Saturday, September 24, 2016

Let's ask more questions: Challenging cultural and moral absolutism

While we are engaging in public arguments about marriage equality, immigration and cultural appropriation, lets take a few steps back and see where the ideas for these arguments come from.

In the history of ideas we often hear that our culture is based on Judeo-Christian tradition, however it is also based on Greco-Roman civilisations, which informed the development of Judeo-Christian ideas (which should not be collapsed; Judeo-Christian is a term now used to elevate certain ideas and power structures and exclude others).

What did ancient people believe? They believed in gods who existed in a hierarchy of deities, and that gods interacted with humans at times, by pretending to be people in order to test heroes, or to satisfy sexual desire and impregnate human women to make demigods, to take their favourites to be immortals on Mount Olympus, or to advise or protect people. The gods were petty, vain, jealous, and watched the actions of humans like they were barracking for sides of a sports team, but they did not need humans. The will of the gods was unknowable. Ancient people believed in the Great Chain of Being, an idea which continued with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and influenced the art and literature of the western world. When Julius Caesar died he apotheosised (turned into a star) and his adopted son became a deity. They believed in making sacrifices to a series of gods. Mostly it didn’t matter what you believed; it mattered that you made the sacrifices. Xenophanes wrote in about 500 BCE

“The Ethiops say that their gods are flat-nosed and black,

While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.

Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,

And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods

Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape

Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.”

So, they understood that people created gods in their own image.

However Socrates was prosecuted and executed for impiety (not honouring the gods) and corrupting the minds of the youth (by teaching them to think) - there may have been political reasons for his execution. We still use his thinking today.

Their societies were slave based, women had no rights, homosexuality was normal. They didn’t know about germs, or that the earth was round, or that the earth circled the sun. Stories were fluid, not sacred, and rewriting stories was standard practice. Their curiosity was real and well developed, leaving us with ideas about history, philosophy, natural science, comedy, tragedy and politics. They were interested in how other people had other beliefs and practices. Many ideas from the remaining Greco-Roman literature served in the formation of the old and new testaments: stories with moral lessons, heroes in rivers prior to a challenge, souls, halos, virgin births, three women lamenting the death of their hero, hymns, the fulfilment of prophesies and so on. Celebratory feasts consisted of meat and wine, and the rule of hospitality to strangers was key.

One could argue the problems began with monotheism, and with that, moral absolutism. Abraham discovered a god who was jealous, and claimed himself to be best. Abraham fathered a child to his slave and then to his ninety year old wife. His god told him to kill his child as a test. Judaism was born. Moses went on to free the Jews from Egypt (if they ever lived there), which could have happened sooner had his god accepted the permission of the Pharaoh after each plague, plagues we now have natural explanations for. Moses’ god gave him Judea as the promised land. Judea being no prize indicates that his god did not know about Hawai’i and didn’t even know that the French Riveria was not far away. The Jews wrote their beliefs and practices. According to believers, their god created the world, the devil, evil and used the idea of sin and redemption. God gave Moses the Ten Commandment, which he broke in anger, then returned up Mount Sinai to get another copy. The bible reports various versions. The first three commandments are about his god. The instruction to not kill was immediately followed by Moses encouraging killing. As a set of rules to live by, the Ten Commandments could have been better.

Jesus was a Jew who fought for Jewish rights. His story was written years after his death:probably from 50 to 90 CE. In 70 CE the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and it must have seemed the Jews needed a hero. Saul, who became Paul, spread the word about Jesus to non-Jews, even though he never met Jesus, and the remaining disciplines wanted to keep the sect Jewish. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is thought to have been caused by an epileptic fit, or by seeing a falling meteor. The new testament was written to fulfil the ancient prophecies. Once collated, and rewritten, and translated, the earlier texts upon which parts were written were lost.

The Jews didn’t claim Jesus as their messiah because he did not bring the Messianic Age of Peace. Apollonius of Tyana, a contemporary of Jesus whose story is similar, had followers who considered Jesus to be fraud.

Non-biblical ancient texts tell stories of gossip quickly received as truth. The Jesus stories grew as stories of ancient mythology grew. The stories of Jesus contain parables; it is possible the stories of Jesus themselves could be parables.

Christians look for historical evidence of Jesus. There is historical evidence of stories from Greek mythology: the fall of Troy, the golden fleece, the existence of Amazons. The historical evidence does not mean that we should accept these stories as literally true as written in one form or another, and it certainly doesn’t mean we should worship their gods.

The destruction of the Library of Alexandria in 3rd century CE, which housed up to 400,000 scrolls, and was also a university and a pagan temple, marked the end of antiquity. After the edict in 313 CE by Constantine that his kingdom was tolerant of all religions, the persecution of Christians ceased. However, his own support of Christianity (possibly for political reasons, his own faith being unknown), saw the beginning of the persecution of followers of traditional Roman religions. After this, history entered the dark ages. In 4th century CE both St Jerome and St Augustine struggled with reconciling their love of Greek and Roman literature, which had formed their thinking, with their Christian faith. Over time the moral absolutism of Christian ideology saw the destruction of pagan texts, including those by Sappho, the persecution of women, homosexuals, and anyone who questioned the right of Christian rule. Christians colonised other cultures, exploiting their lands and people for economic gain. Muslims had similar attitudes, although weren’t as successful colonisers.

During the movements of the Renaissance (inspired by works from ancient Greece and Rome), Neo-Classicism, and Romanticism, through the Reformation, Enlightenment and into the modern age the outcome of cultural absolutism and moral assurance continued in the persecution of those who challenged Christianity, the denial of women’s rights, the continuation of slavery and fear of foreigners, and colonisation. Why? Because of systems of power and privilege.

Of course other cultures had their own ancient texts and beliefs (particularly ancient Chinese and Indian literature, and, later, Arabic learning), their stories having some crossover with Western texts in terms of purpose and ideas. When these were translated by Western writers, often monks, they were written in terms familiar to Christians. Being able to see them objectively in their cultural context has partly been lost. We can look to Aboriginal Dreamtime stories for how ancient people in Australia thought.

We can see the way religions start, grow and spread in looking at more modern religions and sects: Scientology, Mormonism, and Pacific cargo cults like the Prince Philip Movement. We can see it in the history of celebrating Christmas, Halloween and Mother's Day, and in the development of Santa Claus. Traditionally men have become religious leaders to access power and position (even those who have been colonised recognise that religious leadership grants them a seat at the big table), and women join religious life to be left alone.

After the Holocaust’s genocide of the Jews, homosexuals and people with disabilities, caused by nationalism, racism, homophobia and moral absolutism, the world came together to form the United Nations and to write the Declaration of Human Rights. This states that our basic human rights are inherent and should be protected by law. We understand, now, the dangers of facism.

Living according to an ancient text is a dangerous idea, and one that is held consistently by believers. They say God wants marriage to be between a man and woman, yet they don’t turn to that text to find out how to fix their cars, or cure their illnesses, or what to make for dinner. As taught in high school English, texts are created within a context, for an audience and a purpose.

Faith can be defined as pretending to know things you don’t know. It is a failed epistemology rather than a virtue. It blocks openness to evidence and knowledge and changed beliefs. Religious faith is not a quality valued in the modern world. Yet, in Australia, we treat religious institutions as if they were virtuous, despite the evidence of the Royal Commission into systemic child abuse. We grant religious institutions tax exemptions, we publicly fund their schools (which are places of intellectual dishonesty, since they cannot be teaching critical and creative thinking, nor can they seriously believe the tenets of their faith - if they did they would instruct students to answer every HSC exam with ‘because it is God’s will’). We grant religious institutions exemption from discrimination law, so they are free to not employ people who are homosexual or non-believers. We pay religious institutions to run government services, which they can do cheaper than non-religious organisation since they don’t have a unionised workforce and don’t pay tax. We treat religious groups as if they are good because they run charities, when they could do much more. The Catholic Church could sell its properties today to solve world hunger tomorrow, but it doesn’t. Instead, they pray, which does nothing. We pay for chaplains to counsel children in public schools, where we suspend the curriculum and policies of public education to permit evangelical volunteers access to students for religious indoctrination. We listen to religious leaders as if they were academics; they are not. Academics have intellectual curiosity and are open to changing their views based on evidence while religious leaders aim to make everything fit into their conclusion that they will not revise. And all religious institutions are misogynistic. Women who value women’s rights should not be supporting religious institutions.

People who claim that there is one way to be an Australian, that Australia is a white country, based on Judeo-Christian values, have a lot of thinking to do. We need to ask them questions. The only monoculture that ever existed in Australia was indigenous. If they want to live a white Anglocentric life, they would find it very challenging: What would they wear? What can they eat? Can they communicate using only words based on Old English? What is their number system? It is an idea as flawed as trying to live according to an ancient text. Do they think it is OK for white people to colonise brown people but not OK for brown people to influence white culture (whatever that is)?

Right wing conservative and fundamentalist Christians state we should be afraid of cultural relativism and moral relativism. In fact we should be very afraid of cultural absolutism and moral absolutism. These ideologies protect those in power (white, Christian, heterosexual men) and enable them to force their beliefs onto others. They think they rule the world, because they have. The differences between ISIS and fundamentalist Christians are ones  of scale and concentration. Fundamentalist Christians believe non-believers burn in hell for eternity while members of ISIS will kill you. Members of ISIS are grouped together in the middle east, while fundamentalist Christians are scattered around the world, abusing children and killing people in their own communities (through neglect, exorcisms, enacting what their faith tells them). Cultural and moral relativism enables us to try to suspend our prejudices to understand other people. This is what anthropological studies do.

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) grants religious groups an exemption from mental illness on the basis that the delusion is shared by other members of the culture or subculture. This definition should be revised: 'A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary' should not be waived based on popularity of that shared delusion. What this means is that the last people to hold on to the belief are deluded (have a mental illness) whereas, holding the same belief amongst many other believers does not constitute a mental illness. The definition of a delusion should not be altered based on appeal to the bandwagon.*

Th UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, states that people have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. These freedoms are restricted by laws and are not to impinge upon the protection of public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights of others. The fundamental rights of others.

When Christians are challenged about their privilege they cry discrimination. Challenging privilege is not discrimination. In a globalised world, with real problems such as climate change and how to live sustainably, refugees, funding for education, health, and public transport, addressing racism and inequality, and providing safety nets for the most vulnerable people, we cannot afford to waste time debating the basic human rights of one set of people or another. People have the right to believe what they like, but they should be asked to think about and justify those beliefs when they use them as a basis for limiting the freedom of others. We need to challenge moral and cultural absolutism.
It is time to move on. We know now that the world is round. We can explore space and  nanoparticles. We understand about germs. We know it isn’t healthy to eat mostly meat and bread. We know how the world works and how social and economic systems operate. We understand it is healthy to create communities and perform rituals; they add meaning and purpose to our lives and help us process the events of our lives, and trying to make sense of the world, but we can do these without pretending to know things we don’t know.

So, in our public discussions, let's ask a few more questions. Let's use good logic and not fall into bad arguments*. Lets ask why people believe what they do, and if that is a good basis for a belief. Let's ask what systems of power our beliefs support. Who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged under these power systems? Let's ask if ideas belong to a certain group of people, and what is served if they do. Let's ask for definitions of people’s beliefs and what the implication of those definitions mean. Let's ask more questions.

A few years ago the BBC stopped giving media space to climate change deniers. We need to do the same with people who disavow people of their basic human rights. We certainly should not be funding their arguments, based on their lack of knowledge, experience and understanding. After two and half thousand years of philosophy, literature, art, history and politics, we are learning very slowly. Let's not return to the dark ages.

 * An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments