On First Principles


“I was trying to get a program going about fundamentalist Islam, or not even fundamentalist actually beyond… where it’s extreme radical Islam, so-called you know, basically people who support ISIS, of which there are some in the UK. Although, they’re hard to interview because it’s actually a crime to Glorify Terrorism is what it’s called. And so they have to talk very gingerly around the subject.

But if you get into a debate with someone who is sincerely committed to ISIS’ brand of Sunni Islam, where they’re saying “Actually, yes, sex slaves are okay,” they’ll say “Slaves isn’t quite the right term but we approve of that.” And then they say, “By what authority do you challenge what we believe?” Continue reading

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Conversations: Political Correctness


Xanthippe
We know that socio-economic factors explain most violence in societies.

Helena
This is true, but religion fuelled tribalism and bigotry should not be excused in its entirety. Consider the jihadist movement, how many more architects and engineers must hit the wall at four hundred miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that violence is not merely a matter of education, poverty, or politics?

Sappho
Good point. The exploitation of secular values, the demand for tolerance of misogyny and religious hatred, are not merely the result of broad socio-economic factors. Nor are forced marriages, honour killings, punitive gang rapes, or the homicidal loathing of homosexuals. Continue reading

On Metaphysics


“Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a thirty-thousand-page menu, and no food.”

– Robert M. Pirsig

On Absurdities and Atrocities


“As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities.”

– Voltaire

Conversations: Scriptural Accuracy


Lysandra
It is often said that it is reasonable for people to believe that the Bible is the word of God because many of the events recounted in the New Testament confirm Old Testament prophecy.

Helena
A pathetic argument. Consider the following, how difficult would it have been for the Gospel writers to tell the story of Jesus’ life so as to make it conform to Old Testament prophecy? Wouldn’t it have been within the power of any mortal to write a book that confirms the predictions of a previous book? In fact, we know on the basis of textual evidence that this is what the Gospel writers did.

Sappho
The writers of Luke and Matthew, for instance, declare that Mary conceived as a virgin, relying upon the Greek rendering of Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew text of Isaiah uses the word ‘alma’, however, which simply means “young woman,” without any implication of virginity. Continue reading

Conversations: Faith and Facts


Helena
People who believe there is such a thing as a loving caring omnipotent being have always had a tough time, for examples of God’s failure to protect humanity are everywhere to be seen. The city of New Orleans, for instance, was destroyed by a hurricane not too long ago. More than a thousand people died; tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions; and nearly a million were displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Hurricane Katrina struck shared the Abrahamic belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God.

Zoe
Following that line of reasoning, what was God doing while Katrina laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were, undoubtedly, on the whole, good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Do we have the courage to admit the obvious? – These poor people died talking to an imaginary friend. Continue reading

Conversations: Morality and Reality


Helena
There are people who believe the only standard of morality is found in their religious texts. They often believe that unless their holy texts are accepted as “the word of God”, so to speak, there can be no universal standard of morality.

Sappho
That is curious, since we can easily think of objective sources of moral order that do not require, say, the existence of a lawgiving deity.

Helena
Indeed, for there to be objective moral truths worth knowing, there need only be better and worse ways to seek happiness in this world. That is to say, if there are psychological laws that govern human well-being, knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality.

Sappho
Surprisingly, this escapes a lot of people. And subsequently, one of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not.

Zoe
You mean, when concerns have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation?

Sappho
Indeed, I would argue that religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are in fact highly immoral.

Zoe
That is, when pressing these concerns people inflict unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings?

Sappho
Yes, this explains why Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, et cetera, expend more “moral” energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide. It explains why people are more concerned about human embryos than about the lifesaving promise of stem-cell research. And it explains why people can preach against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year.

Zoe
To be fair though, those are some pretty controversial topics.

Sappho
Look, we are the first to admit that issues such as abortion and stem-cell research are topics that require our closest attention; so that we may, in time, come up with solutions that realise the lowest amount of human suffering, in order that the greatest amount of human happiness and welfare may be achieved. But do not worry, we will discuss these issues in more detail soon.

Helena
I wish to add that among the religious denominations that you mentioned earlier there is a substantial number of people who believe that their concerns about sex, in all their tiresome immensity, have something to do with morality. And yet, their efforts to constrain the sexual behaviour of consenting adults—and even to discourage their own sons and daughters from having premarital sex—are almost never geared toward the relief of human suffering.

Sappho
Good point, in fact I do not think it cynical to say that relieving suffering does not seem to rank high on their list of priorities. Their principal concern appears to be that the creator of the universe will take offence at something people do while naked. And this prudery contributes daily to the surplus of human misery.

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 9-10)

See other: Philosophical Conversations

Why Heaven Hates Ham


‘In microcosm, this apparently trivial fetish shows how religion and faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world. The pig is so close to us, and has been so handy to us in so many respects, that a strong case is now made by humanists that it should not be factory-farmed, confined, separated from its young, and forced to live in its own ordure. All other considerations to one side, the resulting pink and spongy meat is somewhat rebarbative. But this is a decision that we can make in the plain light of reason and compassion, as extended to fellow creatures and relatives, and not as a result of incantations from Iron Age campfires where much worse offenses were celebrated in the name of god. “Pig’s head on a stick,” says the nervous but stouthearted Ralph in the face of the buzzing, suppurating idol (first killed and then worshipped) that has been set up by cruel, frightened schoolboys in Lord of the Flies. “Pig’s head on a stick.” And he was more right than he could have known, and much wiser than his elders as well as his delinquent juniors.’

Hitchens. C. 2007. God Is Not Great London, Great Britain: Atlantic Books (2008) p. 41