good thing. The view of free speech that I’ve come to does give a heavy weight to calculations of that kind. The question is, is a particular regulatory power, the power to restrict speech on certain grounds, is that a power we can give to government without placing important speaker and audience interests unacceptably at risk? That’s the question. And the view that there is a right to speak in certain ways comes down to the claim that if the government were allowed to prevent speech of that kind that would be a dangerous power, that we shouldn’t allow, because the values of being able to speak and the values of being able to have access wouldn’t be adequately served; and that’s an empirical question – which powers are dangerous, but that’s my view.

Nigel: And the danger that you’re speaking of, is that the danger that effective government won’t be possible because there won’t be sufficient airing of different views?

Tim: That’s one value. That is preserving the kind of opportunity to speak and influence people, and the kind of opportunity on the part of voters to be informed that we need to have a functioning democracy. That’s certainly one value. But there are also more personal values. People have good reason outside of politics to want to be able to influence the development of their society culturally, to express their attitudes about sex about art about how to live. Audiences benefit from having access to these expressions. We want to hear a diversity of views.

On the other hand people want to protect what the dominant attitudes in society are. They don’t want people to express permissive attitudes towards sex or attitudes about religion that they disagree with, because that may cause the culture to evolve in ways in which they would prefer it didn’t evolve. We all have feelings of that kind; I don’t think it’s just these awful intolerant people. I feel that my society places a greater emphasis on sex, sexual attractiveness and so on than would be desirable. I don’t like living in a society that’s saturated with these feelings; but that’s the price of living in a free society.

I also think religion is growing in its influence and so the sense that one ought to be religious or pay deference to religion is growing in strength in the United States, from my point of view that doesn’t make it a society more like the one I would like to live in. But that’s the price of living in a free society. There are these ebbs and flows of cultural opinion and if you want to live on terms of freedom with other people you have to be willing to accept the society that results from everybody having access to a public space – you just have to accept it.

Nigel: I can see how censoring somebody’s political opinions might be dangerous to good government. But censoring somebody’s freedom to print pornographic images for instance, how can that harm good government?

Tim: My point in my answer to your last question was that providing the conditions necessary for good government isn’t the only thing that’s at stake in free speech. People who have views about, say, particular sexual relations, want to be able to express this not only as a matter of self expression, but they want to be in contact with other people who have similar views. And when regulation of that kind of expression is allowed the first thing that’s likely to happen is that the minority views of this are the most likely to get restricted, and I think that’s a cost. I don’t like living in a society where there's lots of pornography and people very interested in that, but, you’ve got to live with it.

Nigel: Another area where it’s difficult to see where to draw the line is with factual information that could be used in terrorist activity. So for instance if somebody wants to publish the details of how to make a certain kind of bomb on the internet, is it appropriate to censor them?

Tim: I think it is. I don’t think we don’t have an interest in access to information about how to manufacture bombs which is parallel to our interest to wanting to have information about what the government is actually doing, or to be able to communicate with others about sexual, moral or religious matters. So I don’t think there’s a similar threat to our interests as potential speakers or to our interests as audiences who want to be able to form our opinion about things if technical information about armaments and explosives is restricted.

The main worry there seems to me to be at the margin; whether some kinds of information about technical questions about military armaments become important political things that we need to know about. Like we need to know whether a missile defence system would actually work! Now there’s a fair amount of distance between having a recipe for making nerve gas at home and having some information about how well the government’s attempt to build a missile defence system have actually worked. But in between, there might be a worry. But on the whole I’m relatively comfortable with the idea that technical information about the production of armaments is something that it’s permissible to regulate.

Nigel: We’ve talked quite a lot about the differences between the law in the States and the UK, I’m intrigued to know whether you think that the kinds of principles that you come up with in your philosophy are universalizable across societies and countries, or whether they are restricted to the particular circumstances of particular countries at particular times?

Tim: On the whole I come down on the universal side. I once had an experience speaking to a seminar that involved people from 27 different countries, academics and non academics. And they’d asked for a presentation on free speech. So I said the question of free speech is the question of whether the power to regulate speech in a certain way is the power that it’s too dangerous for governments to have. And that’s a question of whether, if they had that power, the interests of speakers or audiences would be unduly restricted. And those who believe in free speech also have to believe that we should forbid governments from having this power at acceptable cost. And in the discussion, people all objected; they said your discussion entirely focused on things in the United States. It maybe alright in the United States to prevent the government from restricting speech, but that wouldn’t work in India, someone said. Because in India if you allowed people to say certain things, then some people would riot. And a Turkish man said, a man in our law school thinks that bourgeois rights are nonsense, and obviously he can’t be allowed to say that kind of thing; but you don’t have that problem in the United States. The effect of this discussion was to reinforce my universalist tendencies and to think that things aren’t that different all over. Because, of course, exactly those questions come up in almost any society.

Now of course societies vary; the risks may be greater in some societies than in others. But on the whole there’s a lot of commonality there. As far as the question of riots is concerned, this is what’s known in the United States legal arguments as the hecklers veto. If you allow the threat of a riot to be a reason to prevent somebody from speaking all a group has to do to stop somebody from speaking is to threaten to riot. So the first response of the State has to be to stop the riot or put the speech in a venue where it can be protected; those are things the state can do.

Places where people don’t believe in free speech, I think they don’t believe in free speech largely for the reasons I’ve just mentioned, they may think, well in a stable society it’s ok, but for us the risks are too great. It’s possible that sometimes they’re right about that, but on the whole I think it’s a matter of not having enough faith in your fellow citizens and being too worried about what the consequences will be. Of course it’s in the interests of governments to encourage these fears, because it’s in the interests of governments to be able to regulate speech. Not because they’re evil, but just because they’re people who have their objectives and they want to be able to pursue those objectives in what seems to be the most effective way. Governments everywhere have reason to want to restrict speech; so everywhere we need laws to prevent them from doing that.

Nigel: Free speech is one of those ideas that people are prepared to die for. How would you place free speech relative to other important rights or ideas that animate people in political situations?

Tim: Well free speech first has a particular instrumental value, because it’s very important as a way of preventing other kinds of rights violations. People can be imprisoned in secret and one of the best ways of trying to stop that kind of thing is to try to bring it into the public sphere where political opposition can be mobilised. So freedom of speech has an important instrumental role in protecting other rights. There are cases where freedom of speech can seem to conflict with other rights. For example the right to a fair trial. In order to have a fair trial we need to prevent people from being convicted in advance in the press, so the jury can’t be convened that won't already have made up its mind about guilt. That is a clash.

When there is a clash of values of that kind one has to try to work out a strategy to deal with it. I think on the whole, by sequestering juries, by allowing defence attorneys to examine juries in advance and to ask them about their prejudices, on the whole I think one can protect the right to a fair trial, without placing many restrictions on what can be said. I don’t want to say there is never a conflict, there can be, but I think on the whole it’s possible to work them out.

Nigel: Tim Scanlon, thank you very much.

Tim: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure talking with you.

David: Ethics Bites was produced in association with The Open University. You can listen to more Ethics Bites on, where you’ll also find supporting material, or you can visit External link 5 to hear more philosophy podcasts.

Quotes of the week - NSS Newsline

"All the research shows that the majority of people in this country do not want their lives to be run by religious leaders or religious institutions. But the entrenched power of the churches will be difficult to remove, and unless we band together to resist, religion will continue to dominate our schools and play an undemocratic part in our governance. Join the growing resistance – join the NSS. Go to and pay securely on-line today."

30 May 2008

Quotes of the week
"We realised that all our doubts, all the things we had been fobbed off about by priests and teachers, we had been right about all along. We were right to ask these questions and, no, they didn't have an answer, they were just very good at telling you to stop looking for it."
(Novelist Christopher Brookmyre telling of his loss of faith in Scotland on Sunday)

"You would think that by now Allah's message might be getting through. Time after time Muslim fanatics attempt to wreak devastation in Britain - and succeed only in blowing themselves up, or setting themselves on fire, or their explosives refuse to do the decent thing and explode - while we infidel cockroaches look on in bemusement, quite unharmed. If you were a devout believer, you might put two and two together and begin to suspect that Allah doesn't entirely approve of blowing British people to bits. He would much rather his jihadis stayed at home and watched the Eurovision Song Contest, or did a spot of gardening, or took the dog for a walk."
(Rod Liddle, Sunday Times)

"As noble as this fight against abortion may seem, Pope Benedict and the Vatican hierarchy are using it as a not-so-secret weapon to bend national governments to their will. As pro-Catholic governments start popping up across Europe, in part on account of the abortion issue, what other doctrines will begin to be enforced? What started out as a fight for the lives of unborn babies could end up as a fight to enforce Sunday worship or universal acceptance of papal infallibility."
(Editorial, The Trumpet)

Friday, May 30, 2008

Tony Blair: I want to spend my life uniting faiths

Tony Blair

Tony Blair. Photograph: Martin Argles

Tony Blair today said he wanted to devote the rest of his life to promoting understanding between the world's religions.

The former prime minister recalled how his Christian faith gave him the strength to take tough decisions during his spell in Downing Street.

In his most detailed description of the central role of faith during his decade as prime minister, Blair said religion inspired him even when he thought he had little political support.

His remarks appeared in an interview with Time magazine on the eve of tomorrow's launch of his new Faith Foundation, which aims to increase dialogue and practical work between the world's religions, in New York.

Blair, who travels the world as Middle East peace envoy, as a £500,000 a year adviser to the investment bank JP Morgan and as one of the highest paid speakers on the global lecture circuit, said fostering interfaith dialogue was now his most important work.

"This is how I want to spend the rest of my life," he said.

Blair was wary of talking about religion during his time in Downing Street for fear of being seen "as a nutter", he told a BBC documentary last year.

Alastair Campbell, his former communications director, famously told an interviewer from Vanity Fair: "We don't do God."

The former prime minister, a committed Anglican since his days as a student at Oxford in the 1970s, converted to Catholicism after his departure from No 10 last year.

He told how religion helped him during difficult periods as prime minister, saying: "The worst thing in politics is when you're so scared of losing support that you don't do what you think is the right thing.

"What faith can do is not tell you what is right but give you the strength to do it."

In his Time interview, the former prime minister did not mention his most difficult period in office, the buildup to the Iraq war in March 2003 when he told aides that he would resign if he lost a commons vote authorising military action.

But he made the central importance of his faith clear when he said:

"I think faith gives you a certain strength and gives you a support in doing a job as difficult as leading a country and gives you that strength and support."

In a rare comment about his faith during his time in Downing Street, Blair said in 2006 that he accepted that he would be judged by God.

"If you believe in God, [judgment] is made by God as well," he said. This was wrongly interpreted to mean he had sought divine approval for the Iraq war.

Blair will announce tomorrow that that his

Faith Foundation, to be run by his former No 10 aide Ruth Turner, will bring together six faiths - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism.

He said

the foundation would encourage practical work by religious groups to help tackle poverty and disease, and singled out the UN's millennium development goals as an important area.

His first target will be malaria, which kills around 850,000 children a year.

"If you got churches and mosques and those of the Jewish faith working together to provide the bed nets that are necessary to eliminate malaria, what a fantastic thing that would be," he said.

"That would show faith in action, it would show the importance of cooperation between faiths, and it would show what faith can do for progress."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sharon Stone blames Chinese earthquake on bad karma

Darn celebrities with their bizarre spiritual beliefs. You can't live with them, but reading those free papers they give out in London might become even more boring if we had to live without them. We've featured a few before, most recently Madonna and her belief that parents' souls choose the gender of their children, and now along comes former-Scientologist-turned-Buddhist Sharon Stone with her view that the recent Sichuan earthquake in China might have been caused by "bad karma":

"I'm not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don't think anyone should be unkind to anyone else. I've been concerned about how should we deal with the Olympics, because they are not being nice to the Dalai Lama, who is a good friend of mine. And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and I thought, is that karma – when you're not nice that the bad things happen to you?"

That's right, China as a geographical entity (population 1.3bn) has "bad karma" because of the ongoing situation with Tibet (the Dalai Lama's Sharon's friend you know) so along comes an enormous earthquake that kills over 68,000 innocent people and leaves over 4m homeless in a province in the middle of China which is unlikely to be inhabited by any of the people directly responsible for what's happened in Tibet (which incidentally Sharon is "not happy" about).

Needless to say many people in China are unhappy with these comments and some cinemas have vowed to never show her films again, which will presumably come as no great loss to the Chinese people. Cosmetics stores have also taken down adverts featuring Stone, and citizens have posted videos on YouTube calling on the actor to apologise.

Stone made the comments while she was at Cannes last week. Here's a video (the meat is in the first couple minutes):

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Religion is a product of evolution, software suggests

by New Scientist

Thanks to GP for the link.

Religion is a product of evolution, software suggests
by Ewen Callaway

Check original article for embedded links

God may work in mysterious ways, but a simple computer program may explain how religion evolved

By distilling religious belief into a genetic predisposition to pass along unverifiable information, the program predicts that religion will flourish. However, religion only takes hold if non-believers help believers out – perhaps because they are impressed by their devotion.

"If a person is willing to sacrifice for an abstract god then people feel like they are willing to sacrifice for the community," says James Dow, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, US, who wrote the program – called Evogod (download the code here).

Dow is by no means the first scientist to take a stab at explaining how religion emerged. Theories on the evolution of religion tend toward two camps. One argues that religion is a mental artefact, co-opted from brain functions that evolved for other tasks.

Aiding the people

Another contends that religion benefited our ancestors. Rather than being a by-product of other brain functions, it is an adaptation in its own right. In this explanation, natural selection slowly purged human populations of the non-religious.

"Sometime between 100,000 years ago to the point where writing was invented, maybe about 7000 BC, we begin to have records of people's supernatural beliefs," Dow says.

To determine if it was possible for religion to emerge as an adaptation, Dow wrote a simple computer program that focuses on the evolutionary benefits people receive from their interactions with one another.

"What people are adapting to is other people," he says.

Religious attraction

To simplify matters, Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn't spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, "believers in the unreal" went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

"Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them," Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

Ancient needs

Richard Sosis, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, US, says the model adds a new dimension to the debate over how religion could have evolved, which has previously relied on verbal arguments and speculation. But "these are baby steps", he cautions.

Sosis previously found that in some populations – kibbutzim in Israel, for instance – more religious people receive more assistance from others than the less faithful. But he notes that the forces that maintain religion in modern humans could be very different from those that promoted its emergence, thousands of years ago.

Palaeolithic humans were probably far more reliant than modern humans on the community they were born into, Sosis says. "[Now] you can be a Lutheran one week and decide the following week you are going to become a Buddhist."

Journal reference: Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Stimulation, vol 11, p 2

The Mind-Altering Role of Incense in Religion

by Live Science

Thanks to Ken Dally for th link.

The Mild-Altering Role of Incense in Religion

By Meredith F. Small, LiveScience's Human Nature Columnist

Growing up as a Catholic, I spent much of my youth kneeling at the front of a church, inhaling incense. At every mass, the priest would grab the brass incense burner from the alter boy and wave it at the congregation as a benediction, spewing smoke in my direction. Little did I, or my parents, know that the priest was also sending a mind-altering drug wafting in my direction.

Incense might be symbolic in religious ceremonies, but it has also, perhaps not so coincidentally, played a role in gathering the faithful into the fold. A team of international neuroscientists has just announced that a component of the resin made from Boswellia trees, more commonly called
Frankincense (yes, the same stuff brought to baby Jesus by the Three Kings), biochemically relieves anxiety in mice, and presumably people.

Although religion is usually considered a purely cultural construction, it might also have deep psychotropic roots.

Sociologists, philosophers and anthropologists have always looked beyond the spiritual to explain why organized religion was invented and why it stills plays a major role in all human societies.

Religion is, first and foremost, about community. Unlike groups that are formed by blood connections, religion has always been a way for unrelated individuals to cooperate, to depend on each other. As such, religion has always functioned as way of taking disparate people and encouraging them to be nice to each other.

Belonging to the same religion also gives people a common identity, sometimes across countries and continents. Of course, that spirit of community has also been forced upon people as a way to change their identity, if they want to or not.

And as anyone who has attended a bris, a First Holy Community, or a wedding knows, religion has always been instrumental in marking the passage of individuals through the life course from baptism through funerals, something that people love to do.

For some, religion also binds their anxiety because it answers unanswerable questions about death, the afterlife, and why in the world we are here in the first place. Religion can also be a place of solace during the hard times, a place to find hope when times are hopeless. In other words, religion is often essential for our psychological well-being.

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University and others have also pointed out that religion can also be adaptive. If cooperation and group identity helps individuals stay alive and pass on genes, then religion is evolutionarily important, even if we made it up.

The recent research, published in the online FASEB Journal (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) on May 2, suggests that religion, or at least many religious rituals, might also have another evolutionary, or biological function.
Along with the group support, the embracing identity and the place to pray when times are bad, some religions are also doling out a bit of a psychotropic drug that helps the mind find peace.

Under the influence of a good snoot full of incense, mice in scary situations, such as being put in a swimming pool, remain calm, anxiety-free. At the alter, too, people feel the same sense of peace that comes from either the comforting words of the clergy, or from the intoxicating, brain altering, smell of incense.

In an age of endless anxiety, no wonder religion works; it is both cultural and biological.

Karl Marx claimed that organized religion was the "opiate of the people," meaning it dulls us into complacency, but that might not be such a bad thing.

What is Humanism?

by Frederick Edwords
Executive Director, American Humanist Association

What is humanism?

The sort of answer you will get to that question depends on what sort of humanist you ask!

The word "humanism" has a number of meanings, and because authors and speakers often don't clarify which meaning they intend, those trying to explain humanism can easily become a source of confusion. Fortunately, each meaning of the word constitutes a different type of humanism -- the different types being easily separated and defined by the use of appropriate adjectives. So, let me summarize the different varieties of humanism in this way.

Literary Humanism is a devotion to the humanities or literary culture.

Renaissance Humanism is the spirit of learning that developed at the end of the middle ages with the revival of classical letters and a renewed confidence in the ability of human beings to determine for themselves truth and falsehood.

Cultural Humanism is the rational and empirical tradition that originated largely in ancient Greece and Rome, evolved throughout European history, and now constitutes a basic part of the Western approach to science, political theory, ethics, and law.

Philosphical Humanism is any outlook or way of life centered on human need and interest. Sub-categories of this type include Christian Humanism and Modern Humanism.

Christian Humanism is defined by Webster's Third New International Dictionary as "a philosophy advocating the self- fulfillment of man within the framework of Christian principles." This more human-oriented faith is largely a product of the Renaissance and is a part of what made up Renaissance humanism.

Modern Humanism, also called Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism and Democratic Humanism is defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion." Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories.

Secular Humanism is an outgrowth of 18th century enlightenment rationalism and 19th century freethought. Many secular groups, such as the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism and the American Rationalist Federation, and many otherwise unaffiliated academic philosophers and scientists, advocate this philosophy.

Religious Humanism emerged out of Ethical Culture, Unitarianism, and Universalism. Today, many Unitarian- Universalist congregations and all Ethical Culture societies describe themselves as humanist in the modern sense.

The most critical irony in dealing with Modern Humanism is the inability of its advocates to agree on whether or not this worldview is religious. Those who see it as philosophy are the Secular Humanists while those who see it as religion are Religious Humanists. This dispute has been going on since the early years of this century when the secular and religious traditions converged and brought Modern Humanism into existence.

Secular and Religious Humanists both share the same worldview and the same basic principles. This is made evident by the fact that both Secular and Religious Humanists were among the signers of Humanist Manifesto I in 1933 and Humanist Manifesto II in 1973. From the standpoint of philosophy alone, there is no difference between the two. It is only in the definition of religion and in the practice of the philosophy that Religious and Secular Humanists effectively disagree.

The definition of religion used by Religious Humanists is a functional one. Religion is that which serves the personal and social needs of a group of people sharing the same philosophical world view.

To serve personal needs, Religious Humanism offers a basis for moral values, an inspiring set of ideals, methods for dealing with life's harsher realities, a rationale for living life joyously, and an overall sense of purpose.

To serve social needs, Humanist religious communities (such as Ethical Culture societies and many Unitarian-Universalist churches) offer a sense of belonging, an institutional setting for the moral education of children, special holidays shared with like-minded people, a unique ceremonial life, the performance of ideologically consistent rites of passage (weddings, child welcomings, coming-of-age celebrations, funerals, and so forth), an opportunity for affirmation of one's philosophy of life, and a historical context for one's ideas.

Religious Humanists maintain that most human beings have personal and social needs that can only be met by religion (taken in the functional sense I just detailed). They do not feel that one should have to make a choice between meeting these needs in a traditional faith context versus not meeting them at all. Individuals who cannot feel at home in traditional religion should be able to find a home in non-traditional religion.

I was once asked by a reporter if this functional definition of religion didn't amount to taking away the substance and leaving only the superficial trappings. My answer was that the true substance of religion is the role it plays in the lives of individuals and the life of the community. Doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, and new doctrines may replace old ones, but the purpose religion serves for PEOPLE remains the same. If we define the substance of a thing as that which is most lasting and universal, then the function of religion is the core of it.

Religious Humanists, in realizing this, make sure that doctrine is never allowed to subvert the higher purpose of meeting human needs in the here and now. This is why Humanist child welcoming ceremonies are geared to the community and Humanist wedding services are tailored to the specialized needs of the wedding couple. This is why Humanist memorial services focus, not on saving the soul of the dear departed, but on serving the survivors by giving them a memorable experience related to how the deceased was in life. This is why Humanists don't proselytize people on their death beds. They find it better to allow them to die as they have lived, undisturbed by the agendas of others.

Finally, Religious Humanism is "faith in action." In his essay "The Faith of a Humanist," UU Minister Kenneth Phifer declares --

Humanism teaches us that it is immoral to wait for God to act for us. We must act to stop the wars and the crimes and the brutality of this and future ages. We have powers of a remarkable kind. We have a high degree of freedom in choosing what we will do. Humanism tells us that whatever our philosophy of the universe may be, ultimately the responsibility for the kind of world in which we live rests with us.

Now, while Secular Humanists may agree with much of what religious Humanists do, they deny that this activity is properly called "religious." This isn't a mere semantic debate.

Secular Humanists maintain that there is so much in religion deserving of criticism that the good name of Humanism should not be tainted by connection with it.

Secular Humanists often refer to Unitarian Universalists as "Humanists not yet out of the church habit." But Unitarian- Universalists sometimes counter that a secular Humanist is simply an "unchurched Unitarian."

Probably the most popular example of the Secular Humanist world view in recent years was the controversial author Salman Rushdie. Here is what he said on ABC's "Nightline" on February 13, 1989, in regard to his novel The Satanic Verses.

[My book says] that there is an old, old conflict between the secular view of the world and the religious view of the world, and particularly between texts which claim to be divinely inspired and texts which are imaginatively inspired. . . . I distrust people who claim to know the whole truth and who seek to orchestrate the world in line with that one true truth. I think that's a very dangerous position in the world. It needs to be challenged. It needs to be challenged constantly in all sorts of ways, and that's what I tried to do.

In the March 2, 1989, edition of the New York Review, he explained that, in The Satanic Verses he --

. . . tried to give a secular, humanist vision of the birth of a great world religion. For this, apparently, I should be A tried. . . . "Battle lines are being drawn today," one of my characters remarks. "Secular versus religious, the light verses the dark. Better you choose which side you are on."

The Secular Humanist tradition is a tradition of defiance, a tradition that dates back to ancient Greece. One can see, even in Greek mythology, Humanist themes that are rarely, if ever, manifested in the mythologies of other cultures. And they certainly have not been repeated by modern religions. The best example here is the character Prometheus.

Prometheus stands out because he was idolized by ancient Greeks as the one who defied Zeus. He stole the fire of the gods and brought it down to earth. For this he was punished. And yet he continued his defiance amid his tortures. This is the root of the Humanist challenge to authority.

The next time we see a truly heroic Promethean character in mythology it is Lucifer in John Milton's Paradise Lost. But now he is the Devil. He is evil. Whoever would defy God must be wickedness personified. That seems to be a given of traditional religion. But the ancient Greeks didn't agree. To them, Zeus, for all his power, could still be mistaken.

Imagine how shocked a friend of mine was when I told her my view of "God's moral standards." I said, "If there were such a god, and these were indeed his ideal moral principles, I would be tolerant. After all, God is entitled to his own opinions!"

Only a Humanist is inclined to speak this way. Only a Humanist can suggest that, even if there be a god, it is OK to disagree with him, her, or it. In Plato's Euthyphro, Socrates shows that God is not necessarily the source of good, or even good himself. Socrates asks if something is good because God ordains it, or if God ordains it because it is already good. Yet, since the time of the ancient Greeks, no mainstream religion has permitted such questioning of God's will or made a hero out of a disobedient character. It is Humanists who claim this tradition.

After all, much of Human progress has been in defiance of religion or of the apparent natural order. When we deflect lightening or evacuate a town before a tornado strikes, we lessen the effects of so called "acts of God." When we land on the Moon we defy the Earth's gravitational pull. When we seek a solution to the AIDS crisis, we, according to Jerry Falwell, thwart "God's punishment of homosexuals."

Politically, the defiance of religious and secular authority has led to democracy, human rights, and even the protection of the environment. Humanists make no apologies for this. Humanists twist no biblical doctrine to justify such actions. They recognize the Promethean defiance of their response and take pride in it. For this is part of the tradition.

Another aspect of the Secular Humanist tradition is skepticism. Skepticism's historical exemplar is Socrates. Why Socrates? Because, after all this time, he still stands out alone among all the famous saints and sages from antiquity to the present. Every religion has its sage. Judaism has Moses, Zoroastrianism has Zarathustra, Buddhism has the Buddha, Christianity has Jesus, Islam has Mohammad, Mormonism has Joseph Smith, and Bahai has Baha-u-lah. Every one of these individuals claimed to know the absolute truth.

It is Socrates, alone among famous sages, who claimed to know NOTHING. Each devised a set of rules or laws, save Socrates. Instead, Socrates gave us a method --a method of questioning the rules of others, of cross- examination. And Socrates didn't die for truth, he died for rights and the rule of law. For these reasons, Socrates is the quintessential skeptical Humanist. He stands as a symbol, both of Greek rationalism and the Humanist tradition that grew out of it.
And no equally recognized saint or sage has joined his company since his death.

Because of the strong Secular Humanist identity with the images of Prometheus and Socrates, and equally strong rejection of traditional religion, the Secular Humanist actually agrees with Tertullian--who said:

"What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?"

That is, Secular Humanists identify more closely with the rational heritage symbolized by ancient Athens than with the faith heritage epitomized by ancient Jerusalem.

But don't assume from this that Secular Humanism is only negative. The positive side is liberation, best expressed in these words of Robert G. Ingersoll:

When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free--free to think, to express my thoughts--free to live my own ideal, free to live for myself and those I loved, free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination's wings, free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope, free to judge and determine for myself . . . I was free! I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all worlds.

Enough to make a Secular Humanist shout "hallelujah!"

The fact that Humanism can at once be both religious and secular presents a paradox of course, but not the only such paradox. Another is that both Religious and Secular Humanism place reason above faith, usually to the point of eschewing faith altogether. The dichotomy between reason and faith is often given emphasis in Humanism, with Humanists taking their stand on the side of reason. Because of this, Religious Humanism should not be seen as an alternative faith, but rather as an alternative way of being religious.

These paradoxical features not only require a unique treatment of Religious Humanism in the study of world religions, but also help explain the continuing controversy, both inside and outside the Humanist movement, over whether Humanism is a religion at all.

The paradoxes don't end here. Religious Humanism is usually without a god, without a belief in the supernatural, without a belief in an afterlife, and without a belief in a "higher" source of moral values. Some adherents would even go so far as to suggest that it is a religion without "belief" of any kind-- knowledge based on evidence being considered preferable. Furthermore, the common notion of "religious knowledge" as knowledge gathered through nonscientific means is not generally accepted in Religious Humanist epistemology.

Because both Religious and Secular Humanism are identified so closely with cultural humanism, they readily embrace modern science, democratic principles, human rights, and free inquiry. Humanism's rejection of the notions of sin and guilt, especially in relation to sexual ethics, puts it in harmony with contemporary sexology and sex education as well as aspects of humanistic psychology. And Humanism's historic advocacy of the secular state makes it another voice in the defense of church/state separation.

All these features have led to the current charge of teaching "the religion of secular humanism" in the public schools.

The most obvious point to clarify in this context is that some religions hold to doctrines that place their adherents at odds with certain features of the modern world which other religions do not. For example, many biblical fundamentalists, especially those filling the ranks of the "Religious Right," reject the theory of evolution. Therefore, they see the teaching of evolution in a science course as an affront to their religious sensibilities. In defending their beliefs from exposure to ideas inconsistent with them, such fundamentalists label evolution as "humanism" and maintain that exclusive teaching of it in the science classroom constitutes a breech in the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.

It is indeed true that Religious Humanists, in embracing modern science, embrace evolution in the bargain. But individuals within mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism also embrace modern science--and hence evolution. Evolution happens to be the state of the art in science today and is appropriately taught in science courses. That evolution has come to be identified with Religious Humanism but not with mainline Christianity or Judaism is a curious quirk of politics in North America. But this is a typical feature of the whole controversy over humanism in the schools.

Other courses of study have come to be identified with Humanism as well, including sex education, values education, global education, and even creative writing. Today's Christian fundamentalists would have us believe that "situation ethics" was invented by 1974 Humanist of the Year Joseph Fletcher. But situational considerations have been an element of Western jurisprudence for at least 2,000 years! Again, Secular and Religious Humanists, being in harmony with current trends, are quite comfortable with all of this, as are adherents of most major religions. There is no justification for seeing these ideas as the exclusive legacy of Humanism. Furthermore, there are independent secular reasons why schools offer the curriculum that they do. A bias in favor of "the religion of secular humanism" has never been a factor in their development and implementation.

The charge of Humanist infiltration into the public schools seems to be the product of a confusion of cultural humanism and Religious Humanism. Though Religious Humanism embraces cultural humanism, this is no justification for separating out cultural humanism, labeling it as the exclusive legacy of a nontheistic and naturalistic religion called Religious Humanism, and thus declaring it alien. To do so would be to turn one's back on a significant part of one's culture and enthrone the standards of biblical fundamentalism as the arbiter of what is and is not religious. A deeper understanding of Western culture would go a long way in clarifying the issues surrounding the controversy over humanism in the public schools.

Once we leave the areas of confusion, it is possible to explain, in straightforward terms, exactly what the modern Humanist philosophy is about. It is easy to summarize the basic ideas held in common by both Religious and Secular Humanists. These ideas are as follows:

  1. Humanism is one of those philosophies for people who think for themselves. There is no area of thought that a Humanist is afraid to challenge and explore.
  2. Humanism is a philosophy focused upon human means for comprehending reality. Humanists make no claims to possess or have access to supposed transcendent knowledge.
  3. Humanism is a philosophy of reason and science in the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, when it comes to the question of the most valid means for acquiring knowledge of the world, Humanists reject arbitrary faith, authority, revelation, and altered states of consciousness.
  4. Humanism is a philosophy of imagination. Humanists recognize that intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, flashes of inspiration, emotion, altered states of consciousness, and even religious experience, while not valid means to acquire knowledge, remain useful sources of ideas that can lead us to new ways of looking at the world. These ideas, after they have been assessed rationally for their usefulness, can then be put to work, often as alternate approaches for solving problems.
  5. Humanism is a philosophy for the here and now. Humanists regard human values as making sense only in the context of human life rather than in the promise of a supposed life after death.
  6. Humanism is a philosophy of compassion. Humanist ethics is solely concerned with meeting human needs and answering human problems--for both the individual and society--and devotes no attention to the satisfaction of the desires of supposed theological entities.
  7. Humanism is a realistic philosophy. Humanists recognize the existence of moral dilemmas and the need for careful consideration of immediate and future consequences in moral decision making.
  8. Humanism is in tune with the science of today. Humanists therefore recognize that we live in a natural universe of great size and age, that we evolved on this planet over a long period of time, that there is no compelling evidence for a separable "soul," and that human beings have certain built-in needs that effectively form the basis for any human-oriented value system.
  9. Humanism is in tune with today's enlightened social thought. Humanists are committed to civil liberties, human rights, church-state separation, the extension of participatory democracy not only in government but in the workplace and education, an expansion of global consciousness and exchange of products and ideas internationally, and an open-ended approach to solving social problems, an approach that allows for the testing of new alternatives.
  10. Humanism is in tune with new technological developments. Humanists are willing to take part in emerging scientific and technological discoveries in order to exercise their moral influence on these revolutions as they come about, especially in the interest of protecting the environment.
  11. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own lives and relish the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated answers to the great questions of life, Humanists enjoy the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of discovery that this entails.

Though there are some who would suggest that this philosophy has always had a limited and eccentric following, the facts of history show otherwise. Among the modern adherents of Humanism have been Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and 1957 Humanist of the Year of the American Humanist Association; humanistic psychology pioneers Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, also Humanists of the Year; Albert Einstein, who joined the American Humanist Association in the 1950s; Bertrand Russell, who joined in the 1960s; civil rights pioneer A. Philip Randoph who was the 1970 Humanist of the Year, and futurist R. Buckminister Fuller, Humanist of the Year in 1969.

The United Nations is a specific example of Humanism at work. The first Director General of UNESCO, the UN organization promoting education, science, and culture, was the 1962 Humanist of the Year Julian Huxley, who practically drafted UNESCO'S charter by himself. The first Director-General of the World Health Organization was the 1959 Humanist of the Year Brock Chisholm. One of this organization's greatest accomplishments has been the wiping of smallpox from the face of the earth. And the first Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization was British Humanist John Boyd Orr.

Meanwhile, Humanists, like 1980 Humanist of the Year Andrei Sakharov, have stood up for human rights wherever such rights are suppressed. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem fight for women's rights, Mathilde Krim battles the AIDS epidemic, and Margaret Atwood is one of the world's most outspoken advocates of literary freedom--Humanists all.

The list of scientists is legion: Stephen Jay Gould, Donald Johanson, Richard Leakey, E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick, Jonas Salk, and many others--all members of the American Humanist Association, whose president in the 1980s was the late scientist and author Isaac Asimov.

The membership lists of Humanist organizations, both religious and secular, read like Who's Who. Through these people, and many more of less reknown, the Humanist philosophy has an impact on our world far out of proportion to the number of its adherents. That, I think, tells us something about the power of ideas that work.

This may have been what led George Santayana to declare Humanism to be "an accomplishment, not a doctrine."

So, with modern Humanism one finds a philosophy or religion that is in tune with modern knowledge; is inspiring, socially conscious, and personally meaningful. It is not only the thinking person's outlook, but that of the feeling person as well, for it has inspired the arts as much as it has the sciences, philanthropy as much as critique. And even in critique it is tolerant, defending the rights of all people to choose other ways, to speak and to write freely, to live their lives according to their own lights.

So, the choice is yours. Are you a Humanist?

You needn't answer "yes" or "no." For it's not an either-or proposition. Humanism is yours--to adopt or simply to draw from. You may take a little or a lot, sip from the cup or drink it to the dregs.

It's up to you.

This is the text of a talk that has been presented to various audiences over the years.

© Copyright 1989 by Frederick Edwords

Monday, May 26, 2008

Does religion bring out the best or worst in people?

Repulsive but right

by Guardian

Thanks to Linda Ward Selbie for the link.

Repulsive but right

Hay festival 2008: On religion, you can't help but agree with Christopher Hitchens, and you can't help but admire Gene Robinson

By Martin Kettle

Does religion bring out the best in people, as Bishop Gene Robinson so passionately believes? Or does it set off the worst in them, as Christopher Hitchens argues so coruscatingly? I have just spent the past three hours at Hay in the company of the pair of them. Both are men of unbending certainty on opposite sides of the argument - in the first session, the clergyman who was introduced as "the most controversial Christian in the world today" and, in the second, the world's most anti-Christian controversialist.

If I was in the slightest bit vulnerable to being converted to Christianity, which I'm not, Bishop Gene would be the man to hook me and reel me in. He is so patently kind, caring and sincere in his decency towards all, his foes included. He talked of the need for Anglicans to stop obsessing about the Church and about religious doctrine and to embrace a God whose love is, as he put it, profligate. He would see his greatest critics in heaven, he promised. Love like that makes opponents seethe.

Robinson's essential argument against the Church that seeks to exclude him, as a gay bishop in a stable same-sex relationship, is that Anglicanism has constantly changed its views over history. In the past it defended slavery; now it is wholeheartedly ashamed of what it once defended. In the past it outlawed divorce; now it rightly embraces those who seek a second marriage. In the past it disallowed women from the priesthood; now it welcomes them, though not yet fully or warmly enough. In time, there will be shame too about the exclusion of open gays and lesbians from the ministry. I may not live to see it, the Bishop of New Hampshire said (echoes of Martin Luther King) but it will happen. It was impossible - and improper - to disagree with him. In a way, he is a historic figure. Hard not to admire.

Those are not words that come naturally after listening to Hitchens. He was, of course, in many ways brilliant, in most ways unanswerable and in the best sense, a wholly compelling act. He is also, in the big sense, absolutely right in a way that, to me, a Christian bishop is absolutely wrong. You simply cannot believe in virgins having babies, dead men coming back to life and human beings spending 98,000 years on the planet before some supreme being decides that a human sacrifice is needed to get the species back on track. These things are literally unbelievable.

Yet Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins, has absolutely no knack of persuading those he lambasts. Just like Dawkins at Hay last year, he may be right, but he comes over as deliberately arrogant and sometimes childishly offensive. He makes his supporters cheer, but he has no intelligent ability to persuade the doubter. He makes his audience laugh, but he can also be a bully. He is rude to those who doubt him. He is combative to those he thinks have insulted him - though in at least one case he clearly misunderstood the question he was being asked - though he has no qualms about insulting them. I agree with Hitchens (and indeed with Bishop Robinson) that conflict is necessary and productive and must not be shirked. Yet having listened to their two utterly different world views, I felt, as the authors of 1066 and All That did about the English civil war, that one side is wrong but romantic, while the other is right but (sometimes) repulsive.