Humanity

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A Dozen Bad Ideas for the 21st Century

Written in 2011, timeless wisdom from Mark Durie:

By Mark Durie, Feb. 10, 2011:

Here is a list of false beliefs and modes of thought which make it hard for people in the West to come to terms with the challenge of Islam today.  If you are deeply attached to any of these ideas or ways of thinking, you will have difficulty accepting the truth about Islam’s teachings and their impact.

  1. The belief that all religions are the same. They are not.  Different faiths make different claims about what is true, and about what is right and wrong and produce radically different societies.  The same is true for different political ideologies: consider the different trajectories of North and South Korea.  Atheists have helped entrench this belief, because to acknowledge material differences between religions would undermine the atheist (and radical secularist) narrative.
  2. The belief that religion is irrelevant as a cause of anything.  According to this view, religion can be exploited or hijacked as an excuse or an instrument (e.g. of oppression – such as an ‘opiate of the masses’), but not an underlying cause of anything.  Marxist ideology has made a significant contribution to establishing this belief. In accordance with this assumption, security analysts all over the Western world presuppose that religion cannot be the cause of terrorism: so they and the politicians they advise must say that terrorists have ‘hijacked’ religion.
  3. The belief that we all worship the same God. We do not. Thousands of different gods are worshipped by people on this earth.  These gods manifest different characteristics, and make different demands.  The worship of them forms very different kinds of people and communities.
  4. The belief that one can justify anything from any sacred text. This is not true.  It is a postmodern fallacy that all meaning is in the eye of the beholder.  Certain texts lends themselves to supporting particular beliefs and practices much more than others.
  5. The belief that the Christian Reformation was a progressive movement. This is not true.  In fact the Christian Reformers aimed to go back to the example and teaching of Christ and the apostles.  Throughout the  whole medieval period reformatioalways meant renewing the foundations by going back to one’s origins.   Understanding ‘reformation’ in this way, Al Qa’ida is a product of an Islamic reformation, i.e. it is an attempt to go back to the example and teaching of Muhammad.
  6. The belief that dispelling ignorance will increase positive regard for the other. This was the message of Harper Lee’s powerfull novel To Kill a Mockingbird(pub. 1960). Although it is true that racial hatred can feed on and exploit ignorance, accurately dispelling ignorance sometimes rightly increases the likelihood of rejecting the beliefs or practices of another. It is illogical to assume that those opposed to a belief are the ones who are most ignorant about it.  Ignorance can breed positive regard for what is wrong just as easily as it can breed prejudice against what is good.
  7. The belief that everyone is good and decent, and if you just make a sincere effort to get to know another person, you will always come to respect them.This is not universally true.  Holding this view is a luxury.  Those who have experienced life under evil governments or in dysfunctional societies are shocked at the naivety of this assumption.
  8. The belief that putting something in context will always produce a more innocuous interpretation.This is not true.  Attending properly to context can make a text even more offensive than it would otherwise have been.  Conversely, if you take something out of context you may regard it more positively than you ought to.  In reality, radical interpretations of the Qur’an, such as are used to support terrorism, almost always involve an appeal to a rich understanding of the context in which the Qur’an was revealed, including the life of Muhammad.  On the other hand, many have taken peaceful verses of the Qur’an out of context, in order to prove that Islam is a peaceful religion.
  9. The belief that extremism is the problem, and moderation the solution. Warnings against taking things to extremes are as old as Aristotle.  More recently the idea was promoted by Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer(pub. 1951) that mass movements are interchangeable, and an extremist is just as likely to become a communist or a fascist.  He claimed that it was the tendency to extremism itself which is the problem.  This idea has become very unhelpful and generates a lot of confusion. ‘Moderation’ or ‘laxity’ in belief or practice can be destructive and even dangerous, e.g. in medical surgery or when piloting a plane.  Ideas that are good and true deserve strong, committed support, and the best response to bad ideas is rarely lukewarm moderation.
  10. The belief that the West is always guilty. This irrational and unhelpful idea is taught in many schools today and has become embedded in the world views of many.  It is essentially a silencing strategy, sabotaging critical thinking.
  11. Two wrongs make a right reasoning.E.g. Someone says that jihad is a bad part of Islam, to which a defender of Islam says ‘What about the crusades?’  Someone says the Qur’an incites violence, to which someone else replies ‘But there are violent verses in the Bible.’  This kind of reasoning is a logical fallacy. A specific sub-type of this fallacy is tu quoque reasoning:

    Tu quoque (‘you too’) reasoning: you can’t challenge someone else’s beliefs or actions if you (or your group) have personally ever done anything wrong or have objectionable characteristics. E.g. A Catholic says jihad is bad, but someone counters that popes supported the Crusades. This is a sub-type of the ‘two wrongs make a right’ reasoning: it too is a logical fallacy.

  12. Belief in progress: everything will always get better in the end. This is a false, though seductive bit of wishful thinking.  Bad ideas have bad consequences.  Good societies can easily become bad ones if they exchange good ideas for bad ones.  Bad situations can last for a very long time, and keep getting progressively worse.  Many countries have deteriorated for extended periods during the past 100 years.  It is not true that ideologies or religions will inevitably improve or become more ‘moderate’ as time passes, as if by some magical process of temporal transformation.  But things are not always going to get better.
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Yes, the answer to the universe really is 42


CHARLES ARTHUR SCIENCE EDITOR | FRIDAY 08 NOVEMBER 1996

It seems that Douglas Adams was right after all: the answer to Life, the Universe and everything, is 42.

Cambridge astronomers have found that 42 is the value of an essential scientific constant – one which determines the age of the universe. In his novel The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) Mr Adams describes how an alien race programs a computer called Deep Thought to provide the ultimate answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything”. After seven and a half million years’ calculation, back came the answer – 42.

In slightly less time – two years- a team at the Cavendish Laboratory has managed the same feat, using a new technique to estimate the value of the “Hubble Constant”. This measures how quickly objects in the universe are receding from each other – a natural outcome of the Big Bang that created the universe. Dr Richard Saunders, who led the research, sounded a trifle abashed by the result. “We have taken two measurements for the constant, and the average of them is, well, it’s 42,” he said. But he insisted this is “entirely fortuitous” – though thousands of fans of the Hitch Hiker novels might disagree.

Mr Adams said yesterday that when he wrote the novel 20 years ago he chose the number especially for its bathetic nature: “I wanted a nice, ordinary number, one that you wouldn’t mind taking home and introducing to your parents.”

But later he realised that the choice was no accident: when he was working for John Cleese’s film company, Video Arts, as a “prop borrower”, he and the other writers picked 42 for its amusing qualities as a punchline.

The Hubble Constant indicates the age of the universe because if we know how quickly everything is flying apart, we can work out how long ago it was all together at the same point – like working out how long a film has been running by measuring the film and knowing how many frames per second it shows.

Astronomers have bickered for decades about the constant’s value, calculating it to be anywhere between 20 and 80. But large values imply that the universe is younger than its oldest stars – a logical conundrum which the new value avoids, said Dr Saunders, as it puts the universe’s age at about 16 billion years.

The Cambridge team produced the measurement by combining data from X- ray telescopes with information about cosmic background radiation, leftover energy in space from Big Bang. Dr Saunders insists future revisions will alter the value of the constant from its present, resonant value. That would suit Mr Adams: “It does come up awfully often,” he said.

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