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was the invasion of Iraq justified?

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“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
― Mahatma Gandhi


In 2003 I protested against the impending attack on Iraq, along with so many others, though I don’t like being involved in mass protests, because they tend to over-simplify the response. A lot of the protesters were saying things I didn’t agree with, as is often the case. For example, some were using the national sovereignty argument, which I have little time for. Others were saying that war is always wrong, but I think war can be justified if it results in less harm than non-intervention, though this isn’t always easy to determine. As a humanist, I don’t think national or cultural boundaries should interfere with what we owe, ethically, to others, though I recognise as a pragmatic fact that they often do.

To me, the Iraq invasion has always been a clear-cut case of a criminal act, resulting in a loss of life – hardly unforeseeable – far greater than that suffered by the USA on September 11 2001. Furthermore, the September 11 atrocities, without which the invasion clearly would never have occurred, were in no way connected to the Iraqi regime. In the lead-up to the invasion, at the time of the protests, I was incensed, like others, at the Bush regime’s bullying treatment of the weapons inspectors in Iraq, and Hans Blix in particular, because their findings didn’t fit with the story Washington was trying to sell. This bullying proliferated, of course, to the leaders of major European nations such as France and Germany. The response of the French government to the possibility of war still seemed to me the most sensible and prescient one. In January of 2003, their foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin said ‘We think that military intervention would be the worst possible solution’, even though the French government felt at the time that Iraq wasn’t being truthful about WMD. In an impassioned speech to the Security Council only a few weeks later, Villepin spoke of the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region”, whose overwhelmingly Moslem inhabitants had sound historical reasons for suspecting and wanting to resist western interventions. He said that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace”. He also reported on the intelligence of France and its allies, which failed comprehensively to support links between al-Qaeda and Hussein’s regime. Of course, Villepin’s speech was roundly rejected and disparaged by the US and UK leadership, and the rest is the history we’re making and trying to make sense of today.

I’m returning to the subject for two reasons – a philosophical summary of pacifism and just war theory in a recent issue of Philosophy Now magazine (issue 102), and the views of British leftist but pro-Iraq war writers such as Nick Cohen.

In 2006, a document called the Euston Manifesto was produced in Britain. A leftist document, it was designed to draw the line against what its authors and signatories claimed to be an overly-indulgent, cultural relativist tendency in a large sector of the leftist commentariat. The document focused largely on the positives – upholding human rights, freedom of expression, pluralism, liberalism, historical truth, the heritage of democracy, internationalism and equality. It expressed opposition to tyranny and terrorism, racism, misogyny and censorship. In more specific terms, it supported a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict and opposed anti-Americanism – though in a somewhat backhanded way:

That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.

This is all outlined in the manifesto’s ‘statement of principles’ (section B), none of which I have any issue with. Section C, ‘elaborations’, addresses the Iraq war, inter alia, and is a little more problematic. Just before the Iraq campaign is dealt with there’s a paragraph on the September 11 attacks, which is uncompromisingly hostile to the view that it could be in any way justified as payback for US policy in the Middle East. Again I completely agree.

The paragraph that follows is interesting, and I will quote it in full, always remembering that it was written in 2006, before the execution of Saddam Hussein, and not long after the first parliamentary elections. Much has changed since then, with Iraqi governments becoming less democratic, and the contours of instability constantly changing.

The founding supporters of this statement took different views on the military intervention in Iraq, both for and against. We recognize that it was possible reasonably to disagree about the justification for the intervention, the manner in which it was carried through, the planning (or lack of it) for the aftermath, and the prospects for the successful implementation of democratic change. We are, however, united in our view about the reactionary, semi-fascist and murderous character of the Baathist regime in Iraq, and we recognize its overthrow as a liberation of the Iraqi people. We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted — rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.

Since this post is precisely about the arguments over intervention, I should say something in justification of my writing it. While we can’t predict precisely the outcome of an intervention or invasion or liberation (words are so important here), there are often broad and quite obvious signs to indicate whether such an event will advantage or disadvantage the targeted population. In analysing these signs we utilise history (or we should do) – that’s to say, we pick through the rubble of previous experiences of intervention. The question of whether the invasion (or whatever you choose to call it) of Iraq was justified is therefore a question about the future as well as the past. How, in the future, and in the present, should we, as humanists, deal with oppressive, reactionary, murderous regimes, such as exist today in North Korea, in Myanmar, and in the wannabe state of ‘the caliphate’? Not to mention so many other dictatorial regimes whose likely ‘murderousness’ is hard to get data on, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Asian and African tyrannies large and small.

I also have a quibble with the view that all good liberal leftists, regardless of their position before the war, should jump on board with the invaders to ‘remake’ Iraq into a democracy. The obvious problem with this view is that many of the anti-war protesters were concerned, and deeply so, that the reason for the invasion wasn’t democracy-building. The stated reason for the invasion, after all, was a defensive one; getting rid of WMDs to make the world a safer place. Other reasons were suspected, including simple restoration of US pride, and economic exploitation. The bullishness of the invasion rhetoric didn’t sound much like an attempt at democracy-building.

But I think the overwhelming reason for this deep concern  –  it was certainly my concern – was the suffering and harm that the invasion and aftermath would inflict on the people of Iraq. Nations invaded by foreigners tend to fight back, regardless of how much of a basket case the invaders think the nation is. This is even more the case when the ‘liberators’ are seen as having values antithetical to the target nation. Think of the consternation caused by the threatened invasion of England by the Spanish in the 1580s, or the French in the early 1800s, surely mild compared to that felt by the overwhelmingly Moslem Iraqis, fed for decades on tales of western decadence and double-dealing. An invasion would be fought bitterly, Hussein or no Hussein, and democracy isn’t the sort of thing to be imposed from above. So it’s understandable that those opposed to the invasion, and crushed by their failure to stop it, didn’t rush to join hands with those whose motives they so distrusted in an enthusiastic experiment in nation-restructuring.

I’m no pacifist,  and I’m concerned and demoralised by brutal dictatorships everywhere – many of which we know little about. I would like to see interventions wherever murder and oppression are the weapons of state control, but that’s a big ask, and where do we start, and how do we do it? Warfare is one of the most problematic options, but will a siege of sanctions be effective? A united, internationalist front which will offer credible threats – desist and democratise or else? And should we start with the tinpot dictatorships and work our way up to the giants? Which leads back to the question, why Iraq in the first place?

Muddled motives and intentions lead inevitably to muddled and contradictory outcomes. Indeed the stated motive for the intervention, dismantling WMDs and making the rest of the world a safer place, didn’t consider the Iraqi people directly at all. On that basis alone, the war could hardly be justified, because it was clear that even if Hussein’s weapons existed, they were not an imminent threat, with the dictator doing everything in his power to placate the west. Hussein was brutal and nasty, but his instinct for self-preservation was paramount, and it was clear in the last days of his regime that he was saving his sabre-rattling for his domestic audience while bending over backwards to comply with international demands.

One argument being put at the time was that anything was better than Saddam. But is this really the case? Consider two polar scenarios; a failed state in which there are no government regulations, and no police or legal institutions, an anarchic free-for-all; or a rigid dictatorship in which freedom is highly circumscribed and much that we value in life is sacrificed just for survival. Which is better? Well, with that very slight sketch it’s impossible to judge, but neither is very palatable. In the case of Iraq it would be comparing a ‘known’ with an ‘unknown’. The result of deposing Saddam was unknown and poorly planned for, but clearly it would unleash violent forces, and we knew from organisations such as Human Rights Watch that the day-to-day dictatorship, though repressive, wasn’t murderous at the time of the invasion.

My concern then, was saving lives, or more broadly, minimising harm. One thing I’ve always loathed is the ‘big picture’ politics of certain world leaders who like to redraw maps and bring down regimes with grand strategies, with very little thought to the ordinary struggles for survival, the lives and loves of people who suffer the consequences of those grand plans – including death and destruction. Of course, harm minimisation is fiendishly difficult to quantify when you’re talking about such variables as freedom and opportunity, but at least we can try. Just war theory might help us with some guidelines.

Duane Cady, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus at Hamline University, Minnesota, provides a two-part outline of just war theory as currently understood. I’ll focus only on the first part, which seeks to answer the question – When is it justified to go to war?

Going to war justly requires meeting 6 conditions:

1. The war must be made on behalf of a just cause

2. The decision to go to war must be made by proper authorities

3. Participants must have a good intention rather than revenge or greed as their goal

4. It must be likely that peace will emerge after the war

5. Going to war must be a last resort

6.  The total amount of evil resulting from making war must be outweighed by the good likely to come of it.

I hardly need to go into detail to show that a number of these conditions were not met in the case of the Iraq venture, but I’ll briefly discuss each one.

For condition 1, if WMDs were the cause, then it wasn’t just, as there weren’t any, and the best intelligence showed this. Other causes, such as getting rid of a despot, bringing about democracy, lead to the question – why Iraq? Why not Syria, or Saudi Arabia? Why pick on any Middle Eastern country where western interference would be fiercely combatted?

For condition 2, there are supposed to be strict rules regarding such decisions, though of course they’re unenforceable. In September 2004, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan declared the Iraq invasion illegal from the point of view of the UN’s charter, presumably because of insufficient numbers in the Security Council agreeing to it. If you consider the UN the proper authority to make such final decisions – and if not what would be? – then condition 2 hasn’t been met.

Condition 3 goes to intentions, which might be muddled or concealed. My view is that revenge, or wounded pride, had much to do with it on the US side. People may disagree, but nobody can seriously argue that the Bush administrations’s intentions were clear and humane.

Condition 4 gives no timeline. ‘After’ is a long time, and peace might achieved at the cost of maximal loss of life. The condition is a little too vague to be useful. Certainly, a quick peace looked highly unlikely, and I think that was a major concern of protesters worldwide.

Condition 5 clearly wasn’t met. The term ‘last resort’ infers something else – a last resort before x occurs, that x being something catastrophic and to be avoided at all costs. Whether there was an x in Iraq’s case is highly questionable.

In the long view, I think, or fervently hope, condition 6 will be met, but that’s only because I’m a ‘better angels of our nature’ advocate, and anyway the lack of a time-frame attached to the condition renders it essentially meaningless. Is Europe now more humane and peaceful as a result of the Thirty Years’ War? To what degree is our greater tolerance of diversity a direct result of the Nazis’ homogenising race policies? There’s no doubt that the most horrible wars can result in massive lessons learnt, leading to accelerated positive outcomes, but that in no way justifies them.


So, okay, the Iraq war was a disaster. However, I thoroughly agree with Alex Garland, the writer and film-maker, who referred briefly to the war in   a recent Point of Inquiry interview. It’s too late to wonder about whether the invasion of Iraq was a good idea, and it was essentially too late even when the protests began in 2003, as it had a horrible inevitability about it. Trying to work out the consequences, to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives, and to take responsibility for those consequences, is much more important. Particular nations, including Australia, imposed this invasion on the Iraqi people. Those nations, above all, should take most of the responsibility for the consequences. I don’t think that’s really happening at the moment.

Written by stewart henderson

May 30, 2015 at 10:53 am

perceptions of war and fighting and other things

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and believe me, Schopenhauer never looked like that

and believe me, Schopenhauer never looked like that

Oscar Wilde once wrote: As long as war is regarded as wicked it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar it will cease to be popular.

This remark might seem trivial perhaps because Wilde himself is sometimes seen as a mere wit and because the word vulgar is now no longer popular (it has a certain vulgarity about it), but with different phrasing I’ve often thought along similar lines. In exasperation I describe to myself the current horrors in Palestine and Iraq and Syria as the acts of religious primitives, and fights in bars as the acts of bogans. I’m really talking about what used to be called vulgarity. it’s partly this way of thinking that makes me annoyed about the so-called war on terrorism, as if these were warriors, with their inherent fascination, instead of vulgar criminals.

Take cigarette smoking for example. When I see smokers on the streets these days, I think of sad sacks and the left behind. My zeitgeist-tinted specs see them as wash-outs and losers, adjusting my focus to catch clearly the ever-changing face of the properly vulgar, as it was once termed.

Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2014 at 4:15 am

on cowardice, courage and the abuse of language

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pretty much bog-standard definitions

pretty much bog-standard definitions

In this post I want to try to avoid politics, and to focus on the English language, its use and abuse. If you google the word ‘coward’, followed by the word ‘meaning’  (I often ask my NESB students to do this with words they don’t know), you’ll come up first with this definition: a person who is contemptibly lacking in the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things. Second comes this: [a person who is] excessively afraid of danger or pain.

These are, to me, bog-standard, uncontroversial definitions of the word ‘coward’. To be a coward is to be nothing more and nothing less than what these definitions describe.

So, as a person who cares about language, it disturbs and aggravates me that the word ‘coward’ is now regularly used by the media and by commentators of all kinds, from world leaders to pub philosophers, to refer to suicide bombers, mass shooters, Wikileakers and terrorists of every description. I would ask you to pause for a moment, and think of these categories of people, and the people themselves, if you can bear it. Think of, say, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, a member of the Tamil Tigers and the suicide killer of Rajiv Ghandi and 14 others beside herself in 1991. Or Reem Riyashi, the wealthy Palestinian mother of two and Hamas operative who killed herself and 4 Israelis at the Erez Crossing in Gaza in 2004. Think of Martin Bryant, the murderer of 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania in 1996, or Anders Behring Breivik, killer of 77 people by bombing and gunfire in Norway in 2011. Think again of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, who leaked large quantities of classified US information to Wikileaks in early 2010, or Edward Snowden, recent leaker of classified documents from the USA’s National Security Agency to various media outlets. Now think finally of Mohamed Atta, a principal player in the September 11 2001 attacks in the USA, and pilot of the plane that crashed into the North Tower of the world trade centre, or Noordin Top, mastermind of several fatal bombings in Indonesia, and indefatigable recruiter and indoctrinator for the Jihadist organisation Jemaah Islamiya.

No doubt these characters will awaken many diverse thoughts, but it’s unlikely that cowardice would be part of your description of any of them, especially after having been primed with the definitions of a coward at the top of this post. It seems like describing any of these various characters as cowards would simply be what philosophers call a ‘category mistake’, so far from cowardly, in the bog-standard sense of that term, have been the actions that have made them notorious.

So what is going on here? Intellectual laziness? Overblown rhetoric? Well, yes and no. To dismiss this rhetoric of cowardice as just plain ignorant or lazy would be to miss the point of it, for there is method in this apparent madness, intended or not. The real point of describing any or all of these people as cowards is to remove them as far as possible from any association with another word, more or less directly opposed to cowardice: courage.

Courage is seen as positive of course. It’s seen as a virtue, yet when we delve further into it, as Socrates and his interlocutors did in the Laches, we find it be a more slippery concept than at first glance. It rather sticks in our craw, to say the least, to claim that Mohamad Atta was courageous in carrying out his mission to fly an unfamiliar Boeing 767 into the World Trade Centre, or that Thenmozhi Rajaratnam showed amazing courage in blowing herself up with Rajiv Ghandi and many others, or that Anders Brehvik displayed steely resolve and courage in carrying out his long-planned slaughter of scores of innocent children. The actions of Manning and Snowden have naturally received more mixed responses, with some feeling that the term ‘courageous’ is singularly apt in describing them, while others would baulk at the term.

So let’s perform the same operation on ‘courage’ as we did on the word ‘coward’. Here’s the very straightforward result:

Courage: the ability to do something that frightens one.

Now, it’s worth noting that this bog-standard definition, as with that of ‘coward’, has nothing whatever to say about the moral implications of the action or actions that the brave person engages in and the coward avoids. That action might be the slaughter, or the rescue, of thousands. This is key: the moral implications or the consequences of the actions are irrelevant to the definition. For some, it seems, this point is hard, if not impossible, to swallow. That’s the problem; because of the negative load that the term ‘coward’ carries, some people are determined to describe any action that they consider has negative consequences as cowardly. But to try to extend the meaning of the term from the bog-standard, more limited definition quoted at the top means moving away from consensus into a field of contestation that enormously diminishes the coherence and so the usefulness of the term.

I was prompted to write this piece because a recent editorial in a major Australian newspaper, attacking Edward Snowden as a coward, was brought to my attention. It was the last straw, you might say. I admit I haven’t read the editorial, and I can’t recall the newspaper, but really, you don’t need to read the detail – and I may well be convinced by the newspaper editor’s views of the implications of Snowden’s actions – to know that the application of the term ‘coward’ to Snowden’s leaking of classified information is just wrong, by the definition of terms.

This sort of thing should matter to those who respect language and its value as an effective communicative tool. By the bog-standard consensus definitions given above, we need to admit that the actions of Atta and Rajaratnam, for example, were courageous. As people in full possession of their faculties, as I assume they were, they would have had to overcome enormous fear and anxiety to perform their suicidal actions. Of course we can and should condemn their actions on a whole host of ethical grounds, but to call them cowardly doesn’t add anything to the ethical debate, it just muddies definitions (while allowing us to let off steam, to vent our indignation and disgust). It’s just name-calling.

contested definition no. 45737932

contested definition no. 45737932

contested definition no. 7353289
contested definition no. 7353289

contested definition no. 36921856

contested definition no. 36921856

contested definition no. 45210678 - but a pretty good one!

contested definition no. 45210678 – but a pretty good one!


Written by stewart henderson

January 8, 2014 at 9:30 am

on transcendental constructions: a critique of Scott Atran

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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.