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18 May 2008

Costs Nothing to be Civilized

The rulers of Burma, and Zimbabwe, have recently made sure, if there was a shred of doubt remaining, that they don't run civilized countries. And they are not alone of course. Got me to thinking more generally - how do you recognize a civilized country?

1. The military-industrial complex plays no role in government.
2. Religion plays a very small role in society, not forbidden, but not compulsory.
3. Scientists, teachers, nurses, artists, are all valued more than sports people and celebrities.
4. Speech is free and the media varied.
5. There are few if any guns.
6. The environment is cared for.
7. The government does not execute its people.
8. Women have full social and economic equality with men.
9. Minorities are not persecuted.
10. Sexuality is not a criterion for human rights.
11. Education of children is universal, free and secular.
12. Other species are respected, valued and protected.
13. Everyone secretly votes, every vote is openly counted independent of government.
14. Regulation protects people from giant corporations.
15. Other countries are not invaded, war isn't glorified.
16. Wealth is not a criterion for political success, or social worth.
17. Art and heritage are valued; literature, film and television increase in quality over time.
18. Natural disasters bring massive state support for the hurt and homeless and helpless.
19. The old, the sick, the disabled, are cared for.
20. The government tells the truth.
21. Public enterprise is as valued as private enterprise.
22. The courts and police are independent of politicians.
23. Unions flourish
24. The balance between life at work and life at home is a healthy one.
25. Aspirations are achievable by all.

There, what do you think? Four points maximum for each - how does your country rate out of 100? Sadly, the US seems to be a lot less civilized than we think

Good, Evil and the relative value of human life

This is someone else's essay, but I like what he said (and I'll post how religion comes down smack on the side of Evil).

There is no shortage of moral absolutist language in today’s political discourse (nor in yesterday’s nor tomorrow’s for that matter). It irritates me to no end that the politicos and the theological moralists use these words without ever providing a definition for them. I thought I’d take a stab at correcting that. The logical place to begin is at the beginning: What is Good? What is Evil? As an atheist I am obviously not going to begin with the beliefs of any particular ethos or orthodoxy, sacred book or scripture. I think the proper place to begin would be to examine the common elements of human life itself something we all share.

At the very beginning we are conceived. For approximately nine months we gestate inside our mothers and then we are born. We live out the span of our lives until they come to an end by accident, intent, disease or age. Then we die. So the question: Is there Good in there somewhere? Is there Evil? Well nothing obvious stands out from this far vantage unless you wish to define life itself as Good, in which case there is Good in each human life, monsters, saints and every persons. If you prefer to think that human life is morally neutral then we will need to move the camera in a bit and take a closer look to find The Good, or The Evil. Let’s look at each part of life in turn.

Is there Good or Evil in conception? At conception a sperm joins with and fertilizes an egg. It’s an automatic biological process involving a lot of complex chemistry but I don’t think there is any obvious Good or Evil in it so let us leave this fertilized egg and the subsequent foetus for now and move directly to Birth. Is there Good or Evil in simply being born? I suppose that the answer to that would depend on how much weight you give to biological determinism. If you did then you might say that the baby thus born may have inherent violent tendencies with a high potential for bringing harm to others. It might be argued that that would be accounted as a potential Evil if not an actual Evil. Conversely the child may have strong altruistic tendencies which might be accounted as a potential Good. Since a baby is incapable of acting on these inherent impulses and environmental conditions may enhance or preclude their exercise the jury would have to be out.
After it leaves the womb but before it begins to move freely or speak a baby will have certain biological requirements to grow and to maintain life. These requirements will persist throughout life so we might as well cover them here. The baby will require food, water, air, and sleep. Is there an inherent Good or Evil in breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping, defecating, urinating or dreaming? Again these are things required by biology. No Good or Evil to see here. Move along. The baby grows into a child. The child is taught what is acceptable and what is not acceptable both by its caretakers and by absorption from the society in which it grows up. Most importantly of all at some time during this period of growth the child begins to think for itself. It is there, there in those thoughts that the seeds of Evil and Good are sewn. Thoughts lead to decisions. Decisions lead to actions. Actions lead to consequences and those consequence may be good, Evil Neutral or a combination of these.

Let’s take three examples of behavior generally accounted to be Evil.

Murder: If someone is murdered what happens? Well one thing that happens is all of their various metabolic processes stop. Is cooling something from body temperature to room temperature Evil? No. Is ceasing production of carbon-dioxide, urine and feces Evil? No. So what else is lost? Thoughts and memories? Words and sounds? But what good are those if they are uncommunicated? What value are those if they remain unheard? No, the Evil lies in the destruction of the relationships that person had.

[An aside about relationships here. Each of us has three kinds. Our relationship with ourselves (self-self), our relationship with our environment and the things in it (self-other), and our environment’s relationship with us (other-self), and here I am talking about environmental factors which are beyond our control like the weather and including the actions of others.]

The murder victim has all their relationships truncated at a stroke. Those who remember them will of course maintain their relationship with them through their memories of the deceased, but nothing new will ever be added to them. The relationship will neither grow nor change with time except to erode as the memories gradually fade.

Assault: If someone is assaulted the forms of damage may differ. If there is physical damage then their ability to relate to their environment may very well be impaired. Having broken limbs for instance limits the interactions you may have with the environment. There may also be psychological damage making you mistrustful or angry at your fellow human beings imparing your ability to have a relationship with them.

Rape: Aside from the physical damage as outlined in assault, this act also carries a definite probability of psychological damage.

This leaves us with a working definition of Evil.

- Any thought which conceives of impairing or destroying the body or psyche of another human being without their consent is Evil.
- Any decision on a course of action arrived at by those thoughts that would result in the impairment or destruction of the body or psyche of another without their consent is Evil.
- Any consequence resulting from that conscious decision that would result in the impairment or destruction of the body or psyche of another without their consent is Evil.
These things are Evil because they would either destroy the health of an existant relationship or damage the ability of the affected person to have relationships.
Using this definition we can divide evil into four grades from least to greatest.

Grade 1: Evil without decision or intent. (such as harm resulting from fires, earthquakes, lightning etc.)
Grade 2: Evil as a result of decisions made from ignorance of the consequences, but without evil intent. (not knowing that ‘X’ might cause harm)
Grade 3: Evil as a result of decisions made from apathy of the consequences, but without evil intent. (knowing that ‘X’ might or might not cause harm and not caring if it did)
Grade 4: Evil as a result of decisions made with full knowledge of the consequences and with evil intent. (knowing ‘X’ would cause harm and intending that it be so)

Conversely -
Any thought which conceives of enhancing the body or psyche of a human being is Good.
Any decision on a course of action arrived at by those thoughts that would result in the enhancement of the body or psyche of a human being is Good.
Any consequence resulting from that conscious decision that would result in the enhancement of the body or psyche of a human being is Good.
These things are Good because they would enhance the health of an existent relationship or improve the ability of the affected person to have relationships.

This is not to say that all relationships are inherently Good, because it is perfectly plausible that one relationship can be unhealthy and impair one’s ability to have others.

Under this definition technology which enhances or enables relationships impossible without it would also qualify as Good. Cell phones and the Internet are examples (as much as I lament that these wonderful means of communication did not come with a guarantee of something to communicate).

Using these definitions we may assign human life an inherent value. Yes, I understand that many people say that we are all equally valuable. The problem with that statement is that the evidence is heavily against it. Without doubt a number of women died on the same day that Princess Diana died. How many mourned for them? Obviously each human has a baseline relationship with themselves and with the Earth (since we are part of it), but the more numerous and stronger your relationships are the more value your life has. A measure of your own value might be how many people show up at your funeral and how many of those that do are crying. Note that these relations need not be personal, nor two-way. The person who cures cancer will have a relationship with all of those who benefit from the treatment even if they never know their benefactor’s name.

So, Does that make religion EVIL?

I guess the first place to begin would be a working definition of 'Good' and 'Evil'. Now as we all know the other living creatures sharing the globe with us don't have these concepts. What they have is a concept of survival and extinction so I think for a working definition we should say "Good' as something which aids human survival and 'Evil' as something which lessens the chances of human survival (certainly you are free to compose your own definitions).

So what could threaten human survival? Well there are a couple of things but we can divide them into external threats and internal threats.

External threats are celestial in origin. These are things like gamma ray bursts, excessive cosmic radiation, nearby supernovae, meteor/comet impact and increasing solar radiation. So how does Religion/church come out on these issues? Well neutral at best and evil at worst. It has been science which has expanded our knowledge not only of our place in the universe (i.e. we are on a planet orbiting the sun) but it has also made us aware of these threats. Let us remember that the Catholic church persecuted Galileo and only recently did it forgive him after three hundred years or so. I would say that if one of these threats materialized today we could ill afford to wait three hundred years before starting on a solution. For its suppression of astronomical science the church has led to greater danger for the species and come down on the side of evil.

Internal threats to the species are things like viruses, global warming and environmental/resource depletion. So how does the church/religion fare on those issues? Poorly I'm afraid. What could we do to avert a viral threat? Well one thing we could do is to vastly increase our knowledge of biology. What is the foundation of biology? The concept of evolution. Does the church help or hinder the teaching and understanding of evolution? Considering the constant fight to mute or eliminate the teaching of biology in this country we can safely put the fundamentalists here in the U.S as firmly on the side of evil. How about making our habitat unlivable due to environmental/resource depletion? Well I think we are all familiar with the Catholic Churches (and Islamic beliefs as well) opposed to birth control and abortion. Apparently they have not yet realized that we live on a sphere with limited resources so there should just be more and more and more people until we reach the limit of the Earth's resources and perish in a massive wave of starvation. Alternatively having eaten every other animal on the planet we will then fall upon each other. This again seems rather evil to me. What about nuclear war? Where in the world might a religion inspire a nuclear exchange that could threaten the biosphere? How about India and Pakistan? There religion makes the survival of the species less and is thus evil. I think we all know now the lengths devout muslims will go to kill their enemies. So how about the possibility of supervolcanoes? Where does the church stand on gathering additional information about geology? Well if you are talking about the young Earth creationists here in the U.S. then the answer to that question is 'directly in the way' and again, evil. This is not to even mention all the apocalypse loving churches out there all ready for the rapture and ready to see all of us slaughtered to make it happen.

Before I am accused of painting with too broad a brush I will say that I understand that not all denominations of Christianity have the positions that I stated, but many do. For those reasons I will say that on balance religion/the church is Evil. To any church which supports a sustainable human population with reasonable resource conservation, favors biological and geological science and astronomical awareness and readiness, my sincere apologies.

17 May 2008


Okay, so I have been seeing this bumper sticker around that has a bunch of different religious symbols that spells out "Coexists"... At first this may seem like a nice thought, but I got to thinking a bit deeper about this. In the end, it's just a foolish idealism that has no basis in reality. If you look at the basic dogma behind the reason for most religions, it's about being THE right philosophy, and all others are wrong. Even if you think about just the "mortal" realm, the eventual philosophy ends up holding over the so called eternal damnation at death.

Science v Religion: Dogma & Dogmatism are the Real Enemies

There are many conversations over the conflicts between science and religion, but if we examine them closely we should find that the real conflicts are between more fundamental concepts: dogma and reason. One opposes the other, and insofar as religion remains dogmatic, it will always come into conflict with science.