bookmark_borderFaith and hope

Chris Hedges is one of the political writers that I like. (Even though he sometimes goes over the top, and he does too much moralizing.) Here is a short description of his faith, from his book American Fascists, bashing the religious right:

God is inscrutable, mysterious and unknowable. We do not understand what life is all about, what it means, why we are here and what will happen to us after our brief sojourn on the planet ends. We are saved, in the end, by faith—faith that life is not meaningless and random, that there is a purpose to human existence, and that in the midst of this morally neutral universe the tiny, seemingly insignificant acts of compassion and blind human kindness, especially to those labeled our enemies and strangers, sustain the divine spark, which is love.

This isn’t just Hedges; many of his fellow graduates of liberal seminaries will express similar views.

I’m not exactly sure what all this means—I suspect there’s a lot of well-crafted obscurantism lurking in these phrases—but it’s impressively resistant to criticism. After all, it acknowledges the impersonal nature of the universe. It still seeks some magic to human compassion, and it is a view that seems all too ready to seek divine sparks in what we don’t fully know. But all this is quite vague, difficult to translate into concrete observations. It’s more of a hope, a desire for meaning, than any well-defined fact claim.

To the extent that all this is a hope, it’s also hard for me to figure out what’s wrong with it. It’s a bloody stupid hope, perhaps, when we’re talking about cosmic purpose. But this hope also seems very tightly woven into Hedges’s conception of acting morally; perhaps without it, he’d have little option but to fall into despair. And that seems impractical at best.

I don’t really know what to make of all this, I guess.

bookmark_borderMorality Without God

In Morality Without God, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues against the popular belief that without acknowledgment of God, morality would collapse. He elaborates a form of godless morality centered on avoiding harm, points out that nonbelieving individuals are typically decent people and that secular societies do not collapse into anarchy. He also shows how religious foundations for morality do not work as well as promised. Sinnott-Armstrong wants to do all this in a readable, non-technical style. He takes conservative Christianity as the primary contrast to his secular point of view. And he is particularly careful to adopt a respectful tone, resisting the common atheist temptation of describing religion as an evil.

I think that Sinnott-Armstrong succeeds, by and large. I think, in fact, that this is damn good book. I can’t be too confident in judging how any conservative Christians who might read the book would respond, since that’s not my cultural background. Still, I expect that most readers, no matter how religious, will take this book as making a reasonable case, whether they end up convinced or not. That in itself would be considerable progress. It would at least undercut the “angry atheist” stereotype.

Still, I have to question whether an approach like that of Sinnott-Armstrong can ever be fully persuasive for a conservative Christian who demands a very hard conception of morality. Many monotheists think there are moral facts that are absolute, objective, binding, authoritative, universal, and so forth. Sinnott-Armstrong sympathizes, and shows that his harm-based account retains a good deal of what we might want from this hard conception of morality. Indeed, Sinnott-Armstrong claims that he is providing a godless account of objective moral facts.

That might, however, promise too much. It is not too difficult to bring objectivity to moral deliberations as long as we stick to questions such as whether and how religiosity supports pro-social behavior. If we can come to a wide enough agreement on what harm consists of (a more difficult proposition than Sinnott-Armstrong indicates), we will also be entitled to speak of acts that objectively cause harm without good reason. But this is a cheap sort of objectivity. A Muslim, for example, may claim that moral truths are embodied in Islamic Law, as presented by the sacred texts and elaborated by the deliberations of qualified religious scholars. And such an Islamic verdict will be objective: it does not depend on subjective whims; it is accessible and to a large degree even predictable for impartial inquirers who bother to learn enough about conservative Islam. But why would an outsider accept such a Muslim version of objective morality? Similarly, why should an outsider accept Sinnott-Armstrong’s harm-based account of morality as the best expression of what they mean by “morality” in everyday contexts? Morality Without God does very well in expressing a conception of morality that is shared among Western secular liberals. And to the extent that he is aiming to show that the godless may have a morality that maps reasonably well onto many of the moral intuitions shared by much of his readership, Sinnott-Armstrong does a fine job. The book is not as strong in showing why outsiders should adopt this secular liberal morality.

This difficulty is, I think, linked to a deeper problem. Sinnott-Armstrong, protestations about objective moral facts aside, does not deliver quite the hard, absolute morality that many conservative monotheists demand. This may be an artifact of the short and non-technical nature of the book, but Sinnott-Armstrong’s discussion seems quite compatible with moral pluralism or even amoralism—what I am inclined towards. That is a problem: my views on the nature of morality are, I think, unacceptable to most monotheists. To the extent that I can read a book like Morality Without God with very few objections, I have to wonder whether a conservative religious reader will easily read it in such a way that confirms her suspicions that godless morality is inevitably loose, soft, and relativist.

And there are, I think, plenty of avenues leading to relativism, pluralism or amoralism in areas that Sinnott-Armstrong cannot be expected to explore in a short, readable book. I, for example, would assimilate “harm” into my emphasis on interests (harm makes sense in the context of a complex of interests). From there, however, it does not take much to end up with a moral ecology with its pluralistic implications.

This should not overly bother secular thinkers. Much of the secular debate about such matters is quibbling among secular liberals, with few practical consequences. But the picture of morality that emerges may well be a deal-breaker for religious moralists. Especially religious conservatives deeply object to any moral pluralism. They may be interested in ascertaining The Right Way, not in suggestions that life is more complicated than that.

These weaknesses of the harm-based approach become clearest when Sinnott-Armstrong presents his answer to “why be moral”—that is, why be moral in the way he describes. He can only offer the response that “The fact that an act causes harm to others is a reason not to do that act, and the fact that an act prevents harm to others is a reason to do that act.” (Page 117.) But on this account, there is not much to say about why one should care about harm to others, other than the thin comfort of it not being irrational. Sinnott-Armstrong concedes that

Nontheless, some people still wish for a reason that is strong enough to motivate everyone to be moral and also to make it always irrational to be immoral. I doubt that secular moral theories can establish that strong kind of reason to be moral. For people who really do not care about others, the solution is found in retraining or restraining rather than in theory. (Page 118.)

All of this is, in my view, perfectly sensible. It is making too much of a fetish of reason to ask that reason should demand that we care for others.

But a conservative monotheist may well see this as a catastrophic admission. Sinnott-Armstrong probably sees it as a minor concession, admitting that psychopaths and the like just don’t care and cannot be reasoned into caring. But the issue is not just the odd psychopath, but the fact that we will, depending on circumstances such as our particular communities, have different assessments of harm and of the importance of certain kinds of harm. Reason is, I think, of limited use here in picking out just how we are supposed to care. A harm-based account is likely to fracture into moral pluralism at this point. We could have (and I would say we do have) multiple successfully reproducing ways of life that are stable under reflective criticism. Those moral communities we observe certainly make care a centerpiece of their moral lives. But they do it differently, and they conflict with each other. I think that even when we care about others, we care differently, and that is an end to it.

So, life is complicated. Sinnott-Armstrong has no problem with this, as far as I can tell. In places in the book, he just about says as much. But he does downplay aspects of secular thinking about the nature of morality that will be uncomfortable to the religiously conservative. I can easily imagine more philosophically sophisticated theists focusing exactly on these issues, which Sinnott-Armstrong glosses over.

Perhaps that would be less of a difficulty if Sinnott-Armstrong’s critiques of religious theories of morality, such as the divine command theory, were more convincing. Because he emphasizes conservative, particularly Protestant varieties of Christianity as his opposition, he spends most of his ink showing how naive notions of basing morality on God go wrong. He does a good job, as far as that goes. But Sinnott-Armstrong does rather
neglect divine natural law approaches. More seriously, religious thinkers can try and weave multiple strands of argument together to present a picture of a world that includes moral facts in the hardest possible sense, where such moral facts are part of a harmonious God-created universe no less than ordinary non-moral facts. I take it as a fact that we do not live in a world that is remotely like that of such a theistic scenario. But it is not a scenario that can be brushed off by some quick analysis, and it is a scenario than can be very attractive to people who think we have to have a picture of our world that includes hard moral facts, who think that only very hard moral facts can do justice to the strength of their moral intuitions.

I’m not saying that such desires can be satisfied, any more than Sinnott-Armstrong. But I am inclined to think that there is a strong difference between secular liberal and conservative monotheist conceptions of decent behavior. Sinnott-Armstrong suggests that a godless morality is at least adequate, and furthermore probably better than a religious alternative. I think the comparison itself can be very difficult. I strongly suspect that no secular view of morality, whether Sinnott-Armstrongs or those with a more pluralist emphasis, can provide the kind of hardness undergirding moral convictions that many religious people seem to demand. Only some kind of transcendent force like a God can even appear to work that sort of magic.

By all means let’s have respectable dialogue, and let us realize that even with deep differences, there are common decencies shared by believers and the godless. Morality Without God is a wonderful book to make these points. But a secular view usually also involves a thinning out, a softening of our conceptions of morality. This does not bother me, nor, if I read him correctly, does it bother Sinnott-Armstrong. I wonder, still, how his more religious readers will respond. I hope Sinnott-Armstrong will write some day to tell us more about how his book was received.

bookmark_borderMerry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone.

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for Christmas. It’s all about childhood associations, naturally. The tree, the presents— growing up in Turkey, it was pleasant American holiday within my family. There was nothing religious about it. Every December, books about Santa, reindeer, and baby Jesus would come out along with the Christmas records. To my brother and I, the Christian elements of the Christmas story were as much fairy tales as Rudolph the red nosed reindeer.

Curiously, the Islamic holiday our family tried to observe in a similar cultural, nonreligious fashion didn’t leave as positive an impression. This was one of the Eid’s, which in Turkey is celebrated by dressing up in one’s best clothes, visiting relatives, and consuming candy. All that was nice enough, but there was also a clearly religious atmosphere about the whole thing, which made it more difficult to just take it as a pleasant cultural holiday.

Still, I have to admit that religions do holidays well. It’s hard to even imagine secular equivalents that don’t come across as trying too hard.

bookmark_borderDecember fracas

Every December in the US, we get to read news about conflicts over religious displays in public spaces.

Some local governments negotiate the conflict by disallowing all religious displays on public grounds. After all, that just invites lawsuits. But that kind of decision itself can come under fire, particularly if the decision was in response to a nonbelievers’ complaint about a government endorsement of religion.

There may be a point to religious believers being put off about an empty public square. After all, it seems that nonbelievers are getting exactly what they want. A nonbeliever’s version of a public event wouldn’t start out with a denunciation of the gods. (What would be the point?) It wouldn’t begin with a prayer either—it would just get to the business on hand. A public area landscaped like nonbelievers envision it would not have monuments to the absurdity of faith. (Why obsess about that?) It wouldn’t have crosses and mangers either—it would just have trees and flowers or whatever. But if so, avoiding religious expression in a public context seems to give nonbelievers exactly what they would have wanted anyway. Many religious people will perceive this not as scrupulous neutrality, but favoritism toward nonbelievers.

So maybe a better alternative is to allow everybody to put up whatever display they want, and to start public meetings with a prayer or invocation by representatives of multiple religions and philosophies taking turns. Put up a cross and a menorah and a crescent and whatever else you can come up with.

Aside from the potential for chaos, however, one problem with this policy is that different religions and philosophies are not bland flavors of diversity that enrich the community without interfering with each other. They compete, conflict, and often define themselves in contrast to one another. Conservative Muslims may insist that Christians are going to hell, and devout Christians may be offended by any acknowledgment of the presence of the godless. Sometimes local governments adopt a policy of avoiding religious expression just in order to prevent atheist groups thereby becoming visible. And sometimes, especially when displays make the mutual antagonism of different groups explicit, you can get a serious furor developing.

It’s a curious situation, really. I see very little clarity about what the various policies are actually trying to achieve. I suspect it’s quite impossible to have a stance of complete neutrality, in the sense of no one’s ox being gored. We end up with various political compromises that vary with the local community, that more or less succeed in keeping the peace. And sometimes they fail: even when trying to avoid conflict, the local policy becomes an instrument in the competition between different religions and philosophies.

I suspect that’s just how it goes: there is no clean approach to such questions that would be acceptable to all reasonable people. Politically, we just have to wing it, and occasionally watch things blow up in our faces.

bookmark_borderFatwas about atheists

Just for fun, excerpts from two conservative Muslim fatwas (scholarly/legal opinions) about atheists.

Why an atheist being a good person does not make sense:

Whoever denies the Creator or refuses to worship Him, or joins others in worship with Him, deserves the most severe punishment, because for a man to deny his Creator, or refuse to worship Him, or join others in worship with Him, is the most serious of human sins, the most abhorrent of beliefs and the worst deviation. If a person is like this, there is no value in any good deed that he does. The atheist who does deeds that are good in his own eyes, and does whatever good deeds he can for his society, is like a man who kills his father and mother and takes good care of dogs. Does it not make sense that he should be punished and that his good treatment of dogs should not count for anything? The most important rights are the rights of Allaah, which are that He should be acknowledged and worshipped. The one who neglects this most important right will not benefit from anything he does with regard to people’s rights. Therefore if the atheist does not believe in Allaah and does not worship Allaah, there cannot be any good in the actions that he does for people’s benefit. But this atheist or mushrik who treats people well is still better than the atheist or mushrik who oppresses and mistreats people, and denies them their rights. He may be rewarded for his good deeds by being granted provision of food and drink in this world, but he will have no share in the Hereafter.

Why atheists are (possibly) not real:

Atheism, in modern terminology, means denying the Creator altogether, denying that He exists and not acknowledging Him, may He be glorified and exalted. The universe and everything in it, according to their claims, came about purely by chance. This is a strange view which is contrary to sound human nature, reason and logic, and is contrary to simple logic and indisputable facts. . .

Nevertheless, the atheist who denies the existence of Allah and rejects His Messengers and disbelieves in the Last Day, is in a greater state of kufr and his beliefs are more reprehensible than the one who believes in Allah and the Hereafter, but he associates something of His creation with Him. The former is stubborn and arrogant to an extent that can not be imagined or accepted by sound human nature. Such a person would transgress every sacred limit and fall into every sin; his worldview would be distorted to an inconceivable level. Yet many scholars who discussed the issue of atheism doubted that this has deep roots in the hearts of the atheists, and they affirmed that the atheist is only professing atheism outwardly; deep down he believes in one God.

There. That should settle things.


Our School of Science and Math has a tradition of holding a pot luck lunch in one of the larger biology teaching labs every “reading day” in the middle of finals week. It’s a decent social event, and all faculty and staff are invited.

I used to go most of the time, though after dropping off my food I’d leave and come back fifteen minutes late, to avoid the food line. Last year, however, I stuck around. And a couple of staff members opened the event with a prayer. I got pissed off, and this year I didn’t show up at all.

Now, in one sense, the prayer is understandable. A rather conservative Christianity is the local culture, and it is close to Christmas. This is what almost all the staff, and a significant minority of the faculty, expect and are comfortable with. Still, to me it seemed like shoving religion in my face at the time. Perhaps I overreacted, but still, I was left with the taste that I wasn’t entirely welcome. It isn’t my damn culture, and I’m not a visitor or a tourist who would just observe the local folkways and move on.

I didn’t make a fuss, but today I wasn’t there. I don’t intend to go back. But I’m really not sure about the etiquette of such matters. Perhaps I’m still overreacting…

bookmark_borderChristians against human rights

Muslim countries are notorious for their limited conception of human rights. But conservative Christian Uganda is now about to put in a very Old Testament approach to homosexuality into law, possibly including a death penalty.

Humans rights agreements are no barrier.

In a interview with the Guardian, James Nsaba Buturo, the minister of state for ethics and integrity, said the government was determined to pass the legislation, ideally before the end of 2009, even if meant withdrawing from international treaties and conventions such as the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and foregoing donor funding.

“We are talking about anal sex. Not even animals do that,” Butoro said, adding that he was personally caring for six “former homosexuals” who had been traumatised by the experience. “We believe there are limits to human rights.”

I guess all this is understandable, if you actually take the sort of Christian morality they believe in seriously.

It’s also interesting how some Ugandans defend such laws in terms of the democratic will of the people. And I have no doubt that this is so. It’s not that hard to come up with examples where secular and democratic politics come into conflict.

bookmark_borderA quantum mechanical proof of the existence of the Christian God

It is well known, especially to those of us who live in California, that quantum mechanics proves that we live in a fundamentally spiritual reality.

This, however, is weak tea. Quantum mechanics—the most fundamental description of physical reality we have—can give us an even better focused glimpse of the fundamental Cause behind physical existence. We can use it prove the existence of God. Even better, we can use it to show that a specifically Christian God is the sustainer of material reality.

Let’s start with the most fundamental relationship in quantum mechanics, the commutator between the position x and momentum p:

As we might expect, we will find God in the most fundamental things. So let’s take the expectation value of the fundamental commutator. The commutator is just a number, not an operator. It cannot vary in value. Therefore, its expectation value is just that number:

That much is trivial, so far. Note that this expectation value is the same for every state ψ.

We can now try to calculate this directly.

In the interest of working with the most fundamental states, let us say the state is a position eigenstate,

And since position is a physical observable, its associated operator operates the same way toward the right and toward the left. (It’s “Hermitian.”) This means that

Putting this into the calculation, we end up with

Gathering everything together, this means

But all this leads us to conclude that therefore

This is impossible, since Planck’s constant is not zero.

At this point, materialist scientists will be stuck, since this exposes a contradiction in the heart of one of their favorite theories. There is, however, a way forward, if only they adopt a more open conception of science and allow theology to extract them from the hole they dug for themselves.

Now, we have to acknowledge that there is a fundamentalist school of theological responses to the quantum paradox just described. The fundamentalists say that the easiest way to restore consistency is to say that

Planck’s constant is zero. This means that there are, in fact, no quantum effects in nature. Classical physics is correct! The fundamentalists welcome this as a restoration of Biblical common sense, and a counterargument to modernist accusations that the Bible cannot be literally true, since it fails to anticipate quantum physics.

Liberal theologians, however, have spent a lot of energy arguing that Christianity is fully compatible with modern physics. They even say that quantum mechanics reveals an even more glorious Creation of God, much more satisfying than the crude Bronze Age metaphors taken literally by the fundamentalists.

We can now add some even stronger support to the liberal, sophisticated theological position. After all,

is just the sort of thing that the Christian philosophical theological tradition has been good at explaining. We know, as infallible truths and mysteries of the faith, the following equations:

These express the Trinity, the fully human and fully divine nature of Christ, and the Incarnation.

We know that quantum physics is true, and hence that Planck’s constant is nonzero. We also find that it must be zero. Reconciling such apparent contradictions is exactly what Christian theology is all about! We see, demonstrated mathematically through the apparatus of quantum mechanics, that we need a specifically Christian sort of God to prevent quantum mechanics from collapsing in a heap of contradictions. Indeed, in the most fundamental theory of physics, we see a clear and unmistakable sign that it is a Christian God—the God of such mysteries as the Trinity and the Incarnation—who has created and sustains quantum mechanical reality even in the face of seeming contradictions.

We take the proof presented here to be infallible. In particular, we strenuously denounce the heresy of commentators who claim that it is really Zen Buddhism that is supported by

They say that since Planck’s constant is zero and non-zero, this hints at the paradoxes Zen is famous for, also empasizing the nothingness (the zero) that Buddhism directs us toward. This is clearly absurd, and certainly immoral.

bookmark_borderNew Age America

A Pew Forum survey provides a very mixed picture of the US religious landscape. As with most human populations, Americans are besotted with supernatural beliefs. But the current picture is also one that would make a conventional monotheist uncomfortable. Increasing numbers of Americans hold a mishmash of spiritual beliefs. More and more, a hybrid, almost Newagey kind of faith seems to be the background belief system, rather than a doctrinally clear(ish) monotheistic picture.

To some extent, this is not new. Popular religion usually gives priests and theologians headaches. Still, an increasing New Age flavor of popular religiosity is a sign of secularization. New Age beliefs, though as mistaken or nonsensical as anything monotheists can cook up, are notoriously socially impotent. Instead of organized religion, we move toward an individualized mishmash of magical beliefs. Liberal monotheists worry about this, perceiving the social and moral incoherence in New Age spirituality. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s not always a bad thing.

Maybe we’ll continue moving in a more European direction in the US. Everyone will still be individually insane, but these insanities will not strongly couple to one another. At a societal scale, with large numbers of people involved, the various insanities will average out, leaving an environment which does not reflect any one style of insanity.

bookmark_borderThe millet system

I’m used to nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, particularly among religious and conservative circles. Nationalists like the “Turks carrying forth the banner of Islam” bit; the religious like to think of the Empire as a time when Islam was properly dominant.

The funny thing is, I run into praise for the Ottoman Empire’s “millet system,” in which subjects of the Empire were organized into semi-autonomous religious communities, from some unlikely quarters as well. Recently I was reading something by Noam Chomsky on the Middle East. He made some astute comments on how modern nation-states almost inevitably oppress ethnic minorities in much of the world. But then, he also remarked that the peoples of the Middle East might be better off under something like the old Ottoman millet system. Different ethnic and religious communities could then remain distributed in a very mixed fashion over geographic territories. They’d be autonomous, and a nationalism of a central state apparatus wouldn’t create second-class citizens.

Interestingly, may Islamic political thinkers suggest something similar: that the communal arrangements of classical Islamic states is an alternative, perhaps even more viable model, of multiculturalism. Instead of imposing secular individualism, a millet system would respect primary religious identities, allowing communities to fully live out their religious commitments under their own religious laws.

From a conservative Muslim perspective, I can see the attraction. And yes, this is an alternative way to keep the peace and to be multicultural and all that. But however much I share the distrust of nationalism shown by many secular liberals and leftists, I think sympathy to the millet system is a bit naive. Whatever its merits, an Ottoman-style arrangement of autonomous religious and ethnic communities would hardly be a good environment for secular, cosmopolitan people. What “community” are we supposed to belong to? Some Muslim political thinkers suggest that there could be a separate “secular community” with its own laws. But it’s hard to get the sort of coherence and cohesiveness among modern secular people as among religious communitarians. A millet system means communities living under the petty tyranny of their local priests, mullahs, and rabbis. Modern secular individualists generally like to avoid that sort of thing.

The benefits of a communally organized polity with a distant peacekeeper central authorityalso seem exaggerated. There is a reason most subject populations welcomed the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Is the system at all workable without a premodern economy, highly religious peasant populations, Islam as the privileged religion of the rulers, and the threat of imperial violence? I can understand frustration with the way the nation-state model has been imposed on many geographies with sometimes disastrous results. But still, this sort of state seems to go with the territory of being modern. I’m all for thinking about alternatives, but nostalgia for religiously defined Empires based on oppressing peasants seems an odd way to go about it.