Sunday 25 March 2012

Being “Religious” about Secularism: A Slippery Slope

Part 5 [March 25, 2012]: Being “Religious” about Secularism: A Slippery Slope

When I started this topic under the banner “Religion, Secularism, Democracy, Humanity and Bangladesh”, I didn’t realize how deeply the elements (religion, secularism, democracy and humanity) are connected or conflicted. For one thing, except during my childhood (my parents loved buying novels etc. for us) and during my DU life (courtesy of dear friend LH,S), I didn’t read much beyond academics. Ironically, my naiveté actually helped my audacity to delve into matters of comprehension by the well-versed and the wise. I would be obliged if the astute readers permit ample allowance for potholes in this layman’s journey.

The Word “Secularism”: What Does it Mean?

This is what says about secularism: (numbering is mine, format edited by me)

a. A system of political or social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship.
b. The view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of a religious element.
c. A doctrine that rejects religion, especially in ethics
d. The attitude that religion should have no place in civil affairs.  

Although many different wordings of secularism are available, I doubt that they would differ much in meaning or spirit from the above. Certain things are clear about the dictionary definition of secularism:
A.   Secularism is NOT about relative merits of different religions as belief systems. It is NOT atheism either.
B.   Secularism as a state principle (enshrined in constitution or not) would avoid legislating, implementing or adjudicating state policies that seek rationalization from or promote a specific religion or belief system including atheism.  

Secularism in Practice

Historically as well as in today’s world, secularism is more often than not is used as a political divide between those who are “religious” about religion and those who are “religious” about non-religion. Let us refer to the former group as the religion group (RG) and the latter group as the non-religion group (NG).

RG generally comprises of members of the majority religion in a political state who believes that the laws, policies and practices of their state should be guided first and foremost and principally, if not exclusively, to benefit the majority religion members. NG, on the other hand, wishes to minimize/eliminate any religious bias in state matters even when the principles of majority religion, if applied in state matters, would impose no obvious cost on the members of minority religions or perhaps even improve the lot for all citizens. It is no surprise that the members of minority religion, often only loosely practicing their own faith rituals, tend to politically align with NG. While NG is dominated by members of the majority religion like RG, most of these NG members are loose practitioners of their faith rituals as well. In some extreme cases such as China, NG members are not members of any religion, and do not believe in any Creator or are indifferent in this regard.

It is, however, interesting to note that while RG has a much more significant proportion of strict believers/practitioners of majority religion rituals, there are many instances [US, Canada, many countries in West Europe, .., Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh] where a majority of RG members are far from being devout in terms of practicing faith rituals. In almost all cases though, RG members are “religious” about religion, that is blinded by the supremacy of their own faith, are intolerant of other persuasions and do not hesitate to trample upon the rights of minority religions [despite the fact that most known divine codes preach against such transgression].

In contrast, the NG members appear to be “religious” about non-religion, and are by and large intolerant of the RG members and views and policies that are advocated using the Divine Code of the majority religion they themselves subscribe to. In fact, NG members do not seem to mind cracking down even on the most humane, benign, inclusive and symbolic practices of the majority religion in state arenas. For example, there has been a spate of contentious litigations of Christmas illuminations in North American public venues. Various minority religion communities [Muslims, Sikhs, ..] also often face stiff resistance from public offices in obtaining permits to build places of worship. It is of course well-known that increasingly the NG-supported governments in the West, Turkey included, are enacting regulations barring the wearing of attires [like Head Scarf, Hijab, Niqab, Turban,.. ] that are claimed to be inconsistent with the secularist character of the state. In other cases, the anti-minority stance of NG is openly communal. For example, India is supposedly an advanced democracy and a secular state, but the consumption of beef is illegal since it is deemed grossly inconsistent with the faith of the majority religion there.   

At the other extreme, you could be punished with lashes for attires perceived to be indecent by the RG, in many Mid-East countries. Consumption of alcohol or pork is also illegal. And of course, capital punishments are in order there for “inappropriate” sexual encounters even if it is forced upon such as a case of rape. Different versions of these punitive laws also prevail in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.     

At the risk of generalization, it seems that, in practice, Secularism versus Non-Secularism, has transpired in the form of being “religious” about religion or non-religion. Perhaps no less practically important question is the extent to which political parties have exploited, or even may have manufactured, the “religious” sentiments of the RG and the NG. In this layman’s view, the extent is rather ominous to which the RG and the NG masses have fallen unsuspecting victims of the ruthless governance interests of the dictators in the non-democratic states and of the political parties in “democracies”.

As they were meant to be, the known divine codes were intended to free humanity from the shackles of our limited and miniscule “matter” [physique] and launch us into our true and nonperishable existence of boundless compassion. [I am eternally grateful to dear friend LH[S] who very kindly articulated to me the concept of the oneness of a Creator and Compassion, although I must admit that I am still light years away from LH’s conceptualization]. Though not comparable in a spiritual or divine sense, the political concept of secularism is also meant to promote equality, harmony, tolerance and benevolence among the members of a state. In the divine case, the jurisdiction is the universe, in the latter it is the state.

Alas, the ruthless pursuit of governance power by the dictators and political parties, continue to divide and conquer by selective and convenient interpretation and application of the divine codes and the concept of secularism. A true believer is supposed to be a secularist in practice and a secularist by practice is supposed to be a believer in principle!

More to come ..  MC March 25, 2012

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Belief Theorem, March 12, 2012

Why it is rational to believe in a Creator: A simplied analytical framework

Overall Utility, U = UE + UH
UE is utility in life on earth
UH is Utility in the life hereafter if there is one

Utility in life on earth

It is possible that a human agent derives utility from consumption goods A [Code Permissible] and B [Sin Goods]. There is, however, a physically limited maximum consumption (due to finite lifetime) of these on earth. Utility is increasing in A and B and there is no saturation point.

Say, effort is misery and leads to disutility. Believing takes effort and consumption of A and B does not require effort.

To make it easy, if an agent does not believe, enjoys maximum earthly consumptions of A and B, and derives maximum earthly utility of UMax,E. An agent who believes in Divinity System and also does not consume B (sin goods) on earth, would have the lowest utility on earth, UMin,E due to no consumption of utility enhancing good B as well as maximum earthly misery/disutility from maximum effort toward belief. Someone believing but not practicing as well and not putting as much effort toward belief, would have earthly utility UMid,E, with UMin,E < UMid,E < UMax,E . 

Magnitude of earthly utility UE is known ex ante once the belief and effort decisions are made.

Utility in life hereafter if there is one

Utility in life hereafter is random ex ante. States realize ex-post and state contingent utilities follow.

There are just two states: State 1: Divinity System (Creator, Code, Reward /Penalty in life hereafter) exists, ex ante probability p; State 2: No Divinity System, ex ante probability 1-p.

If State 1 realizes ex post
i. Agent believed in Divinity and Lived with Maximum Piousness (no consumption of sin goods)
          An infinite time in heaven with unlimited consumption of A and B
          Utility in Hereafter = UMax,H
ii. Agent believed in Divinity but consumed some sin goods
 A limited time in hell with limited misery, related to consumption of B on earth.
An infinite time in heaven with unlimited consumption of A and B
                   Utility in Hereafter = UMid,H
iii. Agent did not believe in Divinity
                   An infinite time in hell meaning unlimited misery
                             Utility in Hereafter = UMin,H
If State 2 realizes ex post
For all agents, utility is 0.0, as there is no life hereafter.
Expected Total Utility [with risk neutrality]

i. Agent believe in Divinity with maximum Piousness: UMin,E + p  UMax,H
ii. Agent believe in Divinity with low Piousness: UMid,E + p  UMid,H
iii. Agent did not believe in Divinity: UMax,E + p  UMin,H

Belief Theorem
Belief dominates if  UMid,H is sufficiently large, that is, p  UMid,H > [UMax,E  ─ UMid,E + p  UMin,H ], or equivalently,
p > [UMax,E  ─ UMid,E ] / [UMid,H  ─ UMin,H ]

Comment: By most belief systems (Divine Codes), the reward in life hereafter for just believing and not practicing Divine Code is clearly larger than the infinite misery from not believing (UMin,H = ─Infinity). As such, for any p>0, belief dominates.  

A simple explanation of why it is rational to believe in a Creator

Religion, Secularism, Democracy, Humanity and Bangladesh
Part 4 [March 03, 2012]: A simple explanation of why it is rational to believe in a Creator

For brevity, let me define as Divinity as the combination of a Creator, a divine code for life on earth, a life after death and a penalty/reward system that leads to infinite misery [hell] for not believing in Divinity and infinite bliss [heaven] for believing in divinity.

It is true that with our current level of human intelligence, the existence of Divinity cannot be proven. Very importantly, however, the non-existence of Divinity [that there is no Divinity] can never be proven.

At the risk of sounding casual, this is like a black swan phenomenon. That there exists a black swan can be proven if and when we see one. But the statement that there exists a black swan can never proven to be false. Granted it is a low probability event given our common knowledge, but it is never zero and it never goes to zero.

When do even low probability events matter? The answer is when the severity is exorbitantly high when it happens. Low probability high severity events are often referred to as tail events or black swan events in the world of finance and risk management. What can be done to manage such extreme risks? The answer is insurance. We do this all the time in our daily life, like insuring our homes and other valuable properties and assets, we go as far as insuring our life too. Why do we insure, it is because the consequences of losing the insured assets can mean grave misery for us, or for our family or business.

Well, guess what, all of these earthly miseries that we insure are miniscule at best compared to the prospect of endless misery in the life hereafter if Divinity exists and we did not do the simplest possible thing in our lifetime, namely, insure our hereafter by just believing now in the existence of divinity.  If we can fully practice one of the divine codes known to us, it is all the better, since as we practice more completely, our insurance deductible goes to zero [no initial penalty time before infinite bliss]. But belief in Divinity seems necessary, like having an insurance policy at all.

In a nut shell, believing we have nothing to lose with the possibility of infinite bliss if Divinity exists.  Not believing, however, there is always a positive probability of infinite misery [black swan or tail loss event] if Divinity exists.


Thursday 1 March 2012

Religion, Secularism, Democracy, Humanity and Bangladesh

Religion, Secularism, Democracy, Humanity and Bangladesh


Mo Chaudhury

 Religion, Secularism, Democracy, Humanity and Bangladesh
Part 1 [February 12, 2012]
Our days are always numbered, so might as well share some thoughts before they become unreachable. It is only natural that my thoughts have evolved over a rather eventful lifetime, but then it is supposed to be that way, else my lifetime would have been wasted frozen in a solitary point. As a matter fact that is precisely my thesis, the more religious we become about anything including religion, the more blinded and intolerant we become of apparently competing but inherently congruous views. Gradually but surely we, as individuals or as a collection, enter a phase of endless conflict with the "not-me" and "not-us" subsets, starting within the set of people we know to the set of country men and ultimately the humanity

Religion, Secularism, Democracy, Humanity and Bangladesh
Part 2 [February 26, 2012]
Universality of Divine Messages
With respect to religion, my premise concerns all religions. By definition, each religion/faith starts with the blind belief that only their version of the Creator and Creation is the "truth". By implication then, the followers of a given religion are to view all other religions as wrong and their followers as being misguided. This is precisely where religious intolerance is rooted and the process of blinding vision starts. This is because it is nearly impossible to accept [or even see any merit in] the view of another person believing that person to be absolutely wrong at the core.
I have to reiterate that belief in the Creator is not where the potential problem lies, it is the lack of belief in the dignity of all creation that breeds intolerance and blinding vision.
Everyday thousands of children are born worldwide into families practicing numerous religions. [And this has been going on for millions of years now]. Clearly if you believe in the Creator, you have to believe that it is solely the Creator's decision as to what parental religion, if there is any, a child is born into. Then you have to wonder why the creator is going to create a greater burden of finding the truth for the newborns who are born into supposedly misguided parents.
Or, is it possible that the divine messages to all religions at all times are, have always been and will always remain the same? Perhaps it is our intrinsic human limitations and self-induced blinding visions that keep preventing us from seeing the commonality in all messages. What else could explain as to why the more "religious" people become about their faith, the more they litigate the untruth about others?

Religion, Secularism, Democracy, Humanity and Bangladesh
Part 3 [March 01, 2012]
Why does it make sense to believe in a (the) Creator?

Let us start with the proposition that earth and life on earth are deliberate creations and not merely evolutions from random collision of some gaseous stars (with oxygen and hydrogen). The word random here forms the foundation of belief in divinity as we know. Else humanity is no more than a Poisson outcome continuing indefinitely until another astrological Poisson event (doomsday?) terminates humanity and transforms random pieces of earth into outrageously blissful (heavens?) or hostile (hells?) environments. The metamorphosis of those new abodes might be such as to sustain a robust form of life (no death any more!). But what happens to all of us who ever lived on dear earth and became deceased? Nothing really, our deceased cells dissipate into the matter of earth and in that quantum form we will continue to exist in the newly formed environments. This chance-driven physical story is rather an unexciting tale with no drama or intrigue that we human beings feed on!

On the other hand, the saga of a (the) Creator and creations (earth and life on earth) is enormously inquisitive and purposeful. Leaving aside the spiritual quest for another day, I will take for now the mundane perspective of rational choices like many other (education, relationship, employment, et cetera) we make in course of our lifetime. 

Let us start with clearly articulating the proposition: Earth and life on earth are deliberate creations. Then there has to be at least one Creator. It seems quite illogical that there are multiple Creators, simply because otherwise the biology of human beings at any given point in time would have varied considerably depending on the number of creators and because the laws of nature on earth seems too universal for too long for them to be governed by independent multiple Creators. This sensibility of a single Creator is of course what many apostles, saints and philosophers have contemplated out albeit at different times.

With the Creator, the next queries are whether there is life after death, whether there is a post-earth reward (heavens) and penalty (hells) system for our actions on earth, and whether the Creator dictates human beings to live their lives according to a single or multiple (and alternative) sets of codes. Notice that a post-earth reward/penalty system makes sense only if there is a life after death (apparently similar to the ones I described under No Creator or random configuration). And for systematic adjudication of our actions into rewards and penalties, there has to be at least one reference point or benchmark, namely an ideal code of living.

In principle, there is a prospect that there is no life after death and hence there is no code, the Creator just wants us to have a good time here on earth and in whatever way we find it enjoyable. Since there are no ill consequences in this latter case, we have nothing to lose in not believing in a Creator. However, it makes little sense to believe in a deliberate Creator and then not believe that divine guidance in some form exists. Thus, we can effectively interpret the belief in a Creator equivalent to the belief of at least one divine code. Let us denote by p the probability of a deliberate Creator (and hence at least one code).

If there is a deliberate Creator and we do not believe in any code, we will never make it out of the hells into the heavens. Those of us believing in a deliberate Creator and hence in at least one code, we face possible penalty time in hell for our deviations followed by endless time in the heavens as a reward for our belief in a Creator and our effort to pursue a code.

This leads to my premise that it is rational for us to believe in a (the) Creator and as such in at least one such code known to us. In doing so, we lose nothing, and the worst case is that there is no life hereafter and as such there is no infinite bliss of the heavens (payoff: +∞). On the other hand, not believing in a Creator (and as such in at least one known code), we run the risk (p) of eternal and abject misery of the hells (payoff: ─∞). Thus, it is a choice between the expected payoffs of +p∞ (believing) and ─p∞ (not believing). Now, our leaned friends would argue that there is a cost in the form of discomfort/disutility from the restrictions and extra efforts pursuing a code. But, guess what, so long the disutility is finite (and it is surely so), it would always be miniscule relative to the expected payoff +p∞ (of believing). Therefore, the choice of believing in a Creator clearly dominates the choice of not believing, and accordingly every rational human being should choose to believe in a Creator (and hence in at least one known code). 

Typically multiple codes have always existed in the known history of humanity. Thus the next issue is whether truly there is just a single divine code among the known ones at a given point in time. If it was provable, then only a single code would have survived and known to us by now (after a few million years). The truth of the matter is that it is not provable at all by any means. The rational choice is then to believe that the known codes must be compatible and congruent in a divine sense that is beyond our human frailty. As a matter of practicality, however, each of us should chose to follow just one code but always with utmost reverence for the other codes and the choices of their followers. In this pragmatic sense, it is natural to choose the code our parents are following as this is the path of least frictions. In the end, if there is a Creator, what will matter most is whether we have made an effort to pursue a code known to us, and not as much which known code we chose to practice. This is because the Creator did not give us the intelligence of proving the authenticity of the divine codes and as such cannot hold us responsible either in this regard. This is also because the known major codes that have survived to our time mostly share the same values of honorable living, differing largely in rituals.  

As always, my sincere apologies if my heuristics hurt the feeling of any friend or for that matter of any fellow human being. I am also solely responsible for any errors and pitfalls. Of course, corrections will be very welcome.

PS: In my mind (not necessarily to others or by conventional rule), I am a Bangladeshi Muslim in belief and self-identification, although a sinner by most codes. But more importantly, I believe in a (the) Creator and am struggling to pay due respect to humanity of other persuasions.          

 [Note: Poisson Process is a widely used statistical process to describe the random occurrence of events. It is a single parameter process and the parameter is often referred to as Poisson intensity. The probability of one or more independent occurrences within a given time span is dictated by the intensity parameter].