Category Archives: religion

Willful blindness

C. P. Surendran thinks the protest over Rushdie’s aborted India visit is without merit, and that it the invite to him might even be a cunning publicity stunt on the part of the organizers of the lit. festival. He then uses the stale and irrelevant why-didn’t-the-protestors-protest-this-or-that argument to dismiss the legitimacy of the protest. Apparently, unless people who believe in freedom of expression are willing to be beaten up by Sena goons or thick-skulled members of the Hindutva brigade, they cannot earn the privilege to protest Islamic censorship. Better still, die at the hands of the (“idiot[ic]”) terrorists in Kashmir to prove your beliefs/credentials-

The actual test for literature is outside Diggy Palace, far beyond the ramparts of Jaipur Fort and DSC largesse. How about getting off the plane at Srinagar, standing in the town square and reading passages from The Satanic Verses? In the process, some idiot might cut you down with an AK-47, but what could be braver and better than dying for the words you believe in? Or better still, why not sacrifice one’s bleeding, agonised word-hungry soul for the freedom of speech in Kashmir, where if you throw a word at the State, you gets bullets in your mouth in return?

Forget all that Rushdie went through for a moment. Despite the best efforts of a now-dead Iranian lune, he is alive, for now. Theo van Gogh is not. And so many people have faced death threats and have had their lives permanently disrupted for having the temerity to “offend” Islam that glib commentary of this nature on the issue is not just regrettable, but condemnable more so because it recommends self-censorship.

All religion is based on faith in some nebulous, fictional entity. Some people believe in God-by-any-name; others swear by Batman. And offering protection to the “sentiments” of such people is not good jurisprudence, but lunacy.

Greenwald writes about the perennially stamped-upon US Fifth Amendment-

The Indictment is a classic one-side-of-the-story document; even the most mediocre lawyers can paint any picture they want when unchallenged. That’s why the government is not supposed to dole out punishments based on accusatory instruments, but only after those accusations are proved in an adversarial proceeding.

Whatever else is true, those issues should be decided upon a full trial in a court of law, not by government decree. Especially when it comes to Draconian government punishments — destroying businesses, shutting down websites, imprisoning people for life, assassinating them — what distinguishes a tyrannical society from a free one is whether the government is first required to prove guilt in a fair, adversarial proceeding. This is a precept Americans were once taught about why their country was superior, was reflexively understood, and was enshrined as the core political principle: “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It’s simply not a principle that is believed in any longer, and therefore is not remotely observed.

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A disingenuous argument

The AV Club has published an interview with “new atheist” Sam Harris about his new book on morality and how it can be grounded in science if everyone accepts his standard of morality-

With his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris has shifted from the more philosophical and social arguments he’s made against the world’s religions and used his background in neuroscience to argue that moral truth exists and science is the best tool to employ for its discovery. If we can agree that morality is based upon the notion of human and animal well-being, Harris argues that we can then begin to make factual claims about what is right and what is wrong.

And what is his standard? The nebulous “human well-being” or “society’s well-being”-

What’s interesting is that there’s actually much more consensus on moral truth than there is on any other scientific claim. Many more people agree that being cruel to children is wrong—that’s almost universally subscribed in every culture—than agree that evolution occurred, or that the special theory of relativity has any truth to it. Our core moral principles are actually quite well subscribed. So what I’m arguing in my book is that we are actually free to define our terms in our conversation about morality in the same way we’re free to define our terms on any other scientific topic.

For instance, in physics we talk about things like causation and laws and theories and matter and energy and we talk about these things within certain constraints and people who don’t obey those constraints really can’t talk the talk of physics. If they show up at a physics conference, they don’t make any sense. There’s nothing wrong with that. You have to define your terms in science. But here we run into another double standard. On the subject of morality, when I define morality as relating to the well-being of conscious creatures—humans and animals for our purposes—people say, “Well you can’t just define morality as related to well-being. Who says it’s related to well-being?” People seem to worry that merely defining your terms puts morality on very shaky ground, whereas it doesn’t in any other scientific discipline.

But this is a case of running around in circles. The constraints that we place while talking about physics are not arbitrary in nature (We can verify our arguments, empirically, as physicist Sean Carroll says in response to Harris’ thesis). While those that he places in the case of morality are. This is a simple case of scientism. And intimidation

Sam Harris invites us to understand “moral” claims and “values” as being propositions that are “concerned with the flourishing of conscious creatures in a society” and he challenges: “what else would it relate to?” He argues that simply attempting to define terms is the first necessary step to studying these concepts scientifically. He thus argues that discussions that have no bearing on those elements are simply not moral discussions, according to this scientific definition of morality.

[…]

Harris also stresses the importance of defending this definition since it is the first step to being able to make various important scientific judgements. He argues that scientists frequently, and rightly, exclude individuals for not conforming to agreed-upon terms of discourse (e. g. young earth creationists). Harris then suggests that it is even more important that scientists exclude from empirical moral discussions those who are not interested in a society’s conscious flourishing (e. g. psychopaths). If scientists were to simply accept Harris’ definition of “moral”, for example, any individual who opts to define “moral” as “that which pleases Leprechauns” would have no place in scientific discussions.

If someone were to define moral as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior” and hold that the standard is the life of the individual, Harris might just as well say: “not individual, but society.” I have no problem with “human well-being” because in my mind it is equivalent to the flourishing of the individual and if this were the standard, utilitarian, deontological and consequentialist ideas and policies that don’t mind sacrificing the individual to the mob would be a strict no-no. But Harris’ past record is very clear. He, and his merry band of new atheists, are all altruists to the core and just as bad as the religious zealots they condemn, as this article in The Objective Standard points out-

[H]arris advocates altruism, the notion that being moral consists in living for the sake of others, or, more precisely, in self-sacrificially serving others. And although Harris acknowledges that “there are millions of people whose faith moves them to perform extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others,” he claims that “there are far better reasons for self-sacrifice than those that religion provides.”

The best “reason” for self-sacrifice, says Harris, is that “the social feeling of love is one of our greatest sources of happiness; and love entails that we be concerned for the happiness of others.” This, he says, “suggests a clear link between ethics [by which Harris means altruism] and positive human emotions. The fact that we want the people we love to be happy, and are made happy by love in turn, is an empirical observation.”

The happiness that Harris advocates is not the happiness that comes from the achievement of one’s own self-interested, life-promoting values. Rather, it is a “higher happiness,” which allegedly comes from sacrificing one’s own interests for the sake of others.

What if someone, in his self-sacrificial service to others, fails to achieve this “higher happiness”? Harris says that he should rectify the situation by meditating and liberating himself from the “illusion of the self” that is the “string upon which all [his] states of suffering and dissatisfaction are strung.” And what if this person still fails to intuitively grasp the sacrificial essence of ethics? Then, says Harris, he may be precluded from “taking part in any serious discussion” of morality.

Altruism is an ethical system suitable for a society of cannibals. I wonder if, under the guise of looking for a scientific basis for morality, he’s looking for a scientific basis for a particular brand of morality: altruism. The old bait-and-switch trick.

Subterfuge

Nicholas Kristof attempts an undisguised defense of Islam-

The New York Times reported recently on a Pew Research Center poll in which religious people turned out to be remarkably uninformed about religion…. And atheists were among the best informed about religion.

So let me give everybody another chance. And given the uproar about Islam, I’ll focus on extremism and fundamentalism….

3. The terrorists who pioneered the suicide vest in modern times, and the use of women in terror attacks, were affiliated with which major religion?
a. Islam
b. Christianity
c. Hinduism

[…]

[T]he point of this little quiz is that religion is more complicated than it sometimes seems, and that we should be wary of rushing to inflammatory conclusions about any faith, especially based on cherry-picking texts.

The answer to the question: “3. c. Most early suicide bombings were by Tamil Hindus (some secular) in Sri Lanka and India.”

Which proves what, exactly? I wrote a post against such facile arguments, which conflate the incidental with the significant, in late ’08-

About not referring to terrorists by their religion – ideology, what the ‘liberal’ media and other ‘liberals’ do is indulge in semantic warfare. The statement “All Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims” is blatantly false. But that does not mean that we don’t label outfits according to their ideology – the Naxalites are called Maoists because their ideology derives from Mao; the ULFA are called separatists because their terror is based on nationhood for Assam; Sikh terrorism – the one related to Khalistan – is called that because their ideology revolved around a separate homeland for Sikhs. So, if a terror group fights under the banner of Islam, regardless of how many Muslims actually support them, not calling them Islamic or at least Islamist is dishonest and an act of deluding oneself. And if someone calls the ULFA or Maoists “Hindu terrorists” – to make a point – they basically have their head up their arse, or as the BJP would say, they are being pseudo secular, or as Benkin says, they are creating a moral equivalence that is non-existent. Before labeling someone – look at the ideology, then look at the scale.

The Hindu-ness of the LTTE or the religious affiliations of the various sides to the Irish conflict are of secondary importance; these conflicts were about ethnicity and nationalism, not religion. Which cannot be said about Islam, barring minor exceptions such as Kashmiri separatism.

Christianity and Islam are religions that were born in conflict. The former has grudgingly accepted the idea of separation of church and state; the latter hasn’t. It was, is, and will always be political unless it is seriously reformed. When Saudi Arabia becomes a secular state, one will know that the movement was a success. Till that happens, pretending that it’s only the odd Bin Laden who is perverting an innocent religion is like adopting the mentality of an ostrich. This is the mentality that results in Orwellian newspeak like “‘man-caused’ disasters.” On 9/11/01, some man-caused-disaster-causing-men caused a man-caused disaster…

PS: While tagging this post, I very nearly used “Nicholas Ostrich” before correcting it. The subconscious at work.

“Above reason”

This

But by their very nature, faith and belief have no factual basis. They are above reason. And if push comes to shove, they aren’t answerable to norms of legality laid down by mere mortals.

is the only disappointing part in Padgaonkar’s piece on the Ayodhya verdict. Faith is neither above nor beyond reason. It is answerable to reason, but often does not because people prefer blindness to sight.

That said, in a country where the concept of rights has been completely corrupted, it is naive to presume that the courts would show any consistency when it came to the question of property rights. The verdict of the Allahabad HC, or at least the reasoning behind the same, is a joke. The case before the HC was a title suit. If the title deeds and property records don’t clarify matters related to ownership, one has to fall back on homesteading. Ownership is assigned to the one who has been using/maintaining the premises for the longest time. If the division in three parts were based on such reasoning, one wouldn’t have questioned it. But the decision, instead, is based on “faith and belief,” and the idea of compromise. It is political. Ram Jethmalani, who has called the verdict an example of “judicial statesmanship,” says-

In India, secularism is not a denial of religion, it is subjecting religion to the rule of reason.

If only.

Beyond the question of rights, the pleadings of the political class are pure nonsense. The Supreme Court may be the last court of appeal, but is not the end of the road. As successive governments have repeatedly proven, if they find a particular decision of the court to be detrimental to their interests, they nullify it through the parliamentary process. The same can be done here too. Whatever the decision of the SC, the parliament can always pass a law decreeing that the mosque be completely demolished, and a temple be built in its place, or that the mosque itself be rebuilt. If it’s challenged in the courts as “unconstitutional,” the constitution itself can be amended. The only thing that might prevent such a thing is the fear of a backlash from the two communities.

Siddharth Varadarajan writing in The Hindu on the reasoning of the court-

Collectives in India have faith in all sorts of things but “faith” cannot become the arbiter of what is right and wrong in law. Nor can the righting of supposed historical wrongs become the basis for dispensing justice today.

[…]

In suggesting a three way partition of the site, the High Court has taken a small step towards the restoration of the religious status quo ante which prevailed before politicians got into the act. But its reasoning is flawed and even dangerous. If left unamended by the Supreme Court, the legal, social and political repercussions of the judgment are likely to be extremely damaging.

Padgaonkar continues in a similar vein-

This is the road that the three judges chose to tread. They looked upon Lord Ram not as a mythological figure who, given his exemplary life and character, dwells in the hearts of millions of Hindus, but as a historical character. This explains the court’s willingness to identify the precise location of his place of birth. The exercise did not call for a shred of evidence. None was sought and none was forthcoming. It was undertaken simply because the faith and belief of Hindus decreed that the Lord was born under the central dome of the mosque that was razed to the ground.

Once faith and belief are factored into a resolution of a legal tangle, you embark, swiftly and surely, on the slippery slope of majoritarian conceit.

Who gets what share is immaterial. It’s the reasoning that is important. And that’s where the HC has failed miserably. In trying to protect the “sentiments” and “beliefs” of believers, it went on to demolish the very idea of rights. Blind faith and its pound of flesh.

The tree that croaks without respite

TOI’s “The Speaking Tree” at its mindfucking best-

Destroy your mind. Only then you can know Vedanta.

Vidyaranya Swami says, “Mind verily is the root of the tree of samsara with thousands of sprouts, branches and leaves. To suppress sankalpas — thoughts and imagination — it is essential to devitalise the mind by forceful effort and destroy it. By doing so, the tree of samsara will wither away.”

[…]

If you overcome your mind, you have overcome the world because the mind alone is the root cause of all that one experiences in the world. It is only when the mind attains the state of no-mind-ness (amani bhava) that one becomes happy, blissful and altruistic in life.

If you want to be happy, go into a comatose state. Where the mind is dead, happiness reigns. Destroy your mind. With gurus like these, and a newspaper that enables them, who needs enemies. They are Hinduism’s answer to Medusa.