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The “all Christians are…” fallacy

November 27, 2009 Comments off

This post may cause trouble. There’s an issue that’s been bothering me since before I began to self-identify as an atheist (among other labels that we pigeonholers of a people like to place upon ourselves and others) that bothered me then, but does so even more now.

I have a problem with atheists who denigrate people of faith just because they hold a faith. There, I’ve said it.

My mother’s uncle turns 80 in January and he’s a Methodist lay-minister, hobbyist philosopher, critical thinker with many interests, and is a lovely man with whom I get on famously. Or did, until Easter when he saw the Atheist Bus Campaign sticker on the back of my car. His immediate, unthinking reaction was to turn to me and utter, “Oh, so you’re one of those?” By “those” I assumed he meant an atheist, so I said yes. No big deal, asked and answered simply and matter-of-factly, like “Do you like grapes?” and “Yes.” It’s now almost December and we’ve only just recently managed to establish dialogue that doesn’t include preloaded assumptions. It’s not that he wouldn’t talk to me anymore, but rather that everything he said, did and thought regarding me was now coloured with negative expectation: a shit-coloured filter.

As it was, this evening’s conversation started with his enquiry about me attending Christmas lunch with them, as I’ve done most years since moving to England. For some reason his expectation was that now I am the A-word I’d not participate in “Christian festivals” and even be antagonistic towards them. After pointing out that on one hand nearly all Christian festivals were pagan festivals long before the Catholic church came along and usurped them, and on the other hand I recognise that it’s human nature to participate in ceremonies and rituals of the passage of time, seasons and events, and such things possibly pre-date religion. He’s mollified, and Christmas is back on. Yay, status quo.

This brings me to the point of this post. The reality-based community with which I identify are more likely to use — and use successfully — logic, reason and critical thinking in arguments against everything ranging from philosophy to religion. And it’s wonderful. I mean it.

But there a section of this community that not only antagonises people of faith (I can intellectually understand this, if not agree entirely with) and often does so by using logical fallacies and cognitive biases, some of which include straw man, ad hominem, false dichotomy, sampling bias, and bias blind spot. (You’ll probably find unintended examples of these throughout this blog). I doubt you’ll find many atheists who won’t challenge religious fundamentalism and zealotry with gusto, facts, science and logic. And rightly so. But to extend that a little, a number of atheists cannot understand how any otherwise rational and intelligent people could possibly also have religious faith — particularly if they work in a science profession — so they must clearly be deluded or poor thinkers.

And then this argument often rears its head: the religious moderate is as bad, if not worse, than the fundamentalist. The rationale for this often being that moderation allows the presentation of an acceptable face of a brutal, primitive set of dogmas, or facilitates that faith’s entry through an otherwise closed door. As if, somehow, they’re all as bad as each other. To anyone who’s thought about this seriously for a moment, this is clearly not true. Yes, there are monsters in positions of power in any religion, just as there is throughout the general laity, but to caricature every member of a faith in that way is disgusting. It makes a mockery of the critical thinking and logical arguments that person holds to be valuable and worthwhile, because that person has exercised none of it.

My great-uncle has reacted and behaved the way he has with me because of the public face of modern atheism, with its often total disregard for the feelings and sensibilities of the average person — despite the fact he’s never seen any of those negative, judgemental or intolerant qualities in me. In its zeal to slap down the worst of faith and try to stem the tide of stupid overtaking the world, that form of atheistic expression is harming normal people. Those may be people who simply have not yet reached a point in their lives where they’re able to objectively reflect upon the inconsistencies and logic problems of their own faith when compared to the world around them.

There is something of which I am unequivocally certain: this perceived New Atheist “all guns blazing” approach isn’t going to work.

It’s the argumentative, brow-beating equivalent of the outlawing of religion in China and the former USSR. How can it possibly work against faiths that get excited about martyrdom? And I’m not just talking about Islam here: most major religions revel in the chance to play the oppressed, downtrodden and beaten servant of their god. They simply say, “I will practise my faith regardless, and any punishment I may receive will be my sacrifice to <insert deity here>, which will reap me rewards in <insert afterlife here>!”

Yes, it’s awful that in the 21st century billions of the world’s population are still slaves to Bronze Age superstitions. But no, screeching like a banshee at your neighbour isn’t going to make them suddenly say, “You know what… you’ve been insulting everything I’ve ever valued for years now, but I see it now: you’re right!” Just because something may be provably wrong, it doesn’t mean that an otherwise intelligent person will see it that way — you’re staring in the face of cognitive dissonance.

So am I advocating appeasement? Certainly not. But a large number of worldwide scientific community do not consider themselves atheists. Are they to be excluded from scientific endeavour? Again, certainly not. The same is true of the average member of the public. Religions and superstitions may be laughable and ridiculous, but they kill thousands of people every day and are not to be underestimated in terms of their importance to the people that hold them. And some of those people may love you and be hurt deeply whenever, by inference, you call them imbeciles.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what the solution is — or even if there is one, at least that doesn’t involve totalitarianism — but I am certain that the lumping of people like my great-uncle in the same basket as a religious terrorist is wrong. And yet I see it every day in the atheist blogs I read, and in the other atheistic and even new media I consume: the deliberate misrepresentation of members of a faith as if they’re all as bad as the worst public figure in that faith. It’s wrong and it has to stop.

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Differences of opinion that make you angry

July 6, 2009 Comments off

There have been a couple of events over the last week that have given me cause to pause and reflect, and make for an interesting article.

Last week was the Henley Royal Regatta, one of the world’s best known rowing events, that plays merry hell with my daily commute through Henley-on-Thames. So for “regatta week” I take a different route through the equally beautiful Sonning-on-Thames, home of the infamous Uri Geller, over its weak bridge crossing the Thames. This bottleneck causes a queue (i.e. what other countries call a traffic jam) of a mile or so for a couple of hours twice a day. While sitting in this queue and listening to my podcasts, I typically use such time to reflect and enjoy the natural environment in which I’m temporarily stuck, and that includes observing the antics of the cars in front and behind (in my mirror).

On Thursday I noticed the driver of the car behind had that distinctly fundagelical look about him: immaculate goatee and hair, short-sleeved buttoned shirt, oversized car, mirror shades, and gleaming teeth and plastic smile (I’ve been to the US and I’m from Australia, so I know the archetype). I saw his attention fix on my Atheist Bus Campaign sticker (available online):

Atheist Bus Campaign car sticker

He leaned forward to peer at the large text and said a few words, then lifted his sunglasses to read the smaller text and I watched as his face started to go purple and he began gesticulating and shouting to nobody, and I honestly thought that he was going to get out of his car and have a go at me. But for the traffic inching forward shortly after, he may well have done. That would have been interesting.

Last night I watched a show on Channel 4 called Revelations: Muslim School, part 2 of an 8 part series on religion’s impact on the UK, covering the lives of two young schoolgirls in a Muslim faith school. Knowing most of my friends are unaware of what happens in a non-Christian faith school, I sent out a notification on Twitter. I recommend anyone watches it — particularly if you don’t know a great deal about “everyday Islam” in the UK, as it’s remarkably neutral for a British TV documentary, and I felt the children and people portrayed in the show were representative of British Muslims with its heavy Asian influence (post-colonial immigration, etc).

My tweet was noticed by a PhD student in Sheffield, Ruth, who invited me to participate in a post-screening discussion on a website forum. Aside from Ruth and me, those present seemed to consist of a fellow humanist, a non-practising (“default”) Christian, a man who began with “Open disclosure here: I’m a Southern Baptist, proud and true” (or along those lines), and one or two others who lurked. The 60-90 minutes that followed were quite interesting, and I was happy to participate to assist in PhD research, most of which involved answering questions about what we thought of the show, concepts within it, how it was presented, any perceptions of bias or preferences for or against its approach, how we’d like to see it done differently, etc.

What I found amusing was how the Baptist kept trying to steer to conversation into opinions on Muslims, reverting to familiar cultural and religious ad hominems. Invariably we’d ignore the attempt and continue with the conversation, but he persisted for the better part of an hour. He did contribute to the discussion occasionally, but seemed more intent on getting everyone to agree with his opinions on things like the hijab: to him it was extremism — until I reminded him that mainstream Christianity required female head-covering in church until quite recently.

However, in some ways he’s right. The furore over wearing hijab is indicative of a dangerous fundamentalism in Islam, where strict adherence to the letter of the Book is of paramount importance. But he wouldn’t have been able to see that this is essentially no different to dangerous Christian fundamentalism, with some sects becoming ultra-patriarchal, women not speaking in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) or covering heads (1 Corinthians 11), or wars and foreign policy decisions when such people become national leaders, etc. Both lead to literal interpretations and cherry-picking of the worst parts of their respective Books, and actively discourage inquiry, investigation and understanding, and advocating Bronze Age knowledge and practises in favour of current knowledge. And in the case of those two religions in particular, they’re replete with awful, violent acts.

For the rest of us, we may not all have agreed with each others’ opinions, but we were able to play together nicely. And that’s what makes for great discussion and debate: differing opinion and the maturity to respect another’s position.

Both of these recent events reminded me of Bertrand Russell’s essay An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, and this paragraph from it in particular (emphasis mine):

If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias. If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.

Lastly, one of my company’s salespeople is a Pakistani-British Muslim who, despite being raised Muslim, has chosen to live pragmatically. He may go to mosque some Fridays for Jumu’ah, but all other aspects of at least his professional life are almost indistinguishable from any secular person (I’m not sure if he drinks alcohol or eats pork, nor is it any of my business): he doesn’t let his religion interfere with what he’s paid to do. For that he has my respect.

That’s why it surprised me this morning when he walked into the office and asked if the Peugeot in the carpark was mine, and then commented on the Atheist Bus Campaign sticker. I was pleased that he was able to joke about it, laughing how he’d “never be able to get away with that at the mosque on Fridays” and was non-confrontational about it despite much of the anti-atheist publicity and rhetoric that has flowed from self-appointed “religious authorities” since the Campaign started.

Only one of my fellow team members seems to dislike my take on religion, but then he’s the one who thinks life on earth was deliberately seeded by aliens as an experiment. So I’m crushed by his disfavour, as you might well imagine…

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 7

January 27, 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 6.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

Muslims are taught to pray 5 times per day — always facing towards the Ka’aba, the ornate black cube-shaped structure (satellite map) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in which is contained the fabled Black Stone — at various offsets of the rising and setting sun. The times vary based upon the seasons and latitude, but typically take place before sunrise, around noon, mid-afternoon, early-evening and late-evening. The higher the latitude, the more these times vary: for example, in London these times are (shows the variation for each prayer over the year):

  • 02:30-06:00 – Fajr
  • 11:45-13:00 – Dhuhr
  • 13:30-17:30 – Asr
  • 15:45-21:30 – Maghrib
  • 17:45-23:30 – Isha

This is because the sun rises and sets at quite a varied range of times throughout the year (ignoring the different ways used to calculate sunrise and sunset, which itself is controversial in Islam), again using London as an example:

  • 04:45-08:00 – sunrise
  • 15:54-21:30 – sunset

It gets worse at even more polar latitudes, at its extreme resulting in the midnight sun, which makes literal adherence to any schedule based on sunrise and sunset an impossibility. The prayer system does not seem to have been designed with all of the world in mind, apparently favouring more equatorial locations.

Praying at the required time and in the correct direction (the Qibla) is a relatively simple task in some locations on earth (both in terms of latitude and culture), but in some locations at some times of the year it can mean waking up twice in the night to pray. This is aside from the day’s normal tasks (such as commuting, working, classes, recreation time, etc) during which Muslims are expected to stop to pray — which you see in many Muslim countries, with even bus and lorry drivers pulling over on the roadside to pray. Various Islamic societies and groups have different ways of dealing with this problem: some do them all exactly when required, some have a window of time, others skip one or two (sometimes “making them up” later in the day), and some groups “stack” their prayers and do them all at the beginning or end of the day. I have met Muslims from all over the world for whom each of these is permitted in their culture, though the ruling used in the mosque I was visiting was the window method: if a prayer was meant for 13:00, you could pray that prayer from something like 12:00-14:00 and it would still be “valid”.

There is a strong concept of valid/invalid in Muslim actions, suggesting that an act of devotion to god would either be accepted or rejected by god based upon the validity of your actions, the way you did it and in what circumstances. One example is that it is forbidden to pray in any room that has a toilet in it (e.g. large bathroom, jail cell), and some groups think prayer is invalid if there is a toilet between you and the Ka’aba (e.g. if you are facing Mecca and the toilet is in an adjacent room in front of you) — to do this would make that prayer invalid. This, and the black-and-white concepts of haram (forbidden) and halal (permitted) have meant that Islamic jurisprudence is a big deal, with these scholars issuing fatawa (non-binding religious opinions, though often treated as a requirement if it suits — the 1988 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, for example) on whether an action is permitted or forbidden. It is effectively deciding whether god considers it a sin or not, in much the same way that the Catholic Pope has done throughout history. Since the end of the last Caliphate in the 1920’s there are now many such scholars in Islam, though this cannot be a unique criticism, as this is comparable to Protestantism — also without a central authority or head — where each church’s leader (minister, pastor, father, priest, etc) acts in the same capacity, declaring this or that a sin under god. Probably because of this, both have the same problems of fragmentation, isolationism, and a easier tendency to extremes of belief, interpretation and opinion. The religious component of American politics is one such example.

All Abrahamic religions have a holy day each week, and Islam is no different. While attendance at mosque for prayers is preferred/ideal whenever possible, and in practice many even devout Muslims are lucky to manage two visits a day, attendance at Friday’s midday prayer, Jumu’ah, is considered almost compulsory (it is mandatory in some places). Jumu’ah is similar to the other mosque attendance throughout the week, except it includes a story or lesson from the Qur’an by the prayer leader, and is the closest thing to a sermon in Islam. This communal prayer is also a way to ensure that the Ummah are together at least once a week, and furthers the bonds of friendship and brotherhood.

While I can fully appreciate why Muslims value their community so highly, as it really does provide a sense of belonging that is more universal than other religions I’ve seen and experienced, it suffers from a number of problems — some of which are shared with other religions and others that may be unique to Islam. The absence of a central authority — the Caliph — is a new problem for Islam as it has always had one in the past to unify and prevent splinter groups forming, but since the Caliphate’s demise I think it is unlikely to ever be replaced as in the presence of any power vacuum, many self-appointed authorities have now stepped up in its place often with vastly different agendas, interpretations and priorities, and I can’t see how they will all voluntarily bow down to one leader, regardless of how regular and orthodox his election might be. Also, a large portion of the Islamic world lives in areas of strife and war that, whether or not the strife is religious in origin or not, has polarised its inhabitants into believing it is a religious struggle — and the Qur’an speaks quite a bit about religi
ous struggles, and the call to and justifications of jihad. This fallacy provides an opportunity for agenda-driven self-appointed leaders to steer people to suit their own ends.

There are other issues on which I could elaborate, but the final, undeniable stumbling block is again the beliefs and dogmas. As with Christianity, this too has its requirement of belief in a god and its attendant dogmas and practices, along with quite extreme punishments should any member decide to enact them, with only its text and adherents as proof of its truth. For many that is more than enough.

Continued in Part 8.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 6

January 25, 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 5.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

Having had my fill of what could probably be considered the traditional religion of the “white western world”, Christianity, and living in the UK (that contains a large immigrant population from outside that region), it seemed natural to look into one of the world’s other dominant religions, Islam. Up to 2 billion people follow or were born into it, and many reports say that it is growing in popularity, and may even be the world’s fastest growing religion.

Before reading on, note that all words in Islam are Arabic, as Muslims believe Arabic is the only language in which their holy book can be read or understood (perhaps even so far as to believe that “Arabic is the language of god”). All translations are considered merely guides, which is why translations of the Qur’an are always have the title prefixed with The Meaning of… In addition, transliterations of Arabic words can be spelled various ways — my understanding is that there is no ‘correct’ way to spell them outside of the Arabic character set: hence Islam, Islaam, Muhammed, Mohamed, Mohammed, Mahomet, Qur’an, Quraan, Koran, Muslim, Moslem, etc.

Islam is seen by Muslims to be the third and last in the line of Abrahamic religions, that is a monotheistic religion with Abraham as its original prophet. Contrary to what most right-wing people or extremist members of each religion will say, all three of these religions worship exactly the same god: the god of the Jewish prophets Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus. All three originated in a small area of the Middle East and have essentially the same roots, regardless of whatever branding and localisation may have happened where you live. The most obvious differences between the three religions are what they call their god, what level of importance they place on notable people in their holy books, and who they consider to be their authoritative prophet. Muslims believe that Muhammed is the last and greatest prophet of the Abrahamic god, whom they call Allah. Allah is simply the transliterated Arabic word al-Lah, meaning “the (only, one) god.” To make that perfectly clear: Allah is literally the Arabic word God — not actually a name. They do not believe that Muhammed (often simply referred to as The Prophet) was divine, though many critics seem unable to discern a difference between the Islamic treatment of Muhammed and the Christian treatment of Jesus.

It was not my intention to convert to Islam, though I did want to give it the attention to detail and respect that it deserved, so I observed many of the rules of the religion — to the consternation of some of my family and friends.

I began my exploration of Islam via the Islam Channel on TV, the Internet (which can be a minfield, as with all topics that polarise beliefs and opinions), and an Islamic centre not far from where I work. This centre and an Islamic Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel (or ‘chatroom’) would enable me to talk with Muslims, to learn and to get an idea of the varying opinions, sects and beliefs. On IRC I quickly found people who ranged from mature, moderate live-and-let-live responsible global citizens to angry young men (and women) screaming for jihad against the West with every breath. These people ranged from 3rd generation Americans and British citizens through to people sitting in Internet cafes in war zones. Putting up your hand in such an environment to say that you’re a white Anglo-Saxon, and not a Muslim, always gets a variety of reactions: some will immediately seek retribution (expulsion from the channel, attacking your computer, verbal abuse and threats, etc), many will raise an eyebrow but continue on as normal, and a few will be happy for the change of perspective. For the most part, once I’d been there for a couple of hours nobody asked who I was, and I was able to have interesting and meaningful conversations with a number of people. No pretending or lying was required on my part.

A few weeks into my online experiences — which also included reading numerous websites, online web forums, and a PDF copy of the Qur’an — I decided to visit the nearby Islamic centre which was open one evening per week. They were attached to a local mosque — both taking up 2-3 shops in a small strip mall — and the centre was manned by two Pakistani friends who felt it their duty to reach out to the wider community, in much the same way Christian churches sometimes do, by providing a drop-in and information centre for those who were curious. On my first visit I was struck by the difference in appearance of the two men, particularly as the UK seems to consist mainly of a fundamentalist version of Islam (which includes uncut facial hair and traditional clothes, among other things), as one had some of the typical appearance of what I had seen on TV and the other was wearing western clothes and was cleanly shaven; the former was a medical writer and the latter a school teacher. The centre itself took up one of the shops and had a glass front, school desks and chairs set up in a square in the middle, a few armchairs in one corner, and shelves on the walls with Islamic books, CDs, bookmarks, posters, and the usual kinds of things you find in a religious bookshop.

Over the next few months I visited the centre periodically, and then started going into the mosque during prayer times as the evening prayer began when I was there, so I took the opportunity to watch exactly what went on. Eventually I started to take part in the prayers, and found the process quite complicated with the movements changing depending upon which prayer you were doing, it had to be in formation with the other people there, and there were words to learn that had to be mouthed quietly throughout the prayer. Regardless of the political opinions that I knew some of the members had (I spoke with some of them before/after prayers), every single person there made me feel welcome, even though I was the only white person in the building. There was no sense of not belonging, no hint of malice, no racial awareness — each person treated me as a brother, no matter whether they spoke English or not (many didn’t). There’s a lot to be said for that sense of family, and I can see how it binds good people and bad people, and provides that global sense of community, the Ummah.

Continued in Part 7.