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Last updated 01/03/09.  These notes are largely of a more personal, conversational or explanatory nature than the main text. References to Main Notes are preceded by “#”. References to Footnotes are marked “Footnote …”

Although it's preferable to read about specific topics in their full context, including the Main Note to which the footnote refers, you might like to hunt for them using your browser's search tool. Just type a word or part of a word, e.g. marriage, sex, cartoon, terror, welfare, language, pope, ape, hen, politi, buddh, freeth, sacrifi. More topics can be found in the Main Notes and in When Society Comes First"

Footnote 1 on "respect, offence and political correctness" (# 9)

Respect has different shades of meaning, more easily understood by considering the meanings of the antonym disrespect. The strong meaning of disrespect is to show disregard for human dignity - for humanity according to the humanist definition of humanity - and of course this is something to be avoided. Disrespect in one of the weaker senses implies causing offence (in contrast to causing distress). With the exception of outright slander, however, I think it's quite unusual to cause offence. Rather, people take offence, and usually they do so much too easily, if not aggressively. It's a human failing to take offence (doubly so if it's accompanied by violence), something you do when you have no rational de-fence and no emotional grit. People get offended when they have no answer. In some countries taking offence (like seeking revenge) is built into the culture - including one or two Australian subcultures. One can't do much about it but let them carry on that way, like little children. Radical and improbable social changes must occur before they can develop the degree of maturity - distinguished by self respect, robustness, stability and education - required to overcome this weakness.

The obverse of taking offence is political correctness, an absurd posture adopted by people who want to avoid the possibility of offending others who can't stomach the plain truth or a bit of innocuous humour - if it concerns themselves. While recognising the need for diplomacy, especially at the international level, Central Humanism has no place for political correctness within western societies, and I don't think humanists should worry too much about people taking offence at their views, provided they are expressed honestly and without malice. However, the globalisation of social networks - especially networking websites such as facebook, youtube, twitter and personal blogs - is beginning to create deep political problems, because of course people of different cultures take offence to different things. This does not alter the fact that hypersensitivity and narrow-mindedness are undesirable human traits. By the same token, therefore, humanists themselves need to guard against taking offence at the views of religionists and their kin (such as most members of the Creationist and Right to Life movements), even when they gnaw at the very heart of humanity.

Institutions too can be objects of respect. Respect is what one good football team holds for another. But Australians are not obliged to respect the administrative systems of countries like Indonesia, which thrive on bribery, corruption, wholesale slaughter of their neighbours and a stark indifference to the heinous atrocities and foul-minded insults of mad Islamic extremists, not to mention indiscriminate loggers and wild animal traders. Nor is there any need for our politicians to adopt that all-too-familiar posture of cringing political correctness that pays lip-service to respect in such circumstances. There's a difference between diplomacy and insensitive collusion.

An outward display of respect for beliefs and institutions that simply don’t deserve respect is in most circumstances pitiful, hypocritical, dishonest and dangerous. For example, those who feign respect for religions – especially the more obnoxious kinds such as radical Islam and Christian Science (see Footnote 17) – could be accused of complicity in child abuse (physical or mental), brain-washing, threats of death by torture, oppression of women, animal cruelty, dissemination of malicious nonsense and falsehoods, suppression of free speech and free association, suicide bombings and numerous other anti-life behaviours.

Footnote 2 on "tolerance" (# 9)

The virtues of a tolerant society have been extolled by many in authority, most recently (16/07/03) by our Treasurer, Peter Costello. Especially in his hands, "a tolerant society" has a one-sided ring to it: it suggests there's a majority, representing a social norm or set of traditional values, that tolerates various minorities (imported cultures). Unfortunately this is probably close to the true situation.

Although tolerance is indeed usually considered a virtue, let's be quite clear about what it involves. First and foremost, intolerance does not imply aggression! If you are tolerant of some person, group, situation or philosophy, this implies that you think there's something slightly undesirable or obnoxious about that person or thing. Otherwise there'd be nothing to be tolerated - the word would be redundant. And once one has grown to be completely tolerant of something - to feel comfortable with it - the activity of tolerance ceases. What one then has is acceptance. Of course, this is what people on the "receiving end" really want: nobody wants to be tolerated, they want to be accepted, to be embraced by society, to feel genuinely a part of society.

While acceptance might be the ideal, in practice a moderate degree of tolerance is often the most one can realistically expect. At best, one reluctantly puts up with minor irritations, inconveniences, eccentricities and differences that may cause one to feel mildly threatened; at worst, one finds somebody or something so obnoxious that one quickly develops a bellicose attitude. But there seems to be no sharp line between things one"ought" to tolerate (virtuously, so to speak) and things one "ought" to condemn. How can a reasonable boundary be established?

I'd suggest there are two main areas where we "ought" to show tolerance. Firstly, we should try to curb unreasonable prejudice, i.e. we should learn to tolerate people (etc) towards whom we hold an unjustifiable bias, but who in fact cause neither ourselves in particular nor society in general any harm. Secondly, we should realise that people must live peacefully together, so, in the interests of a harmonious society, we should try to raise our tolerance limits as best we can.

Somewhere after that point, however, tolerance is no longer an asset. There is clearly no virtue in tolerating people, situations or philosophies that we consider (with good reason) to be detrimental to society. In the worst instances, tolerance will simply fly out of the window. More often, though, we'll grudgingly continue to tolerate situations that adversely affect us, while at the same time endeavouring to change things for the better. The trouble is, people have widely varying opinions as to what is undesirable, and widely different approaches to risk assessment. One task of any ethics program is, of course, to identify undesirable and "risky" behaviours, trends and policies. Among the behaviours toward which Central Humanism shows absolute intolerance are torture and all forms of brutality in any circumstances.

In my view, social planners in Australia are beginning to ask the community to be overtolerant - to put up with social changes that in the long run will be harmful. But at the same time in some instances they tend to play down to the irrational intolerance of some sectors of the community. Striking a balance is no easy task.

Footnote 3 on "the numbers game" (# 13)

Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, invented a "felicific calculus" to measure quantities of pleasure and pain, and thereby to work out the best course of action when faced with a moral or legal dilemma. Extolling the principle of "The greatest happiness for the greatest number", this calculus took into account the number of people expected to suffer or benefit from a particular action. It's hard to explain in simple terms what I mean by suggesting that this "numbers game" may sometimes be irrelevant, if not contrary, to the ethics of Central Humanism, so to begin with I will quote the following anecdote, which serves as a kind of parable. It comes from Wayne Newton, with reference to the life of that wonderful author, Di Morrissey ("This is Your Life", Channel 9, 18/9/03). This is not exactly as he related it.

A small boy was wandering along a beach where a lot of starfish were being washed up onto the sand. The boy was spending his time picking them up and throwing them back into the sea. Observing this activity with amusement, an old fellow passing by said to the boy "Do you really think you can make any difference?" The boy stooped down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the ocean and replied "I made a difference to that one, didn't I?"

The moral - though millions may be suffering, if you can make a difference to the life of just one individual then you can do something worthwhile. If a wealthy nation accepts 20,000 refugees/asylum seekers/other displaced persons out of a worldwide total of maybe 50 million (and growing annually by around 1 million), then the nation is doing something worthwhile. Is this sensible? Well, actions that ignore the "greatest number" theory are often considered morally correct, even heroic, by the community, and Central Humanism tends to concur with this outlook - up to a point. In particular, individual acts of courage directed at just one person often deserve recognition even in situations where large numbers of other people are endangered. Why? See Footnote 13. (Note: only about one percent of displaced people worldwide are resettled annually in countries participating in the UNHCR resettlement scheme.)

In other circumstances, however, the Australian community generally responds quickly and earnestly when large numbers are affected. And this leads me to consider another aspect of the numbers game, one that's tangible, relevant to society and with clear, yet highly unpopular, moral answers. (Indeed I will have to broach this topic carefully to avoid being spat upon by some of my fellow countrymen.) It is typified by the reaction of most Australians to "natural" disasters, in which large numbers of people suddenly experience terrible loss. As a good example, I will consider the latest Australian catastrophe (February 2009) - the Victorian bush fires, which resulted in thousands losing their homes and more than 200 deaths. Following extensive news coverage and a strong funds-raising campaign by the media, the Australian public rose to the occasion with their usual zeal, with obvious compassion and donations currently approaching the $300 million mark (as at 14th March) - a tremendous effort in these hard times. "Much more is still needed" said the Prime Minister and the Red Cross. And indeed the cascades of charity have still not dried up.

Well, there's no doubt this was a tragedy of enormous proportions and perhaps all the attention it got was justifiable - some absolutely horrific personal stories have emerged. But my question is: why does an individual who loses his/her home in a fire along with many others at the same time (a "disaster") get more attention and compensation than an individual who loses his/her home in a one-off fire, unaccompanied by neighbouring fires, so to speak. Is the anguish suffered by the latter any less than that suffered by the former? (On the contrary, one could say, with a touch of cynicism, the bush fire victims at least had the reassurance of knowing they were not alone.) Put yourself in the position of the friendless family who have lost their home in an isolated fire - what might they be thinking now? Isn't their loss just as much a disaster for them as for a family involved in the Victorian fires? What if they had lost a family member in their house fire too? Why should time and place make any difference? What are the circumstances that bring oodles of compassion and cash ("relief") for the one but not for the other?

And yes, I'm talking about oodles of charity - $50,000 for every affected household to be exact, even more for large families and people who failed to insure their homes.

In this I find a sickening element of wanton discrimination and unfairness, not to mention a degree of mass hysteria generated largely by the media. It's not unlike the hysteria which, in other circumstances, results in the worsening of a tragedy, the rapid deterioration of a situation (whether it be an international dispute or the collapse of the stockmarket), the overestimation of a threat or the unwarranted stigmatisation of a person believed to have misbehaved. The only difference is that it is hysteria motivated by compassion, not by anger or fear. But if everybody just sat back and thought for a minute, instead of getting swept along in this tide of unconsidered compassion, perhaps they would realise that there are already mechanisms in place to assist the casualties of fire. In particular, their houses are insured, and most policies cover the needs of the victims very well (though admittedly the insurance companies are slow to make their assessments). Of course, there are a few irresponsible people who failed to insure their homes, undoubtedly they are going to need assistance, but I'm not sure why such people would especially merit the charity of the general public. The dispensers of $50,000+ windfalls obviously think differently. Then there's the question of funding the rebuilding of the community - presumably this cost is higher than the sum of the costs of rebuilding the destroyed homes. But this extra cost would surely be a government responsibility, and in the case of a whole town, like Marysville, one must ask the question whether the decision to rebuild in the same location was a considered one, or a snap response to the prevailing mood of the community. (See this home page footnote on Australian federalism for one possible solution as to where the funds should come from.)

Of course I'm not trying to play down the misery and despair of those tragic days in February 2009. I'm just using the bushfires, perhaps a little cruelly, to make a couple of observations about "the numbers game". There will always be people affected by these catastrophic fires, storms and floods who think they have been treated unfairly. Spare a thought for those victims who never received any special consideration at all, simply because their neighbours were not in the same boat. Where's their cut of the "relief" fund? Yes, it's unfair, indecently unfair. The Central Humanist philosophy proclaims: treat people as individuals, not en masse. The public doesn't know how to handle numbers, nor where to direct its charity. Calls for donations for specific disasters will always lead to unfairness, mass charity will always be vague and confused; in short, it needs to be centralised and meted out equably and unemotionally, case by case regardless of time and place, and not simply because of a decision to allocate an indefinite amount of money to a specific event of unknown proportions. If this is rightly a function of government, what's wrong with taxes? Ah well, I suppose the whole thing then becomes mechanical and obligatory, undermining that truly Australian spirit of togetherness, generosity and emotional involvement - characteristics which all good humanists rank highly on their list of virtues. One cannot but applaud the response to the Victorian bush fire appeal, regardless of the concerns which it raises. However, one of the gravest of those concerns is the abandonment of reason in decision-making processes, and this invariably leads to injustice and strife.

When all's said and done, my personal accolades go to the volunteer fire-fighters, and I'm saddened more by the loss of forest and wildlife than by the loss of buildings. For remarks on firebugs, see When society comes first. Essentially, I agree with the Prime Minister's description of them as "mass murderers" and I really couldn't care less what excuses the psychologists concoct for their behaviour. I feel deeply sorry for those who have lost loved ones in the bush fires, and enraged by the thought that there might be someone out there who is directly to blame.

Footnote 4 on "Equal" and "fair" treatment and the tax maze (# 6)

The governments of advanced democracies like Australia make a considerable effort to treat people fairly, even if they create a minefield of complexities in the process. For example, consider the taxation system. An "equal" system, I presume, would impose a flat rate per head, i.e. the same absolute tax on every adult person, regardless of their financial status, but possibly exempting children and the incapacitated, or charging them half-fare. This, after all, is how we pay for almost everything else. A less equal but much more equitable system would use a flat rate per dollar of income, or per dollar of income plus assets growth. Most governments go a step further, however, and apply a scaled tax so that low income earners pay less tax per dollar than high income earners. Accumulated wealth may also be taken into account for certain classes of people or for certain purposes. Furthermore the poorest members of society have negative taxation, i.e. they are paid welfare benefits. Thus, in a general way, current taxation systems treat people unequally but with some degree of fairness. It is very obvious that taxation is applied unequally, but whether or not it is truly fair is questionable, and to some extent a matter of opinion. Doubtless some would argue that a flat rate per head is both equal and equitable!

It is also very obvious that in most countries, especially in Australia, the taxation system is absurdly complicated. There are four main reasons for this. Firstly personal taxation is mixed up with welfare, an intrinsically messy business, secondly corporations have taken too much control over how they are taxed (by developing tax reduction and avoidance systems), thirdly governments use the system as a way of controlling (I'd rather say "meddling with") specific sectors of the economy. Finally, there are just too many public servants of questionable intelligence creating red-tape ad libitum. This endless fiddling around with tax and welfare and the unbelievable, out-of control escalation of taxation laws invariably leads to a lack of uniformity, unfairness, confusion and many more problems than solutions. An example is our current government's short-term policy of subsidising first home buyers with $7,000 (until recently, up to $14,000) towards the cost of a new home. Intended primarily to give a boost to the building industry, the immediate effect was to increase the average price of real estate by much more than $14,000. In the longer term it has contributed towards an unprecedented boom in property values, putting a home of any sort far beyond the reach of many young hopefuls. The next phase will presumably be a bust, with the potential for enormous damage to the economy. Undoubtedly there will also be an increase in interest rates. So while yesterday's new home buyers got a handout of $14,000, tomorrow's will pay at least another $100,000, plus around $7,000 a year (interest only) at the expected new interest rate*. Meanwhile the average Australian has nearly all their capital tied up in their home, very little in savings, and family expenditure actually exceeding income by 5%. The thing is, the subsidy was unfair to start with. Why should a particular class of person at a particular time get a $14,000 handout, particularly if they were not the primary target? (Good grief! It seems now they're dealing handouts of $3-4000 to baby producers! What next?) A little bit of meddling and partiality now can lead to an enormous adverse rebound in the future, which may have to be defused by a much greater amount of the same kind of injustice.

*Initially, interest rates did not rise as much as expected, as other factors led to the Reserve Bank keeping the base rate quite low. However, there have now been (March 2008) at least seven increases in rates, and a massive increase in the numbers of mortgage defaults and home repossessions. Most home owners who have managed to stay afloat are paying around $20,000 or 37% of income.

The taxation/welfare system is also riddled with inconsistencies, arbitrariness and dithering. An example of this is the way married couples (or should I now say "partners") are assessed. For some purposes the system treats couples as a unit, sometimes even when it's obvious that the issue under consideration really only applies to one partner; while for other purposes the partners are treated quite separately. For some purposes, both ploys are used together, some aspects of a couple's (or individual's) finances being assessed individually while others are assessed jointly. Since it's so unclear what "partners" are, I don't know why everyone can't be treated as an individual.

Well, the idea of treating people individually breaks down in the case of corporation tax. This would hardly matter if the acquisition of wealth was simply taxed at a flat rate, because who did the acquiring would not affect anything. The problem does not lie with people and corporate entities as such, but with defining the money transfers that are to be taxed. And this is where corporations have got it too good. It doesn't take much calculation to see that there's loads of money flying around everywhere, that much of the flying is done by corporations and that much of this is not taxed. If it was properly taxed, ordinary individuals would have to bear a smaller part of the tax burden.

To say that taxation is employed as a way of manipulating the economy is to make light of its real effect on society. In truth, the government misuses taxation to coerce people into behaving how it wants, for whatever ends it wants (e.g. to preserve "traditional family values"). Therefore the system as it stands makes unacceptable inroads into personal freedom, reducing the ability of individuals to make satisfying life choices.

On the other hand, the government should tax people and corporations that make money out of stuff that doesn't really belong to them; in particular there should be a resources tax, applied to the primary users of natural resources such as water, air, minerals and forests. Similarly, there should be pollution taxes (such as the proposed carbon tax). A problem with both these is that resource and pollution management are global concerns, and the application of taxes in particular countries could lead to loss of exporting opportunities.

Unfairness, complexity and diminished economic freedom are close allies in Australia's messy taxation system. Here's my number one golden rule of ethical taxation. If it's possible for any person, corporation or other taxable entity to reduce their tax by shifting funds around, then the system contains unnecessary inequalities, complications and restrictions. Think about it! Our entire taxation industry seems to be geared towards doing just this. When this industry collapses, that will be the day we have a sound, ethical taxation system in place.

Admittedly to create the conditions for the golden rule would be problematic, considering the deep ramifications on society of the current system. As already suggested, it would obviously be much easier to install if we reverted to a flat income tax rate.

Another requirement for the operation of the golden rule, independent of the actual tax scale but crucial for simplifying the system, would be to tax all net financial gain in the same way, regardless of its derivation or purpose (Net gain = gross income or growth less the expenses involved in achieving it). Taxes that don't relate to personal gain (like GST, an extremely inefficient form of taxation) should be avoided as far as possible, but might find a place in the application of disincentives (or in negative form as incentives) for purposes of economic, health and environmental management - but only if the tax (or handout) clearly offered the best solution to a genuine problem, and only if it didn't hurt anyone. (And not for ludicrous pretexts such as distinguishing junk food from basic food!) These, as well as welfare payments, would be better handled separately and also kept simple.

Meanwhile, though you might escape death from cancer, you certainly won't escape death from suffocation under a heap of taxation sludge.

Incidentally - on a related issue - why should certain broad classes of people get discounts on various goods and services? I'm thinking especially of discounted government services for the elderly. Why not give oldies a decent pension to start with, and let them choose whether they want to use it for (e.g.) railway travel or something else:   (a) some old folk might not want to go anywhere and (b) some old folk might like to think they're as good as the next citizen (which I'm sure they are). I say increase the pension and abolish the pensioners' card - and all the perks it stands for. (The main issues here are overt discrimination, freedom of choice and potential abuse of heavily subsidised services such as medical schemes - also see Footnote 8.)

Footnote 5 on "potential" (# 12)

According to scientific evidence and first-hand opinion, the intellectual and social capabilities (including language) of some apes exceed those of two-year-old children. Why, then, are they not treated with the same regard in our social system? If killing an infant is murder, so is killing an ape, isn't it? And so is killing a dolphin or a parrot. There is only one possible excuse that might reasonably cause one to think differently, and that is the notion of "potential". An infant has the potential to develop into a creature that's more "advanced" than an ape (though many never do!), and this may justify treating them differently in certain respects. For example, we wouldn't bother sending an ape to pre-school or teaching it good table manners. But at the same time, we tend to treat human beings for what they are, regardless of potential (e.g. seriously disadvantaged adults). So why don't we treat apes, dolphins, parrots etc for what they are? (Given the opportunity, some of them would undoubtedly do better in pre-school than many children!)

Questions about potential tend to be philosophically very difficult. As individuals, should people and animals be treated for what they are, or for their potential to develop into something else? One problem with the notion of potential is that it has no beginning or end. When does something start and finish having the potential to be something else? The answer is: always and never. Today's worm might well be tomorrow's superbeing. The trouble with "potential" is its vague generality, while the future objects which it encompasses are (or rather, will be) real individuals. For example, consider this: given that the world is already overpopulated and the birthrate needs to be drastically cut back, every baby about to be born is a potential pest, a threat to the rest of humanity. But once it becomes a fully developed person, it will be (with a few exceptions) an object of love and respect, maybe even an idol, an important statesman or benefactor.

On the whole, then, I'm not wrapped up in the ethical implications of potential, preferring to take individuals at face value. The consequences of this position are disagreeable to some people. It means, for example, that I strongly oppose the destruction of any of the remaining habitat of apes and monkeys, the confining of birds in small cages and trade in most animal species; while on the other hand I doubt that human embryos and young infants always merit the same consideration as adult human beings, e.g. in relation to the notion of murder. Indeed it appears to be thoroughly inconsistent to support the so-called "right to life" of young human embryos while being a consumer of fish products and similar or higher forms of life.

This position is tempered by the Central Humanist view of responsibility outlined in #1. I must also emphasise that all this is floating dangerously in a void and there are many qualifying issues. With regard to infants, for example, it needs to be said, rather obviously, that most infants will in fact grow into adults and therefore in general the most appropriate ways of treating them are the ways that will have the best effect on their adulthood. And I have left out of consideration issues that don’t directly affect the infants themselves, such as the sense of loss of the parents of a deceased child (but remember that gorillas too are parents. So are rats).

Then again, circumstances may greatly restrict the potential of an infant to maximise it's humanity (see Footnote 18). In general, the larger the population of infants in a country (relative to the country's wealth), the lower their potential to lead fulfilling lives - indeed to live at all. One can react in different ways to this situation: for example, one might think not only that we must feed and shelter these children, but that we must provide them with a high standard of education too. Or one might think that no matter what we do they are most unlikely to achieve more than their parents, so why worry? - it is better for society to nurture the children whose potential for human advacement is greater. It is by no means clear-cut which of these options (among others) is the more ethical.

Footnote 6 - more links (Introduction)

The most important humanist organisation is the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which acts as an umbrella for other humanist groups worldwide. The Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc, formerly the Rationalist Association of South Australia, is essentially a secular humanist body whose website contains some excellent religious criticism. (NB: this organisation's alternative to religion is the "overboard" model of scientific method - see this para above.) An extremely useful reference site is The Skeptic's Annotated Bible (+ Quran + Book of Mormon). Also recommended: The Richard Dawkins Foundation and TruthDig - An Atheist Manifesto (Sam Harris).

For Queenslanders (and others) a visit to the Humanist Society of Queensland site should prove rewarding. Many of the online journal articles there will really stir you up! For example, in the Winter 2004 issue of the Queensland Humanist (Humanist News and Society Notes - Bernie Doran's report on the May '04 Forum), take a look at the slightly amusing but worrying paragraph about the Imam that came to address the Skeptics meeting and you'll catch a glimmer of the incredible, impoverished mindset of some religionists, and the grave danger and darkness lurking within our society. Another interesting Queensland site is Manussa - a humanist page (Brisbane). From the perspective of practical action, the most successful humanist organisations are probably some of those in India, such as the Atheist Centre.

Footnote 7 on racism and "individual rights versus concepts" (# 7)

A.  Perhaps the kind of discrimination that incites most aggravation in the community is racism (or racialism - the two terms are regarded as synonymous here). The concept of racism is ever becoming looser, so that almost any kind of negative reaction to any race, or to any person on account of his/her belonging to a particular race, is now regarded as racist*. Thus racism relates both to attitudes towards individuals based on their race, and to attitudes towards entire races or classes of races - indeed, any race other than one's own. This is an unacceptable broadening of the use of the "racist" label. For,as has been noted, the idea that one should not form any opinion about an individual based on knowledge of their general background, culture or country of origin is absurd, and it cannot be denied that race is invariably closely associated with these factors. We may also take it for granted that the first principle of Centralisation (see #1) is a reasonable representation of the basic social nature of every normal citizen (every Australian citizen, anyway, if qualification is needed). Inevitably this state of affairs will lead at times to what one might call "justifiable negativity" towards races other than one's own and towards individual members of those races. But this is not racism. Or, if it is, then some other "-isms", in particular speciesism, must immediately be classified as universal criminal activities of the first magnitude, putting a noose around the neck of every single one of the seven billion inhabitants of this Earth.

In Australia the overly broad, hypersensitive controls on racism (and other -isms) are extremist and will inevitably lead to a backlash. The media have recently reported several incidents where seemingly harmless (and quite truthful) remarks by prominent persons, usually directed at particular persons, have been labelled "racialist", and sometimes assumed without question to be racialist. However the "victims" of these taunts apparently earn little sympathy because of their low resilience, humourlessness and lack of magnanimity. Maybe they could have laughed off the matter or responded with some of the same instead of taking offence so easily, even to the point of bringing lawsuits against the culprit. Although (it goes without saying) some races tend to acquit themselves with more grace than others, the likes of Nino Culotta have unfortunately long since disappeared.

*It is widely held that the police succumb to racial discrimination when they carry out searches aimed at safeguarding the community against the risk of terrorist attack (or against some other threat, such as drug runners). But of course if they were seeking, say, Islamic terrorists, random searches would be an appalling waste of time and resources. Obviously it makes good sense for them to concentrate their efforts on people of middle eastern appearance or with muslim names. In circumstances like this, allegations of racial discrimination are totally misplaced.

B.  Should our concern for individuals always take precedence over concepts, principles, ideologies?. Unfortunately it can't. Where would we be today if our ancestors had not fought bloody battles to preserve our democratic, free, human lifestyle? When the enemies of humanity attack us, what choice have we got but to defend ourselves by whatever means is necessary? The world needs to find ways of smothering armed confrontation before it sets in.

Footnote 8 on "insurance company ethics" (# 7)

Actually, insurance companies represent a discriminatory extreme that could be considered quite unethical. One Australian insurance agency proudly announces in its current advertising campaign that it "does not offer insurance to young drivers; we don’t even offer insurance to 45-year-old drivers”, implying that its premiums for older people are thereby kept lower. Young drivers apparently constitute too high a risk. What if all insurance companies took this attitude? Would any other kind of business be allowed to get away with this approach? (Would they be allowed to say "We don't offer insurance to males or blacks"?) The problem is, not so much that age is being used as a criterion of eligibility for insurance, but that it is apparently the only criterion being used and that it is used in such an arbitrary manner. Insurance companies lazily base their deals on just one or two broad classes such as age (using arbitrary cut-off points such as 25 and 55), when they could, and should, be using more objective information. Not every person under 25 is a high risk driver, nor is every person over 55 a low risk. Insurance companies thus flout the important principle noted in #7 that to treat individuals fairly involves using the best available information. But in any case one of the functions of insurance companies is to spread risks evenly throughout the community. You'd think there would be legislation in place to make them do this – combined with better driver education for the young.

Given that there is no such legislation, however, one reason why insurance companies don’t use more information to gauge risks is undoubtedly because this would be perceived by some as blatant discrimination. People may not think of classification by age as being particularly discriminatory, but if you started to bring in sex, intelligence, education, ethnicity, financial status etc, then sociologists, politicians, civil rights activists, legislators and the general public would all be jumping up and down. Presumably this is why the questions asked by insurance company agents, on their forms and over the phone, are so carefully (and strangely) worded. What Central Humanism sees as being, in many circumstances, a rational and legitimate approach to decision making (#7), others regard as offensive.

(Another minus for the insurance industry, shared by the legal profession, is the imposition on those involved in an accident or crime to refrain from admitting responsibility, even when they know they are clearly in the wrong. This fault-denying frame of mind has infiltrated the whole of society, and has transmuted into an ingrained attitude of shirking responsibility.)

Footnote 9 on "one or many gods/devils?" (# 9)

Imagine a visit with a friend to a well-stocked zoo, housing animals ranging through spiders, insects, fish, snakes, birds, marsupials, ungulates, big cats and of course those perennial favourites, the gorillas and chimpanzees. What would you think if, near the end of the viewing, your friend suddenly said “But all these animals are the same!”? No doubt you’d think he or she is totally blind, totally insensitive or totally insane. Yet how often do you hear someone say “All religions are really the same”? Why would you not think such a person to be totally blind, totally ignorant or as dense as a dumbbell? (Or is it just a deliberate, but rather stupid, ploy to make their ignorant companions of a different faith feel at home in hostile surroundings?)

This is not to say that there is no common thread running through religion. In the making of civilizations, religion has been a pervasive force throughout the aeons and in every continent. Prof. Dan Cruickshank seems to feel the immensity and universality of the power of religion following his travel experiences (Around the World in 80 Treasures, 2005 - remarks at end of final episode). And as with animals, of course there are certain characteristics that most religions possess – just those characteristics that entitle us to call a religion a religion. These normally include being essentially social, having some kind of real or imaginary, revered figurehead(s), providing sanctuary for gurus who preach metaphysical nonsense that is believed by devotees, a preoccupation with ritual and/or symbology, and advocating certain standards of social behaviour. But every religion has its own versions of these categories, and the extremes of religion are almost as different as the zoo’s spiders and chimpanzees.

Likewise with the notion of "God" that is central to most religions. The seemingly common belief that the various religions actually worship one and the same God is plainly absurd - the attributes of the gods portrayed in the various scriptures differ immensely from one another, especially in regard to their "moral" commandments and the amount and kind of diabolical ritual and bizarre hocus-pocus that is needed to appease them. It follows that all religionists are (or “should be”) atheistic with respect to the gods of religions other than their own. Thus the hope that one day all religions will unite is as fanciful as that they will all be abolished. Well, just look at the basic psychological species of mankind with which we must begin: ethically the people of this planet can be divided into four almost mutually exclusive groups - muslims, disciples of all other religions, thoughtful atheists/agnostics/free-thinkers, and those who don't care a stuff. Each group tends to inhabit its own world, light-years apart from the other worlds, except for a sprinkling of interstellar dust. It is not merely religion that divides us.

Not only are there marked differences between the gods of different religions; the god of each particular creed is itself a strangely mixed fabrication, a concoction of unrelated concepts. Taking the typical Christian god as an example, there seems to be no connection between this god's miscellaneous alleged functions, such as creating the universe, producing a son, answering prayers, setting moral rules, wallowing in praise, redeeming sins, admitting souls to heaven and a heap of other roles, which of course vary between different sects and religions. To attribute this bizarre mishmash of responsibilities to one supreme being is plainly ridiculous. (But, you might say, no more ridiculous than the roles that human beings must play!)

Still, there appear to be a few features of God that are common to most if not all the major theistic religions. One of these is that he is responsible for life on Earth, in particular for human life. One must immediately conclude that he has no sense of morality, since the misdemeanors of mankind pale into insignificance besides the atrocities perpetuated by this vile monster. This is obvious not only from a cursory inspection of the condition of the human race, but also from a single inspection of any of the religious books. Suppose there is just one "all-powerful" God. Any sensitive individual reading the scriptures of any of the three major monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) could not help but arrive at the conclusion that this being is a conceited, ignorant, inhumane, unjust, demeaning, deceitful, equivocating, contemptible rogue, whom any decent person would be thoroughly ashamed to acknowledge as their father. This is the main reason why an important tenet of Central Humanism is that belief in any "coventional" God is highly unethical and fraught with insufferable contradictions. (Also see Footnote 17 on "Which are the most inhumane religions?")

It would be a mistake to equate sameness of drive with sameness of object of worship. In fact there are some traditional religions, notably most forms of Buddhism, which are essentially atheistic - their object of worship, if any, is a real person rather than a "supernatural being". Even so, the scriptures and teachings of these religions are bursting with irrational dogma, mumbo-jumbo and symbolism, and their followers engage in idolatry, outlandish ritual and escapist psychological techniques, all of which tend to be at odds with the ideals of Central Humanism. This is not to imply that none of these antics are beneficial to personal wellbeing, or that they do not possess a certain charm; only that they have no place in humanist philosophies. Apart from their godlessness they have a similar status as other faiths, and often appear to be just as belligerent. There is no point in trying to twist these ancient doctrines to make them applicable to the modern world, when plain common sense, reason, compassion and open mindedness can make a better job of improving moral attitudes and dealing with the world's social problems. However, the one aspect of Buddhism (and some forms of Hinduism) that deserves consideration is the apparent ability of some of its adherents to achieve a "higher state of consciousness" which, they claim, gives them a totally different view of the universe and their place in it. Incidentally, I regard the Buddha himself as one of the greatest of the ancient ethical philosophers. It is in many ways unfortunate that he has been transformed into a religious figurehead. (See Footnote 17).

Footnote 10 on "when smoking and pregnancy might be relevant criteria for an employer to use" (# 7)

Consider the case of a young job seeker who smokes. In this day and age wouldn't you be justified in thinking that the person might be remarkably uninformed, of somewhat low intelligence, not fully in control of his or her life, at higher risk of poor health and liable to duck out for smoking breaks (any or all of these things)? A prospective employer surely has the right to take these into account. Now what about the case of a female job seeker who has recently become pregnant, or even one who intends to become pregnant. (Already I hear women screaming blue murder - but wait till I've finished, please - then scream if you must!) Let's assume her prospective employer is male, just to make things (possibly) harder for her. If the employer's business has to bear the additional costs involved in employing this person because of her condition, then surely he again has every right to take this into consideration in selecting a suitable applicant. But clearly the woman has her rights too, and she would justifiably feel hard done by if her pregnancy was taken as a reason for not employing her. The solution is obvious. Society as a whole must compensate this employer for any loss sustained in awarding the employee paid maternity leave etc. If the social system does not already do this, then it has failed the employer or the employee or both. I have no knowledge of current Australian regulations, but I suspect the system would be less supportive of the employer than of the pregnant woman - even though he is the one making the decision (a decision clearly based on relevant facts and reasonable risk assessment) while it would be easy to presume that she is merely seeking charity.

Footnote 11 on the meaning of "society" (# 2)

I may be using the word "society" ambiguously here. I'm referring on the one hand to the cooperative relationships between the members of a community (e.g. tribe, nation, economic union) and on the other hand to the system of rules, conventions and services that maintain the organisation and behaviour of that community. In saying that Central Humanism is concerned with how a society should behave in order to maintain the integrity of individuals, I don't want to imply a kind of aloofness of the social organisation from the individuals that comprise it. Individual responsibilities of course extend to the development and maintenance of the system, and that is what makes it open to reform. But at the same time, once in place, the system is a mammoth, complex machine that does profoundly affect the way we live and over which individuals in isolation usually have very little control.

Footnote 12 on "the religious indoctrination of children" (# 9)

Quite apart from the ritualistic garbage that children may be required to learn, there are at least four grades of "bookish" (scripture-based) indoctrination which could cause them permanent intellectual damage:

1. Cramming them with material that is obviously false, either because it contradicts or distorts known facts or because it is internally inconsistent
2. Forcing them to learn material that is nonsensical - there's no possible way of telling whether it's true or false because it's completely meaningless
3. Forcing then to learn to recite material which they cannot possibly understand, either because it's in a foreign language which they haven't learnt or because the concepts involved are too difficult for them to grasp
4. Directing them to pray to an imaginary entity, especially in a submissive, kowtowing manner or with words that have no clear meaning

This kind of brainwashing clearly threatens their powers of reasoning and truth comprehension and seems to be designed to undermine their self-esteem and trap them for life in a prison of lies and pretense. Is this kind of molestation by priests any less indecent than the sexual abuse that gets so much attention from the media? No! Religion deserves nothing but contempt and ridicule, and those who implant it in young children deserve nothing less than gaol. Nor is it only children who need protection from religion. Why should the pastor who tries to sell you a slice of makebelieve paradise be treated by the law any differently from the real estate agent who tricks you into signing a contract for a non-existent block of land?

Footnote 13 on "some problems with utilitarianism" (#14 and Footnote 3)

The ethical ideal of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" creates a plethora of difficulties, especially for those who include all sentient species under its scope. How do you weigh up, say, the plight of hens in battery cages against the plight of starving children in Africa? (And these cases, along with innumerable others, do need to be weighed against one another, because of economic and practical limits to what can be achieved.) Let's assume you had to make a choice between rescuing 1000 hens from battery cages and transforming the life of one starving child. Make that 10,000 or 100,000 hens if you like - just choose a figure that seems a reasonable match, in your eyes, between the value and sensitivity of the hens and the value and sensitivity of the child. You can immediately appreciate the difficulty. Reason is virtually excluded because there's no known way of properly assessing the situation.

Christians, Muslims and Jews, however, have a ready-made answer. They would always "save" the child because human beings have a special place in their scheme of things; the followers of these religions are "speciesist". It would come as no surprise to discover that many humanists might do the same, and for similar "reasons". Central Humanists might fall into this camp because they find too many problems in evaluating consequences. One of these problems is the "numbers game" (Footnote 3). Is treating a thousand chickens badly a thousand times worse than treating one chicken badly? From the perspective of the perpetrator of the act, almost certainly not. This person might simply have a propensity to treat chickens badly, so in a sense he's just as much at fault whether he harms one or a thousand chickens. It's arguable that in a sense he's just as much at fault even if he causes no chickens any harm (because he can't find any chickens but would certainly harm them if he could). Now because Central Humanist ethics is concerned with moral conscience at least as much as with consequences, the numbers criterion falls to pieces. But this is not the only reason for its collapse. Suppose, in order to save the life of my son, I have to shoot a thousand attackers. Assuming there are no complications to this situation, would I be right or wrong to do this? An unsophisticated consequentialist would presumably say "You're wrong, a thousand times wrong!". I would say "I'm right, my bloody oath I'm right!" I'd say I'm right because of my affinity and affection for my son and because it's my responsibility to defend him (#1). I don't have any immediate responsibilities toward the attackers and in any case, I would probably say, it is they who must be wrong, and if there's one thousand of them that are wrong then that's just too bad. This is one situation where numbers don't count.

Returning to the original dilemma - Who shall we save, a starving child or x number of chickens (knowing that some of them are going to die and that there's a high chance the child will die if we don't act promptly)? Well, if this is a genuine choice, it wouldn't be at all surprising if most humanists opted to save the child, regardless of the size of x. It would be very difficult to argue that they'd be wrong. They could give the same reasons for being right that I gave for defending my son, regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack of belief). In practice, of course the dilemma is very complicated - more complicated, I feel, than either animal liberationists or their enemies commonly suppose. For instance, animal liberationists and consequentialists often fail to properly consider the likely effects of abolishing various farming practices on the predicament of people which, I'd suggest, includes a good sprinkling of death and misery. Also, they'd probably argue that there's no real dilemma here - we can afford to save the chickens and the child. They are almost certainly right in thinking we could do a lot more for both causes, but probably wrong if they're suggesting we don't need to set priorities. (The standpoint of our present philosophy, however, is that in the long run drastic reductions in animal production and modifications of production methods will improve the lot of both people and animals - see #12.)

For humanists, a more troubling upshot of the "numbers game" philosophy is its apparent condonation, in certain circumstances, of the deliberate infliction of pain on a few in order to promote the wellbeing (or reduce the misery) of the many - even when the latter outcome is not assured but only judged to be probable. An example is the use of torture. If one could increase one's chances of reducing the agony of thousands by torturing a few individuals, then according to the consequentialist ethic one's action would be justified (by applying some prescription or other, either formal or intuitive and vague). This outlook is incompatible with Central Humanist notions of compassion and individual rights, and presumably with the beliefs of the majority of humanists. And I think the converse view (that it is never right to torture a person) is consistent with the view expressed above (that sometimes it is right to protect the life or wellbeing of an individual despite harmful consequences to a large number). In effect, both cases allow for the humane treatment of individuals regardless of the wellbeing of others. Consequentialists, I think, would be opposed to this attitude, and not without reason, for it appears to open the door to moral anarchy. Well, is it moral anarchy, or just organisational anarchy relative to an unworkable idealist model of social equality? The answers are to be found in the "ifs" and "buts" that arise when we consider the questions: why are we compassionate, why should we be compassionate, why worry about anyone else, why aren't we totally selfish? Central Humanism does not accept that compassion is self evidently good or right. It might well be a natural and normal human attribute, but that does not make it right or wrong. So what does? The answer, my friend, is still blowing in the wind.

Another related problem concerns the dubious significance of the degree of sentience possessed by a person, creature or thing - even assuming we could measure it. Moral dilemmas occur even when this is known to be zero. Sometimes people want to defend inanimate objects (e.g. land, trees, monuments) against destruction or annexation by other people, and not only because their loss might harm somebody. They might want to defend them because they're beautiful or historically significant or because they have a special attachment to them. If their defence results in people getting harmed, is their cause necessarily immoral? The short answer is "no"! So if people get harmed in battles about inanimate objects, they're going to get harmed in battles about tigers, orang-utans, kiwis and Ulysses butterflies too, and who's to say this is unpardonable on the grounds that human beings are presumed to be capable of greater suffering than these creatures? I, for one, do not for one moment believe that the slaying of the poacher with the gun is necessarily of greater account than the slaying of the tiger. Even - indeed especially - from a humanist point of view.

Footnote 14 on "unfamiliarity as a reason for a negative attitude towards individuals" (# 7)

Unfamiliarity may often itself be an adequate, though extremely regrettable, reason for treating a person negatively. By unfamiliarity I mean lack of knowledge of the characteristics of one or more of the various classes in terms of which we need to make relevant judgements about a person. It's a legitimate reason because it's a risk reducing strategy. But as a reason for turning someone down it's regrettable because it's not objective - it has nothing to do with the actual qualities of the person being judged. Rather, it's a question of "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know", and this could be a telling way of putting it, because the chances might well be higher that if you did know more about the person you don't know you'd be even less enthusiastic about him or her! Whatever, we surely have the right to be both cautious and suspicious, even though some unlucky person may have to bear the brunt of our apprehension.

It is probably true that there's a dearth of readily accessible information on general psychological and behavioural differences between various important classes - for example between men and women and between different ethnic groups. Could there be an arcane tendency to suppress sociological information in the interests of safeguarding the equality myth, which is (wrongly) believed to be essential to maintain the dignity and fair treatment of individuals? This lack of information is unfortunate because we tend to fill the void with hearsay and this leads to prejudice (of the irrational kind). If we had more facts then we could dispel the myths or, should they turn out to be true, convert our preconceptions into knowledge that could be judiciously and ethically applied. (Example:  Dick Crane’s graphs claiming to show a relationship between ethnicity and crime have been around for some time. Although their validity and interpretation are open to question and there are apparently some contrary statistics available, this is the sort of information which an open society should be more open about.)

Footnote 15 on "social conscience and moral conscience" (# 14)

Social consciousness and moral consciousness overlap but are not the same. Some thoughtless people can't even be bothered to pick up their litter from the park or remove their shopping trolleys from the parking bays. They might have a rotten sense of social responsibility but I would not say that their laziness is unethical. On the other hand some people want to see our rainforests preserved even though humanity might disappear from the face of the earth. This certainly has nothing to do with society but I would say it is an ethical attitude. Central Humanism, at least, includes this kind of attitude in its sphere (it falls under the criteria of humanism given in #2 and #12). Other types of humanism might well be unsympathetic.

Footnote 16 on "heaven and hell" (# 9)

One of the most appalling aspects of the three major religions of Middle Eastern origin is their insistence that your behaviour in this life will be either wonderfully rewarded or terrifyingly punished in an afterlife. Even quite trivial matters seem to affect this outcome, but just where your chances lie is impossible to tell. This torrent of temptations and threats is used by the religions to keep their disciples on the straight and narrow path, i.e. the largely ridiculous set of rules embedded in the scriptures. It's a ploy that works quite well with uneducated, irresponsible people lacking self esteem, self control, and unable to form any sensible rules of behaviour for themselves.

The available evidence strongly suggests there is no afterlife, either of torment or of ecstasy. The very small amount of contrary evidence is open to numerous different interpretations, and certainly does not confirm the belief in immortality or the existence of souls. But even if there is life after death (and even some humanists might harbour this hope in the back of their minds), the belief that its quality depends on your behaviour in your Earthly life is pitiful. So, given this dearth of evidence together with the implausibility of any connection with our mortal behaviour, there's absolutely no point in believing in heaven or hell. What difference can it make to the life of any thinking person?

The Christian and Islamic belief that all unrepentant sinners are cast into a dungeon of everlasting fiery torment, regardless of the magnitude of their supposed “sins”, is just as revolting as the Nazi belief that all Jews should be condemned to the gas chambers, regardless of whether they actually match up to the Nazi-concocted set of pseudo-attributes that provide the pretext for this heinous crime. My reason for drawing this comparison, however, is not just that I believe no humanist would ever endorse the implementation of either felony on any human being, but that the use of the name – “sinner” or “Jew” – does not in fact identify any relevant category of persons.
“Sinner” :– because the dividing line between sinner and virtuous person is totally arbitrary. Even supposing the word “sin” has any coherent meaning (which it hasn’t), in reality probably everyone occupies some point in the zone between “wholly sinful” and “wholly virtuous”. So the word “sinner” fails to identify anyone.  “Jew” :– because, although the word has a reasonably clear meaning in this context (member of the Jewish race), there are no properties common to all Jews and unique to Jews, which by any stretch of imagination could justify the mass murder of all Jews – or mass anything else, for that matter. Even if, in the wickedest of minds, there is some group of people who deserve to be exterminated, one would be extremely hard-pressed to think of any properties that might be more wickedly relevant to Jews than to, say, Americans, Buddhists, receptionists or washing machine manufacturers. Except for one thing – that they bear the name “Jew”. It is a most regrettable fact of life that very general names such as these have been and still are used to throw people into categories, favourable as well as unfavourable, in which they do not rightly belong. (Also see Footnote 18.)

Footnote 17 on "Which are the most naive and inhumane religions?" (#9, Footnote 9)

"Nothing could be more revolting than the belief that a person should be tortured or murdered because of his refusal to follow a creed, no creature more wretched than the one that holds this belief, no crime more unpardonable than that which implements it, and no religion more despicable than one that sanctions
any such attitude among any of its members."

It is a plain truth that the major religions are incompatible with one another - their gods, their ideologies, their laws and their rituals are all different. Even within religions the various factions are perpetually squabbling with each other. As might be expected, when judged by those on the outside of the religious jungle, some religions appear better or worse than others in various respects. In what respects is an important question, because some aspects of religion are both central to the faith and ethically and politically significant, while others are quite trivial - even if they do cause tempestuous divisions among the faithful. Whatever redeeming features a religion might possess, ultimately it is bound to be judged mainly by its negative points: its inhumanity, its "fatal errors", the extent of its infiltration into public affairs and the depth and ubiquity of its fundamentalism - that is, the tenacity of the majority of its disciples in pursuing their creed lock, stock and barrel, in thought and in practice. (The reason why religions are judged by their negatives rather than their positives is simply that they don't have any positives over and above those of humanism, except for some splendid historical accoutrements in the form of architectural wonders and picturesque song and dance routines.)

Although comparing religions is difficult for a number of reasons, secular humanists do sometimes try to arrange religious denominations according to their "horror rating", or degree of depravity. At the top of the list you might expect to see some of the traditional African "religions" and superstitions and the most severe forms of the Abrahamic religions (various shades of Islam, Christian orthodoxy, Catholicism and Judaism), especially those which retain an admixture of primitive religious culture; and traditional (“orthodox”) Hinduism. Next will come certain strict, fringe Christian sects such as Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology and the Christian Fellowship, various eastern sects related to Hinduism and numerous evangelical sects (mostly Christian). Following those there will probably be a concoction of ritualistic, moderate and relatively undemanding religions (such as Baha'ism, modernised kinds of Hinduism and again some listen-and-forget Christian denominations). Finally you might find some more or less harmless, possibly even enlightening, beliefs ranging from Buddhism, Taoism and Japanese Shinto blends to low-key New Age pantheism. Not that such a list has much meaning, because countries and individuals vary greatly in their outlook and commitment to their faith. However, some religions and cults demand that commitment much more than others. And transcending all lists are the violent extremists in any religion. A person who would perpetrate or condone torture and suicide in the name of religion is about as low a human (?) being as you can get - much, much better to lead a life as some other kind of animal.

While historically Christianity probably has a worse reputation than Islam (see below), the current perception among humanists is that Islam easily heads the field because of its aggressive, unforgiving, megalomaniac deity, its obsession with peculiar, pedantic ritual and needless unethical practices such as halal killing, compulsory circumcision and adherence to suppressive social behaviours (mainly in other countries, especially for women), its predominantly high level of intolerance, its grim humourlessness and its general invasiveness, particularly its encroachment into politics, its tendency (in other countries) to dictate the laws of the State and its insidious annexation of the United Nations, sending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into tatters. Indeed there are two features of Islam that align it with cultism:  it puts itself beyond criticism and its partisans are not free to leave (see below). But what makes it far more dangerous than any cult is its ineradicable embedment in the culture of millions of people world-wide. Once upon a time that culture was admired for its artistry and science, but nowadays one gets the impression that much of the Middle East resembles a cross between a lunatic asylum, a kindergarten and a slaughter house. In short, Islam is currently the most depraved and menacing religion on Earth. If the following words are insufficient to convey this message, perhaps Christopher Hitchens (alas now deceased) can help with an article such as this: Why are we so scared of offending Muslims?.

Unfortunately, the chances of any muslims reading this webpage are extremely low.  As a group, muslims are very poorly educated - as some muslims themselves will admit - e.g. see this article by an educated muslim asking "Why are Jews so powerful and muslims so powerless?" And "intelligent, educated muslims" (or rather those who call themseves such, as in my opinion this is a self-contradictory phrase) won't read this webpage, if ever they come across it, for the same "reason" they won't look at an image depicting the prophet Mohammed. This criticism, however, may not apply so much here in Australia, where many muslim schools are among the very best performers, implying, one would hope, a more open mind (and stricter parenting?). This criticism, however, does not apply so much here in Australia, where many muslim schools are among the very best performers. Still, it’s worth remembering that the assault of Islam on children begins soon after birth, with the cutting of the boy’s foreskin, and continues throughout their education with its perversive brain washing with the crudities of the Quran.

In Muslim countries 95-99% of the population consider religion to be a very important part of their lives (survey by Gallup Center for Muslim Studies). Compared with the average Christian (e.g. typical Anglican), the average Muslim takes his religion far more seriously and spends far more time indulging in worship, scripture reading and ritual. While the rituals of most Christian Chuches are confined to places of worship, those of Islam invade every facet of life, from dusk till dawn, from bedroom to toilet. Muslims are far more bothered by insignificant detail and elements of sheer superstition. They frequently argue about the silliest trivia, such as whether they should perform religious house-warmings, whether they should avoid sleeping with their feet pointing towards Mecca, or whether you can pass X's grave before visiting Y's grave. (All this on top of the fundamental Sunni/Shia divide.) Most Westerners simply have no idea of the extent of the junk heap and the average muslim's infatuation with it. You'd think none of this mishmash of fussy little formalities could possibly have any bearing on anything of significance, even if the creed did contain something of significance. Still, it's hardly surprising, really, as one of the most prominent characteristics of muslim leaders and spokesmen is their ability to blabber on and on about sweet nothings. In contrast to this, many Christians – including Catholics – apparently take even some of their fundamental doctrines less seriously than Muslims. Although one of the worst features of Vatican doctrine is its ongoing harsh policy on birth control and abortion, Italy, the seat of Catholicism, has one of the lowest birth rates in the world (8.7 per 1000), while the birth rates in some predominantly Muslim countries are among the highest (40-50 per 1000).

*In fact there are about 56 muslim countries or "Islamic States", all members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. (Can you imagine any country calling itself a Christian State!?) The vast majority of the member States of the OIC are also signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN Human Rights Council. But the OIC, in its wisdom, has developed its own document on "human rights", the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, adopted in 1990 by all 56 member states. At several points, this document reads like a declaration against human rights and clearly contradicts the Universal Declaration, being wholly compliant with Islamic Shariah law. Yet most of the OIC members are also signatories to the Universal Declaration! Furthermore, they have been applying pressure on the UN to supplement the wording of the Universal Declaration so that it offers some protection of the values affirmed in the Cairo Declaration, in particular to combat the defamation of religion - and apparently a resolution to this effect has now been passed by the General Assembly. This is unbelievable! Obviously defaming religion as such has nothing whatever to do with human rights, but the new resolution clearly undermines the right to freedom of expression. It just shows how pitiful the UN is becoming.

April 2008: It seems the Islamic clique has now tried to test the new Declaration by demanding that Holland prosecute one of its MPs for "defamation of religion". By thumbing their noses at one of the greatest of human rights - the right to freedom of speech - these people are undermining their own humanity and putting themselves squarely back in the dark ages - and dragging the United Nations along with them. They are also sending a clear message that Islam cannot withstand criticism, and this is tantamount to admitting that it is ideologically weak and fault-ridden. All this, as well as the mere existence of Islamic States, provides damning evidence that Islam is radically different from other religions and defends basic moral values which are incompatible with those of the rest of the world.

In comparison with the typical Christian, even the moderate Muslim is a fanatic (I'm quite well acquainted with both camps). In the softer forms of Islam followed outside the Middle Eastern block, ritualistic behaviour often takes precedence over understanding and ethical considerations. Indeed the basic communicative function of language itself is jettisoned in the brand of Islam pursued by many non-Arabic speaking people. During Ramadan they will chant the entire Quran in Arabic without understanding a word! They say the language of Allah is Arabic, so I guess they think he/she can understand them better! (Actually, Arabic is the very beautiful language of Arabs, and Allah is one of its more loathsome inventions.) Whatever, this is an outright stupidity, a mockery of language - no, a vile desecration of language* and a mockery of humanity itself. For language is one of the prime features that distinguishes humankind from most other animals and perhaps represents the pinnacle of evolution. It's impossible to fathom how any level-headed person could show such appalling disregard for human intelligence. Yet even those muslims who do understand the words of the Quran appear to perform the reading as a ritual, executed with appropriate monotony of cadence and moderation of rockings. It would be much better for them if they read something different every year - preferably a book that's understandable and actually worth reading!

*In my view, it's a double desecration, because religion itself is basicly a linguistic anomaly. The nucleus of every religion consists of nothing but words - there are no verifiable facts to which the words correspond. The significant difference between religion and pure fiction is only that the faithful are deceived by the one and not by the other (i.e. deceived into believing the words do represent some sort of reality).

The point is, it's only a small step from this kind of lunacy to the lunacy of the Middle Eastern mobs. No wonder, then, that even moderate muslims are treated with suspicion and that the more extreme fanatics of Islam ring loud alarm bells not only for humanists but for the whole Western world.

It is extremely disturbing that increasing numbers "ordinary" muslims living in western countries, including Australia, openly support extremist dogma and terrorist activities. Little wonder they incite the wrath and hatred of normal citizens. "Hate" is a bitter word, but many will feel it is justified in an environment threatened by dangerous, archaic, anti-human nonsense and an undercurrent of jihad. For their own sake, it's high time moderate muslims spoke out strongly against extremism. At present they just sit back and say nothing because they are more afraid of offending the more radical (orthodox?) sectors of their brotherhood, and perhaps their god, rather than the society which nurtures them. To be blunt, they are simply maladjusted cowards. So unless governments step in to eradicate these extremist elements the situation can only become worse, the general public will become increasingly irate and eventually all hell will break loose. Muslim's living in "western" societies should disassociate themselves, not only from the attrocities of terrorists and militant extremist organisations (such as Al-qaeda, Taliban, Isis, Hezbollah and FPI), but from the abominable philosophies which underlie them. In other words, they should consider abandoning Islam. Recently (2014) Isis has risen to the forefront of organised terrorist activity. I very much doubt that its members could be considered to be human beings. And though they have been described as wild animals, this label is doing a grave injustice to the animal kingdom, for I cannot think of any animal species whose behaviour is as violent, as gratuitous or as pathologically dysfunctional as theirs. They are simply dangerous trash, to be disposed of like nuclear waste - only this trash is religious waste, the world is sinking in it and we haven't yet found the will or the way to eliminate it. You moderate muslims out there, do you still claim that these creatures are your Brothers and that they worship the same god as you? Like you they say Allah is the one true god and Mohammed is his prophet. Like you they get their moral code from the Quran. You had better do something about this, more and more extremists are becoming more and more heinous and belligerent, and just because you bear the same label you may end up having to bear the same stigma of crass inhumanity - and not without some justification.

The absurd injustices and brutality of Shariah law are among the most bizarre features of orthodox Islam. One of the most inhumane rulings of this ideology is that apostasy is a criminal act deserving severe punishment - death, according to the Quran and in the opinion of most Middle Eastern clerics (there are others who go cross-eyed when reading the relevant unequivocal section of text in the Quran). Here, "apostasy" means renouncing Islam for some other religion or for atheism - the latter alternative being worse according to the scriptures - so presumably a more torturous form of death is in order. This piece of antediluvian junk is a clear-cut provocation to personal terrorism of the most reprehensible kind, in every way as disgraceful as the terrorist attacks on society carried out by religious extremists. Anyone who really believes in its rightness has sunk to the bottom of a chasm of wretchedness and severed his last links with decency and sanity.

"With sanity", I add, because punishment for apostasy thrusts daggers into the heart of reason and free thought. Firstly, the victim probably never had a choice of religion to start with, but was born into it, so how can he be condemned for exercising his choice now? Secondly, once a person abandons his religion, the laws of that religion of course no longer have power over him. But while this is obvious to those on the side of reason and reality, the great delusion of the faithful is that their deity is all-powerful and holds sway over everybody and everything. That this is very obviously untrue doesn't worry them. Because they think their deity is omnipotent and "the only true god", they naturally presume the rules of their faith apply to everybody. Unquestionably this is the gravest problem with religion and the main reason for religious strife worldwide. The prescription of death for apostasy simply epitomises this calamitous defect of man, the religious animal.

If freedom of thought is the primary mark of a human being - the essential power enabling a man or woman to be a person - then the threat of death for apostasy is the ultimate anti-human felony, the glorification of savagery and terrorism. For the apostate may not have caused any person any harm; his "crime" is only that he has changed his views. And the error of "unbelievers" everywhere, whether or not they have even heard of Islam, is simply that they do not believe. (It is farcical, too, that one can commit oneself to this hotchpotch of nonsensical beliefs simply by uttering a single short sentence!) Non-religious people will find the Quran extremely confronting, as they are told over and over again that after death they're going to be tortured by eternal hell fire. Muslims are supposed not merely to shun them but to "kill them wherever they find them". Dear God (if you exist), your dungeons of pain and terror are already overflowing with the innocent victims of your incompetence, so why do you foist death, fire and brimstone on people just because they refuse to believe in a load of poppycock which, apart from the dismal quality of writing, is indistinguishable from a gruesome fairy story? Oh! I almost forgot, God is part of the story too. (Also see this anecdote on the Jihad and especially the comments by a Queensland humanist. Also note that the torture or murder of a person for refusing to renounce his faith is a crime of equal gravity to the same punishment for apostasy. No person should be physically assaulted because of his beliefs.)

Thus, far from being an arena reserved exclusively for fanatical extremists, terrorism is a natural consequence of the belief in God's omnipotence, which is an essential component of almost every monotheistic religion. The terrorist ethos is only moderated when God himself issues clear instructions to the faithful to avoid conflict with unbelievers. Unfortunately the god of the Quran, like the god of the Bible, is vacillatory on this matter, but appears to have a distinct fondness for promoting conflict rather than forbidding it. Let's face it, suicide bombing is just the grisly termination of an unchecked run of a particularly virulent strain of the religion bug, lovingly dispensed by the agents of God.

A recent survey (mentioned above) suggests that about 7% of the world's 1.3 billion muslims are extremists to the extent that they condoned the September 11 attack. This might seem a small proportion, but, to put it in perspective, it equates to around 90 million muslims, or approximately 6-7 times the entire world population of Jews, and more than 10 times the number of religious Jews (see below).

A serious problem for non-muslims is that devout muslims can't withstand any criticism at all of their god, their prophet or their book. Religious jokes are taboo: can you imagine an Islamic version of The Vicar of Dibley or Father Ted? (Also read about cartoons etc in the section on Understanding religion and the minds of religionists below). Muslims are simply much too religious and unforgiving, and absurdly sensitive to what they see as malignment of their faith. From time to time some group or other will grab the opportunity to jump on those who (in their view) go "over the top", crying "blasphemy" and "infidels". That their faith and its instruments must be defended in this way against outsiders is indicative of a fundamental weakness, either in the religion itself or the character of the people doing the shouting - or both. This behaviour is typically middle-eastern: Afghanistan might be cited as an example. The western alliance has been talking of scaling down its operations there against al Qaeda and towards democratising this country - an effort that will turn out to be a total waste of time, money and human lives. Did the instigators of this intervention not know that Afghanistan is immersed in various kinds of religious fundamentalism only a little less extreme than al Qaeda's own brand? Did they not know that the country is run by inflexible warlords who will simply continue their battles when the west moves out? Democracy cannot be foisted upon those whose religion and/or fighting instincts are so deeply ingrained in their psyche. The time is not right. These people should have been, and will have to be, left to handle their own struggles, for their lamentable, archaic philosophy of life will take many decades to change.

The more any intelligent westerner learns about islam the more minded will he be to throw up his hands in disbelief and desperation. The extraordinary social psychology of muslims has been widely commented on, often by powerful people, including such figures as Winston Churchill in a well-known speech made as long ago as 1899, but which still rings true today (quoted here. Can you imagine anybody, let alone a politician, delivering such a speech today? They'd become outcasts for evermore - a fact which demonstrates that freedom of speech no longer exists, political correctness has gone way over the top and the West has become a zone of sops and whimps). Islamic thinking on many social issues is still so backwards and pitiful it's enough to make any sane westerner cringe. For example, muslim politicians in Egypt have attributed the high rate of sexual harassment of women in their country to "allowing boys and girls to mix in the same public space". If that is indeed the problem over there, then it's one that has been brought on only by the enclosed way in which muslim children are raised. This is very close to Alkaida thinking and probably should be handled by the civilised world in the same way. (Yes, I'm saying that as long as Egypt is governed by an islamic party it is uncivilised and under deep suspicion of condoning psychological terrorism. And there are many countries that are more islamic than Egypt!)

Of course moderate muslims, mostly living in basicly non-muslim countries, reject the harsher elements of their religion because, like moderates of other denominations, they simply choose to follow only those fragments of religious culture and scriptural dogma which do not cause too much disruption to their lifestyle. Ask them whether they pray five times a day, have ever taken out a loan or possess any interest-bearing investments, never drink alcohol or whether (if female) they always wear long headscarves which also cover their bosoms (the latter an instruction of clerics rather than the Quran). Some muslims living in Australia do attempt to stick to all the rules, seemingly unaware of the feelings of the general public. In some countries, such as France, those feelings have often been vented, but here we are supposedly more tolerant - which I suspect is just another way of saying we suppress our feelings, or we couldn't care less or we just find it all rather amusing, like a circus.

Moderate muslims might inspire more respect from "westerners" if they would distance themselves from the outrageous statements of some of their leaders and the anti-human intentions of more radical muslims. But I would like to ask all muslims living in Australia:  Would you honestly like to live in a strictly Islamic country? If not, why try to pursue your Islamic way of life here? And if you would, then why not emigrate? Of course, this is a simplistic, if not unreasonable, question which cannot be fairly addressed to every Australian muslim, especially refugees. But the majority of Australian muslims are in a position to give the question some thought (and not just brush it away as a disgraceful insult).

burqa brigade
Burqa brigade – Women or men? Armed or unarmed? Human beings or anti-humans?
(Or are they marching for their freedom?)
Consider this favourite topic of the French: Why do muslim men wear funny hats? Muslims may answer that it marks their respect for Allah, especially when saying their prayers. It doesn’t bother them that most Frenchmen (and possibly most Australians) may be more inclined to see it as marking their obsession with claptrap, especially when grovelling on the floor. As for the burqa – well, tortoises are unlucky enough to have to carry their houses on their backs. In some parts of the world*, the wives of strict muslims are unlucky enough to have to carry their prisons on their backs, when they are not locked up in the prisons of their homes. Worse than a prison – an absolute affront to human dignity, a desecration of one of the most basic determinants of what it means to be human – to be a person with an identity, able to communicate openly with other human beings. (Note: the burqa, or anything remotely resembling it, is not mentioned anywhere in the Quran, but is a later development in societies that gave some aspects of the Quran an overly stern interpretation.) Why most muslims can’t see the unpardonable wrongfulness of this, and many more of their practices, is beyond the comprehension of anyone with a functional brain. This kind of abuse is why humanists regard religion as endorsing many intrinsically anti-human elements. And non-muslims are inclined to see the wearing of headscarves by women as a symbol of this primitive anti-life mentality rather than as a symbol of anything remotely respectful.

        *Including Australia, it seems. Go to a muslim enclave such as Lakemba in Sydney's western suburbs and you'll
        probably see a burqa - whether worn by the wife of an older conservative or by that of a young fanatic (impossible to tell
        who's under there!) Actually, most muslims living in Australia consider the burqa to be extreme. Yet it is quite in keeping
        with the rest of the madness that rules their lives.

Historically and scripturally Christianity has much in common with Islam, when it comes to sheer depravity. The Catholic Church in particular has had a torrid past and still hangs on to some deeply unethical principles. This is the church that massacred and tortured countless non-Catholics from the 13th through to the early 19th century. This is the church whose uncompromising, closeted stance on birth control has brought suffering to millions of women and children in poverty-stricken countries the world over. Theirs is the god who slaughtered the entire populations of
Abraham on the verge
One of God's delightful games with people
Sodom and Gomorrah and the first-born children of Egypt, and who ordered death or torture for many others whom he happened to dislike (e.g. homosexuals, those who broke the sabbath and people unfortunate enough to have various diseases). Theirs is the god who lets wrong-doers off the hook with guilt-purging strategies such as remission of sins, absolution, redemption and finally salvation. Theirs is the god who asked Abraham to sacrifice his son - the mortal blow was softened (though not abolished) at the last second by substituting a sheep, but the murderous threat was that of a decrepit, conceited monster. It’s saddening to reflect that the rock upon which this atrocity is alleged to have occurred is now one of the most sacred sites of all three Abrahamic religions. The twists of history have resulted in the rock being encased in a great Islamic dome, though in the centre of Jewish territory and a magnet for Christian pilgrimage. No wonder the divine machinations of murder and deceit still reverberate around it, amplified a thousand times by hatred, politics and the devastating instruments of modern warfare.

The story of Abraham's test belongs as much to Judaism as to Christianity, and is matched by a similar story in Islam. It's unambiguous message is that this “God”, this abhorrent ogre of the imagination, demands absolute precedence over every human being, even one’s own offspring. Without doubt, this is the most obnoxious message ever delivered to mankind; it has held almost half of humanity in the grip of morbid superstition and cowering self-repression for over 2000 years, and seems destined to do so for a long time to come.

By any standard of common decency the practice of sacrificial killing is obnoxious under any circumstances. Animal sacrifice remains an important feature of Judaism and Islam. Furthermore, I think it is correct to say that the kosher and halal slaughter routinely performed by Jews and Muslims is unethical not just because of the inhumane way it's done, but because in essence it is sacrificial (performed in the name of God). The worst excuse for halal killing I've heard (yet the only excuse that makes sense) is just that it's wrong to eat an animal unless it has been religiously killed and blessed. Surely, if it's wrong to eat meat, it's wrong - full stop. The idea that blessing it or offering it to a god makes it right is an obscenity of the most pitiful kind, and those who speak this way merely expose the decadence of their god and confirm the superiority of human values over religious values. (This is not, of course, an argument that it is wrong to eat meat! Look elsewhere for that!)

Getting back to the Catholic Church, it's fair to say this organisation's current set of moral principles shows little improvement on its past record. The Papacy continues to bear the responsibility for the hardship and deaths of millions of people throughout the third world. As a mass murderer, no other religious authority, no war and no natural disaster comes close to this monster. First it re-affirms a birth-control policy designed to swell the world with children, and then it promotes an agricultural policy that results in millions of them starving to death every year. Its opposition to biotechnologies such as the development of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), evident in its shortsighted and stupid "new seven deadly sins", is an example of satanic morality at its worst. The Church should be welcoming these life-saving technologies with open arms, instead of cultivating a deep mistrust in them. (I suppose they think of them as tampering with god's creation!) Let's hope that soon governments everywhere will come to their senses and the technology will be rapidly applied, leaving Catholicism with a "modern" set of deadly sins that will eventually be seen by all to be pitiful nonsense. (Not all the new sins are absurd, however. In fact to some extent they show that Catholicism is attempting to adopt more modern, indeed more human, values.)

As for Hinduism, the best that can be said is that it is a remarkably colourful, elaborate fairytale; the worst, that it excuses death and misery on a scale unprecedented throughout the world. The gaudy outward show of Hinduism’s festivities belies an evil interior the like of which can be found in no other major religion.

One of its worst features is the continuing acceptance of the caste system by many of its adherents (as you'd expect, chiefly those at the "top" of the system). Not many westerners realise that, although offically outlawed in India (since 1949), the system persists in all its wretchedness today, especially in rural areas. Nowhere else in the world is such extraordinary discrimination so widely accepted. But there’s worse to come. The Hindu culture promotes murder and suicide on a level found in few other countries. Almost all the victims are women and new-born girls. The situation worldwide defies belief, extending far beyond the clutches of Hinduism, but it is in rural India where the connection with religion is strongest. (See this important document: Women in an Insecure World. If the link doesn’t work in your browser, copy this url to your address bar: http://www.unicef.org/emerg/files/women_insecure_world.pdf).

Aside from this barbarity, some other stories coming out of India are as horrific as any I've heard. Clearly Hinduism too has its violent extremists, amongst whom may be counted politicians, police, doctors and members of the judiciary. Admittedly most of this aggression is "defensive", particularly in countercheck to what is perceived as the greater menace of Islam, but this hardly excuses it. Although the religion has a colourful lighter side missing from most other faiths, its devotees tend to be more deeply immersed in bizarre superstitious nonsense, reinforced by the outright fakery of certain gurus (now largely exposed by the determined efforts of Indian humanists). Certain aspects of Hinduism continue to attract unwary new-age westerners seeking "spiritual enlightenment", smilingly wafted out to them by bearded maharishis muttering meaningless mantras in return for triple-digit green notes. I am blissfully ignorant of the blissful condition thus attained.

Hinduism does have one attractive redeeming feature, lacking in other major religions (other than Buddhism). It has a healthy respect for animals, carried to great extremes by the Jaines. Those who are vegetarians are doing the right thing, if for the wrong reasons. At least their reason for not eating beef - that the cow is a sacred animal - is far more sensitive than the muslim's reason for not eating pork - that the pig is an unclean animal - so unclean you're not even supposed to look at one. (The pig is actually quite the most intelligent farm animal and deserves respect. It was for long the staple protein food of rural England and much of Europe, and is still the principal meat eaten throughout Asia, accounting for 38% of total meat consumption world-wide. But in the civilised world today there's no more sense to eating pork than to eating your pet dog or cat.)

I know very little about Judaism and, in any case, orthodox Jews make up only a tiny percentage of the world’s people. Judaism is certainly not one of the "world's great three religions", as many ignorant commentators call it. Out of a total of around 13.5 million Jews, probably only about 60% identify with the Jewish religion, and probably fewer than half of those practise orthodox Judaism. So there are probably at most 4 million orthodox Jews. I have never ever thought of Jewish orthodoxy as anything but a pitiful comedy. It's astonishing, though, that a group comprising 0.07% of the world population wields such enormous political clout. (And on the purely political issue of Palestine, it's also astonishing that the western world generally sides with Israel, considering that Israel is the thief and the principal aggressor. The land they're illegally occupying is not their "god-given right" and they should simply get out of there, unconditionally.) Of course, the reasons for the power of the Jews as a race are probably unconnected with their religion, but reside in their passion for education and sheer intellectual brilliance. (See this article written by a muslim! However, the criticism of muslim education seems not to apply in Australia, where many muslim schools are among the very best performers in the country - notwithstanding the hearsay evidence that some principals meddle with the HSC sytem to the disadvantage of some of their final-year students and the advantage of the statistical results applying to their school.)

My knowledge of the huge number of Christian cults is also very limited. Historically the worst of the Australian bunch was probably the Christian Brothers (whom many would still not describe as a cult), during their reign of terror in the 50’s and 60’s, made all the more reprehensible by the complicity of the Australian and British governments and various respeced charities such as Doctor Barnardos. While organisations such as the Exclusive Bretheren and the Children of God also come under frequent attack from the Australian media, from hearsay I'd be inclined to put some American Mormon (Latter Day Saints) communities near the top of the list of depraved cults. Their capacity for suppressing women and brainwashing children probably rivals that of the most extreme forms of Islam. The existence of an exclusively Mormon city, Colorado City, in the USA is very hard to understand. If nothing else, it affords overt evidence that America is not a free nation, and indeed that it is a second-class nation - as if we didn't know that already. (Just look at the way they've left New Orleans and its people to rot in the wake of Katrina!) Who wants to live in a country whose government and citizens care so little for their own kin? However, Mormonism is (fortunately) a very minor religion, even though it does have a surprisingly large following in the State of Utah, where it has apparently had some positive social effects. Surprising, for a religion based on the claptrap of a charlatan. (Also see Footnote 24 on Creationism and para 5 of Footnote 9 for a few remarks on Buddhism.)

This "footnote" could be never-ending. Many good books and articles have been written on the faults of various religions, especially Christianity (possibly reflecting the higher levels of literacy and acceptance of this kind of material in "Christian" countries, rather than the relative degeneracy of this religion). As far as the Abrahamic religions are concerned, a good starting point is The Skeptic's Annotated Bible, Quran and Book of Mormon.

Footnote 18 on "Are all human beings human?" (#16, #17)

Some people, possibly including certain heads of western states, apparently believe that religiously motivated suicide bombers and insurgents are not to be counted as human beings. Well, you might say they certainly don’t deserve the justice to which ordinary human beings are entitled, since it is precisely ordinary human beings that they are set upon destroying. Surely human beings value their own lives, as well as the lives of others. Therefore you might consider that suicide bombers are not fully human, and in that case nor are the people who encourage them. But perhaps not all terrorists are in the same camp: although their motives might be drastically misguided, they possess a certain intelligence, purposefulness and maybe some other more or less human qualities that might lead one to think they merit the same legal privileges as “ordinary” people. And there are of course other good reasons why murderers should be brought before the official courts, regardless of the enormity of their crimes. However, one does not bring savage dogs into a court-room, and there are surely people on this planet that deserve no more opportunity than dogs to account for their behaviour, and no more right to face a judicial system reserved for humans. I would find it extremely hard ever to concede that a bunch of Africans who rape a woman in front of her husband and children, then slit her husband's throat and cut out and eat his organs should be classified as "human". So there's no point in “bringing them to justice”. Nor would I classify the leader of a country who encourages this kind of behaviour as "human". Why should I regard, say, Mugabe and his band of thugs as human, after the unspeakable horrors of their anti-human activities and their sheer incompetance as human beings? Any other vermin that wreaks that kind of havoc simply gets a bullet through the head at the earliest opportunity or, more humanely, an overdose of anaesthetic.

At a more local level, I might refer to a Channel 9 News report, 4/4/08, about a serial sex offender whom one dignitary (possibly the Queensland Corrective Services Minister) called "a despicable human-being". I was busy trying to translate these words when very conveniently the next interviewee, a straightforwardly outspoken lady, did it for me: "He is the most evil of monsters - I wouldn't even call him human". Surely, underneath all the mush and political correctness, this is how ordinary Australians think. They recognise that some people are less human than others, and perhaps that some should not be considered human at all.

There is, however, a difference between the Mugabes and ordinary vermin. Ordinary pests, such as rats and mice, are just innocent creatures going about their normal business of living. If we exterminate them, we do so reluctantly and only when they are causing us problems; we bear them no malice. But with brutes like Mugabe, Mobuto, Taylor, Amin, Krony, Hitler and Pol Pot, emotive and moral interests come into play. We alienate or eliminate them, if we see fit, because they are murderers and not just hunters, despots and not just pack leaders, irresponsible and not just ineffective, cruel and not just fierce, contemptible and not just troublesome, and eminently egotistical and unconcerned about the wider effects of their actions. To cut a long explanation short, this could be taken to imply that Mugabe (etc) is, or was, a human being, but one that's gone irredeemably wrong – not on account of intelligence, language or any number of other supposedly human characteristics but, well, just because he’s intensely anti-human. But why should any of this make a difference to the question of his eliminability? I don't think it affects the aim, but it might affect our opinion as to how the aim is achieved. I'm at a loss how to answer this, but there's no doubt that my feelings of respect lean heavily towards the rodents.

And don’t these remarks bring us closer to pinpointing the most fundamental of those “uniquely human attributes” mentioned in #2? Surely one of the greatest virtues is well-directed compassion, and the problem we now face is what to do about the relatively few individuals who are totally devoid of it: because those who replace compassion with malice and hatred – those who are wilfully anti-human – clearly constitute a grave danger to society.

Of course there are other kinds of reason for judging a person to be short on humanity. One of the most hideous statements I have ever heard was made by a member of the Taliban in a recent interview (with a very courageous woman visiting Taliban territory in Pakistan). When asked about suicide bombings by children he said “Children are tools to achieve God’s will”. This is surely not the utterance of a human being, but of a robot, and I can hardly imagine that any more evil statement has ever been made in the entire history of Homo sapiens - except, perhaps, by one Joseph Krony, demon of all demons, whose activities in the name of Christianity are beyond all comprehension. While everyone is an automaton in some degree, some people have been so thoroughly brainwashed with evil ideas that they seem to have lost all semblance of humanity, but belong, rather, to the same category as the mechanical monsters of Star Wars. Among others who could well be heading for the subhuman kennels are certain teenagers and young adults who fritter away their lives meaninglessly, forgetting those who have endured the horrors of war and the many thousands who have died so that they could live.

Thus I am far from convinced that the concept of a "human being" should be based purely on genetics. Behaviour is a better criterion (though doubtless not the only one to consider). To be more fastidious, though, and to lessen the possibility of people reading contradictions into this, we ought to have two words – one for the classical (and, I suppose, correct) usage of “human being”, i.e. a member of the human species, and one for the “ethical” usage, i.e. a member of a universal society of inividuals who conduct themselves in a certain way – I can find no words that come anywhere near being a definition (of a word still not invented – the opposite of “anti-human”, I suppose), and indeed I know I would struggle to provide any characterization that is not open to abuse*. Besides, this is not the fundamental distinction we seek. The case rests on the lack of parity between genetic criteria, which are at present clear-cut but may well become fuzzier in the future, and various broadly ethical criteria, which are at present fuzzy but which I believe could be made clear – though applying them will always involve placing individuals on some kind of scale. In formulating these criteria, we should keep in mind not only the great diversity of ethically relevant behaviour patterns among individuals and the obvious overlap with non-human animals, but the possibility of the existence of intelligent, sensitive beings – either extraterrestrial or, at some time in the future, man-made – having an entirely different biological structure to ourselves.

*In these pages, however, I most often use "people" to refer to members of the human species (Homo sapiens), and "human being" to refer to any being that fits more or less comfortably, in terms of behaviour and moral conscience, into the world society of people. There are numerous difficulties with this approach, but they must be faced sooner or later by anyone who takes on any kind of generalised ethical enquiry.

On this question of “relative humanity” there emerges yet another perspective, which I broach somewhat reluctantly as it could be cause for extreme alarm. Anyone who has lived in other countries or travelled widely, as a guest rather than as a tourist - in fact, anyone who has kept themselves well informed about life and events around the globe - cannot help but conclude that the moral values of different nations, peoples, cultures vary widely from those in Australia. I, for one, must freely admit that on the whole I find the moral standards of many Asian and African countries to be, by humanist standards, distinctly inferior to those of Australia and most other “advanced” countries. Without a doubt, those countries are less civilized than ours (see Introduction), and their lower values infect the majority of the population in various degrees – they are part and parcel of the culture. Exactly what standards are lower varies from country to country, but typically they include such areas as trust, honesty, compassion, cruelty, hygiene, women’s rights and barbaric religious practices. [If you want a concrete but rather trivial example (which could get me into deep trouble! - see below¹) consider the well-recognised deviousness of many Indians and their habit, when reporting events, of invariably putting expediency before truth.² Compare this with the true-blue Aussie’s candor and tradition of “calling a spade a spade”. (Of course, this is nothing compared to the abominations of the caste system, but that is a distinctly religious issue.) Again (and perhaps less trivially), consider the dreadful cruelty to animals that is so commonplace in countries such as Vietnam, suggesting a markedly under-developed capacity for compassion.] Now if we combine this observation with what might be called the right to classify discussed in #7, we can see how painless it is to alot a person - rightly or wrongly, but perhaps not unreasonably - to a category that we might consider to be, in certain fundamentally human respects, inferior to that in which we place ourselves. I sincerely hope this line of thought turns out to be “arrogant nonsense” ³, although, even if correct, it does not necessarily carry sinister implications. But it has been all too easy to show contempt for a moral attribute that should be highly regarded by Central Humanism - humility. And I'm afraid that, in the past, remarks of this nature have only helped to fan the fires of racism.

To summarise: the idea that all people are equally human in any morally relevant sense is absolute nonsense. Clearly there are some who are subhuman and do not, or should not, enjoy the same rights as the majority, while at the other end of the scale there are many who deserve our highest esteem. Humanist considerations of respect for dignity and the operation of the social law should not apply to all members of the human species without exception, while on the other hand there might well exist (genetically) non-human individuals who merit our complete respect (when we meet them). Furthermore our world is already inhabited by non-human creatures that deserve this respect in different degrees. Yet we always have and still do treat them with incredible mindlessness and barbarity. This alone should be enough to make every intelligent, caring person ask himself: "Am I fully human?".

In conclusion: human beings should be defined by their behaviour, not by their genes.

¹ The reason I've "picked on" Indians is because of my strong ties with India and an especially deep affection for its people, and I would be extremely annoyed if my comments were interpreted as "racist". The reference to "deviousness" is not to be taken personally, as in fact it derives from what was until recently part and parcel of normal Indian culture - and still is to a limited extent. All business transactions, for example, were formerly conducted in an atmosphere of duplicity, but since this was expected and normal, no-one was really being sucked in. Looked at this way, you could say trading had acquired a higher plane of sophistication than in Europe, as the processes of evaluation and bartering were elevated from the level of goods and cash to the level of language and clever ideas. (Advertising in western countries is little different.)  If more Australians understood these strategies, maybe they wouldn't be so easily taken for a ride by charlatans.

² "Expedient" here means "In the speaker's opinion, furthering his or her own interests". Of course, even in the most corrupt societies there’s considerable overlap between truth – or, more correctly, honesty – and expediency, since most of the time it would be considered expedient to tell the truth. In a fully civilized society, honesty and expediency coincide.

³ If this argument is erroneous, I think it's unlikely that the mistake lies in in the claim that the moral standards of some countries are lower than in others. One only has to keep one's eyes and ears open to realise the truth of this. The mistake, then, would presumably consist in the proposition that the moral standards of a country are somehow equatable to the "humanity" of its people. Historically speaking, moral standards are quite transitory, but human nature could be seen as something much more stable and deep-seated and less dependent on culture.

Footnote 19 on "Cultural collisions in France" (#10)

The dangers of importing and tolerating deeply different cultures are particularly evident in France and other EU countries. Cultures that are overtly aggressive and opposed to democracy and freedom have simply become parasites on the democratic society that has allowed them in. Cultural enclaves have been allowed to develop where fanatical extremists preaching war, murder and utterly outrageous nonsense are given free reign. Evidently, however, it takes much less than this to create the conditions for violent unrest. Look at the bedlam recently caused in France by quite ordinary immigrants from North Africa - sparked off by a totally unreasonable interpretation of a single chance event. True, these immigrants might have a case for their claim that they are treated like second-class citizens, but unfortunately their behaviour only lends support to the view of many Frenchmen that that is what they are. But they are not the ones to blame.

Despite these problems, the ideal of a peaceful, culturally diverse society is pursued by many western nations (see Footnote 21). Those countries with a strong cultural heritage of their own, however, are less likely to go down this path. For the best way of preserving a country’s culture is to minimise the influence of other cultures, which in the case of advanced societies chiefly involves minimising immigration, and in the case of backward societies involves minimising exposure to everything modern (except weapons, of course!) Every nation with open doors is likely to experience increasing conflict between conservation of traditional values and recognition of the values of imported cultures.

Footnote 20 on "International Manifesto for Atheistic Humanism" (Introduction)

A new, but potentially important, international humanist group appearing on the internet is the France-based International Liaison Committee of Atheists and Freethinkers, formally established in July 2005, when its Manifesto (in French) was apparently adopted by the World Congress of Freethinkers.

This manifesto is rather unusual. In providing an assortment of background information, it doesn't possess the directness and clear statements of policy that you'd expect in a manifesto. Furthermore, some of the more forthright statements it does provide are questionable, if not ludicrous. (On the other hand, some of them are right on the ball.) Among the statements that seem to me to be careless are the following.

"As atheists and freethinkers, we support a global effort to encourage critical thinking and the scientific method as the only means by which we can gain knowledge of the universe" (my italics).

This is an extraordinarily narrow view of how we acquire knowledge about the world and the kinds of things we can know. As noted in #6, para 3, "the scientific method" is a relatively new, specialised collection of techniques for discovering certain kinds of generalities, but has little relevance to everyday knowledge acquisition. Rather than attempting to buttress their aptitude for clear thinking with pretentious terminology, which will entrap them in unwinnable arguments, freethinkers should try to combat supernaturalism by branding it for what it is - an infectious disease out of control.

"... there are only relative moral truths, which may change from culture to culture and generation to generation."

As noted above (#11), Central Humanism is totally opposed to this view, which is surely self-contradictory. It equates to moral anarchy, opening the way for any moral (or amoral) standards whatsoever, including those of the religious and social systems despised by freethinkers.

"... we can draw only one conclusion: that, as Rousseau stated, "Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains". The largest shackle around the ankles of humanity is the ball and chain of religion."

This is highly questionable and lacking in foresight. The greatest obstacles to human freedom and development are almost certainly physical (see Introduction - last para, #2 third para, #9 tenth para, #21 sixth para).

"The ILCAF shall complement, and not compete with, all other national and international organizations that promote atheism, freethought, humanism, secularism, and rationalism."

How can they possibly know that? Unless their manifesto is unduly vague, it is bound to have points of disagreement with the philosophies of other freethought (etc) organisations (as it does with Central Humanism).

"Our philosophical position is subject to debate; we do not seek to impose it on anyone."

Sounds fair enough! Oh well, perhaps these free, but seemingly not always straight, thinkers will be happy to revise their manifesto in due course. They had better, else there's a danger of them becoming unnecessarily embroiled in philosophical nonsense.

Footnote 21 on "Religion, reason, rifts and re-settlement" (#9, #10)

In arguments about religion, it is not incumbent upon atheists to explain their beliefs. On the contrary, religionists must explain theirs. The most I, as an atheist, can do is to give examples of some of the things I do not believe. I don't believe in flying pink elephants, I don't believe the Harry Potter books are true stories, I don't believe that asking the fairies for a million dollars will do me the slightest bit of good and I don't see the point in standing on my head and wiggling my toes five times a day. Lists like this are endless, and of course religionists would join me in most of them. Yet there is one list just like this which, for some extraordinary reason, they do believe in. Exactly which list depends on their culture. When I point this out I am likely to be accused of eccentricity, pretension and vulgarity. But who could be more eccentric or pretentious or vulgar than the apostle or "prophet" who invented the list, unless it be his poor deluded admirers?

If asked to say what they mean by "God", most believers have no idea what to say and tend to become irate. This is because their god is not characterised by ideas but by worship, ritual and a peculiar, drug-like state of mind that engulfs them. Only theologically minded people concern themselves with the concept "God". But when theologians try to define their god, they immediately plunge themselves into a morass of contradictions, meaninglessness and obvious falsehoods, a morass from which they try to extricate themselves by extraordinary verbal manoeuvres. Even if they minimise their description to something that makes sense, they cannot produce a scrap of evidence for this being’s existence or a reasonable theory as to why it might exist. Nor why they should accept a book containing a load of gobbledigook as the word of god.

Consider, for example, these four common assumptions: (1) Everyone is equal in the eyes of God, (2) Heaven and Hell exist, {3} God's love is boundless and (4) God is omnipotent. It seems reasonable to ask: If God thinks all people are equal, why does he split them down the middle and send some off to Heaven and the rest to Hell? If God's love is boundless and he is omnipotent, why does he condemn so many innocent people to a life of pain and misery? If God thinks all people are equal and he loves them all regardless, why doesn't he give them equal consideration here on Earth? (Regardless of what? - their inequalities?) Now if this is not a bundle of insoluble contradictions (given certain obvious facts), then the word "contradiction" has been divested of its normal meaning. And this kind of word distortion is indeed a ploy commonly adopted by theologians.

It is because of nonsense such as this that rationalists declare: No reasonable person can possibly accept religion, therefore religious people are unreasonable. But some theologians claim that reason and godliness are completely separate aspects of a person - that people have, as it were, split personalities and can live with both. The problem here is that if reason is allowed into the picture at all, it cannot tolerate any such divide. Reason itself says that, if a person is to be thought of as a person, a unity, religion is incompatible with reason. Both cannot rule our lives at once. Reason must be paramount, for mental chaos is the only alternative. But although reason and religion cannot be reconciled in the minds of individual persons, this does not imply that rationalists and theists cannot co-exist in the same society. In fact they do so.

It is often said that people would be more tolerant of one another if they understood more about "other" religions. The problem with this idea is that religions are dogmatic and irrational and contain much that is objectionable. There is very little in them that can be understood (if understanding implies elements of reason and critical observation). Therefore the more one tries to "understand", the more one becomes incredulous, exasperated, alarmed, disgusted and, in the end, convinced that most aspects of religion should not be tolerated at all. I'm speaking for myself, of course, but I know there are many who share this view. Yes, I'm in favour of people learning about different religions - including school children of a suitable age even though, inevitably, they will not be taught the "bad stuff". However, if the students are intelligent and if they do their homework properly, this exercise will not change our society in the way that some sociologists might wish. It's time to face up to the facts. Our society will not be improved by accumulating garbage and then closing our eyes to it. In the long run this will lead to more strife than we can endure.

Religionists, moreover, often say that sceptics ought to learn about their particular religion before condemning it, though they themselves probably never learnt much about any other religion - or anything else, for that matter. But surely a genuine understanding of any specific religion can only be acquired in the context of a wider background of knowledge, enabling one to compare it with alternative life philosophies. And the inevitable result of learning about a religion in this way is to increase one's scepticism.

As for understanding the minds of people steeped in religion, certain recent and current events have been quite revealing to ordinary westerners, both secular and religious. The furious reaction of a large part of the Muslim world to the publication in Europe of a somewhat tasteless but seemingly harmless bunch of cartoons must appear to non-Muslims to be unwarranted and alarming. If Muslims are so easily and intensely offended, that is entirely their misfortune, not a fault of the cartoonist or the publishers (see Footnote 1). It is dismaying enough to discover that these protesters are so lacking in humour and inner resilience. But their infantile, obnoxious behaviour and incantations of violence and death are extremely disturbing and play heavily against them - their maturity, their dignity and their beliefs. They have shown themselves to be outright enemies of our free and open society.

Their main grievance with the cartoons appears to be the depiction of Mohammed as such, but since this is only forbidden by and within Islam and definitely not by any open society, it's hard to figure out what possible valid objections they could have. They must know that in open societies freedom of expression reigns and we can depict more or less whatever we want. Yet then they jump up and ask us to “understand” them – as if we somehow currently mis-understand them. If their outrageous behaviour in the face of some small thing they disagree with is amongst the things we need to understand, maybe we understand enough already. At least, we understand enough to know that we do not want this kind of thinking to invade our society. We should not allow ourselves to be bullied by them, nor compromise our freedom of expression for the sake of misplaced respect.

September 16 2006: Once again the Muslim world's reaction to someone "having a go" at their faith appears to be right in line with the original provocation. This time it's the Pope, of all people. Speaking in German, the Pope quoted the 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus. In translation: "He said, and I quote, 'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'" Not very clever politics, for a pope, but crikey, he was only quoting some ancient ruler in a context of condemning religious violence. As one of his side-kicks said: the Pope ended his speech with a "clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come." (Some Mullah was reported as saying the Pope was speaking from ignorance. Well, if the Mullah himself had just a little genuine knowledge … he would be neither Mullah nor Muslim.)

The reaction to the Pope's political slip? - death threats, burning effigies of the Pope, five churches attacked in the West Bank and Gaza and angry mobs protesting everywhere. Can you imagine Christians and secularists in Australia, Europe or the USA responding like that to some of the far more mischievous slants at Western culture made by some Muslim leaders? No! *  There are clear differences between the Middle East and most of the Western world in levels of tolerance, religious zeal, civility and propensity for violence. These mobs are demonstrating their their disdain for free speech and their attachment to savagery. Even in the slightly more civilised environment of Pakistan, cricket fans recently burnt effigies of coach and team members when things don’t go their way, while in India a rather flamboyant kiss on stage also resulted in the burning of effigies of the person responsible - American actor and philanthropist Richard Gere, in April 2007. Some lawyers advocated imprisonment for the kisser but were indifferent to the effigy burners, indicating that in this country public threats of extreme violence are acceptable but displays of affection, even in jest, are not. Just one of the many warped attitudes that persist after centuries of Hinduism with an overlay of Islam. Another example is in para 5 of Footnote 18. Also see this anecdote and comments on the Jihad)

*July 2008: Having now witnessed the protests of Cornubia (Queensland) parents to the housing of a paedophile in their neighbourhood, I'm changing my mind about this. Their behaviour was totally neurotic and, for the first time in my life, made me feel ashamed to be a Queenslander.

If Muslims in the major Islamic countries carry on like this, what do they expect us to think of them and their religion? It's doubtful whether the crowds expect anything, but some of their leaders appear to be deliberately provoking us into negative reaction. By stirring up anti-western sentiment and continually issuing us with death threats, they are doing their utmost to earn our total disrespect and disdain. The fanatics are aiming to involve the whole of the Islamic world in their ugly cause, with considerable success. The recent triumph of the Shiites in elections in Iraq and of Hamas in the Palestinian elections shows that the Middle East is resisting western ideals and retreating still further into the dark ages. This is very bad news for peace-loving, moderate Muslims, such as the majority of those living here in Australia, and bad news for the entire free world.

Actually, I'm inclined to think the cartoonists and satirists (but maybe not the Pope!) are justified in producing more of the same, as the religious rabble leave their challengers with little choice. Since highly religious people rarely listen to reason, absorb facts or follow example other than that of their prophets and imams, humanists and free-thinkers are left with no means of persuasion except mockery and scorn. We know that religionists do take notice of these! It would be a shame if humanists had to resort to such tactics, but at least these are better than violence. Or are they? It's clear that the reaction of most religionists to mockery in the short term is extremely hostile and that violence is a probable outcome anyway. But at least the violence is theirs, not the knockers' and mockers'! Regardless, while I have no idea what Australian laws are in force forbidding blasphemy, or whether they have ever been invoked, in my view all laws on blasphemy are unnecessary and should be scrapped.

November 2007: A muslim terrorist, Mullah Krekar, has found refuge in Oslo, of all places. After two years there without having been deported, his public remarks are becoming ever more confident and increasingly ludicrous. One of his latest is: "All non-muslims should be publicly beheaded, using an axe". One can only imagine the reason for beheading infidels is to make them more like themselves!

Nov-Dec 2007: A British teacher is gaoled for 15 days in the Sudan because she allowed her class to name a Teddy bear "Mohammed". Enraged Islamic crowds take to the streets, burning effigies etc as usual and clammering for her decapitation. A spokesman says that in the Sudan this is a grave insult on the prophet. How do they know this? - the prophet is not there to ask. I wonder if he would have considered it an insult. Maybe he would think all the parents who named their sons after himself are more worthy candidates for decapitation! Who cares? These mobs of besotted, anti-human hooligans should be totally disregarded by the people of civilised nations - unless they can be enticed to limit their numbers by using birth control pills and to respect the higher standards of education which the teacher under threat of death was employed to deliver.

This extract from Bernie Doran’s opening addess to the Australian Humanist Convention 2010 epitomises the feeling of despair that religious extremism brings upon many humanists:

“It is simply not possible to debate or negotiate with people who believe that theirs is the only true faith. It is a complete waste of time and effort. The process of indoctrination has quite literally rendered such people incapable of thinking rationally about anything outside their religious comfort zone. It's almost as if their minds have been opened so far by irrational nonsense, that their brains have fallen out! Well at least their cerebral cortex; which is why we could be forgiven for thinking they behave more like dinosaurs than Homo sapiens.”

This points to a deep, irrepairable rift through the middle of humankind. While undoubtedly there are many religious extremists, particularly in the Islamic world, who regard themselves as superior human beings, by the same token (or is it a very different token?) many humanists, in allotting religious extremists to some antediluvian category, thereby elevate themselves to a higher level than those whom they denounce. I have not the slightest doubt who is right, but this verdict only establishes which side of the rift I’m on. Presumably one’s allegiance depends on whether one considers human beings to be creatures with brains or puppets of God.

As individuals, people with deep-rooted religious persuasions will not change. This is almost as certain a statement as that the Earth goes round the Sun. Although their societies and cultures might undergo a gradual adjustment to the global environment, more than likely an unbridgeable gulf will persist across the human race separating the open-minded from the close-minded well into the foreseeable future - or until necessity brings them together (I'm talking about oneness of purpose, not geographical crunching). At best, the two sides will agree to differ, and although this situation will represent a great cultural loss to both parties, in which I feel the close-minded group will suffer most, it is probably the "solution" that politicians should initially pursue. At worst, there will be continuing strife, incited by belligerent leaders who know how to stir up the crowd, and this could lead to large-scale war.

“Multiracialism has been a success in contemporary Australia but multiculturalism has been
an abject failure “ (Keith Windschuttle, The Australian)

Our greatest hope lies here in our own country, where the ideal of "unity in diversity" is strongly promoted and, until very recently, has met with some success. A finer ideal than this could hardly be envisaged, and from these foundations there might well emerge the principles and strategies that will eventually guide the world to peace and unity. But while “unity in diversity” is an appealing catchcry, let’s not forget that “diversity” means almost the opposite to “unity”. So the question is: which aspects of the social order should be diverse and which united? (or: what could unify elements of society that seem disparate?) Practical answers to this are not hard to find. But at present there appear to be religious, political, economic and psychological forces at work which conflict with every reasonable answer.

We must therefore take the utmost care not to allow the rifts that divide the world to form within Australian society, and, more than this, we must devise and put into practice the measures that will ensure the integration of people from many different nations into our society and the full realisation of the "unity in diversity" paradigm. It's more important than building roads and office blocks, and, despite the growing chorus of dissenting voices, it's probably the only right way to go. Or would be, if it was feasible.

For this concept to work, Australian immigration policy would need to be combined with programs of integrated re-settlement, education and compulsory citizenship after a certain period. The Government would also have to be given the power to rescind Australian citizenship*, and there would need to be a determined effort to keep (or kick) illegal immigrants out, within reasonable bounds of compassion. This implies modifying the current political concepts of “discrimination” and “civil rights”. Migrants who have not already become adjusted to western value systems would have to be treated differently for at least five years after arriving here. Their initial visas would be temporary, they would not be allowed to live wherever they want and they would have to take (and pass) courses in the Australian ethos and English language. (And, I think, in birth control: needless to say, I'm not too happy with those immigrants who come here and spawn six or more children - and receive a "baby bonus" currently set at $5000 per child.)

"Some rules of Australian citizenship" - no dual citizenship, stay loyal to Australia, have citizenship revoked if found to be supporting extremist activities that threaten the security of the country, back Australia ahead of their country of origin at major sporting events etc. (Are all those flag-waving Asians at cricket and soccer matches Australian citizens? If so, shame on them.)

In other words new Australians would be herded like goats and, knowing that the Government would be loathe to discriminate between immigrants on the basis of category, country, religion etc, all newcomers would be treated the same way. Do you think they'd put up with this?

I suppose it's worth a try, compromises and all. For sure, if something along these lines can’t be done, I’ll be joining the shrinking ranks of the Hansonites (though undecided whether to go for the fish, the flats, the foxtrot or the five-minute fling!) When all's said and done, by far the best way of filling the immigration quota from culturally incompatible countries is through child adoption, yet, owing to Draconian adoption laws, at the time of writing Australia only manages a paltry 400 per year by this method.

Footnote 22 on "Human rights - or perhaps not-so-rights" (#8)

In case you arrived here by some route other than via #8, be warned - some people might think some of the following is obscene, so I have to give it an R rating (I don't know why - it's quite innocuous really, but some people are offended by anything below the belt). My remarks (you could not call them "arguments") are mostly fuzzy and intended to be thought-provoking rather than convincing. I will doubtless adjust and supplement them over time to boost (or dent?) their credibility. (First draft dated 9/12/06).

Not everyone has "rights" to all those things that the majority have rights to. Criminals don't have the same rights as others because they might endanger someone if they did and, in any case, they are supposed to be undergoing punishment or reform. Free speech might be a "right", but school teachers don't have the right to teach children that the world was created in seven days or that evolution is a myth. (Priests, however, have the right to assault people - including children - with whatever lies and nonsense they want.) Men and women are biologically different so there are obviously some rights that both cannot have (e.g. the right to bear children). Many people don't have the rights of the majority because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time - they might even have been born into a corrupt or impoverished society with few of the freedoms of "civilised" societies. Others (such as children) don't have certain rights because they are considered not to have the capacity to handle them, or, for some reason or other, the bestowal of those rights is seen as being a risk to society or a section of society (such as children!). The dividing line between those with specific rights and those without often seems quite arbitrary (for example, age might be a cut-off point). So is the dividing line between things we have a right to do or say and things we don't (for example, it might be determined by a board of censors who are supposed to apply the standards of the majority).

This arbitrariness inevitably means that some individuals and some minority groups will not be treated fairly. On the other hand, it also means that some individuals and some minority groups will be given rights that the majority may frown upon. It is in this grey area that civil liberties campaigners generally side with those minorities whom they believe to have been wrongly denied specific rights or freedoms. On the whole I think their opinions are correct, but sometimes I doubt whether they realise how murky are the waters they are navigating. Imagine a set of essentially similar issues, X, Y and Z. I sometimes wonder, if the liberterians are adopting a strong positive stance on X, why aren't they also promoting Y and Z, or at least giving some consideration to those issues? Or are they really wrong to be promoting X? Below I will make a few observations which may or may not have the slightest bearing on this question.

      Topic 1. A cautious, naturalistic/normalistic approach to certain human rights issues.

I will lead into this subject gradually, by giving some progressively more thought provoking (if not provocative) examples of the meaning of "normality" and "naturalistic".

If you accidentally put your hand on a hot stove you'll get a painful sensation - you'll probably scream "Ouch!" and end up with a burn on your hand. No matter who you are, the result will probably be the same, and it's easily explained in terms of physical properties, nerve impulses etc. That's a normal experience, and the explanation how it happens is naturalistic. If a person didn't feel any pain in those circumstances you'd say "that's not normal", and you could provide an explanation as to why it's not normal. Furthermore, you could argue that there's a distinct advantage in being "normal", when it comes to feeling pain, because if you couldn't feel pain you'd be in all sorts of trouble. Human beings (and possibly all animals with brains) depend on the sense of pain for their survival: it's a trait that must have developed very early in the evolution of conscious animals.

If you eat some yoghurt that's gone "off" you might say it tastes awful, but if you eat some chocolate cake you might think it's great. There may be nothing to show for your experience and other people might have a different opinion - perhaps their taste buds are different, or they're used to eating a different type of food to you. Still, your experience is arguably "normal", it's in your interest to avoid food that's gone off and eat stuff that's nourishing, and there's a naturalistic explanation for your ability to taste what's good and what's bad, as well as for why some people might respond differently to you.

If you see a young woman walking down the street you might think she's absolutely gorgeous or as ugly as sin or somewhere in between, and, strangely enough, most people might agree with you (beauty competitions are not too hard to judge!). At one time people might have said it's all highly subjective - purely a matter of opinion - but then scientifically minded folk began to ask why so many people have the same opinions? Isn't there a normal standard of beauty, and can it be explained naturalistically? The current view is: yes, it probably can. There are reasons why most people have similar standards of beauty, and mostly good reasons.

Why do we enjoy a spectacular sunset or a fine musical performance? Why do we like to see the countryside and our city streets kept free of litter? Why do we still wear clothes in hot weather, flock to watch Australia win the Ashes, create a fuss about saving almost extinct species of animals in Africa, hang pictures on the walls of our homes, hide behind a door when we perform our ablutions, plant flowers in our gardens, try to excel at something such as running a mile or singing songs? Isn't all this normal and naturalistic too?

OK, some people hate cricket, but still it's likely they enjoy something else rather similar, like baseball or football - or maybe hooning or gay-bashing. They might not have any pictures on their walls, but they might love collecting stamps - or hard-porn videos. They might not be any good at running or singing - but they might excel at grafitti or laying virgins. Nothing wrong with those interests, is there? Or is there?

Well, imagine a person who likes to eat his own excrement, or anybody's excrement, for that matter. What's wrong with that? (It can't be all that disgusting because there's a scientific term for it - coprophagy.) Imagine, further, that a small percentage of the population habitually indulges in crap-eating and they find it pleasurable - let's say they're addicted to it. You'd probably say it's not normal and you might come unstuck if you tried to explain it naturalistically - well, it doesn't appear to have any biological merit. You'd probably also say it's unhygenic. But suppose this isn't proven, or suppose there are ways around this problem, e.g. by taking appropriate medication. You might still think there's something wrong with it: it's unnatural or it's a kind of disease or it would make most people sick so they find it revolting or offensive.

But these are not good reasons for trying to cure them of their addiction. Deep-sea diving is unnatural but there's nothing wrong with it. Diseases are harmful or painful but these crap-eaters actually get pleasure out of their habit. Seafood makes some people sick and eating rats seems pretty revolting to some, but this doesn't cause them to denounce seafood or rat eaters. Religious people too have no answer, except for "God never intended it", which is not a useful answer at all.

Still, with or without justification, something seems wrong. You might bend a little and say "Well, it's all right if people eat crap in the privacy of their own homes but, for goodness sake, not in public". This attitude raises the question: If it's all right to do something in the privacy of one's own home, what exactly are the factors that make it not all right to do it in public? If there aren't any that make any sense, then we have to make a decision: either it should be considered correct to do it in public, or it shouldn't be considered correct even if done privately. (What if one of the participants was a child?!)

A less obnoxious example which possibly fits this slot is "picking one's nose". The point is: if you knew that somebody habitually picked his nose in private, you'd probably be no less disgusted than if he did it openly. Or you might not be worried about it no matter where he did it.

On the other hand, you might say a person has no right to throw litter around in public places (because it is an eyesore) but he has the right to make as much mess as he likes in his own home (nobody else can see it there). Still, as with nose-picking, there could be an element of revulsion hanging around in your mind. If you went into that person's home you might be shocked and you might change your opinion about the person himself. If the person is capable of making such a mess in his own home, his disposition might well be such that he could make a stuff of things in other circumstances. It's a sign of sloppiness and perhaps a negligent upbringing.

So what about the crap-eaters? Aren't we entitled to make some connections there, too? If they're capable of eating crap, god knows what else they might get up to. The civil libertarian will doubtless say they have a legal right to eat crap (inside their homes or in public?), but most people, I feel, would ask "Is it right to give legal rights to people in respect of something that seems intensely abnormal and intuitively wrong? Aren't there wider implications for society of giving these people the right to eat crap?"

You can draw whatever analogies you think fit. (With the emphasis on think, because this stuff does demand hard thought, not instant prejudiced reaction.)

      Topic 2. Rights that are impossible without changing the meanings of important words.

Does it always make sense to promote the right of someone to do or be something (for example, the right of a man to be a woman - i.e. without a physical sex change) or would we really then only be asking for the meaning of a word to be changed (the word "woman")? It seems wrong to change the meaning of words (by law) just to accommodate the supposed needs of people who cannot, for some reason or other, adapt to the current meaning. Why can't we be sensible about it and invent a new word for them? (Well, in this case we've already got some suitable words, but apparently not everybody is happy with them.)

“Anyway he’s married – whatever that means nowadays” (from the 2003 movie, Le Divorce)

For a topical example, consider the word "marriage" as it applies to gays. Surely the question is, not whether gays should be given the right to marry, but how far can we stretch the meaning of the word "marriage" so as to accommodate gays. (The belief that no stretching is necessary is simply turning a blind eye to plain facts.)

Not that it matters very much. The institution of marriage is an exceedingly weak concept. The wedding vows most people make are trivial, spoken and not written and there's no obligation to keep them anyway. A marriage contract should be carefully worded like a will, an insurance policy or a real estate contract, and should include important matters such as the responsiblities of each partner towards their children. The piece of paper that newly-weds currently sign says absolutely nothing, except that they are married as of today!

However, this is not to say that the word "marriage" doesn't have any basic meaning. I believe most people understand "marriage" as referring to a formal agreement between a man and a woman to live together, with the hope of remaining together for life and with the primary intent of procreation and raising a family (where "living together" implies such things as caring for one another and sharing resources, and even though intentionally childless marriages have for long been taken on board by western societies, in most other societies the desire for unbridled fruitfulness seems to be taken for granted!). This might well be an unadventurous concept, but it remains a very important one and does not deserve dilution or destruction. Any kind of partnership that doesn't reflect this basic meaning should be called something else.

Therefore to say that people who knowingly and in the nature of things cannot possibly comply with the fundamental criteria of marriage should nevertheless be given the (legal) right to marry, is just plain nonsense - unless the meaning of "marriage" is changed in law. But why should the law itself have the right to meddle with language?

This is not to suggest that marriage (in the above sense) is necessarily to be recommended. Divorce and re-marriage are exceedingly common these days, as are other kinds of partnership, and of course individuals have every right to go along whatever path they choose. But I very much doubt that these relationships should all receive "equal" consideration under the law or by the taxation and welfare departments. Indeed I'm inclined to think that partnerships, other than to the extent detailed in a formal agreement, should not be recognised at all, but that our social services should treat adults as individuals.


A twisted phrase that has already come into common formal use is "sexual preferences". In its original sense, "sex" was a word with no other use than to distinguish male from female. It then commonly became used to denote the relationship between male and female, in particular the act of copulation. But now it seems to be used for any kind of relationship or act capable of inducing the kind of arousal associated with stimulation of the genitalia, for example a relationship between woman and woman or man and child, or acts of sodomy, oral "sex" and other "kinky" stuff - much of which is widely regarded in the medical profession as deviant behaviour. (Sexually deviant behaviour is presumably abnormal in the sense that it is not essential for the survival of the species, and may in fact work against the species.) There are, of course, many people who have little choice but to indulge in these activities; but have you ever wondered about those who have no legal way of expressing their desires? This used to be the situation with gays and is currently the situation with paedophiles (see remarks below).

While the public generally thinks of "having sex" as an act between a man and a woman, the sociologists and legislators have put the pressure on by inventing "sexual preferences", implying that people of the same sex can have sex too - which they can't because it's physically impossible. To make it possible involves re-inventing the meaning of the word "sex". Yet at the same time the legislators have added their own restrictions on the use of the phrase, as in "regardless of sexual preferences". Do they mean regardless of whether you prefer to fuck little boys, sheep or your own mother? Not on your life! But they do intend to allow for many other possibilities, including polygamy, acts of sodomy, oral "sex”, masochistic behaviour, mechanical manipulation and, of course, sexual behaviour employing safeguards against fertilisation. (They might even put up with coprophilia, which apparently involves smearing shit all over your partner.) Now, isn't this drawing an arbitrary line through the rights of people to express various "sexual preferences"?

One or two humanist websites seem particularly concerned with the issue of “equal rights” for homosexuals. Although I am personally opposed to gay sex and marriage, this has nothing to do with my attitude towards gays, and is not specifically aimed at gays. In my opinion the social conduct of the gay community is of an exceptionally high standard, and serves as a model for the rest of us. Rather, my objections have to do with the fundamental requirement, in humanist philosophy, for clear criteria of truth. This entails having a robust language and stable meanings. You should not call a bus an aeroplane, or a banana a cabbage. Likewise, you should not call what gays do to one another in bed “sex”, or any formal relationship between them “marriage”. There’s an excellent case for granting gays similar rights to heterosexuals, but this is not a reason for twisting the meanings of words so grossly. This is political correctness gone nuts. (Actually, it’s a bit late to be complaining about the mis-use of the word “sex”, but “marriage” has a slight chance of escaping the travesty.) The point is, gays obviously are different from "straights", and the way they interact with one another is necessarily different. Why try to disguise these differences with linguistic duplicity? Eventually it will lead people to believe that there really aren't any significant differences between the two kinds of relationship, which is not true. So truth gets suppressed, as so often happens. (Of course, legal minds may see things differently, because they are only concerned with the legal content of words.)

It’s by no means clear that all partnerships should qualify legally for the same welfare and tax perks as married couples. There’s a real problem with informal relationships (de factos). My view is that personal tax should be applied to individuals, not to partnerships (see Footnote 4). Obviously, some individuals have special needs, which may or may not be partly due to their involvement in a partnership or family, but these cases should be individually assessed.

Paedophile (or pedophile)

This word denotes a person who is sexually attracted to children. It does not mean someone who abducts, molests or rapes children or indulges in unbelievably evil kinds of child pornography. (A much worse name would be appropriate for them.) The word is used in an entirely misleading way by the public, the press, the police, the legal profession and politicians, including the Queensland Premier. Paedophilia is a psychological condition. As far as I know, there’s no evidence to suggest that the feelings of a paedophile towards a child of his liking are any different than the feelings of a homosexual towards another man of his liking, or, for that matter, of a husband towards his wife. History, if not science, backs me up on this. I suspect that the misuse of the word (along with a great deal of media hype) has been largely responsible for an unwarranted level of prejudice against paedophiles, properly so-called. (Those who actually seduce and harm children are another kettle of fish.)

The big problem, of course, is that paedophilia is a one-sided affair. The object of the paedophile's desire is a minor who may not have reached puberty, who may not understand or who doesn't want to be involved in that sort of relationship. More importantly, minors are protected by law against sexual interference. Because the paedophile has no legitimate way of satisfying his desires, he's likely to resort to child pornography and similar activities. But this is illegal too, because the existence of the pornographic material implies that children have been sexually exploited. Besides, with the rise of the internet, pornography is now often much more direct and evidently includes activities that are far more devious and dangerous than those which were possible in the pre-internet era.

Unfortunately for the paedophile, there's no easy way out of this. In fact, apart from psychological treatment (which probably has about as much chance of succeeding as it would for a homosexual) there's no way out at all except by breaking the law. Paedophiles must be well aware that this is absolutely a no-go area, the seriousness of sexual offences against children is undisputed and the protection of our children is more important in our society than the psychological needs of paedophiles.

Important, yes, but let's put it in perspective. Paedophilia seems to raise the hackles, especially of suburban housewives, while other forms of child abuse pass them by unnoticed. Unless some physical damage has been caused, it's quite possible that a child may come out of a sexual exploitation episode relatively unscathed. Not so with many other forms of maltreatment. The child sent to war, the child who goes days without anything to eat, the child working long gruelling hours in the living hell of the copper mines, the child orphaned at birth and institutionalised, the child denied the opportunity of an elementary education and the child subjected to religious brainwashing will probably never recover from their experiences, will never grow up to be quite the same as others with a more fortunate childhood.

One thing is clear, however. The protection of the majority against crime is of paramount importance. Therefore keeping criminals out of society is of greater importance than worrying about the psychological state of the criminal. Murder is no less a crime just because the murderer is adjudged to be deranged (aren't all murderers deranged in one way or another?). Nor is child molestation any less a crime just because the molester has certain "sexual preferences". Still, this is no excuse for ignoring the psychological needs of paedophiles and treating them en masse as a bunch of heinous criminals.

Summary, Conclusions & Personal view (Footnote 22).

So here's the basic problem. In western-style societies, the “rights” of individuals are increasingly judged by their psychological requirements while their “morals” are judged by the impact of their behaviour upon society. However, social consequences often conflict with individual rights, and opinions about which should take precedence are divided and incoherent. While this division is sufferable - and both sides of the divide have obvious merit - it leads to serious clashes of interest, triggering legal and social responses that are often biased and inconsistent with one another. The problem for Central Humanism is that, in its current form, it is not primarily a consequentialist philosophy:  society and social outcomes in themselves count for nothing, individuals and their personal world views are what really matter. And yet it must be admitted that crime, if not morality, must be judged by its effects on society - but a society composed of individuals. One can only hope that the divide between psychological causes and physical effects is somehow illusory.

Through all this confusion the English language continues to take a battering, warping simple home truths. If only we could set straight the uses of language, the world would be a better place.

A personal view: "Sexual preferences" might well be predominantly genetic and individuals should unquestionably be allowed the freedom to fulfil them, especially to show their love and affection to consenting individuals in whatever way they please. But the feelings of those who express various reservations about homosexuality and other "deviant" traits are almost certainly also of genetic origin and very deep-seated, deriving from instinctive behavioural characteristics that have evolved to ensure the propagation and survival of the species. Such feelings are primitive (even our cat knows what's what) and very difficult to overturn, and in any case the question remains whether they still have biological value. If so, gays and those with a disposition for curious sexual behaviour need to give the rest of us as much respect for our views as they expect us to give to theirs.

I'm saying "us" and "ours" partly out of sympathy for what I assume to be a normal, reasonable standpoint, even amongst humanists. But for myself, when all's said and done I don't care a stuff if there are a few people around who might want to cover themselves in crap, or even eat the stuff. So what? What really worries me is the enormous number of people who submerge themselves in, consume and digest mental crap, from a number of unpleasant sources but chiefly from the churches and scriptures. And I worry that many of them want to foist this stuff onto others, including their own children. You'd be sent to gaol if you forced your child to eat crap, and you ought to be gaoled for forcing them to absorb religious crap. It's no less corrupting. In fact, from a global perspective, a consequentialist would have to say religion is at least several million times more destructive and demoralising than coprophagy. And who's responsible for all this destruction and demoralisation? Every one of you religious apologists out there who keep the myths alive, just because you refuse to think.

Footnote 23 on "Free trade and fair trade" (#4)

To take one example of “globalisation” policies: Central Humanists might be inclined to align themselves with some version of the Fair Trade rather than the Free Trade movement - and not only because of its relevance to the need to maintain the living standards of our own society. Personally, having little economic nous, I find it difficult to fathom the arguments of these or any other camps. But I would have thought that any economic policy that causes hardship, instability, over-specialisation and a reduction in life-style choices should be questioned. Some degree of protectionism appears to be justifiable.

For Australian humanists the main issues are, first, the impact of trade agreements on third world poverty and, secondly, the question whether the free world should be doing any trade at all with countries like China until they conform with ordinary human rights criteria* – notwithstanding that China’s current international trading arrangements appear to be neither fair nor free. Australia's so-called "free trade" agreement with China is an abomination, if only because of its profound effects on our manufacturing industries and the people displaced by their closure. The same applies to much of our agricultural industry in relation to imports from other Asian countries.

*We should not forget, however, that China's policy on by far the most important ethical issue facing the world today, namely the population explosion, is both robust and commendable.

What is the future of free trade in the face of setting environmental targets, particularly for reducing atmospheric carbon levels? Our main trading partners, in particular China, are clearly headed in the wrong direction and will almost certainly be unable to meet acceptable standards and deadlines. If our politicians do the right things, any semblance of free trade is bound to collapse. But if they take the same attitude towards the environmental standards of trading partners as they now take for their human and animal rights standards, Australians will feel the double impacts of increasing non-competitiveness and environmental degradation. While we can certainly withstand the first, we cannot cope with the second. It is imperative to start applying pressure now, beginning with our own dirty industries.

Footnote 24 on "Creationism - an example of an integrity gap" (#9, #12)

A good example of a belief with no foundation of integrity is Creationism*. It is said that 61% of Americans believe the biblical version of creation and reject the (so-called) theory of evolution*. This is a depressing reflection on the state of the human race, and especially on the state of America, a supposedly advanced country with a respectable education system.

Creationism is an affront to intelligence, knowledge, truth and humanity and, if by chance you believe in a god who had anything at all to do with the creation of human beings, it is an affront to your god too. If truth is, as I believe, the foundation of morality, then Creationism is thoroughly immoral. Creationists are just as dishonourable as those who deny the Holocaust, and just as blind and silly as those who might insist that the First World War never took place. For there is probably a larger and more coherent body of evidence for evolution (in the broadly Darwinian sense*) than for the events of the war. There are few if any survivors of the First World War, but every single living thing is a survivor of evolution. (Not that this is a sensible remark - it just adds a little perspective!) Indeed it's a bit of a puzzle why evolution, the cornerstone of biology, must still carry the "theory" stigma while, for example, the development of printing, the French Revolution, weather forecasting and deep-sea oceanography do not. The facts are now sufficient to speak for themselves. The mechanisms of evolution are also well understood, but it would hardly matter if they were not, and it is of no relevance whatsoever that some of the finer detail remains hidden, hypothetical or contentious. Evolution is the unambiguous truth, Creationism its ignoble enemy.

Creationism is as absurd as believing that the forest was transformed into a charred wasteland by a spirit and not by fire, that the litter of suckling piglets in the farm shed were not born by a sow in labour but appeared miraculously overnight, or that the hand of God, not a storm, sank the boats in the harbour. The connections of evolution are every bit as transparent as the connections between fire and ashes, labour and nursling, storm and wreck. Evolution is as solid a body of facts* as you'll find anywhere. The Creation story doesn't even make good fiction - it's nothing but a load of unadorned hogwash.

As for the "wonder" of creation, the facts of evolution are infinitely more wonderful than the fantasy of Creationism, which is so lean a tale that it can easily be told on one page. There's nothing wonderful enough or credible enough on that page to entertain any mature mind. So why should one consider a Creationist, living in a country where a decent education is freely available, to be a fully sane person? Or, if sane, why are they not treated as intellectual criminals? Creationism denies well-established, fundamental truths about the world and our existence, so any responsible citizen who preaches its creed is a plain liar and, in some circumstances, guilty of a deliberate attempt to pervert the minds of children. It is seriously disappointing that certain educationists in the USA would consider taking on board the preposterous demands of these maladjusted freaks. I'm not sure why one would even bother speaking to a Creationist:  if their sense of truth and reality is so acutely warped, there seems to be no good reason to believe anything they say or to respect any judgment they make.

* There are many variants and developments of basic (Genesis-model) Creationism, most notably, in the last 20 years, Intelligent Design. All have been supported by numerous arguments and all have been convincingly dismissed by an even larger number of arguments. Intelligent Design (in its usual scientific guise) has been successfully challenged in court.

In this context evolution (or evolutionism or the "theory" of evolution) is the body of scientific knowledge concerning the history of life on this planet, including such concepts as natural selection, common descent, genetic mutation and speciation, and of course a wide variety of sets of observations such as fossil records and genome maps, together with methodologies such as dating techniques involved in building those records. Some would argue that evolution is a "theory" and not just a collection of related facts. Well, is it a theory or a fact that a petrol engine won't work without petrol and oxygen? This is no place to get involved in prolonged philosophical discussion, but as an extreme empiricist, I'm inclined to say that a theory is only as good as the supporting facts (or observations), which to my way of thinking is the same as saying that a theory, for what it's worth, is a body of facts and therefore wholly dependent on knowledge. Thus, for example, Lamarckianism is no longer a credible theory simply because its factual content is contradicted by the known facts. A theory (in the typical sense of that word) is only "theoretical" to the extent that the facts of which it speaks are unknown. (More esoteric theories, such as quantum theory, are factual to the extent that things like televisions and laptops work consistently!) Agreed, most theories look like general explanations of facts, rather than just "raw" facts. But on the one hand it is very doubtful whether there are such things as raw facts and on the other it is hard to understand what is meant by an explanation with no factual content. Essentially most modern theories consist of a heap of observations and a mathematical model that relates those observations and thereby predicts that future observations of a similar sort will be similarly related. The puzzling aspect of "theories" in this sense is how mathematical models can "match" reality (see The physical nature of mathematics). But the "theory" of evolution is hardly a theory of this kind. It is more like a history of events, and the "how" of evolution is inextricably tangled with that history.

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