The main objection to religions is their utter contempt for truth, integrity and intelligence. Religions claim to deliver fundamental truths yet do not answer to any acceptable standards of truth or meaningfulness. Consequently, in so far as the faithful lead their lives in accord with the supposed "truths" of their religion, their behaviour is eccentric. Religions are therefore unethical because they induce people to behave irrationally by indoctrinating them with myths, infantile nonsense and ritualism; by instilling them with false hopes and a false sense of security; by finding absurd ulterior motives and excuses for their actions; and by alleging to pardon their crimes and misdeeds.
The dogmatism of religion hinders moral progress, undermines self-determination and personal responsibility and obstructs the development and application of technologies that promise enormous benefits for mankind. Religion is the world's most persistent divisive force and one of the chief causes of war and unrest.
The value system promoted here reflects the Humanist lifestyle, which emphasises respect for truth, reason, life and the dignity, freedom and happiness of individuals, but rejects everything supernatural. While Humanism advocates respect for the dignity and rights of all sane individuals, regardless of their beliefs, it does not necessarily respect their beliefs as such. Here we adopt a strongly atheistic stance, contending that words like "God" and "Heaven" are largely nonsensical - they don't have any consistent meaning - and that most religious practices are bizarre and often morally objectionable. While many atheists confine themselves to the rather weak claim that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God, our view is that, to the extent that he is supposed to interact with people and the real world, there is overwhelming evidence of all kinds for the non-existence of God. And although the outcomes of scientific discovery dominate the modern world, you don’t need science to tell you there’s no God – you only need sanity.
Again, while some humanists and atheists hold a remarkably charitable attitude towards religion, we take the view that all the traditional religions and their off-shoots are harmful, and all have aspects that are unacceptable to civilized, reasonable human beings. Like financial scams and health fraud, religions prey on people's gullibility and weaknesses.
Largely because of their abuse of language, religions are guilty of vicious generalisation, which brands their adherents with a wide range of petty beliefs and behaviours to which they are necessarily committed simply by virtue of their adopting the name of the religion. This provides others with some justification for religious discrimination.
One of the most despicable practices associated with religion is the religious indoctrination of young children. This is an inexcusable form of child abuse, likely to cause long-term psychological and social harm, and should be prohibited in law.
It must be mentioned up front that a significant objection to opposing religion is that for many people religion is exceedingly precious, and consequently disrespecting their beliefs suggests lack of consideration. In particular, for those religious people who are sick, elderly or deeply troubled, their faith may be their last hope, and to attempt to destroy that hope would seem to be shamefully heartless. Although the view expressed here is that all religions are false and absurd and that the adverse effects of religion completely outweigh the benefits, all the same it is obviously necessary to direct one’s criticisms with understanding and discretion. In the internet environment this is virtually impossible, but I doubt whether this webpage will be read by the “wrong” people. In fact I have some doubt as to whether it will catch the eye of any of the intended readership either! This "target audience" undoubtedly includes many who greatly value their religion, for unfortunately there is a point at which tolerance and consideration must end, regardless of the possibility of hurting feelings.
The concepts of truth and integrity are central to science, ethics and all the primary activities of daily living. Truth comprises mainly everyday objective facts*, and meaningful explanations and ideas which are wholly consistent with these facts and which have calculable effects in the real world. Integrity refers to our willingness to recognise truths, to repel garbage, to think and behave consistently and to live in tune with reality. Lack of integrity implies self-betrayal and delusion (for a good example see Creationism notes). There are clear criteria of truth, and there is ample justification for the claim that religion is the chief enemy of both truth and integrity.
* This is not to say that "facts" don't change. New discoveries lead to new facts and the modification or replacement of old. Perhaps the word "knowledge" would be better.
In common with many other humanists, our outlook is strongly atheistic in so far as we vigorously oppose all conventional religion and dissent from belief in any of the traditional gods. Religion should be accountable to truth, reason, decency and fairness. There are no "supernatural" forces, and no deity, creator or supreme being capable of communicating with or influencing people. Human fate is determined only by natural causes (including human volition).
Therefore our view is that Faith* is a serious human failing, as is the obsession with all the balderdash and ballyhoo that invariably goes along with it. (*Faith - an unreasoned and unknowing trust in the power of God to act benevolently in the progress of one’s life.)
Even though it’s possible (but unlikely) that the vestiges of religion originated in a prelinguistic era, religion as we understand it today is largely a verbal phenomenon, existing in scriptures, sermons, prayers, incantations, theology books and other articles of religious practice. The language of religion ("godspeak") consists of two parts:
1. Primary statements - these are all the "metaphysical" statements specific to religion which claim to be true. Examples (from the Christian religion) are "There is one God", "God dwells in Heaven", "Christ rose from the dead", "The world was created in seven days", "The one God has three aspects: the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost", "God sometimes answers your prayers", "If you sin and your sins are not forgiven, you will doubtless end up in Hell after you die", "Your Father in Heaven loves you". In short, articles of faith (or "theospeak".)
2. Secondary expressions - these are expressions of praise, devotion, supplication, instruction, condemnation etc. Normally they do not (and cannot) assert truths, but they would be pointless if the primary statements of the religion were not true. They can mostly be classified as ritualistic or behavioural (everything to do with conducting one's religion), either because of the way the words are delivered or because they influence the subsequent behaviour of the devotee. (All this stuff could be called "actspeak".)
Our view is that most of the primary statements of every major religion are either obviously meaningless or obviously false, and that consequently most of the secondary language of religion and its associated behaviour is perverse. In other words theospeak is nonsense, actspeak is bizarre (See Higher order atheism).
Important though they are, however, these are not in themselves the most disconcerting aspects of the language of religion. It is the language of persuasion, especially in the hands of expert evangelists, the spin doctors of supernaturalism, that does the real damage. The most compelling religious salesmen immediately invite comparison with other world class charlatans, such as Hitler. And regardless of the fact that Hitler was a magalomaniac and a murderer, his strategy was essentially the same: to persuade the gullible masses that a seriously flawed ideology would open the doors to a better life in a new world.
Linguistic elements also underlie the susceptibility of people to religious talk. The language of fantasy and pretense is a crucial component of the learning behaviour of children, but when it hangs over into adult life it can only lead to delusion. We must distinguish, here, between the “fantasy” of normal creative imagination – an important human attribute – and the extravagant kind of fantasy that makes the unreal real – a kind of protracted hallucination. The latter kind is the rightful property of young children – and the stolen property of drug addicts. Its persistence into adolescence and adulthood is a strange anomaly that seems just as incongruous as wearing nappies or sleeping in a cot would be.
But having said that, it must be conceded that language itself is partly to blame for all this kerfuffle, because language alone cannot distinguish fact from fiction. If it could, we would not read novels for they could not engross us. And if it could, I believe there would be no religions. The existence of religions is in part due to people becoming too dependent on pure language, and perhaps captivated by the belief that all good stories are true.
While respecting the right of everyone to pursue traditional religious creeds on a personal basis, we strongly disapprove of the creeds themselves. We take the view that they are fundamentally and inexcusably immoral, damaging both to society and to the mental integrity of the individuals who follow them. There are a number of incontrovertible reasons for rejecting them, but understanding and personal respect as well as reasons are needed in openly opposing them - though many will be loath to accept your respect while you are engaged in challenging their most cherished beliefs (see below and related note).
Fortunately not all devout believers are steeped in their religion to this extent. Nor do all religions make the same peculiar demands - which is to say, essentially, that they all feature different gods - or, in most cases, different demons. (see related note on this point and non-theistic religions).
It is clear, too, that not quite everything about every religion is bad. Humanists recognise that the churches are places of comfort and counsel and applaud the humanitarian work carried out by many religious organisations. The new-style Christian churches in particular attract some wonderful, generous-hearted people as well as some exasperating zealots. But while the message of "love"* and the spirit of voluntary community work in many churches is very commendable, humanists often argue that (1) Churches get funding and tax breaks while humanist organisations don’t, (2) do-gooders who are not especially religious nonetheless tend to gravitate towards the churches because that’s where they find like-minded people and resources, (3) religious people often have ulterior motives for "doing good", moreover many Churches bludgeon the members of their flock into altruism (also see paragraph on benevolence below), (4) the humanitarian work done by many churches is often negated by their anti-humanitarianism in certain areas where brutish dogmatism has gained a stranglehold. (For example, consider the immense harm done to women by the anti-pill anti-abortion lobby in the Philippines and other poor countries where Catholicism holds sway.)
*Churches are certainly not the only places where "love" is recommended. For example, some pop concerts attracting huge audiences preach a similar message - and less expensively than the musical offerings of certain evangelical churches!
Although it's true the spin-off from some religions has included much of great cultural value, for example in architecture, music and the graphic arts, doubtless most of this was commissioned by the churches (because they held the means) and/or in some civilisations executed by slave labour. Besides, nearly all this artistic output is historical - more recently the contribution of religious organisations to the arts has leant towards performance rather than creativity.
I believe it is in the field of education where, in former times, religious organisations have had the most useful impact. In some regions, such as India and the Pacific islands, the majority of schools, both primary and secondary, were (and in some countries are still) affiliated with some denomination or other. Most of these schools were established by missionaries and/or with funds donated by well-off (and presumably devout) benefactors, but subsequently came to depend on user fees and government assistance. Without doubt the condition of education globally would be worse without these initiatives. However, the wheel has turned, and today we tend to reflect on the irreparable harm caused by overly religious, overly strict and corrupt schools (such as the madrassas of Pakistan and certain Australian catholic schools that housed disadvantaged children.) Universal secular education is now the objective, and the adage "Where education ends religion begins" is truer than ever. (This is a slight variation of a well-known quote from Benjamin Disraeli. Yet political leaders may be excused for seeing this maxim in a different light; for they realise that religion is what helps them most to keep the poorly educated hordes under control.)
In general, therefore, the contribution of religion to cultural development is far outweighed by its negative impact on society. The enormous amount of time and energy expended by the devotees of certain faiths in absurd mental activity and ritual would be much, much more wisely spent in acquiring some genuine knowledge and aesthetic capacity. Although one occasionally comes across that most incongruous of beasts, the educated religionist, almost all the followers of these time demanding religions appear to be incredibly ignorant and narrow-minded. Undoubtedly they could lead a fuller life - a more human life - if they could escape the grim confines of their faith.
Regardless of your religious affiliation, if you believe that God is perfect and the scriptures are the true Word of God, you must presumably believe everything contained in the Book (whichever one comforts you) and try your best to abide by all its rules. However, most ordinary, decent people, including most who claim to be religious, would concede that some of the statements in the scriptures are erroneous, and some of the judgments and edicts are morally wrong. I mean, of course, that some statements are erroneous by commonly accepted standards of truth, and some judgments and edicts are immoral by commonly accepted standards of decency. In other words, the majority of people judge the scriptures by secular standards, overriding the Word of God.
So, if their ultimate values are secular, why do they bother at all with God's values? For, in applying a secular filter to the scriptures, it seems they must either believe the scriptures don't represent the true Word of God, or God is imperfect (or both), in which case their religion has no secure foundation (see this related note). It follows that fundamentalist creeds are the only genuine scripture-based forms of religion, and we know how dangerous those are! All other gospels are diluted, distorted or modernised in varying degrees. What a total shambles!
Hardly surprising, though. Religion takes no notice of reason, the modernists extol their gods with the same blind conviction as the fundamentalists. Religious terrorism is just one of the more evil varieties of religious delusion: the same underlying mentality prevails in every church, mosque and temple, every holy war and suicide mission.
But you terrorists out there who believe you are fundamentalists, your modern weapons and internet are as far removed from your fundamentalist pretentions as all the bounties of civilization which you seek to destroy. Drop your guns, take off your cowardly balaclavas and go hide somewhere in the jungle.
Religionists will often say: Atheists spend all their energy bashing religion. If a person replaced his religion with atheism, what positive things would it have to offer?
The answer to this is that religion doesn’t need to be replaced by anything. One does not replace a cancer of the brain with another intrusion – one simply attempts to remove it. The positives in life were always there, lying dormant because they were stifled by the cancer’s presence. Once the cancer has been excised, the positive aspects of life will flourish as never before. Atheists generally promote all the good things that religion suppresses, and most accounts of atheism make it abundantly clear what these are. (Also see related note.)
So here's why atheists are religion bashers. There's just one reason why atheists think atheism is right, and that's because they think religion is wrong. Religion carries all the baggage, so to speak. Atheism is the default human condition and carries no baggage. The weapons used by atheists to bash religion are chiefly facts, reason and scorn. They use facts and reason mainly when talking to agnostics and to each other (to reinforce their own position), and they use scorn mainly when talking to religionists because they know religionists never listen to facts and reason (if they did, religion would have died out long ago). Religionists, on the other hand, cannot bash atheists, because there’s nothing bashable. All they can effectively do is march, burn flags and effigies, threaten and terrorise. Or they can attempt to convert the unwary by filling them with superficially attractive mush and drivel.
This is not to say that atheism in itself is necessarily a "good" philosophy. If atheists are defined simply as people who don't believe in God, then a theoretical difference between atheism and humanism is that the atheist might also be an egoist, an ignoramus, a philistine and a malefactor! There have been, and still are, plenty of rotten atheists in the world.
The type of atheism we especially want to advocate might be called “higher order” atheism. The word “God” (or "heavenly father" or "supreme being"), as used in the Abrahamic religions, is largely meaningless – a mixture of gibberish and inconsistencies, a nonsense word* – so it doesn’t make much sense to say either that God exists or that God does not exist (Strictly speaking, "God does not exist" expresses the standpoint of lower order atheists)†. Indeed it doesn’t make much sense to talk about God at all, because he has no meaningful attributes apart from the miscellany of physical events (from creating the universe to answering Aunt Matilda’s prayer to make her carbuncles better) which the faithful may allege to be God’s doing. But there is not a crumb of evidence that a supernatural being (one or many) influences natural events – indeed it makes no sense to postulate such a being. All talk of “God” and the supernatural is just vacuous gobbledegook – yet often potent enough to deceive the unwary and brainwash the young.
* Not only is most religious talk nonsense - it is vicious nonsense. By “vicious nonsense” in this context I mean
at least the following:
1. It claims to represent some kind of truth and is meant to be taken seriously
2. There’s no agreed method of deciding whether it’s true or false
3. It leads to no predictable effects in the real world, apart from eccentric behaviour in those human beings who
believe it to be true (the symptoms of religious belief).
It's arguable that even the word religion is meaningless to the degree that the object of religious belief is meaningless. The Australian legal definition of religion is: belief in a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle. But the word supernatural is supposed to "mean" something like: beyond nature and understanding, i.e. that which has no reality and cannot be known or conceived of. A supernatural being or thing is therefore a being or thing that is not a being or thing, and a supernatural principle is presumably some kind of knowledge that's unknowable. These are plain contradictions, unless one is using words like "thing" etc in a way they are not normally used - indeed in a way that's entirely incomprehensible.
† I now doubt the validity of the distinction between higher order and lower order atheism, even supposing the latter relates to a realm of "imaginary gods" such as mythical creatures and Hindu gods, which appear to have meaningful descriptions. I cannot clearly distinguish between vacuous gods and gods that are supposed to have some form. But in any case the alleged form (or formlessness) of gods is of little interest: what is at stake is the invisible, intangible supernatural agent or principle represented by the word "god", regardless of whether god is pictured or personified in some way. And I don't think it matters much whether we consider this agent to be non-existent or conceptually blank. (How fortunate are the Christians to have the best of both worlds, and some!) Also see here.
Humanism is a form of atheism with many positive embellishments. It is therefore not a religion, but a rationalist way of life characterised by the absence of religion. Although, at first sight, the primary statements, or precepts, that define humanist philosophies might look like the statements that set out the doctrines of a religion, on closer inspection you will find there are three very important differences between the precepts contained in humanist manifestos and the central beliefs of every religion.
Firstly, the precepts of humanism are all meaningful while many of the doctrines of religion are meaningless or absurd.
Secondly, the precepts of humanism are logically consistent with one another, as well as with obvious truths about the real world, while many of the doctrines that characterise any given religion (in so far as they have any meaning at all) are either inconsistent with one another or with obvious facts of reality.
And thirdly, the ideas of humanism are open-ended and freely held, while those of religion are closed, dogmatic and authoritarian.
To the degree that it is sceptical and atheistic, humanism is not a system of beliefs at all, but a resolve to eliminate all unfounded beliefs from one’s thinking*. The atheist in the humanist is simply one of the outcomes of a sincere, enquiring frame of mind. An apt definition of an atheist might be: a person who understands the difference between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, sense and nonsense, who loves truth, knowledge and reason, who accepts responsibility for his life and who lives in tune with the world around him. The literally atheistic part of atheism, the elimination of gods, is just a nuisance thing, to be got out of the way (like trolls, unicorns and astrology) so that we can get on with life. The principal purpose of these anti-religious notes, therefore, is to show resolve in rejecting the primitiveness and negativity of fettered beliefs and to acclaim the freedom and richness of an intelligently orientated, humanist life (see Central Humanism Hub).
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?
*You might hear some humanists say such things as: "I believe in the fundamental goodness of human nature", suggesting that, after all, they do hold irrational beliefs. But if you dig deep enough, I think you'll find they are simply expressing an attitude of confidence in the propensity of most people to behave decently. Their words are not intended to apply literally to all people without exception nor do they refer to anything esoteric but, rather, express a deep hope that people will eventually resolve their quarrels.
A humanist may act benevolently for two possible “reasons”: either he has a natural sympathy for the plight of others, or he has worked out that people will get on better together if they act thoughtfully and humanely towards one another. A strongly religious person, on the other hand, may act benevolently on account of various beliefs: for example, he believes it is his duty to God or an instruction from God, or God’s loving spirit propels him in that direction, or God will ultimately reward him in an afterlife - or punish him in eternal hell if he does not act benevolently - see related note. (Islamists, in particular, quite openly do everything “good” for ulterior motives – to receive “blessings from Allah”. What a sickening, wimpish attitude, plunging the depths of insincerity!) These ulterior or "fake" motives are among the shackles that prevent him acting with complete veracity. Indeed reason and personal (agnostic) compassion or concern may not enter the picture at all. Furthermore his beliefs might be just as likely to lead him to act unethically (according to modern secular standards) as to act kindly.
To engage in an activity purely and simply because one’s religion dictates it is foolish, irresponsible, insensitive and morally wrong. Religious beliefs as such never provide either moral grounds or cogent reasons for any particular kind of behaviour. Thus religiously motivated altruism is a sham and ultimately self-centred - religion is a form of solipsism which (as Christopher Hitchens puts it) “imagines that the universe is preoccupied with one’s own fate”.
Many religionists, however, do attempt to justify the ethical aspects of their faith with "reason". The absurdity of this is only too plain. If religionists can think of good reasons for behaving in the way they do, why bother with the god that dictates such behaviour? If they are capable of behaving according to their own astuteness and moral sense, why don't they use these human faculties and forget about the supernatural? Of course, most of these "argumentive" religionists (usually made insecure by a little education) do not employ their best powers of reasoning, but simply try to justify their beliefs by producing what look like reasons, good or bad. They are fake reasons, easily demolished by thinkers with no hang-ups. In fact, most religionists don't go down this track at all, because they are terrified of knowledge, truth and reason.
It seems obvious that in civilized western societies the ethical values of religions are measured against humanist standards, not vice-versa, and that the bad in religion far outweighs the good. In less advanced nations where countless missions have gained a foothold, and secularism is definitely not the norm, moral confusion reigns as depraved religious ministers trumpet their miscellaneous untruths and obscene advice to bemused communities. Many of the cultural values promoted by the ancient religions and their offshoots, now entrenched in societies worldwide, represent the most worrying threat to the welfare of future generations. The traditional religions - incoherent bundles of ideas accumulated many centuries ago and barely relevant even then - act as a powerful brake on moral progress - a brake that is "power assisted" by political correctness and the whimpishness of politicians, afraid to say or do anything that might cause offence even to those who are deserving targets of vigorous disapproval.
There’s little difference in principle between religion and cultism. Both fill a need for psychological security, a need presumably caused by the inability of the relatively intelligent, sensitive human mind to cope with the harshness of reality. Historically, however, religion has also provided a degree of social security, owing to its powerful control over the organization and behaviour of society. In the modern world this function of religion is breaking down because of the globalisation and intermingling of many different religions, because science and education enable us to handle life more effectively and because of the growing realisation not only that a secular organization can provide better security but that its rules are a product of common sense rather than fantasy, promoting increased freedom of behaviour and liberating the human spirit from the confines of dogmatism and ritual.
In modern times religions, especially of the softer breed, have tended to change, usually for the better. In other words they have relinquished some of their own barbaric decrees in favour of humanist values! The process has been painful. To the atheist, much of the bickering has seemed pointless. (For example, all the fuss about whether women can be priests seems frivolous to anyone who won't rest content until every last priest vanishes from the face of the Earth. Who cares whether men, women or Dandie Dinmont terriers fill the pulpits?) In fact the best that any creed can achieve is to embrace humanist ideals plus a load of nonsensensical add-ons; when all the nonsense finally perishes you're left with no religion.
Despite these considerations, we think tolerance is a virtue and support a tolerant society - including, to a limited extent, religious tolerance. However, tolerance is a much misunderstood and misused word (see this note in Central Humanist Hub). Moreover, words like "tolerance" and "respect" may be inappropriate in the context of religion and its adherents. We do not use these words when speaking of other mental illnesses: we simply seek a cure.
But regardless of whether religion be considered a disease, curable or not, something needs to be done to modify its many adverse effects on our society. The present broad-sweeping laws relating to religious discrimination in Australia are unsupportable. It is completely contrary to Australian ideals, or to any humane code of ethics, to sanction the practice and promotion of religious beliefs that endow men with fundamentally superior rights to women, or incite violence against unbelievers, or aspire to oust the secular state, or shrug off a person's wrong-doings with a nod and a prayer, or extort money from their followers by slick salesmanship and emotivism, or deny young children access to life-saving technologies, or trap their disciples by threat of punishment or death should they attempt to change their allegiance.
But why stop there? Why should our society be so supportive of any religious dogma that undermines truth, integrity, responsibility, freedom and reason? It would not matter at all if people took religion lightly, rather as they (mostly) take astrology or numerology. Religion is a problem because people take it seriously - it becomes part of their psyche. And it is the depth of this infiltration of the mind, as much as any affinity for fundamentalist doctrines, that provides the measure of religious extremism. (Also see related note.)
Religionists of the live-and-let-be variety might say to non-believers “Leave us with our faith and respect our right to practice it – this is what we believe, you can believe whatever you want”. How wrong they are! Atheists don’t believe anything. They simply live in accordance with plain facts and with regard for human dignity. Belief is a state of mind with no foundation of truth or integrity. The beliefs of religionists comprise nothing but delusions. What they believe is very plainly confuted by overwhelming evidence, straight thinking and an ordinary sense of decency. In other words what they believe is a cocktail of obvious falsehoods, nonsense and incitements to decadence – with perhaps a smattering of good advice shaken in, but always offered for the wrong reasons. There is no question of pitting one set of beliefs against another. Atheism is not a system of beliefs at all, but a determination to eliminate all unfounded beliefs from one’s thinking..
Being anti-religious (or anti any particular religion) is not at all like being racist. On the face of it, the first is excusable, the second not. You may not be able to judge individuals by the colour of their skin, but you can certainly judge them by their religion. This is because a person who ascribes to a particular religion necessarily identifies with a certain ideology (as with Nazism, communism or liberalism), which hangs like a label around their neck saying "This is who I am and who I choose to be". They can be judged for their religion just as they can be judged for their level and area of education, their sporting ability or their criminal record, the difference being that religion is more encompassing than any of these.
It is difficult to understand why, in some circumstances, religion should not be used as one of the parameters for assessing individuals, rather than being cast into the "do not touch" basket. For example, in selecting personel for certain kinds of employment one might well be justified in rejecting highly religious applicants on the grounds that, if they are capable of believing absurdities and behaving eccentrically, they may be incapable of making sound decisions and acting wisely in their workplace.
The notions of freedom, open society and religious tolerance tend to go hand in hand. "Freedom" normally includes freedom to follow whatever religion you please (even though some religions do not themselves respect this freedom). Although on the whole supporting this point of view, we believe that one of the greatest freedoms is freedom from religion, and that by rejecting religion you increase your chances of realising your humanity to the fullest extent. But if people wish to follow a particular religion, let them do so, provided that the choice is genuinely their own, and provided that it does not impact on anyone else's life. Two essential preconditions for freedom of religion for individuals are: freedom from religion in the Government of the people, and freedom from brainwashing during childhood. Where the Government is religiously biased, sound education lacking and religious brainwashing rife, individuals will be denied both the opportunity of making wise choices and (if they subscribe to a minority religion) the empowerment to conduct their lives in the way they would wish.
Many religious institutions, with their uncompromising brainwashing and de-education agendas, are the spawning grounds of barbarism, including terrorism. Those who immerse themselves in religion cannot easily disassociate themselves from religiously motivated terrorist activities. Although of course they would never admit it (because they don’t even realise it), they deal in wholesale superstition and vulgarity, of which terrorism is only one manifestation. And the terrorists’ interpretation of their religion is just as credible as anyone else’s.
Much of the responsibility for atrocities in the name of religion, notably Islam, lies on the shoulders of religious leaders and their close supporters, just as the responsibility for drug-related crime lies mainly with the suppliers and dealers. As long as muslim leaders in Australia continue to think of themselves as belonging to a privileged global brotherhood, and as long as they refrain from speaking out strongly against organisations such as Al-qaeda, Taliban, Isis, Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram and FPI, of course they stand the risk of themselves and their communities being identified with the aims and methods of these organisations and the horrendous excesses of Shariah law. They will then cry out that muslims in this country are targets of discriminatory behaviour, but in those circumstances isn't discrimination well justified? Yet muslim communities throughout Australia continue to support some of their most evil leaders and the anti-Australian causes they represent, while the rest of us either don't care or silently tolerate the situation.
In rejecting religion, one must be extremely wary of replacing it with some other kind of dogmatism. Let’s not forget the brainwashing that goes on in those sections of our society which have not fallen under the spell of religion. "Early programming" might be a better name for it, and indeed we have all been programmed with various things, and however unethical some of them may be, we turn a blind eye to them, deeming them part of “our culture” or a “natural right” (see this section of Central Humanist Hub). The little choirs of complaining voices go unheard unless the singers do silly things to attract attention. Then we think they are just silly. (Further comments and examples of programming can be found here)
One lesson to be learnt from the murderous children of ISIS (Islamic State) and similar organisations is that all kids everywhere are really in pretty much the same situation - brainwashed with the culture which nurtures them, and so passed on through the generations because so much stuff becomes more or less hardwired into their brains. So often, children never grow up. Adults are hardly adult if they have not managed to escape the confines of their culture, at least to some extent, since, unless they can accomplish that at some stage of their life, they will never be able to make enlightened distinctions between good and evil. The slow ethical progress realised by civilised nations depends on these liberated individuals and their ability to sway "ordinary" people.
There are many problems with the human race as such and it's hard to say which of them is most fundamental. Some say 'greed', some say 'the aggressive nature of the male of the species', others say 'the wealth/poverty divide' and so on. I think my personal choice goes to the 'mis-education of children', which results in the perpetuation of barbarism, the destructive social mindset that people rarely come to recognise for what it is. I'm referring especially to informal education - the stuff that gets passed down from parent to child through the generations, representing the cultural heritage. The brain of every child becomes more or less hardwired with cultural garbage, ranging from what they think they should eat to the outlandish fantasies of the traditional religion of their particular society. What they come to see as a way of life for themselves is really a way of death for humanity.
If we're going to programme our kids with anything, let it be with creative, caring, conservationist ideas and objective truths rather than with ambitions of destruction, greed, hatred, and trading in nonsense. But above all they should be taught to think for themselves. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ideal of "freedom of thought, conscience and religion" has little relevance for human beings who lack the capacity for autonomous, rational thought. It is hardly necessary to add that we, as Central Humanists, are passionately, unconditionally and irrevocably opposed to the religious indoctrination of young children. Although religious propaganda is by no means the worst misfortune that may threaten the life of a child, it is one of the most widespread and ought to be considered a serious offence.
How could any reasonable person, in this day and age, have a shadow of doubt that all the traditional religions are deeply immoral? It's unethical for people to take seriously, and to run their lives in compliance with, a heap of glaringly obvious falsehoods, fairytales, deceptions and meaningless nonsense. And it's even more unethical to force-feed your children with this type of garbage, at a stage when they cannot possibly assess its worth. It's unethical because it's mind-destroying and dangerous. As has been contended elsewhere (see below), religion is unquestionably the quagmire of the human mind, and those who drag their children through it - well, let's try to stay polite and say they are doing them the greatest disservice.
Recognising the deep-seated immorality of all the major creeds and their offshoots, we strongly and unreservedly condemn the religious indoctrination of defenceless young children, by their parents or anyone else - this is plain intellectual abuse, generally deserving the same censure as any other kind of child abuse. Although at one time religious schools provided the only avenue to education, their continuing existence in Australia and other civilised countries is regrettable. When augmented by military instruction, religious indoctrination of the young constitutes one of the most horrendous atrocities against mankind, and those responsible should probably be classified as "anti-humans" (see this section of Central Humanist Hub). However, this is by no means the very worst calamity that children worldwide may have to face: the irreversible consequences of malnutrition, disease and injury, loss of parents and lack of shelter are obviously more serious. One of our foremost tenets is that basic physical needs take priority over educational and ethical matters. Even most religions apparently concur with this!
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 indoctrination 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?
Along with other humanists, we also object to the linking of religion with political and legal systems, and (as suggested above) we oppose the legal endorsement of the social taboos that afford religions an unmerited level of protection, stifling the rights of more reasonable people to speak critically and to make their own judgments about the rationality, trustworthiness and self-esteem of people with whom they deal. If a person tells you that a load of patent nonsense is actually the absolute truth, why should you believe anything else he says? If a person behaves ridiculously, or even dangerously, in the execution of his beliefs, why should you trust him to act sensibly at other times? If a person’s role model is a god who is conceited, unjust, sadistic, pitiless and undependable, why should you imagine him to be of good character?
Surely one has a right to choose how to deal with people who have such an unhealthy preoccupation with magic, a dark void where their general education should be, and/or a packet of noodles for a brain? This is certainly not to say they should be denied respect, as persons. They might have been brought up that way, almost as a cultural thing, and in my experience most people in this category are perfectly charming, sincere and often overflowing with love and generosity. The ones who don’t deserve respect are those who have more than their fair share of grey matter, who have had ample opportunity to acquire a good education and may even claim to have received one, and yet who are still obsessed with the supernatural. They are the witches of the modern world, the enemies of truth and integrity. One might sum up the religious character thus:- Consider the qualities of being intelligent, educated, moral and religious. A person can be any three of these together, but not all four unless he is also insane.
None of this suggests, however, that religious fervour can be used as a measure of unreliability. After all religion does often bestow a degree of mental discipline and “rectitude”, and there appears to be no evidence that religionists in general are any less trustworthy than atheists. But the problem for the religious is that their poor judgement and lack of integrity are preconditions of their outlook on life, while atheists carry no such burden.
Thus there are probably many aspects of most religions that should not be acquiesced in at all by any sane, caring person or by any government. If we are ever to be released from the scourge of religion, it's time all secular humanists started uncorking their bottled-up antagonism. Thankfully there are some with the courage and strength of will to speak up, as have many of the greatest western philosophers over the past 2500 years. Why, in this liberal day and age, do we approach the subject of religion so gingerly, instead of damning it for what it is - one of the most lamentable and irrational of human perversions, teetering on the edge of inhumanity? (See related note on "Which are the most inhumane religions?".)
There are, of course, some sensible rebuffs to this point of view. Even those who agree with it may be disposed to accept the overriding need for restraint, if not respect for the rights of the faithful. After all, religion has for centuries been regarded as a uniquely human occupation, and there is no denying the steadying influence of almost all religions on the societies over which they have held sway. At the very least, humanists of every kind are bound to show a deep regard for the needs, dignity and freedom of all people, whatever their beliefs. But regardless of our attitude to believers, the plain facts are that:
(1) religious scriptures are rampant with untruths, inconsistencies, meaningless nonsense, false promises and incitements to immoral behaviour
(2) the practice of religion is demeaning, escapist, irresponsible and obstructive to human progress, personal development and liberty.
Of course religionists would not agree that these are plain facts, but a humanist might say this is because their criteria of truth and integrity are totally unacceptable. (The philosophically minded reader might like to visit Eliezer S. Yudkowsky's segment on truth. And whilst you’re there, read some of his other stuff on the Meaning of Life. For this guy, the human brain is almost a thing of the past.)
Another objection to opposing religion (mentioned at the end of "In a nutshell") is that for many people religion is exceedingly precious, and consequently disrespecting their beliefs suggests lack of consideration. This, however, is not a defence of religion as such, but an appeal to show sympathy for certain people with religious beliefs - a very different matter, and one which should be honoured in appropriate circumstances.
A related, much more important proposition, is that people who have always depended heavily on their beliefs, and whose lives are governed by them, would simply fall to pieces if the rug of religion were suddenly pulled from beneath them. And since the number of such people is exceedingly large, entire societies would dissolve into a kind of moral anarchy. This could well be correct. A society of poorly educated people without religion (or harsh political coercion) would probably be unable to control their lives through a proper understanding of moral issues. Religion is both the opium of the uneducated masses and a necessary evil. But it is in some ways less of an evil than the autocratic solution, since most people who believe in a god and his edicts do so willingly, and thus retain a sense of freedom and self determination which would be denied them under authoritarian rule. For much of the developing world the only genuine answer, providing a morally robust life free from both nonsense and tyranny, is a process of gradual change towards a well educated, more or less secular society like the one we have here in Australia.
One of our claims is that there is ample evidence for the non-existence of God. Some may regard this as
(1) an "unscientific" statement and (2) an admission that, after all, humanists need to substantiate their "beliefs".
The first charge might be made by those with certain simplistic (if not archaic) views of the nature of science and/or knowledge. They might ask, how do you obtain evidence for the non-existence of something? You can demonstrate the existence of, say, a rare species of tree-frog by uncovering distinctive signs of its presence, or preferably by capturing a specimen of the frog itself. But no amount of evidence could prove its non-existence.
Well, it all depends what you're looking for and what kind of evidence (if any) counts. Does the fact that no-one has yet discovered a tree with the head of an animal and the wings of an insect mean that we must leave it open that such a species might dwell here on Earth? Isn't it more certain that this thing does not and never has existed than that, say, Tyranosaurus rex or Jesus did in fact exist? Does the fact that nobody has yet observed a Chinese Dragon stretching from one side of the universe to the other condemn us to everlasting doubt about the existence of such a creature? Must we always leave it open that there might be flying pink elephants, let alone a pink elephant that flies backwards, speaks Swahili, turns inside out when the moon rises and instructs its offspring to gargle three times with radish juice on Thursdays? Yet God is in an even worse situation than this. Not only must he answer to a motley of characteristics no less absurd than the foregoing; he is apparently by definition "not of this world" (in which case there's no point in going hunting for him) and yet at the same time everywhere in the world and influencing practically everything that's going on here.
Of course there can be evidence for the non-existence of flying pink elephants and other monstrosities - including God, if you imagine him as having some kind of form (if you can't, go to the next para). The evidence for their non-existence is of just the same kind as the evidence for the non-existence of icicles in a blazing furnace or populated cities at the centre of the Earth. We never observe them and never expect to observe them: such entities conflict with common sense, or (to put it more "scientifically") they flout the laws of nature. And once you start to speak of entities beyond nature - the supernatural - that is when you start speaking gibberish. None of it can possibly make sense - not to yourself or anybody else. That's why belief in such stuff implies lack of integrity - a pitiful kind of stupidity.
As for the "signs" of God's existence, there are four kinds - positive things, such as the rising of the sun, the ascent of man and recovery from disease, which are best explained scientifically and for which "God" is no explanation at all; wishful things, such as answering prayers and providing for people's needs, for which the evidence of God's intervention is overwhelmingly negative; "revelations" such as the (alleged) blabberings of prophets who claim to be sons or messengers of God, but who normal people would consider to be either lunatics or charlatans; and finally the absurd antics of those who are convinced of the truth of one version or another of these revelations - antics whose eccentricity and pitifulness strongly suggest that God is nothing but a mental disorder. Indeed, in most forms of the disorder God is so far from living up to his reputation that another name altogether for this ungainly phantom would be appropriate.
Having answered the first charge, albeit with neither science nor logic and with less detail than might seem desirable, it is hardly necessary to answer the second - that humanists need to substantiate their "beliefs". The evidence humanists "need" to produce is so obvious that any child could grasp it. The hard part would be to make the child understand what it is that the evidence is intended to confute (at least, in respect of the child whose imaginative talent has not been painstakingly misdirected by its parents). In fact the growing experiences of children from birth onwards teach them how to handle reality and to avoid confusing it with fantasy. No adult needs to ask for evidence that you'll burn your fingers if you stick them in the fire, that falling off your bike might be painful, that food satisfies hunger, that goldfish swim and butterflies fly, or that today is likely to be about the same length as yesterday. Nor should anybody need to ask for evidence that no goblins are helping us to mow the grass, no unicorns eat cheese-and-pickle sandwiches and no mome wraths are outgrabing in the bedroom. How distressful it is, then, that some religionists do ask atheists to support their views with evidence that can only be just as ridiculous as this. If they ask us silly questions they must expect silly answers.
*There may be some philosophically minded folk who consider this to be a misleadingly worded instance of an "argument from ignorance", which (in Carl Sagan's words) states that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence". It may be considered misleading because I said "there is ample evidence for the non-existence of god" though in fact it might be thought that I had no right to say any more than "there is not the slightest evidence for the existence of god". I think there are various ways of knocking this on the head. It depends whether one puts extreme formality ahead of unlimited practical knowledge. The supporting notes were never intended to prove or disprove anything. Perhaps I should have said, less tellingly, something like "All events can be explained and all sound decisions can be executed without invoking the existence of god". Even if this does not get rid of god altogether, at least it renders him obsolete. And a hardened empiricist would doubtless argue that non-existence and obsolescence are for all intents and puposes identical concepts. Even if found wanting, however, my original statement and accompanying remarks are surely far less obnoxious than any of the theological inventions contrived to defend god's existence. Those are indeed arguments from ignorance.
November 2014 - Long after writing this section I have stumbled across Carl Sagan's "Dragon in my Garage" analogy, which seems to answer my question in a far more elegant and compelling way than I do. However, the problem with arguments of this kind (including the similar approaches which I have taken) is that, insofar as the "deistic" aspect of god(s) is concerned, they put cart before horse. Instead of beginning with imaginable creatures such as dragons and questioning the evidence for their existence, such as footprints, they should recognise the claims of deists, creationists and their kin, as well as most current religionists, that the footprints already exist, in the form of the whole of creation, human beings and human affections such as love, joy, sympathy and grief, and that god is the progenitor of these things. (Presumably most would also say that human beings have a remarkable capacity for "wrongdoing" and negative feelings, and that satan is to blame for these.) Turned on its head, the argument then becomes the more usual one of demonstrating the vacuity and uselessness of the god concept. (Also see here.)
Any religion sporting a god that is supposed to interact with the real world, in any way whatsoever, is of course open to scientific investigation, just to the extent of the alleged physical operations of the god. And any religion whose god is aloof from the real world is open to the questioning of reason. Most gods possess both these aspects. Humanists and rationalists often make much of the distinction between religion and scientific knowledge, either because they believe (usually incorrectly) that the two fields are poles apart, or because they believe (usually correctly) that the findings of science disprove factual religious dogmas such as creationism, as well as the possibility of any practical outcomes from religious worship and ritual. However, this religion/science contrast seems hardly necessary: plain common sense and consideration are enough to disparage religion, as Greek philosophers realised hundreds of years before either scientific methodology or Christianity and Islam were invented (see para 3 of this section of Central Humanist Hub and this related note).
While most humanists proclaim their adherence to “the scientific attitude”, it isn’t hard to see why many scientists are not atheists (in some sense of that word - see below and this aphorism). The more science one knows, the more one stands in bewildered admiration of nature’s complexity and improbability. To say that the universe is awe inspiring is to make the greatest understatement of which any person is capable. But this does not imply that it was created by a divine being who also happens to be a dispenser of peculiar moral instructions to people, a being who listens to a billion contradictory prayers, who demands our acquiescence in his power and glory and our commitment to bizarre ritual, and who rescues or tortures our souls upon our death. Surely no scientist would be party to this kind of nonsense? (Hmm! Apparently some are. Why any intelligent, educated person would turn his back on obvious truths is a mystery and a tragedy. At the very least one would expect all religious scientists to rigorously question their beliefs.)
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. Each religion has its own idea of what entertains their god, ranging from banging tambourines and gospel singing to murdering infidels.
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 meager 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 concept. 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 religions. To attribute this bizarre mishmash of responsibilities to one supreme being is plainly ridiculous.
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 (Islam, Judaism and Christianity, perhaps excepting much of the new Testament) could not help but arrive at the conclusion that this being is a conceited, ignorant, inhumane, unjust, conjuring, equivocating, contemptible prankster, 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 these remarks 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 pseudo-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" (though some buddhist sects have a veneer of polytheism). 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 contradict the ideals of 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 the same status as other faiths, and sometimes appear to be just as oppressive and 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 much better job of improving moral attitudes and dealing with the world's social problems. (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 and that most of his devotees appear to be more interested in pursuing fatuous ritual than in acquiring wisdom.)
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? It's not where you're going that should consume your attention. It's what you're leaving behind - hopefully not a gloomy barren void, but a contribution of lasting value to society and the planet.
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. The reason for drawing this comparison, however, is not just that we 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.
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 and cults, Catholicism and Judaism), especially those which retain an admixture of primitive religious culture. Next will come certain strict, fringe Christian sects such as Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology and the Christian Fellowship, various kinds of orthodox Hinduism and other eastern religions and numerous evangelical sects (mainly Christian, such as the Seventh Day Adventists). Following those there will probably be a concoction of ritualistic, moderate and relatively undemanding religions (such as modernised kinds of Hinduism, Buddhism, Bahaism and again some listen-and-forget Christian denominations). Finally you might find some more or less harmless, possibly sometimes useful, beliefs ranging from Taoism and Japanese Shinto blends to low-key New Age pantheism and numerous kinds of mysticism such as theosophy. (I don't include Confucianism because it is not really a religion at all.) 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.
Let it be said up front that the following critique has no quarrel with the capacity of the majority of (so-called) muslims to make good Australian citizens. Many muslims in Australia, pursuing weak-to-moderate forms of their faith, have become exemplary representatives of our society (also see here). The aim of these notes is only to censure the beliefs and practices of the religion itself, especially in its extreme forms, and to highlight its dangers.
While historically Christianity may have 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 (see footnote and links under "Catholicism"), 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 and strong 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. Clearly Islam is not just a religion. In most countries where Islam is the dominant faith, it is a tyrranical political and legal system too, a fact which makes it perilously different to other religions. What other religion can claim to preside over 56 States? (see below*). "Political Islam" espouses an ideology that is sharply at odds with western customs and principles, if not with human values, and many of its proponents, by their own profession, are unswerving enemies of the free world. On top of this, 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). The inability of Islam and its followers to brush aside criticism is clear evidence of an abysmal lack of internal strength and integrity, while its prohibition of apostacy is just one of Islam's many bullying tactics and bribes designed to subdue intelligent thinking and hold the fort together. 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? Or Sam Harris with this important TruthDig contribution. Better still, read one of Sam's books such as "The End of Faith".
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 muslims" (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 a cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammed, or just because they are afraid of the truth. This criticism, however, does 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?). 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 perverse brain washing with the crudities of the Quran. Although it's true that Islamic teaching also includes material of a beneficial nature, this is not specific to Islam (or to any religion, for that matter) but corresponds with some of the ideals of a healthy secular society.
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 kitchen 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.
I have witnessed many such discussions, dominated by Australian muslims of the softer breed, often condemning the practices of stricter muslims and accusing them of failing to integrate and being un-Australian. Sometimes their criticism is directed at tourists from Arab countries (the absurdity of burqas on the beach etc). Phrases like "the women have been brainwashed" and "there's a time and place for everything" are thrown around. Well, for goodness sake, if there ever was a time and place for Islam it was 1400 years ago, and if anyone has been brainwashed it is the accusers themselves. If they are capable of so much heated fault-finding at this trivial level, why can't they lift their debate up a couple of notches by questioning their own values and those of the Quran? Do they simply lack courage? Basic beliefs are the central problem, not the trappings that accompany them.
Most Westerners simply have no idea of the extent of this 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 practical value. Still, this is hardly surprising, given that 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 treat even some of their fundamental doctrines with less solemnity than muslims treat their trivia. Although one of the worst features of Vatican doctrine is its ongoing harsh policy on birth control and abortion, Italy, home to the Vatican City and 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).
*Yes, there are about 56 muslim countries or "Islamic States", all members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. (Can you imagine any civilised country these days 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 to the typical Christian, even the moderate Muslim is a fanatic (I'm quite well acquainted with both camps). In the softer forms of Islam ("pseudo-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, one "chapter" a day over 30 days*, usually without understanding a single sentence! (*I'm not sure how this relates to the 114 surahs, but no muslim that I've asked knows either.) They say the language of Allah is Arabic, so presumably they think he/she can understand them better! (Actually, Arabic is the rather 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. (Well, the truth is that many dedicated muslims are far from level-headed: all that praying, reading and ritualism amounts to a self imposed lifelong brainwashing that has turned them into buffoons.) 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 rocking motions. 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 those 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, of muslim terrorists worldwide and, most disturbingly, of the growing numbers of imported and home-grown extremists. No wonder, then, that even moderate muslims (pseudo-muslims) are treated with suspicion - after all they take their inspiration from the same book, worship the same god and surrender to many of the same absurdities - and that the more extreme fanatics of Islam ring loud alarm bells not only for humanists but for the whole Western world. (Of course, the division of muslims into extremists and moderates is quite arbitrary. In fact there’s a gradation of ideological inclination from murderous extremism to bordering on complete non-involvement. But the fact that many muslims living in western societies support the horrendous activities of terrorists and attempt to suppress the publication of material that “offends” them is cause for grave concern.)
Westerners dipping into the Quran may never come to fully appreciate the full extent of its decadence, given the opinion of some experts that the book loses much of its meaning in translation, especially many of its more lurid and pugnacious connotations (for example see this article).
In 2010-11 Mr Wilders was put on trial for (amongst other things) inciting hatred against muslims and Moroccans, and was acquitted of all charges. Yet in 2010 a Sydney-born imam named Feiz Muhammad issued a fatwa calling for his beheading. Shouldn't he have been the one facing charges? Just look at this man's evil philosophy! Isn't this exactly why Wilders felt justified in issuing his warnings? (Also see this slideshow of Famous fatwa targets).
As already mentioned, it is extremely disturbing that growing numbers of muslims living in western countries, including Australia, openly support extremist dogma and terrorist activities. Little wonder they incite the wrath and hostility of normal citizens. These are bitter words, but surely many will feel they are pertinent in an environment threatened by dangerous, archaic, anti-human nonsense with an ever-present undercurrent of jihad and fatwa. For their own sake, it's high time all 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, I suspect the majority of this clan are simply maladjusted cowards, retreating into the cloak of their pseudo-religion. So unless governments step in to eradicate the extremist elements from our society the situation can only become worse, the general public will become increasingly irate and eventually all hell will break loose.
Of course there's still a remote chance that social harmony can be achieved if sufficient effort is made by all factions. At what cost I don't know, but obviously if somebody could come up with a promising plan, it would be preferable to go down this track (see Culture and immigration policy).
In my opinion, however, muslim's living in "western" societies should detach 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 (also see this note on accepting responsibility for religious atrocities). It's time to face the facts:- The terrorists' interpretation of the Quran is just as valid as any other - perhaps even more so than most. Or, putting this the right way round, all versions of Islam are just as absurd as the terrorists' version. The difference is that terrorists want to kill everyone who doesn't agree with their philosophy. Abandon the Quran and rid the world of one of its greatest sources of turmoil.
Recently (2014) Isis, now usually known as Islamic State, has risen to the forefront of organised terrorist activity. I very much doubt that its members could be considered to be human beings (see here). 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. Clearly this so-called god is as close to satan as you can imagine and the moral code he imposes on many of his devotees plunges the darkest depths of hell. 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.
7 October 2014: Western countries have now virtually declared war on Isis, vowing to wipe them out. (Tony Abbot has described the Isis movement as an attack on civilization*.) War or not, one could hardly imagine a crazier way of going about it than the one adopted by the western alliance. Unbelievable! Surely the principal strategy in any war is to shoot the enemy before they shoot us. So where do we start? Firstly, in our own country, all known supporters of Isis who are hiding arms or intend to join forces with Isis should be shot or kept as prisoners of war until the war ends - if it ever does end. (An imam commenting on TV on the decision of a few young Australian muslims to join the ISIS jihadists in Syria remarked: They don’t listen to reason. Isn’t this precisely the trouble with himself and his own activities?) Early detection followed by swift action is the key, just as it is in the treatment of cancer and other diseases. So-called "persons of interest" should be locked up and decontaminated. Secondly, the last thing the alliance should do is warn the enemy what tactics they're going to employ. Yet, astonishingly, we've told them exactly what we're going to do, and when. The Australian airforce has even had two practice runs over enemy targets without dropping a single bomb! What is this, an airshow? (One can only hope it's all a charade designed to camouflage our real intentions.) By the time we do attempt to attack them they will surely have run for cover (unless they are even more stupid than our politicians and commanders), probably taking refuge in places where civilian casualties will be maximised.
The politicians say this isn't a religious war but only a matter of providing security for our countries, for Baghdad and for the Kurdish victims of terrorism. What nonsense, of course it's a religious war, as religious as any war can get. Political correctness gone bananas! The attrocities of Isis are motivated entirely by religion, and as long as Islam exists there's little hope of eliminating this kind of terrorism. It's fundamentally religious. But if the alliance continues their assault on the enemy in the laughable way they've begun they will surely get nowhere. Despite their tough words, they seem determined to lose the first battle, let alone the war.
(*November 2014 - On the occasion of the G20 Summit in Brisbane, President Obama roundly denounced Isis, or Isil as the Americans now name it, calling it anti-human, amongst other things.)
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 Jews below).
As already intimated, 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). Islam is 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 - a war effort that will turn out to have been 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. It cannot help those gravely off-balance pongos who cry "Allahu akbar!" (God is the greatest)* before discharging their mortars. No, 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. Unless there is evidence of genocide or senseless mass murder, our job is simply to stop the disease spreading to our own country.
*Strange that both sides in any intra-muslim conflict utter this phrase with equal vehemence, suggesting that this god, far from being "the greatest", is the impresario of death-and-destruction dramas, who to a back-row spectator may look more like the devil. As in every situation involving ferocity among muslims, one might question the prudence of those participants in the hajj who visit Mina to begin their ritual by stoning Satan's Pillar, for little do they realise they might well be symbolically assaulting their own god.
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, sometimes by powerful people, including such eminent figures as Winston Churchill in a well-known speech made more than a century ago, 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). Muslim 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" (a line that has been reiterated by Islamic clerics here in Australia - "Women without head-scarves are meat asking to be raped"). If that is indeed the problem in Egypt, 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. Of course, many muslims living in western countries (and following the general trend in Christian thought in those countries) have attempted to dilute the more unsavoury ingredients of their faith by changing the original meanings of some of its key concepts. For example, they tell us that jihad doesn't literally mean holy war any more, but refers to a kind of personal spiritual "war". Clearly they're fooling themselves as well as members of the wider community whom they hope to get to (mis)understand their religion*. Indeed the edicts of the Quran are probably more retrograde than many of its readers realise. Westerners, whether habitual readers or casual browsers of its pages, may never come to fully appreciate the full extent of its of decadence, given the opinion of some experts that the book loses much of its meaning in translation, especially many of its more lurid and pugnacious nuances (for example see this article).
(*2015 - recent events and an essentially correct use of the word "jihad" have hopefully put an end to this nonsense.)
Included in this category is a growing number of young Australians who have voluntarily adopted the Islamic faith. The usual reason they give for their conversion is the attainment of a more meaningful lifestyle free from drink, drugs, gambling, smoking and partying, some or all of which they enjoyed to excess before taking the plunge into Islam. This of course is a ridiculous excuse. If they have the willpower to stick to the main principles of Islam, surely they would have the willpower to reject the things in their lifestyle that they believe to be harmful or unproductive, without resorting to Islam. What will they now replace those activities with? - A load of utter garbage which in many ways will do them as much psychological harm as the conduct they have relinquished. Instead of wasting so much time with nonsensical ritual, they could be channelling their energy into more useful or creative pursuits. Although the brand of Islam most of these young men and women have adopted is doubtless a subdued version of the real thing, nonetheless they have joined the muslim brotherhood, aligned themselves with the outrageous beliefs and behaviour of the middle-eastern form of the faith, and must wear the Islamic label for as long as they remain in its clutches. (2015 - again, this simplistic view of young "western" muslims is overturned by recent events.)
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 perhaps most Australians?) may be more inclined to see it as marking their obsession with claptrap, especially when grovelling on the floor. Do the hats prevent the sawdust falling out of the top their heads? Well, I’ve seen performing animals do that kind of thing, but civilised human beings? You’ve got to be joking. (OK, this is pitting unreason and insult against unreason and insult - perhaps the only way of dealing with religionists of all kinds. And to be fair, the partisans of some denominations, notably in the Buddhist and Hindu folds, get up to crazier circus tricks than muslims.) 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 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: as far as I know, the burqa, or anything remotely resembling it, is nowhere mentioned in the Quran but is a later development in societies that gave some aspects of the Quran an overly stern interpretation. It is actually a hangover from life in the desert.) Why most muslims can’t see the unpardonable wrongfulness of the burqa, 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. (Even so, for someone who is not particularly interested in the life and times of those who walk beneath the cloak, the burqa issue seems quite trivial compared to some of Islam’s other baggage. Also see note on sacrificial killing under Catholicism and this section on understanding religion, which is mainly about "understanding" Islam.)
*Including Australia, it seems. Go to a muslim enclave such as Green Park 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 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 that asked Abraham to sacrifice his son - the mortal blow was softened by substituting a sheep, but the threat was monstrous enough. And by any standard of common decency the practice of sacrificial killing is obnoxious under any circumstances*.
The Catholic Church'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 day. 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.)
*Incidentally, the kosher and halal slaughter performed by Jews and Muslims is highly unethical not just because of the 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 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! But for those with concerns about consuming halal products, go to this facebook site and see these videos.
The best that can be said about Hinduism is that it is a remarkably colourful, elaborate fairytale; the worst, that it excuses death and misery on a scale unprecedented throughout the world. Historically, the worst practice of the religion was Sati, the customary burning of a widow, whist still alive, on her husband's funeral pyre - thankfully now obsolete. The gaudy outward show of Hinduism’s festivities belies an evil interior the like of which can be found in no other major religion. Although some of its more abominable practices are officially forbidden, Hindu culture is so deeply engraved into the lives of its more than 1 billion followers that the possibilty of further modernising it seems remote. As I have remarked elsewhere, Hindus would rather spend their time and money on temple-building, pilgrimages and glamorous religious celebrations than on schools, hospitals and feeding and housing the poor - to some extent unsurprisingly, since most of them are themselves poor and uneducated. Politically speaking, the saving grace of Hinduism is that most (but certainly not all) of its followers are peaceful, tolerant and utterly acquiescent, qualities undoubtedly treasured and encouraged by the Indian government despite the damping effect of religion on the country's prosperity.
One of the worst features of Hinduism 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 still 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. Although considered one of the more peaceful religions, clearly Hinduism too has its violent extremists, amongst whom may be counted politicians, police, doctors and members of the judiciary. Admittedly most of this belligerence is "defensive", particularly in countercheck to what is perceived as the greater menace of Islam, but this hardly excuses it. While 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 and cultures apart from Buddhism. It has a healthy respect for animals (carried to great extremes in another ancient Indian religion, Jainism). 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 some ignorant commentators call it. Out of a total of around 14 million Jews, probably only about 60% identify with the Jewish religion, and probably fewer than half of those practise orthodox Judaism. So possibly there are around 4 million orthodox Jews (about the same as the number of Jains). I have never ever thought of Jewish orthodoxy as anything but a pitiful comedy. It seems astonishing, though, that a group comprising 0.07% of the world population wields such enormous political clout. On the purely political issue of Palestine, it might also seem surprising that the western world generally sides with Israel, considering that Israel is the thief: the land they're illegally occupying is not their "god-given right" and they should simply get out of there, unconditionally. But regardless of their misdemeanors, the Jews as a race have certainly not been held back by their crazy religion, in contrast to middle eastern muslims, and I would have few qualms about siding with them in the defence of their country, if only because your average muslim is as silly as a donkey while many Jews appear to be blessed with an indecently generous apportionment of sheer intellectual brilliance. Just read this comparison of Muslims and Jews! (Also see this article written by a muslim!)
My knowledge of the huge number of Christian cults is also scanty. 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 country, and indeed that it is a second-class country (as if we didn't know that already). Who wants to live in a country whose citizens care so little? 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.
The success of cultism has various causes. For example, there's a popular cult in Australia - officially a church but some say a scam - driven by a combination of greedy cunning businessmen, a stupid government that, far from criminalising it, allows it to avoid taxes, and, worst of all, an astonishing number of gullible idiots, the pitiable followers of this ridiculous money grabbing gospel.
For some illuminating remarks on Eastern religions, see the book reference below. For a few remarks on Buddhism and related religions see this paragraph of the One or many gods section.
Creationism* is a belief held by various Christian fundamentalists, most conspicuously in the USA. 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 a good example of a belief with no foundation of integrity. It 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 we 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 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 should 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 related 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.
If asked to say what they mean by "God", most believers either respond with a snebtence or two of gibberish or 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 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. There may be some merit in 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 the sceptic should learn about their particular religion before condemning it, though the chances are high that they themselves never learnt much about any other religion - or anything else, for that matter. The accusations of the disciples of "foreign" religions (such as Islam) that the general public's negativity towards them is due to "lack of a proper education" is unfounded, as a proper education would inevitably lead to an increased negativity towards their faith. Indeed, had the accusers themselves received a proper education, and genuinely learnt from it, they would have no reason to continue following their religion. For 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 outcome of learning about a religion in this way can only be to increase one's scepticism - though not for religionists, it seems: the trouble with them is that they invariably defend their faith against genuine knowledge, blissfully unaware of the maxim "where education ends religion begins".
Well, in what does their defence consist? Occasionally they might plead their case in terms of personal and social benefits, a surprising tactic considering that those same benefits can be delivered more honestly and robustly without invoking gods and religion. More often they will allege either that their ideology is the word of god or that their rituals and attire are committed "for spiritual reasons". In the context of religion, "spiritual" appears to be just an emotive word for "religious", in the sense of personal engagement with religion or "communication" with god. (For New Age spiritualists it more often refers to a feeling of elevation, communication with ones higher self or absorption into the universe.) Wouldn't a walk in a rain forest, a view from a mountain top, or listening to a Beethoven symphony provide a more profound experience? Ah, but most religionists, usually through no fault of their own, have not developed the capacity to appreciate nature and the fine arts. And those that have tend to look upon their religion as a kind of dwelling place for all these blessings. Whatever, we have already established that excuses of this kind are useless because ultimately nonsensical.
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 related note). 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. And we understand enough to know that 99% of muslims don't understand their own religion at all - they just do it. In particular, they don't understand it in any broader context, or in an educated way. We should not allow ourselves to be bullied by them, nor compromise our freedom of expression for the sake of misplaced respect.
* 8 January 2015: Now, in Paris, the headquarters of a satyrical magazine has been attacked by two Alkaida gunmen resulting in twelve deaths. Despite ordinary Islamists in France immediately condemning the attack, one could sense the reservation in the response of some of their spokesmen. Will this kind of terrorism ever go away? Doubtful. While there is religion there will be extremes of religion.Unfortunately the growing lobby for political correctness is eroding our right to freedom of speech (see this speech by Rowan Atkinson). Surely anyone should be free to disseminate their criticisms of Islam just as long as Islamists are permitted to expound its "virtues". And here I'm making deep concessions to Islamic leaders, because many of their remarks are in fact perverse and harmful to our society.
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. Indeed the Pope could have been more forthright, roundly condemning the loathsome character of Islam's prophet and the dubious origins of the religion itself. (Now, in 2014, the Pope's remarks have been fully vindicated, the Mullah's objections crushed.)
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 the West in levels of tolerance, religious zeal, civility and propensity for violence. These mobs are demonstrating their disdain for free speech and their attachment to savagery. (Also see this anecdote and comments on the Jihad and these short (unauthenticated) video-clips of violent behaviour in Egypt.)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.
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 grotesque. One of his latest is: "All non-muslims should be publicly beheaded, using an axe". One can only imagine their 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.”
These remarks should perhaps be viewed in the context of "brainwashing" in general - more aptly named "early programming". It would be difficult to over-estimate the breadth and depth of programming we have all been exposed to as young children. Take the decimal system of enumeration, for example (mathematicians call it "modulo 10"). As far as I know the whole world uses this scheme, which presumably arose from the simple fact of us having ten fingers. If our evolution had resulted in human beings having twelve fingers, we'd be using the duodecimal system of calculation (modulo 12), which in some respects would have been more practical. Other examples include our native language, the kind of food we eat, the style of clothes we wear, the way we tell what time of day it is, the daily hygene routines we follow and the genre of music we've been most exposed to in our early years (some of us manage to cut loose from this programming but most people stay with naïve musical tastes throughout their lives). Religious indoctrination during childhood is but one kind of programming, and one we could certainly do without. I doubt whether most people realise how deeply ingrained it is in some cultures, perhaps most of all in Islamic countries - and that it would be as difficult to change the religious beliefs of most these populations as it would be to get them to use the duodecimal system of calculation!
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 profound 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.
Most Australian humanists support the development of a "multi-cultural" society here. If all they mean by this is an "ethnically diverse" society, and the colourful assortment of "shallow" cultural traditions that goes along with this, then Central Humanism is entirely in accord with them. But if they mean "culture" in a deeper sense that includes rules and organisational elements drawn from their society of origin, along with some of their more extreme ethical, religious and political persuasions and customs, then a "multi-cultural society" is virtually a self-contradiction, an impossibility (See related note on cultural collisions in France).
In general Australian ideals are undoubtedly among the finest in the world. Although these ideals include a level of acceptance of cultural diversity unequalled by any other nation (with the possible exception of India), we must be careful not to let our standards become weakened by an undue tolerance of moral perversity. Humanists in western society should think deeply about the real meaning of multi-culturalism and ask themselves whether they are prepared to live with the consequences of promoting it. Indeed it's impossible to understand the mentality of people who choose to come to our country for "a better life" and then immediately start trying to sabotage the central elements of the culture and social structure that forms the bedrock of that better life. Obviously if they are not happy with what they find here they should go back home. Perhaps they should never have been allowed here in the first place. (Those of you who are alarmed by the attempts of Islamists to influence Australian culture might like to support the Q Society of Australia.) On the other hand, one should also recognise that some cultures do have much of moral value to offer - in particular, the people of many eastern societies accept their responsibilities and obligations towards family members much more willingly than most westerners do.
Regardful of this cautionary proviso, however, we strongly support the development of a rich, diverse, vibrant society and the preservation of harmless ethnic customs and folklore, whether or not they are of religious origin, at the recreational level and in so far as they enhance the fullness of society. Accordingly, Central Humanism is opposed to political correctness and is unsympathetic to low tolerance and the tendency to be offended by superficialities (see related note). To take examples from the Christian culture, there’s surely no problem with the Christmas traditions of carol singing, nativity plays and displays, Christmas decorations and Santa Claus. (To suggest that they should be "contained" because they might offend the followers of other religions is claptrap of the most pathetic kind.) Legend and myth are essential ingredients of every culture, they greatly enrich a multicultural society like ours and they must not be confused with religious piety. Thus we support the ideal of "unity in diversity", within the limits defined by concurrence with Australian values, i.e. the values of a free and open society (see related note).
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.
This attack, it must be emphasised, is directed towards conventional religions - those based on antiquated scriptures and faith - and cultism that follows the patterns of conventional religion. There is no denying the personal utility of positive thinking and meditation for those able to harness these forces. And the possibility that mental activity can directly affect physical events, though unlikely, has not been disproved. Some cosmological theories do allow for mind/reality interaction. However, it's obvious to anyone with eyes and ears that God never answers the prayers of the faithful and hasn't the slightest concern for the millions killed, injured or made destitute by earthquakes, tsunamis and famine. In fact, whenever there’s an appalling disaster, with thousands of people killed, there always seems to be a priest or imam on hand to proclaim that it is the will of God. So either God is a mass murderer or the priest is a bloody-minded fake - and isn't this just the same kind of ludicrous thinking that drives terrorist movements such as Isis?. (One thing’s for certain – at these times my anger comes close to exceeding my sadness.) But of course the real reason why prayers are never answered is - there is no God.
"Every hour spent with a god is an hour wasted." While this little aphorism is true of the public, objective gods (including poker machines!), it does not necessarily apply to purely personal, subjective "gods" - the little man in your head or the imagined guardian angel, a kind of centre of your own being, existing only in your own brain - even though it might help to think of such an entity as if it were a real being with whom you can hold a conversation. It is therefore unreasonable to belittle prayer without qualification, for conversing with an entirely personal god, like some kinds of meditation, may indeed have benefits for some people. It may help you to consolidate your thoughts and emotions and (by praying for others, for example) to encourage your mind to think positively and sympathetically about others and thus to develop a sense of social responsibility. However it is important to be aware of the limits of your personal god and to know that he is not shared by other people. Indeed, this form of prayer is really just a method of positive thinking.
Although the writer of these notes has thought deeply about religion, even so it is conceded that he may not have thought deeply enough. Nothing is impossible in this world (well, almost nothing) and no question is a closed book. Pigs might yet fly. Ice might yet exist at the centre of the Sun. But at present it does not, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that.
In summary, traditional dogmatic religions are the enemies of both truth and humanity. Religion is one of the world's greatest evils, second only to population expansion (the two are quite closely related - not poverty, global warming etc etc (these are effects, not causes). See Atheist Foundation of Australia for some excellent articles opposing religion; also see The Skeptic's Annotated Bible (+ Qur'an + Book of Mormon) for a detailed guide to everything vulgar and unbelievable in the scriptures.