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Don’t stand so close to me June 29, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Ethics, Freedom.
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The problem with the Haredi demand to separate men and women on buses is not merely that they are trying to coerce their own values on others in a public space. There are cases when it is justified to enforce constraints on the behavior of others, even on behavior performed in the privacy of one’s own home. For instance, should Haredim (or anybody else) decide to follow the Biblical teaching that “He that spareth his rod hateth his son” (for after all, “Thou beatest him with the rod, and wilt deliver his soul from the nether-world“), we should not stand around worrying over whether we have the right to force our own values on child abusers. So what makes the difference?

The all-important factor is reasonable justification. Like all other beliefs about the real world, values should not be arbitrary; some notions about how we ought to live our lives are supported by good evidence and argument, while others are not. The idea that equality and freedom are better than discrimination and dictatorship is not merely my opinion – we can talk objectively about the effects that various political arrangements and social norms have on the well-being of the people involved. A person surely has the right to impose whatever restrictions he wants on himself, but as soon as his actions start affecting others we must demand that he provide good reasons for them. What must be made absolutely clear is that assertions such as “that’s what I believe” or “that’s my tradition” or “that’s my religion” cannot constitute justification for harming another person. Such vacuous, infantile mantras are worthless as defenses for murder or theft, and they are worthless as excuses for oppressing others or for demanding special privileges denied from others. Saying “that’s my religion” is no different from saying “that’s what my father says,” and the appropriate response is, “so what?”

After millenia of oppression, we have come to understand that there is real value in treating all people equally, regardless of gender. We have realized that there is no good reason why women should not have the same rights and opportunities as men in society. We know that men and women are perfectly capable of interacting as equals with no dire consequences, and they may even find conversation and friendship with members of the other sex to be beneficial. Accordingly, we should not encourage norms which imply that women are vehicles of temptation and sin against which men cannot be expected to control themselves. The rightful presumption is in favor of equality, and anyone suggesting a policy which conflicts with this value must present compelling evidence and argument for why it is necessary (e.g., physical differences between the sexes justify segregated gym classes). I have not seen any such evidence presented in the case of segregation on buses, and in fact it seems quite clear that the women forced to the back of the bus are not considered “separate but equal” – rather, they are looked upon as second-class citizens who should be neither seen nor heard. We must make it clear that those who think this way are wrong, no matter if they are following an ancient tradition, and such policies will not be tolerated in state-funded settings. It may be that in this case the damage done is not enough to warrant intervention against segregation in privately-funded circumstances, but in more severe cases, we have no right to use “respect for alternative beliefs” as an excuse for leaving others to their fate. For instance, no parent has the right to force ignorance upon his children, denying them basic knowledge of the world and disabling their ability to think or learn. If you still believe we have no right to impose our own standards on members of other cultures, consider life under the Taliban (and elsewhere in the Muslim world), where women have acid thrown in their faces and are beaten or killed for such “offenses” as not veiling themselves, going to school, refusing arranged marriages, even for being raped. We must free ourselves from the politically correct dogma that all cultures and all belief systems are equally valid and equally valuable. Injustice and oppression must be fought wherever they are found – especially when they come from those who self-righteously claim the moral high-ground while insisting that their dogmas require no rational justification.

I’ll conclude with a quote from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography Infidel. She was born into a Muslim family in Somalia, later living in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya before seeking asylum in the Netherlands, where she was eventually elected to parliament. This is from the book’s last chapter.

It is always difficult to make the transition to a modern world. . . . It was difficult for me, too. I moved from the world of faith to the world of reason—from the world of excision and forced marriage to the world of sexual emancipation. Having made that journey, I know that one of those worlds is simply better than the other. Not because of its flashy gadgets, but fundamentally because of its values.

The message of this book, if it must have a message, is that we in the West would be wrong to prolong the pain of that transition unnecessarily, by elevating cultures full of bigotry and hatred toward women to the stature of respectable alternative ways of life. . . .

Life is better in Europe than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better, and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now, and individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized and protected by the state.

We cannot afford to take those rights and freedoms for granted. Hirsi Ali lives under constant threat to her life because of her criticism of Islam, but the problem is deeper than Islam. For us, the work begins at home.

Ideology matters June 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Politics, Reason.
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In Commentary, Bret Stephens evaluates various strategies for dealing with Tehran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons. He concludes that “Iran cannot be contained,” and favors a preemptive military strike.

All this suggests that a better comparison for Iran than the Soviet Union might be Japan of the 1930s and World War II—another martyrdom-obsessed, non-Western culture with global ambitions. It should call into question the view that for all its extremist rhetoric, Iran operates according to an essentially pragmatic estimate of its own interests. Ideology matters, not only on its terms but also in shaping the parameters within which the regime is prepared to exhibit flexibility and restraint. Ideology matters, too, in determining the kinds of gambles and sacrifices it is willing to make to achieve its aims. To suggest that there is some universal standard of “pragmatism” or “rationality” where Iran and the rest of the world can find common ground is a basic (if depressingly common) intellectual error. What Iran finds pragmatic and rational—support for militias and terrorist organizations abroad; a posture of unyielding hostility to the West; a nuclear program that flouts multiple UN resolutions—is rather different from the thinking that prevails in, say, the Netherlands.

While I’m not (yet) convinced that military action against Iran is currently the best option, Stephens is right to emphasize the oft-denied role that religious dogmatism is playing here (though he manages to avoid using the word “religion” entirely), which we ignore at our peril. Ideology does matter. However, I think Stephens misses the mark when attempting to put his finger on the root of the problem. There are no different types of rationality – no “Persian rationality” versus “Dutch rationality.” On the other hand, Iran is not a nation of completely irrational people, either. Iranians are evidently as rational as anybody else when it comes to treating disease or selling oil, or indeed building nuclear bombs. The actions which seem unreasonable or even suicidal are actually completely rational given certain beliefs. And that is the crux of the matter. If you really believe that the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe, and that an eternity of delights awaits martyrs and their families in the afterlife, then flying a plane of infidels into a building makes perfect sense. There is no escaping the fact that the principles of martyrdom and jihad are central to Islam, and that such dogmas are irreconcilable with the possibility of building a sustainable future for humanity. It all starts with teaching children to have blind faith in unjustifiable beliefs about how the world works and how we ought to behave.

Though physical force is sometimes unavoidable – dogmatism can put people beyond the reach of human conversation – it will never be enough. There is a war of ideas that must be waged and won, and recognizing the source of the problem is a necessary first step. Our enemy is unjustified belief, and it must be fought on all fronts.

This video gives an idea of what we’re up against:

It ain’t necessarily so June 17, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Day-after comebacks, Ethics, Religion.
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A few thousand years ago (so the story goes), as the people of Israel were wandering through the desert, a well-respected man named Korah came forward and publicly questioned Moses and Aaron’s elevated status and the legitimacy of their leadership. Turns out he didn’t understand what kind of political system he was living under: God reacted by threatening to annihilate the entire congregation.  Thankfully, Moses and Aaron interceded against such collective punishment: “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt Thou be wroth with all the congregation?” So God switched to Plan B: he opened the Earth beneath Korah, his two lieutenants, and all of their families – burying them alive. God then sent forth a fire to devour the 250 men who followed Korah. Unfortunately, this show of restraint was not enough to teach the people who they were dealing with; they came complaining to Moses and Aaron – so God killed 14,700 of them by plague.

The thing that Vandelay found to be out of the ordinary in this story is the rare use of the title “God of the spirits of all flesh.” Based on scriptural sources, he claimed that this was Moses and Aaron’s way of reminding God that he was a tolerant God who values difference of opinion. I kid you not; there are those who will say with a straight face that the God who repeatedly commands the destruction of those who worship others, of those who blaspheme his name, of those who don’t obey his every command, is tolerant of different opinions.

Well then, said I, why was Korah killed? He went too far, said Vandelay; he crossed a red line. What line is that, I asked. Did he physically harm anyone? Did he threaten to harm anyone? He started a rebellion, said Vandelay, and sometimes rebellions must be put down by force. And there you have it; Ahmadinejad couldn’t have said it better. When you wonder why our world looks the way it does, consider that even an intelligent, educated person, who has lived his whole life under democracy, thinks it’s acceptable to kill a person (and his family) merely for voicing his opposition to a dictator’s authority. After all, the Bible says so.

At this point the conversation was joined by Alice, who insisted that the Bible must be viewed in the context of its time; it would be wrong of us to judge the Bible by today’s standards. There are so many things wrong with this claim, I didn’t get around to mentioning them all at the time. So here we go:

  1. It is simply ludicrous to claim that a code which commands killing your children for talking back to you, exterminating entire nations including women and children, and so on, constitutes a big improvement over the general barbarism of the ancient world.
  2. It is historically ignorant as well: Eastern traditions from around the time of the Bible, like those of the Buddha and Mahavira (the founder of Jainism), are far more moral than the Bible, with an emphasis on compassion and nonviolence. It was possible for human beings at that time to realize that killing your children for talking back to you was wrong.
  3. If much of the morality of the Bible is now irrelevant, one cannot claim that the Bible is morally wise. As Sam Harris puts it: it is faint praise indeed for the perfect word of an omniscient God, if the best that can be said of vast parts of it is that they can now be safely ignored.
  4. If some parts of the Bible are no longer relevant, how do we know which ones? By what methodology does one decide that circumcision is still in, but killing homosexuals is out? That keeping the Sabbath remains mandatory, but keeping slaves is now forbidden? The Bible never says that starting in the year 1776, we should disregard commandments 17, 95, and 100 through 519. In fact, the Bible explicitly says the opposite: “All this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.”
  5. The notion that an action (by God or man) could have been moral in the past but is immoral today contradicts any coherent definition of morality. What exactly has changed in the last few thousand years? The Bible hasn’t changed. Our biology hasn’t changed. There was no divine revelation in the 19th century telling us that slavery is henceforth immoral. (Are we wrong to judge slaveholders? And when exactly did treating women like property officially become a no-no? Because some people apparently didn’t get the memo.) All the political changes we now appreciate were the product of rational human thought and expanding human knowledge. Just as we have discovered more and more about physics and biology, so we have learned more and more about the possibilities of human happiness, about the causes of human suffering, about how societies may flourish or fail. Moral progress was made, an inch at a time, by people who defied the dogmas of their tradition.

Nowadays, God still uses earthquakes and plagues to kill his children, but he is no longer explicit about what their sins were. Not to worry, though, for his instruction and his example live on, with hordes of pious men willing to devote their lives to upholding God’s word. How much more suffering must be visited in the name of the Biblical God before decent people stop teaching their children that an Iron Age manuscript bursting with sadistic, bigoted, oppressive barbarism is a sacred and flawless guide to moral living?

A moderate’s lament June 10, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion, Superstition.
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I don’t understand how the world has come to this.

Why do people insist on going to extremes? Why must they be so literal-minded? Can’t they see that the best of all worlds is to be found at the middle ground? Alas, it seems that fewer and fewer people appreciate the wisdom of taking a moderate position on witchcraft.

On the one hand, I am horrified to continuously see women burned at the stake for engaging in black magic, and children’s nails torn off for use in potions. The fundamentalists who endorse such practices have misunderstood the core principles of witchcraft, which is really about healing and peace and connecting with nature. There may be black witches as well as white witches, but we should all be free to live our lives without coercion, no matter what it says in the Book of Shadows. (I don’t mean to question the unique wisdom of that eternal moral guidebook, but it’s possible that some of its precepts must be reinterpreted before applying them to today’s world.)

On the other hand, I see more and more people deciding that they want nothing whatsoever to do with the occult, and that is a shame. They may be put off by the behavior of some of the more extreme believers in witchcraft, but why throw out the baby with the bathwater? The Wiccan tradition has many positive teachings that help strengthen families and unite communities. I don’t mean to imply that a life without witchcraft is worthless or insignificant, but it is certainly missing out on something of value.

Some argue that witchcraft is unscientific, but it merely represents a complementary way of looking at the world, focusing on magic and mystery and the deeper meaning of it all. I don’t claim to be 100 percent certain that witches exist, but nobody has proved that they don’t exist, either. The Wiccan tradition goes back thousands of years, and inspires many people to live rich, meaningful lives. So where’s the harm?

More defense for the indefensible June 4, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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Eradicating the barbaric practice of neonatal male circumcision, though a worthy goal, undoubtedly does not belong at the very top of our moral “to do” list: there are other practices which cause far more damage, like female genital cutting. However, circumcision is a good test case for examining attitudes towards morality and tradition, since most of the arguments presented in support of circumcision are the same ones used to justify other, far worse, practices. The problem is that most people – even educated, liberal people – don’t seem to see any moral issue with circumcision at all. They take for granted that parents have the right to force a painful and medically unnecessary procedure on a child if they so choose. Why would any parent choose to chop body parts off an infant? The 500-pound gorilla in the room is the religious belief that circumcision is commanded by God, as a mark of his chosen people: “My covenant shall be in your flesh.” Religious moderates are often uncomfortable with this motivation, however, so they rationalize, trying to spin circumcision as being in the child’s best interests. I previously addressed the “health benefits” rationalization, an argument that could have the potential to justify circumcision if the medical case were compelling – but it is not.

Another argument I have encountered claims that since most males in the community are circumcised, an uncircumcised child would be ridiculed for being “different.” Therefore, circumcision will spare the child significant psychological pain. This argument would be extremely weak, it seems to me, even in the case of children who really are born looking different than “normal” – those with a big nose, pointy ears, etc. These kids may very well be made fun of because of their appearance (as most children are at some point), but should parents be forcing cosmetic surgery on such children before they are even old enough to speak? Doesn’t every person have the right to make such decisions about their own body for themselves? In any case, though, applying this argument to circumcision is completely absurd, because being uncircumcised is not a deformity or a birth defect: it is the natural state of the male body. The only reason an uncircumcised child would be considered different is because other parents circumcise their children! To use this very fact as an argument in favor of circumcision is to sustain a vicious cycle.

The first question to ask someone who makes the “conformity” argument is what they would do if they happened to be raising their children in a place where circumcision was not the norm, and their sons would be made fun of for being circumcised. If they would circumcise anyway, then apparently they are not that concerned about exposing their children to ridicule after all. But a better thought experiment with which to challenge every parent who supports circumcision is this: What would you do if you lived in a society where, by tradition, parents branded their children’s buttocks with a hot iron on their first birthday? If anybody can find a significant difference between this scenario and circumcision, let me know.

The sad thing is that some people – even kind, moderate people – will bite the bullet here, and claim that if branding were the norm in the community they wanted to belong to, they would go along with it. There is probably nothing more that can be said to such a person (except to ask them how they would feel if they were the victim of such a custom). The trouble is that people are so mightily attached to their traditions, religious traditions especially, that they are incapable of evaluating them objectively and considering the possibility of giving them up. It is important to remind ourselves that the traditions we inherit can be completely arbitrary, based on the circumstances of our birth. If we had been born in another country or at another point in history we would find ourselves just as attached to completely different traditions. Moral progress is only ever made by examining traditions critically, keeping the good ones and discontinuing the bad ones. People have a strong need to belong to a group and be accepted by their peers, but haven’t we learned that doing something just because everyone else is doing it is inexcusable?

It is not an accident that so many of the “clubs” which endorse immoral behavior (female genital cutting, suicide bombing, etc.) are religious. Religion causes good, decent people to do terrible things they would otherwise have no reason to do. Religion discourages critical, independent thinking, and makes a virtue out of blind obedience to authority and tradition. The disastrous effects of such dogmatism on our world go far beyond circumcision.