Sunday, 21 October 2012

Protecting Religious Rights

My friends disagree with me.

Not that religious rights need to be defended, we agree on that.

We disagree on how much protection they should have. Because as anyone who read my rant about the "Campaign for civility" could tell, I think that while people should be allowed to believe what they want, those beliefs should be as open to scoff, and ridicule as any other.

My premis was (is) that faiths make claims that are extremely offensive. I used the example of unbelievers deserving to be burned in hell, but I could just have easily gone with the claim that a woman is exactly one half the value of a man.

Someone very close to me after hearing my arguments from that blog post could not understand how someones faith could be offensive to someone else who did not share it...
RF [Respected Friend]: But if you dont believe in the qur'an or bible then why would it's claims about burning in hell bother you?

Me: Because people who accept the doctrine, accept the judgment it contains: that people without faith deserve eternal punishment.

RF: But thats just their belief, it doesn't mean anything... You dont have to take it seriously so why be offended.

Me: Because it can and does impact me. Our values create the laws and policies that we live by.

RF: But even if you feel that way you cant allow something as insulting as that video. People find it personally offensive...

...Aaaaaaand thats were I feel a point needs to be made.

An insult to a faith is not the same as a personal insult, an insult to a belief system, or a politics, or philosophy, or school of science, or model of thought, or even an economic system...  is not the same as a personal insult.

But faith is often given a special protected status in our culture, people will claim that anything that insults a faith can be taken as a personal insult without justification beyond the claim of faith.

For the vast majority of the faithful, this is because religion is the one belief people hold that they claim absolute knowledge.

Religious people dont think god exists they know he does, and they know what god is and what he wants of his creation. Many of my religious friends actually refuse to use words like "belief" because they are too ambiguous. Yet we know different religious systems contradict each other, they cannot all be right... But they could all be wrong.

So at least some of these people who claim an insult to their faith is a personal insult are taking offense about a false belief, a mistake, an error, or a self delusion.

And we let them do it.

As a society, we let religion make outlandish and contradictory claims. We let them make these claims with no evidence. We let them hold to practices and morals that are centuries out of date. We even let them discriminate on race, gender, and sexual orientation.

These values are reflected in society, they are used to justify laws and public policy.

I'll use the example of Islam because it was a muslim protest that prompted my original post:

People have tried to pass anti-blasphemy resolutions to the UN that would essentially make it illegal to say there was no historical evidence for Muhammad (or even to say he was just a normal man)

In the UK there are current attempts to get the courts to recognise sharia law, and multiple sharia councils are cropping up around England to enact sharia without waiting. Where this is really disturbing is that these councils are handing down rulings on legal matters like inheritance, and they are doing so according to quranic tradition - Sons get a full share and daughters get a half share.

These councils are run by people who also hold the belief that woman may be beaten if they dont obey their husbands.

Similar movements exist in the US and parts of Europe.

Personally I think any father who would rise their daughter as if she was worth less than a son is a fool at best. To tell a person they are worth less than another because of their gender is more than wrong it's a breach of basic human rights.

I think therefore that religion must be ready to get as good as it gives.

And its not just doctrine... People have used irrational and emotive attacks for as long as there has been debate, and people of faith are not exempt.

Claims of civility did not stop religionists drawing Charles Darwin with the body of a chimp, in fact it became a visual cliche of the age:

Perhaps more disturbing is that it continues to this day as a practice of those whose faith demands they do not accept any creation story but their own, and find themselves attacking the man to undermine the concept.

And the attacks do not stop at illustrations. Godwin's law remains a common go-to argument for many (but not all) people of faith who use "Reductio Ad Hitlerum" when they find themselves losing an argument on ration grounds.

I've experienced this myself, and have, in perfectly reasonable and quiet discussions been told that without faith to guide me I am no better than Hitler, and only the promise of salvation stops people from stealing raping and killing every day.

It's a claim made in a hundred youtube videos.

As my friend said
"You dont have to take it seriously"
And she was right, I dont have to and for the most part I dont.

I can live with views like that being expressed about me, and I demand only that god develops skin as thick as mine.

If we start limiting speech based on what may offend someone, redacting content from public sources on grounds of potential insult, then many religious works will have to become censored and radical/fundamentalist sermons will be blocked from youtube. In short "religious" freedoms would be the first ones to go...

Friday, 19 October 2012

Campaign for Civility

In one of the worst examples of hypocrisy in recent history, thousands and thousands of muslims have protested outside Googles UK HQ to get a video removed because they found it "insulting" to their faith.

Reports (1, 2, 3) say over ten thousand muslims turned up to pressure google into taking down an anti islamic  video called "The Innocence of Muslims" from YouTube, and organisers say the protests will continue around the globe until they get what they want.

The protestors carried placards with phrases like: - "This insult of the Prophet will not be allowed",  "Prophet Muhammad is the father of civil liberties",  "Google supports terrorism",  "How dare you insult the blessed prophet",  "Freedom of Speech = Hatred of Muslims?" and "Muslims campaign for global civility".

A lawyer called Sheikh Siddiqui, wants christian, catholic, jewish, trade unions, and even conservatives groups to encourage their ranks to join his "campaign for civility".

This protect group is trying to co-opt the term "civility", claiming that it is not civil to attack actions and quotes attributed to the prophet Mohammed. They say the video is so insulting that it is "emotional terrorism".

No-one, NO-ONE, whose personal belief system includes eternal hell for rejecting the claims of that faith can EVER claim the moral high ground on emotional coercion.

They claim it is not civil to attack the character of Muhammad (whose very existence is still a matter of historical debate), but somehow, it is acceptable to hold the view that people who disagree, people who disbelief are of such low character that they are destined to spend eternity in Jahannam (hell)? And to publish that view in a book they claim to be the true and beautiful word of god?

The islamic apologetic argument that Christians, Catholics,  and Jews might be saved because they seek god only through the wrong path does little to hide the fact that all sects of Islam agree the Qur'an says those who reject the islamic faith are irredeemable and damned.
And among them there is he who says: Allow me and do not try me. Surely into trial have they already tumbled down, and most surely hell encompasses the unbelievers. Qur'an 9:49
Do they not know that whoever acts in opposition to Allah and His Messenger, he shall surely have the fire of hell to abide in it? Qur'an 9:63
Allah has promised the hypocritical men and the hypocritical women and the unbelievers the fire of hell to abide therein; it is enough for them; and Allah has cursed them and they shall have lasting punishment. Qur'an 9:68
That is not civil.

That is not polite.

That cannot be considered good "manners" as they should be taught.

It IS insulting

It IS threatening.

... and I'm only talking about hell here, I'm ignoring the verses on the reduced value of women, and the calls to actually harm or even kill unbelievers.

Putting the more "flexible" interpretations of moderate muslims, claims of historical context, etc, all aside for a moment: These claims remain part of their core religious dogma, written in their holy book. The insult is not only allowed but enshrined as the most beautiful of all "poetry".

For ANY group to pressure a company or government to provide special dispensation to that group and censor someones freedom of expression (no matter what you think of the quality or appropriateness of the video) while maintaining a core belief that insulting should be seen for the intolerable double standard it represents.

I reject Islam and Muhammad.

I ALSO reject the "The Innocence of Muslims" as crude and unworthy biased collection of misquotes and mixed contexts.

However, if I am to support the right of people of faith to hold views about myself and others who reject faith as deserving of infinite suffering I MUST reject utterly any attempt by those people of faith to stifle the expression of views that challenge contradict or even insult faith, it's articles, characters, and dogma.

People of Islam, please... Use the same freedom those protestors are attacking... Counter the video, refute the message, correct the perception, but dont, just please dont, try to bury it under a claim of "civility" that you simply cannot defend.

There are several reasons why that video might be banned not least of which is that the actors were lied to about what they were making, but "civility" is not one if them.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

What rights do you really have

I rapidly get tired of people saying that people of faith have a right to their beliefs when engaging in religious debates online.

Really? Putting aside the assumption that a social courtesy constitutes a right... If someone thought something that you disagreed with and made decision in society that you share with them (such as selecting political choices) does they right to internal beliefs demand that you not present alternative views?

I dont think so, if it did there would be no political or social debate and the men that knock on my door to ask me if I've heard the good news would have been arrested long ago.

A right is an entitlement, opportunity, freedom, or resource granted to an individual by a group.

But what happens when rights conflict? If two people have the right to a particular resource that can only be used once then is one persons right being denied by the other person? Or was the right only for the opportunity of use of the resource, not (as people may infer) exclusive use of the resource.

Many rights can be distinguished in this way, when people say they have a right to believe what they want, they actually mean they have the opportunity to believe what they want, but the actual belief is not necessarily protected.

Think about it, how many laws are in place to prevent me from challenging your belief by presenting a counter perspective? In fact most societies have specific laws protecting my right to express my points of view.

I mentioned socially courtesy earlier, because I do respect the beliefs of others, this blog for instance is separate from my other online activities in order to avoid offending people who do not wish to discuss these topics.

However, someone who enters into a debate online has waved any such respect, they dont get to go a few rounds and then simply say "well I have a right to my beliefs" before leaving. This is dishonest and intellectually bankrupt. A simple case of "I'm going to attack your position under the guise of open debate but deny your right of reply".

And given that arguments can be made against actions performed under the flag of religious practices, it can be argued that presenting alternative points of view to people thus engaged is a moral imperative.

People dont really have a right to believe, people get a right to not be persecuted for their beliefs, but all rights of freedom and speech are in place to support the exchange if ideas and people who do not wish to hear conflicting ideas have only one choice open to them - Stay out of the debate.

Friday, 12 October 2012

"Physical Self" vs "Non Physical Self" Dualism

I was following several discussions about the nature of mind and soul online and could not help seeing some obvious fallacies repeated over and over.

People perceive a natural dualism between mind and brain. But then assume that this means the mind, or that at least parts our "self", exist independently of the brain.

They call it our spirit, soul, essence, and other more mystical sounding words, most of which are simply the same idea represented in the language of different cultures. Tea is a nice drink, but calling it Chimarrão, Tee, Te, Teh, Thea, Herbata, Entèh, Tēja, Tsai, Sah, Chā, Shaah, Chahen, Chāy, Tenneru, Choy, or Liptons does not make it more or less than it was when you poured it into your cup.

The claim most often made is that the spirit is the "non physical" part of ourselves and when pressed people often use analogies to energy, magnetism, light, radio, sound, etc which is false because all these are physical in nature. Easily tested because they can all be generated and measured by physical methods.

  • If something interacts with with the physical world it must do so via shared physical properties
  • If something has physical properties it's physical, be it a force or a substance
  • Therefore ANYTHING that interacts with or is impacted by something physical MUST BE physical itself.

The main proof offered, however, for the existence of a non physical self is the inability to physically locate elements of self in our physical forms. People support the argument for soul or mind separate from the body by the thought experiment of taking the brain apart and attempting to identify, by examination, where a particular faculty or memory exists - the use a gross mechanical method to detect a subtle physical property or behaviour.

I'm amazed that this example even gets put forward, it's akin to grinding my iphone into dust and asking someone to sift through it to find the video of my cat that I had stored in it. That failure would not prove my cat video was a metaphysical entity any more than failure to find a particle of consciousness in a dissected brain proves that consciousness is metaphysical.

In the same way playing the video of my cat and hearing it meow does not mean there was a sound in my iphone all along. The sound emerged as a result of a complex set of interactions, consistent, repeatable and (to someone with sufficient understanding of digital electronics) fully explainable. Even the waves beating on the shore generate sound, but we dont think sea water is made of sound or that the sound of the waves exists independent of the water and shore.

Our lack of a similarly complete explanation of behaviours emergent from/generated by the human brain does not mean such explanations are impossible, simply that they are outside the scope of our understanding. The fact however that we have observed and created similar phenomena in electronic systems indicates that the only difference between the examples we can explain and those that we cant is one of scale.

The attempt to mechanically examine for elements of self fails as a test of anything even before we consider the nature of one thing emergent from another because behaviours and faculties are contextual.

For example, my ability to play chess (badly) would not exist without the concept of a chess board, my spatial awareness, my memory of the rules, my personal values (fear of loss, agression, empathy with my opponent, etc), my capacity for logic etc, etc, etc.

So to try to identify what single part of a brain holds my chess ability will fail because it's a combination or interaction of various other faculties that creates that ability.

We could try to identify what parts of the brain are necessary for the skill, and while direct experimentation is not practical - observation of people who have suffered physical trauma to their brain  allows us to make such identifications. We know for instance that hypocampus is a key component in memory and spatial reasoning.

My understanding of chess and my ability to play it, my chess faculty if you like, is an emergent behaviour from a very complex physical system. However, a purely mechanical examination of that system will never expose that faculty or it's atomic components (assuming it can be broken into meaningful particles).

Monday, 8 October 2012

Freedom on speech for cheerleaders

There is a serious freedom of speech issue occurring in Texas right now.

The short and the long of it is that a group of high school cheerleaders from Kountze Texas are being denied the right to put bible quotes on their banners carried during football games.

It's in the courts right now.

The problem is that there are laws on religious expression at public school events. School officials had to make the hard decision to tell children that were not allowed one particular form of expression.

It's not about restricting anyones freedom of speech, it's about making sure that schools are open and tolerant places. Anyone over the age of 12 is going to understand that peer pressure among teenagers can get pretty nasty.

I'm not shocked that the children are complaining about being told what they can and cannot do - Thats what being a teenager is about. What shocks me is the parents getting in on the act.

In fact no restriction on the children's personal expression is actually being applied. They are only being restricted in what they can express as representatives of the school.

One of the greatest mis-claims ever made is that Madalyn Murray O'Hair (the founder of the American Atheists) got prayer taken out of schools in America. But what actually happened was that a group of people asked the courts to rule on removing forced religious observance from schools. Voluntary observance is still totally permitted.

These cheerleaders are not loosing any of their freedom of speech but other children in the school system are having their freedom of beliefs protected - including those who dont share the beliefs of the cheerleaders.

Freedom of expression is only of value if everyone gets it, and that occasionally means compromise.

These people feel justified in their actions, knowing that they may make others uncomfortable, even knowing that of all the possible quotes from the bible:
"I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me."
... is not one of the many that could be used and specifically requiring christian faith in order to agree with it.

The problem here is that these cheerleaders honestly think that they are not just expressing a view, they feel they are communicating "gods word", and because others belief that as well they are fighting on legal technicalities and semantics.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Of Ends and Means

The battle over "faith values" has never been very amicable but every once in a while I see some things that makes shows just how nasty it can get.

Recently news broke of a "pro-family" group being sued for using the engagement photo of a gay couple without their permission in a campaign flier.

Think about that, imagine a photo from your life taken out of context edited and then used in material made public actively attacking your lifestyle.

Worse still, the group in question considers homosexuality and atheism as immoral behaviours and beliefs - However you cut it "immorality" is a personal attack, there is nothing general about it.

Think about a blonde couple getting married and then having their engagement photos used to promote the idea that blondes are stupid.

Could you take a part of someones private life who you do not know (the photo in question was taking off the internet) and use that to publicly represent a view that you know would be totally contrary to the values of that person?

Could you?

I dont think I could bring myself to invade and violate the privacy of others in such a blatant way.

To be honest however I dont think this is representative of the values of the faith in question, but more of the individuals who put together the pamphlet. It's just ironic that someone working for a cause that claims the moral high ground should stoop to theft (they took a professionally taken photo without attempting to pay rights or royalties), deception (the photo was edited to change it's setting), and lies (the pamphlet implied that homosexual relationships were preferred by the candidate it was attacking) in order to prove their point.

For the record I would be just as upset if anyone ran an anti-faith campaign using the same tactics.

As I said, the actions fo these people are not representative of faith but they are representative of politics where artificially stimulated emotional reactions are more important than verifiable facts and rational arguments.

The fact that anyone would be swayed by such a document just goes to show that some people are only looking for an excuse to believe a certain way, not a reason to do so. These ends cannot justify the means for a christian group or any other group that grasps the morality of the golden rule.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

It's not perfect and it's not easy, but it's a good place to start.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

TAG: You're It, But God Isn't

TAG is shorthand for the The "Transcendental Argument for God".

A complete description of the argument and it's common variants can be found an

Briefly, the argument seeks to establish the existence of transcendental (or absolute) logical concepts, and then to argue that such transcendental concepts necessitate a transcendental mind (or god). The TAG argument is one of the many attempts to prove that god is a logical requirement of the universe.

Simply put:
  1. There are logical absolutes
    1. Law of identity
    2. Law of non-contradictions
    3. Law of excluded middle
  2. These logical absolutes are true, always
  3. These logical absolutes are transcendental, that is, independent of and not contingent on, space, time or matter
  4. These logical absolutes are concepts
  5. Concepts require a mind
  6. In order to be true always there must be a mind always to conceive them.
At this point, proponents of TAG tend to wrap up with "therefore god" or words to that effect, without any attempt to further deduce the limitations or possible scope of the mind in question (or minds as a plurality of metaphysical minds cannot be disproved using this logic).

By writing my thoughts on this I am probably fighting far over my weight but the flaw in the argument is actually quite simple, and it all springs from a simple question.
Does the world obey logic, or does logic describe the world?
Maps do not determine the terrain, they only describe it.

What we call "laws" of logic are descriptions, explanations, concepts of the fundamental nature of reality. But they are not the nature of reality themselves. We assume they are naturally emergent when a mind capable of abstract thought considers reality, which is a fancy way of saying that people should be able to come up with them without being told, just by thinking about it (and more than one philosopher has done exactly that in the long run of history).

The laws of logic are the same as any law of nature, in that they represents reality but do not cause it. We say they are "absolute" not because they are totally true, but because we have abstracted them from all subjective elements to produce an "absolute" or "pure" form of the observed behaviour.

It's a bit like the old question "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?" in a strict scientific sense the answer is "no" because sound is defined as vibrations perceived by the act of hearing. The question however was originally meant simply to illustrate "unperceived existence" and personal perception of the universe - Does it exist for me if I cannot perceive it?

But reality is the state of things actually existing independent of perception or conception - Reality is that which persists when you stop believing in (or perceive) it. It is the shared context in which we all exist, that which is the same for each of us (Note: that is not the same as saying "that which we all agree on".)

Reality therefore and it's nature comes before any concept used to understand, describe, predict, define, or encompass it.

Logical absolutes (concepts) are true, always, because they attempt to describe other things (properties of existence), that are true always. An excellent example of how heated the TAG discussion can ge can be seen here. (many thanks to Atheist Community of Austin for an awesome and informative show)

The entire argument from the theists side relies on semantics to allow a fallacy of equivocation to slip thought the gaps. Basically because there is no clear distinction made between the logical laws and qualities of consistent reality they are attempting to describe, theists then proceed to ascribe the qualities of each to the other, concepts become transcendental properties of reality, and properties of reality now need a mind to contain them.

This kind of confusion is really only possible/easy with logical absolutes because they have been reduced to the simplest possible conceptual truths. If TAG were tried using the concept of gravity, it could easily be pointed out that the details of our concept of gravity change as we learn and observe more, while the actual behaviours we describe remain consistent, separating the two.

The concept and the actual effect are obviously two different things, but logical absolutes are a distillation of other concepts, a reduction down to that which can be considered safely immutable. For them, the simple, enlightening contrast between the idea and the reality is not so evident.

At best the transcendental argument for god is simply flawed reasoning, a failure to critically examine an argument that supports your theory. At worst TAG is a logical slight of hand used to give false hope to people questioning their faith and cast doubt in the minds of others. In either case it not useful as a proof for the existence of anything but the need for better arguments.