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May 27 2013

How do you know it’s an abuse of religion?

An interesting article by Nervana Mahmoud describes the shift of “Allahu Akbar” from exclamation of wonder to one of vengeance. I’ll take her word for it, but it made me wonder — how can you say something is an abuse of religion?

Not much good comes out of horrific crimes such as the one in Woolwich, yet the graphic video that later emerged serves as another reminder to many devout Muslims of the glaring abuse of their religion, and has led the Muslim community in Britain to stand firmly against this abhorrent act. Meanwhile, in the Arab world, many Muslims continue to fight hard against radical Islamism to reclaim Islam from hijackers who use and abuse their religion for a wide range of purposes, ranging from winning elections to violent crimes.

As so many would like to claim, religion is supposed to be the source of morality. If that were actually true, there would be no way to argue against a religious definition of a moral act — it would have to stand alone, as a declaration by fiat by an absolute moral monarch. To claim that something is an abuse of religion requires an external frame of reference.

In order to claim that a religious act is an abhorrent act, you must have some definition other than the one in the holy book for what constitutes a good act…and I suspect that what we’re seeing in Muslims who can criticize actions taken in the name of their god is an unconscious acceptance of a different source of morality. I don’t think it’s an alternate religious source, either — they’re drifting towards humanism and an ethic that transcends their cultural biases.

That’s a good thing.

By the way, this is also why I’m not very keen on attempts to turn morality into a scientific conclusion. Any attempt to make science the sole source of moral rules is going to be just as dangerous as making Islam the sole source.

31 comments

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  1. 1
    Viktor Brown

    No, no, no, you don’t understand. It’s not religion that’s the source of morality, it’s MY religion!

  2. 2
    brive1987

    No expert, but I suspect the Koran is as capable of selective interpretation as the Bible:

    Math 5:39

    vs

    Luke 22:36

    They may be responding to basic human decency – but its still cloaked in religion.

  3. 3
    Colin J

    If radicals can hijack a religion (any religion) for the purpose of “…winning elections…” it kind of pulls the rug out from under the idea that there’s a moderate majority who condemn radical behaviour.

  4. 4
    Ichthyic

    By the way, this is also why I’m not very keen on attempts to turn morality into a scientific conclusion. Any attempt to make science the sole source of moral rules is going to be just as dangerous as making Islam the sole source.

    i’d be less concerned about the dangers of using science thus (since it’s inherently self analytical), and much more concerned about what a pain in the ass it would be to have to deal with fumbling “moral questions” all the time.

    hell, it’s bad enough having to deal with animal use protocols and grant applications!

  5. 5
    consciousness razor

    I’ll take her word for it, but it made me wonder — how can you say something is an abuse of religion?

    One way would be to use it incorrectly to express non-belief. Or corrupting it by divorcing it from “spiritual” matters and turning it on worldly, “materialistic” concerns. Or making it about “vengeance” or killing sprees, which is contrary to a religion of peace. You know how us militant atheists are… but the point is that those are all “internal” frames of reference.

    Notice how “bad” stuff always gets shuffled away from religion no matter what? It doesn’t imply their religion-derived morality is becoming secularized. It usually means digging in to defend their religion in order to keep it going. If they have to invent new kinds of sophistry to twist their interpretations around so they can claim the “abuses” aren’t orthodox and never were orthodox, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

    Also, there are non-humanistic secular ethics, so secularization wouldn’t imply a turn to humanism in particular. (Personally, I don’t like “humanism” as a term. It’s got such a weird, convoluted history and still means too many different things. It’s confusing.)

  6. 6
    Viktor Brown

    (Personally, I don’t like “humanism” as a term. It’s got such a weird, convoluted history and still means too many different things. It’s confusing.)

    It’s actually because of the multiple meanings of the term humanist that I consider myself to be both a humanist and an anti-humanist. >.<

  7. 7
    bad Jim

    We can never settle on a label for the same reason we can never settle on a set of moral rules. We can never settle on anything so long as everything keeps changing, especially our minds, and we wouldn’t want it otherwise.

  8. 8
    Nick Gotts

    No expert, but I suspect the Koran is as capable of selective interpretation as the Bible – brive1987

    Quite right. On the specific issue of violence, the Quran includes both pacifistic and militaristic suras (chapters). Later ones are held to supercede earlier ones (IIRC, the latter are mostly later; why Allah should have dithered about his message isn’t explained AFAIK), but since it wasn’t written until after Muhammad’s death (exactly when is disputed), and doesn’t take the form of a continuous narrative, the order is rather arbitrary, even if one were to accept that the originals were dictated by Muhammad. Also, as with the Bible, there are literalist believers, and others who say it must be interpreted in historical and cultural context. Here’s one of the latter writing on the BBC site a few days ago. As PZ says, what such people are doing is unconsciously “drifting towards humanism and an ethic that transcends their cultural biases”. Given that all Muslims are not (any more than all Christians, Judaists, Hindus etc.) suddenly going to slap themselves on the forehead with a: “Duh! How could I have believed that crapola for so long?”, progressive atheists should be prepared to treat Muslim liberals as allies on some issues, just as most of us would liberal Christians, while not concealing our opposition to all irrational belief-systems.

  9. 9
    graham

    “If you don’t have a holy book to give you your sense of morals then surely you must be completely immoral? As an atheist how could you ever have any sense of morals or ethics?”

    Atheist: “Do you accept absolutely everything in your holy book as being absolutely true and take it all at face value?”

    “Well no. I’m not one of those fundie literalists. The Holy Book has to be interpreted. You have to look beneath the surface some times.”

    Atheist: “And what mechanism do you use to do that?”

    “Well, it’s kind of common sense I suppose. I think we all have a gut feeling about what’s right and what’s abhorrent.”

    Atheist: “And that’s exactly the same mechanism I use, in order to build my sense of moral direction. Welcome to the club.”

  10. 10
    kevinalexander

    I think we all have a gut feeling about what’s right and what’s abhorrent.”

    True but unfortunately not a reliable guide. For example many people have a strong gut feeling that gays are disgusting and should be punished or at least forced back into the closet so as not to offend our ‘gut feelings’. Others have a ‘gut feeling’ that women should be attacked if they express any kind of sexual feeling. And so on and on.
    A better guide would be to develop an ethical system based on human rights and neither science or religion can help us there.
    Our gut feelings are evolved by natural selection, now we need to keep evolving them by unnatural selection.

  11. 11
    Dick the Damned

    Kevin, there’s no such thing as human rights, other than what the powerful grant to the less powerful. So codified human rights derive from democratic government, (or a benevolent dictator, even). This is why PZ’s campaigns are so important.

  12. 12
    Reginald Selkirk

    how can you say something is an abuse of religion?

    Indeed. She must be suffering from Platonism. There is a Platonic ideal of religion that is good, and any evil use of religion diverges from that ideal. Reminds me of Andrew Dickson White’s ‘religion pure and undefiled.’

  13. 13
    Sastra

    To claim that something is an abuse of religion requires an external frame of reference.

    Yes. And you don’t get to use “God” as your external frame of reference until and unless it’s existence and nature is exactly as open and obvious to everyone else as it is to you.

    If the rational world and secular ethics get to be used to decide when a religion has gone “too far” — then the believers are going to be surprised by how far back that standard will be applicable.

  14. 14
    kevinalexander

    Dick@11,
    I completely agree except that we can develop the idea of human rights, it’s not natural, and struggle to achieve them.
    My main point was that you can’t trust your feelings as a guide to morality. I just finished reading Barbara Churchland’s Braintrust. She does a great job of showing how morality can have evolved. I was a little disappointed in that she didn’t do more to mention that evolution itself is amoral and that a lot of behaviours stem from less savoury feelings that are also evolved.

  15. 15
    Gregory Greenwood

    As so many would like to claim, religion is supposed to be the source of morality. If that were actually true, there would be no way to argue against a religious definition of a moral act — it would have to stand alone, as a declaration by fiat by an absolute moral monarch. To claim that something is an abuse of religion requires an external frame of reference.

    In order to claim that a religious act is an abhorrent act, you must have some definition other than the one in the holy book for what constitutes a good act…and I suspect that what we’re seeing in Muslims who can criticize actions taken in the name of their god is an unconscious acceptance of a different source of morality. I don’t think it’s an alternate religious source, either — they’re drifting towards humanism and an ethic that transcends their cultural biases.

    Oh, I imagine that they have a list of excuses lined up that avoid any need to accept a source of morality outside the notional edicts of their god. First, they will cite the ‘imperfection of human language’ – they will claim that even a supposedly ‘divinely inspired’ book must be written in a human tongue to be understandable by we ‘wretched mortals’, and that in the process the ‘wisdom’ and ‘purity’ of the godly injunctions are lost in translation, leading to the possibility that the imperfect language the concepts are expressed in can be misinterpreted, either accidentally or wilfuly, and so the ‘true revelation’ can be twisted, corrupted or lost.

    They will doubtless also point to the notional inadequacy of the human mind and conception – that many people allegedly lack the ability to grasp the ‘true implications’ of the teachings of their faith, and so fall from the ‘path of righteousness’.

    And of course they will naturally claim that teh debil is working hard to ‘deceive’ even the most pious of believers, as expressed by that annoying religious escape-hatch idea that ‘even the devil can quote scripture to his purpose’.

    They are not looking to an external source of morality outside their religion; they are claming that the true message of their sky fairy is the ultimate moral good, and that those who ‘abuse religion’ misunderstand that message or deliberately exploit the imperfection of the human intermediaries of the ‘good news’ to twist the meaning of religion and turn the supposed ‘ultimate wellspring of morality’ into a source of evil.

    As consciousness razor says @ 5;

    Notice how “bad” stuff always gets shuffled away from religion no matter what? It doesn’t imply their religion-derived morality is becoming secularized. It usually means digging in to defend their religion in order to keep it going. If they have to invent new kinds of sophistry to twist their interpretations around so they can claim the “abuses” aren’t orthodox and never were orthodox, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

    Many ‘moderate’ believers are very good at reading modern social mores and then moving the religious discourse away from those traditional beliefs that would become embarrassing in the context of a modern culture, without ever deviating from the notion that the ‘wisdom’ of their god is eternal and that all morality ultimately flows from it. Thus it is that ‘moderate’ believers just stop talking about the bible’s horrifying misogyny, its advocacy for slavery and genocide, its nonsensical rules about such things as mixing fibres, and the multitudinous other elements of orthodox belief that range from the spectacularly strange to the monstrously cruel and toxic. And if one makes a point of highlighting the existence of such beliefs, then one is criticised for lacking a sufficiently ‘nuanced’ grasp of what the bible is really saying, or is vilified as someone who exploits the ‘minutiae’ of the ‘flawed human language’ in the bible to obscure the ‘greater truths’ it supposedly conveys. It is merely spin-docktering, religion style.

    ‘No true Scotsman Christan’, writ large.

  16. 16
    Sastra

    CNN’s Belief Blog has a rather optimistic take on this: When Religious Belief Become Evil: 4 signs.

    The warning signs are 1.)I know the truth and you don’t; 2.) Beware the charismatic leader; 3.)The end is near; and 4.)The ends justifies the means.

    Doesn’t that describe most religions at their very source?

  17. 17
    Viktor Brown

    Well, there’s a religion I can think of that fits three of the four. It’s an old one supposedly from Judea before the diaspora. There was a charismatic leader claiming to be the messiah who knew the truth while everyone else didn’t and talked about how the end would come within his disciples’ lifetime. It must be dangerous, so no one should have followed it.

    Of course, I’m speaking of the account of Jesus and his followers in the Bible.

  18. 18
    David Marjanović

    Wasn’t that a rhetorical question?

  19. 19
    David Marjanović

    …at the end of comment 16, I mean.

  20. 20
    Viktor Brown

    Oh, I wasn’t intending to answer that question. I was intending to take a semi-sarcastic semi-serious dig at the person who wrote that blog post who I am pretty sure is a christian himself.

  21. 21
    sadunlap

    My question which no devoutly religious person has ever been able to answer in anyway cogently is this:

    If your scripture is a moral code handed down from God

    And

    If the people claiming to act in accordance with that scripture do something heinous (which you condemn with the claim your scripture does not justify it).

    Then

    Why is is so impossible to show them how they are obviously wrong? Nothing in the 3 Abrahamic desert dogmas gives clear and unequivocal guidance, for example, in matters of death and killing. “Thou shalt not kill” in one part but then “kill all but the virgin women, keep those for yourselves” appears in another. And on, and on.

    What purpose does the scripture serve if it remains so open to widely, even wildly, different interpretations? How come God gave slavery a pass but we now condemn it as an evil? And if you’re able to condemn slavery independently from the Bible or Koran, does that not verify that these works are incomplete as a moral guide?

    Why has God proven so inarticulate? And the “works in mysterious ways” evasion does not work when you whack the rest of us over the head with your holy books declaring us immoral if we do not “obtain our morality” from the ambiguous, incoherent mess you call your scripture. Is demanding clarity blasphemy?

  22. 22
    anteprepro

    CNN’s Belief Blog has a rather optimistic take on this: When Religious Belief Become Evil: 4 signs.

    The warning signs are 1.)I know the truth and you don’t; 2.) Beware the charismatic leader; 3.)The end is near; and 4.)The ends justifies the means.

    Doesn’t that describe most religions at their very source?

    Personally, I would say: more or less, yes. Honestly, 1 and 2 are inherent to religion. 3 is not necessarily inherent to it, but it is common, because it makes for more dramatic storytelling and is good fodder for the charismatic leadership. Number 4 is implicit in a lot of the worst behaviors of religious followers but it typically will not make that any notable part of their dogma and just let it unthinkingly influence their behavior and perceptions instead.

    In addition, I’m fairly certain that a religion could be evil without being apocalyptic. They don’t need to think the end is near to justify fucking with other people’s lives. They could be evil without believing that the ends justify the means. They could simply think that the means are better than the actually are and don’t need to be justified. They could simply think that a bad end is actually good. Or that the “evil” of the person they target, or the “good” of the person using the means, justifies both the ends and means. “The ends justify the means” isn’t the end-all-be-all of justifying immorality.

  23. 23
    ginckgo

    Couldn’t agree more. I used to be of the “Religion/Blind Faith is the cause of all evil” opinion, but have come to believe that it is simply a tool used to retrofit reasons for one’s already established beliefs and morals. As you say, they are often arrived at in a humanist style, which is why they are usually agreeable.

  24. 24
    musical beef

    @23:

    But how did those beliefs and morals become established? By growing up in the religion.

  25. 25
    Felix

    @21
    their answer is one word. Jesus. All of those bad things go away if you set “love your neighbor and your enemy” as the rule to supercede all others. What they never admit is that of course that opens the door to interpret nearly any behavior as loving, or choose to exclude anyone from the “neighbors” group at opportunity. What could be greater love than making sure all go to heaven, even if it means shortening their existence on earth? Or making sure they don’t suffer too little, as “Mother” Teresa practiced on her patients to get them closer to Heaven in this life. Or lovingly exiling them from family and home town, as so many gays experience, who will undoubtedly improve their morals by being pressured through loving hate.
    The armchair Christian in our rich countries sits back and pontificates to the crazy unbelievers how great Christianity is in Sudan, where Christians get murdered without resistance “by the millions”. Of course he would never dream of going there himself to get killed and set a shining example of Christian meekness, God’s greatest demonstration of power. Nor would he like to discuss how those Africans actually all belong to the wrong churches – great for statistics, not so comfortable in the heresy department.
    I’m ranting, stops now.

  26. 26
    hunter

    I would suggest that, rather than being the source of morality, religion is one of the ways in which morality is defined. And, as brive pointed out (#2), the any religious text (as well as anything else) is open to interpretation.

    If we want to know the source, I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll have to look at our evolutionary history — what we consider in most instances to be “moral behavior” has its foundation in our existence as social animals — there are behaviors that are beneficial to the group (or to individuals within the group), and behaviors that are not. We tend to consider the former to be moral, the latter to be immoral. (No, that does not take science as the basis of morality — it’s an attempt to use science to find the basis of morality.)

    All of which most likely poses more questions than it answers.

  27. 27
    aggressivePerfector

    Any attempt to make science the sole source of moral rules is going to be just as dangerous as making Islam the sole source.

    Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    When it comes to knowing things, there is a continuum. Idealized, perfect (and presumably not actually obtainable) scientific method lies at one end. At the other end (presumably also not obtainable) is a horribly biased methodology guaranteed to always give the wrong answers. In the middle lies pure uninformed guesswork. Wherever you are, you lie somewhere on that continuum.

    Why on earth would anybody think that a methodology that takes you further from the scientific ideal would be better than, or equally as bad as, a process that takes you closer?

    In order to do good, you have to know a few things: what is good, what are the likely consequences of certain actions. How are we supposed to obtain that knowledge? Science is the only method of acquiring knowledge that is biased toward optimal reliability.

    We trust science for all kinds of things, heart surgery, aircraft design, etc. Why should morality be different? At present, the answer is that there is no systematized moral science. Gather together a posse professors of morality to take part in part in peer review, and say things like “look, this dufus forgot to carry the 1, what an idiot!” and the abuses of morality carried out by scientists that PZ is so terrified of will become harder to make. As long as errors are made, guidance is needed. Where, on that continuum, do we want that guidance to come from?

  28. 28
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    @aggressivePerfector

    When it comes to knowing things, there is a continuum.

    I think you mean when it comes to **learning** things, not knowing things.

  29. 29
    aggressivePerfector

    28:

    When I learn something about a hypothesis, H, I know that H is more or less probable that it formerly was. Learning means acquiring knowledge. That knowledge may be of a different kind, though, to what some people think, or wish.

  30. 30
    consciousness razor

    In order to do good, you have to know a few things: what is good, what are the likely consequences of certain actions. How are we supposed to obtain that knowledge? Science is the only method of acquiring knowledge that is biased toward optimal reliability.

    Consequentialism is philosophy, not science, just like Epicureanism isn’t science. Same goes for whatever kind of science-based epistemology you’re advocating.

  31. 31
    aggressivePerfector

    Number 30:

    You are wrong. Philosophy is science. To clarify, there is stuff done, for example, by faculty members in university philosophy departments that is not science, but the extent to which it isn’t science is exactly the extent to which it isn’t philosophy. In that philosophy is an attempt to learn about the structure of reality, and in that science is the only reliable way of accumulating knowledge, philosophy and science are the same.

    The kind of science-based epistemology I’m advocating is quite simple. We’re all grown ups here, we know that there is no such thing as value that exists outside our own heads. So to learn about value we must examine the contents of people heads. Scientifically. When we do that carefully, certain hypotheses about what is good will emerge as probably true. That doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to be true, but the same shortcoming holds for all science.

    Consequentialism is correct, by definition (see my statement on scientific morality, if you don’t immediately understand why), but I’m curious to know what your alternative is. Or if you think consequentialism is satisfactory, how do you know this, when you say it isn’t arrived at by rational procedure (“not science”)?

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