A wee discourse

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the current U.S. political scene, and am disturbed by the way in which religious principles get maligned by both parties.

A little background on me: I’m a mormon, and I have what mormons call a “testimony,” which means you’ll hear me stating my belief in pretty strong terms. I have a fairly simple, Sunday-school-esque belief that there IS clear-cut right and wrong. I also believe that just as God would have us choose the right, Satan would have us choose wrong (Sunday-school-esque, remember?). And in order to accomplish that, Satan needs to make good things look bad, and bad things look good.

He’s done a great job of that.

Consider for a moment the Christian principle of altruism. The Ayn Rand institute (an institution for which I have a lot of respect — one which does a lot of good) published the following in Philosophy: Who Needs it:

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice — which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction — which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of good.

The context here is that suicide bombers (among others) are maniacs, and that the principle of self-sacrifice is what enables them to, well, sacrifice themselves for what they see as a higher goal.

Fine. While we can probably agree that suicide bombings are “bad,” if not outright EVIL, it’s not the principal of self-sacrifice or altruism which is at fault. Fault lies in PICKING THE WRONG HIGHER GOAL.

My point here is not to discuss self-sacrifice. It’s to use this as a model, as an example for cases in which both the Left and the Right have taken bad activities, and smeared not the activity itself, but one of the good principles used to justify that activity.

In short, just because an Evil person does an Evil thing and justifies it in part with some ideal, principle, or meme does NOT mean that the ideal, principle, or meme is Evil. What has REALLY happened is that a Bad Thing has been mixed with some Good Things, and one or more of the Good Things look “guilty by association.”

C.S. Lewis described this process really well in The Screwtape Letters. Don’t go thinking that I’m being all original here, because for the most part I’m not.

Another example, this one much more commonly used: The crusades — there are those who say that because Catholicism and Christianity were used to justify the crusades, Catholicism and Christianity are Evil.

You might as well say that because sex was used to create so-and-so (insert name of your favorite target of vilification here, but don’t use Hitler or you’ll be accused of invoking Godwin), that sex is evil.

Upshot… I remain convicted of my religious beliefs, even in the face of evidence that those selfsame beliefs get used as justifications for evil acts by other people.


41 thoughts on “A wee discourse”

  1. Another perspective on the Crusades…

    Well spoken, sir, and unfortunately true. I fall in the same boat religiously as you, well, as far as opinions though, not a Mormon, but an “Independant Non-Denominational Evangelical Christian” is what I am.

    An interesting aside to the Crusades, especially the first one is that folks never remember who started it. Oh sure, it was called for by the Church, but they called it in responce to the Muslims basically cutting off trade. Also note, if you go back historically, the order of control for the Holy Land goes something like this:

    Random Tribes

    I might have the older powers mixed up, and Egypt might have controlled it at one point, however, note that the most recent power there at the time of the Crusades was the Muslims, and that they had taken Palistine, Turkey and much of the middle east by force from the Byzantine Empire… a Christian Empire.

    Who started all the fighting? Wasn’t the Christians, that’s for sure.

    1. Re: Another perspective on the Crusades…

      By your logic, we should give that miserable, worthless scrap of land
      back to “Random Tribes”. I’ve heard the “well, the Israelis were there
      first!” argument multiple times, and it just doesn’t hold water for me.
      Primarily, it assumes that there is some magical dividing line in
      time where we can say “ok, if you were here at time T_zero, that
      land is forever yours, have a nice day!”. Further, it assumes that
      (granting ownership for the sake of the argument) the land can
      not be shared, with neighbors working together to build a better
      life for all in the community.

      Too much loss has been caused by people of this or that
      color following this or that interpretation of the Holy Being
      making war on each other because onside is “right” and the other “wrong”.
      Would God really be happy that we’re fighting like squabbling children
      in His name? If anything, it’s ironic that most christians side with who
      they do, given that Moslems believe in Jesus, and Jewish folk don’t.

      No side has clean hands in the middle east. Not the Israelis, not the
      Palestinians, and certainly not any outside powers trying to meddle
      in their affairs. (Heck, half of the states in the middle east were drawn
      up by the British after WW1 with little regard for the tribal animosities
      existing at the time, There were (proto-)Israeli suicide bombers too, only
      they were in the 1930s when they were fighting for an independent state.
      The arabs of today are only following the playbook they saw used
      seventy years ago. Pity they aren’t using the playbook of the american
      civil rights movement or the indian independence movement.)

      There is, I believe, a law of conservation for irony much as there
      are for matter and energy. It’s a shame that none of the actors on
      that stage see it, and see the pain their actions would and do cause
      for the ideals and deities they proclaim to believe in.

      (In the name of full disclosure, I’m very much anti-Israeli-government
      because I see them as being the last existing Apartheid state, not
      that I agree with the tactics the Palestinians are using to fight them.
      This is the same as my seeing some validity in why the Irish are
      pissed at the English, while at the same time not being fond of the IRA.)

      1. Re: Another perspective on the Crusades…

        It should be noted that the Israelie guerillas in the 1930s concentrated on British military targets – the King David Hotel, for example, was being used as a military headquarters. In addition, the faction of the independence movement that did this sort of thing ( I can’t remember the name at the moment, but Menachem Begin was one of them ) was not endorsed by the rest of the movement, although I have no doubt that a blind eye was probably turned from time to time.

        This is, I think, at least marginally better than the current situation where civilians are specifically targeted by bombings and there is no real disavowal of their actions by the Palestinian authority.

        That said, it would be wonderful if the Palestinian equivalent to Gandhi or King started a true non-violent resistance movement. If I remember quickly, the Tom Clancy book “The Sum of All Fears” posited that this was the only way anything approaching a true peace would ever be reached.

        The question then is, are the Israelis moral enough that they would react to a non-violent resistance the way the British or Americans did, which is to say, by feeling shame and giving in? I’d like to think that is the case, because a non-violent resistance would fail miserably if the dominant power reacted without morality. The classic example of this is the alternate history where Nazi Germany conquers the entire British Empire, including India, and Gandhi & Nehru are put up against the wall and shot when they try peaceful resistance. I don’t remember the name or author of that particular short story at the moment – anyone else know it?

        1. Re: Another perspective on the Crusades…

          Sounds like it might have been Turtledove, but I haven’t read the story.

          Don’t forget that Ghandi admitted he would have advocated armed resistance to the Raj if there had been a chance of success by force of arms. Non-violent resistance was the only course of action he felt could succeed against the might of the British. It was not the only arrow in the quiver.

          Imagine a world where the name Mohandas Ghandi is written in the history books alongside Che Guevara’s.


          1. Re: Another perspective on the Crusades…

            I think Turtledove edited the volume I saw the story in, but it wasn’t him.

            As to the rest – do the Palestinians have a realistic chance to push the Israelis out by force of arms? I’m inclined to doubt it. The intifada had any success there yet, aside from forcing them out Lebanon, which is not the same as forcing them out land they consider to be part of Israel. If things got *really* bad and the Israelis took off the leashes ( something I consider extremely unlikely, given the past history with genocide ), they’d most likely slaughter the Palestinians out of hand, and past history has shown that even if the surrounding nations tried to support the Palestinians, they’d probably get their arse kicked. Again. And Israel has shown that they are willing to ignore world opinion, so there’d be no real reason for them to stop if this ever happened.

            So given all that, peaceful resistance may in fact be the only course the Palestinians have that has any chance of succeeding.

          2. Re: Another perspective on the Crusades…

            “So given all that, peaceful resistance may in fact be the only course the Palestinians have that has any chance of succeeding.”

            I’m not so sure. From what I’ve heard from people living in the region, it’s been tried and failed.

            Heck, just look at the outcry in Israel recently when an Israeli soldier shot a non-violent protester. The outcry wasn’t because he was shot(that has happened before), it was because he was jewish.

            I’m not sure what the answer is, but I suspect it’s one of hands off. As long as the majority of the world is telling one side or the other what to do, they will resist it. They need to come to a conclusion on their own.

          3. Re: Another perspective on the Crusades…

            Especially if it’s spelled correctly. 🙂

            (Sorry … minor pet peeve of mine. For future reference, it’s Gandhi.)

    2. You missed a step

      As I recall, the land which became Israel was a British “colony”. The British divided it into Palestine and Israel and handed the “Israel” part over to become a homeland for the Jews.

      As for who started the fighting, I’d have to say: Humans.

      Definitely, humans.

    1. Altruism is evil?

      Well, there you go. Satan wins this round 😉

      Okay, seriously: do you honestly believe altruism to be evil?

      Altruism, the voluntary subjection of self to the needs of others… “evil?” I’ll grant that it’s uncommon, illogical, and unnatural, but I’m having a hard time seeing it as “evil.”

      Maybe it’s a semantic problem. What do you mean by “altruism” and what do you mean by “evil?”

      (I’ll assume, for purposes of this discussion, that your statement was “altruism is evil” and that by “is” you mean “belongs to the set of,” “equals,” or “exists in no way outside of”)

      1. Re: Altruism is evil?

        Okay, the idea of altruism itself is what causes a problem.

        Altruism. Your definition is “the voluntary subjection of the self to the needs of others.”
        But Merriam-Webster gives (as sense 1) “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”

        Evil. My definition of evil is “that which causes unnecessary harm”.

        In it’s usual context, the word “evil” carries a boatload of connotations which invoke thoughts

        about the titanic struggle between the forces of light and darkness.

        Maybe in this discussion, I should substitute the word “harmful” instead. We’ll be less likely to

        get off on unproductive tangents.

        Altruism cannot exist in humans. I believe that no matter what the OUTWARD appearance of altruism, any person who acts in a way which seems to others to be “selfless devotion to the welfare of others”, is in fact being

        rewarded in some way. Therefore the “selfless” act of altruism is really a self-serving

        transaction. (And selfishness is not a bad thing; see below) Our society applauds and rewards those who act in certain “selfless” ways. This

        laudation and reward itself means the behavior was not selfless. I challenge you to give me any

        example of altruistic behavior, and I will demonstrate some plausible reward mechanism by

        which the actor benefits from the behavior.

        But selfishness is not bad. What people probably mean by “altruism” and “self-sacrifice” in

        general conversation or in the context of religious service is more like “give generously of your

        surplus effort and wealth”, not “total sublimation of the self to an outside goal.”

        The problem with the idea of altruism is that, as it exists in society, it rewards a (well-meaning) person for becoming subservient to an outside force or goal, and encourages others to do likewise.

        If we could agree that altruism is not a good thing, we can move on to more frankly examine the concept of sacrifice, which is altogether different, though easily confused with altruism. And when I say ‘sacrifice’ I mean “3 a : destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else b : something given up or lost ” not “1 : an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially : the killing of a victim on an altar”. [http://m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=sacrifice] To me, sense 3 reflects the transactional nature of any effort. Sense 1 betokens the idea that the reward comes from some supernatural authority, perhaps at some future time.

        A person who, for his own reasons, sacrifices his effort, wealth, even his life, for the good of himself or his family is worthy of praise. A person who sublimates his self-interest to an outside authority (no matter what that authority is, worldly or otherworldly, or what you believe about it) becomes a tool in the hands of that authority (or , and thus gives power to that authority. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

        You said in your original post: “While we can probably agree that suicide bombings are “bad,” if not outright EVIL, it’s not the principal of self-sacrifice or altruism which is at fault. Fault lies in PICKING THE WRONG HIGHER GOAL.” I counter that you are wrong: no matter which higher goal you pick, you cannot be sure that it is the right one. My whole argument is that it is in fact the principal of altruism which is wrong, and the phenomenon of suicide bombers is just a consequence which gives evidence to that fact. Any action which is immoral for an individual to take is immoral for a group to take. Therefore it is immoral for an individual to take on behalf of a group. Therefore, acting in the name of a higher goal is likely to lead you to do evil (unnecessary harm).


        ps. Howard, it really wasn’t my intention to start an argument with you. I enjoy your work a lot, and I’ve enjoyed reading what you have to say. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with all of it, nor does it mean I think I’m going to convince you to change your ideas or beliefs. But I think you’re wrong and I felt compelled to explain how and why. I hope we can carry on a “frank exchange of ideas” for as long as we both care to, then still be friends afterwards.
        Or, if not friends, then something more like Webcomic and Fanboy. Sorta 🙂

        1. Okay, semantics it is…

          Sounds like a semantic thing. We’re hair-splitting over the degree of selflessness required.

          You argue that selfish behavior in a smart person has all the trappings of what I call selfless behavior. When I say that Satan has won this round, I’m only half kidding. Through semantic tricks, you’re calling good evil and evil good — even though (for the most part) the behaviors we’re trying to encourage in each other are very similar.

          I could give you a list of my selfless behaviors and challenge you to say that any of them are evil. You’d counter that they’re all selfish behaviors, and that they’re all good. I’d get offended at being called selfish and at seeing my words twisted, you’d think I was stupid, and before long I’d be strapping explosives to my chest to blow you and your infidels’ dictionary to kingdom come.

          Thus, I don’t want to even talk about the terms any more. In the words of Danny Glover’s character in Silverado, “I don’t want to kill you, and you don’t want to be dead.” 😉


          (and THIS is why Religion is so seldom a good topic of conversation in polite company)

          1. Re: Okay, semantics it is…

            It’s not a semantic argument. I’m not hair splitting. I’ll try to keep it polite.

            I don’t mind if you sacrifice yourself, but I require that you’re honest about your motives and ther rewards you (or yours) receive for your sacrifice.

            And if I allow sacrifice (sense 1) or “altruism” to be elevated to and equated with heroism, then I perpetuate the environment where people can belive strapping high explosives mixed with rat-poison to their body and detonating themselves in a crowd of strangers is anything but utterly despicable evil.

            I may not have done a perfect job of conveying my idea, but I think it’s too important to let drop.


          2. Re: Okay, semantics it is…

            I think I’m fairly certain where you’re coming from on this argument – and if I’m right, it’s a viewpoint I tend to share.

            First of all, the argument you’re making for the impossibility of altruism has been quite well made in the past – specifically, Sam Clemens’s What Is Man? While I may not agree with all of his premises in that essay (I may not be able to rationally convince another person of my self-motivation, but I experience it), he does present a rather concise version of the argument you presented above.

            Second, I think the point that you’re both “agreeing with each other at the top of you lungs” about is this: while self-sacrifice is certainly possible, and even justifiable at times, one must always bear in mind this dictum: CHECK NOT THY BRAIN AT THE DOOR. If you’re going to take a course of action, understand your reasons and be certain they’re valid. If circumstances are such that you feel justified in giving up something, even up to your own life, that is your concern… but you have a responsibility to be sure you’re not trading it away for a pig in a poke.

          3. Re: Okay, semantics it is…

            You know, it strikes me that there’s probably some good in pointing out how dangerous it can be to be selfless, and how useful to be selfish.

            And it’s probably even fair to say that altruism is not, in of itself, a virtue. Just being unselfish doesn’t make me necessarily good. But all that said … I dunno, maybe Satan does win if we’re even having this discussion. It’s certainly not as though there are hordes of altruistic people out there starting wars and crushing other people under foot. It’s pretty safe to say the vast majority of people who behave in altruistic ways do so in a way that creates far more benefit for the world than harm.

        2. Re: Altruism is evil?

          Interestingly, you started with the premise that “altrusim is evil” — but after acknowledging that “evil” was perhaps inappropriate, you’ve gone to considerable lengths to show that “altruism” doesn’t exist at all.

          I’m familiar with that logic: the man who throws himself on the grenade is following his own “path of least resistance” in a sense.

          But it seems to me that one can get lost in the hypertechnical definitions of a word, and render it suddenly useless with regard to ordinary conversation. We generally know what altruism means; the seeds of your essay are not represented in the dictionary definition you quoted.

          And one person’s path of least resistance may be to work tirelessly to help your family survive, and perhaps even die for that cause. Another person’s path of least resistance might be to take your money and kill you. It seems to me that equating the two types of actions does no particular service. They are different, and deserve recognition as different.

          Or so it seems to me.

          ===|==============/ Level Head

          1. Re: Altruism is evil?

            It’s not that altruism doesn’t exist at all.

            The concept of altruism exists. It’s the fact that altruism is lauded and elevated and viewed as acceptable and commendable that is a problem, whether anyone actually achieves any truly altruistic act or not.

            It is not any particular selfless act that is a problem. It is a system which encourages those acts, which is led by real temporal leaders who are subject to corruption that leads “altruism” to be a bad thing.

            You say “We generally know what altruism means.” Yes, that’s right, BUT what we “generally know” is the connotations and emotional values which our culture and our society loads onto the word. “Altruism” has a positive connotation in our society and “selfishness” has a negative connotation.

            My argument, essentially, is that our society would be much healthier if those connotations were reversed.


          2. Re: Altruism is evil?

            I am not aware of the connotation of altruism being society-dependent. Certainly, as Mr. Tayler pointed out, certain acts might not be considered “altruistic”. The final act of a suicide bomber, whose target is innocent civilians, would not be considered “altruistic” by Western standards — but I can accept that he thinks it is, and that a subset of his society does.

            Others would broaden this distinction, and state that no act of a soldier could ever be altruistic as part of a soldier’s job may involve the taking of life. I understand what that argument is saying, but I think that the focus should be on the act in question. In addition, as a side comment, it is not the soldier’s job (or at least, not US soldiers!) to take the lives of civlian noncombatants, and they try hard to avoid this. Sometimes, altruistically, at the cost of their own lives.

            Some “jobs” are always considered evil. Lawyers, for example, are nearly universally vilified. But I know of one Western-trained lawyer whose works would fit most peoples’ definitions of “altruistic”: His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi — later called Mahatma Ghandi.

            I am unaware of any culture, healthy or otherwise, wherein altruism was considered “bad” and selfishness “good”. Even feudal Japan, though it had peculiar notions of “altruism” by Western standards, still prized it. And expected it.

            I would agree only this far: material wealth gets a bum rap. ];-)

            But aren’t we really talking about whether “killing unbelievers where you find them” is OK, altrusitic or not? I say it is not.

            ===|==============/ Level Head

          3. Re: Altruism is evil?

            I’m having a hard time understanding your reasoning. Let me see if I understand you correctly:

            You are saying “It is bad/evil/harmful to subjugate yourself to another person or goal, because that gives more power to the other person/goal, and power corrupts”.

            Is that the essence of it?

          4. Re: Altruism is evil?

            Yes, in a very limited sense, because:

            Altruism has the connotation of absolute selflessness, at least as a goal.

            Absolute selflessness in service to a higher power is a frightening thing to me. Wide-spread absolute selflessness in service to a higher power as a cultural value is a nightmare.


          5. Re: Altruism is evil?

            To me as a biology student, altruism means behaviour that might look unselfish but that ultimately serves to help your own genes survive. This is why it’s “easier” to die to save your kids or siblings than your cousins, and “easier” to die to save your cousins than complete strangers. Altruism has proven to be a working survival trait for genes in some species, otherwise we wouldn’t exhibit altruistic behaviour.

            See, from my viewpoint there is no such thing as Good and Evil. This whole discussion, albeit VERY interesting, really just stems from the differences in starting positions. If you believe in a god and in absolute good and evil, altruism has a COMPLETELY different meaning than if you are an atheistic biology student.

            What strikes me as wonderful about this particular discussion is how no one’s flaming anyone else yet. I’m just not used to people having different opinions and being sensible about it. 🙂

          6. Re: Altruism is evil?

            What strikes me as wonderful about this particular discussion is how no one’s flaming anyone else yet. I’m just not used to people having different opinions and being sensible about it. 🙂

            “Toto, I don’t think we’re [on the Internet] anymore.”

          7. So it’s not altruism at all, then…

            ulfrikr wrote: Absolute selflessness in service to a higher power is a frightening thing to me. Wide-spread absolute selflessness in service to a higher power as a cultural value is a nightmare.

            If I read this correctly, it’s not altruism you’re worried about. It’s religion.

            Allow me to quote one of my favorite passages from The Book of Mormon.

            Mosiah 2:17 — And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.

            This is the point at which we’re going to diverge dramatically, you and I. I know God lives, and I know that by serving others I’m serving him. Yes, it can be argued that this is not completely selfless, because I benefit in the eternities, but that’s not the point. The point is that any selfishness on my part is based on service to a higher power.

            If you really find that frightening, you have my pity. It’s brought me quite a bit of happiness, and more than my share of peace. And you can rest assured that as preachy as I or other Mormons may get, we’ll never, ever, EVER use force to persuade you to believe along with us. Hopefully that takes at least a little bit of the edge off of it 🙂


          8. Re: So it’s not altruism at all, then…

            I do take comfort in it, Howard. I personally subscribe to the Non-Aggression Principle; that it is immoral to initiate violence against another for political or social reasons.

            But at the same time I am sadly afraid that not all religions share the same inhibitions. And regardless of the status of whatever deities those religions exist to serve, they are led by real, temporal, corruptible leaders who have their own agendas and their own power-structures. That is what frightens me about the power of the idea of altruism to justify delay of reward to an afterlife.

          9. Re: So it’s not altruism at all, then…

            I believe part of Howard’s statement – as a fellow Mormon I feel confident speaking for him in this moment – is this: just because people can (and do, but you seem to be arguing the can more than the do) use altruism for harmful/evil does not make altruism harmful/evil.

            See also: the existence of rapists and adultery does not make sex evil. The existence of those thousand pound obsurdities seen on the cover of the Enquirer on a slow celeb week does not make food evil.

            Altruism (as with much else) does not magically result in evil or good.

            And since we all know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I certainly won’t say anything about intent seperating the two.

        3. Re: Altruism is evil?

          You know, you’ve actually touched upon a valid point here, but it’s not the one you were going after.

          To start with, let me respond to your argument by stating that true altruism cannot ever justify evil actions, because any time you find yourself in the hypothetical position of performing an evil or immoral action for the good of others, you need to stop and question your defintions. Either the action itself is not as evil or immoral as you have been led to believe, or your assumption that you’re doing it for the good of others is suspect.
          Terrorist suicide bombing is an excellent example of this — I think few of us will dispute that the wanton slaughter of innocents, which is what suicide bombing generally is, is an evil act. How, though, is suicide bombing “for the good of others”? Who benefits? Does it better anyone’s life? Does it further the cause of peace? When you examine it, it benefits only those whose interest is in killing and in perpetuating the hatred on both sides, thus ensuring there will continue to be more and yet more killing. So in this case, the assumption is flawed.

          Enough on that, though. The point that occured to me as I read your first few paragraphs is that there is much that is done for people, supposedly on their behalf, that is in fact bad for them. For instance, no-one but a callous, uncaring person could say it was bad to protect a child from danger, right?
          But … when we fall over ourselves to protect people from danger, we take away from them the ability to avoid it on their own. We weaken people. Nothing fosters the prevalence of fools as much as protecting people from the consequences of their own folly. Nothing fosters carelessness and sloppiness as much as trying to protect people from all harm. The result is to raise a generation of people who have no common sense, no sense of danger, no survival skills outside of their coddling civilization, no idea how to stand up for themselves or protect themselves. And these people are nothing but helpless prey to, for instance, the violent criminal, to say nothing of what will happen to them in the event of a natural catastrophe that removes from them the protection of that coddling society.

          Protecting people from immediate harm at the risk of one’s own life or safety is, I will argue, true altruism (though sometimes, I’ll admit, done as much out of the desire to be seen as a hero as for any other reason). Trying to protect people from all future harm, however well-intentioned, is IMHO harmful to them in the long run, and in that case, “altruism” can indeed do evil.

  2. I’m nowhere near you in terms of belief systems. bUt right along side you on this.

    Just because a principle is used as a justification by someone, does not mean they got it right.

    Or as my grandfather used to say: Even the Devil can quote scripture to justify himself.

  3. Yes! It’s so good to hear someone speak this. Leaders, be they humble servants of the people or just plain nuts, so often misuse religion as a tool to manipulate the masses that the beautiful meaning behind the original beliefs are lost. My own religious views are not very black and white; however, I have to ad my kudos on this. Thank you, Howard.

  4. Higher Goal?

    Nicely written, but I have to disagree with one point.

    I don’t think that what makes a suicide bombing evil is the higher goal that’s been chosen, but the method used to express the principle of alturism.

    Within the perception of a muslim extremist, the higher goal is the defence of his faith. This is something implicit in almost all belief systems. However, instead of choosing the altruistic path, forgoing his material interests and putting all of his energies toward preaching the message of Islam, he chooses the ultimate in selfishness. Not only is he killing himself to make a point, he’s taking other lives in the process. This may be self destruction, but I don’t think it’s altruism.

    al·tru·ism n.

    1. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.
    2. Zoology. Instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species.

    1. Re: Higher Goal?

      You’re almost certainly right — I’m oversimplifying, and in doing so I’m erring on the side of making Islam look better than the extremists are making it look.

      1. Re: Higher Goal?

        [shrug] In and of itself, Islam seems as good a belief system as any other to me. The problems arise when followers of a system disregard the teachings in their efforts to promote the ‘brand’.

        1. Re: Higher Goal?

          An interesting point was made to me yesterday. The Islamic faith was created several hundred years after the Old Testament’s “apparent barbarism” had been replaced with the calmer teachings of the New Testament. But Muhammed himself “went out of his way” I was told to put to the sword anyone who did not convert. No one has come along since him — no new prophets — to mollify that teaching, so it is still in effect today.

          It is disturbibng to see that teaching echoed in, say, Indonesian daily newspaper editorials who recommend killing every Westerner for that reason, and who quote Mohammed in doing so. I’ve been engaged in a bit of disucssion on religious extremism in the past few days in my journal, and as an atheist I can hardly be described as a Christian apologist. But I am troubled by events in the world, and it is not the same things as the population is being asked to focus on.

          ===|==============/ Level Head

          1. Re: Higher Goal?

            It’s probably worth mentioning, somewhere in here, that the Old Testament’s “apparent barbarism” doesn’t actually need the New Testament to ameliorate it.

            One of the things, for example, that has made the Jewish religion considerably less violent than any other is that Judaism is not a conversion religion. The Jewish faith isn’t “I’m right and ergo you are wrong” but “I am right for me, and as a general rule I can’t judge what you’re doing.”

            Even when the Bible shows the Jewish people embarking on the extermination of other tribes when they take over Israel, it is not because G-d has judged the Jews to be a perfect people who have the right to wipe out everyone who stands in their path. His specific message is closer to “You Jewish folk are a pretty sorry lot, in fact. However, I like you anyway, and the people who currently occupy this land are Really Really Really Bad. So get rid of ’em.”

            Now, one can attempt to use this to justify modern wars (“We may be bad, but we’re better than YOU.”) But it strikes me as pretty narrow, because the situation wasn’t some prophet or priest saying “They’re bad, let’s get ’em!” It was G-D saying “They’re bad, you get ’em.” Unless you’ve got G-d following you in a pillar of fire and giving you direct messages, it would be pretty hard to claim a direct analogy between the creation of the original Israel, and anything happening in the modern world.


            I think I’m meandering too much. You get the idea. Sincere followers of the Jewish faith have a solid moral grounding which is not marred by the fact that the people in their holy text are decidedly imperfect.

          2. Re: Higher Goal?

            I understand, and go along with it. In fact, as I think about it, I realize that Christianity, and the subsequent divisions between Catholic and Protestant versions, have been used to justify much violence. So, too, has the Islamic faith. But I don’t think I’m aware of similar famous situations in which the Jewish people in the last couple of thousand years have gone after members of some other religion because they weren’t Jewish.

            Happily, the practice is dying out among most faiths.

            ===|==============/ Level Head

    2. Re: Higher Goal?

      “Within the perception of a muslim extremist, the higher goal is the defence of his faith.”

      In terms of suicide bombers, I don’t think you have the right mindset.

      I group them into 3 categories:

      Columbine Killers – (I beleive the 9/11 hijackers where in this category) – these are the people looking for the ‘cool’ factor. Highest body count, biggest building, most blood, most horrifying, etc. It’s a video game mindset, what people playing gory video games and you always have someone who wants to ‘take it to the next level’. Heck, even non violent video games you will find this type of person. For example, ever play a racing game where periodically an animal/person crosses the road? You lose points for hitting them. Yet there are times when a player says “how many negative points can I rack up?”. Most of us can differentiate from what is ok in fantasy to what is ok in reality. Some can’t.

      So, is the target big and ‘exciting’? If so, the motivation is the thrill of doing something evil.

      Than there are the extremists. People who beleive they are advancing their ’cause’ by commiting and evil act. For example, the guy who shot abortion doctors. His cause was pro-life. By killing doctors who performed abortions, he was saving lives. It wasn’t cool factor, it was cause.

      And then there are those who just feel they have no hope. Their lives are useless/miserible. In the middle east, the various terrorist organisations recruit these people, promising them a reward(perhaps money for their families) and a meaningfull death. They prey on these fears and feelings of uselessness and provide materials, but they don’t risk their own lives.

      Each group presents a different set of levers to eliminate the outcome.

  5. The context here is that suicide bombers (among others) are maniacs, and that the principle of self-sacrifice is what enables them to, well, sacrifice themselves for what they see as a higher goal.

    Fine. While we can probably agree that suicide bombings are “bad,” if not outright EVIL, it’s not the principal of self-sacrifice or altruism which is at fault. Fault lies in PICKING THE WRONG HIGHER GOAL.

    Actually, I think you’re wrong here. Suicide bombers are taught that killing “the infidel” and blowing themselves up in the process will make them martyrs and get them directly to paradise. They’re also taught it will make their “homeland” free.
    There’s nothing particularly wrong with either of these goals — reaching their Paradise or freeing their homeland. The problem is that they’re being lied to, and those who are lying to them are in fact instructing them to violate the most basic tenets of their faith and telling them it’s their holy duty, and the poor halpess innocents they’re sending out on these suicide missions don’t know any better than to trust their own self-appointed religious elders and take them at their word.

    They don’t have the wrong goal. They’re being intentionally misled and exploited by murdering bastards who, when you really come down to it, just enjoy killing as many people as possible in the name of Allah, and don’t really have any particular compunction even as to whether the people they kill are Muslims themselves or not.

    As for your own personal beliefs … I have long said that the important thing is WHAT YOU BELIEVE and how you act on those beliefs. Not what your church does in the name of your deity, or what is done in the name of that deity by others who profess to hold the same faith as you. [Rant on that subject elided.]

    (Personally, while not a Mormon — or a deist of any flavor — myself, I don’t have any particular problems with the Mormon church except for the practice of retroactively converting all the ancestors of new converts to Mormonism without the consent of said ancestors. That, I think,is hubris, and an intrusion upon the right of those ancestors to believe as they chose.)

    1. (Personally, while not a Mormon — or a deist of any flavor — myself, I don’t have any particular problems with the Mormon church except for the practice of retroactively converting all the ancestors of new converts to Mormonism without the consent of said ancestors. That, I think,is hubris, and an intrusion upon the right of those ancestors to believe as they chose.)

      I’ve heard this complaint before. The doctrine of Baptism for the Dead does not preclude your ancestors from continuing to believe what they did in life (if we assume for the sake of argument that they are conscious, thinking, individual, and self-same entities after shuffling off the ol’ mortal coil). The message behind Baptism for the Dead is that everyone who lives, lived, or will live on Planet Earth will have the opportunity to accept or reject baptism. So the ordinance is performed for those who have died (by proxy, obviously), and we leave the matter of “accept or reject” in the hands of God and the concerned parties.

      Hubris? Perhaps. After all, the Mormons are out to baptize everybody who has ever died. Note, however, that there’s also more than a little hubris to be found in saying “great-great-grandpa-so-and-so (whom I’ve never met nor read anything about) would NEVER have wanted to be baptised a Mormon.” And I’ve heard that one.

      Two words of really good news on this front: no exhumations!

      1. Part 2 of 2 (blasted 4300-character limit!)


        Personally, I don’t think that any of the one-faith interpretations are consistent with a divine power, unless that divine power is spiteful, vengeful and vindictive, and I don’t choose to believe in a universe created by a spiteful, vengeful, vindictive deity. I had a long argument the other day with a Baptist who didn’t seem to see any inconsistency in the idea of an all-wise god of universal love who had consigned everyone who didn’t toe the line just so to eternal damnation and torment. Any time I pointed out any of the inconsistencies in his position, he’d start for an instant to think about it, then you could actually see the little circuit-breaker in his mind reset.

        So anyway, this is why I find myself with no moral alternative to believe the many-paths interpretation, that all ways to enlightenment are valid, but at the same time that there are paths which do not lead to enlightenment. (And for the record, as the logical extension of this line of reasoning, while I do not believe that carrying out a suicide bombing against innocent people is an act that in itself is worthy of paradise, I don’t think that being misled and manipulated into doing so by some bloody-handed butcher masquerading as a spiritual leader necessarily precludes one from attaining that state of enlightenment, either.)

        This is why I feel that it is at best disrespectful to forcibly impose a different religious belief system upon anyone, at any time, than that which they freely chose for themselves on their own. It’s at least in part the sheer wrongness, to my thinking, of the model of existence which is necessary to believe that such an action could in fact grant enlightenment to someone who otherwise would not have attained it.

        Does that explanation make sense to you?

        For the record, I also don’t believe in an afterlife. But if I one day find myself standing in front of St. Peter, I guess I’ll have to tell him, “I seem to have some philosophical theories that now require re-examination in the light of this new evidence.” 🙂

        Two words of really good news on this front: no exhumations!

        Heh. 🙂 “Alas; poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio….”

      2. Part 1 of 2 (4300-char limit), second try ‘cos I borked a bold tag

        Note, however, that there’s also more than a little hubris to be found in saying “great-great-grandpa-so-and-so (whom I’ve never met nor read anything about) would NEVER have wanted to be baptised a Mormon.”

        Well, arguably true, but I tend to think that the religious beliefs someone died with were probably those they intended to keep. It seems presumptuous to assume they wouldn’t mind being retroactively baptized into a different faith.

        See, for myself, I tend to assume that the arguments about which is the One True Faith are essentially meaningless, because I think there IS no One True Faith. All faiths basically seek, by one name or another, redemption, salvation, nirvana, satori, enlightenment, call it what you will. It doesn’t really matter what they call it or how that faith says you get there, it’s the same thing in the end. Now, I propose that it’s meaningless to talk about which is the one correct path to get there, because all paths that lead there are, by definition, correct paths. The Methodist, the Catholic, the Mormon, the Sunni, the Shi’ite, the Druze, the Hindu, the Shintoist, the Buddhist, the animist — they all have their own paths to attain that state of enlightenment, and they’re all different, and they’re all correct for them. It’s as meaningless to talk about having reached enlightenment by the wrong path as it is to talk about having the wrong kind of water in the lake behind your house. There’s no right and wrong paths to enlightenment — there’s just paths that lead to enlightenment (which mostly involve doing the best you can in your life and doing, to the best of your ability, that which you know to be right) and paths that don’t (which include things like cheating and defrauding people in the name of your faith, slaughtering people in the name of your god or just because they have something you want, imposing your will over people because you like the rush of power, and otherwise acting with complete disregard for any semblance of moral fiber).
        If one assumes this to be true, then retroactively baptizing someone into a different faith probably does them no particular harm nor good, but shows disrespect for their beliefs during life.

        Now, that said, let’s assume the opposite. Let’s assume that, in fact, only one of the multitudinous religious belief systems on the face of the planet actually has the One True Way to salvation.

        Which one is it? How can we know? No-one’s come back from beyond the grave with a report. Sure, there’s the prophets and divine messengers of each faith — but every faith has those. Which one do we believe?

        If we make the assumption that all faiths but one are wrong, how do we know the remaining one is right? Who’s to say they’re not ALL subtly wrong?

        Suppose that exactly one faith is right, and you baptise someone into the Mormon church who was, say, a whirling dervish in life. If you’re right, and your faith is the correct one, then OK, perhaps you’ve brought this person to salvation, assuming posthumous baptism works. (I personally see no reason why it would.) Nevertheless, in doing so, you have shown a lack of respect for that person’s religous beliefs — and IMHO, the very first thing you must do if you wish anyone else to respect your religious beliefs is to respect theirs in turn.
        On the other hand, if you’re wrong, and your faith turns out not to be The One, then you’ve gained that person nothing — and may actually have harmed them, if it turns out in the end that the Whirling Dervishes were right after all.

        (And in any case, one-path or many-paths, I don’t think that any baptism can confer a state of grace upon someone who did such evil in their life as to preclude them from attaining it under their own belief system.)

        [to be continued]

    2. And back on topic…

      Actually, I think you’re wrong here. Suicide bombers are taught that killing “the infidel” and blowing themselves up in the process will make them martyrs and get them directly to paradise. They’re also taught it will make their “homeland” free.

      You’ve got it right, and by way of clarification, I was simplifying and paraphrasing the arguments put forth by my source. Yes, the suicide bombers have ostensibly good goals, and the problem lies in the fact that they’re being manipulated by evil people who have a DIFFERENT set of goals.

      The long and short of it all is that although principles of goodness and righteousness can be put to evil ends, this does not render those principles evil in and of themselves.


  6. On topic

    “I have a fairly simple, Sunday-school-esque belief that there IS clear-cut right and wrong. I also believe that just as God would have us choose the right, Satan would have us choose wrong (Sunday-school-esque, remember?). And in order to accomplish that, Satan needs to make good things look bad, and bad things look good.”

    I disagree somewhat.

    I agree that there IS clear-cut right and wrong, good and evil, etc.

    However, I also think there is a lot of situational right and wrong.

    Satan doesn’t need to make bad things look wrong. He just needs to make situationally good things look arbitrarily good. If he can convince a group of people that something which is good in a specific instance is ALWAYS good, than he can lead them all into committing evil.

    For example, when you are sick, it can be a good thing to take antibiotics. However, one could generalise that to taking antibiotics is good, and everyone should take them, all the time.

    The result of that would be that after a decade or two of giving them to everyone in the state, every day the diseases that will evolve will be extremely resistant not only to antibiotics, to to other forms of control. And when they hit the whole world, plague and death a plenty.

    He can also somewhat accomplish the same thing by making situationally wrong things seem always wrong.

    The above presumes Satan exists. But then, even if he doesn’t, and it is just human misconception, the result is the same.

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