Just when you think that, just conceivably, you might be overdoing the anti-religious diatribes, you read something like the article I came across last Saturday in the New York Times, about a chap called Specialist Jeremy Hall who was systematically persecuted by his army superiors and fellow soldiers for his atheist views. Particularly odious was the pressure to pray with others when he declared his lack of belief (not to mention the physical threats he endured). Such, apparently, is the military mind (excuse the oxymoron). We know they are a conformist lot, but I had no idea that religious conformity is rigorously enforced, though not officially. Anyway, it made me think of yet another reason to deny God’s existence: surely if he did exist he’d come forward to denounce the actions performed in his name. I would, wouldn’t you? At least he’d send some sort of emissary, if not his son then at least some high-ranking celestial colleague or other–the angel Gabriel doesn’t seem to have been up to much for a while, lolling away up there. Send someone important to earth, put people straight about right and wrong, about what God really wants from us. But oh no, God just lets it all happen–even atrocities on a vast scale. A few words from him, convincingly stated, and we would know what’s what, but apparently he just can’t be bothered. More likely, the lack of divine corrective indicates a lack of divine existence. Specialist Hall, I’m with you.
As the Obama/Clinton wars drag on, I think of the malign effects of elections. We don’t have a pure participatory democracy, such as once obtained in Athens, no doubt for good reasons of practicality. We have a so-called representative democracy, which requires that we elect our leaders by something like popular vote. This requires those things dignified by the word “election”: money-driven, ad hominem, gotcha-loving, manipulative, mindfucking, demeaning, grotesque, corrupt, vicious, boring, fake, and so on. The candidates have to persuade the electorate to vote for them, and from this simple fact all the evils flow (combined with a full-blown capitalist-media complex). Imagine having to make yourself popular with everyone in order to be promoted in your job! I would never have got anywhere. I rather despise popularity, seeing it as the sure mark of a lack of integrity. Democracy is bad enough, but to combine it with the hunger for mass popularity is ten times worse. Down with elections!
The pope came and went. Two aspects of his proclamations stood out: on the one hand, his call for more authority and obedience, especially when it comes to the demands of the Catholic church; on the other hand, his condemnation of the sexual abuse inflicted by his priests. Did he not notice a tension between these two sentiments? He’s supposed to be logically astute, but it’s pretty obvious that the latter thing followed quite smoothly from the former: unquestioning obedience to the authority of the representatives of the church, i.e. priests, is what made possible the sexual abuse they so easily and revoltingly practiced on their “parishioners”. You would have thought the pope’s message might have been “Don’t blindly do what priests tell you!”. But then contradictions have never been much of an impediment to the skilled theologian (problem of evil and all that).
In order for democracy to be acceptable, it needs to be combined with legal protections for the rights of minorities (gays, atheists, et al), or else there will be a tyranny of majority rule. But these protections cannot be made subject to the will of the majority or they lose their point and force. So, they must stay in place even if the majority opposes them–which is undemocratic. Therefore, democarcy is acceptable only if it is not absolute. A tolerable form of democracy cannot be consistently democratic. The problem is that democracy and individual rights are at odds with each other.
Now that really is a taboo word. You must never call anyone stupid! But aren’t some people just plain stupid? And isn’t stupidity the source of much of the world’s misery? I’d like to see a “Stupidity Science” movement in which the phenomenon is studied and taxonomized and explained–and remedied. I am certainly not a relativist about stupidity; I think stupidity is an objective trait. Maybe we all all stupid sometimes–but some people are stupid a lot of the time. Stupidity, as I mean it here, refers especially to the opinions and utterances of people who should know better. As the old saying goes: “It would only take a minute’s thought…but thought is a difficult thing and a minute is a long time.” In the end, of course, stupidity is about character, not IQ.
I was surprised the other day to discover that the “Founding Fathers” (silly phrase), especially John Adams, were quite opposed to democratic government, deeming it mob rule. The Constitution was mainly designed to protect individual rights from any form of tyranny, including majority rule. The reason was the stupidity and selfishness of the average person. This set me to wondering how much of the present state of politics and culture in the USA is the result of misguided democracy. Successful democracy depends upon an adequately educated electorate, unprejudiced and altruistic: but these conditions are not always satisfied by the voters out there. In fact, there is no requirement in the US political system for a president to have even a minimum of education, or even to be able to read and write. Maybe if recognized experts, unelected, were given some political power, the current ills might be mitigated.
What I really think about religion is that the less said about it the better. I’d rather discuss almost any other topic. Debating it always leaves me feeling faintly nauseated. However, religious belief does connect with a topic that does interest me: psychological manipulation. As it happens, I have a new book (very short) coming out on it next month, called–wait for it–Mindfucking. In it I analyze this concept, just as we analytic philosophers are supposed to. People I mention it to think I must be being funny or provocative, but it is actually quite a serious work, with many a ponderous formulation. I’m interested in how our minds can be manipulated–by other people, the media, governments, whole disciplines. Perhaps one’s main intellectual responsibility is to ensure that one’s mind has not been fucked by outside forces intent on manipulation and control. Let me invite my esteemed commentators here to enter their thoughts on the topic of mindfucking–a healthier subject than the one lately occupying this digital location.
I well remember that sunny morning a few years ago when Jonathan Miller came to my apartment in New York to discuss the non-existence of God. We had been friends for a number of years, and had discussed a great many topics, but we had never, except glancingly, ever spoken about religion. We knew about our shared atheism, but the subject didn’t seem to warrant much attention; in the Miller-McGinn world it was a non-existent topic. So our conversation that morning, which went on for a good two hours, was fresh material. It was a smooth and easy conversation, with much humor and mutual understanding. And yet we were attacking the foundations of what billions of people find essential to living happily (or that’s what they think). In earlier centuries, or in other places, we would have been gruesomely executed for having such a congenial chat.
It is often forgotten that atheism of the kind shared by Jonathan and me (and Dawkins and Hitchens et al) has an ethical motive. Or rather two ethical motives: one is ethical repugnance at the cruelty, tyranny and oppression of organized religion over the course of human history; the other concerns the ethics of rational belief—how we are obliged to form our beliefs about the world. The first motive is familiar and needs no commentary from me. The second is less widely appreciated, but for some of us it is crucial to the whole discussion. We believe, as an ethical principle, that beliefs about what reality contains should always be formed on the basis of evidence or rational argument—so that “faith” is inherently an unethical way to form your beliefs. To believe “on faith” is to believe that the world is a certain way (contains a god etc) without the support of either empirical or logical justification. This violates the ethics of belief—how you ought to arrive at your convictions. That, for us, is the original sin of theism; and from this sin the other sorts of sin arise—religious intolerance, persecution, violence.
In the Atheism Tapes you will see this ethical perspective amply displayed. Atheists through the ages have been moved by a moral imperative: to uphold the rationality of belief. Wishes can never replace justification as a ground of conviction. Contrary to the popular myth, atheists are not people who have abandoned the idea of the moral good; they are people with a particularly clear sense of what moral goodness requires. From our point of view, the typical theist has already done something morally wrong simply in being a theist.