28 January 2006

How do we measure ignorance?

Well the best clue to how much ignorance, (and more importantly how much misinformation) there is in a society is the level of religious belief.

Bloggers4Labour asked me why I am so worried about the spread of religious belief, I think this survey provides the answer to that question.

Nearly 4 in 10 people in the UK believe that the Earth was 'created' some time after 'the domestication of the dog' (to borrow a Dawkins' analogy). This level of ignorance and misinformation about science has only occurred because of religious belief. It is time we started being evangelical about the absurdity of religion to counteract this ill founded respect that religion still commands that protects it from criticism and to counteract the religious propaganda that does so much damage to our society. Contraception, homosexuality and stem cell research are not wrong. It is only religion that fosters such backward thinking.

Religion is becoming more aggressive in its misinformation as it combats scientific rationalism which quite clearly points to the absurdity of religious belief. It is both 'liberal' religious people and the fundamentalists that foster such absurd beliefs by their encouragement to ignore evidence based sources in favour of 'faith'.

Simon Blackburn (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge) argues that;

"The Old Testament God is partial to some people above others and above all jealous of his own pre-eminence, a strange moral obsession. He seems to have no problem with slave owning, believes that birth control is a capital crime (Genesis 38: 9-10), is keen on child abuse (Proverbs 22: 15,23: 13-14, 29:15), and for good measure, approves of fool abuse (Proverbs 26:3)."

I reproduce here the famous DR LAURA (fundamentalist agony aunt in the US) letter to demonstrate the absurdity of how religion picks and chooses from the Old Testament and because we know these parts of the Bible are absurd to our moral codes, it demonstrates that morals and religion are mutually exclusive.

"Dear Holy Father,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.

a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

d) Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

e) I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

f) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an Abomination (Lev 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

g) Lev 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

h) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev 19:27. How should they die?

i) I know from Lev 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

j) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev 24:10-16) Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help.

Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted disciple and adoring fan."

So the Old Testament is pretty flawed I'm sure you would agree, but what about the New Testament, surely that was better?

Well Simon Blackburn in his book on ethics points out the problems with Jesus's teachings as written by Mathew, Mark, Luke and John.

"Things are usually supposed to get better in the New Testament, with its admirable emphasis on love, forgiveness and meekness. Yet the overall story of 'atonement' and 'redemption' is morally dubious, suggesting as it does that justice can be satisfied by the sacrifice of an innocent for the sins of the guilty - the doctrine of the scapegoat. Then the persona of Jesus in the Gospels has his fair share of moral quirks. He can be sectarian: 'Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel'(Matt 10:5-6). In a similar vein, he refuses help to the non-Jewish woman from Canaan with the chilling racist remark 'It is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to dogs'(Matt 15:26; Mark 7:27). He wants us to be gentle, meek and mild but he himself is far from it:'Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?'(Matt 23:33). The episode of the Gaderene swine shows him to share the then popular belief that mental illness is caused by possession by devils. It also shows that animal lives - also anybody else's property rights in pigs - have no value(luke 8:27-33). The events of the fig tree in Bethany(mark 11:12-21) would make any environmentalist's hair stand on end.

Finally there are the sins of omission as well as sins of commission. So we might wonder as well why he is not shown explicitly countermanding some of the rough bits of the Old Testament. Exodus 22:18, 'Thous shalt not suffer a witch a live', helped to burn alive tens or hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and America between 1450 and 1780. It would have been helpful to suffering humanity, one might think, had a supremely good and caring and knowledgeable person, foreseeing this, revoked the injunction.

All in all, then the Bible can be read as giving us a carte blanche for harsh attitudes to children, the mentally handicapped, animals, the environment, the divorced, unbelievers, people with various sexual habits and elderly women. It encourages harsh attitudes to ourselves, as fallen creatures endlessly polluted by sin, and hatred of ourselves inevitably brings hatred of others."

For anyone interested in more reasons why religion is rubbish, I also recommend reading Bertrand Russell's excellent diatribe against religion 'Why I am not a Christian'.


  1. The Blue Foxxx30/1/06 10:25 pm

    "because we know these parts of the Bible are absurd to our moral codes, it demonstrates that morals and religion are mutually exclusive."

    In fact it merely supports an assertion that morals and religion are independent variables. This pretty much lies at the base of your misapprehensions.

  2. The bible is so full of crap that on the odd occasions it says something that vaguely resembles today's morals, it's probably more luck than judgement. Therefore I stand by the statement that as well as being independent variables they are effectively mutually exclusive. We certainly shouldn't decide our morals by what is written in the bible and any rational person doesn't (even the vast majority of those that claim to be religious).

    As Simon Blackburn argues;

    "We are able to stand back from any text, however entrenched, far enough to ask whether it represents an admirable or acceptable morality, or whether we ought to accept some bits , but reject others. So again the question arises: where do these standards come from, if they have the authority to judge even our best religious traditions?"

    What's clear to me, is they certainly don't come from religion.

  3. The Blue Foxxx31/1/06 3:40 pm

    Neil, they are not mutually exclusive - you can have moral religious people, just as you can have immoral atheists... (though the religious have more incentive to behave as though moral).

    Would you include all religious texts in your claim of irrelevance? Do you think a debate on human morality can take place severed from its history (pre-history, maybe)?

    On your wider point of where morals are derived from, I would argue that it is generally the wider culture that is the chief determinant of morality (and mode of rationality) - what relation this culture has to other factors (for example, economic underpinnings)would be a useful extension of this. Your comments on prostitution and Mark Oaten suggest this is as true for you as for most others. I'm sure you are aware that we have a predominantly Jedeo-Christian cultural heritage, and moral heritage.

    Put simply, your desire to separate rationality from its cultural context is just not possible; so whilst a desire to create or promote a humanist morality is commendable (and probably essential in the current climate), setting up false dichotomies is actively unhelpful.

  4. Those religious people who are moral find their morals outside of the bible, otherwise they are not moral, because the bible advocates many things that go against our moral code.

    If religion disappeared tomorrow, the world would be a much better place. Religion is detrimental to our moral code. Morality pre-dates Judeo-Christianity. Those aspects of morality which religion claims, they have usurped from elsewhere.

  5. The Blue Foxxx31/1/06 8:14 pm

    Where does 'our' moral code come from? Is it universal? How does it connect to rationality? Is there more than one form of rationality?

    You appear to be asserting a transhistorical unified morality - why?

  6. The Blue Foxxx1/2/06 5:29 pm

    "Those religious people who are moral find their morals outside of the bible..."

    According to whom? Have you heard of the Ten Commandments?

    "...otherwise they are not moral, because the bible advocates many things that go against our moral code."

    So all those who are religious must be fundamnetalist and take the Bible as the literal word of God. This is purest nonsense.

    "If religion disappeared tomorrow, the world would be a much better place..."

    Worthless conjecture - it might be replaced by something worse. Ever thought about the social and psychological functions of religion (or nationalism)? Thought not. They are created by humanity for a reason, secular rationality, particularly in its instrumentalist form, leaves many human social and psychological needs unmet.

    "Religion is detrimental to our moral code."

    Whose moral code Neil - just yours? Where is this unified moral code?

    "Morality pre-dates Judeo-Christianity. Those aspects of morality which religion claims, they have usurped from elsewhere."

    Unfortunately for you, religion of various forms pre-dated Judeo-Christianity. Religious and moral thought have always been bound up together. It is only since the Enlightenment that they have started to be untangled. Please read my earlier comment for the implications of this, here we need just mention your 'false' abstracting of 'morality' and 'religion' - these terms are empty without concrete historical content and their content has been, and still is, inseperable.

    "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." ~ H.L. Mencken