Friday, February 19, 2010

An article on morality and atheism in a Pakistani newspaper

This is more in the category of kudos: it is not that often that we see an article (more accurately an oped piece by a regular columnist) in a Pakistani newspaper mentioning atheism in a positive light (or at least not in a negative language). True, this mention is in Dawn - an English language daily with relatively liberal tendencies, but still its great to see such a perspective even brought up. Also, he may be ignoring some of the nuances in using religiosity and corruption indices for the whole countries, nevertheless I'm glad that he is making this point. [For a more detailed analysis of why some countries are more religious than others, check out this post and this article by our friend Tom Rees at Epiphenom].

Here is Irfan Hussain in yesterday's Dawn, Morality and Atheism:
Many have condemned modern Western civilization for its ‘godless’ ways, pointing to widespread cohabitation between men and women, men and men, and women and women. Alcoholism, nudity and drug-abuse are also frequently cited.

All these lifestyle choices are mentioned in arguments over the superiority of Eastern religions and societies. Yet the firm belief in religion and an afterlife in our part of the world do not necessarily translate into better societies.

In the Transparency International table for global perceptions of corruption for 2009, there is not a single Muslim country in the twenty most honest states. However, seven Muslim countries figure among the ten most corrupt states.

Interestingly, Sweden, the most godless state in Europe, comes in at joint third with Singapore as the least corrupt country in the world.

There is an argument that corruption is a function of poverty, and once societies have acquired a measure of economic well-being, they tend to become more honest and accountable. While there is some truth to this assertion, how to explain the fact that Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world, is listed as 63rd by TI?

And Kuwait comes in at 68. Clearly, then, there is little direct linkage between religion and morality.

Nevertheless, billions around the world continue to believe deeply in the faith they have grown up in. They derive comfort from following the belief system of their forefathers, and most of them have never felt the need to question it.

Indeed, the poor obtain solace for their wretched condition with the promise of compensation in the afterlife. And the rich in our part of the world try and assuage their guilt by giving alms generously, thereby hoping to buy a place in heaven. If only they would pay their taxes with the same zeal, we might be able to make a better world in this life.

In religiously inclined societies like Pakistan, we are fond of criticising Western materialism, while holding up our supposed spirituality as being superior.

Even the millions of Muslims who have chosen to migrate to the West make the same assertion. However, I have not noticed any of these people denying themselves the conveniences and the advantages of these same ‘materialistic’ societies. And frankly, I do not see too much evidence of our vaunted ‘spirituality’ in our behaviour or attitudes.
Read the full article here. As far as the arguments for morality without religion, check out Marc Hauser and Peter Singer here (pdf), Frans de Waal here, and Theodore Schick Jr. here. You can also check out this short segment (less than 4 minutes) from a Marc Hauser talk:

6 comments:

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

May I remind your esteemed intellect that it is the laws and their implementation that brings "morality" and defies "corruption" in any country. It is not the atheism that makes Sweden clean but it is the law and its implementation...laws which are so "religiously" followed by the atheists and theists alike. If people feel free, as born free human beings, to drive whichever side of the road they like, to go to workplace whatever time suits their free will, or throw rubbish in the streets at free will, the society will start disintegrating. If the religious laws (any religion) about anti-social activities (lying, cheating, stealing, killing of innocents etc) are properly and fairly implemented, the outcome will be the same.
Please check the list of world suicide rates by countries and you will find the most "prosperous" nations to top this list too.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_suicide_rate

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

And I went through Marc Hauser and Peter Singer's article. It is quite thought provoking indeed. But it has a major flaw. It starts with a presupposition that religion is there to "teach" us morality. In fact it is not. Morality is not something "invented" by religion. It is something ingrained in human nature...this is what makes us different from all animals. Religion only regulates it through ordinance to make sure it always works in every situation and if not followed, there is going to be a penalty (e.g. in hereafter).
Let me give you an example of traffic. No matter how moral and disciplined we are, we cannot be safe on the road by our own free will. We still need to have pre-defined traffic rules and an authority to implement the rules to make sure it works, and to punish those who do not abide by the rules, intentionally or unintentionally.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

And the religious laws are there to make sure that one saves the drowning child or else gets punishment in hereafter even though there is no one watching him. It just does not leave the matter entirely on the discretion of the passer by.

Sanjiv said...

How often does one see atheism mentioned favorably in an American newspaper? Too bad Irfan Hussain doesn't write for any of them.

Salman Hameed said...

Sanjiv: Good point.

Akbar: Couple of quick points:
No one claimed that atheism made the Swedes more moral. You are looking at it backwards. The arguments that Irfan Hussain is making is that one does not need religion to be moral.

"And I went through Marc Hauser and Peter Singer's article. It is quite thought provoking indeed. But it has a major flaw. It starts with a presupposition that religion is there to "teach" us morality. In fact it is not. Morality is not something "invented" by religion. It is something ingrained in human nature...this is what makes us different from all animals."

drum roll please. We actually agree on most of this. However (ah - it had to come), Hauser and Singer's starting assumption is repeated by many many many religious proponents. And as far as the animal world is concerned, we will probably find a continuum. Hence the link to the Frans de Waal article about the issue of empathy in other primates.

"And the religious laws are there to make sure that one saves the drowning child or else gets punishment in hereafter even though there is no one watching him. It just does not leave the matter entirely on the discretion of the passer by."

Hmm...may be. But we still have to use reason to figure out which religious laws are the good ones and which ones are not. After all, collective suicides have also been part of religious laws (especially in early religion a few thousand years ago - or even the Heaven's Gate suicides in the late 1990s). So yes, we have to make reasonable judgments about laws that are better for the society - and the choice can be from religious doctrine and/or secular ideologies.

As far as how individuals respond to a drowning child, well, that is no different with or without a religious belief (see the Marc Hauser lecture clip) - and we have many examples of people sacrificing themselves to save others without any religious motivations.

But the point of the post was to highlight the fact that such an idea is even being brought up in a Pakistani newspaper - and that is independent of the content of this discussion.

Ali said...

Kudos to both Irfan Hussain and Dawn.

I agree morality is innate in us. Our species probably wouldn't have reached this far without it. But saying that some kind of divine mandate is required for us to be moral is demeaning our sense of morality. Besides, as that clip also shows, being moral is not exclusive to having a religious belief, let alone a particular one.