Hope’s Glimmer Dies Again

December 27, 2007 | By | 44 Replies More

Bhutto is dead.

One tries to be understanding, patient, tries to embrace the tolerance so thoroughly rejected by those who condemn out of hand, with no chance for counterargument, the possibility of dialogue.  Comes a point where one has to simply acknowledge that some people, in some places, just don’t share anything in common with us.

We have tried to explain the Jihadists by looking at history, pointing out where they have just cause to be angry with the West, outraged at what has been done to their people, and that the response can be understood from some exterior position that refrains from taking sides.  Suicide bombing as a cultural aberration can nonetheless be comprehended from the perspective of the political outsider who sees that the only weapon available to those with no voice is sometimes the loudest, most irrational shout imaginable.  We see the situation in the Middle East and shake our heads at the repeated injustices committed over and over again in the name of oil or power or faith, which may in the end all be one and the same.

But the simple truth now seems to be that any political or moral validity these movements may at one time have possessed has been squandered in a mindless lemming-like inability to allow for anything other than the preprocessed, spoonfed insanity of their religious convictions.  The act of destroying those who are not One Of Them has become a self-perpetuating series of negations, a denial that anyone can have any authority to negotiate, to make policy, to attempt reconciliation, to render the situation rational.  Only Allah may be “in charge” and anyone else who attempts to command a plebiscite to accomplish anything that in the least way deviates from the perceived path of the righteous must simply die.

Which in the end will be everyone.  Under such a program, no one may be in charge.

And since Allah chooses to be silent in the present day, the natural condition of such a polity will be subsistence and terror.  All progress must cease by this program.  Everything must be rendered down into a basic mortal pabulum that has no definable shape, no direction, no possibility of Becoming.

These people are insane.  Perhaps not clinically–there may be no organic component to their madness–which makes it all the more terrifying.  They value nothing by which common ground can be found or common cause be made.  Even their leaders probably cannot control them, once the zeal and the arrogance that has no Self at its center takes hold and they believe they are acting according to divine will.

There is no political future in that path and it is abhorrent to all we hold dear.  One may deride the West for many failures to live up to its own promises, criticize us for our lapses in conscience, but in the face of such utter nihilistic perversity one has to admire the things we cling to as noble and true and precious, at the base of which is the assumed freedom to simply have a different opinion.

The genius of the United States and modern Europe lies in the fact that when we have an election, regardless the outcome, we Go Home.  We do not riot.  We do not overturn the Constitution.  We do not have coups.  (One can argue these points, but in the end they are largely true.)  How does one teach that to a nation that seems incapable of accepting differences of opinion?  We see it time and again, when elections here or there or some other place are declared, by someone, to be not the will of the people, the cities burn, the leaders are shot, the military is called out, and democracy is kicked in the balls again.

Bhutto may not have been able to save Pakistan from itself.  But now we’ll never know. A plebiscite of one decided for the whole country.

And people wonder why religion in politics is such a Big Deal.


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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Communication, Culture, Current Events, Good and Evil, History, law and order, Noteworthy, Politics, Religion, The Middle East

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (44)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Martin: I believe you have characterized me about three-fourths correctly.

    I do believe that religious folk fall on a continuum. I do think that many of them remain committed to tolerance and diversity. I do think there are religious moderates who I contrast with religious extremists ("fundamentalists"). I do believe that it is best for me to be polite to those religious moderates who are "harmless folk" (although this label insults the many positive good acts done by many religious moderates).

    On the other hand, you incorrectly accuse me of wanting to "respect the unjustified beliefs of others." A big distinction is in order from the get-go: I believe that we can respect the person without respecting each of that person's beliefs. That is the approach that I think makes the most sense most of the time, for many reasons that I've articulated in my writings at this website.

    If it has not been made clear from my writings at the site, I'll try to summarize them here. Many of the religious beliefs of most religious moderates seem silly to me. They appear to be totally unjustified. I am repeatedly surprised and dismayed when I hear goodhearted religious moderates telling their children straightfaced that Jesus died on the cross to save them from going to hell. Such a claim lacks any credible evidence. It makes me wonder how these children can possibly respect their parents for saying such strange things, especially older children who should know better. In my world view, those people might as well be telling their teenage children that Santa Claus is a real world being who lives at the North Pole. Do I "respect" these sorts of assertions? Not in the least. Whenever a religious moderate tries to drag me into a conversation where it is suggested that such beliefs are plausible, I feel compelled to speak up and I do speak up. I say these sorts of things. http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1220

    I agree with many of the things you have written. I am sympathetic to the notion that religious moderates give "cover" to religious fundamentalists. I agree with your eloquent statement that "certainty about the ever after is not compatible with respect in the here and now." But you want me to become an "honest extremist" and to "jump off the fence" by admitting that "religion itself is dragging us ever closer to the edge of the abyss."

    I need you to elaborate on a few things so that I can respond a little better, however. What does it mean to "jump off the fence" in terms of how I treat goodhearted religious moderates? Shall I repeatedly go around and pick fights with them regarding religion ? I could do that, of course. I could walk up to my many goodhearted religious moderate friends and acquaintances and raise the issue of religion in an accusatory way. I could then make it clear that their beliefs are unsubstantiated by evidence and, in fact, "stupid" or "ridiculous." I could quote Richard Dawkins to them (BTW, I think Richard Dawkins is a brilliant man who is largely correct in his criticisms of religion). Is that what you mean by "jump off the fence"?

    Or do you mean that I should never agree with my goodhearted religious moderate friends when they spout religious dogma with which I don't agree? I already do that. As stated above, I always do that whenever anyone tries to imply that I do or that I should believe that there is a big invisible sentient deity who loves me but who might end up nevertheless sending me to hell.

    So that's one strategy I employ. I don't try to pick fights, but I don't back down when someone implies that I am ignorant, immoral or evil for not believing in the transubstantiation or that a Virgin had a baby. Perhaps I should clarify, however. I say that I don't try to pick fights, but I am absolutely certain that there are hundreds of people out there who would say otherwise. Many people would probably claim that I do go around picking fights on the topic of religion. I am absolutely sure that I am insulted dozens of people by being forthright with my opinions on these topics.

    But, perhaps, by "get off the fence" you mean that it is impossible for me to maintain a genuine friendship with a religious moderate. I totally disagree with this statement (though, I admit, you might not actually be making this claim). Some of my nearest and dearest friends are religious moderates. Some of these people have done more real-world good to help others than I will ever imagine doing it myself. I'm talking about people who consistently put their money where their mouth is, who go out and help people in need, who joined community organizations to accomplish big things, and who join public action organizations such as Free Press to do courageous work reforming our corrupt political/media system.

    Let's assume that I am working side-by-side with some of these incredible people and the topic of religion comes up. What should I do to make sure that I am "getting off the fence"? I can assure you that every one of these friends knows my position on religion quite well, because there are times when we all discuss these things, respecting each other as people in the process. On the other hand, I am certain that they don't respect all of my positions and I don't respect their religious dogma. Do they hold out hope that they can convert me? Yes, every so often that becomes apparent, but they do so gently. Do I try to convert them? Yes. Every so often it becomes apparent to them that I am trying to destroy their worldview, gently, of course! It's the same way with my friends who are antiabortion (yes, I do have a few of these friends).

    The religious moderates with whom I have friendships ridicule the turning off of a mind characteristic of fundamentalism. These anti-fundamentalist religious moderates are some of our best allies against the coordinated efforts to invade Iran or two encourage pharmacists to refuse legal birth control to women with valid prescriptions.

    I know for a fact that I have a whole lot more important in common with many goodhearted religious moderates than I do with some agnostics and atheists. There are significant numbers of nonbelievers, for instance, who are unapologetic self-absorbed solipsistic hedonistic ranting cynical philistine money-worshipers. And there are huge numbers of goodhearted religious moderates with whom I can relate on 99% of issues we raise together. And consider this: many of those nonbelievers have unjustifiable faith in some things with which I don't agree. For some of them, that "faith" is that life has no real meaning other than feeding one's short-term desires. I don't have such faith, so I have trouble feeling a kinship with such people, even though we do share the lack of respect for many of the same religious claims.

    As I've written before, I write off religious beliefs as compartmentalized insanity with regard to goodhearted religious moderates. Religious moderates who respect me likely write off my disbelief similarly as a compartmentalized insanity. Okay, we're both insane, so let's go do something. Shall we have our families spend time with each other, or shall we improve our neighborhood by working in the community garden, or shall we march in opposition to the occupation of Iraq or shall we go listen to music together, where the performers might be singing songs that reveal sympathy more to one of our views than to the other, but where that's all okay?

    I don't know if I've convinced you, so I might need to wait for your response. Not only can you respect a person without respecting some other views. I think that you can respect a person while even ridiculing some of their views. And, again, this rule applies both to believers I respect and agnostics/atheists I respect.

    Perhaps you can comment on whether you have good friends who are goodhearted believers in God. How do you treat them? Do you constantly ridicule their beliefs?

    The social reality is that there will be lots of blowback and polarization whenever you make an effort to attack people's cherished beliefs, especially their cherished irrational beliefs, their cherished oxymoronic beliefs or their cherished beliefs on which there is little to no evidence. And what have you accomplished if you go around doing that in a world that is desperate for the coordinated efforts of goodhearted people? You've lost the chance to march together in the next version of Selma. You have lost the chance to work together to rid the government of some of its corruption. Speaking of Selma, would you refuse to get in line to march with Martin Luther King just because he believed in God and you didn't? Would you heckle him during his "I've got a Dream" speech because you consider his belief in God to be wacky?

    I fail to see the inconsistency of loving goodhearted people yet disagreeing strenuously with them on some issues. Isn't that what we do with this our spouses and our children? Isn't that what we do with our coworkers and our neighbors?

    I really am not interested in a war on religion as a full-time job. I do believe in the need for a war on fundamentalism. As far as moderate religion, however, it (for whatever reason) serves as a crutch for many people who feel they need it. I can go around kicking out that crutch, though I am much more committed to working hard to teach people that they can walk without that crutch. It is my hope that they will be ready sooner rather than later. To the extent they are not ready, however, I would agree with the writings of Jonathan Haidt that the world might be a more chaotic and dangerous place without (moderate) religion, a least in this time and in this country (United States).

    I believe that my other writings on this blog are evidence of my commitment to something other than the status quo with regard to the religious tendencies of the United States. And I've made no secret, even to my goodhearted religious moderate friends, that my strategy is "all deliberate speed."

    I look forward to your response.

  2. Martin says:


    When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.

    James Whitcombe Riley (1849 – 1916)

  3. Martin said: —Which reads to me as meaning that, “my Holy Book means what I want it to mean and you can’t say I’m wrong”.

    When all I can do is ask, rhetorically, is there anything more pointless than a holy book that permits each and every user to translate and interpret it in their own particular way?—

    Equally rhetorically, I can ask What good is a holy book that doesn't permit interpretation?

    For decades I have watched people decide on my behalf what I believe and must therefore be like, and for the most part they've been wrong. "If you don't believe in god, you must be a bad person."

    I suppose since I'm not a bad person, I must be a hypocrite.

  4. After giving it a second thought I am not sure anymore if I would really call them hypocritical. Compartmentalizing – yes, hypocritical – not sure. Being hypocritical implies that you do know the truth and are not lying to yourself as you do with the rest of the world. It is a deliberate choice that affect others. You lie in order to make yourself look better, make other people feel bad about themselves, or to obtain some other goal of yours. Like this politician who was against gays like any good Republican who wants the votes of his conservative voters, but approached a guy in the restroom for sex. This is hypocritical. If you deny yourself to see the inconsistencies of your faith you are not really taking advantage of anybody nor are you harming anybody. It misses the intention as you would have in the case of a true hypocrite.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Mark's question points to the crux of the problem: "…rhetorically, I can ask, 'What good is a holy book that doesn’t permit interpretation?'"

    On the one hand, there's an argument that any holy book, like any black letter law, can't possibly do justice to mankind unless it provides some wiggle room to deal with the foibles of life. On the other hand, there's also an argument that any holy book, if it truly is 'The Word Of God', should contain some sort of absolute truth. Religious extremists tend toward the latter view, claiming they are truer to their religion's principles than are the moderates who opt for the former belief. The tug of war between them over this issue provides the rest of us with entertainment and, occasionally, gunfire.

  6. Martin says:


    Whatever else you do in this life you must remain true to yourself; You must be able to get up in the morning and know that the face staring back at you in the shaving mirror is that of a good man. We can characterise this as having self respect; you must be able to respect yourself before you can hope to win the respect of others. Something else that you might like to achieve in your life is to know, when you get to the end of your allotted span, that your life has been something other than merely long. This comes down to your own personal answer to the question of purpose; what is life for?

    This question of purpose hides, I think, an arrogant assumption. We do not consider that the life of a tiger or of a beetle has a purpose, but we do consider that our life should. This is because we do not view ourselves as animals but assume that we are in some meaningful sense better than them and therefore our lives necessarily must have a purpose.

    For me, the "purpose" of any organism is to perpetuate its genes. Even though by that criteria I have to accept that my life, so far, has been a failure, I still accept that that is what life is for; to pass on my genes.

    For many people, religion is the answer to the question. They see life in this world as a preparation for the commencement of a new and better existence in the hereafter. This motivates them to doing whatever it takes for them to get to where they want to go. Some (and only some) of these people find it difficult or impossible to understand why someone who is not similarly motivated should behave in a like manner. This line of "thought" gives us those religious moderates who view atheists as being either immoral or amoral by definition.

    Some (and only some) believers think that the world was made in six days at a point in time 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned how to brew beer, and almost a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue. This belief will naturally give them a slightly different perspective on world history to the rest of us.

    Some (and only some) religious people believe the story of a great deluge that overtook the world – and for some of them it was in the reasonably recent past – which explains to them the origin of fossils and allows them to view the stratigraphy of our geology as a marvellous gift from the creator rather than as the result of a natural process taking aeons to complete.

    The point is, that however moderate your religious belief, it puts your belief in and understanding of at least some other ordinary everyday phenomenon at variance with reality. This means that in our earnest attempt to have some kind of reasoned discourse with believers we are expected to temporarily suspend our beliefs in order to accommodate theirs.

    I have given a few examples of areas where this is necessary, but the deeper meaning is that because their belief is completely and utterly irrational there is no way that you and I could possibly hope to guess the limit of their irrationality. There is no point in us simply trying to avoid discussing morality or ethics, geology or ancient history with them in the hope that we can have a sensible intelligent conversation, because we are unable to predict where else their belief might be skewing their understanding and outlook.

    To me, the obvious conclusion is to avoid them and that is what I do. To do otherwise would, for me, be equivalent to spending my life with members of another species. At which point I am reminded of the words of Werner Herzog in his film Grizzly Man. The film is about Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers living with and filming Grizzly Bears in the Canadian Arctic in the sadly misguided hope that he could "help" them. He and his girlfriend were inevitably killed and eaten by a bear. Over some close-up shots of the bear that possibly did it, Herzog says: What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears, and this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a saviour.

    If you think I am extreme to ignore them then ask yourself, what is the definition of communication. If it has any meaning in the realm of human interaction, it means that one person sends a message and the other both receives and understands the message. If you are not convinced that the other person is able to comprehend and understand your message, then where is there any communication between you? And if you are not communicating, on any level, then why interact?

    Now think about Herzog's words about bears in light of what I said earlier about the arrogant assumption that we are not just animals, and in light of what I just said about communication. Treadwell thought he was communicating with the bears, but the bears didn't think so. The message was only going one way and was not being understood. No communication was taking place. There was just the "overwhelming indifference of nature". That is exactly what I experience when I try talking to religious moderates.

    I was out with a friend one night and he said to me that I would be unlikely to find a girlfriend unless I paid more attention to my clothes. "Look," he screamed in exasperation, "your shirt buttons don't even match your shirt." I patiently explained to him that I would not be interested in the opinion of a girl who would only think highly of me if my shirt buttons match the material of my shirt. If she is not able to consider me the person rather than me the consumer then I am not interested in her.

    That makes perfect sense to me, and seems like it might be applicable in other situations. Replace "consumer" in that last sentence with "physicist" for example and it still works. But when I try to replace "consumer" with "believer" it no longer works because there is no separation of the two ideas. The person is the believer and they would not want to be considered in any other way. So when I ignore believers I am being honest both with them and with myself.

    Being honest with myself is the real motivation for me. If I can do that in a way that is also honest with them it is a bonus. For me, it is important to understand that there is sometimes a conflict between honesty and being polite. If a woman jumps the queue in the supermarket you might allow your desire to be polite to take precedence over your honesty, and say nothing. I would do the complete opposite. I view good manners as stemming from honesty, so honesty takes precedence and I would remind the lady that there is a queue here. I have more than once encountered this in shops where the assistant indicates that they saw it happen but, hey, what the heck, I might as well serve her now anyway. My response to this is to put down my shopping and walk out. The lady was rude to jump the queue and the assistant was rude to permit and condone it. Honesty requires me to respond in the only way I know how.

    Some people would call this cutting off my nose to spite my face. If you are one of those then I invite you to consider this: Being alive means living, where "living" is a doing word. So being honest means "honesty" is also a doing word. I "do" honesty by putting down my shopping and walking out. If you stand there and "do" nothing how are you being honest?

    I don't expect a whole lot of folks will agree with this, and I don't really much care whether you agree or not. I offer it not to persuade, but to explain why I make the choices I make. Honesty is more important to me than good manners. Honesty to myself is more important to me than honesty to you. Arcing over all of this is the concept of respect that I explained in an earlier post. Respect is the cake, and the ingredients in it are in proportion to my personal moral philosophy. The most important ingredient in the cake is honesty.

    To help you understand how important I consider this to be, I once got the sack because I refused to apologise to a person who had lied to me. When I caught him out in his lie he viewed that as my being rude to him, and asked me to apologise. You cannot tell a lie to someone and then assume the moral high ground when they catch you out in your lie, so I refused. The next day he gave me the sack, and in a perverse kind of way I am actually quite proud of that.

    To me, then, it is fundamentally dishonest of me to have discourse with believers in the certain knowledge that no communication is taking place and that I will have to ignore everything they say. If they have nothing to say that I can take away with me then I am lying to myself by even talking to them, and then I will have no self respect. I am not going to torture myself about trying to be polite to people who, by their wilfull ignorance have abnegated their right to expect my good manners.

    Everything I have just said refers to "meaningful conversation", which to me means something above the "did you see on TV last night" level. Where you personally draw the line as to what "meaningful conversation" means is entirely up to you.

    Up to this point I have been explaining the rationale behind what passes for my personal philosophy. There are no shades of grey in it, everything is either black or white. Something is either right or wrong, true or false. You are religious or you are not. Either I respect you or I don't.

    But I keep coming back to your question about Martin Luther King. Would I have refused to march with him simply because he believes in god and I do not?

    In considering this I kept coming back to the earlier conclusion that: in our earnest attempt to have some kind of reasoned discourse with believers we are expected to temporarily suspend our beliefs in order to accommodate theirs.

    And I ask myself why is it that "we" have to suspend our disbelief in order to accommodate "their" belief. Can it not be sometimes done the other way round?

    So, if Martin Luther King is prepared to temporarily suspend his belief in God I will gladly join him in his march.

    Where this works for you with your numerous moderate believer friends is that you have to be honest with them. You tell them that you find their beliefs are silly and irrational and that for your friendship to continue you are going to ask them to temporarily suspend their belief whilst they are with you.

    If they respond – as I suspect they will – that it is not reasonable of you to expect them to do that, you point out that in any debate it is the person making the claim who has to prove it is true. The un-believer is not required to prove the claim is false. So, since you have to prove nothing and they are unable to prove anything, let's just put that quirky little belief of theirs to one side for the time being and talk about the Patriots game.

  7. Grumpy,

    Where the argument runs off the rails with the fundies is always at that point. They don't know what Truth is. Absolute Truth is not a set of fixed forms, concretized laws, or rigid rules. Absolute Truth is more process than product, and that scares the hell out of them because it means they must decide, every day, in each situation, and take personal responsibility for those decisions. Once we stop accepting their definition of Truth, we can start moving past these infantile arguments over correct translations, etc., and what dress code god prefers. Because their view of Truth is more like debating the proper placement of forks and spoons for formal dining than anything to do with Eternal Verities.

  8. Martin says:

    Grumpypilgrim perpetuates the myth that a holy book should be either "The Word of God" or it should have a bit of what he elegantly refers to as wiggle room to deal with the foibles of life.

    Even a fairly casual reading of the most popular holy book should leave the reader in no doubt that it is both, but not both at the same time.

    The first five books are called the Pentateuch and they are generally regarded as being the Laws of Moses. These laws are what grumpy referred to as "black letter law" and they have no wiggle room in them. Creation happened exactly as it is written in Genesis; both versions.

    There are books of prophecy such as Revelation, which by their very nature have wiggle room, as do the parables and the psalms which can be read as inspirational poetry.

    We get the expression "the gospel truth" from the fact that the Gospels of the apostles are supposed to be history (I say "supposed" to be because they can't even get the nativity right) with no wiggle room in them.

    So the "tug-of-war" that grumpy refers to is more often (in my experience) between atheists who have taken the trouble to study this for themself and believers who in their rush to grind every speck and morsel of meaning out of the book have both failed to recognise the more obvious truths sitting on the surface and who refuse to believe that an atheist might be able to discern the truth for himself.

  9. Vicki Baker says:

    I don't know about y'all, but sometimes I feel like I am surrounded by people who are completely in the grip of irrational beliefs that have nothing to do with religion. I'm talking about deep-seated, unquestioned assumptions that guide their behavior and decision-making. Beliefs like:

    1. Consumerism is the way to fulfillment and happiness.

    2. The personal car is absolutely essential to modern civilization, and urban design and transportation planning should focus on moving as many cars as possible as fast as possible from point A to point B.

    3. An "invisible hand" regulates markets and any attempt to make market values conform to human values make the invisible hand sad and unable to work.

    4. Poor people have only themselves to blame

    … and so on.

    Now, if I meet a believer who does not seem to be in the grip of these other popular delusions, I'm willing to talk. Here is a statement made by a liberal Christian on the Friendly Atheist site:

    I wouldn’t identify God with everything, but with those features of existence which transforms us, saving us from destructive ways, opening us to life, to each other, to love, to the good in life.

    Why call it God? And connect this with the Christian tradition? Because the word suggests the appropriate response to such realities (reverence, openness, etc). And because the word God functionally in the west has meant the source of salvation, the basis for the good, etc.

    And lastly because this tradition provides me resources, a language, sets of practices that helps to engage such realities. And because given my own history and context, that tradition is the one that is available to me to work out these issues.

    Reasons to not be a Christian. If it gives pat answers, it’s not true to life (who said life was easy and simple?). If you’re worried about death (or dwell on the need for yourself to live on forever)..it’s hard to imagine this not being all about one’s self and not a wider world to which we are accountable towards.

    from http://friendlyatheist.com/2007/12/16/open-thread

    I find believers like this to be generally more rational conversation partners than non-believers in the grip of some of the delusions I mentioned above. Such a believer is also less likely to be a hypocrite than a fundamentalist who claims that every word of the Bible is inerrant, yet who lives a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Doggone-it, Vicki. You stole some of my favorite examples of unsupported beliefs often held by non-religious folks. Perhaps Martin disagrees with some of these beliefs, yet he somehow manages to still call some of these people "friends." Or maybe not. Maybe he's totally consistent and only maintains friendships with people who believe everything he believes(!).

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Martin: I really do think that you are way off base on John Haught, for the reasons mentioned in the Salon.com article I cited here, reasons on which Vicki Baker elaborated. He is not at all the person you’ve portrayed him to be.

    This is not to say that I agree with everything John Haught says. For example, I disagree him (see the italicized portion) when he says this:

    But the question is, can you justify the hope? I don't have any objection to the idea that atheists can be good and morally upright people. But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence. Some sort of theological framework can justify our trust in meaning, in goodness, in reason.

    But I do agree with him when Haught says this:

    From the beginning of the modern world, science decided quite rightly that it wasn't going to tackle such questions as purpose, value, meaning, importance, God, or even talk about intelligence or subjectivity. It was going to look for purely natural, causal, mechanical explanations of things. And science has every right to be that way. But that principle of scientific Puritanism is often violated by scientists who think that by dint of their scientific expertise, they are able to comment on such things as purpose. I consider that to be a great violation.

    Haught identifies a key question as this: “How do we account for the courage to go on living in the absence of hope?” I would phrase this question as this: “How do we account for the courage to go on living as decent and kind-hearted people in the absence of easy answers to questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “What should I do with my life?” or “To what extent should I spend my life energies helping others as opposed to serving my own whims and wants?”

    Again, I disagree with his proposed theological answer. I don’t think that “God” is any sort of answer. It is just a label. I think a better approach (I hesitate to call it an “answer”) lies in our bones, deep in our bones, in ways that have been explored by cognitive scientists who have really taken Darwin seriously, for instance, by Frans de Waal.

    I did cite Haught, as Martin, mentions, but I did so for a specific purpose that I spelled out in the post: “[The New Atheists] over-estimate the ability of science to provide substitutes for whatever it is that religious moderates get out of their practice of religion.”

    Believers in God aren’t the only ones who make this same point. Consider, for instance, arguments made by philosopher Philip Kitcher (from the December 2007/Jan 2008 issue of Free Inquiry – some of the articles are available free online, but not this one). Here’s what Kitcher has to say and finding life’s purpose through science:

    A secular humanist is someone who is interested in the project of humanity-interested in human values and an advancing the well-being of humanity, broadly construed. I think of secular humanism not simply as a reaction against religion but as a positive set of beliefs in its own right. One of the problems with contemporary secular humanism is that it has tended to emphasize the secularism and hasn't paid sufficient attention to the humanism . . .

    I am not at all happy with any of [the books of the new atheists]. They have something of a biting tone and are in many ways unremittingly negative. They want to get rid of religion, to sink it, without seeing that, while religion has in so many places and at so many times given rise to extremes of human unhappiness and suffering-and continues to do so today-it has also provided meaning, consolation, and genuine uplift for people. To snatch this away and say in the voice of a very commanding doctor, "Read a couple pages of the Origin of Species and you'll feel better in the morning" is simply not enough. There has to be something more positive about the contribution of secular humanism than what we are seeing at the moment.

    [Religion's replacement] needs to treat the same symptoms and conditions of life. People have to be given a sense that their lives matter. The countries that have achieved secularization most easily are the ones in which a widespread spirit of community has been fostered. There is a social network, a safety net, to support people better than they are in the United States. Religion thrives in places where people feel most at risk. Where people feel secure and feel that those around them care about them, we can meet their genuine human needs without lapsing into discredited myths. This is putting the "human" back in "secular humanism," which is part of a humane social program that holds the well-being of humanity as central.

    You can listen to the entire interview with Philip Kitcher (“Living with Darwin”) at <a href="http://www.pointofinquiry.org” target=”_blank”>www.pointofinquiry.org. Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.

  12. Martin says:

    Erich / Vicky,

    In the sense that you used it in your post I am indeed, or at least try to be, totally consistent.

    I do not have any of the following: mobile phone, television, three-piece suite, refrigerator, car, video recorder, dishwasher, washing machine. I therefore think it fair to assume that I do not view consumerism as the road to happiness.

    I have absolutely no idea what makes the markets work, and my determination to think about it is approximately equal to zero. I suspect that it is not an invisible hand.

    As for poor people having only themselves to blame, I wasn't even aware that anyone actually thought that.

    It is possible I subscribe to some irrational belief not listed in your post.

    Some of my friends own at least some of the consumer goods listed above. My longest friendships are with folks whose beliefs can be supported with reasoned arguments; they don't have to agree with me, just justify their point of view. I also value the ability to see both sides of an argument. A discussion is more likely to end with, "well, I see your point of view but I'm not sure I agree with you," than with anyone actually changing their mind. But I see that as a good thing, because it suggests that the arguments were thought out in advance.

    I find it very difficult to relate to folks who just say the first thing that flashes across their mind, folks who interrupt when I am talking, and folks who expect me to abandon my well thought out beliefs in favour of their knee-jerk reactions with trivially obvious counter-arguments.

    I do not do superficial, pop culture or the cult of the celebrity and can't imagine having a friendship with someone who did.

    Does that count as consistent?

  13. Martin, I totally adore Britney Spears. 😀

  14. Martin says:


    Our discussion in this thread has been about the relationship between faith and conviction, where you have argued that although a majority of suicide bombers might be moslems it has not been their faith that has motivated them but some other cause or causes that I shall for the sake of convenience draw together under the umbrella of political conviction.

    I, on the other hand, have argued, less persuasively so far, that it cannot be a coincidence that they are predominantly moslems, nor can it be an accident that there are no Buddhist suicide bombers. I think therefore that we are agreed on the relative proportion of suicide bombers who are moslems; all we disagree on is their motivation.

    Having thought about this I am now ready to argue my case more cogently, and I hope more persuasively. In fact, I shall argue that it is ethics not fear of the everafter that motivates us to be good, it is humanism not fundamentalism that inspires our empathy and charity, but that the darker side of the moral divide is the sole preserve of blind religious faith.

    If you recall Erich has on occasion mentioned his religious friends. He says that they are basically good people who perform charitable acts and social kindnesses of the sort that make most of us aspire to be more like them. Their only curious aspect is that for an hour or two on a Sunday morning they profess an irrational belief in a supernatural deity.

    So let us consider what it is that makes people good, or at least do good things. In his book, "God is not great" Christopher Hitchens tells us of a debate chaired by the philosopher Bryan Magee between Bishop Butler – about whom we are told no more – and the late Professor A.J Ayer, the celebrated humanist. At one point in the debate Ayer said that he had seen no evidence for the existence of god. At which the Bishop broke in to say that in that case he must have lived a life of unbridled immorality. Such a charge, which is essentially a claim that only the religious can be moral, is so monstrously untrue that to quote Gould, it is not even wrong; it is so far removed from any kind of truth to which I can subscribe that even to refute it is unnecessary. Or at least it would be if it were not for irrational unthinking idiots like Bishop Butler.

    If I were to search my life for good deeds I would not exactly be spoilt for choice. I did, however, once cook a lamb stew for a widow and her three children on the day her husband died. Hardly heroic, but nonetheless good, and it was empathy not the ecstasy of salvation that motivated me to do it, and it is difficult to see how anyone might think faith was required at all much less be a pre-requisite.

    On a much more heroic scale is the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who was hanged by the Nazis because he refused to collude with them. Neither you nor I will ever truly know what inspires someone to do something like that, but I would argue that to claim that he only did it because he was a man of faith is to deny him his humanity.

    It is empathy not evangelism that inspires us to be good.

    But to strap a bomb to yourself and blow yourself and countless others to smithereens takes faith. Your objective might be the attainment of a political ideal, but you wouldn't do it without the religious conviction that you are going to a better place. To learn to fly with the sole objective of piloting your plane into a skyscraper in order to kill as many others as possible can be dreamed up in the mind of a political activist, but it can only be carried out by someone of faith.

    Let's move away from Islam and look instead at Joseph Kony. He is the leader of the "Lord's Resistance Army", a guerrilla group dedicated to converting Uganda to a theocracy. He recruits his soldiers by kidnapping children, initiating them by forcing them to commit murder and whipping them up to 300 times. The misery inflicted by these child-wretches turned zombies is almost beyond imagining. They raze villages creating a vast refugee poulation, commit hideous crimes such as mutilation and disembowelling and continue to kidnap children (one guess on the Wikipedia page says up to 60,000 abductees so far) to prevent the local tribes from taking countermeasures lest they harm one of their own. And all this is done in the name of the lord.

    In 2006 the International Criminal Court indicted Kony on 33 charges including 12 crimes against humanity including murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement and rape. There are an additional 21 counts of war crimes including murder, cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population, pillaging, inducing rape, and forced enlisting of children into the rebel ranks. Kony's response to this is to say that he is not willing to be tried by the ICC "because he has not done anything wrong". According to Kony, all he is doing is bringing the ten commandments to the people of Uganda.

    The Acholi people, who have suffered this atrocity since 1992, have established a centre for the rehabilitation of kidnapped and enslaved children. These children, some as young as eight years old, are given the medical attention, care and love they so desperately need to bring them back to some kind of normality. Any secular organisation could do this; fit prosthetic limbs, provide shelter, counselling, food and love, but to be Joseph Kony one has to have faith.

    I contend that any human can do good things. We do not require a belief in a supernatural deity or that we will be saved to motivate or inspire us, empathy or compassion are both necessary and sufficient. But to be Joseph Kony, or to be a suicide bomber requires a special kind of religious faith so that in the end it does not matter whether you have a political ideal or not. Your whole view of the world is so screwed up by your religious ideology that everything centres on your unshakeable conviction that you are acting in the lord's name.

    I dare say some religious person will respond that "that is not the same lord I worship," which to me is the moral equivalent of putting your hands over your eyes and pretending. I tried debating this with a religious colleague at work but her reaction was that how other folks praise the lord is up to them, as long as, "it does not impinge on my life" that's okay with me. A reaction that sickens me, and it really scares me that an apparently intelligent adult woman who calls herself a christian can be so morally bereft as to believe that.

  15. I kind of like Martin's argumentation, because he is using similar stuff that I once said and I kind of enjoy handing him down the same counterargument that I received then. 😀

    "there are no Buddhist suicide bombers."

    The Aum sect who did this sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway.

    As Asahara believed the Buddhist path to be the most effective, he selected original Shakyamuni Buddha sermons as a foundation for Aum doctrine;

    In Asahara's view, Aum's doctrine encompassed all three major Buddhist schools: Theravada (aimed at personal enlightenment), Mahayana (the "great vehicle," aimed at helping others), and tantric Vajrayana (the "diamond vehicle," which involves secret initiations, secret mantras, and advanced esoteric meditations).


    Probably anything can be distorted, but I still tend to believe that Buddhism offers less room to be interpreted in a violent way as Islam and Christianity.

    Regarding your claim that you need religious faith in order to commit atrocities in these dimensions, may I remind you of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong? It seems that a person's compassion for another human being dwindles the moment they think that their suffering is justified for the sake of a higher goal and this goal can be anything. People do stupid things all the time, not necessarily, because they hope to gain something for themselves, but because they think they are in the service for something greater than themselves and with greater I don't mean God.

    Erich posted about a three-part BBC documentary called "The Power Of Nightmares" (it's pretty interesting, but I still need to watch the third part):

    Regarding the Islamic extremist element, credit is given to the teachings of Sayed Kotb, an Egyptian man who spent time in Colorado as a young man. Kotb became convinced that the individual rights and liberties of Americans thoroughly corrupted human beings. In their lust for material goods and carnal pleasure, Kotb perceived that people isolated themselves to the point where shared social bonds where destroyed. The quest for material goods thus trapped people in their own animalistic desires. Even though people felt “free” pursuing their individualistic needs and wants, they weren’t. They were decaying from the inside out.

    Kotb later became convinced that his Egyptian brothers had also become corrupted and therefore also had to be wiped out like their Western counterpart.

    People like Kotb are not driven by the desire of a happy afterlife, they are driven by the conviction that something is wrong which transcends their selfish biological instinct to survive.

    Ok, this is the case where you have people who are ideological fanatics and dream of new social structures and a better world, how nightmarish it may seem to regular people. Others like Stalin or Hitler are driven by power, there is nevertheless a considerable lack of religion in their motivation.

  16. Martin says:


    Oh, I see it now. It isn't gentle Jesus meek and mild and an ever-loving god after all. Instead of being the final word in world-wide morality in which just thinking about masturbation is a sin, what we actually have is that religious bigots can be just as bad as the four worst genocidal maniacs in human history.

    Please remind me, how exactly is that supposed to put religion in a good light?

    We were actually talking about suicide bombers; apologies if I did not make that clear. But if you want to talk about genocide we can always do Rwanda, if that's more to your taste. You remember Rwanda, the African country in which 65% of the population are Roman Catholic and a further 15% are various protestant sects. This was the country where in response to a series of visions of the virgin Mary a million or so Tutsi were put to the sword in 1994 with the help and collusion of a number of ministers of the church, including Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka and the Bishop of Gikongoro otherwise known as Monsignor Augustin Misago. There were also some nuns in the dock at the subsequent trials.

    Maybe you also remember the denunciation of this atrocity and the church's part in it offered by the pope in the vatican? No, thought not, because they never did denounce it.

    The Aum sect Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway were horrible terrorist atroticites, accepted. But they weren't bombs, were they, and the five people who released the gas all had getaway drivers ready and waiting. So they weren't intending to kill themselves, were they?

    So I stick by what I said; there are no Buddhist suicide bombers, and any attempt to explain the motivation of the islamist suicide bombers has to account for that fact. I have done that. Your, "have you forgotten Stalin…" is a weak attempt to sidestep the issue under discussion.

  17. Don't cheat Martin, you were the one who mentioned Joseph Kony and claimed that such atrocities were only possible because of religious fanaticism – "but to be Joseph Kony one has to have faith" – I showed you that it's not always religious faith that makes people command mass killings.

    If I understand you right (it seems that with you we really have to be careful with laying out the facts clearly :D), you think that the fact a terrorist bomber commits suicide can only be explained with his expectations that he will go to heaven. So, you're implying that men treasure life that much that they would not be willing to sacrifice it for a greater goal that transcends their own existence on earth?

    Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point mentions a surge of suicide among young men in Micronesia.

    In the early 1960s, suicide on the islands of Micronesia was almost unknown. But for reasons no one quite understands, it then began to rise, steeply and dramatically, by leaps and bounds every year, until by the end of the 1980s there were more suicides per capita in Micronesia than anywhere else in the world. For males between fifteen and twenty-four, the suicide rate in the United States is about 12 per 100,000. In hte islands of Micronesia the rate is about 160 pero 100,000 – more than seven times higher. At that level, suicide is almost commonplace, triggered by the smallest of incidents.

    We have only to look at a few typical suicides during the past year to sense the contrast. There is the 16-year old boy who, when refused the dollar that he had begged from his father, ominously replied that his father would soon be spending a hundred dollars or more -on his funeral-and then hanged himself. A boy of barely 13 was found dead after arguing with a sister who had taken his flashlight without his consent. Another teenager took his own life when his mother continued to ignore his complaints that there was no food prepared for him after he had returned from a drinking bout with his friends. Clearly this is not the stuff out of which grand tragedy is usually made, either in folklore or in real life. And yet each of these incidents ended in the self-destruction of a young man. Reasons seemingly every bit as trifling as these have accounted for the deaths of many others during recent years, as the information we have gathered shows.


    It seems to me that the right settings can lead people to believe that suicide is the solution and they do not even have to have a really good reason.

    Oh, and what about the Japanese Kamikaze pilots? Where's the religious background?

    If there are no Buddhist suicide bombers it might be because the necessary circumstances have not come up yet.

  18. Martin says:


    I will, on reflection, agree that Joseph Kony will read as me cheating.

    My intention was to show that in order to achieve a level of conviction that exceeds the value placed on ones own life requires faith. Joseph Kony does not (as far as we know) intend to commit suicide to prove his point, and is therefore a very poor choice of example. But it is for exactly this reason that I also dismiss Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler and Mao Zedong; they were quite keen on killing others but not so keen to speed their own demise. Their cause was more important to them than the life of millions of others, but not more important than their own life.

    But I can't help thinking in this context that religions are very like totalitarian regimes. Everything you say, think and do is controlled by some set of rules that are open to an infinite level of interpretation, so that at no time can you be completely certain that you are within the rules that exist at that point. (Mark asked the question earlier: what use is a holy book that is not open to interpretation? So if each individual can interpret the book their own way, where is their guarantee that their interpretation will achieve the salvation (or whatever) they seek?).

    In most parts of the world suicide has a stigma attached to it; it is considered wrong of people to commit suicide and those left behind feel as though they have failed the suicide in some way when it happens. Japan is an exception to this where seppuku is seen as an honourable way to die. I suspect that the situation in micronesia you mention is a social phenomena whereby the sheer number of suicides is making it seem as though there is no stigma which "permits" more suicides to occur so that it becomes a kind of self-perpetuating anomaly; perhaps not actually accepted but no longer actively condemned.

    Earlier in the discussion it was mentioned that a high proportion (70 – 80%) of Palestinians support martyr operations, so maybe a similar thing is happening here? Just a suggestion and I am neither a psychologist nor a social scientist so I am more than happy for someone to point out where I am in error, but if the local populace don't see it as being a bad thing per se will that not tend to perpetuate the practice and make it more common?

    Kamikaze – Divine Wind – fanatics in Japan were recruited and trained by Buddhist and Shinto priests who taught their adepts that the Emperor was a Golden Wheel-Turning Sacred King, one of the four manifestations of the ideal Buddhist monarch and a Tathagata, or "fully enlightened being" of the material world. And since Zen treats life and death indifferently, why not abandon the cares of this world and adopt a policy of prostration at the feet of a homicidal dictator?

    According to Hitchens, "Although many Buddhists now regret that deplorable attempt to prove their own superiority, no Buddhist since then has been able to demonstrate that Buddhism was wrong in its own terms." A conclusion which, if correct, would seem to indicate that at least some of the "necessary circumstances" you refer to are still there, lying in wait for some temporal cause to spark them into action. Maybe what is required is a particular combination of political or social "cause" to serve and the extreme faith of a religious fanatic who values the cause more than his own life. That would make religion a vital (though admittedly not sole) motivator for suicide bombing. But it still does not explain why there have not been any Buddhist suicide bombers, any Jesuit suicide bombers or indeed any catholic suicide bombers. Do these religions not exist in societies that have social "causes" worth dying for?

    This, I believe, brings us back to your guy Sayyid Qutb [pronounced kuh-tub]. I read about him in Lawrence Wright's excellent (and Pulitzer prize winning) book, "The Looming Tower" which has the sub-title "Al-Qaeda's road to 9/11" and opens with Qutb sailing to New York from Alexandria in 1948. Qutb is the point from which the ideology that led to al-Qaeda started. From him we derive the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Jihad, Saudi Arabian moslems fighting in the Afghan war against the Soviet army, and ultimately al-Qaeda.

    All societies have rich and poor – in relative terms, homeless, unemployed, the downtrodden and the oppressed. What Qutb gave moslems was something else. He taught them that whereas the prophet had told them they were the chosen people and that everyone else was an infidel, it was not obvious in the 1940's what benefits being chosen had brought them. In America Qutb saw the dawn of rampant consumerism where virtually everyone had a job (unemployment in the USA in 1948 was less than 4%) and half the world's total wealth was in American hands. Qutb, however, came from a country where half the population lived in conditions that by comparison were not far short of squalor.

    What Qutb did was he opened the eyes of moslems to the dichotomy between what they might have expected from being the chosen people and where they actually stood in relation to how your average infidel lives. In 2000 years of scientific and cultural change the infidel West had come a long way, but the majority of moslems still lived the life of a dirt-poor desert nomad with virtually no prospect of ever being anything else. If that isn't enough to make the "chosen people" jealous then I don't know what is.

    The oil changed that for only a very small minority.

    I am not, incidentally, claiming that they were or are jealous of our consumer goods and lax views on sexuality, or even our limited dress code. They are jealous that we can be so perverted and yet prosper, that we can essentially win by cheating in the great game of life. The resentment (some of them) feel at this is the "cause" they need to add to their faith to make the mix potent enough to spawn suicide bombers.

    This also might help to explain why the majority of suicide bombers are reasonably well educated and middle class. A goatherder might look at America and know that even if he moved there his prospects of being anything other than a goatherder are pretty slim. But an educated person can see prospects, he can see numerous possibilities for employment, investment and business. So in that sense he is able to envisage how he has lost out in the lottery of the religion into which you are born.

  19. The one element that Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Gregory the Great, Urban the II, John Brown, Loyola, Torquemada, and Tojo all had in common, despite religious differences including atheism is the conviction of Evangelism. This is merely one aspect of a religious psychology, but it is the one in which presence all great oppressors and their minions have excelled.

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