Sunday, March 11, 2007


FUBAR is a military acronym for the state of a target after a bomb has hit it. It stands for the tongue-in-cheek expression "Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition." It also perfectly expresses the state of nearly all religions.

David Hume argued that ethical principles rest upon personal preferences and cultural traditions; that you cannot get an ought from an is. Yet these preferences and traditions rest upon innate cognitive building blocks similar to those which support reason and aesthetics. As Steven Pinker and other evolutionary psychologists point out, we are not born a blank slate, but come into the world with a set of tools which act like simple proteins, capable of constructing complex rational and moral systems but which, themselves, are so basic as to be indescribable. And yet, we employ these faculties constantly.

One cannot argue against the validity of reason without employing reason itself. The contradiction in the argument lies in the very act of posing the argument itself. What is generally not realized is that moral arguments--even those against the very reality of ethics itself--rely upon the moral faculty as well. The very act of engaging in discussion is dependent upon an exercise of concern, a moral ordering of values--indeed, the very act of talking to another relies upon a continuous exercise of reciprocity, itself based upon the valuation of ideas and the act of empathy. Profoundly autistic children, who lack the ability to mirror the thoughts and emotions of others, become incapable of even this level of engagement--they lack the empathy required to connect. And even the most repugnant of criminals, serial killers, for example, operate in a cooperative mode most of the time, and it is this vestigial level of moral judgement which allows them to escape detection for as long as they do. The very attempt to argue against some innate capacity for moral judgement, and against the objective nature of that capacity, stands as proof of the very thing it attempts to deny. And the fact that this innate ability was selected through evolutionary pressures establishes it as a product of objective reality. It reflects a condition of material existence which selected it as the best survival strategy.

Of course, human beings can become morally stunted, just as they can become irrational. The development of this capacity into a fully principled ethical system takes time and effort, just as learning the principles of critical thinking takes work. Indeed, critical thinking itself is required for the effort of developing a system of ethics. The problem arises when a system of ethics established by tradition overrides the moral faculty itself. In this case, the followers of this ethical ideology become passive subscribers rather than active participants in developing their moral code. The very ethical faculty which creates such systems becomes atrophied. The tradition becomes an obstacle to genuine moral consideration, and those who accept it come into possession of an ethical code which is rigid, incomplete, and usually inconsistent. Having delegated these judgements to an external authority, adherents to this ideology have no capacity to judge that authority itself, nor to fill in the gaps introduced by novel situations and new information.

In the scientific method, this type of dogmatism is considered abhorrent. Examples of it include Lysenkoism, Creationism, various forms of 'alternative' medicine, and other forms of pseudo-science. Each of these refuses to respect the weight of evidence and instead begins with a dogmatic belief which adherents then attempt to shore up by ignoring huge volumes of contradictory evidence. Reality is subjugated to opinion. While it is true that the scientific community sometimes lags behind the curve of new evidence, this is the result of a general conservativism which resists wild speculation, rather than a genuine resistance to evidence. What proponents of these ideologies do not understand is that science is not a set of dogmas, but a method for refining our understanding of reality. It is not based upon accepted authority, but upon a continous effort to check each other's work, in which the rewards go to those who successfully challenge accepted ideas, as well as to those who make new discoveries or establish better theories. The better established a theory, the more attractive a target it becomes--but the challenge must be based upon solid research. Pseudo-science eschews the hard work of science in favour of flimsy unsubstantiated claims, usually with the intent of fleecing the gullible. This preference for dogma over truth is just called bad science. Religion has a better term for it: idolatry.

Idolatry can be summarized as a preference for a particular representation of a thing over the reality of the thing itself. It is not the simple act of representation, but the uncritical acceptance, and even worship, of that representation. And contrary to the beliefs of many religious adherants, a representation need not be graphical or concrete in nature. It can be a book, an opinion, an idea, or a current or historical figure of authority. The critical factor is that this representation is imposed upon the real in such a way that reality itself becomes obscured. Truth is sacrificed on the altar of prejudice and opinion. Worshippers are caught in the Veil of Maya, trapped in a world they have constructed which they have pulled over their eyes to hide the truth.

According to virtually all religions, this is the greatest sin you can commit. And yet these same religions have become encrusted with the products of moral intuitions, products which believers take to be the final word. The religions have become a set of dogmas rather than a method, and the dogmas have become brute obstacles to the development of this central moral faculty. The religions have stalled, ground to a halt under the weight of their own traditions and the idolatrous regard for those traditions. Rather than approaching the originators of these traditions, to attempt to understand them and extend and adapt that understanding to novel circumstances, the faithful continue to worship them from afar, eternal children to a long dead parent.

While the pronouncements of these historical figures may be an improvement upon the primitive moral state of the most ignorant members of our society, they also impede the progress of people who can and should know better. Entire civlizations remain in orbit to bronze age and iron age ethical positions, which constantly threaten to pull us back into a state of near barbarism. In the case of Islam, the idolatry of a single figure, Mohammed, and a single book, the Koran, has created a cultural black hole from which few can escape. As Homer Simpson said about alcohol, Islam has become the cause of and the solution to all of life's problems. It is Marx's opiate of the masses, which dulls the pain that might cause them to seek more realistic solutions. It is also the perfect meme, in that it behaves as a cognitive virus which is almost incurable. The level of idolatry at work here is made glaringly obvious by the Danish cartoon controversy, in which millions of Muslims were apparently scandalized by mere drawings of a man. The proper reaction should have been to point out that they were themselves engaging in an orgy of idolatry, and that they themselves had beecome the infidels.

This lesson is not lost on Fundamentalist Christians, who are seeking to construct a black hole of their own centered of the idolatry of Christ and the Bible. This is, of course, an absolute betrayal of the most fundamental of all religious principles. If they succeed, Western Civilization may implode at the cost of billions of lives and unspeakable misery. The cultural sterility of fundamentalism of all kinds should sound a strong warning. If those who pride themselves on being made in the image of the Creator show no creativity themselves, what does that say about them? The flesh is weak, and the spirit is dead.

The difference between these dead husks and the vital struggles which long ago inspired them is astounding. Rather than pick up the cross, Christians have become content to bow and worship while Christ carries it. Rather than worshipping him as a God, they should stand up, look him in the eye, and try to understand, not just what he thought, but how he thought, and then bring those thoughts up to date. It isn't impossible; we were all born with the capacity to make moral judgements. Only a superstitious awe keeps us from doing so. Yet the farther we drift into idolatry, into the worship of scriptures and the people behind them, the farther we drift from the spirit which created them.

As it is, Christianity and Islam are FUBAR.