The Foundation of Morality Must Be Found Outside Religion

An argument with which you may be familiar concerns the objectivity of morality. Many persons of religious faith believe that any moral claim or action ultimately must issue from a transcendent source, which they define as a supernatural agent or force. Without a supernatural entity or force, which exists as a universal and timeless thing, morality is merely the product of the subjective mind and, as such, its advocates can claim no final objective authority over the behavior of the individual. Thus secularists, while they may articulate moral sentiments and advocate rules appealing to their attendant values, have no real foundation upon which to build an ethical and legal structure. Societal arrangements change over time and space (they are culturally and historically relative), whereas the supernatural agent or force, which we shall call “God,” is intransitive. In short, no religion, no morality. It follows, therefore, that, without “God,” there is no reason to be or do good.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

I know of no claim that suffers from greater invalidity and unsoundness. When one examines culture and history, he finds, among the many things that a particular people produce, concrete religious systems. The first thing that strikes the observer, after examining a handful of different cultures, is the great degree of cross-cultural variability in religious systems and associated aspects of the moral order these religious systems are alleged to underpin. With different religions come different moral systems, which mean there are different ideas and motives for a person to be or do good (or evil). Thus, the evidence demonstrates that appealing to supernatural agents or forces does nothing to make universal or immemorial any particular moral order. On the contrary, on the surface, morality is found to be as culturally and historically relative as religion.

The only way out of this relativity problem, from a religious perspective, is to assert (and assert one must, since one cannot prove) that one religion is the only true religion, while all of the others are false religions. But such an assertion is self-evidently subjective, and thus cannot be the objective grounds for arguing that religious morality is superior to secular morality. Belief in the supernatural is, after all, a matter of faith. Indeed, what we find when we look at several specific religions—each of which claims to be the one true religion—are practices accepted and even encouraged by religious leaders and texts that are recognized as moral wrongs in the present day.

The Judeo-Christian Bible, for example, advocates the killing of defiant children, homosexuals, and infidels, acts that widely recognized as criminal acts. The Bible also justifies slavery. Yet virtually every Christian and Jew opposes slavery. How is it possible that people recognize the immorality of prescriptions in the Bible if the Bible is the sole source of morality for adherents to this religion? Does the obvious truth that religion provides no objective foundation for morality mean that morality is doomed to relativism and subjectivism?

For a very straightforward reason, I believe the answer to this question is no. Here, social science (a secular system of thought) provides us with the needed tools to identify objective features of morality. A moral order is an emergent property of human society irrespective of any religious sentiment. Each Homo sapiens, as an accident of biological evolution, must live in society to become human in the moral sense. Morality is, at its core, the rules that organize individual action or behavior sufficient for the existence of human being and that make the continuation of society possible. Thus a universal morality is to be found in the universal features of human interaction and relations.

Sometimes a particular religion will reflect these transhistorical features of human society, such as is seen in the so-called “golden rule,” a prescription found, if only ideally, everywhere. Oftentimes, however, religious sentiments disrupts the basic decent human impulses given to us by deeper societal relations. Here we find those religious texts advocating killing and oppressing human beings in the name of a god or gods.  What we find when we study the matter from a position external to the religious system is that the leaders and scriptures are justifying power relations peculiar to a concrete social order; in other words, they wrap exploitation and oppression in the language of morality. The religiously-devoted in these instances are not oppressing others for the sake of morality, but for the sake of maintaining power and wealth, that is, perpetuating an unjust, or immoral, if you will, state of affairs. In this way, religion can be, although this is not always true, the epitome of immorality.

The Road to Serfdom

Note 6.8.2022: I no longer agree with either my assessment concerning Scandinavian states or the merits of Hayek’s work. Part of my shift in opinion is because the character of European social democracy has changed considerably since I wrote this blog in 2007. But I have also changed my judgment with respect to Hayek. Indeed, I should not have a “but” in there, since the emergent authoritarian character of European social democracy suggests the predictive validity of Hayek’s argument. And it is not just Europe suffering from the overgrowth of elite planning; the American republic is suffering, as well.

What was the joke Paul Sweezy used to tell? Something to the effect of Hayek’s theory posits that if there is an overproduction in baby carriages, then the central planners will order the population to have more babies. A joke to be sure, but dead to rights.

The premise of The Road to Serfdom, “planning leads to dictatorship,” is on its face absurd; but more importantly, it has been empirically falsified. To be sure, planning by a corporate-state sharply increases the likelihood of authoritarian rule, such as, most obviously, in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and, less dramatically but nonetheless obviously, in the United States. However, planning in contexts where workers have a substantial say-so in what happens in economic life (that is, democracy), such as in the Scandinavian states, increases personal freedom. Indeed, most European states have far greater levels of personal freedom than the United States, and the European countries that are most free present with a much greater degree of planning.

We don’t need to speculate on whether Hayek’s claims are sound; the evidence refutes the thesis of his book.

If you want to read more of Hayek’s immoral ideas, read The Constitution of Liberty (1960). If we stay true to the man’s logic, handicapped parking discriminates against the able-bodied. Only ideologues cling to his words any more. Unfortunately, ideologues, in contrast to rational minds, are never in short supply.

Holocaust Denial

In this entry I wish to take up the issue of holocaust denial.  

In 1763, forces led by Pontiac, a chief of the Ottawa who had been allied with the French, laid siege to the English at Fort Pitt. General Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces in North America during the French and Indian War (1756-1763), wondered in a letter to Colonel Henry Bouquet, “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.” Bouquet wrote to General Amherst, in a letter dated 13 July 1763:

I will try to inocculate the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands, taking care however not to get the disease myself. As it is pity to oppose good men against them, I wish we could make use of the Spaniard’s Method, and hunt them with English Dogs. Supported by Rangers, and some Light Horse, who would I think effectively extirpate or remove that Vermine.

Amherst responded to Bouquet, in a letter dated 16 July 1763: 

You will do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blanketts, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race. I should be very glad your Scheme for Hunting them Down by Dogs could take Effect effect, but England is at too great a Distance to think of that at present.

A third letter on 26 July 1763 from Colonel Bouquet acknowledges receipt of the approval:

Sir, I received yesterday your Excellency’s letters of 16th with their Inclosures. The signal for Indian Messengers, and all your directions will be observed. (Emphasis mine.)

In subsequent letters Amherst and Bouquet state that extermination of American Indians was necessary.

In response to this damning proof of conspiracy to commit genocide, holocaust deniers claim that there is no proof that the conspiracy was actually carried out. Of course, when proof of genocide having actually been carried out is presented, holocaust deniers claim that there does not exist evidence of intent found in the letters of Amherst and Bouquet.  

The denial argument is corrupt on many levels. There is a deliberate effort to disconnect the intent from the act, so that either one can show one or the other but not both, therefore no genocide. The argument is identical to that of those who deny the holocaust of European Jews. They claim that, because there are no orders from Hitler commanding the extermination of Jews, there was no intent to bring about the destruction of world Jewry. Moreover, there is a deliberate attempt to emphasize the alleged debunking of the germ warfare cases for the purpose of distracting from the other means of genocide – guns and sword, starvation, and cultural reprogramming.  

Furthermore, deniers are highly selective in their recognition of evidence. With respect to the Fort Pitt incident, we know that, by the following spring, smallpox had spread rapidly through Indian populations in the vicinity. We know that Captain Simeon Ecuyer had sent smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs to the Indians surrounding the fort, and that Amherst told Bouquet that Ecuyer told him that there were smallpox cases at the fort. We know this because of a journal entry by William Trent, dated May 24, 1763 in which it was reported that Ecuyer “gave them [Indians] two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” These facts connect intent, action, and result. It also shows that people in positions of power were either independently or collaboratively thinking and acting along parallel lines.

Harold B. Gill, Jr., in an article titled “Colonial Germ Warfare,” published in the Army Chemical Review, Oct. 2004, makes several points that holocaust deniers should keep in mind. He writes that the “Fort Pitt incident is the best-documented case of deliberately spreading smallpox among unsuspecting populations, but it was likely not the first time such a stratagem was employed by military forces….” He provides the following cases:

In 1623, Dr. John Pott, a physician at Jamestown, Virginia, was said to have poisoned Indians in retaliation for a Powhatan uprising in which 350 English died. On 22 May 1623, Captain William Tucker and 12 other men went to the Potomac River to secure the release of English prisoners held by Indians. To conclude the peace treaty, the English invited the chief and his men to drink a sack prepared for the occasion. But the Indians demanded that the English interpreter take the first drink, which he did from a different container. Afterward, a group of Indians, including two chiefs, were walking with the interpreter when the interpreter suddenly dropped to the ground while the English soldiers discharged a volley of shots into his Indian companions. The English estimated that about 200 Indians died of poison and 50 from gunshot wounds….”

Indians were not the only targets of germ warfare:

Almost from the beginning [of the colonial war for indpendence], Americans suspected that the British were trying to infect their army with smallpox. Just before Virginia’s last royal governor, Lord John Dunmore, departed from his base at Norfolk in 1776, the Virginia Gazette reported that his lordship infected two slaves with smallpox and sent them ashore to spread the virus….

Most British troops were inoculated or were immune to the virus due to previous illness. In Europe, smallpox was endemic. Nearly everyone was exposed to the virus at an early age, so most of the adult population had protective antibodies. On the other hand, most American soldiers were susceptible to the virus. Due to the sparse population. Americans often reached adulthood without coming in contact with the smallpox virus.

When the American siege of Boston began in April 1775. smallpox was epidemic among civilians living there. Most British soldiers were immune to the virus, but General Washington suspected that some of the civilians leaving the city had been infected in hopes of spreading the virus in the Continental Army. In December, deserters coming to the American lines confirmed those suspicions. One week later. General Washington informed John Hancock of the enemy’s malice intentions. A Boston physician later admitted to administering the virus to people leaving the city. Rumors and suspicions of British efforts to spread the virus were persistent throughout the war.

This tactic of sending infected people into populations of healthy people is the most effective way of transmitting the disease. This raises awareness about a very important reality concerning responsibility for genocide by disease. Clearly white people were aware of the problems of smallpox and acted to prevent the spread of the disease among their own populations. Sending infected Indians to their villages or otherwise failing to prevent the spread of the disease among Native American populations is no less deliberate germ warfare than giving Indians infected blankets. 

Gill writes, that smallpox played a role in the failure of American forces to capture Quebec. He writes that

General Guy Carleton, the British commander in Quebec, deliberately sent infected people to the American camp. Thomas Jefferson was convinced that the British were responsible and later wrote that he was informed by officers that the virus was sent into the Continental Army by the British commander. After the defeat at Quebec, American troops gathered at Crown Point where John Adams found deplorable conditions with disease and few, if any, provisions.

Gill documents another case:

When the British sent an expedition to Virginia in 1781, General Alexander Leslie revealed to General Charles Cornwallis his plan to spread disease among the Americans by sending 700 Negroes down the river with smallpox to infect the plantations.

He also notes a book, published in 1777, Military Collections and Remarks, in which a British officer, Robert Dunkin, suggested “dipping arrows in the smallpox virus and shooting them at the Americans in an effort to disband the rebels.”

Given the evidence in this brief essay, it becomes difficult to sustain the claim that germ warfare against the Indians was not a widespread practice.

Ayn Rand and Her Embarrassingly Bad Attempts at Argument

Ayn Rand is a pseudo-intellectual charlatan of the first order of magnitude. Her boring dime store novels and forced bits of sophomoric sophism are eagerly consumed by college Republicans who desire anything remotely intelligent-sounding for the purposes of cloaking their anti-social reactionism in a veil of false authority. 

Rand fandom is the mark distinguishing the intelligent person from the wannabe smart person. Love of Rand separates brains from hacks. Those who study philosophy and the sciences laugh at Rand worshippers behind their backs (sometimes to their fronts). As soon as we find out a person is a Rand devotee, we know immediately that the person is a intellectual lightweight, a self-important newbie to the world of thought. We sometimes wonder why Rand fans aren’t L. Ron Hubbard fans. At least his novels were interesting. At least he could smile without it looking like his face was going to twist up into a knot. 

Here’s an instance of Ayn Rand’s “brilliance” on display. In the late 1940s, Rand was writing screenplays in Hollywood and gaining a following for her book The Fountainhead (a book that was so bad it was rejected by twelve publishers and then almost uniformly panned by reviewers when it finally found an outlet). In 1947, she appeared before the House Un-American Affairs Committee to protest a film she believed falsely portrayed life in the Soviet Union as enjoyable (Rand was Russian).

Ayn Rand testifies before the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities, October 20, 1947

She claimed the film was a piece of propaganda and so she defined propaganda, saying, “I use the term to mean that communist propaganda is anything which gives a good impression of communism as a way of life. Anything that sells people the idea that life in Russia is good and that people are free and happy would be communist propaganda.”

Immediately we can see how silly this is. It’s a simple fact that many millions of Russians found life enjoyable during this period. One might have simply asked the majority of those who had lived under the Czar how much better life was after the Revolution. One might have asked them if they were more free under the Czar. Depicting Russians as happy wasn’t propaganda at all; it was a truth that Rand dreaded because it contradicted her propaganda, namely, that nobody in Russia was happy. It would have been propaganda to have censored images of and testimony concerning happiness and freedom.

Just listen to what she said in response to John McDowell’s question. “You paint a very dismal picture of Russia. You made a great point about the number of children who were unhappy. Doesn’t anybody smile in Russia any more?” She responded, “Well, if you ask me literally, pretty much no.” She claims that literally the Russian people pretty much don’t smile. When asked to clarify, she says, “If they do, it is privately and accidentally. Certainly, it is not social. They don’t smile in approval of their system.” This is propaganda. Russians did smile publicly then, They did smile in approval of their system. 

McDowell milked it for all it was worth, unintentionally allowing Rand to make an even bigger fool out of herself. “That is a great change from the Russians I have always known, and I have known a lot of them,” he said. “Don’t they do things at all like Americans? Don’t they walk across town to visit their mother-in-law or somebody?” Rand answered, “Certainly they have friends and mothers-in-law. They try to live a human life, but you understand it is totally inhuman.”

The “totally inhuman” characterization doesn’t jibe with objective accounts of Soviet life. Nor does this: “Try to imagine what it is like if you are in constant terror from morning till night and at night you are waiting for the doorbell to ring, where you are afraid of anything and everybody, living in a country where human life is nothing, less than nothing, and you know it.”

Then McDowell asks, “You came here in 1926, I believe you said. Did you escape from Russia?” Rand answers, “No.” McDowell asks, “Did you have a passport?” Rand, “Strangely enough, they gave me a passport to come out here as a visitor.” So we are to believe that this “totalitarian dictatorship,” in which everybody lives in “constant terror from morning till night,” “where you are afraid of anything and everybody,” “where human life is nothing,” even “less than nothing,” gave Ayn Rand a passport to visit the United States?

The Other Libertarianism

For centuries, libertarianism has meant freedom from inequality and hierarchy. This understanding of libertarianism is synonymous with anarchism. As Alexander Berkman, perhaps the brightest mind of US anarchists, noted in Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism (1929), “the greatest teachers of Socialism – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – had taught that Anarchism would come from Socialism. They said that we must first have Socialism, but that after Socialism there will be Anarchism, and that it would be a freer and more beautiful condition of society to live in than Socialism.” Of the Bolshevik movement he wrote, “their greatest teacher, Lenin, had said that Anarchism would follow Bolshevism, and that then it will be better and freer to live.”

(Unfortunately, the Revolution was from the beginning put on the defensive by capitalist encirclement and invasion, forcing it into a siege socialist posture, and then betrayed by reformers before it arrived at communism. Capitalists had to make sure that the Soviet Union did not succeed in the long run because they knew that not only did socialism work, but that its end game, communism, would mean the end to the capitalist life of living off the work of the people.)

Berkman said these things because he knew that anarchism and communism are in essence the same thing: people controlling their own lives without classes and the state. To make sure people understood this, he and many others called themselves anarchist communists or communist anarchist. These terms, along with the most recent libertarian socialism, have the same meaning as the term democracy in its non-restricted sense, namely rule by the people.

But in order to move towards democracy, the working class must recognize the limitations of liberal (bourgeois or capitalist) democracy and then struggle to replace it with a libertarian order, i.e., proletarian democracy. One of the barriers to this is propaganda that confuses the people about the meaning of words. “Libertarianism” as is currently used by bourgeois politicians and the media is really one rhetorical aspect of a propaganda strategy adopted in the 1950s by the enemies of the “New Liberalism” (limited social democracy) of Roosevelt and the New Dealers. This attack was led by such social darwinists as F. A. Hayek at the intellectual level. Today, states rights conservatives such as Ron Paul claim to be libertarian.

Those who study political and economic history and theory, and who are truthful about such matters, know this is not what libertarianism means. After all, Ron Paul’s beliefs are antithetical to liberty. If you wish to speak truthfully, and not talk in spin, then you don’t use “libertarianism” to refer to the philosophies of authoritarian capitalism or social darwinism. These philosophies and practices are fundamentally opposed to liberty.

The right-wing intellectuals and politicians presenting themselves as libertarian are in really anti-libertarian. Indeed, they are an authoritarian. Such is the state of the Orwellian world in which we live. They support capitalism, which is a system of controlling people for profit. Capitalism, like slavery and feudalism, is a hierarchy of control. Libertarianism, in contrast, is about individual freedom, and such freedom can only come when there are no hierarchies of control.

Here’s the hard truth of the matter: The capitalist class is a parasitic social stratum that must be eliminated in order for liberty to exist in its fullest sense. People cannot be free where the few exploit and control the many. No person who is forced by unequal and unjust circumstances to rent himself to survive is free. Any person who profits from a situation in which other persons are forced by unequal and unjust circumstances to rent themselves to survive is a parasite. Capitalists must be dispossessed of their control over the means of production and come work alongside the people who actually reproduce the world everyday. Capitalists and their managers must be metamorphized from parasites to contributing members of society. There are no vampires in a free world.

Racism and Anti-Racism—Black and White

Black conservative professor Walter E. Williams—a man who, when not using biblical examples and calling labor leaders “czars” in the exams he gives his students at George Mason University, sits in for Rush Limbaugh on the latter’s radio program—has published an essay this morning on, in which he is livid about a definition of racism used at the University of Delware. Why so upset? Because the definition, while incomplete, makes the system of white supremacy that he and the elites who privilege him embrace look bad.

According to Williams, the University of Delaware’s Office of Residence Life Diversity Facilitation Training document defines racism this way: “A racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality. By this definition, people of color cannot be racists, because as peoples within the U.S. system, they do not have the power to back up their prejudices, hostilities or acts of discrimination.”

To it’s credit it accurately reflects history and recognizes the reality of structural and institutional power. However, it does not recognize that blacks can be racist surrogates for whites against blacks. When a black man stands up for the system of white supremacy by denying the suffering of black people and working against the struggle for racial justice around the world, then that black man is a surrogate for racism. Such blacks are privileged (conservatives love them and give them essays in their publications) and indeed have been socialized in the white supremacist system to hold anti-black sentiment and to embrace the system of white privilege. Such blacks have high profiles because they serve as useful idiots for the system of white supremacy.

The other problem with the definition quoted is that it conveys the nonexistence of anti-racist whites. To be sure, the majority of white people benefit from the system of white supremacy whether they are prejudiced against black people or not. But white people can reject white privilege and struggle with blacks against the system. So while, as a white man, I am privileged by a racist system, I am a white anti-racist (a race traitor) because I stand with blacks against that system.

Note (March 16, 2020): I no longer agree with the premise of automatic racism among whites.

Don’t Confuse Anecdote with Structural Fact: Poverty and Unemployment are Structural Facts

Poverty and unemployment are structural and cyclical features of capitalism. They are the facts of life of the capitalist economy. Capitalists cannot put all labor into action at once; therefore, there are always unemployed people, and, without wages and salaries, and without government support, these people will always be poor. When the economy is doing well, the rate of unemployment is lower. When the economy is doing poorly, there are more unemployed people. But there is always unemployment and it has nothing to do with effort or lack of effort. It has to do with business cycles and the structure of capitalist production. Such things mark the nature of the beast.

Can individuals improve themselves? Sure. I know individuals who have. Are there people who are unemployed because they don’t want to work? Sure. I know people like this, too. But individual effort does not eliminate poverty any more than laziness explains unemployment. People who make this argument confuse anecdote with structural fact. 

I can provide two examples that illustrate my point. In 1969, unemployment was 3.4 percent. In 1983, unemployment was 11 percent. These facts contributed to poverty rates of around 11-12 and over 15 percent respectively. Now, if we believed that unemployment and poverty were caused by lack of effort, we would have to explain why it was that three times more people were lazy in 1983 than were lazy in 1969. It is an odd idea, and I don’t know how we would go about measuring aggregate laziness. It certainly couldn’t be measured by the unemployment rate, since that would form a tautology. It raises other questions, such as, if laziness causes unemployment, what causes laziness? Why did laziness decline after 1983? Whey did it go back up only a few years later?

We can dispense with such silliness. The reality is that unemployment was much lower in 1969 because we were at the peak of a economic boom. Unemployment was so much higher in 1983 because we were in at the bottom of the trough of a severe business recession. Poverty was much lower in 1969 because of the economic boom, along with the the fact that the government spent money on anti-poverty programs. In 1983, many of those government programs were being underfunded, and this surrender in the war on poverty combined with the recession to drive up the poverty rate. 

These realities are structural and cyclical features of capitalism, a very unstable economic system. They do not reflect individual behavior. Other observable facts dramatically disprove any crazy theories that could be devised to explain them. Most people who are poor work very hard. The problem is that they don’t get paid very much money for the work they do. And the work the poor do is the work they can find.

This about it. If it is impossible for everybody to work their way to the top (which it is), then it is rather meaningless to say anybody can work their way to the top, unless you believe that it is proper for the exploited to become the exploiter. The system is unjust because there is a structural barrier preventing most people from making it to the top. That barrier is capital—that is, the fact that a handful of people have the ability to profit and the majority don’t. Such a system is immoral precisely for that reason, namely, the few exploiting the many. 

Capitalism is a game in which most people lose everyday and will always lose. We can prove that simply by looking at the numbers provided by the capitalists themselves (Statistics for All Manufacturing Establishments in 2005, published by the US census Bureau). For every hour that an industrial worker labors in America, that worker earns an average wage of $17.69 (that’s $707.60 a week before taxes—not a lot of money). Yet that same worker produces $115.58 in value! Subtracting out the wage, that means the capitalist makes, on average, $97.89 off the worker every hour. That’s $2044.61 a week! The capitalist doesn’t produce that value. The worker produces all of it. Yet the worker only gets a fraction of the value he produces. The capitalist pockets all that dough he didn’t earn. Obviously, the worker is getting ripped off. Worse, the more productive the worker is the more he gets ripped off!

Here’s the paradox: if everybody could work their way to the top, and they did, capitalism would cease to exist. That’s obvious—without most people being exploited workers, capitalism cannot work. (Socialist revolution is everybody working their way to the top.) Furthermore, it’s a fact that people work hard and never make it out of poverty. Poverty is low in successful countries such as Sweden only because of massive government support for people. Without government intervention, capitalism systematically generates poverty and unemployment. Of course, you can continue believing the myth that people who work hard can work their way up the ladder if you want—a lot of people believe false things—but it doesn’t make it true.

The truth is that the people who work the hardest in our society are among the poorest, and the people who work the least are the richest. Indeed, the richest people, those who do no work at all, don’t even raise their own kids or mow their own lawns. They pay other people to do that—money they got by exploiting you!

Finally, it’s a myth that democracy is built on capitalism. Capitalism has existed for around 500 years. Democracy has existed since the dawn of the species, at least 100,000 years ago. In fact, capitalism is one of the least democratic systems in history. It ranks up there with feudalism and slavery, and for most people in the world, capitalism is as bad. Most capitalist countries aren’t democratic at all. True democracy—where you and me get to decide on the most important things our lives and community—can only be possible when we the people control the means of production, and such a situation cannot be capitalist. But the least any worker should settle on in the meantime under capitalism is social democracy and high labor density. To oppose those things is to oppose your own interests. 

Mormonism and the Fallacy of Religious Bigotry

Al Sharpton has come under fire for criticizing Mormonism. He denies he criticized the faith (he says he was misinterpreted), but let’s assume for the moment that he did. His detractors say that because he did this he is a “bigot.” To be specific, they say he is engaging in “religious bigotry.” Right-wing blowhard Glenn Beck has made the biggest deal out Sharpton’s remarks.

But is there such a thing as “religious bigotry”? I’m an atheist. I criticize organized religion, as well as belief in the supernatural. I don’t think it’s merely silly to believe in the supernatural and to engage in religious rituals; I know it is harmful to society. Does this make me a bigot? If this were true, then I would be a bigot for criticizing belief in hobbits and trolls or the Easter bunny. Under such a loose definition, anybody who criticizes belief based on error or faith is guilty of bigotry. This is giving religion a status it doesn’t deserve.

Perhaps it’s even more absurd to accuse a believer of religious bigotry. Sharpton is a Christian. Since when must Christians tolerate the beliefs of Mormons? Christians don’t accept Joseph Smith as a prophet of Jehovah. For them, Mormonism is a false doctrine. It’s a disagreement over dogma, not an exercise in bigotry. Criticizing Christians for such a thing is the same as criticizing Jews for not believing Jesus was the son of Yahweh. Does disbelief in Jesus as God among most Jews make them bigots? Of course not.

As if the attack of Sharpton’s statements for religious bigotry were not enough, there is this: Mormonism is one of the most virulently racist dogmas that has ever existed. We now entered the realm of irony. According to Mormon doctrine, the physical appearance of Africans is the result of God’s curse placed upon Cain for killing Abel. God gave Africans “flat noses” and “black skin,” according to church leaders, as punishment for his sin. The curse runs deep. Blacks are spiritually inferior to whites. For this reason, until recently, blacks have been excluded from the priesthood. What caused the change of heart? The US government threatened to take away the church’s tax free status (which should be removed from all churches anyway) unless it changed its bigoteddoctrine. Sharpton, a black Christian, is a bigot for criticizing Mormonism, an anti-black religion?

Let’s get our concepts straight: One can be bigoted against a racial or ethnic group, but one cannot be bigoted against a religion. Religion is foremost an arbitrary system of ideas with no basis in reason or fact. The claim that a person who criticizes religion is a “bigot” is analogous to the claim that a person who criticizes white supremacy is a bigot. Being anti-religious is analogous to being anti-racist! Moreover, to accept the claim that it is bigotry to oppose a candidate for president because he believes in Mormonism would mean that I cannot publicly oppose a candidate for president because believes in Satanism, lest I be a bigot.

I will criticize any candidate for public office who believes in the supernatural. And because some religions are worse than others, I may actually prefer a candidate whose religious views I judge to be less harmful to society. History records JFK’s candidacy as a great trump of civil rights because the nation looked past his Catholicism. But voting against JFK for his Catholicism is not analogous to voting against a presidential candidate because he is black or because she is a woman. And if one day the Supreme Court is dominated by Catholics, we will be justified in worrying about the fate of Roe v. Wade. For unlike skin color, religion has a substance.

A point of clarification is necessary. If we are defining bigotry in its traditional sense as intolerant and obstinate devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices, then bigotry is not something for which one can be too harshly criticized. Such strident devotion is to be expected in religion. A Pentecostal is going to be intolerant and obstinately devoted to his own opinions and prejudices when it comes to religion. That’s what it means to be a devout Pentecostal. However, I am using bigotry here in the sense of racial bigotry or racism. 

Ignorance and Sympathy in the Israel-Palestine debate

I have been discussing the Israel-Palestine question with a group of conservatives today and it is quite interesting to see how misguided conservatives are in their basic understanding of the situation. 

But what is truly astonishing is how blind they are to how they themselves would respond to the situation if they were Palestinian. Some people really believe that a people who are made to suffer the way Palestinians are have no right to resist. They seem, moreover, incapable of grasping the essential truth that one of the inevitable consequence of aggression is that some oppressed people will respond to oppressive violence by resort to violence themselves.

Trying to generate sympathy for the Palestinian resistance I asked them, “Have you had your land taken from you, your house bulldozed, your route to a hospital blocked so that your husband died, your ambulances shot at, your sons taken into police custody and tortured, your apartment building bombed into rubble?” Of course they cannot answer this question. They have never had these experiences. They don’t know that the cost of Israel’s occupation of Palestine has been far greater for Palestinians than it has been for Israelis. 

Between 9.29.2000 and 10.31.2007, 4345 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces and Israeli settlers, the vast majority at the hands of security forces. In contrast, 707 Israeli civilians and 317 Israeli security forces have been killed by Palestinians. Of course, Israeli civilians are not legitimate targets of violent resistance. Neither are Palestinian civilians, the number of their dead standing at more than six times the number of Israeli civilian dead. Source: B’Tselem Statistics

Does oppression justify resistance? Of course. It requires it. Does oppression justify terrorism? I imagine from the perspective of some Palestinians living in Gaza it does. Of course, I don’t agree with harming civilians (which the statistics above show that Israel does far more than Palestinians). But you don’t have to agree with the character of a response to understand why that response is occurring. 

However, basic sympathy is a concept apparently alien to this group of conservatives. They continually justify Israeli brutality towards Palestinians on the grounds that Palestinians in Gaza lob rockets into Israel. I asked them this simple moral question: “If you believe that Israel is justified in bombing civilian apartment buildings in Gaza in retaliation for rockets being launched into Israel, then why don’t you believe that Palestinians are justified in launching rockets into Israel in retaliation for Israel bombing apartment buildings in Gaza.” I await an answer. But, really, it is a rhetorical question, one that speaks to the reality that violence begets violence, and to the moral truth that it is the occupier that has the burden to stop the vicious cycle.

The question most supporters of Israel should be concerned with is this, “How do Israelis make themselves safe consistent with basic human decency and morality?” (I hope conservatives will at least give lip service to human decency and morality). The answer to that question is clear: follow international law, end the occupation, and recognize a Palestinian state. If Palestinians still routinely lob rockets into Israel after a just settlement, get back to me and I will entertain arguments for why this is still happening.

The Americas weren’t empty when Europeans got here. There were tens of millions of people already living there. So Europeans took their land, reduced their numbers by over 90 percent, and herded the remnants onto reservations. If international law had been in effect back then, then the United States would be an outlaw state. The same dynamic holds for for Palestine and Palestinians, except in this case there is international law. Yet the law has not resulted in the judgment that Israel is an outlaw state.

There are those who still believe that because Israel defeated Arab armies in Palestine that they now rightly claim Palestine. This is an argument in favor of lawlessness. It is illegal under international law to acquire territory by force. Occupation, whether legal or illegal, is temporary and can never lead to sovereignty over the occupied territory. The land belongs to the people living there. Territory by conquest asserts the “principle” of “might makes right,” a thoroughly immoral and lawless standard of right.

However, given the failure of the international community to compel Israel to follow the law, and given the reasons for that failure, it would seem that “might makes right” is the prevailing principle in world affairs today.

Michael Mukasey, Defining Torture, and Waterboarding

Right-wing commentators are claiming that questioning of the nominee for the office of US attorny general on the matter of torture is hypocrisy since they had a chance to define what is torture in the law. The argument is entirely fallacious and a transparent attempt to dismiss criticisms of the administration’s policy of torture with a rhetorical prop.

Demanding an answer to the question is consistent with the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. People should read that act. It covers interpretations of the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, as well the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Since the Attorney General interprets and enforces the law, it is crucial to know his position on what constitutes torture according to these laws.

As for the Military Commissions Act of 2006, while this act indeed contravenes human rights standards, it also limits the ability of the president to torture people. However, in his signing statement, Bush said the law doesn’t apply to him. Therefore, since the Attorney General interprets and enforces the law for the president, it is especially crucial to know his position on what constitutes torture.

* * *

A presidential finding, signed in 2002 by President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General John Ashcroft, approved of waterboarding as a legitimate interrogation technique. In other words, Bush approved of torturing prisoners, a war crime under international law. 

US generals designated waterboarding as an illegal practice in Vietnam 40 years ago. The above photograph, taken in 1968, of a US soldier involved in waterboarding a North Vietnamese prisoner led to that soldier being court martialed. In 1947, the United States sentenced to 15 years hard labor Japanese officer Yukio Asano with war crimes for waterboarding a US civilian. Before that, in 1901, an Army major who used waterboarding against an Philippine insurgent was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. Waterboarding dates back to at least the 1500s when it was used during the Italian Inquisition, and even way back then it was considered torture.

Waterboarding is torture. President Bush ordered officials to torture human being. Bush is a war criminal.