31 January 2011

Worried about Egypt’s future

The night shift security guard at my work was born and raised in Egypt. He’s now an Australian citizen. Most nights he drops by the lab during his rounds for a chat, usually just as I’m finishing up for the day. Naturally, last night’s topic was the Egyptian protests. A few months ago he had gone back to Cairo to get married. His wife is still there and he’s worried. “I told her on the phone to not go outside unless she really has to.”

For many Egyptians (and foreign observers), the thought of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood seizing power from Hosni Mubarak’s despised government is a scary one. Especially for minorities like my security guard friend’s family, who are Coptic Christians. My friend is adamant that if the Brotherhood are in government, Copts like him and his family will be persecuted. “There will be blood.”

His melodrama is understandable. His fear is nothing to be made light of, especially by an outsider like me. “But maybe”, I tried to reassure him, “maybe the moderates in the Brotherhood will keep the extremists in check.” After all, I argued, if they come into power, they’re not going to jeopardise their victory by angering the secularists with brutal acts of oppression. I also mentioned Turkey as an example of a country with a mildly Islamist government that is popular with the people yet has freedom of religion.

My friend’s response was dismissive of the Muslim Brotherhood’s benevolence, and pessimistic about religious freedom should they be calling the shots. He didn’t say it, but perhaps he felt that Egypt under the Brotherhood would be more like post-Islamic Revolution Iran, not Turkey.

Now that’s a scary thought.

In a Guardian article, Kenan Malik sketches Egypt’s tumultuous history of dealing with Islamists, describing how its leaders have used and abused Muslim radicals for political gain, with often violent results. The West has been complicit in all of this of course. For decades Western foreign policy with regards to the Muslim world has taken this cynical formula: support secular dictators and Islamists if it means stability and profits, oppose them otherwise.

But Malik expresses what reasonable liberals have always known; democracy may be a messy, factious and unstable system, but that’s how it’s supposed to be. To impose order on this healthy chaos, whether by secular or religious means, is to pervert the democratic spirit, chiefly because this imposition is top-down, while democracy is by definition bottom-up. And if the people decide that Islamists, whether the AKP in Turkey, Hamas in Palestine or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, should govern them, then as much as it galls liberal secular humanists like myself, it is their right to elect such a government.

I hope the Egyptian people will give themselves a government, secular or religious, that meets their needs, respects their rights and upholds their freedoms. May they reach this positive milestone with minimum violence and bloodshed.


29 January 2011

Critical thinkers, beware Poe’s Law!

Apparently this has been an internet meme since 2005, but I’ve only just discovered Poe’s Law:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing.

It makes sense; some of the wacky things that come out of the mouths and keyboards of religious and political fundies almost parody themselves. Satirists poking fun at the kooks need to post disclaimers or include some overt sign that they’re taking the piss if they’re not to be confused for the real deal. Especially by overeager folks who let their outrage overtake their caution in checking out the veracity of some unbelievably dumb/crass/ignorant/bigoted fundie-speak.

Poe’s Law recently snared two exemplars of critical thinking, skepticism and reason. P Z Myers got caught by a satirical article on the Burnt Orange Report website that claims Texas governor Rick Perry encouraged Republicans to take their kids out of public schools and put them into private Christian ones. Crispian Jago in turn fell for a post on spoof ‘Christian’ website Christwire.org, which assures God-loving types that it’s ok for a Christian husband to ‘gently beat his wife’.

To be fair to both men though, their respective bugbears give them plausible reasons to have believed the spoof claims made by the satirists. In Myers’ case, Governor Perry is a conservative Christian who is anti-abortion, anti-gay equality, supports creationism being taught in schools, and rejects the scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming. The words put in his mouth by Burnt Orange Report writer Libby Shaw aren’t too far-fetched given the Texas governor’s religious, economic and political views.

As for Jago, his blog post was aimed at the ‘head fruitcake at the UK's very own fundamentalist conservative Christian pressure group’, Stephen Green, who allegedly physically and sexually abused his wife in private while preaching Christian morality in public. It was in an addendum to this post where Jago quoted from the spoof website Christwire.org, not realising that it actually satirises Christianity.

To their credit, Myers and Jago acknowledged their gaffes. Given that the genuine treasures of criticism they’ve dug up for their readers’ education far outweigh the occasional fool’s gold, I think they deserve a pardon.

Moral of the story: Sure, go forth and righteously (and metaphorically) smite the enemies of reason. But beware Poe’s Law, and always double check your sources lest you quote made-up stupid instead of real stupid.


28 January 2011

Asma, Myers & Blackford on religion and atheism

Stephen Asma has responded to P Z Myers’ criticism of his article ‘The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview’, where Asma argues for the emotional benefits of religion and tut-tuts atheists for not acknowledging this positive aspect. Myers wrote on his blog that Asma had misunderstood the atheist position on religion: the primary issue is not about whether religion makes people feel good or happy, but whether its claims are true. And the reason why truth matters above all else is because falsehoods can cause harm, irrespective of their feel-good effects.

26 January 2011

Apologist for religion misunderstands atheism

Philosophy professor Stephen T. Asma thinks that atheists are too easily dismissive of religion, or at least the Big Three monotheisms with which they appear to be obsessed. He chides atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett for their ‘provincialism’, reminding them that a great, if not the greatest, part of humanity follow non-monotheistic religions like Buddhism and animism.

Having lived in Cambodia and China, and travelled in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Africa, I have come to appreciate how religion functions quite differently in the developing world — where the majority of believers actually live. The Four Horsemen, their fans, and their enemies all fail to factor in their own prosperity when they think about the uses and abuses of religion.

24 January 2011

Rebutting the Baroness

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi’s University of Leicester Sir Sigmund Sternberg lecture has drawn trenchant criticism from intellectuals and commentators. In her speech, Warsi accused the British public of Islamophobia and suggested that the government should do more to support religious believers and their leaders. Here is a small sampling of rebuttals to her arguments.

  • Andrew Anthony comments on the contradictions of Baroness Warsi; a woman who once bemoaned the media's preoccupation with cultural identity yet now asserts her Muslimness, who wants “to give greater voice to religion in the political arena, yet […] also wishes there to be less criticism of religion, in other words, power without scrutiny.”

  • Edmund Standing calls Warsi out on her misrepresentation of secular atheists like Polly Toynbee, her dubious endorsement of ‘faith leaders’, and her hypocrisy in denouncing critics of Islam while being a less than devout Muslim herself.

  • Charles Moore believes Warsi’s comments were selfish and wrong. Selfish, because she had unilaterally set herself up as the spokesperson of British Muslims without consulting her party colleagues. Wrong, because her speech “helped nurture Muslim grievance instead of prompting Muslim self-examination.”

  • Andrew Brown attempts to clarify the definition of ‘extremism’ in the context of Warsi’s rejection of the term ‘moderate/extremist Muslim’. Brown argues that there is such a thing as an extremist Muslim, just not the type that Warsi has in mind.


23 January 2011

‘Islamophobia’: is it racism or valid criticism of ideas?

Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman of the UK’s Conservative Party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the Cabinet, recently gave a speech at Leicester University in which she criticised widespread anti-Muslim attitudes in the UK. According to Baroness Warsi, Islamophobia has “passed the dinner table test”, and has become a sort of casual bigotry towards Islam and its believers. Strangely, she also calls for people to not distinguish Muslims as either ‘moderate’ or ‘extremist’, since this mental categorising would apparently fuel misunderstanding and violence. One would think that not making the distinction between moderates and radicals would actually result in more negative stereotyping, not less. And besides, as many have observed, the so-called extremist Muslims are simply those who follow the tenets of Islam with greater fidelity than their co-religionists. The extremists are arguably the true Muslims. As Sam Harris said, “the problem with Islamic fundamentalism are the fundamentals of Islam.”

17 January 2011

I’m ashamed to be ethnically related to these people

In a recent post on cultural superstitions, I mentioned the Chinese belief in kooky ideas like feng shui, acupuncture and lucky/unlucky numbers (whose providential powers apparently derive from their homophonic resemblance to words like ‘prosper’ and ‘die’ in Chinese). Another common Chinese superstition involves the taboo against placing the living in close proximity to the dead or dying. To do so would “bring bad luck, meaning sickness and even death... The ghosts of the dead will invade and harass the living,” leading to “failure of business, the loss of money, the break [sic] of marriage and family, and the healthy growing up of children will be affected.”

This was written in a letter by the residents of an expensive University of B.C. high-rise apartment protesting the planned building of a 15-bed hospice next door.

So a bunch of well-to-do people living in an upmarket residential area are throwing a tantrum over the construction of a place to care for those who are not long for this world, who are sick, in pain, scared, lonely. And why? Because the rich Asians happen to subscribe to a premodern, irrational, unscientific worldview where ghosts exist to torment them.

For an example of how superstition can short-circuit a person’s compassionate, empathetic wiring, here’s what one resident had to say about the atrocity of having a hospice built near her home:

It’s very disturbing. […] My kids and I are going to feel so frightened and angry just to think there are dying people so close to us.

Those damned dying people! Frightening and antagonising good honest folk with their soft moans, silent tears and quiet dignity. How dare they.

I stumbled across this story on ‘Pharyngula’, the blog of the delightfully irascible, godless, liberal biologist P Z Myers. Myers writes in his post:

I'm hoping that these complaining, over-privileged superstitious nitwits remember this when they are old and dying — as they most likely will be someday — and courteously excuse themselves to go gasp out their last breaths in some place where civilized people won't be troubled.



14 January 2011

Pretty sure this wasn’t what Andrew Keen had in mind

Andrew Keen doesn’t like amateurs. You can tell from the subtitle of his anti-dilettante jeremiad The Cult of the Amateur (2008): ‘How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy’. Doesn’t mince words, does Mr Keen. Referencing T. H. Huxley’s theory that infinite monkeys bashing away on infinite typewriters will eventually produce a literary masterpiece, Keen has this to say about blogs:

At the heart of this infinite monkey experiment in self-publishing is the Internet diary, the ubiquitous blog. Blogging has become such a mania that a new blog is being created every second of every minute of every hour of every day. We are blogging with monkeylike shamelessness about our private lives, our sex lives, our dream lives, our lack of lives, our Second Lives. At the time of writing there are fifty-three million blogs on the Internet, and this number is doubling every six months. In the time it took you to read this paragraph, ten new blogs were launched.

If we keep up this pace, there will be over five hundred million blogs by 2010, collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything from politics, to commerce, to arts and culture. Blogs have become so dizzyingly infinite that they’ve undermined our sense of what is true and what is false, what is real and what is imaginary. These days, kids can’t tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they read on joeshmoe.blogspot.com. For these Generation Y utopians, every posting is just another person’s version of the truth; every fiction is just another person’s version of the facts.

12 January 2011

Free sex, kid porn, make money fast

My post entitled ‘Cartoon kid porn: evil pedophilia or victimless crime?’ currently sits at the number three spot on this blog’s Top Ten list of most viewed posts. Yet I doubt that the post owes its popularity to the subject matter: a criticism of the hypocrisy and irrationality of anti-cartoon kid porn crusaders, written in the form of a fictional interview. Far more likely that the Googlers were looking for more graphic fare. But since the post and its title contain the keywords kid porn, cartoon porn, pedophilia, dick, ass and the ubiquitous sex, Google’s arcane algorithmic administrations would have served it up as a search result, even if the searcher was after a more titillating link. Basically, I cheated, if unintentionally.

06 January 2011

Critical thinking isn’t just for white folks

Is it racist to say that certain cultures display an endemic lack of critical thinking? Is it bigoted to declare that reason and the scientific method are currently the best tools we possess to discover knowledge about the world? Is it culturally insensitive to suggest that people, no matter where they’re from, can only benefit from exercising critical thinking and healthy skepticism?

Some cultures have superstitious beliefs that are an almost inextricable part of their identity. Chinese belief in feng shui, acupuncture, lucky numbers and the efficacy of traditional herbal medicine is one example. African practices of witchcraft and exorcism coupled with the use of juju (objects considered as magical fetishes) are another. It’s this latter culture that Leo Igwe criticizes in his essay ‘Critical Thinking and the African Identity’.

As an African who has chosen critical reason over superstition, Igwe has been accused by his fellow Africans of thinking ‘like a white man’. It is a common slur; if a non-white person actually prefers logic and rationality over magic and mysticism, she’s a traitor to her kind, a Westerner wannabe. Igwe writes:

Whenever I try to fault or expose the absurdity of witchcraft accusations or the persecution of alleged witches or wizards, many people often urge me to set aside this my oyibo (white man’s) mentality. As if critical thinking is the exclusive cultural preserve of white people while mystical thinking is for blacks and for Africans. Personally, I am aware that the white race and the western world have recorded significant achievements in the areas of science and technology, in rational and critical discourses. They also have their own share of dark age nonsense, dogmas and superstitions.

But that does not make the values of science, reason and critical thinking western or white. The values of science and reason constitute part of human heritage, which all human beings can lay claim to, exercise, access, express, celebrate, cultivate and nurture.

“The values of science and reason constitute part of human heritage, which all human beings can lay claim to, exercise, access, express, celebrate, cultivate and nurture.”

With this elegant sentence and the rest of his essay, Igwe provides the answers to the questions asked at the beginning of this post: no, no and no.


04 January 2011

The unreason of Objectivism

There’s a joke that goes like this:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

I’ve read both books. While I may have exhibited a mild mania for both Middle-earth and Objectivism, fortunately I dodged the emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood. Many other young minds haven’t been so lucky. Some have grown up to become forty-year-old live action roleplayers.

My temporary affair with Ayn Rand’s philosophy has made me sympathetic to those who hold religious beliefs. Not because I think there is any compelling reason to cling to antiquated values derived from superstition and myth. Wishful thinking and factual error are no basis for values truly worth having. No, my sympathy comes from observing the parallels between Objectivism and religion. The moral absolutism. The ideological rigidity. The unerring spokespeople. The fantastic stories serving as allegories for ethical instruction. The contradictions. The hypocrisy.

To say that I renounced my Randian faith is an apt metaphor. For all its glorification of reason, Objectivism is ironically an unreasonable collection of beliefs with a pretense to rational certainty, more akin to the blind, unquestioning faith of God botherers than the rigorous yet humbly provisional ideas of ethical philosophers from Socrates through Spinoza to Singer.

But I’ll leave it to someone much more qualified than myself to dissect Rand’s comprehensive system of thought and put its flaws on display. Philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci has written a four-part series of articles critiquing Objectivism on his blog ‘Rationally Speaking’. He has devoted each article to one aspect of Objectivism – its metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics. Even if you’re not familiar with Ayn Rand’s ideas, Pigliucci’s articles are still an education on how not to do philosophy.

As is generally the case with blogs, the comments from readers can be just as instructive as the post itself, often expanding and improving on the arguments made by the author. In this instance, it seems that a dyed-in-the-wool Objectivist (or at least a staunch Rand supporter) has taken it upon himself to refute – and rebuke – Pigliucci and other commenters who take a less approving stance on Objectivism. I remain unpersuaded by his verbose arguments, but I’ll leave it to you to decide if this fellow has successfully defended Rand from Pigliucci and co. Warning: not for the faint-of-heart or short-of-attention-span.