Now I’m to blame for Stalin!

The Stalin terror was an argument used against communism or socialism but now it’s atheists who are getting the blame. To an extent this is a reaction by some Christians to the recognised role of religion in modern terrorism (especially Maoafter the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA). Maybe its also a Christian reaction to recent atheist writings on this. I can’t help thinking, though, that the motivation behind this blame is the old religious argument that one cannot be moral without religion and a new attempt to demonise atheists.

Some of the atheist writing on the role of religion in terrorism need criticism (see my post Sources of evil?). However, I want to deal with arguments about Stalin and Mao Zedong here because, though inappropriate, these arguments are getting some traction.

In a sense, the crimes of Stalin, Mao and the Christian Inquisition are problems for all of us.

Communist responsibility

Firstly, these questions should rightly be addressed to communists or Marxists because the crimes of Stalin and Mao occurred in regimes under their ideological and political rule. The Soviet Communist Party did confront some of these issues with Krushchev’s speech at its 1956 Congress. Discussion became more analytical during the 1980s with articles and debate in Soviet newspapers dealing with the responsibility of aspects of Marxist and Leninist ideology for the Stalin terror, his personality cult and other problems of Soviet society. This preceded the loss of power by communists in the countries of the former USSR.

Unfortunately, the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese people are yet to have this discussion.

Secondly, part of the argument involves manipulation of numbers. The numbers of victims of communism are inflated by including deaths through famine and social disruption together with the direct victims of the terror – those arrested, imprisoned and killed directly. The numbers of victims of religious violence are usually restricted to the direct victims. We thus get figures of around 20 million victims of Stalin and 75 million victims of Mao, while quoting numbers in the thousands for victims of the inquisition, for example.

Persecution of heretics

Thirdly, there is a tendency to imply that the victims of Stalin and Mao were religious – that they were persecuted by atheists for their beliefs. Of course religious organisations did have a difficult position in these regimes (after all, the Russian Orthodox Church was on the wrong side in the revolution) and there were many religious leaders among the victims. However, consider that during the height of the Stalin terror about one half of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee were eliminated. Presumably this was reflected in persecution of ordinary members of the party. Communists may well have been the largest proportion of those directly persecuted and killed in this period. Similarly, communists were probably the largest proportion of those directly victimised and killed during Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in China. This is understandable considering the internal political conflicts within these communist parties and the paranoia of their leaders and the times.

I suggest that a similar situation existed during the Christian Inquisition – most of the victims were Christian “heretics,” rather than atheists. Actually, the more I read about the Stalin terror and the Christian Inquisition the more similar they seem.

So, at one level responsibility lies with the specific ideology. Communists must examine their own ideology to find reasons for the inhumanities committed in their name. Similarly Christians must do the same for the inquisition and Muslims for Islamic jihads and terror. Religious ideologists should also look for the causes of other inhumanities such as indoctrination of children, homophobia, genital mutilation, interference in scientific endeavor, and so on.

Responsibility of the species

But at another level we should recognise that these are problems for our species, not just one or another ideological group. Why is it that we so strongly and so dangerously adhere to ideology? Why are we so prone to extremism? And why is it that even good people, people who are not pathologically abnormal, can commit evil acts and atrocities. This is true for theists and non-theists alike.

After all, the atrocities of the inquisition, the Stalin terror and the Maoist “Cultural Revolution” were not all committed by the political and ideological leaders or even just their organisations. They were also committed by the ordinary men and women caught up in the system and the hysteria of the times. This didn’t necessarily require the appropriate ideological commitment. For example, often petty jealousies or personal ambition were enough for individuals to participate in the Stalinist denunciations. Given the reality of political and personal power at the time (the Soviet Communist Party was the only legal political organisation) I expect that many religious people were participants in the political structure and participated in the Stalin terror.

As a species we evolved to survive and reproduce – not to be the ideal creatures that some would like. So it’s not surprising that violence and the capability of committing evil is part of human nature. Andy Thomson discussed this in his presentation on Suicide Terrorism (“We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers.”) at the AAI Convention. (see videos below). Research carried out by Zimbardo (Stanford Prison Experiments and see also his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil), Milgram (electrical shock experiments) and Asch (conformity experiments) showed that even ordinary moral people can commit inhuman acts given the appropriate conditions (demonisation and dehumanisation of opponents, creating a “them” and “us” mentality, ideological or religious justification, etc.).

A personal morality

But the human species is a product of history and social evolution as well as biological evolution. This has produce positive ethical and moral qualities as well as leaving us with our violent characteristics. Consequently it is possible for humanity to control and rise above these negative and dangerous aspects of our nature. This is the positive message coming out of the research.

Zimbardo, for example, describes positive moral examples of whistle blowers, of people prepared to stand against the ideological and conformational pressures surrounding them. People who end up being heroes. A recent film about an agent in the East German Stasi (The Lives of Others) shows how individuals can exert their own positive morality at times when the group or social morality becomes inhuman. This requires people to think for themselves, to assess social and political ideas critically, and be prepared to stand up against even their own social and ideological groups when things go wrong.

We probably all agree that such an individual position is laudable. But doesn’t such an individual stand require critical thinking and reason? Isn’t blind faith more likely to make us go along with irrational and inhumane actions of our group – whether it is a political party or a religion?

Andy Thomson on Suicide Terrorism: Part 1 (24 min)

Andy Thomson on Suicide Terrorism: Part 2 (28 min)

Andy Thomson on Suicide Terrorism: Part 3 (25 min)

Related Articles:
From faith to reason
Sources of evil?
Morals, values and the limits of science
Society’s ” Christian values”
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Common values, common action?
Special rights for religion?
Family planning and the inhumanity of religion
Is religion the source of morality?
Religion and violence

20 responses to “Now I’m to blame for Stalin!

  1. Thoughtful piece, Ken.

    My wife and I really enjoyed ‘The Lives of Others’. A related piece is ‘Sophie Scholl’, (Wiki article here) who (as part of the ‘White Rose‘ movement) distributed leaflets subverting Nazi ideology…

    These problems are complex and bewildering, which is why I appreciated your preparedness to challenge simplistic analysis from both theist and non-theist perspectives.

    One of the things to consider is that those who commit what we’ve (rightly) called evil, senseless acts of violence, did not always think they were doing evil. Probably the opposite. Mao no doubt imagined that his ‘cultural revolution’ was for the ultimate good.

    Which makes me think of your comments about social evolution… If our notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are a product of evolution, then I suppose you would have to say that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are simply words, and that there are no such things as true ‘good’ and/or true ‘evil, right? Does not the evolutionary view demand that ethics are fluid and conformative?

    Also, would not human killing be quite a ‘natural’ thing as part of a ‘survival of the fittest’ meta-narrative?

    On resisting oppressive regimes, I’m all for it (this is what the early church did under the Roman Empire, and what Sophie Scholl did under Nazi Regime). We all want to ‘right’ the ‘wrongs’ in the world, but this desire for justice can all too quickly become the fuel for precisely the kind of evil things discussed above…

    How do we achieve (or heck, even work toward!) justice?

    How do we discern what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’?

    There are times when doing what we ‘know/feel’ is ‘right’ will require us to not listen to ‘authority’. These times, we must desperately cling to convictions/ideas…

    Other times, the mainstream or authority is ‘right’ after all, and it is the minority of extremists who need to be resisted/challenged…

    Many times, it’s just more confusing than that. Who’s right, who’s wrong. Who can I trust? Can I trust my own judgment or intuition or logic?

    What are your thoughts, Ken, about such issues of morality, conviction and justice?



  2. “One of the things to consider is that those who commit what we’ve (rightly) called evil, senseless acts of violence, did not always think they were doing evil. Probably the opposite.”
    I agree – at least when they start. It’s one of the reasons I hate naming my beliefs or joining organisations. Once you adhere to a dogma you end up being obliged to support it and its consequences. People join political parties for the most humane of reasons and then find that they end up doing inhumane things (lying is just the start), and justifying it.

    I don’t agree with you about Mao. He was a bastard from early days. I don’t think he even came into the Communist Party as a believer in Marxism – he had his own agenda and was basically a war lord – the Party was a vehicle for him. There is an excellent biography Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday which brings this out. I have a thing about Mao because in the 60s I watched NZ leftists, liberals (and yes many Christians)and some of my friends declare support for Mao and the so-called “Cultural revolution”. Yet it was so clear (to me) what was happening. Its any interesting phenomena, probably something to do with self-delusion and the idealisation of ones beliefs.

    “How do we discern what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’?” I think that assessment is subjective and changes over time. (We can all see how concepts of right and wrong have changed in our lifetime). So it is to some extent an (biologically) evolved thing, to some extent cultural and historical. Is there an objective morality? Dennett says there is, like arithmetic. I guess some of our moral concepts, the more basic unchanging ones, are like that.

    Yes, I think you do have to trust your own feelings, intuition (which must be derived from the above factors anyway). We certainly have to use that to judge the given dogma (whether its from the Bible or the Great Helmsman). If we don’t we end up doing horrible things in the name of that dogma.


  3. Thanks Ken,

    This is good interaction. (I haven’t read much on Mao, so perhaps you are right!)

    I’m interested in the notion of ‘objective morality’. I have similar notions about truth in general. There is indeed ‘objective truth’, but we don’t ‘know’ it ‘objectively’… However, as we both agree concerning ‘scientific objectivity’, this should not stop us from trying! 🙂

    If you don’t mind, I think the area of ‘human sexuality’ would be an interesting test case for our discussion of morality…

    What might a pursuit of an ‘objective morality’ look like in the area of human sexual morality?

    Yes, the outright hatred/rudeness/etc. of many Christian fundies toward (for example) homosexuals angers me. But, however, I’m disturbed by the lack of direction provided in this area… The common guidance is often along the lines of ‘whatever you choose will be the right choice.’ This is the opposite of guidance. Yes, control and/or manipulation could be the other extreme, but what would healthy considerate guidance look like in this area, and (this is the key question) what would this guidance be based on?

    On what basis (as another example) should incest be thought immoral? (This, as you many well know, has been publicly challenged,,30200-1253397,00.html)
    Why on earth (for argument’s sake) should a mother and her 18yr old son be denied the right to show care and affection for one another through sexual intercourse? The above advice ‘whatever you choose will be the right choice’ seems inadequate for me…

    I’ve rambled enough… Your thoughts?



  4. There has been some work done on the evolutionary origins of the incest taboo. It seems to be common in other primates and possible some other mammals. There are obviously good biological reasons why such a taboo should have evolved. As for its mechanism – this could well be similar to the intuitive disgust response we have. Probably a result of chemical/biochemical/macromolecular factors in our brains, and in signally between individuals when they grow up in close proximity.

    Those sort of objective causes could lead to the ideas being encoded in our social arrangements and organisations. (I have said before that I see religions as having emerged and evolved partly to provide this sort of codifying of social ideas, customs, laws and ethics).

    I imagine that there are a range of ethical ideas originating from objective factors like this. Our responses may have evolved for good biological reasons, but may also in some cases develop as learned responses during social evolution. Many of the latter would be less fixed, more prone to change and hence be controversial. Attitudes to women, sexual orientation, marriage, etc., are pretty fluid (and do not have good biological support).

    Trying to get my head around Dennett’s idea of an “objective morality – like arithmetic.” I guess one could derive some sort of moral logic in the same way we derive an arithmetic logic. Our brain has evolved to have an enhanced ability to be logical, compared with other mammals. So, as we can now abstract to get numbers and them manipulate them perhaps the fact that our abilities to empathise and to mirror other individuals (which appear to be inherent, wired in, to our brains) means that we can intuitively apply simple logic – identifying with another individual implies we should intuitively not want to hurt or kill them. This might be expressed more strong during within-kin interaction. Other factors may take over outside kin – inter-kin and inter-tribal rivalry leading to a morality justifying killing. Again religions have codified this (Thou should not kill within your own tribe or race but it’s OK, (even honourable) to kill others). This morality has obviously evolved together with social evolution – the killing taboo is now more likely to extend to people of other nations and races. I think we are now in the process of extending this to our species and beyond to other species.

    Its all pretty speculative (and only my ramblings) but I think that research is bringing out some of the evolutionary and neurological sources of morality. That’s not to say that science can tell use what is moral (that’s up to us as individuals and social creatures to work out) but it can investigate much of the underlying biology and (perhaps) sociology.


  5. I appreciate the comment. Really I do. But could you interact with the specific test-case I presented (human sexuality)?

    As for ‘biological support’ for what is called ‘sexual orientation’, I can’t disagree with those that point to the quite obvious ‘genital compatability’ (my phrase!?) that is manifest between males (penis) and females (vagina).

    (another obvious point where biology seems to guide us is that women are clearly equipped -breasts- to nuture and feed their young, whereas men are not, thus providing us with different family roles – which of course can be taken to over-specific extremes! – e.g. only men handle money and only women cook, etc. 🙂 )

    The example of ‘genital compatability’ might point toward a specific type of guidance for those exploring/questioning such sexuality issues, but the example of mother-with-son is more complex…

    And of course, we’re not talking about irrelevant, non-realistic, speculative, straw-man examples – these are activites that are quite real and happening around the world.

    My perspective would lead me to counsel and/or guide people to adapt their sexual behaviour to match the pattern of their biology. Sexuality, like all other areas of life, need guidance. Not everything one may want to do (sexually or otherwise) is good. Something just tells me that it would be better for children to see their father being loyal to his partner (their mother), and it seems that this somehow promotes a kind of stability and wholeness that is good – whereas if the father followed his ‘animal instincts’ and engaged sexually with whomever he wanted, this would just seem (albeit ‘subjectively’) to engender instability and uncertainty in not only the female family partner, but also the children…

    I’m trying to avoid social terms like ‘wife’, ‘husband’, ‘marriage’ – though I am a huge advocate of these terms, and think that stable families engender stable societies. In other words, the family/whanau is the foundational building block of society.

    Thoughts here? And, please, do interact with my test-case if you will…




  6. “sexual orientation” I mean as psychological orientation rather than just biological – the learned response (attitudes to homosexuality) in society have changed, partly because we have a better understanding of the biological basis for this orientation, partly because our concepts of human rights are more humane.

    “Sexuality, like all other areas of life, need guidance. “ I am not having anyone guide me on this – I am old enough and silly enough to look after myself here! And this is the problem with ideologically imposed morality isn’t it – telling other people how to live according to the biases of the ideologue. And these ideologues usually want to go further than the bedroom, don’t they?

    Of course parents give moral guidance to their children – it’s one of the ways they learn morality. But let’s face it some of that “moral guidance” is questionable, teaching a us/them mentality, hatred, racism, religious chauvinism.

    Having raised 4 children (and with 4 grandchildren) I know that moral guidance is not simple but am convinced that it should be realistic, not based on personal prejudice, humane, and aimed at developing the individual to think for themselves.

    Your test case (human sexuality) – what can I say. It is an area where religion has done so much damage, basically because of the “god-justified” prejudices imposed on society. We really need to question such approaches to morality, and fortunately we do more and more. I compare the damage done by these attitudes in the 50s and 60s (which effectively destroyed families) with today’s morality and I think we are now far more humane.

    However, I don’t think discussion should be about comparing individual moral values (which are individual) but about how we humanity develops them, why we can be so good and so bad.


  7. All guidance is ‘moral’, Ken. All of life is ‘moral’. There aren’t some bits that matter and some that don’t… It all matters.

    And I think my test case – including the conclusion I come to – is realistic AND humane.

    ‘Thinking for ourselves’ is great, but not at the expense of community. Only we modern westerners with our excessive individualism are so concerned with this. Don’t get me wrong, free thought is precious, and we simply have to protect this – but all too often simple difference of opinion is taken as some attack at free thought… give me a break! We’ve simply GOT to learn how to work out our differences concerning laws, ethics and all the rest of it without resorting to such cop-outs… “You can’t disagree with me! I have a right to think what I want!” Puh-leeze…

    Yes, I am deeply troubled by the harm that people of faith have done when it comes to human sexuality. But it remains a key area for discussion and work – however difficult. Pornography, child-molestation, incest, rape – you name it; these things are real, and whether we like it or not our sexual desires are not always good. There need to be boundaries. Do we shoot pedophiles on the spot? Heck no. I know of churches where they are welcomed – however cautiously – and worked with to achieve rehabilitation and growth and self control… It’s a huge conversation, yes, but an important one.

    (I’m wanting to do a post on my blog about this, but trying to find the time…)

    Cheers for now,



  8. Who has the right to “guide” (or, in reality, on what basis do these individuals claim for themselves the right to “guide”)? As a mature person I can’t imagine giving that to any other person.

    I think people who are brought up in a humane environment, taught to respect evidence, knowledge and reason, and encouraged to develop critical thinking and to think for themselves, rather than just follow the fashion or pack, do end up as wonderfully moral and interesting people. We need more of them. How can that ever be at the expense of the community? It seems to me that it is the people that can’t think, that follow the group mentality, that adhere to “faith” rather than evidence and reason – these are the people who endanger the community. They are very often the ones who attempt to impose their beliefs, customs and ceremonies on the rest of us.

    I think you may have interpreted “thinking for themselves” as “thinking only of themselves”. Complete opposites. The second stance doesn’t involve real thinking.

    I look forward to you posting something on this subject. I believe a key question should be not just acknowledging the harm that religion has done on issues of human sexuality, but why it has done this harm? Why is it that religion almost always has done such harm? And why do religions follow, lag behind, common humane morality, rather than provide leadership? Where individual religious leaders have provided humane leadership (at the same time as their co-religion leaders have promoted anti-humane, backward, leadership) – why is this so? Is it a result of their religion or despite it?

    Actually, I think that approach could (and should) be taken much more widely. For example we could apply the same questions to the communist movement. Comparing Gorbachev and his opponents in the USSR; Mao Tse Tung and Lui Shao Chi in the Chinese “Great Leap Forward”, etc. Within any movement there are the reactionary and progressive elements. Do the progressive elements get their humane morality from the beliefs they hold in common with their opponents? Or is it because they break out of their collective ideology and morality and develop a personal morality? I find these questions very interesting.

    These sort of questions, I think, raise issues relating to human evolution, the origins of our “human nature” and the special abilities of our species, because of the evolution of new structures in its brain, to attain a morality which overrides and controls those negative features arising our of biological and social evolution.


  9. Well…

    On who has the right to guide, I would say the right to guide is not only for ALL, but it is also more than a right – it’s a responsibility… No one has the right to control anyone, but as for guidance, that’s a right and responsiblity of all. Now, we might want to play with the word ‘guide’, but I think you see what I mean?

    ‘Thinking for yourself’ is great, I was saying, but is most fruitful when done in a context of sharpening, ‘guidance’ and dialogue with others – community, you might say (whether it’s a community of physicists, theologians, teachers, lawyers, ethicists, etc.)…

    I’d be curious as to see how you think people ‘impose’ things on others. I’m not convinced it’s as violent an act as you might think. Yes, people can be rude or overly forceful in sharing their views, but is this what you’re talking about?

    Must run for now…



  10. Critical thinking, of course, embodies responsibility. Submission to “guidance” would, I imagine, mean also handing over responsibility. Humans are social animals and as such our discussions and decisions on ethics and morality occur socially. In the past religion has had a role encoding these conclusions (and delivering tis wisdom from on high) – some people still give them that role. But more and more people look elsewhere and take responsibility outside religions. And, I think, many people feel that religions have a bad track record in this area anyway. (I certainly do but think this is inevitable for any body setting itself up as an authoritarian moral guide).

    As for “guidance” – can’t envisage what you could mean in an acceptable way (who is going to guide me? and how?)

    It really reminds me of the propaganda that used to come out of North Korea. Newspaper articles showed the “Great Leader”, Kim Il Sung, visiting factories, farms, work collectives, etc., and always giving on the spot “guidance” to the people – as if he was the font of wisdom and the ordinary practitioners had to follow the wisdom he dispensed. It’s really so bad that, despite being dead, he is still the president! Still giving on the spot guidance, I suppose!

    Now that’s the image “guidance gives me!


  11. Thanks Ken,

    I just had a new thought as I read your post:
    Your use of the word ‘religion’ is often (always) as a noun. I don’t want to wrestle over who can use this word and how it must be used, but the comparison I just thought of was this:

    We talk of ‘religion’ (noun) doing things (be they good or bad), and I think that’s misleading. ‘Religion’ doesn’t do anything. Religious people do things. In this sense, a better word is ‘devout’ or some similar sense. Of course, what this leads us to realise (hopefully), is that ALL people are ‘devout’ (or at least can be) in some way or ways. Anyway, my comparison… A ‘Religion’ doesn’t do anything, and neither does a ‘business’ or a ‘corporation’ or an ‘organisation’. I don’t know if you’ve seen the doco ‘The Corporation’, but it highlights the loss of responsibility (or at least the muddied nature of it) when groups of morally, socially and ethically responsible people are referred to and/or redefined as a ‘corporation’. This new ‘entity’ is harder to pin-down, control, keep accountable, etc. Obviously, you would probably feel the same way about ‘religions’, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you! Too much power always corrupts, aye? But teamwork and working together, community, synergy, etc. can be great… Yet another balance for us to hold in tension… Life is full of tensions…

    The tension with ‘guidance’ is the tension between not enough and too much (way too much in some cases!)… The tension between freedom and framework… between order and chaos… There are healthy middle grounds between all these…



  12. Still don’t know what you mean by guidance specifically. Is it the sort offered by Kim Il Sung and religious leaders?


  13. Ken, you surely know that I’m obviously NOT talking about manipulative control, don’t you? Gee whiz! 🙂

    I’m talking about basic guidance – as in leading, advising, directing each other… this quite simply just happens in all families, companies, organisations, nations, teams, clubs, etc. We guide one another.

    The questions, however, about guidance are many. How do we guide? How much is too little? How much is too much? When does guidance become control? This same principle is what is being worked out in various governments around the world. How much law does a given society need? Some worldviews suggest not much – keep it to a minimum. Others have said the more the better. This is what I’m talking about.

    I’m suggesting (back to my test case area) that human sexuality needs guidance like all other areas of life. How to do that, however, is not only a big question in this test case, but in other areas as well.

    So, anyway… No, I don’t mean manipulation, coercion or control or anything like that. I’m talking about wise, robust and engaging guidance for a humanity that desperately needs at least some guidance.

    My view is that too much ‘guidance’ (a.k.a. manipulation, control) will actually lead to resistance (often violent!) against that ‘guidance’. On the other hand, too little ‘guidance’ will lead to chaos (which also can be violent!).

    Take police for example. We need structure in society to prevent things that can be prevented. We need officers with hand-cuffs, etc. to protect those that can’t protect themselves, etc. The thing is, hand-cuffing, fining, arresting and/or imprisoning people isn’t the only or best way to guide people in every area of life. Some problems aren’t solved by these means. People need counselling, rehabilitation, restoration, etc.

    I’m rambling. Anyway, do you see what I mean by ‘guidance’???


  14. Who is that is “guiding” me? I am not aware of anyone.
    Who is it that provides “wise, robust and engaging guidance for a humanity?” Perhaps they are to blame for the problems the world is in?


  15. Do we not guide each other? Parents, law-makers, teachers, bosses, friends, etc.?

    I’m simply talking about very human realities here.

    I’m confused. You say, Who is that is “guiding” me? I am not aware of anyone.” What do you mean? Surely you’ve been guided by a parent, teacher, instructor, friend, etc….



  16. These day I learn from others (hopefully they sometimes learn from me to). To me guidance implies a one-way process and a claim of authority on the part of the guider.


  17. I think authority is just as common of a life experience as guidance (or your preferred term ‘learning’)…

    Now, I suspect you might have a word that you prefer instead of ‘authority’ here as well? 🙂

    These things ‘guidance’ and ‘authority’ are very real things. OF COURSE, we know what it looks like when they are abused, but they are good and (I think) necessary things. We need (at least some kind of) guidance, and (at least some kind of) authority. Funny me saying that, because I’m a fairly ‘anti-establishment’ kind of guy… I know just like the rest that power seems to always corrupt, though I wonder if it’s just power used in the wrong way that corrupts (or is already corrupt)… Like most things – it’s more complicated than we may like to think about. Simple solutions don’t do.

    I have a quasi-related question that may seem random:

    Do you think/feel/believe/agree that the act of rape (humans sexually raping humans) is always wrong? If you would put that differently, how would you put it? On what basis are your conclusions?

    I don’t suspect you think rape is OK, but I’m curious as to on what basis you’d say so. I suspect you’d say something about ‘social evolution’, which has happened in addition to biological evolution, no? Well, what about places in the world right this minute that are not ‘socially evolved’ to the point where rape is ‘wrong’? Is rape OK there? What then, is the difference between a bull ‘forcing itself’ (rape?) on a cow, and a ‘socially primitive’ human raping another ‘socially primitive’ human?

    (Keep in mind, I’m not trying to sneak some moral code onto you or anything. These are very real questions. The principles of these questions are directly related to every other ethical area…)



  18. Of course I see human rape as “wrong” – and most probably on the same basis that you do. Violence in sexual acts has surely arisen during evolution of many species (many much worse than occur in our species). But because it is “natural”, has evolved, and seems to work for some species doesn’t provide an argument for humans to practice it.

    What follows is just my thinking on this – I don’t “know” in the way that some people claim.

    I think that what differentiates humans from other animals is the evolution of our brain. We have much more capacity for thinking and logic. I suspect we could postulate that one consequence is a moral logic. We can arrive at moral positions by reason, even when these positions may appear to conflict with our biological situation.

    But our moral logic, while maybe appearing “absolute” is made relative by our environment, our biology and society:

    In war rape becomes OK as part of conquest even today;
    Slavery is abhorred today but was accepted by most people (and religions) a few centuries ago;
    Apartheid was acceptable to many people (including many New Zealanders) until a few decades ago;
    Segregation in the USA was accepted by many Americans until the 60s;
    Colonialism was accepted by “reasonable” people until recently.

    I could go on. But I think we can argue for absolute moral positions on all of these issues. Colonisation, rape, slavery, apartheid, etc., have always been wrong – even when supported by the majority. I would like to think that I could have held an anti-slavery position if I had lived several hundred years ago. I know I, and lots of others, were capable of holding anti-apartheid and anti-colonial positions when very many people (including a so-called moral spokespeople) around me didn’t.

    But here we come to the problem of guidance. Very often our so-called moral spokespeople go through mental gymnastics to justify a relative moral position. Time and again we have seen this regarding power structures (religious justification of oligarchies), wars, slavery, etc., etc. Even when arguing that their morals are absolute they can be presenting justification for a relative position. And , of course, we are now all so familiar with the hypocrisy of many of these moral guiders – their own moral performance has discredited them and their organisations.

    So, I think there is a moral logic, in a sense an absolute morality, that as humans we can all access and work out (like arithmetic). But beware of anyone claiming to have “special” knowledge of this morality which we must then take on faith. Or of anyone trying to impose a bronze-age relative morality onto us today.


  19. This is good stuff, Ken.

    The problems of ‘guidance’, ‘power’, ‘morality’ and ‘authority’ collide here.

    Yes, we know what the abuse of moral power/influence/authority looks like. At the national and international level, AND at the community and even family level. As you say, time and time again, those that have been looked up to have let us down…

    Nevertheless, we see the need to (as you say) ‘access and work out’ this ‘morality’ thing. We sense that it is an important and urgent task. But so often we get it wrong… Innocent people are punished for things they did not do, and guilty people go free. The rich complain about long queues at shopping malls while children die of starvation. Some men rape women, treating them as mere objects, while some women endorse their own objectification by contributing to and modelling for advertisements, shoots, etc. which portray women as sex objects… It’s all confusing and just wrong…

    Bishop of Durham Tom Wright (and other like-minded people like Jim Wallis – ‘The Soul of Politics’) argue that it is actually the Church’s vocation to speak truth to power – rather than collude with it (e.g. the US republican party!). I know you won’t (probably?) like the word ‘truth’, but that’s what I mean by what you call ‘absolute morality’. I can’t say strongly enough how much I agree that no one has ‘pure’ access to this. It’s something that we work out together – all humans, not just a few.

    Interestingly, (and historically) it was the earliest Church that had this subversive ethic in the shadow of the Roman Empire. My conviction is that by the time Christianity became the ‘official’ religion of the Empire, it had already begun to compromise itself.

    Life seems, unfortunately, to follow the ‘pyramid’ structure – at least most large organisations (be they an Empire, a religion, a government or a corporation!) seem to default to that. The most human thing to do is to call these power-structures to account.

    A quick note however… I’ll use globalisation as an example.

    The global market is not (in and of itself) the problem. It’s not necessarily wrong that (for example) people in one corner of the world drink coffee from beans grown in another corner. What IS wrong is when the coffee growers can’t live on what they are paid. Globalisation itself can be positive – if it helps (via trade) lift the poor out of poverty. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the capitalist pipe dream has ensured that globalisation does precisely the opposite – it has kept the rich and the poor firmly in place…

    I’m rambling… But my point is that power and authority (even ‘moral authority’) in and of themselves aren’t the problem. It’s just when they are not accountable to anyone that they seem to always become a problem.

    I’m happy to work alongside anyone in working for morality, justice (which is itself moral – it all is!) and human-ness.



  20. Oh yeah,

    forgot to mention that my ‘human sexuality’ post is up now…

    I’d be interested to get your feedback…




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