On the Dangers of Abandoning Reason for Comfort

Often, religious people proudly talk about being calm and collected, and attribute it to their faith. Regardless of whether it’s true (Who’s to say someone like Sam Harris is not calm?), I wish to argue that even if true, it is not a virtue, but quite the opposite: It is wicked and foul, the surrender of one’s humanity into slavery.

This happens in Abrahamic religions in general, but as you may have noticed, Islam is my particular target, since even the name “Islam” come from the Arabic root “salama” which means surrender. For centuries, Muslims have been proudly claiming that this God (Allah) has sent them all they need, the most complete religion (A verse in the Qur’an says: “Today I completed my religion for you and finished my blessings upon you” [Almaedah, verse 3]). This means that Islam dictates their lives, from how to have sex, what to do during sex, what to do after sex and so on, to how to enter somewhere (with the right foot, and no I’m not joking).

The same thing, perhaps to a milder degree, but the same in essence none the less, happens in Christianity and Judaism. Yet again that God is very concerned with what people do with each other in bed, how they live their lives and how they end it. Does this make us act better as human beings? I have argued before that such is not the case. But does this make the religious more calm, more collected? Perhaps. Is that calmness good? Not at all.

There is not a day that passes by and I (as a none believer, and a sane human being) am not in mental anguish. Every action that I prepare myself to do, every interaction that I have with others, I keep thinking to myself if I have done the right thing. I keep thinking if my reasoning was right, if I acted correctly. There is not a day that passes by and I do not regret, and take lessons from, some of the things I have done wrong in the past. Every time I make a claim, I keep weighing it, trying to make sure I say the right thing, that I do not lie or not be dishonest.

I wonder what would have happened if I had surrendered my wits, my sanity, to an authority by means of faith? Obviously I would have been sure of the things I was doing, after all, they were the commandments of someone utterly righteous. They would have been my moral duties.  What if I was commanded to mutilate my baby boy’s (or girl’s) genitalia? No problem. I would have been happy to do so. What if I was commanded to behead my son (Qur’an: Assafat, verses 101-107)? No problem, I would have been more than happy to do so for such righteous being. And I would feel no guilt, no shame, no regret doing those things. In fact, I would have felt happy to please such being, my master, who literally owned me, whom I had surrendered to.

The thought of being as such makes me shiver. No, thank you. I’m glad I am in mental anguish. I’m glad my conscience is not numbed, is not surrendered into the slavery of a tyrannical sadistic master. I’m glad if I am not perfect, at least I can try.

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The Clash of Moral Theories: The Curious Case of Hypothetical Extremes

There is a very common dilemma in books about ethics and morality, and It goes something like this: Imagine there are four sick patients in a hospital intensive care, and they all need an organ to live: A heart, a liver, and kidneys. And imagine there is a perfectly healthy young person in the room next to intensive care, named the “Healthy man”. Assume all his organs can be transplanted into our four patients. Given that he is going to be sitting in that room for only another hour, is it right for us to kill that person and transplant his organs into these four patients, in the process saving them?

Most people (I’d add hopefully) would say no to that question. We seem to recognize that the person in the other room has specific “rights”, and one of these rights is the right to life, meaning he or she (in our example he) owns his life and is in control of it, in such a way that only he can decide if he wishes to donate his organs. If one has such a position, then one, in this case, plays the role of a Libertarian.

However, some may say otherwise. They may point out that the benefits from killing one person and putting his organs into others in order to save them could be calculated, and if it turns out that those benefits are indeed greater, then we have a moral “green light” or even moral obligation to do this deed. If you happen to agree with this type of justification for moral actions, then you are of the Utilitarian tradition.

As I mentioned, in that particular example Libertarianism shows itself much stronger. Most of us agree to the notion of one’s right to life, and to own ourselves in that sense. We find it reasonable for example, if we ask the healthy person if he wishes to donate his organs. Many of us would think it moral if the person himself gives consent to be killed for the good of those other four (some of us most likely would still disagree).

Now, I want to try and make a twist, which by default is not expected to be there. Assume that instead of saving four people, by killing the person inside the other room, we can save four million. Maybe instead of his organs, we can use the cells of his body to cure all the people in the world that need a heart transplant, through a new miracle in medical technology. What then? Does this change the way we think about our moral duty in this case? Does the scale matter?

I think, I hope, most of us would think twice here. After all it is the lives of four million we are talking about. However, even then we may not consider this a moral duty to personally kill the person without his consent. But this is where it gets even more interesting, when it gets more extreme: What if we were forced to choose? Imagine a crazy psychopath, maybe our very own Jigsaw, has kidnapped two people: A Mr. X and the Healthy man. The game here is the game of death-death, either Mr. X kills the Healthy man, or Jigsaw will kill four million people by releasing a virus into a major city*.

What now? Would we think Mr. X is justified to kill the Healthy man, even if the Healthy man does not consent to it? It seems we may lean more and more towards the conclusion that Mr. X is justified if he kills the Healthy man. “Save the one, save them all**” in here has to turn into “Kill the one, save the rest”.

The dilemma here is the fact that our moral theories are still the same. The only thing changed was the scale, or some circumstances which force was introduced. A true Libertarian would still say that the right of the Healthy man on his life is still more important than four million lives, and in the last example Mr. X has done wrong if he kills him. On the other hand, in the first example, a Utilitarian would still think that we are justified in killing the Healthy man, even if the benefits from it, calculated by the Utilitarian, are only slightly greater than not killing him.

This brings me to my main conclusion: While i do believe there is right and wrong, and it is determined regardless of our perception, I do not believe we have such things as moral “laws”. In other words, we have objective morality, but no objective moral laws. Some objective values may be very common, but that is not to say there is no exception to the rule. The exception is the part that dispels the illusion that we have robust everlasting “laws” governing rights and wrongs. Every conclusion about right and wrong is the outcome of a set of moral theories and facts, surrounding a specific moral question about a specific case, still objective, but it may differ in each different case***.

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* Assume ceteris paribus, meaning we cannot have any outcomes other than the two mentioned, and Mr. X can only choose the two actions Jigsaw has given him the opportunity to: Kill the Healthy man, or not kill him.

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*** I’ll be happy to be challenged on this. I think it is a strong blow to the idea of a “moral lawgiver”, of course maybe not as strong as Euthyphro dilemma, but still useful.

What Bothers Me the Most about Religion

Recently I commented on a blog which belongs to a Christian. I must admit as far as I have seen he is mostly about how Christianity could be good in a sentimental way, and he himself seems rather naive in his content (but I shall suspend judgment on that, after all I do not have enough information about his state of mind).

I commented on his post  titled “The Faith of Atheism“. I started with a hypothetical example about the statement “If the atheist truly did not believe, he or she would not bother to deny” and then moved to point out why Pascal’s wager (the other part of his post) was rigged. In his response he entirely missed the points I made, and when I made another comment addressing them, I’m fairly sure he erased my comment (though I asked him since I thought I might have forgotten to post it, but have not received an answer to this day).

Now, I do not wish to bash him much, though I think the irony of one putting oneself on a moral high ground but then trying to shut other people out is too much not to mention.

But in his response to my comment he asked a question about what I had said: “May I ask what bothers you about faith, or people of faith?”. Of course I had said “I am bothered and appalled by religion, that’s why I think about it, and that’s why I will keep rejecting it.” One immediately realizes that the question asked is irrelevant to the comment made. “People of faith” do not necessarily bother me, some of them do and some of them don’t. But religion is another story.

I wish to elaborate a little more than my answer to him about this particular question. Aside from the constant harassment from some fundamentalist religious people directed towards gay men and women, and aside from death threats and being called almost all the names in “the book” by the very people who think they are fulfilling their moral duty, I don’t have much problem with “people of faith”. Perhaps a part of this is because I do not tend to have the mindset of collectivism, rendering judgement upon individuals based on the “label” or “tribe” I think they belong to. Some people of faith are purely evil (in a very earthly sense), and some are genuinely good people with a heart.

But, what is it that religion does to its devoted followers that bothers me? Could I name anything that the institution does, and cannot be blamed on small groups of fundamentalists? In other words, the whole issue of: is it just some bad people, or is it religion?

I believe the worst damage that religion does is to morality: Religions are in the business of creating mindless beasts out of ordinary people. When a certain perception of morality in a part of history is hijacked by an authority, every inch of moral progress becomes laboring for the society that bears such surrender of mind. Contrary to what people may think, what we perceive to be “the right thing to do” is not always the same. Never an everlasting “moral law” has been found to be able to determine what is the right thing to do, nor any of the theories that we know about morality are complete.

In the midst of all this, you find those who dare suggesting they have access to what is right and what is not, and more importantly, that knowledge is absolute. The very notion of morality from authority itself is philosophically problematic as Euthyphro dilemma shows. But regardless, to them “Being gay is wrong” is an example of a value that never changes because it has been dictated by their all knowing authority, no matter how much one reasonably argues against it.

And after 40 years of scientific and medical discovery, when finally that one inch of progress is achieved regardless of the tireless resistance of the very same mindless beasts, again they turn and say “Oh wait, that was not what the “real” religion says. Our “real” religion is completely innocent. In fact, it has been saying the very same thing all along!” No it has not. The irony that yet again another set of seemingly “known” values has been hijacked by the same authority is just too great not to cry out for. The same story yet again. Never the question is asked “What if we are wrong?” No. That authority does not allow it.

I believe the notion of “moral hijacking” to be the real harm of religions, particularly Abrahamic ones. Those who gather crowds in churches and mosques and create sheep like followers. Sadly the sheep is far less of a brainless danger than a lot of followers to these religions.

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Note: I do not think that all who call themselves “Christian” or “Muslim” are mindless beasts. I happen to think that they are not religious if they use reason to judge things as good or bad rather than what is dictated to them.

Argument for Ignosticism, or, How Much of an Atheist am I?

One question that I have recently been thinking of is this: Is the answer to the question “Are you an Atheist?” necessarily yes for me? The fact of the matter is, it depends on who is asking it, is it a deist, a theist, a Hindu maybe, a philosopher of religion, or most importantly, myself.

Most of the time the answer is yes, of course because most of the times the person asking the question is a “theist” of Abrahamic religions. Surely “that God is clearly defined, and I do not find it challenging to easily reject it.

However, in the debates that one may have with a theist, one usually hears a different claim. Usually the notion of God that a theist wishes to “prove” turns out to be an equivocation with the notion of a Deistic God, or some God other than what the theist tries to worship. Aside from that fallacy that needs to be pointed out to the theist of a particular religion, the question posed in the beginning of this post becomes relevant here: I do not necessarily reject a Deistic God as strongly as I reject, for example, an Islamic God (Allah, the same as Jehovah).

Don’t get me wrong, I do reject even a Deistic God, since it’s mere name has to depend on the arguments for its existence, and there are no good arguments for that. However, it seems to me that there is a mountain of evidence to actually reject the notion of theistic God(s) of the Abrahamic sort. From the internal inconsistencies  within such theology to historical inconsistencies, all accumulate to one result: The existence of such God is a delusion.

This gives way to Ignosticism, the idea that a God needs to be defined in order to be rejected, and “God” should not be equivocated in arguments for or against it. Though none of the gods presented until this day can be acceptable enough, so we are still waiting.