July 2008

Every religion has them

The strident vocal public attitude from the US (and observed to some extent in the Australian press) seems to be that Islam is a religion that fosters hatred and is rife with extremist groups. This is often contrasted with Christianity as a peaceful religion founded on forgiveness and tolerance.

Read what the festering extremes of Catholicism have to say and you'll get a more balanced perspective. I expect every religion has them. It's exactly what one should expect when people are taught that their identities and their life purpose are bound in their religion. Some believers can grow up and remain tolerant. Some become locked into defensiveness and anger. *sigh*

It's hard not to sound arrogant and condescending when you're discussing people who'll send hate mail and death threats over the fate of a cheap cracker.

The political teachings of The Batman

We (Virge&family) enjoyed The Dark Knight immensely last Thursday night. It really is all about The Joker. That acting performance alone gave the movie a larger-than-life life. The Joker is truly scary.

However, there were aspects of the movie that I found far more disturbing than The Joker's psychopathic anarchy. The political message packaged in the movie was: When you have a politician who appears to be a fearless defender of the people, you should go to any length to make them seem perfect. Hide their failings. Help everyone to trust in a human hero. The people need it in order to have hope.

In real life, what happens when you get a large number of people trusting in, believing in a politician? What happens when people throw away the idea that power corrupts and start making exceptions for their favorite hope-for-mankind's-safety, "incorruptible" leader? That's not a recipe for salvation; it's a recipe for disaster.

Even the very best of us are still fallible. One doesn't have to resort to cynicism in order to be realistic. If we grant power to a fallible human to execute a particular public duty, then we should expect complete transparency with regard to that office. Anything less is tantamount to encouraging corruption. Using secrecy to make real humans into heroes is madness.

Dr Horrible

You like Joss Whedon?

Go watch an internet superhero musical mini-series. Dr Horrible. (Available free for a limited time only. Like until 20th July 2008. You do not have very much time.)

Freedom of speech vs. umbrage

I may not like the things you believe and, by the way, the fact that you believe them makes me think less of you as a person. I may despise you personally for what you believe, but I should be able to say it. Everybody needs to get thicker skins. There is this culture of offence, as though offending someone is the worst thing anyone can do.

-Salman Rushdie in the Guardian (via Neil Gaiman's Blog).

Rushdie's words struck a chord. It seems that more and more we're hearing people bleating about offense to their religions and blasphemy against their gods and prophets. Just as the religious cultists of the world are free to express their views in public, the rational people of the world should also be free to point out how astoundingly stupid those views are.

One thing I've found: it's not enough to let extremist views stand. People don't all see through the contradictions and falsity of religious rhetoric. When prominent preachers blame natural disasters on a country's permissive laws, silence is not a useful criticism. Silence just means that some genuinely confused listeners won't get to hear that there is an opposing view.

Freedom of speech must never result in censorship of dissenting views. You're free to talk about your invisible friend and his/her life rules. I'm free to laugh at your concept of an invisible friend.

But, how is it that such a simple freedom is being eroded? Wacky Cult Member X merely has to project a strong enough link between their wacky beliefs and their personal identity to be able to claim that ridiculing a wacky belief is ridiculing all cult members. So, either you suppress your criticism, or they claim you're vilifying the person. Simple, isn't it?

I say: here is a very stupid idea. A priest's incantation transforms a mass-produced cracker into the (completely undetectably different) essence of the body of a person who supposedly lived and died 2 millennia ago, so that religious cult members can eat it as part of their ritual.

Some Catholic says: That's not stupid. I believe it. That means you're calling me stupid. You're trying to wipe out my important cultural heritage. You're harassing me. Help. Help. I'm being repressed.

I say: I'm not criticizing you. I didn't even know you until you spoke up to align yourself with that stupidity. If you choose to believe that which appears to be stupidity in the modern world, then the burden is yours. You've willingly put on the dunce's cap and you should not expect either respect or silence.

Death threats... for threatening a cracker

"It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ."
Said Catholic League president Bill Donohue.

What must it be like to see the world through Bill Donohue's eyes?

[blinding flash]

This cracker really is the Body of Christ.
It really is.
It really, really, actually is.
It is because we Catholics say it is.
If we eat of these holy crackers, mixing them with saliva, grinding them up, moving them around with our tongues, swallowing them, digesting them, we're not desecrating the Body of Christ; we're honoring Him. (No, it doesn't count as cannibalism. Not when we do it.)
If you take a consecrated cracker (not an ordinary cracker anymore) and do anything to it other than eating it, then you're desecrating the Body of our Lord and Savior, our Creator, our Ultimate Reason For Being!
What you're doing is far, far worse than standing up and announcing that our beliefs are ridiculous delusions.
You're actually committing a repulsive physical act: desecration of a fully human body.
You really are.
Really, truly, honestly.
Because we say so.
And we're really not incredibly deluded.
It's not delusion when it's faith.

[the epiphany fades]

Meanwhile, back in the real world, PZ Myers receives death threats. I guess it could be worse. He could have allowed his biology students to name a stuffed toy "Allah".

Morality off. Check.

Eliezer Yudkowsky's been pursuing the essence of morality in his last series of blog posts. Here's a section from his most recent:

In 1966, the Israeli psychologist Georges Tamarin presented, to 1,066 schoolchildren ages 8-14, the Biblical story of Joshua's battle in Jericho:

"Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword... And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD."

After being presented with the Joshua story, the children were asked:

"Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?"

66% of the children approved, 8% partially disapproved, and 26% totally disapproved of Joshua's actions.

A control group of 168 children was presented with an isomorphic story about "General Lin" and a "Chinese Kingdom 3,000 years ago". 7% of this group approved, 18% partially disapproved, and 75% completely disapproved of General Lin.

"What a horrible thing it is, teaching religion to children," you say, "giving them an off-switch for their morality that can be flipped just by saying the word 'God'." Indeed one of the saddest aspects of the whole religious fiasco is just how little it takes to flip people's moral off-switches.

Even most Christians I know would have difficulty fully accepting Divine Command Theory and yet the essence of it seems to be built into our Judeo-Christian culture in such a way that it corrupts our children's morality. Of course, Christians aren't out there deliberately teaching children to be immoral. It just happens when the blind lead, believing themselves to be the bearers of light.

I wonder at what age it would be possible to teach empathy and anti-tribalism.