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the little dictator and his acolyte

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Having seen how Russia acts within the framework of what we call hybrid warfare, I really don’t exclude anything when it comes to Russian operations in other countries.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary-General, NATO alliance, 2014

We’re living in interesting times, and I can’t help but be both enthralled and horrified them, so I’ll be dividing my time for a while between science and current international developments in politics and culture.

I wrote my recent post before I’d quite finished Masha Gesson’s 2012 biography of Putin, but I find that her epilogue, together with an afterword written in 2014, is by far the most important part of the book as regards the future for Putin’s ambitions, for Russia and for our response to his antics. And of course there’s also Trump’s love affair with the apoplectically anti-democratic dictator, which is no laughing matter.

Vladimir Putin’s rise to the leadership of Russia was unlikely, as the subtitle of Gessen’s book suggests. It seems that he was was plucked out of obscurity to be the saviour of Russia, and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. But of course the story is far more complicated than that.

I want to compare (albeit briefly) Putin’s background, and even his appeal, with that of Adolf Hitler, partly because I’m challenged by recent claims that one should never invoke Hitler as a comparison (bullshit I say), but more importantly because the similarities are screamingly obvious. It seems to me that in many ways Putin is a Hitler constrained by the rapid rise of internationalism, which was itself largely a response to Hitler’s nationalistic adventurism. Certainly, the horrors of Nazism are behind us, but make no mistake, Putin’s attacks on homosexuality, which of course are in line with his own brutal, primitive instincts, are every bit as totalising as Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews in the thirties. Certainly there’s a greater cynicism in Putin’s approach, and there’s no doubt that international attention will parry his blows against gays, but I’ve no doubt that Putin’s attitude to homosexuality is sincere, and might be put down to his being picked on as a slight and effeminate-looking youth. This persecution clearly affected him profoundly, causing him to take up martial arts and body-building and such, but I’m not particularly interested in the psychology behind his bigotry. The Dunedin Studies have shown me that character formation occurs remarkably early, and those early years are lost to most analysts in Putin’s case. Anyway, I’m more interested in the effects of his bigotry on the Russian psyche.

While Putin isn’t as shallow as Trump, neither is he deep. He’s a product of a profoundly dysfunctional world, and he found solace and identity in the KGB, the western world’s laughing stock (its successor, the FSB, is entirely a tool of Putin). From what I can gather, he was a doted-on only child, who grew up in the ruins of Leningrad/Petrograd, Russia’s second city. Like Hitler, he seems to have been devastated by the loss of something, nationally, that once promised greatness, and he may have taken this personally. Of course international developments since Hitler’s time would have largely quashed imperialistic ambitions, which is why it seems more accurate to see Putin as a mafioso-style crime boss, extremely petty-minded, vengeful and gleeful about the suffering of his ‘enemies’ – and probably generous to a fault to those who are most complete in their sycophancy.

What we do know is that Putin, like Hitler, is largely impervious to basic human values, but much better than Hitler at hiding the fact. Don’t expect much from his assurance, more or less forced from him by the new French President Emmanuel Macron, that he would investigate gay persecution in Chechnya, a region he bombed into submission when first gaining power in 1999-2000. The Chechen capital, Grozny, was later described by the UN as ‘the most destroyed city on earth’, with tens of thousands of civilians killed. The state has been ruled for some time by Ramzan Kadyrov, not so much a Putin puppet as a fellow-traveller who has learned from the Russian’s mafioso methods. Apparently, he’s both more charismatic and more openly brutal, having murdered a vast number of his enemies. It’s unlikely that this macho thug would take or expect advice on the treatment of homosexuals by his thuggish Russian mentor. Yet while Kadyrov’s political independence is more a relief than a burden to Putin, some 85% of Chechnya’s budget comes from Moscow, and this is the ultimate measure of Putin’s power over the region.

The murder of enemies (just a name for those who act defiantly, or even independently, and who might have some influence), often in far-flung parts, is the most recognisable feature of Putin’s (and Kadyrov’s) dictatorship, but there are others, including threats to bordering countries, and endless attempts to interfere with democratic elections worldwide. Of course Putin went well beyond threats when he moved swiftly to annex Crimea in March 2014. The move seems not to have been for economic reasons, as it’s expected that large sums of money will be needed to prop up the region. It seems to have been a land grab in defiance of the pro-European overthrow of the corrupt pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. It would also have been done for domestic reasons, to suggest to his long-suffering people the fantasy that Russia is still a great nation that can throw its weight around. It’s likely that the annexation greatly improved the petty dictator’s domestic stocks, but as I’ve said, there isn’t much room to manoeuvre today in terms of Russian expansionism – though the Baltic states are understandably anxious about Putin’s intentions there – so it’s not surprising that he’s turned his attention to his first love, espionage and the perversion of justice, in trying to manipulate the outcome of foreign elections in favour of their most anti-democratic candidates. He appears to have been partially successful in somehow fashioning more support for Marine Le Pen in France than she had a right to expect, but clearly his greatest coup was to infiltrate the recent US election to a degree that has – somewhat belatedly – alarmed many pundits.

The current US President has praised Putin more than any other democratically elected leader. He would certainly like to have the power over his nation that Putin has over Russia, but the fact is that he just doesn’t have the nous to use that power effectively, even for his own benefit. As David Frum and many others have pointed out, Trump isn’t a smart businessman, even in the field of real estate. He’s a big-noter and a bullshit artist who’s incapable of the strategic planning required even to be a semi-succssful mafioso boss. His ham-fistedness, however, has to be seen in some respects as a saving grace. The job of more responsible leaders and powerful figures in the USA now is to provide a convincing case to the public that the Trump administration’s ties and indebtedness to Putin and his henchmen are massively detrimental to the country they’ve been elected to administer, and to the western democracies in general. Many journalists and public intellectuals – I’ll mention David Frum, Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and Lilia Shevtsova, but I’m a complete novice in this field, so apologies for not mentioning others at this point – have been firm in arguing against any rapprochement with Russia under Putin, whose anti-western propaganda for domestic consumption has risen to bizarre proportions in recent years. It’s time for more western and particularly US leaders, on both side of the political fence, to argue strongly for isolating Russia under Putin. One way to do this is to go in hard on Russian political interference in the US and other prominent countries – the hybrid warfare that NATO’s Secretary-General spoke of. And this will surely have the added benefit of substantially weakening, and maybe even derailing, the Trump administration.

The little dictator will complete his first six-year term in office in 2018. Actually, this will complete 19 years of  effective dictatorship, and he has altered the Russian constitution to enable him to stand for office again. If successful, he may retire, at 71, after 25 years in power in Russia (the longest reign since the time of the Czars), having given up on modernisation and economic development and left behind a state characterised by cronyism, thuggery, stagnation and misery, and a fantasy that it is an alternative to the ‘decline of the west’, though hopefully few of Russia’s intellectuals are taken in by this.

But Putin’s success isn’t guaranteed. As Gessen and others have pointed out, he got a real scare in the lead-up to the last election, and was quite possibly only saved from defeat, or at least from ‘legitimate’ success, by his campaign against homosexuality and ‘decadence’. Recently there have been sizeable demonstrations against corruption in Russia, and no-one is more corrupt than Putin. The Russian analyst Lilia Shevtsova is particularly critical of those pundits who appear to have given up on the possibility for a fairer, more open and democratic Russia. Her remarks here are passionate and timely:

This means that Russians are incorrigible, doomed to be manipulated, and ready to tolerate repressive rule. I don’t know what information the authors are privy to that makes them so sure that the Russians will continue clinging to Putin. Why are the experts so sure of that? Do they know something about us Russians that we are unaware of? This approach can be interpreted in only one way: Russians carry a special gene that precludes them from living in a rule of law state that respects international conventions. In other words, we Russians are a predatory nation that can live only by being subjugated by our rulers and by subjugating other nations, and we cannot rid ourselves of the serf’s mindset. This is not merely a condescending way of looking at Russians; it is racist as well.

We should do everything in our power to support those in Russia who oppose Putin and his corrupt state, and to isolate him if he manages to wangle power for himself for six more years.

Gessen, Masha, The man without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin

See also these interviews from Sam Harris ‘s Waking Up podcast: Timothy Snyder, the road to tyranny; Anne Applebaum, the Russia connection; Gary Kasparov, the Putin question.

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2017 at 10:06 am

three problems with Islamic society, moderate or otherwise

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As a teacher of English to foreign students, I have a lot of dealing with, mostly male, Moslems. I generally get on very well with them. Religion doesn’t come up as an issue, any more than with my Chinese or Vietnamese students. I’m teaching them English, after all. However, it’s my experience of the views of a fellow teacher, very much a moderate Moslem, that has caused me to write this piece, because those views seem to echo much that I’ve read about online and elsewhere.

  1. Homosexuality

It’s well known that in such profoundly Islamic countries as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, there’s zero acceptance of homosexuality, to the point of claiming it doesn’t exist in those countries. Its ‘non-existence’ may be due to that fact that its practice incurs the death penalty (in Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, Iran and Sudan), though such penalties are rarely carried out – except, apparently, in Iran. Of course, killing people in large numbers would indicate that there’s a homosexual ‘problem’. In other Moslem countries, homosexuals are merely imprisoned for varying periods. And lest we feel overly superior, take note of this comment from a very informative article in The Guardian:

Statistics are scarce [on arrests and prosecutions in Moslem countries] but the number of arrests is undoubtedly lower than it was during the British wave of homophobia in the 1950s. In England in 1952, there were 670 prosecutions for sodomy, 3,087 for attempted sodomy or indecent assault, and 1,686 for gross indecency.

This indicates how far we’ve travelled in a short time, and it also gives hope that other nations and regions might be swiftly transformed, but there’s frankly little sign of it as yet. Of course the real problem here is patriarchy, which is always and everywhere coupled with homophobia. It’s a patriarchy reinforced by religion, but I think if we in the west were to try to put pressure on these countries and cultures, I think we’d succeed more through criticising their patriarchal attitudes than their religion.

Having said this, it just might be that acceptance of homosexuality among liberal Moslems outside of their own countries (and maybe even inside them) is greater than it seems to be from the vibes I’ve gotten from the quite large numbers of Moslems I’ve met over the years. A poll taken by the Pew Research Centre has surprised me with its finding that 45% of U.S. Moslems accept homosexuality (in 2014, up from 38% in 2007), more than is the case among some Christian denominations, and the movement towards acceptance aligns with a trend throughout the U.S. (and no doubt all other western nations), among religious and non-religious alike. With greater global communication and interaction, the diminution of poverty and the growth of education, things will hopefully improve in non-western countries as well.

2. Antisemitism and the Holocaust

I’ve been shocked to hear, more than once, Moslems blithely denying, or claiming as exaggerated, the events of the Holocaust. This appears to be a recent phenomenon, which obviously bolsters the arguments of many Middle Eastern nations against the Jewish presence in their region. However, it should be pointed out that Egypt’s President Nasser, a hero of the Moslem world, told a German newspaper in 1964 that ‘no person, not even the most simple one, takes seriously the lie of the six million Jews that were murdered [in the Holocaust]’. More recently Iran has become a particular hotspot of denialism, with former President Ahmadinejad making a number of fiery speeches on the issue. Most moderate Islamic organisations, here and elsewhere in the west, present a standard line that the Shoah was exactly as massive and horrific as we know it to be, but questions are often raised about the sincerity of such positions, given the rapid rise of denialism in the Arab world. Arguably, though, this denialism isn’t part of standard anti-semitism. Responding to his own research into holocaust denialism among Israeli Arabs (up from 28% in 2006 to 40% in 2008), Sammy Smooha of Haifa University wrote this:

In Arab eyes disbelief in the very happening of the Shoah is not hate of Jews (embedded in the denial of the Shoah in the West) but rather a form of protest. Arabs not believing in the event of Shoah intend to express strong objection to the portrayal of the Jews as the ultimate victim and to the underrating of the Palestinians as a victim. They deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state that the Shoah gives legitimacy to. Arab disbelief in the Shoah is a component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unlike the ideological and anti-Semitic denial of the Holocaust and the desire to escape guilt in the West.

This is an opinion, of course, and may be seen as hair-splitting with respect to anti-semitism, but it’s clear that these counterfactual views aren’t helpful as we try to foster multiculturalism in countries like Australia.They need to be challenged at every turn.

Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns holds a rally in front of the Iranian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats against Isreal and denial of the Holocaust, Monday, March 13, 2006 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

3. Evolution

While the rejection, and general ignorance, of the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution – more specifically, natural selection from random variation – may not be the most disturbing feature of Islamic society, it’s the one that most nearly concerns me as a person keen to promote science and critical thinking. I don’t teach evolution of course, but I often touch on scientific topics in teaching academic English. A number of times I’ve had incredulous comments on our relationship to apes (it’s more than a relationship!), and as far as I can recall, they’ve all been from Moslem students. I’ve also come across various websites over the years, by Moslem writers – often academics – from Turkey, India and Pakistan whose anti-evolution and anti-Darwin views degenerate quickly into fanatical hate-filled screeds.

I won’t go into the evidence for natural selection here, or an explanation of the theory, which is essential to all of modern biology. It’s actually quite complex when laid out in detail, and it’s not particularly surprising that even many non-religious people have trouble understanding it. What bothers me is that so many Moslems I’ve encountered don’t make any real attempt to understand the theory, but reject it wholesale for reasons not particularly related to the science. They’ve used the word ‘we’ in rejecting it, so that it’s impossible to even get to first base with them. This raises the question of the teaching of evolution in Moslem schools (and of course, not just Moslem schools), and whether and how much this is monitored. One may argue that non-belief in evolution, like belief in a flat earth or other specious ways of thinking, isn’t so harmful given a general scientific illiteracy which hasn’t stopped those in the know from making great advances, but it’s a problem when being brought up in a particular culture stifles access to knowledge, and even promotes a vehement rejection of that knowledge. We need to get our young people on the right page not in terms of a national curriculum but an evidence-based curriculum for all. Evidence has no national boundaries.

Conclusion – the problem of identity politics

 The term identity politics is used in various ways, but I feel quite clear about my own usage here. It’s when your identity is so wrapped up in a political or cultural or religious or class or caste or professional grouping, that it trumps your own independent critical thinking and analysis. The use of ‘we think’ or ‘we believe’, is the red flag for these attitudes, but of course this usage isn’t always overt or conscious. The best and probably only way to deal with this kind of thinking is through constructive engagement, drawing people out of the groupthink intellectual ghetto through argument, evidence and invitations to reconsider (or consider for the first time) and if that doesn’t work, firmness regarding the evidence-based view together with keeping future lines of communications open. They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, and it’s a piece of wisdom that works on a pragmatic and a humane level. And watch out for that firmness, because the evidence is rarely fixed. Education too is important. As an educator, I find that many students are open to the knowledge I have to offer, and are sometimes animated and inspired by it, regardless of their background. The world’s an amazing place, and students can be captivated by its amazingness, if it’s presented with enthusiasm. That can lead to explorations that can change minds. Schools are, or can be, places where identity politics can fragment as peers from different backgrounds can converge and clash, sometimes in a constructive way. We need to watch for and combat the echo-chamber effect of social media, a new development that often reinforces false and counter-productive ideas – and encourages mean-spirited attacks on faceless adversaries. Breaking down walls and boundaries, rather than constructing them, is the best solution. Real interactions rather than virtual ones, and thinking about the background and humanity of the other before leaping into the fray (I’m beginning to sound saintlier than I’ve ever really been – must be the Ha Ji-won influence!)

Written by stewart henderson

April 19, 2017 at 10:27 am

ten negatory claims about same-sex marriage

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percentages of those favouring same-sex marriage (in the US) over twenty-odd years – one of the fastest changes in public opinion in human history

What are the arguments against same-sex marriage? That’s a question I’m asking myself as I hear that conservatives want public money to run a campaign against it if Australia holds a plebiscite – which I’m not particularly in favour of, but at least it makes me reconsider the ‘no’ arguments. Presumably they’d be along the same lines as those of the TFP (tradition, family, property) organisation of the USA, but Australia as a nation is less religiously fixated than the USA, so the weak arguments found on the TFP website would seem even weaker to people over here. But let’s run through their 10 arguments just for fun. You can read them in full on the website if you’ve nothing better to do.

1. It is not marriage.

The claim here is that you can’t just redefine marriage to suit changing situations. ‘Marriage has always been x’, (x usually being identified as a ‘covenant between a man, a woman and god’ or some such thing). The response is, we can and always have done. Marriage is a human invention, and like all inventions we can modify it to suit our needs. A table is a human invention, and it can be a chess table, a bedside table, a coffee table, a dining table or a conference table, and none of these uses threatens the meaning of the word ‘table’. Marriage is ours to define and use as we wish, and historically we’ve done just that, with polygynous marriages, which have been commonplace, polyandrous marriages (much rarer) and other more or less formal arrangements, such as handfasting and morganatic and common-law marriages. Of course, marriage has rarely been recognised between individuals of the same sex, though same-sex unions, some of them highly ritualised and contractualised, have had a long history. But the reason for this is obvious – throughout history, homosexuals have been tortured and executed for their feelings and practices. The history of exclusive male-female marriage coincides with the history of homosexual persecution. The two histories are not unrelated, they’re completely entwined.

2. It violates natural law.

WTF is natural law, you might ask. A TFP fiction apparently. Their website says: Being rooted in human nature, it [natural law] is universal and immutable. But human nature is neither of these things. It’s diverse and evolving, socially as well as genetically. Marriage and child-rearing arrangements vary massively around the globe, with varying results, but it seems clear from voluminous research that children benefit most from close bonding with one or two significant others, together with a wider circle of potential carers and mentors. It’s notable that when this organisation lays down the ‘law’ on matters of marriage, sexuality and families it cites no scientific research of any kind – its only quotes are from the Bible.

3. It always denies children either a father and a mother.

Leaving aside the fact that there are often no children involved, this argument relies on the assumption that a father and a mother are indispensable to the proper rearing of children. Research reported on in Science Daily found that ‘children raised by two same-gender parents do as well on average as children raised by two different-gender parents. This is obviously inconsistent with the widespread claim that children must be raised by a mother and a father to do well’.  Melvin Konner in his 2015 book Women after all puts it this way: ‘One of the most impressive discoveries of the last decade in child development research is that when babies of either sex are adopted by lesbian or gay couples – and this has been studied very extensively and carefully – the main way the resulting children differ from controls raised with a father and mother is that they turn out to be less homophobic.’ Of course, this is exactly what organisations like TFP are afraid of, as promotion of homophobia is what they’re all about.

4. It Validates and Promotes the Homosexual Lifestyle

And that’s precisely what it aims to do. Of course TFP argues, or rather states without argument, that this would ‘weaken public morality’. Humanists would argue precisely the opposite, that such validation is long overdue, and would strengthen a morality based on the recognition of the fundamental humanity and value of diverse individuals.

5. It Turns a Moral Wrong into a Civil Right

In its discussion of this reason to oppose same-sex marriage, TFP again refers to its bogus ‘natural law’. Same-sex marriage (always in inverted commas on its website ) is opposed to nature, according to TFP. Again this is stated rather than argued, but as I’ve often pointed out, bonobos, our closest living relatives, engage in homosexual acts on a regular basis. Of course, they don’t marry, because marriage isn’t natural, it’s a human construction, and mostly a quite usefiul one, though not necessary for child-rearing, or for permanent monogamous relationships. Further to this, researchers have observed homosexual acts in between 500 and 1500 non-human species, so it seems to be natural enough.

6. It Does Not Create a Family but a Naturally Sterile Union

Again TFP makes ad nauseum use of the word ‘nature’ to give credit to its views. But the fact that same-sex couples can’t have offspring without outside help isn’t a reason to debar them from a union that serves multiple purposes. Moreover, it’s quite reasonable for homosexual males or females to feel that they would make good parents, and to yearn to be parents, and there is no reason why this should yearning should be opposed, if the opportunity to parent a child arises. Adopted children are often brought up in loving and happy environments, and succeed accordingly.

7. It Defeats the State’s Purpose of Benefiting Marriage. 

It’s hardly for the TFP or any other organisation to tell us what the State’s purpose is regarding marriage. Most advanced states provide benefits for children, regardless of the marital status of the mother. This is very important, considering the large number of single-parent (mostly female) families we have today. The state also doesn’t distinguish between marriage and de facto relationships when it dispenses benefits. The TFP is obviously out of date on this one.

8. It Imposes Its Acceptance on All Society

States are legalising same-sex marriage around the western world under public pressure. Here in Australia, where same-sex marriage hasn’t yet been legalised, polls have indicated that same-sex marriage is clearly acceptable to the majority. Where it is up to courts to decide, as occurred recently in the USA, the process is too complex to cover here, but it’s clear that the public’s attitude to same-sex marriage in every advanced or developed nation has undergone a seismic shift in a relatively short period – the last ten years or so.

9. It Is the Cutting Edge of the Sexual Revolution

Vive la révolution. Of course, TFP presents the slippery slope argument – paedophilia, bestiality and the like – so hurtful and offensive to the LGBT community. Again, there’s never any presentation of evidence or research, every proposition is presented as self-evident. It’s a profoundly anti-intellectual document.

10. It Offends God

This is, of course, presented as the main argument. Biblical quotes are given, including one in which their god’s mass immolation of ‘sodomites’ is celebrated. I don’t really see much point in questioning the supposedly offended feelings of a supposedly all-perfect, all-powerful invisible undetectable being. It’s all a fairly nasty fantasy.

There’s nothing more to say, and as an intellectual exercise this was probably a waste of time, as people who believe the above guff aren’t listening much. Any critical responses to their 10 propositions on the TFP website will be promptly deleted. There’s definitely no fun to be had with these guys. Their absolute certainty, and their inability and unwillingness to argue cogently or to examine evidence is a very disturbing sign, and a clear indication that they’re fuelled entirely by emotion. A passionate fear of change and difference. It all tends to reinforce the arguments against holding a plebiscite, in which, in Australia, people of this sort would actually be funded to give voice to their certainties with all the indignation of righteousness. They would be ruthless about their targets, and being patriarchal  – because preserving extreme patriarchy is what this is all about at base – they would be violent in their language and tactics. The best way to muzzle them would be to resolve this in parliament as soon as possible.

Written by stewart henderson

September 21, 2016 at 12:25 pm

bonobo society, or how to dominate males when you’re smaller

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SLUG; BONOBOS SCIENCE TIMES A BONOBO FAMILY IN A FOREST CLEARING IN WAMBA, ZAIRE. CREDIT: 1996 FRANS LANTING END CURRENT IMAGE 9700023PhotoOWNFREELANCE Photo Caption: Date: 01/01/97 Headline: RETURN NEGS Assignment Caption:RETURN NEGS TO EDITOR/PHOTOG....01/01/97 - 12/31/97 Photographer: FREELANCE Sack Number: 9700023 Reporter: Slug: OWN Desk: Photo Start: 0223 Until: Change Time: False City: State: Country: Location: Contact: Contact Phone: Reporter There?: False Editor: Photo Editor Date Wanted: 01/01/97 Time Wanted: ASAP Summary: Photographer Type: 2 Shot?: False Number of Rolls: 0 Scanned?: 0 Handouts: False Notes: Clean?: False Assignment: 970101028A Record No: 78654


Bonobo society has been closely observed both in captivity and, with much greater difficulty, in the wild, and it’s worth comparing it to that of their close relatives, chimps. It’s clear that, though aggression does exist in bonobo society, it isn’t anywhere near as prevalent as in chimps. This is obviously related to the use, mentioned previously, of sex to reduce tension and aggression in situations which would normally lead to competitive activity. It’s the ‘make love not war’ social system that has caught the attention of many beyond ethological researchers.

Now, it’s clear that aggression in all primate societies comes predominantly from males. Looking at human societies, the statistics are universal. There is no human society on earth where the homicide and/or assault statistics are dominated by females as perpetrators.  Up until very recently it was males who went to war, and today it’s overwhelmingly males who joing gangs, go hoon driving or join terrorist cells, just as in earlier times it was men who journeyed off to the adventure of the crusades or joined Boney’s army to devastate Europe. As Melvin Konner convincingly argues, this strongly indicates a biological or genetic basis for male aggression. Much of it seems to be about the expression in males of androgens, the male sex hormones. Now with the way we’re going today in genetics and biochemistry we may in the future be able to tweak the production of androgens to offer a biological solution to male violence – which is already in decline in developed countries. However, their are other solutions, and Bonobo society represents one.

Bonobo society is very close-knit. Male bonobos develop close lifelong ties with their mothers. There’s no relationship with the father, who’s unknown, as the females engage in sex with multiple partners more or less indiscriminately. Of course males will compete with other males for sexual partners, but even this aggression is damped down by sexual relations between males. It’s as if the button has been found to switch off escalating aggression, and that button is connected to the genitals. It would be intriguing to discover what’s going on in the brain, with neurotransmitters and hormones, during this rise and fall of aggressive emotions.

Sex doesn’t just reduce aggression though. It virtually creates the bonobo social structure. As with chimps, bonobos have a fission-fusion society, breaking off into smaller ‘unit’ groups for hunting and foraging in the forest and coming together in larger groups at other times. Individual associations, apart from the mother-offspring dependency, are casual and changeable. However, the larger group, or community, has its limit, and keeps itself separate from other bonobo communities. Another feature of bonobo society is that females emigrate from their birth groups at around 8 years of age, moving to group of virtual strangers, where they have to work to build relationships, particularly with older females. The female-female bond is a central feature of bonobo society and these bonds become much stronger than in chimp society, in spite of the fact that these females, having come from other groups, are less genetically related than the males. This bond is cemented by sex, which creates loosely hierarchical coalitions, with one female dominating, mostly through reproductive success – especially in the production of males. Sisterhood is powerful, and it’s not necessarily about genetics. It’s a great lesson for our society, if we can get over the idea, so prevalent but hopefully fading, that we’re unique in a more unique way than any other species is unique, that we’re civilized, and that we have little or nothing to learn from our primate cousins.

And there’s so much more to learn, as we’ll see.


M Konner, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy



Written by stewart henderson

September 10, 2016 at 9:03 am

night flight to Dubai

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imageIf you’ve come here looking for Bondesque hijinks click off now. The plane was a Boeing 777, with I think 10 passengers abreast, 3x4x3 with 2 aisles. I take this from Dr Google as much as from unreliable memory, there are apparently many ways of fitting out a 777. Our seating was on the left side facing forward, my TC had the aisle seat, I took the centre, and the window seat was taken up by a late-comer, who thus dashed our hopes of moving up one and gazing into the outer dark. This gangly young Englishman’s trials in clambering over and around us to get to his seat were a promise of discomfort to come.

It was a 14-hour flight to Dubai, starting at around 2200 but due to time zones and date-lines etc we’d be arriving at 0530 the next morning. As mentioned, I’ve had plenty of advice about pills or treatments for whatever might ail me on the flight but in truth I prefer remaining unmedicated as far as possible, and in my sixtieth year I’m pretty well drug-free, if you except life’s absolutely necessary pleasures, caffeine and alcohol, and I’m ever alarmed by and resistant to the collections of meds many of my peers feel forced to take against Alzheimer’s, anaemia, angina, anxiety, apnoeia, arthritis and let’s not get started on the rest of the alphabet. So all I took was some nasal spray and chewing gum as a defence against ‘plane brain’, aka aerosinusitis, and this worked a treat.

I didn’t sleep a wink in those 14 hours, though my reliable but argumentative TC insisted I had some winks, possibly as many as 40. Of course I was wide awake as I could possibly be for the take-off, but I mustn’t exaggerate my terror, it was nothing compared to the Mad Mouse. What made sleep impossible was the discomfort, the novelty and the anticipation, a mèlange of unbeatable distractions. My window-side neighbour was asleep within minutes of take-off, which didn’t stop him jabbing and kicking me when he shifted positions. There was a dearth of space between me and the seats in front and I felt timid about leaning my seat back too far. As time went by I became obsessed with my legs, which didn’t have room to straighten. I tried pushing my arse right back in the seat, I raised it up awkwardly, but just couldn’t get my angles right. My TC on seeing me squirm suggested I take some exercise in the aisle, as per the advice of all experts, but I perversely refused such an easy solution, and didn’t leave my seat until just before touch-down. Which turned out to be one of the highlights of the flight – possibly the longest pee in my peeing career.

Of course it’s hard to look back over so many years of peeing and pick out some, or any, of the great ones, and in any case peeing is such a subjective thing. For example, we’ve all experienced the agony of desperately needing a pee but being nowhere near a publicly sanctioned pee-place. In such circs your distressed state will disable you from conducting pee-stream studies of any kind; the last thing on your mind will be your PB in this activity. I’d go so far as to say that the physical release, the sense of near-weightless joy caused by these outpourings has been probably my most spiritual/religious experience. A true feeling of Salvation, as far from mere bean- or pee-counting as can be had.

Anyway what was intriguing about this mighty slash after 13 hours or so of being plied – necessarily, given the arid aircraft atmosphere – with coffee, fruit juice, and more pure unadulterated water (my least fave drink) than I usually consume in a month, was that, until my legs finally communicated to me that they really had to be stretched, I felt no great urge to relieve myself. Even after several minutes of quite exhilarating straightening and muscle-rubbing in the aisle, my loo visit seemed more after-thoughtful than necessary, so I was in a kind of neutral, clear-headed state when I observed my pee go on and on, leading me to thoughts of PBs and such. If it wasn’t my longest ever, was it in my top 10 (or top 5 if it was in the top half of the 10)? How could I tell? Clearly there is one pee I’ve had in my life that is my longest. Is this in any sense important? Well, maybe. Interesting, certainly. Though on reflection it isn’t so much the longest but the largest by volume that’s important* (or merely interesting) for presumably sometimes the pee runs more feebly than at others; the valve, so to speak, being plus ou moins open – constricted or dilated due to the vagaries of the weather, state of health, age perhaps or even just state of mind. Maybe one day scientists will hatch a device to be implanted in the midriff to measure the highs and lows of pee-flow. Maybe they already have, it wouldn’t suprise me, the utility of such is clear. But it would also allow some champion to claim the Biggest Pee, another entry to add to the Guiness Book of Perhaps Not so Pointless Records. And as I sat back in my now more comfy seat readying myself for Dubai, I thought of another perhaps not so pointless PB that I might just have broken, in that at some point during this flight I may have reached a higher distance above sea-level than ever before. Now how could that be monitored in our monitor-loving age? But then again, sea levels rise and fall, so….

Dubai lights. We watched the perfect landing on the screen before us. The airport was pale in the breaking dawn and glittering with artificial light. There were planes everywhere. Already it was 28 degrees outside.


*Just as the Nile is the longest river but the Amazon is by far the largest by volume. The Amazon wins.


– The food was plentiful, varied and delicious IMHO, and the service was excellent, under sometimes difficult conditions.

– You need to see things from a baby’s perspective. As they’ve not yet developed sophisticated means of either conveying or receiving info, their instinct is to make as much noise as possible to make absolutely sure that others know they’re suffering horrendous agonies or experiencing the most frabjous joy. So nature has furnished them with the most impressive noise-making equipment for this purpose. It’s highly adaptive, another fine example of evolution at work. Ear plugs next time, though simple perspective taking can be sufficient.

– Not having a tech-savvy 13-y-o as my TC it took most of the flight to work out the functioning of the on-board entertainment (the first 2 hours just to get the headphones plugged in and operational). The movies were mostly boorish but I found one, Carol, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel I actually read some 20 years ago, a book/film about longing, desire and hope, regardless of sexual preference really, very much the sort of thing I’m drawn to. Reminds me of my fave Jane Austen novel, Persuasion. Highly recommended – I got teary. Fine performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Also recalls to my mind my fave line from the KJ Bible, perhaps my fave line in all litt: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’.

Couldn’t settle to anything else much, though I did find a silly thriller very much starring Olga Kurylenko, the Most Beautiful Woman Who Has Ever Lived according to my ever-changing judgment (OK is always more than OK, I like to say), but not even her loveliness and her formidable ball-breaking superhero role could force me to see the shamefully silly shenanigans to the end. Better to watch L’Annulaire again, and again.

– Aerosinusitis. I did feel a painful buid-up after take-off but then came a sudden but sort of slow uncorking and brightening of sound, rather pleasurable, and I had no further problems on the outbound flights.


Une presence francaise at Dubai airport

Une presence francaise at Dubai airport



Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2016 at 12:13 pm

on transcendental constructions: a critique of Scott Atran

with one comment



Some years ago, when watching some of the talks and debates in the first ‘Beyond Belief’ conference at the Salk Institute, I noted some tension between Sam Harris and his critique of religion generally and Islam in particular, and Scott Atran, an anthropologist, who appeared to be quite contemptuous of Harris’s views. Beyond noting the tension, I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time, but I’ve decided now to look at this issue more closely because I’ve just read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s powerful book Infidel, which gives an insider’s informed and critical view of Islam, particularly from a woman’s perspective, and I’ve also listened to Chris Mooney’s Point of Inquiry interview with Atran back in April, shortly after the Boston marathon bombing.

The interview, called ‘What makes a terrorist?’ was mainly about the psychology of the more recent batch of terrorists, but in the latter half, Atran responded to a question about the role of Islam specifically in recent terrorist behaviour. It’s this response I want to examine, not so much in the light of Sam Harris’s contrasting views, but in comparison to those of Hirsi Ali.

In bringing up the role of Islam in terrorism, Chris Mooney cites Sam Harris as pointing out that ‘there’s something about Islam today that is more violent’. Atran’s immediate response is that ‘this is such a complex and confused issue’, then he says that ‘religions are fairly neutral vessels’. This idea that religions, especially those that survive over time, have a degree of neutrality to them, has some truth, and in fact it served as the basis for my critique of Melvyn Bragg’s absurd claims that Christianity and the KJV Bible were largely responsible for feminism, democracy and the anti-slavery movement. But there is a limit to this ‘neutrality’. Religions are clearly not so ‘neutral’, morally or culturally, that they’re interchangeable with each other. Fundamentalist, or ultra-orthodox, or ultra-conservative Judaism is not the same as its Islamic or Christian counterparts. In fact, far from it. And yet these three religions ostensibly share the same deity.

The interaction between religion and culture is almost impenetrably complex. I wrote about this years ago in an essay about traditional Australian Aboriginal religion/culture, in which it’s reasonable to say that religion is culture and culture is religion. In such a setting, apostasy would be meaningless or impossible – essentially a denial of one’s own identity. Having said that, if your religion, via one of its principal texts, tells you that apostasy is punishable by death, you’ve already got a yawning separation between religion and cultural identity – the very reason for the excessive threat of punishment is to desperately try to plug that gap. It’s like the desperate cry of a father – ‘you’ll never amount to anything without me!’ – as the son walks out the door for the last time.

These major religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are embedded in texts that are embedded in culture. Different, varied texts interacting complexly – reinforcing, challenging, altering the culture from whence they sprung. Differently. Judaism’s major text, always arguably, is the Torah. Christianity’s is the New Testament, or is it the gospels? Islamic scholars – but also those believers who rarely ever read the sacred texts – will argue about which texts are most important and why. Nevertheless, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have a different feel to them from each other, even given the enormous variation within each religion. Judaism is profoundly insular, with its chosen people uniquely flayed by their demanding, unforgiving god. Christianity is profoundly other-worldly with its obsession with the saviour, the saved, the end of days, the kingdom to come, the soul struggling for release, not to mention sin sin sin. Islam, a harsh, desert religion, somehow even more than the other two, is about denial, control, submission, and jihad in all its complex and contradictory manifestations and interpretations. The status of women in each religion, in a general sense, is different. Christianity gives women the most ‘wriggle-room’ from the start, but its interaction with the different cultures captured by the religion can sometimes open up that space, or close it down. The New Testament presents a patriarchal culture of course, but in the gospels women aren’t given too bad a rap. Paul of Tarsus notoriously displays some misogyny elsewhere in the NT, but it isn’t particularly specific and no detailed restrictions on women’s freedom are presented. More importantly, the dynamism of western culture has blown away many attempts to maintain the restrictions on women’s freedom dictated by Christian dogma – pace the Catholic Church. In any case, Christianity has no equivalent to Sharia Law, with its deity-given restrictions and overall fearfulness of the freedom and power of women. And neither Christianity nor Islam has the obsession with ritual and with interpretation of the deity’s very peculiar requirements that orthodox Judaism has.

To return, though, to Atran. He argues that the reason the big religions survive and thrive is precisely due to their lack of fixed propositions – which is why, he says, that we need sermons to continually update and modernise the interpretations of texts, parables, suras and the like. I’m not sure if the Khutbas of Moslem Imams serve the same purpose as priests’ sermons, but I generally agree with Atran here. The point, of course, is that though there is much leeway for interpretation, there are still boundaries, and the boundaries are different for Islam compared to Christianity, etc.

What follows is my analysis of what Atran has to say about what are, in fact, very complex and contentious matters relating to religion and social existence. Whole books could be, and of course are, devoted to this, so I’ll try not to get too bogged down. I’m using my own transcript of Atran’s interview with Mooney, slightly edited. Occasionally I can’t quite make out what Atran is saying, as he sometimes talks softly and rapidly, but I’ll do my best.

So, after his slightly over-simplified claim that these big religions are ‘neutral vessels’, Atran goes on with his definition. These religions are:

… moral frameworks that provide a transcendental moral foundation for large groups coalescing – for how else do you get genetic relatives to form large co-operative groups? They don’t have to be necessarily religious today, but it involves transcendental ideas. Take human rights, for example, that’s a crazy idea. Two hundred and fifty years ago a bunch of intellectuals in Europe decided that providence or nature made all human beings equal, endowed by their creator with rights to liberty and happiness, when the history of 200,000 years of human life had been mostly cannibalism, infanticide, murder, the suppression of minorities and women, and so [through the wars?] and social engineering, they took this crackpot idea and made it real.

I have a few not so minor quibbles to make here. Presumably Atran is using the term ‘transcendental’ in the way that I would use the term “over-arching’ – a much more neutral, and if you like, secular term. The trouble is – and he uses this term often throughout the interview – Atran uses ‘transcendental’ with deliberate rhetorical intent, taking advantage of its massive semantic load to undercut various secular concepts, in this case the ‘crackpot’ concept of human rights.

This isn’t to say that Atran objects to human rights. My guess is that he regards it as a somewhat arbitrary and unlikely concept, invented by a bunch of European intellectuals in the Enlightenment era, that just happened to catch on, and a good thing too. That’s not how I see it. It’s just much much more complex than that. So much so that I hesitate to even begin to explore it here. The germ of the concept goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and it involves the increasingly systematic study of human history, and human psychology. It involves the science of evolution, and it involves pragmatic global developments in commerce and diplomacy. Eighteenth century Enlightenment ideas had a catalytic effect, as did many developments of the scientific enlightenment of the previous century, as did the growth of democratic ideas and the concept of systematic universal education and health-care in the nineteenth century, in the west.

My point is that, though I have no problems with calling human rights a convenient fiction – nobody ‘really’ has rights as such – it’s based on a this-worldly (i.e. non-transcendental) understanding of how both individuals and societies flourish and thrive, in terms of the contract or compromise between them.

Atran goes on:

But, in general, societies that have unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions win out over those that don’t –  I mean, Darwin talked about it as moral virtue, and said that this is responsible for the kind of patriotism, sympathy and loyalty that makes certain tribes win out over other tribes in […] competition for dominance and survival, and again, without these transcendental ideas people can’t really be blinded to [exit strategies], I mean, societies that are based on social contracts, no matter how good they are, the idea that there’s always a better deal down the line makes them liable to collapse, while these societies are much less prone to that. And there are all sorts of other things associated with these sorts of unverifiable propositions.

Presumably these ‘unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions’ are religions, and I’ve no great objection to that characterisation, but I’m not so convinced about the positive value for ‘dominance and survival’ of these constructions. One could argue that my kind of scepticism can only flourish in a secure environment such as we have in the west, where such ‘undermining’ values as anti-nationalism and atheism can’t threaten the social cohesion of our collective prosperity and sense of superiority to non-western notions. There are just no ‘better deals down the line’, except maybe more health, wealth and happiness, commitment to which requires the very opposite of an ‘exit strategy’. In other words, western ‘social contract’ societies, in which religious belief is rapidly diminishing (outside the US), are showing no sign of collapsing, because there is no meaningful exit strategy, unless a delusional one. There is no desire or motivation to exit. We’re largely facing our demons and rejecting overly ‘idealistic’ solutions.

Perhaps my meaning will be clearer when we look at more of Atran’s remarks:

So now, the propositions, these things themselves can be interpreted, however, depending on the political and social climate of the age. Islam has been interpreted in ways that were extremely progressive at one time, and at least parts of it are extremely retrogressive, especially as concerns science for example, the position of women in the world, especially parts of it in many countries it’s extremely retrograde. But, Islam itself, I mean does it have some essence that encourages this kind of crazy violence? No, not at all – that truly is absurd, and just false.

Atran’s becoming a bit incoherent here, and maybe he expresses himself better elsewhere, but his base argument is that there’s no ‘essence’ to Islam which renders it more violent than other religions, or transcendental constructions (eg communism or fascism) for that matter. He overplays his hand, I think, when he claims that this is ‘absurd’ and obviously false. We could call this ‘the argument from petulance’. Islam does have some essential differences, I think, which makes it more able to act against women and against scientific ideas, though I agree that this is a matter of degree, and that it’s very complex. For example, the growth of Catholicism in Africa has combined with certain aspects of tribal culture and patriarchy to make African Catholic spokesmen very outspoken against homosexuality – and a recent local television program had a Moslem leader speaking up in favour of gay marriage. So, yes, there is nothing fixed in stone about Islam or Christianity with respect to human values.

The thing is that, for writers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I suspect Sam Harris too, the question of ‘essentialism’ is largely academic, for right here and right now people are being targeted by Moslems (under the pressure of cultural connections or disconnections), because they are apostates, or critics, or women trying to get an education, or women dressing too ‘immodestly’, and this is causing great tension, even to the point of death and destruction here and there. In fact, Hirsi Ali, in calling for an enlightenment in the Moslem world, is backing a non-essentialist view. It’s the culture that has to change, but of course religion, with its transcendentalist, eternalist underpinnings, acts as a strong brake against cultural transformation. To engage in the battle for moderation is to battle for this-wordly, evidence-based thinking on human flourishing, against transcendentalist ideas of all kinds.

Atran, I think, relies too heavily on his notion of ‘transcendental constructions’, which he uses too widely and sweepingly, even with a degree of smugness. Let me provide one more quote from his interview, with some final comments.

But again, I don’t see anything about Islam itself… you need some kind of transcendental ideal to get people to sacrifice for genetic strangers, for these large groups. Religion is the best thing that human history has come up with, but there are other competing transcendental notions of which democratic liberalism, human rights, communism, fascism, are others, and right now the democratic-liberal-human rights thing is predominant in a large part of the world and it’s a salvation [……..] and people don’t want that or feel left in the driftwood of globalisation, they are looking for something else to give them equal power and significance.

Methinks Atran might’ve been spending too much time in the study of religious/transcendental ideas – he’s seeing everything though that perspective. I myself have written about democracy, in its various manifestations, from a sceptical perspective many times, and I’ve been critical of the over-use of the concept of rights, and so forth. It’s true enough that people can take these concepts, along with fascism or communism, to a transcendental level, making of them an unquestionable given for ‘right living’ or ‘a decent society’, but they can also be taken pragmatically and realistically, reasonably, as the most serviceable approaches to a well-functioning social order. Social evolution is moving quickly, and we can make sacrifices for genetic strangers, based on our growing understanding, as humans, of our common genetic inheritance. We’re not so much genetic strangers, perhaps, as we once thought ourselves to be. Indeed, it’s this growing understanding, a product of science, that is expanding our circle of connection beyond even the human. We need to promote this understanding as much as we can, in the teeth of transcendentalist, eternalist, other-worldly ideas about submission to deities, heavenly rewards and spiritual superiority.

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 7, objective moral values and duties

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ceci n'est pas Jesus

ceci n’est pas Jesus

Dr Craig’s sixth claim, that his god is the best explanation for objective moral values, is one I want to dwell on at some length, so please sit back in your electrified chairs and enjoy my reflections if you can. But please note that I dwell on the subject for my own interest’s sake, not because I find Dr Craig’s views require much work to overcome – far from it.

I suppose it’s fair to say that when it comes to moral issues, unlike with matters scientific, we all like to consider ourselves experts, and we’re all a little more committed and vociferous, because – it’s personal. So I’ll begin with some personal stuff. From earliest childhood I’ve always felt very emotional about issues of cruelty and injustice. I was often in tears on witnessing kids in my class being bullied – more often than not by teachers. When I was a little boy I read the Hans Andersen story, ‘the little match girl’, a simple but devastating story about a young girl out in the cold snow, trying to sell matches for her impoverished family, afraid to go home without having sold any. She finally dies, out in the cold, on the last night of the year. This tale of unfairness and cruelty and indifference, had me awash with tears at the time, and literally haunted my childhood. I think it’s fair to say that a sense of empathy was well developed in me from an early age. Needless to say, ethical ideas based on the harm principle, such as those articulated by the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, held great appeal for me, but further than this, active moral programs to protect and support individual human beings, such as those enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights and in the many conventions and protocols that have followed from that declaration, are programs that I hold dear.

The point I’m making here is that the starting point for my own moral values was an emotional one, a visceral one, if you like, and not something derived from any ‘higher consciousness’ or reflectivity or rationality.  And I suspect that’s quite a common experience. We don’t generally choose to cry over or be haunted by an injustice. So where do these deep emotional feelings come from? I have absolutely no reason to associate them with a non-material being who has, as far as I’m aware, never communicated anything to me. Nor was I, during my childhood, convinced that everyone would feel the same way as I did if exposed to the story of the little match girl. Some would, I was sure, but others would be cruelly indifferent, and there would be a whole variety of responses along the spectrum. In short, my observations of life, even from an early age, told me that people valued things and experiences very differently from me, and very differently from each other, to a rather bewildering and unpredictable degree.

So, from the fore-going I hope it won’t come as a surprise to you that I don’t believe in objective moral values, but that I’m far from believing that this entails some kind of moral nihilism or amorality. In Dr Craig’s presentation of this argument, he suggests that those who don’t subscribe to objective moral values, by which he means, values that come from a male supernatural being, don’t see anything ‘really’ wrong with the massacre of schoolchildren. Let me put that in another way. He argues that my own deeply felt disgust, shock, anger and pain, when I hear about, and see, played out on my tv screen, those sorts of crimes, is not really real, because it isn’t connected to a non-material creator-protector god, which is how he defines objective morality. I find this a ridiculous argument, as well as an offensive one.

Firstly, Dr Craig’s version of morality is a sham because it exists nowhere. Dr Craig will not be able to give you a single instance of a command from his favoured deity. The decalogue, the ten commandments, were written by men, and though some of them may seem uncontroversial – don’t lie, steal, don’t kill – even these aren’t absolute. A starving person, in my view, would be justified in taking food belonging to another person, who had an abundance of such food, if the alternate was death. I have no difficulty with that. Some people would, as they have the view that private property is sacrosanct. And I could make similar arguments to justify lying, and even killing, under certain special circumstances. To me, there are no absolutes. Other commandments, such as keeping the sabbath day holy, I don’t take at all seriously, because I don’t believe a supernatural being made the world in seven days, though had I lived several thousand years ago, I might well have believed that. And so my morality would have been different then, just as my morality would be different if I were born, on the same day that I actually was born, but in the city of Basra, to a devout Moslem family. My morality, that I hold so dear, and which gives my life so much meaning, is the result of my particular upbringing, my peculiar variety of experiences and influences, the culture that I was born into, my genetic inheritance, and I’m sure there are other factors that I’ve left out. One thing I’m happy to leave out, though, is the command of a deity. I’ve never experienced such a command, and I have no reason to believe anyone else has either.

Now, there are atheists I know who argue for an objective morality, but obviously not grounded in a deity. Personally I find such rational arguments a bit weird, and I’ll say no more about them here, except to make the obvious point that being an atheist doesn’t commit you to any specific moral position, as it’s simply an absence of belief in a deity. That’s all.

What I do want to focus on is the claim that morality without a deity is merely subjective and not really real. That’s to say, without a deity we can do whatever we like and call it morality. Well, that’s not how I feel about morality, and it’s not how morality, and laws relating to morality (and most laws have some sort of moral reasoning behind them) have developed in our increasingly secular society. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is entirely secular, and I think it’s a grand step forward in global human interaction. And it’s more of an effect than a cause, it’s symptomatic of a gradual shift in our attitude to other cultures, in our attitude to race, whether the concept is a valid one or not. In the attitude of men to women, in the attitude of heterosexuals to homosexuals, in our attitude to and respect for children, and in our attitude to and respect for other species on this planet. All of these attitudes have changed drastically in the past 150 years or so. Living in an eternal present as we often do, we can easily overlook how thoroughly transformational these essentially moral developments have been, and they’ve owed nothing whatever to religion, which has generally dragged its heels at the rear. Look, for example, at the Catholic Church.

I’m an avid reader of history, and as such I’ve noted the social changes, particularly in western Europe, that occurred over the past 400 years or so. What has always struck me, in reading about the Thirty Years’ war or the English revolution of the 17th century, or the early slave trade, is how often and regularly God (the Judeo-Christian one) is invoked in the primary documents of those times. God appears on every page, often several times on every page, of every legal document. I’ve described the 17th century, and the centuries before, as a ‘god-besotted age’. And yet the everyday brutality, the callous inhumanity, the cruelty, the viciousness, the inequity, the impoverishment of basic human values of those times, were everywhere on display. If you think you’ve got problems now, transport yourself back to pre-Enlightenment Europe for a wake-up call. Arbitrary rulers, upstart priests, popular revolutionaries, all invoked the divine in order to invest themselves with authority, as still happens today. Think of the divine right of kings, and papal infallibility, and the dear leader and great leaders of North Korea, who promoted themselves as divine. In the past, monarchs regularly passed laws in the name of the god whom they represented. Nowadays, elected politicians pass laws in the name of the people who elected them. It seems to have been a great improvement.

Our morality and our laws are grounded, it seems to me, in our common, but changing, evolving human nature. This is not mere subjectivity. In fact it’s all we have to go on. We don’t make up our own morality as individuals because we’re essentially social beings who rely on each other for our survival and our thriving. We’re empathic because we see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. And we’ve evolved that empathic capacity to embrace species other than our own, which I think is a great step forward.

The theist has no ground for objective moral values because no single moral value, claiming to be objective, has ever been shown to come from a deity. I have no doubt that they’ve all come from human beings.

Written by stewart henderson

March 22, 2013 at 9:55 am