Dangerous Dogma


How does the above image make your feel?  It's one of the Danish cartoons that caused thousands of muslims to protest in the streets, a few nuns to be murdered and a couple of embassies to be destroyed.

If the image angers you, ask yourself why it does.  Some Muslims interpret the Koran saying "[Allah is] the originator of the heavens and the earth ... [there is] nothing like a likeness of Him" (Chapter 42, verse 11; source here) to mean that you can't create images of Muhammed or Allah.

This is an incredibly literal interpretation of the Koran and you could ask if it's correct in the 21st century.  After all, this century is infinitely more complex than when the Koran was written, e.g., more technology, institutions, etc., so should you let an ancient text be the leading guide of your thinking?

Note that this could also apply to Christians who believe that a literal interpretation of the bible means that there's no evolution (like Republican presidential candidates Brownback, Huckabee and Tancredo - a Senator, Representative and [former] Governor respectively).  Or Jews who believe that Abraham being told in Genesis "Unto thy seed have I given this land" to mean "you deserve beachfront property on the Mediterranean."

So should you allow ancient scripture to be your primary guide in the 21st century?  For an eloquent opinion on why you shouldn't, check out this video of Sam Harris presenting at the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival.

In a speech entitled "Believing the Unbelievable: The Clash Between Faith and Reason in the Modern World" (PDF transcript), he systematically destroys the arguments usually given by dogmatists to support religion.  What's important to understand at all times is that he's not denying the existence of a god - rather, he's arguing that the 21st century is too complex to allow books purportedly written by gods to determine our political, economic and social policies.

Here's my attempt at summarizing his speech; I highly recommend watching the video.  Not only is it a great topic, he's an engaging speaker.  You can decide whether you believe him or not; at the least hopefully he'll give you a new perspective on an age-old debate.

Harris starts off with a powerful statement on what can happen when religious doctrine is interpreted too strictly: "[September 11th was] that day that 19 pious men showed our pious nation just how socially beneficial religious certainty can be."

In defending a strict view of religion, fundamentalists resort to any combination of the following arguments:

1) A specific religion is true

2) Religion is useful and therefore necessary

3) Atheism is a religion

Let's look at each of these:

1) If a specific religion is true, then most of us are doomed.  Based on statistical probabilities, the vast majority of people on Earth are going to hell as most of us don't believe in the same religion.  Moreover, there's no proof that one religion is better than the others.

2) If religion is useful, is it really necessary?  This is a non sequitur: simply because something is useful (air conditioning in New York City comes to mind) doesn't mean it is necessary.

Also, how "useful" have some elements of different religious tracts been?  Have Christian hangups over sex been useful?  What about Judaism's belief in the right to a place in the Holy Land or Islam's belief in martyrdom?

There are two ways to consider how "useful" a religious tract is.  The first is to ask if you could improve it.  Consider the 10 Commandments.

These are supposed to represent the best wisdom God had to offer - in fact, he delivered it in person.  Here's one of them:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

Are there other commandments that could be "more useful" than this?  What about "don't hurt children" or "don't pretend to know what you don't know"?

A second way to decide how "useful" religion is to determine whether it can provide us with learnings that are useful today.  Many religious literalists like to say that religious texts are the source of our morality.

However, the books advocate a violent morality.  In the bible, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy witness incredibly immoral acts that are then celebrated by God.  If Moses, Joshua and Elijah existed today, they'd likely be sent to the Hague for crimes against humanity.  Similarly, the 10 Commandments say that if your friend breaks one of the Commandments, you must kill him - and if you don't, your neighbours should kill you.

Some literalists will say that this violence was "a sign of the times" - but Bhuddists, Greeks and Jains all wrote books on spirituality and philosophy in biblical times without resorting to violence.

A second criticism of the morality of religious texts is the morality they do not address.  For instance, the bible neither recognizes nor repudiates slavery as wrong.  (You're not supposed to beat slaves too badly, hurt their eyes or teeth or kill them on the spot - but it's okay if you beat them so badly that they die after a few days).

Similarly, a lot of religious texts have incredibly poor recognitiion of the rights of women.  The Old Testament values a woman's life at 1/2 - 2/3 that of a man; Paul's letters show that in the New Testament women still haven't achieved parity.  In the Koran, it states that the testimony of two women is required versus that of one man.

Worse, in the bible, rape becomes an act one man commits against the honour of another man; a woman is simply the vehicle.  In Deuteronomy, it states that a woman should be stoned if she doesn't scream loud enough while being raped.

Let's go back to that third criticism: atheism is a religion.  First, "atheist" is an artificial word - it's like have a word for "non-astrologers".  Moreover, it's not a philosophical position - all the pious are atheists with respect to all other religions.  Everyone is an atheist relative to ancient gods like Zeus, Thor, Hades, etc.

An atheist is also not an anti-religion dogmatist, rather they're someone who does not regard the contents of a religious book as sufficient proof that God exists and should play a leading role in defining how they act in the 21st century.  Moreover, atheists are not arrogant.  They are open as to everything they do not know (a proof of God); this is the essence of the scientific method.  They believe that we do not know everything about the universe - and that the Bible/Koran are not our best understanding of the universe.

The irony is that many "humble" literalists claim to know everything about science due to creationism, etc.

Here are a couple of other thought-provoking statement made during the speech:

1) We don't speak of "Christian physics" or "Muslim algebra" (despite their creation by people of certain religion), but we speak of "Christian/Muslim ethics"

2) Many literalists believe atheism caused the horrors of the 21st century: Gulag, Killing Fields, Auschwitz.  However, these regimes had a dogma that reflected religious devotion, not atheistic skepticism.  In fact, in North Korea, many of the populace believe that food aid from the West is in fact devotional worship of Kim Jong Il.

3) The issue of religious literalism becomes more important as technology accelerates progress.  In the 21st century we will experience the equivalent of 20,000 years of historical technological progress.  For perspective, it took 20,000 years to go from the bow and arrow to the Internet

4) This acceleration means that if we choose to literally interpret religion, we have the technology to literally destroy ourselves.  We tend to forget that all prior civilizations have ended - and there was a "last" generation in that civilization.  Worse, those people likely didn't think that they were the last generation or that their civilization would ever fall.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

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