Monday, 27 October 2008

Reason In Retreat.

Over the last week I have saw some pretty depressing events take place. The one candle in the dark has been the beyond belief conference which ill blog on shortly. So let me share my despair. Never let your guard down and never underestimate the credulity and cruelty of people of a religious and superstitious mindset.

Political cowardice, shabby dishonesty and Religious immorality.

Woman in Northern Ireland have been denied the rights extend to women in the rest of the UK because of scummy politicians trading horses in the corral and the religious dogmatism that pervades the country. Here is Polly Tonybee on the subject.

Imaginary crimes against an imaginary person, carrying very real and absurd consequences.

In a previous blog I posted information about one Parwez Kambakhsh and the fact that in Afghanistan he was facing death for distributing leaflets that were “critical” over Islam’s treatment of women. He was sentenced to death but this was overturned and he now “only” faces 20 years in jail.

Words cannot capture the utter derangement of the country and the Muslim mindset in general.,0,3625278.story

Religion not only poisons but corrodes everything.

Here is an excellent piece by Journalist Johann Hari on the state of Muslim women in the world. His opening account is of a 21 year old woman’s face disfigured by acid for the crime of wanting an education.

The wonder of Sarah Palin and the outlandish nature of American conservatism.

The lies, delusions and utter ignorance of Palin and her supporters are neatly encapsulated in this video. The mind really does ponder the nature of reality when there is much speculation if this woman will run for President in 2012.



Monday, 13 October 2008

Review of AC Grayling's The Choice of Hercules

AC Grayling is a useful ally in the battle between secularism and religion. It was largely through this conflict that I encountered him. A citing in Richard Dawkins God Delusion prompted me to look out for him. A reader in philosophy at Birkbeck college, a writer of numerous books on philosophical subjects both technical, academic and lay. A member of Humanist and Secular organisations. A contributing editor of the intellectual journal Prospect. It is mostly through the lay books (in particular The Meaning of Things and the blistering Against all Gods) that I am familiar with him along with his Comment is Free articles on the Guardian. He is the house critic of religion and stupidity with a near weekly polemic launched on Christianity and its consequences.

Its not just his criticism of religion that is welcome and useful, he is a good guide through the world of western and ancient ethical thought. His mission in many of his books is to bring the subject of moral philosophy to the lay reader. Not only that Grayling does the rare thing and actually moralises (in a good way). His writing is clear and concise, liberally garnished with choice quotes from master philosophers and essayists. He is a rare thing, an intelligent writer who does not obfuscate, temporise or pander to sensibilities. Someone like me grounded in humanistic values may find his views normative even trite but it needs constant reminding just how many people hold diametrically opposed views. So Grayling makes the secular humanistic case in a splendid, virtuoso way. As such his writing and views crystallise the humanistic position, resting on such luminaries as Mill, Bacon, Hume, Kant, Aristotle, Socrates and Epictetus.

His latest book is The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure Duty and the good life in the 21st Century. He writes early on that this is the sequel to his previous one Towards the Light where he documents the struggle for the modern day human rights and freedoms that was won against the forces of unreason-namely Christianity. This book begins where that ends in asking the question Pleasure or Duty? And what is the best way to live?

As the title of the book suggests, it bases it premise on the myth of the choice of Hercules. Hercules working on a farm as punishment for murdering his family (he was struck mad by Hera as revenge for his father- Zeus’s dalliance with the earthly ladies.) He is approached by two women, one simple plain and slender the other tantalisingly curvaceous and beautiful. Given a choice between a life of slothful, sensuous, sex-laden pleasure or hardship, pain and simplicity of Duty. Hercules chose the latter of course and went on to do all the things he is renowned for (though I mostly know him through the TV series starring Kevin Sorbo)

Grayling sees this rightly as a false dichotomy and he explores the social, moral and artistic background and history of the myth. As a launch pad for the book its an interesting beginning but it fails to address the right questions. Firstly what are we to think of duty? Or more importantly to whom? The other phrasing of the question is sometimes posed as vice or virtue? Though he does not miss it entirely-it is there only somewhat implicit is that the real question is between small mindedness and big mindedness. Ignorance versus education, reflection versus delusion, generosity versus selfishness. In a sense a life that betters the individual and the society or that one resides in or a life unexamined and narrow minded. To be fair he does tackle these issues but the issue of work and its compromises (overriding individuality, moral concern etc) and clearly labelling what our duty is not dealt with. I would guess from being familiar with his work he would suggest the development of an internationalist, a person who holds ethical views and political opinions which transcend local politics and the glib nature of national identity. I would also hint that the main duty is to improve ourselves and to extend universal human rights to the rest of the world.

This concern dominates the latter half of the book and it can rightly be seen as a Herculean task. In the early portions of the book though Grayling outlines the ideas or rather strums the “notes” of the good life.

Let me clarify perhaps his thesis. Pleasure and Duty are a false dichotomy. Pleasure is as he sees it essential to the good life. Duty is seen as a dual way: to grow oneself to make “educated use of ones leisure” which is to have a life of meaning and value. Secondly to hold responsibilities towards others, the aforementioned spread of human rights and a compassionate social policy. Grayling deploys ethics in a way similar to the Greeks, that it is about questions, attitudes, views on well-doing and well-being and that ethics how one regards the good is inseparable from politics.

The meat of the book then rests on seven “notes” that when “struck” and played in harmony signal the good life. They are meaning, intimacy, truth, endeavour, freedom beauty and fulfilment. Meaning is seen as a life of values and goals. This surely is essential and fulfils Socrates maxim that an unexamined life is not worth living because it is at the mercy of powers that the individual has no control over and is hence easily swayed. The other being the question should one commit suicide? Intimacy can be seen as friendship both platonic and sexual and loving. Truth is honesty, the ability to change ones mind, to live without delusion and to want to have ones view of the world, map onto reality. Endeavour is as what is says, that achievement in life does not come without sacrifice and hardwork. Freedom naturally is an essential, both freedom of body in a social, institutional sphere but perhaps more importantly freedom of mind and the ability to express those views without fear and opprobrium. Beauty the experience of pleasant sights and sounds and the development of “taste”. lastly fulfilment the bringing together of all of the above in a rich harmonious whole. An embrace of Aristotle middle way: The golden mean, between rashness and cowardice is courage, generosity between meanness and profligacy etc.

It’s a fine list and he explores each in a considered interesting manner. I was a little disappointed though that they were not explored in more depth throughout the book in a more detailed way and ways of cultivating them. However the rest of the book is sufficed with them and they underpin the discussions of morality and “moral” problems later on. Meaning and freedom here stand out in particular. I believe them to be the two most essential in the list. Though confirming his view of harmony the commitment to truth grounds them and keeps them in focus. I am of course hinting at religion here and how one could claim the two but its irrelevant if its not true. The note of beauty is a odd one. To me a 22 year old and someone of very different background and “taste” to Grayling it strikes me as somewhat fanciful, precious and glinting of an ivory tower. Grayling is of course an aesthete and a gentleman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Though he includes things like pottery, gardens and ornamentation he is clearly putting forward the western canon as the best and most beautiful. I furrow my brow at such things. Not because I’m a young philistine or expound some modish PC doctrine of cultural inclusiveness, no because it begs the question.

John Carey in his book What Good are the Arts? tackles head on the idea that art can make us better people or ideas that “high” art is “better” than low art. Indeed can there be a distinction between high and low art? Can art provide ethical answers? I would ask is it necessary for happiness? Indeed is it even required at all? Carey is no philistine an oxford intellectual well versed in the classics. He asks some very tough questions of the arts and gives some very honest answers without cant or bullshit. I love movies and literature. I believe I could happily live a good life without ever again seeing a movie or reading any of the English classics. I could quite contentedly go to my grave without ever experiencing the music of Bach or Beethoven. For me I think I could get on pretty well without ever playing GTA again. The music I love though- would be tough giving that up. That does not confirm his thesis though. Arts are pleasures, they should be thought of as amenities not necessities. They are incidental to the good life and to ethics. Admittedly whatever your pleasure is (and I believe it could be anything from football to chess, to reading to Coronation Street) life would be a little duller and a little greyer if you were denied it. Considering this issue though forces us to ask what really is happiness or well-being and what is the minimum needed for it?

What would I add? Tolerance I think is an essential one though it could be subsumed under freedom. Tolerance though can be seen as quite distinct and not just for letting others flourish and prosper. No tolerance is essential and it leads me into something which is missed entirely by Grayling that is Equanimity. Intolerance is based on emotions such as fear, anger, hatred in short self destructive emotions. I think all of our intuitions of the good life lead us to conclude that mental states of calm serenity are more conducive to happiness and wellbeing than their opposites. Generosity is another note I would wish to add, not just material but being generous in spirit, wishing well people who succeed and not clinging to jealousy and envy. Generosity would also signal letting go of greed and selfishness. Once again I believe these states are essential for happiness and the good life.

Grayling later turns ethics and morality. He thus conceives a useful distinction in particular the chapter Moral Attitudes and Ethics. “Morality is about what is allowed and forbidden in particular realms of behaviour;” and “ethics is about character of one’s personality and life, and what flows from both in way of choices, relationships and action.” and “(ethics) are questions about human intelligence, human flourishing-which is to say: human well-being and well-doing. They therefore seek answers not only to questions about what sort of people we should be, but about what sort of society we should have”

I will go on to say that we should conceive of ethics as an attitude, a way of thinking and a method. His application of reason, evidence and compassion to such “vexing” questions as drug legalisation, sex and relationships, marriage, divorce is refreshingly straightforward. He also turns to other more emotive issue such as abortion, and euthanasia. I found his views as I have said to be normal and unexceptional though argued with clarity and conviction. Grayling does show how religion and unthinking traditional attitudes has obscured our thinking on ethical issues. Indeed once one jettisons religious morality and applies the principles of reason, happiness and suffering, the golden rule and what constitutes a civil society, you come to counter-intuitive or untraditional conclusions. His view of drug criminalisation is a fine example of this (he is in favour of decriminalising it)

Grayling rightly argues that many of the issues that are battlegrounds in the culture wars are either non-problems, trivial or obscene when set against human rights abuses. Our attention should be to such global concerns and not fixated on parochial and pedantic worries. Though Grayling is earnest and his sentiments are to be applauded he offers no in depth practical way of alleviating such abuses both in macrocosm and microcosm. At the very least the world needs to aim at some kind of world government or at the very least a armed and properly funded UN that can deploy quickly and effectively in such cases as Darfur and Chechnya. Though he may well respond that perhaps that is our duty, to think how to tackle these issues and to work towards them.

A few quibbles. I found his views of science-well in particular evolutionary psychology bemusing and further proof of Mr Graylings aesthete nature (not that that is intended to be a insult). I’m in no position to judge between Sui Generis, blank slate human nature and man an animal just as much a part of the evolutionary escalator as everything else. All I know is that there is a vast, detailed and interesting literature on evolutionary “influences” on human behaviour. Not least from the popular and academic work from people like David Buss, Steven Pinker and Helen Fisher. Grayling’s distaste here resembles the protestations of Christians who accuse scientists of being barbarians for saying that humans are no more an animals than a ape-indeed we are apes. For an effective critical thinker he sets up a straw man for the EV argument. “ (Evolutionary psychology) which says that all aspects of human nature….is explicable by reference to mankind’s early evolutionary history”.

Grayling response to this is “this essentialist view wholly ignores facts about the intricate interplay between human subjectivity and culture which no mechanistic account can hope to capture”. This is a non sequitar. What are the facts of human subjectivity? what does intricate interplay between subjectivity and culture mean? The facts are that post-enlightenment culture has only been around for a few hundred years, Greek society was around a few thousand years ago. Humans have first existed between fifty and two hundred thousand years ago. Before that we had homo erectus, homo habilis and before that Australopithecus and so on. Evolutionary psychology, cognitive sciences and neurosciences are “rattling at the gates of Rome” of some of our most cherished and perhaps wrong ideas of human nature. Perhaps this was the philosopher who Richard Dawkins was talking about in his conversation with David Buss who refused to accept the evidence of evolutionary imprints on human nature.

This next criticism leaves me somewhat ambivalent. I despise religion as much as Grayling probably does but his many pot shots and haranguing of religion- mostly Christianity in a book not expressly about religion I believe undermines it. People maybe sympathetic to religion who might not appreciate the wisdom on offer here because they are put off. At the very least his chapter Reason and Religion should have came early on and should have absorbed much of his justified ire. Another complaint was that much of the writing in that chapter was recycled from another of his books The Meaning of Things which in turn was taken from newspaper articles. I think he could have freshened it up a bit. The final gripe here was that I believe he takes aim at the soft target of Christianity, Islam at the minute is more responsible for human suffering and outrage and is more unhinged that even the most extreme form of Christianity.

Before I finish I want to highlight something in dire need of correction. He writes that in the US state of Georgia homosexuals can be executed (page102 paragraph 3) this is just plain wrong.

My final remark is more an observation than a criticism indeed its more a general point about western philosophy in general. Really its two things: the lack of discussion on consciousness and engagement with eastern thought in general in particular Buddhism. The two are although related quite distinct. For someone like Grayling who is so clearly interested in the good life seems cheerfully ignorant and dismissive of perhaps a even vaster, richer, more systemic tradition. This seems a trend in general two examples will suffice. Zen Buddhism has a rich history and expansive literature on consciousness and the inner workings of the mind that has been largely born out by experimental science, indeed as we speak neuroscientists are studying the brains of people who practice meditation. Reading the work of the philosopher Daniel Dennett in particular his book Consciousness Explained there is not a single mention of anything of eastern import yet plenty of citing for western philosophers. Another case would be Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy does not deal at all with it (though it does acknowledge this oversight).

The point seems especially apt to me because I finally pursued a long held curiosity about Zen by reading Stoic literature. Indeed the only person or collection of writing I can compare with eastern contemplatives would be Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. A touching, deeply human book of a mans private feelings who seems to have overcome abet in a very unsystematic way the dualism and subject object problem that western philosophy is wedded too. There is much much more to recommend about the book though.

There is nothing sectarian or religious about contemplation. Admittedly there is much bullshit and new age nonsense associated with it. Sam Harris I believe is right when he writes that “although the Christians invented physics and the Muslims Algebra-we don’t talk of Christian Science or Muslim Mathematics in the same way we might not talk about Buddhist meditation and methods of observing the mind.

I don’t have enough room here to go into the issue in depth but the notes of the good life that Grayling writes about and indeed a conception of happiness and equanimity that he seems to overlook has been achieved again and again in eastern contemplatives. When mystics go off onto a cave or Zen masters peer into the mind, ideas like loving-kindness, generosity, equanimity, states of non-hatred, non-delusion is what comes back. Perhaps meditation and mindfulness are the methods for better achieving and understanding the good life. The point being that we live in the prison of our owns minds every day of our lives and anyone who has even glimpsed at their consciousness transformed with the mind at rest and not in constant reactive mode is a happier, better mind to have.

Western philosophy like its religions suffer because they never deal with the moment to moment experience of the mind. We should be tolerant or generous because of some intellectual understanding or commandment but out of a deep unprompted, emotional understanding that transcends language and conceptual thinking. Indeed you could be on the surface tolerant and generous and perfectly miserable. What Zen and eastern contemplation aim at is the inner workings of consciousness to achieve freedom and happiness or rather well-being.

I am not seeking to simply denigrate one or more tradition, I’m looking to synergise and use the best of every piece of human knowledge and experience available. There are many on all sides who simply do not and this is a disservice both to their own tradition but to the ongoing human conversation.

So despite to caveats I highly recommend Mr Graylings work, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this little book and will dip into it from time to time to refresh and refocus my own ethical outlook and to top up ones own arguments against the credulous, the ignorant and the superstitious.

Best and Be well

Michael Faulkner.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Slaying the Dragon of Moral Relativism.


In arguments between secularists and the religious the charge of moral relativism is quickly thrown as if it’s a QED that God exists or needs to. There are of course many on the non-theist side who subscribe to relativist doctrines providing fodder for the theists. These doctrines can take many forms and subtleties, postmodernism, deconstruction and pragmatism. There are many in the so called PC circles and academic institutions which hold such vaunted anything goes multiculturalism. I will show this idea as being both dangerously mistaken and naïve.

Later I will refute and find both religious and relativist morality (if indeed relativism offers any ethical insights). I will argue here that the above doctrines have done much to muddy our thinking on this issue and that we can have ethics and a civil society that is justified and whose ethical practices are warranted. I will outline four very simple tools that we as individuals and a society can use to explore, analyse and judge any number of ethical issues. I have decided to call this the Moral Method. I know that may sound a little clunky but I’m aiming for an analogy with the scientific method and approach ethics in a rational, evidence based manner. A logical method that when followed should yield the same results in Belfast as in Beirut and Texas as in Tahiti, Ireland as in Iraq.

Admittedly this is a bold undertaking. Many smarter men and women have before me tackled the question of objective ethics and perhaps have resolved it satisfactorily. I should note that what I will write here has been covered before and better. I will though advance two small claims.1. I have made a process, an attempt at an objective method to reach conclusions as to morality and ethics. 2. I intend to show via analogy with science and the legal system that the idea of having complete, unquestionable “proof” or complete certainty is unnecessary: Both to science and the legal system as well as to ethics. The meat of the undertaking though is putting the method into practice and I will tackle three divisive issues later on.

Ethics not Morality.

I have just finished a book by the Philosopher AC Grayling The Choice of Hercules. (which I intend to review.) It gave me the idea to do this and in particular the chapter Moral Attitudes and Ethics he argues for us to make a distinction between morality and ethics. For sure there is much interchange between the two terms and I will conflate them but I found his distinctions to be of some use. “Morality is about what is allowed and forbidden in particular realms of behaviour;” and “ethics is about character of one’s personality and life, and what flows from both in way of choices, relationships and action.” and “(ethics) are questions about human intelligence, human flourishing-which is to say: human well-being and well-doing. They therefore seek answers not only to questions about what sort of people we should be, but about what sort of society we should have”

I will go on to say that we should conceive of ethics as an attitude, a way of thinking and a method. Most people subscribe to a code of morality that was given to them by tradition, handed down by parents. Religion and its tight relationship to morality and tradition is clearly obvious and it helps explain why many in the west are so confused. Given however that religious morality operates mostly by commands which are to be followed there is scarce insight as to the why and every effort as to the must.

There is much to be said for the relationship between ethics, attitudes, consciousness and emotion, much of which is beyond the scope of this essay. Ethics should not just be concerned with the formal, surface level behaviours involving ourselves and others. At a minimum it is about cultivating emotional responses and attitudes of tolerance, compassion, empathy and generosity. How we use these emotions to ground our behaviours and reasoning is vital. We behave ethically not because we have to but because we feel we wish to act no other way. Though this is surely a rich and somewhat unexplored area, I will be chiefly focusing on reasoning and not cultivating consciousness and loving-kindness.

The Moral Method.

The first tool that I propose is reason. Specifically this covers three areas. Firstly that we avail ourselves of all the knowledge or evidence that we have on a particular issue, from science, history, sociology, psychology, economics and personal testimony. Of course knowledge itself does not directly lead one to form conclusions. It is though invaluable in making reasoned choices and decisions and as we shall see much of what we consider “moral” is simply bereft of evidence or in direct contradiction with reality. This leads me to my second point which is the opposite of reason, unreason. Unreason is superstition, supernaturalism and dogma. Dogmatic thinking is not just the domain of religion though but the fallacy can be neatly summed up as- assuming what needs to be proved: conclusions derived from unsound premises and the inability to change ones mind in light of new evidence. Thirdly the application of critical thinking, objective, dispassionate inquiry. Thinking for oneself and obtaining conclusions from evidence and not relying on faith, authority, wish-thinking and ungrounded emotional argumentation.

The second tool concerns questions of happiness and suffering. What practices bring about the most happiness and the least suffering. Some may wish here to interject with two rebuttals- we cannot define what happiness is and that there is no solid consensus on the issue. Secondly that the very act of individuals pursuing happiness can lead to others or yourself suffering. Firstly I define loosely happiness in a sense of well-being that transcends transient states so its not simply pleasure or enjoyment of experiences. The issue can be framed as such as a well-being that is both married to responsibilities and civil society. We should remember John Stewart Mill’s maxim “suffer other people to live as seems good to themselves not as what seems good to the rest.” The caveat being that they should not harm anyone or threaten anyone else. And as I suggest later in circumstances where they are doing harm to themselves and can be reasonably judged to not be in control of their selves we may prevent them. In essence a persons quest for well-being should not override or constrain another persons well-being. I do not want the discussion to go off in a tangent here and in my case studies later a practical conception of what happiness and well-being is becomes apparent. For people who wish to see my thoughts at length over well-being I invite them to read my posts the Garden of the Good Life.

The issue though of how to view and treat others is thrown in to clear focus when we consider what entails suffering and what it means for our method. I’ll offer a partial list that we can all agree on which are the main causes of suffering and the enemies which need to be defeated. Genocide, war and oppression are three of our most major concerns. Oppression can be seen as war crimes, mass rape, loss of liberty and security and living in fear. The idea of agreed and enforced universal human rights is a safeguard here for preventing these horrible conditions to arise. Some may argue and I will address it later that ideas of suffering is arbitrary or indeed even necessary for society. Or indeed some societies simply don’t consider suffering as relevant.

In essence this says that rape as a crime which causes suffering is socially constructed or that slaves can be conditioned say to enjoy being oppressed. There is some tacit support for this claim though. If we opened to polls to the Muslim world they would happily chose to live under Sharia, support suicide bombing and female oppression. Or North Korean citizens may very well support their dear leader who has derailed their country and their lives. Such reasoning though is gutted by my first principle which is reason. Sharia law is unjustified (it springs from divine warrant) and the citizens of North Korea have not had the ability to develop their minds, a unconstrained understanding of the world and the ability to form a critical analysis of their country.

It is clearly obvious that there is moral progress in history, that this progress can be seen in the creation of the UN charter of Human rights. The idea of rights being universally extended to everyone is unsurprising in that it arises from countries that are democratic, scientifically literate and secular and that have mostly thrown off the old enemies which is of course unreason played out through three mjor foes, nationalism, racism and religion.

There are two responses to people who think that suffering is arbitrary. Go live under Sharia law especially if your female, non-Islamic and educated. Or go live in China or North Korea and attempt to live the same way one would want to live in western democratic countries. Secondly one should read the testimonies and the ordeals of people who have suffered under such brutal regimes, who have endured holocausts, war, rape and violence. Suffering has a physical as well as a mental dimension. As I have said people can collude with their own oppression but always look to the beliefs which underpin them and you will find in every circumstance that the beliefs are utterly ridiculous.

The third principle can be conceived of as the golden rule. Do on to others what you would wish to see happen to you. Treat others as you would wish to be treated or how you would wish the ones you loved to be treated. Or we could go further and embrace the platinum rule. Treat others as they wish to be treated. This tool is useful for two main reasons. Firstly it exposes a contradiction and uncovers hypocrisy in a persons moral reasoning. Secondly it actively promotes empathy and with that compassion because the person sees the issue through the eyes of the other person or imagines himself in that scenario.

My forth principle or tool is really what vision of society we want to live in. This really is the first and last principle, which underwrites all the others. So what is a civil society? A society which guarantees freedom from oppression and a guaranteed quality of life. That a person should have access to healthcare, education, employment, rights which guarantees that one will not be discriminated against on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, etc. That one is free to criticize anyone or anything without the threat of violence or death. That one can vote and can help shape society to their vision so long as it does not violate the rights of others. There of course needs to be laws and enforcement of them. A fair and impartial justice system is required to arbitrate them.

There is of course no accident that Europe and America since the end of the second world war has emerged as the choice destination of immigrants and the place which has the best standard of living in the world. There is less war, less oppression, greater freedoms, better economic opportunity and living standards than anywhere else in the world. Secular European countries in particular have the highest rates of well-being. This of course comes as no surprise because whatever is the best way of living, the best way of achieving happiness and compassion and self fulfilment, it is going to be found in societies which are tolerant, liberal and stable. Which allow people to inquire the good life and to practice fruits of ones inquiry.

Objections anticipated.

I recognise of course that much of what I wrote above may sound desirable, vague and not perhaps fully justified. The point of this though that I wish to illustrate, is that much of what we think is a problem is simply a non-problem. Common sense or good sense can take us far in this regard and that it is only in the domain of unreason or the piddling distraction of philosophical “problems” that we encounter so called difficulties.

Religious Morality.

I will now briefly consider the two main objectors to my vision. Religion and the doctrine of moral relativism. Religion is dealt with at the first principle. Religion, namely the main three monotheisms make propositional claims upon reality. In other words they are saying that 1.God exists. 2.The bible is the word of God. 3. God wants you to behave a certain way. 4. Heaven and hell exist, failure to obey will result in going to hell. Religious morality and its subsequent authority is entirely derived from supernatural, unproven and unrealistic claims. The religious do not argue that their moral commandments produce happiness or lessen suffering. Indeed they are unconcerned with it. They simply call for obedience. Questions to what is good is irrelevant, it all resides in what God wants you to do.

Without greatly rehearsing any of the arguments of the untruth of religion or the (non)-existence of God. Let me outline. There is no evidence for God and no good reason to think that any of the metaphysical claims of Religion are true. Since this is so its authority for behaving in a certain way loses it force. This is of course not to say that there is nothing in religion that is not of interest. Its usefulness though lies in its ability to be relevant to modern day questions of human welfare. If it is then it ceases to be religious and becomes secular. Christians invented physics but we don’t talk about Christian physics the Muslims made enormous contributions to mathematics but we don’t talk of Muslim mathematics.

For a lengthy discussion of religious falsity and the improbable nature of God please see.

Just a few more things though on religious morality. Religion has been on the losing side of every argument concerning human rights. Its proscriptions have the very opposite effect of producing a happy, civil, compassionate society. The problem of sin is never far from its considerations. In short its not concerned with the welfare of humans only that they conform to dogma. It hardly needs mentioning the historical damage and ongoing malaise that it wrecks. As well as this its been well pointed out that just because something, a God say wants you to behave a certain way does not mean that it is good. Forcing people to behave a certain way is also not a logical reason to follow its commandments not to mention the unpleasant quality of being threatened.

Moral Relativism.

The general criticism labelled at moral relativism is that it contains a self evident contradiction. It makes the claim for itself that all morality is subjective and open to question. That there is no way of claming that morality is either “true” or justified. This view though can be said to be relative itself. Ie that your opinion that morality is relative and subjective is itself relative and subjective.

The main problem as I see it with this doctrine, is that it is useless when we want to build a civil society and that it offers no defence of our way of life. It contains no insights as how to answer moral problems and help us promote healthy flourishing communities. In actuality it is perhaps even worse and certainly less curious than religious morality.

There is a more sophisticated from of attack the relativists would use. This would be claims that inferences, justifications and reasoning itself is all relative. There is esoteric arguments to be had for sure though I deem it irrelevant here. The assertion that justification, knowledge and inferences is all relative is to state that it purports to be an accurate and true representation on the world. Relativism is the opponent of realism but by making a realistic claim though a hidden one it tacitly embraces it.

Time for Clear Thinking.

In effect what my method calls for is a practical, rational “common sense” approach to ethics. The problems or moral relativism are thrown into sharp relief when we consider two institutions

Firstly lets consider science. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of science and technology to our society. Science is our greatest tool for uncovering the facts about our world and for explaining away mysteries. Few except philosophers of science and theologians worry over the fine points of scientific methods and reasoning. In short the scientists simply get on with the job. They experiment, test hypothesis, weight evidence and make inductive inferences. The assumptions that underlie science may not be able to be “proved” or its conclusions made totally infallible. As ample demonstration has shown though this is irrelevant for science and its discoveries it makes. Evidence, reason and reasonableness are what is important, the same is true of my next example.

For centuries we have happily sent convicted people to jail. No realistic grown up would think that an effective criminal justice system is not needed for the maintenance of society. For sure there is much that is imperfect and that could be improved but its founded upon two practical, reasonable foundations. One is that a person is to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and two that in light of new evidence, a conviction can be overturned. No one, not even the guilty turn round and challenge the courts ability to “prove” his guilt with watertight certainty. There are no pedantic discussions of “Truth” there is no sophist arguments about robbery or gang-rape or murder being a crime. I’m not talking about lawyers but rather jurors. They convict if the evidence and the explanations of the evidence is such that the accused is guilty without reasonable doubts.

Mistakes do happen of course but the practice itself is the best method we have of arbitrating criminal justice. It is based on weighting evidence, reasoning to the best explanation of the evidence and making a decision that is beyond a reasonable doubt. One makes the best decision that one can with the evidence available and should new evidence come to light that contradicts old decisions then they will have to be undone. This is of course the scientific method and what I have wrote so far shows we can have a similar method for ethics. I think it is because of religion and faddish relativist thought that what was in front of our eyes has been obscured. God given morality is a non-starter for someone who does not believe in a God and this method gets us out of the mire of moral relativism.

So let me recap. First we have the use of reason, which is knowledge, collecting facts and information. Disregarding unreason and subjecting our ideas and attitudes and received wisdom to critical and objective thinking. Secondly we have to consider questions of happiness and suffering. What lessens suffering and what promotes the well-being and stability of individuals and communities. Thirdly the golden rule. Lastly does our proposals and views fit with a 21st century idea of civil society.

Stem Cell Research.

1. Reason.

Human embryonic stem cell research is regarded by medical experts and scientists as being one of the most important areas of medical research in a generation. A number of stem cell treatments already exist. It has the potential to treat such diverse diseases and problems as spinal cord injury, Tissue damage and Lou Gehrig’s disease along with MS. It could yet provide the most potent treatment for cancer by specifically targeting the cancer cells. It may even be able to treat deafness, blindness and baldness.

So what is Stem cell Research or rather what is a stem cell. Specifically the research is carried out on 3-4 day old collection of cells called a blastocyst. Each blastocyst contains somewhere around 50-150 cells. The research sees the destruction of these cells and that is what has exercised people over it. Let me outline the arguments against stem cell research.

1. Life begins at the moment of conception or ensoulment take places. The cells along with growing embryos in a mothers womb say should be treated as humans and as such given the same rights.

2. That each blastocyst has the potential to become a human and as such needs to be protected. Their destruction violates human dignity.

3. Slippery slope argument. This research will lead to genetic cloning, and more importantly eugenic selection and the possibility of genetic screening laws ie like race laws or the Nuremburg laws.

US President George Bush blocked federal funding for the research and has thrice voted against using research on stem cells, including cells collected from surplus in vitro fertilization clinics. There is some federal funding and New Jersey has passed a state bill that legalised the experiments. Many states though in America have not followed suit and have either put restrictions or have banned it eg Michigan, Nebraska, North and South Dakota.

United Kingdom is one of the leading countries in the Research and has far less restrictions than the US though it faces a challenge this autumn.

Lets subject the objections to facts and critical thinking. Firstly lets consider the idea that human souls exist in Petri dishes containing cells. This is of course a metaphysical claim and it should come as no surprise that Religion underwrites much of the opposition to the research. As I have wrote above there is no validity to its propositional claims and there is no evidence to think that even fully formed humans have a soul or a ghost in the machine never mind a blastocyst. I mean a soul where the self resides, that floats off somewhere to meet Jesus once brain death has occurred.

That blastocysts should be treated as fully functioning human beings is another bizarre claim. There is no brain present which would mean no consciousness, no neurons and hence no reason to think that the blastocysts suffers (neatly flows into principle number two-suffering) the blastocysts has no hopes, no dreams, no identity unlike a fully formed human who is sentient. 150 cells might sound a lot but consider that in a fully formed sentient human being contains over a trillion cells and one hundred billion neurons in their brain.

The human potential argument though is where objectors turn to. This is in many ways an incredible claim and I will return to it again in my second principle but for now lets subject it to reductio ad absurdum. Every part of our body contains cells which could potentially be used to form new human life, so every time you cut your hair, pick dead skin of your feet or blow your nose you have committed an atrocity against the potential for new human life. Considering the line of reasoning further every time a mans commits and act of masturbation he has wasted potential human life or a woman who takes contraceptives methods or refuses to have sex. According to wikipedia 18 percent of zygotes are lost dew to chance rather than the proposed destruction of blastocysts. Even consider this shocking number that an estimated 60% of all people are killed in spontaneous “natural” abortions 8-10 days after conception.

As for the slippery slope argument, no scientist is calling for forced sterilization laws. Even if some people were we could simply implement legalization that would simply outlaw such practice. We have the technology now to wipe out the entire human race and induce unimaginable horrors yet safeguards and ethical considerations have mostly kept them in check. The slippery slope or rather catastrophic collapse of society argument holds no water.

Of course the above facts could be re-written if new evidence was uncovered. Ie that souls exist or that 3 day old blastocysts suffer.

2. Happiness and suffering.

Once one has jettisoned the unreasoned dogmas and coolly addressed the facts of this issue the opposition to human stem cell research becomes untenable. It becomes hideous though in the consequences that the dogma reaps. Even if the pay-offs for the research in considerably lower than expected and not all the diseases are treated effectively. The possible reward for such endeavour which would mean nothing less than saving the lives of millions of people and reduce mountains of human misery is worth it. There would be serious objections if fully sentient humans were being experimented on and destroyed or even new born babies. Such objections would be fully justified. Even the suffering endured by animals such as primates and mice can be reasonably questioned. The truth is that there is no evidence of any kind, of suffering wrought by the destruction of blastocysts and plenty of undisputable evidence of human suffering.

3. Golden rule

Consider the golden rule which grants further force and conviction to supporting the research. The simple question: what if it was you or your family suffering? No doubt some people bite the bullet here and would accept the situation. An example of such is the Jehovah’s Witnesses aversion or rather strict refusal of blood transfusion. There are numerous examples of such people dying when a simple transfusion could have saved their lives. JW’s who are expectant mothers are at considerable risk and many have died in childbirth depriving their newborn baby of a mother. Everyone including most Christians consider this practice beyond the scope of rational behaviour and doctors can override the parents wishes in the treatment of a child. Their lunacy on this issue though is only one of degree. Their arguments and evidences though are similar to the ones advanced by the pro-lifers. If the JW’s had the same political and financial clout as do “mainstream” fundamentalists there can be no doubt that something as simple and critical as blood transfusion would be stymied. Everyone bar JW’s including Christians would balk at such restrictions. Yet the people who criticise this while failing to support stem cell research are hypocrites.

Needless to say they are also guilty of a colossal failure of compassion and empathy. We should also remember the platinum rule as well (treat others as they wish to be treated) so they are also guilty of intolerance. They can remove themselves from treatments based on stem cell research if they want but why does the rest of society have to suffer because of their irrational metaphysics.

If anyone cannot see the points that I am making then they are beyond the scope of rational discourse. For the people who do, obviously they can detect the redundancy of my argument here. This is a fair point. Perhaps many of our so called problems are in actual fact not difficult issues to decided but all that they require is a simple change of perception. Once again its not what you think its how.

So lets view this issue through the prism of history. The objectors are on the losing side of history. Like objections to contraception (though still a problem) Racism (ditto) or other great medical advances which save lives (it interferes with Gods plan or is wasted on the hoi polloi-Social Darwinism ) The opposition shows a rude intrusion into human autonomy and welfare. It is an absurdity that they proclaim themselves the defenders of dignity when their actions continue the suffering of millions of people. Indeed it is monstrous that civil society is retarded by nothing more than credulous ignorance and superstitious dogma.

Example Two Homosexuality.

There is perhaps nothing other than racism that can produce such hatred and venomous unreason than homosexuality. I have of course picked another “problem” that exercises religious people. Perhaps some may find this unfair. Part of this essay though is to show how religion has retarded our perception of what is good. There can be no question though that there is plenty of non-religious hatred of homosexuality going around. It would be interesting to quantify the level of intolerance set among the background of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic culture against ones that do not have those beliefs entrenched. My theory though is that religion well particular religions exacerbates the problem. Ancient Greek and Roman cultures were comfortable with it. Stephen Pinker in his book How the Mind Works has noted foraging tribes who’s adolescent boys get younger ones to perform fellatio on them. We also have the prison system in particular the US system and its rape culture and comfort with homosexuality. I do not have enough information either way and is incidental to my treatment of it here.

Let me state the oppositions to homosexuality very clearly. Funnily enough you see the ridiculous and dubious nature of the claims once they are dragged out of the murk of implicit objection.

1. Homosexuality is wrong because the bible says so.

2. Homosexuality is wrong because man was made for women or sex is for procreation.

3. Homosexuality threatens the nuclear family.

4. The presence of homosexuality encourages other men to be homosexual.

5. Homosexuality threatens society. Ie catastrophic collapse of society.

6. Homosexuality is a secular conspiracy to undermine religion.

7.Homosexuality is a disorder that makes men suffer.

8. Homosexuality is a threat to children.

Well that’s a good stab at them anyway. I particularly like proposition six-haven’t seen anyone else mention it explicitly. They are kind of saying that some men are gay to simply annoy Christians. Readers by now know my position to religion and well know what objections I would raise. I will consider though the secular objections to homosexuality. Namely it threatens society, the family, children and makes men suffer and is a disorder.


Firstly lets consider the facts. The current scientific and medical evidence and theories all point to the conclusion is that we are born with our sexuality hard-wired into us. Homosexuality is of course a mistake in Darwinian terms and current theories suggest that oestrogen and testosterone in foetal development determine a person sexuality. Neuroscience studies have produced some interesting data which show the similarity of male homosexual brains with female heterosexual brains and vice-versa. There is of course lots of people in between and who even claim to be “cured”. look to the beliefs though-always look to the beliefs. Perhaps this is a gross generalisations but perhaps gay men and gay women are men/women trapped in each others bodies. They are different but it does not follow that there is something morally wrong with them. Talk about procreation and Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve commit the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy simultaneously. It should also be said that there is plenty of animals that engage in homosexual practices.

Arguments that homosexuality only became “popular” when secular society decreed it acceptable is simply untrue. This is a argument in stunning ignorance of history and human nature in general. It commits the fallacy of Post hoc ergo prompter hoc, or simply correlation not causation. Needless to say homosexuals can come out since they will no longer be prosecuted and jailed. If support for Manchester United were outlawed and its supporters imprisoned we would rather quickly see the conspicuous absence of boisterous United fans walking the streets.

Same counter-arguments can be made against the charge of destroying the family. I would also ask for evidence as well. The charge of corrupting children is a serious one but how? It assumes that homosexuality is bad to begin with and ignores the evidence that sexuality like eye colour is something that has been determined for you. The retort though that you don’t have to act on your sexual impulses is something I’ll deal with later in the second principle.

The idea that homosexuality- what two men or women get up to in the privacy of their own home could contribute to our societal downfall is hilariously misguided when set against global warming, war, chemical weapons, food shortage and economic instability. Once again show us the evidence…

Happiness and Suffering.

So we can conclude that a persons sexual orientation is largely beyond their control. Initially this would mean that they are condemned before the day there were even born. The other conclusions is that homosexuality contributes neither to the corruption of children and the destruction of the family and society. So by using the method could we state that homosexuality is wrong? Only if it caused suffering to homosexuals and non-homosexuals and did not improve peoples welfare.

Some would say ok your gay but keep it too yourself don’t tell anyone and don’t engage in it. This is likely more than anything to produce states of suffering and despair. Homosexuals want love and companionship just the same as everyone else they are equally capable of doing every other human activity so why should they not be allowed to find similar minded people? Only if they cause suffering to themselves. Well this appears illogical. If a homosexual act is freely engaged and both parties consent and enjoy themselves and do not harm any unwilling parties then what can be the problem? There is no retort to this.

There is no evidence that anyone suffers from either homosexual practices or causes other people to suffer (heterosexuals). There is plenty of evidence that suppression and discrimination does. Consider the people who had to be jailed, castrated, beaten, killed, and oppressed because of something that was beyond their control and whose practice did no harm just offend others peoples prejudices.

The Golden Rule

The golden rule beautifully illustrates the point. Consider if the shoe was on the other foot, if heterosexuals were being discriminated against. What would happen to the mental welfare of young men if they were told from birth they were simply not to express their heterosexuality indeed even their desire was wrong? What if the age of consent was raised to thirty years of age? What if sex before marriage was criminalised? What if mixed-race couples were criminalised? Would you like to live the rest of your life alone because of what some books happen to say?

Finally let me deal with the slur that homosexuals are akin to paedophiles. Firstly paedophiles frequently abduct, molest, torture and kill children. Children are deemed by society as unable to look after themselves or make decisions that can effect their welfare and others in short they are not competent. This is why we do not allow them to drink, drive, vote or work and likewise engage in sex. Paedophilia is a crime that causes much suffering including suicide in the victims and much pain in the families. It is obscene that it is considered analogous to homosexuality.

Finally as for considering civil society. Once again, tolerance, freedom and right to flourish is a must. Criminalising homosexuality is a invasion of the state in a person autonomy. Private interest groups such as religion should not be allowed exemption from the call to treat everyone as equals.

3. Drug Legalisation.

I think that in good time the battles and controversies over stem cell research will subside and will be a historical curiosity. As for homosexuality, it has achieved quite a lot in a very short space of time. Unless a theocracy emerges or some new devastating consequences of homosexuality occur (AIDS can be spread by needles and heterosexuals as well so that point is moot) then it will continue to benefit from Western tolerance. These battles have been largely won, though there is still work to be done. My final study though is perhaps, indeed it is an even greater problem that shows no sign of being resolved. To be honest my first two studies are not problems but are problematic because of the consequences of dogma. The third-the criminalising of drugs is a problem created where one wasn’t. Politicians, the media and the police have dug a hole for themselves that they cannot escape from. If drug legalization were to realistically take place then it would have happened. It has been forty years since the drug culture of sixties. The men and women who were part of that movement are at the top of public life. Needless to say our attitudes to drug policy is more or less exactly the same now as it was then.

Firstly let me outline the reasons for drug criminalisation.

1. Its immoral for people to alter their states of consciousness and personality.

2. Drugs are dangerous and should be banned, to save lives.

3. Drugs destroy communities and fund criminals.

4. Drugs feed terrorism.

Lets explore some facts about drugs. I will primarily answer proposition 2 in this section. Some drugs are of course dangerous, death or near lethal states can occur with their abuse or even occur to people taking “normal” quantities. To ban something because of its lethality is to base the reason on the strength of evidence, so lets look at that evidence. When we look at the charts of the most dangerous drugs, MDMA, LSD and cannabis are not at the top indeed class A MDMA and LSD are not even close. Alcohol is the most dangerous by some considerable distance and tobacco is close behind it. The absurdity of the argument for public protection is further belied when we see that criminalisation is simply arbitrary in the face of history. Alcohol and tobacco have been available for much longer than LSD and MDMA and attempts to regulate them have either fallen flat or would now be disastrous to do so. Consider today if alcohol were to be criminalised-there would riots in the streets indeed I would bet that the civil disobedience occurring would be so great as to be an onset for a violent, purposeless revolution

It is impossible to overdose on cannabis and hence die. No one has ever died from the effects of cannabis but the lethal dangers from alcohol and tobacco are clearly obvious. MDMA or ecstasy can kill but the chance of dieing on it are slim. Its lethality as been estimated to be akin with other legal prescription drugs. likewise with LSD.

There are even medical and practical uses of these drugs that have been constrained because of their ban. Cannabis use for people who are undergoing chemotherapy is peerless for countering the effects of the treatments sickness. It can also treat glaucoma and help suffers of Parkinsons. There is also the possibility of it being a natural kind of anti-depressant. LSD and MDMA before it was banned was being used by therapists as treatments for PTSD, marriage counselling and helping the terminally ill accept their deaths. Methamphetamines can give people extraordinary cognitive powers, it is frequently used by students cramming for exams etc.

Happiness and Suffering

It is seldom mentioned in debates and arguments that the chief reason why people consume drugs or simply intoxicants is for pleasure. Most people do not purchase Valium though it’s a prescription drug and hence difficult to get. Society does however consume thousands of MDMA tablets a week though. Drugs is as one character on The Wire says “a force of human nature”. Humans will continue to pursue things that they enjoy like sex and music, indeed sex, drugs and rock n roll is the epitome expression of a hedonistic pleasure seeking life. Some things however can be too good to be true and this is where the suffering element in drug abuse comes in.

Consider the above notes on the lethality of certain drugs and our cultures hypocrisy on alcohol and tobacco. We can afford to be actuarial about this. Drug related death and illness pale into comparison with drink and cigarettes, car deaths and obesity. It should also be taken into account the lack of good information regarding drug doses and the purity of the consumed narcotics a indirect result of their criminalised nature.

Many will say that the causing of crime and funding of terrorism are greater ills and cause more suffering and are greater evils than allowing people the autonomy to consume narcotics. This is to read it backwards. Prohibition is a criminals dream. Deaths related to gang warfare say are a result of a “business” having to settle disputes and problems in the manner of the law of the jungle. If someone’s stash gets stolen they cant go to the police. If someone wants to take over a territory they cant involve lawyers and buy the rival out. Resorting to violence is the only way of resolving problems. Needless to say the prohibition in America involving alcohol is generally credited with creating the organised crime problem. That saw deaths and corruption on a scale that was not seen before. The Mafia were able to build itself into a national then international empire because of the ban.

The same applies to terrorism. Afghanistan is were the poppy is grown which can be turned into opium and then heroin. It is largely the only viable crop that Afghan farmers can grow and since the invasion the allies have spent considerable resources attempting to destroy the chief export of the country. This has driven the farmers into the hands of the Taliban and hence gives support for Islamic fundamentalism.

Needless to say this large scale global scandal of suffering could be significantly reduced if decriminalising was enacted, government regulation set up. Gangsters and criminal importers would be brushed aside along with much of the violence. The profits could take care of any unfortunates caught in the trap of abuse, fund proper drug education to the young and to the public at large. The vast surplus of money could then be supplied to vital public services such as schools and hospitals. The money, indeed billions spent in America and internationally regarding drug enforcement could be put to better use. Police rather than focusing on what is largely a victimless crime could tackle terrorism, organised crime and violent crime in particular more effectively.

There is more though. People who have taken drugs and been caught or who have supplied drugs to their friends have been sent to jail is another scandal. Frequently especially in America violent offenders are paroled to make way for drug convicts. In America again properties can seized to swell departmental ranks adding a unprincipled financial incentive for targeting easy drug dealers. The dealers families are left homeless and children have frequently been made wards of the state. A person arrested and charged with possession can not only lose their job but the offence stays on their record and can stop them from obtaining new work.

To conclude the question of drug prohibition loses all force when one considers the pernicious damage that criminalising it does against legalising it. Societies do not self destruct as witness Holland and its cosmopolitan Amsterdam. The policy of legalisation can be tested- consider if for two years in one city drugs laws were relaxed and properly ran. This would give quite good evidence either way of the affects of drugs use on society.

This is of course to say nothing of the personal testimonies of people who take drugs and enjoy it and do not abuse it. Along with testimonies that it has fundamentally improved their life for the better. The final answer is that though drug taking can be dangerous and can cause suffering, greater ill is caused by banning something. Until desire for such things are absent people will continue to pursue the things they want.

The Golden Rule.

This is actually the easiest to answer. A person contradicts themselves when indulging in alcohol and tobacco while fulminating against drugs. Indeed how would they feel if the government decided to ban these. Much the same can be said for junk food or even in this eco-friendly age driving. Or any pleasurable activity. Music, reading, films, football.

Civil society.

I will now cover the rest of the arguments that are advanced in supporting drug criminalisation. Lets consider the first one which is that inducing transient states of pleasure and singular changes of ones personality is immoral. That’s an odd argument and really its left behind quite properly at principle one which is reason. Its perfectly obvious that people do experience these things without ever harming anyone not even in ways such as giving money to suppliers who engage in crime etc. The principle of harm is central to my method and if no harm is present or if the benefits far outstrip the dangers (subject to the other three principle) then why either withdraw from doing something or do it? Religious morality raises itself again here. Though subtle in this regard as it has achieved the goal of getting other people to think like it in matters of pleasure. Though the link has no been fully substantiated it is easy to see why religion which is in many ways inimical to anything pleasurable outside strict heterosexual marriage and the steep and narrow confines of the church. As Sam Harris rightly states in The End of Faith that this idea of victimless crime which can also be viewed as homosexuality as well is nothing more than a reprise of the Christian idea of sin.

There is nothing immoral about pleasure itself nor changing ones personality. Indeed prayer and meditation would need to be criminalised along with reading, love, sex, indeed life itself. The drug debate really goes to the heart of what is a civil society. Is it one that interferes in peoples lives, punishes people because of something they do at home and which is largely harmless? Should our society not be open minded? Fair? Tolerant? A society which once again “allows others to suffer as sees good to themselves not what seems good to the rest”. A thought experiment sees that if a drug was invented that was so pleasurable but it killed 95% percent of people who took it, there would be rational reasons to outlaw it and spend considerable amounts of money educating people to its dangers. Keeping this in mind and see that our approach to a rational drugs policy is scarcely negligible at the moment and will no doubt continue. I believe the real target of opprobrium is politicians and the right wing media. Though one can reasonably suspect the pernicious role of big pharmaceutical companies and the billion dollar industry of drug enforcement in America.


Secular humanists are of course quite capable of rational ethical inquiry as are I would think a good proportion of people. The method takes on board all the important concepts that we use to make our decisions and ground our views. Emotion, Empathy and compassion. Welfare and suffering. Reason and logic, and most importantly evidence.

The method is practical like science and the jury approach in the legal system. It makes decisions to the best of our reasoning ability and it can be justified. Some people worry that its not permanent and concrete. Is this a bad thing? If we really wanted ethics to be unchanged we would still have divine right of kings, slavery, female oppression and child exploitation. Indeed the ability for ethics to be re-written is a good thing-it is essential. It does not mean though that things like murder, rape and robbery are going to be rewritten as examples of ethical excellence. I believe this method can be used against any such problem facing us today and like scientific investigation can produce very counter-intuitive positions or conclusions contrary to “common sense” morality. Such is the case when we think for ourselves unconstrained by tradition, parents, church and political and social orthodoxy. Voltaire remarked “think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.” and when we do the results are surprising and important.

Best and be Well

Michael Faulkner

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Fear Allah. liberal Unreason and Islamist Lunacy

A review of the Islamist by Ed Husain.

Ed Husain’s first book, an autobiographical account of his slow radicalisation into Islam and Islamist politics- proselytising for the renowned Hizb ut-Tahrir, and his eventual slow, painful embrace of gentler Sufism and secularism. Islamist politics might be misleading here especially in reference to the Hizb. An organisation considered so dangerous that it is banned in the Middle East states along with conspicuously, Germany. The Hizb like the Jihadists themselves do not believe remotely in anything like politics or civil discourse. All is to be submitted to the caliphate and the ummah and all else is haram-forbidden. Husain’s book is a fascinating journey into British Muslim extremism. At times it is exhilarating and enraging like being driven by a horrendous road side car accident. On others it strikes me as deeply muddled, mystified and incoherent. I found myself growing in bemusement to Husain’s lack of self awareness. It almost becomes a worthy addition to the genre of the unreliable narrator.

There is much praise to be had for Mr Husain personally, and for some of his partial conclusions. There is to be defence of him from both totalitarian Islamist units and from the blinkered self hating, self righteous- left wing literati. There also I believe needs to be ink spilled as to his own shaky conclusions and unjustified assertions. The Islamist is an important book as much for the debate and ire it ignited as for its insight into the problem and phenomena of Muslim rage and Islamic unreason.

Born Mohamed M. Husain in London 1975 to parents of Bangladeshi extraction. Broadly lower middle class parents, a father who took an interest in Politics and encouraged his young son to do the same. A grandfather a spiritual teacher in the Sufi tradition of Islam. Husain describes a idyllic childhood in England and the deep love and respect that his teachers had for him in his primary school. Though of course this was London in the 80’s not exactly a time of tolerance and multicultural civility. Early on he recounts being lead into school with young white skinheads yelling “Paki!” “Paki!” More alarmingly was a story of him being picked on by a school caretaker confusing him asking “Where is your Allah now?”

As Ed was growing up he was taken under his Grandfathers wing, carrying his books around for him and being taught how to recite passages from the Koran in perfect Arabic. It is the books most touching moments but repeatedly I asked myself “Where does it all go wrong?” or more importantly how does it go wrong. Forced to attend a rough inner city school against his primary school teachers advice on account that his family did not want him attending a sexually mixed school as girls would be to “distracting”. There is an un-holy or is it holy irony in this conclusion, for it was this obstinate decision that helped turn their gentle loving son into a teenage Islamist.

Husain begins the chapter Teenage Rebellion with the Eastern proverb “a young boys company determines his destiny”. Indeed it does and this early sections of the book make for some absurdly ironic hilarities. Rather than smuggling in porn past his parents he smuggled in works of Islamist authors such as Mawdudi and Qutb and hides them under his bed. He claims his father would be more forgiving if he was on crack than if he was associated with the Jamat-e-Islami. That the YMO- Young Muslim Organisation were like Bow Massive without the guns, bitches and blades.

I have a somewhat sympathy and understanding of Ed here. I was something of a radical myself when younger and read unusual literature for a boy my age. The crack joke would work equally well here if a son of an Orange man told his father that he was joining Sinn Féin. As for the “hardlad” image of the YMO I doubt they have any equivalent here or anywhere else, Islam is after all the carnivore of Religions.

As the above proverb suggests Ed becomes radicalised through his peers. Lonely and left out his one friend a devoted, serious Muslim invites him to pray at a rival Mosque. And so it begins. A evolving metamorphosis, with Ed getting ever deeper, ever more radical. The apotheosis is reached with the Hizb which be abandons and becomes moderate again. The whole book can be seen as akin to a musical symphony with the crescendo being reached several times over with a “Christian nigger” lying in a pool of blood. The ineffable event of violence against him in a Mosque and being effectively disowned by his family. Only for equilibrium to be restored again with his Sufism and marriage to Faye and his reconciliation with his parents. There is also something else which has been well remarked. People of a spiritual bent might describe Ed as a seeker. Others might uncharitably describe him as a “faith-head” or a “ideo-head” someone searching for the next big conversion kick. Towards the end of the book I did the Eli Kazan thing and predicted what might happen to him in the years to come. I wager either a kind of zealous atheism or perhaps a return to a more radical Muslim fundamentalism.(and I’m not making an equivalence here).

Ed has the habit of swallowing wholesale whatever ideology or faith he believes in. Though his belief now seems to be progressive-Islamic-Sufi-secularism. He has been described as having the same tendencies as his Islamist days. Though that’s only partially true Ed seems not to have learned anything about the pattern of thinking that lead him to being a Islamist. “its not what you think its how” is the important maxim here along with my own if you cannot think for yourself you cannot think at all.

The above lines may sound too harsh or unfair. And Ed has taken considerable heat not only from Muslims (both moderate and Islamist) but from the left. The reasons are clear why this would be so to any objective observer though ill explore them later. Ed Husain is a very brave fellow indeed and its not hyperbole to say that with the writing of this book he has put his life at some risk. Indeed I have a theory that the need to not be called an apostate may well have required him to utter fatuities against “secular fundamentalism” and write white noise statements such as to what is and what isn’t “true” Islam.

This is a fascinating book, well written and lively. Indeed I learned a good deal about such diverse topics as the fractured Muslim identity, the pernicious influence of Saudi/Wahabbi Islam on Muslim discourse. The nature of Hizb ut-Tahrir and the practice and beliefs of the Sufis. But it is the mindset and the practice of the Islamists that is fascinating. Disrupting debates and lectures. Bullying headmasters into getting Muslim prayer areas. Leafleting, street rallies and pinching young Muslims under their fathers noses in Mosques for fresh recruits. I particularly fell about laughing at the cunning rhetorical device of the Hizb used to cow un-spirited Muslims “Fear Allah Brother”

So what conclusions can be drawn from Ed’s account? Well first start with his own. I believe he calls for a banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Starting afresh with the policy of Multiculturalism, standing up to the Islamist bullies both from secularists but from Muslim as well. And for Muslims to reclaim their religion from the extremists. I suspect he wants the ending of Saudi influence in Muslim schools that was so well uncovered in Channel Four’s brilliant dispatches program.


I suspect though Husain’s most unpalatable and controversial contention, the truth right in front of everyone is that as Bernard Lewis writes its not the West that needs a enemy it is the Islamists that do. The West is the diametric opposite of the vision of society they wish to build or rather destroy. In essence Husain’s rejects pet liberal theories of imperialism and economic deprivation. Simply put the West deserves all it gets they say. Recently I read a CIF on the Guardian which explores the resurgent Russian interest in Middle Eastern affairs and how some think it will add a useful counterweight to America meddling in the area. The problem with liberals who scourge themselves, their countries and ideas of freedom is that in the very act of attempting to give voice to the “oppressed” they in turn assert the same cultural hegemony they accuse conservatives and others off. In other words, their blaming of Muslim unreason, Palestinian derangement and Russian belligerence on the West conceives of no other discourse that does not have the West at the centre. Everything comes back to us and what we did, we are the prime-movers in everything and no one else is allowed agency. Anyone who breaks with this narrative is either a neo-con or a puppet. When the implicit premises of their argument is exposed like this its left looking for what it is, pompous, self-important, condescending, divisive drivel.

John Gray a philosopher and a clever fellow has been promoting himself as an exposure of “Atheist Fundamentalism”. He falls foul of the rule that when a smart and decent person starts talking positively or apologises for Religion they say the stupidest and most hideous things. As witness

Particularly among the new army of evangelical atheists, there will be those who see his story as another proof of the evils of faith schools and of religion in general. Yet Husain did not finally sever his links with Islamism by becoming a militant atheist and converting to an Enlightenment faith in humanity - as secular fundamentalists urge

John Gray sees no difference between someone like Osama Bin Laden and Richard Dawkins, between Jerry Falwell and Dan Dennett. To him everything is a religion and a faith. Needless to say when you bandy about the term freely its loses any sense of meaning and explanatory power. Read the quoted review and you will find a confirmatory sentence of the Western liberal arrogance I just wrote off “a tradition (Sufism) that had not been deformed by Western political religion” Islam is completely exonerated and the ills dumped on “Western political religion” whatever that is though I guess it’s an attempted pot-shot at atheism though its apolitical so it renders his analysis further moot.

I wanted to reach for the sick bag reading Madeleine Bunting’s review and was very nearly did when I read Seamus Milne’s opinions.

Bunting writes

It is as if, just as Husain once swallowed large chunks of Hizb ut-Tahrir propaganda, he now seems to have swallowed undigested the prevailing critique of British Muslims. He has no truck with the idea of Islamophobia, which he dismisses as the squeal of an Islamist leadership pleading special favours; he criticises Asian racism and castigates Muslims "who go back home to get married" and produce "another generation confused about home". On issues such as segregation, he is confident it is the fault of multiculturalism.

A glance at the blog response to a Husain piece in the Telegraph reveals how rightwing racism and anti-Islamic sentiment are feasting on his testimony.”

Bear in mind what I wrote above of liberals arrogance and hubris. Bunting remarks may seem unexceptional but when one is familiar with her writing you see can see her sneer at the suggestion that there is anything wrong with Islam, current strategies of respect towards religion vis-à-vis faith schools and that any criticism of Islam is seen as racist and anti-Islamic. Well it certainly not the former and in my case most definitely is the latter as I am an anti-theist, an anti-anti-Semite, anti-unreason and anti-injustice.

Rarely a TV debate goes by without Ed Husain, one-time member of Hizb ut-Tahrir and now a British neocon pinup boy, or Hassan Butt, formerly of the banned al-Muhajiroun group, insisting that this is all about people with identity crises who are "hell-bent on destroying the west", denouncing Ken Livingstone for engaging in dialogue with Islamists, or calling for a harsher crackdown on their former fellow enthusiasts for the restoration of the caliphate. They are championed by politicians like the Tory Michael Gove and New Labour's Denis MacShane, who this week argued that all Islamists, from the liberal Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan to al-Qaida terrorists, had to be confronted without exception. It's become eerily reminiscent of the McCarthyite era when communist renegades would be wheeled out to give Americans a state-orchestrated glimpse of the enemy's dark heart.”

Despite the sneering condescension to Husain, Milne is basically saying that the threat of Islamism or Islam is bullshit. Why? I suppose he is trying to make a link between Communism and McCathyite era witch hunts. The analogy fails of course when one considers that in political terms and cultural muscle the communists had very little clout in America unlike Islam in Europe and in Britain. Communist supporters never blew themselves up on trains, or threatened people with death for insulting Stalin say or demanded separate schools to inculcate their children.

The pro-war Times and Telegraph have led the field, with neoconservative commentators and politicians hammering home the Blair-Bush message that terror is simply the product of an evil ideology. Anyone who dissents or suggests a connection with Britain's violent role in the Muslim world is portrayed as somehow soft on terrorism

Terrorism is a red-herring indeed terrorism with the possible exception of a chemical bomb attack is largely incidental and the least of our worries and problems when it comes to Islam.

This is a masterpiece of spineless liberal nonsense and Islamist apologia--

Of course, it's perfectly true that al-Qaida and its "takfiri" fellow travellers have an extreme, violently sectarian and socially conservative ideology. But it is simply delusional - and flies in the face of logic and history - to fail to recognise the central link between the terror threat and Britain's post-9/11 actions in the Muslim world.”

3 points that will put this argument to bed and which also undermines many of Husain’s cloudy assertions.

1. How extreme is Al-Qaeda? Is it honest say to completely sever the link between Islam and Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism? There is a reason well two, why we don’t call the IRA, Christian terrorists. They do not identify themselves as such and second their aims are secular/political. Bin Laden’s problem with the west is theological. It is only ever political in the sense that Islam unlike Christianity was a warrior religion and a political force as well as a spiritual one. The truth is that when Muslims were polled on support for suicide bombing the numbers simply shattered the myth of Muslim moderation and that’s its comfort with violence is a product of British adventures abroad.

The pew poll of 2002 found that 73 percent of Lebanese Muslims think it is justified to use violence and suicide bombing in defence of Islam. Bangladesh, Husain’s ancestral home is 4th with 44 percent. Turkey the only European country and a democracy comes in at a appalling 13 percent. Its important to note that neither Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt were polled so the numbers would have been higher also note that this was in 2002 a year after 9/11 and before the Iraq war. The numbers if anything are more likely to have increased since then. So there is clearly a culture of death worship in Islam and Western imperialism did not put it there. They developed it all by themselves. The liberals would have you believe they are not capable of doing anything without cause or prompt from the west but this data clearly shows that it has nothing-nothing at all to do with Western activity in the region.

How does Britain fare? Here is a passage and polling data from

Almost one third of British Muslim students think it is acceptable to kill in the name of Islam, results of a poll show.
The findings shed light on the extent of campus radicalism and will raise concerns about extremism across British Universities.
The YouGov poll for the Centre for Social Cohesion also found that two in five Muslims at university support the idea of Islamic sharia codes being enshrined in British law, the Sunday Times has reported.
One of the report authors Hannah Stuart said the study’s findings came as an embarrassing blow to those who play down the threat of extremism within Britain’s campuses.
She said: ‘Significant numbers appear to hold beliefs which contravene democratic values.
‘These results are deeply embarrassing for those who have said there is no extremism in British universities

Speaks for itself. Though I hasten to add this is supposed to be the “educated” among the Muslims. Though I have heard it say that support for terrorism and Sharia goes up as education increases.

2. Remember what we were doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. Firstly we were liberating a country smashed to bits by theocratic fascists who indulged in public beheadings, enslaved women and welcomed the orchestrators of 9/11, the USS Cole bombings and the America Embassy bombings in Africa. Indeed Bin Laden launched his war on the West from there. Note, that in the face of history it was America that gave support to Afghanistan in the face of true a example of Imperialism which was the Russian invasion in the 1980’s. Whereas the Soviets were godless heathens attempting to enslave Afghanistan nation the coalition forces were seeking to promote self determination to the downtrodden people of the region.

Much the same can be said for Iraq and its ruler was a true enemy of Islam if ever there was one. The insane war against Iran which cost thousands of young men lives on both side. The genocides enacted against the Kurds and the marsh Arabs. The “imperial” and expansionist invasion of Kuwait. Iraq was also a sponsor of terror and courted Bin Laden. It was America and the UK who put an end to this reeking, pouring abattoir of death and sadism. Indeed from Saddam Hussein you get two words “mad” and “sadism”. He did this while the Muslim world looked on sullenly for decades.

3. The link between the terror threat and Britain’s post 9/11 action. Milne goes on to say that if the Islamists have a gripe with Western debauchery then why not attack Amsterdam or Berlin? The truth is as Husain writes that there was a radical Islamic element in Britain already that posed a threat for several years. Its safe to say that whatever else happened wars or not the UK had an attack coming. The real problem though is that he thinks the wars justify the attacks. They clearly do not and its monstrous to say so and I feel I don’t have to give reason as to why, if you cant think of why yourself they nothing I write is likely to change your mind. Indeed may I say it is a disgrace that he mentions Western debauchery. Need I mention Theo Van Goth stabbed to death in Amsterdam for making a film critical of Islam? Do I need to mention Ayan Hirsi Ali a elected politician forced to flee to America because of death threats? Do I need to mention the failed terror attack on the London nightclub designed to target, kill and maim women? See

Ed Husain is a religious moderate. As such I’m familiar with the line of reasoning he uses from Christian apologists. Its white noise to me when the Religious more or less accuse others of distorting or abusing the “true” faith. The facts of history are clear, Christianity could happily wage war, burn witches and torture heretics. As far as I can tell they have perfect theological justification for doing so. Reading the Koran and the Hadith though no where does it say its fine to don bombs and obliterate adolescents in a disco but it does call for holy war, demonstrates relentless venom and hatred against the infidels, the Jews and the apostates. The problem with supposed holy texts is that they are so muddled, barbarous and contradictory that you can easily square violence and murder and peace and love. There is no definitive foolproof method of interpreting either the Koran or the Bible. Indeed when dewy eyed theologians get set to work on it, a bolus of half digested cant, equivocation and bullshit are the result. If anything nothing beats reading the texts like “fundamentalist protestants.” or rather seeing it for what it is if not read with the eyes of faith- that it is a man made monstrosity.

Husain seems blissfully unaware that his statements that Islam is largely peaceful, non-political and that Sufism is the true way of Islam are laughable. Sufism is largely considered a heresy in the Muslim world and one like moderate Christianity needs to perform gold-standard gymnastics to square the traditions lunacy with the modern world. All this white noise though can be safely unplugged once the ear defenders of Faith are removed. But no where does Husain ever ask himself the question does God Exist? What is the evidence for God? How likely is it that Muhammad really spoke to the Angel Gabriel? More important perhaps what is the probabilities that he would have been a member of the Hizb if he had not been brought up Muslim in the first place? What are the odds if he had not been forced to attend a single sex school? What are the odds if he had been brought up to think for himself that he would have been a follower of Islam in the first place?

The answers seem obvious to me as it would to anyone not inculcated with faith. This is a important piece of evidence in the failure of a society which tolerates Religious bigotry and dogma. The idea of faith schools is simply absurd in light of considering how it contributes to a fractured, mutually exclusive society. Its time we stopped respecting Islam and take it apart the way we are more or less free to do with Christianity. I’m not in favour of banning the Hizb nor am I in favour of sending back preachers of hate or stopping hatred of the West being preached in the Mosques. I am in favour in utterly destroying Islam through words, though ridicule, through reason and science and by championing common human values and rights over the primitive laws it teaches. I am in favour in protecting children, I am in favour of having a full and frank conversation about the real problem with Islam and Islamist unreason which is of course faith. The faith that the Koran is the work of the creator of the universe and that what is contained in that book enjoins murder, intolerance and chauvinism. Until such bonds of derangement are broken we cannot begin to seriously want to coexist with the 1.8 Billion Muslims that populate the world.


Michael Faulkner.