Friday, May 21, 2010


My students tell me that Judeo-Christian ethics are at the root of our legal system, but are they really? I can convert to Hinduism, on Sunday, lie to my parents about, and then say, “Goddamn, I covet my neighbor’s wife – and his ass, for that matter,” and the police don’t care, even though seven or eight of the Ten Commandments have just dropped before me like so many bowling pins.

The process by which religious precepts gradually become private rather than public observances is called secularization, and even highly observant followers of most faiths would probably agree that, up to a point, at least, it’s a good thing. Imagine, if you will, a society where it was a criminal offense to dishonour one’s parents. The courts would be teeming with teenagers. Conservatives would howl that we need to get tough to deter future dishonouring; liberals would whine that we need to get at the root cause of the tendency to dishonour; and lawyers would clean up, as usual. We needn't imagine the horror of societies where "thou shalt have no other Gods before me" is enforced by the power of the state, because religious fascism has existed throughout human history, and still does.

Yesterday, thousands of people took part in “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”. Measure of Doubt did not. I’m not Muslim and therefore Islamic moral and ethical precepts do not apply to me except where they overlap coincidentally with laws and moral and ethical codes that do. But I chose not to participate in the day anyway. There are millions and millions of non-violent Muslims who consider the depiction of their prophet to be offensive, and I see no reason to offend people who are doing me no harm. Deliberately offending others is a weapon of second-last resort.

Having said that, I would very much like to digitally thumb my nose at the minority within every faith who believes that blasphemy ought to be punishable by law and perhaps even by death. Get a grip, people: you’re not the ones going to Hell. As I’ve said to religious friends many times over the years, it’s not the atheists you need to worry about. They just think you’re wrong. It’s the fanatically devout of other faiths who should concern you. They’re think you’re wrong and that you’re going to Hell for it. Some of them are even willing to expedite the process.

We need to get past all this. Our societal discourse on matters of religion is positively infantile, worse even than the dreary and depressing state of public discussion of electoral politics. It doesn’t help that books by nonbelievers tend to take the form of shrill diatribes, but there is little opportunity for sensible discussion when so many of the faithful themselves argue that religious beliefs ought to be exempt from criticism.

Sarah Palin was almost certainly the least impressive of major political candidates to come along in recent memory. But she had one quality that the Senator from Illinois did not have: she was consistent on the matter of religion. She was unapologetically evangelical and said that, you betchya, her faith would influence her decision making in office. For this, secularists and liberal Christians jumped all over her. But why? What did they want? For a ridiculous woman to be a hypocrite on top of it all? It is absurd to suggest that a politician should “keep her faith a private matter” when in political office. Either her faith has meaning to her, or it does not. If it does not, she should abandon it. If it does, we should expect it to influence her decision making. But our political culture practically demands religious hypocrisy, and in all sorts of ways. I trust everyone saw Laura Bush, very recently, confessing that she’s pro-choice and a supporter of same-sex marriage?

So I had a small flicker of admiration for Palin for a moment or two, for at least having the consistency of her beliefs (that’s how the low the bar was set). But it passed. Because when some of the weirder aspects of her belief hit the fan, and some people started to ask whether, for instance, a woman who believes that the world is 6,000 years old should be involved in policy making on scientific and educational issues, Palin and her supporters ran for the customary but hypocritical defense that religion was a private matter and therefore off limits.

No, no, no. A thousand times no. Politicians can do one of two things. They can do what the liberal secularists demand of them, and keep their faith to themselves and out of their politics, or they bring their faith into the public sphere and accept the fact that it’s going to be subject to criticism, just like every other aspect of their decision making.

The same goes for everybody. You don’t get to use your religion to adjudicate on all matters of truth and morality, up to and including speculating upon the disposition of the immortal soul of others, and then demand immunity from criticism in return. In short, if you tell me I’m going to Hell, I get to tell you to precede me there.

From the very beginning, this blog has been a defense of the principle that people should be free to do and say and think and read whatever they want, provided they’re not stopping other people from the doing the same, and provided that they’re not harming other people in the process. Blasphemy does not, can not, and never will fall into that category. No prophets were harmed in the making of this picture.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Do you want to be really, really frightened? Deeply and truly terrified about the state of the world? Do you want to experience the long, dark, night of the soul, paralyzed with fear for the future of humanity? Forget global warming. Put nuclear terrorism out of your mind. Worry thee not about declining potable water supplies. If you want to be truly afraid, spend an hour trolling through posts on Internet message boards, the ones that follow virtually every news-story or video clip. Then consider: these people have the right to vote. Here is the electronic community’s infinite equivalent of obscene scrawls on the inside of a public bathroom stall: people at their most nasty and cowardly and illiterate and crass. In a recent column, the outgoing editor of the local newspaper gushed that reader input of this kind could “democratize the news”, as if what’s factually true and worth presenting was a matter of majority opinion. Can you imagine? “Next on News Now, the stars of Twilight discuss why they think Bush planned 9/11.” It would happen.

But the most subliterate, irrational, and mean-spirited message boards anywhere are to be found on Youtube. People there find ways to start vitriolic (but illiterate and uninformed) fights about Obama on clips of otters holding hands.
Just to see, I selected a video at random from Youtube’s main-page. It turned out to be a clip of a UFC fighter, “talking trash”, as they say, about his opponents. You can imagine the kinds of messages that followed. Even the profanity is spelled wrong. So it’s not necessarily to click the following link. But, if you do, be aware that there’s swearing and racist epithets being thrown around:

Now, admittedly, there was some selection bias here. Click on your typical link of, say (I sense the sports fans starting to rise from their seats already), a UFC video or an NHL game or a even Tiger Woods these days, and you’ll get decidedly less literate commentary than if you clicked on a link of, for instance, a performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C or a replay of a famous chess match.

Anyway, it’s of no particular consequence what the average person thinks of last night’s game or who is a better fighter in the UFC (or what they think of the Great Mass, for that matter.) It is of importance what the average voter thinks about politics, and the posts in response to events of actual importance on most Internet message boards actually leave me rather thankful that most people don’t vote.

Issues such a climate change, the threat of fundamentalist religion, the global economic downturn, etc., are extraordinarily complex problems. Understanding them requires study and careful consideration. Solving them will require serious people who have a clear mandate to act on behalf of a properly informed citizenry. Reading message boards on, Youtube, Slate, and, well, almost anywhere, one gets the sinking feeling that tens of thousands of people are totally ill-informed but, what’s worse, nonetheless think that they’re right. They are exemplars of Russell’s famous adage that the whole problem with the world is that smart people are full doubt while the stupid ones are sure of themselves.

So what is going on here? I mean, apart from the fact that the most educated generation in the history of the world has apparently resolved itself to do nothing with that gift? I have a theory, and it has to do with human nature.

After World War Two and until the 1980s at the earliest, many cultural anthropologists, sociologists, cultural theorists, feminists, and others, argued that the World Wars had demonstrated that the problem with humankind was not a lack of civilization, but civilization itself, or at least the racist, sexist, militaristic, environmentally destructive civilization we’d built over the last 10,000 years.

By contrast, prehistoric humans, they contended, including various indigenous peoples prior to European contact, lived noble lives in harmony with nature and one another. The biological anthropologists tended to argue that this was the natural outcome of our evolutionary heritage. Just look at our nearest biological cousin, the chimpanzees, after all: they’re fun-loving creatures who spend their days cuddling and grooming one another and learning sign language.

Well, it’s not that simple, of course. Today many anthropologists and archeologists tell us that the death rate from violence in hunter-gatherer and early agriculturalist societies (including those of most pre-contact indigenous peoples) was probably about 25 or 30 percent. Just by way of comparison, about 4 or 5 percent of Germans died from violence in the first half of the 20th century, and that was after losing two worlds wars and suffering through one genocidal dictator. For Canadians, the figure is probably something like a quarter of a percent.

An important Israeli political scientist, Azar Gat, says that the reason for all this is simple. Contrary to what was once believed, our natural, evolutionary predispositions are exceedingly violent. Consider those cousins of ours. In the early 1970s, Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees do, in fact, wage war, commit murder and rape, and that nearly every female chimp who survives to adulthood loses at least one offspring to infanticide. That’s what evolution conditioned us for, Gat argues. We’re a grisly species that likes to fight. Fortunately, we don’t just obey the dictates of our genes. Civilization, is, well, civilizing. It encourages us to build hospitals and give Mother’s Days cards and write symphonies and get to work in rush hour without killing anybody. Our weapons are more lethal, true, and there’s more of us to kill these days, but in proportional terms the average European — even accounting for Hitler and Stalin — or North American living in modern times, is far less likely to die in war or by violence than the average person in medieval Europe, antiquity, or prehistoric times, when wars were smaller but far more frequent and death by murder was an everyday event. Life back then was, as Hobbes famously put it, nasty, brutal, and short. By historical standards, modern liberal democracies are practically Heaven. Today, the average Canadian can expect to be murdered about once every 54,000 years, and more Canadians die from accidental falls every year than have died in war in all the years since 1945.

And what on Earth has this to do with Internet message boards? Well, it’s simple, really. Civilization – and liberal democratic civilization in particular – encourages us to restrain ourselves. But the Internet is an uncivilized place. It is not liberal and it’s not a democracy – it’s anarchy. The restraints of human solidarity that keep you and me from pelting each other with bananas (or arrows or spears or stones) are not in place when people log anonymously onto Youtube or And night after night, on the message boards, the chimps return to stake out territory and fight. You can read their grunting for yourself.

In fact, I admit that some primal part of me desperately wants to go to that Youtube clip of Mozart’s Great Mass and leave a message saying “Mozart sux. Beethoven rulez” just to see what would happen.