Monday, 22 April 2019

Sri Lanka and New Zealand - Why the Different Responses?

Dead bodies of victims lie inside St. Sebastian's Church damaged in blast in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, April 21, 2019. More than two hundred people were killed and hundreds more injured in eight blasts that rocked churches and hotels in and just outside Sri Lanka's capital on Easter Sunday.

Credit: AP/Chamila Karunarathne
In a world in which we've become used to mass killings and atrocities by religious fanatics, often perpetrated against members of a different religion, the New Zealand atrocities carried out by one fanatical Christian against Muslims peacefully at prayer stood out for it's barbarity and brutal violation, not just of the lives destroyed but of a peaceful and tolerant society.

The death toll was 50. People across the world were rightly outraged by it.

In Sri Lanka, an as yet unidentified (but assumed to be Muslim) group yesterday targeted Christian churches with bombs designed to kill as many as possible while Christians were at prayer on a day which many Christians regard as the most holy of the year.

Also targeted were hotels where mostly Europeans stay in a country in which Europeans are assumed to be Christian. This was clearly an attack against members of a religion by members of a different one.

The death toll currently stands at about 300. And yet the response to the Sri Lanka massacre has been far more muted than the response to the New Zealand massacre.

The reason for this different response probably lies in an unappreciated characteristic of human morality that paradoxically undermines one of the foundations of religious fanaticism - the belief that morality comes from a god and is some sort of universal absolute to which the righteous should subscribe and to which others should be forced to subscribe because 'God/Allah says so!'

To understand this, first consider the following: you are walking along a riverbank wearing a $1000 suit and you see a child is drowning. You can save the child but the water will ruin your suit. What do you do?

No contest! Who could in all conscience put the cost of the suit above the life of a child?

Now consider the following: you know of a serious famine in Africa where $1000 could save the lives of a hundred children. Instead of buying the $1000 suit, you could have given the money to famine relief. We all know there are children dying daily through starvation, just as surely as that drowning child was dying yet we rarely think of them when buying luxuries for ourselves. This is the Singer Dilemma, devised by Peter Singer getting on for 50 years ago to try to prick the consciences of the wealthy nations.

These responses are not just confined to followers of any one religion or to cultures heavily influenced by that religion; they are universal. We are far more likely to sympathise with and help those around us and with whom we are familiar, than to help those far away or who we regard as different. If there was some objective moral imperative handed down by a god, firstly that imperative would apply only to the followers of that god or at best to cultures in which belief in it were widespread. Secondly, that imperative would extend to all children in all places since an objective moral imperative would be universally true, not situational or contingent.

There is, of course, no way to fit the observable reality into a god-given model of morality because the god-given model is wrong. On the other hand, the evolutionary model fits them perfectly and even explains the apparent dichotomies such as the drowning child nearby versus the starving one far away. Our evolved psychology causes us to change our responses to the same dilemma, probably because the effort involved in 'saving' a far-away child is greater, so a tendency to do so would have had reduced or even negative survival value for the genes/memes involved and the genes being saved would be less likely to be those compelling altruism.

In a modern context, New Zealand, with it's shared language and cultural origin with Britain and the USA is far more readily identified as 'one of us', even though the victims were Muslim and the perpetrator was Christian, than are Sri Lankan Christians. We recognise the attacks as attacks on cultures - on our tribe or on another tribe.

That was fine and worked in the fashion of utilitarian evolution when we were small tribes living in relative isolation. It produced cohesive groups who looked after one another and facilitated out further cultural evolution into city states and settled agricultural communities. However, our societies have now outstripped our ethical evolution and are no longer fit for multicultural, multiethnic conurbations and nations.

A 2013 article by Tiffany O'Callaghan in New Scientist, taking the form of an interview with Joshua Greene, director of the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard University, explored the Singer Dilemma as well as other problems created by human society outstripping human ethical evolution. In it, Greene calls for a rethinking of our morality to overcome the essentially tribal one we have inherited being the cause of conflict for a number of reasons. Our evolved morality is fairly good for producing cooperative groups and solving intra-group conflict. It is not so good at solving inter-group conflict and may even exacerbate them.

One thing is clear though, there is no solution to be had in religions which actively divide humans into rival groups and set up conflicts, often where there were none, and which actively oppose any moral development which moves away from the 'god-given' morals of the competing and contradictory holy books. Religions evolve as though they are memetic parasites having no regard to the interests of their hosts and acting to increase their isolation within the memepool and actively encouraging attacks on carriers of rival religious memeplexes.

If our morality is to progress it can only do so if we take control of it away from the religious clerics who wrested it from us in the first place and who have been abusing the power it gave them ever since.

Paradoxically, our differential responses to Sri Lanka and New Zealand highlight the Singer Dilemma and illustrate a fallacy on which religious fanaticism is built - the very fallacy that led to the atrocities in the first place. Religions are now feeding off that outdated, evolved morality to further divide and damage human societies, and have become a force not for unity and cooperation but for conflict, hate and destruction.






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