“What makes stoning objectively wrong?”


I recently had a discussion with a Muslim guy at a Daw’ah table in the city centre, who held some incredibly extreme views and refused to accept contradictory thought. Afterwards, a friend of mine who considers himself a liberal Muslim, advocates free expression, LGBT rights, and considers the Shari’ah to be a system between him and his God only, told me – quite emotionally – that he does not recognise the Islam that the man at the Daw’ah table was espousing. I was reminded of this fundamental – and growing – split in Muslim thinking during a Newsnight debate between Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam and headteacher Ibrahim Hewitt of Interpal on the subject of extremism in schools. Nawaz asked Hewitt if he would condemn the practice of stoning, homophobia, or amputation of limbs for theft. After deflecting the question, Hewitt said it was a “complex issue”. I took exception to this, finding it particularly unnerving that a headteacher would not openly condemn executing people by throwing rocks at them, chopping off limbs, and dehumanising the LGBT community. After taking issue, I was asked on Twitter:

“But what makes stoning objectively wrong?”

– This curious – and rather grotesque – question echoes a lot of conservative religious apologists when seeking to defend abhorrent and archaic practices, by philosophising on objectivity in the hope of giving themselves a base by which they can legitimise the oppression of others. I find the framing of the question to be aimed in the wrong direction, and based on an incredibly faulty premise. The question presumes that the burden is on those of us who do not wish to be controlled by a single faith, to provide an explanation as to why our life is ours, and not owned by their religion.

The framing of the question – by presuming the burden is on us – implies a self evident privileged position for those that claim stoning is ‘objectively right‘, and that it is up to the rest of us to argue that it is in fact, wrong. The premise of the question itself is not proven first, and so the actual question has no reasonable basis. The premise is one in which I am wholly owned and subject to that particular faith, without offering proof as to why that should be true, whether I like it or not. It further implies that if I wish to free myself from the faith of those claiming ownership of my life, I must argue why their self-proclaimed right to subject me to religious punishment, is “objectively wrong“. This is an untenable position to start at, because at its core it permits religious folk the right to control me according to their faith, me the right to control their life if I simply say “My God says it’s objectively right“, it permits my neighbour the same right, and her neighbour the same right, and we end up in a situation in which all of us believe we have some sort of divine right to force others to abide by our personal religious beliefs. It is one big hellish Hobbesian condition of war. It offers no reasonable position as to why I shouldn’t be allowed to viciously oppress Muslims, if I simply add the phrase “… because God said so” at the end of an oppressive judgement, without first proving the validity of my premise; or indeed, the existence of my God. On the contrary, it appears to permit that state of all out God-wars. Each of us would thus begin from the position that our belief is true and must be inflicted upon others (whose beliefs must be presumed “objectively” false), without having to first offer conclusive proof. This seems entirely self defeating and based solely on who can subdue the other the quickest.

It seems to me that the only basis for a progressive and civilised society, is one that permits each the freedom to believe and to worship according to one’s conscience, but restricts that freedom at the point in which it inflicts upon the freedoms of others. So the case must be made that it isn’t my burden to explain why it is “objectively wrong” to punish me – with stoning or any other form of punishment – according to your faith. I begin life completely free from ideological dogma and chains. If you seek to erect barriers to my freedom, according to what your faith demands of you, you’re going to have to convince me to go along with it, otherwise it is simply oppression. Your faith does not own me at birth. If you believe it does, conclusively prove it, convince me. If you fail to do so, you have absolutely no authority by which to subject me to the punishments of your religious beliefs. Whether I live or die, must not be decided upon by the religious beliefs of anyone else. Therefore, the burden is yours to explain why it is “objectively right” that I be ideologically chained to your faith in the first place, before I am at all required to offer a rebuttal. It is not up to me to prove that I shouldn’t be subject to your religious beliefs, it is up to you to prove that I should. Good luck with that.

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15 Responses to “What makes stoning objectively wrong?”

  1. Akriti says:

    This is a really nice post.
    My time reading it was worth it 🙂

  2. Dave says:

    I’m with Sam Harris when he argues that we can come up with a good moral code using science to guide us, rather than regilion. I agree with him that we can look at the most horrific, wasteful, hurtful circumstances under which humans live at one end of the scale, and look at a sliding scale of improving circumstances and situations, until we arrive at something that looks like the ideal at the other end of the scale.

    If any religion can prove that they have a better set of values to judge morals and guide us in our lives both as individuals, and as a society, then I for one would be happy to hear their opinions. However, Sharia and the like looks very much like a retrograde step to me. Modern laws and secular values seem to be so much better as far as I can see. Old is not always better. Just because a law or moral code was good in the Bronze or Iron Age (if it was even ‘good’ then) doesn’t meant that it’s good, or superior to modern values and moral codes.

    I don’t see any reason to believe that any religious morals are even as good as scientifically deduced morals and values, let alone better, but I’ll try to keep an open mind if anyone wants to try to convince me otherwise!

  3. RS says:

    You were asked on Twitter:
    “But what makes stoning objectively wrong?”
    You replied:
    – This curious – and rather grotesque – question echoes a lot of conservative religious apologists when seeking to defend abhorrent and archaic practices, by philosophising on objectivity in the hope of giving themselves a base by which they can legitimise the oppression of others.
    * * *
    The framing of the question – by presuming the burden is on us – implies a self evident privileged position for those that claim stoning is ‘objectively right‘, and that it is up to the rest of us to argue that it is in fact, wrong. The premise of the question itself is not proven first, and so the actual question has no reasonable basis.

    It seems to me that the only basis for a progressive and civilised society, is one that permits each the freedom to believe and to worship according to one’s conscience, but restricts that freedom at the point in which it inflicts upon the freedoms of others.

    But your mode of argumentation is so obviously objectively wrong—because you have recast the objection to suit your position.
    He is asking upon what basis “by which [you] can [condemn] the [begged question] oppression of others.”
    He is actually asking from a neutral position. He has no burden.
    You have asserted that whether you live or die, must not be decided upon by the religious beliefs of anyone else. But this is just an assertion. It is no different than asserting that you should be stoned because of XYZ. He is questioning the justification for your assertion.
    Because your assertion is grotesque.

    “It seems to me that the only basis for a progressive and civilised society, is one that permits each the freedom to believe and to worship according to one’s conscience, but restricts that freedom at the point in which it inflicts upon the freedoms of others.”

    That is not satisfactory, and one should not pretend that it is.

  4. RS says:

    Dave
    “Better set of values” is the loaded phrase. What would make any of them “better”? I hardly see individual human dignity to be any less a “revealed,” arbitrary standard than any other. “Progressive” is not always better either.

  5. “You have asserted that whether you live or die, must not be decided upon by the religious beliefs of anyone else. ”
    – Yes. By starting at the premise that I am not born attached to his religious beliefs. Therefore, the burden is on him to explain why I must all of a sudden be attached to his religious beliefs. Stoning me according to his faith has no basis, unless he can offer objective truth that my life must now suddenly be wholly owned by his religion.

    You are free right now to tell me that I’m wrong. If I suddenly decided that you should be executed for saying I’m wrong, I would expect you to inquire as to what authority I have to prevent you from telling me that I’m wrong. I am the one erecting a barrier to your freedom. A freedom that you had before I decided I’d try to take that away from you. It isn’t you who has to convince me that I have no right to do that. It’s me that has to convince you that I have an objective right to do that. If I can’t…. then there’s no objective reason why you should stop telling me I’m wrong.

    “But this is just an assertion. It is no different than asserting that you should be stoned because of XYZ. ”
    – Yes it is. It is entirely different. One of those is me continuing my the freedom from his faith that I have always enjoyed, and never been chained to. The other is someone else claiming ownership of my life all of a sudden, without offering any objective basis by which to do so. Again, he didn’t own me at the point of my birth. He didn’t own my mother’s egg, nor my father’s sperm. He had no control over my development nor my birth. He is not linked to me in any way, much less in a way that permits him a degree of superiority over my life. If he suddenly decides he does now have that right of superiority…. he needs to offer me objective proof that I am now his property. Otherwise, I am under no obligation to follow anything he demands, or be punished by his dictates, and instead will continue to live as I did before he made such a bizarre suggestion.

  6. RS says:

    You have simply re-begged the question: Why should he not stone you, inasmuch as HE is owned by his religious faith? That is, it is you who must convince him that you have some sacrosanct freedom to live, absent a justification to YOU that satisfies YOU.
    I do not see it anywhere inscribed in stone that he must justify his actions vis-à-vis you, in order to take those actions.
    So overarching all is, again, the question: What makes stoning objectively wrong?

  7. Dave says:

    I think the important word overarching everything here is ‘objective’. To be objective, one would presume a certain amount of rational thought. Maybe a certain amount of following scientific principles when deciding what to do, etc.

    For instance, what is an objective view of virginity and marriage? What is an appropriate, logical, objective response to finding that your new bride is in fact, not a virgin on your wedding night? An objective response, if virginity is really important to you, might be to have your marriage annulled. Seems quite reasonable and proportionate to me, if a lack of virginity in your new bride really worries you. However, the response of the Abrahamic religions is to suggest that it is your right to take your new bride back to her father’s house and stone her to death on his doorstep. Does the man who took her virginity face any sanctions, or retribution? Apparently not… and I for one wonder why?

    Apparently ‘God’ is rather chauvinistic… and not very fair, or even-handed. In fact, he seems to be rather bloodthirsty, and doesn’t care much for suggesting rational, logical, and dare I say objective responses to his followers when dealing with others.

    The religious can of course argue that they are following ‘God’s instructions through his holy word’. They may argue that it is us, the non-believers that are not being ‘objective’ because we do not follow ‘God’s’ instructions. However, it is quite clear that there are a good number of ‘Gods’ to choose between. None seems to have won the battle for the title of ‘supreme God’. That in itself says a lot.

    Science has a way of dealing with everybody equally. It is a system, not a religion. It doesn’t care what sex, colour, or religion you are… but it is objective. It is proportionate in how it measures and deals with people and circumstances. If I wrong you, the response should be objective (according to a scientific approach to circumstances). If I haven’t killed you, or harmed you in any significant way, then how can killing me, or anyone else who behaves in a similar way to me towards another, be considered objective? It’s definitely not proportional, and makes murderers of otherwise normal, rational, well-intentioned people, simply because they choose to believe in some Bronze Age mythology.

    Whilst the religious believer considers themselves to be following some higher law, I think it falls on them to prove to those who do not believe in their particular ‘God’ that their ‘God’ is not an irrational, vindictive, capricious, sexist, racist, bigot who believes in promoting disproportionate acts of violence against anyone who happens to have a different set of moral values to those promoted by their particular religion.

    In short, it falls on the believer to prove that their religion is better that anything else that’s being suggested/promoted. If their religion, any religion, gives a better set of moral values than those that can be deduced by science, then let them step forward and prove their point. I have a feeling we could all die waiting for a logical, rational, objective argument (that has any value), but I’d be happy to see someone try!

    Please remember though, it has to be an objective argument… with value.

  8. Again, you haven’t provided any reason why I am to be owned by his religious faith. You’ve simply restated that he is owned by his faith. And again, there is no objective reason why I am to be considered owned by his faith, and until he provides that objective reason, I remain free of it (a state in which I have always been).
    If your argument is that a kidnap victim needs to provide reason why they shouldn’t be thrown in a cage against their will, rather than the burden on the kidnapper to explain why they should; I’d suggest you might be a bit dangerous.

  9. RS says:

    Look I did not ask the question. He did. And you presumed to provide an answer. Which you have not.
    No one cares if you are owned by his faith. Or by your non-faith. Your perspective is not at issue.
    The question is, what is he going to do and why should he not do it?
    Let me guide you a little, since you seem to need it: Most all religions (save some extremely racist pagan polytheisms) do have respect for the homo sapiens as such, believe it or not. The problem for you (us) is that that respect is wrapped up with, and only derived from, the rest of their religion. So their respect can evaporate, based upon the canons of their religion.
    Your position is respect for homo sapiens all on its own lonesome. Fine. Get that. However, he is asking you to defend that position in some kind of cognizable fashion to him.
    So, why don’t you read some of your Habermas and give it a go?! And stop re-casting his question, into the one that you want to answer.

  10. RS says:

    Dave
    It seems self-evident to me that God… Science… or Nature, whatever one chooses to call it, is extremely inegalitarian and self-evidently discriminatory. What gives?
    Anyway, the question is, by virtue of what, can anyone say that something is more or less moral? What is morality and why?
    The fact is, every life ends in death. That’s Science. Whether one lives that life according to one’s faith (or non-faith), and whether that conduct includes killing others (people I mean) in a jihad/crusade, it seems to me is a question of no moment to Science.

  11. No no, you’re the one struggling.

    It is not my “perspective” that I am not owned by his faith. That’s just reality. I am not owned by his faith. Neither was I born with two heads, or six feet, as much as I wasn’t born into the ideological structure of Islam. It isn’t a perspective. I had no ideological attachment, I am still not owned by a faith, and I still don’t have two heads. If you want to tell me I do have two heads; provide your evidence. Equally, if you want to tell me that I am chained to the dictates of a faith, or that those who consider themselves chained to a faith are superior to me; provide your evidence. Otherwise, I reject the argument entirely. I am still free of those chains.

    So, if I am free from the chains of his faith – which I am – it is he who needs to tell me why I should now be chained to his faith. He has to explain why he is objectively superior to me first. If he can’t do that, there is no “why is stoning objectively wrong?” question to ask. The premise is dead, if he cannot explain why he – or his faith – is objectively superior to the rest of us.

    If there is no ‘objective’ reason for him to claim ownership over the rest of our lives according to his faith, then there is no ‘objective’ reason that stoning me according to his faith is ‘right’, and so by implication, no reason for me to have to argue that it’s ‘objectively’ wrong. I go on living as I do, without having to suddenly give up my liberty from his faith – a liberty that I’ve always had.

  12. RS says:

    Good grief. I don’t understand what you are not getting. Why should he have to justify anything to you? That is the question.
    Let us assume that he has no faith at all, and is not demanding anything of you whatsoever. The question remains, “why is stoning objectively wrong?” Not who owns whom and why.
    You are refusing to justify, describe, or even outline why it is objectively wrong to stone you.
    What is the wrong? And why is it so objective?

    He could provide an answer–albeit only within the contours of his faith.
    Can you?
    Or are you just going to go back to the shibboleth that someone has to prove something to you first, before they get to ask the question? How very Futile.

  13. RS says:

    Or put another way… he is free of your faith… that a homo sapiens is presumed entitled to life and dignity, unless found otherwise.

  14. karen503 says:

    The answer to that question is rather simple: Fundamentalists don’t believe in evolution. You have to be evolved beyond a prehistoric neanderthal level to accept advanced notions of morality and ethics.

  15. Dave says:

    Oh, now I’m really upset. What have Neandethals done that you know of for certain, that deserves such defamation?! I actually think that Neanderthals were more moral than the average religious fundamentalist, though I can’t prove it. :0/

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