Why “Euthyphro’s Dilemma” Is Mere Claptrap: How The Qur’an Solves Atheism’s Greatest Argument

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There is a weapon in the arsenal of atheists believed by some advocates of piffle to be so powerful and holy that only the anointed priests of the holy order of balderdash, also known as the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, can deploy it without all matter in the universe collapsing in on itself during a cosmic game of Flapdoodle. Dr. Stephen Hall summarises it thus:

Are things morally right/wrong, good/bad because God says so, or does God say that they are right/wrong, good/bad because God recognises that they are? If the first option is true, then that means that right/wrong are arbitrary. If the latter is true, then we don’t need God to know what is right/wrong, as we can recognize it just as God does. [Hall.S; Humanism, A Very Short Introduction, p.74]

Taking torture as an example, Dr. Stephen Hall, advocate of Humanism, continues:

If the theist says things are morally right or wrong only because God says so, then morality, it turns out, is still arbitrary and relative. Prior to God’s issuing any commands, there is no right or wrong, and thus whatever commands he issues must be morally arbitrary… In response, some theists insist that, as God is himself morally good, he wouldn’t command us to torture innocent people… Had God said torturing the innocent was right, then it would have been. (In that case) God does not make torturing the innocent wrong by virtue of issuing his commands. Such torture would be wrong whatever God commanded. God’s commands are issued, as it were, for informational purposes only… The theist is now acknowledging that torturing the innocent is wrong anyway – it’s objectively wrong – whether or not there exists a God who issues commands. But then atheists and agnostics are free to help themselves to this same objective moral yardstick.

Is this not a veritable victory for atheism? Is this anything less than a splendid scimitar to the jugular of the Divine? A coup d’état so precipitous and dashing that it left you gob-smacked?

Or, maybe it’s just a short-sighted, sanguine argument. Gibberish. Poppycock. Hogwash and claptrapping barney, as my butler (in one of the multiverses) would call it.

Here’s why.

The Qur’an answers Euthyphro’s dilemma in a very simple, understandable way:

And by the soul and its perfection —And He revealed to it what is wrong for it and what is right for it —He indeed truly prospers who purifies it, And he who corrupts it is ruined.
[Qur’an 91:8-11]

In these verses, God sets out what is ‘right’ as what will lead to the attainment of our purpose in life, namely, spiritual purification and what is ‘wrong’ as the opposite. But what is “spiritual purification”? A bit wishy-washy, is it? Not at all. The Qur’an clarifies:

Verily, he truly prospers who purifies himself, And remembers the name of his Lord and offers Prayers. [Qur’an 87:15-16]

Fulfilling the purpose of our life is how the Qur’an determines what is ‘right’, and spiritual purification is the process of deepening and promoting a relationship with our Creator through remembrance of God’s attributes and communication with Him in prayer. Thus, God’s determination of right and wrong is not arbitrary but is related to the objective of our creation. Moreover, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not independent of God, as the argument states, for what is ‘right’ is what will improve our relationship with God. This is a matter dependent on God’s nature for the more we imitate God’s attributes as set out by His revelation and also by the conscience He has provided us, the more we are purified through nearness to Him. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ do not, therefore, exist outside of God either. Thus, the premise of Euthyphro’s dilemma that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are “one of two things,” is flawed. What leads to God is what is related to His Nature and constitutes what is ‘right’, while what leads away from God is ‘wrong’ as it is contrary to His Nature.

The nature of our conscience, according to the Qur’an, testifies to the character and Nature of God. The psychology of humans, in its unadulterated form, is a torch-bearer and a reminder of the Nature of God:

So set thy face to the service of religion as one devoted to God. And follow the nature made by Allah — the nature in which He has created mankind. There is no altering the creation of Allah. That is the right religion. But most men know not. [Qur’an 30:31]

The right religion, God tells us, is the teaching in which the nature of mankind is kept pure and unadulterated, upon the pattern of God’s Nature. This can also be seen by the fact that God is never described in the Qur’an as “good”, termed “Ihsan” in Arabic. Ihsan or “goodness” is only a characteristic of humans. Why? Simply put, if God was described as “good” then Euthyphro’s dilemma would be valid, as “goodness” could then be said to exist outside of God. Instead, it is goodness that is defined by God’s nature: goodness is God – not the other way around. This can be appreciated by the fact that the opening verses of the Qur’an describe God as the one in whom all praiseworthy qualities originate and find their authorship:

All Praise belongs to and returns to Allah, Creator, Developer and Sustainer of all the worlds [Qur’an 1:2].

All praise returning to God means that anything you see, which you deem praiseworthy, is in fact, merely a reflection of God’s attributes. The Prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, echoed this when he described Ihsan or “goodness” in the following manner:

Ihsan is to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you do not achieve this state of devotion, then know at least that Allah sees you. [Sahih Bukhari Vol. 6, Book 60, Hadith 300]

Goodness is therefore to be able to “see God” rather than “seeing goodness”. To see God means to know God’s attributes, to love those attributes and to be motivated to imitate those attributes. Such worship does not simply consist of formulaic prostrating and bowing, but consists of living one’s entire life on the pattern of such praiseworthy qualities. Those who cannot partake of such a high degree of nearness to God, such as to have God’s attributes before the mind’s eye at every moment, can partake of it by remembering that God is aware of them and that they will be held to account for any acts contrary to His nature, also known as “evil deeds”.

Thus, the higher state of “goodness” or Ihsan, is to spontaneously follow God out of love for His attributes, as reflected in one’s own pure conscience. Such a condition is one of total love and obedience and constitutes the active doing of deeds that please God – known as “good deeds”. The lower level is to merely abstain from deeds that run contrary to God’s nature and pleasure, through being aware of one’s accountability to God. Thus, the former consist of positive virtues – the active doing of good, while the latter consists of negative virtues – abstention from evil.

The above phrase of the Prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, is both simple and remarkable insofar as he captures with such brevity the entire panoply of human goodness, while simultaneously drawing attention to the roots of those actions: knowledge and adoration of God’s attributes as the motivator of good deeds; and accountability to God as the means of restraint from evil. In tying goodness or Ihsan to God’s essential nature, he cuts to the heart of Euthyphro’s dilemma, exposing the atheist argument for the bunkum it really is.

 

Note: The present post has been reproduced from the End of Atheism blog. The author is Dr Tahir Nasser @TahirNasser

When chickens come home to roost

The following challenge is doing the rounds on social media:

MUSLIMS, REFUTE THIS ANALYSIS OF FREE WILL IN ISLAM.

My comments are preceded by the word “COMMENT“.

 

Four Premises

  • Allah is omniscient.
  • Nothing happens except by Allah’s will.
  • Allah Himself has free will.
  • Allah cannot make a mistake.

COMMENT: Premise 2 is false. Islam informs us that nothing happens except by Allah’s PERMISSION. Allah does not WILL anyone to commit crimes; however He PERMITS them to do so. This is borne out by the following Qur’anic verse:

“And if thy Lord had so willed, surely, all who are on the earth would have believed together. Wilt thou, then, force men to become believers?” (10:99)*

Forcing people to do things is not Allah’s way.

 

Analysis

1: Because nothing happens except by Allah’s will, all human beings are created only according to Allah’s will.

COMMENT: As pointed out above, everything happens with God’s permission, but that does not imply that God wants everything to be the way it is.

2: Because Allah is omniscient, Allah knows the eventual fate of every person even before the moment of their creation.

COMMENT: This is correct.

3: Because Allah has free will, he has the free will to create or not create any human being he chooses.

COMMENT: This is correct.

4: Therefore, at the moments of creation, Allah is choosing to create some people that he already knows will be saved, and others that he already knows will be condemned to hell.

COMMENT: This is correct, but incomplete. Allah creates people who He knows will CHOOSE to act in a way that will save them, and others that He knows will CHOOSE to act in a way that will lead them to hell.

5: Therefore, since the results of every lifetime are already known even prior to creation, the “test” for salvation is already complete even before the created individual is born.

COMMENT: This is partially correct. The test results are already known to Allah, but knowledge of the results does NOT mean that God is the one producing these results. As for the test being complete, see below.

Q.E.D. Life on earth cannot be a test for salvation. The test is already complete before life on earth takes place.

COMMENT: This is incorrect. God’s knowledge of future events will only be true if the events take place. The test is only complete when all human choices have been made and all future events have happened.

 

Further Analysis

6: If a human being were capable of doing anything to change his fate from the one Allah already determined, then Allah would have made a mistake.

COMMENT: Allah does NOT determine the fate of anyone. They determine their own fate, and are consequently made by God to carry the burden of that self-chosen fate. The question of a “mistake” does not apply.

7: Since Allah cannot make a mistake, a human being cannot do anything to change his fate from the one Allah already determined.

Q.E.D. Human beings cannot have free will.

COMMENT: Incorrect. See above.

 

 Conclusion

  • Life on earth is not a test for salvation. For what is there to test if the results are known ahead of time and there is nothing we can do to change them?
  • Qiyamah, the Islamic Day of Judgment, is a farce. For we are not being judged based on our behaviors, but on Allah’s previous decision.
  • People are not led to Islam because it is superior message or religion, but because Allah decided that they would become Muslims whether they wanted to or not.
  • Since the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived, and who are living today are not Muslim, Allah must have created the vast majority of human beings for the express purpose of condemning them to Jahannam. Therefore the primary purpose of creation must be hell and suffering, not paradise and salvation.

COMMENT: This conclusion is entirely erroneous, due to the false assumption made in premise 2. Certain parameters in life are determined by God, such as the place and date of birth, ethnicity, height, physical abilities, etc., but within these parameters Man creates his own fate. The fact that God already knows what Man will do even before the universe was created, in no way means that God forced Man to make those choices. God sends guidance through His messengers to the whole of mankind. It is entirely their choice whether to arrogantly and viciously oppose it or to accept it with humility and gratitude. Their choices are not forced upon them, and they will have to face the consequences of those choices.

A farmer knowing – even before they hatch – at what time his chickens will come home to roost everyday is not the one making them do it.

 


*This will be 10:100 in translations where the Basmalah (In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Ever-Merciful) is counted as verse number 1.

 

Why Religion Succeeds where Humanism Fails

Why religions succeeds where humanism fails

By Umar Nasser

The original post can be read HERE. Photo credit: Joel Duggan. 

Attempting to critically assess Humanism’s moral teachings is a bit like studying subatomic particles in quantum physics: the closer you look, the less you seem to know. Out of the many moral philosophies on offer, which should we follow? Consequentialism or virtue ethics? Hume or Kant? Is utilitarianism good, bad, or somewhere in between? And who’s setting these rules anyway?

So much for scientific specificity. In the absence of any clear doctrines to critique, one can only go by generalities. Indeed, generalities are the only thing that Humanism can really offer – the more specific we get, the quicker we descend into dissent and disagreements amongst its own ranks. A top-level framework is what is needed, and Humanism’s is essentially to increase well-being and reduce suffering. It’s a position defended explicitly by popular atheist writer Sam Harris, and typifies the Humanist approach. And let’s be honest – it sounds pretty good. Surely every religious person would agree on increasing well-being, and reducing suffering? And if atheists and theists can agree on it, then where’s the need for religion? Can’t we just follow it anyway? Well, let’s find out.

The first and most obvious problem we come across with a principle like this is the issue of utilitarianism. If increasing well-being becomes a numbers game, then surely the heaviest set wins? As such, if I could torture one person and elicit information that could save a hundred, does that make torture OK? Apparently. Similarly, what of situations where an individual feels their well-being increase, without obvious harm being done? Does that make such an action moral? For instance, if someone was inclined towards a consensual incestual relationship, would that be OK? So we are told.

These are common examples, but one is spoiled for choice. Under Humanism’s vague directions, we are left precisely where we began – lost. Take an accountant of the Rothschild’s, the richest family on Earth. Imagine he is one day tempted to steal some money from his luxury-loving employers. Just £1000. He has the skills to easily get away with it. He will certainly benefit from the extra money, and he knows for sure that his billionaire employers will never miss it. He looks at religious morality that tells him such theft is unlawful, and that he will be held responsible. But our accountant is much too enlightened for this religion nonsense. To Humanism he goes! And what does he find? Maximise well-being, minimise suffering. Well he thinks, no-one will suffer, and his well-being will increase. And so it would seem that theft is not only not immoral, but positively a good thing!

Then let’s turn to a rather more sordid affair – literally. A married woman and her tempting lover. She finds herself in a dissatisfied marriage, but feels that it could all pick up if she lets herself indulge just once with her new-found friend. She waits until her husband is out of the country so he can’t find out, but then, her conscience prickles. This is adultery. That can’t be right, can it? As she pauses for thought, Humanism, wonderful Humanism, comes to her aid. She remembers that delightful Stephen Fry video which said we should do what makes us happy. Maximise well-being and reduce suffering…

Well, needless to say, she decides to go and maximise her well-being.

The examples are endless. Imagine the criminal, asked if he committed a crime for which there are no other suspects. Lie with no consequence, or tell the truth with punishment? Or the drug addict who’s considering another high, a unique sensory experience that you can’t get anywhere else. Which version of well-being should he follow, and what compelling reason does Humanism give him to follow one path over the other? The reality is that without a justified model of what well-being is, we’re shooting in the dark. We end up with 7 billion different versions of well-being, everyone’s conception clashing with the other’s, and none being any more right than the next one.

And what then of suffering? Is reducing suffering always good, and increasing suffering always bad? Well, what of the mother who deprives her child of his/her wish, out of knowledge of what is best for it? Is that an immoral act? Clearly not – the child may suffer, but the Mother has an endpoint in mind to which she wants to nurture it. So how could the Mother allow her child to go down a path that she knows is harmful with respect to its ultimate end? Thus suffering is sometimes beneficial.

Indeed, not only is sometimes suffering necessary to be saved from the bad, it can be a prerequisite of achieving the good. Can we develop steadfastness without trials? Can we nurture patience without pestilence? Can we summon courage without obstacles? Ask any toiling student, or sweating body-builder, or weary charity worker – suffering is not only something to be avoided, but often something to be sought after. As such, we do not always suffer when we are suffering.

It should be clear by now, that empty words of well-being and suffering are meaningless without defining a set goal towards which they are directed. Without this, we may well end up doing harm to someone whilst thinking that we are helping them, or imagine that we are saving them from harm when only holding back from them good. Without such a reference point, the villains of the world will seek to justify the suffering they inflict by the well-being they envisage, and Humanism is unable to coherently justify what makes such a vision wrong. Humanism, by failing to offer a set model of what we should be shooting for, allows our morality to become a slave to transient passions and social pressures. We lose sight of our target, before realising we never had one to begin with.

Religion on the other hand gives us a model of well-being, as articulated poignantly in the Qur’an:

Surely, I have not created men high and low, but that they may worship Me.” (Holy Qur’an, 51:57-8)

The Arabic word used here for ‘worship’ means far more than what we are accustomed to from the familiar school assemblies and occasional Church visit. It means to serve, to assimilate the qualities of a Master, to follow in a beloved’s footsteps. Thus, the meaning of this verse is as the Second Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Communitywrote over 50 years ago:

“[One’s purpose] is to subject oneself to a rigorous spiritual discipline, working with all one’s inherent powers and capacities to their fullest scope, in perfect harmony with and in obedience to God’s design, so as to receive the Divine impress and thus be able to manifest in oneself God’s attributes. This is, as stated in the present verse, the great and noble aim and object of man’s creation and this is exactly what worship of God means. The external and internal endowments of human nature give us clearly to understand that of God-given faculties the highest is the one which awakens in man the urge to search after God and incites in him the noble desire to completely submit himself to His will.”

As is clear, the purpose for which we are created is to become Godly, and thus attain the love of our Creator. As imitation truly is the highest form of flattery, we then seek to become a benefit for others in society by mimicking in our own spheres divine beneficence. But that beneficence takes a form, a shape which is in line with the guidance from the Being Who created us. As He knows all our potentials and inner natures, His guidance is the only one qualified to truly tell us what well-being is and how to achieve it. Only He can tell us what suffering we should endure for a higher purpose, and what suffering must be avoided at all costs.

This is the key difference between religious and atheistic morality. Humanism has no basis for calling one thing right and another thing wrong – such concepts are mere illusions according to its prerequisite beliefs. Moreover, it is fundamentally incapable of furnishing us with any useful guidance on how we should live our lives as it has no purpose towards which it can aim. Each person is a law unto themselves, justified in working towards their own idea of well-being and disregarding anyone else’s, whatever the cost may be.

On the other hand, religion calls towards a Divine Creator who has created us with a set purpose in mind. Achieving that aim is what will give us true satisfaction, for we have been constituted as such. We are given models in the Prophets of how to emulate divine qualities and thus win divine love. This is the well-being that religion tells us we were born to seek. It reminds us that within us lurk souls which act as a barometer telling us how well or poorly we are doing this: an in-built navigation system whose call we all hear. The moral and social teachings of God in religious scripture are designed with all our capacities and temperaments in mind, and are thus effective in creating a society which gives everyone the best opportunity to realise their divine purpose – should they so please. Otherwise they are free to ignore their purpose and enjoy the provisions provided to the spiritual and the worldly alike, though by doing so they deprive themselves of the true inner satisfaction which we have all been created to enjoy.

Without such a destination and route laid out by a Creator, we’re completely rudderless, with no lighthouse on the horizon towards which we can sail. Thick waves roll over us, and we are left in darkness no matter the direction in which we turn.

Find out about some of the moral teachings of Islam as explained by the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam over at trueislam.com


 

Follow Umar Nasser on twitter @UmarN91

Atheism’s Moral Compass: Finding Magnetic North

Humanism 2.4

Photo credit: Calsidyrose
With the recent controversy over whether Humanism should be taught in UK RE classes, this belief system is getting more attention than it’s ever done. We thought we’d help out the British Humanist Association with their policy of promoting critical thought around Humanism by publishing a series of posts examining whether Humanism makes, well… any sense at all. Last time we had a look at how Humanism doesn’t give any basis for thinking life is sacred, and this time we examine what atheistic morality really looks like… 

 

By Umar Nasser (original post HERE)

We often hear from atheists and humanists that we don’t need moral guidance from on high because we all have an intrinsic sense of what’s right and wrong. Why complicate things with outdated texts that don’t keep up with modern life? What humanists are less forthcoming about however, is what right and wrong actually mean in an atheistic outlook.

So let’s think about it. What does it mean to say something is right or wrong? Well, the obvious question is: right and wrong in relation to what? These concepts don’t exist by themselves, rather they exist as two poles of the moral compass. But in what directions do these poles point? Where is magnetic north, the landmark to which our compass indicates, from which the south is repulsed? For an atheist, believing that there exists nothing greater than our accidental selves, we are lost on a barren moral landscape, one which stretches out endlessly in every direction, each coordinate equivalent to the last. If one lost traveller’s compass points him in one direction, then there he will go. But if another befuddled journeyer finds himself at criss-crosses with the first, which of them will be able to say that their north is the true north? After all, aren’t all compasses made equal?

Perhaps the first traveller bids goodbye to the other, and trudges on to find a conglomeration of navigators at one point. They tell him that many people’s compasses have found themselves here, so this must be magnetic north. A persuasive argument the traveller thinks, and finds a place of rest nearby. As he surveys the landscape however, he notices that a part of the collective, who were so sure but moments ago that they had found magnetic north, drift off into another direction, citing the authority of their compasses as they do so. Soon others begin to follow, and the crowd splits, conglomerating over time into vastly different areas, each insisting each time that their north is the true north.

A crinkle furrows the traveller’s brow. He flicks open his compass thoughtfully. If different people’s compasses are leading them in different directions then there are only two options: either, the compasses of some are broken, whilst those of others are not; or there is in reality no true magnetic north. It would be impossible for him to tell apart these two possibilities, for the results of both would look the same. His heart was telling him that North must exist, for why else would he find the urge to follow the bidding of his compass so irresistibly strong? The careless south-going travellers must simply have broken their compasses. But equally, if the latter proposition, that there never is nor ever was a real magnetic north was true, then perhaps the whole affair was an illusion from the very beginning. Perhaps the direction of the needle is unfixed, seamlessly shifting with the passage of time, hoodwinking every new generation of moral voyagers.

Such is the dilemma of an atheist. Without any divine character to whose nature our moral compasses point, one immediately stumbles into questions of what is right and what is wrong. Are moral values like fads in fashion, in one season and out the other? If so, then they contain no moral content of any worth. In the scathing words of Socrates: A system of morality that is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception that has nothing sound in it and nothing true.

But if humanist morality is not entirely relative, and there are some things that we can safely say are right, and others which are wrong, then we can simply ask on what basis are such moral pronouncements so surely made? Whose authority is considered the authority on these issues? A deafening silence is sure to follow.

Some humanists will tacitly accept that there is no such thing as true right and wrong, but will seek to convince us that different moral paths can be equally viable, as long as they are followed for reasons other than religious scripture. Like a good boutique, humanism offers a wide range of different ethical systems for the discerning atheist to choose from, but only if one chooses it and doesn’t follow it unthinkingly. In doing so, humanism confuses the journey for the destination, telling us that the plush interior of the humanist limousine more than makes up for its punctured wheels, fuel-less engine, and decapitated driver. It is embarrassingly obvious that if divergent moral paths are equally valid, then they are equally meaningless.

All this points to an even deeper, even more uncomfortable truth about atheistic morality. If right and wrong are unfixed, spinning like a top carelessly flicked by chance and circumstance, then it follows that the very concept of morality is an illusion. This makes sense, given the precepts of atheism. After all, in a godless, accidental world, our moral urges can only be ascribed to unconscious forces embedding advantageous social constructs in our neural circuitry, the tenets of which are persuasive but ultimately artificial. As such, there is no such thing as right and wrong, good and evil. There is no underlying order, purpose, or moral imperative. Things simply are the way they are, and to disobey your moral urges is cause only for social recrimination. A nauseating philosophy indeed, but it is the only one that atheism can truly support.

As such, the endeavour of humanism becomes plainly self-defeating. In promoting atheism it weakens its own basis for prescribing morality, and by prescribing morality it highlights atheism’s inability to explain the universal sense of conscience found in man.

And that is perhaps the most perplexing point. If atheism’s precepts are true, then why do we have such a strong voice screaming inside us that morality is not an illusion, that some things truly are virtuous, and others truly wicked? If our conscience is correct, then there must be something that certain acts are right and wrong in relation to. A committed atheist, however, finds themselves in the unenviable position of being unable to say that there is an ultimate morality to which our moral sensibilities are attuned, and unwilling to say that there isn’t.

A harder rock, and a rockier hard-place, can scarcely be imagined.


You can follow Umar Nasser on twitter here

Do humans have moral obligations? The contradictions of the atheist’s worldview

“Humans are nowhere near as special as we like to think”, writes Melissa Hogenboom on BBC Earth’s “The Big Questions”.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett tells us consciousness is an illusion.

And that’s not the only illusion, apparently. “Free will is an illusion, so what?” scoffs Raj Ragunathan Ph.D.

And why not, after all? Theoretical Physicist, Lawrence Krauss says “I like to say, the universe doesn’t care about our common sense.  We have to force our ideas to conform to the evidence of reality rather than the other way around.  And if reality seems strange, that’s okay.”

In a nutshell, we’re not special, we aren’t really deciding what we want to do, and whatever we do, the universe doesn’t care.

Most living creatures certainly don’t seem to care. So why, as human beings, should WE care?

Consider the following picture:

Tiger trapped

Had the caption shown a man in the clutches of the tiger, and had it read: “This magnificent poacher dies in agony, trapped without hope. A tiger becomes fatter eating body parts”, few would have condemned the tiger. So why do we condemn the poacher – if we aren’t any more special than a tiger and the universe doesn’t care what we do?

Now take a look at this:

Cecil the Lion.JPG

Cecil the Lion 2.JPG

The death of Cecil the Lion caused international outrage and drew widespread condemnation. Had Cecil eaten the hunter alive, not only would the lion not have been criticized, the hunter himself would have been blamed for putting himself in harm’s way.

So, if human beings aren’t as special as many of us think, why do we reserve special treatment for other humans and not for animals?

One more example:

Animals for target practice.JPG

As a cat lover myself, I find this particularly upsetting. But if the universe doesn’t care about our actions, why is using animals for target practice any more reprehensible than what mother cats do themselves: bringing home injured birds and rodents for their kittens to practise their killing skills on?

Why should atheists care about what humans do to these animals? According to their own logic, it shouldn’t matter.

Raj Ragunathan Ph.D. makes a feeble attempt to counter this with “whether or not you act of out of free will in denying yourself the unhealthy-but-tasty cake, you will still have to face the health consequences of eating unhealthy meals. Likewise, whether or not you acted out of free will in committing a crime, you will still have to face the consequences of your misdeeds. So, from a purely consequentialist perspective, it makes sense to sometimes curb your temptations.

But why is making oneself or other people ill, bad? Why is trying to be healthy good?

Likewise, why should punishing a criminal be good, and not doing so, bad?

In a universe where humans have no special moral obligations, if we have to face the consequences, so what? Why should life be any better than death? It shouldn’t matter either way.

Yet, it DOES matter. Whether we are believers or atheists, we prefer life over death, and well-being over suffering. Moreover, there is a universal sense of duty in humans towards other creatures on their planet. Clearly, in our sense of moral responsibility, we are not like animals or plants – and our condemnation of any human behaviour deviating from the norm shows we all know it.

Islam teaches that human beings do indeed have a moral duty towards other creatures, and that because we, unlike animals, have free will, we shall be answerable to God for causing undue suffering to His creatures.

…Eat and drink but exceed not the limits; surely, (God) does not love those who exceed the bounds.” (the Qur’an, 7:32)

The Prophet of Islam cursed those who used animals for target practice, and warned that humans should only kill what they need for food. He said a person who brought water up from a well for a dog dying of thirst had all their sins forgiven. He also said that a person who starved a caged cat to death was bound for hell. He forbade the killing of predators for their skins. He even forbade taking baby birds out of their nest, saying that it would cause distress to their mother. And he cautioned his followers against setting fire to termite mounds.

This teaching is in accordance with human nature, that nature which separates us from all other creatures; the same human nature that compels us to denounce the crimes of the tiger’s poacher, Cecil’s hunter, and those cruel people taking animals to the target range.

 

Are Islamophobes Right – Does Islam Motivate Muslims to Carry out Acts of Terror?

Today’s world is home to horrific attacks of violence, extremism and terror of all kinds. Many people directly blame religion, in particular Islam, for much of the violence carried out in its name. But as a Muslim, I have something to tell you: There is no link between Islam and terrorism.

Don’t get me wrong – there is obviously a strong link between certain Muslims and terrorism, but Islam is a teaching, and therefore has to be judged on what it actually says. So what does the Holy Qur’an say?

Chapter 2 states that you can never force people in matters of religion. Chapter 5 likens the murder of one innocent life to the murder of the whole of mankind. Chapter 60 tells Muslims that they must live in peace with people of other faiths and backgrounds, in ‘kindness and equity. Chapter 109 says that people are free to follow whatever religious beliefs they want.

These verses, and many more, were carried into action by the Prophet Muhammad of Islam. He lived in peace and harmony with people of many different faiths. He hated fighting, and the early Muslims only ever fought in self-defence. As Historian Reverend De Lacy O’Leary wrote:

“The legend of fanatical Muslims sweeping through the world and forcing Islam at the point of the sword upon conquered races, is one of the most fantastically absurd myths that historians have ever repeated.” Islam at the Crossroads

Islam is not to blame. A tiny, tiny fraction of the 1.6bn Muslims may well be. But why blame Islam for extremism, when extremism and terrorism exist in every ideology? Do we blame the Gospels for the IRA? Do we blame Buddhism for Buddhist extremists in Burma? Do we blame atheism for organisations like the League of Militant Atheism that murdered religious people in Soviet Russia? And what about eco-terrorism, or terrorism done by extreme right-wing, left-wing, or separatist groups?

The reality is that even in very recent history, a huge part of global terrorism is not motivated by religious ideologies, but by political and social causes. What this tells us is that extremism isn’t the exclusive domain of any ideology – be it religious or secular. There have always been, and perhaps always will be, people who are willing to trample on the rights of others so as to satisfy their own desires. To justify their horrific actions, they have to appeal to the highest authority in their society. In more religious settings, it will be God who is appealed to. In less religious settings, it will be noble ideals like freedom, democracy and justice. But whatever virtuous ideal is used to justify the murder of innocent lives, we can always discern political, financial, racial, or territorial ambitions at their heart.

So don’t fall for it. Religion doesn’t create terrorism. People create terrorism. In fact, the true teachings of religion are the solution, not the problem. If those who murder in the name of religions ever truly studied their own teachings, they would drop their guns. And if those who promote terrorism indirectly through their own injustices cared about the disorder they would create, then the world would be a very a different place indeed.

“Verily Allah requires you to abide by justice, benevolence, and unconditional grace; and He forbids indecency, manifest evil, and transgression. He admonishes you that you may take heed.” 16:90

The present article has been reproduced from the End of Atheism website. End of Atheism is a direct response to the New Atheist movement that began with Sam Harris’ book ‘End of Faith.’ You can find more material here:  www.endofatheism.com

The Difference between a Divinely-Revealed Economic Programme and a Man-Made one: How Islamic Economic Theory Can Prevent the Looming Global Recession

If they switched to the economic programme revealed in the Qur’an, today’s super-rich in both the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds could still live very comfortable lives, and everyone could be a lot happier. But are they brave enough to want to free themselves from the powerful grip of materialism and greed?

by Syed Muhammad Saleh Nasser & Syed Muhammad Tahir Nasser

Economic inequality is bad news for both rich and poor, as economists are slowly realising. House of Debt, acclaimed by the Financial Times as the “most important economics book” of 2015, by Princeton’s Professors of Economics, Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, demonstrated this well. They showed that the main cause of the 2008 U.S-led global recession was that indebted households pulled back on spending more during an economic downturn than the less indebted, driving businesses big and small into the ground and putting the whole economy into recession. Given that as of December 2015 household debt in the UK stands at a staggering 135% of income, and that U.S household debt is the highest it has been since 2010, we have good reason to worry.

The root of this problem is debt and the consequent wealth-gap between creditors and debtors. Interestingly, Islamic economic theory addresses such inequality and provides real solutions. Did you even know that Islam teaches economics?

Islamic economic theory differs from our current model in two particular ways: firstly, capital taxation, known as zakat (meaning: “that which purifies”) is advocated over income taxation, and secondly, interest is prohibited. In truth, these two mechanisms go hand in hand. Here’s how.

There are two things in an economy: 1) money; 2) goods (like ice cream) and services (like launderettes). The value of money is only in its ability to obtain goods/services. Beyond this, it has no value in and of itself. This is the basic premise of money and the basic premise of Islamic finance. It is this principle that is violated by interest.  How so?

Let’s take a society comprised only of 100 bottles and £100. 1 bottle = 1 pound. If the number of bottles increases by 50 but the amount of money in society increases by £200, then we will have 150 bottles and £300. Now 1 bottle = £2. The value of each bottle has gone up but the value of £1 has gone down. Now £1 only gets you half a bottle, whereas before you could get a whole bottle. This is called Inflation and occurs when the amount of money in society rises quicker than the goods/services. This process results in 1) goods/services getting more expensive and 2) money becoming relatively devalued.

Interest is the key driver of inflation. This is because interest results in money multiplying itself without any increase in goods/services. An individual with £100,000 in the bank gets an increase on his savings of £2000-£3000/year at an interest rate of 2-3%. His money has grown without any commensurate increase in the goods/services of society at all. This is the key driver of inflation: as the money of the rich grows exponentially and since sale is always to the highest bidder, the price of goods/services increases exponentially too.

The key to understanding how inflation drives wealth inequality in society is to understand that the rich live on their assets (acquired goods/services) through the generation of money via interest and inflation, not on their income. On the other hand, the poor live on their income, as they don’t have assets to any great extent. As inflation pushes the value of assets up while devaluing cash, the rich who hold assets get richer, while the poor, who live on cash from their incomes, have rising interest-driven debts to pay with a currency that is increasingly devalued, while trying to buy assets that are continuously increasing in price. Is it any surprise then that the wealthiest sixty-two individuals in the world hold as much wealth as the poorer 50% of humanity?

Islamic teachings address these issues very simply. Instead of taxing income, it advocates capital taxation of assets unused for one year (zakat). At the same time, it prohibits the system of interest, thus preventing inflation and preventing the devaluation of the income of the poor. Instead of providing loans with interest, Islam encourages banks to make investments, meaning that money would only be printed if a commensurate increase in goods/services were to occur. In cases where interest-free loans are made, it encourages debt-forgiveness as healthier than debt-enforcement – something that governments are today catching on to.

By taxing assets unused for one year instead of income, the poor, who live on their income, are freer to spend, thus driving the wheel of economic consumption, keeping businesses big and small, afloat. Capital taxation would also drive economic growth as it would be an incentive to invest into businesses. Furthermore, it would enrich the government, as demonstrated by Daniel Altman of the New York Times, who showed that a capital taxation rate of 1-2% on wealth over $500,000 would generate more tax for the U.S Treasury than their current income taxation rates. 0% taxation on assets up to $500,000 would also give ordinary individuals the freedom to build wealth. Additionally, by ridding us of interest, the indebted would be more able to move out of debt. Finally, given that the Qur’an commands that zakat money be used to aid social mobility, through distribution to the poor, needy, imprisoned, indebted etc., the gap between the rich and the poor would be further rapidly reduced.

So if a capital taxation, non-interest based system is so much better for 99.9% of people, why don’t we use it? Why have we got a system that works for only the 0.1%? Simple: the 0.1% have access via back-channels to the law-makers of our nations. If anything the Sanders-Clinton race has exposed, it is the degree to which financial manipulation of our representatives is occurring behind the scenes. If such an unjust system in which the poor continuously feed the rich continues, then the dissatisfaction of the masses, epitomized in the rise of such leaders like Corbyn in the U.K and Sanders in the U.S, will inevitably get worse.

So there you have it, the difference between an economic system revealed by God and a worldly economic system built on the backs of the poor, now on the brink of collapse. Given however, that “Muslim” countries don’t even practice these economic principles though, I wouldn’t hold out much hope that anyone else will either before the economic recession we are about to slide into, takes hold.

On that note, here’s a good website for calculating how much food to stock up on.

Reproduced from http://www.patheos.com/ where it appeared under the title of “Can Islamic Economic Theory Prevent the Looming Global Recession?” posted by Qasim Rashid. For the original article, click HERE.

 

Is Secularism Sacred? A Response to Matt Ridley

Should Religious Parents leave their kids alone- (1)

By Ayesha Malik

In his recent piece in The Times, Matt Ridley speaks of how Muslims are “turning away from Islam.” In a scathing and passionate article, he chastises jihadism and militant Islam and suggests humanism and secularism as antidotes to the same. I stand with Mr. Ridley in rebuking all forms of extremism and violent jihad and share his views that these must be seriously tackled. However, I take issue with the manner in which Mr. Ridley seems to paint 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide with the same brush. His powerful narrative places militant Islamism concomitant with Islam, effectively disenfranchising the more than a billion moderate Muslim voices worldwide – that not only condemn terrorism but are in fact victims of it.

Let’s put Mr. Ridley’s claims in perspective. He argues that, “The fastest growing belief system in the world is non-belief,” adding that the, “humanists are winning, even against Islam.” The gist of his arguments runs something like this: that atheism is on the rise globally, with an increasing number of people turning away from religion, in particular Islam; that this phenomenon is panning out in spite of the fact that atheists do not proselytise; that estimates forecast a decline in fertility rates amongst Muslim populations that have until now determined their increased market share; that atheists are persecuted in Muslim-majority lands; that jihadists are inspired by a desire, “to prevent the Muslim diaspora [from] sliding into western secularism” and that secularism can ultimately win against jihadism.

Mr. Ridley either intentionally or unintentionally indulges in classic othering discourse – the them againstus approach – Islam against the West. His account is a quintessential example of partisan scholarship – one that entrenches misplaced stereotypes within society and paves the way towards a civilisational divide. There is no informed or reasoned analysis on the causes of terrorism, the geopolitical factors that have shaped its trajectory and importantly how Muslims, too, are victims of extremism. Is terrorism really a religious cult? Why do people like Mr. Ridley forget that the Taliban were really a creation of the Americans, known as freedom fighters at the time, and engaged to fight the Soviets during the Soviet War in Afghanistan – something Hilary Clinton has admitted on national television. Clinton sums it up quite well – you harvest what you sow. Moreover, it is also an open secret that the so-called Islamic State, who took responsibility for the recent attacks in Paris, was a creation of the Iraq War. As such, the motivations of terrorists are not quite religious as Mr. Ridley contends; they are more political than anything else. The Paris assassins shouted how France should not have gone into Syria, as they carried out their cold-blooded acts of murder. Karen Armstrong, in her recent talk at Saint Anthony’s College Oxford, outlined how each of the two British men who went to fight in Syria recently,ordered ‘Islam for Dummies’ on Amazon. This alone, makes a travesty of the claim that extremists hold intensely religious passions.

 

ridley

Furthermore, Mr. Ridley’s predictions that atheism will ultimately overtake Islam must be taken with a pinch of salt. His assertions sit in contradiction with a report published earlier this year by the Pew Research Center that reveals how by 2050 Islam is forecasted to be the fastest growing religion – the Muslim population estimated to increase by 73% in the next 35 years. It states how Muslims will grow from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.76 billion in 2050, with Islam being the only religion to surpass the global rate of population expansion. It would also place Islam for the first time at par with Christianity in numbers. By contrast, the study suggests that while the number of non-believers including atheists and agnostics will rise in countries such as the United States and France, the total rise in non-believers is estimated at a 100 million – rising merely from 1.1 billion in 2010 to 1.2 billion in 2050 – and by those numbers, this would actually mean a drop in the total population of atheists – from 16% of the total population in 2010 to 13% of the total population globally in 2050.

While I celebrate the secular values of democracy and the rule of law, these ideals do not suffice on their own if their overriding premise is not justice. Secular jurisprudence testifies to this, John Rawls arguing for example that, “legitimacy is only the minimal standard of political acceptability; a political order can be legitimate without being just,” adding that it is justice that provides, “the maximum moral standard: the full description of how a society’s main institutions should be ordered.”

If secular ideals were sufficient on their own, we would not have lost 60 million people in the mass destruction of the Second World War – a war that was clearly not fought for any religious reasons.

If secular ideals were sufficient on their own, we would not have lost 60 million people in the mass destruction of the Second World War – a war that was clearly not fought for any religious reasons. Hence, I am not convinced that secularism is as sacred as Mr. Ridley makes it out to be. Such overly simplistic, lop sided rhetoric reduce his scholarship to the ranting of an angry man, which does not behove a person of Mr. Ridley’s intellect and educational background.

When extremists kill, humanity suffers – not a particular cultural or religious demographic. Since 2003, in Pakistan alone, more than 20,000 civilians have perished in terrorism related violence. Similarly, thousands have lost their lives in Nigeria in terrorist attacks carried out by Boko Haram, a group claimed to be deadlier than ISIS. Even still, people like Mr. Ridley continue to assert that extremists are somehow more of a threat to the West than they are to the rest of the world. If anything, Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of extremism, and unless we unite against terrorism by considering it a global problem, it will only fuel more extremists on both sides of the religious and political spectra. And if secularism – the long championed beacon of liberty cannot unite us in this cause, then it is as dogmatic as radical ideology.

Ayesha Malik is a lawyer and writer, currently serving as Deputy Editor of the Law & Human Rights Section of the Review of Religions.

The present article has been reproduced from the End of Atheism website. End of Atheism is a direct response to the New Atheist movement that began with Sam Harris’ book ‘End of Faith.’ You can find more material here:  www.endofatheism.com

 

Can You Be Good Without God?

Can You Be Good Without God-

Say, ‘O Allah! Originator of the heavens and the earth; Knower of the unseen and the seen; Thou alone wilt judge between Thy servants concerning that in which they differed.’ (Qur’an 39:47)

“A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true” – Socrates

Why is hurting people termed “wrong”? Ask yourself this question and you will find that it is not easy to answer. The answers you may come up with may be along the lines of “you wouldn’t want to be hurt, so why do it to others?” or “doing good to others promotes social cohesion”. However, neither of these two statements answer the question. Why then should you not hurt others, just because you wouldn’t want to be hurt? Why is social cohesion desirable?

These may seem like absurd questions, and on some level, they are. The reason for this is because everyone, universally it seems, knows that hurting people is wrong. Even the hardened thief who has convinced himself that his thievery is justified, would feel aggrieved and wronged if someone stole from him – thus demonstrating that though he has made excuses for his own thievery, he still knows it to be wrong. Yet, if everyone knows that doing wrong is bad, and undesirable, then why do people do it at all? The answer is found in the above example – the thief who justifies his own actions to himself:

Can he, who was dead and We gave him life and made for him a light whereby he walks among men, be like him whose condition is that he is in utter darkness whence he cannot come forth? Thus have the doings of the disbelievers been made to seem fair to them. (Qur’an 6:123)

Thus, a system of morality such as Humanism, which tells people simply to “be good” and “promote the wellbeing of others” not to “hurt others” without defining what “good”, “hurt” and “wellbeing” mean, is a totally meaningless system of morality. The reason for this is that everyone who does wrong, does it, believing it to be good. What is needed in a system of morality is not the end goal, but actually clear directives on which actions are right and which are wrong, covering all conceivable contexts. This is what the Qur’an in particular, claims to achieve.

A Book, the verses of which have been expounded in detail — the Qur’an in clear, eloquent language — for a people who have knowledge… (Qur’an 41:4)

This is what Socrates is talking about when he refers to “relative morality” as an “illusion” and a “thoroughly vulgar conception”. Very strong words – but are they warranted? They are, because what Humanism achieves is that it makes the concept of “right” and “wrong” malleable; with each person free to define “good” and “evil” however they wish, thus giving license for every evil to be conducted under the guise of “goodness”. As pointed out above, this is precisely what happens when a person does evil or harms others; they justify it to themselves and call it “good”. Humanism is therefore no more than a formalised system of convincing yourself that what you are doing is for the betterment and wellbeing of others. People try to claim that it is religion which is utilised as a pious front for the doing of evil, and that more people do evil in the name of God than for any other reason. This may be the case but there is a difference here – people do evil in the name of God, in spite of the clear teachings of various religions on which actions are right and which are wrong. Humanism on the other hand has no teachings which could act as a buffer against the evil done in its name.

It is also worth asking the question that “what makes a good, moral person?” Hitler is famously known to have been a vegetarian, because he believed that eating animals was cruel. Ridiculous as it may sound, it demonstrates that Hitler strived – in his own mind at least – to be, what he thought of, as a good person. We find it difficult to imagine that a person who has committed and authorised such atrocities as he did, loved animals, and, no doubt, loved people also – friends and family etc. Does this make him a good, moral person? Of course it doesn’t, and the reason is obvious: loving one’s friends and families, is a natural condition that is even found among animals. Among animals too, there are many example of creatures that have shown extraordinary love and sacrifice for other animals, both of their own species, and otherwise. A simple search on YouTube would show many filmed examples. This does not make animals moral. This is because a moral quality is defined when reason and reflection are brought into play, and a person acts after deliberated thought. A mother who jumps in front of a car to save her baby has not behaved morally – she has behaved instinctively, on the basis of a natural impulse. Thus, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad explains in the following excerpt:

When (natural qualities) are regulated and are used on their proper occasions, under the direction of reason, they acquire a moral character. Before they are controlled by reason and understanding they have not the character of moral qualities, but are natural impulses, however much they might resemble moral qualities. For instance, if a dog or lamb displays affection or docility towards its master it would not be described as moral or good-mannered. In the same way a wolf or a tiger would not be described as ill-mannered on account of its wildness. A moral state emerges after reflection and regard for time and occasion come into play.(1)

Humanism however, conflates natural impulses with moral actions. As Humanism gives no directives and no instruction on what action is right in which context and which action is wrong in which context, it totally falls short of defining morality. It therefore does not seek to give direction to our natural impulses, thereby converting them into moral qualities, but rather seeks to term our natural impulses of love for our friends and families, and the expression of that love, as moral actions. This is totally erroneous and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding on what morality is.

Thus, a basic moral system requires two things, to make it a valid system that both makes sense and also works effectively:

1) A perspective of absolute morality – a belief that “right” and “wrong” exist outside of our own minds. In religion, “right” and “wrong” are defined by God – and it is God’s perspective that is the only perspective that matters. His perspective can be accessed both through scripture, or on a more basic level, by looking into our own conscience, to the inbuilt signposts God has given us. Humanists can also look to the human conscience, but in doing so, they are admitting that morality is a universal and absolute concept.

2) Teachings that define which actions are right in which context, and which are wrong. This is important, because, giving the end goal of “to promote happiness” is a meaningless statement, without teaching people which actions will lead to that end goal. In this regard, many religions also fall short of this ideal. Christianity, for example, which has done away with the “law” of saying which actions are right in which context and which are wrong, by accepting St. Paul’s notion that all you need is “faith” to enter heaven, and actions are not necessary, has undermined this second principle which would uphold a system of morality.

Humanism falls short on both these two principles. Humanism does not advocate that the notion of “right” or “wrong” exist outside of our own minds, nor does it give any specific teachings on which actions are right and which are wrong. Ironically however, the very existence of Humanism is a wonderful proof of the existence of God. How so? Humanism is an example of a group of people (atheists) who believe that there is no God – and therefore no absolute concept of morality, and yet feel an urging within their own hearts to unite on some common values of what is right and what is wrong, and thereby create an artificial concept of absolute morality based on the consensus of a community. They demonstrate by their actions that morality must have some degree of absoluteness, and that relative morality is – as Socrates points out – no morality at all. Thus they prove the need for an absolute perspective on morality and thus prove the need for the existence of God, for a code of morality to exist. This is all the more so because, despite their attempt at creating an artificial basis for absolute morality through common consensus as a community, they know well that just because a community endorses a particular moral action or view, does not make it right or wrong. Many communities there have been in history who collectively, with consensus, perpetrated genocide on other peoples. Does their consensus as to the rightness of their actions, change the fact that their actions were evil?

In short, humanists hear the call of their hearts of what is right and what is wrong, yet, having renounced God, they do not understand where this call is coming from, despite being unable to resist its pull. Indeed, Man admits the existence of God – Who is the basis of morality – despite professing disbelief in Him.

So set thy face to the service of religion as one devoted to God. And follow the nature made by Allah — the nature in which He has created mankind. There is no altering the creation of Allah. That is the right religion. But most men know not. (Qur’an 30:31)

The present article has been reproduced from the End of Atheism website. End of Atheism is a direct response to the New Atheist movement that began with Sam Harris’ book ‘End of Faith.’ You can find more material here:  www.endofatheism.com

 

Belief in all-knowing, punitive gods aided the growth of human societies, study says

by Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times (Click HERE for original article)

http://www.latimes.com

Worship in World Religions

Belief in moral-watching, all-knowing, punitive gods might have helped human societies grow far beyond small, close-knit groups, a new study shows. Researchers who ran an experiment with a total of 591 people in eight different small-scale societies around the world found that people who believed their deity of choice knew about their misdeeds and would punish them were more likely to play fairly in a game where money was on the line.

The findings, described in the journal Nature, hint at the integral role that certain religious beliefs may have played in the dramatic expansion of human societies.

Part of what has made humans as a species so successful is their ability to form social bonds beyond family ties, developing larger and increasingly complex social networks. Many researchers have tried to explore what traits seem to power humans’ ability to cooperate — sometimes to their individual disadvantage — for the benefit of the greater good.

This becomes an even more perplexing question as human societies extended beyond the communities where they might either know or be related to everyone they interact with on a daily basis. How do you treat strangers, if you don’t know whether they will abide by the same social rules that you do?

 

Scientists have increasingly found a connection between the type of religion these societies have and their ability to expand, Purzycki said. It’s part of a growing field of research called evolutionary research studies, which looks in part at the way human societies and human belief systems have co-evolved, and how religious beliefs can bring adaptive advantages.

“For quite a few decades, cultural anthropologists have repeatedly observed in a variety of ways that there’s this relationship between the kinds of deities or religious systems that cultures have, and their degree of social complexity,” he said.

Many studies have tried to probe this possible relationship but suffered from a variety of shortcomings, Dominic D.P. Johnson of the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the paper, wrote in a commentary.

“Empirical evidence that supernatural beliefs promote cooperation is mounting, but has tended to rely on qualitative, society-level or proxy measures of beliefs,” Johnson wrote. “Study participants have also typically been university students in developed nations, thus omitting the small-scale societies most relevant to the evolutionary problem at hand: how human groups achieved cooperation and made the transition from small to large societies in the first place.”

So, to get a better handle on this relationship, the international team of researchers visited eight different small-scale societies around the world to have a total of 519 people play a pair of experimental games. Some, like the Hindu community in the tiny island of Mauritius (east of Madagascar), had both farming and wage labor; others like the Christian community on Yasawa Island (in the Fijian archipelago) had fishing and farming; and still others, like the Hadza of Tanzania, whose gods include the sun and moon, were a hunter-gatherer society.

The researchers went to each community and had participants play a game. Players were given 30 coins, two cups and a six-sided die with three white sides and three painted another color with nail polish or marker. If they put the coin in one cup, it would go to a person of the same religion in a distant village who they’d be unlikely to ever meet. If they put the coin in the other cup, they could keep the money. The players were instructed to think about which cup they wanted to put the coin in. Then they threw the die: If it landed on a painted side, it would go in the cup of their choice; if it landed on a white side, it would go into the opposite cup.

Given that the die had an equal number of white and painted sides, the number of coins that went in the self-cup and the other-cup should, when averaged, fall down a 50-50 split (15 coins in one cup, 15 coins in the other). Here’s the kicker, though: No participants were being watched while they played this game. So — regardless of which way the die fell — they could still choose to put the coin in their own cup, without anyone seeing them do it.

The researchers then ran the game a second time, except this time with the cup choices being between a stranger (of the same religion) in a distant location or a local community member of the same religion. They also asked the participants how they felt about their god’s characteristics, including whether the deity was all-knowing, concerned with moral behavior and able to mete out punishment for those who broke the rules. (Later on, the researchers really did take the coins in the “stranger” cups and go to a distant village and hand out the money to surprised strangers — which was “actually quite a fun part of doing this,” Purzycki said.)

When they ran the numbers, the scientists found that those whose religion featured an omniscient, moral-judging and punitive main deity were more likely to put a coin in the stranger’s cup (14.53 coins in Game 1 and 14.58 in Game 2) than those whose gods would not hold them accountable (12.50 coins in Game 1 and 12.97 in Game 2). In short, their results were more likely to match the 50-50 split (15 coins in the stranger’s cup) than those whose gods were not the all-knowing, punishing type. Fear of supernatural reprisal, it seems, keeps people from cheating.

Why would having the fear of a god in you be a useful trait, as an individual? After all, in this case, it meant that these god-fearing participants gave strangers coins that they could have stowed away for themselves, while those without such punitive deities got more money in the end.

“Deterring oneself from the pursuit of self-interest because of the risk of punishment from a watchful supernatural eye would seem to reduce an individual’s evolutionary fitness, and should thus be eliminated by natural selection,” Johnson wrote. “However, even if such beliefs are false and costly, they may have generated net benefits: to individuals, by steering them away from selfish behavior that risked retaliation in increasingly transparent and gossiping human societies; and/or to groups, by increasing the performance of the group as a whole in competition with other groups.”

So having this kind of a deity and religious system could improve group cohesion, make you more likely to behave in less risky ways and allow one group to, say, conquer another one and take over their territory.

Therein, of course, lies the dark side of all these benefits, Johnson pointed out: Increased conflict between groups of people with different religions.

“Whenever the threat of exploitation or warfare is present, the best protection is larger and more-cohesive societies, which are better able to deter or defeat rivals,” Johnson wrote. “Religion’s positive role in reducing self-interest and promoting cooperation may therefore reflect the costs of competition as much as the benefits of generosity.”

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