This linked article collects short pieces on the reconciliation of religion and atheism:
After God: What can atheists learn from believers?

The title is a bit of misdirection, as it’s not suggested that atheists can learn anything useful from what believers in religion may tell them. Rather, the main subject is ways in which the lives of the godless can be improved by elements of religion.

The backlash against the blinkered aspects of the “New Atheists” has in fact been quite blinkered in itself – yes, the NAs may not know every nook and cranny of the theology they are arguing against, and the history of the USSR shows that a (supposedly) godless nation may perpetrate all the horrors of the religious state and then some, but underlying the backlash argument is the thought that, because the NAs deny the existence of God and the spiritual, they are obviously wrong, and any specific citings of St. Augustine are more for the sake of form than necessity of argument.

In terms of cognitive development, both groups are stuck at certain points analogous to those which children pass through. The religious are at the stage of believing that morality comes from authority (i.e. murder is wrong because God forbids it/it’s against the law), of wishful thinking (willpower and prayer can affect the world), and magical thinking (events occur due to will of supernatural entities, morally-determined providence or karma; non-sentient things have moral qualities).

The atheists are at a later step, where they understand the distinction between the world and the self: the world is distinct from the individual’s mind and body and so cannot be moved by will alone; events in the world are not necessarily directed at them personally by benevolent or malevolent powers; the moral status of a thing or event derives from the judgement of the observer, not the thing itself. From this stage naturally arises disbelief in divine will, souls, magic, ghosts, and moral absolutism (not the same as rejecting morality, but rather understanding that other views may exist).

When it comes to intellectual and moral development, we always imagine that we have reached the final stage. The atheists are a step beyond the believers, but there is another step to take: There is no use in knowing the world if you do not know yourself.

It is a fallacy to attribute religion to religious institutions. Obviously the belief came first. Also, I think that if atheists are honest they will admit to the weaknesses of which they accuse the believers. I’ve observed in myself, precisely due to my desire to be a strict atheist, all sorts of thoughts which are supposed to derive externally from religion or superstition. Have you ever willed a car to start or a computer to work faster? Have you ever prayed to get to a destination on time? Do you believe deep down that certain moral standards are indivisible? Have you ever felt that a dead person was somehow still present?

We all think like this, even Richard Dawkins. From this, I think we must conclude that our minds are mystically inclined, even if the world in which we live is not. This is something that Carl Jung recognised and explored (though I think deep understanding of the situation will have to wait for radical advances in neuroscience). Jung suggested in The Undiscovered Self that being denied overt religious experience would cause mental collapse, but I think the mind is more adaptable: if the idea of God is consciously rejected, something else will inevitably fill that mental slot, be it Communism, nation, family, sports, or even the idea of “nothing” itself (to paraphrase The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, some people go to church, some keep birds, and some join the Communist Party). In a similar way, monotheistic religions inevitably develop a crypto-pantheon of prophets, saints or similar venerated figures, because this fulfills an inherent psychological need.

Several secular religious forms have already been observed: performances of Beethoven’s 9th symphony have long been regarded, not always consciously, as a kind of eucharist, if not a downright ecstatic mass ritual. English literary culture rests on both the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare (I recently watched a documentary in which an actor talked about audiences speaking Hamlet’s soliloquy along with him, which certainly has something of the church about it, and elsewhere the extended analysis of the play texts was nothing less than hermeneutics). In the U.S.A., the national Constitution is revered on a par with the Ten Commandments. In Russia, the great novelists are regarded as something like national prophets. Experiences like childbirth and mountain-climbing have been called “spiritual” by people who’ve never given thought to the condition of their souls. None of these have been accorded the overt recognition given to the institutions of religion.

(Should these be called secular religions or secular cults? Technically, because they are smaller, more personal and less externally dogmatic, they are cults, whereas totalitarian creeds like Communism and Fascism were religions.)

Can we consciously establish broad-based secular religions, as Daniel Dennett and Alain de Botton have suggested? There are some tricky obstacles to overcome, the trickiest of which is: How can you believe in something which you simultaneously don’t believe? But then, there are plenty of paradoxes in the orthodox religions. They are called “Mysteries“.

First, we must acknowledge what is in our minds, perhaps by a catechism – “I have no soul, and yet my soul is everything. The world has no meaning, and yet is utterly beautiful and profound. Ritual is mere action, and yet it connects me to people, places, and myself. There is no “Good” nor “Evil”, and yet kindness is the greatest virtue, and cruelty the foulest sin. Death is the end, but I feel everything somehow eternally remains. I am an animal – and yet I love, and my mind encompasses the universe.” That’s just an improvised suggestion.

Texts of faith: there is something unsatisfying about religious texts created to be such by an individual. Apart from the problem of personal idiosyncracy being transformed by authority into unanswerable dogma, the work of one person rarely has the richness and sheer size that make older religious canons seem so profound. Whatever the new Bible might turn out to be, it must be complex, and the work of many authors (or an author who contains multitudes).

As for secular ritual, there are plenty of things which serve as ecstatic experiences, but few that offer regular solemn observance, and none that offer forgiveness, acceptance and transformation of pain into transcendence. Perhaps such a thing could not exist until a secular faith is consciously created.

Here is an article in the New Yorker, on belief, atheism, and the populous realms between:

Particularly of interest to me is the discovery of Auguste Comte, a French Humanist who indeed founded a Humanist “religion”, the Religion of Humanity. His development of strict and complex doctrines for priests and rituals seems rather oppressive, and therefore a mistake, but I like the idea of Humanist chapels.

Perhaps if I was rich I would build a Hall of Humanity in the centre of the city. It would be a beautiful space, like a cathedral or a great museum, but warm and welcoming, surrounded by a simple garden and with chapel niches containing statues or busts of great people, each with a plaque describing their achievement. Statesmen and public figures would strive for remarkable feats of altruism and expansion of knowledge, in the hope that one day they too would have a place in the hallowed Hall (all appointments would be posthumous, of course). On the other hand, they would be fearful of ending up in the basement of the Hall, where mass murderers and those who have suppressed knowledge, health and opportunity for the sake of doctrine would be placed (I’m thinking now of Tony Abbott and his war on science (and his Health Ministry staffed by alcohol and fast-food lobbyists)). The lighting here would be dark and fearful, and the smell of the sewer would waft up through vents in the floor. Every religion needs its devils.

Interesting historical article in The New Republic (5 Oct, 2012), explaining how the GOP was captured by crazy hateful ranters, leaving decent small-c conservatives out in the cold:

How the GOP Destroyed its Moderates

It occurred to me recently that the moral sense and the aesthetic sense might be related, or possibly even be the exact same thing.

Experiments with infants have shown (debatably) that the “fairness instinct” is indeed inborn. Somehow from this simple base all the diverse and mutually loathing moral systems of the world are grown. We disagree about what may be called right, or wrong, but either way we sure feel strongly about it, because it’s in our genes.

Now look for example at internet forums, where matters as trivial and unprovable as the validity of a musical interpretation can stir us to righteous fury. It is an aesthetic issue, but it can stir emotions as strong as any political or religious debate. It is in fact a moral response.

If we accept this premise, where does it take us? Well, for a start it validates moral relativism. (I mean that in a philosophical sense, not a prescriptive sense.) It also suggests new methods of social influence. We already use aesthetic considerations to influence moral judgements, e.g. calling someone “crooked” or “dirty”. Possibly this approach could also work the other way. For instance, if the populace is exercised by a political issue, they might be diverted from action by a related aesthetic issue, e.g. a debate over the design for a new flag.

Possibly this idea has been developed before, and by someone with more substantial credentials than mine. But I’m less interested in producing material for a thesis, more in developing better tools for understanding human thought and behaviour.

From this site:
Bear in mind as you read this that Bundy was executed in 1989, well before the current explosion of porn upon the internet.

JCD: How did it happen? Take me back. What are the antecedents of the behavior that we’ve seen? You were raised in what you consider to be a healthy home. You were not physically, sexually or emotionally abused.

Ted: No. And that’s part of the tragedy of this whole situation. I grew up in a wonderful home with two dedicated and loving parents, as one of 5 brothers and sisters. We, as children, were the focus of my parent’s lives. We regularly attended church. My parents did not drink or smoke or gamble. There was no physical abuse or fighting in the home. I’m not saying it was “Leave it to Beaver”, but it was a fine, solid Christian home. I hope no one will try to take the easy way out of this and accuse my family of contributing to this. I know, and I’m trying to tell you as honestly as I know how, what happened.

As a young boy of 12 or 13, I encountered, outside the home, in the local grocery and drug stores, softcore pornography. Young boys explore the sideways and byways of their neighborhoods, and in our neighborhood, people would dump the garbage. From time to time, we would come across books of a harder nature – more graphic. This also included detective magazines, etc., and I want to emphasize this. The most damaging kind of pornography – and I’m talking from hard, real, personal experience – is that that involves violence and sexual violence. The wedding of those two forces – as I know only too well – brings about behavior that is too terrible to describe.

JCD: Walk me through that. What was going on in your mind at that time?

Ted: Before we go any further, it is important to me that people believe what I’m saying. I’m not blaming pornography. I’m not saying it caused me to go out and do certain things. I take full responsibility for all the things that I’ve done. That’s not the question here. The issue is how this kind of literature contributed and helped mold and shape the kinds of violent behavior.

JCD: It fueled your fantasies.

Ted: In the beginning, it fuels this kind of thought process. Then, at a certain time, it is instrumental in crystallizing it, making it into something that is almost a separate entity inside.

JCD: You had gone about as far as you could go in your own fantasy life, with printed material, photos, videos, etc., and then there was the urge to take that step over to a physical event.

Ted: Once you become addicted to it, and I look at this as a kind of addiction, you look for more potent, more explicit, more graphic kinds of material. Like an addiction, you keep craving something which is harder and gives you a greater sense of excitement, until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far – that jumping off point where you begin to think maybe actually doing it will give you that which is just beyond reading about it and looking at it.

JCD: How long did you stay at that point before you actually assaulted someone?

Ted: A couple of years. I was dealing with very strong inhibitions against criminal and violent behavior. That had been conditioned and bred into me from my neighborhood, environment, church, and schools.

I knew it was wrong to think about it, and certainly, to do it was wrong. I was on the edge, and the last vestiges of restraint were being tested constantly, and assailed through the kind of fantasy life that was fueled, largely, by pornography.

JCD: Do you remember what pushed you over that edge? Do you remember the decision to “go for it”? Do you remember where you decided to throw caution to the wind?

Ted: It’s a very difficult thing to describe – the sensation of reaching that point where I knew I couldn’t control it anymore. The barriers I had learned as a child were not enough to hold me back from seeking out and harming somebody.

JCD: Would it be accurate to call that a sexual frenzy?

Ted: That’s one way to describe it – a compulsion, a building up of this destructive energy. Another fact I haven’t mentioned is the use of alcohol. In conjunction with my exposure to pornography, alcohol reduced my inhibitions and pornography eroded them further.

JCD: After you committed your first murder, what was the emotional effect? What happened in the days after that?

Ted: Even all these years later, it is difficult to talk about. Reliving it through talking about it is difficult to say the least, but I want you to understand what happened. It was like coming out of some horrible trance or dream. I can only liken it to (and I don’t want to overdramatize it) being possessed by something so awful and alien, and the next morning waking up and remembering what happened and realizing that in the eyes of the law, and certainly in the eyes of God, you’re responsible. To wake up in the morning and realize what I had done with a clear mind, with all my essential moral and ethical feelings intact, absolutely horrified me.

JCD: You hadn’t known you were capable of that before?

Ted: There is no way to describe the brutal urge to do that, and once it has been satisfied, or spent, and that energy level recedes, I became myself again. Basically, I was a normal person. I wasn’t some guy hanging out in bars, or a bum. I wasn’t a pervert in the sense that people look at somebody and say, “I know there’s something wrong with him.” I was a normal person. I had good friends. I led a normal life, except for this one, small but very potent and destructive segment that I kept very secret and close to myself. Those of us who have been so influenced by violence in the media, particularly pornographic violence, are not some kind of inherent monsters. We are your sons and husbands. We grew up in regular families. Pornography can reach in and snatch a kid out of any house today. It snatched me out of my home 20 or 30 years ago. As diligent as my parents were, and they were diligent in protecting their children, and as good a Christian home as we had, there is no protection against the kinds of influences that are loose in a society that tolerates….

JCD: Outside these walls, there are several hundred reporters that wanted to talk to you, and you asked me to come because you had something you wanted to say. You feel that hardcore pornography, and the door to it, softcore pornography, is doing untold damage to other people and causing other women to be abused and killed the way you did.

Ted: I’m no social scientist, and I don’t pretend to believe what John Q. Citizen thinks about this, but I’ve lived in prison for a long time now, and I’ve met a lot of men who were motivated to commit violence. Without exception, every one of them was deeply involved in pornography – deeply consumed by the addiction. The F.B.I.’s own study on serial homicide shows that the most common interest among serial killers is pornography. It’s true.

JCD: What would your life have been like without that influence?

Ted: I know it would have been far better, not just for me, but for a lot of other people – victims and families. There’s no question that it would have been a better life. I’m absolutely certain it would not have involved this kind of violence.

JCD: If I were able to ask the kind of questions that are being asked, one would be, “Are you thinking about all those victims and their families that are so wounded? Years later, their lives aren’t normal. They will never be normal. Is there remorse?”

Ted: I know people will accuse me of being self-serving, but through God’s help, I have been able to come to the point, much too late, where I can feel the hurt and the pain I am responsible for. Yes. Absolutely! During the past few days, myself and a number of investigators have been talking about unsolved cases – murders I was involved in. It’s hard to talk about all these years later, because it revives all the terrible feelings and thoughts that I have steadfastly and diligently dealt with – I think successfully. It has been reopened and I have felt the pain and the horror of that.

I hope that those who I have caused so much grief, even if they don’t believe my expression of sorrow, will believe what I’m saying now; there are those loose in their towns and communities, like me, whose dangerous impulses are being fueled, day in and day out, by violence in the media in its various forms – particularly sexualized violence. What scares me is when I see what’s on cable T.V. Some of the violence in the movies that come into homes today is stuff they wouldn’t show in X-rated adult theatres 30 years ago.

JCD: The slasher movies?

Ted: That is the most graphic violence on screen, especially when children are unattended or unaware that they could be a Ted Bundy; that they could have a predisposition to that kind of behavior.

JCD: One of the final murders you committed was 12-year-old Kimberly Leach. I think the public outcry is greater there because an innocent child was taken from a playground. What did you feel after that? Were they the normal emotions after that?

Ted: I can’t really talk about that right now. It’s too painful. I would like to be able to convey to you what that experience is like, but I won’t be able to talk about that. I can’t begin to understand the pain that the parents of these children and young women that I have harmed feel. And I can’t restore much to them, if anything. I won’t pretend to, and I don’t even expect them to forgive me. I’m not asking for it. That kind of forgiveness is of God; if they have it, they have it, and if they don’t, maybe they’ll find it someday.

JCD: Do you deserve the punishment the state has inflicted upon you?

Ted: That’s a very good question. I don’t want to die; I won’t kid you. I deserve, certainly, the most extreme punishment society has. And I think society deserves to be protected from me and from others like me. That’s for sure. What I hope will come of our discussion is that I think society deserves to be protected from itself. As we have been talking, there are forces at loose in this country, especially this kind of violent pornography, where, on one hand, well-meaning people will condemn the behavior of a Ted Bundy while they’re walking past a magazine rack full of the very kinds of things that send young kids down the road to being Ted Bundys. That’s the irony.

I’m talking about going beyond retribution, which is what people want with me. There is no way in the world that killing me is going to restore those beautiful children to their parents and correct and soothe the pain. But there are lots of other kids playing in streets around the country today who are going to be dead tomorrow, and the next day, because other young people are reading and seeing the kinds of things that are available in the media today.

Okay, this is a pretty controversial subject, so you’ll have to bear with me. I’ve noticed that Islamist leaders (e.g. Abu Bakar Bashir, leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, who was convicted for the 2002 Bali bombing) have no trouble lying or misrepresenting themselves when questioned about terrorist activities and fundamentalist aims, and Western journalists tend to let this pass without comment. This is interesting because Westerners, even Christian fundamentalists involved in terrorism, feel compelled to be truthful, even to their disadvantage.

I was finally prompted to Google on this subject by this article (Islamist student group said to terrorize Pakistan campuses), in which an Islamist student leader denied, without shame, using violence and intimidation, even though this had been widely witnessed. It seems strange to a Westerner that a person who regards themself as pious would lie without shame, but this may be a prejudice from Christian and Jewish exortations to truth-telling.

In fact, as I suspected, there are specific verses in various Islamic texts which provide religious justification for lying, and they fall under two recognised categories: Taqiyyah and Kitman. Taqiyyah means saying (or writing) something which isn’t true. Kitman means lying by omission, i.e. leaving important facts unsaid. These justifications were originally developed by the Shi’ites as a defence against Sunni oppression, but now are generally used.

The exact verses used can be read at this page: Permitted to Lie for Islam (Taqiyya and Kitman). The most blatant reference in the Koran is Sura (66:2) – “Allah has already ordained for you, (O men), the dissolution of your oaths.” Also, from Islamic Law: Reliance of the Traveler (p. 746) – “[it is] obligatory to lie if the goal is obligatory… Whether the purpose is war, settling a disagreement, or gaining the sympathy of a victim legally entitled to retaliate… it is not unlawful to lie when any of these aims can only be attained through lying. But is is religiously precautionary in all cases to employ words that give a misleading impression…”

There are also justifying events from the life of the Prophet, e.g. the assassination of the poet Ka’b bin al-Ashraf, the assassination of Usayr ibn Zarim, and the breaking of the treaty with the Meccans, all of which involved the Prophet lying or having others lie on his behalf. It is important to remember, of course, that a number of religious figures from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible also lied to and betrayed people, but most Christians regard these as flawed men who predated the New Testament message of peace, love and spiritual self-examination. It will therefore be helpful to Westerners to understand Islam as an Old Testament religion, that is without the civilising and mitigating qualifications of a later revelation.

Islam is not a race

3 November, 2010

Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.
Islam is not a race.

Therefore criticism of Islam is not racism.

Just sayin’.

… so he must be up to something.

My own suspicion is that he’s a secret Trekkie.