Cartoons of the Jews
posted on 08.25.2006 at 12:12 PM
Some months ago, during the contretemps over the Danish cartoons offensive to Muslims, I wrote:
We can imagine, as some Muslims have asked us to do, the outrage that would greet satiric cartoons featuring Jesus or, were the point sufficiently nasty, Moses. How about a satiric drawing of an atheist? What would it show? (A man lost in a microscope oblivious to the wonder of all that goes on around him?)
Found a couple of those "cartoons of the atheist," which predictably failed to shock. The more shocking attempt at tit for tat, which I failed to anticipate, has nothing to do with Moses or Jesus but with anti-Semitic stereotypes and the Holocaust. A collection of such images is currently on display, according to the New York Times, in a gallery in Tehran, under the title: "Holocaust International Cartoon Contest."
One features: "a drawing of a Jew with a very large nose, a nose so large it obscures his entire head. Across his chest is the word Holocaust." Others seem to have a clear political motivation: comparing Israeli behavior with Nazi behavior, or implying that the Holocaust has been used as an excuse for such behavior.
Most Western writing about the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed, emphasized the conflict between free expression and protecting sensitivities. Will positions remain the same when the subject is these Iranian cartoons?
My point on the reaction to the Danish cartoons was to note "the intolerance and fear that seem to lurk at the bottom of most religion":
There is still something essentially immoderate about them. There is still something powerfully illiberal about any system of thought that insists that rules of behavior -- the Prophet cannot be depicted, the Son must be seen as divine, meat and milk cannot be eaten together -- have been imposed by an infallible supernatural intelligence and that insists that our eternal (eternal!) happiness depends on our ability to follow those rules....Monotheism does not blend easily or smoothly into liberalism.
But (non-political) aspects of this new exhibit seem to offend not on religious grounds but because of cultural and historical sensitivities. Was I being unfair in underplaying such sensitivities, in an effort to make a point about religion, in Islamic reaction to the Danish cartoons?
An Atheist Speaks...
posted on 03.12.2006 at 11:05 AM
...on the opinion pages of the New York Times. Strange times we live in. It has taken an often intolerant religious revival (in the US and abroad) to allow a more open discussion of irreligious ideas in this country than has been seen in at least half a century. (Changes -- democratization? -- in media have also helped.)
1. When atheism first dared enter public debate in Europe, in the 18th century in France (with Holbach) and the 19th century in Britain (with Shelley), it did so with a grand claim (founded on a romantic, almost deified view of "Nature") to a higher morality -- a morality that looked a lot like Christian morality. Zizek is making a similar claim: "Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism." More on this later.
2. Zizek is also proposing a new (for me, here in the sheltered US) political analysis of the Cartoons of the Prophet situation: The Christian right initially printed the cartoons to take some digs at Islam but then expressed "understanding" for the hurt felt (and expressed sometimes violently) by true believers. The atheist liberals, on the other hand, reprinted the cartoons only in the spirit of tolerance and open discussion and had little tolerance for violent protest against open discussion. "Atheism," Zizek writes, " is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers."
3. My expertise on these matters is limited, but where Zizek refers to David Hume in the piece ("David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.") doesn't the point really fit Immanuel Kant? It is, nonetheless, an important point (discussed below) -- though more difficult than Zizek acknowledges.
Rushdie on the Cartoons
posted on 03.01.2006 at 10:54 PM
From a statement signed by Salman Rushdie, Bernard-Henri Levy and others on the Danish cartoons (brought to my attention by Ben Vershbow):
"We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all."
Not so much a call for toleration (as we've been hearing) but a call for "resistance" and secularism.
"We reject « cultural relativism », which consists in accepting that men and women of Muslim culture should be deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secular values in the name of respect for cultures and traditions."
Is something stirring?
Cartoons of the Atheist -- Part II (and Dennett's Book)
posted on 02.20.2006 at 11:33 AM
A few years ago, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published this cartoon; it was an unclever response to an opinion piece by Mitchell Kahle in which he wrote: "The old saying 'There are no atheists in foxholes' is entirely without merit or legitimacy...."
This notion that atheists will get religion as soon as they sense death or the full turbulence of life is an old one. In the nineteenth century some atheists went so far as to arrange to have witnesses by their deathbeds to prove that they did not succumb to a last-minute conversion.
Before getting to Leon Wieseltier's intemperate, wrongheaded and fascinating review of Dennett's book in Sunday's New York Times, I want to finish with Adam Kirsch's somewhat more delicate skewering. For at some point he falls back on a version of the old foxhole argument:
"To believe or disbelieve is existentially the most important choice of all. It shapes one's whole understanding of human life and purpose, because it is a choice that each of us must make for him or herself. To impress on a man the urgency of that choice, Kierkegaard wrote, it would be useful to "get him seated on a horse and the horse made to take fright and gallop wildly ... this is what existence is like if one is to become consciously aware of it."
Much here perplexes me. First, how does Kierkegaard's view of existence relate to Woody Allen's revelation that "eighty percent of life is just showing up"?
Second, what does it mean to say that belief in God is an "existential choice"? Doesn't belief in God depend on only one factor: whether you think there really is a God? I know we're supposed to forget such calculations and perpetrate some kind of "leap of faith." A "leap" toward what? From what? Over what? Is there any place to stand on the other side? Do you have to keep leaping? A "leap" that allows you to kill your son? Faith in dreams? Faith in reason? Faith in superstition? Faith in faith? Faith in nothing? Faith as a kind of madness? Faith in God?
And, third, what sort of argument for religion is it to say people crawl toward it when life gets tough and they get scared? When he heard thunder, my late golden retriever would attempt to hide his head under a bed. This earned neither him nor the bed much respect in my eyes.
posted on 02.17.2006 at 10:18 AM
In his interesting opinion piece on the Danish cartoons, Robert Wright includes this observation:
"Most Americans tread lightly in discussing ethnicity and religion, and we do it so habitually that it's nearly unconscious."
Certainly, this is true. Wright thinks it's good -- a sign of civil "self-restraint." But, when it comes to religion, isn't this reticence -- this reluctance to discuss and debate -- why so many odd, seemingly un-thought-through notions survive? Isn't it why religious (or anti-religious?) beliefs sometimes seem to lurk in dark corners of otherwise well-lit minds?
Cartoons of the Atheist
posted on 02.11.2006 at 7:47 PM
We can imagine, as some Muslims have asked us to do, the outrage that would greet satiric cartoons featuring Jesus or, were the point sufficiently nasty, Moses.
How about a satiric drawing of an atheist? What would it show? (A man lost in a microscope oblivious to the wonder of all that goes on around him?)
Wait, by the grace of Google, I found one (our artist is Jack Hamm):
I suspect that this image would not be sufficient to rouse the residents of the Left Bank or the Upper West Side to burn flags or embassies. Would it be possible to come up with a cartoon that would seriously offend atheists? Are they above (below?) this sort of thing? Is this because for the atheist "nothing is sacred"?
Doesn't a feeling for the "sacred" increase the inclination to take offense? Would this not be a response to the assertion by Madeleine Bunting, in the Guardian, that, in essence, religion is merely one of many "collective identities" societies can use as an excuse for violence?
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part VI
posted on 02.09.2006 at 8:17 PM
I'm not sure how I myself would answer the question raised in the previous post. This seems one of those occasions when I've been writing to learn what I think.
Of course nonbelievers will be quick to line up with those who champion free expression, diversity of opinion and "peace, love and understanding." That has seemed almost too obvious to require much saying.
But I read myself as having been writing about the intolerance and fear that seem to lurk at the bottom of most religion. The nonbeliever's contribution may be to remind that even though you can teach most religions proper table manners and sit comfortably with them over tea, there is still something essentially immoderate about them. There is still something powerfully illiberal about any system of thought that insists that rules of behavior -- the Prophet cannot be depicted, the Son must be seen as divine, meat and milk cannot be eaten together -- have been imposed by an infallible supernatural intelligence and that insists that our eternal (eternal!) happiness depends on our ability to follow those rules.
I think I want to say that this incident -- along with what has been going on in the red states lately -- should remind us that monotheism does not blend easily or smoothly into liberalism.
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part V
posted on 02.08.2006 at 9:48 PM
** The politics have been breaking rather oddly on the those satiric cartoons. Some of the papers daring to reprint them have been right-wing papers -- normally more sensitive to affronts to religion than to limitations on free expression. (Does it depend on which religion?)
** The argument, as I see it, is not between the natural enemies atheism and orthodox belief but between the natural enemies pluralism/freedom of expression and orthodox belief. Which raises the question (actually Bob Stein raised the question) of what an atheist might see in this battle.
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part IV
posted on 02.07.2006 at 11:50 AM
In an opinion piece in the Times of London the atheist (Why aren't there more pieces by atheists in the Times that lands on my doorstep each morning?) Matthew Parris also sees deep and irreconcilable differences surfacing in the current battle over those Danish cartoons:
"Let us not duck what that "I do not believe" really means. It means I do not believe that there is one God, Allah, or that Muhammad is His Prophet. It means I do not believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, or that no man cometh to the Father except by Him. I do not believe that the Jews are God's Chosen People, or subject to any duties different from the rest of us. It means I do not believe any living creature will be reincarnated in another life.
"In my opinion these views are profoundly mistaken, and those who subscribe to them are under a serious misapprehension on a most important matter. Not only are their views not true for me: they are not true for them. They are not true for anyone. They are wrong.
"Cutting through the babble of well-meaning souls who like to speak of the "community" of belief among "people of faith", this must also be what the Muslim is saying to the Christian, Jew or Hindu; or what the Christian must be saying to the Jew, Hindu or Muslim. These faiths make demands and assert truths that are not compatible with the demands and truths of other faiths. To assert one must be to deny the others."
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part III
posted on 02.07.2006 at 11:42 AM
While all right-thinking folk want the violence that has broken out in response to the satiric drawings of Mohammad to end, this awful incident does at least have the virtue of reminding us that this is a world that is sharply divided -- between humanistic, tolerant pluralists and true believers in one or another faith.
The views of Danish newspaper editors and devout Muslims may indeed be incompatible. No religious testament with which I am familiar tempers its "Thou shall not"s with an "unless it is an expression of some individual's right to free expression." And no self-respecting child of the Enlightenment is eager to hand mullahs, priests or rabbis significant control over what they do, say or print.
Orthodox Muslims are correct in suspecting that some Western intellectuals find their beliefs (like most orthodox beliefs) rather silly. Western intellectuals are correct in suspecting that some orthodox Muslims (like orthodox members of other faiths) think they are damned or damnable. And orthodox Muslims and Western intellectuals increasingly find themselves occupying the same neighborhoods, using the same media.
These are not friendly differences. These are not worldviews that can easily share a smaller and smaller world.
Yes, end the violence. Yes, let's all try to be sensitive and understanding. But it is also worth remembering that a crucial struggle is going on in the world today: between devout faith and freethinking. This struggle is inevitably going to cause some pain.
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part II
posted on 02.07.2006 at 1:08 AM
Many respond to the struggle between religion and atheism by hastening toward some sort of middle ground. Some retreat to a lazy, hazy deist god of the sort first proposed by the Greek thinker Xenophanes in the sixth century BCE. Some prefer a gentle agnosticism.
The ugly and upsetting riots against the publication of those cartoons satirizing Mohammad demonstrate the difficulty of securing that middle ground. Muslims believe their Prophet should not even be depicted. Western intellectuals believe in the freedom to print what you want, to satirize what you want. Where is the reasonable, non-doctrinaire position that might bridge these beliefs?
Atheists tend not to burn things. Does that make them moderate?
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part I
posted on 02.06.2006 at 10:37 PM
As the flames were lit around him in 1553, Michael Servetus, a scientist and renegade religious thinker, is said to have cried, "O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!" According to one observer, had he instead phrased it, "Jesus, the Eternal Son, have pity on me!" the flames might have been extinguished. For Servetus was being burned at the stake in Calvin's Geneva precisely because he refused to affirm the divinity of Jesus.
Believers have long taken affronts to their religion, even seemingly minor affronts, rather seriously.