Sunday, July 26, 2009

The danger of simplicity

In his contribution to Philosophers Without Gods, Georges Ray, Professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, argues that the most dangerous aspect of traditional religion is that it provides simplistic answers to societal problems that we face today. On page 264:

But too much of traditional religion seems to be based on dangerously simplistic conceptions of human life and its troubles, leading people to see conflicts not in terms of the complex conflicting interests and situations of the different parties, but rather as a war between "good" and "evil", "virtue" and "sin", good guys and bad guys . . . It’s the temptation to disregard the complexities in these and other domains that strikes me as one of the most frightening risks of standard religious thinking.

There is a danger that, instead of acknowledging the complexities of ethical problems that face in society, many religious groups often only provide – and sometimes try and force – ridged, uncompromising solutions. For example, religious groups often regard their idea of moral behaviour as being more important than the general well-being and health of people. Examples include the Catholic church's ban on contraception; the resistance against legalising prostitution; the lobbying for abstinence-only sex education; and the recent religious protest against calls to vaccinate young girls against cervical cancer.

I still often wonder if a two thousand year old manuscript is actually equipped to provide absolute answers to all the ethical dilemmas that we face today. Advances in technology have introduced new problems that the writers of the Bible could not have anticipated in their wildest dreams. Stem cell research, assisted suicide, cloning and abortion are examples of very tricky issues for which
there are no easy answers. Religion can certainly play a part in finding answers, but when it insists that it has some form of monopoly over morality and ethics, it hinders our ability to think of creative solutions.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An atheist on the bench?

South Africa's Judicial Services Commission (JSC) held interviews on Monday for the appointment of new judges to the country's various High Courts. One applicant caused a stir when he declared, during his interview, that he is an atheist. Torquil Paterson, a senior advocate from the Grahamstown Bar Council, informed the panel that he left the priesthood for the law because he concluded that there was no God.

It's not often that you hear of people openly admitting their unbelief, and I think it takes guts. But I would like to ask the question (also asked here): does it really matter if an atheist becomes a judge? Are there any disadvantages that you can think of by letting an atheist preside over cases in a court of law? Would it be a problem, for example, to let an unbeliever - who would be responsible for making far-reaching and highly influential decisions that might affect us all - sit on the highest court in the land, such as the Constitutional Court in South Africa or the Supreme Court in the United States?