Tag Archives: religion

Morality

Freedom is scary.

I’m an atheist who takes his atheism extremely seriously, so I’m very frequently bothered by the inherent philosophical difficulties which come embedded within an atheistic mind-set; I can see why God is an appealing solution to these problems for some people. Personally find it unsatisfactory, mostly because I’m somewhat of an Occamite; postulating the existence of an entity for which there is no evidence in order to paper over the cracks in my philosophy is something I find rather intellectually unappealing.

So of course you need alternative solutions to many of life’s problems; a very tricky one being the question of morality.

I would say that there is no such thing as objective morality, that morality is inherently subjective. This is what makes writing an atheistic theory of ethics and morality almost inherently a fool’s errand, because without the notion of a pinning moral authority, the whole edifice falls apart. This has a whole plethora of unpleasant consequences, including the notion that morality itself is meaningless, especially in the face of one’s absolute free will.

Why can I not do anything I want? Murder, steal, sing like nobody’s listening, rape, crochet, etc. whenever and however I feel?

Personally, I believe the solution to the conundrum is that one should form one’s own code of ethics which one should then follow; by that I mean to say that one should become one’s own legislator, judge, jury, and executioner. Maybe I should make the internal decision that I find crochet immoral, for instance.

Sin then becomes an essentially relative phenomenon, when you realise that you have, through temptation, transgressed your own moral code. The parallels there with conventional Christianity are obvious; I suppose there’s then the equally tricky question of the meaning of redemption without a redemptive authority; how can we forgive ourselves our own transgressions? Can we be absolved? Is absolution even a desirable concept?

I suppose one could appeal to a kind of biologically-derived social morality; that we have inbuilt ideas of morality as a society because it’s an excellent survival strategy, so our behaviours are biologically modulated to exclude murder and the like because such things are deleterious to our chances of survival as a group, whereas activities like crochet are of a much more neutral character.

Of course, this would seem to violate the principle of absolute free will; perhaps the concept of freedom is antithetical to the concept of morality.

I don’t know. I’m only an amateur philosopher, after all.

Against Mystery

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? – Douglas Adams

This post began as a response to Jenny’s article, but it got a little tangential.

I just watched the first in a series of programmes on the history of the Bible, presented by the novelist Howard Jacobson:  “Creation”

I’m wary of entering religious discussions, because they rarely, if ever, go well unless you’re already in agreement with the person with whom you’re discussing.

Nevertheless, I feel, as an atheist, somewhat denigrated by that programme. I feel almost cast as if I was an robotic automaton, in thrall to the iron certainty of my science, of “mere fact”, so blind to art and literature that I would come out of a performance of King Lear and wonder if the man really existed.

They complain about the so-called “New Atheists” campaigning against the straw-men of religious believers; I say that they’re talking about straw-men atheists.

Personally, I love myth, and legend. If we weren’t called atheists, I would love to call ourselves Prometheans, stealing fire from the jealous gods for the benefit of Man. I love reading the modern myths of an author like Neil Gaiman, spinning stories of Dream and Death. I love the musings of Hamlet on death and existence, and I read the philosophy of Sartre and Nietzsche, trying to get to the nature of existence and the human condition.

I see no reason why Genesis should be venerated over and above, say, the Theogony, or the creation tales of the Shintoists, or any other work of literature. The artistry is incredible, but I see no reason why I should be compelled to find truth in it, other than the truths it reveals about the people who wrote these stories.

I find myself most agreeing with the wonderful A.C. Grayling; people wrote these stories to find agency, meaning, in a disordered universe. There’s a good reason most of them start with the division of disorder into order! Jacobson recoils when the ancients were described as ignorant, as if it’s a perjorative; the truth is that they were, they simply did not know then what we know now, after years of struggle and careful experiment. Newton was ignorant of quantum mechanics; that’s hardly a slight on his genius.

As usual, the non-scientist’s misunderstanding of the nature of science is dredged up; that we possess a cast-iron certainty, blind to everything else.

This is bollocks of the absolute highest order. Science is doubt. Science is questioning, science is about looking at the universe and admitting that our understanding of it is fragmentary and incomplete, and that we should rectify that.

Take, for example, particle physics. We have this awesome theory, the Standard Model, that describes to a truely astounding accuracy the behaviour and interactions of every known fundamental particle. It’s a staggering intellectual achievement. We’re not sure about it yet; one component of it (the Higgs particle) is still as yet unobserved, and we know that the theory will break down at higher energy scales.

This isn’t blind certainty, it’s a diligent quest to know and understand more.

What men like Jacobson and his hero, Keats, fear is that all the important things in life lie in the gaps between our knowledge, and that as science carries on it will stitch up those gaps one by one until there is nothing transcendent left in the universe, because something can be transcendent only by being unknown and mysterious, clouded in haze. They fear that the God-of-the-Gaps will be driven out.

One, if your faith is only in a God-of-the-Gaps you deserve to be driven out. What does your faith really mean if it must be constantly modified so that it isn’t obliterated by the encroaches of science? The only way I can see that ending is in a God that has been so declawed as to be nothing more than a vague spirit, not even finding a refuge beyond space and time or after death as he does now.

Two, they ignore the beauty in the truth that science reveals. The inconceivable age of the universe, the bizarre era of the condensed quark-gluon plasma, the last fading microwave echos of the time the universe was opaque, the twisted time and space of a black hole, the wonderful mad complexity of life, the nuclear-powered twisting fury of the Sun, the emptiness in the heart of the atom… the examples of wonderful ideas that come out of science and mathematics are innumerable.

Keats blamed Newton for destroying the poetry of a rainbow by explaining it; I say that a rainbow is still as beautiful today, and I think more so because I understand it; I understand how light is refracted through a drop of water, reflecting off the back surface of the spherical drop. I think that’s beautiful. I think that the solutions of the Maxwell equations of a dielectric interface that describe the reflection of light are beautiful.

Jacobson and Keats would have us give up. To throw our hands in the air, and declare that some things should be unknown, un-sought for. Thank goodness nobody listened to Keats; I dread to think where we would be if Newton’s ideas had been suppressed. This is why we should never, ever give in to irrationality. Some things are far too important.

I think our own origins as creatures who have evolved and transcended our ancestors, who have toiled against the odds to create our civilisation and our knowledge is a far more beautiful story than any that could be told by a religion, and I feel that it is ever the better because it’s what actually happened.

The title of this post is a reference to John Bell’s paper “Against Measurement” which you can read if you happen to be on a University campus. It is a piece of essentially scientific doubt on the admittedly dubious interpretation of the concept of measurement in the foundations of quantum mechanics.

Reading: Part 2 – Why I am not a Christian

As anyone who knows me knows, I’m an atheist. As a group, we’re on the ascendency; we’re putting ads onto buses, we got a shout-out from Obama in his inauguration speech, and Britain is becoming every more secularised.

We’re a challenge to the old order; the notion that religion makes for a moral being, that adherence to a creed and heirarchy without evidence, in spite of evidence, is the only path to virtue.

This, of course, means that atheists have a lot of enemies, particularly in the States. More people would vote for a homosexual, Muslim, Mormon, or female candidate for the Presidency than would vote for an atheist. If you don’t regularly go to a church, or mosque, or synagogue, you can forget about being President. I’d like to believe less people in Britain would care about the religion of the Prime Minister (although “anyone but Brown” seems to be the more salient concern).

You also inevitably get those people who think they’ve got you in a corner when they suggest that atheism is intellectually dishonest, and that it’s a faith as bad as the ones we protest against.

Which brings us neatly around to Bertrand Russell, who is the progenitor of an idea known as “Russell’s teapot”. It can be summarised (courtesy of the fine fellows who edit Wikipedia) as follows:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

It’s a wonderful piece of intellectual ammunition, and it’s one of the reasons I like to read books by people like Lord Russell and Prof. Dawkins.

The book I have lately read is a collection of short essays on various subjects, leading with the titular Why I am not a Christian but with other topics too, such as sexual ethics and academic freedom, as well as an appendix detailing the witch-hunt which prevented Lord Russell from taking up an academic position at a New York college.

It was an immensely enjoyable read, and refreshing in the wonderful way that all works of great intellectual achievement are. The feeling of another’s fantastic thoughts running through your own brain are incredible, and it’s a damned good reason why I should really read more philosophy.

I felt like his musings on why he wasn’t a Christian were probably amongst the material that inspired Dawkins, and so the arguments there are familiar, if brought to a higher polish by Dawkins in his book The God Delusion.

I found the sections on sexual ethics to be particularly interesting because for the time he was writing they would have been extremely controversial, and they remain so today. He raises the points that sexual taboos are unhealthy, and that the sexual instinct should not be as repressed as it is in our society. It was actually a shock to me that in contemplating his ideas I discovered some of my own unreasonable prejudices and indoctrinations. A profound re-orientation of sexual ethics around the principles of reason would probably be very healthy.

In light of this, I’m probably in the near future going to buy something like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, because I do find the question of feminism really rather interesting. She’s also an existentialist, which I like a lot.

All in all this is a very interesting collection of essays that’s well worth reading, especially if you’re not sure what it is you believe. I just have to say I would rather be on the side of people like Russell than many religious people.

If you haven’t already, go back to Part 1 – Illium.

Coming soon, Part 3 – Slaughterhouse 5.

My Fellow People

In today’s Observer there was a leaflet from Amnesty International which used a knife and two hand grenades to form an image of a rather definitive part of the male anatomy, with the headline “Rape: Weapon of War”

Inside were witness accounts of how systematic rape is used to terrorize civillian communities. It makes for very uncomfortable reading.

The rest of the paper too is filled with generally terrible stories of things that are happening all over the world; child soldiers in Sri Lanka, a 17-year old Afghan girl stamped, suffocated and stabbed to death by her father for being infatuated with a British soldier.

Here in the West it’s easy to live our comfortable lives making mildly sexist “do the washing up”-style jokes and forget that in many parts of the world women are treated as little more than property, with little regard for their essential humanity; that our joking in a way trivializes a serious problem, and that even here women can still face descrimination.

It doesn’t just bother me that terrible things happen in the world, it bothers me that people actively keep the world this way; that ultimately there are people who are responsible for the terrible things they do to other people. Do any of those soldiers feel remorse for the rape? I know that the Afghan father feels no remorse for murdering his daughter; he says any Muslim father who honours his religion should do the same.

It would be easy to criticize Islam or any other of the religions; for instance the crimes of the Catholic Church are particularly terrible. The truth is that it seems to be a awful human tendency to believe that there are things more important than our common humanity, be they things as weighty as religion and nationality, or as trivial as the football team you support.

The Roma “ultras” stab opposing fans in the buttocks, Nigerian Muslims burned Nigerian Christians to death over the Danish cartoons. In the First World War the two sides stood only a few tens of meters of mud apart trying to kill each other for four years, wasting hundreds of thousands of lives.

The only moment of any of that which gives me hope is the Christmas truce, where both sides got up out of the Trenches, and played football together; a spontaneous outbreak of peace. It only goes to throw the pointlessness of the rest of that war into horribly sharp relief.

I don’t understand. I wish I did. For now, joining Amnesty seems like it might be a start.