Thursday, October 24, 2013

Democracy: the Egyptian conundrum

Back in 1992, Francis Fukuyama famously argued that the advent of Western liberal democracy spelled nothing less than the endpoint of sociocultural evolution: we have finally discovered the best way to govern people and organize society, and that’s gonna be it.

Very clearly, that wasn’t it at all. The United States, the self-professed “best” democracy in the world, has engaged in a massive program to spy on its own people, conjuring ominous 1984-type scenarios that go beyond the wildest fantasies of the craziest Faux News commentator. European democracies are struggling (and likely will be for a long time) with both internally and externally generated economic woes that may lead to the collapse of their common currency, thus dealing a potentially fatal blow to the European project of political union. The only rising superpower in the world is China, most certainly not a democratic country, though one whose citizens (by and large) seem surprisingly (to a Western eye) content to abdicate civil rights in exchange for better financial terms. And then there is the mess in the Middle East, with the Turkish elected leader ordering the beating of his fellow citizens because they dare engage in civil protests, Palestine split into two democratically elected
factions that do not respect the rights of their own people and that are making any prospect of peace with Israel increasingly remote (not that Israel itself has been helping anyway), and now Egypt on the brink of chaos because of a popularly acclaimed coup (not an oxymoron, it appears) against its first democratically elected leader. Bet you didn’t see any of that coming.

What’s happening in Egypt has put the Obama administration in a really awkward position, as noted by a number of commentators. The US has not as yet acknowledged that what happened was a coup, and Obama has called for the restoration of “a” (not “the”) democratically elected government. Justifiably, supporters of the deposed President, Mohamed Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood party, are claiming that the US is not serious about democracy in the Middle East, but only wants governments that serve American interests.

They have a point. A quick glance at recent and not so recent American history quickly reveals even more egregious instances of US interference in other countries’ affairs that can hardly be characterized as championing democracy or the interests of the countries involved: Syria (1949), Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Indonesia (1958), Democratic Republic of Congo (1960-65), Iraq (1960-63), Dominican Republic (1961), South Vietnam (1963), Brazil (1964), Chile (1970-73), Turkey (1980), Nicaragua (1980-81), Angola (1980s), Venezuela (2002, attempted), and Gaza (2006, attempted), to mention only the major episodes. There are more benign cases, of course, such as the US forcing dictator Ferdinand Marcos to step down in the Philippines, which led to the election of a democratic government in 1986. Too bad that the US had previously supported Marcos for decades. The point is that for the US to be so squeamish concerning the unfolding events in Egypt is seriously hypocritical, given its own well established record of supporting other countries for its own reasons, quite regardless of whether that support was being given to a democracy or a tyranny.

The big deal with Egypt, of course (and, to a lesser extent, with the similar situation in Palestine and Turkey) is that much ink and diplomatic effort has gone into convincing Islamist movements that they have just as much to gain as other parties when they accept the rules of democracy. Indeed, Turkey was — until recently — one of the few good examples of an essentially Islamic country where a secular type of democracy works well. Not coincidentally, the trouble started precisely when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began to push a religiously conservative agenda on behalf of his Islamist Justice and Development Party. The same pattern is at the root of the unrest in Egypt, where Morsi did win the elections fair and square, but soon began to implement the priorities of the Muslim Brotherhood in a way that was glaringly inconsistent with the sort of respect for pluralism that we in the West associate with the idea of democracy.

This particular quote from the New York Times seems to me to capture an essential aspect of the problem: “Didn’t we do what they asked,” asked Mahmoud Taha, 40, a merchant. “We don’t believe in democracy to begin with; it’s not part of our ideology. But we accepted it. We followed them, and then this is what they do?” Notice the “we don’t believe in democracy to begin with” part of it. Yes, they did accept it nonetheless, but apparently only as a vehicle to gain power and then act as if they were in charge of a theocracy.

Lest I be accused of Islamophobia, however, let me add that the very same attitude can be found among a number of Christian fundamentalists in the United States (and, arguably, among some Jewish fundamentalists in Israel). So the problem isn’t Islam per se, it is the fundamentalist religious mindset, which cannot truly embrace the type of constitutional democracy that arguably is the best system of government (as faulty as it often is) that human beings have been able to devise so far. That’s because in a constitutional democracy (unlike, say, in the mob-ruling type of democracy of ancient Athens, which drew the ire of Plato) rights and minorities are protected from too much change imposed by the particular majority who happened to have won the latest elections. What the Muslim Brotherhood and similar outlets don’t seem to see is that having won an election is not carte blanche to reshape the country according to whatever doctrinal dictates the winners subscribe to.

The turmoil in Egypt, Turkey, Palestine and other places highlight what may be a fundamental incompatibility between strong religious doctrines and the concept of secular democracy, which is why the Enlightenment-inspired Founding Fathers of the United States instituted a solid (if increasingly permeable, these days) wall of separation between Church and State. I would go even further and suggest that any strong ideology is incompatible with democratic government, even if such ideology has nothing to do with religion — witness the failure of the various Marxist-inspired governments throughout the 20th century.

Does it therefore follow — as perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other groups (including the extreme Christian right in the United States) are contemplating — that there is no room for religion in a secular democracy? Of course not. The term “secular,” in this context, does not at all mean non-religious. It simply means neutral with respect to any particular ideology, political or religious. The problem lies rather in two aspects of constitutional democracies that are hard to relate to for fundamentalists of any stripe (again, political or religious): respect for pluralism and ability to articulate one’s positions in neutral language.

The quotation above from a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood summarizes the problem with pluralism that a lot of fundamentalists have: “we don’t believe in this system, but we’ll play by the rules (until we get the upper hand and can proceed to do whatever we want).” This attitude is radically incompatible with the idea of constitutional democracies, and it is up to the ideological radicals to find a way to come to terms with the problem. As far as I can see, however, this is always going to be very difficult, because we are talking about people whose entire worldview has a built-in sense of certainty, superiority, and purity which will perennially be in tension with the democratic practice. Ideally, we can educate people out of any kind of fundamentalism, but it will be a long, tortuous and possibly never quite ending road to get there.

The second problem is, I think, a bit easier to deal with, as suggested by John Rawls.
Contra what many of my secular humanist and atheist friends seem to think, it is not necessary for religious discourse to be sealed off from the public square. It is perfectly all right — indeed, inevitable — for politicians, say, to be guided in their thinking by their religious faith. What is not acceptable is the advancement of religious arguments when it comes to policy debates. Rather, the religious person needs to translate his objections (or positive proposals) into neutral language that can be debated on secular (in the sense above, not as in “secular humanism”) terms.

For instance, take the issue of abortion. It is legitimate for someone to hold that abortion is immoral because his god says so. But that “argument” won’t carry any water within the context of a pluralistic society where some people believe in other gods (with other dictates) or in no gods at all. So the objection needs to be reformulated — translated, in Rawlsian terms — in a way that can be engaged with by all parties concerned. The reformulation could take the form of talk about the balance between the rights of the mother to control her body and reproduction and the rights of potential persons to live and flourish. Which will bring to the table naturally complex discussions of rights, personhood, and so forth. Now both parties can engage in an open debate and attempt to reach compromises based on facts and reason.

Doing so, by the way, does not have to constitute an instance of hypocrisy on the part of the religious: presumably, god has some reason to decree that abortion is immoral, and the religious are simply attempting to articulate those reasons to people who are not willing to accept their god’s word at face value. This way of doing things also does not constitute a built-in advantage for “the secularist” because in an open society we are all secularists: remember that the word doesn’t apply just to people who don’t believe in gods, but to all members of a diverse society who are willing to engage in the democratic discourse and its continuous give and take.

None of the above, of course, is going to help Egyptians in the next few days, nor is it going to make it easy for the Obama administration to pick a course of action concerning the unfolding events. But it does constitute a broad framework for how to think about these sorts of issues, issues that recent history has clearly shown will keep coming up again and again in the near future.

On Being A Fulfilled Atheist

I am an atheist and yet I have some problems with the so-called “new atheism”
(mostly that it isn’t new at all, and that it has a tendency to be unnecessarily obnoxious). Indeed, when asked, I prefer to use the term secular humanist to succinctly describe my philosophical position.

But from time to time I have to remind myself of the importance of being an atheist and of actually saying so out loud. For instance, after I read the introduction to a recent episode of the Philosophy Talk podcast, hosted by philosophers John Perry and Ken Taylor (both at Stanford University). Philosophy Talk’s teasers are usually good and thought provoking, this one not so much.

The teaser was written by Perry as an introduction to a chat — during the podcast — with guests Ken and Louise Anthony. The trouble starts right off the bat, when Perry defines atheism: “An atheist is someone who not only doesn't believe in God, but believes, with some confidence, that there isn’t a God.” Oh no, it ain’t! That certainly describes some atheists, but not others. I, for instance, tend to stick to the etymology of the term, a-theism, meaning without a positive belief in god(s), so I consider myself an a-theist in pretty much the same manner in which most people are a-unicornists: they don’t believe in unicorns, not because they know that there aren’t any, but simply because they see neither evidence nor reason to hold that particular belief. As Hume put it, “A wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence,” and when the evidence approaches zero...

Perry then continues: “At first glance, it seems odd to find inspiration in the non-existence of something.” Normally, I would agree, but considering that human beings have always lived in societies where irrationalism, obscurantism and magical thinking reigned supreme, to become “converted” (Perry’s term) to atheism is, indeed, inspiring. It’s extremely liberating to realize that there is no Big Guy in the sky watching over your every move (particularly, for reasons that are not at all clear, the moves you make in the privacy of your own bedroom).

“When you’re converted to atheism, the world goes from meaningful to meaningless, from caring to uncaring, from hopeful to hopeless.” Bullshit on stilts. Meaning doesn’t come from without, it is constructed by us through our reflections on the world and our interactions with fellow human beings. That, of course, is true also for religious people, except they don’t seem to realize it. As for caring, well, if we are talking about the Christian god, particularly the Old Testament nut job, I’d much rather not be cared for, lest I be forced to slaughter innocents and rape women just to please His Nuttiness and pander to His cosmic narcissism. And hopeless? Says who? I have always been, and continue to be, very hopeful, both in terms of my personal life (the next exciting thing is likely just around the corner, if I keep looking!) and about humanity in general. While it is demonstrably true that we have a penchant for fucking things up royally, there is also no question in my mind that we have done, ahem, miracles in terms of human flourishing since the time of the Tower of Babel — and certainly with no thanks due to imaginary deities.

Perry again: “[to the newly converted atheist] it becomes clear ... that there’s no evidence whatsoever for God, and considerable evidence against anything like the Christian God, or any lesser version of God. That can be depressing, we all must admit.” No, we don’t. I was so ecstatic after reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian (I was about 20 or so), that I could hardly contain my exuberance. Depressing my ass. (Though Perry thankfully goes on to acknowledge that even atheists continue to have fun and have friends...)

The podcast teaser then becomes a bit more positive toward atheists. After raising the question of the afterlife, Perry mentions Hume’s famous observation (itself a reminder of Epicurus), that all the years before our birth weren’t so bad after all, so why worry about those after our death? (Or, as Monty Python famously put it: “I mean — what have you got to lose? / You know, you come from nothing — you're going back to nothing. / What have you lost? Nothing!)

The next topic, inevitably, is morality, and the starting point is Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who famously asked why isn’t everything permitted to an atheist? To which the simple response would be: just read Plato’s Euthyphro, dude. Equally reasonably, Perry notes that the Divine Command theory of morality is shaky on its own grounds, and that there are plenty of secular alternatives, from ethical “facts” thought of as similar to mathematical ones (i.e., immaterial, and yet objective), to one flavor or another of consequentialism or virtue ethics, to a naturalistic view of ethics as the result of evolution within a lineage of social primates.

Still, Perry insists: “Granted all of that, doesn’t it still seem strange to define one’s life by a negative claim, by the non-existence of something. You can become the village atheist, and make it your mission in life to tell religious people what idiots they are. But that doesn’t seem very fulfilling,” all the while admitting that he nonetheless finds atheism “hard to resist.”

Don’t resist it, then, embrace the negative claim that frees your mind from the shackles of superstition; the negative claim that allows you to make choices in life using reason and empathy; the negative claim that opens up all those doors to human flourishing that religion so quickly and persistently shuts tight. And of course, (most) atheists don’t make it their mission to tell religious people that they are idiots (yes, some do, and those are the ones that expel people like me from their non-church). Instead, what we do is try, to the best of our ability, to live the good life by example, and help those who are willing to listen to leave the Dark Ages and come out to enjoy a bit of Enlightenment — Hume style.

Atheists and rapists: you just can't trust 'em

Atheists are a pretty disliked bunch of people in North America. Most atheists will be aware of polling data that puts them at the bottom of the loathing pile.

Question is, what's driving that loathing? Will Gervais (University of British Columbia, Canada), who's previously published some fascinating research into this topic, is back with some more research (co-authored by another couple of Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan).

Gervais' basic hypothesis is that prejudice against people who are not part of your group can be driven by different fears. For example, White Americans fear Black Americans, but view homosexual Americans with disgust. Gervais puts that together with another idea that many people have - that fear of supernatural punishment makes people more honest - to hypothesise that people dislike atheists specifically because they distrust them.

To test this, they took advantage of a clever psychological trick. Here is its original form (invented by Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman), as described 2011 in The Guardian:

Linda is a single 31-year-old, who is very bright and deeply concerned with issues of social justice. Which of the following statements is more probable: a) that Linda works in a bank, or b) that Linda works in a bank and is active in the feminist movement? The overwhelming majority of respondents go for b), even though that's logically impossible. (It can't be more likely that both things are true than that just one of them is.) This is the "conjunctive fallacy", whereby our judgment is warped by the persuasive combination of plausible details. We are much better storytellers than we are logicians.

In Gervais' twist on this classic study, students at the University of British Columbia were told about Richard. Here's Richard's story:

Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.

Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can.

So, is Richard most likely to be a teacher, or a teacher and a Christian? What about a
teacher and Muslim. Or a rapist? Or an atheist?

Well, the chilling results are shown in the graphic. Atheism was up there with rapist as an intuitive fit to Richard's character. Atheists? Don't trust 'em!

Gervais and co ran another study, in which half the students were given a different version of Richard. This Richard is not untrustworthy, but he is disgusting (with horrible, flaky skin and snot all over him).

They found that that the disgusting Richard was not associated with atheism (or, indeed, with homosexuality - even though they found in a different study that homosexuals evoke disgust).

What this and some other studies they did showed is that the reason atheists are disliked is specifically because they are distrusted.

They also found that the degree of this distrust is governed by the strength of belief that supernatural monitoring helps to enforce good behaviour. Those who believe this are most likely to distrust atheists.

So although lack of familiarity with atheists increases distrust, it seems that the root of this distrust is not simple fear of the unknown, or even fear about moral corruption, but rather a genuine and seemingly deep-rooted fear that people will not behave well unless they have an invisible policeman watching over them.

Which probably says rather more about these Christians than it does about atheists!

The Burden Is Heavy, But It’s Not Mine To Bear

So says the atheist, and, indeed, so says the theist. There is a God; there is no
God. Frequently the argument—of who needs to provide the proof—ends with both parties feeling victorious (at least in the sense that their argument was superior). This odd state is possible, I think, partly because of the subtleties of the argument involved and partly because both parties are, in fact, correct. I will endeavour to unravel some of the said subtleties and explain my point of view as a late-starter atheist (including disbelievers’ obsession with the fantastical; from ceramics in space, to colourful and unseeable horned horses, to carbohydrated terrors of the sky—I’ll curb my desire to wittily describe leprechauns and fairies, lest I lose you to sub-par humour).

Let me forge ahead instead and make it difficult for myself by admitting that it takes faith to believe that there is no God, and any person who makes such a claim must be able to substantiate the position. One of the little tricks that atheists perform is to argue that we, in fact, do not make a positive assertion of belief. Atheism is, by definition, the disbelief—the lack of belief—in a God or Gods. The theist makes the claim; they should provide the proof. This is a perfectly valid argument—as I will demonstrate—but atheism rejects all claims of Gods. No matter how crafty I try to be, I cannot satisfactorily convince myself there is a noteworthy difference between disbelieving all Gods and believing there is no God. Trying to establish a difference is to accept the unpopular condition of being a fence-sitter. Why pussyfoot around what you believe in?

I’ll don an everyday atheist’s hat and argue that there are two reasons why we believe that there is not a prime mover: the obvious first is the lack of scientific evidence and the second is the growing scientific understanding of our universe, particularly the insights into our origin (both cosmological and anthropological). However, to accept these as valid reasons we require faith in the scientific method (by which we try to understand everything) and—perhaps more importantly—we require faith in the scientific community (whom we trust to interpret our reality using science that is often beyond the comprehension of the layman—to which I must ascribe myself). A sceptic must question everything and doubting science is essential, but I am inclined to give it the benefit.

It is reasonable—even effortless—to have faith in the scientific method because it has endured an extended baptism of fire, and the model itself is reviewed and improved to be even more infallible and unbiased; it remains our best way to understand our reality and to determine what is likely to be true or false. Consider for a moment what a gargantuan—if not futile—task it will be to justify not trusting the scientific method. Likewise, one does not lose any sleep over investing trust in the scientific community because scientists are by nature fiercely competitive and submit to brutal peer-review. The process and people might be fallible on occasion, but one is again confident that errors and biases are detected and addressed. The exception proves the rule comes to mind.

A fallacy commonly committed is to draw a parallel—generously phrased—between an atheist and theist’s faith. It takes more faith to be an atheist is an oft-used phrasing. I personally do not find degrees of faith particularly useful. Faith is the complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Believers completely trust in their God; disbelievers completely trust in science. How can one have degrees of complete trust? It’s more pragmatic to evaluate the reasons why you have faith in someone or something. Are they good reasons or are they bad reasons? That is what is important, surely? I am satisfied that my faith in science is justified because my reasons are thought through and make sense. I accept as confirmation the fact that the brilliant minds of our time—almost uniformity—embrace and partake in the wonders of science. Let us not pretend that the two faiths are on equal footing.

There is hardly a more studied and debated mystery than how we came to be. Science offers an open invitation to God, but he has failed to show-face. Why God would choose to excel at Hide and Seek is worth contemplating; either he’s a bit of a bastard, or there is only one player in the game. What we do know is that the gaps are closing and God would have to pull out all the stops to remain undiscovered. The conclusion of scientists—again almost uniformly—is that the existence of a God—especially an intervening one—is unlikely to the point of being irrelevant. It is hoping to win the lottery ten times in a row.

You see, atheists have already met their burden of proof. Yet theists persist with the common defence that we cannot disprove God. No, we can’t. Do we need to? No. Absolute truth must be discarded as useless in the world we live in, lest we start babbling that nothing can truly be known. Practically, if something is overwhelmingly unlikely, it is false (I’m not willing to build my life around the hope to win the lottery). You can bet on two things, when you hear this weak rebuttal. Firstly, the theist did not get the point and secondly, the atheist does not need to bear the burden of proof.

Unlike the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, a great many theists do not recognise the absurdity of their claim. The irony is that they have no trouble calling out rival faiths on their absurdities. Nonetheless, it is difficult to get this point across and that is why atheists resort to the fantastical. It is not to belittle, to offend or to annoy the theist—okay, sometimes to annoy—but rather to make them question what they might take for granted. It is extraordinary to claim that there is a personal God, but the theist goes even beyond this, and fearlessly steps over the line. They continue to insist that they hold the default position and that it must—not only—be respected, but adopted by other people. They believe this to the point that acts of prejudice and cruelty are often justified, if not celebrated. It is this arrogance that motivates atheists to speak out.

Given the knowledge we have gained, the modern theist’s God is no different from ancient Thor, no more compelling than Bigfoot and no more believable than a teacup orbiting the sun. The atheist’s argument—that theists need to prove their claims—is perhaps best communicated through the silly discourse between my imaginary friends, Christopher and Richard:

“There’s a unicorn in this box,” says Richard. “It has changed my life.”

“Really!?” says Christopher, looking around for hidden cameras. “Show me.”

“You can’t see it, it’s invisible.”

“Oh. How do you know it’s there?” Christopher asks tentatively.

“It talks to me.”

“Okay…” Christopher, now a little scared, can’t resist asking, “What does it say?”

“That it is pink and that it loves me and that I must worship it,” Richard says with a straight face.

“Err. What evidence do you have to know that this is true? It seems, well, a bit improbable, a bit crazy,” Christopher says stupefied. “You must be under a misapprehension. Perhaps you’ve been in the sun for too long?”

“You don’t believe me!?”

“Why should I!? I can’t see it. I can’t hear it. It doesn’t look like you can prove it, and your testimony is, quite frankly, questionable.”

“Well, you can’t disprove it,” Richard says dismissively.

Let me regurgitate in the hope that all nutrients are digested. I hope it goes down better the second time around, if only because it’s shorter. Atheists have a burden of proof, but it has already been met. This has nothing to do with theists’ responsibility to justify their beliefs that are contradictory to reality and frequently cause harm. *Gulp* Yum.

I’ll conclude with this thought: The theist’s most compelling evidence is the subjective experience of peace and happiness—hardly exclusive to any one faith. I am relieved that I do not have to carry that heavy a burden.