The Futility of Appeasement

Quick! Somebody call the accommodationists!

Several men who went to a suburban mosque to perform morning prayers Wednesday were shocked to discover two bloodied wild boar heads wrapped in plastic bags in the mosque compound, said Zulkifli Mohamad, the top official at the Sri Sentosa Mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city.

This unpleasant stunt is just the latest symptom of a smoldering religious war that recently erupted in Malaysia, a multiethnic and multireligious country with a Muslim majority and significant Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities. The catalyst was a decision last year in which Malaysia's highest court ruled that the Herald, a Roman Catholic newspaper, had the right to use the word "Allah" in its Malay-language edition as a term for God. This overruled a "years-old government ban on the use of the word in non-Muslim publications", and this was the result:

Among the attacks in various Malaysian states, eight churches and two small Islamic prayer halls were firebombed, two churches were splashed with paint, one had a window broken, a rum bottle was thrown at a mosque and a Sikh temple was pelted with stones, apparently because Sikhs use "Allah" in their scriptures.

The New York Times gives further details of the ensuing violence and protests, including this bit:

"Allah is only for us," said Faedzah Fuad, 28, who participated in the rally. "The Christians can use any word, we don't care, but please don't use the word Allah."

...Hand-lettered signs reading "Please respect the name of Allah" remained in a stack on the ground where Ms. Faedzah had prepared them.

Another article notes that Malay Muslims "paraded a severed cow’s head in the streets" in November to protest the building of a new Hindu temple - one wonders if they inadvertently inspired the latest act of vandalism.

So far, prominent accommodationists like Chris Mooney and Karen Armstrong have yet to blame the Malaysian violence on Richard Dawkins, though I'm sure it's only a matter of time before they come up with some connection.

But I'd really like to know how people who hold such views would respond to this. Should the Christians have sought permission to use the word "Allah" in their own publications? Why or why not? And how would they respond to protestors like Faedzah Fuad? Since Mooney and his allies hold that religious beliefs must be respected, does being respectful require that the rest of us be forbidden to even use a word if a particular religious group claims ownership of it?

It's also worth noting, contrary to the worldview of the accommodationists, that the peace which formerly prevailed wasn't a cheerful democratic diplomacy that was disrupted by a few reckless agitators. On the contrary, it was enforced by coercion: it was illegal for non-Muslim publications to use the word "Allah", even if said publication was printed by people for whom that word was a part of their native language. Writing for Slate, Christopher Hitchens describes just how narrow the Malaysian court's ruling was:

The high court finding was very narrowly drawn; it said that the Catholic Herald could say Allah in its Malay-language edition, provided that the paper was sold "only on church grounds and bearing the label FOR NON-MUSLIMS ONLY."

But as Hitchens notes, even this incredibly circumscribed exemption was too much for the Islamists, and the court decision has now joined

the long list of actual and potential confrontations [between religions], derived from the infinitely elastic list of matters about which Muslims award themselves the right to be aggrieved... Who could have guessed that they wouldn't notice until last year that there were non-Muslims speaking the same language as them? Who could have foreseen that within weeks of this startling discovery we would witness the usual dreary display of yelling crowds, snarling preachers, and smoldering buildings?

Events like this show the futility of trying to keep the peace by tiptoeing around religious believers' sensibilities. Contrary to the accommodationists who believe all would be well if only we New Atheists would stop stirring up trouble, the truth of the matter is that there are millions of fundamentalists, of many different religions, who cannot be appeased, who will not accept anything less than total submission, and who need only the barest sliver of an excuse to resort to violence. Trying to keep these people happy is pointless: if we bow to one of their demands, that will just encourage them to demand more, until the whole world is shackled by their peculiar and archaic set of laws.

Violence like this is a reason why we need more atheist speech, not less. If religious believers expect that they can have any demand met by claiming offense, that only gives them an incentive to become more unreasonable and more prone to violence. We need to make it clear to everyone that no one's beliefs are above criticism, and no one can expect to escape skeptical inquiry. That attitude, and not hypersensitive demands for self-censorship, is the only thing that will lead to an end of religious warfare and violence in the long run.

February 9, 2010, 6:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink288 comments
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Geert Wilders on Trial

This week, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders appeared in court in his home country to face charges of "inciting discrimination and hatred", which could carry a two-year prison sentence on each count. Wilders is, of course, the bomb-throwing right-wing populist whom I wrote about in 2008, made infamous by his short film Fitna (caution: some disturbing images).

When Wilders' blunt criticisms of Islam caused fury among Muslims, the nation of Jordan - of which Wilders is not a citizen, and where he has no political or personal connections - demanded that he be extradited there in order to punish him. Understandably, the Dutch government refused. And despite a flood of complaints, Dutch prosecutors - to their credit - refused to charge him, finding that he had broken no laws. Their statement on the matter was a clear and welcome affirmation of the principle of free speech:

"That comments are hurtful and offensive for a large number of Muslims does not mean that they are punishable. Freedom of expression fulfils an essential role in public debate in a democratic society. That means that offensive comments can be made in a political debate."

But now a Dutch court of appeals, acting on its own initiative, has reversed this decision and ordered that Wilders be prosecuted - hence this week's hearing.

Before I respond to this, let me make one thing clear: Wilders himself is a hypocrite. Despite his vaunted love for the principle of free speech, he's called for a ban on the Qur'an, a ban on the founding of new mosques, and a ban on further immigration from Islamic countries. I disagree with all those proposals just as vehemently as I disagree with the plan to prosecute him.

But that's precisely the point. It's not Geert Wilders to whom I owe any allegiance, but the principle of freedom of expression. And the Netherlands is doing grave harm to that principle by its decision to prosecute someone for doing nothing more than voicing his opinion. As Russell Blackford astutely notes, it's not just Geert Wilders who's on trial now - it's the Netherlands as well. If it shows by its actions that it is now a country where a person can be jailed for speaking his mind, it's well on its way to erasing the distinction between itself and the theocracies of Islam.

In truth, it's not Wilders' fate I'm particularly concerned about. If he's acquitted, so much the better. If he's found guilty and punished, that will in all likelihood allow him to paint himself as a martyr (and rightfully so) and will probably win him even more support. The Dutch court has yet to learn the most basic lesson of free speech, that trying to suppress ideas by force tends to make them even more powerful and resilient.

What does concern me is that there are those among the Dutch people who fail to grasp what's at stake here, who think they can solve all their problems with Islam by punishing the ones who call attention to them:

Gerard Spong, a prominent lawyer who pushed for Mr Wilders's prosecution, welcomed the court's decision.

"This is a happy day for all followers of Islam who do not want to be tossed on the garbage dump of Nazism," he told reporters.

If Muslims are indeed concerned with avoiding that label, they should be doing more to stop violence in the name of Islam. Speak out, support free speech, denounce the imams who call for violence, make it clear that they are not the sole authority on the teachings of Islam! Muslims have not done nearly enough along these lines, and throwing one Geert Wilders in jail will accomplish precisely nothing if their actions are such as to cause similar thoughts to occur in a million minds. If anything, it's likely to inspire more hatred, more anger, more xenophobia, and make the eventual outcome worse for everyone concerned.

January 22, 2010, 6:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink31 comments
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When Fanatics Attack, Blame the Victim

So, there's an outside chance you've heard about a certain column by Nancy Graham Holm, who gifted the world with her thoughts on the ax attack on Kurt Westergaard earlier this month. Although we got a bit sidetracked, I still want to write a direct response to what she said, because I think there are some lessons to be drawn from it.

Muslims failed to see Westergaard's cartoon as satire. Instead, they saw in it a defamatory and humiliating message: Muslims are terrorists. Humiliation is a devastating feeling...

Why did the editors of Jyllands-Posten want to mock Islam in this way? Some of us believed it was in bad taste and also cruel. Intentional humiliation is an aggressive act.

...The free society precept is merely an attempt to give the perpetrators the moral high ground when actually it is a smokescreen for a deeply rooted prejudice, not against Muslims, but against religion per se.

Really, I'm marveling at that last sentence. "The perpetrators", she says. And who are the perpetrators, according to Nancy Graham Holm? Not the people who've plotted to murder Kurt Westergaard - including, let me say it again, the fanatic who bashed down his door with an ax - but the people who drew cartoons that certain Muslims didn't want to be drawn. Those cartoonists are the ones who started this; they deserve the blame for their "aggressive act"; they've unjustly sought to claim "the moral high ground". Presumably, if any of them actually are murdered by religious fanatics, Holm will tell us that it was their fault.

Is there an informative parallel here? Why, yes, there is; I'm so glad you asked. The parallel that I'd draw is to the people who claim that rape victims are at fault for being raped, because they "invited" their own sexual assault by dressing or acting provocatively and we all know men just can't be expected to control themselves when that happens:

The survey also found that 26 per cent of adults believed that a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing. Some 22 per cent held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners. Similarly, 30 per cent said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk.

Another parallel is with the "gay panic" defense, which claims that men who are the recipients of unwanted homosexual advances are legally justified in murdering the other person:

Weighing the options, [the jury] chose to believe Biedermann and his lawyer, Sam Adam, Jr., who also successfully represented R. Kelly in his 2008 child pornography charges, and who is also ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich's defense attorney. They accepted as reasonable the premise that it had taken Biedermann 61 stab wounds in order to successfully fend off an unwanted sexual advance from another man.

The exact same reasoning is deployed by Nancy Graham Holm, here, in her argument that Danish cartoonists "provoked" the Muslim segment of society with their aggressive cartoons and therefore deserve what they get. As if any act of speech, regardless of the speaker's intent, could ever justify others committing violence against them! This is nothing less than a rejection of the charter of rights that makes democratic society possible in the first place. It's an abject surrender to the vicious thugs who would blackmail everyone else into submission by the threat of violence - as if it was our job to "back down" and "apologize" to them, both of which she calls on the Danes to do.

It's also, though Holm doesn't realize it, extremely prejudiced against Muslims. She criticizes the Danes for acting immaturely:

As a journalist now living in the same town as Westergaard, I thought some at Jyllands-Posten had acted like petulant adolescents.

Yet if Danish people are to be judged "petulant adolescents", the consequences of her view for Muslims are far worse. Her view treats Muslims as if they were wild animals - dangerous creatures who can't be counted on not to lash out if provoked. We, in contrast, view them as human beings, and accordingly expect that they should be able to listen to criticism and respond to it with an appropriate degree of maturity. In many cases, of course, this turns out not to be true. But arguing that we should censor ourselves so as not to anger them is as futile and offensive as arguing that women should never wear revealing clothes so they don't get raped, or arguing that homosexuals should stay in the closet so as not to be murdered by homophobic crazies. In a free society, we should all have the right to express ourselves in any way we choose. Why are some people so eager to call for the revocation of that right the moment a bunch of ignorant thugs object to it?

January 14, 2010, 7:54 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink44 comments
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Free Speech Still Threatened in Europe

Scarcely two days into 2010, we've gotten a stark reminder of how free speech is still threatened by religious fanatics: Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who drew the image of Mohammed depicted to the right, was attacked at home Friday night by a murderous, ax-wielding religious fanatic. Fortunately, neither Westergaard nor his 5-year-old granddaughter, who was with him at the time, were harmed. They escaped to a panic room built into the house for just this purpose and summoned police, who shot and wounded the attacker when he refused to surrender.

This isn't the first time Westergaard's life has been threatened by crazed Muslims. As I reported previously, he's been the target of multiple death threats since the Mohammed cartoons were first published in 2005, and in 2008, three other men were arrested by Danish police and charged with plotting his murder.

In an October interview with the conservative National Post (which notes ruefully that Westergaard isn't much of a fan of Christianity, either), the artist was unrepentant:

"As I see it, many of the immigrants who came to Denmark, they had nothing. We gave them everything - money, apartments, their own schools, free university, health care. In return, we asked one thing - respect for democratic values, including free speech. Do they agree? This is my simple test."

The best way to defend this brave man is to ensure that he's not the only target. There has been too much embarrassed silence and self-censorship over this affair in the halls of Western journalism. We need more images and drawings of Mohammed, not fewer, to show Muslim thugs that their religious laws have no power over us - and to ensure that they'll have no single target, if they persist in the belief that they can avoid criticism by murdering all their critics. (Any Daylight Atheism readers have artistic talent?)

It's not just lone fanatics, but governments that are getting in on the anti-free-speech game. Sadly, Ireland's new blasphemy law, which criminalizes the publication of matter "that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion", has just taken effect. (Atheism is not similarly protected from offense, in case you were wondering.)

However, we should count ourselves fortunate for having the smart freethinkers at Atheist Ireland - who promptly challenged this idiotic piece of medievalism by publishing 25 blasphemous quotes, against a wide variety of religions, as a way of testing the new law and exposing its foolishness. Will the government dare to prosecute them? Stay tuned!

January 2, 2010, 10:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments
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Why Won't You Atheists Just Go Away?

The Newsweek/Washington Post blog On Faith has posted a series of responses from panelists to the American Humanist Association's new holiday ad campaign (HT: An Apostate's Chapel). Here's the question they asked:

What do you think of the American Humanist Association's new "Godless Holiday" campaign? The ads, displayed on transit systems in five major U.S. cities, will say: "No God? ...No Problem! Be good for goodness' sake. Humanism is the idea that you can be good without a belief in God." Is this another front on the so-called secular "war on Christmas"? Or is this another example of the pluralistic strength of America?

The responses run the gamut, including the usual plaintive whines from theologians who stomp their feet and insist that we're not allowed to be good people unless we believe in their god. There's also this air ball from John Shelby Spong:

The religious community needs to understand the God that the humanists are rejecting. This God is defined as a being, supernatural in power, external to the world, who periodically invades the world in miraculous ways.

No, Mr. Spong, that is incorrect. We atheists reject your thin, watered-down porridge of a god as well, just as we reject the traditional theistic understanding. That is the definition of what it means to be an atheist: we reject all notions of gods, without preference or partiality.

But this is all old hat. I wanted to focus on a more interesting response from Susan K. Smith, a pastor in the liberal United Church of Christ. You might expect someone from such a denomination to be sympathetic to us - but her post is titled, incredibly, "Humanists, leave us alone".

I cannot for the life of me understand why humanists don't just leave people who believe in God alone.

...People like me who believe in God find comfort in the thought of an Almighty. Belief in that Almighty has been a mainstay of my life and of the life of my ancestors. I choose to continue to believe and will do so, and so I resent people telling me that I should not.

If your sympathies were with the accommodationists, you might want to use this as another piece of evidence for how disrespectful and rude the New Atheists are, that we're driving away even liberal theist groups like the UCC. But look again, and see what Smith is complaining about: not some scathing attack or vicious polemic, but an ad which simply expresses the message that belief in God isn't necessary to be good. You can't get less confrontational than that, short of being silent. But even this mild, cheerful message is enough to provoke Smith to wish that we would just go away and leave her alone.

Glaringly absent from Smith's piece is any recognition that religious people "don't just leave humanists alone". In fact, there are large, multimillion-dollar media and political ministries whose sole mission is to tell the rest of us what we should believe. The atheist ad campaigns, as laudable as they are, are just a drop in the bucket compared to the blizzard of religious evangelizing that pervades our society. And yet it's our ad campaign, not theirs, that raises her ire.

Michael Otterson, a PR spokesperson for the Mormon church, strikes a similar note in his response. He essentially says it's okay for humanists to speak out, just so long as they don't make any religious person upset:

The potential for trouble lies in whether a message like theirs is allowed to descend into ridicule or condemnation of those who do profess a belief in God. Just as those who consider themselves nonreligious expect their lack of belief to be respected, religious Americans should also be able to safely assume their profession of faith will be respected and not just tolerated.

First of all, I hope I'm not the only one who feels a small chill down my spine when I read the phrase "is allowed". This choice of wording carries the unmistakable implication that there should be some third party deciding which ideas may or may not be expressed.

But what really leaps out at me is the gigantic whopper in the second sentence. Did you catch it? Look again: He writes that atheists "expect [our] lack of belief to be respected", and so religious people have a right to ask for the same.

This is an utter fabrication. We atheists ask for the same legal rights as believers. That is all we have ever asked for. We emphatically do not seek to be exempt from criticism. As a look around the atheist blogosphere shows, we do not fear theist arguments - we're more than confident that we can defeat them, and generally speaking, we welcome the opportunity.

Otterson has distorted our position so that he can draw a false equivalency between our views and his. We seek only equality before the law, while he seeks the same thing religious groups have always demanded: freedom from outside scrutiny, from difficult questions, and from being held to account for the wrongs his church commits. He fears criticism and debate, while we welcome them. Make no mistake: he clearly wishes to be free from ridicule and condemnation even when his church does things that deserve to be ridiculed and condemned.

Remarkably, the person who most clearly grasps the point is an evangelical himself, Richard Mouw:

We evangelical types have paraded enough of our own in-your-face stuff in public places, so why should we complain when the unbelievers do the same?

Bravo! It seems almost superfluous to praise someone for recognizing such an obvious point, except that so many of his fellow believers seem incapable of grasping it. Religious groups of every kind, and Christian groups especially, have always had the freedom to advertise their beliefs, to argue with and persuade others, and to criticize beliefs that they disagree with. They have that freedom and they have exercised it to the fullest extent. It's much too late to complain now that atheists have started getting into the persuasion game.

And what's so terrible about atheists arguing for our point of view, anyway? America and the Western nations in general have a strong, lively tradition of free speech, which includes debate, ridicule, satire and harsh criticism. Every moral advance our society has made was because of rabble-rousers who spoke out against popular prejudices, even when they incurred the wrath of the majority or inspired fervent wishes that those nasty, uncouth radicals would just go away and stop disturbing the status quo.

This idea that public discourse should be gentle and peaceful and not disturb anyone, as if we were all elderly grandmothers meeting for tea, is a modern aberration. The reason we have a First Amendment is precisely so we can speak truths that other people would rather not hear. Free speech is only doing its job when it inspires action, passion, and anger, and so the New Atheists must be doing things exactly right, judging by the response we've received. So, no, we're not going away, and we're not going to be silenced. We're going to say precisely what we think, and we're going to do so as loudly and as often as possible. Do you have a problem with that? Tough!

December 2, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments
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Take Action: Help Free Kareem Amer

Since I wrote about the Center for Inquiry's Blasphemy Day last week, this is a fitting followup. By participating in events like those, we demonstrate our commitment to defending the right of free speech. But we can also show that commitment in a more tangible way: by taking action on behalf of the prisoners of conscience around the world who've been imprisoned and punished for exercising that right.

In this case, I'm speaking of Kareem Amer, an Egyptian blogger and law student who in 2007 was sentenced to four years in prison for writing posts that criticized Islam and the repressive Egyptian government and defended secularism and women's rights. Naturally, these were judged intolerable crimes in the authoritarian, theocratic dictatorship that modern Egypt has become. Even his own parents disowned him, although this may (or may not) have been the result of coercion.

You can read Kareem's writings for yourself, translated into English, on the site that's been set up to lobby for his freedom. Some of them are astounding in their boldness and courage, especially "There Is No Deity but the Human Being", a ringing endorsement of secular humanism:

Verily, we must return to the beginning and define the function of the law in our lives. And before that, we must convince the human being of his individual sanctity, and that nothing surpasses him in importance and standing besides himself. Following that, the law is a follower, protector, and organizer of his life. It is not a tool of suppression with which whoever is behind it aims to create a new deity the human being will prostrate to and sanctify.

If you're willing to help, the Free Kareem website has an action center with a list of what you can do. As I'm not familiar with the people behind this site, I can't say whether donating money will go to a good cause, so I'd advise some skepticism on that. Instead, of all the actions listed, I think the most effective is sending letters and faxes to the Egyptian government (their link to Amnesty International's webpage for this purpose is broken, so here's a new one).

This may seem like an unlikely way to bring about change in a corrupt theocracy, but Western pressure can have an effect. For instance, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the Afghan student sentenced to death for the great crime of downloading writings on women's rights from the internet, was pardoned by President Hamid Karzai after heavy international pressure and safely escaped the country.

To support this brave and unjustly imprisoned ally of free speech, writing a letter is the least we can do. This is why we have events like Blasphemy Day, to let oppressive religions and tyrannical governments know that they can't escape criticism no matter how they try. But while blasphemy laws are useless in the long run, in the short run they destroy innocent lives. By taking action on this cause, we have a chance to mitigate at least some of that harm.

October 8, 2009, 9:48 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink6 comments
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Three Cheers for Blasphemy Laws!

Today is International Blasphemy Day, inaugurated as a protest against the new Irish blasphemy law, the Muslim furor over cartoons of Muhammad, and every other law or social norm intended to protect religious ideas from criticism. From the Blasphemy Day website:

The last day in September is the anniversary of the original publication of Danish cartoons in 2005 depicting the prophet Muhammad's face. Any visual depiction of Muhammad is considered a grave offence under Islamic law.

...The newspapers which chose to publish these cartoons were in many cases blamed for the outpouring of violence which followed. This unfortunate yet inevitable sequence of events clearly demonstrated a dangerous misconception that had piggy-backed into the 21st century on the shoulders of ignorance, fear and apathy, that all religious beliefs and ideas deserve respect and are beyond criticism or satire.

International Blasphemy Day is a movement, not just a day, to remind the world that religion should never again be beyond open and honest discussion or reproach. Our future depends on it.

I know the usual thing to be done here is to criticize blasphemy laws as outdated relics of a medieval era, an unjust infringement on free speech, a tactic of power-hungry religious theocrats, etc. I don't disagree with any of those characterizations, but today, I want to take a different perspective. The way I see it, anti-blasphemy laws, both de jure and de facto, do us atheists and skeptics a favor. Namely, they let us know where to focus our rhetorical fire by pointing out the ideas whose advocates don't think they can withstand criticism.

As I wrote in "Doubting the Sun", any idea that was obviously true, or that could be defended by resort to the evidence, wouldn't have to be protected from criticism. The truth never has anything to fear from even the most searching examination. It's only ideas that can't withstand inquiry that need to cower behind a shield of protective laws threatening any who would dare to call them into question.

In the short run, blasphemy laws wreak destructive and unjust consequences on individuals who transgress them, especially the barbaric versions that exist in countries like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But in the long run, they achieve nothing other than highlighting these religions' vulnerability. The internet has made it possible for anyone's speech to be heard in every corner of the world, and despite the inevitable and futile attempts at net censorship, no national government can stifle criticism from skeptics everywhere on the planet. Those who try have handed us a potent weapon, by letting us know which truths they fear the most. (This analysis isn't just true of religion; it also applies to countries like China that try to censor any information deemed embarrassing or dangerous by their political rulers.)

When Chinese autocrats try to suppress historical facts about the Tienanmen Square massacre or the Tibetan independence movement, that's how we know those facts should be communicated to people under their control. When Muslim mobs start howling for blood when essays and editorials criticize Islam as a violent and backward religion, we should take that as encouragement to write more of those essays. When Christian fundamentalists demand to remove certain books from libraries - or even demand to burn them! - then we all know what books we should be giving our children and young people to read. And when peddlers of woo and superstition threaten critics with frivolous lawsuits, they let us know exactly what we should be saying to weaken and undermine them.

If these rigid ideologies believe they have something to fear from this information, they're probably right. That's why the rest of us should work all the harder to spread that information, to broadcast the truths that they don't want to be known. In this way, we can accelerate the breakup of every church and every political system that denies humans intellectual freedom. The only ones that will be left standing, in the end, will be those that have nothing to fear from reason and skeptical inquiry.

September 30, 2009, 1:10 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink54 comments
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Unitarian Universalism: A Matter of Definition

Both Greta and Hemant have commented on the full-page ad run by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the latest issue of UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Since I have a copy of that issue, I thought I'd say some things about it as well.

The FFRF ad that ran in the fall 2009 UU World. Click to enlarge.

No one, of course, is denying that UU World would have been completely within its rights to reject the FFRF ad if they had chosen to. But that isn't what they did. Instead, they accepted and ran the ad, which means that editorial staff at a fairly high level must not have seen any problem with it initially. Only after the magazine was published, and after some readers complained, did they apologize and state that it shouldn't have been run.

I think it's obvious why UU World's staff didn't see a problem with the ad: a significant percentage of UU members are atheists. By many definitions, I'd be one of them - I occasionally attend a UU church with my fiancee, and I'm not the only atheist in the congregation by any means. In fact, I'm fairly certain that atheists are a plurality there. This seems like a perfectly logical place for the FFRF to advertise, because the ad does speak to a large and important part of UU membership.

Granted, the FFRF ad contains some quotes criticizing religion in general - particularly the one from Butterfly McQueen, which equates religion with slavery. Since Unitarian Universalism describes itself as a religion, I can understand why some UU members were offended.

However, I don't think the fault lies with the FFRF. If anything, I think Unitarian Universalism is to blame for all the fuss. Long ago, they made a choice that's led to much confusion: they brought in traditional religious terminology to describe themselves, but the way in which they use those terms in practice is very different from how they've historically been defined.

The fact that they call themselves a "religion" is example #1. UU has no sacred text, no statements of dogma, and no formal creed. It doesn't even require a belief in God, and it proclaims that atheists and agnostics are welcome in its congregations. The only thing that connects UU members is a set of seven principles for moral behavior, which you can justify to yourself in any way you like.

Needless to say, this is not how the vast majority of people would understand the term "religion". The historical meaning of that word has always included some supernatural component and some set of shared beliefs, and UU has neither. But nevertheless, it's chosen to call itself a religion. Doubtless, this was a marketing decision: it expresses the point of this activity in a way that outsiders can easily understand, makes it seem more familiar and appealing, and not coincidentally, allows UU to make a play for its share of the automatic respect and deference that always seems to accrue to anything calling itself a religion.

But a consequence of this is that UU members will naturally perceive themselves to be among the targets of any attack on "religion", even if the people who uttered those statements were clearly thinking of a completely different kind of belief system. As I said, it was this unfortunate choice of wording that's led to so much confusion. I strongly doubt that the Freedom from Religion Foundation has any complaint against Unitarian Universalism - in fact, there's undoubtedly a substantial overlap in their membership! - and as long as they continue to welcome atheists and support the separation of church and state, Unitarian Universalism has no reason to fear any goal the FFRF might seek to accomplish.

This is a situation where Unitarian Universalism has put itself in the line of fire, so to speak, when it didn't need to. UU isn't truly a religion in the sense of the word that the FFRF and other atheists criticize; it's more like a secular humanist philosophy, one that just happens to dress in trappings of religious language. What this story really shows is yet another example of the negative effects that follow from society automatically assuming any religion to be worthy of respect and deference.

September 21, 2009, 6:56 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink20 comments
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Christians Persecute Atheist Teacher

The next time you hear Christians complaining about being persecuted in America, remember this story.

You probably know Hemant Mehta, author of the blog Friendly Atheist. What you may not know, and what I didn't know, is that by day he's a math teacher at a public high school in Illinois. And it seems that a right-wing Christian group, outraged by the thought of an atheist being a teacher and potentially a role model, is now trying to get him fired.

You can read the story in Hemant's own words in three posts, Why the Illinois Family Institute Is Angry With Me, Illinois Family Institute Goes After Me Again, and most recently, Laurie Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute Issues an Open Letter to Me.

Hemant does a superb job of telling the story himself, but the summary is that he outraged the Illinois Family Institute, a gay-bashing religious right group, by writing a blog post sarcastically criticizing a "warning" they issued about same-sex couples kissing in public. The IFI was terrified that - gasp! - young, impressionable children might see gays and lesbians engaging in acts of affection!

In response, the IFI's director, Laurie Higgins, sent a letter to Hemant's school board to insinuate that he should be fired for being an atheist:

...He, of course, has a First Amendment right to write whatever he pleases on his blog "The Friendly Atheist" during his free time, but it’s unfortunate that a role model for students would write some of the things he writes.

When this failed to produce the desired effect, Higgins then sent letters to parents in Hemant's district, suggesting that they should be horrified by an atheist teacher and should demand that their children be removed from his class:

...as I mentioned in my earlier article, parents have the right not to have him as a teacher and a role model for their children. I want to be very clear about what I'm suggesting: I am suggesting that parents who have serious concerns about Mr. Mehta's potential influence on their children's beliefs politely insist that their children be placed in another teacher's class.

The IFI's fearmongering follows the usual religious right smear-job tactics: dig around for anything controversial that can be linked to the person they're attacking - especially anything having to do with sex, which the Christianists are obsessed with to the point of paralysis - and then describe it to make it sound as upsetting to mainstream sensibilities as possible. Gasp! Another poster on Hemant's blog answered an e-mail from someone who practices polyamory! Gasp! Hemant linked to the "obscene column" of "homosexual activist" Dan Savage! Heavens, won't someone please think of the children?!

Notably, not even Higgins has claimed that Hemant has said or done anything in the classroom to promote atheism to his students. Her sole concern is that he might be a good teacher, such that students will find him inspiring and look up to him, will then Google his name, find out he's an atheist, and be drawn to atheism themselves! (Really. I'm not kidding. That's actually what they say.)

I've heard nothing to indicate that Hemant's job is in jeopardy, but if the school board does take any kind of retaliatory action against him, he would have a very strong legal case for religious discrimination. I'll post an update if I hear anything more on that front, and I'd gladly help raise money in his defense.

In the meantime, to Laurie Higgins and the IFI: shame on you. How dare you, here in America, try to get a man fired for expressing his views? How dare you suggest that speech protected by the First Amendment makes him any less fit as a teacher or as a role model? You should be ashamed for such a sleazy and contemptible attack on a good American citizen who's serving his community by teaching its children.

You have no right to demand that students in public schools only be exposed to opinions that are exactly the same as their parents'. That is a foolish, reprehensible and ignorant expectation. The whole point of education is to expose kids to new ideas. And when was the last time you complained about a religious teacher expressing their views? Have you ever issued press releases trying to frighten parents into pulling their children out of some class because the teacher is a Christian or a Jew? Have you ever written to the school board to complain because a teacher wears a crucifix in class? Hemant doesn't even so much as wear an atheist pin!

No teacher, atheist or theist, should proselytize their students in class (although religious ones too often do). The First Amendment requires that public institutions be secular and religiously neutral. But what constitutionally-protected opinions a teacher holds and expresses on their own time, that's their business. The IFI, a gang of small-minded bigots if ever I saw one, thinks they have the right to close down the circle of opinions to only the ones that they approve of. It's too bad for them that they live in America, a nation founded on precisely the opposite ideal.

August 22, 2009, 12:43 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink31 comments
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Thoughtful Iconoclasts: A Response to Madeleine Bunting

I last mentioned Guardian columnist and Templeton Foundation fellow Madeleine Bunting in 2007, in "On Being Uncontroversial". She's recently written another column attacking atheism, alleging that the New Atheists are drowning out, in her words, "real debates" about religion and faith.

Personally, I don't see the basis of her complaint. I think we've been provoking some very good debates - about the proper role of religion in society, how much influence it should have, whether and to what extent its claims deserve respect, how to judge between the various religions' competing truth claims, and so on. This is a welcome change of pace, I would think, from the dreary repetitions of orthodoxy and the polite, embarrassed silence that's so often prevailed in public conversations about religion. But none of these are the kind of "real debates" Bunting is talking about.

What many argue is that the New Atheist debate has ended up down an intellectual dead end; there are only so many times you can argue that religion is a load of baloney.

In one sense, this is true; there are only so many ways to say "there is no evidence for God". But what Bunting appears to be arguing is that we've said all we have to say and should therefore stop talking. Needless to say, that isn't going to happen. As she is surely aware, religious faith is still causing evils in the world today: oppressing and persecuting women and homosexuals, providing the ideological underpinnings for terroristic violence and theocratic rule, and motivating attacks on toleration, science, and separation of church and state. Under these circumstances, it would be morally wrong for atheists not to speak out, and we intend to continue doing so until our message sinks in and the world turns toward enlightenment.

And if Bunting's critique is that atheists have run out of interesting things to say, that same critique applies with redoubled force to her own religion. Faiths like Roman Catholicism have spent millennia preaching from one book, endlessly rehashing the same tedious stories. Does this mean Christianity has hit an intellectual dead end? If not, then how much wronger is this claim in regards to atheism, which is not limited to one holy text or tradition but has the whole wide universe from which to draw its stories and moral lessons?

Just this week, AN Wilson announces in a thoughtful cover article for the New Statesman that he has apostated, abandoning his fellow atheists.

If I'm not mistaken, that would be the same A.N. Wilson who said that Darwin's Descent of Man is "an offence to the intelligence" and added that "the jury is out" about whether evolutionary theory is true. Whether he ever was an atheist or not, this shameful and disgraceful ignorance gives us good reason to doubt his credibility in other areas, and to suspect that his statements about his past position are driven by apologetic necessity. Bunting might as well quote Lee Strobel saying he only became an atheist because he wanted to do whatever he chose and live free of morality and accountability.

In the Third Way, a Christian magazine, the poet Andrew Motion reflects wistfully, "I don't believe in God - though I wish I did, and I can't stop thinking about it so who knows what might happen one day?"

Bunting here provides further evidence for the thesis which I advanced in "Respectable Infidels": that the only atheists considered "respectable" by apologists are those who concede the superiority of religion and wish they were believers. An atheist who is proud to be so, and who speaks their mind honestly and frankly, will always be judged as disrespectful by theists whose only goal is to silence us.

Anyway, what exactly does Bunting think the New Atheists are doing wrong? We get a glimpse at her answer, what she calls the "key mistake", and it's truly bizarre:

Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths. What "belief" used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of "love", "commitment", "loyalty": saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles.

...the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe.

With this passage, Bunting places herself firmly in the rarefied, academic fantasyland inhabited by so many of her fellow theologians. She alleges that it's crude and simple-minded to say that you have certain knowledge of what God is like, what he commands, and what we should do to fulfill our duty to him. In its place, she promotes an "apophatic" theology which claims that God so far surpasses our understanding that we can say nothing definite about him at all.

If that's the tack she wants to take, fine. But the glaringly obvious rejoinder which she steadfastly refuses to mention is that this position is a minority report. There are billions of theists worldwide who do exactly what she decries, bluntly proclaiming their certainty in an anthropomorphic god whose wishes are known to all. They use this belief as a justification to tyrannize others, and they are loud, well-organized, and belligerent. That is the kind of faith that the New Atheists have risen against; that is the kind we oppose so vehemently because of the ongoing danger it presents to the liberty and well-being of humankind. Bunting's apophatic faith, which has been been so carefully excised of substance, is a tiny minority opinion and always has been.

This piece is a perfect example of the Courtier's Reply: religious apologists who decry atheists for not attacking the vague and allegedly more sophisticated creeds held by a handful of theologians, refusing to understand that we are responding to religious faith as it is actually held and practiced by the overwhelming majority of religious people today. Yet somehow, it's always the atheists who get blamed for attacking this crude and over-literal faith - never the believers who actually hold it and put it into practice.

Bunting demonstrates her failure to grasp this with her closing argument:

So the media has been promoting the wrong argument, while the bigger question of how, in a post-religious society, people find the myths they need to sustain meaning, purpose and goodness in their lives go unexplored.... By junking the Christian myths, the danger is that the replacements are "cruder, less tested, less instructive".

First of all, many atheists have devoted significant effort to explaining where we find meaning, purpose and goodness in a life free of superstition. Richard Dawkins wrote an entire book about it, for truth's sake: it was called Unweaving the Rainbow. If Bunting doesn't know this, maybe it's because she's so consumed with her own stereotypes of those awful New Atheists that she hasn't made the effort to find out what we really think. The debate she wants has been happening all along - she just hasn't been paying attention.

It's true that any replacement for religion will be "less tested". But that statement implies that religion has been tested and has passed. Much the contrary, we atheists believe that religion has been tested and has failed. The reality is that we atheists are not thoughtless iconoclasts, tearing down the altars of religion without thought for the consequences. We've made the decision to attack religions precisely because we've concluded that the hate, intolerance and division they cause is too high a price to pay for whatever comfort they offer. We believe that we can find sources of meaning and goodness that work just as well, without all the baggage that religion brings.

April 13, 2009, 9:56 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments
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