The One Thing ISIS Has Right

There’s a lot to dislike about ISIS. Their violence, their narrow-mindedness, their hate. There’s also a lot to pity. Really. For example, what are the chances that any of them will ever enjoy the delights of a loving marriage of equals? Low to none, I would say.

In fact, if you want to live a good life, ISIS is about the worst example you could choose to follow. They are wrong about so many things, starting with the idea that by using violence and ruthless subjugation to gain power for themselves, they are somehow pleasing God. As Anne Lamott observed, “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do”.

God hates when you go around saying God hates things
But there is one thing which they have right. (Just one, last I checked.) And that is that religion matters. What you believe matters. You may not call it a religion; it may or may not have a supernatural element to it, but whatever (or whoever) matters to you the most is your religion, the driving force of your life, and that matters.

I have seen people lump all believers together, as though there was no meaningful difference between, say, Roman Catholicism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Because the world would be a better place if Mother Teresa had limited the public expression of her faith to demanding the right to wear a colander on her head in her ID photo, amirite?

Let me just say this: if the beliefs you profess do not make any difference to how you live, you’re kidding yourself, and you’re probably not doing a very good job of kidding everyone else. People act in accordance with their beliefs (whether or not they are honest with themselves about what those beliefs are).

How we act affects ourselves and others. Therefore, it matters what people believe, and nowhere is this more evident than with ISIS. Because of their beliefs about God, and consequently about the nature of right and wrong, they do terrible things to their fellow humans. They are even willing to die in the commission of violence and murder, because they believe God will reward them with seventy virgins in paradise.

Nuns with guns picture joke
Side note: scholarly research has recently suggested that the 72 virgins said to be awaiting Muslim martyrs in paradise (only male martyrs, obviously; opinion is divided over what, if any, paradise there is for Muslim women) are a mistranslation; the original text should be translated as white raisins [warning: linked article is rather explicit in places].

Would the young men putting their lives on the line for ISIS be quite so enthusiastic if their promised reward was a bowlful of raisins – even really, really good raisins? I doubt it. What you believe makes a difference.

People act in accordance with their beliefs, even those beliefs they are not consciously aware of. That is why saying that people should keep their religion private just doesn’t work. In effect, that is saying that people should act in accordance with their religion only insofar as that is undetectable by those around them. (Otherwise they have to act in accordance with – what? Probably the overriding belief system of those around them, whether that be a religion of money, status, or something else entirely.) This seems to be the one area of life where it’s considered okay to do something just so long as you are completely half-assed about it.

Nor does it work to say that we should all just get along with each other and mind our own business. That’s a religion of tolerance, and, as previously mentioned, tolerance doesn’t work as a virtue, let alone a paramount virtue.

What people believe matters. ISIS know this, and that is why they are relentlessly driving out or destroying all those who hold different beliefs to theirs. Because whatever people believe will come through in their lives. You cannot hide what you are. I cannot hide what I am.We Are N

Lost Virtues

Virtue and eccentricity, I hear you asking, what’s the link? Is there one?
There is. Follow me, not into the dark forest of Stygian gloom, but into the sun-dappled meadows where virtues frolick with daisies in their hair, while eccentrics play diversion on a penny-whistle and grave-faced philosophers play hopscotch on the lawn.

John Stuart Mill asserted that eccentricity and moral courage went together. Maya Angelou said that “courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Eccentricity -> courage -> virtue. Start with a funny hat and work your way up to defying the evils of your time.

Kaiulani in San Francisco, retouched photo by J. J. Williams
In fact, virtuousness is itself becoming increasingly eccentric – as the moral centre of society moves away from virtue, virtue becomes necessarily off-centre. The modern world seems to have only one virtue: tolerance.
But tolerance is not a virtue.

Hear me out. Being tolerant can be a good and right thing to do, such as when someone insists on telling you all about this amazing new wonder-diet they’re on that will bring about world peace if people will only try it, and you tolerantly don’t attempt to smack the stupid right off them. But it can also be a wrong and evil thing to do, which naturally debars it from being a virtue. Consider: when elements of the Roman Catholic hierarchy covered up the abuse perpetrated by those in their own ranks, they were tolerating the abuse, tolerating something which should be intolerable to all, and not only to its victims.

Tolerance. Not always good. Not a virtue.

The reason I chose the example of child abuse (and my apologies to anyone who finds mentions of it traumatic) is because in this heyday of moral relativism it is one of the few things that most people are prepared to agree is a bad thing. Well, I’m going to take the courage of my convictions (happily, no sentence yet) and say that there are some things which are good, and some bad, and some better than others. And because I do not wish to be a Negative Nellie, instead of dwelling on the bad, I intend to look at the good: the virtues.

And they are good. Virtues get a bad rap (because vices have better PR). Virtuousness is seen as priggish, boring and smug – even life-denying. This is the complete opposite of the truth. As Agatha Christie pointed out in The Pale Horse, evil is “necessarily always more impressive than good. It had to make a show!” This is why things like smoking and gambling have such big advertising budgets. It’s all in the presentation. If you stuck with the plain facts of the matter, there’d be no takers. Virtue is less flashy, but then, real gold doesn’t glitter; and it certainly doesn’t flash like neon.

Going up... (7253407110)
So, during the next year or thereabouts, I want to have a look at a few of the glorious virtues which we seem to have devalued and scrapped. Humility. Modesty. Loyalty. Gentleness. Moderation. Self-control. We might even have a look at Bissonomy and Tubso. But don’t worry, this blog isn’t going to suddenly become all ethics all the time – eccentrics and aesthetics must have their share of the fun too. (The Eccentric Ethic & Æsthetic: does what it says on the tin.)

And it will be fun. Because there is right and there is wrong, and if your life of right is grey and dreary, you are doing it wrong.

The Late Great Sir Terry Pratchett and his Words of Wisdom

Terry Pratchett at Powell's 2007

“Now if I‘d seen him [Om], really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ’em like a father and cared for ’em like a mother… well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like “There are two sides to every question,” and “We must respect other people’s beliefs.” You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people any more, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That‘s religion. Anything else is just… is just bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbours.”
Granny Weatherwax, in Carpe Jugulum
by Terry Pratchett

Words to live by.