This Is Why There Is War in the Mideast

The Jewish magazine Moment ran an article in its latest issue asking rabbis from a variety of Jewish sects how Israel can promote peace with its Arab neighbors (HT: Pharyngula). Most of the rabbis express fairly bland, liberal views about the importance of peace and tolerance, which are fine in themselves, although few of them offer any concrete suggestions as to what Israel might do differently.

However, one rabbi, Manis Friedman of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, was eager to make some specific proposals. Here are some of them:

I don't believe in western morality, i.e. don't kill civilians or children, don't destroy holy sites, don't fight during holiday seasons, don't bomb cemeteries, don't shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral.

The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle).

The first Israeli prime minister who declares that he will follow the Old Testament will finally bring peace to the Middle East.

The rabbi didn't elaborate on which verses from the Old Testament he had in mind, but the context of his statement suggests he was thinking of ones like these:

"When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; and when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee, thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them."

—Deuteronomy 7:1-2

"So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded."

—Joshua 10:40

"And Amaziah strengthened himself, and led forth his people, and went to the valley of salt, and smote of the children of Seir ten thousand. And other ten thousand left alive did the children of Judah carry away captive, and brought them unto the top of the rock, and cast them down from the top of the rock, that they all were broken in pieces."

—2 Chronicles 25:11-12

In case Rabbi Friedman or anyone else is confused, I'll say it clearly: The behavior that these verses describe is called genocide. It is a war crime; it is the greatest evil known to humankind. I would think that the Jews, of all people, would understand this.

This attitude is why terrorism and bloodshed are ongoing in the Middle East, and why they will continue as long as people allow religion to guide their actions. Brutal, violent books like the Old Testament are, as Sam Harris put it, "a perpetual engine of extremism". Although many liberal Jewish believers have reinterpreted and allegorized these stories until they're scarcely recognizable, the violent texts are always there to be rediscovered by zealots who interpret them with the frightening simplicity that their context suggests. The Bible teaches clearly that it is God's will that the Jews should control all the land promised to their ancestors, and that genocide is the appropriate way to rid that land of anyone else who makes a claim on it.

Of course, Friedman's views are the mirror image of those on the other side who've waged war and committed acts of terrorism against Israel. His scorn for the principle "don't kill civilians or children" mirrors the suicide bomber zealots who set off their explosives on buses, in nightclubs, or wherever else will cause the most deaths. His rejection of the idea "don't destroy holy sites" accords with the fanatics who deliberately target buildings and places held sacred by other sects. What he calls the "Jewish way" of fighting a war is really the principle held by every fanatic who believes that outsiders are subhuman and that the righteous must bloodily cleanse them from the earth.

These competing fundamentalisms are why there is war in the Mideast and why there will continue to be war in the Mideast. Compromise and diplomacy are not to be thought of by those who firmly believe that they are carrying out God's will. So long as both sides are anchored in the immovable certainty of faith, there's little hope of ending the bloodshed and destruction.

June 18, 2009, 9:39 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink20 comments

The Murder of Dr. George Tiller

If you've been following the news, you already know that Dr. George Tiller, one of only a handful of doctors left in the United States who perform late-term abortions, was murdered this week. A suspect, Scott Roeder, is already in custody.

Since the election of Barack Obama, there's been a noticeable upsurge in right-wing terrorism. This frightening trend tracks the evolution of the American right in general, which is becoming smaller, more insular, and more ideologically rigid, and its language more violent and more extreme. I don't think it's a stretch to say that their recent string of political defeats have caused some among the fringes to believe that the only way to achieve their goals is through violence.

Late-term abortion is never performed on a whim. The only time such abortions are performed is when the fetus has severe abnormalities incompatible with life, or when the woman develops a life-threatening complication, such as preeclampsia, and terminating the pregnancy is the only way to save her. But even these limited exceptions are too much for anti-choice Christian terrorists. It was for these acts - for his compassion in saving the lives of women - that Dr. Tiller was murdered.

Although there's no evidence that the alleged killer wasn't acting alone, there's abundant evidence that the crime was inspired by the hateful, poisonous, and inflammatory language that pours in a steady stream from the anti-choice religious right. Exhibit A is Bill O'Reilly, who repeatedly denounced Dr. Tiller on his show as "Tiller the Baby Killer" and said he "destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000" (source). If this were true, Dr. Tiller would have been breaking the law in Kansas, which, like other states, bans abortion past the point of viability except in the case of severe fetal deformity or to save the life of the mother. In other words, O'Reilly was accusing Tiller of committing a crime, which meets the legal definition of defamation if he cannot prove his claim to be true.

Even if Dr. Tiller's murderer acted alone, he isn't the only one who's been inspired to do so by right-wing rhetoric. In addition to those in the link on Christian terrorism cited earlier, there's also Paul Evans, who was sentenced to forty years in prison for leaving a nail bomb in the parking lot of the Austin Women's Health Center, and Cheryl Sullenger, who served two years in prison in the 1980s for planning to bomb a California clinic. Significantly, Sullenger is now Operation Rescue's senior policy advisor, and her phone number was found in Roeder's car - suggesting that the mainstream anti-choice movement, even if it does not openly call for violence, is quite willing to associate with and embrace those who have committed violent acts in the past.

This isn't the first time we've seen this pattern, and it won't be the last: right-wing pundits continually spew hate rhetoric against their political adversaries, and then piously wash their hands of blood when the inevitable occurs and some violent lunatic decides to take those words to their logical conclusion. It's vital for atheists and progressives to realize that we are all potential targets of this bloodthirsty madness. If the murder of Dr. Tiller has any lesson, it's that we must stand up to defend the human rights that are still under siege from fanatics. One way to begin is to make a donation to Planned Parenthood today in Dr. Tiller's memory.

June 2, 2009, 1:36 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink70 comments

The Founders Wept: George W. Bush's Faith-Based War

Friends, fellow Americans, we never knew how bad things got during the George W. Bush era. And yes, I say that with full knowledge of what it implies. True, we saw the results of Bush's policies: a catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil, a staggeringly mismanaged quagmire of war, torture and degradation of prisoners, the proliferation of radical Islam and anti-American sentiment around the world.

But, until now, we never fully glimpsed the mentality behind it. We had hints, but we never got the full picture of what was motivating Bush and his senior administration officials. Now the truth is revealed, and it's exactly as bad as the most paranoid imaginings.

Journalist Robert Draper has obtained a set of cover sheets for the Secretary of Defense Worldwide Intelligence Update, a classified daily briefing that was hand-delivered by Donald Rumsfeld to George W. Bush and a tiny inner circle of White House officials. Astonishingly, these top-level documents were prefaced with photos of America's war effort, blazoned with Bible quotations.

Image credit, GQ.

These were not mere inspirational platitudes, as bad as that would have been. No, these verses were clearly chosen to convey the message that God was commanding America to go to war in Iraq, and would grant us victory if we obeyed.

One shows soldiers in camouflage, heads bowed in prayer, assault rifles clasped in their hands, with a caption reading, "Here I am, Lord; send me" (Isaiah 6:8). Another shows a soldier squatting behind a belt-fired machine gun, with an Iraqi highway sign in the background behind him; the caption reads "Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed" (Proverbs 16:3). A third shows a collage of three pictures - an infantry column, an advancing tank, a fighter plane - and a caption from the genocidal Book of Joshua: "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go" (1:9). And the crowning horror, a picture of Saddam Hussein on Iraqi TV, below the caption: "It is God's will that by doing good you should silence the foolish talk of ignorant men" (1 Peter 2:15).

Image credit, GQ.

Whether these documents convinced George W. Bush to wage war on Iraq, or whether they merely echoed thinking that was already in his mind, either way they are horrifying. They reflect a White House that was firmly in the grip of messianic religious delusion and a president who believed himself to be a holy warrior carrying out God's will to cleanse the world of evil. When Bush infamously referred to America's wars as a "crusade", it was likely no simple slip of the tongue, but a window into the processes that were even then unfolding in his thoughts.

We did not know it, but for eight years, this nation was in the grip of theocracy. It had a Christian flavor rather than an Islamic one, but aside from those superficial trappings, all theocracies are the same. Just like the Taliban of Afghanistan or the ayatollahs of Iran, George W. Bush believed his primary duty was not to obey the will of the people, but to serve what he believed to be the will of God. And as a result - because of the religious beliefs of desert-dwelling nomads of the Iron Age - the military of the most powerful nation in the world of the 21st century was sent to war. Aircraft carriers and Abrams tanks were dispatched to battle because of myths recorded by people for whom the most advanced weapons of war were chariots and spears.

Image credit, GQ.

If this news had become known during the Bush era, it should have provoked a national crisis and calls for impeachment. The United States of America, led into war by a scripture-quoting president who thought the Bible contained coded messages intended for him! Forget the Founders rolling over in their graves - this should have been cause for them to burst from their graves and advance on the White House in a zombie horde. No words can describe how utterly this betrays the values America was founded on. No words can describe the outrage of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, and tens of thousands more wounded or maimed, all in the service of the delusions of this religious zealot who thought God had appointed him our president. And then there are the indirect effects: our prosperity mortgaged to a trillion-dollar war; a nation shattered by ethnic cleansing, its history gone up in flames; the entire Middle East destabilized; and the seeds of an undying anti-American enmity sown throughout the Muslim world. All this to unseat a petty tyrant who, no matter how brutal he was, was no worse than the simmering religious war and semi-anarchy that Iraq is now plunged into.

When revelation takes the place of reason, the results are always disastrous, and the catastrophe of Iraq stands as the supreme example. Faith allows - indeed, encourages - human beings to make decisions with no thought for what is rational, practical, or most likely to succeed, and when the person making the decisions commands the power of the American president, this is the result. The Iraqi people, the American military, and the world have suffered beyond measure because of one man's messianic delusions. How many more will suffer the same fate before we learn our lesson? How much more bloodshed and death will result before we realize that we cannot rely on religious myths to steer the course of our civilization?

May 17, 2009, 4:06 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink38 comments

The Case for a Creator: Angry Hillbillies

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 1

The first chapter of Case opens with an anecdote from Strobel's days as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, a story from the 1970s when he went to West Virginia to cover a story of rural communities rioting over evolutionary content in their schools' textbooks. In some cases that anger had spilled over into open violence, with angry locals shooting at school buses or firebombing classrooms, and at least two people had been seriously injured.

Like many apologists, Strobel loves to proclaim that he was once an atheist and hardened skeptic of Christianity, though he offers little evidence for this other than his own word. In keeping with this depiction, when discussing his past, he never misses a chance to give himself lines like this:

"Crazy stuff in West Virginia," [Strobel's editor] said. "People getting shot at, schools getting bombed - all because some hillbillies are mad about the textbooks being used in the schools."

..."Christians, huh?" I said. "So much for loving their neighbors. And not being judgmental." [p.8]

He later writes that when he attended an anti-evolution rally in rural Campbell's Creek and was recognized as a reporter, the crowd turned ugly and he was in real fear of physical harm: "my knees were shaking" [p.14]. He was ultimately permitted to stay, but only because he convinced them that he would be fair in his reporting. The undoubtable implication is that he might indeed have been assaulted if the crowd had not trusted him to give their side a sympathetic portrayal.

What's interesting is that Strobel never returns to these incidents, or draws any lessons from them. He never even explicitly condemns the violence, other than the extremely mild statement quoted above. No, the worst thing he says (in keeping with his portrait of himself as a former atheist) is that he thought at the time that Christianity was a "dinosaur" and "an archaic belief system".

It's reactions like this that make me suspect Strobel's claim of past atheism was fabricated or, at least, greatly exaggerated. Any sensible atheist, when hearing about angry creationists rioting and blowing up schools, would offer criticisms much stronger than calling this behavior "fringe superstition", as he does. "Violently irrational" or "terrorist lunatics" would be much better terms, at least to start with. But Strobel shies away from offering any such sharp criticism. Rather than criticize the violence itself, the worst thing he has to say is that these beliefs are old and outdated.

It seems likely that he does this because people like these are his intended audience, and it would not do to anger them with pointed condemnations of their behavior. If anything, he comes perilously close to implying that their reactions were justified, as we'll see in the next post. Rather, his criticism is all of the "isn't Christianity old and out of touch" variety, provided so his readers can cheer when he dramatically sweeps it away in the following chapters. Accurately pointing out that these beliefs do not justify violence would not be such a convenient strawman for dismissal.

Other posts in this series:

April 3, 2009, 6:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink46 comments

What We're Up Against

This past week, the Times ran a story about the extent of the gains made by the reconstituted Taliban, not just in Afghanistan or in the semi-autonomous tribal regions on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but well within Pakistan itself:

Using a portable radio transmitter, a local Taliban leader, Shah Doran, on most nights outlines newly proscribed "un-Islamic" activities in Swat, like selling DVDs, watching cable television, singing and dancing, criticizing the Taliban, shaving beards and allowing girls to attend school. He also reveals names of people the Taliban have recently killed for violating their decrees — and those they plan to kill.

The Taliban are now the de facto rulers of the Swat Valley, a chunk of territory the size of Delaware that's just a hundred miles outside Pakistan's capitol Islamabad. Every night, they terrify villagers with radio broadcasts announcing who will be killed that night - from policemen to dancing girls - and more often than not, the bodies of those named are dumped in the public square the next morning.

For atheists, this is the endgame. This is what we're up against. All that is worst in the human spirit, all that is savage and low and cruel, finds its expression in the Taliban. They are amoral and nihilistic fanatics who never create, only destroy - whether it be the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the girls' schools in Swat, or the very lives of those who oppose them. To them, everything good in life is a sin, and existence is a narrow, cramped, twisted path between vast mountains of prohibition. Violence is all they know and the only method they ever consider. And if they had their way, they'd plunge all the world into the dark age they've imposed in miniature in Swat, into perpetual stagnation, fear, and brutality. That is their utopia, their vision for the future of humankind.

One wonders, how many people would they be willing to murder to realize this goal? Would there ever come a time when the slaughter would exhaust even their thirst for bloodshed and force them to conclude that imposing uniformity through violence is futile? Or would they willingly continue shooting and slitting throats until every last spark of independent thought was stamped out from the world - and if so, would they then turn their knives on each other?

But if this story starkly outlines the danger we face and the evil that religious extremists have wrought, it also hints at how we could triumph over them:

"The local population is totally fed up, and if they had the chance they would lynch each and every Talib," said Mr. Naveed Khan, the police official. "But the Taliban are so cruel and violent, no one will oppose them. If this is not stopped, it will spill into other areas of Pakistan."

For all their cruelty and brutality, they are not invulnerable. They do not command the allegiance of the majority, nor will they ever. They can only succeed by keeping all their slaves terrorized, so that they're too afraid for their own lives to band together and rise up in unison. If all the people of Swat decided as one to fight back, the Taliban wouldn't stand a chance against them.

Of course, the opposite is true as well: if the people of Pakistan do not unite to stand up against them (and if the army continues to turn a blind eye, as it has so far been doing), the Taliban will continue to make gains, until in time they might threaten the government itself. Needless to say, in a nuclear-armed state, that would be a catastrophe too horrible to imagine. Only the cold logic of mutually assured destruction kept the Cold War from erupting into a nuclear exchange; if one side in such a standoff was a horde of death-welcoming religious fanatics, as the Taliban are, that slender reed of safety would likely not hold. It's the moral duty of all nations, the people of Pakistan first and foremost, to fight back against these monsters and ensure that that nightmare scenario never comes to pass.

January 30, 2009, 7:48 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink33 comments

No Holy Ground

The world's attention has been riveted these past few days by Israel's assault on Gaza, in an attempt to oust the Hamas-run government and put a stop to rocket attacks on southern Israel. Hundreds of Palestinians were reported killed in a wave of airstrikes, over a thousand wounded, and as of this writing, a ground invasion looms as a continuing possibility. Although the conflict began after a six-month ceasefire expired and Hamas refused to renew it, it's now Israel that's rejecting calls for a temporary truce to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

The Israeli invasion has drawn a chorus of condemnation from around the world, except in the U.S., where politicians from both parties march in a virtual pro-Israel lockstep. (This despite the fact, as Glenn Greenwald notes, that opinions on the matter among the American public are far more similar to those elsewhere in the world.) The confluence of a hawkish, politically influential pro-Israel lobby and the influence of a major voting bloc of right-wing Christians probably has a lot to do with this.

The Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed is something I've never seen the sense of taking sides in. To all except mindless hyper-partisans, it should be obvious that neither Israel nor Palestine is wholly at fault, and as far as I'm concerned, there are plenty of good reasons for blame on both sides. Hamas is deliberately provoking Israel with attacks on civilians, counting on massive Israeli retaliation to cause death and destruction among the Palestinians so that they'll rise up in anger and rally to Hamas' banner - callously using the suffering of its own people to shore up its own support. Israel, for its part, is suffocating Gaza with military barricades - preventing even necessities like food and medicine from reaching innocent Palestinians - and using its much greater military power in overwhelming reprisals against defenseless targets, spilling far more blood among Palestinians than any terrorist attack ever did for Israelis. Neither side has made any serious, sustained effort to lower the tension level or restrain itself in the service of a lasting peace.

As in almost all of the world's lasting trouble spots, this conflict has its origins in religion. Both sides are poisoned by a toxic mixture of beliefs about "promised lands" and "chosen people", which inevitably inspire hatred and xenophobia against members of the out-group. Two thousand years and more of bloodshed have grown from that bitter seed.

On the Israeli side, these beliefs manifest in the hardcore settlers who believe that controlling the entire occupied territories is their God-given right. In one especially horrifying incident, a mob of settlers tried to lynch a Palestinian family (page has sound), whose lives were only saved by a group of journalists on the scene. These settlements need to be rolled back for there to be any lasting peace, but Israel lacks the political will.

On the Palestinian side and throughout the Muslim world, these beliefs manifest in rampant and vicious anti-Semitism, including teaching schoolchildren the ancient blood libels handed down from medieval Christianity. (See also articles 22 and 32 of the Hamas Covenant.)

Christianity also plays a major, if indirect, role in this conflict. Mostly this is due to right-wing evangelicals, who see the Jews as pawns that need to be moved into place so that they can play their part in the apocalypse by being sacrificed. (This view was most infamously expounded by Pat Robertson when he said that Ariel Sharon's stroke was because God struck him down as punishment for trying to trade land for peace.) Not only have these groups prevented the American government from applying any significant political pressure to Israel, they themselves have inflamed the conflict by actively encouraging further Israeli settlement in the occupied territories, even getting churches to "adopt" particular settlements.

It's often stated, as if it were greatly ironic, that the so-called Holy Land is the site of the most enduring and deeply felt hatred on earth. But in truth, that's exactly what we should expect. The whole point of a "holy land" is that said land is valued irrationally highly, much higher than any material concern would ever justify. Such belief is bound to clash violently with the lives and well-being of humans; that is what always happens when things are valued more highly than people. And the danger is far greater in this case since it's not just one, but all the world's major monotheistic faiths that place this insane importance on a tiny and inconsequential strip of ground.

When fanatics of opposing sects go to battle, with each side convinced of its own righteousness and inevitable victory, the only possible outcome is never-ending bloodshed and chaos. In truth, I see only one way out of the destruction that holy-land mythology has wrought on humanity, and that's for all sides to hear the call of reason and turn away from their suicidal mutual destruction. But with the combatants blinded by self-righteousness and zealotry, I see little prospect of that happening any time in the near future. The fertile crescent that birthed destructive fundamentalism may well be the one place on Earth where it survives the longest.

January 3, 2009, 1:25 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink39 comments

On the Mumbai Terror Attacks

I had planned to post on a different topic today, but my attention has been riveted - as I'm sure everyone's has - by the horrific events still unfolding in Mumbai. A well-organized and ruthless group of several dozen heavily armed terrorists has slipped into the city, attacking lightly guarded civilian targets with assault rifles and grenades, apparently targeting Western tourists. Over a hundred innocent people are dead, hundreds more wounded, and some of Mumbai's famous landmarks are in flames. Details are still emerging sketchily from the chaos, and the repercussions on this city of 19 million, the capitol of India's financial and film industries, have yet to be seen.

It seems certain that these terror attacks will reverberate in Indian consciousness as the equivalent of 9/11 on Americans - if not in sheer loss of life, then in terms of the panic, disruption and chaos caused. I can only imagine the effect on New York if there were heavily armed terrorists shooting at innocents in Grand Central Station and taking hostages at the Waldorf Astoria. There will be many families in India and elsewhere mourning tonight.

It's not yet known who bears responsibility for this horrendous crime. Nationalist fervor over Kashmir has been a contributing factor to similar terror attacks in the past, but the apparent focus on Western nationals suggests a different motive this time. For me, I find the conclusion unavoidable that the toxic brew of Islamic fundamentalism has given rise to yet another savage assault on human life and dignity.

The fanatics who wage attacks like this may be living in the modern day, but their minds are dwelling in the past. The primitive, medieval mindset - with all its violence and brutality, its poisonous notions of tribalism and honor, its rigid and unwavering certainty, and its zealot's thirst for bloodshed and holy war - has been imported into the present. Everywhere it arises, it causes innocents to suffer; and when the hands that do its bidding are equipped with modern weapons, the consequences are far more horrible.

The terrorists' aim was probably to damage diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan, and it seems likely they've succeeded. With both sides armed with nuclear weapons, and with the factions of nationalist and fundamentalist fervor wrestling for the controls, the potential consequences are too terrible to imagine. I wrote about this trend in "Fossil Fuels":

In the Bronze Age civilizations where it was born, religion's destructive ability was limited: a few local skirmishes, at worst a regional conflagration. But just like fossil fuels now underpinning the global economy, the fever of faith has spread, and is now infecting not small, roaming desert tribes, but vast, globe-spanning civilizations standing eye-to-eye with the keys to apocalypse in their hands.

These attacks have shown the impossibility of preventing terrorist attacks by guarding every possible target. My home city clearly hasn't learned that lesson, as one can see from this story about the police overreacting to yet another substanceless terror threat. Unless they put guards at every subway entrance and search every passenger, there is no way this could thwart a determined terrorist - and even then, an attacker could just target a mall or a department store instead.

Terrorism and religious zealotry cannot be defeated by force, neither at home nor abroad. What we need more than ever is for the voice of reason to prevail. In the short term, it's a vital calming and guiding influence on leaders whose fingers hover over the nuclear button, and an essential counterpoint to the overheated raving of would-be holy warriors. But in the long term, it is beneficial as well. As many others have observed, the war over terrorism is fundamentally a battle of ideas: democracy against theocracy, liberty against authoritarianism, the future against the past, change against tradition, globalism against tribalism.

To win that battle, we must persuade the world that our values are superior. The way to ultimately stop terrorism is not to kill or imprison all its plotters, but to erode their popular support and delegitimize them in their home countries. We must win the battle of reason by presenting a cogent case for our society and an appealing vision of what we stand for. The outgoing Bush administration, which has done its best to ruin America's image abroad through dictatorial polices of torture, arbitrary imprisonment and preemptive war, never understood this. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration does. But in any case, we freethinkers and rationalists - in America, in India, and everywhere in the world - have a duty to speak out loud and clear for our values, and to lobby and push our leaders toward the correct path. In the long run, a dedicated voice of reason - not the madness of competing fundamentalisms - is the only thing that can make tragedies like this a distant memory and guide the world toward a brighter future.

November 28, 2008, 3:37 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink72 comments

Images of Mohammed

This is an image of the Muslim prophet Mohammed:

So's this:

And also this:

I bring this up because, as you might have guessed, free speech and Islam are again in the news. Last month, over a dozen Danish newspapers reprinted one of the twelve drawings of Mohammed that caused such a furor after they were first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. The artist of this particular cartoon, Kurt Westergaard, has been under police protection, and recently the Danish police arrested three Muslims whom they alleged were plotting to murder him. The republication of the cartoons was to show solidarity with Westergaard and to demonstrate the newspapers' commitment to free speech in the face of threats from violent fanatics.

The response from the Muslim world was predictable:

The militant Palestinian group Hamas attracted thousands of protesters to a rally in the Gaza Strip last night, when a speaker urged them to bomb Danish embassies and kill the country's ambassadors, Danish broadcaster TV2 said on its Web site today.

The threats from these deranged, bloodthirsty lunatics were to be expected by now. However, I'm disappointed with the response of the Danish prime minister:

"The Danish government respects all faiths and their religious feelings," Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said today in his weekly press meeting at his Copenhagen offices, broadcast live by TV2. "When a long line of independent media decide to reprint the pictures, it's not with the intention to insult religious feelings, but to document the background for the murder plans that police have unfolded."

Who cares if the intention was to "insult religious feelings"? That is one of the rights of the press in a free society. It's ludicrous to ban the publication of anything that hurts people's feelings, religious or otherwise. To do that would eradicate free speech altogether by creating a heckler's veto for the most thin-skinned members of society to censor anything that offends them. Is Prime Minister Rasmussen saying that we shouldn't criticize any group that will react violently? Isn't the violent response itself an indication that the group in question needs to be criticized?

It's not just the Danes who've been targeted by religious aggressors who think that their dogma should be binding on everyone else. Wikipedia has been targeted by a flood of petitions demanding that it remove medieval Islamic depictions of Mohammed from its article on him. To their great credit, the Wikipedia administrators have refused, explaining their position clearly and concisely and reaffirming that they will not censor their encyclopedia for the benefit of any particular group.

Others have not been so lucky. The Turkish publishing house that translated Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is under investigation on a charge of "insulting religious values". This even though Turkey is relatively secular, as Muslim-majority nations go. Fortunately, Turkey is also attempting to join the European Union, whose laws protecting free speech are much better (if not perfect). Hopefully, this will serve as a wedge that will persuade the Turkish government to lay aside the more regressive of their laws.

Another writer who's clashed with fanatics is the French philosopher and atheist Michel Houellebecq, who was charged with inciting racism in 2002 for calling Islam a "stupid" religion. (He quite reasonably pointed out that you can't be racist against a religion, only against a race.) Thankfully, he was acquitted, but the threat is far from over. As the more recent case of Ezra Levant shows, there are still plenty of Muslims who'll seize every opportunity to use well-intentioned but horribly misguided "hate speech" laws as a weapon to shut down any criticism of their beliefs.

And, as Hamas' anti-cartoon rally shows, there are many more Muslims who will gleefully call for violence at the slightest provocation. Western society needs to recognize - it should already be abundantly clear - that Muslim groups and individuals are not calling for the censorship of anti-Islamic speech because their delicate, fragile feelings have been wounded. No, they're calling for censorship because it is their undisguised ambition to conquer the world and turn it into a brutal theocracy under their heel, where all dissenters and nonbelievers would be silenced or put to death. These measures are, in their eyes, just the first step in that plan. (I take pains to emphasize that I'm not including every Muslim in this condemnation, only those who seek to stifle criticism whether through law or through bloodshed.)

Since these groups haven't gotten the message, we need to inform them more clearly that, whatever rules they choose to follow for themselves, we non-Muslims are not bound by those rules. The best way to do this would be for many papers and media outlets to rerun the above images and others. This would send a clear and uniform message of defiance, communicating a commitment to free speech that cannot be silenced by a few belligerent fanatics, and would leave them with no single target even if they did lash out.

March 3, 2008, 8:38 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink21 comments

The Witch Children of Nigeria

I've written on several past occasions about how belief in malignant supernatural forces causes real harm to real people. There are examples of this from every region of the world, but some of the most wrenching are from Africa, where Biblical beliefs about demons and evil spirits still run rampant.

In January, I wrote about the witch camps of Ghana, where people suspected of using black magic to harm their neighbors are exiled as if they were lepers. In April, there were the Pentecostals of the Congo, who seek to cure mental illness by chaining sufferers to their beds and beating them to drive the demons out. Now, via the Guardian, there's a story out of Nigeria that is far more heart-breaking and horrible than either of those.

Driving through the town of Esit Eket, the rust-streaked signs, tarpaulins hung between trees and posters on boulders, advertise a church for every third or fourth house along the road. Such names as New Testament Assembly, Church of God Mission, Mount Zion Gospel, Glory of God, Brotherhood of the Cross, Redeemed, Apostalistic. Behind the smartly painted doors pastors make a living by 'deliverances' - exorcisms - for people beset by witchcraft, something seen to cause anything from divorce, disease, accidents or job losses. With so many churches it's a competitive market, but by local standards a lucrative one.

If this were merely a case of parasitic clergy making money by preying on superstitious people, exploiting the poor by charging exorbitant sums to chase away imaginary dangers, that would be bad enough. But this atmosphere of fanaticism has taken a far uglier turn.

But an exploitative situation has now grown into something much more sinister as preachers are turning their attentions to children - naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush.

This bold statement would be unbelievable if the story itself didn't provide so many first-hand examples. There are numerous children quoted whose own parents, inflamed to frenzy by Christian preachers, have thrown boiling water and acid at them, who have left them tied to trees for days, who have forced them to drink poison. The children who are not killed by this torture are invariably driven out of their homes to live as homeless orphans in communities that despise and fear them and often attempt to kill them on sight.

As the Guardian article notes prominently, the fervent Christian beliefs of these communities have created the problem, not mitigated it. As with the similar cases from Ghana and the Congo, the spread of fanatic Pentecostal and evangelical sects who interpret the Bible's verses about witches and exorcisms literally have given rise to this outrage. is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs. Evil spirits, satanic possessions and miracles can be found aplenty in the Bible, references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians, and literal interpretation of scriptures is a popular crowd-pleaser.

And the local preachers who are enriching themselves by shattering families and killing children are not in the least bit apologetic:

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. 'We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.' Soft of voice and in his smart suit and tie, his church is being painted and he apologises for having to sit outside near his shiny new Audi to talk.

...'To give more than you can afford is blessed. We are the only ones who really know the secrets of witches. Parents don't come here with the intention of abandoning their children, but when a child is a witch then you have to say "what is that there? Not your child."

This is a dramatic illustration of the "megaphone" hypothesis of religion amplifying both the good and the bad in human nature in equal measure. At one extreme, it can produce astounding acts of courage and self-sacrificing love. At the other extreme, it can produce hatred, xenophobia and superstitious fear so poisonous that parents can be turned against their own minor children. The flip side of charity and love toward those declared to be in the religious in-group is this savage treatment toward those declared to be in the out-group, and religion is all too effective at placing people outside that charmed circle, declaring them to be less than human.

The hatred and horror visited on these children by their faithful parents underscores the immorality of believing in a book like the Bible that contains such evil superstitions. Even if enlightened believers understand the verses about devils and witches for the savage and primitive falsehoods they are, so long as we promote this book as the word of God, those verses will always be there to be rediscovered by fanatics, with the results we have seen.

This tragic story is one more example of why atheists must work to spread reason and oppose faith in all its guises. Until the day when we can empty the haunted air and banish these pernicious beliefs once and for all, human beings will continue to suffer from the irrational ideologies that teach us to view others as agents of Satan and therefore undeserving of moral consideration.

December 17, 2007, 8:38 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink70 comments

Deo Vindice!

Deo vindice!

Gott mitt uns!

Deus vult!

Allahu akhbar!

Informed readers may recognize some or all of the phrases above. In case there are any you're not familiar with, here's a quick primer on what each of them means:

"Deo vindice" is Latin for "God will defend us" or "God is our vindicator". It was the motto of the slaveholding Confederate States of America, and was engraved on their official seal. The CSA firmly believed that the Christian God was on their side in the American Civil War, and made repeated proclamations to that effect. The Confederate senator Thomas Semmes, in proposing this motto, took pains to stress that the CSA had "deviated in the most emphatic manner from the spirit that presided over the construction of the Constitution of the United States, which is silent on the subject of the Deity", and he clearly expected this invocation to bring his side victory.

"Gott mitt uns" is, of course, German for "God is with us", and was a patriotic slogan of the Nazi Party. (Remember this the next time some Christian apologist brings up the disgusting lie that the Nazis were atheistic.) It appeared on the insignia of the Waffen SS - the "brown shirts" - the armed paramilitary wing of the Schutzstaffel, which was the security organization of the Nazi Party itself. According to Karl Wolff, general of the Waffen SS, the organization's oath of loyalty was based on the model of the Jesuits' oath of absolute obedience to the Pope.

"Deus vult" is Latin for "God wills it", and was supposedly the cry of the crowd after Pope Urban's speech in 1095 inaugurating the First Crusade. What would follow were two hundred years of savage religious warfare between Christians and Muslims, in which soldiers on both sides were promised paradise if they died a martyr's death in combat. The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, following which they proceeded to massacre almost all the inhabitants of the city. According to one, probably exaggerated account, the blood of the slain flowed as high as the horses' bridles. Although they began in the Middle East, the Crusades soon became an excuse for Christians to persecute and slaughter heretical sects in Europe as well.

"Allahu akhbar" is Arabic for "God is greatest", the Muslim profession of faith known as the takbir. Although it's also used in peaceful contexts, it's become infamous for its use by Islamists who shout it triumphantly as they slaughter the innocent or give their lives in suicide terrorism. In recent months, it's appeared in numerous jihadist videos made in Iraq, the rallying cry of those who cut off the heads of captives on camera.

Despite their origins in different languages and cultures, all four of these phrases express basically the same proposition: that God is on our side and will grant us victory over our enemies. Under all four of these mottoes, armies have marched to war, secure in their faith that the Almighty was championing their cause and would permit them to slay their foes with terrible slaughter.

The terrible, destructive consequences of this belief are almost impossible to overstate. I shudder to imagine all the rivers of blood that have been shed by the armies who made these words their banner. If we could look back through history - if we could see how many battlefields these words have reigned over, how many soldiers cried them righteously while plunging their bright weapons into flesh, how many people's bodies were broken and mangled by fervent believers piously muttering them the whole time - it all seems to blur together, a vast shadow of hatred and horror.

I grant that religion has motivated many acts of love and compassion. Nevertheless, the hate which it can inspire is more vicious and persistent than any other kind. Although there are many causes of war, I know of no others that can last literally for millennia. Over long stretches of time, governments change, national rivalries fade, ethnic groups mingle, and cultural identities become fluid and porous. It is religion and religion alone that allows adherents to persist in a shared identity - and a shared enmity - for centuries on end, with ancient grudges and the memory of old atrocities transmitted faithfully through the generations with undiminished intensity.

In the past few decades, we've seen religious warfare erupt all over the world. In Iraq, there's emerged a swamp of sectarian strife and bloodshed, where armed gangs rule the streets and rival sects clash in a chronic low-level civil war. The power vacuum created by the U.S. occupation reawoke religious rivalries that had long been dormant, but the Iraq quagmire is just the most visible outbreak of a larger conflict simmering across the Muslim world, as Salafist Sunni fanatics wage war on heretical Shi'ites in the name of doctrinal purity and the Shi'ites answer with violence and death squads of their own. In Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Indonesia, and now spreading into Europe, Islamist zealots wage war on the innocent and seek to create a theocracy ruled by terror.

An even older, and still lingering, religious conflict comes from the Christian memory of hatred of the Jews. According to the New Testament, Pontius Pilate wanted to release Jesus, only to be forced to take action by the Jewish crowds who shouted, "Crucify him! His blood be on us and on our children!" (Matthew 27:25). That ancient blood libel has spawned endless parades of prejudice and bigotry over the centuries and has inspired Christians to spill oceans of Jewish blood in retribution for the supposed death of one. It has given rise to pogroms, ghettoes, inquisitions. In medieval Europe, Jews were savagely persecuted and hounded from place to place, accused of bizarre and ludicrous crimes such as driving nails through stolen communion wafers to further torture Christ, or kidnapping Christian children to drain their blood for use in Passover matzoh. Ultimately, these ages of hate culminated in Hitler's ovens and gas chambers, as the blood libel was born anew to serve the delusions of Nazi racial superiority. After a war that killed millions, anti-Semitism has been driven underground, but it has not vanished.

And even this is not the oldest ongoing religious war. That infamy belongs to the land of Israel/Palestine, where Zionist Jews still believe in the promises of land which God allegedly made to Abraham over four thousand years ago. That seed bears its bitter fruit to this day, as Palestinians and Israelis continue to spill each other's blood over the divisive issue of who will own the land where both groups stake a claim.

How can we put an end to the deadly certainty that inspires holy war? One proposed solution, possibly the most famous, is Abraham Lincoln's oft-quoted aphorism that we should not be concerned with whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God's side.

However, I've never thought this statement was especially profound. What does it even mean? Presumably, if we want to know whether we are on God's side, we should pray and search the scriptures to find out what God wants. How is that any different from what all the crusaders and jihadists throughout history did? They certainly believed that they were doing what God wanted; many of them quoted scripture and church teaching to that end. If we accept that religious text and tradition can be any kind of reliable guide to God's will, then we must accept that those sources often do teach violence and warfare.

Another possible solution to this problem is to retreat into mysticism - to proclaim that God is so completely ineffable, so fundamentally unlike us, that we can know nothing about him and thus can never use a claim of his will as a basis for action. And while a few religious scholars have embraced this philosophy, it seems highly doubtful that the majority will ever accept such a hollow and substanceless belief. People believe in God because they want comfort, support, protection - not a distant, unknowable spirit about whom we can say nothing meaningful. And so long as people continue to believe in a personal god with definite desires, that belief will likely be used to justify violence and division.

There's one final solution that I've heard a few times. It is this: we can accept that we're fallible humans, that we don't know everything, and that anyone who tries to claim certain and absolute knowledge of God's will is likely mistaken. And if we can never claim total certainty about God's will, we can certainly never proclaim that God wants us to slaughter the infidels.

This might be a good solution, except that it flies in the face of the fundamental underlying basis of religion. Throughout recorded history, the spokesmen of faith have taught that belief without evidence, and especially firm and resolute belief without evidence, is a praiseworthy and virtuous character trait. In fact, religion often seems to consider a belief more virtuous in proportion to the amount of evidence against it. This is a perniciously self-sustaining meme, for as the evidence mounts against the scriptural story, it only inspires believers to cling to it all the more tightly.

It seems that as long as belief in God persists, this problem will recur. The hatred which religious partisans have for each other is literally undying. Frankly, I'd leave them to each other and say good riddance, if it weren't for the fact that the rest of us are caught in between them, and innocent people who did not ask to be part of these battles inevitably end up suffering for their sake.

November 19, 2007, 8:30 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink59 comments

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