bookmark_borderA reality TV show someone should watch (not me)

So far I’ve spent about half of my life in the US, half in Turkey. The populations of both countries are insane. That is, the vast majority in both countries are too fond of religious and nationalist forms of enthusiasm for my taste.

Sometimes, though, I really don’t know how to respond to a particular example of weirdness. I hear that a Turkish TV channel is going to put on a reality show in which representatives of world religions get to compete in order to convert an atheist each time. This could be seriously crazy, brilliant, or anything in between. I’m not a TV person—I’ve never watched a reality show, and I am even more cut off from the Turkish TV scene than the American one. So I have no clue how this is going to end up. But it could be interesting.

bookmark_borderSummary of every book on the state of Islam written by a Muslim

Here, as a public service, is a summary of every single book on the state of Islam ever written by a devout Muslim in modern times:

The Muslim world is in crisis. But none of this indicates any fault with my version of Islam, which in its core precepts is divine and perfect. Muslims, however, have misunderstood Islam, and have therefore fallen into unfortunate circumstances.

There. That should save you from having to read through an awful lot of books. You’re welcome.

bookmark_borderStained glass

I was in Europe earlier this month, adding to the list of Gothic cathedrals I’ve visited. I like the stained glass windows the best. Here is a small sample: a window from Chartres, a detail from Bourges, and a single pane from Bern:

You’ll notice I especially like the hell or judgment themed ones. Most windows are more pedestrian; I like more of an element of the fantastic. And even if hell, devils, and the day of judgment are damnable doctrines, they’re pretty good for fantastic and fearsome art.


Freedom is to act as one’s real and true nature demands and so only the true exercise of that choice which is of what is good can properly be called ‘free choice’. A choice for the better is therefore an act of freedom . . . Whereas a choice for the worse is not a choice as it is grounded in ignorance . . . it is then also not an exercise in freedom because freedom means precisely being free of domination by the powers of the soul that incites to evil.

A statement by a conservative Catholic, perhaps from the “error has no rights” era? Actually, it’s Muslim, and from 1995. It’s a quotation from Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, one of Islamic thinkers favored by Ali A. Allawi, used in his recent The Crisis of Islamic Civilization. Allawi is very much a moderate Muslim; he served in the US puppet government in Iraq.

A sense of freedom is, perhaps, one of the most attractive emotional features of going without religion. I can’t say much about this directly—I’ve never enjoyed any faith, so I can’t compare states of belief from personal experience. But a sense of freedom is a constant theme in those writings I have encountered by people who have dropped out of faith. Being free of the cosmic authority proclaimed by certain religions apparently comes as quite a relief to many nonbelievers.

From the perspective of a believer in a religion that obsesses about a transcendent moral order, things must look very different. The very freedom a nonbeliever celebrates is a false freedom, a freedom for the baser instincts. Nonbelievers say they find freedom without religion; a common theme among Muslims is to say they find peace in submission.

From where I stand, the “freedom” of al-Attas is no freedom at all, and the peace achieved by the devout holds no attraction. I’m sure that from the standpoint of many a devout Muslim, the freedom I enjoy is a calamitous slipping of my moral moorings, and my lack of attraction to their peace is at best a deep folly, and probably a sign of dire corruption in my soul.

bookmark_border(Not) Defending the Quran

I read way too much apologetic literature, of both the Christian and the Muslim kind. It’s always hard to be confident I’m getting a representative sample; after all, I also ignore a lot that seems boring to me when I flip though a few pages. Still, I’ll risk a broad-brush comparison.

The Christian stuff I run into tends to be either not overly concerned with the Bible, or, if it’s fundamentalist in character, will often at least gesture toward detailed reasons why the Bible is completely trustworthy and so forth. There are lots of books out there that purport to demonstrate that the Bible is the Word of God. As a connoisseur of “loony books” and a fan of pseudoscience, I find these very entertaining.

I have, however, run into far fewer equivalents from the Muslim side. There is no shortage of writers standing up in defense of Islam, but it’s more typical for them just to assume that the Quran is the perfect Word of God, offering very little in the way of hints of why this is so. Their main preoccupation is defending one version or another of Islam as being True Islam. Sure, there are Josh McDowell equivalents in the Muslim world, but they seem to play a much more minor part. The more common attitude seems to be that the sacred nature of the Quran is just obvious. You encounter the Quran, and its perfection sweeps you away.

You have to be impressed by it. A billion Muslims, and for most of them, it would almost never occur to question whether an almost incomprehensible mishmash is divine. That’s strength in a faith.

bookmark_borderWhy moral absolutism requires the transcendent

In my last piece, I mentioned that moral absolutists cannot be satisfied with any secular account of morality, and in particular, no naturalistic account of morality. I should clarify why this is so.

The issue is not moral relativism, moral pluralism, or error theory, or any similar godless account of morality that explicitly denies objective moral realities. I think that if you want to have an accurate picture of the place of morality in the natural world, you should go in that direction, but that’s not the point. It’s that the kind of moral absolutes demanded by typical moral absolutists cannot be supplied even by ostensibly realist secular accounts of morality.

Take, for example, a popular direction to take if you want to make moral truths supervene on natural facts: refer to common human needs, good versus bad social strategies (in a game theoretic sense) and so forth. There are, after all, objective biological and social realities, and morality might be about good versus bad ways to negotiate such territory. And all this does put the “anything goes” variety of relativism out of play. (That is only a caricature of relativist/pluralist/error theory views anyway.) The problem is, even if such an approach were to deliver objective moral facts (I don’t think it does), it would not satisfy the moral absolutist. That is because no natural fact can provide the absolute, transcendent security and certainty the absolutist demands.

If morality supervenes on facts about human nature, the absolutist will be dissatisfied because then morality is relative to human nature. This is no idle complaint, especially in a time when biotechnology allows us to modify human nature. If we face a choice about meddling with human nature, a human-needs moral theorist can easily get lost. How do we make a choice when we are proposing to modify, even perhaps radically modify, the basis for evaluating choices? A theist, however, can at least hope to refer to ostensible knowledge about God’s transcendent purpose in creating human nature as it is.

Naturalists cannot satisfy absolutist demands, and I don’t see why we should try. Indeed, I see trying to preserve absolutist moral intuitions as part of the bad habit of nonbelievers to say that God is not real, but then to add that realizing this should not change anything important about our lives.

At some point, this becomes like saying that a theist should not worry that heaven and hell are not real, because we can achieve a state of immortality with rewards and punishments by naturalistic means. After all, it’s only science fiction now, but it is conceivable that we will make progress toward downloading human minds into machines, and similarly extend our conscious existence indefinitely. And with surveillance technologies developing similarly, we might even ensure rewards and punishments in such indefinitely persisting lives.

But, setting aside whether that is utopia or a nightmare, such a scenario could not and should not satisfy anyone who thinks that justice demands a state of reward or punishments after death. This is because if we take naturalism at all seriously, any technological approximation to a transcendent ideal will always fall short. It will inevitably be finite, approximate, imperfect, and impermanent. Someone who demands a transcendent variety of morality or justice will rightly refuse to be paid in naturalistic coin.

Naturalists should refuse to play such games. If a moral absolutist or a fan of cosmic retributive justice says that only a picture of the world that provides such things is acceptable, well, that’s their problem. In the context of trying to achieve an accurate understanding of our world, such demands are intellectually pathological. In other contexts, they may make more sense, but then I begin to lose interest.

bookmark_borderMoral absolutists

Reading defenses of religion, I often encounter the complaint that the modern, secular world is caught up in moral relativism. What we need, however, are moral absolutes. We have to have a secure direction by which to orient our lives. Monotheistic religion is attractive to such moral absolutists, because conservative monotheism proclaims absolutes. It may do so in the form of divine law, but it also presents ideals such as stories of saints—images of lives oriented toward an unshakable pole of righteousness. Therefore we must have religion; otherwise we are lost.

This is not, I think, really an argument. There is an element of complaint in it. After all, secular modernity does not sit well with every temperament. And there is also an element of observation. Moral absolutists correctly observe that, especially in today’s fluid modernity, most of us have to live lives where acknowledging a pole of righteousness is very difficult. Whatever anyone’s private convictions, moral relativism appears to be socially established. A modern, secular person can try to live a saintly life, but just what saintliness consists of is very unclear. The idea might not make sense anymore. And even if a secular person selflessly devotes themselves to a moral cause, it would be hard for them to achieve the serenity and certainty associated with a saintly ideal. In the secular modern world, doubt infects everything.

So, perhaps, moral absolutists are really declaring that lack of moral certainty is unacceptable. Secular intellectual currents, such as naturalism, cannot support the kind of moral absolutism they demand. Religion, especially traditional-minded and authority-emphasizing religions such as conservative Catholicism and Islam, provides an acceptable alternative.

In that case, it might not be appropriate to respond to such a position as if it were yet another apologetic strategy trying to show that God is plausible. The issue is not what is true, but what is acceptable to believe. That is a different matter. And as far as I can see, a degree of relativism does hold when we are questioning ways of life and what is morally acceptable. Moral absolutists inescapably hold false beliefs, especially about the nature of morality. But it is much less clear whether they are not rational in doing so.

bookmark_borderThe French way, or the Anglo-American way?

Some French politicians are indicating their displeasure with ultra-Islamic women’s coverings again. Nicolas Sarkozy just said that “The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

From an Anglo-American liberal point of view, this can easily come across as an example of the state overstepping its bounds, interfering with individual practices in order to impose a notion of the good. The liberal state should be neutral toward individual conceptions of the good, enforcing a commonly acceptable notion of justice instead. Liberal secularists, such as CFI’s John Shook, find the French attitude objectionable.

As always, however, the situation is murkier. Liberal individualism faces two immediate problems, neither which I think liberals can bypass.

One is, that by establishing a social order attempting to be neutral between individual conceptions of the good, liberals disadvantage more communally oriented ways of life. Liberals disguise this lack of neutrality by presenting communal behaviors as individual choices. A burqa, for example, is fine as an individual choice, part of the package that comes with choosing conservative Islam. But varieties of Islam that favor such extreme modesty are almost always strongly communal as well. They are ways of life that discourage, and explicitly oppose, liberal individualism. What sense does individual choice of dress style make, when the whole point is to immerse oneself in a communal sense of the sacred, so that obedience, not choice, becomes a central virtue in life?

The liberal response to this problem is typically to try to steer the conflict into a debate over choice and rights. Thus liberals will worry about whether the women who wear burqas are coerced into their choices: whether family, husbands, or the Muslim community is putting undue pressure on her. But this worry exposes liberal incoherence rather than Muslim pathology—the liberal inability to face up to forms of coercion endemic in all ways of life, even those which participants strongly favor. The same behavior by the community can be oppressive to one woman, supportive to another. If a woman is attracted by a more secular individualist way of life, community pressure will be constraining; it may harbor veiled threats of violence. For a more devout woman, community pressure will come across as solidarity, a reassuring sign of collective commitment to a moral ideal. Coercive aspects of community policing will accord with her notion of justice.

A second problem is closely related. Liberals countenance interference when individual rights are violated. There might, for example, be an argument for discouraging the burqa through public policy and legal means if such policies are necessary for securing women’s individual rights. Whether the burqa is a coerced choice remains an important point to settle, since preventing coercion seems, to most liberals, to be enough to justify positive action. (Anglo-American liberalism has, I think, inherited the Christian notion of unfettered libertarian free will, with all its nonsensical aspects.) But even so, I don’t think the argument based on women’s rights goes very far. After all, if liberalism is to be truly neutral with respect to competing individual conceptions of the good, it should not discriminate between conceptions rooted in different cultures and histories. But the particular set of rights liberals defend when discussing the burqa are rooted in a particularly Western, post-Christian culture and history. They don’t appear so universally compelling to people from other backgrounds, not to mention the continual deep political disagreements about rights Westerners have among themselves. If you throw in inclinations toward multiculturalism—a natural outgrowth of liberalism—it becomes even less clear that individual rights provide much of a leverage for political opposition to burqa-wearing.

The French, in contrast, tend more toward affirming a secular individualist way of life as a good worthy of public defence, rather than as a condition of neutrality.

This has its own problems. For example, it becomes less easy to defend secularism as a universal good. If they are honest, the French have to say that secularism and gender equality are an important parts of their way of life, full stop. Being committed to their way of life, they are prepared to take political action to ensure its reproduction and continuity. Conservative Muslims can say much the same thing from their perspective, naturally. So be it. Then we have overlapping and competing ways of life. The competition will inevitably involve varieties of coercion (not all coercion is violence!), since people cannot help but interfere in each others’ lives.

In that case, my view of the burqa matter is that it depends. What policy I favor depends, in other words, on my particular commitments and also the details of the particular circumstances. Banning burqas may be a good idea, but it also may be a damn stupid idea. It depends on what it is supposed to accomplish and whether it will accomplish that. What doesn’t help me is the notion that we can invoke some liberal principle either of state neutrality or of women’s rights and that that alone will settle the question.

bookmark_borderThe Hell You Say!

Fellow unbelievers: I don’t think we rip on hell often enough or stronly enough. The disgusting dogma of eternal punishment is still accepted doctrine for most “mainstream” denominations, and certainly for all the fundamentalist ones. Below is what I say back to two recent defenders of hell, Peter Kreeft, S.J. and Ronald Tacelli, S.J. It is slightly modified from my essay “Why I am not a Christian” on the Secular Web:

Many modern Christians have cooled the fires of hell, often interpreting hell as purgatorial or even as merely metaphorical. However, more orthodox thinkers argue that rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell is tantamount to the rejection of the entire Christian revelation. For instance, Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics, insist that the exact same grounds for believing that God is love, Biblical revelation, also teaches the reality of hell (Kreeft and Tacelli, 1994, p. 285). So, Kreeft and Tacelli throw down the gauntlet to someone like me: Either I accept Christianity and the doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell or I reject hell and Christianity too. If that is my only choice, I reject hell and Christianity too.

The problem is that when Kreeft and Tacelli come to defending the traditional doctrine, their arguments are woefully weak. They claim that God is not to blame for the pains of hell since hell is freely chosen by those who go there. The obvious rejoinder is that anyone who consciously chooses eternal punishment over eternal joy would have to be insane, and lunatics clearly need treatment, not punishment. The reply of Kreeft and Tacelli is astonishing:

…the Christian replies that that is precisely what sin is: insanity, the deliberate refusal of joy and truth….Perhaps the most shocking teaching in all of Christianity is this: not so much the doctrine of hell as the doctrine of sin. It means the human race is spiritually insane (p. 290).

However, if an act is insane it is not a deliberate choice; this is entailed by the meaning of the words “deliberate” and “insane.” Is the bizarre behavior of the schizophrenic deliberately chosen? Does the paranoiac freely opt to believe that the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission, Jewish bankers, the CIA, and the Martians are persecuting him? Maybe Kreeft and Tacelli intend something different by “insane” and “deliberate” than what those words normally mean, but one hesitates to accuse two distinguished philosophers of such blatant humpty-dumptyism.

Even if sin is freely chosen, it is God who decides what the consequences of that choice are. It is God who decides that unrepentant sinfulness must bear the consequence of eternal pain. The obvious objection is that finite and temporal sin, no matter how gross, do not merit infinite and eternal punishment, and so hell contradicts divine justice. Kreeft and Tacelli reply (a) that eternity is not endless time but an entirely different dimension than time, so there is no problem of endless punishment, and (b) that hell’s punishments are eternal but not infinite; there are degrees of joy in heaven and degrees of misery in hell.

Unfortunately, these replies raise far more questions than they answer: If hell is not endless suffering–indeed, if it lasts no time at all–why should we fear it? What would it be like to experience “eternal” as opposed to “endless” suffering? Is eternal suffering worse than endless suffering? If so, the problem of apparent injustice arises again. If Kreeft and Tacelli argue that these questions are out of order since eternal suffering is strictly incomparable with temporal suffering, I begin to wonder about the intelligibility of their concept of hell. The only kind of suffering which I have experienced or can imagine is temporal suffering, so Kreeft and Tacelli’s hell, with its concept of eternal, atemporal punishment, is utterly incomprehensible to me.

Kreeft and Tacelli seem to suspect that they have moved beyond rationality and intelligibility here since they conclude this section with the remark “To refuse to believe [in hell] is to measure God’s thoughts by ours (p. 300).” Allow me at once to plead guilty to “measuring God’s thoughts” by my own! As I see it, I have no other choice. If my intellect and my deepest moral convictions tell me that hell is a monstrous dogma, unworthy of belief by decent human beings, then it would be a grave sin for me to accept such a doctrine. It is a sad but edifying spectacle to see how intelligent defenders of the indefensible tie themselves in ethical and conceptual knots.

It is easy to see why Kreeft and Tacelli are loath to give up the concept of hell despite the conceptual gerrymandering and ethical contortionism it requires of them. Hell is Christianity’s most powerful instrument of control. Religious instruction ensures that the fear of hell is implanted in the mind in early childhood. When that fear is planted deep enough, the adult cannot entertain honest doubts without catching a whiff of brimstone. Dr. Johnson said “knowledge that one is about to be hanged clears the mind marvelously.” Fear of hell has the opposite effect; rational thinking becomes impossible when that fear is strong.

Remember, you cannot escape hell by being good; for Christians, everybody is bad. No matter how hard you strive to live a virtuous life, if you lack certain beliefs, you go to hell. That is what makes hell such a pernicious doctrine. Hell is the penalty for disagreeing with Christians! It is hard to imagine a more potent tool for propaganda, or one more subversive of rational thought. An appeal ad baculum is an attempt to persuade by intimidation or the threat of force. Hell is the ultimate ad baculum: Believe or suffer consequences too horrible to contemplate. In short, the doctrine of hell is Christianity’s campaign of psychological warfare against the human mind.

bookmark_borderEuropean legacy

Found in Slavoj Zizek’s Violence, page 139:

A couple of years ago a particular debate raged in Europe: should Christianity be mentioned as the key component of European Heritage in the preamble to the draft of the European constitution? A compromise was reached in which Christianity was listed along with Judaism, Islam, and the legacy of Antiquity. But where was modern Europe’s most precious legacy, that of atheism? What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post. This is most emphatically a European legacy worth fighting for.