Questionable Motives

March 27, 2010

What is wrong with liberal apologists?

Nick Cohen brings us an answer from Standpoint magazine about how the far left has joined the far right:

The Conservatives’ main complaint about the borderless Left used to be that it allowed huge double standards. Polite society embraced ex- or actual communists and Trotskyists and treated them with a consideration they would have never extended to ex- or actual Nazis. The refusal of 21st-century left-wing and liberal opinion to separate itself from radical Islam is, however, a living disgrace with disastrous consequences for Europe.

You can see them everywhere if you are willing to look. In January, for instance, Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband attended a “Progressive London” conference packed with the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which believes in the establishment of a totalitarian theocracy. George Galloway, who saluted the courage of Saddam Hussein, was there too, inevitably, as was Tariq Ramadan, the shifty academic who thinks there should only be a “moratorium” on the stoning to death of adulterous women rather than an outright ban. Imagine the fuss if, say, William Hague and Michael Gove had gone to a conference on the future of right-wing politics in London and joined members of the BNP, a far-right politician who had saluted the courage of Augusto Pinochet and an academic who argued for a “moratorium” on black immigration to Britain. The BBC would have exploded. It, along with everyone else, kept quiet, of course, about Harman and Miliband because they were from the Left and therefore could never be beyond the pale.

Nominally left-wing politicians’ appeasement of religious reactionaries is so routine that it takes a convulsive event to reveal the extent of liberal perfidy. The reaction of University College London to the news that its alumnus Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had tried to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day should have provided the shock therapy. The connection between British-bred extremism and mass murder was there for all to see, except that the authorities did not want to look.

I can see no more important task at present than working out how European liberalism has gone so badly wrong. Why does a culture that prides itself on its opposition to bigotry become so feeble when it confronts bigots dressed in the black robes of clerical reaction? Until we understand, we cannot cure, and there is an emerging understanding among those who worry about the dark turn liberals have taken that Western guilt lies at the root of their moral failure.

Ever since the Rushdie affair, the fear of religious violence has buzzed in the heads of liberal Europeans. The Islamists bombed London and Madrid, murdered Theo van Gogh, drove Ayaan Hirsi Ali into exile and forced politicians, most notably Muslim women politicians, to accept armed guards. On the scale of suffering in the world, Islamist violence in Europe is nothing remarkable. But a little fear goes a long way in rich and comfortable societies and sometimes the trouble with the liberals is not their guilt but that they do not begin to feel guilty enough about their cowardice and complicity.

March 23, 2010

Creeping religious accommodation: why should we enforce respect?

We shouldn’t.

Excerpts from John Hari’s article in The Independent:

In 2005, 12 men in a small secular European democracy decided to draw a quasi-mythical figure who has been dead for 1400 years. They were trying to make a point. They knew that in many Muslim cultures, it is considered offensive to draw Mohamed. But they have a culture too – a European culture that believes it is important to be allowed to mock and tease and ridicule religion. Some of the cartoons were witty. Some were stupid. One seemed to suggest Muslims are inherently violent – an obnoxious and false idea. If you disagree with the drawings, you should write a letter, or draw a better cartoon, this time mocking the cartoonists. But some people did not react this way. Instead, Islamist plots to hunt the artists down and slaughter them began. Earlier this year, a man with an axe smashed into one of their houses, and very nearly killed the cartoonist in front of his small grand-daughter.

This week, another plot to murder the cartoonists who drew caricatures of Mohammad seems to have been exposed, this time allegedly spanning Ireland and the United States, and many people who consider themselves humanitarians or liberals have rushed forward to offer condemnation – of the cartoonists. One otherwise liberal newspaper ran an article saying that since the cartoonists had engaged in an “aggressive act” and shown “prejudice… against religion per se”, so it stated menacingly that no doubt “someone else is out there waiting for an opportunity to strike again”.

Let’s state some principles that – if religion wasn’t involved – would be so obvious it would seem ludicrous to have to say them out loud. Drawing a cartoon is not an act of aggression. Trying to kill somebody with an axe is. There is no moral equivalence between peacefully expressing your disagreement with an idea – any idea – and trying to kill somebody for it. Yet we have to say this because we have allowed religious people to claim their ideas belong to a different, exalted category, and it is abusive or violent merely to verbally question them. Nobody says I should “respect” conservatism or communism and keep my opposition to them to myself – but that’s exactly what is routinely said about Islam or Christianity or Buddhism. What’s the difference?

This enforced “respect” is a creeping vine. It soon extends beyond religious ideas to religious institutions – even when they commit the worst crimes imaginable. It is now an indisputable fact that the Catholic Church systematically covered up the rape of children across the globe, and knowingly, consciously put paedophiles in charge of more kids. Joseph Ratzinger – who claims to be “infallible” – was at the heart of this policy for decades.

And the ever perceptive Jesus and Mo:

March 6, 2010

What is the matter with atheists?

Other than causing unnecessary conflict and division by failing to support and daring to criticize those who wish to create a theocracy, probably everything. This Just In:

Monash University Professor Gary Bouma says people without a specific faith are fuelling sectarian conflict and cause division in society.

“Conflict comes up when groups vilify, deny the right to build the mosques,” he told the Studies of Religion in Focus conference in Sydney today.

“Or when the ‘nones’ – those who are anti-theist – [say] ‘You’re stupid’, that religious voices should be driven out of the public policy area, that religion shouldn’t be in schools, etc.

“That is conflict, and that is highly divisive in this society.”

Professor Bouma says a growth in religious diversity in recent years has created problems for Australian schools.

He says schools have to work out to how to encourage respectful engagement between students and teachers of various religions.

“Schools have a whole variety of competing loyalties within the teachers and within the students,” he said.

“It can sometimes go to conflict if there’s a viewpoint that some don’t want expressed.

“But how is it that you accommodate the diversity? How is it that you develop respectful engagement between diverse groups?”

Yup, those atheists sure are trouble. First they take away your rights by supporting your rights above the religious beliefs of the supernaturally informed righteous believers and then they dare stand by their convictions. How pathetic.

Don’t atheists know that “respectful engagement” means keeping one’s mouth closed and remaining silent when secular rights are undermined and religious folk implement their beliefs in the public domain using public funds? Can’t they see that by respecting what’s true over respecting unjustified supernatural claims, daring to suggest that the rights of all need to be respected equally, these poor misguided non believers are solely responsible for creating the ensuing conflict and division? I mean, really; what’s wrong with atheists?

March 4, 2010

How do religious leaders inspire bigotry?

Two ways in particular: promoting fear and loathing to be directed at a select group of individuals based on some unalterable trait, and by not taking a stand against fear and loathing directed at that select group of individuals. In Uganda, religious leaders aided and abetted by American evangelicals and the Vatican, we have both (See my previous posts about this exercise of religious bigotry here, here, and here).

From the BBC, Religion, Politics, and Africa’s Homophobia, comes this latest religious embarrassment:

Since a Ugandan MP proposed the death penalty for some gay people, homophobia has been on the rise in other parts of Africa. Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama’s criticism of the Ugandan proposals led to huge anti-gay rallies in neighbouring Kenya.

Monica Mbaru, from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, describes these crackdowns as a ripple effect from the Uganda situation. She says many African leaders and communities remain hostile to gay people because of pressure from religious leaders.

Our politicians have great respect for religious leaders and are careful not to disagree with them, especially not on homosexuality,” she says.

The Malawian authorities say gay activists should be more open – but say if they do come out into the open they will be arrested because homosexuality is illegal.

There are small pockets of resistance within the religious community – but theirs is a hard fight.

Reverend Michael Kimundu served the Anglican Church in Mtwapa, Kenya, for 30 years. But recently the Church expelled him because leaders found out that he headed a religious organisation called The Other Sheep, which preaches tolerance towards gay people.

“I am a preacher I should be spreading love, not hate – that is why I don’t believe in treating the homosexual community with disdain,” he says. “My Church didn’t want to be associated with such beliefs. Because of my stance I have had many people accuse me and many of the pastors I work with of being gay because we refuse to let this injustice continue.”

So although a few brave people who happen to be religious are willing to stand up to the religious leaders who support the bullying tactics of bigotry, the battle is far from over.

March 2, 2010

Atheists: anti-religious zealots or merely hate filled?

From Ed over at Dispatches From the Culture Wars quoted in its entirety:

The religious right has reacted with a predictable freakout to the Obama administration holding a meeting with the Secular Coalition for America last week.

“It is one thing for Administration to meet with groups of varying viewpoints, but it is quite another for a senior official to sit down with activists representing some of the most hate-filled, anti-religious groups in the nation,” said Council Nedd, chairman of the religious advocacy group In God We Trust.

And once again we see the religious right making a lame attempt to coopt the language of liberal causes that involve real oppression in order to strike the martyr pose and paint themselves as victims. When someone else disagrees with and criticizes their ideas, it’s just like when blacks had fire hoses, police dogs and lynch mobs unleashed at them. Because both are “hateful.”

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said the meeting provided a “definitive answer” about the administration’s stance towards religion.”People of faith, especially Christians, have good reason to wonder exactly where their interests lie with the Obama administration,” Donohue said in a statement. “Now we have the definitive answer. In an unprecedented move, leaders of a presidential administration are hosting some of the biggest anti-religious zealots in the nation.

Riiiight. President Obama shows up at every prayer breakfast anyone can schedule within 1000 miles of the White House, has a team of spiritual advisers on retainer and talks incessantly about his religious faith, but he lets his underlings have one meeting with a non-religious group and it just proves how he’s really anti-religious and probably a gay-loving atheist…I mean terror-loving Muslim…oh, whatever. He’s obviously a terrible person now.

One has to wonder: Is there any claim so idiotic that the religious right won’t make it? I have yet to find a limit to their absurdity. I doubt I ever will.

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How sadly true. And from Comment #4 by Sadie Morrison comes an excellent question in response: Is there any claim the religious right can make that is so idiotic and repugnant that mainstream America finally stops giving it the attention and reverence it craves?

I can’t think of any.

February 6, 2010

Why is ignorance such a powerful political force in the US?

There may be a clue here:

From the Republican Party straight to FOX News – the most ‘trusted’ news source in the US – comes evidence that selling intentional misrepresentations, outright lies, and purposeful misinformation all for partisan gain works and works well. It works because so many people are more than willing to accept ignorance packaged as something else (patriotism, religion, freedom, wisdom, passion, etc.) as the basis for their opinions. Yet once stripped of the packaging, these opinions become strikingly ignorant, intolerant, and incredibly dangerous to the continued respect and well-being of the Constitution.

Check this poll out and tell me what you think.

January 31, 2010

How does an American liberal become an islamic jihadist in a distant land?

This eleven page story from the New York Times describes how Omar Hammami from Daphne, Alabama, has become a key figure in one of the world’s most ruthless Islamist insurgencies. That guerrilla army, known as the Shabab, is fighting to overthrow the fragile American-backed Somali government. The rebels are known for beheading political enemies, chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning women accused of adultery. With help from Al Qaeda, they have managed to turn Somalia into an ever more popular destination for jihadis from around the world.

So how does one go from being a smart, popular, and talented young person with a bright and promising future into an active jihadist half way across the world? Omar explains:

“They can’t blame it on poverty or any of that stuff,” he continued. “They will have to realize that it’s an ideology and it’s a way of life that makes people change. They will also have to realize that their political agendas need to be fixed.”

Dena, Omar’s older sister, offers this conflicted reply.

“I think it’s admirable to stand up for what you believe in, but it gets hairy when you affect the lives of others,” she wrote.

Hairy. That’s an interesting way to describe killing, maiming, beheading, and stoning others.

Hammami responded that he understood how strange it might seem to “fight for beliefs,” especially as he had once been a liberal (under the influence, he wrote, of the teacher he still referred to as “Mrs. Hirsch”). But he had come to the realization that “we don’t live in a utopian society.”

So what needs to change? Well a good starting point according to Omar is a recognition that, “Human rights,” he said in an audio recording released by the Shabab last July, is “the Western form of democracy which cannot be reconciled with Islam.”

And it is religious belief that is the more important of the two, according to far too many people. And therein lies a good part of the explanation. I think it is that kind of assumption – a willingness to reduce the secular rights and freedoms of people to be subordinate to some other ideology, some other belief set – that clears a path for the transition from responsible citizen to murderous terrorist, a perspective that is essential to have in order to allow people to continue to think well of themselves while they carry out everything from small acts of righteousness like voting to reduce civil rights of others to horrendous acts of brutality on behalf of some ‘higher cause’ against other people. I am disgusted that the salve offered by religious belief about so much unnecessary suffering is so easily excused by assuming belief that all of us are merely preset pieces within God’s preordained plan. “You take solace in knowing that it’s in God’s hands,” said Shafik, Omar’s islamic father sunken in his armchair, as Debra, Omar’s southern baptist mother nodded. “And there is nothing you could have done to change it.”

I think that’s a cop out. I think we need to educate people to better understand and appreciate that what makes individual freedom possible is our collective and primary allegiance to and respect for secular enlightened values of equality, dignity, and fairness. There are far too many of us who think allegiance to the state and the religious majority it supposedly represents is where our allegiance properly belongs, but this misdirection and misunderstanding is as much to blame for creating more Omars as is the religion of islam. As the push in Western democracies continues to promote government support for christian values, the greater is the danger we face that we will lose our freedoms. We need to wake up, get off the fence, and push back any encroachment by anyone who campaigns or acts against the primacy of secular values.

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 15, 2010

Is there a bias against atheists?

A majority of Americans consider belief in God essential to morality, the Pew Forum confirmed in 2007; and Pew recently found that most Americans do not want their family members marrying atheists.  (Note to Brit Hume: I doubt that most Americans would exhibit comparable hostility toward Christians.) The new Pew Research Center report on increased optimism among African Americans notes that while “interracial marriage is now widely accepted by Americans of all racial groups … there is one new spouse that most Americans would have trouble accepting into their families: someone who does not believe in God.”  Resistance among people affiliated with a religion to intermarriage with atheists may be stronger than their resistance to gay marriage: seven in ten religious people surveyed by Pew would oppose or resist intermarriage with an atheist.  And while comparably high percentages of the most regular churchgoers oppose gay marriage, opposition declines significantly among the less devout.

So I’m not ignoring the beginnings of what some consider an atheist liberation movement (although American atheists are not exactly oppressed).  And I’m not complaining:  I don’t care if religious people consider me amoral because I lack their beliefs in God.  I do, however, care deeply about efforts to turn religious beliefs into law, and those efforts benefit greatly from the conviction that individually and collectively, we cannot be good without God.

Persistent hostility toward atheism may not be a source of educational or employment discrimination for individual atheists (although it does engender significant discrimination in the military), but hostility toward atheism is a threat to freedoms of conscience and religion that all of us share.  It’s an often overlooked irony that atheists who regard all religions with equal disrespect, favoring no one faith over another, are sometimes the most reliable defenders of equal religious rights.  But you shouldn’t have to be irreligious to consider religious liberty transcendent.

From Wendy Kaminer’s article No Atheist Need Apply at The Atlantic

January 8, 2010

What’s in a name?

There were angry protests at mosques in Malaysia after four arson attacks on Christian churches, apparently provoked by a controversy over the use by Christians of the word Allah.

Police were increasing their patrols of areas around churches and Christian communities were hiring security guards, after petrol bombs were thrown at four churches in and around the capital Kuala Lumpur, partially destroying one of them. Hours later, Muslim preachers used Friday prayers to object to a court decision that would allow use of “Allah” as the Malaysian language term for the Christian God.

“We will not allow the word Allah to be inscribed in your churches,” said one speaker at the Kampung Bahru mosque in central Kuala Lumpur. Protesters carried posters reading “Heresy arises from words wrongly used” and “Allah is only for us”.

The word has been used for centuries in Malaysia, as well as by Christians in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Indonesia as the equivalent of the English word God. But many Malaysian Muslims, who make up 60 per cent of the population, say that Allah should be reserved to refer exclusively to the Muslim deity and that use of it in a Biblical context encourages conversion to Christianity, a crime under the country’s Islamic laws.

“We will not allow the word Allah to be inscribed in your churches,” said one speaker at the Kampung Bahru mosque in central Kuala Lumpur. Protesters carried posters reading “Heresy arises from words wrongly used” and “Allah is only for us”.

The Herald, a Catholic newspaper published in Malaysian, won an appeal nine days ago against a ruling that banned use of the word by non-Muslims. The judgment has been suspended in anticipation of an appeal by the Government, but it has already stirred up Muslim anger in a country with a particular dread of ethnic and racial confrontation. Read the rest of report from The Times Online here.

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This must not be the god that is god behind the god that Karen Armstrong refers to but maybe the one more in front… you know, the one most religious believers believe in.

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