The Biblical Cruelty of Child Beating

In 1877, the great freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll wrote these words about the then-common practice of corporal punishment:

I tell you the children have the same rights that we have, and we ought to treat them as though they were human beings. They should be reared with love, with kindness, with tenderness, and not with brutality. That is my idea of children.

...I do not believe in the government of the lash. If any one of you ever expects to whip your children again, I want you to have a photograph taken of yourself when you are in the act, with your face red with vulgar anger, and the face of the little child, with eyes swimming in tears and the little chin dimpled with fear, like a piece of water struck by a sudden cold wind.

Even back then, Ingersoll recognized the barbarity of punishing children with beatings and pain. Even then, he was a much greater man, a more loving man, a more compassionate man than the evil, sadistic fundamentalists who still exist today - the ones who believe that whipping a child is an appropriate response to disobedience, that parental decrees should be enforced with fear and pain. Two such people have just been sentenced in California after pleading guilty to beating their 7-year-old adopted daughter to death.

Lydia Schatz's parents were followers of Debi and Michael Pearl, whom I've written about before - the Christian couple who believe that an abused wife's only recourse is to pray to God to strike her husband dead. The Pearls also teach that beating a child is the proper way to make them obedient, and they specifically recommend implements to use for the purpose, such as belts, wooden spoons or quarter-inch plumbing supply tube.

The CNN interview shows the disturbingly large influence the Pearls have in the Christian community - their warehouse full of books, covers boasting "660,000 Sold". Predictably, they deny all responsibility for Lydia Schatz's death, though the interviewer probes no further than that. He also doesn't mention that, in one respect at least, the Pearls are correct: the Bible does teach parents to beat their children. In fact, the Bible treats child-beating not just as one method of discipline among others, but says clearly that it is essential:

"He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes."

—Proverbs 13:24

"Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying."

—Proverbs 19:18

"The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil: so do stripes the inward parts of the belly."

—Proverbs 20:30

"Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell."

—Proverbs 23:13-14

So, yes, the Christians who advocate whipping children are following the Bible. That's how we know the Bible is a wicked book, one that teaches a flawed and savage morality far inferior to the compassionate humanism of Robert Ingersoll. Punishing children with beatings doesn't make them moral; it makes them cruel, by teaching them that inflicting pain is a legitimate way of solving a problem. As studies have found, corporal punishment correlates with aggression, antisocial behavior, mental illness, and abuse of one's own family later in life.

The harm done by religion to helpless, vulnerable children is enormous: whether it's religious sects which shun medicine and let their children suffer and slowly die from treatable illnesses, or religious sects which advocate mutilating a child's genitals, or religious sects which actively teach the goodness of beating and torture, or religious sects which simply teach children to be terrified of being attacked by demons or of burning forever in a fiery hell. Lydia Schatz is dead because of cruel and evil teachings like these, and she probably won't be the last. (Did her parents call themselves "pro-life", do you think?) Robert Ingersoll had advice that seems like it was written just for the Schatzes, advice that I hope they'll follow some day, hopefully many years in the future, after they're released from prison:

If that little child should die, I cannot think of a sweeter way to spend an autumn afternoon than to go out to the cemetery, when the maples are clad in tender gold, and little scarlet runners are coming, like poems of regret, from the sad heart of the earth — and sit down upon the grave and look at that photograph, and think of the flesh now dust that you beat. I tell you it is wrong; it is no way to raise children!

August 24, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink35 comments

The Baffling Era of Religious Suicide-Massacres

By James A. Haught

Osama bin Laden achieved a remarkable feat: He mobilized the power of religion to spur devout young men to kill themselves in order to murder defenseless strangers. Grotesquely, the suicide-killers felt they were performing holy acts that would please God and assure them martyr rewards in paradise.

The annals of faith-based killing are long: human sacrifice, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, Reformation wars, drowning of Anabaptists, jihads, pogroms against Jews, China's Taiping Rebellion, Mexico's Cristero War, and many modern ethnic conflicts fueled by "religious tribalism." A new phase was led by bin Laden, who orchestrated the 21st-century phenomenon of Islamic suicide-bombing. Mercifully, his personal chapter ended when Navy Seals stormed his Asian hideout on May 1.

The modern Islamic "cult of death" - the worst menace of current times - baffles most Westerners. Logical minds cannot comprehend why idealistic young men, and a few women, volunteer to sacrifice their lives to slaughter unsuspecting, unarmed folks. It makes no sense. Pundit Anthony Lewis wrote: "There is no way to reason with people who think they will go directly to heaven if they kill Americans." Columnist William Safire said the volunteers do it because their "normal survival instinct is replaced with a pseudo-religious fantasy of a killer's self-martyrdom leading to an eternity in paradise surrounded by adoring virgins." Columnist David Brooks wrote that the bizarre phenomenon is "about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness."

These fanatics lack normal empathy for fellow humans. While in foreign lands or amid dissimilar ethnic groups, they don't see surrounding families as affectionate mothers, fathers and children, but as "infidels" deserving death. If the suicide-killers ever acquire nuclear devices, the unthinkable will be upon humanity.

The raid that ended bin Laden culminated a three-decade saga of "blowback." Inadvertently, the Reagan-Bush White House in the 1980s unwittingly helped ignite the Muslim terror movement that now hurts America. Here's the record:

In the late 1970s, radical reformers seized power in Afghanistan and created a Western-style government that began educating girls. Horrified, Muslim extremists and armed tribes rebelled. One of the rebel leaders was warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an extremist known for throwing acid on unveiled schoolgirls while he was in college.

Such mujahideen (holy warriors) were on the brink of toppling the new Afghan government when the Soviet Union sent its Red Army in 1979 to suppress the uprising. Globally, the Cold War was seething. To damage the Soviets, the Reagan administration secretly sent the CIA to arm, train and pay the rebel tribes to kill Russians. Hekmatyar's group got millions of U.S. dollars.

Meanwhile, ardent young Muslims from many lands rushed to Afghanistan to join the "holy war." One was Osama bin Laden, 17th son of a rich Saudi contractor who had a dozen wives. A pious Wahhabi Muslim, bin Laden used his wealth to recruit and pay fighters.

The combined CIA-zealot resistance worked. The Russians were driven out and Afghanistan's modern government was crushed. Warlords like Hekmatyar took over, but soon fought among each other. Then an Islamic student group, the Taliban, seized control and created a cruel theocracy that stoned women to death and inflicted other extreme Puritanical strictures.

Covertly, bin Laden assembled numerous former Afghan volunteers into a shadowy international network, al-Qaida, dedicated to waging jihad (holy war) against the West. His suicidal operatives helped kill U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993, blow up two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and bomb the USS Cole in 2000.

Bin Laden issued a fatwa (sacred edict) calling on "every Muslim who believes in God and hopes for reward to obey God's command to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can." He was indicted by U.S. authorities and put on international "most wanted" lists.

Then 19 al-Qaida suicide volunteers perpetrated the historic atrocity of Sept. 11, 2001, when they hijacked airliners and crashed them into U.S. landmarks, killing 3,000 Americans. It was the most horrifying day in the memory of most U.S. residents.

The holy killers left behind a testament they had shared among themselves, saying they were doing it for God: "Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty," they assured each other, "and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, 'Come hither, friend of God.' They have dressed in their most beautiful clothing."

Idiocy. Infantilism. It's sickening to realize that 3,000 unsuspecting Americans died because of this adolescent male fantasy. To believe that God wants mass murder is lunacy. As famed British biologist Richard Dawkins wrote:

"The 19 men of 9/11 - having washed, perfumed themselves and shaved their whole bodies in preparation for the martyr's paradise - believed they were performing the highest religious duty. By the lights of their religion, they were as good as it is possible to be. They were not poor, downtrodden, oppressed or psychotic; they were well-educated, sane and well-balanced, and, as they thought, supremely good. But they were religious, and that provided all the justification they needed to murder and destroy."

The mastermind of this crackpottery is dead in a hail of Navy Seals' gunfire. But the suicide-martyr phenomenon he fostered probably will continue impelling idealistic young men to sacrifice their lives in massacres.

Bin Laden wasn't the sole creator of the Islamic cult of death. His Egyptian partner, Ayman al-Zawahiri, pioneered it in the 1990s. Since then, many far-flung Muslim extremist groups adopted suicide-bombing - often using it on fellow Muslims of opposing sects, or against disapproved Islamic governments. Some researchers list as many as 17,000 Muslim terror attacks since the 9/11 horror, with a total body count beyond 60,000 victims. That's an average of five murder missions per day - so many that news media ignore smaller assaults. The phenomenon has a boundless supply of righteous-feeling volunteers eager to throw away their lives to kill for God and their faith.

As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg said: "For good people to do evil things, it takes religion."

(Haught is editor of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and is author of two books on religious violence: Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, and Holy Hatred: Religious Conflicts of the '90s.)

May 31, 2011, 5:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments

The Logic of Genocide

Last month, I wrote about the hideous spectacle of ordinary religious people defending genocide because it's commanded in the Bible - with some of them professing to not even understand why nonbelievers would have a problem with this. Greta Christina also highlighted this horrific mindset in the writing of William Lane Craig, the renowned Christian apologist who thinks that the worst consequence of Israelite soldiers slaughtering women and children would be the suffering it would cause to the soldiers.

In my post, I held this forth as proof of how the fantasy of the afterlife clouds and distorts morality until the worst evils are seen as good. To most of the believers making this pro-genocide argument, it's a harmless thought experiment with no bearing on reality. But this logic can't be easily confined to the realm of abstract theology. Once it's accepted, inevitably it spreads, and the same reasoning that excuses destruction and mass murder in holy books can just as easily excuse destruction and mass murder in the real world. Today, I'd like to report a concrete example of that.

Earlier this month, U.S. federal prosecutors moved to dismiss the indictment in United States of America vs. Osama bin Laden, that particular case now being very definitely settled. But in some of the evidence that prosecutors had gathered to be prepared if the case ever came to trial, there's a very interesting bit of testimony.

According to Wikipedia, the first bombing attack carried out by al-Qaeda was against a hotel in Yemen in December 1992. The attack was aimed at American soldiers, but instead killed a hotel employee and an Austrian citizen. To justify these lives taken in error, another founding member of al-Qaeda, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, considered to be one of the most religiously knowledgeable members, issued a fatwa: the killing of innocent bystanders was justified, because if the person killed was a good Muslim, they would go to Paradise and this was a desirable fate, whereas if the person killed was an infidel, they would go to Hell and this was God's deserved justice.

This information came out in the cross-examination of a witness named Jamal el-Fadl, a Sudanese militant who turned informer for the U.S. government (go here and search for "Tamiyeh"):

Q. Well, in his speech, according to you, Mr. Salim talked about - am I saying this person's name right, Tamiyeh?
A. Mohamed Ibn Tamiyeh.
Q. Tamiyeh. He told you what Tamiyeh had said back in 17 or 1800 about a war with the Tartans... that sometimes in a war civilians get killed, right?
A. Yes.
Q. And that that's okay, because if they're good people, they're lucky enough to go to heaven quicker?
A. Yes.
Q. And if they're bad people, they deserve to go to hell anyway, right?
A. Yes.
Q. And that was his way of saying to you and everyone else listening, it's okay to kill civilians if you have to because I say it and another scholar says it and that scholar interpreting the Koran says it, right?
A. Yes.
Q. So that was to mean to say to everybody, it's okay, don't worry if you kill civilians, it's part of what we have to do?
A. Yes, under war.

Does this sound familiar? It should: it's the same nihilistic logic used by William Lane Craig and other Christian apologists to justify the Canaanite genocide in the Bible. The only difference is that here, instead of being used as a thought experiment to defend a mass slaughter that may or may not have happened in the distant past, it's being used here and now to defend the indiscriminate killing of human beings.

Craig, for one, hasn't shied away from the comparison. In an article on his website, he says this:

The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it's that it has got the wrong God.

Like Osama bin Laden and the terrorists of al-Qaeda, William Lane Craig believes that it's a religious duty to commit indiscriminate mass murder if God has commanded it, and that obeying this command would be a heroic and praiseworthy deed. They don't disagree on whether doing this would be wrong; the only difference between them is whether they believe God has in fact issued such a command.

Craig and other professional Christian apologists have so thoroughly deadened their consciences that they see nothing wrong or dangerous about this. But for humanity's sake, we can hope that most ordinary Christians haven't gone so far. The next time someone uses this argument to defend the atrocities of the Bible, point out this comparison and ask them, "Are you saying that Osama bin Laden's theology was correct, he was just wrong about a few factual points?" If the realization that they're endorsing the logic of most the notorious mass murderer in recent history doesn't sway them, then almost certainly nothing else will either.

May 18, 2011, 12:44 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink36 comments

On Qur'an Burning, Redux

A few months ago, I wrote briefly about an obscure Florida pastor who had the idea of burning a Qur'an. At the time he backed off under intense pressure, but later changed his mind and went through with it. This would have gone nowhere, except that some Islamic mullahs in Afghanistan (aided by Hamid Karzai, who cynically fanned the flames), incited their worshippers to frenzy. The mob proceeded to storm a U.N. compound, brutally killing a dozen U.N. employees. Protests and riots are still ongoing, and more people have been killed.

I deplore this violence, as any civilized person would. But I don't believe that, just because bad things happened, there must have been a way to prevent them. Unfortunately, it seems that in this I part company with two U.S. senators who hinted that they were looking for a way to punish the book-burner ("Free speech is a great idea, but...") Even more appallingly, the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, was quoted as follows:

"I don't think we should be blaming any Afghan. We should be blaming the person who produced the news - the one who burned the Quran," he said.

Reading sentiments like this, I feel like Greta Christina must have done when writing about Fred Phelps: I hate having to write this post. I hate having to defend this wannabe cult leader with delusions of grandeur who would, if he could, impose a theocracy scarcely distinguishable from the Taliban's. I hate having to give more attention to someone who obviously has an unhealthy craving for it (which is why, you'll notice, I'm not naming him in this post).

But First Amendment test cases rarely come about because of popular or nice people. If we don't have the freedom to utter speech that annoys, upsets, even infuriates other people, then we don't have free speech. The freedom to express only opinions that don't make anyone upset isn't worth defending.

I'll grant that, very probably, the pastor staged the book-burning as a deliberate provocation, intending that something like this would happen. But however malicious his motives, his act was a nonviolent expression of opinion. He may have foreseen how Afghans would react, but he didn't control how they would react. They could have marched in peaceful protest, as so many others throughout the Middle East have done, and put him to shame by claiming the moral high ground.

Instead, some of them exploded in unreasoning savagery, choosing to murder innocent people for the act of a deluded nobody half a world away. No destruction of ink and paper, regardless of how petty the motive, can ever justify or excuse the taking of human lives. Put the blame where it belongs! - on the mob that committed those murders, and on the insane religious beliefs that motivated them. These fanatics believe that human individuals, every one of them unique and irreplaceable, are less valuable than one particular copy of a mass-produced book. Isn't that belief more deserving of condemnation than anything an attention-seeking ignoramus has done?

Even if you grant that the Qur'an burning was deplorable and should be punished, what principle could we invoke to justify it that wouldn't also sweep up a vast number of other speech acts? What rule could we make that wouldn't be open to endless abuse? Consider some parallel cases:

There will always be thugs who want to impose their beliefs by force, and who will lash out at the slightest provocation. But we as a society can't limit permissible speech to only those messages guaranteed not to offend them. That principle incentivizes violent irrationality. It says that, if you want your doctrine or your ideas to be shielded from criticism, all you have to do is threaten to get violent, and then the machinery of the state will swing into action to protect you from other people's disagreement. This is the very definition of a perverse incentive, and it's exactly what the thugs want. All the more reason not to give into them - neither by censoring our own speech, nor by letting the state censor the speech of others. If we shelter violent insanity from criticism, the advocates of those beliefs will only become more emboldened and aggressive.

April 6, 2011, 6:07 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink24 comments

Eliminationists on the March

After the horrific Arizona shooting in which six people were killed and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was gravely wounded, we came close to civility in American politics, at least for a few days. Unfortunately, our public discourse is already returning to normal, as you can tell from reading this front-page post on the leading conservative blog RedState (HT: Pandagon).

Here at RedState, we too have drawn a line. We will not endorse any candidate who will not reject the judicial usurpation of Roe v. Wade and affirm that the unborn are no less entitled to a right to live simply because of their size or their physical location. Those who wish to write on the front page of RedState must make the same pledge. The reason for this is simple: once before, our nation was forced to repudiate the Supreme Court with mass bloodshed. We remain steadfast in our belief that this will not be necessary again, but only if those committed to justice do not waiver or compromise, and send a clear and unmistakable signal to their elected officials of what must be necessary to earn our support.

The Arizona shooting silenced right-wing eliminationists for a brief time, but they're already showing their faces in public again. Even if they're historically illiterate - the Civil War was started by the slaveholders, not by the abolitionists - it doesn't change the nature of this brutish, unsubtle threat to rise up in violent rebellion if they can't get the outcome they want through the democratic process, just the same way as Islamic fundamentalists seek to kill journalists and wage war on nations that won't agree to censor depictions of Mohammed.

The next logical question has to be, if they're anticipating "mass bloodshed" to overturn abortion rights, whom do they think should be killed? Doctors and nurses at family planning clinics? The patients of those clinics? Police officers and security guards who protect the clinics? Elected officials who vote for pro-choice policies? Ordinary citizens who vote for those politicians? I'm pro-choice; am I on their target list? Are you?

I don't think most of the posters on RedState have any stomach for actual violence, no matter what they say. Most of them are just empty braggarts, swaggering chest-beaters who want to show how strong and tough they are by playacting the role of heroic revolutionaries. But even if they don't intend to follow through on their own words, when poisonous rhetoric like this becomes normalized and common, there will inevitably be others who see that as permission. Horribly, that seems to be just what happened in the murder of Ugandan gay-rights advocate David Kato:

A prominent gay rights activist, whose photo was printed on the front page of a Ugandan newspaper that called for homosexuals to be hanged, was bludgeoned to death at his home after weeks of death threats and harassment...

I wrote last year about the bloody-handed American evangelicals who encouraged brutal anti-gay legislation in Uganda with apocalyptic rhetoric. If David Kato's murder was inspired in part by the rampant homophobia they sowed, as seems likely, they now have more blood on their hands. (See also this outstanding article on Dangerous Intersection about the atheist movement in Uganda.)

The depths of how bad Christian homophobia has gotten in Uganda can be seen in the unbelievable excuse offered by the editor of the newspaper:

After Wednesday's killing, Giles Muhame, the editor of Rolling Stone, condemned the murder and said the paper had not wanted gays to be attacked. "If he has been murdered, that's bad and we pray for his soul," Muhame told Reuters. "There has been a lot of crime, it may not be because he is gay. We want the government to hang people who promote homosexuality, not for the public to attack them. We said they should be hanged, not stoned or attacked."

Stories like these make me despair for Africa's lonely, brave freethinkers - people like Micheal Mpagi, or Leo Igwe, or Alain Mouanga - fighting heroically against a rising tide of savage, brutal theocrats aided and abetted by their American evangelical cousins. The darkness is so vast, and the light-carriers so few. Can we advocates of reason hope to stand against it and triumph?

January 31, 2011, 6:57 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments

Darkness Gathers Over Pakistan

    "When we consider the founders of our nation - Jefferson, Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Madison and Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and many others - we have before us a list of at least ten and maybe even dozens of great political leaders. They were well-educated. Products of the European Enlightenment, they were students of history. They knew human fallibility and weakness and corruptibility... They attempted to set a course for the United States into the far future - not so much by establishing laws as by setting limits on what kinds of laws could be passed.
    The Constitution and its Bill of Rights have done remarkably well, constituting, despite human weaknesses, a machine able, more often than not, to correct its own trajectory.
    At that time, there were only about two and a half million citizens of the United States. Today there are about a hundred times more. So if there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jeffersons today.
    Where are they?"

—Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World. From Chapter 25, "Real Patriots Ask Questions", p.428.

That passage has stayed with me ever since I first read it. Where are the modern world's Thomas Jeffersons? Is it that the philosophical climate that once produced great men like this has changed, so that the people who could have been them never come into being, never take the right paths down the tree of contingency? Has the world grown more politically settled, so that there's less room for them to make their mark? Or has the world just grown so much bigger and more complex that their contributions are harder to notice?

I don't have the answer to this question, but it's hard for me not to think that a man who was one of those thousand, or someday could have been, was just murdered:

...Pakistan has become a country so scared of the inciters of religious violence that liberals stay silent for fear the assassins will come for them; a land so benighted Jamaat-e-Islami and other mobster theocrats can get away with blaming Taseer for his own death and treating his killer as a hero for enforcing the will of god.

The reason offered for Punjab governor Salman Taseer's murder was that he advocated the cause of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. For fundamentalist death-worshippers, not only is any speech disagreeing with their religious beliefs a capital offense (although blasphemy accusations are often used to settle village vendettas), but defending someone accused of such, or calling for the reform of these barbaric statutes, is also worthy of death. As recently as a month ago, Taseer was scornful of the screaming maniacs calling for his blood:

Mr Taseer responded with characteristic insouciance. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Who the hell are these illiterare maulvis to decide to whether i’m a Muslim or not?” Earlier, he tweeted: “Tomorrow mullahs r demonstrating against me...Thousands of beards screaming 4 my head.What a great feeling!”

Even in the glimmerings of a Twitter post, you begin to get the idea of what we lost with his death. Taseer was a brave man who believed in human rights; his killer was one of the violent, death-worshipping thugs who believe that the first, last and only response to people speaking their own minds or doing anything they dislike is to pick up a gun. Their guiding principle is that the rule of murder is the only law they need, and that they can kill their critics faster than they arise. The frightening thing is that they may not be wrong. The virus that infects their minds is spreading so fast; when Taseer's murderer was being brought to court, jubilant crowds cheered and showered him with flower petals.

It's tempting, so tempting, to take the eschatological route: to write off Pakistan as hopeless, a lost cause, and say to the few rational and enlightened human beings left there, "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues." But giving up and turning one's back on the world has never worked, and it won't work here. For one thing, there's still the question of Pakistan's nuclear weapons - one of the few innovations of science that the fundamentalists gladly accept in a land benighted by the absolute darkness of superstition - and, in any case, we're seeing the same mentality breaking out in America as well. In the war of reason against superstition and conscience against hate, we can't afford to surrender any ground, because it only emboldens the enemy to press harder and to advance further.

But the struggle is so hard, so wearying, and it seems as if our adversaries are inexhaustible. They have seemingly limitless reservoirs of hate to drive them, and in any case, they're so many and the guardians of reason are so few. If anything gives me the motivation to fight on despite all their evil and their barbarism, it's words like these from Taseer's son Shehrbano Taseer, who argues passionately that the cause of human rights in his country hasn't been silenced. For humanity's sake, for the sake of all we've accomplished and may yet accomplish, I hope he's right.

January 11, 2011, 8:38 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments

Atheists Don't Debate (Except When We Do)

A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part II

In chapter 3, Hedges gives a two-and-a-half-page-long excerpt of a debate he had with Sam Harris at UCLA in May 2007, moderated by the columnist Robert Scheer, about whether Islam encourages suicide bombing:

HARRIS: OK, well, let me deal with your taking the measure of the Muslim world. Happily we do not assess public opinion by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the Muslim world and make friends and get a vibe... A single well-run opinion poll would be worth a thousand years of you wandering around the Middle East.

SCHEER: Come on.

HARRIS: That's not meant to be hyperbolic.

SCHEER: Wrong, wrong, wrong.

HARRIS: Let me tell you -

SCHEER: You can't possibly believe that about polls, my God -

HARRIS: All we've got is conversations; all we've got is conversations.

SCHEER: The man has lived there for 15 years, for God's sake. (p.73)

This quote is noteworthy for the way Scheer, allegedly present to act as the moderator, gives up the pretense of doing that and openly joins Hedges' side. Hedges doesn't comment on this, so either he didn't notice (unlikely) or doesn't think it casts him in a bad light that he let the moderator argue his side of the debate for him. After this quote, Hedges resumes bashing his opponents:

Harris follows the line of least resistance. He does not engage in the hard and laborious work of acquiring knowledge and understanding. Self-criticism and self-reflection are a waste of time. Nuance and complexity ruins the entertainment and defeats the simple, neat solutions he offers up to cope with the world's problems. He does not deal in abstractions. He sees all people as clearly defined. The world is divided into those who embrace or reject his belief system. Those that support him are good, and forces for human progress. Those that oppose him are ignorant at best, and probably evil. He has no interest in debate, dialogue or scholarship. (p.75)

Harris has "no interest in debate"? After you just spent two and a half pages quoting from a debate he had with you? Did an editor even look at this book?

What really piques Hedges' ire is that Sam Harris, when trying to explain the causes of Islamic terrorism, didn't accept Hedges' own personal reminiscences about people he met as a Mideast correspondent, and decided instead to rely on those worthless nobodies at Pew and their so-called "scientific 38,000-person random sampling of the populations of nine countries". And then there's Harris' outrageous statement about the cause of the Yugoslavian war in the 90s:

[Harris' book was] tedious, at its best, and often ignorant and racist. His assertion, for example, that the war in the former Yugoslavia was caused by religion was ridiculous. (p.2)

Ooh, those atheists just make Chris Hedges so mad! They don't know anything about what causes war. It's a good thing we have a foreign-policy genius like Hedges to tell us what factors really led to that brutal episode of ethnic cleansing:

The Serbian ethnic cleansing campaigns... sought their moral justification in distant and often mythic humiliations suffered by the Serbs, especially the 1396 defeat of Serbian forces by the Ottoman Turks at the Field of Blackbirds in the province of Kosovo... the mythic tale of the defeat, and the alleged treachery of the Muslims in the battle, figured prominently in windy discussions by common soldiers on the front lines in Bosnia during the war. (p.133)

The collective humiliation and the rage it produced obliterated self-reflection and self-criticism. It fed acts of aggression against Muslims. The images on the evening news in Belgrade of Serbian victims, as well as the alleged atrocities by the Muslims in Bosnia or Kosovo, were used to justify the wanton attacks by Serbs, most of them against unarmed Bosnian Muslims. (p.133)

The worst atrocities in Bosnia were sanctified not by imams, but by Catholic and Serbian Orthodox priests. (p.149)

But don't forget, religion had nothing to do with causing that war! To say so would be "ridiculous", and only "ignorant and racist" people like Sam Harris would think that! Aren't you glad you have a Very Serious Person like Chris Hedges to explain this all to you?

Ironically, Hedges' defense is the same as that of the Christian fundamentalists he decries: When discussing a modern holy war, if there are any identifiable political or nationalistic motives for either warring side, he concludes that religion is excused of all blame - even when religious figures sanctify acts of bloodshed, even when religious rhetoric is used by the warring sides to condemn each other or inflame their own people's passions, even when religion is the very basis that the warring sides use to tell each other apart in the first place. As atheists, we should have no trouble agreeing that factors other than religion play into violent conflict, even if religion also bears a large share of the responsibility. It's only people like Hedges who have to deny the obvious truth that religion can be both an initiator and an accelerant of bloodshed.

Other posts in this series:

December 13, 2010, 2:52 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments

Qur'an Burnings and Manhattan Mosques

I haven't commented until now on this "Ground Zero mosque" - a ridiculous misnomer invented to inflame prejudice, since it's not at Ground Zero and it isn't a mosque - because, honestly, I don't think there's much that needs to be said. America still has the First Amendment, it still has freedom of religion, and Muslims have the same rights as anyone to build their religious centers anywhere they want. Unless they're directly advocating or planning violence, there's nothing that the government or anyone else can do to stop them, and that's as it should be.

The idea apparently motivating the resistance to Park51 is that Muslims bear some sort of collective responsibility for 9/11, which is absurd. Muslim Americans died on that day, along with the other victims, and al-Qaeda itself spends a great deal of time and effort killing other Muslims. There are violent undercurrents in Islam, ones which command the allegiance of a disturbingly large number of people, that must be fought - but that's no basis for a blanket denial of all Muslim building projects, in Manhattan or anywhere else. (I would add that the compromise solution preferred by many politicians, namely to move the Park51 center a few blocks away, makes absolutely no sense. Why is a Muslim community center four blocks away more respectful than one that's two blocks away? Is there an invisible line somewhere?)

On the subject of pseudocontroversies, I'm sure you've also heard about this Florida pastor who plans to burn copies of the Qur'an. He's repeatedly changed his mind about whether to do it, and as of now the burning is off, but there are some things that should be said regardless.

First of all, the same comments as above apply: America has freedom of religion, which includes the freedom not to believe and even the freedom to treat other people's holy symbols disrespectfully. This includes the freedom to treat wafers in ways Catholics dislike, to draw Mohammed even if others think we shouldn't, and so on. Having freedom of religion means that religious beliefs are not encoded in state law. It's ridiculous that so many Muslims have worked themselves into a frenzy about this. Did they not realize that Christians reject many of their beliefs?

That said, this doesn't mean I'm fully behind this pastor's deed. For one thing, many of his former parishioners describe him as a vicious, deceitful cult leader. But more importantly, the act of burning a book has historically been intended to convey the message: "Your ideas should be destroyed so that no one has a chance to read them." I'm opposed to Islam as I am to every other religion, but I'm absolutely not in favor of destroying the Qur'an or any other book. Even when an idea is bad, I think it should be preserved so people can study it and recognize the fallacy, not eradicated so they can't make up their own minds.

Even in the infamous wafer incident, PZ wasn't doing it just to make Catholics mad. It was a protest against bullying, tyrannical religious groups who try to make everyone, including nonmembers, live by their rules - and he said so very clearly. Similar with the Mohammed cartoons: they weren't a pointless provocation of Muslims, but a specifically pointed commentary on press freedom and intimidation - a protest aimed at religious theocrats who think their private beliefs should be binding on everyone. I see no such free-speech message in the Qur'an burning.

Whether it's Muslims or Christians rioting in the streets, the Twin Towers burning or the Taliban in Afghanistan, the lesson from all these stories is the divisive effect that religion has on humanity. It encourages us to group people into Us and Other, to battle and hate each other over ultimately inconsequential differences. If we all had the well-being of our fellow humans as our highest goal, rather than the worship of invisible entities and obedience to arbitrary rules, there would be that much less reason for people and nations to fight one another.

September 11, 2010, 4:58 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink60 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• President Obama signs a law to fight British libel tourism by barring such judgments from being enforced in the U.S.

• My esteemed guest author, Sarah Braasch, has an article in the latest issue of The Humanist on the French burqa ban.

• After a scary brush with mortality, everyone's favorite squid-loving atheist professor is back in action. Visit his blog and leave some get-well-soon comments!

Did a Catholic priest carry out an IRA bombing? And if so, did the church help cover it up and shield him from justice?

• Susan Jacoby contemplates the theodicy of the bedbug.

• And last but not least, An Apostate's Chapel has this outstanding example of the eloquence, wit and wisdom of Robert Ingersoll, written in response to a Salvation Army-organized vigil of several thousand Christians praying simultaneously for his conversion. (Spoiler: It didn't work!)

August 27, 2010, 12:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments

Strange and Curious Sects: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

When a new sect with strange and unfamiliar beliefs bursts onto the scene, it almost invariably meets with hostility (most of it from the old sects with strange and familiar beliefs). And depending on the nature of the newcomer, there are two common responses. It may stress its own virtue and righteousness all the more strongly, wearing its persecution as a badge of pride. Or it may become bitter and apocalyptic, denouncing its enemies as God's enemies and warning of a day of reckoning. Those sects that travel farthest down the latter path often end up waging acts of terrorism or going out in a blaze of suicidal glory.

But oddly enough, the teachings of the sect before it's forced to make this choice don't predict what the decision will be. Such is the moral of today's post on a particularly strange and curious sect.

The guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was born Chandra Mohan Jain in 1931, to a wealthy Jain family in the Madhya Pradesh state of central India. By his own account he was an intelligent and well-educated young man, but rootless and lacking a sense of purpose. Around the age of 21 he fell into a spiral of depression, which he later claimed was finally lifted when he suddenly had an experience of enlightenment:

The moment I entered the garden everything became luminous, it was all over the place – the benediction, the blessedness. I could see the trees for the first time – their green, their life, their very sap running. The whole garden was asleep, the trees were asleep. But I could see the whole garden alive, even the small grass leaves were so beautiful.... The whole universe became a benediction.

After a brief stint as a philosophy professor, he found his calling as a lecturer, traveling across India to give sermons critical of socialism and traditional Indian religion, which he viewed as empty and ritualistic. In their place, he preached his own unique blend of ecstatic mysticism, universal love, and "dynamic meditation" that alternated periods of silence with jumping, shouting and dancing. It was an unoriginal blend of ideas, albeit one which seemed harmless enough. But most controversial of all, he spoke openly about sex, which drew the wrath of conservative Indian authorities even as it made him more popular.

In the 1970s, he opened an ashram in Pune to promote his teachings. It was popular from the beginning, attracting wealthy patrons and devotees from around the world. But the more attention and followers Rajneesh attracted, the more hostile attention he got from India's conservative Hindu government, which harassed and impeded him. Land use permits were denied, tax violations were assessed, tourist visas to visit were refused; a Hindu fanatic even attempted to assassinate him.

In 1981, deciding enough was enough, and perhaps taking a cue from the increasing numbers of Western tourists at his ashram, Rajneesh packed up and moved to the United States. His secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, bought a large ranch in rural Oregon, and Rajneesh's followers flocked to the site, turning it into a bustling town of 7,000 almost overnight. Rajneesh himself was of course the focal point, although by this time he rarely lectured in public anymore and had acquired a taste for luxury, as evidenced by his diamond-encrusted Rolex watches and fleet of custom Rolls-Royces. Every day, hundreds of his disciples lined up alongside the road to get a glimpse of him as he drove past. (It also emerged later that he had developed a drug habit, becoming addicted to Valium and nitrous oxide.)

The Rajneeshis' relations with their neighbors, however, soured even more quickly than they had in India. Their land-use plans stated that they intended to use the ranch as a small farm, but as more and more followers arrived and more buildings were constructed, it soon became apparent that they were building a town. Rajneeshis also moved into the neighboring town of Antelope and began purchasing lots and registering to vote there. When the Antelope city council denied them a permit to run a mail-order business, the Rajneeshis voted en masse for their own candidates, packing the council and effectively taking over the town. The ranch was also incorporated as a separate town called Rajneeshpuram.

By this point, the Rajneeshis had become aggressive and litigious, filing libel suits against critics and busing in devotees to stage counterdemonstrations when they were picketed by local churches and community groups. Their private police, the "Peace Force", controlled security in Antelope and Rajneeshpuram and publicly displayed semiautomatic weapons. Sheela, Rajneesh's secretary, had become the public face of the movement and was caustic and abusive toward its critics in media interviews, calling them "bigoted pigs", "fascists", and "full of shit", as well as making thinly veiled threats.

The biggest remaining obstacle to the cult's expansion was the Wasco County land-use commission, and in November 1984, several county commissioners were up for reelection. Sheela and other senior Rajneeshis hatched a plan: by exploiting a social program called "Share-a-Home", they had several thousand homeless people bused in whom they hoped they could persuade to vote for their own candidates. But that was only half the plot. In a more horrifying step, they ordered samples of Salmonella typhimurium bacteria from a medical supply company. Rajneeshi doctors cultivated the bacteria, then went to The Dalles, the county seat, and deliberately spread the bacteria on salad bars at local restaurants. The intent was to sicken anti-Rajneeshi voters so that they would stay home on Election Day. (see also)

But this act of bioterrorism, however malevolent, failed to achieve its goal. 750 people fell ill with salmonella poisoning, and about 50 required hospitalization, but there were no deaths. Forewarned local officials enforced voter registration laws, and an angry electorate turned out in droves, overwhelmingly defeating the Rajneeshi candidates. At the time, however, no one realized the salmonella outbreak had been an intentional act.

In September of 1985, Rajneesh himself gave a press conference, one of his first public appearances in years. He stated publicly that the salmonella poisoning was intentional, that it had been masterminded by his followers, and that Sheela and other top cult officials, whom he denounced as a "gang of fascists", had fled the country. Stunned local officials swooped in to investigate, and found a fully-stocked bioterrorism lab in the Rajneeshi compound. Even more alarmingly, they found evidence that the group had been planning to assassinate numerous public figures who had been hostile to them, including U.S. District Attorney Charles Turner and Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer. The plan had progressed to the point of buying guns, choosing specific Rajneeshis to fire the fatal bullets, and renting an apartment to serve as the base of operations.

By this time, law enforcement had arrived en masse. Rajneesh himself was arrested on board a private plane in North Carolina in October, apparently attempting to flee the country. He was never charged in connection with the bioterrorism or assassination plots, though state officials believed he had known about them. Instead, he was charged with conspiracy to violate immigration laws by arranging sham marriages to get citizenship for his non-U.S. followers. He pleaded no contest and was deported to India. Sheela and other top Rajneeshis, meanwhile, were arrested the same month in West Germany, deported, and pled guilty to felony charges of conspiracy, assault and attempted murder. Without its leaders, the Rajneeshi cult rapidly dissolved, and Rajneeshpuram was abandoned and bankrupt by 1987. Rajneesh resumed his lectures in India, though he took pains to be less controversial than he once was. These appearances became less and less frequent as his health declined, and he died in 1990.

Until the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, the Rajneeshi plot was the only organized bioterror campaign waged against the United States. One would think that such a prominent association with that degree of evil would end one's career as a guru. But amazingly, despite being both disgraced and dead, Rajneesh himself has bounced back - this time under the name of "Osho", the posthumous head of a thriving publishing empire churning out self-help books, videos, and seminars based on his teachings. The whole awkward cult-compound/drug-addiction/bioterrorism thing is tactfully omitted from these materials, of course.

The Rajneesh cult's story, like other cults that collapsed in disaster, shows the peril of following gurus. Even when the initial teachings seem harmless, people who give their absolute obedience to a single leader are all too easily exploited for evil ends - and absolute power over one's followers is a dangerous temptation that even good people find hard to resist. It also shows how easy it is for true believers to ignore criticism and whitewash the reputation of their beloved leader, even after he's fallen prey to that temptation. This is a point that atheists would be well advised to remember the next time we hear an argument about how some other cult leader or self-proclaimed prophet proved the truth of his words by his supposedly unimpeachable morality.

Other posts in this series:

August 18, 2010, 5:48 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments

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