Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Religion-Violence Correlation

Well, Mumbai had another riot a few weeks ago.

A group of Muslims came to Azad Maidan for a demonstration, some carried weapons and the situation soon grew out of hand. The demonstrators went on a rampage, destroying property and attacking people, before being brought under control a few hours later.

I don't want to go into specifics but look at this event in the more general terms of religion and violence as a whole.

In the aftermath of the riot, fingers were pointed and names were called. I'm not talking about political oneupmanship and bureaucracy. I'm taking about you and me. I'm talking about what normal people talk about in homes, on the streets and online.

People antagonistic to Islam and Muslims felt this was yet another sign of how bad Muslims are, or how much of a curse Islam is.

People who don't like religion saw in this riot another indication of why religion is evil, and played up the harm that religion does to society.
Moderate Muslims apologized on behalf of the rioters and urged justice.
Apologetic Muslims urged people to think about the reasons why people would resort to violence to begin with. 

Which brings up so many points.

Who takes the blame for this?

Firstly, why do we even need to assign blame? Well, because we choose to live in a society governed by elected representatives who are supposed to ensure that we lead a peaceful non-stressful existence. That's what we pay them do do.

Did they perform? No. The police did an admirable job in not letting the riot escalate, and in ensuring law and order returned asap. This quick response is something they need to be commended for. However, it does not excuse them from the fact that they failed to preempt the riot to begin with, and those in charge need to be punished for this.

OK, so with the obvious blame over, can we blame Islam?

Yes, the rioters were Muslims, yes the riot was seeped in an undercurrent of Islam, and yes, if they weren't Muslims, they wouldn't be rioting. Does that mean we blame Islam? 

No, we don't, because Islam is a religion, not a person. It is merely a collection of ideas that people subscribe to. That the principles behind Islam are both ridiculous and irrelevant in today's context is beside the point. The point is they're just principles, which people are free to ignore.

So do we blame the Muslims, people who choose to follow Islam? 

Well, yes and no. 

We don't blame all Muslims, but we blame those who choose to interpret a religion or a belief system in a manner that leads to violence, because their form of expressing this interpretation goes against our laws. 

However, we can't generalize or extrapolate one set of rioters to all Muslims. Only a fool would do this. Most Muslims were as scared as other Mumbaikars when the riot broke out. Only a moron would look at a Muslim riot and go "we must rid this city of all Muslims". 

OK, but why call the rioters Muslims? Why associate them with Islam? They're just criminals, aren't they? Why associate them with any religion?

Because Islam is what the rioters themselves associate with, and it's stupid for us to ignore that, because this sort of information is useful in observing and predicting the ways in which a society moves and how to best control it in future.

Just because the majority of Muslims are wonderful non-violent people doesn't give us the right to purposely disassociate the rioters from Islam. It is entirely possible for two sub groups of people within the same group to interpret a belief system in two different ways. Both the majority and minority sub groups can scream hoarse about who's a true Muslim and who isn't, but they can't disassociate either subgroup from Islam itself, nor can anyone else.

Speaking of anyone else, the one thing that irritates me as much as anti-Muslim fundamentalists are the clueless liberal elite who think that religious rioters are mindless ignorant beasts with no religion. This is just stupidity and I don't know what kind of ignorant guilt-induced political correctness gone wrong, instigates this. 

Sure, all rioters irrespective of ideology tend to act like mindless ignorant beasts when rioting, but their riot has a basis to begin with, and in this case it's their religion. 

This doesn't mean we generalize the riot to draw ridiculous conclusions about Muslims. It just means the riot has a religious basis and we use this information as usefully as we possibly can. Period.

But wouldn't it be easier to just crackdown on Islam and all Muslims? 

This is illogical. You don't punish the group for the individual.

True, fewer Muslims would technically mean a lower chance of riots, but that's a ridiculous generalisation. By application, if the workers in a Maruti factory in a small town decide to riot, do we then get rid of all Maruti workers, or all Maruti factories, to ensure no further riots occur? 

At some point of time in the evolution of a civilization, any group within that civilization is liable to riot if enough members within the group resort to the same kind of violent herd mentality. 

To ban Islam is to ban Christianity is to ban Hinduism is to ban Buddhism is to ban atheism. They're all guilty because they're all groups, and all groups encourage herdthink. 

That one group is currently more violent than the others doesn't exonerate the others. It merely demonstrates that the difference in violence wrought by these groups at any particular time is one of extent rather than principle.

Is this a sign that religion in general is evil and dangerous?

Dangerous, yes. Evil, no. All religions being collections of principles, the only thing that matters to society is how stupidly people interpret these principles.

We can counter this by guarding against groupism in general, by making sure people are aware of the dangers of religion, of any belief system, of any group, of any fundamentalism.

So in summary, do we associate religion with violence?

Yes, we can, wherever we can, as long as it's not a correlation brought about by sinister or ignorant intentions with personal agendas in mind that don't really help anyone.

Also, read this article on war being inevitable by E.O Wilson.


Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Church of Atheism

I've been observing an increasingly disturbing trend lately. Atheists are forming organised groups. They're showing signs of fundamentalism - acting privileged, entitled, superior, rude and harassing religious people online.

To Begin With

I've written before on the futility of belief, and why non-belief is logical. However, these are my personal views, and I hold that imposing these views on anyone else in wrong. Also, it would be wrong on my part to expect everyone else to adhere to my personal views. Just because I see a way of life to be logical or rational doesn't mean everyone has to hold to that view. It is fine for people be irrational, even purposely so, as long as they're not hurting anyone else.

Take religion for example. Religion is irrational, yet it's OK for people to be religious. It's their personal choice. Should religion be encouraged? No more than any other form of irrationality is. Should religion be protected? Of course not. Ordinarily, a state has no part to play in the religions or personal belief systems of it's citizens.

Which is why I'm growing uneasy over this new type of militant atheism, an atheism that people subscribe to like an actionable belief system, rather than merely a philosophy or a personal set of viewpoints. An atheism that has loyal followers who are beginning to resemble religious fundamentalists, ready to defend their atheist leaders and core principles, ever ready to preach to those disinclined to listen. 

We need to guard against this new type of militant atheism.

Atheism Does Not Need Fundamentalism to Work 

I think religion will eventually die out when people see there's no point in taking things on faith, when they realise that the concept of belief itself is pointless. This will happen slowly over time. The number of people who associate with non-belief increases each year. 

Arguments that rationally undermine the concept of belief have been around for ages. These arguments form the foundation of atheism and do not need patron saints like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, or their lapdogs to defend or promote them. 

Militant Atheism is Really Harmful to the Cause

As a rationalist, I have to say that men like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins actually do more harm to rational thought, simply because they rarely indulge/d in any. 

Men like these may occasionally present their ideas logically, but spend more time asserting their superiority over religious people, insulting them, being rude, acting superior and generally just being assholes, that they alienate not just religious people, but the fence sitters as well.

Hitchens in particular was adept at using rhetoric and hyperbole, side-stepping any attempt at debate with humour that reinforced his own one-dimensional points. That his original arguments made sense by themselves is beside the point. The point is that he used the same arguments in contexts that rendered them irrelevant. 

For example, in this debate with Shashi Tharoor on freedom of speech, Hitchens shuns any attempt at engaging in actual intelligent debate. He seems incapable of looking at the world and questioning it in any way that doesn't allow him to spurt his crowd/ratings-friendly one-liners at every opportunity he gets.

Now, as a result of this, two things happen.

One, you give your detractors more ammunition to work with. You are going to be seen as someone who changes the subject and avoids debate, preferring narrow mindedness instead. 

Two, you alienate all those people who want to be on your side, who genuinely care about intelligent debate and an exchange of ideas, and make a mockery of their time.

Groupism is Bad

A true rationalist is interested in debate and an exchange of ideas. That's not what I'm seeing today. I'm seeing people who under the guise of enlightenment, take great pleasure in forming a clique and shoving their non-belief down religious people's throats. 

This is dangerous because, as we've seen in history, any type of groupism has potential to go very wrong. The moment like-minded people get organised around an idea, the potential for disaster is present, especially when that idea revolves around persecution of supposedly inferior beings. 

This is the same kind of groupism that we've seen in religious groups, and we all know the kind of violence it can lead to. In fact, groupism isn't confined to religion. How many millions of people did atheist governments in China and the former USSR kill?

This sort of 'lynch mob' mentality is exactly what happens when you have people eager to belong, to be part of a group, to be part of a movement, something greater to themselves, so that they have meaning in their lives. You see this kind of tribe mentality in all sorts of groups.

On Intelligent Atheism

Is it surprising then that it manifests itself in atheism too? To me it is, because I never imagined any kind of rationalist movement as a kind of cult, which is what it has turned into. 

Rationalism is all about being an open minded skeptic, friendly, ready to engage, open to new ideas, discussion and debate. And let's not forget our humaneness too. Despite all our rationality, we must respect other human beings for their views, whatever they are, even when they decide to be irrational. Their reasons are their own.

I don't see this kind of respect for other human beings in new atheism. If you're not constantly spewing hatred for religion, you're the enemy. If you don't agree with Dawkins or Hitchens, you're the enemy. Atheist fundamentalists cannot grasp that you can be a staunch atheist and still disagree with these so called 'experts'. 

This kind of 'seeing the world in black and white' mentality while ignoring the grey areas is exactly what leads to groupism and possible violence, and is antithetical to the healthy debate that rational thought encourages.

No Excuses

The main excuse of atheist fundamentalists is that their harshness is merely a response to injustices wrought on the world by religion. To which I say "Phooey". 

Granted, the influence of religion is far reaching, and much needs to be done to reverse this. But that does not mean you shove your ideas down people's throats. That doesn't make you any better than the people you're trying to put down. 

And it doesn't accomplish anything. If anything, it makes it worse. Most people dislike non-belief being forced on them as much as they dislike religion being forced upon them.

So in summary

Believe what you like, and keep it to yourself. 
Engage in healthy debate if you feel like it and find the right people to talk to. 
Hear people out and seriously consider what they're saying.
Think and reason logically. 
Be objective. 
Fight for your rights and the rights of others. 
Fight to halt and reverse the dangerous influences of religion.
Support the freedom of religious expression up till the point where it infringes on your rights.
It's fine to hold up a mirror to the absurdity of religion or any irrational thought process to demonstrate how absurd it is, especially when provoked. 
Don't be rude.
Don't end up like one of them.
Keep your individuality. The moment you join a group, you sacrifice a piece of your individuality for a group identity. Be aware of this.


Monday, 27 August 2012


Here's an article about a guy who took 11 hours to make 300 apples power a LED lamp, and then took a 4 hour exposure of his experiment on film.

I love stories about inventiveness. Inventive people do crazy fun stuff, like build Rube Goldberg machines, which I love.

I am always dismayed by people who are dismissive of inventive people. Inventive people are dedicated to their work, and their experiments move the world forward.

If you think about it, all of the things we use on a day to day basis came into being when someone had an idea that revolved around creating something, and decided to experiment with something else, or fiddle around with some contraptions with a view to improving life on this planet.

All the products we use today were invented, they arose out of a series of continuously improving inventions over time. Our electricity, planes, trains, cars, ships, buses, microwaves, ACs, cameras and computer systems were all developed by groups of people improving each other's work over time.

None of these inventors were mere consumers of products that existed in their lifetimes. If that's all they were, we wouldn't have all the stuff we do today. If Thomas Edison or the Wright brothers were merely content with what they had to begin with, with what other people had made for them, our world wouldn't have developed in quite the same way it did.

It was because these special people acted on their impulses, working with and developing the technologies they had, that they came up with new inventions that were in turn improved upon.

And those improvements continue today. Inventive people are continuously toiling away at something they believe in, creating products that other people use, even if that's not always apparent, like with fruit powered lamps.

Here's a video describing the work of Theo Jansen, who creates kinetic sculptures.

I've never been particularly inventive myself, but I appreciate the importance of inventiveness, and I think other people should too. Of course, I don't think everyone should be inventive. Civilizations thrive on diverse skill sets. If everyone was a geek, the government wouldn't have anyone to defend the country. In fact, in a case like that, there might not even be a government. Now what would THAT do to a civilization?


Tuesday, 7 August 2012

On Primates Using Sign Language

Watch below the 1978 documentary on Koko.

And here's Robert Sapolsky's summary. Entertaining as always.