Saturday, April 15, 2006

What can we tolerate?

I want to understand belief. What is it to say that there is a God when you have never seen him or her? What is it to say you are an X and do not trust the many other faith systems there are? What is it to say that you were an X but are now a Y? How do we come to decide what the truth is in circumstances where it is not obvious?
Belief makes us do odd things, like pray, or not eat certain foods, or disregard certain common practices. It can also cause us to act in a way that others might find contrary to their own standards. There is a lot of antagonism between all the different belief systems, theological and non-theological. It is hard to know how to condemn an action when it sprung out of another's deeply held religious convictions about the truth of the universe. Maybe it is best to tolerate such things, and to allow them to go on - for we should not mess with their faith and subdue their thinking.

My previous article attempted to examine this problem, albeit in a way that was practical and trying to find an actual real-life answer to this antagonism. And my previous article, to do with Scientology, is overlong, under-researched, and therefore half-baked. I admit this, and reckon that although my conclusion is somewhat valid, there is much more to be done. In an analysis of the interplay between what I simplistically term the 'anti-cult movement' and the 'religious tolerance' movement, I essentially stated that the latter has more popularity, and that to attack a movement like Scientology will have to entail dropping the seemingly unprovable distinctions of cult and brainwashing, and instead ask Scientology to act like a mainstream religion, asking it to limit its observable negative practices.
So, why am I still thinking about the subject and pondering on it? Because there is still much more to cover. Because we must examine, philosophically, the terms behind public debate and private thought and, I reckon, attempt to threaten with wholesale change. I actually personally think that what Scientology does is as close to brainwashing as you can get. I personally think that Scientology acts like a cult. Cults attempt to get people to believe things that are not widely considered to be true, or even scientifically false. They purposefully limit criticism. They often ask for people to believe things that lead to harmful practices, such as swapping psychiatry for ideas of mental images having weight, or that sin can be absolved through fasting. They convert people to their cause and use them in some way, sometimes to find other to convert, sometimes to make money, sometimes to dedicate time and effort to some 'spiritual' endeavour. People leave these cults on various terms, some happy about the experience, some with misgivings, others feeling that their lives have been decimated.
The essential problem is that you could label so many movements, systems, or religions as cults or cultic. The pope attempts to control the truth of Christian teachings by limiting the validity of the 'gospel according to Judas'. Religion always entails prioritizing a certain viewpoint against competing viewpoints for reasons that are not always ones of general human or spiritual interest. Religions are not just belief systems, but ways of changing the world socially and politically through a widespread acceptance of their importance. They can be dangerous - and is this dangerousness not what we find so appalling in cults?
What about ritual crucifixions in the Philippines? Can this be seen as legitimate religion? Ruben Enaje has opted, of his own free will, to have nails driven through his hands for the 20th time. It is a matter of personal argument and opinion as to whether you think this can or should be part of any religion.
In some ways, even McDonalds can be seen as a cult. They proselytise, they limit criticism, they are one thing and attempt to convert people to believe another.
In an article on faith schools, Polly Toynbee points out that:
"This is indeed a clash of civilisations, not between Islam and Christendom but between reason and superstition. The wake-up call came with a BBC/Mori poll showing that, even in this least churchgoing nation, science is on the run: 48% believe in evolution, against 39% who believe in creationism/"intelligent design". If even scientists aren't believed then here is fertile territory for any mad and dangerous theories to take hold.
But instead of standing up for reason, our government is handing education over to the world of faith. It's the same government that went to war in Iraq to install the likes of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani into positions of great power. The man George Bush and Tony Blair see as the best hope for promoting stability and "freedom" in Iraq has just issued a fatwa calling for the killing of all sodomites and lesbians. See "Q. What is the judgment for sodomy and lesbianism? A. Forbidden. Punished. The people involved should be killed in the worst, most severe way of killing." The exiled Iraqi gay campaigner Ali Hili reports that these orders are now being obeyed, with an upsurge in beatings and slaughter of gays in Iraq by religious cadres who have declared all unmarried men over 35 "under surveillance".
The Pope may not call for murder, but the Vatican is directly responsible for millions of Aids deaths by refusing to sanction condoms even in parts of Africa where half the population is infected with HIV, putting out deliberate lies that condoms are useless against the virus anyway. Yet here is the Labour government encouraging religions to take over as many schools as they can, promoting the humbug that values and morality only come with the "ethos" of faith."

All these articles come from today's newspaper, apart from Polly Toynbee's, published yesterday. Events of such a nature that they should give us reason to reconsider our 'commonsense' notions of religion and cult happen all the time. What does this mean - does it mean that we should accept cults because they only do what religions do, but without an aura of history and legitimacy; or does it mean that we should question religions for having similar aspects to cults?

Arguments for religious tolerance often stress that people have free will, and that they legitimately choose to believe in a certain system of thought. This makes that system a religion, as to label it as a cult is to attempt to limit the choice of the believers and forcibly change their beliefs. It is a way of saying, 'you believe wrongly', and we should not do that. We should respect the choice of the individual, and therefore the movement chosen.
This leads us into odd arguments. Just because people freely decide that believes to accept a certain religion, one that that stresses that blood transfusions or psychiatry or condoms other ways of helping people and saving lives are wrong, we should accept this. But is religious belief more important than human life? Is tolerance of a belief system more pressing than intolerance of harm?

What do we find important? We need to be questioning what belief is and should be. We should be setting parameters as to what is legitimate and what is not. We need to decide what to tolerate, and why. I do not believe that, just because something is a 'religion', it should necessarily be tolerated. We should even question what a 'religion' is.
I am free to choose to disagree with all belief systems that cause pain and suffering. I am also free to choose to join a faith and cause pain and suffering in the name of what I think is truth. We should not imagine that, just because someone is free to make a decision, it means that they have come to a decision that we should tolerate. We need another standard for deciding what is right or what is wrong.

Remember, many arguments against suicide bombers stress that it is not a legitimate part of Islam, it is not condoned in the Koran etc. But, even if it was, would that mean we would not be able to criticise it? Just because an action is done out of a firmly held belief in a religious truth, by someone who is 'freely choosing' to be in that religion, does not make it tolerable. And what scale can we use to decide when a religious act becomes intolerable? Perhaps when it only affects the believers we should accept it. So, if Jehovah's Witnesses were to die because they did not accept a blood transfusion, would that be OK? What if the child of JW parents died? What if a JW nurse or doctor refused to give a blood transfusion and a Buddhist died? At what point do we stop tolerating it?
And should we even allow JW's to believe in something that is inherently so dangerous, and publicise their deep-seated, religious concern that blood transfusions are wrong as the Bible asks us to "abstain from blood"?

My intended message: tolerate only what is tolerable, for good reason, and do not be afraid to ask for change. And if we find that we cannot find all that much difference between cult and religion, then criticise both, don't accept both.
There is good reason for why some people would describe my thoughts as religiously intolerant. I would say, however, that there is good reason to not tolerate harm, no matter if someone commits it because they have a certain faith-based understanding of the universe and of how to act.


Blogger Outled said...

Your site is amazing, there arent many people still bothering to dissect and critique reality, I hope you reach your own understanding, but remember philosophy is as subjective as any other faith.

12:41 PM  
Blogger News is Good said...

I think most people do, at some point, attempt to understand reality. And at least some make it a main pre-occupation. Perhaps it is just that we keep it to ourselves, as we do not want to share our idiosyncracies (being an individual, after all, is about being nicely similar to some set of established values, whether they be 'conformist' or 'anti-conformist' values, in an unthreatening way).

I do not accept that philosophy is a faith. It is a set of methods and histories, narratives and practices, figures and moments of enquiry and enquiring. If you want to use a simple metaphor, it is a toolbox for tinkering with the fabric of our lives, the fabric that we too often ignore. Yet the fact is that we participate in producing this fabric, and that it has changed and will continue to change, and we will change with it.

There are many faiths in philosophy, but philosophy is not a faith itself. There is only one faith that seems to immediately to me as a necessity in order to philosophise, a faith in thought being a required precursor for action. This stands for big social actions (like allowing capital punishment, waging a war) to smaller personal ones (such as accepting a belief, or arguing over something).

8:11 PM  
Blogger SaintSimon said...

Hmmmm... lots of food for thought here. "News is good" is right about philosophy - it is a toolset. Guns are tools that were used by both the Nazis and by those that ended their tyranny - the same tool on both sides.

However, in complaining about the damage done by faith and religion, you have to remember that atheism and secularism are also in their own way faiths (they hold beliefs about the spiritual world - "there ain't one"). So you also have to measure the damage done by atheism - Mao, Stalin etc, and to remember that the huge number of AIDS deaths is not a consequence of condom use/abuse its a consequence of mulitple sexual partners - promoted by secularism and opposed by Christianity. You quote Poly Toynbee. Now I might be wrong about this but I think I remember an article by her at the start of the Aids crisis. She wrote (if it was indeed her - daily mail 1986-88?) "It's the teenagers I feel sorry for. I have just bought my son a double bed!" So if that was her approach to sex education, what right does she have to condemn religious people who have brought up their children with an infinitely safer safe sex mesage - monogamy?

So keep it fair. Not all the trouble in the world is casued by faith. Most of it is caused by people of no faith or misusued faith.

12:37 PM  
Blogger News is Good said...

Faith is a major cause of trouble not just because of the amount of unpleasantness it motivates or causes, but because it supplies a series of reasonings to explain why it is right. To me, the Catholic position on condoms in Africa is abominable, to give one example. Yet those with the power to act within that faith organisation do not interpret the evidence as feedback upon their actions, which is an important way to rectify mistakes, but instead proceed from belief-based principles to ascertain one way of doing it and continue doing it regardless.

I agree that anyone can do wrong, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists etc. blah. I even agree that faith is integral to all these views, atheism and agnosticism proceed still from at least one statement of faith. This statement is along the lines of 'God does not exist', or 'I will function as if God does not exist / matter', or 'I can never know if God exists and will therefore try to stop thinking about it'. And we hold this small faith in order to negate bigger faiths, because we find them troubling. And these big faiths are troubling because they proceed along rules that are wholely matters of faith, that are interpreted and argued incessantly, that mutate historically and mean everything to everyone, and accordingly it is a useless way to get anything done.

Religion may give you personal happiness. It may be a strong social glue. But it is not an adequate way to run the world, because a religious way of life seeks preparation for a future ascendance to something better, not the betterment of the present.

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The following website summarizes over 200 similar court cases involving Jehovah's Witness Parents who refused life-saving blood transfusions for their children:


9:07 PM  

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