A friend of mine posted the following meme on Facebook: my fingers hovered over the keyboard then I thought ‘No’ and realized that it would not be a good idea to offer my friend a mini-dissertation on a 4-second internet meme. So here’s what I would have written.
Find the meme here on Facebook.
This is mostly wrong. It’s factually wrong in significant details, the ethical logic rattles like a dodgy car and the overall argument doesn’t stand five seconds’ scrutiny. The summary, there at the bottom of the image is ‘Your beliefs don’t make you a good or bad person, your actions do.’. This only holds if it people never acted on their beliefs. Rather, people’s beliefs are the prime cause of their actions; that is, Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft because he believed this would make him money, and Stalin starved millions of Kulaks because he believed (or seems to have believed) in collective ownership by any means.
People act because of their beliefs about the world. We go to war because, for example, we believe in territorial sovereignty and that fighting our enemies will repel them. We drink because we believe that we will get drunk and because we believe that being drunk feels good. We donate to charity because we believe that our charity does good work. The meme’s argument is only true for people who don’t act according to their beliefs, e.g. they believe that drinking will make them drunk, desire to be sober, but drink anyway.
Your beliefs really do make you a good or a bad person. That’s it, for the most part. Unless you want a more exacting examination of the meme and of religion, ethics and meaning, which you can find below.
Martin Luther King versus Adolf Hitler
Factually, this is a little off. Some (such as Christopher Hitchens) argue that King was, in fact, not religious but actually a communist. I mention this only because it’s of interest, I’ve never come across any evidence to suggest that this is true.
The religious views of Hitler are extremely contentious, however, with a 268-footnote Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject. His behaviour and the behaviour of the Nazi party towards religion were confusing: they made a concordat with the Catholic church, which it then violated repeatedly, some high-level Nazis were pagans, some Christians, Hitler was baptized and utilized religious language to charge his speech, but, deferring to historian Allan Bullock, was probably a materialist. Hitler was an example of a Christian who was bad? No way.
Malcolm X versus Osama Binladen
This is where we get a lot more controversial. Malcolm X was a ‘good Muslim’? In prison, X joined the Nation of Islam and, upon release, preached racial separatism in America. Obviously racial separatism is not a tenet of Islam, but is of the Nation of Islam. X then became tired of the Nation of Islam, traveled the world and officially left the organisation, became a Sunni and disavowed racial separatism. Are you seeing a pattern here?
The meme was talking about Islam and X was, of course, still a Muslim when he opposed racism and when the Nation murdered him. Nonetheless, Malcolm X’s actions were conditioned by his beliefs, his advocacy of racial separatism was directly contingent upon his belief in the Nation of Islam’s teachings.
Osama Bin Laden may be even more controversial. The meme claims that he was both bad and a Muslim. Some people posit, however, that terrorists that claim to be Muslims are not because they kill; people have also been claiming that the Orlando shooter was not a Muslim because he was not very observant. I find this issue of categorisation interesting but, if you don’t, please skip down a few paragraphs to where I address Bin Laden’s beliefs.
I’m listening to the audiobook of Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander’s Surfaces and Essences, and I’m already enthralled by it. Shortly after the introduction, the authors discuss categories, definitions and what we actually mean by words. One example that the authors discuss to illustrate their argument is that of ‘bird’ – what is a bird, what do we mean by it? Specifically, is a chick a bird? We usually say that birds have feathers, but chicks are fluffy. We might reach for a genetic argument, stating that the category ‘bird’ can be defined according to a specific genome similarity with other creatures, but what about duplication of chromosomes, mutations?
My argument (and, I think, the authors’) is that it is possible to be too exacting in this area: words and concepts are meant for the exchange of information, rather than to get us embroiled in an infinite regress of more and more refined definitions. Are we to say that all people that claim a given religion but fail in perfect observance are not of that religion?
What about the millions of Catholics who use contraception, millions of Muslims who drink? Rather, I think that the way in which we apply such religious labels to ourselves and each other is much looser. This is to say that most people and most Muslims would include people like Bin Laden in their definition of ‘Muslim’, not from any necessary affection for Bin Laden, of course.
So, onto the imperfect Muslim Osama Bin Laden’s beliefs. See an extract below from Bin Laden’s ‘Letter to the American People’, published in the Observer.
“Those who believe, fight in the Cause of Allah, and those who disbelieve, fight in the cause of Taghut [anything worshipped other than Allah e.g. Satan]. So fight you against the friends of Satan; ever feeble is indeed the plot of Satan.”[Quran 4:76]
(2) These tragedies and calamities are only a few examples of your oppression and aggression against us. It is commanded by our religion and intellect that the oppressed have a right to return the aggression. Do not await anything from us but Jihad, resistance and revenge. Is it in any way rational to expect that after America has attacked us for more than half a century, that we will then leave her to live in security and peace?!!
Bin Laden issues his grievances, his threat, and adds, almost like an epigram, the justification for it in the Quran. Osama Bin Laden’s beliefs in Islam and Jihad condition his response: planning terrorist attacks and penning letters like this. Bin Laden isn’t acting randomly, or merely responding to perceived grievances: he’s responding in a way that is concordant with his beliefs, or he was an actor of outstanding talent.
Was Bin Laden a bad person that just happened to be a Muslim? I don’t feel qualified to comment on what Bin Laden would have become had his religion been different, what seems clear, however, is that his beliefs provided a scriptural response (Jihad) to the perceived injustices of American foreign policy. Thus, it would be too much to say that Islam made Osama Bin Laden bad, but fair to say that Osama Bin Laden would not have been the person we knew without it.
I anticipate people responding by saying that I’m being unfair to Muslims, particularly because not everyone who believes in Islam behaves like Osama Bin Laden. However, it seems to me that we find it easy to make the distinction I made above in other areas. Both Blair and Corbyn behave in divergent ways but are both influenced by the beliefs of the Labour party and what you might call British Leftism; Stalin and Tito were both communists and did what they did to a large part because they were communists, but were divergent in their ideas and actions.
To say that Stalin did what he did because largely because he was a communist isn’t to say that I fear that my communist friends will send death squads to get me (or that I, when I was a communist, would have done so). The same or very similar beliefs in different people can cause very different behaviour, but this doesn’t mean that those beliefs aren’t instrumental.
By analogy, imagine several models of car by different manufacturers: among the thousands of cars of exactly the same make and specification, no two cars will develop exactly the same wear, faults or unexpected longevity. A garage, when presented with two cars of the same model suffering different faults, doesn’t consider them different models, but understands that the same components can wear in different but predictable ways. Meanwhile, a car will never develop a fault in a component that it doesn’t have.
To say that Osama Bin Laden did what he did, at least in part, because of his beliefs does not imply that any particular Muslim would, necessarily, do the same. To take a narrow point, however, I would say that Bin Laden’s belief that he should fight ‘against the friends of Satan [disbelievers]’ did make him a bad person and I would fear anyone who shared this belief. Of course, the vast majority of Muslims worldwide and my fellow Britons who follow the Muslim faith do not believe this.
The effects of people’s beliefs on their actions are there for us to witness around the world. For example, contrast the response by the Palestinians to their occupation to that of the Tibetans: one is characterised, among other things, by violence and suicide bombings, the other by non-violent resistance. I’m not saying that every Palestinian is violent and every Tibetan non-violent (why would we expect anything to be that simple?), rather, the character of each people’s response to occupation concurs, generally, with their religion’s teachings, jihad versus non-violence.
However, a reader might object and say that the behaviour of, for example, Saudis in subjugating their women is due to their culture and not to the religion of Islam. Culture and beliefs have a huge overlap, but I got the impression that the meme wanted to emphasize religious beliefs in particular. Islam is, in many ways, a codification of many of the cultural practices from that area. However, these religious beliefs don’t remain merely written forms of cultural instincts, once codified, they can transform societies, domestic and foreign.
Egypt, for example, stayed Islamic after being conquered by the Caliphate: the dominant philosophy of Egypt is not just an outgrowth of the people who live there and their traditions, rather, it was imported. Beliefs are portable and highly transformative of the societies in which they take root. Had some other belief taken root in Egypt, the setup would be very different (possibly better, possibly worse), imagine the different faiths of the world and their teachings and how they would affect this nation. The question of whether a belief can make a person good or bad is clearly crude, but ideas can certainly make people better or worse.
The example of the USA might stress this further. Why do Americans, American institutions and (sometimes grudgingly) the American authorities avoid censorship perhaps more than in any other country? Because of the first amendment and the idea of the first amendment.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The belief in the first amendment is the social propellant behind freedom of speech in America, largely, to the extent that other societies lack a law and, more importantly, a belief like it, they lack freedom of speech. Fundamentally, it wasn’t necessary that the first amendment would emerge (Jefferson thought that, government power being limited by the Constitution, there would be no need to establish rights that Congress never had any power to infringe). Meanwhile, the ideas of the founding fathers were, to a large degree, new – we can find their antecedents in prior European thought, but the USA really was an experiment.
Americans don’t respect free speech randomly, for no reason, or because of some unpredictable, emergent cultural process. They do so because several very intelligent people enshrined these beliefs in law and culture. Fundamentally, this belief makes Americans good people with respect to speech.
Bill Gates versus Stalin
With respect to atheists, there seems to be only one dependent variable when it comes to their behaviour: their regard for what the religious call sacred. For example, Stalin and other communists had religious buildings converted for secular use or destroyed. I’m not saying that all atheists would be happy to see the desecration of holy places, but that it is possible to argue, from the atheist position, that there is no difference between a church and a large building. The Soviet authorities demolished both the cathedrals below:–
I recall a very moving picture from a history book, showing a cathedral put to use as a grain silo in the USSR, but I can’t find it. I’m not forgetting that the religious often destroy each other’s sacred places – it’s possible to come upon the same action via different beliefs.
I’m not sure, however, whether I can think of any other cases where a person’s atheism directly affects their behaviour. Of course, Bill Gates and Stalin’s beliefs massively affected the extent to which they were good people. Why did Stalin cause terror-famines? To subjugate those who opposed him in establishing the economic system that he believed justified these human losses. Stalin clearly suffered from serious personality problems; he was probably a very bad person from the outset. Beliefs in dictatorship of the proletariat, class warfare, redistribution clearly effected his behaviour: there are many types of bad person, Stalin became a very particular sort of communist dictator, specifically because of the beliefs that motivated him.
Bill Gates is probably the most subtle of those on this list: is he a ‘good’ person? Of course, he’s probably the most charitable person in history, but things get interesting when you look at his corporate dealings. In summary, Gates is (like Trump) a necessary study in business, success, money and personality: he was ruthless, ambitious, mean and would do pretty much anything (provided that it was legal) to ensure his success in the market. It worked.
Garry Kildall versus Bill Gates
You probably haven’t heard of Garry Kildall, but the short program below will give you the basics. To summarize, Kildall was an immensely talented businessman, he designed excellent operating systems for computers in the 70s and 80s, software that was far ahead of its time, vastly superior to the alternatives and later MS-DOS. He was, by all accounts, a really nice guy. He founded a company, made millions of dollars, advanced computing and was even a television presenter.
If you watch the documentary below, you’ll learn about the many differences between Kildall and Gates. One glaringly obvious difference being that Kildall, as a presenter on the Computer Chronicles show, routinely demonstrated the hardware and software of other companies: it seems that he had an interest in computers in themselves, not just in advancing his own firm’s products.
At 23 minutes, you’ll hear an industry expert talk about a conference at which Gates and Kildall were present: during Kildall’s speech, he expressed that the computer market was a large one, with room for many companies; Gates responded by saying that there would be, in fact, only be one company. For a time (before the smartphone) Gates achieved this goal. Gates believed in the domination by one company (Microsoft) of the software market, Kildall believed in plurality; these beliefs are enacted in the behaviour of these men and the companies they ran.
Bill Gates: overall, he’s probably a good man. However, his business beliefs were dramatic in their effect on his decisions and on the whole world, via Microsoft.
I’ve tried to illustrate that beliefs really can make people good or bad, or can, at least, provoke good or bad actions. We act in order to achieve our goals and our beliefs determine what our goals are and how we think we should achieve them. The only people for whom this doesn’t hold are Postmodernists who don’t believe in truth or reason and have no reason to think that eating a sandwich will sate their hunger.
Maybe Postmodernism is behind the meme as well as the many other instances wherein people seem unable to connect people’s beliefs to their actions: perhaps these Postmodernists think that not just they but everyone thinks that there are many realities and no predictable outcomes. If this were true, Stalin’s actions would have nothing to do with his beliefs: Postmodern-Stalin might regard communism as one of many equally valid moralities, or might have no reason to think that starving the kulaks would subdue them: if Postmodern-Stalin still acted as he did, then there would be nothing to connect belief and action.
Rather, only the Postmodernists indulge this thinking: most people act according to their beliefs about the world.