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One aspect of Muslim culture that runs against the grain of Americans is the lack of the acceptance of separation of church and state. Some (many?) Muslim sects, like the Taliban wish to institute a muslimocracy in which the religious leaders, i.e. imams and such, are also the state. Under Sharia law, it seems that religious texts determine justice in any kind of human disputes, with little regard to circumstances, and with broad interpretation by those who claim to be learned with respect to Koranic law; oh, and with rather crude sentences like stoning. This kind of society is quite different from one in which there is a civil code that can be invoked without bringing God into the equation explicitly. Certainly, some of the components of Western civil law have roots in parts of the bible, such as the ten commandments. But civil, i.e. governmental and commercial, interests pushed religion from the leading role in Western society and culture to a mostly minor footnote over the last several centuries. ...

Theocracy is indeed one of the most dangerous political phenomena the world faces today--especially Muslim, Christian, and Jewish theocracy. That having been said, what the Koran says or doesn't say isn't terribly important. Believers of all three of the Abrahamic religions commonly ignore or explain away elements of their Scriptures that contradict the norms of civil society. Ambrose Bierce famously defined a Christian as someone who adheres to the teachings of Christ to the extent they are not inconsistent with a life of sin. I think that's true of most believers. Having said that, there are plenty in all three religions who wish to import religious dogma into the business of government, and you are right to resist that. On the other hand, there may be special cases where civil law grants certain exemptions or latitude to deep matters of conscience. For example, US law grants conscientious objectors exemption from military service for reasons of religious conviction. Accommodations are often made in...

My question relates to Plato’s dialogue of Euthyphro; specifically, I am interested in the two alternatives Socrates presents in what is deemed as “good” or virtuous. Socrates points out that if what is good is good because god decrees it, then god’s choice is arbitrary: there is perhaps no distinction between good and evil for god; god simply wills what he does. On the other hand, if god wills what is good because it is good, then morality is in some sense independent of or separate from god; we humans need only find out what is good, which we can do without god or religion. If, however, considering the first of these two options, god were to decree something good (like not committing murder), is this not sufficient to objectify goodness for us? If god decreeing that murder is “bad” is indeed an arbitrary choice for god, does it follow that it is arbitrary for humans?

I think I see what you mean. But if I do, then the phrase "arbitrary for humans" is not exactly the way to pose your question. Humans aren't really making the choice in your scenario. So, the choice is neither arbitrary nor non-arbitrary for them. I think you might rather mean something like: Would God's arbitrarily commanding any conduct provide sufficient grounds for humans to regard that conduct as good? My sense is that the qualities of a lot of religious faith lead people to answer in the affirmative. In particular, for the faithful it's likely to be almost inconceivable to defy God's command on grounds that what's commanded seems immoral from a merely human point of view. The story of Abraham and Isaac exemplifies just this sort tendency in faith. The problem is that it seems to many at least as intolerable to accept that stealing, rape, mass murder, etc. could ever be acceptable. For example, many will find it intolerable to honor a command to torture, molest, mutilate, and kill innocent children-...

According to Karl Popper, a hypothesis is scientific if it can be observationally falsified, not, if it can be verified. One instance not in accordance with a supposed law refutes the law, but many instances in conformity with the law still do not prove it. Accepting this falsification test, we may remark that the idea of the divine existence either could, or could not, be falsified by a conceivable way of observation. If it could not, then science in no position to test theism. Please comment. Thanks

Yeah, I think that's right. The theistic hypothesis is not testable through the procedures of natural science. That in itself has led many, myself included, to a kind of agnosticism about theism. That's also one of the reasons why neither creationism nor much of what is described as intelligent design are scientific. Do note, however, that testability may not be the only basis for rejecting (or accepting) theism. Some reject theism because they find theistic language itself intolerably confused and senseless. Others point to the political and moral problems associated with theisms (the violence, the intolerance, the blunting of norms of reason and critical thinking). (I frequently find that line of reasoning attractive.) Some object to the way theism fails to produce agreement and generates divisions and sects. (Often compelling to me, too.) Along similar lines, others have concluded that it's simply undesirable to commit to beliefs that are excessively complex or, alternatively not as simple as...

Many people believe that it is inappropriate to impose one's religious beliefs on others. A principal reason for this belief is simply the observation that not everyone shares the same religion (and many are not religious at all). But mightn't a zealot simply say that, while he recognizes that many people disagree with him, he happens to be extremely confident that they are wrong? So I guess my question is this: In the endorsement of religious toleration, the separation of church and state, etc. is it implicit that religious people don't hold their religious beliefs very strongly?

No and yes. Historically, the idea of toleration developed along side streams of philosophical scrutiny of religious belief that suggested, rightly I think, that there's just not very good reason for zealous commitment to religious beliefs. So, while a zealot may, as you describe it, be exceedingly confident or dogmatic in his or her belief, there's no sound justification for doing so. In this sense, strains of modern skepticism have tempered religious belief in the form of what early modern thinkers called "enthusiasm." But, on the other hand, there are many ways of holding a belief "strongly." There are, one might say, ways of holding religious beliefs strongly that are consistent with tolerance and ways of holding beliefs strongly that are inconsistent. Tolerance itself commonly suggests that contrary views are considered wrong and even, perhaps, obnoxious. So, analogously, we speak of a body's capacity to tolerate a toxin or to tolerate the cold, etc. So, just as we might speak of a person who...

Throughout my life I have been, at one time or another, a believer in God, an agnostic and an atheist. I am amazed at the strength of other people's faith, especially at the faith of people who have taken up a new religion and fervently hold on to and defend their new beliefs for the rest of their lives. My question is how are people so convinced that their chosen religion is right over all the others. It seems impossible that a person can believe in a religion simply because he or she wants to - there must be some logic behind their reasoning - but I cannot understand it. Can you explain or is this one for psychologists?

This is a remarkable phenomenon, one that was noticed even in ancient times--the consensus gentium. Strictly speaking,I think, there is no good reason or defensible logic for belief in the standard religions. So, religious belief is, primarily, an issue for psychologists to figure out. Many philosophers have shown the irrationality or, anyway, non-rational grounding of religious belief. So, both the persistence of religious belief and its pervasive character must be thought of as remarkable. I suspect that inclinations to religious belief were selected through evolution because it was somehow adaptive. I also think that Freud was not entirely wrong that religious conviction extends from our being dependent upon parents during our formative years. Then, there's also our desire for order and comprehension that lends itself readily to thoughts about an ordering principle or source of intelligibility. And who is really free of a fear of death. There are, however, perhaps additional philosophical...

I'm a person living in a muslim country. There are lots of problems/discussions between religious and non-religious people about the limits of freedom. For example, some religious people say that they feel offended when someone nearby drinks a alcoholic drink. On the other hand the non-religious people say that it is their freedom to drink alcoholic drinks. There are many other cases of this type, that is, one say that they get offended (generally the religious ones) and the other say that it is their freedom to do such and such. My question is how should we think about such issues? Are there general principles about limits of freedom that we can use to solve such cases? Also, can you suggest introductory reading material on this issue? Thank you. Ahmet

This is a terribly and increasingly important issue, isn't it. Luckily, there has been quite a lot of work done on the topic. Two general principles to consider are these: (1) With regard to personal conduct like food, drink, sex, ornament, dress, etc., one should be at liberty to do whatever he or she pleases so long as no one else is harmed by the conduct; and (2) liberty should be maximized. One of the sticky bits here is the notion of "harm." Isn't being offended a kind of "harm"? Yes, I think it can be, but things get complicated here. In some cases, the concept of "offense" is misused. It may be in the case you describe. Can one be properly said to be offended by conduct that is not directed at one or a group to which one belongs? One can be upset, one can be disgusted, one can be outraged, but I'm not sure that offense is the right concept to use in the case you describe. It's also unclear why even if one can be said to be offended by conduct not directed at oneself or a group to which one...

From a moral Christian point of view, I cannot understand the idea that we should punish anyone. In America, which is a highly Christian-dominated society, there is little resistance to capital punishment from the "right wing." My understanding is that Christians are not supposed to judge. God will judge everyone when their time comes. Isn't Christian morality about tolerance and acceptance, and not revenge? "Turning the other cheek?" "Love thy neighbor/enemy as thyself?" Are Christians simply turning a blind eye to this action?

One might say, I suppose, in a kind of sociological way that Christianity is whatever Christians say it is. So, if people who call themselves Christians endorse capital punishment or punishments of other kinds, then those practices are Christian practices. But this isn't terribly satisfying for many, because people wish to believe that there is some sort of "true" Christianity against which the practices of people who call themselves Christians can be tested. And, anwyay, after all it does seem that it should be meaningful to speak of better and worse Christians. For myself, I think it probably impossible to speak of true Christianity in general. It is, however, I think meaningful to consider whether or not people meet the standards of Christianity they themselves or at least the authorities of their sects endorse. So, while it may be impossible to speak of better and worse Christians in general, one might speak of better and worse Catholics or Presbyterians or Baptists. According to the...

I've been reading lots of papers recently based around 'the Argument from Evil', its replies, the theodices and their objections. I'm agnostic but have always thought that the best reason for why non-human animals and children suffer in such terrible ways is because if they didn't we wouldn't question the existence of God. If we didn't have arguments based around a young fawn dying a slow, agonizing death in the forest then the Argument from Evil wouldn't be as effective as it is. We could come up with answers based on redemption from sin and so forth. The same can be said for AIDS, the plague, Auschwitz, whatever. The notion of mystery on the issue and freedom of thought that goes with it is in my mind one of our greatest gifts. If we didn't have these terrors then a beautiful sunset or a kind gesture or the stars would be enough to convince most of us (or at least a fair few of us) that there must be some kind of God. This doesn't seem to be covered by any of the theodices; the closest I can...

The problem of theodicy is a marvelous one, isn't it. I can't tell you how much pleasure I've culled from it, as have my students. For myself, I can't think of anyone whose put your point in exactly this way--but I don't pretend to command the enormous literature on the subject. I think an objection, or at least a question, might be raised to your point along these lines: Why is it better that people question the existence of God than not question? Wouldn't it be better if God were simply manifest to all and that there were no good reason for doubting God's existence? What possible advantage is served by God's hiddenness that isn't overwhelmmed by the enormous loss of souls it yields? You yourself raise a second objection: there seems to be a superfluity or excess of evil even if your point is granted. Therefore, the idea that evil is justified because it makes it possible to question God's existence doesn't seem sufficient.

Did teleological arguments give us reasonable grounds to believe in a Creator before Darwin?

The issue of what's to count as 'reaonsable' is a fascinating one, indeed. Part of the answer depends upon whether what one thinks is reasonable is in some sense transhistorical or whether it changes over time as people develop different norms of rationality. There's a larger than many realize contingent number of philosophers even today who think telelogical arguments reasonable. But your question is about how things stood before Darwin. In my own view, whether you think norms or rationality transhistorical or not, David Hume's argument's against the teleological argument in Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779; first composed in the 1750s) were decisive nearly a century before Darwin. Since, Hume I don't think one really can regard the telelogical argument as reasonable.

A question regarding the non-feasibility of political separation of church and State: Remarkably often, philosophers, politicians, and amateur debaters make the statement that a group "must not be permitted to force its religious beliefs upon others" in a nation with separation of church and state. However, for instance, in the United States of America, wouldn't this stance be in direct violation to the concept of majority-rule politics? E.G., In "Democratic government X with church-state seperation": 1.) 51% of voting citizens are "Religion Y" 2.) This group is spiritually opposed to "Concept Z" 3.) The no-or-other-spirituality community is pro-"Concept Z" Doesn't this violate support of separation of church and state? Through majority rule, the agreed system of government, laws would most certainly pass forbidding excercise of Concept Z. However, this clearly violates the legal/spiritual disparity implied in Church/State arguments. How can the ideal of separate church and state be balanced...

A really excellent question about some especially thorny issues. I'm not an expert in constitutional law, and so I would advise searching US supreme court and federal court decisions relevant to these issues. For myself, I would at present answer thus: Yes, the doctrine of "separation of church and state" does violate the principle of majority-rule. (The phrase was first used by Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter to Danbury, CT, Baptists: "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.") But that this separation limits majority rule is a good thing and something necessary for the realization of a democratic society. Democracy is not simply a matter of majority rule. If it were, the majority would be able to abuse minorities. Majority rule...

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