Theos Think Tank have been polling about religious violence

Theos Think Tank have been asking people whether they regard religions as violent. By their own admission, they didn’t entirely like the results.

Nearly half (47%) agreed that “the world would be a more peaceful place if no one was religious”. Fully 70% said that: “Most of the wars in world history have been caused by religions”.

Faced with that, Theos’s Nick Spencer took some comfort from the fact that “only 32% agreed that religions were inherently violent”. Only? So one-in-three British people thinks that religions are inherently violent and this merits an “only”?

Can one imagine people saying that Cancer Research UK or the Battersea Dogs Home are inherently violent? I mention two charities because “promotion of religion” still attracts charitable status in the UK along with tax exemptions. That should surely change given that half the nation now thinks the world would be more peaceful without religion.

I would concur with those saying that the Abrahamic religions, at least, have an inherent tendency to violence. That’s because they think that morality flows from the God and that moral conduct consists of believing in God and doing what God wants. From there, it’s a rather small step to thinking that anyone not of the right religious opinion is necessarily immoral for rejecting that religion’s beliefs and dictats. Hence one has a moral licence — or even a moral duty — to correct their errors, using force if sadly necessary.

The belief that obedience to God is morally paramount, even if it means killing someone, goes back of course to stories about Abraham himself. The Eid al-Adha festival is a public holiday celebrated throughout the Islamic world, honouring the willingness of Abraham to kill Isaac for no better reason than that God wanted him to.

Liberal Christians tend to squirm on this topic, changing the subject by saying that the important part of the story is that God rescinded the instruction. But do they go further and admit that Abraham’s intention to kill his own son was a moral failing on his part, and that a righteous man would have flat-out refused? No, they still laud Abraham’s obedience, and they even take that line in story books given to their kids (honest, they do!).

The story likely has no historical basis, but even so, if such stories are told as spiritual lessons, shouldn’t the supposedly peaceful Abrahamic religions now repudiate it? Until the mainstream religious opinion is moral condemnation of Abraham’s obedience, I submit that religions do indeed have an inherent tendency to violence.

Nick Spencer disagrees, saying that “You have to be pretty bone headed to believe — really and truly believe — that the great religions of the world preach violence and hatred. Go into any religious place of worship any day of the week and I would say the chances of hearing a kill the infidel sermon are vanishing small”.

So Imams in Pakistan do not preach in favour of their blasphemy laws, saying that blasphemers and apostates should be killed? No Imam has ever called for any punishment of Salman Rushdie? Friday prayers in Iran have never voiced hatred of the Great Satan, and mosques throughout the Islamic world never express any animosity towards Israel and the Jews?

Many Islamic countries prescribe the death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy. Several dozen people have been killed in Pakistan for mere accusations of blasphemy. In Bangladesh, multiple secularist bloggers have been killed by Islamists merely for criticising Islam. Other Islamic countries imprison, flog and outlaw secularists for speaking up.

This is not violence by lone rogues, but violence widely supported by mainstream Islamic opinion. Even voicing opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is itself considered blasphemous and so can get you killed, with wide swathes of that nation’s people openly supporting the murderer.

Nick Spencer’s claim reflects the gentle and anodyne theology of today’s Church of England, but Western Christianity has long been neutered by the Enlightenment and by secular values of church–state separation, individual rights, and religious liberty. This is tamed religion. But religion in the raw prevailed through much of the history of Christendom, and still blights the Islamic world.

Spencer continues: “Referencing the Crusades or the Inquisition is pretty poor work. Atheist regimes were more efficient and rather more recent in their genocidal efforts.”.

And yet the Crusades and the Inquisition were not isolated aberrations, they were manifestations of how the Christian churches were for much of their history. And on the recent genocidal efforts, Third Reich Germany must take the prize, and yet was thoroughly religious and theistic. The fact that it was a nation that was 94% Christian that murdered millions of Jews with genocidal intent is something that Christians still don’t want to admit.

Spencer can rightly point to the large-scale atrocities of the communist regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (motivated, by the way, by totalitarian communist ideology, not by the irrelevant point that they were “atheistic”), but is that what today’s religious apologists are reduced to? “Yes, half the nation thinks the world would be more peaceful without us, but “only” a third think we’re inherently violent and … well, we’re not quite as bad as the totalitarian communist regimes”. As exculpation goes, that’s feeble!

Progress means accepting that we must not impose our ideology by violence even if doing so would be justified or even demanded by our God, our religion or our ideology. Because, judging by our religious history, we sure as hell cannot rely on Gods to be peaceful!

That Enlightenment principle is now widely accepted in the West, but can we hope that it will become accepted by those for whom the whole ethos of Islam, and indeed the very name itself, means “submission” to the will of God?

Advertisements

On Michael Shermer’s defence of moral realism

“Is there anyone (other than slave holders and Nazis) who would argue that slavery and the Holocaust are not really wrong, absolutely wrong, objectively wrong, naturally wrong?”

Yes, I would (and I don’t think I’m either a slave holder or a Nazi). That quote ends Michael Shermer’s recent defence of moral realism on his Skeptic blog.

My disagreement with Shermer comes down to what we even mean by morality being “objective” rather than “subjective”. Indeed this particular disagreement can account for a lot of people talking past each other. Shermer explains: Continue reading

NASA launches satellite ‘TESS’ in hunt for exoplanets

With the launch of NASA’s TESS satellite due this very day, this is a popular-level account of TESS and exoplanet hunting that I wrote for The Conversation (and which has been re-published by the BBC Focus Magazine). Actually this is my version, prior to their editing.

Previous generations have looked up at the stars in the night sky and wondered whether they are also orbited by planets; our generation is the first to find out the answer. We now know that nearly all stars have planets around them, and as our technology improves we keep finding more. NASA’s newest satellite, TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), scheduled for launch on Monday, will extend the hunt for small, rocky planets around nearby, bright stars. Continue reading

“Sharing Reality” and how to persuade people

How does one best persuade people to favour a secular and science-based view of life? That’s the topic of Jeff Haley and Dale McGowan’s new book: Sharing Reality: How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World (of which the authors kindly gave me a review copy). [Amazon.co.uk link; amazon.com link]

They start by discussing how not to do it. They quote Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remarks to Richard Dawkins:

“And it’s the facts plus the sensitivity [that], when convolved together, create impact. I worry that your methods, and how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective.” It’s significant that Tyson didn’t complain that Dawkins’s approach was unpleasant or disrespectful. He said it was ineffective. His argument is that Dawkins’s own presumed goal of convincing others that his ideas are worthy and important is short-circuited by a failure to consider the state of the mind on the receiving end of those ideas.

It’s a common complaint, that Dawkins is too acerbic and dismissive of religious opinion, appearing to talk down to people. For example, Emily Willoughby writes: Continue reading

The cosmological multiverse and falsifiability in science

The cosmological “multiverse” model talks about regions far beyond the observable portion of our universe (set by the finite light-travel distance given the finite time since the Big Bang). Critics thus complain that it is “unfalsifiable”, and so not science. Indeed, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci states that instead: “… the notion of a multiverse should be classed as scientifically-informed metaphysics”.

Sean Carroll has recently posted an article defending the multiverse as scientific (arXiv paper; blog post). We’re discussing here the cosmological multiverse — the term “multiverse” is also used for concepts arising from string theory and from the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but the arguments for and against those are rather different. Continue reading

How not to defend humanistic reasoning

Sometimes the attitudes of philosophers towards science baffle me. A good example is the article Defending Humanistic Reasoning by Paul Giladi, Alexis Papazoglou and Giuseppina D’Oro, recently in Philosophy Now.

Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon? Because of his leg movements? Or because he wanted to assert his authority in Rome over his rivals? When we seek to interpret the actions of Caesar and Socrates, and ask what reasons they had for acting so, we do not usually want their actions to be explained as we might explain the rise of the tides or the motion of the planets; that is, as physical events dictated by natural laws. […]

The two varieties of explanation appear to compete, because both give rival explanations of the same action. But there is a way in which scientific explanations such as bodily movements and humanistic explanations such as motives and goals need not compete.

This treats “science” as though it stops where humans start. Science can deal with the world as it was before humans evolved, but at some point humans came along and — for unstated reasons — humans are outside the scope of science. This might be how some philosophers see things but the notion is totally alien to science. Humans are natural products of a natural world, and are just as much a part of what science can study as anything else.

Yes of course we want explanations of Caesar’s acts in terms of “motivations and goals” rather than physiology alone — is there even one person anywhere who would deny that? But nothing about human motivations and goals is outside the proper domain of science. Continue reading

Human rights rest only on human advocacy

Are human rights anything more than legal conventions? asks John Tasioulas, Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London.

Isn’t the answer “obviously not”? Human rights are collective agreements, statements about what sort of society we want to live in, and of how we want people to be treated. As such, their justification and standing derives from the advocacy of people. Anything more than that is mere rhetoric, “nonsense on stilts”, as Jeremy Bentham explained long ago.

But, as with morals, people get unhappy about the idea that their feelings on the matter are all there is. People would really like human rights to be laws of nature, objective obligations that we ought to follow regardless. Wouldn’t that put them on a sounder footing? Continue reading