Archived entries for society and religion

On Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran

When I first heard the news that Bali Nine ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran had received the death penalty, my initial reaction was indifference. My stance was that as much as I disagree with capital punishment, they had the misfortune to be caught for criminal activity in a country where it is practised, and that’s just too bad; there are plenty of other issues I would rather to direct my energies toward.

But then I found out I had a friend who knew Andrew directly (school friends, I think). He and his friends made impassioned pleas for people to look beneath the façade, to see the story of repentance and redemption. These guys, by their own admission, weren’t exactly always model citizens, and but for some “second chance” opportunities that they were lucky enough to have received ended up on the right path instead of the wrong one. For example:

 

Practically everyone who was in favour of the execution seemed to think that Chan and Sukumaran deserved what they got for doing what they did – that is, trafficking drugs. Most cite supporting arguments like how drugs continue to ruin many peoples’ lives, etc.

The problem I have with this view view is that it supposes that drug users are victims and in no way complicit for their role in the drug trade. Everybody knows that the drug trade, like every other business, works by supply and demand. Only, in this case, demand is generally attributed to addiction.

Now addiction’s supposed to be this physiological condition where people get hooked onto substances, after which they no can no longer help themselves and basically become victims. However, recent science is starting to uncover something interesting about addiction:

If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right — it’s the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them — then it’s obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.

But here’s the strange thing: It virtually never happens.

Excerpt from the Huffington Post: “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think”

The article goes on to provide a thorough argument for the theory that addiction is a symptom of a lack of human connection. That is, addiction doesn’t exist when people have good social relationships. So bringing this back to Chan and Sukumaran: how hard is it to believe that they “got caught up in the wrong crowd” and did what they did because of a lack of positive social connections?

When they were jailed, they found themselves in an environment where they were able to form positive relationships with jailers and fellow inmates. Everything you read about their decade in prison points to the fact that they were thoroughly rehabilitated, and made positive contributions in their new environment.

All of which brings me to the conclusion that addicts and criminals are not so different from each other. Yet society is quick to assign blame to one and portray the other as the victim, when in reality they are both victims of (social) circumstances.

On reflection, this missive was needed much, much earlier, but as with most complex issues, it has taken a long time for me to process and come to an understanding that I felt comfortable sharing (not to mention the usual laborious process of converting my thoughts into a coherent piece of prose). So although it’s too late for Andrew and Myu, I hope that those among you who felt they deserved to die read this and consider how blessed we are to be friends. Maybe you saved me from a similar fate in the past, or will do so sometime in the future… and I you.

Aborting anti-abortionist arguments

Yellow Balloons with "Yes" in celebration of Ireland passing laws in favour of abortion rights

Photograph by Informatique

Ireland recently passed laws to allow abortions in circumstances where the mother’s life is at risk (link). As reported in the article, the trigger for the change was a case where a woman died from blood poisoning after being refused an abortion.

Typically, the ensuing reporting painted a picture of outrage from those against the change, but it strikes me that “pro-lifers”, like climate change deniers, are an over-represented minority view. Unlike climate change though, it does strike me as surprising that many churchgoers tend to put themselves into the anti-abortion camp simply because they feel it is the right side to be on.

I felt that this was worth considering.

First, a thought experiment. Supposing God’s character is exactly as detailed in the bible, this suggests that He supports “life” (I realise this is a big call, since it begs the questions of why there are deaths due to natural disasters, earthquakes, etc. but sadly that’s just too much for one blog post). That in itself is vague, so let me break it down as follows: assuming the child is not yet ready to be born, a complication arises during pregnancy such that both mother and child’s lives are at risk.

  1. If an abortion is denied, both mother and child die
  2. If an abortion is granted, the mother’s life is saved

In the first outcome the net result is total death; none survive. It is only in the second outcome that one life is preserved at the cost of another. A God that is “pro-life” should therefore desire the second outcome. So what objections could there be to this? I can think of two:

  • Those who believe “nature” should be allowed to take its course (oftentimes expressed as “submitting to God’s will”). Those who fall into this category are simply ignorant hypocrites – humans have been interfering with natural processes for as long as recorded human history (and then some). In fact, interfering with nature is pretty much one of our defining characteristics as human beings, e.g. agriculture, domesticating animals, etc.
  • Those who object to the act of “killing”, even for the sake of saving life. Again, this is hypocritical as human sacrifice is prominent in the bible, particularly in the Old Testament (e.g. God commanding Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering – although this was not actually carried out), but also Jesus’ crucifixion. There are also some lengthy discussions on the nature of murder, but even these allow killing in the act of self-defence.

Having said that, let me come back to the point I made near the beginning of the post where I said that only a minority of Christians would actually hold these views. Certainly, of all the Christians I have ever encountered, none would deny a woman an abortion if it meant saving her life. So I will take liberties here and state, without proof, that any Christian who understands their faith and has actually considered the issue, should arrive at the same conclusion.

And what about abortion under other circumstances?

This may seem like a cop-out, but I would categorise anything apart from the above scenario as no longer just about abortion, but enmeshed with a bunch of other judgements about sexual immorality. For example, those who would condemn a woman for choosing to have a “voluntary” abortion will usually also have some very strong opinions about promiscuity, sex outside of marriage, or responsibility. Pretty big issues, so another time perhaps…

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This post is part of the series An Atheist in God’s Kingdom.

In-tolerance we must

NOTICE: intolerance will not be toleratedI once read a question on Quora where somebody asked why Christians in America feel like they’re a persecuted minority. The answer written by Robert Hegwood is intriguing: in a nutshell, he describes how Christians were used to living a certain way of life, behaviours that had been acceptable – expected, even – for a long time, but because of the rise of Atheism they now find themselves suddenly forced to dispense with hundreds of years of accumulated history (dating back to before America existed), simply because it offends modern sensibilities. Christians are essentially being forcefully told “you can’t do that any more”.

Is it fair to ask a person, or even a significantly large group of people, to change, when what they were doing has been acceptable for decades prior? Supporters of Atheism will likely bring up all kinds of anachronistic behaviours, and social norms of past eras which now seem ludicrous, to justify a general purging of all belief even if they aren’t practiced any more. Granted, situations like the recent riots in response to a sacrilegious Youtube video do little to help, but using this as a argument for banning all religion is like pointing to soccer hooliganism as a reason for banning all sport.

Religion is more than fad or fashion – it is peoples’ way of life, moral compass, worldview and belief system. One could reasonably argue that religious belief is no more or less dangerous than a political ideology. Both have their good and bad – wars have been fought for both causes – so why is one “politically correct” (ba-da-boom) while the other isn’t? It brings to mind the famous Stephen Roberts quote:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

… except I contend that we are all religious. I simply believe that an atheist’s “god” is ideological rather than metaphysical. Let’s be clear: I’m not saying an atheist “worships” their ideology as one would a deity, but a rational person must accept the existence of a system greater than themselves, of which they are necessarily a part – whether they choose to accept that or not. I don’t buy existential nihilism, which – to bring this post back around full circle – Nietzsche believed to be a widespread phenomenon of Western culture, and that it was an unsavoury yet inevitable phase that humanity must go through on the path towards transcendence.

In other words, let’s not get too carried away with this current zeitgeist of non-belief – it is just part of humanity’s journey, not the destination.

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This post is part of the series An Atheist in God’s Kingdom.

Trigger-nometry

By now you’ve probably heard the news about the shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. Unsurprisingly, the public discussion quickly turned into a gun debate – a highly contentious topic in the United States due to the tension between violent crime involving guns, and the country’s constitutional right to bear arms. While mulling over the tragedy of the situation a few thoughts occurred, which I thought I’d put out there – seeing as I haven’t posted in quite some time.

My dad’s always been a stickler for security: prior to ol’ Johnny Howard’s Gun Buyback Scheme in 1996, he used to own a shotgun for “hunting”. I can’t remember whether he actually ever took it out (for recreational purposes or otherwise), but I do remember the gravity of its presence in the house. My own personal firearms experience is going pistol shooting for a friend’s bucks. I’ve lived with a gun in the house, and I’ve held and fired a gun – so I feel somewhat qualified to speak about it, although any American (and probably no small number of Australians) would laugh in my face for making that claim.

Yosemite SamFear dominates both sides of the debate, whether they care to admit it or not. On one hand, fear drives gun ownership – guns are used for protection, be it from physical injury, or as a “big stick” to enable a person to speak boldly and exercise their personal rights. It’s fitting that the right to bear arms is second to Free Speech in the US Bill of Rights, as human tendencies will typically necessitate the former as a result of the latter.

Guns are as much a symbol of authority as much as they are a tool for violence. Note how despite the highly publicized tragedies that occasionally pepper the news, most Americans live in relative peace and safety with firearms – so long as it remains largely symbolic.

Take the guns away and people live in fear, literally powerless. The population becomes meek and subservient to any kind of power, with rhetoric being the tool of choice. Without force behind it, this is easily ridiculed – I hazard that this might contribute to the explanation of why “tall-poppy syndrome” in so pervasive in Australian culture.

Like how money used to be backed by gold prior to fiat currency, authority in the US is backed by firepower. Until some other form of individual empowerment materialises with sufficient clout to replace the brute force of firearms, I think it will be largely futile to try and annul the Second Amendment – its influence on the psyche of the average American is far too strong.

The world is doomed

Fractal world

Ours is a world of infinite and incomprehensible complexity...

I watched the SBS documentary Go Back To Where You Came From a couple of months ago, and at the time, I remember thinking that I didn’t know what to do with myself any more. I found myself completely, utterly and terrifyingly unable to comprehend the enormity of how totally fucked up the world is, to the point where the only rational solution was to stop participating in it by killing myself. Obviously I didn’t, but it seemed to be the only possible outcome if I took the thought to its logical conclusion.

I’m a person whose character is such that I prefer exploring the intellectual realm of the mind, rather than the tangible, physical world. I tend to gravitate towards Platonic idealism and the belief that perfection exists – that there is a solution for every problem, an answer for every question, and an end to every beginning. I’m not satisfied to just “do my bit for the cause.” I want the problem to be entirely gone

But I’m becoming increasingly resigned to the fact that the world suffers from an incurable case of entropy (chaos and disorder). The problems are getting larger, and our ability (or motivation) to deal with them is not keeping up.

It baffles me that in all of the discussions I’ve seen (including my own opinions here in this blog), people are conceited enough to think that they have a sufficient grasp on the issue, regardless of whether it’s asylum seekers, climate change, the National Broadband Network, to be able to judge others’ thoughts and opinions on the topic. We hold dearly onto the delusion that the world is even remotely comprehensible to us, and that our speck of understanding is sufficient to convince others of our righteousness.

In this regard, I’m beginning to see why religion is needed – if the Ideal doesn’t exist in this reality, then it must do so in some other alternative reality. Because we can imagine it, it must therefore exist.

How should I deal with this – do I throw my hands up in the air, say “to hell with it all” and live life inside a bubble of ignorance, as selfishly as possible? Or do I join those droplets of humanity dashing myself against the rock of futility, adding my infinitessimal contribution to the carving of humanity’s future?

It’s not even just asylum seekers. The media are constantly bombarding us with issues, and our form of democracy practically demands that we consider every aspect of running the country as if the prosperity of the nation is a very real responsibility for every individual, when the individual is already being beset on all sides by people, political parties and businesses trying to pass on more and more of the burden.

Pandora’s Box is not a myth – we’re living it.



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