bookmark_borderIs atheism like nudism?

I’ve been playing around with this analogy, but one of Keith Parsons’s latest comments made me want to think out loud about it. Could someone defending a privileged social and legal position for religion make an analogy between atheism and nudism, and justify a limited regime of tolerance of nonbelief, excluding it from the common public sphere?

Culturally, especially in conservative places such as the United States and Islamic countries, nudity is considered to be morally dubious in general, dangerous in public, and illegal except in limited circumstances such as nude beaches or the privacy of ones home.

Nudists presumably don’t think nudity is immoral or harmful. They can argue that repressing nudity is a cultural prejudice, and that the “natural lifestyle” associated with nudity has numerous benefits. Politically, they might aspire to have the social strictures against nudity loosened up. In opposition, conservative, morally upstanding citizens consider even hints of public nudity at least symptomatic of a decaying public order, and possibly worse.

Now, many people don’t hugely care one way or the other. It may well be true that the kind of suspicion of nudity we have is a historical and cultural artifact, and that we could live perfectly well in circumstances where nudity is considered less generally offensive. But then, we live with the history we have. In our circumstances, public nudity is disruptive. Those people who are enamored of public nudity can have their own places where they can act out their proclivities, but there is no reason to open up the common public sphere to more nudity, or to ease up on the climate of disapproval of nudity. We have a more-or-less functioning social order. Why exchange it for something else with unknown and dubious benefits? If social change slowly and organically takes us in a direction where public nudity is more acceptable, that is one thing. But it makes no sense to get carried away with abstract notions of freedom of dress and decide nudity will not be sanctioned now.

In conservative religious countries, where religion is thought to be integral to public morality, perhaps a similar argument applies. Atheists don’t think nonbelief is immoral or harmful. We think that disapproval of nonbelief is a cultural prejudice, and that freethinking has numerous benefits. Politically, we aspire to have the social strictures against expressions of nonbelief loosened up. In opposition, conservative, morally upstanding citizens consider even hints of public nonbelief at least symptomatic of a decaying public order, and possibly worse.

Again, many people don’t hugely care one way or the other. It may well be true that common disapproval of nonbelief is a historical and cultural artifact, and that we could live perfectly well in circumstances where lack of supernatural convictions is considered less generally offensive. But then, we live with the history we have. In our circumstances, public expressions of strong religious dissent is disruptive. Those people who are enamored of public blasphemy can have their own places where they can act out their proclivities, but there is no reason to open up the common public sphere to more opposition to religion, or to ease up on the climate of disapproval of nonbelief. We have a more-or-less functioning social order. Why exchange it for something else with unknown and dubious benefits? If social change slowly and organically takes us in a direction where public religiosity fades away, that is one thing. But it makes no sense to get carried away with abstract notions of freedom of expression and decide blasphemy will not be sanctioned now.

No analogy is perfect, and I’m sure this one breaks down in numerous places. But it could be interesting to ask exactly why we might be prepared to live with restrictions on nudity (freedom of dress) and not nonbelief (freedom of expression).

bookmark_borderBad news for agnostics?

While past studies have shown religious believers to be happier than nonbelievers, some new analysis shows that it’s not quite so simple. Luke Galen has found that the convinced non-religious are also quite happy, but people who are uncertain are the ones who are dissatisfied. Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn has analyzed data from the World Values Survey and found some more interesting details:

  • Religious people are both happier and unhappier. While a higher percentage of religious people report themselves as extremely happy than convinced nonbelievers, a higher percentage of religious people also report themselves as extremely unhappy.
  • Those who attend religious services and belong to religious organizations tend to be happier. And that’s whether or not they believe–in fact among that group, those with the stronger belief tend to be unhappier. So it’s the social aspect, not the doctrine, that promotes happiness. And this is further supported by:
  • The more religious a country is, the happier believers are, and vice versa. In religious countries, believers are happier; in nonreligious countries, nonbelievers are happier.

See more at the Epiphenom blog.

(Cross-posted to the Lippard Blog.)

bookmark_borderThe Moral Fool

Here’s a nice little book I just laid my hands on: The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality by Hans-Georg Moeller.

Both our religious and philosophical traditions push us toward a notion of Morality—with a capital M. There have to be Moral Truths that are objective, absolute, binding, categorical, etc. etc. We think there is a way Things Ought To Be, independent of particular interests. A chief source of employment for our Gods is to be an Authority that underwrites Morality. And a chief source of complaints against our Gods is that they fail to endorse the sort of Morality we want.

Against this, I favor not doing Morality. Oh, by all means, lets do politics, and let us continue to ask about how we might act and how we might improve our lives together. But we can do all that without some transcendent notion of The Moral Thing To Do.

This sort of amoralism is definitely a philosophical minority point of view. Even secular thinkers tend to be infected by the Morality bug, thinking that one of the main tasks nonbelievers need to engage in is to find an alternative foundation for Morality once God is out of the picture. Some, however, think this is a mistake. They defend varieties of “moral relativism,” error theory, amoralism, etc.

From my point of view, all these dissenting points of view on Morality are very sensible. We should no longer waste time doing Morality, just like we don’t devote many resources to astrology. Explaining “moral” behavior and perceptions is a job for the sciences; figuring out how we should live is up to the negotiations that constitute politics, engineering, and the law.

Moeller would, I think, agree with much of this. What I find very interesting in his book, however, is how he comes to his variety of amoralism, and how he presents an argument that we would be better off in life with less moral thinking.

Moeller presents an amoralism inspired by Daoism, which allows him to come at Western disputes over morality from a very interesting angle. That alone makes the book worth reading. In effect, discussing whether morality is a good idea in a more Chinese context takes monotheism temporarily out of the picture. Moeller gives us a Western look at a contrast between Confucian moralism and a Daoist “moral fool” approach. Both Confucianism and Daoism can be quite secular; they don’t have a strong dependence on the supernatural beliefs within their traditions. And when Moeller draws the reader back to the ostensibly secular Western tradition of moral philosophy, it becomes easier to see how prominent philosophers such as Kant and Bentham have defended some perfectly lunatic ideas.

Even better, Moeller argues that moral thinking can be dangerous and regularly unhelpful in everyday and social situations. He is particularly strong in defending the separation of law and morality. I found his criticism of the death penalty as applied in the US legal system, and and his criticism of just war theory particularly compelling. Moeller’s argument is too short in this rather short book to fully make a case that we can do better without morality, but it is a good start.

I, for one, will definitely be citing Moeller when I can in the future. He brings a fresh perspective to amoralism. His practical concerns take amoralism beyond the concerns with scientific explanations of moral behavior and perception that I have been most familiar with. And the Daoist angle is a very interesting twist in its own right. Moeller presents a way of being radically secular. Religion becomes irrelevant at best, since he’s interested in going beyond the secular substitutes for religious Morality as well.

bookmark_borderBlasphemy again

Derek C. Araujo points out that Pakistan is using the definition of blasphemy used in the recent Irish law as part of the concerted Islamic effort to get the UN to urge member states to prevent defamation of religion.

Now, let me make a not-so-wild guess and predict that in the medium term, we should expect free speech to become more curtailed where criticism of religion is concerned. Conservative religious groups are strong, organized, and determined to remove offense to their sensibilities from the public realm. At the very least, I expect they’ll be able to force more political compromises that bring legal regimes closer to their point of view.

In that case, what should those of us who enjoy the occasional bit of blasphemy do? I’m not sure. But I think we should give some thoughts to where we would definitely want to take a stand and protect a freer speech regime. Academic environments, some parts of the Internet, maybe some specialized media. Maybe what we have to do is to say that we can live with restrictions on public criticism of religion if we have to, provided that

  • There are places where criticism of religion is allowed;
  • Engaging in criticism in such protected environments does not disadvantage participants when they join the wider public realm, aside from possible informal disapproval and censuring;
  • The entry barriers to such free speech environments remains relatively low.

In other words, divide and balkanize the public sphere. The secular liberal ideal of a common public sphere where all reasonable people can interact may have to be shelved for a while. Give the religious what they want—offense-free spaces. But also allow for more secular enclaves that are hospitable to the godless minority.

bookmark_borderEconomic salvation

The US economy is in great shape—at least, Goldman Sachs is doing well, and politically that’s what counts. Still, unemployment is worrisome. Good Christian Americans might be distracted from the excellent work they’re doing in defense of health insurance companies. (At least, opposing any change in our wonderful health system seems to be a major preoccupation of the Christian radio station I listen to.)

Thing is, we can’t solve that problem by having Good Christian Americans actually make stuff anymore. Good Christian Americans can be kept quiet by the availability in Wal-Marts of cheap crap made by slave labor, but it would be nice to have some real income, rather than more ways to get into debt.

So, let’s export what we’re really good at. Financial swindles to allow the upper classes of other countries to divert their extra cash here is a good start, but they can’t be enough on their own. Too little of the money sucked up by Wall Street trickles down. Military services are better. After all, military technology is the one undisputed thing Americans are world-beaters at. Too bad we also have a habit of getting bogged down with occupying too many Muslim countries. So, perhaps what we really need is to combine financial bloodsucking with mercenary militarism with something even better. Export religion. That, after all, is the true American genius.

There are some remarkable synergies to be realized, if present practice is any guide. Good Christian Americans send out a large number of missionaries to less fortunate places of the world, converting many to fundamentalist and Pentecostal styles of Christianity. These converts are also reliably economically capitalistic, support local right-wing elites, and should provide a reliable constituency for the establishment of US military bases. In turn, the US military is increasingly evangelical Christian in character, and, if it were not kept under leash by liberal troublemakers, the military could be a great instrument for spreading the True Faith. With a more intensive program of exporting American-style religiosity, we could get even more wealth plundered by local elites transferred to US investment instruments, more local insurgencies and terrorism to provide a rationale for military operations, and more opportunities to trickle down money to Good Christian Americans in the form of defense contracts and jobs in the armed forces overseas. The next bubble we inflate could be a religious one! It may even breathe extra life into flagging financial and military bubbles, giving us extra time to continue raping the planet.

Nothing else seems likely to work. We’re not capable of sanity in this country. So we might as well do better exploiting even greater stupidity wherever we might find it overseas.

bookmark_borderMurderers are as bad as nonbelievers!

I’ve started reading yet another Muslim book explaining why True Islam is a religion of peace that utterly rejects terrorism: Terror and Suicide Attacks: An Islamic Perspective, edited by Ergün Çapan.

That’s fine and good: the more Muslims who reject jihadi ideology, the better. But immediately, the book gets off on the wrong foot. Fethullah Gülen, a very prominent Turkish religious leader, writes, in the first paragraph of his chapter, that “In Islam, killing a human is an act that is equal in gravity to unbelief.” Which presumably also means that unbelief is equal in gravity to murder. Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding, his last paragraph states that

Ibn Abbas said that a murderer will stay in Hell for all eternity. This is the same punishment that is assigned to unbelievers. This means that a murderer is subjected to the same punishment as an unbeliever. In short, in Islam, in terms of the punishment to be dealt on the Day of Judgment, a murderer will be considered to be as low as someone who has rejected God and the Prophet (an atheist in other words).

So Gülen is addressing an audience that already agrees that atheists are horrible human beings. He’s trying to convince his readers that murder is also unacceptable. In fact, murder is so bad, it is as bad as atheism!

Gülen, I should note, enjoys an international reputation as an apostle of tolerance and moderation. But as is often the case with Muslim religious leaders, his toleration refers to a modus vivendi between different religious communities—usually, in fact, between Abrahamic religions only. It will be a long time before atheism becomes as acceptable among Muslims as, say, among Southern Baptists.

bookmark_borderInfidel Billboards

Billboards advertising churches or proclaiming a Christian message are ubiquitous in American roadsides. But there are now some newcomers. I haven’t yet seen one in person, but billboards by atheistic and skeptical groups seem to be sprouting up as well. They usually appeal to the fellow nonbeliever, pointing out that they’re not alone.

The reason I know about the infidel billboards is that I invariably hear news about controversies and strongly negative local reactions. In fact, very often they seem vandalized. Just recently, I’ve read about repeated defacements of an AHA billboard in Idaho, threats against an atheist billboard in Cincinnati, and controversy stirred up by the presence of a nonreligious billboard in Nashville.

What is very hard to tell from such stories is whether those people quoted who express offense at any acknowledgment of the presence of nonbelief are representative of their community. Nasty attitudes make for good news copy, so presumably ugly reactions will get highlighted regardless of whether they reflect common sentiment or are just a few bigots you’ll always find everywhere.

bookmark_borderConservative Bible???

Leonard Pitts wrote an article a couple of weeks ago noting that the editors of “Conservapedia” are preparing a “conservative” translation of the Bible that will eliminate all “liberal bias” in extant bible translations (Damn those pointy-headed, bleeding heart, knee-jerk liberal King James translators!). Woo Hoo! I can’t wait to see it! In fact, I think contributors and commentators on this site should offer to help. Here is my offering, the beatitudes for the “conservative” Bible:


Blessed are the fanatical in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Fox News.
Blessed are they that torture: for they shall remain unprosecuted.
Blessed are the loudmouthed: for they shall inherit the town hall meetings.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after presidential birth certificates: for they shall be satisfied that he was born in Kenya.
Blessed are the mendacious: for they are following orders from Dick Armey.
Blessed are the pure in ideology: for they shall see Bill O’Reilly.
Blessed are the shooters of abortion doctors: for they shall be called the children of Bill O’Reilly.
Blessed are they which do thump Bibles for my sake: for they shall inherit the Republican Party.
Blessed are ye, when liberals shall revile you, and shall say that you are ignorant rubes, bigots, and wingnuts. Yea, those smarty-pants shall receive their comeuppance.
Rejoice and be exceeding glad, Congressman: for great is your reward from the large corporations when you vote the way they tell you.


I was recently offered an opportunity to debate a creationist, on the existence of God.

I was intrigued by the idea at first, but then I took some advice and turned it down. There’s a stereotype of scientists taking on creationists with the naive notion of presenting some basic science and contributing something to the public understanding of science. They then discover that a debate with a creationist is a totally different proposition. I admit, I have no experience with formal debates with creationists, and I would have got slaughtered. I found some other possibilities—people who do debates regularly—and went back to the less exciting world of making up physics exams.

Still, the notion of a debate is interesting. And when I think about it, asking myself what sort of debate I’d like to witness, never mind participate in, I wouldn’t go for something involving creationists. I, or someone like myself, have too little in common with them for the event to be anything other than a contest. With people that are somewhat closer, there’s enough common ground to make things more of a dialogue than a debate, so there’s more of a chance to learn something. I’ve had a couple of public events with more liberal religious people, and I’ve generally enjoyed them.

Anyway, which would be more interesting: to see a debate between an atheist and a bishop, or two scientists who have no quibble about the modern scientific view of the world, but who have different views on the worth of religion or spirituality? Say, someone relatively hardline atheistic such as Richard Dawkins, having a conversation with someone like Ursula Goodenough? Somehow, an event like that would be much more interesting to me.