Things I learnt I rather wish I hadn't

Spending so much time on the Richard Dawkins forum, I come across a plethora of varied topics. I read all sorts of things - science, philosophy, poetry, humour, and a lot of discussions and arguments about religion.  The other day I was *glued* to the most distasteful thread that went on for 15 pages. It was split from another one and had turned into a discussion on child brides - specifically based around Islamic belief.

The basis of it was that one guy who appeared to be a muslim convert from the West, was fiercely defending the right of modern muslim men to marry children based on the teachings of the Quran.  He wrote in great detail about the prophet Mohammed marrying one of his wives Aisha when she was 6 years old. That's right people... 6!!  But he didn't have sex with her. No no... as clearly written in the Quran "he placed his member between her thighs and massaged it softly", the wonderful pedophile he was, and waited until she got her period at age 9, to then truly violate the young girl. Beautiful eh?

According to that lovely holy book, she was given a choice about whether she wanted the marriage, and decided she did (of course she didn't feel under any pressure - nah course not). They say she was a mature girl - more mature than girls nowadays (which is also why she had her period earlier than we do now) and hence was able to make such a decision. All this is by the by, however.

There is no doubt that moral standards in ancient times were very different than now. Romans were porking young boys and thought is was an acceptable thing to do. You don't have to be too smart to see we have changed our idea of acceptable and 'moral' - and to imagine that those morals are divinely given is ignorant, uneducated and yet still widely believed ;) After all - if morals were given to us by a god, then wouldn't they be unchanging across time - be the same for all people? What about the Euthyphro dilemma?  Anyway... I digress. We now have way too much scientific, physiological and psychological information to back up a moral decision that tells us that a 6 or 9 (or 13) year old girl is not capable of choosing to marry, let alone should not be having sex with a man old enough to be her grandfather.

Our wonderful forum chappie fought so valiantly for the right of a muslim man in our modern world to marry a child, regardless of whether the law states it is illegal, based on two distinct and clear reasons. Firstly, as long as she has had her period, this means she is ripe for the picking.  As was pointed out many times with irrefutable science and documents, just because menses has begun does not mean a girl is capable of giving birth.  A 9 year old girl's body would have to grow a lot in order for that to happen and she could easily die if she tried.  He was not listening.

Secondly, he said a marriage would not take place without the girl's guardian assessing whether she had agreed. Now... just imagine. She is told this is the man we would like you to marry, it's a male dominated society (e.g. Saudi Arabia) and she is just a little girl. Exactly how much she understands the implications of marriage or what she is being asked - well, what did you know when you were a child?  When an authority figure comes and asks you if you are sure, you will probably say yes. This is not exactly the kind of situation you would imagine a small girl saying 'I don't want to do this'.  How can *anyone* believe that a guardian is able to determine her consent. Are they going to tell her what this man is going to do to her? I highly doubt it.  But anyway... it's all there in the Quran, so it must be right, right?

The problem I have with it all, apart from the sheer rage and disgust, is that this ancient, outdated and clearly immoral text would be used as any kind of guideline for living.  No doubt muslims have to do just what the christians do - quote mine from their ancient and idiotic book for the parts that are not clearly reprehensible and immoral to find things that resonate with their lives.  It's rather like statistics... sure there are some good things in there, but you have to ignore the rest of it to find it.  Children are sacrificed, women raped, daughters sold off, Jesus says some very questionable things about forsaking your family in order to love him, and *somehow* two of even the largest dinosaurs fitted onto the ark with food for a year ... all of that is just overlooked.  People are very willing to turn on, tune in and drop out when it comes to belief. 

Child brides exist in many parts of the muslim world. Yemen and Saudi Arabia are scary places to be a little girl. It happens in other religions... you see it in India as well. Ignorance is everywhere.

Some other time I'll write about how easy it is to let moderates off the hook.  Right now I am just rather revolted.  I think Tim sums it up for me.

And as Stephen Fry so aptly put it... So you’re offended. So fucking what?



1/20/10, 2:20 PM

Debates like the kind you describe really frustrate me. It's really pointless. The discussion starts out as if everybody is speaking the same language, but they aren't.

The problem lies not in a difference of opinion, but a difference of premises. When people disagree on the premises, it's very hard to have the conversation make any sense.

These kinds of disagreements usually go unsaid. You might think it's about science and religion, but really it's about values. You value deductive reasoning. You value statistical analysis. These values are the reasons that you give science so much credence, and your arguments are made with these values in mind. Ultimately, when you follow any argument back to its origins, you find values which are simply believed without any further proof.

But if the person on the other side of the discussion has different values, they won't follow your arguments. Your arguments will sound as nonsensical to them as their arguments sound to you. It's almost as if the two sides are employing different logical systems.

Now that I think about it, perhaps they are.



1/20/10, 2:50 PM

"Different values" like shagging child brides?


1/20/10, 11:59 PM

No, that's a conclusion from the values, not a value itself.

This illustrates my point well. We (the readers of this blog) react strongly when hearing about child brides. So strongly that we don't really think about how we get to the point of objecting to it. Our reaction feels axiomatic to us, but in actuality it is a conclusion based upon our values regarding childhood, consent, freedom, women's rights, and our definition of marriage.

Two people who share many of these values can have a meaningful discussion, debate or argument over exactly where to set the age of consent. They'd communicate well and learn from one another.

But if these values are too different, and the participants do not realize that, the debate becomes meaningless. There's no common ground, and the two sides just talk past one another.



1/21/10, 2:08 PM

I don't think that's quite right, Keith. The value that leads those of us in the West to abhor child marriage is, in fact, shared by those cultures that allow that immoral system. That value is fairness.

This sentiment of fairness is famously found in the New Testament as, "Do to others as you would have them do unto you" Five hundred years prior to that, the rabbi Hillel said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to others." It's a moral statement made by almost every culture that's ever stopped for a moment to think about morality, and the sentiment has been around at least 6000 years. This value is so ubiquitous among humans, it's more proper to say it's a human value than a cultural one.

So, where's the disconnect? The problem, as I see it, is that the cultures that allow children to marry don't place the same value on women and girls that they do on men and boys. However, there's a lot of good, objective evidence that strongly supports the conclusion that women thrive when given the same self determination as men. However, the men in those cultures are saying that this basic rule of fairness doesn't apply to women and girls because they aren't as valuable as men. That position is counter factual.

The problem is that those cultures, especially the religions of those cultures, institute that essential inequity between men and women. Just as Ghandi's aggressive passive resistance was designed to show the essential inequity of the British treatment of Indians, showing moral men the flaw of this inequity in their treatment of women will likely change their views. The sad fact, however, is that the unequal treatment of women is directly encoded in the dogma of many religions. In the U.S., most religious people rightly choose to ignore that aspect of their religion. A similar dynamic is happening some developing cultures, too.

So, I don't think it's the case that there is no common ground and that we necessarily talk past one another. We do have the capacity to talk about these things rationally. I think the debate needs to be brought back to our shared core values, in this case the value of fairness.


1/21/10, 2:48 PM

Well, I see your point. And appealing to "fairness" is a great approach to try when discussing this topic. You are right about bringing the topic back to the shared values.

And I agree with your explanation of the underlying problem: in these cultures, another value trumps the "fairness" one, that being that men, women, and children are not considered equals.

Unfortunately, I disagree with your statement that most religious people in the US "rightly choose to ignore that aspect of their religion". Everyone's experience is different of course, but my experience, sadly, is that the predominate culture (religious or not) in the US still values men more than women (and adults more than children).



1/22/10, 12:37 AM

I agree, Keith, that the cultures that practice child marriage do so based on values other than fairness. Generally, the values of purity and authority used to support the practices. It seems to me that the uneven application of fairness in the U.S. is also justified by appeals to purity and authority. The current gay marriage debate is a clear example of this.

Just to clarify, when I said that the religious in the U.S. and other developed countries choose to ignore "those aspects" of their religion, I'm thinking of the most draconian practices. For instance, when a woman is raped, she is no longer required to marry her attacker as was the law of the Old Testament. We no longer kill homosexuals or children that disobey their parents. While many may agree with the apostle Paul when he says in Romans 1 that homosexuals deserve to die, they won't actually try to kill anyone. These things are relatively new. Progress!

So, I wasn't trying to suggest that anyone or any culture has reached a state of moral perfection. What I am saying is that the work of Jonathan Haidt and others has begun to provide a language to discuss moral issues rationally. And, they've done this by collecting data, raw facts, about how we actually *do* morality. Treating morality as a scientific enterprise is making it less a black box. From this research, we can see the basic inequity in our own culture, indeed, we can see it more clearly in ourselves. Further, because of this research, we can talk to those with whom we strongly disagree on moral issues and talk about these issues rationally, speaking the same language.


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