Tag Archives: Society

Taboos. There to be broken.

6 Jan

The important thing is not to stop questioning.
– Albert Einstein

Given I’m discussing taboos in this post I should give a health warning – some of the following points may make you feel uncomfortable. But that’s the point – breaking through this discomfort is what I’m trying to convince you to do.

Here goes…

A subject should not be avoided just because society deems it taboo. A question should not be out-of-bounds because some people find it uncomfortable. In fact, areas that are taboo, by their nature, tend to be important things that need to be discussed.

For example the British National Party are renowned for the racist views of their members. Does this mean we shouldn’t let them discuss their ideas in the public sphere? Absolutely not. To ban the discussion of ideas that one thinks morally questionable is to push them underground. To push such ideas underground means that the arguments and counter arguments are not heard. If a person sympathetic to such arguments hears them, perhaps in a local pub where the BNP are quietly recruiting, they are more likely to sign up because they are not aware of the arguments that would enable them to disagree. So having their leader Nick Griffin on the BBC’s current affairs program Question Time was a good thing.

Tim Harford bravely asks some taboo questions about racism in his excellent book The Logic Of Life. He discusses “rational racism“, i.e. when it can be advantageous to be racist. When we ask such taboo questions and understand such motivations then we can work to avoid them.

Setting up the rule that “we don’t talk about that kind of thing” is counter productive. If some ideas or histories are not allowed to be questioned, not only does it hold back society, but it causes the very problems those that want to stop the questioning are afraid of. If a positive principle is never questioned for many years, when it is questioned in the future, for some people it will fall down like a deck of cards as the counter arguments are not well known.

Glenn Greenwald makes this case strongly, concluding: “Criminalizing ideas doesn’t make them go away any more than sticking your head in the sand makes unpleasant things disappear. If anything, refusing to confront them makes them stronger“.

And so to one of the greatest taboos: the holocaust. This is an area where historians absolutely should be able to question facts about the events that are claimed by others. When historian David Irving questioned some aspects of what happened in Auschwitz he was prosecuted under the crime of holocaust denial. While he has a history of supporting Hitler, and supporting some of his approaches, that’s no reason to make this particular question an issue for the courts, and trying to limit his right to free speech and enquiry. It’s exactly the kind of thing Orwell wrote about in 1984. So if we hear counter arguments to what we consider an important truth, it will ensure that our body of arguments and evidence is kept strong and well for future generations.

Aristotle said “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it“. So along these lines, some have suggested that siding with Hitler rather than Stalin may have been a more morally acceptable approach based on the fact that many more people got killed because of Stalin. Is it wrong to have such a discussion? How so? It is only by asking such difficult questions that we can understand better how to be more moral individuals.

People look at acts of cruelty such as the 2011 massacre in Norway by Anders Breivik and say he’s a monster, he’s evil. I’ve written about this before – people use these arguments to close down debate so they don’t have to put themselves in the position of considering how a person might rationally conclude that such actions could be considered morally defensible. Again, this taboo doesn’t help society become more moral – it hinders any such growth.

In many circles it is taboo to question whether or not homosexuality is innate. The assumption of many”antigay” types is that sexual orientation is a choice, whereas the gay friendly usually assume that it is an unchangeable part of someone’s nature. It seems to be an assumption based on what conclusion supports their agenda rather than something based on evidence. Personally I couldn’t give a damn. It shouldn’t matter whether it’s genetic or not; rights should be universal and discrimination illegal regardless of whether choice is involved. But if these questions can be discussed more openly, when some firmer evidence comes in one way or the other, we’ll be better prepared for it.

Religion is a big taboo on which I’ve often commented. Whether christianity or islam, they should be questioned to destruction. If an idea is good or worthy then it will stand up to criticism. If it is not, it will fail and we will move on to find a better idea. Tom Holland’s documentary questioning whether Mohammed existed, and putting an alternative interpretation on the origins of islam is absolutely valid, regardless of whether the interpretation is right or wrong. Yet many people suggested that this was too sensitive a topic. As Holland said: “The origins of Islam are a legitimate subject of historical inquiry“.

Noam Chomsky said “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum“.

So question taboos. Question the orthodoxy. Ask questions that might “offend” people. Question things that one “shouldn’t” question.

Tony Benn saidI think the key to any progress is to ask the question ‘why’ all the time. And of course questions can get you into a lot of trouble … [but] without questions we won’t make any progress at all“.


Criticising Religion – Why Not Let Them Be?

27 Nov

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.

– George Bernard Shaw

People sometimes ask me why I criticise religion. They ask me why I don’t just take the attitude of live and let live.

Because of nasty shit like this and this and this and this and this and this and this and especially this and certainly this. And that’s just taking one version of one religion.

Because religions are just stories and they can be criticised like any other stories.

Because religions are ideas and they can be criticised like any other ideas.

Because religious prophets, messiahs, gurus and the like are just people and what they say can be criticised like anything said by any other person.

Because religious people seem to think they can impose their ideas and “morals” on society, on government and on children.

Because religious people persecute others who don’t hold to their views.

Because basing your life on a book crammed full of heinous immorality is neither good for a person nor for society.

Granted most religious people I know largely cherry pick the nice bits from their religion, but most carry at least some nasty views, and the more fundamentalist types take the whole thing literally. Most religious people are moderate but they pave the way for extremists when they say that faith is a good thing, that believing in something with no evidence is a virtue. This is a toxic idea.

Some of the religious explain away the more ludicrous stories – such as magic fruit and talking snakes – as metaphorical, and they try to ignore the nastier ideas in a similar vein, claiming they’re allegorical, or by arguing that they only apply in a limited context (a fun demolition of the contextual approach is here). The problem is that this pick and mix approach is not taken by all adherents and many do take these ideas literally.

For example the islamic holy book says infidels should be killed; some people will go ahead and do it as their faith in the sanctity of their holy book means they must.

Then the christian holy book says gays should be stoned to death; some people will go ahead and do it as their faith in the sanctity of their holy book means they must.

And I couldn’t leave out the jewish holy book which repeatedly advocates genocide; some people will go ahead and do it as their faith in the sanctity of their holy book means they must.

This assumption that religion provides us with morals – as well as being absurd – is pernicious and dangerous for society.

There’s an assumption floating around these days that saying something about religion is angry, extreme or militant because we have this unwritten social rule that we don’t criticise religious belief. But it’s not, because when you listen to the criticisms it is actually logical and rational to say that religion is silly, and further that it should have no bearing on our moral decisions.

As one brave atheist said: “When I realized that there was nothing out there to redeem me, or tell me how to live, or that I needed to obey, I began to take true responsibility for myself. I sought to examine my thoughts and actions more carefully, and established a morality based on reason and humanity.

Stephen Fry passionately said: “We must remember that the church is very loose on moral evils because – although they try to accuse people like me, who believe in empiricism and the enlightenment, of what they call moral relativism, as if it’s some appalling sin whereas what it actually means is thought – they, for example, thought that slavery was absolutely fine, absolutely okay and then they didn’t. And what is the point of the catholic church if it says ‘oh we couldn’t know better because nobody else did’. Then what are you for?!

Education is a big one here. The religious continue to try to indoctrinate children in one third of state funded schools in the UK. This is bad for children and society on so many levels. It encourages segregation. It stifles healthy learning and development. Children should be taught critical thinking and logic in a secular and rationalist environment. They should be taught to ask questions, to be critical about every idea they are taught. They should not be taught what to think but how to think. Anything less is to abrogate our responsibilities to children. Yet astoundingly the UK government is encouraging more of these schools, where it’s okay to dismiss a teacher if they don’t conform to certain beliefs or based on their marital status, where it’s okay to refuse a child on the grounds of whether their parents believe in a fairy tale, where homophobic attitudes are aired and where healthy sex and relationship teaching is withheld. Still, at least in this country they think it’s okay to educate kids, unlike others.

Then many countries are introducing new laws against blasphemy. Blasphemy is essentially criticising, or not showing enough respect for, a religion or a religious figure. There are far too many atrocious examples of such laws being used. Many even want the UN to impose an international law against it. After all, the bible dictates death to blasphemers.

The idea that a being with supernatural powers is so sensitive to criticism that it needs such ludicrous laws is obviously very silly. More seriously, the sensitivity of the religious to criticisms of their beliefs, and the ends to which they will go to silence critics of their views, is on its own reason enough to justify my critical position.

Many people argue that I should ‘respect’ people’s religious beliefs. This is ridiculous as I patently have no respect for religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot respect a person. One must separate respect for a person from respect for their beliefs.

So in conclusion I defend religious freedom but not religious privilege. I defend the right of anyone to hold a view and discuss it in public, but I will not stand by when views I consider wrong are imposed on others. And I stand up for my right to criticise views with which I disagree.

Why I Work A Four Day Week

30 Mar

I heartily agree with Bertrand Russell regarding the arbitrary nature of the five day working week and the sooner we break out of this the better for society. He writes far more eloquently that I in describing why I think it’s such a no-brainer to work part time. I recommend reading his essay In Praise Of Idleness.

Also, given he smokes a pipe with such aplomb, it adds much weight to his erudite words.

Billy Bragg, in his book on what makes England so great, describes well the struggle of the trade unions which ensured that people no longer have to work 12 hour days, seven days a week in terrible conditions. Our forebears worked such horrendously long hours so we should be grateful for the conditions we have today. That said, we shouldn’t let up: there’s still a way to go before we escape the drudgery of having to work for so much of our short lives.

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