Gods: What Are They Good For?

by Thomas O’Dwyer

“There is no question I love her deeply … I keep remembering her body, her nakedness, the day with her, our bottle of champagne … She says she thinks of me all the time (as I do of her) and her only fear is that being apart, we may gradually cease to believe that we are loved, that the other’s love for us goes on and is real. As I kissed her she kept saying, ‘I am happy, I am at peace now.’ And so was I.”

The monk Thomas Merton and the young Dalai Lama.
The monk Thomas Merton and the young Dalai Lama.

These romantic diary entries of a middle-aged man smitten with a new love would seem unremarkable, commonplace, but for one thing. The author was a Trappist monk, a priest in one of the most strict Catholic monastic orders, bound by vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and silence. Moreover, he was world famous in his monkishness as the author of best-selling books on spirituality, monastic vocation and contemplation. He was credited with drawing vast numbers of young men into seminaries around the world during the last modern upsurge of religious fervour after World War II. Two years after this tryst, the world’s most famous monk was found dead in a room near a conference centre in Bangkok, Thailand. He was on his back, wearing only shorts, electrocuted by a Hitachi floor-fan lying on his chest. In the tabloids there were dark mutterings of divine retribution, suicide, even a CIA murder conspiracy.

So passed Thomas Merton, who shot to fame in 1948 when he published his memoir The Seven Storey Mountain. It was the tale of a journey from a life of “beer, bewilderment, and sorrow” to a seminary in the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists. A steady output of books, essays and poems made him one of the best known and loved spiritual writers of his day. It also made millions of dollars for his Trappist monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson county, Kentucky. Because of him, droves of demobbed soldiers and marines clamoured to become monks. Read more »

Why should I respect your stupid opinion?

by Emrys Westacott
You have been called for jury service. The trial is complex and much hangs on the relative credibility of different witnesses, particularly those offering expert testimony regarding whether a certain medicine is likely to produce aggressive behavior as one of its side effects. A professional psychiatrist called by the defense testifies that in his opinion this effect is very likely. During cross examination, however, the wily prosecuting counsel manages to unearth a surprising, seemingly irrelevant, but nonetheless startling fact about this “expert”: he believes that aliens from space landed in the Nevada desert around 1965 and now effectively control all branches of government using advanced mind-control technology. The “expert” has in fact published several articles arguing for his views in the journal Alien Watch, and is a founding member of MASA (Mankind Against Space Aliens).
FondaWhen the jury eventually retire to deliberate, it is not long before these beliefs become the focus of attention. One juror refers to the expert as “that nutcase who believes in UFOs.” Another calls him a “crank.” A third describes him as “cuckoo.” Inevitably, his beliefs about aliens damage the credibility of his other testimony in the eyes of some jurors, even though he undoubtedly has the requisite qualifications to be considered a legitimate expert on the side effects of certain medicines.
One juror, however, playing the role of Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, resists this wave of skepticism. “Did anyone notice,” she says, “that the expert called by the prosecution wore a crucifix around her neck? This ‘expert' may well believe that a man called Jesus walked on top of the sea, changed water into wine, came back to life after being executed, and ascended to heaven on a cloud. I hate to be awkward, but to my way of thinking these beliefs are even more incredible than the idea that space invaders landed in the desert. After all, the belief about aliens—unlike orthodox Christianity–doesn't assume anything supernatural or contrary to the scientific view of nature.”
Listening to the debate, you feel yourself pulled in two directions. On the one hand, you can't help agreeing with those inclined to question the judgment of someone who believes the government is controlled by aliens from outer space. On the other hand, supposing for the sake of the argument that your general outlook on the world is thoroughly secular, you sympathize with the view that many orthodox religious beliefs are just as implausible. So you find yourself astride a paradox.

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Karl Marx’s Guiding Idea

by Emrys Westacott

Imgres

“Nothing human is alien to me.” This was Karl Marx's favourite maxim, taken from the Roman writer, Terrence. But I think that if Marx had lived a century later, he might have added as a second choice the famous phrase sung by Sportin' Life in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: “It ain't necessarily so.” For together these two sayings capture a good deal of what I think of as Marx's Guiding Idea, the idea at the heart of his philosophy that remains as valuable and as relevant today as in his own time. Let me explain.

Human beings have been around for a few million years, and for most of that time most people's material and social circumstances have been quite stable. The experiences of one generation were pretty much the same as the experiences of their forbears. In this respect the lives of humans were like those of other animals. Unlike other animals, however, human beings reflect on their lives and circumstances; moreover they communicate these reflections to one another. The result is religion, mythology, philosophy, history, literature, and the performing arts (all of which can arise within a purely oral culture), and eventually the natural sciences, and social studies of various kinds, such as psychology, sociology, economics, and political theory.

These diverse forms of reflection on the human condition perform various functions. One function is to explain why things are the way they are. For instance, the bible explains why the Israelites lived in Israel (God made a promise to Abraham, and kept it, enabling Joshua's army to conquer the land); the theory of the four humours purported to explain personality differences between individuals. Another function is to justify a certain order of things. Thus, the doctrine of the divine right of kings sought to justify the institution of a powerful executive who stands above the law. The doctrine that individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression is often cited to justify a policy of religious tolerance.

These two functions are sometimes hard to disentangle. For example, the alleged cultural inferiority of a people might be taken both to explain why they have been conquered and to justify that conquest as legitimate or even desirable. The “laws” of market competition provide an explanation of why some individuals and businesses do better than others, and these same laws are appealed to by those inclined to endorse the the outcome of the competition.

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A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists

by David V. Johnson

UnamumoIn “San Manuel Bueno, Martir,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno tells the fictional story of a parish priest in Valverde de Lucerna, a small Spanish town, and his successful conversion of a sophisticated favorite son, Lazaro, who had left to seek his fortunes in America and returned an atheist.

“The main thing,” San Manuel says, in summarizing his ministry, “is for the people to be happy, that everyone be happy with their life. The happiness of life is the main thing of all.”

When Lazaro arrives from the New World, he dismisses the town's medieval backwardness and begins confronting villagers about their superstitions. “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them,” San Manuel tells him. “It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.”

Lazaro confronts San Manuel with a mixture of curiosity and respect, since San Manuel is not only beloved by Lazaro's family for his piety but also because he appears educated. Over time, the two become friends and, eventually, Lazaro rejoins the Church and takes communion, to the tearful delight of all.

The twist: Like Lazaro, San Manuel doesn't believe the articles of faith. (“I believe in one God, the Father and Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen …”) What he believes in, rather, is administering to the needs of the villagers, in putting on such a convincing performance of dedication to Christ that they all believe he is a saint and have their faith in the Church and in life everlasting sustained. Lazaro's “conversion,” then, is one consistent with atheism. He becomes a lay-minister of sorts under San Manuel and eventually dies a Catholic.

I think of this story when I hear the arguments against religion of the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If Unamuno's story were updated, I could imagine Lazaro coming home to Valverde de Lucerna with a copy of God Is Not Great under his arm, ready to do battle with San Manuel. And if the story makes sense, we can imagine someone who has imbibed the arguments of Hitchens, yet converts to the faith under the saint's arguments.

The question is why.

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Washed Away

by Gautam Pemmaraju

It is that time of year in Bombay when the city collectively awaits relief from the heat and humidity of the summer months. “The creature of grandeur and complexity that defies comparison with anything” (see here) is but round the corner, and if recent newspaper reports are to believed, relief from the sweltering heat aside, we are to expect a graver visitation – “the ghost of 2005”. It was on July 26th of that year that the city witnessed an event of unprecedented magnitude. Lashed by rains in excess of 944mm within 24 hours, the flooded city came to a standstill, hundreds died, and the loss of property was enormous. Of biblical nature, much like the hurricanes and tsunamis that have wreaked havoc across the globe in recent times, the flooding was truly, a deluge. A dangerous combination of high tidal movements and higher than normal rainfall are anticipated in June and July this year, according to the city's civic authority, and this indeed was a primary cause for the dramatic 2005 flooding. The colonial era hierarchical network of storm water drains was overwhelmed, and the rushing waters that would have otherwise been carried out to sea, were spat back upon the city, and effectively, in the words of a civic official I spoke to more than a year ago, “the roads became the storm water drains”.

Turner-delugeI was amongst the lucky that did not venture out early that day, but instead saw the onset of the storm from my balcony. The skies darkened rapidly shortly after noon as if in a time-lapse shot, and as it began to rain, the light progressively failed till it became almost pitch dark past two in the afternoon. The electricity went out. I could barely make out the large rubber tree right across from me, and as for the neighbouring building Immaculata, I could no longer discern its shape. It appeared as if I were staring at an opaque curtain, so densely composed of water, that it seemed to be of one seamless form, rather than of discrete water droplets. It seemed, as I sat out watching in bewilderment, that everything around me was, “enchafed”, and I could only but darkly imagine the condition of the sea, a short walk away from where I was.

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The Industrious God

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Temple-balaji-7The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yachts in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.

He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.

A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers – partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple.

A rather entertaining news report by a regional TV station in April last year, informed viewing public that the reason for the Mumbai Indians cricket team loss to the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL final was due to a transgression by the owners, Mukesh and Nita Ambani. The temple remains closed between 12 AM and 2 AM, giving a chance for the industrious god to rest a bit. It was apparently during these hours, the wealthiest man in India and his entourage paid a private visit to the temple to pray for his team’s victory. Angered at the intrusion, the resident god, according to locals, in an act of divine annoyance, caused Ambani’s team to lose. Quite emphatically at that.

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On the Gods of Horses

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse 220px-Busto_Jenófanes

The Presocratic philosopher-poet Xenophanes famously noted that if horses could draw, they would draw their gods as horses. The same, he holds, goes for lions and oxen. What is the intended critical edge of such observations? Suppose it’s true that horses would draw their gods as horses. So what?

The famous Xenophanes fragment runs as follows:

If horses or oxen or lions had hands

or if they could draw with their hands and

produce works like men,

horses would draw the figures of the gods as

similar to horses, and oxen as similar to oxen,

and they would make the bodies

of the sort which each of them had.

The Christian apologist Clement of Alexandria is our source. He portrays Xenophanes as a religious reformer, one committed to criticizing anthropomorphism in religion. To construct a god in your own image, he holds, is a form of idolatry. Clement also provides another Xenophanes fragment, one that he takes to provide parallel support for this interpretation:

Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black;

Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.

The same lesson is said to follow: Humans make their gods look like themselves. But the question remains. What is the critical edge? They serve a critical religious program, but there is no overt argument in either. We hold it that the observations function as a reductio ad ridiculum.

To see this, we must make explicit what’s funny about horses drawing horse gods. In doing so, we’ll ruin the joke, for sure, but that’s philosophy. So what’s funny about horses and horse gods?

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Dishonest to Whom?

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. TalisseWarnock Dishonest to God

Mary Warnock’s Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics (Continuum, 2010) is an ambitious book. In it, Warnock distinguishes religion from morality, demonstrates the dependence of religious reasoning on moral reasoning, and argues that religious perspectives are nevertheless crucial for social and political life. We have a review of the book forthcoming in The Philosopher’s Magazine. For the most part, we are in agreement with Warnock. But we do have some disagreements, and we want to focus here on one aspect of Warnock’s view that strikes us as especially troublesome, namely, Warnock’s conception of the value of religion in a secular society.

Warnock’s case in favor of religion is broadly consequentialist. She holds that religious institutions and practices should be sustained because, on balance, they are socially beneficial. Warnock contends that – unlike morality and the rule of law – religion is not necessary for civil society; yet she insists that “there is no possible argument for holding religion is outdated, or that it can be wholly replaced in society by science or by any other imaginative exercise” (159). Surely this is overstated. No possible argument for the social dispensability of religion? Really? Actual arguments for this conclusion are easy to find. Consider Hegel’s argument at the end of the Phenomenology that religion must give way to art and philosophy in public life. Or John Dewey’s argument in A Common Faith that the social and experiential benefits of religious life can be detached from religion and subsumed under a more substantive conception of democratic community, leaving religion to wither away.

It is likely that Warnock means to claim that there is no good argument for the dispensability of religion; that is, Warnock means to deny that there could be an argument for the dispensability of religion which gives religion its due.

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Of Quislings and Science: Reflecting on Mark Vernon, The Templeton Prize and Richard Dawkins

by Tauriq Moosa

Richard_Dawkins_080430103832597_wideweb__300x375 Recently, Sir Martin Rees was awarded the most lucrative science-prize in the world, The Templeton Prize. Notice I said ‘lucrative’; not most respected or prestigious, though some indeed do think it is. This prize is awarded because it, according to its official website, “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” It is given to those “who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality” – a sentence worthy of a tacky Hallmark card.

Sir Martin is in the company of £1,000,000 sterling and Mother Theresa and Billy Graham. Indeed, I wonder if that amount is enough to sway anyone, so that he or she is mentioned in the same breath as these fanatics. The point being there is little that is, by definition, about science. The Templeton Foundation and Prize is about promoting notions of the Divine, in whatever loose language you can fathom, using something vaguely non-Divine in approach. If you can anchor your pursuits that effect the world, dealing with sick people (not aiding) like Mother Theresa, or probing the mysteries of the universe with an appreciation for its beauty or possible higher purpose, then you qualify. They’ve melted the solid idea of the theistic god down into liquid form, so it slips through any pretention even when the person awarded the prize is not religious. Like Sir Martin Rees.

If Sir Martin donates it all to Oxfam, I would have little to quarrel with it suppose, except I think any scientist who doesn’t think there’s a conflict between faith and reason or science and religion is wrong. But that’s another discussion. What interests me about this whole episode was not the prize itself but the views that arose concerning the atheist culture wars. I’m interested particularly in ex-Anglican-priest-turned-“agnostic” Mark Vernon’s ever-banal criticisms of Richard Dawkins, as seen here (an ad hominem attack), here (how Dawkins is doing nothing new even though Vernon keeps writing about him), here (when Dawkins praises fellow writer, Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins is promoting hatred), here (Dawkins… groupthink… bus… bad), here (I don’t even know).

I rather enjoyed Dr Vernon’s books 42 and Plato’s Podcasts, so it is disappointing to see this usually clear, clever writer putting on the same performance each time Dawkins is mentioned in an online discussion or in the media. This is especially so when Vernon reflects on Sir Martin’s recent prize and… Richard Dawkins’ stridency. Yes. You obviously made that connection as quickly as I did. Vernon, expert bar none on how Dawkins should conduct himself publicly, has to write something… and it might as well be as Dawkins’ media nanny.

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Accommodationism and Atheism

by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Atheist-advertising-campa-0011 Our book Reasonable Atheism does not publish until April, yet we have already been charged with
accommodationism, the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists. The charge derives mainly from the subtitle of our book, “a moral case for respectful disbelief.” Our offense consists in embracing idea that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect. The accusation runs roughly as follows: “Respect” is merely a euphemism for soft-pedaling one’s criticisms of religion; but religion is a force of great evil, and thus must be fought with unmitigated vigor. Atheist calls for respect in dealing with religion simply reflect a failure of nerve, and must be called out. Anything less than an intellectual total war on religion is capitulation to, and thus complicity with, irrationality.

In our case, the charge of accommodationism as a failure of critical nerve is misplaced; anyone who actually reads our book will find that we pull no punches. But we also think that, as it is commonly employed in atheist circles, the idea of accommodationism involves a conflation between two kinds of evaluation which should be kept distinct. Some clarification is in order.

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Some thoughts about Poe’s Law

The website LandoverBaptist.com has posted headlines that run from the goofy (“What Can Pastor-Fred-Phelps-001 Christians Do to Help Increase Global Warming?” and “New Evidence Suggests Noah’s Sons Rode Flying Dinosaurs”) to the chilling (“Satan Calls Another Pope to Hell” and “Trade Us Your Voter’s Registration Card for Free Fried Chicken from Popeye’s”). The site is designed to parody the racism, scientific illiteracy, and religious bigotry widely attributed to American fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. But, judging from the site’s posted mail, it seems that the general public does not recognize that the site is parodic. Most email responses begin by chastising the authors for not knowing the true meaning of Christianity, for having misinterpreted some quoted Bible passage, or for being hypocrites with respect to some point of contention. Very little of the posted mail actually confronts the owners and writers at Landover with what they are doing: presenting a grotesque, overblown, and bombastic parody of Christian religious life. LandoverBaptist.com’s mail bag has entries from its first days, and there has been a consistent failure on behalf of the writing public to recognize that the site is a parody. What gives? Poe’s Law (Wiki).

Nathan Poe is widely credited for formulating the eponymous law. He first noted a particular difficulty in an entry on a Christianforms.com chat page regarding creationism:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake (it) for the genuine article.

This is to say that unless there are unmistakable and explicit cues that one is being ironic or sarcastic, many parodies are not only likely to be interpreted as earnest contributions, they will, in fact, be indistinguishable in content to sincere expressions of the parodied view. The law can be fleshed out in a few ways, but the following thought capture the core of the Poe’s Law: For any webpage which parodies religious extremity, if the webpage has no overt cues of its status as parodic, no appeal to the page’s content can distinguish it from that of a webpage with sincerely expressed religiously extreme views. That a webpage is filled with Biblically-inspired scientific illiteracy, racism, or sexism doesn’t mean that the poster sincerely believes such things; the page might be a parody. Yet the problem is that this works in reverse as well. Blatant errors and blinding ignorance may mean that the poster is truly an immoral idiot. For every crazy thing on LandoverBaptist.com, there’s something just as (or maybe more) crazy on Godhatesfags.com. Looking just at the content, one cannot tell the difference between them.

Now, our objective here is not that of determining whether Poe’s Law is true. Our interest rather is in the effects of accepting it as true. What happens to interpersonal argument when disputants generally accept Poe’s Law? What are the effects of believing that a parodic expression of an extreme view is indistinguishable from a sincere expression of an extreme view?

To get a handle on the issue, consider first the straw man fallacy.

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Women’s Freedom – A Short Introduction to Why I Care

Womensrights Why have so many stopped fighting for women’s rights? We fight for “human” rights and discuss them as if they were a natural element of being human; groups lobby and defend, almost diabolically and with much vitriol, the rights of “animals” (species that are not human). Yet women’s rights, that better half of our species, remain a neglected element of secular discourse. It surprises me that so few of those who consider themselves secular humanists do anything concerning this important issue. This does not mean that many secular humanists do not think it important but there is a great divide between simply thinking it important and doing something to make it so. Not only do I think it important, I believe in my lifetime the liberation of woman, all over the world, for all time, is the single most important goal that we must defend, increase and enhance. The other goals which many of us long for, freedom of speech, lack of coercion, and so on, all are part of, and tributaries within, this pathway. By fighting for women, we fight for free speech and liberty; by defending their rights, we defend human rights; by finding the cause for their oppression we cease the cycle of violence and poverty within families around the world. Reports have suggested that a decrease in women’s freedom correlates to an increase in religious fanaticism. This does not mean that once women are free, all over the world, religious dogmatism, backward political regimes and patriarchal bullying will be banished from the earth; but there is little debate that the fight in itself will lead to a greater amount of freedom, more happiness and will result in woman no longer being the fodder for the religious wrath of backward mullahs and reverends.

According to estimates, which have more than likely increased, 70 percent of the two billion poor are women; two thirds of illiterate adults are women; employment rates for women are declining after increasing (yes, of course, the world wars are now over). At the same time many women are forced into veils and burqas, burnt for merely looking at men, stoned to death or buried alive for adultery, forced into sex, pregnancy and delivering HIV-infected children because they were raped, but if they were to report it, they would either be raped again, executed, exiled from their village or town or family. While this happens, the fashion industry booms with make-up and high-heels and plastic models and girls as thin as the paper they are pictured on, presenting us with yet another contrast to whether women really are in control of their bodies even in supposedly liberated societies. That is an issue unto itself, which I am not focused on, but it certainly should give us pause considering the areas we are dealing with. Modern writers, in the secular West, tell women to go back to the kitchen, obey the husband, be a mother, tie an umbilical cord around the house and hang themselves from it. “Feminine is good,” says women’s rights author, Nikki van der Gaag, “feminism is bad.” A lot of feminist views, philosophy and political goals truly deserve scorn, since they replace one tyranny with another; are subject to faith-based, dogmatic adherence rather than calculated sex equality. The vengeful world of patriarchal accident has given birth to a malicious view toward its women. As this highlights, the malicious desire is one of control – but I do not wish to instil Orwellian fears in big governments and little men.

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Let’s Keep God out of Ethics

ScreenHunter_03 May. 10 12.24 When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.

When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?

These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'.
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Between Wole Soyinka and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

By Tolu Ogunlesi

Lamenting the presence of Nigeria on the US government’s list of “countries of interest” (in the war on terror), Nigerian writer and first African Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka told British journalist Tunku Varadarajan, at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January: “[Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab] did not get radicalized in Nigeria. It happened in England, where he went to university.”

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is the 23 year old Nigerian man whose arrest on Christmas Day 2009 while attempting to detonate a bomb aboard a Detroit-bound plane caused the country's blacklisting.

Mutallab-1_1550388c

In 2005, at the age of 19, Umar Farouk enrolled in the University College London (UCL), for a degree in ‘Engineering with Business Finance’, after high school at a British-curriculum school in Togo. From all indications UCL kept the young man busy. In his second year he was elected President of the Student Union’s Islamic Society, organizing a “War on Terror Week” during his tenure.

Soyinka’s England

Five decades before Umar Farouk became a student in England, Wole Soyinka was admitted to the University of Leeds. In October 1954 the future Nobel Laureate left the sleepy city of Ibadan, Western Nigeria (where he was studying at the University College), for England. He was 20. Soyinka would spend the next six years in England, returning to Nigeria on the eve of the country’s independence from Britain.

Wole372ready It can be argued that England was the breeding ground for Mr. Soyinka’s genius; the playwright was, in a sense, forged between the stiff upper lips of Poundland. It wasn’t only Soyinka the playwright that was made in England. Soyinka the father was too. He would during his time in that country fall in love with an English woman, who in 1957 bore him a son, his first.

When Mr. Soyinka left for England, the Nigeria he was leaving behind was merely one colony in an Empire that stretched across the world, and Mr. Soyinka was a subject of the Queen of England. The England he was leaving for was not the one in which multiracialism had become the politically correct thing; this was still an England that wore its racism rather comfortably on its sleeves. One of Mr. Soyinka’s most anthologized poems dates back to that time, a cheeky send-up of racism, which to all intents may have been autobiographical:

It features a young black man in England, speaking on the phone with a potential landlady. The phone conversation is a prelude to a face-to-face meeting. But he feels the need to make a “self-confession”:

“Madam,” I warned, / “I hate a wasted journey—I am African.” / Silence.

The landlady’s interest is piqued.

“HOW DARK?”. . . “ARE YOU LIGHT / OR VERY DARK?” she wants to know. She repeats herself, for emphasis.

“You mean – like plain or milk chocolate?” the narrator suggests. Then he has a color-coded brainwave. “West African sepia,” he concludes.

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X-Epsilon

By Maniza Naqvi

Brain_scansJust as the frigid February evening air is stirred by the imams calling out the azan from all over the valley on Monday evening —Hiya al salah—hiya al falah— “come towards worship—come towards salvation”— Rahima pulls a cigarette out from her pack of Drinas; sticks it between her lips; lights it; dials 5555 and calls a Zuti taxi to her apartment—one of the many cab companies in Sarajevo which arrive at the door a minute after being called. She puts on her coat, an oversized olive color, man’s raincoat with a corduroy collar. She double checks the pockets for her pack of Drinas and the 3 convertible marks in loose change for the fare. All set, she leaves her one room apartment. The cab arrives and she gets in to its smoke filled interior. A sevdah’s ululating blues plays on FM 89.9 Radio Zid for the short ride just down the hill to the hospital.

Her 48 hour duty has begun. She has entered her world. All morning long she has cleared her head for this—all Monday morning, after a weekend plunged in a seamless nightmare-filled fitful sleep. The same nightmares always, every off-duty. The same method of recovery. This is her routine.

Outside the emergency room she can see the usual sight: police guards with automatic weapons dressed in tight black uniforms and bullet proof vests barring the way to the ER. Police cars parked in the driveway. She sweeps past them waving them aside, saying she’s the doctor and can’t they see that?

'He’s a bank robber from Olovo! He’s shot himself trying to run away!' A cop shouts after her.

“Thank you doctor” she growls back at him and shrugs her shoulder with a jolt as though repulsed.

As she enters the ER and surveys the newest arrival it’s as though a switch had been turned on inside of her lighting up a thousand bulbs of a thousand watt each. She is on! This is an interesting one. The one last week, the victim of a burglary—the plastic surgery—the reconstruction—was successful. It seems to have worked but it’s still too early to tell, the bandages haven’t come off yet.

This one, they tell her, he has shot himself in the head. Outside, the hospital the walls are still pock marked with bullet holes. Inside for Rahima it has never ended, it goes on.

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