Love, marriage, religion and evolution

Marriage

The unlikely winner of the Great British Bake Off TV show was a wife and mother of Bangladeshi origin who surprised many by being a well adjusted Muslim at ease with her British/Bangladeshi identity. She also appeared recently in a long running radio show, Desert Island Discs, in which the guest imagines being cast away on a desert island and selects eight recordings that they would like to take with them.

Interspersed with excerpts of the music the interviewer chats with the guest and Nadiya Hussain proved to be a charming and likeable wife and mother with no professional experience in baking who had entered the competition on a whim.

In the course of the conversation it emerged that her marriage had been arranged by her family and that she had only corresponded with her fiancé by phone until the day of their engagement when they met for the first time, despite that her 11 year marriage has proved to be successful.

Romantic love

To the Western mindset an arranged marriage seems completely alien. In our culture romantic love has always played a central role in art, literature, drama and music. Just about every pop song is about love, unrequited or otherwise and it is central to most movies. TV is awash with romance in soaps and popular dramas and advertisers use it extensively in order to sell products.

From the Middle Ages onward the western notion of romantic love has had an uneasy relationship with sex; for much of the time in drama for example it was disguised with coded messages that an audience could understand but that didn’t offend religious piety. However in response to Victorian prudishness, during the 20th Century sex has become progressively more overt and we now live in an age of explicit pornographic sex that runs parallel with the idea of romantic love.

We are of course evolutionarily programmed to procreate and in all societies cultural and social practices (like marriage) have evolved in order to provide the best environment for rearing young. Human offspring require many years of nurture before they are able to flee the nest and the cooperation of the two parents has proved the most successful environment since they have the closest genetic relationship with their children. Romantic love provides a means by which mates are selected as well as being an adhesive bond that keeps couples together for the duration.

But traditionally marriage was also a cooperative and financial arrangement by which the man would support his family leaving the woman with primary responsibility for child rearing. However during the last 60 years everything has changed: contraception, feminism, male work opportunities and even an acceptance of single sex parents has resulted in a rethink of what constitutes marriage and the family, what was an evolutionary imperative has become a lifestyle choice. In this chaotic environment the increase in marriage failures and break-up of co-habiting couples has increased, 40% of all marriages now ending in divorce. This is often a disaster for children and creates a burden for society with single parent household often requiring welfare payments.

Arranged marriage

Under pressure from the media and their peers’ even couples with modest incomes expect their wedding day to be spectacular and often have an unrealistic expectation of marital life and men in particular are seldom prepared for the dramatic shift in the couple relationship when babies are born so perhaps it’s time to look again at romantic love as the only driver for marriage. The marriage of Nadiya Hussain was arranged by her parents who clearly had her best interests at heart. She was young and possibly ill equipped to make decision that would affect her entire life and her parents used their life experience to guide her to the “right” choice. They had identified a husband who they considered to be a good match for their daughter but she had no opportunity to fall in love with him before they were married.

To western eyes the idea that two people who had not even met but would be bound together in a life-long union is an anathema, it seems more like a business arrangement, devoid of romance and running counter to our “natural” instincts and culture and I’m not about to propose that we should adopt arranged marriages, Nadiya herself says that she doesn’t want this for her own children (at least that’s what she says now). But her experience does offer another narrative and exposes a weakness in our society that encourages us to believe that it is possible to meet a stranger, fall in love and live happily ever after as invariably unrealistic.

It is still a mystery why we find someone attractive but most of us will have experienced the powerful emotion that is romantic love. We are led to believe that “love conquers all” but it can and does often blind us to the reality of a permanent relationship. We don’t know how we will feel 5, 10 or 20 years hence and there is also the temptation of being attracted to another once the excitement of being newly wed wears off so making the right choice is critical for the individual and society.

As we acquire so much of our own behaviour from our family environment it’s not surprising that a couple who have experienced the failure of their parents’ relationship find themselves ill prepared to make a success of their own. Nadiya’s choice was made by her parents who tried to find a partner who was a perfect fit for their daughter. I imagine they were diligent in their task or perhaps they just got lucky.

For most of us the choice of partner will be based simply on mutual attraction and for men in particular a major part of it is sexual attraction so how can we improve the decision making process in order to reduce marital breakup? In England children receive personal, social and health education PSHE, (it is devolved in the remainder of the UK) that is intended to help youngsters navigate the sexual turmoil that is adolescence and teach them about forming relationships. This clearly isn’t sufficient to counter the continuing level of marriage failure.

Marriage without God

Falling Church attendance along with polling and Census data suggests that for the majority of British people religion plays little or no part in their lives, the exceptions are invariably those from immigrant communities, like Nadiya so the obligations associated with a marriage sanctified by God are largely absent and many choose to co-habit and not marry at all.

To the non-religious the idea of an obligation to a third party is somewhat anachronistic but in any relationship, especially marriage, it should be an important component. In this case the obligation is to your partner often in the form of vows and in absence of religious ones many couples compose their own. However without any objective appreciation of what married life will be like these are easily ignored and violated in the years to come.

Many couples live together for some time before making the long term commitment of marriage however the data suggests that this doesn’t increase the likelihood of their marriage lasting either. Although mediation and counselling are available they tend to be sought when relationships have irretrievably broken down. So perhaps the only way of improving the prospect of an enduring marriage is training couples how to deal with the problems that will inevitably arise.

So I propose that in addition to PSHE in schools an additional component should be Relationship Training that would include conflict avoidance and resolution and would be beneficial in many other areas of a youngster’s life as well as helping to prepare them for marriage (or co-habiting) in the future. It should also include the practical issues like financial management, the effect of pregnancy and child care on couples and of course the significance of sex within marriage.

The family is the heart of all human societies whether primitive or modern and there are obvious reasons why it should be nurtured and supported particularly in relation to public policy. Marriage or it’s equivalents in which the birth parents cooperate in the rearing of their offspring is clearly an evolutionary development but it has also become a social convention that fosters the love, security and continuity that are essential for the wellbeing of children and therefore for us all.

Footnote 1: These comments should not be taken as criticism of adoption of children by Gay couples as this clearly is successful when dedicated and loving parents nurture a child with whom they have to biological link, however from a purely evolutionary perspective this is an aberration.

Footnote 2: The ubiquity of pornography is too big a subject to include in this article but does have a significant effect on the topic.

US Constitution and the Koran

Same but different

A senator from Florida was interviewed on the BBC this morning and although she is a fervent supporter of gun control when asked about the right to own guns per se she seemed surprised by the question and referred to the US Constitution that allowed gun ownership more than 200 years ago. The Orlando shooting brings two issues, not normally considered together; US gun control and the tenets of Islam that motivate Moslems to kill innocent people. Many Americans make a distinction between a terrorist massacre motivated by an alien ideology and a mass shooting by someone considered to be mentally disturbed or a psychopath. But both are made possible by the availability of firearms anywhere in the USA.

The US Constitution has become as sacred to many Americans as the Koran is to most Moslems. Although it is occasionally updated the US Constitution has received only 27 amendments (like the abolition of slavery in 1865) since the 1st in 1791.

Guns occupy a special place in the US consciousness; to many Americans they represent the pioneer spirit, the self reliance of those who forged a path across the continent in the early days and exemplified by the celluloid heroes of the 1950’s. Every nation romanticises it’s past but in America it seems a particularly powerful force that can limit progress. To anyone outside of the USA the lack of gun control seems utterly crazy as does the fact that an organisation that is in fact just a club, the National Rifle Association, can have such a powerful influence on US policy and law making.

Islamic terrorists often refer to their past glories, the great Muslim caliphates and in particular the Ottoman Empire that lasted for 400 years but one fact cannot be avoided, the Koran itself not only allows but mandates Muslims to commit the most despicable acts on non Muslims and demands equally obscene punishments for fellow Muslims who defy its edicts, the fact that the majority do not is hardly reassuring.

Both the US Constitution and the Koran should be regarded as historic documents that inform but not dictate policy and behaviour. For Islam this can only be achieved by Muslims themselves demanding this change; the circumstances today are very different from origins of Islam 1400 years ago. Similarly the US Constitution should be regarded as having been appropriate for a new nation more than 200 years ago but inadequate for a country that claims to lead the free world in the 21st Century.

Islam: Fear and Self-Loathing

Islam: fear and self loathing

I have a theory that the rise in Islamic terror is all about sex. The young men who are attracted by jihad are the generation that has grown up with internet pornography. Anywhere in the world they are only a few clicks away from a deluge of images and videos showing every sexual practice. Commentators often use the term “consuming pornography” but let’s be frank that means masturbation and masturbation (for both men and women) is haraam (forbidden) in Islam.

It is likely that many young Islamists consume pornography, porn was found on the laptops of the 7/7 London bombers and it is clearly impossible for a young Muslim man to reconcile the constant titillation in this highly sexualised world with the strict religious observance demanded by his mosque and family.

Repressed sexual urges can often find other outlets, aggression towards others or self harm but also as Freud claimed sexual sublimation can be responsible creativity and great art. The Abrahamic religions: Orthodox Judaism, Evangelical Christianity and Islam are all obsessed with sex or rather limiting sex to within certain religiously acceptable confines. These attitudes are of course generated from a male perspective since their god was a man and take no regard of a female opinion.

Although many sexual practices are condemned by these religions homosexuality is regarded as one of the most sinful. The Christian Old Testament (Leviticus 20:13) decrees that “they should be put to death for their abominable deed” but it is Islam that is the most ferocious in its condemnation with countless grotesque punishments.

One theory for this loathing is that the authors of the most hostile texts were latent homosexuals themselves and there is evidence that unrealised homosexual desire can motivate extreme anti-homosexual views. In the USA numerous gay hating pastors and politicians have subsequently turned out to be gay themselves.

The Orlando murderer Omar Mateen had visited the Pulse Gay nightclub on several occasions before the massacre. Whether he was a latent homosexual is not yet clear but what is beyond dispute is that he was a Muslim and the teachings of the Koran mandate the killing of homosexuals. The religious and homophobic motivation for this attack are inextricably linked and we should recognise this fact. The solution in the medium term is to hope that Islam can be reformed as parts of Christianity and Judaism have been but in the long term let’s wish for a world without belief in religious fantasy.

We need to talk about god

We need to talk about god

Islamists justify the brutality of their actions by citing the Quran that explicitly sanctions and even mandates many of their atrocities against non-Muslims (or more specifically, non-Sunni Muslims). Our response in the non Muslim world has been to claim that their literal interpretation of religious texts should be modified in the same way that Christianity has quietly abandoned much of the barbarity than can be found in the Old Testament.

This approach raises several problems as Islamists will inevitably challenge the authority of any non-Muslim to interfere in Islamic doctrine and most importantly because it measures one religious ideology against another and helps to validate the notion that religion per se is a natural component of 21st century society. What is required is the total debunking of all religious belief and that means we need to talk about God. Most belief in God is derived from belief in a particular religion as very few people believe in God from outside of religious conviction. Of course some people have a vague notion of there being something unknown or even unknowable outside ourselves, or that they have feelings that they describe as spiritual.

Life without God

In the UK (in common with much of Europe and Australia/NZ) religion plays little part in daily life even for those with “spiritual” leanings, the exception being within immigrant communities in these countries. However religion does play a significant role in the institutions of the State and for the UK at least in education (see previous post). Many public ceremonies include a religious element; prayers, hymns, attendance of the clergy and within our Constitution the monarch is head of the Church of England that is also the “official” religion of the UK. Religion is still a part of education with a daily “act of worship” required in every State school. Religious education is part of our curriculum and treats all religious beliefs as requiring serious study without submitting any to rational scrutiny.

So any examination of the existence of God is absent from political and educational discourse, instead we are assumed to accept that he (and it is invariably he) exists and that any discussion should be around the nature of God and how different religions interpret his commands. At which point we return to the original flaw that is the comparative merits of competing religions rather than the rejection of all on the grounds that supernatural fantasies should play no part in a modern society.

The case against God is overwhelming and well documented in books like The God Delusion but prior to a scientific explanation for phenomena when superstition was endemic it was perfectly natural for our distant ancestors to believe in creation myths and a life beyond death as their lives were powerless, brutal and short but today there is no excuse to maintain this delusion.

The atrocities perpetrated in the name of Islam cannot be overcome by military, economic or diplomatic means, they must eventually be argued out of existence using the power of reason. That means undermining belief in the pre-ordained and the supernatural, exposing religious texts as fabrications and offering an evidenced based explanation for all that religion, including Islam, once sought to explain.

Supernatural fantasy

Santa

Like many children I believed that Santa Claus was responsible for my Christmas presents. My parents colluded to preserve this supernatural fantasy until such time as I posed the inevitable question; “it wasn’t Santa, it was you, wasn’t it?” whereupon they acknowledged their part in this innocent fabrication. No harm done, perhaps, but my transition from believer to skeptic included an intermediate period in which, although my doubts were increasingly supported by evidence, like noticing different Santas in each department store or seeing one of Santa’s presents in my mum’s shopping bag, I clung on to the fantasy as long as I could as it was such fun, and an integral part of that pleasurable holiday period. Eventually I came to terms with the fact that Santa was just a myth, just a nice fantasy, the truth had become too strong to resist.

I had been raised in a nominally Christian household and for a time was sent to Sunday School, I imagine in order to teach me some “moral” values. But a few years after my epiphany with Santa I turned my attention to God. My spiritual indoctrination had not been very intense, probably, as I learned many years later, because my mother had been fighting her own doubts but couldn’t bring herself to “come out” as a full blown atheist. Sadly until her death she wanted so much to believe and craved the reassurance and certainty that she imagined faith would have given her. For me it was simpler, having disposed of Santa, God was next in line. I hadn’t been suffused with Christian culture or spent much time in church being indoctrinated and this was the threshold of the 1960’s, I was part of that generation that sought to challenge all assumptions and sweep aside the stuffiness and uniformity that had prevailed during the postwar period. In those heady days I naively imagined the religion was in terminal decline, at least in England and assumed that by the age that I am today it would be of interest only to historians, psychologists and anthropologists, how wrong I was.

Religion is on the agenda

Religion is once again on everyone’s agenda due to the rise of militant Islam. The reasons for this will be the subject of another post but for now the imperative is to confront this threat not by offering potential jihadi’s a counter narrative based on an analysis of their sacred texts which is doomed to failure particularly if its is undertaken by non-Muslims. The solution, although long term, is for us to challenge all supernatural fantasies, that means all gods, all sacred texts and all customs and traditions that support them.

Western governments are loathe to do this as like my mother they that believe that Judaeo-Christian heritage that is embedded in our culture and history is somehow related to our acquisition of moral behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth, Christianity has usurped for itself a product of human development that has occurred without any need of divine intervention and has contributed to much of the misery that has enveloped humankind over two millennia.

Sadly I don’t see any appetite from politicians to adopt this policy particularly in the USA where it would be political suicide or even in the cynical UK where politicians are allowing and even encouraging the establishment of Faith schools that further embed a belief in supernatural fantasy. Even in non-religious schools these irrational beliefs are maintained by acts of worship and religious education that allows ancient myths to be regarded as fact. However as individuals it is important that we make a start by promoting the rational/skeptical mindset wherever we can, at home, at work, in forums like this and other social media and most important of all, in schools so please join our campaign for faith-free education.

Countering Radicalisation

If triangles had a god he would have three sidesCountering Radicalisation is a noble aim but until supernatural belief of any kind is eliminated from schools children will be subject to religious propaganda. Even seemingly innocuous events like the celebration of the nativity or Easter encourage children to believe in myths and half-truths and the assumption that there is some celestial ringmaster to whom they owe obedience. Only in a rational, secular learning environment will it be possible to challenge extreme Islamist beliefs. The fantasies inherent in all religious belief must be confronted by schools even at risk of offending parents and the scientific explanation of phenomena taught so that they understand the origins of life on Earth and how human societies have come to be. Religion should be explained as cultural/religious conditioning (some might say brain-washing) that has methods of self-perpetuation that ensnare each generation: rites of passage ceremonies, modes of dress, genital mutilation, dietary exclusions, sacred texts etc.

Acts of worship to a non-existent deity (of whichever kind) are a dangerous delusion. Few sights are more pathetic than a hall full of children praying or a teacher telling her class to pray for particular person or cause. The psychology of belief is well understood and yet our education system not only allows it but positively encourages this deception, either because they too are under it’s spell or because they think religion is good for us and will impose moral constraints on our behaviour. Moral authority must not be associated with religious belief, what more evidence is required: the extreme savagery of IS, the despicable conduct of Catholic priests and its cover up by the Vatican, the inter-communal violence in the sub-continent or the centuries of religious persecution that has bedeviled the continent of Europe for a millennia?

Islamism is the result of the inability of large numbers of Muslims living in the West to accept that their beliefs are subservient to the mores and laws of the state in which they reside. Of course their right to hold religious belief (however irrational) must be tolerated in a pluralist, secular society, but they cannot expect it to be respected any more than my promotion of atheism should be. Countering Radicalisation cannot simply be about offering a different narrative to those at risk, it is their very belief system that is the problem.