Category Archives: Islam

Star Trek, Christianity, Ethics and Atheism

It’s coming up on the 21st anniversary of Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) passing away (October 24). From his grave in space (that’s right! Space!) he would have been able to see mankind launch the international space station, hopefully a first step towards human beings exploring the stars together.

Gene Roddenberry famously said that Star Trek was an attempt to show that mankind will not reach maturity until we come to not simply tolerate our differences, but learn to celebrate and take delight in them. He would have said “humankind” towards the end of his life.

Gene Roddenberry was also a devout atheist, and he imagined that in his utopian future everyone was atheist and “better for it”.

That’s very interesting isn’t it? Creation Ministries International just published an article on Hell that suggests the opposite.

To paraphrase, they believe that Hell is the place people go for sinful conduct. Sometimes, in this life, crime does pay. There is absolutely no controversy on that point. Sometimes human beings profit from immoral conduct. Sometimes living virtuously has harmful effects. Sometimes the innocent are punished. So why should we not behave immorally when we have the chance to get away with it, and why should we behave morally when it only serves to harm us? This is called the free-rider problem by philosophers.

There are many answers to this question as almost all systems of ethics posit some form of answer. Christianity posits Hell and Heaven – the belief is that while justice in this life is imperfect, God will ultimately make sure that perfect justice is done. You may live like a king because of your crimes, but God will give you your just desert; you may live like a pauper for your virtue, but God will give you your just desert.

This is the thrust of the famous Voltaire quote Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer or if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. God being there to look over your shoulder solves the free rider problem by evaporating it. There is no problem because God will always make you pay for your ride in the end (to mix metaphors).

On the other hand, Gene Roddenberry knew that Religion had a terrible track record for starting violent, large conflicts. Further, he knew that conflicts of ideology are more heated, less rational ones which tend to be more harmful (Vulcans were on the verge of annihilating themselves because of age old fiery hatred). Genocides tend to follow theistic lines very tightly; while it is known that Hitler was not a Christian personally, he did appeal to Christianity very strongly and very often in order to rally a nation behind him. That polarizing ideology was necessary for the Nazi movement to become what it was and accomplish what it did.

Further, religions like Christianity prevent moral reasoning. Because there is exactly one authority on right and wrong which is inerrant and infallible we have no latitude to analyze a situation morally. We instead go to our book, find the passage that applies, read what we ought to do and then we do it with the absolute certainty that we are correct. And when we are blinded by authority we often cannot see what would otherwise be an intuitive moral result (see Nazism).

Not to pick on Christianity by comparing it to the Nazis, but the two have the same structure as an ethical system – a wise and benevolent ruler who really and truly loves you is at the top, and that ruler speaks in edicts which give you the exact moral truth and are completely beyond reproach or criticism. If that’s the kind of thing you believe, you’d better be right (see Nuremberg). Christians think that they are right – so did the Nazis.

Gene Roddenberry versus Voltaire is the game then. Religion polarizes and blinds us on the one hand (and historically this is true) but Religion compels us to behave morally even when nobody is looking on the other.

I don’t think either one is right.

Voltaire is correct in that we need something to solve the free rider problem. That something does not have to be God however; Gene Roddenberry is correct there. We just need a belief in ethics, a belief that there is a fundamental way that we ought to behave purely because it is right. In Star Trek moral beliefs are guided by respect for individual autonomy – each person and culture should be free to self-determine so long as it does not harm others. This conflicts with greater utility very often, see A Private Little War for a classic example.

But how can Gene Roddenberry say that mankind will not reach maturity and wisdom until it celebrates its differences and then deny the future its Religions in the same breath?

Gene Roddenberry was surrounded by big Religion/State-Religion conflicts during his life, through WW2 and into the Cold War. Plurality of Religion could not be the answer as a historical fact.

Note that Religious plurality is not the same as cultural plurality. Different religions are not like different cultures – a culture is a way of living, its the combination of art, philosophy, thought, music, law, norms and myriad other things. Culture is something we live, not something we believe. Religion is a set of beliefs about what exists beyond the world we occupy. Religion is something we believe based on faith.

Religion operates on faith – there is no other way to have beliefs about the world outside of experience (ie, God) apart from faith. Atheists and humanists believe things on faith too – any belief about God, including the belief that God does not exist, can only be based on faith. There is no evidence for or against God; God is completely outside the universe we live in.

Cultural differences should not matter; Indians like Naan, Greeks like Pita, Italians like Pizza. That’s fine, you cook whatever bread you want and I’ll cook whatever bread I want. If I don’t like yours I won’t eat it. Cultural plurality is ultimately about living your life the way you want to. And Gene’s point is just this: who would want to live in a world without Naan, Pita, and Pizza? A one bread world would be truly sad.

But as a matter of fact, religious differences affect the way we live with other people. Muslims and Jews attach very different significance to a small piece of land in Asia which leads to a good deal of conflict. From the 1100s to the 1600s Christians and Muslims went through a series of long wars called the Crusades over the same dusty little piece of land.

But the answer isn’t to the remove the Religions; that’s a part of culture too, it’s a part of our freedom to live how we want.

The answer is to say who gives a damn about the land?

I use the term Metaphysical Religion to denote a system of beliefs about the things outside of experience which posits no beliefs whatsoever about the world of experience we live in. Atheism and Humanism are metaphysical religions. So is Taoism.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are not metaphysical religions. They say things like this sport on the ground, this is where Jesus died. This bit of fabric, this is what Jesus was wrapped in after. This mosque, this temple, this church, this book is important beyond its physical utility. It is an object of faith with direct and deep religious significance. The Bible does not just teach me my religion; the book itself is also holy, and that makes how you use it very important. It cannot be kindling for a fire. These might be called the factual aspects of religion.

That kind of worldview cannot persist. Mankind reaching maturity is not compatible with plurality of non-metaphysical religions. Metaphysical religions are simply a part of culture, they are something we live. The metaphysical aspects of non-metaphysical religions are likewise a part of culture and they should persevere. Mankind is stronger for having them. Gene Roddenberry could not separate the metaphysical aspects of religion from the factual aspects; maybe he did not believe such a thing was possible.

But so long as I think that Jerusalem is a bit of scrub brush with an old city on top while Jews see the Temple Mount and West Wall, Christians see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Muslims see the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa we’re not going to agree about how that land should be used or who should be using it. Further we’ll feel compelled by the religious beliefs we accept on faith – not fact – to see that the land is used in accordance with our theology.

No Idols except me – that got it right in a very fundamental way. If each of those three religions saw Jerusalem the way I do – as an old city in Asia – then think how many fewer people we would have killed.

Creationists are convinced of the literal truth of every word in the bible. They think when you start saying that the Earth took longer than 6 days to be created, that the Universe is 14 billion years old, and than man exists because of evolution and never lived in a Garden with God that you compromise the authority of the Bible and this is a slippery slope to Atheism.

That is wrong. It is a slippery slope to Christianity as a metaphysical religion. The more factual aspects you discard the closer you move to being a pure metaphysical religion. As more and more of the factual tenants of a religion are shown false it must grow increasingly metaphysical to survive. And while factual aspects can be contradicted by things in the world, metaphysical aspects cannot. They are the moral lessons about how to live and why we live, and the metaphysical beliefs about death that soothe us and make life tolerable in the face of inevitable demise.

Moral reasoning remains a problem, but as a religion grows more and more metaphysical it also grows more and more abstract. I believe that that particular dilemma will sort itself out given time. But if it does not, any religion which prohibits moral reasoning and uses its dogma as a moral checklist must also be discarded. Allowing that exception allows Nazism to seep back in.

My fantasy is that one day (although certainly long after I die) all Religions will be purely metaphysical. Christianity will say “this is why we are here, this is who started everything, this is how He says to live your life, and this is what will happen when you die”. And that’s it. Nothing about the history of the world or the importance of anything on it (apart from pure moral significance).¬†Bibles will simply be books that teach you about God, important only for their contents. Like John Lennon mused in imagine, there would be nothing to kill or die for in this world.

Then, and only then, can we truly celebrate – instead of (at best) tolerate – all of our differences.

Give Islam a break

This is totally off topic. I’m in the middle of drafting a post about ethics after the Death of God – Christians, generally creationists, think that after we remove God from ethical thinking we can’t have morality because absolute truth evaporates. More on that to come.

But I happened upon a series of news articles about violence or anticipated violence surrounding Islam and Muslims. France is closing its embassies because violence is anticipated after a French magazine depicted Mohammed. An anti-Islam video called “Innocence of Muslims” has resulted in violence and protests.

Fuck, just give Islam a break.

Ok, so dime store history of Islam. Islam is an “Abrahamic Religion” and the most modern one. Judaism is the original Abrahamic Religion. Christianity came on later and took all of the Jewish texts as gospel but tacked on Jesus and the New Testament as a newer, higher authority. And then Islam came along and tacked on the Qur’an as the newest, highest authority. So Muslims take as gospel everything Jesus or Moses ever said, they just take Mohammad as higher better Gospel. Allah is Arabic for God; God and Allah are the same thing, just like “Deuctschland” and “Germany” are the same thing.

Also, we have more in common with Islam than is generally know. The classical Greek and Roman era; philosophy, math, science, literature, medicine, and art all thrived. Then the dark ages came with the advent of Christianity and much of the old thinking, art, and science was lost for centuries. Then the Renaissance and the enlightenment came. Great thinkers, scientists, and artists picked up where the Greeks and Romans left off. How did that happen? Did the thinkers and artists just find old books that had been forgotten in a dusty old corner?

Of course not. Those books, those ideas, those ways of thinking had been discarded in the West. However, they had been passed on to Eastern nations. Italy and Greece would trade more than goods across the Mediterranean, they would spread their ideas, science, art and philosophy. And the Islamic world picked these ideas up and ran with them. The first hospitals were Muslim inventions. The first modern surgical tools were Muslim inventions. Modern math is a Muslim invention. Astronomy is miles ahead of where it would be were in not for Islam. These ideas were incubated in the Islamic world and later rediscovered there. Islam has a strong ideological commitment to servitude to Allah but it is very quick to view art, philosophy, and science as a tool of that servitude.

And listen up. Because Islam views scientific progress as religious, they view science as worship. Google Al-Zahrawi, one of the earliest eye surgeons. His tools are very similar to ones used today, with two main differences; first, they were larger (we weren’t as good at manufacturing back then) but secondly they are more ornate; they are made of beautiful gold and silver, they have ornate inlays or engravings, they are truly pieces of art. Many islamic scientific instruments have the same quality because they are truly and directly tools of worship as much as they are tools of science. It makes science very beautiful (both aesthetically and spiritually) to view it in this light.

Oh, Islam is sexist you say.

We are from a sexist culture too. In fact, it’s only very very recently that we’ve gotten past that sexism in any significant way. We have a 200 year head start on Islam, so give it a break. Let’s see.

“A man is worth twice as much as a woman”

This is Islamic law, Sharia law. Specifically, this is the law of wills. When a person dies, their possessions are to be divided among their living relatives in equal shares, except that men are to receive twice as much as women. That’s sexist, but listen up.

We come from a legal tradition where a man’s property (women had none) devolved entirely to his eldest son. That’s sexist. But there’s also a reason that property devolved from Father to son.
The Eldest Son was tasked with looking after the family after the Father died. That is to say, the well being of the entire household became the oldest son’s burden upon the death of the Father, the same way it had been the father’s responsibility when he was alive.

So of course the property should devolve to the son. He has the responsibility for everyone, so he should also have the resources needed to carry that responsibility out. Now maybe it’s sexist to think that nobody else could manage the household, but ask the eldest son if that phases him. As long as he is going to be held responsible for what happens to his family, he’ll say that for better or worse he ought to have the resources he needs to fulfill that responsibility.

And Islam is the same way; men are stewards of women. They are protectors. The Qur’an specifically contemplates that although they have separate roles it would be improper to think of men as superior to women; their role is different, but not worse.

That’s still sexist. But think about Western law. When did women start taking an empowered position in society? Well after the western ideals of the Rule of Law were best enunciated in the Constitution of the United States. In fact it was almost a century after that, in the 1970s, that equality under the law really started to have significance in terms of property rights for women. Women would be called equal partners in marriage but be left without a dime to their name if their husbands should up and leave. They would have no entitlement to the home and the estate they worked tirelessly to build. And property rights for common-law spouses is a still more recent development. Our sexism in property laws is still very warm in the ground. They’ll get there too, but they may need as long as we did. That isn’t a fault we can condemn them for.

Some Sharia law also suggests that Two women are needed to testify against a man before the female testimony can be given credit. That is, if the case is the word of a man versus the word of a women the man wins by default. Not all Islamic Jurists ascribe to this view, but let’s consider it for a moment.

The law of evidence emerged early int he history of law. Blackstone famously said that it is better that 10 guilty men should go free than one innocent man should be punished. And historically punishments were sever; many places in the Western world still use the Death penalty, and when the law of evidence was emerging death and torture sentences were ubiquitous. A dark time in our legal history, but there you have it.

So Judges started conceiving rules for what evidence they would hear and what evidence they would not. Maybe they didn’t want the hanging of an innocent man on their conscience, or maybe it was compassion, but modern laws of evidence like hearsay, relevance, privilege and so forth came to be. It was thought that certain pieces of evidence could not be trusted enough to hang a man on their basis.

And there were, back in the 1300s, rules against taking a woman at her word. Women were less educated than men; that wasn’t their fault since they weren’t allowed to be educated, but it was a fact. Women were less worldly than men because they weren’t permitted to go afield in the same ways or have jobs outside the home. So because of their perceived naivety the testimony of a woman was not to be accepted by itself.

This endured until the mid 1970s. If a woman came before the court claiming that she had been raped one could guarantee that no charges would be laid unless there was 1. corroborating evidence – something besides her word that showed guilt, and 2. recent complaint – it was thought that recent complaint was needed to prove that the rape wasn’t fabricated out of some other more trite motive. Women were perceived as being petty and motivated be jealously.

This is obviously a sexist law, but it was also a reflection of the role women had in society at the time. While that role was perpetrated based on sexism the law was a response to it, not the cause.

And so it is with Islam. Yes, under Islam women are less worldly, less experienced, and have less education. But given that that is true, taking their testimony as less trustworthy has intuitive value. I’m not advocating the viewpoint, I’m just saying that it took until the late 1970s until we, the uber civilized western world, got past this particular hang up. We can’t legitimately expect Islam, whom we had a 200 year head start against, to share the same enlightenment.

Rape

Sharia law is very explicit; the penalty for committing rape is death, but there is no penalty to the victim. There are some sexist governments and cultures which are also Islamic which punish rape victims. Islam itself does not. We don’t always walk our talk either. Sad, shameful, but the shame is on the people and not the ideology.

Hijab

Hijab is not a symbol of oppression. Men are also obliged to Hijab, which is simply an obligation to dress and act modestly. There are many religious views on it; some limit it to covering the top of the head with a scarf, which is no different that Sikh turbans. People tend to get more inflamed about the Burqa, a full body covering some Muslim women wear in public,

France, for instance, outlawed the Burqa. It’s a repulsive symbol of repression they might say. But let’s think about that. Why is repression bad? Because individuals should be free to choose for themselves how they live, dress, and so on. The repressive doctrine, the repressive husband who clings to it, they say to the woman “Put that thing on!”. But then France turns around and passes a law that says “Take that thing off!”. Either way, the woman isn’t the one choosing for herself; she’s equally repressed when we force her not to wear the Burqa as when someone else forces it on her.

The solution isn’t to outlaw the Burqa. It’s to make it an actual choice. Some Muslims might say “put that thing on”. Some Catholics tell nuns to put on a habit. The thing we should be doing is saying “put on the Burqa/habit if you want to. If you ever want to take it off, we guarantee you’ll be safe.” Exist laws are the only answer that respects individual autonomy. Not respecting individual autonomy is what’s wrong with repressive rules.

Jihad

This one is touchy. Jihad is a religious duty which requires Muslims to fight or struggle for God. While we often translate jihad as holy-war the two are not synonymous. Surely holy-wars as when catholic Europe invaded Islamic nations in an attempt to conquer Jerusalem (the crusades) invoked a Jihad which was also a kind of Holy war. But jihad is a different, much broader thing.

Jihad has many meanings. The first is personal Jihad; it refers to ones own relationship with God. It’s an internal struggle to be a good Muslim, not far removed from Christian conceptions of original sin.

Secondly, Jihad is an obligation to build a good Muslim world. Most Muslims view this as an obligation to strengthen their community; the most extreme mainstream view is that this obliges Muslims to be evangelists (which we tolerate in Christians, although I do so begrudgingly.) However some Muslim extremists view this as an obligation to make Islam dominant to all other religions (see Al-Quada). Bin Laden doesn’t speak for Islam any more than David Duke speaks for Christianity. Yes, it’s a shame that there are people with these world views, but neither Christianity nor Islam are more of a factor than the other. Some people are going to be like that when you give them a strict religious ideology. Baptist racist and Sunni extremist are both problems, but niether discredits their core ideology because they stray so far from what that ideology actually stands for.

Lastly, jihad is viewed as an obligation to protect Islam by force is needed. This is mostly an obligation of self defense, wherein Muslims must defend their nations and ideologies from outside invaders. There is absolutely nothing peculiar, violent, or backwards about this way of thinking, almost all nations and ideologies require the same thing.

Closing

So yes, there are sexist elements to Islam. We also share a common history with it, and that’s in large part a history of sexism. We got past it too. It took awhile, but we did (for the most part, there are still hold outs). There’s no reason to think that Islam won’t do the same given the same time. Yes, some of their ideas look backwards through our modern eyes. But some of our own ideas from the past 50 years look equally backwards today.

The point, the real bottom line, is that Islam isn’t special. Its sexist ideas formed under the same cultural conditions that our old sexist ideas formed under. Islam currently faces the same pressures that we do, the pressure to keep up economically or sink. That will lead to the same outcome as it did for us, which will be increased tolerance in the interest of better exploiting our female and multicultural work force.

Seriously, get off your high horse. It took us a long time to clean our act up. We can give guidance and insight to help the Islamic world through the same process we went through, or we can be dicks and have Draw a Picture of Mohammad day. We’ve come further than such an intolerant stance I think, but if we haven’t then how can we expect Islam to have done so?