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IEET > Location > Africa > Rights > FreeThought > Life > Health > Vision > Futurism > Contributors > Leo Igwe

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Religion, Witch Hunts, Homophobia and Human Rights in Africa

Leo Igwe
By Leo Igwe
International Humanist and Ethical Union

Posted: May 24, 2012

Religious laws are legalized religious doctrines. They are “revelations” turned into rules to govern society. Religious laws are sacred dogma institutionalized. They are sins criminalized. They are religious hatred, intolerance, discrimination and fanaticism turned into state policies.

In most parts of Africa, the negative impact of religious laws on democracies and human rights systems is clear and compelling—from the wars, conflicts and anarchy in Somalia, Northern Uganda, and in the Sudans, to the threats posed by Islamism to the Arab Spring in North Africa and the peaceful coexistence of people in Nigeria; from the witch hunts in Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Kenya, Guinea Conakry, Mozambique and the Central African Republic, to the wave of homophobia sweeping across different countries with overt and covert support from the OIC, the Vatican and other religious agencies that foster religious laws and its discontents across the globe.       

How we address this ‘sensitive’ issue of religious law—particularly here at the Human Rights Council—will go a long way in determining the future of democracy and human rights in the world.  I will discuss this theme under three sub headings: witch hunts, homophobia and religious bloodletting.

Witch hunts

Witch hunting is going on in contemporary Africa due to the rule of codified and uncodified religious laws in the region. The tragic death in the UK of 15 year old Congolese boy Kristy Bamu has shocked many across the world. Bamu was tortured to death by family members who believed he was a ‘witch’ and that he should be suffered not to live as stated in the Christian holy book. What Kristy Bamu went through in the UK is what many children, women and elderly persons across Africa are suffering at this moment. The only difference is that while those who tortured and killed Bamu have been brought to justice, in most cases those who perpetrate such atrocities in Africa go scot free, they are never made to answer for their crimes.

I believe those who murdered Bamu must have done so out of obedience and faithfulness to the religious teaching and law as enshrined in Exodus 22:18-which says ‘Suffer not a witch to live’ and in other religious traditions and as contained in the religious indoctrination that marks the education and upbringing of most Africans.

Also inspired by religious laws are those persecuting alleged witches in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin, Burkina Faso, the Congo, Central African Republic, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Angola. Even where there are enabling state laws to address the problem, in many cases the religious laws in the minds of the people overwhelm, and take precedence over state laws. Or the existing law will be twisted and misinterpreted to convict the alleged witch and acquit the accuser.

Hence it should not surprise anyone that theocratic agencies like the Vatican, the Church of England, the OIC and its member states have not come out openly and categorically to condemn accusations of witchcraft and spirit possession sweeping across Africa and Asia and among African and Asian overseas communities. One wonders why the so called Africa group has maintained a silence – I would say criminal silence - over the witchcraft related torture and killings going on in several African states?


And now compare the deafening silence and indifference of African states to combating witchcraft related abuses with their vehement and strident opposition to recognizing the human rights of gay people. The reasons often cited to justify and sanctify homophobic legislations in the region are as follows: That homosexuality is unbiblical, un-Koranic and ungodly! In other words, the African states have these sacred texts, not their constitutions, as their grundnorm.

Recently, many African states and most of the OIC member states walked out of the session convened by the Council to discuss violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. With that walk out, they have made their position clear:  they do not want these human rights violations to be discussed or addressed, nor will they be party to addressing them. They should not be held responsible and accountable. In other words, they are saying that the human rights abuses on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity should continue, because that is in accordance with the ‘divine’ law in these countries.

Religious Bloodletting

Lastly, religious laws are rarely adopted in a civil and democratic manner. They are not proposed in a manner whereby we can discuss or debate them, accept or reject them, revise or amend them. Instead they are imposed, and foisted on the people by force and sometimes by violence and bloodshed.

In my country, the tree of sharia law has been watered with the blood of too many Nigerians as well as non-Nigerians. And the same can be said of Algeria, Egypt, Sudan and Uganda where Joseph Kony and his militants are killing, enslaving and raping their way to imposing Christian law on Uganda.

In Nigeria, the bloody campaign for the rule of sharia is still going on at the moment. Shortly after Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999, Islamic theocrats in Muslim- majority states imposed sharia law. Many Nigerians lost their lives in riots, protests and clashes over the implementation of sharia. Today, the Islamist group Boko Haram is the latest face of this bloody campaign. In Nigeria, Islamic militants agitating for a government under sharia law kill at the slightest provocation or offence: if it is not the publication of cartoons of Mohammed in Denmark, it is the invasion of Afghanistan by American forces or the staging of the beauty pageant or the burning of the Koran, or the coming of an American preacher to the city of Kano.

It is not only in Afghanistan that the insanity of Muslims staging violent protests or killing fellow human beings over the so-called defilement of the Koran take place. This madness has been going on in Nigeria with impunity. Not too long ago a female teacher in Northern Nigeria was lynched by her students for ‘defiling’ the Koran. Nobody ever established in which way this Christian woman ‘defiled’ the Koran. And till today nothing has been done by the authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.  

There is something amiss – something fundamentally wrong in the sense, sensibility and consciences of people who can kill or maim any human being for burning or ‘defiling’ (whatever that means) a book whether sacred or secular. There is something lacking in the conscience and morals of those who for whatever reason value a book more than a human being, more than human life. There is something out of sync with humanity in anyone who thinks that a person who insults, denounces, renounces or blasphemes against any religion – for instance Islam – should be killed. There is something incompatible with human civilization in the mindset that subordinates human beings, or sacrifices human dignity, human rights and human lives, on the altar of religious dogma or offence. And we should strive to ensure that no legal code that sanction or condones these dark and destructive tendencies is associated with our democracy and human rights in this 21st century.

My friends, let’s face it. There is something fundamentally undemocratic about religious laws: that is the ‘alleged’ source or sources as the case may be. Religious laws originate from questionable sources which humans are not allowed to question or inquire into, or they do so at great cost to themselves. Unfortunately, the religions have refused to tell the world the truth about the origins of these laws which they insist must guide and govern human lives, and direct and determine human decisions - including the ones we make here at the Human Rights Council.

In a democracy, people have the right to know and to know the truth not only about those who governs them but also about the laws that are used to govern the society. But as long as religions continue to lie, and hold humanity in the dark about the source or sources of their dogmas and doctrines; as long as religious agencies continue to hamper the ability of the people to reclaim, revise or discard these archaic, outdated and dark age norms, religious laws will remain social and political liabilities to democracies and human rights systems across the world. Religious laws will continue to undermine human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council.

Religious laws are supposedly divine, not man-made, crafted by a supreme being, not mere mortals. Religious laws are not really meant to protect the interest of the people but those of a god – of particular gods, or Allah - at the expense of human beings. Under religious laws, the will of the people is superseded by the supposed will of a god believed to be greater than the human being. There is no place for the voice of the people. Instead there is only the voice of god or Allah which is appropriated, patented and employed by few males to tyrannize over the lives of others.

Under religious laws, there is no place for equal or universal human rights, for the right to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief. There is no guarantee of the basic right to life. Think about Abraham who almost murdered the son Isaac as a demonstration of faith. Religious law has no regard for human beings. Under sharia law, the penalty for apostasy, blasphemy or any form of expression deemed an insult to god is death by stoning or execution – either by states or by Allah’s ubiquitous militants.

Religious laws are incompatible with the values of democracy and human rights. And those who peddle them will always see themselves swimming against the currents of human progress, hope, civilization and enlightenment.

Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.
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Don’t usually respond to Igwe’s articles, not because they aren’t worth reading; I read, or skim through (quite a number of pieces at IEET) each one. This segment calls for a reply,

And now compare the deafening silence and indifference of African states to combating witchcraft related abuses with their vehement and strident opposition to recognizing the human rights of gay people. The reasons often cited to justify and sanctify homophobic legislations in the region are as follows: That homosexuality is unbiblical, un-Koranic and ungodly! In other words, the African states have these sacred texts, not their constitutions, as their grundnorm.
Recently, many African states and most of the OIC member states walked out of the session convened by the Council to discuss violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. With that walk out, they have made their position clear:  they do not want these human rights violations to be discussed or addressed, nor will they be party to addressing them. They should not be held responsible and accountable. In other words, they are saying that the human rights abuses on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity should continue, because that is in accordance with the ‘divine’ law in these countries.

Disheartening how slowly biases change. With all the severe problems in every nation, one would think sexual-orientation statutes would be reformed more rapidly, however even in advanced nations change moves by the decade, not by the year. In fact there is less excuse for America in this regard than for African nations.. America bills itself as the greatest country in the world and in some ways it is, for instance (a no brainer) agriculture; so given our pressing problems today, ‘conservatives’ fret over sexual-orientation? Pettiness.
Obama was correct in coming out for gay marriage and not a moment too soon; with the vote against same-sex marriage in North Carolina (N. Carolina the most progressive state in the South- for starters, it isn’t in the Deep South), things have to be revved up.
The only middle ground between stagnation and progress is Utopia—unfortunately, Utopia does not exist.
One caveat is, no alliances ought to be made with Communists (high case ‘C’), they can’t be trusted—it isn’t so much their ideologies, it is they themselves, they are excessively violent and want power too much. Communists haven’t helped Africa much, if at all.

The analogy with parasite ecology is interesting, but needs to be considered with caution. The idea seems to be that parasites - that is to say species that inhabit the bodies of other species and in doing so harm them - eventually either die out or evolve into a symbiotic relationship with the host. Fine, but then which is it in the case of religion? And why should we think the process is over? Clearly, and Leo’s article provides yet more from evidence of this, it isn’t: religion is still acting as a parasite. Yes, it works in harmony with politics and lust for power, always has, but one does not absolve an accomplice because he didn’t actually commit the crime. Religion doesn’t kill people (except when it drives them to suicide), but it certainly incites people to do so. And the cognitive dissonance can be utterly debilitating (and by the way that’s not hearsay or a just so story, it’s my own personal experience, and that of others who have commented on this topic).

So will religion die out, or evolve into a symbiotic relationship with its host? Too early to say, I guess. Lincoln Cannon has been conspicuously absent from the recent debates here (probably very wisely)...I would say he is one of the best hopes for the latter. Personally I don’t really care one way or another, but the process needs to be moved along. For the moment, religion is still doing way too much harm

Leo, the things you talk about are horrible. They are in some cases the effect of a toxic understanding of religion, others, the manipulation of religion to achieve political ends.

What we need to be careful about is suggesting motivations for other people. “I am sure that they did this because they believed that.” It is tempting, but unless you check it out it is going to make people sit up and think “He’s making that up.” Which will damage the rest of your argument.

The reality is that tragically children die all over the world because of the ignorance of their parents. It might be superstitious ignorance such as an exorcism, or it might be the ignorance that doesn’t put children into a proper car seat in the car. It is the ignorance that is the issue.

The tragedies you write about are addressed most effectively through education of the people. I am not a big fan of trying to recolonize Africa to try and solve its problems. I do think we need to come down hard on people who try to use Africa’s problems for their own profit, and that would include churches raising money for “missions” to rescue the poor, heathen Africans from witches and such. They are allowed into the countries because they bring money.

I certainly agree that condemnation by the larger denomination might help, but on the other hand the people who are perpetuating these crimes already think that the main denominations are serving the devil, so it won’t likely be effective. Educating the white folks who throw money at every bit of guilt porn that comes out will be more effective. This article is a good start.

The importance of condemnation by large denominations is related to my remarks on how IEET can influence policy: it’s indirect rather than direct. Pissing contests here at IEET notwithstanding, religion still holds huge sway over public opinion throughout the world, and the largest denominations obviously have the largest influence over it. And to stop these atrocities, more than anything else we need to mobilise global public opinion. The rest will follow. Hard-core fundamentalists will never be convinced, but at least they can be marginalised and starved of the oxygen of public sympathy.

Unfortunately I do not think that witch hunters, or supportive African demagogues, are between the most assiduous readers of IEET.

The risk I see here is - to conflate very different social phenomena in one, unique, cultural scapegoat. What do (1) shamans leading a witch hunting have to do with (2) priests giving a hot meal and some shelter to homeless drug addicts? They both are displaying exquisitely religious behavioral patterns. I hope you are not trying to say that both these rituals should be outlawed.

Maybe the irrational premises behind both those rituals should be fought indeed. Yet, I still do not understand why we should go after certain irrational ideas and not others. All ideas can have the most horrible consequences. It depends on who decides to do what with them. And all chains of justifications end at some point. Nothing can be fully justified (i.e. rational), without being also circular. Goedel thought us something, after all.

So, something tells me that I really should not explain to my aunt, who spends six days a week giving free lunches to the poor in her city, that her behavior is irrational, unjustified, and stimulates free-riding. People can do good things with the most idiotic motivations. And horrible things for the most noble goals. Practical consequences, I think, should be examined first.


No, I am not saying that both “religious” rituals that you mention should be outlawed. (I’m putting “religious” in inverted commas to avoid giving the impression that I necessarily agree that it is appropriate to regard giving food and shelter to drug addicts as a religious ritual, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. I agree that religion provides a powerful motivator for such behaviour.)

Regarding why we should go after certain irrational ideas and not others, well we can’t go after all of them, can we? I didn’t actually set out, when I started commenting on this site more than a year ago, to use it as a platform to attack delusional religious beliefs. It just kind of happened. I have a tendency to shoot at beliefs I perceive to be irrational as and when I spot them. And the way some people defend religion on this site strikes me as highly delusional, and from my perspective somewhat unethical (but mainly just delusional).

I agree about your aunt. Likewise I don’t intend to try to persuade my Ismaeli friend to stop using her legal expertise to participate in mediation activities within the Ismaeli community. Why the hell would I want to do that? But in many cases we just don’t know what the practical consequences are going to be. There’s just too much unpredictability. Can I make any sensible predictions about the implications of Alex and Stefan trying to convince us all that scripture can and should be interpreted in an essentially benign way? Certainly not any very concrete ones. But I can at least point out that I regard this belief to be delusional.

Re witch hunter and supportive African demagogues, that’s precisely my point. We are not trying to influence them directly. Obviously. My point was that if large religious denominations were to come out and condemn such practices vociferously rather than, for example, condemning American Catholic nuns for being too feminist, it would help, in the long run, to starve such practices of the wider public sympathy on which they ultimately depend.

It goes without saying that Catholic hierarchies condemn witch hunting and similar practices. Missionaries fight against these superstitions everyday. Any missionary can confirm you this. Of course, they also want to substitute these atrocious African superstitions with other, more humane, Mediterranean superstitions. Their actions are meant to destroy local traditions, and replace them with their own. It is a culturally violent, disrespectful program. We should be aware of that. But, no physical harm is involved, and - after all, certain brutal traditions should indeed disappear, in spite of their anthropological interest. What I fail to understand is why you demand the Pope to write a specific encyclical about these issues (I suppose you are referring to the Pope, but maybe I am wrong). Obviously Christianity condemns African religious, violent rituals. Do we need a Christian public, explicit condemnations of every violent tradition worldwide?

That said, it is well known that the Vatican administration had often been fastidiously quiet about many crimes and wrongdoings, sometimes performed by their own personnel. Just, we cannot really hint that they somehow tolerate or even excuse these macroscopic African atrocities.

Now - that aside - it interests me more your ideas about which other motivation could trigger a positive religious activity - like, feeding the poor, or helping penniless immigrants, for example. I mean, genetically speaking it is a nonsense. Taking resources away from you and your relatives is an evolutionary suicidal strategy. Of course, even agnostics and atheists might want to indulge in these irrational activities. But - why? Is it compassion? I do not think so. Utilitarianism? Possibly, but I still have mixed thoughts about this. What do you think? Why would a person without religious beliefs want to help a disgusting, potentially dangerous, unknown human being?

Personally I think that many universalistic religious principles still shape the judgment of many self proclaimed post-religious individuals. But, you know, this is one of those unprovable assumptions. Almost Freudian.

Indeed “there is something amiss” in Africa - what is it? Education?

Or conversely, what is there in abundance? Ignorance?

My guess is by the time the Singularity emerges, Africa will still be 1500 years behind the rest of the world in terms of humanitarian ethics?

Most like to blame the “book”, ‘cause it’s easy? Some blame other nations for not doing enough?

I blame the people!


You ask some good questions. But as you probably expected I have answers smile

Yes I did basically mean the Pope, as far as the RC Church is concerned, hierarchical organisation that it is. Basically I was responding to Alex’s point that the people who perpetrate these crimes will not be (directly) influenced. I’m convinced that large religious organisations could do more to condemn this type of practice, and not only that but to make its elimination a priority. But as you say, for the moment they are tending to replace them, if at all, with other superstitions, which we might prefer, but are still superstitions.

Which leads me to your other, in many ways more interesting point. See also my
latest reply to Alex on Giulio’s thread, which covers similar ground.

I think we CAN do without (superstitious i.e. delusional) religion, i.e. without Plato’s necessary lie. These days the genetic, natural-selection-based drivers for our behaviour have to compete with the power of ideas. It is evolutionarily suicidal to be addicted to porn, but people still are. It is evolutionarily suicidal to be sexually repressed (or simply chaste) because of religion, but if religion has that power then why not other, less delusional ideas.

People do not behave altruistically because they have done a cost-benefit analysis or are scared they will go to hell. That has never been the most effective driver. They do so partly because we are an ultra-social species, something you didn’t really take proper account of in your comment - some of us even worry about being cruel to animals, for heaven’s sake - and partly because of the sheer power of ideas and social shame (read: peer pressure). I am convinced that it is possible to build rituals and other community-building mechanisms that play this role without requiring delusional belief. Even things like soap operas play this kind of role - often they are thinly veiled morality plays.

The “universalistic principles” that you mention indeed emerged in a religius context, and we could indeed credit religion for their emergence (if we feel like it), but like any child they have now flown the nest, and have lost their specifically religious character. Sorry, but I just don’t need religion to be a good, decent, civilised human being. And ultimately, nor does anyone else.

How about putting blame aside and proposing some constructive solutions instead?

Andre’ is right on not conflating witch hunters and faith-based providers of homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
As to the larger question, which Pete addresses:

“...will religion die out, or evolve into a symbiotic relationship with its host?”

IMO, the answer for advanced beings is the former, for posthumans religion would be anthropic;
whereas for they who choose to remain hominid, they will evolve a symbiotic relationship with religion.

@ Peter Wicks..

I thought I did propose a solution.. Was it too subtle for you?

Anyhow you’re so full of “talk” about gathering ideas yourself, how about you offer some for a change!

“Indeed ‘there is something amiss’ in Africa - what is it?”

Imperialism and Communism helped make a royal mess out of Africa.

Thanks for reminding us that this is supposed to be a transhumanist site smile
I love your idea about humanids vs post humans…yes, I think the future might well look like that.

And of course I fully agree about Africa. “Blaming the people” is both contemptuous and contemptible.

Pete, everyone who knows anything about Africa knows what Western nations did to it. But Brezhnev and the Communist bunglers before him were imperialists of a different sort:
political rather than economic imperialists.
It is somewhat ironic how Communism was a Western ideology imposed on the the Far East and Africa in the name of Eastern and African self-determination. Soviet support and Cuban troops did perhaps tip the balance against Western cats paw governments in Africa, yet the outcome was one Western ideology was replaced by another albeit temporarily.
So no wonder Africans turn to religion, no matter how negative the religion is (and as Igwe’s article illustrates, it’s very bad), it is considered theirs, not imposed from without. Russians used to say, and surely many still do,
“let it be worse, but let it be ours”.

Changing the subject somewhat, this is also how a lot of Greeks feel about the similarly imperialist lecturing and bullying from “certain” other European countries. As Italian PM said (to a German newspaper) just after he took power, this bullying emphasis on counter-productive austerity risks driving peripheral countries into the arms of populists and extremists. A quick look at the results of the Greek elections shows how right he was. Same problem with Africa I guess. The problem is that most people just don’t have a concept of winning hearts and minds.

Exactly (and we can get back onto the topic of religion by working around to it) what happened with Vietnam:
America had everything, in fact the funds we (not merely America but also the funds other Western nations kicked in to the war effort) spent on the Vietnam War would have been enough to purchase a dwelling for every person in Vietnam.. perhaps in all of Indochina.
But naturally, hindsight is 20-20. Question is, what to do about Africa? same as with the Mideast—and N. Africa is, religiously speaking, a part of the Mideast—we have stop thinking of Africa as a continental-size resource to be exploited, as Americans generally think of the Mideast as an oil spigot- the people in the region do not peceive it the way we do, people don’t like being little cogs in a machine.

At any rate, let’s not feel guilty in filling up the comment section under Igwe’s articles, it is about time we pay attention to Africa, as we now to do to Asia.


I don’t see why we should take it for granted that religion will not die out. Yes it has evolved, and will continue to do so, like any biological species, but like any biological species it could also go extinct.

One issue that complicates this though is that I still don’t think we really have a stable agreed definition of what we mean by this word “religion”. I’m sure you can define it in such a way that it’s difficult to imagine people (even post humans??) living without it, but many attributes of religion are also displayed by other sociological phenomena. Why could these not evolve in such a way as to outcompete it and drive it to extinction, without becoming anything that we would want to call “religion” themselves? I frequently find on these threads that one reaches a point where you have to get into semantics to really make progress.

Re personal biases, religion is a touchy subject for me, for reasons I have noted previously (though largely before you joined the threads). I think it’s OK of we inject some of personal biases into the discussions here. Peer-reviewed articles and other academic literature has an essential role to play, obviously, but that’s not what we’re doing here. Regular commenters here form a kind of community: sometimes we get on each other’s nerves, but we keep coming back. I like to think we also have some influence, however marginal, and that we can learn from each other. There’s a balance to be struck between trying to be academically rigourous (which would not be appropriate for this kind of forum) and descending into vacuous squabbling. On the whole I think we strike a pretty good balance, though sometimes I get frustrated at people’s reluctance to really question their beliefs. We can have different values and preferences, of course, but we need at least to recognise them for what they are, and when it comes to empirical beliefs we always need to consider the possibility that they may be wrong, and be curious when we come across dissenting views rather than just seeing them as a target to shoot at. (This last point isn’t particularly aimed at you by the way.)

Q: How do we drive it into thick skulls, that it’s wrong to hammer nails into children’s heads?

Blame it on the Bible?


I was sure you had some good answers - that is why I asked a few questions smile
I apologize to everybody for the long post ahead - but these are important issues to me, so I want to be as careful as possible.

“People do not behave altruistically because they have done a cost-benefit analysis or are scared they will go to hell.”
I can agree with on this - more or less. Even if many people indeed behave altruistically for those reasons, in certain occasions - as you probably recognize yourself. Yet, I do not consider your list of other, evolutionarily counterproductive behaviors particularly meaningful. We do not have ethical codes based on the celebration of masturbation and/or chastity. They both represent quite marginal aspects of animal ethology. Altruism, on the contrary, plays an extremely prominent and peculiar role in many lifeforms, in all ethical codes, and therefore in all religions.

“They do so partly because we are an ultra-social species, something you didn’t really take proper account of in your comment - some of us even worry about being cruel to animals, for heaven’s sake - and partly because of the sheer power of ideas and social shame (read: peer pressure).”

Now we came to the crucial point, I think. You justify altruism with three, partially overlapping notions : (#1) the social nature of our species, (#2) the presence of social pressure, (#3) the diffusion of ideas that promote altruism.

First I notice that (#1) basically refers to our social instinct, therefore to compassion. In other words, altruism must come from the emotional tendencies of social animals. But we both know that this cannot be true. We talked about this, and agreed on the limits of compassion. Compassion encompasses a very limited group of beings, and can collapse dramatically during hard times. Biologically, it makes sense only between cooperative agents and relatives (i.e. family, and/or small, cohesive human groups). You cannot count merely on people’s compassion to maintain a moral social order in large human groups. Even if you put vegans in charge. We still need something else.

About (#2). Social pressure can promote altruism if and only if most members of society already display altruistic tendencies. So the problem of justifying altruism is still there, just scattered in many pieces. Why would most people want to promote altruism? Rational calculation? Irresistible, natural compassion? Cultural habits?

About (#3). So we are back to the realm of ideas. Now, how can an idea promote altruism? This idea must be persuasive. It must make sense and convince many individuals that they should behave altruistically. But how can we persuade other people? We have only two options : sound arguments, or irrational arguments. Can we use sound, rational arguments to promote altruism? Nope, it cannot work. It is impossible to demonstrate rationally that uncooperative, useless human agents should be helped or even kept alive. We have to use some rhetorical trick, or some paralogism - or just fool ourselves with fantasies. In other words, we are left with irrational, delusional ideas. They do work, they worked beautifully for millennia. People can be persuaded by irrational appeals to their emotions, or to mysterious, incomprehensible entities. It is not just a matter of useful deceptions that determine positive moral effects. I am talking about NECESSARY deceptions and self-deceptions.

Which brings me to next, more disturbing question - at least for me. Why do we want to defend a moral order necessarily based on delusional premises? Can’t we just let go - and let the physically mighty ones, those with deadlier guns teach everyone else what is right, and what is wrong?

I mean, does all religions contain nothing but delusions? Can’t we really find a glimpse of truth in them? Because, if they are really just a useful pile of falsehoods, maybe we should really stop caring about morals altogether.

However, I believe that it is quite wrong to assume that religions, even the most bizarre and mythological ones, are filled with delusional content. At the mere literal level even Newtonian physics is quite delusional. Do objects exercise forces? Forces? What are these forces anyway? Did you ever see them? Was Newton really serious about the space being filled with these mysterious entities, pushing and pulling stuff around? As if masses strain themselves to pull each other. Do they? How can they do it, instantaneously in particular?

Now we know that Newtonian metaphors cease to be useful in certain contexts, and - thanks to Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg & co. we have other, more generalizing metaphors that allow us to encompass larger portions of reality - and make extremely accurate and useful predictions. However, they still are metaphors, and cannot be taken literally. As if out there there is the space-time continuum, gravitational fields, quanta, and similar intellectual amenities. One day richer, more general metaphors will come.

You certainly see at this point where I am trying to lead you. If we can perfectly use Newtonian physics as a non-delusional intellectual tool, within its limits, without taking it literally - maybe we can do the same with (certain) religious ideas? Maybe it is just stupid to take them literally (i.e. the metaphor of the old man on the cloud watching you all day long). But, beyond that level there is indeed truth in them. Just a thought. I still need to think more on this issue. Maybe you can give me your impressions about it.

Lots of meat here André, and it deserves more attention than I want to give it now. But one quick response: I totally take your point about social pressure depending on critical mass of people wanting to promote altruism, but two points:

- we all want others (especially those outside our in-groups) to be altruistic, because it’s in our self-interest to promote this. So your argument. Doesn’t quite stand up in my view.
- homo sapiens is not just social but ultra-social, and unlike the other (ants, bees, termites) it’s not based on genetic identity but on brain size and the consequent ability to activate what Haidt calls “Machiavellian reciprocity”. This is related to my first point. The price is hypocrisy, of course, but I think it works.

You might have already covered is above (I’d need to read your comment more carefully) but if altruism without religion doesn’t work then ultimately I don’t see how religion has much of a future either. Why should I buy into a belief system I know is bad for me if there is no other reason to want to be altruistic?

Note also that. Believe the battle between genes is gradually being replaced by a battle between ideas, so our traditional assumptions regarding Darwinian evolution are not altogether valid when looking ahead. But again, you might have covered this already.

OK read the rest of it now. I think you’re somewhat exaggerating the analogy between scientific “metaphors” and religious ones, there being the small matter of evidence and empirical testing that separates the two. That said I really don’t mind mythology, and it works - even what is clearly fictional - in part because we suspend disbelief. This may indeed be an argument for suggesting that we should be aiming to “tame” religion rather than to get rid of it altogether.

I meant bad from André‘s genetic self-interest perspective.

Re battle of ideas vs battles of genes, another way of putting it is: memetics is replacing genetics.

Of course the selfish gene concept is still a fantastically powerful way of explaining and understanding human behaviour, including our (my) own, but on its own it’s not enough. We evolved (biologically) in a much less linguistically and symbolically rich environment than the one we live in today, and this massively alters our behaviour compared to what one might otherwise expect from evolutionary psychology. Add to that the prospect of significant genetic engineering, and the ideas that emerge in human brains and their creations (AIs) become even more powerful via-à-vis genes. They are becoming the unit of replication, and the new non-biological life-forms (which includings humans but also corporations and other collectives) are structures that serve to replicate ideas.

No reason why altruism (with or without religion) can’t be one of them.
But some of them, like witch-hunting and homophobia (or more precisely the ideas that promote them), need to go the way of smallpox.

“One issue that complicates this though is that I still don’t think we really have a stable agreed definition of what we mean by this word ‘religion’.”

True, we don’t have a stable agreed definition of what we mean by religion- merely agreement to disagree on its definition. And btw isn’t the distinction between religion and ideology an artificial one? whether we are examining religious struggle against evil, Marxian class dialectics, Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the marketplace, fascism’s racial cosmology,
the similarities are greater than the divergences.. not surprising, as religion whelped politics.

I suppose the word “ideology” tends to be reserved for secular belief systems, which one way or another are mostly a out political engineering. Like traditional religion, many will have started out as creative attempts to gain new insights about the nature of existence and how we should live our lives, but quickly become delusional once people buy into them emotionally and therefore start filtering evidence that would otherwise lead them to question them. They basically assume, or are consistent with, an atheistic, materialistic worldview, and concern themselves only with what happens in this life, in this world.

What seems to distinguish the belief systems (and associated practices) that we call “religion” is that they are without exception concerned also, in one way or another, with “the unseen”, that which is beyond the reach of science and empiricism, whether this explicitly involves God or gods, reincarnation, or other kinds of anthromorphic extrapolations into the unknown (and unknowable).

First of all, thanks to Peter, Intomorrow and Stefan for the interesting debate. This proves that reasonable people starting from quite different premises can indeed agree on important, practical conclusions - when the discussion proceeds in a certain way. ( ...captatio benevolentiae) I think that we reached a crucial point, so allow me another couple of reflections.

@Stefan “Multilevel selection theory has a thing or two to say about this.” / @Peter “[...] the battle between genes is gradually being replaced by a battle between ideas [...]”
I disagree with both statements. Multilevel selection theory, or - more simply - group selection has been already discredited by many scholars (including Dawkins). It is not only unorthodox. It perverts Darwin’s populationist approach, its very spirit.  Darwinian evolutionary selection can operate only at the individual level. Period. Groups are not defined by genetic codes, they do not reproduce, and newborn groups do not inherit characteristics from other groups. Unless we are talking very metaphorically, of course.
And this is where culture steps in. Ideas, memes, cultural items might be seen as some sort of genetic code, the genetic code of groups. The structure of the English language, for example, does not have any representation into our DNA. The same can be said about tribal dances, mycology, or Keynesian economics. Now, obviously those cultural structures have an immense influence on our lives and, therefore, on the destiny of our species - even if they do not come from our DNA. This seems to imply that, for cultural animals like us (but we are not the only member of the club), ideas matter more than genes. However, this is not the case. We should ALWAYS bear in mind that any environmental condition - from the food available to eat, to the books available to read - must relate to individual lifeforms, and also in terms of reproductive success. This is all that matters, on the long run. Richard Lewontin expressed the concept of - extended phenotype. Many structures, like exoskeletons, shells, nests, houses, and poems do not come directly from molecular blueprints, they are not inscribed in our DNA. However they are definitely withing the reach of our genes. Organisms need many genetic predispositions (so-called “norm of reactions”) to correctly produce culture, and interact with all those fancy cultural items. And if a meme, generation after generation, reduces the number of offspring, it will be counter-selected, and eventually will disappear. Genes will prevail. Because genes without memes work perfectly. But memes without genes cannot exist.

@ Peter “[...] it’s in our self-interest to promote [altruism]” / @Stefan “Compassion is adaptive.”
This is a very, very important point. So I have to insist - because the refutation of what you two wrote is crucial for my argument.
It is NOT in our self-interest to promote universal altruism/compassion. Why should I care if Africans torture and kill witches? I do not live in Africa, and I have no intention to move there. Also, I am not a witch, and most likely nobody will ever consider me a witch. Your fundamental mistake is considering human groups as egalitarian, homogeneous structures. They are not. Those at the top of social pyramid have no self-interest in being compassionate towards those who cannot possibly harm them. And our history shows how important segments of the population have, quite naturally, been exploited, abused, tortured, killed. The perpetrators did it intentionally, and most witnesses did not mind. They knew it was not their problem (i.e. good rational calculation), and did not feel particularly bad about it (i.e. no compassion).

@Intomorrow “And btw isn’t the distinction between religion and ideology an artificial one?”
I agree absolutely, this is exactly what I am trying to say. Many people do not like certain aspects of their own religious tradition, and in particular the attitude and the actions of loud, conservative zealots. But religion is not about that - and, anyway, it cannot be ONLY about that. I might sound already like a broken disk, but I think that there are a couple of criteria to identify a religion : (1) it must be an ethical generator (i.e. - it must motivate people to act in a certain way), (2) it must rely on a certain number of unquestionable, unjustifiable principles. So, yes, Marxism is a hell of a religion, not differently from Confucianism, or Utilitarianism (sorry, Peter, I have to say it).

“What seems to distinguish the belief systems (and associated practices) that we call “religion” is that they are without exception concerned also, in one way or another, with “the unseen” [...]”
No, absolutely not. I can list you a dozen of physical theories that justify phenomena with unseen entities. Are they religions? No, obviously. Is it about anthropomorphism? - falsifiability? We have scientific theories that use anthropomorphic entities, and religions devoid of any reference to human forms. Also, many versions of past scientific theories were unfalsifiable, scientists corrected anomalies ad hoc, with additional hypotheses.
I remind you that, at this moment, the majority of bipeds on this planet find everyday some verification of their religious beliefs, they see facts that confirms their bizarre beliefs. Science cannot beat that, in terms of verifications. So, it is not because of facts that science is what it is. It is because it has another, totally different function from religion. It exists to allow us to make accurate, falsifiable predictions. It is incalculably useful, it can do many thing. What it cannot do is justify our ethical principles.


Likewise, thanks for the very well-thought-out response.

I’m not so sure that memes can’t exist without genes. They have emerged within human brains, but why could they not migrate to some non-biological substrate, such as AIs? And even if they can’t, one could say that memetics has emerged from genetics in the same way that biological has emerged from chemistry, and chemistry from physics. And with each level of emergence comes new laws: for example natural selection requires biology (or its offspring i.e. AIs). And just as biological organisms obey the laws of physics and chemistry, so we should expect ideas, and the organisms that propagate them, to obey the laws of natural selections. The lower the level of emergence, the more universal the corresponding law. I take your point that group selection theory has largely been debunked as a truly scientific theory (though I still don’t think it’s entirely without merit), but here we are talking about something else: something that is not molecular at all, but is some kind of information pattern that exists only in human brains and their creations. I don’t think you’ve yet successfully refuted the idea that they can be consistently regarded as units of replication that obey the law of natural selection.

Re self-interest and altruism, I agree that the incentive to promote altruism is inversely proportional to one’s height on the power pyramid (remind me to tell you the joke about monkeys on a tree). But it’s not the case that I have no biological incentive to care about witch hunting in Africa. Remember Bonhoeffer and his “first they came for the Jews?” As long as I am not especially privileged, limited efforts to promote universal altruism are likely to benefit me overall. The poor have an incentive to say “let’s be fair and try to make everyone happy”, while the rich have an incentive to say “let’s just keep things the way they are, it’s a dog eat dog world anyway”. Of course, the poor will still try to climb the pyramid, trampling over dead bodies if they have to.

Re religion there are three things: religion, ideology and science. I was comparing religion and (secular) ideology; you are comparing religion and science. I broadly agree with your analysis in the latter context, but there also seems to be some kind of distinction between what we habitually call “religion” and what we merely call ideology. And it’s not falsifiability. I would simply say that religions all involve some kind of deity or deities, that is to say imaginary entities that are believed to be actual persons, which think or behave (to some extent) like persons - I don’t know of any scientific theory that does that - but that would presumably exclude some forms of Buddhism, which does not necessarily imply theism. Clearly Buddhism IS generally thought of as a religion, so to be consistent with common usage we must do so too, but I think is is quite close to the mark. Perhaps we need to make an exception for Buddhism because of it’s sheer age. Then again, would scientiology be a religion or rather than an ideology? It can’t be a question of how fervent or deluded the believers are, because there are plenty of extremely fervent and deluded communists and libertarians. Perhaps we just have to accept that the boundary between religion and ideology is somewhat blurred and inconsistent.

I think we arrived at some quasi-agreement.

Your observations about memes and their possible evolution are very pertinent. Technological developments might indeed allow cultural units to reproduce independently from us. It is very hard to tell what might happen. At the moment, memes can make more copies of themselves only thanks to human agents. They still exist only in close symbiosis with men - cultural items without predisposed interpreters are indistinguishable from chaos. This could change, of course. But we are going to need new, artificial lifeforms for that. I hope we will both be there to see it. 

“As long as I am not especially privileged, limited efforts to promote universal altruism are likely to benefit me overall.” This is true, of course. But, you know, someday, sometimes you might find yourself in a privileged position. Most likely you will, as you have already been. We all end up in some privileged position, in some context, at least sometimes. What are you doing to do? - do something against your own best interest to benefit someone else? I guess would. If so - on which grounds?
Probably, it is just a matter semantics here. You all it “aesthetic preference”, I call it “religion” - but we both refer to the same, irrational source of moral principles. I have no problem with the terminology we use. I prefer to speak of religions because - people react more readily on religious, moral calls. So, from a purely utilitarian perspective (...yes), we get better results saying to someone “you should do this, because our religion demands it”, instead of “you should do this, because my aesthetic preference requires it”. Most people would rather take orders coming from deities - not from me, or you. As I told you once, I also had unpleasant impressions with clerics, nuns, bigots, and alike. But this did not make me feel like dismissing all religious contents as delusional. Especially given its function, which is not heuristic, and therefore has nothing to do with delusions and misperceptions.

If a man thinks that a teenage girl is a witch, and can turn him into a snake overnight - I call his beliefs delusional, sure. It does take much to prove it. It is much harder to debunk traditional religious doctrines, especially given their extreme sophistication, and the exceptionally fine intellects that have assembled. So, provided that also some of those religions resonate in sintony with my own ethical preferences (but it is not really just my own - many, many men share my sympathies for universal compassion), I would really not try to marginalize those traditions. Maybe, yes, like you said, it is more a matter of taming them. Remove the idiotic bits - like burqas, self-mutilation, and their amenities, for example, against certain contraceptions. But let us save, and appreciate the rest.

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