Thursday, 20 May 2010
Are they gone? Good.
I'm going to draw Mohammed today, because today is officially "Everyone Draw Mohammed Day", it's on facebook, it must be real. This post is going to be me explaining why I think it's not immoral for me to do this, and also why I think it is good that I'm doing this.
First reason, banning. People are trying, by force, to stop other people communicating ideas. Take away all context and that's the situation we are in today. When Theo van Gogh was shot 8 times for making a film critical of women's rights under Islam that was an attempt to silence opinions that his murderer did not agree with. This can never be acceptable. There is no opinion so vile, so evil, so hate filled, that it could ever amount to an evil equivalent to murder. The general argument against censorship is laid out in On Liberty far more clearly than I could ever do here. In shot, consider two cases, either the opinion we censor is wrong, in which case we deprive ourselves of the ability to strengthen our own views by providing counterarguments or it is right, in which case we have deprived ourselves of the truth, which must harm ourselves. I have always argued that the only possible moral response to violent censorship is resistance. If those who want to use violence to censor cannot be convinced they are making a moral error, they must at least be convinced that their aim is impractical, and the internet is wonderful for this. Thanks to the Streisand effect anything that someone tries to censor can (with a little help from obsessives like me) spread far faster than it would have had the censorship not taken place.
The image of Mohammed that sparked off the Danish Cartoon Controversy of 2005, before the controversy, not many read and fewer cared about this cartoon, now it's the first image result on google.
Second reason, sacred. Muhammed is different from the Chinese government censoring the BBC or celebrities censoring something critical of them. Muhammed is sacred. And I think the concept of sacredness is one of the most profoundly dangerous concepts the human mind is capable of expressing. The idea is that Muhammed is somehow beyond considerations of right and wrong, that attacking, or even appearing to attack, him in any way is a grave offence. He has acquired this status because his religion won. Nobody considers banning criticism of the cult of Scientology, because that religion is so small everyone still calls it a cult. Islam is too big for that, that's why legislation has been put before governments all over the world and in front of the UN to prevent any criticism of Islam. Do we think that it is right for questions about what opinions are acceptable to be decided by who has the biggest fan club? If so then I have to ask you if you are aware of the history of early innovators of science and early adopters of religions. If we think it is right that Muhammed should not be criticised because he is sacred then we should agree that the early Christians should have been persecuted for their heresy, that Muhammad should have been persecuted for his, etc etc.
An early Renaissance fresco depicting Mohammed being tortured in Hell. In 2002, Islamic extremists plotted to blow up the church in order to destroy the image.
Third reason, theology. Muhammad has an interesting place in Islamic theology, rather like the role Mary has in Catholicism. He is not a god and not worshipped, but he regarded with a huge amount of respect and reverence. The reason for this is simple, at least for the Shia. He was without sin. He, and his relatives, were protected from all sin. This forms 3 parts, firstly, he received the Koran from Allah without error, next, he transmitted it without error and finally, he lived without error. Many Muslims quite deliberately seek to emulate Muhammad in their actions because they believe he was without sin. A lot of people criticise Muhammad for marrying Aisha at age 6 and having sex with her aged 9, this is attacked as a lack of understanding of his cultural circumstances. That is precisely the point I would like to make. We all see now that this action was unacceptable (if you dont see that, really, go away and have a think about your morality) the fact that he and those around him didn't see it them indicates that there has been moral progress in humanity from his day to ours. To claim then that Muhammad was moral is either to claim that this moral progress has in fact been a decay, that having sex with 9 year olds is fine, or to suggest that there is no framework for morals at all beyond one's own culture. In either case, I really dont want people in this day and age imitating Muhammad in everything he did. A fine teacher he was, wrote some very nice poetry, but a relevant moral guide for all aspects of modern life? Give me a break. To respect this man as a poet or a leader of men is one thing. To demand respect for him as a paradigm of morality is quite another.
"The Islamic prophet Muhammad solves a dispute over lifting the black stone into position at al-Kaaba" c.1315
Fourth reason, history. Muhammad is a character in history, just like Napoleon or Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was born, lived, walked around, went for a poo, died, and did all the other things that people do. He was a profoundly significant historical figure. Under his influence Arabia was transformed beyond recognition. Without him western civilisation would have taken a profoundly different course. To try and put one of the most significant men in history into a bubble and claim that discussion of him is impossible or somehow off limits is mad. Specifically on illustrations, the idea that one cannot draw Muhammad is a relatively new one (in practice at least). Early images of Muhammad are not uncommon. For example:
The Prophet Muhammad, 17th century Ottoman copy of an early 14th century (Ilkhanate period) manuscript of Northwestern Iran or northern Iraq (the "Edinburgh codex").
Fifth reason, religious freedom. I believe in religious freedom, I think freedom of religion is one of the most important rights people can demand for themselves. This means every religion must be free to sink or swim according to how well it can argue and persuade others that it is correct. If any one religion (or religion as a concept over irreligion, or vice versa) tries to claim privilege over others then the freedom of conscience and thought of all others has been infringed. When the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was being debated the strongest voices of opposition were from the religious community. The problem is there is no respectful way to talk to someone of another religion without deliberately being disingenuous. There is no way to express the idea "I believe that your fundamental assumptions about the universe are false" without being disrespectful or insulting. I'm damned sure there's no way to express the idea "the creator of the entire universe is so displeased by your religious beliefs that after you die he will punish you for all eternity" respectfully. If we are going to allow religions to be free, and I believe it is vital that we do, then we must allow that they be criticised, even if doing so is offensive. Some historic drawings of Muhammad are cartoons designed to attack Islam in favour of Christianity, I think it important that the rights of Christians (and others) in this be respected.
This illustration is taken from La vie de Mahomet, by M. Prideaux, published in 1699. It shows Mohammed holding a sword and a crescent while trampling on a globe, a cross, and the Ten Commandments.
Sixth reason, bloodymindedness. I have a fantastically contrary bent, it'll annoy people and this causes me a great deal of pleasure. ... No it's not a very profound argument, but it works for me.
Saturday, 15 May 2010
Paul chambers was found guilty today after sending a tweet,(details here http://bit.ly/hackofkentsummary ) he has been fined £1,000 and now has a criminal record. His total expense now is approaching £2,000, not a small sum to anyone really, more so when you realise that a criminal record scuppers his chances of qualifying as an accountant.( I realise sympathy levels have dropped now you know he wants to be an accountant but give him a chance)
This tweet has been referred to by the media as a “threat” to which people have responded angrily saying it was a joke. I don’t think it was a joke, I think it was the type of exaggeration that everyone does in real life, and on Twitter every day. Paul wanted to visit his friend, snow was scuppering his plans.He said “Grrrrr” but said it in a way that he will regret for a long time. Anyone could have been caught by this, people on Twitter all week have been talking of revolt, burning 10 Downing Street to the ground and kicking newsreaders around the place. What if these tweets are seen to be of a “menacing nature” as Paul’s was. Who is the next person that could be arrested? This is not paranoid ravings, A MAN WAS JUST FOUND GUILTY OF TWEETING A STUPID TWEET!
Many many people have offered to donate money and because @crazycolours (http://twitter.com/crazycolours) read my DM first I am setting it up.It is a Paypal account because everyone said that was the easiest way to go about it.Go to the Paypal.com site, click on send money and fill in the details. The account name isTwitterJokeTrialFund@gmail.com (obviously the account is one I set up for the Paypal account.) You do need to have a Paypal account to donate, I will see tomorrow if there is a way around that.
I realise most of you will not know me,or have a reason to trust me but after the initial frenzy has died down I will organise for Paul/Sarah to take over the account.(Since I started this, Stephen Fry (http://twitter.com/stephenfry) has very generously offered to pay the fine, but that still leaves Paul very much out of pocket, especially if he decides to appeal.)
@crazycolours or Paul will post the link too so as to give it legitimacy. I should also state here that I have not spoken to Paul about this, he is very busy (over a thousand mentions today) I have been dealing with @crazycolours.(EDIT: I got a DM from Paul last night, people want to donate and he appreciates that.So having one “official” place to do it makes sense.)
NOTE: Paul has 21 days to decide on whether to appeal or not and will be taking advice on this over the next few days, in the event of more money being donated than is needed , the money will be donated to a UK Civil Liberty fund, I am happy to take any advice on those, I will be checking them out tomorrow.
This has all been done in a rush, and I am sure there are questions that need to be answered in my rush to get it done.Transparancy is of the utmost importance in this so please ask any questions to either the email account (firstname.lastname@example.org) or the Twitter a/c @TwJokeTrialFund or (if I follow you,) DM me on @cripesonfriday
Graham Linehan has written an extraordinary piece here http://bit.ly/agAqgS Please read it and RT on Twitter, thanks.
The Twitter feed about this with opinions and jokes can be read here. http://twitter.com/#search?q=%23twitterjoketrial
All credit for the fund and for the various blog posts go to the many twitterers who have been so dedicated to this over the last few days. As ever with twitter, a small ad hoc community with a common goal has spontaneously formed, done a huge amount of work and become very tight knit. I feel like I've really come to know people over the last few days, and I can give my personal recommendation, all these guys are really genuine good people. They need all the help we can give them. So, spread the word if you can.
Thursday, 13 May 2010
Saturday, 8 May 2010
This is a comment I wrote in response to this article condemning Dr Evan Harris, the Lib Dem MP for Oxford West who sadly lost his seat in the election after a sustained attack by the religious conservatives in the press.
One doesn't know where to start with this. For instance, is Dr Harris "A stranger to principle" or is he a " dogged secularist"? Secular principles are still principles no matter how much you dislike them.
The idea that "his true love was the National Secular Society" shows a real misunderstanding of what politics is. People come into politics in order to change the country. Either they know what that change is in advance and they hope to persuade people to agree, or they plan to listen to the people and decide based on that. Almost all politicians are of the first kind, this is why we need elections. Dr Harris got into politics because of a belief that secular, rational principles are the best way to run a country. He evidently managed to persuade a lot of people of that at the last election. The idea that these principles made him illegitimate is as mad as saying that Ann Widdecombe should have been bared from standing because she was simply a shill for the Catholic Church. One can argue whose principles are better, I for one would argue that a secular, rational approach to the ethical concerns of politics is far better than most of the flatly immoral principles Ann pushes. But neither makes the candidate illegitimate.
"campaign to have people of faith – any faith – swept from the public sphere" You have fundamentally misunderstood the concept of secularism. The principle of secularism is the belief that the state should not have any connection with the church. This was historically a religious movement. If we have a state which is blind to religion, that does not feel itself legitimate in acknowledging the existence of religion or irrelgion, then that state cannot attack minority faiths. The belief that people should not be penalised for their religion is one that can only be recognised by a secular state. If we have a state, such as ours, where some religions are recognised, respected, and have the ability to get laws drafted in their favour, then ipso facto members of all other religions are penalised. For instance, there are specific privileges given to Muslims in this country to wear a mask in public in situations where that would not otherwise be legal. To have this system is to penalise anyone who, for whatever reason other than Islam, wishes to wear a mask in public in an otherwise unacceptable situation. Religious people should celebrate this. If we remove the bishops from the house of lords then we promote the interest of every religion other than CoE by giving them an equal footing (note, nobody is proposing that bishops should not be allowed to stand in their own right, simply that being a bishop in and of itself is not sufficient reason to become part of the legislature). If we promote the interest of one religion we must do down the interest of all others, and if we promote religion per se we must do damage to the interest of the irreligious.
Note that this does not mean religious people should be removed from public any more than the irreligious. Neither Dr Harris nor any other secular person demands this. The point of secularism is that a religious and irreligious person should be treated equally. So when a moral issue comes up from debate religious leaders should only be asked to contribute if they are widely recognised as being moral experts in their own right, not just for their religious status. Each person has the capacity to be wise, religion in and of itself does nothing to this. We should not ask what the clergy think but what those who are morally wise think. If the clergy are worth their salt they will be in this latter category. But the Catholic Church in particular, and the socially conservative wing of religions in general have shown themselves to be very inexpert in morality. Any organisation that can can oppose the spread of condoms is one which should not be listened to on public health issues, this is not a judgement about Catholicism, there are many Catholics who have a morally good attitude to condoms, but rather it is a judgement about the moral expertise of those who claim to be the conscience of the nation. You may notice that this belief that we should not accept the word of the clergy but instead accept the ability of each person to decide for themselves has a name, it's called protestantism. To assume a protestant wants to remove people from the public sphere for being religious is mad, but when the same claim is levelled against a secular person, somehow it seems sensible.
“he supported the strange idea that terminally ill people should be helped to kill themselves.” That's really not such a strange idea. It is supported by the great bulk of the population of this country. If someone wants to die I for one belief that it is profoundly evil of us to deny them that. To represent the view of many doctors and many of his constituents in this way is not surprising. The reason you find it surprising is your profoundly backward concept of morality. Your beliefs on this are presumably either explicitly religious or based on religious principles. I dont think this makes for good judgement on issues of life and death, it doesn't recognise that the goodness of human life is not an absolute, nor is it universal. People do not all have the same sort of a life, not all of them regard their own life as precious, some are capable of enormous self-sacrifice because they regarded others as more important than themselves. I dont think one can be a martyr and not accept that some things are more important than ones own life. If we then accept that some things are more important than life, and if we accept, as I do, that the desires of people and those things that make them feel independent and free are examples of those things then we must accept that people should be able to kill themselves. It is not hard then to argue that people should be able to ask (not to demand, of course not to demand) that others help them if they are physically unable to do it themselves. This is not a strange idea, it only seems strange to your profoundly odd concept of morality.
“A drab, secular determinism was his sole motivation” determinism cannot, by definition, motivate anyone. If you believe that your actions are determined then you cannot make any decision, you believe your actions are independent of any decision you make. Also, drab? Really? Secularism is drab? Science is drab? You need to go away and watch Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Watch Prof. Brian Cox's Wonders of the Solar System. Learn anything about the joy and wonder of a world seen through scientific eyes. The natural world is full of joy and wonder and can only be considered drab by someone profoundly ignorant of science.
“His political demise will be mourned only by those with a strange fascination for death,” No. Once again you've not understood. Yes, he is praised by the many many people who support euthanasia. But more importantly he will be sorely missed by anyone who thinks that the best running of the country is best answered by people who are scientifically literate. Someone deciding on NHS policy should decide based on evidence, not on superstition, and Dr Harris was a hard-line opponent of magic beans like homoeopathy and chiropractic on the NHS. Those who believe that no-one should be censored if they want to present evidence about fraudulent claims have lost a vital supporter in the case for libel reform. Those who want sex education to be about reality not outdated dogmas have lost a firm advocate for universal sex education. Those who want equality for gays and lesbians have lost. Those who want a decent society run by reason no the church have lost. Those who dont want children being indoctrinated in faith schools have lost. Those who think that public institutions should not be allowed to be bigoted have lost. Parliament has lost. Mourn the loss of a scientist at your peril, you loose things that you literally do not understand.
Saturday, 1 May 2010
I dont care about metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of those things which can be said to exist beyond and outside of the physical reality we experience through the senses, memory, feeling of consciousness etc. I dont think debates on metaphysical questions can be productive, primarily because there is no way to present evidence or arguments about things we cannot experience in any way. I'm not interested in arguments about the idea “gods exist” if those gods cant be observed. There's no way to know anything about such beings, so any debates about them cannot conclude. This is not to say I dont have metaphysical opinions, I'm a mathematical Platonist, I believe that abstract mathematical ideas like the number 7 or triangles can be said to have some kind of existence beyond any particular collection of 7 things or any drawing of a triangle. I dont try and argue with people about this, because I dont think that belief is meaningful. It's a reflection of my own emotional response to mathematics, there no argument I can give to show I'm correct, or evidence I can show.
That aside, let me turn to gods. I am an atheist about metaphysical gods. The existence of a god beyond this world doesn't fit with my emotional response to the world. This is not an argument, if you do believe in such a god, I dont think we disagree. I dont think there's a real difference between a world with a purely metaphysical god and one without. I dont care to change that belief, I dont care for arguments trying to change what I think. I have many friends who believe in such a god, and I dont think there's anything they believe that I could sensibly argue was wrong. I am agnostic about such gods, because I dont think there is anything here about which one can have knowledge (a-gnostic: without knowledge). I am agnostic in the 50:50, have no basis for a decision one way or the other sense. To say I am closed minded about this misunderstands, I dont think I know the right answer, I think there is not a right answer to know.
However. There is another sense of the word god, another sense of agnostic, another sense of atheism. Interventionist gods are beings which affect the physical world. Specifically they change the world in a way that shows that they care about life (generally, humans in particular). I've deliberately defined this in a rather broad way. Under this heading I include immensely powerful but totally physical beings like Lovecraft's Cuthulu or the Doctor, along with beings that exist outside of space and time, but which occasionally reach in a change things, the Greek pantheon as a classic example, a final thing of this kind is the cosmic watchmaker, a being who creates the universe, sets all the laws of physics in place with the aim in mind that life should grow and develop. I think this is a being whose existence can be argued about, there is evidence that could show this being to exist or not. There are many people who believe in one kind of god and not the other, there are deists who believe there is a god but that it has no influence on the world, there are people who belive in a god, but an entirely physical one.
About this second kind of god I am an atheist. I think that a universe designed with life in mind would not look like this. It wouldn't be mostly empty and useless to life. It wouldn't be almost guaranteed to kill any lifeforms that left the safety of a planet. And there would be far more planets that could support life. I think a universe designed with life in mind wouldn't end (as this universe will) with all matter falling into a vast number of black holes and ending up cold dead and empty. I dont think that a universe where gods influenced the outcome of wars would really have a history like ours. I dont think a universe where illness was caused by the vengeance of angry gods would have such perfect correlation between public heath and pandemics. I dont think, in short, that this looks like a universe that anyone cares about apart from us humans.
However. About such gods I am also agnostic. I dont think that I have an absolute truth, I dont think I can prove my belief like I can prove Pythagoras' Theorem. If there was some way in which I was convinced that either such a god existed or Pythagoras' Theorem was false I would be obliged to accept such a god. I am not closed minded about this, I have however made my mind up. These are not incompatible, it is possible to hold a belief without being mathematically certain of it. After all, I believe quite strongly I am sitting on a chair, but, I'm not looking at it, it could well be that someone broke into my room as I was sitting down and replaced it with a carefully posed flamingo. If I stand up and look at this flamingo I'm not going to steadfastly believe that it is in fact a chair, but that doesn't mean I'm going to keep checking it to make sure.
There are two senses of agnostic, either claiming no knowledge or even strong belief can ever be justified in any way, or to claim that you cant be perfectly mathematically certain beyond any possible doubt. Both are valid in their own domain. To claim the first kind refers to physical facts is nonsense, evidence about the physical world exists in vast and fantastic abundance, we can know lots about the physical world with 99% certainty. To claim that we cant be perfectly mathematically certain about metaphysics is true, but not nearly strong enough to express our profound ignorance of anything beyond the physical. And like almost all atheists who have ever existed, I'm an agnostic in the sense each god demands.