Terror and fuzzy logic in the demon haunted world
I once imagined that future generations might struggle to define our era. On the one hand it is an age of great enlightenment and scientific discovery; of information technology and the exploration of space. Yet it can just as easily be characterised as one in which great ignorance and intolerance prevails, where people live in fear of persecution, poverty and terror. I now fear they will decisively choose the latter.
More than ever, in my lifetime, great human advances seemingly go hand in hand with the spread of divisive ideologies and religions. Once more bigots, religious extremists and fascists are rearing their heads in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
Of course we’ve been doing this for centuries. Just when we think we’ve shaken off the shackles of superstition and other forms of fuzzy thinking, they return stronger than ever, to enslave us once more. Does it have to be this way?
Sadly it may be too late to prevent future historians from describing the time in which we live as a new dark age. They will doubtless point to recent events in Paris and Belgium and be damning in their judgement of us and our culture. I’m not sure any of us could mount a successful defence.
These atrocities and the appalling loss of life sicken me, just as the site of human beings packed into refugee camps and the sight of drowned children in the Mediterranean Sea does. The terrible devastation in Syria, the rise of religious fundamentalism and terror are all evidence that humankind remains too imprisoned by superstition, tribalism and narrow self-interest, to make any realistic claims to civilisation.
Following the attack on the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ offices and more recently the Bataclan Theatre, social media has been awash with symbols of solidarity. I was one of those who joined in. Are these signs that our sense of our common humanity is triumphing over evil? Maybe.
However, consider our responses to recent events in Belgium. Countless column inches were devoted to the attacks and broadcast media took up residence in the city for days on end. Little attention was paid to anything else, despite similar tragedies occurring all over the world.
It is worth reflecting on our responses to Paris and Belgium and contrasting them with our reaction to recent bombings in Ankara. What of the hundreds of terrorist attacks globally that attract little attention? Evidence suggests that far more attention is paid by media outlets to the bombings in western Europe than those in Turkey. What does this say about us? Are Belgian lives more valuable than Turkish, Palestinian, Libyan or Syrian ones?
So often our responses are informed by bias and prejudice. On all sides of the equation we are beset by fuzzy logic and an inability to critically analyse. I believe this allows politicians and terrorists alike to manipulate us and prey on our base fears.
I’ve seen many examples of this defective thinking on social media recently. Naturally the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who do not condone or support terrorism, rush to claim that the perpetrators of these horrors are not representative of their faith. Meanwhile a coalition of the fearful, uninformed and the ignorant declares that all terrorists are Islamic.
Neither side is really thinking clearly. Of course not all Muslims are terrorists. People of that faith have produce great art, literature and architecture. Muslims have contributed greatly in the cause of peace, medicine, science and philosophy. However, the argument that the Brussels bombers are not Islamic is also unsustainable.
It may be an uncomfortable truth, but, while those who carried out these acts of barbarity are unrepresentative, they still justify their atrocities by referencing their religion. They do so because they can.
It is unfair to single out Islam, because all religions are culpable in this respect. Consider Christianity. The Bible calls upon us to love all God’s creations, while declaring homosexuality an abomination; decrees that “Thou shalt not kill” but suggests “an eye for an eye” is a reasonable basis for law making.
Christians regularly distance themselves from acts of terror carried out by their brethren, claiming theirs is a peaceful religion. All the while they ignore the myriad pogroms, bombings and abuses that have been carried out in its name. In reality no religion is blame free in this respect.
At the root of these contradictions is religious or superstitious thought its self. Often ‘holy’ texts are so vague that they allow followers to pick and choose which aspects they identify with and then declare those as the true tenets of the faith. All followers can point to contradictory passages in the same book as evidence that they are following the one true path. Religious thought is the antithesis of critical thinking.
Such vagaries are deemed beyond reproach by the faithful. No proof of their validity is needed, as their Gods work in very mysterious ways. Mere human’s are unfit to know the inner workings of the grand plan.
Followers of all the major faiths are therefore free to decide which bits they like and which they don’t. It’s a pick and mix world view. The great Carl Sagan brilliant exposed the fallacy of such thought, arguing;
“Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
We shouldn’t be afraid of, or condemned for saying that the terrorists who brought chaos to France and Belgium were following their religion. They were. Just as those who bomb abortion clinics and organisations like the Ku Klux Klan are following theirs. One group claims Islam as their shield, the other Christianity.
I can’t help but reflect on the fact that those who hold power over us benefit greatly from our tendency towards such biases. While we are busy worrying about each other, they act with impunity in their own selfish interests. How many wars have been fought for economic or strategic purposes, only to be justified on the basis of protecting us all from those who worship a different God?
All belief systems and models of the world should be open to scrutiny. This is not about persecution or intolerance; it is simply about allowing us to explore the true nature of reality, unhindered by dogma, so that we may work out the best way to enhance the lives of all people.
If I make a political assertion of one sort or another, friends and readers don’t hesitate to challenge my thinking and sometimes my sanity. This is exactly as it should be. However, those who cloak themselves in faith, religion or that old standby “it’s my opinion and I am entitled to it,” claim immunity from such scrutiny.
Why should this be so? It is not ‘fate’ that these things happen. Ultimately we can decide to think differently, if we want to.
As you stare at your television screens, or read your newspapers today, you could be forgiven for thinking that such a world, in which people are freed from supernatural thinking, is little more than a pipe dream. It may feel like the demons have a vice like grip on the minds of millions if not billions. I have a different perspective.
I have lived long enough to realise that nothing is permanent. I grew up being told the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland were insurmountable, that Apartheid in South Africa was so entrenched nothing could remove its stain from that magnificent continent. Then there was the ‘cold war,’ Thatcher and the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation; there was nothing, I was taught, that we could do nothing about any of these things.
Over time, all of these old certainties have simply fallen away. Dictatorships have crumbled, Apartheid is gone, the ‘cold war’ has thawed and the Berlin Wall is no more. We now have peace in Northern Ireland; albeit a fragile one. These transformations share one thing in common, at one time they were all inconceivable.
There were times, not so long ago, when many believed the earth was flat and that the we lived on a planet that sat at the heart of the universe. Go back a little further and you will find humans worshiping statues, the sun or the moon. We now regard these practices and beliefs as ludicrous.
The cycle of human history grinds on and it cares little for mysticism, empires, despots or demagogues. All will eventually give way when they outlive their usefulness or when enough people decide they’ve had enough. That is surely the lesson of history.
We don’t have to accept our lot in life. Future generations will probably define our era as one of ignorance and terror. Sadly the die is probably cast in that respect. However, we can choose to respond differently to such barbarity.
We could continue to choose fear and hate, retreating into our tribal shells and allow the demons to continue their rule over us. Or, we could free our minds and think critically, rejecting bias and prejudice in all its forms.
In the wake of the horrors of Paris, Ankara and Belgium, it would be wrong to demonise individuals for their faith. This would only create further division and conflict. However, we would be guilty of fuzzy logic ourselves if we don’t question the role played by religion and superstition in the genesis of such events.
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