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Free Will Revisited February 21, 2008

Posted by Tim in Religion, Thoughts.
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Recently I was participating in a discussion which touched on “Christians and the State”. I was disappointed at the direction it went because it ended up being the typical assertions of “God is in control” that has been regurgitated many times – we didn’t manage to discuss the practical issues that concern all of us today.

I took issue with one point in particular: the pastor wrote on the board that governments were “appointed by God”. I pointed out that if I were to vote for the opposition, knowing full well that the current ruling party would return to power anyway, then that’s saying I’m going against what God wants. To which the other side backtracked and said that God grants us free will to choose, but will use whatever government that is in place to carry out his plans. The pastor also added that we should pray that we choose according to God’s will.

The root issue here is free will. In fact, the pastor adhered nearly exactly to an earlier post that I made, the Superlative God.

First you have an argument along the lines of Calvinism: God appoints the government. This would, of course, be very attractive if you are in government yourself.

Next you have the Arminian-influenced belief: God has granted you the “free will” to choose, but we should all try to choose our candidate according to His will.

The last alternative is in the fashion of Open Theism: People do indeed freely elect their own governments, based on the qualities they want in the candidate or party.

Many, if not all denominations will say they believe in “free will”, but I’ve realized that most of the time it starts and stops with the Garden of Eden. Just far enough to blame Eve for the apple.

The rest of the time what most people do is “pray” that they will “follow God’s will” – often I wonder if they really mean what they say. I have never, for example, seen a patient just diagnosed with cancer immediately ask whether it is God’s will for them to be cured or to seek treatment; but (if) the patient passes on everyone says it was God’s will and part of God’s plan. On an exam graded according to a bell curve ( where a fixed percentage of students will get a certain grade ), you won’t find any students – or their parents – thinking that it’s God’s will for them to NOT be at the top.

The most cynical interpretation of this phenomenon is that people use God’s mandate for their actions. Mike Huckabee, for example, claimed divine intervention when his poll numbers unexpectedly improved. And of course we have Rafidah Aziz – Malaysians saw a weak PM not daring to fire her, while she claimed a mandate from God.

A more empathic way to see this, which is probably closest to the truth, is that humans will usually only leave it “up to God’s will” when they are unable to help themselves or have no other recourse. The more devout will seek God’s will to override their own, the egoistical claim that whatever they do is by God’s will.

Here the questions arise: how sacred is free will to God, and how important is it to you? There are plenty of instances in the Bible, for example, where God manipulates man’s will, the most famous being the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart [Exodus 7:1-3], followed by horrific plagues upon Egypt because of his refusal(?) to let the Israelites go.

How important is free will to you? I can already imagine some looking up a rebuttal to the verse I quoted; it might save you time if I gave you the typical answer: “Pharaohs heart was already hardened, God merely completed the process”. To which I would reply: how receptive would you be if your neighbour came up to you and demanded that you release your Indonesian maid? More to the point, what decision would Pharaoh have made if God hadn’t hardened his heart? If Pharaoh would have decided to let the Hebrew slaves go anyway, why did God harden his heart and kill the firstborn of all Egypt?

The Free Will Defense, a term coined by Alvin Plantinga, is a popular argument that tries to explain the problem of evil. The problem of evil has its roots in the very first chapters of the Bible: Why did God place the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, and allow Eve to eat it? The proponent of FWD argues that humans must have the free will to choose God of their own accord. Here free will becomes a sacred thing.

But the question now is this: what is the “free” in “free will”? The mere ability to choose has no meaning, just like randomly crossing boxes on a ballot wastes your right to vote. Some people misuse the FWD by saying that “God cannot reveal himself to us because it violates our free will; we would have no choice but to believe”. But free will is only meaningful when you acquire or are provided enough knowledge to weigh the pros and cons and make an informed decision – something that comes across as ironic, since Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from the Tree that would provide them this very ability.

I would like to take time here to discuss whether God himself has free will – if God knows the future, he knows what decisions he is going to make. Even if you bring forward the argument that God is outside time, basic principles of logic dictate that you need to be capable of logical sequences (if A, then B ) – but it’s getting late, my brain hurts, and wills me to stop :).

Malaysia says “no” to Syariah? July 26, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, News, Religion.
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The only time Malaysia seems to get on Digg/Slashdot/Google News these days seems to be when people are shaking their heads at us, so it was a relief to see this piece from Reuters – Malaysia’s top court draws line after Islamic cases:

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s highest court has ruled that legal cases involving non-Muslims cannot be decided by sharia courts, drawing a line after a spate of high-profile cases that left many in legal limbo.

The Federal court, in a landmark judgement, held that disputes between a Muslim and a non-Muslim on family and Islamic matters should be settled in a civil court, the New Straits Times reported on Thursday.

“They (non-Muslims) can’t be present to defend themselves in the sharia courts,” Judge Abdul Hamid Mohamad was quoted by the daily as saying.

The ruling came amid a bitter debate on whether the mainly Muslim nation is an Islamic state. The polemic has exposed religious and racial faultlines ahead of a widely expected early general election.

Preventing a repeat of the Lina Joy and Revathi Massosai cases will be a huge step towards making sense of Malaysia.

Nope, Not Secular – Najib July 18, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, News, Religion.
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The Sun and Malaysiakini have the news (and of course, LKS his opinion): Najib declares that Malaysia is an Islamic state.

The amazing thing is that this was a reply to a question asking if Malaysia was moving from a secular government to an Islamic state! I have to grudgingly admit that the man has guts; instead of giving the politically correct answer, he just gave it straight to us (that said, he might very well pull the “misquoted/misunderstood” card tomorrow so don’t hold me to this):

“Islam is the official religion and Malaysia is an Islamic state, an Islamic state that respects the rights of the non-Muslims and we protect them,” he said when asked to comment on concerns that Malaysia was moving from a secular government to an Islamic State and whether is Malaysia is one.

“I want to correct you (reporter), that we have never never been a secular state. Secular by Western definition means separation of the Islamic principles in the way we govern the country.

On one hand, this attitude does explain why MPs slaughter cows in Parliament, why deconverting from Islam is treason, and why this year the hottest story around the globe about Malaysia is Lina Joy. You have to pity the people over at the Sun who wrote that piece on “upholding our secular Constitution” some time back.

“”But as an Islamic state, it does not mean that we don’t respect the non-Muslims. The Muslims and the non-Muslims have their own rights”, quotes Malaysiakini. The question here is what on earth we infidels are supposed to make of all this, or did he think that we wouldn’t hear of it?

On the other hand, it could be that he just doesn’t know what “secular” means, or he could be just looking for brownie points – with all that’s been happening lately, no secularist is going to vote for BN anyway; might as well try to look (and sound) holy.

Oops! Not a Malay after all June 3, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, News, Religion.
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Fresh on the heels of the Joy case is a little gem from Reuters:

A Malaysian Muslim man switched at birth in a hospital mix-up has filed a lawsuit seeking to become a Buddhist and have his name changed, newspapers reported on Saturday.

The gaping logic hole that is our constitutional definition of “Malay = Muslim”, coupled with Islam’s anti-apostasy stance, makes for a dilemma that would be comical if it weren’t so sad (I know, I know, I’ve been using this phrase lots).

[Edit]: This story is actually a few months old.

Inaccurate and sensational? June 2, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, News, Religion.
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The clown we have for an Information Minister strikes again:

“I hope local journalists will not dance to the tune of their foreign counterparts.

“There are local journalists who think too highly of the foreign media, and to me, this demonstrates an inferiority complex,” he said when launching the Malaysia Creative competition organised by Bernama here.

Referring to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) article titled “Malaysia Rejects Christian Appeal” on the Lina Joy’s court decision carried on its news portal yesterday, he said the piece was inaccurate and sensational.

Inaccurate and sensational? Look up the BBC piece in question and see for yourself:

Malaysia rejects Christian appeal

Is the headline inaccurate and sensational? Does Zainuddin think that Lina Joy is not a Christian?

Malaysia’s highest court has rejected a Muslim convert’s six-year battle to be legally recognised as a Christian.

How is this inaccurate and sensational?

A three-judge panel ruled that only the country’s Sharia Court could let Azlina Jailani, now known as Lina Joy, remove the word Islam from her identity card.

How is this inaccurate and sensational? BBC even left out the fact that the sole dissenter was the only non-Muslim on the panel.

Malaysia’s constitution guarantees freedom of worship but says all ethnic Malays are Muslim. Under Sharia law, Muslims are not allowed to convert.

How is this inaccurate and sensational?

Ms Joy said she should not be bound by that law as she is no longer a Muslim.

How is this inaccurate and sensational?

Malaysia’s Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim said the panel endorsed legal precedents giving Islamic Sharia courts jurisdiction over cases involving Muslims who want to convert.

How is this inaccurate and sensational?

About 200 protesters shouted “Allah-o-Akbar” (God is great) outside the court when the ruling was announced.

How is this inaccurate and sensational? Many other reports confirm this number.

“You can’t at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another,” Ahmad Fairuz said.

Ms Joy’s case has tested the limits of religious freedom in Malaysia.

She started attending church in 1990 and was baptised in 1998.

In 2000, Ms Joy, 42, went to the High Court after the National Registration Department refused to remove “Islam” from the religion column on her identity card. The court said it was a matter for Sharia courts. Tuesday’s ruling marked the end of her final appeal.

Ms Joy has been disowned by her family and forced to quit her job. She went into hiding last year. A Muslim lawyer who supported her case received death threats.

How is this inaccurate and sensational?

Sharia courts decide on civil cases involving Malaysian Muslims – nearly 60% of the country’s 26 million people – while ethnic minorities such as Chinese and Indians are governed by civil courts in the multi-racial country.

How is this inaccurate and sensational?

I doubt that our “Information” Minister even read the report. “Dancing to the tune of their foreign counterparts?” Just because the foreign media doesn’t dance to your tune (mentions of the case in today’s papers is scant, even in letter columns. It’s like it didn’t happen), that doesn’t mean they are “inaccurate”.

“Inferiority complex” – Oho, now our newspapers are the paragon of journalism. If our local papers didn’t syndicate their “foreign counterparts”, we wouldn’t have any World or IT sections btw.

Why Can’t We Speak Against Religion? May 31, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, Religion, Thoughts.
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What is it about religion that makes it seem impervious to scrutiny? In many conflicts in the world today: Palestine/Israel, Ireland, Thailand, Iraq, Pakistan, Darfur, etc, a lot of awareness is raised of the violation of civil rights, women’s rights and needless deaths – but you’ll hardly ever catch people criticizing religion. And while none of these conflicts stem wholly from religion alone, when you tiptoe around it or dismiss it as “personal beliefs” or “sensitive” you’re ignoring the elephant in the room.

Take Elizabeth Wong’s post (and I wanna make clear I love her blog) on the Lina Joy case :

To kill two birds with one stone is to have the majority view advocate for jurisdiction be placed in the realm the Syariah court, and the dissenting view aim at satisfying the detractors.

This is, after all, an election year.

There were no winners on Wednesday morning, unless we include the Islamophobes who gained an additional dart or two.

Many are saying the Lina Joy decision is a violation of civil rights, which guarantees freedom of religion. And it is, indeed. But few are pointing out that the verdict was hardly political, or what the verdict means. The two Muslim judges voted to reject her appeal, with the non-Muslim judge the sole dissenter. There were hundreds of youths outside the courtroom shouting Allah-o-Akhbar (God is great). The motivation behind the decision isn’t rocket science.

And the reason the Lina verdict is devastating is not just because she is denied freedom of religion – indeed, I think that it is obvious even to the judges that you can’t control what people think or feel – it is because that to officially deconvert, she will have to go through the Syariah court. Islam carries heavy penalties for apostates. In more fundamentalist countries, this means death or imprisonment; in Malaysia it means a jail term or “rehabilitation”.

But because religion is “sensitive” and a “personal choice”, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone willing to point out that the root of the problem is how Islam handles apostasy. And so time and time again we get trampled by the elephant in the room.

Lina Joy is still a Muslim May 30, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, Religion.
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The Federal Court doesn’t “recognize” her conversion; therefore Lina Joy is still a Muslim. If she wants to become a formal apostate, she will need to go through the Syariah Court – considering the penalty outlined in the Quran, you can’t blame her for not wanting to.

The  judge says that “You can’t at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another”. I suppose being born into a Malay family is a completely rock-solid reason to be a Muslim.

[Update]
The Muslim Youth Movement leader says that “We invite anyone who feels that they are aggrieved or victimized within the current system to choose other, less confrontational and controversial attempts towards change and reform.” How exactly is changing one’s IC to read “Kristian” instead of “Islam” confrontational and controversial?

Was watching the RTM news and they quoted a judge as saying “sebagai seorang Muslim, beliau tidak boleh keluar daripada Islam“. Ouch… my brain just hurts from the logical contradiction.

Hundreds of Muslim youths gathered in front of the courthouse and applauded the verdict. The verdict was passed 2-1; the two votes coming from two Muslims. Meanwhile, today’s Star ran a speech by DPM Najib where he says:

“If the media replaces the “culture of clash” with dialogue by eliminating the logic of power and replace it with the power of logic, the world would be a better place to live,” he said.

Would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

But there’s a silver lining. At least we don’t have any illusions about the state of Islam in Malaysia, or the “unity” and “tolerance” bullshit the Government tries to feed us. Hey Pak Lah, is this part of Islam Hadhari? What’s that? Elegant silence?

This is also my 100th post. Whoopee.

A Wager of Fear May 30, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, Religion, Skeptic, Thoughts.
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Unless you’re completely clueless about theology, you’ll know what Pascal’s Wager is: A “gamble” whether to believe in the existence of God.

It states that

  1. If God doesn’t exist:
    • Not believing in God will gain you no additional benefit (negligible gain)
    • Believing in God would lose you nothing (negligible loss)
  2. If God does exist:
    • Not believing in God means you will be sent to Hell (infinite penalty)
    • Believing in God means you will go to Heaven (infinite gain)

So the natural choice is to believe in God. Seems like a pretty solid argument – to a seven-year-old.

We’ll never know whether Pascal was just being tongue-in-cheek with this proposal. But if you ever hear a religious “apologist” invoking Pascal’s Wager, it’s a sure sign that either his arguments are weak, or he’s out of touch with the world. The deficiencies of the Wager are immediately obvious.

More than one way

There are myriad religions in the world. This was true centuries ago and still is. When you factor in the possibilities of every god existing – Thor, Jupiter, Krishna, Allah, etc; and the fact that most religions will punish you for believing in other gods, then blindly making the Wager will considerably shorten your odds.

This also doesn’t take into account religions that don’t have a deity (Buddhism). It also assumes that all religions send nonbelievers to Hell – which is not the case (Judaism).

It doesn’t consider that if your life is indeed all you have, then spending your time and effort on a false religion wastes it.

And more damningly, it assumes that belief – even blind belief will get you into Heaven.

Blind faith

Pascal’s Wager plays on one of our most basic fears – the fear of death. It strips from religion any pretense of humanity and reason; basically demanding “believe, or die”.

Deathbed conversions are a prime example. One wonders how a such “conversion” can be real – surely a person should die as (s)he lived. I hear stories of families saying, with relief, “Oh, we told him to nod his head if he accepts God, and he did. Praise God!”

This cheapens both man and religion. If one can get religion just by paying lip service (or in this case, by nodding your head) only when there is nothing to lose; without ever pondering over its validity, its doctrines, or its historicity; without ever spending any effort on it; then it’s safe to say that the patient would have “accepted” whatever religion thrust at him. If he was unfortunate enough to have relatives of differing religions than I pity the poor thing. Or who knows, the patient could have been saying “Yes, whatever, stop annoying me!”

And you wonder who the conversion was meant to benefit – the “convert”, or the people doing the converting, to give them peace of mind.

To a lesser extent this applies to some who convert only after a near death encounter, where religion becomes the ultimate health insurance.

Belief is not a Choice

Can you “choose” to believe, like the Wager says? Can you “choose” to believe in Santa Claus, or “choose” to disbelieve in gravity? If I pointed a gun to your head and asked you to “believe” that my religion is true, and you said yes, does it mean you believe? If, like in Indonesia, the state rules that it is a crime not to “believe” in a religion, does that mean that Indonesia is the most religious country in the world?

We can never “choose” to believe – for anything worth believing in, it is not lip service or self-delusion that determines belief, but whether we accept the premises and rationale behind it.

Later today, the Federal Court will pass judgement on the Lina Joy case. This is about more than religious freedom – it is about your very right to think for yourself. She needs “certification” from the Syariah Court to renounce Islam. A New York Times article quotes a senior fellow at the Institue of Islamic Understanding saying that “If Islam were to grant permission for Muslims to change religion at will, it would imply it has no dignity, no self-esteem”.

If religion is automatic, then surely heaven will be filled to the brim! In fact, I’d say that if Islam were to force “Muslims” to “believe”, when they so obviously don’t, it is that which implies that Islam has no dignity, no self-esteem! Anyone wanna place a wager on the outcome?

Another Case of Religion Uniting Families May 4, 2007

Posted by Tim in Malaysia, Religion, Thoughts.
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From the Star, last Wednesday, on the case of Raimah Bibi and her husband M. Marimuthu:

The husband, M. Marimuthu, 44, in his notice of motion, said JAIS (Jemaah Agama Islam Selangor) had forcibly taken his wife, Raimah Bibi A/P Noordin, and their five children, aged from five to twelve; from their home in Kampung Baru Tambahan, Ulu Yam Lama in Hulu Selangor on the morning of April 2.

He added the officers did not give the family any reason why the wife and children were being detained.

He also said the officers did not serve any detention order to his wife or children.

Marimuthu further claimed the officers threatened to arrest him and charge him with khalwat (close proximity) if he attempted to stop them.

LKS blogs the result today, and the Sun ran an article on it too:

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Malaysia’s Islamic authorities gave a Hindu man married to a Muslim woman custody of their children Thursday, in a landmark decision for minority rights, after the couple were forcibly separated because they follow different religions.
..

At the hearing Tuesday, Raimah Bibi, 39, broke down and sobbed openly when the judge asked her if she will give up custody of their seven children, who are aged between four and 14.

“Yes, I agree to surrender my children to Marimuthu,” she said, wiping her tears with the ends of her headscarf.

Marimuthu had filed an application demanding that the Islamic Affairs Department bring his wife and children to court. The department has indicated the couple cannot live together because Marimuthu did not convert to Islam as required by law for their marriage to be legal.

Karpal Singh, who represented them, says that “Raimah Bibi gave up the children as a compromise to end the family’s predicament”.

She probably didn’t want to end up in the same state as Revathi Masoosai/Siti Fatimah, who has been separated from her baby and family for four months now to undergo religious “rehabilitation”.

Meanwhile, MIC is busy gloating over its victory in Ijok, while Pak Lah and BN wonder if there may “possibly” be things we are not happy about, and the new King says that (the key word being says) “To co-exist requires us to understand, respect and be tolerant with one another.”

[Update]
You can also read NST’s sanitized version here. [cached link included just in case]

Pope: Don’t do the Limbo April 24, 2007

Posted by Tim in Religion, Skeptic, Thoughts.
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On April 20th Pope Benedict XVI reversed an 800-year old Catholic tradition: the teaching of limbo.

Limbo is a place “between Heaven and Hell” and comes in two flavours: Patriach class, for the good people who died before Jesus’ Ressurection; and Child class, for infants and people who were mentally unhealthy. According to wiki: .

Saint Thomas Aquinas described the limbo of children as an eternal state of natural joy, untempered by any sense of loss at how much greater their joy might have been had they been baptized.

So it’s a place of “natural” happiness, just less happy than they could have been.

Limbo is or was basically an ad hoc solution for the question of how God could still be “good” if he sent babies to burn, because of their original sin. The Catholic News Service (CNS) reports:

“People find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness…Parents in particular can experience grief and feelings of guilt when they doubt their unbaptized children are with God.”

Saint Augustine taught in the 5th century that infants who died unbaptized would go to hell, it was only in the 13th century that the concept of limbo took hold.

The CNS report begins:

After several years of study, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission said there are good reasons to hope that babies who die without being baptized go to heaven.

This is how it ends (emphases added):

“Rather, there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible to do for them that what would have been most desirable — to baptize them in the faith of the church and incorporate them visibly into the body of Christ,” it said.

The commission said hopefulness was not the same as certainty about the destiny of such infants.

“It must be clearly acknowledged that the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die,” it said.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was president of the commission and head of the doctrinal congregation when the commission began studying the question of limbo in a systematic way in 2004.

Questions:

  1. How do you “study” limbo “in a systematic way“, over “years“?
  2. Isn’t the Pope supposed to be the “bishop of Rome”, the “Vicar of Christ”, “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church”, and a whole lot of other things? Doesn’t he have a direct line to God?

The whole thing about “hope” is irritating. Since when did “hope” become a synonym for “I don’t know”? I thought the church was supposed to resolve doctrinal matters, not “hope” that it’s right.

And as Slate magazine asks: What happened to all the babies who used to be in limbo?

Oh for all you Protestants out there, don’t get smug: no concrete answers there either – or differing ones anyway, depending on whether you subscribe to Calvinism (God knows whether the babies would have made the choice to believe or not) or Arminianism (Babies go to heaven – in which case the most merciful thing a parent could do is to kill their children). How you define “original sin” also counts.