Writer’s Bottleneck

When it comes to writing, one of the most common ailments talked about is the dreaded writer’s block, where a writer stares at a blank screen/sheet, unable to write anything. Writing coaches often recommend creativity exercises to spark inspiration.

For many years I’ve struggled to publish any articles online (except for the rare blog post every now and then). But it’s not because I suffer from writer’s block. Instead, I suffer from Writer’s Bottleneck. I don’t struggle to find something to write about. I struggle to pick which of my interests to write about, what idea to share or point to make. Since I seem to value all my ideas equally, I end up oscillating between them, unable to decide which to pick.

This isn’t just a writing problem. It can also be a reading problem (when you can’t decide what to read, so you end up checking your Twitter feed) and a life problem (when you can’t decide what activity to do, so you end up watching TV… flicking through channels, without watching a full program).

The more interests you have, the more severe the bottleneck becomes.

I’ve failed time and time again to prioritize my interests. When I want to write about critical thinking I recall the political problems we’re facing, and ways to promote morality, and improving education, and documenting open source projects, and on, and on…

All these interests are important to me. How can I possibly choose?

Last night I realized that I should abandon trying to prioritize my interests. Instead, I should prioritize the act writing, regardless of what interest I write about.

That way I will at least write about one interest, instead of none.

And so I’ve decided to publish a blog post every day for the next 30 days.

The topics may vary, and some posts may be unrefined ideas or snippets from longer works I’m (trying to) write. What matters is that every post will be useful to my readers, and helpful in getting rid of my writer’s bottleneck.

This is my first post. Expect 29 more. ūüôā

Hezbollah and Syria and Iran (Oh My!)

My Twitter feed has been bleeding news and commentary about the conflict in Syria recently, and I see tweets from both camps: in support of the armed opposition and in support of Assad’s regime. But for every ounce of valuable insight about the conflict I read, I endure a pound of ignorance and idiocy.

Contributing To Conflict

I wouldn’t accuse any Twitter users I’m following of having ill-intentions, but they are often contributing to the conflict, rather than promoting peace.

I don’t expect people to sit on the sidelines without taking an active part in conflict situations. But the key is to resolve the conflict or prevent it from escalating.

What I find especially troubling are the sectarian sentiments underlying the conflict, which risk causing the conflict in Syria to spill over to other countries in the region. Kuwait is already experiencing social and political tensions along sectarian lines, and framing the conflict in Syria as being a sectarian one is partly wrong, but mostly dangerous.

It is true that the vast majority of Sunnis are opposed to Assad’s regime, while Shia are generally in favor of it. A superficial explanation for this is that Assad is from the Alawite (Shia) sect. However, many Sunnis are either oblivious to this fact or consider it irrelevant. Their opposition to Bashar Al-Assad stems from his crimes against his people and the mass murders his army has committed. Many Shia do not support Assad because of his sect, but his political stance against Israel and his alliance with Iran.

I have seen several tweets (and retweets) calling Shia “rafida” (a derogatory term to imply Shia are non-Muslims and a threat to Islam) or¬†Magi (an embarrassingly ignorant reference to the Zoroastrian religion, from the mistaken belief that Shia Islam originates from Persia). These expressions encourage people to think in sectarian terms, while overlooking the humanitarian crimes being committed.

I see the conflict over Syria centered around two axes:

  • Fear of “The Shia Crescent”
  • Fear of “The Great Satan”

In the following sections I will explain why “The Shia Crescent” is a myth, and fighting “The Great Satan” doesn’t justify supporting Bashar Al-Assad.

Iranian Intentions

In 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran, his ultimate goal was not to spread Shi’ism around the globe and force people to embrace it. He took pride in his faith and based the country’s legislation on it. But the “revolution” he sought to export around the globe was the revival of Islamic theocracy and – more importantly – opposition to Western imperialism.

Having been a supporter of Iran at one point in my life, I do believe that Iran’s calls for Muslim unity are genuine and that it bears no sectarian animosity towards Sunni countries. Its benchmark is political, not sectarian: Are you a supporter of the United States and – by extension – Israel? That’s how Iran assesses political supporters and opponents.

This explains why Ahmadinejad, Iran’s current president, was a strong supporter of the socialist Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, even though their ideological views don’t overlap. It was Chavez’s anti-US stance that Ahmadinejad admired, not his beliefs.

The fear that Iran posed a Persian/Shia threat against the Arab/Sunni world was popularized during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, when the dictator Saddam Hussain was hailed as “The Sword of the Arabs” by King Fahd Al Saud, of Saudi Arabia, for seemingly taming the Iranian advance towards the Arab world. This fear has lingered ever since and was reignited when King Abdullah II of Jordan coined the term “The Shia Crescent” to refer to the potential threat of a Shia alliance that spans Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon in a “crescent” shape.

The idea that Iran continues to plot overthrows in the gulf (namely from the Shia populations of Bahrain and the Eastern region of Saudi Arabia) is circulated widely. It is also used to justify a heavy-handed response to peaceful protests. There is no evidence to suggest that Iran is behind an armed overthrow of these gulf monarchies, but it is plausible enough as an excuse to confirm the impression that Iran poses a Shia threat.

To best understand Iran’s perspective, it’s essential to see the world through its lens. “The Great Satan” is a term Ayatollah Khomeini used to refer to the United States, and indicates Iran’s political priorities: Anything that is to the United State’s advantage or earns its support should be opposed, as that would indicate the greater of two evils. There are no Iranian ambitions to spread Shi’ism and Iran poses no threat to Sunni Muslims for ideological reasons.

Syrian Stance

There are clear ethnic, religious and political differences between Iran and Syria: the former is a Persian, Twelver Shia theocracy, whereas the latter is an Arab, Alawite secular (Ba’athist) nation.

But these differences are irrelevant when it comes to what they have in common: their opposition to the United States and Israel.

Syria has been the strongest nation to support the armed struggle against Israel, second only to Iran.

The opposition to Assad’s regime is founded on several reasons: Assad is a secular Alawite, which makes him an extremely unfavorable candidate to rule a Muslim nation, according to the Salaf and many Islamists. He is also a brutal dictator, as recent massacres have demonstrated. To Israel and the United States he is a formidable foe, and seeing him go is a step in the right direction (or so it is assumed).

What the United States and Israel seem to be overlooking are the unsettling parallels between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Taliban: both rose to prominence and power through US support, and both share a deep-seated hostility towards the United States and Israel (for the same ideological reasons). Sheikh Nabeel Al-Awadhi, a prominent Sunni scholar in Kuwait and one of the strongest supporters of the armed fight against Assad’s regime (and raising funds to arm the combatants), mourned the death of Osama Bin Laden and said on Twitter that the Muslims who celebrated his death are not true believers, because they are sharing the joys of the disbelievers.

The reason why Arab nations are arming the FSA doesn’t stem from a concern over humanitarian losses, but the desire to limit Iran’s influence in the region by getting rid of its strongest ally. It’s the fear of “The Shia Crescent” that’s fueling their support, whereas those who are supporting Assad do so to combat the influence of the United States (a.k.a. “The Great Satan”) in the region.

This explains Hezbollah’s stance in the conflict.

Hezbollah Help

Sayed Hasan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, has said that the battle to free Palestine is being waged in Syria. Some have mocked this statement because they failed to see the connection he’s making: Assad’s regime is a vital asset for the Palestinian cause.

Nasrallah has been consistent in his fight against the United States, and his intentions aren’t fueled by the desire to spread his Shia faith. In the build up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies, Nasrallah called on the people of Iraq (including the Shia, who were oppressed under Saddam’s regime) to side with Saddam against the United States!

To accuse Nasrallah of being sectarian overlooks his previous stances and the reasons for his current support of Assad. They are deeply rooted in the fear of “The Great Satan” and, unfortunately, this fear has made him overlook the many crimes Bashar Al-Assad has committed against his people to date. And the crimes continue, with Hezbollah supporting Assad’s forces in Syria.

I have repeatedly heard Hezbollah supporters blaming the media for portraying Hezbollah in a negative light, but the media’s role is extremely limited. The fact that Nasrallah failed to even acknowledge that some crimes are being committed by Assad’s forces or that supporting Assad is the lesser of two evils has made him lose the support of many, including Sunnis who used to look to him as a champion of the Palestinian cause, but now question whether he is simply doing Iran’s bidding in Syria.

Promoting Peace

It is important to spell out the two primary fears fueling the conflict in Syria: fear of “The Shia Crescent” and fear of “The Great Satan.”

The Shia Crescent is a myth with no basis in the present conflict, apart from cultivating fear and hate towards Shia.

And while I acknowledge that the United States has many, many faults, especially in its foreign policies, it does not justify supporting a dictator such as Bashar Al-Assad in an attempt to fight the expansion of the United State’s influence in the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict is too broad a topic to address in this article, but one thing is certain: we must oppose any form of injustice, regardless of who it is committed by, without narrowing the definition to fit only our enemies.

The ideal solution in Syria is for Bashar Al-Assad to step down and allow a new government to form that respects the rights of all Syrians, without discriminating based on sect or religion.

We should also discuss the conflict on humanitarian terms, rather than throw unfounded accusations against an entire sect, which would only intensify the conflict rather than help resolve it.

Before you tweet or retweet anything, ask yourself: Am I being part of the solution, or part of the problem?

Not All Change Is Progress

My friend Hamad Mufleh recently wrote an article about the stance of the liberals in Kuwait towards the Kuwaiti opposition, and presented the argument that liberals should support the opposition, regardless of the conservative and Islamist elements within it.

Before I offer my own views on the matter, I would like to point out something you’ve probably noticed: the vast majority of political discussions are useless.

Why?

Because those who care to comment about politics have already formed a political opinion. They then go on to disagree with their opponents, citing the facts and incidents that support their stance, while overlooking facts presented in support of opposing perspectives.

Confirmation bias is insanely strong in the charged climate of political discourse, and most opinions expressed about politics only serve to please supporters, while opponents scramble to look for facts and counter arguments to defend their own views.

I’m not interested in adding fuel to the fire. Instead, I’d like you (yes, YOU!) to question your fundamental assumptions about politics and what makes for an ideal political system.

The point I would like to challenge about Hamad’s article isn’t whether liberals should support the opposition or not, but whether democracy should be the goal of our political efforts.

I’m of the opinion that¬†democracy is not a political ideal to pursue, whereas Hamad believes that it is, and presents the liberals as sharing his ideal.

I will begin by tackling Hamad’s assumptions about democracy before I address the main point of his article on whether liberals should lend their support to an opposition contaminated with the desire for theocratic rule.

Democracy As A Political Ideal

Hamad presents democracy as follows:

At its core, democracy functions as a basic set of rules to resolve political conflict in a civil manner. Its main benefit in the short run is in reducing the prospects for violence (and civil war) and sustaining longer periods of peace.

Democracy offers neither promises nor guarantees to reduce political conflict or resorting to a civil manner. Democracy is the rule of the majority, and the potential oppression of minorities. If the majority values civility, then civility will flourish. If the majority values violence, then violence will flourish. In fact, when a democracy does not protect minority rights, the chances of minorities resorting to violence will be high, as they cannot rely on the political system for protection.

Democracy effectively shifts the basis of power from dominance through force to influence through ideas.

Again, democracy makes no such shifts. This would only be true if freedom of speech is recognized as an absolute right (which is possible under a “benevolent ruler”), but the conservatives and Islamists within the opposition do not support such rights. Therefore, the ability for opposing ideas to spread will be stifled through censorship and blasphemy laws.

Those who are skeptical of the introduction of democracy in a religious society want to rid people first of the fundamentalist ideas before we make this shift. Their reasoning rests on the assumption that religious ideas are harder to fight when coupled with political power.

In the same way the opposition cannot depend on autocratic rule for the protection of their rights (a fear I share with the opposition), democracy should be met with similar fears by liberals, as authority shifts to a fundamentalist majority. The solution isn’t to spread ideas of secularism and tolerance before introducing democracy, but to¬†never introduce democracy without clear constitutional protections of individual rights and personal freedoms that limits the scope of the people’s authority to dictate how others should lead their lives.

The benefits Hamad attributes to democracy should be attributed to liberal values, which are under threat in conservative societies.

Should Liberals Support The Opposition?

The essential point Hamad makes in his piece is this:

Even if there are contradictions in the demands and political stances of the Kuwaiti opposition (e.g. Islamists defending freedom of speech when only months ago they proposed a law to execute those who insult God and his prophet), liberals should still back the opposition against autocratic rule, because the path to democracy is a long and winding road.

Hamad suggests – based on his discussions with liberals – that liberals expect an intellectual foundation to political movements, and that “Kuwait is clearly skipping a chapter here.”

Presenting the liberal view he has encountered, Hamad writes:

In the European book, the process starts with philosophers writing extensively about democracy. And because the opposition in Kuwait is nowhere near the intellectual movement of Europe, we should be skeptical.

My view of the opposition is that it’s intellectually mature in its understanding of democracy, and it does not lack any philosophical foundations to its movement. However, I disagree with the opposition’s political ideals, be it in their pursuit of democracy or the Islamist pursuit of a theocracy (under the present guise of democracy). The issue isn’t a philosophical deficiency, but the philosophical stance they hold.

To support his point, Hamad gives the United States as an example of a path towards democracy that’s riddled with contradictions:

When Americans called for freedom from British oppression, they did so while maintaining a slave society. And when they declared independence in 1776, the slave population had grown to 500,000, about one-fifth of the new nation’s residents.

This contradiction does not parallel the Kuwaiti opposition in the least. The liberals are afraid of a democratic system that hands over authority to the majority, without any safeguards for individual rights and personal freedoms. Doing so could deal a strong blow to the freedoms we currently enjoy. The US demand for greater liberties meant that the majority of the population was able to secure their freedoms, but the slave population was, unfortunately, unaffected by the newly acquired political liberties.

Even then, the issue of emancipating slaves was debated, and measures to free slaves were being taken by the founding fathers of America. It was a step in the right direction, which cannot be said about supporting the Kuwaiti opposition.

The Path Forward

Hamad tries to alleviate liberal concerns about Islamist rule by suggesting that it could very well be the experience society needs to go through in order to recognize the value liberalism has to offer, when contrasted with the hideous experience under a theocratic regime:

But what if the last thing we want to happen – Islamists coming into power – turns out to be the one thing we need to happen?

It is sensible to learn from past mistakes, but a disaster to intentionally make new ones for the learning experience. One does not enter a bad relationship knowingly for the opportunity that it might teach him a few lessons. There’s a difference between looking back and looking forward, and we should never confuse the two.

History offers ample evidence that demonstrates the horrors of theocratic rule. If people will not learn from history, then they will repeat the same mistakes again and again, without ever learning. And if modern day theocracies (The Islamic Republic of Iran, Afghanistan under Taliban rule, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the budding theocracy in Egypt) aren’t enough of a deterrent from theocracy, then will a brush with theocracy in Kuwait help enlighten the masses to its evils?

This is an unrealistic hope, especially since theocrats have the tendency to “blame the practitioner and not the practice”: It’s not that theocracy has failed over and over, it’s the implementation of it. So why don’t we try it out again in a better way?

The opposition is right in highlighting the dangers of autocratic rule, but the solution isn’t democracy.

The solution is constitutional reforms that offer explicit safeguards of individual rights and personal freedoms, without the vague references to Sharia law (that can be interpreted in any Islamist direction), or autocratic authorities that turn rights under the rule of law into privileges under the rule of man.

To win liberal support and to achieve a liberal society that values rights and freedoms, the opposition needs to shift its focus from establishing a democracy to protecting individual rights, without resorting to pragmatic alliances with theocrats eager to use democracy as a means to theocracy.

I would urge you to question your political assumptions about democracy and the Kuwaiti opposition before looking to respond to the points presented. After you do that, please share your own thoughts so I can have an opportunity to question my own assumptions.

Hasan Is Wrong – Religion Is Not Rational

In a recent online group discussion, an atheist friend of mine accused “religion” of being irrational. I made an attempt to explain that while world religions may not be consistently rational, there are religious individuals and denominations who value reason and science.

A Muslim friend responded with a link to an article Mehdi Hasan, a political journalist, wrote after interviewing Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and author of the book The God Delusion (among other books that promote science and debunk religion).

I’m not personally interested in what others believe, as much as I’m interested in why they believe in what they believe, and how they argue for it. Mehdi Hasan’s article is a clear case of confirmation bias and an attempt to defend one’s beliefs regardless of the soundness of one’s arguments. ¬†Things go horribly wrong when we value beliefs over truth and defend faith against facts.

I would like to analyze Mehdi’s article and clearly demonstrate where it falls apart. This is an exercise in critical thinking and my personal contribution to tackling common misconceptions about reason, science and religion.

Mehdi Hasan’s article:¬†Dawkins Is Wrong – Religion Is Rational (you can see what inspired the title of this post)

The interview with Dawkins, which I will occasionally reference: Dawkins On Religion

I urge you to read Mehdi Hasan’s short article before reading this analysis, and the 50 minute interview is a joy to watch.

Let’s begin…

The Title – “Religion Is Rational”

The question “is religion a force for good or evil?” is so ridiculous that I’m surprised it’s still being asked and answered. It leads religious individuals to become defensive and nonreligious individuals to become aggressive, while each is attempting to make an assertion one way or the other.

Mehdi Hasan made a wild claim in the title of his article – that religion is rational – in response to such simplistic questions. The claim is, of course, false. Religion refers to contradictory beliefs, values, rituals and behaviors that we cannot make such sweeping assertions. Unless we redefine the meanings of religion and rationality.

When it comes to tackling a complex concept such as religion, it’s important that we¬†deconstruct it and address the different factors that make it up. Religious individuals do not understand or experience religion in the same way that nonreligious individuals do. While the nonreligious may point out the flaws in religion from the outside looking in, the religious would hold up the benefits they experience on the inside, looking out.

Even individuals living within the same religious community can have different experiences of “religion”. The same aspect can be viewed in completely opposite ways. The sense of community that religion offers can be positive in offering social support, or negative in cultivating conformity. This leads to the need for a “second-order” deconstruction of the concept of “community” within the broader concept of “religion”.

Many arguments over religion are completely fruitless because they don’t employ deconstruction and the two sides end up arguing about completely different concepts.

To his credit, Dawkins constantly tried to deconstruct aspects of religion throughout the interview with Mehdi Hasan. He made several distinctions: between religion and faith, different kinds of god, religion and religious individuals, different religious beliefs, etc. Recognizing different beliefs, interpretations and values within religion helps gain a better understanding of the subject.

When the answer is either: religion is rational or irrational, then it’s no surprise how the religious (and nonreligious) would answer the question.

My point is: the question is wrong, and so are both answers to it.

Religion is not rational, as there are no guarantees for rationality from all religions. But there are rational streaks within religious communities, and some religions (or religious denominations) advocate the use of reason. We cannot dump dogmatists and rationalists in the same category of irrationality, even if the latter is not consistently rational.

We must also make the distinction between rationality based on human knowledge and experience (i.e. a belief compatible with reality as we know it) and rationality that uses a religious worldview as a benchmark (i.e. logical consistency¬†within¬†a religious belief system). Dawkins would dismiss the belief that “Muhammad went to heaven on a winged horse” because there is no evidence ¬†to support the possibility of such a remarkable feat, whereas Mehdi Hasan would see it as a break in the natural order of the universe, which God has created (and maintains) in the first place.

The point isn’t simply whether religious beliefs are consistent with each other, but whether they are rational, given the benchmark of human observation. This is a crucial point religious individuals need to address and the nonreligious are justified in demanding.

Put another way: we experience life and the universe in a very different way to what is described in religious scripture. We do not witness miracles, angels or jinn in the real world, so what makes us convinced that they do exist?

This brings us to the issue of faith…

Defining Faith

Mehdi Hasan doesn’t define what faith is, but gives his opinion on what it isn’t:

Faith, in the disdainful eyes of the atheist, is irredeemably irrational; to have faith, as Dawkins put it to me, is to have “belief in something without evidence”. This, however, is sheer nonsense.

He deconstructs the concept of faith by making the distinction between evidence and proof, without defining those either:

In trying to disparage ‘faith’, Dawkins and his allies constantly confuse ‘evidence’ with ‘proof’; those of us who believe in God do so without proof but not without evidence.

The only attempt at a definition he offers is a quote:

Alister McGrath has observed: “Our beliefs may be shown to be¬†justifiable, without thereby demonstrating that they are¬†proven.”

This doesn’t seem to support the point he is making. In fact, it offers strong support to the position Dawkins took during the interview, where he accepted the possibility of the multiverse hypothesis, while dismissing the belief in God, when both lack observable evidence to support them: the multiverse hypothesis is justifiable, given what we know about the universe, but it is not proven to be true. It remains a hypothesis, and not an established scientific theory.

Mehdi Hasan isn’t simply arguing that God’s existence is¬†justifiable, but that there’s evidence to support it, and that belief in God is not based on faith, as Dawkins defined it.

However, it’s important to acknowledge the merit of how Dawkins defined faith:

Dawkins never claimed that all religious individuals believe in God on faith. In fact, he seems to find the deistic belief in God reasonable (i.e. the belief in a creator arrived at with reason, not through revelation). But Mehdi Hasan cannot claim that “those of us who believe in God” all do so based on evidence, and not blind faith. Some religions praise “belief without evidence” (faith, according to Dawkins) as a mark of piety and trust in God. This is a religious attitude that springs up in the adherents of all the world religions, no matter how much its scripture praises reason, science and independent thought.

I once approached a Muslim student at a British university after hearing him lead a Koran study circle. He talked about the story of the “people of the cave” mentioned in the Koran, who are said to have slept for over 300 years. I said that the Koran mentions the position of the sun as it passed the cave.¬†“Could this be referring to the relationship between space and time, which would explain why time may have been ‘suspended’ for them, to have lived for so long?”¬†I asked, making a desperate (and genuine) attempt to bridge the gap between scripture and science.

He smiled and said:

“It could be. But the best form of¬†eman [belief, faith or conviction] is one that’s not based on evidence.”

Again, to claim that religious individuals are all rational is false, and a simplistic answer to a simplistic question.

The “Evidence”

Mehdi Hasan presents three arguments to support the idea that religion is rational. But before we look at them, it’s worth noting how atheists and Dawkins are implicitly represented in the article and the assumptions Mehdi makes about their intentions. He says:¬†“in the¬†disdainful eyes of the atheist”… “trying to¬†disparage ‘faith'”… “atheists who¬†harangue us theists”…

All these expressions imply hostility and dismiss the possibility that atheists are genuine in their pursuit of truth, and don’t simply intend to refute theistic claims. While there is a great deal of hostility expressed by atheists towards the religious (you have only to read some of the comments on the article and interview to see this), there are many instances where a request for evidence is interpreted as hostile, simply because the religious have to defend their beliefs. But this defense isn’t against aggression. It’s the support needed to rationally justify a belief in public.

Mehdi also asks:

Are we seriously expected to believe that the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots?

During the interview Dawkins made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t pass any judgment on the intelligence of the thinkers who believe in God.

From the interview (18:53-19:21):

Mehdi Hasan: Are all people who hold beliefs in god and in miracles and the supernatural: Do you regard them all as intellectually inferior to you?

Richard Dawkins: I regard those beliefs as intellectual nonsense. I don’t regard the individuals as intellectually inferior to me because many of them palpably are not. If you go back in history, then all bets are off. Because‚Ķ¬†it’s not at all surprising that, before Darwin, people believed in all kinds of things, which they wouldn’t believe in now.

Therefore, Mehdi isn’t expected to believe – and nobody accused – the philosophers mentioned to be unthinking, irrational idiots. Mehdi made an appeal to the authority of these figures in making a point, as well as misrepresented Dawkins’ point of view.

The arguments presented by Mehdi Hasan are:

1) Absence Of Evidence

First, it may be a tired clich√© but it is nonetheless correct: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic.

This is a bizarre argument. It becomes even more problematic when it’s sprinkled with terms like “prove” and “faith” when Mehdi has failed to define what they mean to him from the outset. If he can’t prove God’s existence, then what’s the point he’s trying to make in the article? If the only “non-faith-based” position is being agnostic, does his belief in God rest on faith? Then how can religion be rational, as he claims?

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but where is the evidence? It seems odd to say: “I believe in God because there is no evidence to suggest He¬†doesn’t exist.” Evidence is needed to prove a thing exists. No evidence is required to prove its absence. Mehdi has made the assertion that God exists. Atheists don’t need to present any evidence that He doesn’t.

Rather than presenting an argument in support of his belief, Mehdi Hasan dodged the question with this line of reasoning.

Let’s move on to the next argument…

2) Not Everything Can Be Proven

Second, there are plenty of things that cannot be scientifically tested or proven but that we believe to be true, reasonable, obvious even. Which of these four pretty uncontroversial statements is scientifically testable? 1) Your spouse loves you. 2) The Taj Mahal is beautiful. 3) There are conscious minds other than your own. 4) The Nazis were evil.

This isn’t just about metaphysics, aesthetics or ethics…

Yet another attempt to dodge the question. Even if science is riddled with assertions that haven’t been tested or proven, this does not mean that it’s¬†rational to believe in things that cannot be proven, or expect others to accept them as truth when no valid reason or evidence is presented.

It’s important to note that science has a scope. It doesn’t deal with the nature of reality (metaphysics), ethics or aesthetics. These fall into the scope of philosophy. Just because science has limits does not mean that it does not function well for the purpose it serves.

Science deals with the study of nature, which is why it makes no assertions in favor of the supernatural. In other words, science cannot (or at least hasn’t) proven the existence of the supernatural. What it has repeatedly demonstrated is that phenomena that used to be attributed to the supernatural have natural explanations. Therefore, science has a bias in favor of the natural, and resists supernatural explanations to fill the gaps in human knowledge.

This bias is understandable. It helps pave the way for further knowledge by admitting our present ignorance, rather than jump to conclusions to arrive at superficial certainties.

Old maps used to mark unchartered territories with “here be dragons” to compensate for their ignorance. Science favors the “we don’t know yet” label.

Science itself is permeated with unproven (and unprovable) theories. Take the so-called multiverse hypothesis.

Unproven, as well as unprovable theories, are part of the scientific method. But what’s great about science is that it draws the distinction between established theories and questionable ones. It boils down to the evidence: the raw data in support of the theory and the existence of anomalies that may undermine the theory.

Theories are essential to making sense of data. They house a large number of observations and seek to explain the patterns and commonalities between them. Without theories there would be too much data and no way of organizing it. Therefore, theories (unproven or proven) are an integral part of the scientific method. The multiverse hypothesis is only a hypothesis. It’s an embryonic attempt at understanding the cosmos with natural explanations, without appealing to the supernatural for an answer.

3) Logical Arguments For God’s Existence

Third, there are plenty of good, rational and evidence-based arguments for God. You don’t have to agree with them, but it is intellectually dishonest to claim that they, too, like God, don’t exist.

This part of the article reads to me like a brain dump of all rationally-sounding arguments that attempt to prove God’s existence.

The first is the Kalam cosmological argument:

1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2) The universe began to exist.
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Whether you agree with it or not, it is a valid deductive argument, a genuine appeal to reason and logic.

Logical arguments depend on the consistency between the statements presented, as well as their factual truth. While there may not be any dispute over the first statement, the second is certainly questionable. Whether the universe began or not, and the nature of the universe as a whole are matters we’re still grappling with. We can’t observe the origin of the universe, and it’s quite difficult to simulate it in a lab.

What we’re certain of is that the universe exists. How (and if) it came to be we do not yet know. We cannot simply make the assumption that the universe must have a beginning. The impossibility of infinite regress back in time lends support to this assertion, but is it the only possible explanation to the origin of the universe?

And if it does successfully prove the existence of a creator, how does it fit in to the concept of God as explained by the world religions?

What’s more, if the universe must have a beginning, what prevents the same line of reasoning to apply to its creator?

Remember, the late Antony Flew, the atheist philosopher who embraced God in 2004, did so after coming to the conclusion that ‘there had to be “an intelligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical universe”.’ To pretend that Flew, of all people, arrived at such a belief blindly, without thinking it through, ‘without evidence’, is plain silly.

Again, nobody is accusing Antony Flew of blind belief, but you certainly have to weigh the evidence and arguments he presents to determine whether his approach is a rational one or not. Conversion stories, regardless of the convert’s qualifications, are not considered evidence on their own. I would be interested to know why Mehdi Hasan doesn’t embrace the Christian doctrine Flew concludes to be the most logical.

These days, the vast majority of my coreligionists see Darwin as the devil.

Yet this is a new phenomenon.¬†Many of Islamic history’s greatest scholars and thinkers were evolutionists…

It’s not a new phenomenon in the least. Many Islamic scholars who are revered today were accused of blasphemy in their time. The problem is in the dogmatic attitude towards religion, which has always existed in every religious community, and continues to do so today.

There are many Muslims who live by the storyline that Islam and theism are under attack by ungodly heathens who seek to extinguish the light of faith. They see Darwin’s work as being part of this conspiracy, rather than a genuine attempt to understand the origin of life, given what we can understand from the evidence we have.

There is, indeed, nothing in the Quran that prevents Muslims from embracing evolution. In his recent book Reading the Quran, the Muslim commentator Ziauddin Sardar notes how creation is presented “as a dynamic, ongoing phenomenon that is constantly evolving and changing”. Sardar points to verse 14 of chapter 71, where we are specifically asked to reflect on the fact that “He has created you stage by stage”.

The creation story of Adam reduces the origin of man to an event, not a process. This conflicts with the theory of evolution, which is why many Muslims regard Darwin as the devil. The “stage by stage” verse could be in reference to the development of the fetus, and not the gradual development of the human race.

Rationally-inclined Muslims would not dismiss evolution because it conflicts with their religious beliefs. Instead, they would seek to reconcile the two. To dismiss evolution simply because it conflicts with one’s religious beliefs is dogmatism, not rationality.

Yet the theory of evolution, whether Muslims accept it or not, doesn’t explain the origins of the universe, the laws of science or our objective moral values. In short, most of us who believe in God do so not because we are irrational, incurious or immature but because He is the best answer to the question posed by Leibniz more than 300 years ago: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Nobody has made the claim that the theory of evolution explains the origin of the universe (which is beyond the scope of the theory), or offers moral guidance. In fact, Dawkins did make it clear during the Q&A session at the end of the interview that he doesn’t depend on the theory of evolution for morality¬†(Interview segment: 41:57-42:08):

I’m a passionate Darwinian when it comes to explaining the way life is. I’m a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to organizing our lives.

The article ends without offering any real evidence in support of God’s existence, and makes loads of assumptions about evolution and how much the belief in God and religion can answer for. While a supernatural explanation for the origin of the universe can be put forward, it does not mean that it explains the laws of science or offers any valid moral values. If anything, immoral values and atrocious crimes have been justified in the name of religion and with the excuse: “because God says so.”

If we are honest with ourselves, “most of us who believe in God” do so because of a cultural default, followed by intellectual rationalizations to make our beliefs sound like universal truths.

For critical thinkers, the question isn’t whether you believe in God or not, but why do you believe in His existence? And would you be willing to change your beliefs and your entire belief system if the evidence proves your religious beliefs to be untrue?

We must always value truth over beliefs, and be willing to abandon the latter to arrive at the former.

Democracy As A Stepping Stone To Dictatorship

In a¬†recent article in The Guardian, former Kuwaiti MP Musallam Al-Barrak talked of the threat Kuwait’s¬†democracy¬†is facing given the autocratic decrees of Kuwait’s Emir, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. Al-Barrak’s article seems to suggest that he’s a champion of¬†democracy¬†and hopes to see power in the hands of the people.

I couldn’t help but think that half the story is a completely different story. Let’s look at the real reasons why Musallam Al-Barrak is opposed to the Emir’s recent decree:

On 19 October, while Kuwait’s parliament was dissolved, the Emir issued an emergency decree that changed the election process in Kuwait. Each voter will be able to elect a single candidate, instead of four. This would ensure that political parties would not be able to form coalitions that secure a majority for them in the national assembly, while drowning out the voices of the minorities of Kuwait.

In other words, the decree would ensure a more representative national assembly. This doesn’t bode well for Al-Barrak, who was part of the 2012 majority bloc in the national assembly. What measures did the majority bloc take in promoting¬†democracy, upholding Kuwait’s constitution and protecting the rights of individuals?

A day after swearing an oath to abide by the constitution, the majority bloc issued a proposal to amend the second article of the constitution, so that the source of legislation in Kuwait does not consider Sharia law as one of the sources of legislation, but the only source.

Former MP Osama Al-Munawer, a member of the majority bloc in 2012, expressed his desire to have all churches in Kuwait demolished, since Kuwait should be considered an Islamic state that does not tolerate the practice of other religions within its borders. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a¬†democracy¬†I’d like to live in.

While Al-Barrak took snippets of the constitution to protect his right to public assembly and free speech, he was one of the MPs that supported a tougher sentence on those who insult God and the Prophet in Kuwait. A longer prison sentence, perhaps? No.¬†The death penalty. That’s right. If you insult the Prophet, then you deserve to be killed under the law of Kuwait.

Unfortunately, the law was passed through the parliament. Fortunately, it was blocked by the Emir.

If the decision is between an unbridled¬†democracy¬†that aims for fewer freedoms and autocratic rule that seeks to protect those freedoms, then I will personally side with the latter. Not because I oppose¬†democracy, but because I do not believe basic rights are up for a vote. The Emir’s recent decisions have been in favor of individual rights, even if they were not popular in the 2012 parliament.

I applaud Musallam Al-Barrak for all his efforts in trying to expose government corruption, but the Emir’s emergency decree ensures a better representation of Kuwait’s population, without handing the country over to conservatives and Islamists that seek to limit individual freedoms.

Let’s not forget that the Emir’s decree came at a time when there was no parliament to contest his decision, but the upcoming parliament can overturn the new voting system, should it see it as being less¬†democratic. Rather than call for a boycott, Al-Barrak could have participated in the elections and had a chance to speak his mind within the¬†democratic¬†system of Kuwait, rather than seek to undermine it entirely.

How Motivational Quotes Work

A couple of days ago I posted my first comic on 9gag.

I’m happy to say that it managed to reach the 9gag Hot page (now with over 26,800 likes, and counting).

How Motivational Quotes Work

Link.

For those not familiar with 9gag, I didn’t draw the comic myself, but wrote the text of the comic. A lot of the comics on 9gag use the same comic templates. The fun part is coming up with different scenarios for the same comic. ūüôā

Poem For A Geek Friend

I wrote the poem below for a geek friend a long, long time ago in the comments section of another friend’s blog.

He was celebrating the single geek life through poetry, so I thought I’d respond with a poem.

I see you have your way with words,
That will sure pay handsome rewards.
And earn you the prize you seek to possess:
A wife, a girlfriend, or a mistress. ;)

But it seems you’re not after a date
All you wish for is: a software update
Or when you’re down and feeling bored
Reach out to fiddle with the motherboard!

That’s the only life set out for you
With your trusty keyboard and your CPU
You shouldn’t feel lonely or even lament
At least you can leave a blog comment!

Originally posted here.

The Muslim Dark Ages

Yesterday, the Kuwaiti Parliament approved tougher blasphemy laws in Kuwait, calling for the execution of Muslims who insult God, the Koran, the prophets, as well as the wives of Prophet Muhammad. It also calls for the execution of those claiming to be prophets or messengers from God.

There’s a lot to say about how ridiculous blasphemy laws are, the open-ended definition of “insult”, the hypocrisy that comes packaged with such laws, and the ever widening gap between classical Islam and Islamist dogma (contrary to whatever claims Islamists make of representing true Islam). But let’s begin with an important Islamic teaching…

In a popular saying of Prophet Muhammad (known as a hadith, or prophetic narration), the prophet said to his followers: “You will follow in the footsteps of those who came before you [the Jews and the Christians], inch by inch and cubit by cubit. Even if they were to enter a lizard hole, you will follow them.”

This narration (along with others with a similar message) have been used by Islamists to resist Western influences on Muslim communities. For example, when Kuwait wanted to change the weekend from Thursday-Friday to Friday-Saturday Islamist MPs opposed the change, since Saturday is regarded as the Sabbath day by Jews, and the Muslims ought not to imitate them in regarding Saturday a day of rest.

What the Islamists fail to realize is that their dogmatic attitude to religion is a clear replica of the prevalent Christian attitude during the Dark Ages. Blasphemy laws exist in Europe as a product of the Dark Ages (but they have been amended or suspended since Europe recognized the value of human life over religious dogma).

For example, the belief in the Trinity (that God exists in the three persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) was the the orthodox Christian view, whereas the unitarian belief proposed by Arius (which is very similar to the Muslim conception of God, the One) was deemed heretical and punishable by…

… death!

Here is the edict by Emperor Constantine regarding Arian doctrine (from the Wikipedia page on Arianism):

“In addition, if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offence, he shall be submitted for capital punishment…..”

This is an extremely dangerous development within the Muslim world, and we can gauge the direction the Muslim world is heading in by reading about the Christian experience with religious fanaticism in political office.

There’s a lot more to say about Islamists and the dangers they pose to human life and happiness, but I’ll keep that for other posts.

It’s important, however, that those who oppose blasphemy laws and the strangling of freedoms to speak out against Islamists and to present reasoned arguments against them.

So I urge you to share this article and to get involved in discussions about matters related to the Islamization of laws and restrictions on political freedoms.

Your life and freedom depend on it.

Flying Elephants

Apologies in advance for the lame joke that follows. But there’s a lesson behind the lameness. I promise.

Under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein, a science teacher was teaching her 1st grade class about animals.

Student: “Miss, I was told that elephants fly.”

Teacher: “No, elephants don’t fly. Who’s the idiot that told you that?”

Student: “Saddam Hussain says they fly.”

Teacher: “Oh, well… they do fly, but not very high.”

Flying elephants are the opinions we hold because we don’t dare challenge the views of an authority figure. They are very common in religious and political debates.

You may have seen a person argue aggressively to prove a point, but when he realizes that his political or religious leadership hold a different view, he’ll adjust his own views to be more compatible with theirs, even if all the evidence he has conflicts with their conclusions.

You may strongly oppose capital punishment, but believe in exceptional cases when you find out your religion advocates it.

You may agree with a government policy, but back down when you realize your political party opposes it.

There are many reasons for why someone may believe in flying elephants. Fear, political interest and self-doubt are the most common.

And because elephants don’t fly, we have to rationalize the existence of flying elephants, or make them slightly more plausible to us and others. The don’t fly high is more believable than saying they soar like eagles.

To make sure you don’t end up believing in flying elephants, ask yourself: would my views about this issue change if I knew Important Figure X held an opposing view? Would I seek to reconcile the two views, or would I only consider the facts available to me?

Pointless Pronouns

Here’s an exercise for you.

A group in the United States wants to organize a protest in support of the Palestinian people. However, they weren’t given permission to hold their protest.

Someone comments: “Let them hold their protest. Otherwise they might fly planes into buildings.”

What does the comment mean? Who and what is it referring to?

Give it a bit of thought, then read on.

You can tell a lot about the commenter’s thinking and assumptions from that simple remark.

The reference is to 9/11. Although “fly planes into buildings” doesn’t make any reference to 9/11, it’s clear from the context.

The assumption is that the group wanting to protest are Muslims, and they might resort to using a similar act of aggression if their demand to hold their protest isn’t met.

You probably didn’t need a lot of time to understand the comment and the commenter’s point of view.

I recently read a similar comment on Twitter and replied to the writer about it. The context was different, but the implications of the comment were similar. I’m going to translate the following discussion I had to the example I gave above:

Me: “I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate people accusing your religious group for the crimes of a few of them, so why generalize about Muslims?”

Commenter: “I didn’t even mention Muslims. You figured it out by yourself. So every time someone mentions flying planes into buildings, are they referring to Muslims?”

My biggest problem with the commenter’s response is that he had a specific meaning in mind when he posted his original tweet. But because he didn’t explicitly specify who he meant, then the reference is open. It’s a pointless pronoun that doesn’t refer to any particular group and could mean whatever the recipient wants it to mean.

Commenter: “You are free to understand what you believe. Yet we dont want any planes flying into buildings.”

That’s not how language works. Language doesn’t exist in a separate realm free of context. Language refers to things in the real world (or specific concepts, with a clear definitions), and the meaning and scope of the words we use are shaped by their context. You should draw meaning from the context, provided that it’s clear.

In fact, the commenter’s responses continued to support the meaning I understood. “You figured it out by yourself” means that my understanding was correct, even though he didn’t make the actual reference to Muslims.

The commenter was irritated not because I misunderstood what he meant, but because I exposed it.

Shady language and fuzzy thinking doesn’t help anybody. Not the speaker, nor the listeners.