A Malaysian Atheist asks for Help

The Friendly Atheist has posted a letter  from a Malaysian atheist appealing for help and advice to solve a problem related to religion.  It’s from a Malaysian woman in a relationship with a British man.  Both are atheists, but they can’t be married as such in Malaysia because, having been born to Moslem parents, she is automatically a “Moslem,” and can’t renounce the religion because apostasy is severely punished.  She claims the penalty is death, as in Saudi Arabia, but, based on some of the comments, in practice it’s less drastic than that.  As some of the commenters point out, the letter seems a bit fishy, I suspect because the British man isn’t really as interested in getting married as the writer seems to think.  Be that as it may, the letter is a case in point of how moral rules can be blunt instruments.

In this case, the rule we are talking about is the rejection of “religious bigotry.”  Like all moral rules, to be effective, it must be kept simple.  In essence, the rule is that if you object to someone else’s beliefs, and the set of beliefs you object to are generally accepted as a religion, than you are a religious bigot.  There are good reasons for the existence of such rules.  They leverage the innate human predisposition to acquire a moral code in order to prevent harm to individuals on account of personal beliefs.  It is tacitly assumed that these beliefs pose no threat to other individuals that they cannot reasonably be expected to bear, or that the “bigot” would not be likely to bear if the shoe were on the other foot.  As the case mentioned above illustrates, it is unwise to apply such rules indiscriminately, untempered by considerations of what is really being accomplished in the process. 

Take, for example, objections to Islam.  In general, a large proportion of the populations of the western democracies today would object to any sort of discrimination against anyone on account of their religious affiliation as Moslems.  To them, such discrimination represents “religious bigotry.”  However, if one really accepts the teachings of Islam at face value, their consequences if applied to these opponents of “religious bigotry” would likely induce them to change their tune with alacrity. 

Suppose, for example, that they were made to suffer severe punishment for beliefs over which they had no more voluntary control than the belief that 2+2 = 4?  Suppose they were prevented from marrying a person they loved because that person was not a Moslem?  Suppose their best friend suddenly announced that the friendship was over because its existence was not in accord with the friend’s religious beliefs?  Suppose they were required to accept the murder of one of their children by someone acting explicitly in the name of that religion, because the child was a homosexual?  Supposed they were required to live under laws explicitly based on the prescriptions of that religion?  Supposed they were required to accept official discrimination, resulting, for example, in a higher tax burden, on account of their own religious beliefs?  All of the above are explicitly required by the Moslem religion if one takes the Quran and Kadith seriously.  These opponents of “religious discrimination” would certainly reject all of the above out of hand if it were required of them by some arbitrary tyrant acting in the name of pure self-interest.  Why, then, are such demands acceptable if made in the name of religion?

Blind religious discrimination has been an incredibly destructive force in human history.  Religious discrimination against Moslems can be just as destructive as any other variety.  However, one does not become a “bigot” by virtue of objecting to the sacrifice of cherished liberties, won over centuries at a high cost in blood, because someone else’s religion demands it.  Those who demand religious liberty for themselves must be willing to accord that same liberty to others.  No “moral rule” can have any force that requires one to sacrifice one’s own liberty to accommodate someone else’s religion.

Sam Harris, Karen Armstrong, and the God Fraud

Do I detect a note of testiness in fellow atheist Sam Harris’ response to one Karen Armstrong, one of those paragons of goodness and enlightenment who would have us believe that every outrage ever committed by religious bigots since the dawn of time was just the result of a “misunderstanding?” Well, I must admit that, on rare occasions, I too am capable of losing my habitual air of supercilious philosophical detachment if sufficiently provoked. This, however, was not one of those occasions, probably because Sam took the trouble to post Ms. Armstrong’s reply. As he no doubt recognized, she is such a perfect parody of herself that one can only smile.

Of course, Ms. Armstrong is not alone. There are legions of others like her with the rare intellectual gifts necessary to understand that all the slaughter and mayhem perpetrated in the name of religion was just the result of a regrettable misunderstanding. They have arrived on the scene just in time to enlighten the rest of us with the news that they have discovered the “real” meaning of Islam, Christianity, and any other religion you might care to mention. Astoundingly, it happens to be in perfect accord with the warm, fuzzy treacle one usually associates with “progressive” ideology.

Think of it! When all the collective brainpower of the Christian Church assembled at the Council of Constance decided it was their religious duty to burn Jan Huss at the stake, thereby launching a series of wars that devastated Europe for decades, it was all a misunderstanding. When the followers of Huss, whose every act was an expression of their religious belief, launched their formidable battle wagons against their foes, leaving death and scorched earth in their wake, because they insisted on celebrating Communion in a way not approved by the pope, it was all a misunderstanding. When a later pope appointed Torquemada to lead the Spanish Inquisition, launching a regime of pious torture and oppression, it was all a misunderstanding.  When Urban II preached the Crusade at Clermont seconded by virtually every divine of any note in Christendom, launching a series of wars that would result in the deaths of millions and misery and devastation for millions more, it was all a misunderstanding.  When Mohammed launched his armies on a devastating path of conquest that ended in the violent seizure of Iran, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the rest of north Africa, Spain, and a host of other countries, he just “misunderstood” his own religion.  It goes without saying that bin Laden and all his followers, steeped as they are in the teachings of the prophet, and claiming as they do that all their acts are inspired by his teachings, have, once again, misunderstood him.

Why not carry this a bit further?  Is it not obvious in the light of Ms. Armstrong’s wise teachings that Hitler committed his crimes because he just didn’t understand the true teachings of Nazism?  As for Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kim Il-sung, why, they only thought they were acting in the name of Communism when they killed 100 million people.  It was all a misunderstanding. 

Of course, we all know the other side of this coin.  Whenever some unsavory character guilty of deeds sufficiently horrific to win him historical infamy can be shown, truthfully or not, to have been an atheist, why, he did it because he was an atheist, regardless of the reasons he gave for his actions himself, and all atheists are guilty of his crime by association.


The Rabbit People and their Eternal War

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer chimes in on the latest Cheney-Obama dustup:

Second, the former Vice President makes the clearly untrue claim that the President — who is this nation’s commander in chief — needs to realize we are at War. I don’t think anyone realizes this very hard reality more than President Obama. In his inaugural, the President said “our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”

Charming! The rabbit people on the left now agree with the rabbit people on the right that “we’re at war.” The only problem is that we’re not. We are being attacked by an international terrorist organization. They carried out one successful attack on our homeland nearly a decade ago that cost the lives of 3,000 people give or take. In the intervening years we have lost more than 100 times that many in traffic accidents, not to mention a far greater number of serious injuries. Nearly a hundred times that number have been killed by handguns. Shouldn’t we declare war on automobiles and handguns as long as we’re at it? From the time of the Decembrists until the October Revolution, Russia was constantly under attack by a host of anarchists, social revolutionaries, Bolsheviks and other assorted radical terrorists. They succeeded in assassinating Czar Alexander II and many other important government officials. Dynamite gained the nickname “Russian candy,” yet it never occurred to the Russians or the rest of the world, for that matter, that Russia was “at war” with these people. Anarchist terrorism was pervasive in Europe and the United States in the last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century. The terrorists succeeded in murdering French President Carnot in 1894, bombing the Greenwich Observatory in London in the same year, and assassinating President McKinley in 1901. They carried out lesser known indiscriminate bombings in theatres, marketplaces and a host of other venues, killing thousands in the process. It never occurred to any of the countries involved that they were “at war.”

Now we face a similar threat, and the rabbit people insist we are, in fact, “at war.” Indeed, they get red in the face and begin frothing at the mouth if anyone begs to differ with them. I, for one, beg to differ with them. One always finds these same zealots howling about “Liberty” and “Freedom.” They have no clue what those words really mean. War, in the United States and elsewhere, has always implied the suppression of Liberty and freedom. Our wars have commonly been accompanied by the suspension of habeus corpus, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.  In real wars those steps may become necessary because our survival is at stake.  The battle against Al-Qaeda is not a war.  These enemies do not threaten our survival except in the dreams of the most timorous of the rabbit people, and the surrender of our liberties that their phoney “war” implies really represents an abject surrender to our enemies in the name of perserving our security at all costs.  The proper slogan for the rabbit people is not “Liberty or Death!”  It is “Security for Me, and Damn the Rest!” 

Cowards that they are at heart, they are quite willing to surrender every freedom our forefathers fought for if only the government will keep them safe.  By destroying our Liberties, they concede victory to our enemies, lowering us to their level, all in the name of a false security.  When a couple of former Gitmo prisoners turn up in the Al-Qaeda organization in Yemen, all we hear from them is loud shouts of “We told you so!”  Forgotten are the words of William Blackstone, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”  One commonly finds these heroes thumping their Bibles, but forgotten, too, is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which God tells Abraham that He would have spared these entire cities for the sake of ten righteous men.  Forgotten are the very reasons it even occurred to our Founding Fathers to object to arrest without due process of law.

It never occurs to the rabbit people as they chant their “war” mantra that any of the prisoners held for years now at Gitmo could actually be innocent.  For them, they are all so many convicted terrorists.  Tell me, what justifies them in coming to this conclusion?  Have the prisoners at Gitmo ever been given the right to a fair and speedy trial?  Have they even been allowed to stand before military tribunals?  How is it that we have arrived at this absolute certainty that they are all terrorists?  The process was certainly unheard of at the founding of our Republic.  By what new miracle of jurisprudence have the rabbit people concluded that we “know” all the prisoners at Gitmo are guilty, and fuzzy-headed thinking about fair trials be damned?

The rabbit people always assume that they will be the ones sitting in the seat of judgment.  It never occurs to them that the precedents they are setting now may well come back to haunt them, and the rest of us as well.  Let the rabbit people recall some familiar but wise words:  “What goes around comes around.”

Selective Mass Murder and Historical Lacunae

If you check the websites of any one of the major booksellers, you can get an idea of the kind of books people are reading these days by checking their offerings. Click on the “history” link, for example, and you’ll quickly find quite a few offerings on U.S. history, with emphasis on the Civil War, the Revolution, and the Founding Fathers. There are lots of books about war, an occasional revelation of how this or that class of victims was victimized, or this or that historical villain perpetrated his evil deeds, and a sprinkling of sports histories, but there are gaping lacunae when it comes to coverage of events that really shaped the times we live in, and the ideological and political developments of yesterday that are portents of what we can expect tomorrow.

Perhaps the Internet, wonderful as it is, is part of the problem. The wealth of information it provides tends to be sharply focused on the here and now. We have all the minutiae of the health care debate, troop levels in Afghanistan, and the narratives affirming and rejecting global warming at our fingertips, but little to encourage us to take an occasional step back to see things in their historical perspective. As a result, one finds much ranting about Marxism, socialism, fascism, Communism, and related ideological phenomena, but little understanding of how they arose in the first place, how it is they became so prominent, or why they are still relevant.

Such ideologies appealed to aspects of human nature that haven’t gone anywhere in the meantime. The specific doctrines of Marx, Bakunin, and Hitler are discredited because they didn’t work in practice. That doesn’t mean that new variants with promises of alternate Brave New Worlds won’t arise to take their place. For the time being, Islamism has rushed in to fill the vacuum left by their demise, but I doubt it will satisfy the more secular minded of the chronic zealots among us for very long. The Islamists may have appropriated the political jargon of the “progressive” left, but it’s a stretch to suggest that western leftists are about to become pious Muslims any time soon. Should the economies of the developed nations turn south for an extended period of time, or some other profound social dislocation take place, some new secular faith is likely to arise, promising a way out to the desperate, a new faith for the congenitally fanatical, and a path to power for future would-be Stalins.

To understand the fanaticisms of bygone days, and perhaps foresee the emergence of those of the future, it would be well if we occasionally stepped back from our obsession with the ideological disputes of the present and pondered the nature and outcome of those of the past. One such outcome was the birth of the United States, and the subsequent replacement of monarchical systems by secular democracies in many countries, accompanied by the movement away from societies highly stratified by class to more egalitarian systems. Personally, I am inclined to welcome that development, but it remains to be seen whether the resultant social and political systems are capable of maintaining their integrity and the cultural identity of the people they represent against the onslaught of alien cultures and religions.

Another, less positive, outcome has been the emergence of secular dogmas such as those mentioned above, promising rewards in the here and now instead of the hereafter. These have generated levels of fanaticism akin to those generated by religious faith in the past. In fact, as belief systems, they are entirely akin to religion, as various thinkers have repeatedly pointed out over the past two centuries. They are substantially different from religions only in the absence of belief in supernatural beings. These belief systems have spawned all the mayhem that their religious cousins spawned in the past, but with a substantial difference. I suspect that difference is more a function of general advances in literacy, technology, and social awareness than any distinctions of dogma.

Specifically, for the first time on such a massive scale, the mayhem and slaughter occasioned by fanatical belief in these new secular dogmas has not fallen with more or less equal weight on all the strata of society. Rather, its tendency has been to eliminate the most intelligent, the most productive, and the most creative. Lenin and Stalin were not indiscriminate in their mass murder. They singled out scientists, academics, the most intelligent and productive farmers, the most economically productive, the most politically aware, and the most creative thinkers. Their goal was to eliminate anyone who was likely to oppose them effectively. In general, these were the most intelligent members of society. Similarly, the horrific Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia systematically eliminated anyone with a hint of education or appearance of intellectual superiority. In another example, of which most of us are only dimly aware, although it happened in living memory, the right in the Spanish Civil War ruthlessly sought out and shot anyone on the left prominent for political thought or leadership capacity, and the left, in turn, sought out and shot anyone who had managed to rise above the bare level of subsistence of the proletariat. The Nazis virtually eliminated a minority famous for its creativity, intelligence, and productivity.

Mass murder is hardly a novelty among human beings. It has been one of our enduring characteristics since the dawn of recorded time. However, this new variant, in which the best and brightest are selectively eliminated, really only emerged in all its fury in the 20th century. The French Reign of Terror, similarly selective as it was, was child’s play by comparison, with its mere 20,000 victims. The victims of Communism alone approach 100 million. In two countries, at least, it is difficult to see how this will not have profound effects on the ability of the remaining population to solve the many problems facing modern societies. In effect, those two countries, the former Soviet Union and Cambodia, beheaded themselves. The wanton elimination of so much intellectual potential by their former masters is bound to have a significant effect on the quality of the human capabilities available to rebuild society now that the Communist nightmare is over, at least for them. Perhaps, at some future time when we regain the liberty to speculate about such matters without being shouted down as evildoers by the pathologically politically correct, some nascent Ph.D. in psychology will undertake to measure the actual drop in collective intelligence in those countries resulting from the Communist mass murder.

It behooves us, then, to remember what happened in the 20th century. It is hardly out of the question that new fanatical faiths will emerge, both secular and religious, and that they we be capable of all the social devastation of the Communists and Nazis and then some. Here in America, an earlier generation, even in the darkest days of the Great Depression, rejected the siren song of the fanatics. For that, we owe them much. Let us try to emulate them in the future.

On Religion; The Consequences of Believing in Things that are not True

H. L. Mencken once said, “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” In general, I suspect he was right. In an ideal world, one could simply point out that belief in a God or gods is irrational, as Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Sam Harris have lately so eloquently tried to do. The rest of mankind would then recognize that their beliefs in supernatural beings were untrue, and drop them, sparing the rest of us a great deal of grief. Alas, the species being what it is, that isn’t about to happen. Quoting the Sage of Baltimore once again, “The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.” At best, we can point out what those costs actually are, in the hope that a happy few will come to their senses. In the case of religion, the costs of believing in something that is untrue are abundantly obvious in our day. One need only recall the fate of the twin towers, and the almost daily images we see of the mayhem caused by suicide bombers. We can follow Mencken’s advice about the other fellow’s religion when, as in the case of Christianity today, its adherents are rather less fanatical than they were at, say, the time of the Hussite Wars, or the crusade against the Albigensians, or the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, or in the many centuries during which tens of thousands of innocent women were burned and hung as witches. However, when, as is the case with Islam today, the fever breaks out anew, and the other fellow concludes that his God wishes him to commence killing the rest of us and to stuff his religion down our throats by seizing control of state power, we can hardly afford to look the other way.

There are adherents of every religion whose tastes do not happen to run to slaughtering their fellow beings. Such is the case with Islam today, and, in accord with a long established historical pattern, they assure us that those who are actively trying to kill us are not “real Moslems.” That is little comfort to the rest of us, as those same murderers assure us that they are the only true Moslems, and are not behind hand at quoting line and verse of their scriptures to justify their mayhem. In the end, they attack the rest of us because of their religious beliefs, whether others happen to interpret those beliefs differently or not. It seems to me that it would be safer for all concerned if, rather than arguing over the details of beliefs that are fundamentally untrue, one jettisoned them root and branch in favor of a more probable point of view.

One can find a typical example of the religious outlook of one of the “pacific” believers in Islam at Harry’s Place. The article is thoughtful and well worth reading. It contains most of the usual rationalizations. For example, as already noted above, it seeks to “excommunicate” the adherents of violence, referring to them as “Islamists,” rather than followers of the true Islam. The author informs us that, “… there is no mention of statehood in the Quran, nor are there pre‐ordained political principles prescribed in any of the Islamic holy texts that Muslims are required to follow. Islamists, however, will argue that Muslims are only allowed to follow and participate in one type of political system, and that all other political systems and ideologies are ‘un‐Islamic’. This is quite unprecedented and lacks historical or scriptural justification.” This is a dubious assertion, and becomes less credible the more one reads the Moslem scriptures. Do they not call for different rates of taxation for Moslems and non-Moslems? Do they not call for specific forms of punishment for given crimes when the specification of such punishments is a function of the state and the political system it is based on? Were not early Moslem visitors to England mystified by the British parliament, noting that all had been set down once and for all in the Moslem holy books, making such functions unnecessary? In a word, the worthy author may assure us that his view of Islamic principle is different, but Islamic practice since the time of the prophet has been something entirely different from the benign picture he seeks to paint for us.

In his closing lines the author assures us, “Despite the fact that since 9/11, 7/7 and the Madrid bombings Islamism has come to dominate the world’s headlines in the West, the vast majority of the world’s Muslims continue to believe Islam is not a political ideology and do not pursue the revolutionary goals that Islamists have projected onto it. In the Quran Islam is described as ‘Deen‐al‐Islam’ which translates as ‘religion of peace’.” Be that as it may, wherever Islam has gained the upper hand, it has served as the incubator from which the terrorist brood has hatched. For that matter, it is absurd to refer to it as a “religion of peace.” In what manner, after all, did it become the dominant religion in so many countries? Did it overcome its rivals in Arabia peacefully? Did it gain control of Egypt peacefully? Did it gain control of Syria peacefully? Did it gain control of Iran peacefully? Did it gain control of what is now Turkey peacefully? Did it gain control of North Africa peacefully? Did it gain the upper hand in Spain and Sicily and then lose it again by peaceful means? What about Palestine? Are its current claims to control that territory based on an original, peaceful occupation of the land, or a seizure from the previous owners by force?

One might prefer Christianity to Islam because its scriptures seem to be more genuinely amenable to the separation of church and state that our author assures us characterizes the “real Islam” as well. Unlike Islam, it has produced some very substantial thinkers to vindicate that point of view, such as Roger Williams and Marsilius of Padua. It is for that reason that I consider attempts to limit Muslim encroachment, such as we saw manifested in a recent Swiss election, in a rather more positive light than those who seek to simplistically portray it as an attack on “freedom of religion.” When we see vicious acts of terrorism worldwide justified in the name of Islam, it takes willful self-deception to conclude that all this has nothing to do with the “real” Islam, and that there will be no social or political consequences of treating it as “just another religion.”

In the end, it seems to me that life would be a great deal more pleasant for all of us if we stopped basing our actions on erroneous beliefs in supernatural beings in general, and started basing them on an interpretation of reality that, if not certain, is at least not palpably false.