Questionable Motives

September 13, 2010

What is the root of religious intolerance?

Scripture. Holy scripture. And we need to be courageous to face this most unpleasant fact. The only way for religion and Enlightenment values like freedom of expression to live together in peace and tolerance is if religion becomes domesticated. And that means that the scriptures need a good editing to annul the intolerance and bigotry it promotes by order of god and for the scripture’s literalistic adherents to be marginalized by main religious body of followers. And this needs to be clearly stated by our political leaders who, so far, have done a piss poor job enunciating this necessity; instead, they have kowtowed to the religious sense that all is fine and dandy in their religion… except for a few dingbats, wingnuts, and deluded folk who actually dare to believe that the scriptures say what god means. I know… crazy talk!

As Dan Gardiner clearly explains in this article:

Of course religions can evolve. It is true, for example, that most Christians do not support the immediate execution of all homosexuals and very, very few would think it appropriate to kill a man who had carnal relations with a sheep. Or kill the sheep. That’s progress.

But, even if religions evolve, religious texts don’t. The language of brutality and bigotry is still there, in books said to be holy. Surely it is not surprising that it can still inspire suspicion, hostility, and division, or that, every now and then, some strange little man will read it and decide to burn a Koran or picket a gay man’s funeral or fly a jet into a skyscraper. It’s true that religion can inspire the best in us. But it can also inspire hate and madness. This is a fact of enormous importance, if only our leaders had the courage to say it.

The fact of the matter is that biblical and qu’ranic scriptures are filled with god’s sanctified intolerance for the Other and various admonishments and punishments that seem to suit his rather barbaric taste in allowable retribution. People who honestly believe that these scriptures really are the word of god cannot understand how others who claim to be of a similar religious persuasion can cherry-pick which are to be understood to be benign metaphors and which are to be taken literally. Arguments for moderate and tolerant religious beliefs are usually based on theological interpretations that rely on a rather sophisticated reading that elevate the good bits over and above the bad bits. But many adherents feel uncomfortable agreeing to go along with these man-made interpretations rather than stick closer to the source. And I do not think we can fault these folk for relying on the source material… a practice hammered into my head by the repeated mantra of many a professor: when in doubt, go the source.

Our leadership – like most religious folk – would have us believe that these believers who rely on the source scripture for and are willing to act on their religious beliefs are some fringe group that has been radicalized into fundamental extremism. I think that is unfair and is an avoidance technique to have to deal with the truth of the matter: it is the religious and tolerant moderate who has moved away from the word of god as revealed in scripture. Unless and until we recognize scripture itself as a never-changing central impediment to achieving tolerance and legal respect for the rights and freedoms and dignity of the Other, we shall continue to pretend that this intellectual cowardice to face reality is a synonym for tolerance. It isn’t. It is an enabling attitude. And that enabling cowardice shall continue to exact a heavy price in human suffering in the name of god.

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March 21, 2010

What kind of moral guide is the bible?

Filed under: belief,Bible,Ethics,Morality,Philosophy,Religion — tildeb @ 10:03 am

An incoherent one, but we often are told in no uncertain terms by the faithful that morality comes only from god through the holy texts like the bible. .

Robert G. Ingersoll has gone looking for this moral message in the bible and describes his thoughts about the moral codes he has found in this article, from which I have extracted these few paragraphs:

On the whole, the Old Testament cannot be considered a moral guide. Jehovah was not a moral God. He had all the vices, and he lacked all the virtues. He generally carried out his threats, but he never faithfully kept a promise.  At the same time, we must remember that the Old Testament is a natural production, that it was written by savages who were slowly crawling toward the light. We must give them credit for the noble things they said, and we must be charitable enough to excuse their faults and even their crimes.

I know that many Christians regard the Old Testament as the foundation and the New as the superstructure, and while many admit that there are faults and mistakes in the Old Testament, they insist that the New is the flower and perfect fruit. I admit that there are many good things in the New Testament, and if we take from that book the dogmas of eternal pain, of infinite revenge, of the atonement, of human sacrifice, of the necessity of shedding blood; if we throw away the doctrine of non-resistance, of loving enemies, the idea that prosperity is the result of wickedness, that poverty is a preparation for Paradise, if we throw all these away and take the good, sensible passages, applicable to conduct, then we can make a fairly good moral guide,—narrow, but moral.

Of course, many important things would be left out. You would have nothing about human rights, nothing in favor of the family, nothing for education, nothing for investigation, for thought and reason, but still you would have a fairly good moral guide. On the other hand, if you would take the foolish passages, the extreme ones, you could make a creed that would satisfy an insane asylum. If you take the cruel passages, the verses that inculcate eternal hatred, verses that writhe and hiss like serpents, you can make a creed that would shock the heart of a hyena. It may be that no book contains better passages than the New Testament, but certainly no book contains worse. Below the blossom of love you find the thorn of hatred; on the lips that kiss, you find the poison of the cobra. The Bible is not a moral guide. Any man who follows faithfully all its teachings is an enemy of society and will probably end his days in a prison or an asylum.

These facts in general, these histories in outline, the results reached, the conclusions formed, the principles evolved, taken together, would form the best conceivable moral guide. We cannot depend on what are called “inspired books,” or the religions of the world. These religions are based on the supernatural, and according to them we are under obligation to worship and obey some supernatural being, or beings. All these religions are inconsistent with intellectual liberty. They are the enemies of thought, of investigation, of mental honesty. They destroy the manliness of man. They promise eternal rewards for belief, for credulity, for what they call faith. This is not only absurd, but it is immoral.

These religions teach the slave virtues. They make inanimate things holy, and falsehoods sacred. They create artificial crimes. To eat meat on Friday, to enjoy yourself on Sunday, to eat on fast-days, to be happy in Lent, to dispute a priest, to ask for evidence, to deny a creed, to express your sincere thought, all these acts are sins, crimes against some god, To give your honest opinion about Jehovah, Mohammed or Christ, is far worse than to maliciously slander your neighbor. To question or doubt miracles. is far worse than to deny known facts. Only the obedient, the credulous, the cringers, the kneelers, the meek, the unquestioning, the true believers, are regarded as moral, as virtuous. It is not enough to be honest, generous and useful; not enough to be governed by evidence, by facts. In addition to this, you must believe. These things are the foes of morality. They subvert all natural conceptions of virtue.

March 19, 2010

Is there an atheist in your church’s pulpit?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Bible,Christianity,Dennett,Religion — tildeb @ 9:36 am

Dan Dennett is back (third from the left) with a study co-authored by Linda LaScola of preachers who are not believers.

We all find ourselves committed to little white lies, half-truths and convenient forgettings, knowing tacitly which topics not to raise with which of our loved ones and friends. But these pastors—and who knows how many others—are caught in a larger web of diplomatic, tactical, and, finally, ethical concealment. In no other profession, surely, is one so isolated from one’s fellow human beings, so cut off from the fresh air of candor, never knowing the relief of getting things off one’s chest.

These are brave individuals who are still trying to figure out how to live with the decisions they made many years ago, when they decided, full of devotion and hope, to give their lives to a God they no longer find by their sides. We hope that by telling their stories we will help them and others find more wholehearted ways of doing the good they set out to do.

March 5, 2010

Isn’t it about time to re-write the Ten Commandments?

Filed under: Bible,History,Hitchens,Ten Commandments — tildeb @ 12:37 pm

From the wickedly sardonic wit of the curmudgeonly funny Christopher Hitchens comes these excerpts (and picture) from his article in Vanity Fair:

What if it is the original stone version that badly needs a re-write? Who will take up the revisionist chisel?

There is in fact a good biblical precedent for doing just that, since the giving of the divine Law by Moses appears in three or four wildly different scriptural versions. (When you hear people demanding that the Ten Commandments be displayed in courtrooms and schoolrooms, always be sure to ask which set. It works every time.) The first and most famous set comes in Exodus 20 but ends with Moses himself smashing the supposedly most sacred artifacts ever known to man: the original, God-dictated panels of Holy Writ. The second edition occurs in Exodus 34, where new but completely different tablets are presented after some heavenly re-write session and are for the first time called “the ten commandments.” In the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses once more calls his audience together and recites the original Sinai speech with one highly significant alteration (the Sabbath commandment’s justifications in each differ greatly). But plainly discontented with the effect of this, he musters the flock again 22 chapters further on, as the river Jordan is coming into view, and gives an additional set of orders—chiefly terse curses—which are also to be inscribed in stone. As with the gold plates on which Joseph Smith found the Book of Mormon in upstate New York, no trace of any of these original yet conflicting tablets survives.

Thus we are fully entitled to consider them as a work in progress.

I am trying my best not to view things through a smug later prism. Only the Almighty can scan matters sub specie aeternitatis: from the viewpoint of eternity. One must also avoid cultural and historical relativism: there’s no point in retroactively ordering the Children of Israel to develop a germ theory of disease (so as to avoid mistaking plagues for divine punishments) or to understand astronomy (so as not to make foolish predictions and boasts based on the planets and stars). Still, if we think of the evils that afflict humanity today and that are man-made and not inflicted by nature, we would be morally numb if we did not feel strongly about genocide, slavery, rape, child abuse, sexual repression, white-collar crime, the wanton destruction of the natural world, and people who yak on cell phones in restaurants. (Also, people who commit simultaneous suicide and murder while screaming “God is great”: is that taking the Lord’s name in vain or is it not?)

What emerges from the first review is this: the Ten Commandments were derived from situational ethics. They show every symptom of having been man-made and improvised under pressure. They are addressed to a nomadic tribe whose main economy is primitive agriculture and whose wealth is sometimes counted in people as well as animals. They are also addressed to a group that has been promised the land and flocks of other people: the Amalekites and Midianites and others whom God orders them to kill, rape, enslave, or exterminate. And this, too, is important because at every step of their arduous journey the Israelites are reminded to keep to the laws, not because they are right but just because they will lead them to become conquerors (of, as it happens, almost the only part of the Middle East that has no oil).

So, then: how to prune and how to amend? Numbers One through Three can simply go, since they have nothing to do with morality and are no more than a long, rasping throat clearing by an admittedly touchy dictator. Mere fear of unseen authority is not a sound basis for ethics. The associated ban on sculpture and pictorial art should also be lifted. Number Four can possibly stay, though rest periods are not exactly an ethical imperative and are mandated by practicality as much as by heaven. At least, if shorn of its first and third and fourth redundant verses (none of which can possibly apply to non-Jews), Number Four does imply that there are rights as well as duties. For millions of people for thousands of years, the Sabbath was made a dreary burden of obligation and strict observance instead of a day of leisure or recreation. It also led to absurd hypocrisies that seem to treat God as a fool: He won’t notice if we make the elevators stop on every floor so that no pious Jew needs to press a button. This is unwholesome and over-strenuous.

As for Number Five, by all means respect for the elders, but why is there nothing to forbid child abuse? (Insolence on the part of children is punishable by death, according to Leviticus 20:9, only a few verses before the stipulation of the death penalty for male homosexuals.) A cruel or rude child is a ghastly thing, but a cruel or brutal parent can do infinitely more harm. Yet even in a long and exhaustive list of prohibitions, parental sadism or neglect is never once condemned. Memo to Sinai: rectify this omission.

Number Six: Note that mere human systems have done better subsequently in distinguishing different moral scales of homicide. Memo to Sinai: Are you morally absolute or aren’t you? If so, what about the poor massacred Midianites?

Number Seven: Fair enough if you must, but is polygamy adultery? Also, could not permanent monogamy have been made slightly more consonant with human nature? Why create people with lust in their hearts? Then again, what about rape? It seems to be very strongly recommended, along with genocide, slavery, and infanticide, in Numbers 31:1–18, and surely constitutes a rather extreme version of sex outside marriage.

Numbers Eight and Nine: Admirable. Also brief and to the point, with one rather useful nuance in the keyword “against.”

Number Ten: Does wrong to women by making them property and also necessitates continual celestial wiretapping of private thoughts. Sinister and despotic in that it cannot be obeyed and thus makes sinners even of quite thoughtful people.

March 4, 2010

What’s not to love about how Hitchens speaks his mind?

Hitchens On theism:

February 20, 2010

The bible as literature?

Well, it is considered as such in Tennessee and Texas and now in Kentucky:

A Kentucky state Senate committee has approved legislation allowing the Bible to be studied as a literary subject in public schools, a move that means the state will likely follow Tennessee, Texas and a handful of others in bringing the Christian text into the curriculum.

The bill, put forward by three Democratic state senators, orders the Kentucky Board of Education to draw up guidelines for teaching the Bible as a literary work in the context of “literature, art, music, mores, oratory and public policy,” reports the Louisville Courier-Journal. The Bible courses would be elective.

We will hear the usual well grounded complaints about another self-interested group sneaking religion into public education and the usual counter-charges that the US is – with a bit of re-writing of history – a christian nation and that no amount of complaining will change that fact, but both parties at the extreme end of this debate miss what I think is the important point: students need to have a good working knowledge of the bible to better appreciate not only all the references made to it in our spoken and written language but understand its central role as an very important influence through the history of western civilization.

Like it or not, the bible and all its various liturgical interpretations have deeply affected our history and to forgo this influence is to forgo a proper and informed education whether public or private. My problem with the legislation is far more subtle: the bible as a whole is hardly an outstanding example of excellent literature.

Sure, there are a few parts of the bible that are beautiful and moving, like withing Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, some Proverbs and Psalms, but I think these pale in comparison to other riches offered elsewhere and of which our children learn next to nothing. As literature, the bible is a poor example but absolutely vital in understanding world history. It is the context in which the bible is to be studied that forms its historical importance and gives us reason to place it properly within public education curriculum and not its religious content. That belongs in theology class. My preference, then, is for its inclusion in comparative religions.

Some unthinking christian parents may assume that instruction in the religious teachings of the bible has a place in public education, in which case I expect these same parents will offer no resistance and actively support public funding for the teaching of content from other competing religions. I suspect I will be disappointed. To those who do think, I urge you to support courses in comparative religions and have faith that your son or daughter will come to make up his or her mind about whatever religious belief reveals itself to be the most sound theology. The risk, of course, is that young people may reject the whole kit and caboodle as nonsense and superstition, but if we want our kids to exercise critical thinking and come to own their beliefs honestly, then we are going to have to trust them to do so at some point. Why not arm them with the best information we can and let them apply their ability to compare and contrast in school; after all, isn’t that what learning is all about?

February 17, 2010

No joke: Demonology classes for everyone?

They gather in Poland…

Congress participants argued that demonology lessons should be treated more seriously in seminaries and that ordinary people, too, would benefit from knowing more about exorcisms. During the congress, the priests discussed the main causes of possession by demons such as occult, esoteric beliefs like magic, eastern meditation and homeopathy.

I’ve just got to hear more about which branch of homeopathy causes demonic possession.

When someone asserts that one thing causes another, this is a scientific claim open to scientific scrutiny about causation. So please go ahead, graduates from the Vatican’s ‘university’ program that produces officially sanctioned exorcists, and prove the existence of demons, prove that demon possession is possible, and prove that exorcism contains the necessary efficacy to thwart and remove such possessions.

How can this nonsense still be believed in this day and age? These people should be ashamed of themselves for sacrificing their rational minds on the alter of some religious belief in oogity boogity. What’s that you say about scriptural evidence? Oh right. I nearly forgot: because the NT tells us that Jesus cast out demons, demons must be real. Sorry about that oversight: with such astounding evidence to back up the existence of demons, it’s no wonder these malignant magical critters hide in similar oogity boogity places like homeopathy.

It is beginning to make sense why demons hang out where they do… there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…

January 28, 2010

Is atheism fundamentally a Straw Man argument?

There is a reprehensible opinion piece posted online at the New York Times by Ross Douthat that supposedly offers us an “illustration of militant atheism’s symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism.”

Specifically, Douthat criticizes Dawkins for using Pat Roberston and his diatribe of god-sanctioned blame for the devastation suffered by Haiti as an example of a ‘real’ christian (read my previous comment on Dawkins’ article and why he argues as much). This is a failure of critical thinking by Douthat. By asserting that atheism requires a Straw Man approach, Douthat fails to comprehend Dawkins’ central argument: that a willingness by today’s theological apologists to grant any credence to a religious interpretation of some holy text that focuses on what is meek and mild without accounting for the parts that are vicious and genocidal is intellectually dishonest.

Douthat’s counter argument that quotes New Testament passages to negate Robertson’s interpretation is exactly Dawkins’ point: one biblical reference is not any closer to being true or accurate than the other. The only difference is that Robertson’s interpretation takes into account the capriciousness and violence of the christian god, making such an opinion based on biblical interpretation more ‘real’ in a christian vein than one like Douthat’s which simply ignores the Old Testament’s accounts of a god that is unconscionably cruel and immoral in favour of specific passages that casts Jesus as benevolent and forgiving. Let us all remember, however, that it is from Jesus we first gain a biblical account for eternal damnation… hardly one that enhances the CV of hope and love people so often attribute to Jesus’ message.

I have read repeated criticisms of Dawkins and other New Atheists as creating a Straw Man religious argument, that is to say, that these atheists create a Robertson-ian god as the one that defines the christian god and then tear it down by revealing its obvious malevolence. But the god worshiped by most christians, this argument points out,  is not this god – the one believed in by some fringe and/or extreme fundamentalists as the one so vehemently opposed by ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ atheists – but one that is actually benevolent and wise and compassionate. The faulty conclusion then held by so many moderate religious apologists is that Dawkins and his cohorts aren’t criticizing their religious beliefs but merely the ones held by hard core fundamentalists.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

New Atheists care about what is true. They care about knowledge – about what’s probably accurate, probably correct, probably true. They care about coming to a better understanding of the natural world, of promoting honest intellectual and scientific inquiry. They also respect the rights and freedoms and dignity of individuals within a secular society. They are concerned about any influence that intentionally impedes any of these cares, and there is no greater single impediment than the false certainty of religious belief. But rather than criticize specific people’s beliefs, the New Atheists’ approach is to enter the public forum and expose unjustified beliefs – regardless whether the unjustified belief is religious, superstitious, supernatural, or just poor thinking. To do this, New Atheists point out why the unjustified foundational belief of a Robertson is no different in quality of belief than someone who insists on holding a Jesus is Love assumption. Nor is there any difference in the unjustified foundational beliefs upon which the complimentary and alternative medicine industry has been built. Belief in the supernatural, whether it be god or evil spirits or the memory of water, cannot be honest knowledge: because such ideas are beyond our ability to be examined in the natural world under natural conditions subject to natural forces and natural efficacy all which can be naturally measured, supernatural belief cannot be justified by any other measure other than more assumption and assertion. Assumption and assertion that cannot by definition undergo natural testing and rational criticism because it is supernatural is immune from honest critical inquiry. Asserted beliefs are assumed to be true because they are believed to be true. That is not a justification for the truth value of the belief but an excuse, an allowance, a willingness to suspend critical inquiry. So it doesn’t matter whether or not it is a Pat Robertson’s unjustified belief or an Ayatollah’s unjustified belief or a Pope Benedict XVI’s unjustified belief or a Sarah Palin’s unjustified belief – the common denominator pointed out by New Atheists like Dawkins is that supernatural beliefs in their entirety are equally unjustified.

When a Pat Robertson makes another disparaging public statement about suffering people deserving their suffering and backs it up with theology, it is an opportunity and not a requirement for atheists to once again point out that if not for the acceptance of the moderately religious, then the foundation of unjustified religious beliefs would be treated with the same scorn and disgust aimed at Robertson for his outrageous truth claims. Robertson and his ilk have an audience because there is widespread acceptance by religious apologists to excuse, allow, and suspend legitimate criticism in matters of religious belief. That’s a public problem and it requires a public solution.

Is unjustified belief in the supernatural and all its various promotions in the public domain in need of public criticism? My answer is an unequivocal Yes. The New Atheists like Dawkins don’t just say a meek and mild yes to this question in the privacy of their own minds; they DO something about it by bringing their arguments and expertise into the public domain to tackle the problem of a Robertson, an Ayatollah, a Pope, a Palin, head on.

So the answer to the title is No, atheism is not fundamentally a Straw Man argument but a call to action, a growing movement that will continue to challenge anyone who doesn’t care about what is true but what is unjustifiably believed to be true, and who would allow unjustified beliefs the right to take a place at any table in the public domain.

January 26, 2010

Christianity according to Dawkins: a haven for apologetic hypocrisy?

We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, un-premeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery.

The religious mind, however, restlessly seeks human meaning in the blind happenings of nature. As with the Indonesian tsunami, which was blamed on loose sexual morals in tourist bars; as with Hurricane Katrina, which was attributed to divine revenge on the entire city of New Orleans for harboring a lesbian comedian, and as with other disasters going back to the famous Lisbon earthquake and beyond, so Haiti’s tragedy must be payback for human sin. The Rev. Pat Robertson sees the hand of God in the earthquake, wreaking terrible retribution for a pact that the long-dead ancestors of today’s Haitians made with the devil, to help rid them of their French masters.

Needless to say, milder-mannered faith-heads are falling over themselves to disown Pat Robertson, just as they disowned those other pastors, evangelists, missionaries and mullahs at the time of the earlier disasters.

What hypocrisy.

Loathsome as Robertson’s views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. The agonized theodiceans who see suffering as an intractable ‘mystery’, or who ‘see God’ in the help, money and goodwill that is now flooding into Haiti , or (most nauseating of all) who claim to see God ‘suffering on the cross’ in the ruins of Port-au-Prince, those faux-anguished hypocrites are denying the centrepiece of their own theology. It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.

Read the rest of Dawkins’ On Faith article here.

January 17, 2010

What is a REAL Christian?

Many christian commentators have distanced their religious belief from that of Pat Robertson with a very strange assertion: Pat Robertson, although definitely a christian, isn’t quite a real christian. His malicious and vindictive comments about the poor people of Haiti deserving their latest calamity don’t sit well with many of his believing brethren.  And they shouldn’t. There is something rotten at the core of a religious belief system that allows for a Pat Robertson to be one of its more popular spokespersons. But rather than treat his vile commentary as a clarion call to re-examine the disturbing belief set that champions such a despicable viewpoint as an equally legitimate interpretation of scripture as their own, many of the faithful wave a hand and too easily and without cause dismiss Robertson’s views only as his own.

This is dishonest.

Most christians assume that Robertson’s views are not god’s, that they don’t reflect real christian values. But on what basis? How are we to know the difference between this assumed real christianity that so many commentators assure us is the prevalent one, and the self-serving belief set like Robertson’s that promotes intolerance and takes such uncritical delight in the god-sanctioned suffering of others?

From where I sit, Robertson IS a real christian. It seems to me that this evangelical mouthpiece of the christian god speaks knowledgeably about scripture and his views successfully combine the vicious Old Testament god with the New Testament teachings of Jesus. His theocracy is as consistent as I think anyone can make of the incoherence we find in the complete bible and his interpretations as valid as anyone’s.

And that’s a problem christians everywhere need to address: what justifies the argument that one theological interpretation is not as valid as another, that a Robertson interpretation is any more or less valid than a Pope Benedict XVI or a Rowan Williams or a public commentator anywhere?

The unfortunate answer is: we can’t. Christian theology based on scripture alone allows us no means to differentiate.

And here we get into a christian burr patch: if morality is what we use to judge the validity of the interpretation, and we accept that it is from scripture where we get our morality, then we have closed the circle of our thinking and have to accept Robertson’s callous interpretation as moral and valid based solely on scripture. If we are repelled by that conclusion (as we should be), then it becomes evident and obvious that some other source of morality must be at play here, a morality that is not derived from scripture but applied to it.

We know the meaning of Robertson’s words to be spiteful and mean and morally wrong. But he is also a real christian, let us not forget,  and uses scripture like a sword to defend and promote his faith of a petty and jealous god while claiming to do so with god’s moral sanction based on his understanding of the bible. It is duplicitous and dishonest for other christians, therefore, to categorize Robertson’s cynical pronouncements as nonrepresentational of real christians while allowing the claim that we get our morality from scripture to stand unchallenged.

Christian believers cannot have it both ways: either Robertson is a real christian who quite properly derives his morality from the bible or he is a man who holds vile and vindictive viewpoints and uses christianity to promote them, meaning that our interpretations of biblical scripture is not the source but the expression of our morality.

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