Being Progressive: the universal declaration of human rights v the ten commandments

Being Progressive: the universal declaration of human rights v the ten commandments

Written by: The AIM Network

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By James Moylan

Ignorance is our default setting

Ever since the enlightenment the various religious and totalitarian forces scattered about the globe have fought a constant rearguard action in defence of their turf. ‘Yes’, they argue, ‘these new-fangled scientific ideas might explain how things work, but we remain the final custodians of why things are the way they are’. ‘You anti-theists and heretics can have the physical world, but the spiritual among us will retain control of all things moral and political’.

In a world of simple questions, small populations, and limited technologies, this mixture of rational physical technologies and irrational social systems did suffice to keep society chugging along. Even if many aspects of our living arrangements were not working in everyone’s interests, when we were small scattered communities and there were still wide open horizons available, then irrational decisions and motivations were only really consequential to just that particular small grouping of humanity. But now not so much.

It is becoming ever more apparent that our ways of understanding ‘who’ we are – as individuals and as a society as a whole – have simply failed to keep pace with our scientific and industrial progress. Where we have cleared away the detritus of our mythologies and irrationalities when it comes to our discussions regarding the natural world, our political and cultural realms remain littered with medieval ideas and outright bigotries.

When our society was at a much smaller scale this habit of irrationality was of no great consequence. When we were only a small population any idiosyncrasies of thought cultivated by any individual group tended to impact only the members of that group. So by the dawn of the modern scientific age, while there were lots and lots of weird ideas about, they generally only caused discomfort for a very few individuals in each grouping. All of human history is nothing else if not a chronicle of many wildly diverse and whacky communities with all sorts of crazy ideas.

However the general consensus among the better educated was that as our various societies continued to mature, then the wackiness would likely decrease. That our growing sophistication in science and philosophy would eventually act to supplement and inform the development of our social sciences. That the many irrationalities embedded within our many cultures would simply fade away, allowing us to jointly and peaceably address the problems we face as a multitudinous mass inhabiting a finite globe.

Unfortunately it appears that even the pessimists in our midst were being a tad over-optimistic.

The more that we come to consider culture in detail, and so contemplate the ways in which we talk about things and communicate with each other, the more we begin to understand that we do not communicate in rational or probabilistic terms at all: rather we tell stories to each other. We know lots and lots of disjointed and often mutually incongruous stories that explain why things are the way that things are. The more that social scientists work to unpick ‘culture’ the more it becomes apparent that the cultural import of any idea or concept rarely has much of a relationship with its scientific veracity, logical consistency, or probability.

We are illogical and irrational because to be otherwise requires self doubt, self discipline and self awareness. Rationality requires a constant re-ordering of the apparent messages available. So the more rational you become the less certainty you enjoy. And we all let our guard down when we are enjoying ‘cultural’ pursuits.

Yet in the modern world many of the imperatives and obvious outcomes which are dictated as being culturally appropriate are no longer of any ultimate benefit to either a particular culture or the species as a whole. To be wise in the modern age now requires that our politicians and leaders be able to think in a counter-intuitive manner – because our cultural commonsense can no longer lead us in a mutually beneficial direction. Our cultural common-sense is what has got our species into this global warming pickle in the first place.

The cultural common-sense of each of the countries on our earth indicates that they should wrest both military and financial control of their region from all others. Whereas a modern global perspective indicates that cooperation is far more advantageous. The cultural common-sense of countries indicates that, in the main, global warming is not a problem of great import. Cultural and spiritual domination are the most important aspects of society. Whereas the modern global perspective regards this focus on belief systems to be arcane and entirely unhelpful.

So we come to an odd juncture in history where the cultural conceits of our many groupings of citizens across our globe are continually arguing against the best interests of the majority of the human beings on the globe. For while many citizens do not share the prejudices and bigotries enshrined in their own particular cultural grouping – they do share in the benefits accruing to the ruling class in these cultures. They know how to manipulate and inflame local prejudice for their own benefit. So the majority of the ruling politicians in our world are also happy to engage in the hypocritical manipulation of the views of an ignorant majority whose beliefs and values they do not share.

So now we come to a fork in the road. Either our modes of organising ourselves politically and socially undergo a revolution or we fail as a species. We have become scientifically and technologically sophisticated. Now we either learn to become socially sophisticated as well or we will cook the planet and destroy our incipient global community in a matter of decades.

Our continued obsession with a range of outmoded and sometimes positively harmful medieval mentalities is simply getting in the way. Christianity, Islam, Séances, Astrology, Bigfoot, UFO’s, Miracles, Magic and Homeopathy still explain the world for the majority. Ghosts and ghouls, witches and fairies, saints and demons, angels and devils, still walk the earth in the minds of the mainstream consumer. It might seem merely interesting and odd if it weren’t so very dangerous.

All around the globe conservative forces work hard to continue to oppress minorities on behalf of the majority. They do not believe that these minorities have any rights worth considering. And our habit of authorising a range of medieval mentalities allows these vested interests across the globe to continue to usurp the authority of the many. Under the banner of ‘ religious’, ‘traditional’, ‘sectarian’, or ‘commercial’ rights they continue to engage in bigoted and discriminatory practices against particular segments of their own population in a particularly self-aware manner. Yes sometimes the populace might be described as being deluded – but rarely the leaders. The leaders generally engage in their demonising and discrimination in a very wide-eyed and considered manner.

The modern national political ambition is to retain power and gain further influence, not on behalf of the good of the many, but rather on behalf of the good of a deserving majority at the expense of an obviously evil few. These same people also continually seek to monopolise scarce resources and pollute to such an extent as is legally permissible. Always without regard to the rights of the many nor the needs of the environment. For neither of these ambitions are likely to be shared by any self-interested ruler of an individual nation state.

These are not ‘evil’ people. They are just self-interested and misguided. They are thinking like cave-men because they are encouraged at every turn, by all their social peers, and all the social pressures they ever experience, to continue to think like a cave-man.

They might be driving a Lexus and talking on a mobile phone but they are still knowingly focussed on how they might best pander to the bigotries of the many so as to enrich the few. Manipulation rather than education is the order of their day. This applies in virtually all of the nation states across our planet. So even while we aspire to being a global culture, virtually every element in our societies still actively endorse arcane belief systems and traditional bigotries. There is also a false equivalence constantly being asserted by reactionary conservative forces that equates ‘religious and traditional practice’ with leading a morally wholesome and socially desirable lifestyle. Thinking individuals know this is bunk. Yet still the mythology persists.

The shortest time spent considering the many conflicts and oppressive behaviours that are motivated and authorised by religious and ideological obsession demonstrates that there is no equivalence. In fact, traditional cultural practices and theologies almost always incorporate and promote unacceptable inequities. Moreover, they usually promote the idea that the environment itself is a simple by-product of the human experience. After all; why worry about a dying planet when you will live forever in an everlasting paradise with a loving and forgiving god?

So thinking individuals from time immemorial have argued that arcane religious beliefs and inequitable traditional practices need to be replaced by considerations relating to human rights – not supplemented by them. As a result, over the last two centuries, wise people have come together to define not only the universal properties of nature but also to work out what are the minimum acceptable ways for treating human beings. By drawing on the traditions of all of the cultures on our earth the universal declaration of human rights seeks to distil this wisdom. It lists in a very straightforward way the behaviours which are acceptable and those that are not – universally.

Yet despite this, in the vast majority of countries, various bigotries continue to be enshrined in law and supposedly ‘moral’ and ‘conservative’ voices continue to argue in favour of retaining these ongoing discriminations. Right now many millions of human beings are being woefully oppressed on behalf of religion and tradition. Yet still in our politics it seems that professing a belief in the mystical and impossible is perfectly acceptable. In our contemporary age the modern political creed seems to be exactly the same as the ancient one: as long as my discrimination is the same as the one my father employed then it is not only acceptable – it is desirable.

Until it is no longer satisfactory for our politicians to argue on behalf of irrational beliefs or continued discrimination then it is unlikely we will be able to address the great challenges that face our global community in any effective manner. Until we match our scientific enlightenment with a corresponding social enlightenment we will continue to march, eyes open, towards environmental disaster. We must banish magical thinking from our social discourse and punish our leaders whenever they pander to irrational and bigoted elements in our society. We must begin to think like global citizens.

Becoming a global citizen

What is the difference between being a national and a global citizen? The former believes they are a member of a culture, first and foremost, and so their primary allegiance is to ‘god and country’. Whereas a global citizen understands their principal allegiance must always lie with the environment and the wider public interest. Instead of ordering their priorities to accord with the dictates of a particular culture, the global citizen considers the individual and corporate human rights of those involved in any interrelationship. Where the national citizen thinks traditionally and patriotically, the global citizen thinks rationally and globally. So for the global citizen the Universal Declaration of Human Rights acts as the fundamental guide for how we might best order our cultural interactions. Not tradition, pragmatism, majority opinion, or religious dictate.

In the same way as science does not entertain different sorts of ‘gravity’ for different parts of the globe, human rights are conceived of as being universal. Tradition, pragmatism, majority opinion, and religious dictate simply have no bearing. The rights listed in the declaration contemplate our cultural interrelationships in the light of the experience of all the different cultures across the entire face of the globe. They distil our joint experience as a species across the span of our joint remembering.

This global perspective is significant. For as certainly as the arcane beliefs of a distant region will likely appear foreign to your own cultural understandings, so your traditional beliefs are likely to be considered by others in distant parts to be decidedly odd. So if we are to ever forge a modern global consensus, then we need global and universal rules for how we should treat each other. The universal declaration of human rights lays bare the phoney aspirations of ‘religious moralities’ to being universal by listing only those aspects of cultural behaviour that really are acceptable to all persons at all times.

A believer in a particular theological perspective, a non-believer, and all those who are unconcerned, are similarly protected. The declaration is designed as much to protect people from the impositions of other people’s arbitrary and illogical belief systems as it is to allow the right to profess a particular belief. This is why ‘Freedom of Belief and Religion’ and ‘Freedom of Opinion and Information’ are listed as being significant but minor elements of a much more comprehensive set of rights.

A right to equality of treatment, freedom from discrimination, life, liberty, personal security, recognition before the law, freedom from slavery, and arbitrary arrest. Also the freedom to marry, and travel, or change nationality or religion, are all considered far more significant and pressing requirements than any right to profess a belief in a religious or ideological supposition. In this manner the universal declaration of human rights reflects the ‘big picture’ thoughts that might run through the mind of any human viewing the earth through the porthole of a spaceship.

The preamble begins:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.

Who could possibly disagree? Unfortunately most of our politicians and almost all of the inhabitants of our globe disagree with the idea that we must forgo all forms of discrimination.

Despite these fine sentiments creationism based non-rational theological explanations still rule in all of our political and cultural discourses. Who will deny that the vast majority of the world’s population, and all our politicians, still cling to arcane theological explanations for ‘why’ we are here on this earth and how we got here? The sorry reality is that just because we live in a world chock-full of modern marvels, nobody should remain blind to the fact that most of our governments are still run by people who profess a belief in quaint medieval notions about the nature of the world and also the likely fate of all of its inhabitants.

Even in the largest (supposedly) secular democracy on the earth – America – the majority still firmly believe in a world created by an interested god, especially for human beings, and that everything will be pretty soon wrapped up again in accord with the divine wishes of a mystical creator. In the US this view is predicated on a Christian form of deity. In other parts of the globe it is a variant on the Christian God, or a Judaic one, or an Islamic one, or the population believes in a range of different gods. However regardless of the particular brand of theological devotion these forces are all united in their defence of bigotry and social exclusion. They just happen to advocate for different types of bigotry and exclusion.

So while rational and humane forces are constantly fighting on behalf of public rights and environmental concerns, we schizophrenically also entertain a widespread conviction that if your personal belief system encompasses socially indefensible ideas then you are still allowed to argue in favour of these ideas. Moreover, when a secular humanist points out that an argument is bigoted and indefensible – they are very likely to be accused of being intolerant!

Until we all aspire to be global citizens and also demand the same level of ethical sophistication from our leaders, we will continue to fail in our attempts to craft a global response to the pressing existential threat that is posed by climate change. We must abandon our old nationalistic and patriotic habits. They no longer assist in fulfilling our joint aspirations. The biggest challenge we face is whether or not we can learn to govern ourselves effectively before we destroy the environment irreparably.

When we see the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights instead of the ten commandments of the Bible, chiselled into stone monuments across our planet, then we will likely be on the right track. It is hard to be pessimistic about the prospects of any species that can craft such a noble set of guidelines.

The next time someone advocates to you on behalf of a Medieval or Stone Age concept then just point them towards the Universal Declaration and ask them to just read the index. Then ask if they disagree with any of these rights.

This might only prompt an interesting conversation. But then you might just end up sitting next to yet another global citizen, viewing the earth as if from a space station, as a fragile blue globe spinning in the inky vastness of space.

The articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

1       Right to Equality

2       Freedom from Discrimination

3       Right to Life, Liberty, Personal Security

4       Freedom from Slavery

5       Freedom from Torture and Degrading Treatment

6       Right to Recognition as a Person before the Law

7       Right to Equality before the Law

8       Right to Remedy by Competent Tribunal

9       Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Exile

10     Right to Fair Public Hearing

11     Right to be Considered Innocent until Proven Guilty

12     Freedom from Interference with Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence

13     Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country

14     Right to Asylum in other Countries from Persecution

15     Right to a Nationality and the Freedom to Change It

16     Right to Marriage and Family

17     Right to Own Property

18     Freedom of Belief and Religion

19     Freedom of Opinion and Information

20     Right of Peaceful Assembly and Association

21     Right to Participate in Government and in Free Elections

22     Right to Social Security

23     Right to Desirable Work and to Join Trade Unions

24     Right to Rest and Leisure

25     Right to Adequate Living Standard

26     Right to Education

27     Right to Participate in the Cultural Life of Community

28     Right to a Social Order that Articulates this Document

29     Community Duties Essential to Free and Full Development

30     Freedom from State or Personal Interference in the above Rights
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Roots Of Modern Terrorism And Religious Fundamentalism


Roots Of Modern Terrorism And Religious Fundamentalism

By G. Asgar Mitha

– Anyone who attempts to construe a personal view of God which conflicts with Church dogma must be burned without pity – Pope Benedict III – Pope from 855 – 858 AD.

– Fear is the basis of the whole – fear of the mysterious, of defeat and death. Fear is the parent of cruelty and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand – Bertrand Russell

I‘ve quoted Bertrand Russell after reading his rather interesting essays titled Why I’m Not a Christian delivered on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch and that inspired me to write this article.

The horrors of the Catholic Church are well documented while even today the modernists, historians and politicians are turned off to discuss those horrors and are involved in discussing the horrors of a Muslim civilization. No civilization has been without its dark ages. Europe and America burnt people alive by tying them to stakes after accusations of witchcraft. Ancient Egypt used to cut off the limbs of their citizens from opposite ends and then crucify them. Rome too crucified their citizens. All kinds of horrors have been recorded in history books. One of the best movies I’d seen was The Name of the Rose starring Sean Connery regarding the Holy Inquisition involving the Church. The procedures of the Holy Inquisition involved examination of charges of heresy by the Church. Even those innocent were not spared by trumped up charges. Such was the terrorism due to religious fundamentalism within the European religious system that the Church reaped wealth, mainly from the poor and destitute while protecting the wealthy aristocrats. The Church was not only a religious entity but it also embodied politics.

The Spanish Inquisitions from 1474-1834 AD were held under Pope Sixtus IV mainly against the Jews and Muslims but also against Christian heretics. Those refusing to take up Catholic faith were led to the stake to be burnt alive in a ceremony known as auto-de-fe (act of failth) and their properties confiscated to the Church.

The horrors of the Catholic Church are provided in brief in the above paragraphs. However the roots of current situation of Muslim terrorism and fundamentalism need to be examined. The basis of all terrorism and fundamentalism is not religion (as correctly postulated by Karen Armstrong) which condemns both but rests in politics and powers of the state and the religious authorities. Both politicians and clergy have used religion to consolidate their power over the weakest of their audience condemning them as heretics and kafirs (heathen unbelievers).

While I was growing up in Pakistan until 1968, there was harmony and religious tolerance among the Shia and Sunni sects. Christians and Hindus too were accepted and tolerated and there were no Islamic laws that discriminated them. Hotels used to serve alcohol and advertise striptease shows of women from many countries. After having completed my education in the US, I returned to Pakistan in 1977 under the martial law rule of President Zia-ul-Haq only to find a Pakistani society devoid of all tolerance and one of extreme religious fundamentalism but not yet of visible terrorism. It was in the germinating stages. Zia was a diehard Saudi supporter who closely held the Wahhabist-Salfist belief of forcibly imposing religion upon the people. In exchange Zia received large Saudi monetary aid to breed religious extremism among the Taliban (students) in madressas (religious schools) operated as seminaries to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. The Saudis in turn received the political support from the US. The students were not taught true Islamic values which are based on knowledge and free learning that benefits mankind. The Wahhabist teachings are instead based on fear aptly described by Bertrand Russell.

The other Wahhabist-Salafist fundamentalist Saudi citizen, Osama bin Laden, led the Afghan Mujahideen (holy warriors) and Taliban against the Soviets under the umbrella of Al-Qaeda (the base). He was supposedly killed in Pakistan in May 2011 by the Americans. The Soviet war in Afghanistan lasted over nine years from December 1979 to February 1989. Zia died in August 1988 in a mysterious plane crash. He’d served his masters well and the Americans and Saudis rewarded him with a plea to God to open the doors of Heaven for him and for the houris (female angels) to entertain him. Unfortunately I perceive the same fates for other current Pakistani leaders who are serving their masters.

IS (Islamic States), for example, has nothing to do with religion but everything to do with fear, cruelty, politics and religious intolerance. IS does not represent Islamic moderation, tolerance, respect and knowledge. The IS Jihadists being recruited from Europe and N. America are most likely not mainstream Muslims but lunatics and converts in a society they hate. They could well have been victims of political and extremist religious brainwashing similar to the Taliban. Just like al-Qaeda and Taliban were recruited against the Soviets, the IS may have been created to plunder the Arab countries. The IS is conducting inquisitions against everyone regardless of their minority (Christians and Yezidis) or sectarian beliefs (Shias and Sunnis) and their methods of torture and murder (beheadings and burning) are as horrifying as was practiced by the European Churches.

Following the war’s end, Afghanistan was in ruins and those same political parties (the seven party Jihadists) that had allied against the Soviets engaged in trivial disputes and fighting among themselves. America abandoned Afghanistan and Pakistan only to return in 2001 with a war against the former and military threats and promises of monetary aid for the latter. The Taliban returned victorious to Pakistan after having defeated the Soviet infidels. They now believed they were God’s chosen people and like Zia, it was their bounden duty to forcibly impose Wahhabism upon a nation. Terrorism and fear became their instruments and many of these Taliban also infiltrated the political parties in Pakistan in order to gain power and wealth similar to the norms of the Christian Church of the dark ages. America watched and learnt how hyenas fight over a carcass. Pakistan and Afghanistan were ushering in the dark ages. The lessons were going to be applied throughout the Muslim world with the objectives of once again gaining not only power but control of the precious black gold resource.

Saudi Arabia and other Monarchist Arab Wahhabist countries have been natural economic allies of America and its European vassals as they are weak and in need of protection. America continues to support the Saudis in exporting their perverted religious dogma across the Muslim countries in order to breed religious intolerance, cruelty and terrorism. Some of the countries like Iraq, Libya, Syria and Palestine have been war victims, others like Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt have survived upon American and Saudi aids. Iran is the only Muslim country where America and the Saudi monarchy have failed for exporting terrorism and religious extremism and both fear it as a regional power. Iran has adopted values of democracy, tolerance, moderation, justice, knowledge and learning – the hallmarks of Islam. The roots of Wahhabism are based on an extremist form of Islam, of intolerance of all religions, injustice and implementation of fear by their religious police known as mutawwas supported by the monarchies which the west supports. The one thing common among the Arab monarchies and the western ‘democracy’ is deep hypocrisy.

Gods Swallow Our Humanity

Gods swallow our humanity
Posted by Eric MacDonald

In the New York Times this morning there is a letter to the editor from Beverly Brewster, a Presbyterian minister, in response to Susan Jacoby’s article on atheism and empathy. Here are a few of her words:

The world’s enduring religions offer much more wisdom and meaning than a child’s idea of God as a superhero. As a Presbyterian minister, I often say to self-proclaimed atheists, “Tell me more about the God you don’t believe in; I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in that God either.”

Ms. Jacoby states that atheists “need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect,” but atheism is rooted in neither. A lack of belief in one concept of God is nothing more than that. Ms. Jacoby also presumes that faith in God necessarily includes belief in an afterlife, complete with angels in heaven. Here again, atheism ignores the great diversity of the world’s religious traditions.

Brewster is responding in particular to Jacoby’s realisation, as a child, that there is evil in the world, and finding it difficult to believe in a god which would allow such evil things to happen. Brewster’s response is that her god is not like that; it is not a superhero who comes to rescue us in need. She has a different concept of god, and so she comes out with that old chestnut:

Tell me more about the God you don’t believe in; I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in that God either.

This is so tired and worn out that I wonder at the person who could have repeated it and thought that she was saying something profound. Once this has been said, however, it needs to be noticed how very little has been said.

Atheism, says Ms. Brewster, “ignores the great diversity of the world’s religious traditions.” This is simply not true. What atheism does not give the religious believer room to do is to skate away over the surface of things with statements like this which subvert themselves. If the gods people believe in are simply the consequence of a bit of conceptual jiggery-pokery, as Ms. Brewster’s god appears to be, then there is simply no reason to believe in them at all. For how, after all, are gods to be identified? The great diversity of the world’s religions points out the problem. The only way to identify gods is to describe them. Whereas the god of Genesis is depicted anthropomorphically, as someone walking in the Garden in the cool of the day, from whom Adam and Eve have hidden in shame at their disobedience, so that God has to call out to them, “Where art thou?” (Genesis 3.8-9), very few believers think of their gods in this simplistic way. But if gods are not like that, then identifying them will be a problem. We cannot identify them by their works, for the only works of a god that might be considered godlike would be something supernatural or miraculous. Anything else we can account for in immanent ways, as the products of human action or activity, or the normal results of the workings of the natural world.

There is an old story that illustrates this point. There is a big storm, and as the flood waters rise, the people in the house first of all abandon the first floor and move to the second; then they move into the attic, and then, finally, they get out onto the roof which is even now being lapped by the rising floodwaters. But the floodwaters continue to rise, threatening their shrinking island. In desperation the the stranded family cries out to God for mercy. Soon, a rescue worker in a boat comes by, but the desperate people, full of faith in the mercy and goodness of their god, do not see the need of a boat, which continues on its mission of mercy. The flood waters inch up the incline of the roof, and, realising that soon there will be nowhere for them stand, they pray more earnestly, beating their breasts and promising, if they are spared, a change of life. Soon after, a rescue helicopter chances by and lets down a rope ladder, but for those who believe in God’s goodness, helicopters are merely human contrivances, and unnecessary. Not unreasonably thinking them a bit mad, the rescue crew goes on its way in search of other people endangered by the storm. The people on the roof cry out with even greater passion, begging their god to come and save them, lest they drown. At this, an exasperated voice cries out from heaven: “I sent you a man in a boat, and then a rescue team in a helicopter. What more did you expect?”


This story is told in all seriousness by religious believers, and some people, who think that prayer and anointing with oil is all that is necessary for the recovery of their sick children, actually behave this way, and rebuff offers to help with all the marvels of modern scientific medicine can provide. But this is not, Ms. Brewster would say, the god she believes in. The god she believes in, she is convinced, will not be the one upon whom atheists lavish their disbelief. Atheists, she thinks, simply ignore “the great diversity of the world’s religious traditions.” But this, of course, is precisely the wrong answer, for the great diversity of the world’s religious traditions is an argument against belief, not an argument that supports belief in gods or other supernatural or transcendent entities. Philip Kitcher calls it the symmetry argument (see page 5). As he points out, there is a perfect symmetry between believers in one religious tradition and those in another. They are born into it, taught it, learn its scriptures and its practices, and yet when confronted with each other, they do not agree. The tension between beliefs, and their lack of grounding in any objective criteria, suggests that religious beliefs are, one and all, simply constructs of the human imagination working on peripheral aspects of evolved human psychology.

Here are Kitcher’s words:

Most Christians have adopted their doctrines much as the polytheists and the ancestor-worshippers have acquired theirs, through early teaching and socialization. Had the Christians been born among the aboriginal Australians, they would believe, in just the same ways, on just the same bases, and with just the same convictions, doctrines about the Dreamtime instead of about the Resurrection. The symmetry is complete. None of the processes of socialization, none of the chains of transmission of sacred lore across the generations, has any special justificatory force. Because of the widespread inconsistency in religious doctrine, it is clear that not all of these traditions can yield true beliefs about the supernatural. Given that they are all on a par, we should trust none of them.

So, even if the god that atheists disbelieve is not the one that Ms. Brewster believes in, there is no reason we should take her word for it either. If it is simply a matter of reconceptualising God so as to escape one particular set of criticisms — say, Susan Jacoby’s childhood experience of having a friend contract polio and die young, with no apparent care or concern from a loving God — saying, rather blandly that she doesn’t believe in such a god either, the most appropriate response is that such reconceptualisations are cheap. Anyone can dream up a concept that escapes particular criticisms. The question is whether the concept so derived actually picks out some reality, whether something that exists, or, conscious of Tillich wagging an admonitory finger, some “thing” that is beyond existence, the Ground of Being, or ultimate reality as such. Reconceive God any way you like, it still will not solve the problem of justification. And, besides, if God is not some kind of superhero, then what, pray, is God like? And what reason can you give why we should believe in such a god?

In a remarkable chapter in her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, entitled “Divine Agency, Remodeled,” Marilyn McCord Adams, one time Regius Professor of Theology at the University of Oxford, rehearses in detail various suggestions as to how to account for God’s agency in the world, which both protects God’s function as creator, while at the same time preserving God’s nature as loving and caring. Reading this chapter in the context of studying the Holocaust, I wondered what significance such a conceptual exercise could possibly have, and how reasonable or reassuring the victims of so much callous violence would have found exercises of this sort. I came away from the chapter feeling bruised and violated. Whether the gods so conceived satisfy the theological problems that lie at the heart of the existence of so much incomprehensible suffering in the world, they neither relieve the suffering nor do they provide any basis for the conviction that the beings variously described stand a chance of being real in any of the various senses in which reality may be attributed to things. Nor is it clear what value belief in such reconceptualised beings could possibly have.

The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is that our conceptions of God tend to swallow up the human. As in the story of the flood-stranded family on the roof of their house, human goodness is turned into God’s love and mercy. Once acknowledge that God does not act, in his own person, as it were, but acts in and through things that naturally occur, or that are done by other people, it comes to seem as though God is exhaustively described by the totality of things that occur, much in the same way that Spinoza spoke of Deus sive Natura (viz. God or Nature).

In general, of course, this is not how religious believers conceive of God, and this is the problem that I have spent the last fifteen hundred words approaching. For the religions, God tends to be the supreme person (in very much the same way as you and I, dear reader, are persons). All that is quintessentially human is vested in God. Justice, loving kindness, mercy, compassion, long-suffering, slow to anger, quick to forgive, generosity, nobility, gentleness, an ever present help in trouble, trustworthy – well, we could go on laying down superlatives with a trowel, a veritable infinity of them. The problem with this is that, once we have shifted all these good things onto God, and imagine them to be, there, raised to the highest power, we must inevitably think of ourselves as correspondingly inadequate in all the same respects, in need of God’s mercy for our failures, and quick to judge others who fail to measure up to the divine goodness which judges us. And, of course, since there is a diversity of religious traditions, the divine goodness that judges us, if we are Christian, say, is bound to be different from the divine goodness which judges others, since religions tend to adopt the ethical project as it manifested itself at the time and place where the religious traditions began, which has every chance of expressing a very different ideal of humanity along at least some of its dimensions.

The problem is that gods are forever (at least in believer’s minds), and so the values that are vested in them come to be seen as moral absolutes, and while morality has tended to function, traditionally, in this way, based as it has been in systems of religious belief, morality is seldom best understood in so marmoreal and intransigent a form. The pope tends to dismiss those who question the Roman Catholic Church’s unyielding moral laws as relativists without noting that the field is not divided, as he seems to think, into absolutes and relatives, but into principles and their application to complex and nuanced human circumstances in which there is no role for absolutes to play. Of course, the pope thinks that all values derive, in the end, from the absoluteness and infinite wisdom of his god, without noticing that it was he and his forebears who vested those values in their god in the first place. For, despite everything that he can say about moral value, he cannot provide evidence for the proposition that these values are either commanded by his god, or inscribed by his god into the very fabric of human nature. The values are purely human. They have a history.

The biggest problem the pope faces is providing an explanation as to why we should stop that history at some point in the past, and accept, as eternal, human values as understood at that point, instead of recognising that the ethical project has much of its history yet to run. Even people like Beverly Brewster recognise that many conceptions of god are now no longer useful — may even be morally repugnant, as the gods of Jesus or Muhammad often are – and need to be discarded. There is not one conception of god that has stood the test of time. Isn’t it about time that we recognised that gods are human creations, and that, in the end, we are responsible for what we do with them? It is simply untrue to say that

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. [James 1.17]

This belief in unchanging perfection has haunted humanity almost from the beginning. It is a will-o-the-wisp. It does not exist, but belief in its existence has set humanity, time after time, chasing after shadows and rainbows. Quite contrary to Beverly Brewster’s shopworn charge, that “atheism  ignores the great diversity of the world’s religious traditions,” not only do we recognise the diversity, but we conclude from it that all the world’s religions are human creations, and none should be allowed to have final or supreme authority over us. They are images of perfection frozen in time, and all the worse for being so. The poison of religion consists precisely in this, that religions have stopped looking, when there is much that we still do not know, about our world, ourselves, and about how best to live. The gods swallow our humanity. We should ask for it back.