On Language, Politics and Reality


“Language has always been important in politics, but language is incredibly important to the present political struggle. Because if you can establish an atmosphere in which information doesn’t mean anything, then there is no objective reality.

– Stephen Colbert

Conversations: Dogmas Run Amok


Galene
I once heard someone say that Stalin was an atheist. They did not say much else, but I understood their statement to be critical of atheism, suggesting there must be some relation between atheism and totalitarian cruelties.

Sappho
This is a silly stab at trying to reach some sort of moral high ground; it is commonly employed by the more orthodox and fundamentalist theist.

Helena
Throughout history, totalitarian regimes have either embraced a religion, or rejected all existing religions and replaced it with a new one; the problem with totalitarian regimes is they behave too much like religions – they embrace utterly dogmatic systems of thought to validate the regime’s claim to power.

Galene
That seems a little strong. Continue reading

Conversations: Civilization


Helena
It is important to realize that the distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and spiritual experiences from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being honest about what we can reasonably conclude on their basis.

Xanthippe
However, there are good reasons to believe that people like Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways.

Sappho
But any genuine exploration of ethics or the contemplative life demands the same standards of reasonableness and self-criticism that animate all intellectual discourse. Continue reading

Conversations: The Preposterous


Helena
Clearly, it is time we all learned to meet our emotional needs without embracing the preposterous. We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity—birth, marriage, death—without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality.

Galene
What does that mean in practice?

Sappho
I feel we should recognise that, for instance, the practice of raising children to believe that they are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish should be recognised as the ludicrous obscenity that it is. And only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.

Galene
That’s all very well and good, but I have no doubt that the acceptance—so to speak—of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in some people’s lives. Perhaps they now love other people in a way that they never imagined possible. They may even experience feelings of bliss while praying—say. Continue reading

Conversations: Eradicating Religion


Helena
I would argue that one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.

Sappho
Absolutely. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty! Unfortunately, it is probably true to say that nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.

Zoe
Surely, you would be the first to admit that the prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not seem good? Continue reading

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

Conversations: Interfaith Dialogue


Helena
It is a truism that devout religious people tend to view questions of public policy and global conflict in terms of their affiliation with their religion.

Sappho
That is exactly why it seems profoundly unlikely that we will heal the divisions in our world through inter-faith dialogue. Devout Muslims are as convinced as Christians are that their religion is perfect and that any deviation leads directly to hell.

Galene
However, it should be noted that representatives of the major religions occasionally meet and agree that there should be peace on earth, or that compassion is the common thread that unites all the world’s faiths.

Sappho
True, but there is no escaping the fact that a person’s religious beliefs uniquely determine what he thinks peace is good for, as well as what he means by a term like “compassion.” For instance, there are millions—maybe hundreds of millions—of Muslims who would be willing to die before they would allow a Christian, Jewish or Hindu version of compassion to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.

Helena
How can interfaith dialogue, even at the highest level, reconcile worldviews that are fundamentally incompatible and, in principle, immune to revision? The truth is, it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 27-28)

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