Sunday, 23 September 2012

Thank God Not Everyone Is Uptight About Religion

Enough already with the pictures of people protesting insults to their religion.

While I have been concerned for a few years now about the Hindu right wing that threatens to be India's saffron Taliban, it's good to see that mainstream Hindus can take their religion with a chuckle. For some strange reason, most of the humour is centred around Lord Ganesh. I'm sure Vishnu and Shiva can take a joke or two in their stride, although I'm not sure about the goddesses. You know what they say about women and a sense of humour... (ducks projectile)

Here are some popular images of Lord Ganesh in recent times:

Indian cricket is certainly in need of divine intervention...

All thanks for starting that IT revolution, my Lord.

And don't miss the intelligent mouse

This one might spark some protests ... by Marvel Comics

Oh, and don't forget the merchandising (elephants never do).

You can order these online. No, I don't get a cut :-(.

Have you heard the one about the practice of visarjan (immersion of the idol in a nearby body of water at the end of the annual Ganesh festival)?

A Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu are in a boat at sea when a violent storm breaks out and the boat is in danger of capsizing.
The Christian calls out, "O Lord Jesus, save me!"
Jesus promptly appears and rescues the Christian.
The Muslim then cries out, "O Prophet Mohammed, please save me!"
The Prophet Mohammed appears and saves the Muslim.
The Hindu is now the only one left on the boat. He too cries out in terror, "O Lord Ganesh, please save me!"
Lord Ganesh appears and tells the Hindu, "Every year, you drown me. Now you drown!"

Another one:

A Western expatriate teacher at an international school offers a cash reward to the child who can name the greatest man who ever lived.
'Buddha?' says a Buddhist.
'The prophet?' says a Muslim.
'Jesus?' says a Hindu.
The teacher hands the money to the Hindu, who says: 'Thanks, Miss. Actually, the right answer is Krishna, but business is business.'

Ah, what would religion be without the jokes? Everybody should watch the Seinfeld episode "The Yada Yada" about how dentist Tim Whatley converted to Judaism just so he could tell Jewish jokes without being accused of anti-Semitism.

Jerry: I have a suspicion that he [Dr. Whatley] has converted to Judaism purely for the jokes
Priest: And this offends you as a Jewish person?
Jerry: No, it offends me as a comedian!

Personally, although I would very much prefer to see a world without religion, I could settle for one where the religious were able to laugh at themselves instead of taking offence at the drop of a hat.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Agnostic Argument - 9 (The Shibboleth For Rationalism Versus Bigotry)

Thanks to the Cory Bernardi affair, I have now understood how to identify a bigot.

But let me first rewind to a few days back, when one of my friends read a previous entry on this blog and remarked that anti-religious people could be as dangerous as religious fanatics. I was struck by that remark, because although it seemed plausible, I was sure it was not true. However, I couldn't prove my hypothesis in any convincing way. After all, the murderous Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were atheists, and they had more blood on their hands than the holiest inquisitionist or conquistador, and could give the various Islamic conquerors of India a run for their money.

That problem was stewing in my mind when the Cory Bernardi affair broke, and I suddenly had not one, but two, data points to help me find a resolution.

The better-known episode is the one that triggered Bernardi's resignation (or more accurately, his sacking). For those who don't follow Australian politics, Cory Bernardi is a conservative politician belonging to the opposition Liberal and National Party (LNP) and until recently a Parliamentary Secretary. In a recent debate in parliament over whether to liberalise gay marriage (the motion failed to pass, by the way), Bernardi made a speech against it, where he suggested that legalising gay marriage would open the doors to polygamy and bestiality.

This was too much for a lot of people, and LNP leader Tony Abbott relieved him of his position of Parliamentary Secretary for reasons of indiscipline. [My cynical take on this given Abbott's own strongly conservative views is that "discipline" for Abbott means not revealing your cards until after you've won election!]

There's also a recent but lesser-known episode that revealed the mind of Bernardi. After the weekend protests by Muslims in Sydney that turned violent, Bernardi said 

They [those who support immigration] proclaim multiculturalism as a triumph of tolerance when in fact it undermines the cultural values and cohesiveness that brings a nation together.  Our culture is built upon the two great pillars of Western civilisation – the rule of law and Judeo-Christian values. To allow these great strengths to be undermined by supporting calls for any form of legal plurality or the indulgence of cultural practices that go against our social norms is to abandon reason.

Can you see a pattern here?

In his statement after the Muslim protests, his resort to the line about Judeo-Christian values immediately leapt out at me, since I am neither Muslim nor Judeo-Christian. Rather than try to analyse the situation and isolate the cause of the violent protests by asking, for example, if it was Muslim youth who were primarily involved, and if so, if it was unemployed Muslim youth, and so on, which could have led to some meaningful insights and a policy direction, he went in the opposite direction. Now he seemed to be tarring Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and all those who weren't part of the "Judeo-Christian value system".

Bigot alert!

[Aside: Rajiv Malhotra has the interesting opinion that Bernardi's "two pillars of Western civilisation" are actually at odds with each other. The Hellenic tradition of reason (the rule of law) conflicts with the Hebraic tradition of religion (Judeo-Christian values). That's why European history demonstrates such a tortuous path towards the separation of church and state. The two "pillars of Western civilisation" have to be kept apart like squabbling children.]

And that's exactly what Bernardi did again on the gay marriage debate. A rationalist would see the debate as one over whether an individual adult human being has a right to have their commitment to another adult human being recognised by law. That's what the gay marriage bill is about. To be perfectly fair, this definition leaves the door open to polygamy, but not to bestiality (or paedophilia, as one of his supporters suggested). And with the reference to bestiality, Bernardi crossed the line once more.

Again, bigot alert!

[The reason why the acceptance of gay marriage could lead to calls for the legalisation of polygamy, but not paedophilia or bestiality is that homosexuality and polygamy involve consenting adults. The other two do not, and so there is no slippery slope, as he tried to argue.]

And that finally gave me the shibboleth I needed to distinguish a rationalist from a bigot. A rationalist tries to narrow the argument to understand the core issue or principle being debated. A bigot unjustifiably widens the argument to advance a preconceived position.

Here's an example of how one could twist facts to make any case one wants. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)

The bottle is the only thing in the picture that holds water

And so, coming back to my original question of whether an anti-religious person is as dangerous as a religious fanatic, it's not enough to say that a person is "anti-religious". Why are they anti-religion? That reason is key. There could be individuals fuelled by a dogma that is anti-religious, such as Communism. Communist ideologues would use any opportunity to blame religion by conflating issues to implicate it. That's bigotry.

On the contrary, a rationalist who is anti-religion arrives at that position after homing in on the core issue or issues with religion. In my case, there are 3 specific reasons why I oppose religion:

1. While there seem to be a few exceptions, religions generally exalt faith over reason. It always scares me to hear that someone is religious because I understand that to mean their actions are not directed by reason. Once people suspend reason, they can do irrational and horrific things.

2. The positive aspects of religion are not original. They can be independently derived from secular ethics as well. "Be truthful and honest", "don't harm others", "be compassionate towards others", etc., sound like secular common sense to me. Atheists believe in goodness too, so goodness is not an exclusive contribution of religion.

3. Many of the original aspects of religions are entirely negative. They are not justifiable either by reason or by ethics, e.g,. superstitions, cruel and demeaning practices, interference in aspects of personal life that don't concern others, such as a curious obsession with controlling the sexual behaviour of adult human beings, etc.

[There is an old Soviet joke about the two official Russian newspapers - Pravda (Truth) and Izvestia (News): "There is no pravda in Izvestia and no izvestia in Pravda." Similarly, religion offers nothing original that is positive and nothing positive that is original.]

The "best" religion, in my opinion, would be one that prescribed behaviour consistent with secular ethics, refrained from introducing superstition and needlessly intrusive regulation of personal behaviour, and encouraged free thought. I would gladly follow such a religion.

Come to think of it, such a "religion" exists, and it's called by a variety of names - rationalism, scientific thinking, agnosticism, etc. :-).

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

What Next For Islam?

I guess I'm not the only one despairing about "the Muslim question". 5.5 billion non-Muslims share this planet with 1.5 billion Muslims, and notwithstanding minor changes in that proportion, neither side is going away any time soon.

The world cannot really afford a clash of civilisations, because it will be bloody and painful but not decisive. We seem destined to endure an uneasy peace punctured by sporadic and interminable bouts of violence.

The Muslim protests in Sydney, along with their violence and offensive slogans, have been hogging the airwaves here since the weekend. Perhaps the best analysis of what is happening comes from Waleed Aly, who is a wonderfully talented and insightful interlocutor.

[...] these protesters are not truly protesting to make a point. The protest is the point. It feels good. It feels powerful. This is why people yell pointlessly or punch walls when frustrated. It's not instrumental. It doesn't achieve anything directly. But it is catharsis. Outrage and aggression is an intoxicating prospect for the powerless. Accordingly, it is not an option to leave an insult unanswered because that is a sign of weakness, rather than transcendence.
Soon you have a subculture: a sub-community whose very cohesion is based almost exclusively on shared grievance. Then you have an identity that has nothing to say about itself; an identity that holds an entirely impoverished position: that to be defiantly angry is to be.
But now a more serious conversation is necessary. One that's not about how we should be speaking out to defend our prophet and ourselves. One that's more about whether we can speak about anything else.

That's great as a diagnosis, but what is the prognosis?

Being an amateur student of history, I have been looking to the trajectory of Christianity to understand how Islam is likely to evolve. The traditional view of the two religions is that Christianity has had a head start of a few centuries to evolve its thinking, and so Islam will evolve similarly in a few more centuries. After all, the Dark Ages of Europe and the Inquisition showed the world the worst of Christian intolerance, bigotry and parochialism, and the Old Testament competes with the Quran in the violent imagery of its passages. [Some would add the Crusades to the list of Christian transgressions, although I'm not sure if those were the result of religious supremacism or a reaction to the Arabs' conquest of Jerusalem.]

At any rate, this is a depressing conclusion. If it will take a few more centuries for Islam to settle into a milder version of itself, that's a few centuries too far into the future for us. Can't we see a resolution in our own lifetimes?

For the first time, I've read a somewhat optimistic piece on this, and this is by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The article as a whole makes good reading, but here's the part that I found most interesting (emphasis mine):

Utopian ideologies have a short lifespan. Some are bloodier than others. As long as Islamists were able to market their philosophy as the only alternative to dictatorship and foreign meddling, they were attractive to an oppressed polity. But with their election to office they will be subjected to the test of government. It is clear, as we saw in Iran in 2009 and elsewhere, that if the philosophy of the Islamists is fully and forcefully implemented, those who elected them will end up disillusioned. The governments will begin to fail as soon as they set about implementing their philosophy: strip women of their rights; murder homosexuals; constrain the freedoms of conscience and religion of non-Muslims; hunt down dissidents; persecute religious minorities; pick fights with foreign powers, even powers, such as the U.S., that offered them friendship. The Islamists will curtail the freedoms of those who elected them and fail to improve their economic conditions.

After the disillusion and bitterness will come a painful lesson: that it is foolish to derive laws for human affairs from gods and prophets. Just like the Iranian people have begun to, the Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, and perhaps Syrians and others will come to this realization. In one or two or three decades we will see the masses in these countries take to the streets—and perhaps call for American help—to liberate them from the governments they elected. This process will be faster in some places than others, but in all of them it will be bloody and painful. If we take the long view, America and other Western countries can help make this happen in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union.

Only one or two or three decades! That's music to my ears. So rather than dread the rise to power of Islamist parties, we must welcome it. Islamists must be put into positions of responsibility and forced to discuss the price of bread with angry citizens. The conversation must be steered away from jihad and cultural grievance and towards more mundane topics.

And on the topic of culture and religion, what she says about Iran corroborates what Aatish Taseer writes about his visit there. He writes about a Hare Krishna movement in Iran, with semi-clandestine prayer meetings in people's houses.

Gulbadi, caught up in a chanting fever, was now hardly able to separate consonant from vowel. The 'Hare' had gone and the blue god's name was now just a breathy whisper: "Krish-na, Krish-na, Krish-na, rama, rama, rama." Just at the point when it seemed the momentum had to break, it got faster and louder. I was watching Gulbadi when someone walked into the room behind me. It was the expression on his face, of fear and resignation, that made me turn. I saw a tall man with a stoop, and a short, salt and pepper beard, come in and sit down. His entry coincided with Gulbadi upping the ante: "Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, rama, rama, rama, Ali, Ali, Ali, Allah, Allah, Allah." 

Aatish Taseer goes on to describe his conversations with Iranians where they express a hunger for spiritualism that they have failed to get from the state-imposed version of Islam that is the only faith they are allowed to practise.

As non-Muslims, we see in the Islamic Ummah a rigid monolith bent on unyielding jihad against unbelievers until a worldwide caliphate is established under sharia law. But perhaps the tough exterior hides a community riven with angst and self-doubt. The clash of civilisations is a cultural war, and the violence of the Islamist movement suggests that they are losing and they know it.

There are severe internal contradictions in Islam, after all. For one, the issue of women's rights will not go away so easily. 

The right to bare arms leads to an audible silence from the Taliban section of the crowd...

The connected world and the 24 hour media cycle are ruthless and relentless purveyors of uncomfortable truths, and Islam's internal contradictions will inevitably cause upheaval. Ironically, as long as the West remains locked in a perceived battle with Islam, the monolith will remain unbroken. Once the West withdraws and allows the Middle East to sort itself out, the cracks will quickly appear and spread.

I believe that all human beings are fundamentally wired the same way because we share the same basic genetic hardware. A superficial layer of software in the form of religious programming cannot change our fundamental nature. That's why the Islamists' dream is unsustainable. There will be no caliphate, only a worldwide society of democracies that are answerable to their respective citizens. That is the only system that will work for the human organism. Muslim societies will become more like their non-Muslim counterparts (rather than the other way around) as the angst-driven rage is gradually allowed to dissipate through increased levels of democracy. Human beings are all the same, and liquids will find their own level.

I certainly hope Ayaan Hirsi Ali is right. A new Golden Age is overdue.

The Agnostic Argument - 8 (On Having Been Religious Myself)

Like John Kerry who was for the Iraq war before he was against it, I too was once religious.

Lots of atheists and agnostics start off the same way, until something disillusions them. In my case, the catalyst was reading depressingly regular newspaper reports about communal riots between Hindus and Muslims during my formative years in India. Sometime around the age of 18 or 19, I remember thinking to myself with a shock, "Religion is evil!"

And since then, I have only moved further and further away.

This post is to talk about the phase of my life before my conversion, specifically one incident that I think I should share even though I'm ashamed of it.

I was always a voracious reader, and the Staff Club library at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (where my father worked), had a reading room with lots of magazines. In my teens, I used to go there whenever I was bored and spend an hour or two reading up on current affairs and politics.

One day, I saw a strange pamphlet among all the commercial magazines. It was a fairly low-budget publication, with the picture of a chessboard on the cover and the title "God Check-Mated". Intrigued, I picked it up and began to read.

[Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, you too can read this pamphlet! It was published in two parts in Freethought magazine in September 1978 (page 263) and October 1978 (page 331), around the same time that I read the complete pamphlet.]

As I read the pamphlet, my horror grew. The two authors (A. Harnath and A. Suryanarayana), described on the back cover as "gentle rationalists", were impiously questioning the very existence of God! I found their tone very condescending. The pamphlet was structured like a questionnaire in multiple sections. In each section, they would ask a series of questions (rather amateurish ones, to be frank) and they would end the section by saying something like, "After answering all the above questions, do you still think your belief in God stands to reason? (If yes, proceed to the next section.)" The last section ended (I thought) extremely patronisingly:

After answering all the above questions, do you still think that your belief in god stands to reason and it is not a superstition?
(If 'yes', not even your own 'God' can help you!)

I was offended by the pamphlet, by its premise, by its tone, everything.

And I did something that I have been ashamed of ever since.

I stole the pamphlet from the library and destroyed it. I was all of fifteen years old.

Curiously, I'm also glad that things happened the way they did, because I think I now have an insight into the minds of millions of unthinkingly religious people.

I often ask myself why I felt the need to destroy that innocuous pamphlet. People who steal books from the library generally do it for selfish reasons, i.e., to add to their own collections. But I wasn't interested in stealing the pamphlet to keep it for myself. I wanted to prevent anyone else from reading it. Why??

I guess I was afraid it would "corrupt" other people and make them "bad". I was fighting for goodness and righteousness by removing the pamphlet from public view. I was saving people's souls. I was being loyal to God. 

And while I was afraid I would get caught smuggling the pamphlet out of the library under my shirt, this was just a mundane fear of breaking a human law. In my heart of hearts, I was convinced I was doing the right thing. I may have been committing a petty crime in the eyes of the law, but I was doing something blessed in the eyes of God. If I had received news then that someone had killed the authors, I would have cheered!

I now know the name for what I felt then - "moral certainty".

On Jan 4 2011, when bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri gunned down the man he was meant to protect, - governor Salman Taseer of the Pakistani province of Punjab, - he did not run away or resist arrest. He fully expected to be sentenced to death, and he didn't mind. That was simply a minor punishment according to the laws of men. But in the eyes of God, he had done something blessed. He had killed a man who had spoken of repealing Pakistan's blasphemy law. He had punished wickedness and defended the faith.

The face of moral certainty - Mumtaz Qadri being driven away after his murder of governor Salman Taseer

Qadri was showered with petals when produced before the court. Educated people (lawyers, no less) eulogised him.

Make no mistake about this. When I condemn moral certainty in others, it isn't an idle condemnation. I know what moral certainty feels like from the inside. And it isn't pretty.

When I say that religion can make good people do bad things, I remember with horror the monster that it made of me.

True, I had only suppressed a document that I thought impious. But I could just as easily have called for the banning of a book. I could even have killed someone who I thought was being impious! I could have been Mumtaz Qadri or Mohammed Bouyeri (the man who killed Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh).

[Is there a rationalist equivalent to the phrase "There, but for the grace of God, go I"?]

This is my confession. I have felt the irrational, hunted fear of a superstitious person who cannot accept another opinion. A contrary opinion is not just bad. It is dreadful and must be made to go away, by any means possible.

And so, even as I defend the freedom of speech against the protests by Muslims worldwide, I know how they feel. I've been there.

And I will never go there again.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Agnostic Argument - 7 (For Good People To Do Bad Things...)

Steven Weinberg's quote is well-known:

Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things.
But for good people to do bad things, you need religion.

Parenting fail! Abraham gets ready to sacrifice his son Isaac because "God told him to". Somebody call the cops and Community Services!

My last blog post led to a discussion on Facebook with an old friend about a person's "moral compass" and where it might originate.

My friend said he knew many people who lived exemplary lives of compassion and good deeds, thanks to the inspiration of their religion. I know such people myself, but I couldn't help wondering about the source of their goodness. Was it really their religion or something more innate that made them such good people?

I can visualise someone reading in their holy book that it is desirable to give money in charity, and so they go out and do it. But what if they read in the same book that they must "slay idolators", for instance? Would they as readily obey? I'm sure they wouldn't, because otherwise we wouldn't consider them good people or as our friends, and we'd probably be reading about them in the news, and not in a good way either.

So what's really happening here when these good people read two different things in the same holy book, and they follow one set of instructions but not the other? They're cherry-picking! And the way they do that is by applying a higher sense of right and wrong to what they read, which tells them what to follow, and what not to.

So it's really a chicken-and-egg question. Is religion bettering people, or are people bettering religion? I think I know the answer to that, and the corollary then is that we don't really need religion after all!

My friend pointed out that not everyone had the gift of discerning goodness, and many people therefore need  rules to guide them, and they need the example of other people who live good lives according to those rules.

I'll grant that, but in today's world, we already have a set of good rules to live by. Take the constitution of any modern democracy and read about the rights and duties of a citizen. These man-made laws are not perfect, but then, neither is any holy book! Holy books were written by human beings, and it shows. They're riddled with fallacies, contradictions and utterly outdated ideas. At least modern constitutions can be amended to stay in tune with the times. Sticking to an unchanging set of rules will only make us look stupid as the years go by. I'll take a modern democracy's constitution over a holy book any day.

"Race Mixing is Communism," said the banners 40 years ago. No wonder they call Obama a communist...

The picture above is a good segue into my next point. The best shibboleth of morality in modern times is a person's stand on homosexuality. All the major organised religions of the world are remarkably united in their stand, and they all spectacularly fail the humanity test. To a student of nature, homosexuality among humans is natural, because it exists in virtually every other species as well. It takes a degree of emotional maturity to set aside one's own preconceptions and prejudices and to accept a gay person as an equal human being. One could argue that this level of humanism is denied to the doctrinally religious. They are enjoined to condemn behaviour that is encountered in every natural species.

This is a demonstrable example of religion making good people do bad things.

"Love Thy Neighbour", a sermon now playing at the Westboro Baptist Church

"There are no gays in Iran," said President Ahmadinejad truthfully. (We hanged them all!)

Why Can't I Own a Canadian? is a humorous deflation of religious pomposity where homosexuality is concerned, but as the photos above demonstrate quite chillingly, this is no laughing matter. Religion is an enemy of morality.

I know I'm not going to convince my friend about the evils of organised religion. It's an irony that good people only see the good side of things, so the horror completely escapes them. Now this doesn't imply that I'm a bad person, just that I'm very cynical about the world ;-). As the years go by, my sense of justice and fairness only gets sharper, and I also move farther away from religion. I don't believe that's a coincidence.

I would like the next generation to grow up reading widely, thinking, debating, questioning, having doubts. Moral certainty is a source of terrible evil, and it is better for us to doubt and question ourselves than to be certain that what we're doing is morally right "because it says so in the book". It's only through reasoned argument that we can improve our world. I'll grant that blind faith is useful when you need to summon up the courage to overcome some personal obstacles, but using blind faith in a book or doctrine to inform the way we deal with other people can be quite dangerous.

Religions too know where the threat to their existence comes from. It comes from thinking people who ask questions. That's why there's so much emphasis on unquestioning faith.

This church sign betrays no sense of irony at all.

Amen, brother.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Agnostic Argument - 6 (Society Defers Too Much To Religion)

The protests by Muslims across the world about a movie that they believed insulted their religion reached Sydney yesterday. The protests turned violent and the violence was promptly condemned by public figures, both politicians and journalists.

The standard argument from "reasonable society" goes, "You have a right to protest, but you may not resort to violence."

I have a rather more hard-line argument: "You have the right to believe in any religion, but not the right to be respected for it." If someone laughs at you or insults you for your faith, well, just develop a thick skin because you're going to need it.

Yes, I am what in the US would be called a First Amendment Absolutist, i.e., I don't believe in curbs of any kind on the freedom of speech. Hate speech should be countered not by censorship but by a barrage of criticism and show of opposition numbers, cyber-bullying of adults* must be countered by exposing the identity of the bullies (another form of free speech), misinformation should be countered by information, false accusations (slander and libel) should be countered by civil lawsuits, and a false cry of "fire" in a crowded theatre should be countered by prompt public announcements dousing it. But speech itself should be untrammelled.
[*Cyber-bullying of children by their peers requires a more interventionist approach.]

That's a lesson the religious need to be taught. You may absolutely hate what someone is saying, but you will just have to learn to accept it. And public officials in democracies whose salaries are paid for with taxpayers' money and who have pledged to uphold their respective constitutions will have to stand up for this principle much more strongly. It's not just violence that's reprehensible. It's the attempt to shut down free speech.

Be that as it may, free speech is for adults because adults are expected to be able to handle it. Children need extra protections, and not just in cases of bullying. This is something I find absolutely unacceptable:

While the sign itself is disturbing, adults can and must learn to handle it. But children must absolutely not be exposed to such nonsense. It is tantamount to child abuse.

It is pointless having movie classifications to protect children from images of violence if they are going to be exposed to it by their own parents.

This isn't just about Islam, although Muslims seem to be among the world's touchiest people. If you want me to prove my even-handedness, I have contempt for those whose sentiments were offended by swimwear bearing pictures of Hindu deities on them.

President of the Universal Society of Hinduism, Mr. Rajan Zed (who has earned a mention on this blog before) said

Lakshmi was meant to be worshipped in temples or home shrines and not for pushing swimwear in fashion shows for mercantile greed of an apparel company

Let me get this straight. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, and it's perfectly acceptable for businessmen to pray to her for profits, but one shouldn't use her images to further "mercantile greed"? Did Rajan Zed say that with a straight face?

(At any rate, the swimwear company quickly capitulated and apologised, much to my disappointment and disgust.)

Thankfully, Christianity does not seem to wield the same kind of power in its homelands. The work titled "Piss Christ" (a work of "art" in such awful taste that I have to hold my nose as I defend its creator's freedom of expression) was destroyed in an act of vandalism in Australia, but did gather more than a modest number of defenders.

Offended sentiments are the luxury of the superstitious, because in a rational world, the truth or otherwise of an assertion can either be proven or deferred till future research settles the issue. What rankles deeply is that society (through its official figures) feels obliged to apologise for the offence taken by superstitious people when a contemptuous laugh would be more appropriate.

I belong to a burgeoning tribe of agnostics, atheists, rationalists and allied people who have contempt for organised religion and resent the way society bends over backwards to accommodate the sentiments of the superstitious.

Ours is a cold rage, but it cannot be ignored for long.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Agnostic Argument - 5 (On Being Nothing)

Theists and atheists are more alike than they may imagine. The key point on which both agree is humility. Theists emphasise the insignificance of man before God. Atheists emphasise the insignificance of man, period. Same difference?

A recent article in the New York Times expresses the angst of a person painfully aware of his insignificance. Brian Jay Stanley, in "On Being Nothing", expresses the sentiment excellently. 

I know that the world only tramples me as a street crowd does an earthworm — not out of malice or stupidity, but because no one sees it. Thus my pain is not to feel wrongly slighted, but to feel rightly slighted.

Couldn't have put it better myself.

I was brought up in a fairly religious environment. The South India of my childhood was unquestioningly religious. And humility before God was constantly emphasised. We were not to be vain, for God teaches a lesson to vain people and shows them, in The Joker's words, "how pathetic their attempts to control things really are".

I won't rehash the whole story of the Divine Plan and how God does everything for the good. Never mind the contradiction over free will and the divine plan. Religion has never succeeded in convincing me either way about whether I do have free will. [For that matter, the purely materialistic view of the mind as nothing more than the atoms of the physical brain call the notion of free will into question just as effectively.] And the whole vexing question about why bad things happen to good people required this elaborate theory of karma that just fundamentally seems unfair. It explains, but does not satisfy. We (human society, that is) let criminals off lightly if they suffer from amnesia and cannot remember the crimes they committed. And we're not even divine. Why would a "perfect" cosmic system insist on making us reap the fruit of seeds none of us remembers sowing? And this system is supposed to be fair and worthy of admiration?

During my youth, I remember feeling contempt for the karma theory but also feeling a bit powerless. I think I must have felt at the time that it was real but unfair. Now I can see that it's just another fairytale. The Dharmic religions have a more sophisticated fairytale with cyclical time and cyclical lives than the linear Abrahamic religions, but that doesn't make their fairytale any more "true".

I've since discovered a far simpler and more elegant explanation than karma for why bad things happen to good people, and it can be expressed in just two words: "Sh*t happens."

A theist friend of mine persisted, "But why does sh*t happen?"

And that, I believe, is the root of the problem - searching for meaning where there is none. We humans cannot accept a situation devoid of meaning. More than happiness, it is meaning we seek from life. Even a model of existence where no event has meaning is a model that provides meaning.

That in fact is the model I prefer. Atheists (and agnostics) are convinced there is no divine reason for their being born, that there is no inherent purpose to their continued existence, no meaning to the events that occur in their lives, and that they will with utter finality cease to exist once they die. Accepting an atheistic view of life is humbling, not arrogant, as the theists wrongly claim. And it also brings an odd peace. There's no pressure to be anything special because there's nobody to disappoint.

And Stanley in his New York Times article arrives at a similar peace.

There must be a Copernican revolution of the self. Instead of pointlessly cursing the sun to go around me, my chance of contentment is learning to orbit, being the world’s audience instead of demanding the world be mine.

With deep irony then, amen. It is such a relief to be nothing and nobody.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Warning - Extreme Cuteness Within

With that statutory warning, I release my collection of photos of baby sloths. If you're sensitive to high-pitched squealing, cover your ears when viewing in the company of the young and female...

Don't say you weren't warned.

Little Green Monsters

Photographed at Little Rock Cafe, Stockland Mall, Baulkham Hills.

Who's going to eat whom is what I'm asking...