Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The (New?) Atheist movement, a personal perspective

This post is a basic outline of what I'm talking about after influence by your comments. I'd love some more responses, with focus on variety of responses. So if you think you have an odd or heretical point of view please do give it here. Part of why I'm doing this is to try and work out my own beliefs, if I work that out after listening to an echo-chamber it wont be as good as listening to a diversity of ideas. The first post is on my blog at http://bit.ly/82xC4j and on facebook at http://bit.ly/7PMVWz.

The word atheist strictly means purely and simply one who does not accept the existence of any gods, however there is a lot a baggage that for one reason or another gets lumped under this heading. If you simply say someone is an atheist then that tells you nothing about their politics or view of the world except that it contains no gods. However the term New Atheist has a very different ring, a New Atheist puts posters up on buses and writes books about how religion is bad, a New Atheist is angry and scowly and calls you stupid. Non of these things are implied by atheist, what's the difference?

I would like to suggest that many atheists have found that the world-view they have is consistent with many other atheists, it is largely materialistic and rejects all teachings of organised religion, and that they have decided that they would very much like to change the world around them in this light. Atheists (especially after the invention of the internet) have started to lump together in order to advance a social or political goal (not party political, political like environmentalism rather than republicanism). I think part of this is a reaction to the genuinely bad treatment of atheists in many places, mainly I'm thinking of bible-belt USA, but the middle east and many other places too. But moreover I think there is a very real sense in which atheism and the rejection of what organised does in our lives is real for some. So I would like to suggest that the self-identified atheist movement is not automatically a misnomer. Though many disagree, even those doing things that others would label part of the atheist movement, it might be easier to replace atheist with secular below, but "atheist movement" gets slightly more hits than "secular movement" on google so I'll follow standard wikipedia procedure and go with "atheist movement" for better or worse.

For a start, it's important to make clear what is meant by an atheist movement. One comment I got said that a 'movement' involves having a leadership and a set form of beliefs that the whole movement agrees on, if we use this definition then there is most defiantly no such thing. There is no cult of Dawkins or anything of the kind and almost all atheists would find such a notion appalling. But I would like to suggest that it is useful to define “movement” in a far more loose grass-roots sense, in the sense that there is an environmental movement. There is no leadership to environmentalists worldwide, there are many ad hoc groups to organise them, but the bulk of the eco movement doesn't look like Greenpeace, in the same way there is not set form of beliefs. Some environmentalists will say that being an environmentalist means turning your thermostat down and offsetting the carbon from your travel, some think it means destroying power plants, some thing it must lead to vegetarianism etc etc. I'd like to propose that atheism is a self-defined movement of many people trying to do many different things using a common name.

I would suggest there is such a thing as an atheist movement, but only in the loosest of senses, it seems more like many overlapping movements all rather uncomfortably under one umbrella rather than a single monolithic structure. This makes it rather hard to define, and leads naturally to a whole bunch of infighting (of which more later). But just so there is some idea of what I'm talking about, the atheist movement is the promotion in public of atheism or rational secularism more generally or of the rights of atheists. This rather broader label goes beyond anything implied by the word atheism, however I do feel justified using the term atheist movement, because this is a self-identified label used by many people doing such things.

This takes many strands and I'd like to quickly run down some things campaigned for by various people that I will lump under this heading. None of these things are mandatory, for every person who finds promoting this to be a fundamental part of the movement there will be others who think it is utterly abhorrent, or just not interesting.

That most people should not believe in the existence of gods (many, notably Christopher Hitchens, D.S. Wilson and E.O. Wilson disagree firmly). Note that one strand of this is the atheism v agnosticism argument, where people claim to have evidence or some other good reason why one should believe that one can know the non-existence of a god to be true. Not many people follow this argument, and those that do only very tentatively. Most self-identified atheists are strictly agnostic (I am) in as much as they dont believe that the non-existence of god is logically guaranteed absolute truth, most however use atheism to mean a belief that the existence of a god is so improbable that it can be regarded as false for all practical purposes. This is generally the area that annoys people the most.
That religious or traditional moral codes should be superseded by a humanist ethical outlook. (Note that many advocates of the idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria oppose this and argue that religion should maintain control of morality).
That most people should not believe in superstitions such as astrology (again, many exceptions) this is really an extension of the above idea that lumps superstitions and religions into one pot of unreason.
That evolution should be taught exclusively in science classes, that Intelligent Design etc should not be taught at all, and if they are they should be in comparative religious studies. (This is almost universal). This is not strictly an atheistic issue, however opponents of evolution are exclusively religious so this issue tends very easily to become part of wider atheism or secularism.
That church and state should be separated (notably many theists and church groups join with this) specifically that there should be no religious test for officials, no religious observances funded by taxpayers and that churches should not be tax exempt. This is again not strictly to do with atheism, this is more to do with the rights of atheists, historically connections between the church and state have been used to repress atheist beliefs and damage the rights of atheists. In the UK we have the law effected (especially around assisted dieing and abortion) by the presence of 27 bishops in the house of lords. In the US the Pledge of Allegiance etc are perennial issues.
That more atheists should get elected, and that public opinion about atheism should shift to allow this. Many in American politics hide their acceptance of evolution and beliefs about god more generally to appease the religious right, in the UK the situation is far better, the leader of a major...ish party is openly irreligious (Nick Clegg) and religion is very rarely an election issue.
That pseudo-science, alternative medicine, non-evidence based policies around sex and reproduction etc should be argued down and not receive any public support, and no tax-funding and that real science and evidence based policy should. Again not strictly a matter of atheism, it gets lumped under this heading because there is a definite correlation between atheism and a more rationalist scientific world-view.
That children should get a very board education in comparative religion (again not universal, but very widely agreed). This is about promoting critical analysis of religions which many (primarily Dan Dennet) argue is key to promoting atheism as a world-view into future generations.

This list is by no means exhaustive, many see LGBT rights as a key part in this, others see climate change as a vital issue, others think that reparations for various immoral deeds done in the name of religions of one sort or another to be vital, Christopher Hitchens sees it as his mission as an atheist to make every human on earth hate him before drinking himself to death. There are many causes under this heading. The only real uniting feature of people and actions that are considered part of the atheist movement are

There are many big names in the movement, whose role is often misunderstood. The movement is so varied that no one person leads it in any sense, but I think it might be useful to give an idea of some of the big names and their opinions.

Dan Dennet, philosopher, argues that religion is a product of evolved processes in the brain and later cultural evolution, he suggests that damaging people's faith with forceful arguments and humour is not as harmful as claimed by some and should be encouraged.
Richard Dawkins, biologist, famous for his description of the God of the old testament as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction” (which was intended as a joke surprisingly). He promotes science and reason, he objects to labelling children with the religion of their parents, comparing the idea of a “Christian child” with a “Marxist child”, he has started the Out Campaign to try and get atheist to declare their beliefs publicly.
Christopher Hitchens, columnist, is obsessed with the problem of suffering. He compares the idea of god with a “celestial North Korea” where every action is monitored and punished. He has tried to argue that everything bad that has ever happened is the fault of religion, that the horrors of communism are the result of religion. He is a deeply unpleasant person.
Greta Chrstina, porn writer and blogger, argues that religious beliefs are dangerous because they are immune to criticism, by proposing something that cannot have any evidence for or against it religions are almost impossible to argue against. She argues that this is dangerous because any bad religious beliefs cannot be opposed in the same way that other beliefs can. She connects her opposition to religion, woo (astrology pseudo-science etc) and her support for gay rights.
A.C. Grayling, philosopher, argues that religious morality is incomparable with our contemporary society and tries to engage the public with a humanist morality as an alternative. He suggests that belief in the existence of god is exactly comparable with belief in fairies.
PZ Myers, biologist, spends most of his time (when he's not experimenting with Cephalopoda) arguing against creationists, he sees opposition to evolution as a real danger to the American education system. His argument is that religion gives people motivation to lie to themselves as creationists do.
Ariane Sherine, comedian, is famous for having founded the Atheist Bus Campaign which raised thousands of pounds in donations to counter adverts from religious groups which talked about hell-fire etc by putting “there's probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy your life” on the side of hundreds of buses. She recently released the Atheist's Guide to Christmas, a compilation of 45 essays about Christmas promoting a humanist stance on morality etc.
Hemant Mehta, maths teacher, calls himself the friendly atheist. His blog tries to talk about religion and atheism from a deliberately non-confrontational and engaging standpoint whilst being very positive about humanist morals and charity work.

The atheist movement as I see it is very varied. At times it is political secularism, at times evangelical religion out to convert, at times earnest moraliser out to tell right from wrong. This disparity and difference in tactics and goals between people sharing the same label causes a lot of conflict, I'd like to go over some of these really quickly without taking sides in any of them.

Should “we” try to convert people from their old religion or is it ok that people hold beliefs we disagree with without us criticising them?
If “we” are to oppose religious beliefs how should “we” do it, by argument? By ridiculing believers? By suggesting the possibility of alternatives? There are lots of uniformed things said about this argument. A lot of commentators suggest that there are two strands: “new atheists” who want to attack religion and make fun of believers, the examples are always male, and a new sort “atheists 3.0” who are happy and nice and want to live in peace and harmony with everyone, the examples are always female. This is said to be a schism that divides atheism. In reality there are many ways of skinning the same cat and a lot of arguments about how to do it. There is a strong argument that it is useful to have people being aggressive at the front to really oppose serious injustice, indoctrination, discrimination etc. and then a number of friendly people who can actually get people to agree.
To what extent should the atheist movement care about creationists, should we debate with them? Should we try to ban them? If so on what grounds?
To what extent should scientific and rational ways of thinking be promoted at the expense of religion/superstition? Can the two co-exist?
What should be the extent of church state separation? Should we campaign against an act of worship in public schools, the ten commandments in law courts, a prayer at the opening of parliament, god on the money, the queen's role has head of the church.
What is the place of religion in morality? Should we follow SJ Gould and say that morality is the exclusive job of the church, or should we try and replace religious morality with one based on all the moral philosophy of humanity?
A wise person once said “religion is supposed to liberate people, not keep us in the dark ages, the problem is that religion hasn't evolved with the changing times”, to what extent should atheists try and promote change within religions? Promoting tolerant branches of Islam, promoting Christians that accept evolution etc.

One cliché of atheism today is to compare it with with civil rights movement, or the gay rights movement. In both cases a large grass roots movement, with a few charismatic figureheads, attempted to get respect for a group of people who (in the US at least) were victims of very real discrimination.

This post is just some opening thoughts shaped by the comments I've got so far. I dont feel yet that I've got enough of an idea of how action like this is perceived generally to really pass judgement on it or to make firm my relationship to it. So I've got another barrage of questions for you guys to mull.

Who from the list of names above have you heard of, what is your impression of them? What gives you this impression?
Some have suggested that in public atheism comes across as disrespectful of religion. Do you feel that? Why do you think that is?
In the areas of activity I suggested: Do you think any of these goals are praiseworthy? Are any of them harmful or bad? Do you think any of them are inherently atheistic or are they the sort of thing that anybody of any religious belief could support? Do you hear people campaigning about these things in public? Which of these things takes too much attention?
Is this summary fair? What have I not talked about in enough detail? Is anything factually wrong or a misrepresentation?
Where would you like this discussion to go? Are there any aspects of this topic that interest you? If so what are they and how would you like to talk about them?
Do you think of the names of this movement? What impression do you get of the term “New Atheist”? Do you think that the campaigns I mention can fairly be called an atheist movement or is that a misnomer? Should it be given some other name?

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Request for views.

I'd like input before writing an extended blog post, provisionally called "The (New?) Atheist movement, a personal perspective"

I'm not sure (as with most of these rants) why I'm writing this. I'm sure many of you know or can predict what I'm going to say, and the rest doubtless dont care. I'm possibly writing this to myself, but if I am I would sure love to know what you guys reading this think. Because issues around religion are a staggeringly large part of world politics, and if my thinking on this is cock-eyed then I'm on the wrong side of a debate that has the capacity to be one of the defining arguments of this era... and that would suck. So more than normal I'm going to ask for responses to this.

Plan: I never plan essays but here's a rough idea for what I'm doing here, I'm going to try and analyse the atheist movement from the perspective of someone who hangs around the edges of the movement, occasionally explaining what I think to the 3 people who want to listen, but who none the less tries to keep up to date with big political movers and shakers. I'm going to try and focus on what I see as the misunderstandings of it that a lot of people in the mainstream media have, and to try and reflect the diversity of opinion within it. Part of this will be influenced by my own views inevitably, but I'll try and make it clear when I'm talking as an individual with opinions and when as an analyst of current affairs observing what people say.

So before I get too far into writing this a few questions for you guys:

  • Is anyone interested in this? If not I'll just write it to myself, those I've tagged please feel free to de-tag yourself if this doesn't look like it's your cup of tea.
  • Do any of you have any opinions about how atheism or atheists act in public? Do you find that atheism seems to come with a particular sort of attitude? Or that things done in the name of atheism invoke outrage/joy within you?
  • What about the way atheism is portrayed in the media or on the internet? Is too much or too little time given to such issues? Too much attention on a small group of people? Is the coverage too supportive, too confrontational?
  • What about atheism as a political movement? Do you see it as such? If not how would you define it? What do you see as a the goals of this movement? Do you think these goals or good? Or do you think that the idea of such a movement isn't sensible?
  • Any other thoughts? Should I not be doing this? Do I as a person fall into anything above? Do I talk about this too much? If so should I shut up or is there something I should be talking about instead?
Being tagged in this doesn't mean I would be offended if you dont care/want to talk about this. I've simply tagged people who are active on facebook who seem interested in politics etc and might possibly be interested. I would of course love opinions from people of all religions and non, but if you dont want to talk about this for whatever reason please feel free to untag yourself so I know not to bother you with this stuff again.

Monday, 14 December 2009


"Bankers took all the money in the economy in their bonuses and so we need to get rid of bankers, destroy the banks and get rid of capitalism." bleat ... well everyone really. I know most of my friends say this too so excuse me whilst I abuse you for a bit. ARE YOU ALL FUCKING INSANE?

You realise all of you that for all banks payroll is a negligible fraction of turnover? Millions of pounds in bonuses sounds like a lot of money and I'd be very glad to get some of that. But compared to the billions the banks deal with everyday it's small change. At every point of time other than a recession we thank our lucky stars we have the city of London and the fine men and women who risk stress levels that would literally kill most people in order to fund a good fraction of the UK economy.

Real money is made in financial dealing but in order for that to happen you need to take risks. When there's a boom on everyone yells at bankers to take more risk and earn more money so the rest of us can have the obscene levels of personal mortgage and credit card debt we all have. Then when things turn sour the same way they have done on a regular cycle since we've had any kind of capitalist economy, we blame the bankers for listening to us. You simply cant have it both ways.

I get really angry to hear on Question Time or other discussions that are supposed to be serious people suggesting things like sending bankers to the front line in Afghanistan. Seriously suggesting that you want people to die because they have been paid well and in the course of doing their job the natural fluctuation of the economy hurt many people is totally insane. These people get paid huge sums of money because nobody else can do what they do, if you seriously think that bankers are incompetent try becoming one. After you've gone through enough economic theory to melt your brain and you're thrown onto a trading floor where a you must time the manipulation of thousands of different stock prices and quantities exactly in time with everyone else who is working hard against you. You pause for 30 seconds and you've lost the company a million pounds. The shear amount of money you are responsible for and how bad things are if you fail is the result of unimaginable stress which is why you will probably retire aged 45.

I'm damn glad they get paid megabucks in the boom, because if I dont pay them megabucks (and I'm the one paying them, I've got a bank account) someone else will. And it's not like in the boom anyone is forcing you to pay them. The co-operative bank exists, if you dont like most banks then bloody vote with your feet and go to them. If you dont like funding evil oil companies and other things that make your liberal middle-class conscience feel enraged then put your money where your mouth is, take you money way from these evil bankers, stick it in the co-op. You have no idea how fast they'll change their ways.

The government now owns a large part of a lot of banks. By giving large sums of money they secured banks that should have failed. That's not how a capitalist society works, that's not the way a lot of people wanted them to do it, it's not how I wanted them to do it. But they did it anyway, because it was the safest and cheapest way to keep everyone's bank accounts intact. Without doing that they would have had a choice, RBS and a few others would have totally failed, and everyone with money in RBS would have lost all of their savings. Which would have destroyed this country and sent a wave of penniless homeless migrants flooding across Europe. Or they could have guaranteed everyone's savings, which I was in favour of at the time. This would have cost the government truly fantastic amounts of money that would have made current government debt look like a pittance.

So now we have bailed out the banks (can we please stop saying we have bailed out the bankers, the people themselves were not in debt and have not asked for our money) we now have to ask what we do with the staff at banks which are partially state owned. The whole point of bailing out the banks was to put in a small amount of money to secure banks in the short term and then get a profit when you sell them off down the line. So we want the board of RBS to act in such a way as to make RBS back into a profitable organisation, which means lending lots of money, which means lending lots of money at high risk. Are they going to do that? Bloody hell are they, the enter nation is yelling at them to put all their money in a big safe with an armed guard and a pack of wolves so none of it can ever be lost ever again. We are sending as a nation totally the wrong messages. Risky lending makes you more money on average than safe lending, we want RBS to make us money to put back into government coffers to pay for schools and hospitals. So then we shout at bankers working in government owned banks for doing exactly what is in our interest.

How should bankers be paid for working in government banks? If I'm thinking of making the taxpayer the most profit, fantastically well. You want the very best people in the world to be running RBS, and you get them with more money than HSBC or the co-op can offer. If I'm thinking of making money and not unbalancing the economy, then I want to pay them well, not megabucks, just well enough to make sure that we aren't left with Dave who did the finance for the Swansea branch of Burgerking in charge of a significant fraction of all public money. If however I'm thinking about politics I want a return to Victorian values of suffering and penitence. That's what really gets the Daily Mail all hot an bothered, a nice bit of suffering, so you make a big show of slashing the bankers money, get rid of the bonuses (because of course it's totally immoral for people to be rewarded for doing their job well), get rid of the pensions that people have been working an entire career to earn. While we're thinking politically, we also need to stop anyone taking risk, we need to get rid of the most profitable parts of the banking industry, we need to remove any mention of abolishing boom and bust from the record, we need to get angry at Fred Goodwin, even after his life has been threatened. We need to talk about putting bankers into Afghanistan to be killed and destroying the banking sector. We need to totally abandon all sense, morality, good economic practice ... and you know what. It still wont win you the election.

(Can you tell I'm in a bit of a mood?)


If you've been anywhere near the parts of the internet where I live recently you will be all too familiar with a new word that is sweeping the world and making a lot of liberals self-righteous and a few of them ever so slightly nervous. That word is the great curse-word of the 21st century: “denialist”. … which I just want to start by saying is a fucking stupid word. Just from a standpoint of grammar, surely if you're going to say someone denies things then they are a denier, denialist just sounds such an ugly word, but that's not my point.

This word is used to mean someone who refuses to accept the clear line of the scientific community. It is quite common to hear people named as evolution denialists, anthropogenic global warming denialists, AIDs denialists etc etc. and it is common to hear these people being attacked for the reasons that make them a denialist. This is starting to scare me. I think a bit of separation might help here before we turn science into an unquestionable religious dogma and we start burning heretics.

The point of science is to subject every hypothesis to rigorous empirical testing, to trust no authority and to believe exactly what the evidence says. Science is the best, if not the only, possible way to understand the physical world and needs masses and masses of respect. But it needs respect as a process, not as a set of results.

When we attack someone or call them deluded for not believing that all organisms alive today share common ancestors whose offspring differentiated and changed by means of natural selection before becoming distinct non-interbreeding species, we are not (or at least shouldn't be) attacking the lack of belief itself. Many intelligent people lived before there was good evidence for, or a consistent theory of, evolution. They did not believe in evolution and this is no reason to dismiss them intellectually. What people need to be opposed to is wilful ignorance and refusal to accept fact. To fail to believe in the theory of evolution today means one of two things: Either that you haven't heard the endless arguments to support it, heard about the endless fossils, DNA analyses, geographical comparisons, real world real time examples etc etc which have been all over the TV, internet and bookshops ad nausiem, in which case you are wilfully ignorant and I would ask that you please never ever vote, not even for x-factor, your opinion really doesn't count, nobody cares what you think, because you dont think. OR you have looked at all the evidence and have said “…. nah, my 4000 year old book of Jewish fairytales is better than all this science rubbish”, in which case you simply are not connected to the physical world the rest of us share, this is genuinely a form of psychosis and again, please dont vote, for the sake of the rest of us, I'm begging you, seek medical help. In the case of evolution the evidence is so strong that no rational couter-arguments exist, we must be open the the possibility that they might, but the first person to find me such an argument can have my right leg as a prize.

It is important to distinguish these two cases, one is simply an act of laziness, which can be remedied by better public outreach from science and by simple effort on the part of the denier. The second case is someone who says “if all the evidence in the world is placed against my pre-existing belief I will not change my beliefs”. This second case is a really dangerous sort of person: their certainty in spite of, not because of, the evidence means they can very easily be made to believe very bad things, or when they do believe such things it is hard to correct them. Someone who doesn't accept that his senses and the evidence provided indirectly by them provide a real way of analysing the world are simply beyond rational discourse and persuasion, so if they get it into their heads that they want to do something stupid there is no easy way to talk them out of it.

So it is right that we complain long and hard at and generally disrespect this second type of person, it's bad enough to have one person who is disconnected from reality, it's a problem of a different order if people start listening to them. The pope himself is not all that dangerous, his legions of gay hating followers on the other hand are. The more a given proto-pope's arguments are refuted and their idiocies opposed the better for the rest of us.

I have a problem with how this is done in the liberal blogosphere, and it's climate change. I read blogs and newspaper columns from every respected scientist in the world and I hear unambiguously that the climate is changing and that human CO2 is responsible and we need massive cuts in everything to save our asses. And my soft-hearted liberal side says yeh, lets listen to the scientists, Sarah Palin disagrees so they must be right, people opposed to this are all doing it for the oil. And when people start disagreeing on blogs I think, well you're just running scared and you're using bad arguments to prop up your need for petrol. And then I see others on the same blogs wanting to shut these people up, or calling them denialists, and saying they have the blood of polar bears on their hands and other reckless stupid things. I see all criticism of the genuinely bad science of the guys at UEA ignored or shouted down by people assuming bad faith. I hear people arguing by presenting a list of names of scientists who agree, I hear people shouted at for asking to see the raw data. And it makes my blood chill.

Science is not a religion, you get no points at all by having the president of the royal society on your side, you get points for having evidence, evidence that others can see and examine, with clear methodology and error bars. The motto of the royal society, which I have adopted as my own, is nullius in verba, on no-one's word. When arguments in public go along the lines of “scientists say x, those who doubt x are evil and wrong” then something has gone very badly wrong.

And in climate change this isn't just a matter of pedantry about exactly what we are attacking. I have no reason at all to doubt that all the competent scientist studying the climate have good evidence to suggest that CO2 humans put in the atmosphere has caused a raise in global average temperature. I have no reason at all to doubt this evidence is complex and detailed, and very compelling. But yet, when I go looking around for it, can I find it? Damned if I can. A good proxy of what the public knows is wikipedia, for many people no other source of information exists. If I go on wikipedia and look for evidence of climate change, what do I find? Stupid Al Gore style graphs. Charts of CO2 and temperature which prove nothing about climate change because correlation does not imply causality, but which do prove that the various proxy measurements we have of past temperature disagree with each other by huge amounts, often more than the range of temperature. We learn from wikipedia then that the science behind global warming is not only shockingly inaccurate, it also uses logical fallacies, all the time.

I say again, my liberal conscience compels me to say that scientists say the evidence is good, and anything that gets through peer review must be good, peer review is tough. But it's really not right to attack people for doubting the word of the all high science. If they doubt you, and they are playing by the rules of only looking at what the evidence says and they aren't purely driven by an ideological agenda, then the problem might not be with them. The problem might be that the way the evidence is presented to the public on this is shockingly bad, really awful. And if that is the evidence in the public conciousness I'm glad the public dont believe in global warming, I'm glad they dont just take the word of science as revealed unquestionable truth. Let's have some of the vast body of evidence (which really does exist and is of good quality) out in the public domain and more importantly in the public conciousness and in a language people can understand without having to struggle. And even more importantly, let's have a differentiation between people who reject the scientific method and who must be attacked and opposed, and those who reject some common belief without being shown some good evidence for it, such people are quite the opposite of a denialist.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The foundation of morality

A question was raised on a video I was watching today, and has been raised endlessly in religious debates for time immemorial. “Without god, on what basis can you criticise another's morals?” This question and variants are as old as the sea, “without god all is permitted”, “the ten commandments are the only true basis for morality”, “morality is only an opinion, it's not valid to criticise anyone else” etc. This is such a common idea I think it warrants a look at.

Let us start by dismissing the religious part of this question, then we can think about the far more interesting question lying under it. The religious aspect of this is removed by unpacking the question, it runs like this: my religion provides objective moral values, without such objective morals there is no absolute truth in any moral statement, and without that people could do any immoral thing they liked. The problem is in the first premise, no religion gives objective standards for morality to a person approaching that religion for the first time. If someone who has never done so before reads the bible and produces a moral code from it they have a problem. Do they go with a a literal interpretation of all commands as morally valid and so condemn tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), throw Derek Acorah out of town (Deuteronomy 18:10-11), destroy entire towns if there are people advocating other religions (Deuteronomy 13:12-18), reject forward planning (Matthew 6:34) etc. or do they pick and choose which parts of the bible are relevant or which are metaphorical. I cant of course judge any of these things before I have a basis for doing so (and am personally fine with the Derek Acorah thing =p ) the point is simply that almost none of the people who make questions of this kind would accept as objectively morally true all of these things.

We conclude from these examples then, that people do not accept as totally valid all statements that come from a religion or from a teacher of any other kind. They use some sort of standard to judge what commands they accept and which they reject, not the religion itself. This is a factual not a moral observation so without having yet any basis for morals I feel happy in removing mention of god from the original question as an irrelevance. (Feel free to oppose this in comments below). So we now have a new more general question: “what is the basis for moral criticism?”

A few observations: there is, in any one culture and time, a widely accepted moral opinion on a large number of basic things. The number of people in the 21st century west who when pressed would not say they believe “what Joseph Fritzel did was wrong” to be 'true' could probably be counted without having to take your socks off. The are a number of arguments near these obvious basic things where there is little to no consensus (is it right to eat meat, what is the appropriate way to treat groups of historically oppressed people etc). We also notice that these things are not fixed. Many centuries ago many things which are now in the latter category were once in the former and vice versa, and things that were firmly decided one way or the other are now decided in the contrary way. It was widely acknowledged in the ancient world that slavery is not only acceptable but the only way to make a successful society work, today there is a very real debate over the morality of abortion, in classical Greece it was universally accepted that not only was abortion moral, infanticide was quite acceptable.

Moving away from the community for a moment and onto the person. How does the individual develop his moral opinions? I fear some may turn away in disgust at this but: we have to start in evolutionary biology. It is inevitable that any creature with a nervous system that can detect things closely related to it will act to the benefit of those things, this gets its genes into the next generation. There are countless examples of altruism in just about any class of animal (and even some plants) that you may care to think of. So we should expect humans to be fundamentally kind to those closely related. We should also expect children to follow commands from their parents, be they “dont touch that it's hot” or “dont eat that it's unclean”, not following these puts the baby at a risk of death and so is selected out of the gene-pool. (For a far better and more detailed analysis of this please see the truly excellent and badly-titled book “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins). So we have an instinctive morality of clan loyalty, looking out for your own, sacrificing yourself to save two brothers etc. Notice that these rules are fairly constant, the many genes responsible for all this stuff will probably not have altered significantly in the million years people have been people. So we should expect these things to be roughly the same in all times and places.

Overlaid on that we have cultural morality, re-enforced by peer-pressure, this gives us what a lot of people mean by the “true moral message” of one religion or another, this is why people feel they should eat their greens and get some education, people aren't born feeling this, but at a later age they feel this like it's an instinct. In this category comes moral messages in common expressions, nobody can argue with “forgive and forget”, it is a moral axiom of our culture, not so in another time or in another place. Notice that these change with the society, I know the morals my parents and others gave me are different from the morals of someone from a deeply conservative family in the middle east, or from a Spartan. I could go on about this for hours but your political view is a real factor here (Take the test at http://www.yourmorals.org - then watch the TEDTalk that explains why: http://on.ted.com/255P it's a really interesting phenomenon). This changes and evolves, it will change in a way that convinces the most people in the next generation to stick with the same moral framework as the last (I vote labour because my father did etc).

Later we become sophisticated and think about these basic impressions. We develop the vague impression of happiness when animals are cared for into vegetarianism or supporting dog's trust. We take a feeling of unhappiness at domineering and unfair people we encounter in our early life and become trade unionists or members of amnesty international. This is where the criticism enters discussion at last. Levels below this we can analyse where the impressions come from, much like trying to work out where a fear of spiders comes from, but the impression itself isn't based on any argument so no argument is going to change that. However arguments and reasoning do produce these later sophistications. So arguments and reasoning can change them.

Assertion moral criticism is based not on absolutes, but on the best way to enact in practice an approximately equal basic moral assumptions, moral criticism of those outside ones own culture can either be based how to enact on their basic moral assumptions or to appeal that their higher level culture based instincts are not compatible with deeper biological instincts.

What we observe from our considerations of society is that if there are moral absolutes to be had anywhere then societies aren't good at finding them, morals change too much to have included anything like a truth of objective reality. We note that revelation or commandments from some outside source are arguments for ones own moral opinions only after they have been formed and are in no sense an objective moral framework. The holy books are not where religious people get their morality any more than people get it from leaders of personality cults or from superstars. Moral codes come first, then arguments from outside back them up. One always has the choice to reject or accept any command written in stone, one does this because of ones own pre-existing morals.

The sophistications I talked about before (I mean that word in the most positive way, not with the slightly sneering tone it has acquired) are quite literally rules or rather sets of rules about how to act. We follow these rules because they help us to satisfy those desires which our instincts give us. One can argue about these very effectively and with a strong basis. If you have a friend raised in the same time and place then generally his instincts will be much the same as yours. So when one argues about his sophistications as opposed to yours, one is not arguing which is more pleasing to god, or which accords better with the absolute morals that are stored somewhere. I argue with my friend about whether it is moral for such and such a law to be passed, we aren't arguing as to whether it fits into an external moral framework (as we would if we were asking “is it constitutional”) but whether the moral instincts that we both share fit well with it. If I argue with a Kantian about the problem of lying (see footnote*) the question is not whether the ban on lying is really a logical part of Kant's system (it is) but whether that fits with our shared instincts.

Outside of our culture here means outside of those people who we should expect to have the same instincts as us. Notice this is only a change in the learnt part of our instinctive morality, all humans at all times have approximately the same level of altruism etc at birth because it's genetic and not very variable (again see selfish gene). What does change over time and place is the stuff your parents and others around you re-enforce in your behaviour. So for me today in the classic Oxford Union debate “this house would never fight for queen and country” my instinct is to agree, because my loyalties are to myself, my close friends and to the whole of humanity, and are really not attached to queen or country. A Spartan would have immense loyalty to his country. How can the two of us argue?

I can argue that fighting for his country is not the best way to be loyal to it, that supporting your country means sacrificing your own glory and working for peace and prosperity. He can argue that the best way to protect my friends and those I am loyal to is to fight. We are arguing here not that the other's intuition is wrong, but that we have not chosen the right way to promote it. This seems to me to be a valid way of arguing that might actually change people's minds. This is the same sort of reasoning that gives us “would you like it if everyone did that?” and arguments about logical consistency of ones morals. Here we can have real logical discussions that get us places, this is the most firm ground for a discussion of someone else's morals.

We have a second way of arguing outside our own culture: our genetic instincts are obviously more deep-rooted than our cultural ones. (This does not of course mean stronger, ask anyone who has committed suicide in the name of honour). It is sometimes possible to argue that the instincts a person's culture has given them do not fit well with itself or the other instincts they have. People can be shocked by the things they have been lead to believe, ask anyone who's been freed from a cult, we can argue that the morals that such societies deeply ingrain into people are bad simply because when they are properly thought about they disagree with a much deeper form of morality. This idea of really coming to grips with your morals and understanding what it is you really think is the point of many reconciliation panels after terrible conflicts and atrocities. This is harder to make rigorous, the basis is our genetic predispositions towards some particular kind of morality. Whilst it is true that we will all share that predisposition it is often weak compared to some ingrained cultural belief.

I am a scientist and a mathematician, so I am pre-disposed to think about morals in terms of maximising the function happiness. This leads inevitably to utilitarianism (the idea that the best thing to do is to add up all the happiness that results from a given action and go with the action that gives you the biggest number). However inevitable this idea is given my upbringing and culture it can be killed outright (along with my belief in democracy) by the classic example of the terrorist's son. There is a bomb about to go off and kill a thousand people, the terrorist is under arrest, and his son is there, you know the only way to save those thousand people is to torture that young child. Simply adding up happiness and suffering will tell you that torturing that boy is moral, but our deeper genetic instincts tell us this is a really bad idea. One can have an argument based on this moral code or that and get a good resolution, or one can appeal far less logically to our genetic inheritance. This is not guaranteed to get us a resolution or to even be accepted as an argument and is by far the weakest form of moral criticism, but it does get resolution enough of the time to be worthwhile. Nazis such as Speer have said sorry, people have rejected barbaric cults they have been brainwashed into.

It's not much of a basis for morality, but it is enough I think for me to criticise Hitler without having relativists jumping up and down at me. I dont claim to have objective truths, but I do claim that dispute is possible and that it can be resolved one way or the other. As with science things cannot ever be decided one way or the other, but a consensus can be reached and discussion is not futile.

*basically Kant sets out a great long incomprehensible framework for all of morality and one of the logical consequences of this is that it is never right to lie, even if a murderer is at the door who wants to know where your mother is so he can kill her. This is obviously regarded as a flaw in Kant's system by many people.

Comments as ever wanted, this one especially, I'm sure it's half drivel.

Monday, 7 December 2009

wonderful Asimov essay

It turns out that my plan to give you a complete foundational theory for all of morality today may have been a tad optimistic, I'll need until tomorrow morning at least. So in the meantime please have this lovely essay from that great genius Isaac Asimov on the tyranny of absolute judgements of truth.

The Relativity of Wrong

The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.

However, I don't think that's so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so.
continued at http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm