I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is Religion to Blame?

Anyone who's read my blog knows I'm a godless heathen who never misses an opportunity to make fun of religion. This week, Pat Robertson popped up to provide an easy target with his inane assertion that the Haitian earthquake was God's little smack-down for a pact made the the devil a couple of hundred years ago. There's something of a battered-woman syndrome in comments like this. Presumably, Robertson really believes that the world is run by an all powerful god who steers the course of hurricanes and pushes the continental plates together to make the earth tremble. And, he also believes that god is a kind, loving, and just entity who wants only what's good for us. So, when a hurricane or an earthquake kills thousands of people, he can't simply shrug and say, "Well, it was just random. Bad things happen for no reason at all." This would conflict with his vision of God, the all powerful driver of the world. Nor can he say, "Maybe God is cold and cruel," since that conflicts with the idea that God is love, love, love. So, instead, he falls back to the only option left: They had it coming. God loves us, but he has to hit us with earthquakes and floods and drought and plague and tornadoes and blizzards and mudslides and locust and forest fires because we've been such disappointments. Can't you see it's our fault? He only hits us because he loves us.

What a sick puppy.

With this incident fresh in my mind, a few days ago I was asked the question: "Don't you believe religion causes more evil in the world than good?"

It may surprise my readers to discover that my answer was "No." If I may borrow a little NRA logic, religion doesn't cause evil, people do. It's true that you can look at human evil throughout history and find it justified by religion. Slavery, the oppression of women, wars--all are frequently justified by appeals to religion. But, while I see a correlation, I don't see direct cause. Something like 98% of the world professes a belief in some form of religion. It seems statistically probable that 98% of the evil done in the world is therefore going to be done by people who have religious views. But, it's not like places that have shrugged off religion turn into heaven on earth. Homosexuals may feel as if religion is to blame for them being treated as second class citizens, but it's not as if Cuba, with its state sanctioned atheism, is some bastion of gay rights. The Soviet Union worked hard to suppress religion, but if you were gay, you were going to be tossed in the Gulag right next to the Mormon missionary. I've written before that people can be good without god, but it's equally true that people can be jerks without god. Religion isn't to blame for man's inhumanity to man.

And, if you can't just tally up the evil and ignore the good done in the name of religion. Pat Robertson may be an idiot, telling Haitians that they've earned their suffering. But, his charity, Operation Blessing, is already on the ground in Port-au-Prince, distributing aid sent in by his followers. If you're a Haitian, do you want to punch Robertson in the mouth for his words? Or do you want to give his representatives a hug as they help search the rubble and set up tents to shelter the homeless, and set up kitchens to feed the hungry? If the organization he's set up helps save a thousand lives, or a hundred, or even a dozen, doesn't this outweigh any harm he's done by being an asshole? No one got killed, or even wounded, by his stupidity.

Right now, atheists have no equivalent charitable organizations. There are plenty of secular charities we may donate to (such as my own efforts to raise money for cancer research), but there aren't any large groups of do-gooder atheists organized along the lines of, say, the Salvation Army. When disaster strikes, I can't send old clothes and some canned food to the League of Atheists for distribution. Some people would say that this points to the selfish nature of atheists. I suspect it has more to do with the relative newness of open atheism. The social stigma of being Godless was pretty powerful for most of American history. But, if we are serious about our ideas being superior to religion, then we really don't have an excuse but to start thinking now about what kinds of organizations we are going to need to form to offer alternatives to things like Operation Blessing. Most atheists I know are pretty decent, charitable people. We just aren't all that organized. If we're ever to evolve from our present minority status, its time that we started thinking like a majority, and building the institutions we need to alleviate suffering in the world.

We're the ones who know that God doesn't cause natural disasters, and isn't there to help the people who suffer in the aftermath. Doesn't that give us a responsibility to act?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Tortured Logic

Despite my vow last year to cut back on my news consumption, I fear I'm in deeper than ever, listening to talk radio and NPR non-stop while I'm driving, reading a dozen news sites. The idea that I'm actually learning anything new from all this media consumption is debatable. Instead, I feel even more than ever that the same debates just keep being rehashed, with the left and right moving ever farther apart.

The latest "haven't we talked about this before?" feeling has been triggered by the right wing reviving the argument that torture should be a preferred method of interrogation for terror suspects. The underwear bomber, it's argued, should have been tortured right there on the tarmac until he spilled the beans on who had given him the explosives, who else had trained with him, etc. It's outrageous, some on the right say, that he was read his rights and placed in civilian custody instead of being swept off immediately to Guantanamo.

The argument from the left seems to be: Let's not sink to their level. We should be above using torture on anyone. If we want to set an example to the rest of the world, we have to vigorously adhere to civil rights, even if our enemy does not.

The argument on the right boils down to: Torture saves lives, sometimes, maybe. Imagine that a nuclear bomb was about to go off, and you knew it was going to go off soon, and you knew the man you had just captured knew exactly where and when. Torture was going to be the only way to get the information out of him. Not torturing was going to be the same as setting off the bomb yourself, choosing to let thousands of innocents die all in the name of some namby-pamby sense of fairness.

The people on the right have a point, in some ways. In cases of clear and present danger, we expect our authorities to use violence to protect us. For instance, if a man is on a rooftop with a rifle firing randomly into a crowd, there's an obvious understanding that a cop, or a private citizen for that matter, has every right to shoot the bastard. You have to be a pretty nutty pacifist to say that it's always wrong for police to use violence, and you should just let the man keep shooting until he's out of ammo, then arrest him peacefully. And, if you accept that it's okay to use violence to stop an unfolding crime, why not use it stop a crime that might be unfolding tomorrow, or the next day?

Where the argument on the right falls apart, however, is that in order to justify torture, you would have to have so much information already available to you that the torture wouldn't be needed. In the nuke scenario, you'd have to know that they had the weapon, you'd have to know roughly where it was at and when it was going to be used, and you'd have to be certain that the man you had in your custody had the last bits of information you needed. But, it seems like the only way you'd ever know if the man had the last bits of information you needed would be to already know that information. Otherwise, you're just torturing in order to fish for information your victim might not possess. So, I suppose that the argument would be that torture would be okay if you're seventy percent certain that the man you have in your custody has information you urgently need that can only be obtained by torture. But, again, seventy percent certainty seems like a high bar. If we'd been seventy percent certain the underwear bomber was a terrorist, I don't think we'd have let him on the plane. So, to start torturing him the second we have in him custody means we're torturing based on pretty much zero evidence that there's a nuclear bomb about to go off, or another plane about to get blown up, or whether he was acting alone or part of a larger group.

In the real world, to gain any information by torture, you'd have to torture a lot of people who might not have much actual information. Would you torture a ten innocent men to save lives on a plane that may or may not be in danger? A hundred? A thousand?

If our government was always wise and in command of information to the best level possible, and felt that the only way to improve the gathering of information further was through torture, I might be willing to listen more closely to an argument that we should grant authorities this power. But, the underwear bomber case shows that our government isn't wise or in command of information. We can't trust them to manage a no-fly list. We want to grant them the power to pick, at a moment's notice, who to waterboard? And, if it's not at a moment's notice, if we torture after a long review process, then it seems to completely remove the urgency of the need. If it takes a week to review all the data to decide if your captive is a good target for torture, then, obviously, there was no immediate danger.

Anyway, I know my thoughts here won't change any one's mind. It's just something I wanted to get off my chest after listening to two weeks of pro-torture logic that's left me feeling a little queasy.