Christmas season and religious hate

So I talk, fairly moderately, about my interaction with religion one day… then one of Australia’s more outspoken faithful goes and tries to stomp ignorantly on nonbelievers, happily blundering into the land of fear-mongering and irrationality.

But before I get to that sad story, it’s a new month! I’ve been testing out the concept of regular features of late, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, and I will be winding some of them back – Roulette and Teasers in the next week, and the Dream Series will end by 2011. I’ll have my new Imperial student blog running, which will be posts about what I’m actually doing, and this one will be my photo-blog along with my thoughts and ramblings which aren’t Imperial-related. I’ll link to the Imperial blog once it goes properly live (it’s looking quite amazing).

November was my blog’s second-biggest-ever month in terms of hits, and first if I exclude the blip from when I was featured on the WordPress homepage back in March. It’s probably due to a widening of the audience, so welcome aboard, new readers (and much love to the old stalwarts)!

Growing… like my blog hits?

On to the weighty matters now! The discussion which inspired last Friday’s post was briefly reprised again in class on monday, and I had a chance to attempt to squash the concept that science requires faith. The standard line goes as follows: “Science can never, by its own admission, obtain absolute certainty about reality/the ‘truth’. Therefore science requires a leap of faith, and is quasi-religious itself.”

My response is simple: you’re using the word faith wrong. Imagine you’re standing at the top of a cliff, staring at a huge drop onto jagged rocks. Your scientific understanding – based on the laws of physics, biology and your own direct observation of reality – tells you that if you jumped off, you would fall and die. Is that a faith-based or quasi-religious position?

Of course not. That’s belief – a position held because it is supported by evidence and/or reason. A faith-based position in that situation would be: “I think that Quetzalcoatl would arrive on the wind and spirit me safely to the ground.” Not based on evidence; in fact, contradicted by every falling-related death, ever.

What I’m trying to hammer home here is the distinction between a fuzzy definition of faith, which is equated with any form of deeply held belief (eg. “I have faith in myself.”) and a stricter definition of faith, which is holding a position in spite of evidence or reason.

It’s a definition used a lot by the faithful, too, as in the final part of this next quote. One of Australia’s most reprehensible religious figures, Cardinal George Pell, expounded on the virtues of the nonreligious recently:

”A minority of people, usually people without religion, are frightened by the future … It’s almost as though they’ve  nothing but fear to distract themselves from the fact that without God the universe has no objective purpose or meaning. Nothing beyond the constructs they confect to cover the abyss.”

Life without God was ”life without purpose, without constraints”, he said.

Cardinal Pell said education was not enough to create a civilised society, that faith was necessary too. He cited the example of 20th century Germany, which he said was the best educated society in the world when Hitler became leader.

”Australian society will become increasingly coarse and uncaring … if Christian principles are excluded from public discussion. The secularists pursuing this aim won’t be successful.” We should not create an ”ideological apartheid” between faith and reason, Cardinal Pell said.

He was speaking at the Australian Catholic University, to a sympathetic crowd. Pell wants to reinforce, in their minds, a worldview in which ‘objective purpose or meaning’ both exist and are somehow accessible to the faithful, but not atheists.

Not only that, he raises the spectre of Nazi Germany in support of his argument that faith was a necessary component of civilised society. This is demonstrably false – in Norway today, recognised as the country with the highest standard of living in the world, only 20% of the population say that religion is “an important part of [their] daily life.” This is part of a wider negative correlation between living standards and religious observance – I’m not suggesting causality, but it certainly makes Pell either a liar or ignorant within his own area of expertise.

He’s arguing for his place at the table of public discussion, but what does he offer? What can his faith contribute to public discourse? Pell is happy to invoke abhorrent yet irrelevant regimes, make unfounded and incorrect assertions about minorities he doesn’t like and ignore evidence which disproves his opinions. What happens when people like Pell get too much power and wield it in favour of their faith?

Look no further than the UN. A couple of weeks ago, the assembly “voted to remove sexual orientation from a key resolution that calls on member countries to investigate extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions that are motivated by prejudice”. Here’s the money quote:

“The representative of Morocco, on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said the Group was seriously concerned by controversial and undefined notions that had no foundation in international human rights instruments. Intolerance and discrimination existed in cases of colour, race, gender and religion, to mention only a few.  Selectivity intended to accommodate certain interests over others had to be avoided by the international community. Such selectivity would set a precedent that would change the human rights paradigm in order to suit the interests of particular groups.”

The parts that I bolded carry the most weight. They are saying that, by requiring governments to investigate hate-motivated executions, LGBT people would be getting selective treatment from the UN, and that the ‘notion’ of sexual orientation has no foundation in international human rights instruments.

I never understood the phrase, “faith is a virtue.” It strikes me as a warm, fuzzy saying wrapped around a hard tool to suppress inquiry and reason. Yes, many people have a garden-variety faith which offers them comfort, community and a channel through which they can express their morality. But in many countries around the world, faith in dogma can have toxic effects on crucially important human issues, such as women’s rights and the rights of minorities. It’s not an academic issue. Lives are at stake.

OK. Deep breath. If I had a table in front of me, I’d probably be banging my hand on it. Let’s all be reasonable. I think I’ll put religion on the shelf for a while.

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Categories: Thoughts | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “Christmas season and religious hate

  1. Peter

    unfortunately, catholics like pell are prepared to break the 9th commandment to rewrite history when it comes to hitler being an athiest. he wasn’t, he was a devout catholic and there is overwhelming evidence for it. early 20th century germany was one of the most christian nations in the world – “gott mit uns”.

    a lot of evidence is collected here in one place http://www.nobeliefs.com/Hitler1.htm

    if you don’t want this thread to go in this direction then just delete this, but it shows just how wrong and deceitful pell really is.

    and i write all this being married to a devout catholic and being happy to have my two daughters to be raised as catholics. but i prefer them not to hide from the realities of history too.

  2. Peter

    i should clarify by saying that hitler was raised as a devout catholic – there is indication that towards the end that he and nazism were often in conflict with the christian churches. it seems likely that his religiosity was ambiguous towards the end, but was not for most of his earlier life.

    it should also be said that hitler also was somewhat enamoured with science, misused horribly with eugenics, and culminating in the race to invent atomic weapons.

  3. Yes, I’ve seen the Hitler was an atheist/catholic argument played out over and over. It’s not typically an atheist who raises it though. As far as I’m aware, he was raised catholic and at the very least used it as a powerful rhetorical tool, even if he stopped believing.

    I didn’t write this to attack any religion or person specifically, but more to highlight my opposition to the respect given to ‘faith’ as a character trait or virtue. I think the meaning of that word is probably quite different for a liberal or moderate religious person than a fundamentalist. However when it comes to public discourse, the word (and concept) ends up being wielded by the most outspoken and fervent (eg Pell), while its use and virtue is defended by the more reasonable and moderate.

    Ahhh, semantics!

  4. Kostas

    Ever since I started being critical of what I was taught I found at least weird that so many people assume in an axiomatic way that our world/universe/race/species/life must have some meaning or purpose. This weird belief, stemming from quite a self-centered and even arrogant view of the world, is often one of the basic arguments why a god should exist, or should be invented. Not very surprisingly the argument can be easily reversed: it is the fear of the absence of meaning that fuels the religious sentiments of many people, providing them with a false absence of fear. Putting an eyepatch on doesn’t make a horrible scene nonexistent; it just helps you deal with it.

    Anyway I’m getting carried away. Another interesting argument in Pell’s quotes, also quite common when religion is discussed, is the necessity of an absolute truth or a god to establish principles and morals. Or to take it even further: does good and evil have an absolute meaning? And if the easy answer of no is chosen, how does a society decide upon them? What makes a law more valid that any other law?

    Pell is giving one of the easy answers: a fixed set of values with absolute validity by definition. Certainly one way to go. It has worked numerous times up to today, leading to cohesive and stable societies. It has failed equally many times, leading to the murder of hundreds of people. So one can argue that it is a sufficient condition. But is it necessary? And is it worth the inevitable surges of irrationality?

    Another easy answer, common among secular arguments is majority. Now, that can be another huge discussion.

    I apologise for the length of the comment. It’s one of my favorite topics (and will definitely be one of the recurring ones if I ever decide to blog). For now I’ll just shut up. Maybe we could expand after a few pints.

    Also, didn’t know about the UN resolution. It’s outraging! Where to start arguing against it? ‘Selective treatment’!!! ANY measures to protect a minority ARE selective! Oh the politicians…

  5. Definitely a topic for a pub night Kostas, and it’s pretty bad that the UN decision wasn’t reported more widely. I think the problem is that it was put in quite reasonable-sounding terms; in practice it’s a pretty shocking decision.

    I think it’s easy for many people, religious or not, to reconcile a lack of absolute morality/purpose. Whether they choose to ignore it or look to God is with an understanding that it’s not an ‘answer’. On the other hand, those like Pell (if he actually believes what he says) seem to be terrified by the idea of moral relativism, even though they demonstrably practice it!

    To be fair to the faithful, I just had a chat with a religious guy who said one of his biggest frustrations is when people refer to faith as a ‘blind’ kind of thing, which is what I was doing in my post, and when he uses the word faith, he means ‘trust’, in the same way that I might have faith in a friend to remember my birthday! It’s what I was talking about above… the word is value-laden, but means totally different things to different people.

    Funnily enough, my use of the word is probably closer to how someone like Pell uses it, than a person halfway between our positions.

  6. Kostas

    Your comment reminded me of one of my favorite quotes:

    “Zweifle nicht
    an dem
    der dich sagt
    er hat Angst

    aber hab Angst
    vor dem
    der dir sagt
    er kennt keinen Zweifel” (E. Fried)

    which in my translation goes:
    “Have no doubts about the one that tells you he is afraid, but be afraid of the one that tells you he has no doubts”

    This quite well summarizes for me the difference between a sceptic (that I believe every scientist or person applying the scientific method should be) and the religion that Pell represents in his quotes.

  7. Peter

    understood, david. my rant was mostly directed at pell.

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