I have been going the rounds of various stories about the antics and words of religious leaders and believers over the last few days. Not feeling quite up to snuff, but able to wander around the internet reading stories about Christians’ reactions to the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown, Connecticut, about the polio workers in Pakistan being killed because they were doing infidel work, about the Irish government’s new legislation that will clarify (is the way it’s put) when an abortion may be provided when a woman’s life is at stake (and Christine Odone’s stunningly stupid response to the way this was, she thinks, driven by media hype instead of for the right reasons), or about the woman in Mali sentenced to 60 lashes for “adultery of the tongue,” and then there’s the story of the pope blessing the “Kill the Gays” Minister from Uganda, or telling his followers that gay marriage is a threat to peace in the world, and various other droppings of religious idiocy and nonsense, I think it’s safe to say that these things, in themselves, argue against the truth of religious beliefs. No doubt saying that is a garden variety informal fallacy, but it’s hard to see how the truth about the universe and the reason for our being here could lead to such completely unhinged nonsense. I mean, just think about it for a moment. God specially intervened — that’s what John Lennox (a professor of mathematics at Oxford, no less) thinks, and that’s what Pope Wojtyła believed — to make us somehow distinct from other animals, so that we alone get to go on living after we die (now there’s a conundrum in itself), and the result of god’s intervention is the nonsense that is spouted in his, her or its name, and that litters the most sophisticated communications media ever devised by the brains of human beings. And, it seems to me, it’s just a bit loopy to suppose that all this — well, call it what it is — bullshit is not an indication that religious belief is just as loopy as the things that religious believers say and do.
Let’s just go through a few of those things as a for instance… Take, first, because I can’t stand the woman, Christine Odone’s view about abortion in Ireland. She titles her Telegraph piece, “Is Ireland’s abortion U-turn based on a mistake?” And then she tries to hoodwink us by talking about the case of Savita Halappanavar, like, maybe neither she nor her husband asked for a termination, or perhaps she died from septicemia, of some other complication unrelated to her pregnancy. But she’s already said this:
I’m a Catholic but I believe abortion has to be legal. Yes, it is a sin; and yes, there are women who use it as contraception. But the risk of having a long roll call of tragic deaths like Savita’s is too cruel to contemplate. Like divorce, abortion should be available, but reserved as a last-resort nuclear option – and when the mother’s life is in danger is precisely such a scenario.
So, what’s her problem? Well, maybe the Irish government was pushed into it by bad information about Savita Halappanavar. Perhaps it responded to pressure that wasn’t warranted by the case, so they did the right thing for the wrong reason. Now, doesn’t she see a fault in her logic? She’s given a good reason (and the European Court had told them to anyway) why abortion should be available in extreme situations — even though it is a “sin”! — Christ! This woman irritates the hell out of me! — so the Irish U-turn (as she calls it! — U-turn? — it’s not even a swerve!) is based on the right reason. Of course, it doesn’t go far enough. It’s still going to force raped women to bear their rapist’s child, and various other intolerable implications of the “nuclear” option. But, the provision that will save a woman’s life should have been there from the beginning, whatever the Vatican and its demented inmates think. So, it’s not being done for the wrong reason. Can’t be. It’s not being done for Savita Halappanavar. They killed her already! They did it to save the next woman who’s in a similar situation. And all the speculation about what went wrong with Savita Halappanavar is completely uncalled for and unacceptable from this interfering Catholic freak at the Telegraph. Don’t they edit their copy?
You see? Now, how can this be the outcome of religious belief, if religious belief is anywhere near true? Sure, I know people can be wrong. But she’s toeing the Vatican line, and they think everyone on earth should be forced to abide by their narrow-minded idea of what is right and wrong. And they don’t even want to see an exception made in the case where the woman is going to die. She should die. That’s their god’s decree. Does this make sense to anyone? Well, it doesn’t to me. And it makes me angry, I tell you, angry, that idiots like Christine Odone, who used to be the editor of the Catholic Herald, get to sound off in such mind-bogglingly stupid ways.
Let’s go on to the pope, because Odone is really just his flip side (although she’s slipped a little from grace). The “Holy Father’s” “Christmas” message to the world — entitled, if you please, “Blessed are the Peacemakers” — tells us, in a round about way, that the legalisation of gay marriage would be, not only an offence to the human person, but that it would “do serious harm to justice and peace.”
These principles are not truths of faith, nor are they simply a corollary of the right to religious freedom. They are inscribed in human nature itself, accessible to reason and thus common to all humanity.
The Church’s efforts to promote them are not therefore confessional in character, but addressed to all people, whatever their religious affiliation. Efforts of this kind are all the more necessary the more these principles are denied or misunderstood, since this constitutes an offence against the truth of the human person, with serious harm to justice and peace.
Of course, he goes a lot further than this. He tells us that the church has a perfect right to insist on this everywhere, because it’s part of the nature of things, and if we don’t see that we’re simply mistaken. It’s not confessional he says, not at all. This is addressed to all people. But that, remember, is the same thing he says about abortion and about assisted dying. So don’t let the fox in the Vatican fool you. He’s not talking only about gay marriage. He’s talking about contraception, about abortion, about assisted dying, about anything that, in his view, is inscribed in natural law, and that is the whole of Catholic morality. So, it’s a theocratic challenge to the world, that’s what his message of peace is all about. He’s mixing it up with everyone who disagrees with Catholic morality, and he’s putting the world on notice that this is what he is doing. Even Christine Odone is going to feel the lash after this! Because her crown is slightly awry. For she knows, in her heart of hearts, that women are supposed to die, after all, but she doesn’t want to sound heartless. But she makes sure she tells us that she thinks that it’s still a sin, notwithstanding. As for Savita Halappanavar? Well, you know what? Maybe, just maybe, the Irish government got it wrong! It’s not the right thing to do. It’s still a sin. But perhaps — yes, Christine, what? This is the kind of thing you can expect in the future. Special pleading from the Catholic Church, pretending that their morality is a universal morality, “inscribed in human nature itself, accessible to reason and thus common to all humanity.” The hell it is!
Or then there’s James Dobson, Doctor James Dobson, that is, the Focus on the Family pope. In his fireside chat to the nation — and to lots of other nations too! — he said that America had turned its back on God (have to have big ‘G’ for Dobson’s god), because, well, shucks, folks, millions don’t even believe in God any more, and, besides,
we have killed 54 million babies, and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too. (salon.com)
That’s why the slaughter of the innocents took place in Newtown, Connecticut, because, according to Dobson:
I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.
You can’t miss that ‘God Almighty.’ Poor Dobson doesn’t have a throne, so he has to pretend that he’s speaking right from God’s throne (with the cap ‘G’). It’s neat how these guys can pull god out of their pocket (I think we can go back to little ‘gs’ now). Whatever the situation, god is always the answer.
The polio workers being shot in Pakistan is a tragedy, but it’s not entirely the fault of Islam. In fact, the report in the Guardian newspaper points out that the five women and the one 17-year-old volunteer who were shot by Islamist militants, are victims not only of religion, but of a CIA operation that used a fake vaccination programme, set up for them by a Pakistani doctor, as they were closing in on Osama bin Laden. It also points out that the vaccination programme in India was so successful, reducing polio to only one case this year, partly because of support from Muslim clerics in poor Muslim areas of the country. But, of course, it does, indirectly, come down to religion in the end, because the CIA wouldn’t have been searching for Osama bin Laden if it were not for his fundamentalist Islamic Al Qaeda. The CIA, however, should know better than to use a vital medical programme as a cover for an op, and someone at Langley should get rapped over the knuckles for that one.
But that still doesn’t take Islam off the hook, because militants in Mali are whipping women for infractions of their decency regulations, like, “Adultery of the tongue is speech.” In Timbuktu a teenage girl had her mouth taped shut and received 60 lashes for speaking to men in the street. According to Sharia law women are forbidden to speak to men who are not their unmarriageable relatives. In the classical manual of Sharia law, or fiqh, The Reliance of the Traveller, it is written:
It is offensive for a male to speak without need to a young women [sic] who is not a member of his unmarriageable kin . . . all of which likewise holds for a young woman’s speaking to a man who is not a member of her unmarriageable kin. The prohibition of these is due to the Prophet’s having said (Allah bless him and give him peace), “The adultery of the tongue is speech.”
Now, that’s just stupid and insanely misogynistic, and whoever allah is certainly did not bless the one who spoke those words, or, if he did, as I say, there’s something fishy about this character. Sounds a lot more like a jealous husband than anything that could be worthily thought of as divine. It’s simply implausible that the designer of the universe has really legislated in such detail. I take this particular rule to mean that a woman may not speak to any man who is not someone she may not be married to, that is, someone who comes within the forbidden degrees, like father, son, brother, etc. This is just silly.
It’s this kind of telltale human tic that the religious are given to that gives the whole game away. That’s my point. Whether it’s vaccination, or speaking, or very specific rules, like a complete moratorium on abortion or assisted dying or suicide, things that to non-religious people seem perfectly normal, perfectly rational things to do in some situations, and, anyway, that concern the people involved, the pregnant woman, or the suffering person who seeks aid in dying. This is the kind of thing, as I say, that gives the game away, because the august ruler of the universe, who, as Lennox has to admit, and the pope probably admits too — I’m not so sure about the militants in Timbuktu — intervenes very little, if at all, in natural processes, is not likely to have issued rules so specific as the one about speaking only to unmarriageable male kin, or even as to whether a woman should have an abortion (or not) in very specific circumstances. Of course, I know, I know: the pope says that it wasn’t god who said this. This is simply written by god right into the very tissue of human nature, and we can simply read it off as a natural moral law. And you know what, I’m not buying it, and I don’t think many people are. As Scott McKenna would say, if god — no, he’d use a big ‘G’ — if God gave us reason as a gift, then we have to think this through on our own. It can’t simply be written there in eternal letters, like some kind of moral DNA.
For one thing, there’s no evidence for it. In fact, some people think morality is so diverse that they believe in moral relativism. I don’t, but I do think there’s room to disagree, but there are some things that we just have to accept as reasons for action, as Derek Parfit says. They’re not likely to be great big things like “Never Have Abortions!” But they will be general rules about things like harms and benefits. A person who doesn’t think that one should not do gratuitous avoidable harm to another person — or, as we have come increasingly to believe, recognising that animals can be harmed in much the same way as humans can be harmed, even animals — simply cannot have an understanding of right and wrong, good and bad. What things are harms and benefits, and how they should be regulated and balanced, is getting into more contentious territory, of course, and the armies of interest have rolled back and forth over the territory many times, and will continue to do so. But we all (even the pope is right about this much) have some idea of how to do this, but it takes close argument and the discussion of our intuitions and our traditions in order to come to a satisfactory understanding of what we should do, how and when. To suppose that this is all already settled, and that someone has already read it off and can tell us within very precise limits, what it is: that’s suspiciously like special pleading, confirmation bias, or simply blundering arrogance. The last thing on that list. That’s what I think it is.