The journey to atheism

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006.)

In a comment to a previous post, Jim Eastman said something that struck me as very profound. He said:

It’s also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.

“I contend we are both atheists – I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well.” – Stephen F. Roberts

This quote captures accurately an important stage in my own transition from belief to atheism. Since I grew up as a Christian in a multi-religious society and had Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist friends, I had to confront the question of how to deal with other religions. My answer at that time was simple – Christianity was right and the others were wrong. Of course, since the Methodist Church I belonged to had an inclusive, open, and liberal theological outlook, I did not equate this distinction with good or evil or even heaven and hell. I felt that as long as people were good and decent, they were somehow all saved, irrespective of what they believed. But there was no question in my mind that Christians had the inside track on salvation and that others were at best slightly misguided.

But as I got older and reached middle age, I found the question posed by Roberts increasingly hard to answer. It became clear to me that when I said I was a Christian, this was not merely a statement of what I believed. Implicitly I was also saying, in effect if not in words, that I was not a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc. As in the quote above, I could not satisfactorily explain to myself the basis on which I was rejecting those religions. After all, like most people, I believed in my own religion simply because I had grown up in that tradition. I had little or no knowledge of other religions and hence had no grounds for rejecting them. In the absence of a convincing reason for rejection, I decided to just remove myself from any affiliation whatsoever, and started to consider myself a believer in a god that was not bound by any specific religious tradition.

But when one is just a free-floating believer in god, without any connection to organized religion and the comforting reinforcement that comes with regular worship with others, one starts asking difficult questions about the nature of god and the relationship to humans for which the answers provided by organized religious dogma simply do not satisfy. When one is part of a church or other religious structure one struggles with difficult questions (suffering, the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, original sin, the basis for salvation, etc.) but those difficulties are addressed within a paradigm that assumes the existence of god, and thus always provides, as a last option, saying that the ways of god are enigmatic and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

But when I left the church, I started struggling with different questions such as why I believed that god existed at all. And if she/he/it did exist, how and where and in what form did that existence take, and what precisely was the nature of the interaction with humans?

I found it increasingly hard to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions and I remember the day when I decided that I would simply jettison the belief in god altogether. Suddenly everything seemed simple and clear. It is possible that I had arrived at this conclusion even earlier but that my conscious mind was rejecting it until I was ready to acknowledge it. It is hard, after all, to give up a belief that has been the underpinning of one’s personal philosophy. But the feeling of relief that accompanied my acceptance of non-belief was almost palpable and unmistakable, making me realize that my beliefs had probably been of a pro forma sort for some time.

Especially liberating to me was the realization that I did not have to examine all new discoveries of science to see if they were compatible with my religious beliefs. I could now go freely wherever new knowledge led me without wondering if it was counter to some religious doctrine.

A childhood friend of mine who knew me during my church-religious phase was surprised by my change and reminded me of two mutual friends who, again in middle age, had made the transition in the opposite direction, from atheism to belief. He asked me if it was possible that I might switch again.

It is an interesting question to which I, of course, cannot know the answer. My personal philosophy satisfies me now but who can predict the future? But while conversions from atheism to belief and vice versa are not uncommon, I am not sure how common it is for a single person to make two such U-turns and end up close to where they started. It seems like it would be a very unlikely occurrence. I don’t personally know of anybody who did such a thing.

Agnostic or atheist?

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006.)

I am sure that some of you have noticed that you get a more negative response to saying you are an atheist than to saying that you are an agnostic. For example, in a comment to a previous posting, Erin spoke about finding it “weird that atheism is so counter-culture. Looking back at my youth, announcing your non-belief in God was a surefire shock tactic.” But while I have noticed that people are shocked when someone says that he/she is an atheist, they are a lot more comfortable with you saying that you are an agnostic. As a result some people might call themselves agnostics just to avoid the raised eyebrows that come with being seen as an atheist, lending support to the snide comment that “an agnostic is a cowardly atheist.”

I have often wondered why agnosticism produces such a milder reaction. Partly the answer is public perceptions. Atheism, at least in the US, is associated with people who very visibly and publicly challenge the role of god in the public sphere. When Michael Newdow challenged the legality of the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that his daughter had to say in school, the media focused on his atheism as the driving force, though there are religious people who also do not like this kind of encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

In former times, atheism was identified with the flamboyant and abrasive Madalyn Murray O’Hair whose legal action led in 1963 to the US Supreme Court voting 8-1 to ban “‘coercive’ public prayer and Bible-reading at public schools.” (In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as the most hated woman in America.) I discussed earlier that the current so-called intelligent design (ID) movement in its “Wedge” document sees this action as the beginning of the moral decline of America and is trying to reverse that course by using ID as a wedge to infiltrate god back into the public schools. Since O’Hair also founded the organization American Atheists, some people speculate that the negative views that Americans have of atheism is because of the movement’s close identification with her.

I think that it may also be that religious people view atheism as a direct challenge to their beliefs, since they think atheism means that you believe that there definitely is no god and that hence they must be wrong. Whereas they think agnostics keep an open mind about the possible existence of god, so you are accepting that they might be right.

The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is a bit ambiguous. For example, if we go to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words are defined as follows:

Atheist: One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

Agnostic: One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

The definition of atheism seems to me to be too hard and creates some problems. Denying the existence of god seems to me to be unsustainable. I do not know how anyone can reasonably claim that there definitely is no god, simply because of the logical difficulty of proving a negative. It is like claiming that there is no such thing as an extra-terrestrial being. How can one know such a thing for sure?

The definition of agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to me to be too soft, as if it grants the existence of god in some form, but says we cannot know anything about she/he/it.

To me the statement that makes a good starting point is the phrase attributed to the scientist-mathematician Laplace in a possibly apocryphal story. When he presented his book called the System of the World, Napoleon is said to have noted that god did not appear in it, to which Laplace is supposed to have replied that “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

If you hold an expanded Laplacian view that you have no need for a god to provide meaning or explanations and that the existence of god is so implausible as to be not worth considering as a possibility, what label can be put on you, assuming that a label is necessary? It seems like this position puts people somewhere between the Oxford Dictionary definitions of atheist and agnostic. But until we have a new word, I think that the word atheist is closer than agnostic and we will have to live with the surprise and dismay that it provokes.

Shafars and brights arise!

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006)

Sam Smith runs an interesting website called the Progressive Review. It is an idiosyncratic mix of political news and commentary with oddball, amusing, and quirky items culled from various sources thrown in. Mixed with these are his own thoughtful essays on various topics and one essay that is relevant to this series of posts on religion and politics is his call for “shafars” (an acronym he has coined that stands for people who identify with secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, or rationalism) to play a more visible and assertive role in public life and to not let the overtly religious dominate the public sphere.
[Read more…]

“I know this is not politically correct but….”

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006)

One of the advantages of being older is that sometimes you can personally witness how language evolves and changes, and how words and phrases undergo changes and sometimes outright reversals of meaning.

One of the interesting evolutions is that of the phrase “politically correct.” It was originally used as a kind of scornful in-joke within Marxist political groups to sneer at those members who seemed to have an excessive concern with political orthodoxy and who seemed to be more concerned with vocabulary than with the substance of arguments and actions.

But later it became used against those who were trying to use language as a vehicle for social change by making it more nuanced and inclusive and less hurtful, judgmental, or discriminatory. Such people advocated using “disabled” instead of “crippled” or “mentally ill” instead of “crazy,” or “hearing impaired” instead of “deaf” and so on in an effort to remove the stigma under which those groups had traditionally suffered. Those who felt such efforts had been carried to an extreme disparaged those efforts as trying to be “politically correct.”

The most recent development has been to shift the emphasis from sneering at the careful choosing of words to sneering at the ideas and sentiments behind those words. The phrase has started being used pre-emptively, to shield people from the negative repercussions of stating views that otherwise may be offensive or antiquated. This usage usually begins by saying “I know this is not politically correct but….” and then finishes up by making a statement that would normally provoke quick opposition. So you can now find people saying “I know this is not politically correct but perhaps women are inferior to men at mathematics and science” or “I know this is not politically correct but perhaps poor people are poor because they have less natural abilities” or “I know this is not politically correct but perhaps blacks are less capable than whites at academics.” The opening preamble is not only designed to make such statements acceptable, the speaker can even claim the mantle of being daring and brave, an outspoken and even heroic bearer of unpopular or unpalatable truths.

Sentiments that would normally would be considered discriminatory, biased, and outright offensive if uttered without any supporting evidence are protected from criticism by this preamble. It is then the person who challenges this view who is put on the defensive, as if he or she was some prig who unthinkingly spouts an orthodox view.

As Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times (May 5, 1994) noted this trend early and pithily said:

We have now reached the point where every goon with a grievance, every bitter bigot, merely has to place the prefix, “I know this is not politically correct but…..'” in front of the usual string of insults in order to be not just safe from criticism but actually a card, a lad, even a hero. Conversely, to talk about poverty and inequality, to draw attention to the reality that discrimination and injustice are still facts of life, is to commit the new sin of political correctness……… Anti-PC has become the latest cover for creeps. It is a godsend for every sort of curmudgeon or crank, from the fascistic to the merely smug.

Hate blacks? Attack positive discrimination – everyone will know the codes. Want to keep Europe white? Attack multiculturalism. Fed up with the girlies making noise? Tired of listening to whining about unemployment when your personal economy is booming? Haul out political correctness and you don’t even have to say what’s on your mind.

Even marketers are cashing in on this anti-PC fad, as illustrated by this cartoon.

Perhaps it is my physics training, but I tend to work from the principle that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should assume that things are equal. For example, physicists assume that all electrons are identical. We don’t really know this for a fact, since it is impossible to compare all electrons. The statement “all electrons are identical” is a kind of default position and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, does not need to be supported by positive evidence.

But the statement “some electrons are heavier than others” is going counter to the default position and definitely needs supporting evidence to be taken seriously. Saying “I know this is not politically correct but I think some electrons are heavier than others” does not make it any more credible.

The same should hold for statements that deal with people, because I would like to think that the default position is that people are (on average) pretty much the same in their basic needs, desires, feelings, hopes, and dreams.

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-4

(Continued from yesterday.)

Strong allegiance to a tribe, and the belief that one’s tribe is better and more virtuous than others may actually cause members of your own tribe to act in worse ways than they might otherwise do. First of all, people who have a high sense of self-righteousness and an inflated sense of their own virtue are capable of committing the most heinous of crimes because they think that just because they belong to a good group, the acts they commit for the benefit of that group must be in the service of good too. They lack the questioning doubt and self-reflection that lies behind truly ethical behavior.

I am sure that the inquisitors of the Catholic Church who tortured and killed the alleged heretics, and the Puritans of New England who killed the alleged witches, were convinced that because they were high officials of religious groups, what they did was good. After all, they were serving god by advancing the interests of their group.

Furthermore, knowing that others will support them uncritically, and find all kinds of justifications for them whatever they do, will remove some of the restraints on people’s behavior. Surely some of the reasons that the soldiers at Abu Ghraib behaved so abominably must be due to their feeling that as Americans, they were automatically the ‘good guys’ and their Iraqi charges were the ‘bad guys’ and that therefore anything done to the bad guys was acceptable. And further, as we have seen so many times before and is shown in the Vietnam cases, the fact that superior officers and colleagues are willing to cover up their actions and shield them from repercussions, and that their family and friends and communities would make excuses for them, can breed the mentality that they can do anything with impunity.

The only way that we are ever going to be rid of the kind of tribal warfare that we are seeing is if we stop idealizing some groups and demonizing others. The progress on this front is not encouraging.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, the level of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in the US has been nothing less than appalling. We thus have commentators like Michelle Malkin (who approves of the internment of US citizens of Japanese ethnicity during World War II) now advocating the profiling of Muslims and Arabs, and columnist John Podhoretz suggesting that the US may have been able to avoid the current insurgency in Iraq if only ‘we’ had just killed many more 18-35 year old Muslim males during the initial invasion of Iraq. Podhoretz says: “What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn’t kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn’t the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?” (His column uses the old device of phrasing things as questions so that he can later deny that he was actually advocating such a barbaric genocidal policy, but merely raising an issue.) Such people can say these things (and worse) against Muslims or Arabs and people do not recoil in horror. Instead they continue to be given high visibility platforms to voice their truly disgusting views.

The attitude towards Israel and the Jews in the US is more complex and ambivalent. As far as the elected representatives in Congress and the major mainstream media goes, there is hardly any serious criticism of the policies of the Israeli government or its military. The kinds of things said routinely about Arabs and Muslims would, if said about Jews, result in loss of either their positions or their public platforms. Spirited debates about the merits of Israeli policies are much more likely to be found in the Israeli press, in newspapers like Ha’aretz, than in the US.

But while there is strong official support in the US media and government for the policies of the governments of Israel, there has long been hostility to Jews as an ethnic or religious group. This used to be more overt in the past but is now latent. The recent incident involving Mel Gibson is an illustration of this. An even more disturbing example can be found in this video in which British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, as his alter ego “Borat Sagdiyev from Kazakhstan” (his other famous alter ego is Ali G.), manages to get all the people in a bar somewhere in the US to join him in a rousing rendition of “Throw the Jews down the well.” It is disturbing to see how easy it is for him to get the crowd to sing along with him.

Most well-meaning people do not want to feed this kind of anti-Jewish sentiment and thus are reluctant to criticize the actions of the Israeli government. This same reluctance can be found among well-meaning expatriates from Sri Lanka who hesitate to criticize the actions of the Tamil Tigers, even when they commit the most appalling acts of brutality against civilians, because they fear giving ammunition to the anti-Tamil Sinhala chauvinists.

But not criticizing the actions of a government or organized entity because of fears that this will embolden that group’s enemies is not a good thing. The fact that Tamils have undoubtedly been discriminated against in the past does not, and should not, give the Tigers any immunity or absolution for committing atrocities against others.

We cannot overcome racism simply by praising the tribal groups who are discriminated against or avoiding criticizing them. We should recall that the way that people feel towards specific ethnic or religious or national groups is a very fickle thing. Being in the ‘in’ group now is no guarantee that one will not be in the ‘out’ group in the future. Admiration one day can easily turn to hate the next. Recall how American views towards Germans, Italians, Japanese, French, Poles, and Jews (to name just a few groups) have changed dramatically, and even see-sawed back and forth, over the past century.

The fundamental problem does not lie in the nature of our current attitude towards this or that particular tribe, but with the tribal mentality itself, the need to feel that one’s group allegiance is paramount over everything else, even to the sense of shared humanity. We need to realize that we are not really all that different from others. The only way to do that is to realize that ethnicity, religion, and nationality differences are purely cultural and superficial, just accidents of birth. Making them out to be anything more than that is to help perpetuate the historical cycle of tribal warfare.

It is heartening that there are examples of people overcoming their tribal allegiances, even in the heat of tribal battles. I am reminded of American pilot Hugh Thompson who risked his life to save some Vietnamese from being murdered by his fellow troops. I think of those Iraqis who, in the heat of the invasion of Iraq, risked their lives to treat US soldier Jessica Lynch for her wounds and return her to her American unit. I think of the Israeli pilots who defied their orders and deliberately missed their targets in Lebanon because they did not trust that their superiors had given them correct targets which housed guerillas, and they feared killing civilians by mistake. Such people should be inspirations to us all, showing us that it is possible for us to see ourselves as human first, and as tribe members last or, better still, not at all.

The current conflicts in the Middle East undoubtedly have their roots in many long historical and secular causes. The political and government leaders who perpetuate these wars may well have cynical non-tribal reasons for doing so. But goals such as oil and land and power and geostrategic calculations are usually not enough to keep the general public supportive of wars over long periods. To keep the people willing to fight and die, you have to inflame their tribal instincts, and there is no doubt that tribal allegiances to such things as religion are the fuel that keeps the true believers perpetually up in arms.

In order to counteract the negative image of religion that arises from these religion-based conflicts, apologists for Christianity and Judaism and Islam (the religions at play in the Middle East, but the same applies to religions in general) often argue that each of these religions is inherently peaceful and that it is extremists who have distorted their message.

At one time I would have been sympathetic to this point of view and have even espoused it myself in the past. But this benign view of religion is becoming, at least for me, increasingly hard to sustain. There seem to be too many people, even the majority, in each of these religions who feel that their religion approves of the killing of people of other religions. There seem to be too many priests and rabbis and imams of each of these religions, even the majority, who are eager to trot out doctrines of ‘just wars’ that happen to conveniently justify the current war of ‘their’ side and are thus willing to condone and support and even encourage actions that at other times would be considered murder. As Voltaire said, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” (See also Mark Twain’s The War Prayer.)

Religious leaders often condemn wars in general and even criticize past wars and the wars conducted by other countries, but somehow find reasons to justify the current war engaged by their own country or religion or nationality. All these suggest that a good case can be made that these religions are actually enabling and even inducing wars.

Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg puts the dangers of tribal allegiances perfectly, at least in relation to religion. He says:

“Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

I would also add unthinking allegiance to ethnicity and nationality as additional drivers that cause good people to do evil things.

We need to get beyond these tribal allegiances if we are to have peace in the world. If god existed, the best thing he/she could have done for us to further the goal of peace would have been to answer Robert Burns’ appeal:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us

But since god does not exist, we have to learn to do this ourselves.

POST SCRIPT: V for Vendetta

Some time ago I wrote a very positive review for this film when it came out. It was just released on DVD last week and a kind reader of this blog sent me a copy as a gift. I do not often see films more than once but I found this one very enjoyable even the second time around. I was able to see more nuances and appreciate better the points it was trying to make. There is no question in my mind that it is an excellent political allegory for our times, a film not to be missed.

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-3

(Continued from yesterday)

Learning to apply the same standards of judgment to actions, whether done by ‘them’ or ‘us’, is important if we are to get beyond tribal ways of thinking.

Take the actions of Hezbollah. Since they are part of the ‘them’ group, their rocket attacks into Israel are portrayed as deliberate attempts to kill Israeli civilians. If this was indeed their goal, it has been a massive failure. After all, we are told that they have been firing rockets at a rate of over one hundred per day, which means that about three to four thousand have been fired so far. But National Public Radio reported on August 6, 2006 that the number of Israelis killed as of that date was 94, of whom 58 were soldiers and 36 were civilians. If the goal of Hezbollah is to kill Israeli civilians, then on a purely callous and cynical cost-benefit analysis, this is an extraordinarily ineffective way of doing so, since it works out to about a hundred missiles for each civilian death.

Lobbing low precision munitions into cities is not the best way of inflicting large numbers of civilian casualties because most of the time they will land in empty places causing property damage and perhaps fires but few deaths. It is more likely that the goal of this barrage is to terrorize the civilian population by showing them that the Israeli military cannot protect them. Of course, when some Israeli civilians inevitably die due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, some Hezbollah supporters will rejoice, just as some of ‘us’ do when Arabs and Muslims are killed.

But what if a Hezbollah spokesperson were to say that they regretted the death of civilians, that it was an accident, that they were not targeting them but were merely trying to show that they had missiles that could reach these towns? Such an explanation would be rejected summarily, as it should be, because when you lob bombs into cities, you are displaying a callous disregard for civilian life. But why it is that we uncritically accept that same rationale when offered by US or Israeli government spokespersons?

Joseph Palermo makes as similar point, commenting on the fact that Fox News commentators like Michelle Malkin were saying that the Qana bombing was not such a big deal and the world-wide outrage over it was being deliberately manufactured by those seeking to discredit Israel:

What would be the response if Hezbollah fired a rocket into a shelter killing fifty-six Israeli civilians ranging in age from a ten-month-old baby to a 95-year-old woman as happened in Qana? What if Hezbollah apologized, saying it was a “mistake,” but had made a similar “mistake” ten years earlier in the same Israeli village, killing 106 civilians? Would Ms. Malkin and others like her be on the public airwaves spewing forth such brutish views of the innocent dead?

In modern warfare, the majority of casualties are civilians. While this is perhaps not deliberate, it is also not an accident. This pervasive callous disregard for civilian lives has, I suspect, arisen as a result of the advent of air power and long-range missiles which enables governments to rain destruction on enemy populations with minimal risk to themselves.

There are ways in which civilian casualties can be minimized and that is by having ground troops engage in close-range combat, where you can actually see the person you are fighting against and are less likely to kill children and other innocents. Police forces, for example, are trained to never to fire their weapons until they are sure that the target is who they think it is, in order to minimize the risk to noncombatants.

But this approach has a cost. It puts your own soldiers in harm’s way and runs the risk of having them being killed and injured. This might make the public less supportive of wars, which is what governments really fear the most. What government and other non-governmental warring agents have determined is that civilian casualties of the ‘other’ side are much preferable as a policy option to the deaths of ‘our’ soldiers, and so using air power and long-range missiles have become the preferred mode of warfare. A cynical calculation has been made that ‘we’ can live with casualties, as long as they are not ‘ours’.

In order to do this and still retain a sense of ‘our’ own nobility, ‘they’ have to be dehumanized, made to look as if ‘they’ do not share the same noble values as ‘we’ do and thus either deserved to die or that their lives are somehow worth less than ‘our’ lives. And we see this happening over and over again. I remember General William Westmoreland, commander of the US forces in Vietnam where about 500,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed. He downplayed these deaths and casually ‘explained’ in front of cameras why this was not so bad. He said, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Once again, we see the ‘we/they’ formulation of tribalism, used to justify our actions but condemn the identical actions of the opponents.

(If you ever get the chance, see the Oscar winning 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds where the Westmoreland clip can be seen. I saw it decades ago and that chilling scene of casual racism still reverberates within me, especially since immediately afterwards the film cut away to a scene of a Vietnamese village woman sobbing uncontrollably over the death of a loved one.)

This is why I am skeptical of the regretful apologies that are made by ‘our’ leaders whenever ‘their’ civilians are killed, the pieties that ‘we’ do not target civilians, and the aggrieved attitude that is adopted if anyone should think otherwise. ‘We’ may not have targeted the particular individual civilians who happened to die as a result of ‘our’ actions, but the decision to wage long-range warfare by planes or missiles ensured that large numbers of civilians would die just as surely as deliberately lining them up and shooting them.

The idea that by dropping leaflets from the air urging civilians to leave an area (as Israel has sometimes done) one has absolved oneself from guilt for their subsequent deaths from bombing attacks is another argument that has no merit. For one thing, as the events of Hurricane Katrina showed, telling people they should leave their homes does not mean they can leave even if they want to. There are whole host of reasons why people, especially the poor, very old, very young, or infirm, do not leave, even if you accept the dubious morality that it is acceptable to order people to abandon their homes so that they can be bombed later. As Juan Cole points out:

The Israelis don’t say, however, how desperately poor hardscrabble farmers including the aged and infirm and children are supposed to travel to Beirut over the roads and bridges that the Israelis have bombed out, and on what they are supposed to live when they get there.

Turning the argument around, what if Hezbollah said that all Israelis must leave Haifa and other cities in northern Israel because they are targeting the city with their missiles. Does that mean the deaths of Israeli civilians due to subsequent rocket attacks is justified? What if Hezbollah claims that since it is obvious by now that the northern towns of Israeli are targets of their rockets, that all civilians should leave those areas and that they are not responsible for the deaths of any civilians still remaining? Would we accept that? The answer to these questions is obviously no. Telling people who are living in their own homes, in their own communities, minding their own business, that they must leave or risk being killed is wrong, irrespective of who does it to whom.

The power of tribal allegiances is so strong that those who are determined to see their own side only in a virtuous light will not agree with me. Those with a tribal allegiance to Israel will find a way to justify the killing and displacement of Lebanese civilians, while similarly those with a tribal allegiance to Hezbollah will justify the killing and displacement of Israeli civilians.

I forget who it was that said that the hardest thing for any one of us to accept is that we are just like other people. This is not to deny that there exists diversity or certain distinguishing characteristics for individuals and even groups. But it is hard for many people to accept that no single individual or group has a monopoly on either the virtues or the vices. And yet, the sense of tribal allegiance is so strong that people desperately want to find some way to believe that their own tribe is morally superior to other tribes. It is as if they feel that their own sense of self-worth is inextricably linked with that of their tribe. They can feel good about themselves only if their tribe is also seen as good.

As examples, we find people who say that some things make them ‘proud to be American’ or ‘proud to be an Arab’ or ‘proud to be an Israeli.’ Statements such as these seem to me to be exceedingly meaningless. I am an ethnic Tamil and the nationality of my birth is Sri Lankan. Am I proud to be either? No. Conversely, am I ashamed to be either? No. Attaching those emotions to such labels is absurd, and is as meaningless as saying that I am proud to be brown-eyed. One’s ethnicity, nationality, and religion are accidents of birth, and I could just as easily have been born a Tibetan or an Inuit or a Swede. These labels provide a shorthand description of one’s history and all they indicate is which cultures one has grown up and is familiar with. There is no deeper significance, however much we may wish there was.

There is no particular virtue to be acquired because of the tribe one belongs to. It is what one does with one’s life, how one treats others, what kind of steward one is for the Earth, that determines one’s worth and value.

To be continued. . .

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-2

(Continued from yesterday.)

Examples of people’s willingness to believe the best about their own tribe and the worst about the tribe opposing them are not hard to find.

For example, I remember when the Iranian airbus civilian plane was shot down by a US navy warship in the Persian Gulf in 1988. Some people in the US went so far as to suggest that this was a diabolical plan by the Iranians, that they actually ordered a plane full of civilians to pretend as if it were a fighter plane dive-bombing a US navy cruiser so that it would be shot down and thus cause the US to look bad. The only reason such a story would be believed (or even proposed) by anyone was if they started out with the view that Iranians were completely evil and diabolical and viewed their own citizens as expendable.
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Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-1

(I have been thinking a lot about the violence that is engulfing the Middle East and the horrific loss of life and homes and other property that is taking place. What follows is a long essay that reflects my thoughts and feelings on it. I have serialized it into four parts and will post one part each day for the rest of this week.)

As the ghastly events in the Middle East keep unfolding, it becomes imperative that we need to radically change the way we view ourselves and others if we are to have any hope of saving the world from an endless cycle of death and brutality.

Robert Burns’ poem To a Louse contains a much-quoted passage that is a good starting point for such a transformative approach.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us

It wad frae monie a blunder free us

An’ foolish notion

(My feeble attempt at a translation into modern English that loses the charm, appeal and rhythm of the Scottish dialect of the original is:

O for a gift that God would give us
To see ourselves as others see us
It would from many a blunder save us
and foolish thoughts)

Truer words were never spoken. The hardest thing for us to do is to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and see how we, and our actions, might look to them. Instead, as has often been pointed out, our tendency is to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. As a result, the bad actions of others are taken at face value and their protestations of good intentions are often dismissed as excuses and rationalizations, or even bad faith lies. But when others do the same thing to us, we are deeply offended and become aggrieved. Can’t they understand that we meant well? Shouldn’t our intentions count for something? Such unbalanced approaches cannot help but lead to conflict between people.
The tendency to have such a blinkered view becomes worse when the actions of entire groups of people are involved because the tribal instinct also then kicks in and those blinders provide an even narrower perspective. The worst examples occur when groups go to war against each other. When the ‘we,’ ‘us,’ or ‘ourselves’ becomes our clan or tribe (labeled by religion or ethnicity or nationality) and ‘they’ or ‘others’ becomes members of a different tribe with whom we are at war, the blindness to our own tribe’s faults and mistakes, and the harshness of our judgments of the other side’s actions become pronounced to the point of losing touch with reality.

Take as examples the many current conflicts going on in the Middle East region, be it the US forces battling the insurgency in Iraq or the clashes between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon or between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

If you live in the US, there is a dominant storyline that most people, especially elected officials and the media subscribe to for these conflicts. In this narrative, ‘we’ represent either the US or Israel, and ‘they’ are Muslims or Arabs. ‘We’ are intrinsically good people and ‘they’ are not as good as us, and harbor many bad people. ‘

‘We’ use force only when we have no alternative, and when we do so we are very judicious, careful to make sure that only the guilty are targeted. When innocent civilians are hurt or killed by ‘our’ actions, it is purely inadvertent and accidental. We are quick to express regret and expect that ‘they’ will immediately accept those apologies as genuine, because after all, we are good, humane, decent people.

At the very worst, when some massacre or other atrocity of ‘their’ civilians occurs because of some actions by ‘our’ people, and there seems to be no way of explaining it away as an accident, we are quick to say that these were gross aberrations, the work of a ‘few bad apples’ that in no way represent official policy, or our usual behavior. The actions are portrayed as deviations from our normal high ethical and moral standards. We insist that, as a matter of fair play, the accused must be given all the benefits of due process, be viewed as innocent until proven guilty, and strongly urge everyone to withhold judgment until ‘all the fact are in.’ We then hold extended inquiries and trials, find all kinds of mitigating factors for the actions of ‘our’ errant people, and give the culprits relatively minor punishments.

It is easy to find examples of this. The official responses to the My Lai massacres and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal immediately spring to mind.

The Los Angeles Times of August 6, 2006 has an explosive article by reporters Nick Turse and Deborah Nelson, based on recently declassified secret documents, that this kind of condoning of bad behavior by ‘our’ soldiers during the Vietnam war was much more widespread than originally thought. The long article goes into shocking details of the casual brutality perpetrated on the Vietnamese. Here is just a brief excerpt of the article but you have to read the full story with its details to appreciate the immensity of the crimes committed:

The documents detail 320 alleged incidents that were substantiated by Army investigators — not including the most notorious U.S. atrocity, the 1968 My Lai massacre.

Though not a complete accounting of Vietnam war crimes, the archive is the largest such collection to surface to date. About 9,000 pages, it includes investigative files, sworn statements by witnesses and status reports for top military brass.

The records describe recurrent attacks on ordinary Vietnamese — families in their homes, farmers in rice paddies, teenagers out fishing. Hundreds of soldiers, in interviews with investigators and letters to commanders, described a violent minority who murdered, raped and tortured with impunity.

Abuses were not confined to a few rogue units, a Times review of the files found. They were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam.
. . .
Ultimately, 57 of them were court-martialed and just 23 convicted, the records show.

Fourteen received prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years, but most won significant reductions on appeal. The stiffest sentence went to a military intelligence interrogator convicted of committing indecent acts on a 13-year-old girl in an interrogation hut in 1967.

He served seven months of a 20-year term, the records show.

Despite the fact that this kind of thing has happened repeatedly in the past and still continues to happen, ‘we’ are still amazed when ‘they’ see our behavior as approving of, if not condoning, the actions of the perpetrators.

But what happens if ‘our’ civilians are killed and hurt by ‘them’? Then our perspective shifts by 180 degrees. The actions by ‘them’, even if by a few individuals, are not treated as aberrations, but instead are taken as official policy by the opposing government or group because, after all, they are not as good as we are, and are thus capable of not only committing the most heinous crimes, but actually desiring to do so. No apologies or expressions of regret are accepted. Judgment is not withheld but the actions are immediately condemned as wrong and the accused are assumed to be guilty. No calls for due process now. Instead, summarily killing the accused is seen as acceptable, if not desirable. Only swift revenge will appease us, either in the form of military action, quick and severe justice for the perpetrators, sanctions against the offending nations, or financial restitution.

Seeing the world and people in such a weirdly dualistic way is only possible if one values one’s tribal allegiance above all other allegiances, and is willing to ignore reality to maintain the belief that ‘we’ must be inherently better then ‘they.’ Many people clearly think like this. So strong are people’s tribal allegiances that they will hold onto the narrative of the essential goodness and purity of their own side, and the essential evil of the other side, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. Even the starkest of facts will not shake their faith.

To be continued. . .

Global warming-9: The demise of Easter Island

Easter Island tends to grip the imagination of people. But the things that people remember most about it (even perhaps the only thing) are the giant stone statues of faces that exist on the island.

Jared Diamond tells the sad story of this island as a warning to us all in a chapter of his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed, but an earlier essay by him can be seen here. Thanks to for the link.)
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Global warming-8: The danger of complacency

The documentary An Inconvenient Truth provides a good introduction to the problem of global warming. The film has three interwoven threads: (1) a documentary showing a slide-show talk that former Vice-President Al Gore gives around the world on the facts of global warming, mixed with film footage of the impact of warming on the environment; (2) the story of Gore’s own interest in this topic; and (3) some self-promotion by Gore.

While I could have done without the last and was not particularly interested in the second, the first part was done very well. It captured most of the state of the science accurately and presented it in a visually captivating way. The film is sobering and well worth seeing to get an introduction to the science behind the problem and a sense of the gravity of the situation we are facing.
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