posted on 12.02.2006 at 1:53 PM
Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let's hope that the Atheist Left doesn't revive them. We've suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.
It is not possible, alas, to say that atheists would never resort to violence. As Kristof notes, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot certainly did (though in the name of what began to look like another religion). However, is it not unfair to equate our current crop of loud, proud atheists -- Richard Dawkins and ? What atheist today has launched a fatwa, banned a book or grabbed a gun?
What is happening is that some individuals are now arguing that those who believe the universe is governed by a supernatural Being are wrong. The religious insist upon their beliefs in books, on radio stations, television channels and in various houses of worship weekly, daily. Is it intolerant to disagree? What is so awful about the debate finally, in some small way, being joined?
And, oh yeah, has the Christian Right really retreated from the culture wars?
The Prologue to This Book
posted on 11.10.2006 at 2:56 PM
I am posting here for comments, suggestions, criticism, etc., a draft of the Prologue to the book on the history of disbelief I am working on.
You should be able to read it by clicking: Download file
State Helps Churches
posted on 10.13.2006 at 3:30 PM
A powerful new investigative series has been running in the New York Times, exposing increasing number of ways American laws are favoring religious institutions. It is worth quoting:
In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide "war on religion" that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations -- from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples -- enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.
Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation's history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years -- sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized "earmarks" benefiting other special interests.
An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.
The special breaks amount to "a sort of religious affirmative action program," said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at the Emory University law school.
Professor Witte added: "Separation of church and state was certainly part of American law when many of today's public opinion makers were in school. But separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land."
My underline at the bottom. Is Prof. Witte right?
Europe and Religion
posted on 10.11.2006 at 10:39 PM
A few points inspired by a New York Times article on growing frustration with Muslim immigrants in Europe:
** In Europe it is the right that is least tolerant of this new religious orthodoxy, at least this new Islamic religious orthodoxy, as became clear during the dispute over the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, as has become clear with the recent comment of the pope. (This is all rather perplexing to American secularists who have much less difficulty locating the enemy on the political spectrum.)
** The great paradox here, of course, is that it is precisely the secular values of pluralism and tolerance in Europe that are allowing for the growth of intolerant, even violently intolerant, religious orthodoxies. This is a problem that seems, for the moment, not to have a comfortable solution. Some, like Salman Rushdie, argue against tolerating intolerance. Lurking here is the potentially uncomfortable solution of actually taking on these religions and their potentially murderous absurdities (a task perhaps better executed by a Rushdie than by someone named Benedict XVI).
** In the midst of a dispiriting article it is cheering to read the Times characterizing Europe as "a continent that has largely abandoned" religion.
Religion and Government
posted on 10.10.2006 at 3:36 PM
Ayatollah Mohammad Kazemeni Boroujerdi seems to be on the side of good. He has apparently been arrested in Iran for having the temerity to suggest that the country's other ayatollahs should stay out of politics. They currently, of course, have the last word on the decisions of the Iranian government.
However, I must say I have difficulty understanding how if you really believed in the truth of one of these God-rules-everything-in-the-universe religions you wouldn't want God's ostensible representatives on earth -- popes, ayatollahs, whatever -- making the important decisions. If they are indeed infallible, why trust the fallible?
posted on 09.17.2006 at 1:04 PM
It takes, of course, a certain amount of chutzpah or blindness (along with political insensitivity) for a Christian to criticize Muhammad for the "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
Of the multitude of possible examples of Christians bringing, as Jesus says he does, "not...peace but a sword," my current favorite is the story of 4th- and 5th-century Alexandria's leading philosopher, Hypatia. This revered exponent of Plato and neoplatonism ran afoul of Cyril, the new patriarch of the Catholic Church (who had managed to chase away the city Jews). After Cyril's people spread rumors that Hypatia was a witch, a mob of Christian faithful entered her home stripped her, dragged her behind a chariot, and possibly chopped her body to pieces before burning it.
Cyril is now a saint in the church over which Benedict presides.
The Big Bad Wolf
posted on 09.17.2006 at 10:16 AM
1. We have found the one, true way to heaven, salvation, righteousness, enlightenment, whatever.
2. And therefore (this is occasionally implicit but usually explicit) everyone else is wrong and, consequently, lost, deluded, damned, dangerous, whatever.
In settling into pluralistic democracies religions have tried to deflect attention from their big teeth by putting on bonnets and skirts. But then they open their mouths and.... The current example, of course, is the line now making headlines and causing riots from that speech by Pope Benedict XVI. The pope was quoting a 14th-century Christian emperor:
''He said, I quote, 'Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'''
Of course, Benedict's slap at atheists in the same speech, which we have discussed, has failed to cause any riots.
Dying for Jesus
posted on 09.07.2006 at 8:55 PM
Dark Sided has a link to the trailer for a documentary called "Jesus Camp," in which children are asked if they are prepared to die for You-Know-Who. A fair amount of children are being indoctrinated to die for various You-Know-Whos in this supposedly enlightened world today.
Many have died because of an absence of belief in the supernatural qualities of Jesus and The Others, but rarely with head high -- proudly declaring disbelief. Instead the tendency has been to choose Galileo's strategy and, when faced with the threat of execution, cave. Is the problem that atheists don't have summer camps? Or, as I suspect, is the problem that their martyrs can't expect heavenly reward? Wouldn't there be less killing and dying if fewer among us expected heavenly reward? Would there also be a reduction in the number of people standing up, with head high, for various dangerous causes?
The Wages of Disbelief -- 2
posted on 09.06.2006 at 11:38 AM
In my little slice of America announcing I'm working on a history of disbelief has been no problem. Found a useful reminder that Americans are not always so tolerant from a Virginia Pilot article about a small, local group called, Freethinkers and Atheists of Virginia:
"We get that all the time: 'It's a Christian nation - if you don't like it, why don't you just leave,' " said Lauren Floyd, a computer programmer who co-founded the local group.
It was a measure of the stigma atheists say they face that five of the 11 members present on this night last month refused to be interviewed. One man said he was job-hunting and feared that being known as an atheist could cost him employment.
Yvette and Matt Edwards, who live in Norfolk, said hostility was plain in the reactions their atheist-themed bumper stickers seemed to elicit from passers-by.
"We've had people raise their Bible and yell at us," Matt Edwards said. The couple ultimately stripped the fenders clean after wearying of finding scribbled messages such as "Go to church" and "God loves you" on their parked minivan.
Curious if others have experienced any of this.
Deuteronomy -- III
posted on 08.04.2006 at 1:45 AM
It may not be easy, at this grim moment in world politics, to find signs of progress. But that is where the Bible can be helpful. For it sure seems we have progressed a bit, most of us, from the moral standards it promulgates. I am quoting, once again, the last book of the Torah:
If your brother, your own mother's son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, "Come let us worship other Gods".... Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him, but take his life.... Stone him to death.
No wishy-washy, politically correct indulgence in tolerance here.
And then there is this:
You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your god delivers to you, showing them no pity.
Few today -- even in the name of the Bible -- would "destroy all." Merely some. Progress.
Deuteronomy -- II
posted on 07.28.2006 at 7:59 PM
This -- the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible -- is compendium of intolerance. Various "abhorrent" practices are denounced: serving other gods, human sacrifices, worshiping idols, soothsaying, bowing down to the sun or the moon, intermarrying, crossdressing, inquiring about other gods, worshipping the Lord anywhere but in the temple in Jerusalem. Various "just" punishments are threatened : no rain for crops; a curse upon the issue of wombs; "consumption, fever and inflamation." One "just" punishment, in particular, is commanded: stoning to death.
However, nowhere to be found in Deuteronomy -- among these "abhorrent" practices, which are to receive these terrible punishments -- is failure to believe in the Lord. This God very, very much wants to be "obeyed," to have "His commandments and laws" followed. He does not seem concerned with whether His people think he exists.
Why? A standard answer is that this God, in essence, was secure enough in His existence so that He didn't need His nation to confirm it. Or that not believing in the existence of God (or gods) may simply have been inconceivable at the time. I'll add a third theory: that actual, outright disbelieve was too terrible to even mention.
posted on 07.28.2006 at 1:16 AM
The temple in Jerusalem was being renovated during the reign of Josiah (639-609 BCE) -- who is treated with as much respect as any king in the Hebrew Bible -- and during the renovations the high priest "discovered" a "lost" text. That, most scholars agree, was an early version of Deuteronomy, which settled as the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible -- the last in the Torah or the books of Moses.
It is not hard to read this text as a justification for Josiah's attempt to consolidate the religion and the kingdom by cracking down on any forms of worship -- foreign, idolatrous, pantheistic, even Jewish -- besides those in the temple in Jerusalem. Monotheism was sharpened, if not invented, in the process:
The Lord alone is God; there is none beside Him.
Weren't too many religions in the 7th century BCE devoting themselves to morality. But Deuteronomy takes some significant steps beyond "thou shall not kill":
I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.
Still, the intolerance for other religions in this text is total:
Tear down their alters, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from the site.
And the treatment the Lord orders for local conquered nations is, even by contemporary standards, extreme:
You shall not let a soul remain alive.
Maybe we shouldn't be that surprised by what currently goes on in this area between peoples who profess to revere such texts.
posted on 07.05.2006 at 9:32 AM
As you wander through Europe and South America large crosses often look down on you, and on nearby towns, from the tops of hills. Crosses occupy similar perches in parts of the United States, too. You'd hope -- since US governments are not supposed to "establish" religion -- publicly owned hilltops would be free of such crosses. But that is not the case in San Diego. The Supreme Court is to rule. Stay tuned.
Relgion and Politics: Barack Obama
posted on 07.02.2006 at 9:15 AM
"It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase `under God.'"
Afraid I know quite a few people, all of whom have been children, who did indeed feel oppressed by it (but then again people do get a bit touchy when forced to mouth, every day, something they profoundly disbelieve). Why is the line between church and state -- inscribed in the Bill of Rights in the United States -- so difficult for so many politicians to honor? Okay, maybe we know the answer. But then it raises another also not-too-difficult question: What won't a politician do for some votes?
Da Vinci Code Banned...
posted on 06.02.2006 at 11:54 PM
...in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh as part of a "ban on movies that `hurt' the religious sentiments of people."
Almost makes you want to go see the damn thing.
posted on 04.25.2006 at 10:57 PM
Mill insists that religion should be subject to the same criticism as any other system of thought, regardless of the offence caused. I think we can be confident that Mill would be disappointed by the progress made on this issue in the last century and a half, and by the regress of the last half decade. He certainly anticipated those who wanted to turn only "intemperate" expressions of religious criticism into crimes. Mill gave no ground, pointing out that serious offence is taken "whenever the attack is telling and powerful." There is no doubt where he would stand on the current debates on religious hatred, or on publication of the cartoons of Muhammad.
Religion and Immigration
posted on 04.09.2006 at 11:39 PM
The religious battles in the United States lately have been between the orthodox -- of all stripes -- and the secular. (Ann Coulter's latest work of deep analysis even has a title similar to that of this blog.) But among the political alliances the current, increasingly heated debate over immigration has threatened is the recent evangelical-Catholic partnership to oppose abortion and support traditional religious values. This has certainly not been a happy partnership for those concerned about freedom from religion. Nevertheless, its potential breakup brings some eerie reminders of the way things were.
Genuine Faith vs. Antimodern Fanaticism?
posted on 04.04.2006 at 9:54 PM
Mark Lilla comes to one disturbing conclusion at the end of his erudite and stimulating review in the New York Times of Michael Burleigh's book, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe From the French Revolution to the Great War. He challenges us to realize that:
the world is full of peoples whose genuine faith in the divine gives them a precise, revealed blueprint for political life, which means that for the foreseeable future they will not enter into the family of liberal democratic nations.
But then Lilla seems to take back this hardheaded, dispiriting pronouncement in a second conclusion:
The...challenge is to learn how to distinguish between those whose political programs are inspired by genuine faith, and those whose defense of religion is inspired by a reactionary utopianism having less to do with God than with redirecting the faulty course of history. In radical Islam we find both phenomena today, authentic faith and antimodern fanaticism, shaken together into an explosive cocktail.
And even in the United States we are witnessing the instrumentalization of religion by those who evidently care less about our souls, or even their own, than about reversing the flow of American history since the "apocalypse" of the 60's.
So the problem, perhaps, is not with "genuine" or "authentic" faith after all? It's with hypocritcal fanatics who use the religion. That's a curious distinction. Many religions -- as written, as practiced -- come fully armed with their own varieties of "reactionary utopianism" and "antimodern fanaticism."
Did Lilla have it right the first time? If liberal democracy is our goal, do religions -- "genuine" religions -- have to be defanged not just separated from their manipulative political allies?
The Defanging of Religion
posted on 03.24.2006 at 9:32 AM
Religions, in recent centuries, are being housebroken (though sometimes it seems like trying to domesticate a wolf). They're being taught that it's not polite to burn "heretics," not neighborly to go to war with "infidels." Of course, as is the case with all such world-historical movements, some areas, some sects, have been slower than others to accept the new order. Some believers still have difficulty grasping why those who scorn the One True God must be tolerated. These laggards have been making a lot of our news lately. The latest example is the case of poor Abdul Rahman, who converted from Islam to Christianity in that new beacon of democracy, Afghanistan (our part of Afghanistan), and is now on trial for his life.
The Clash of Eras -- II
posted on 03.15.2006 at 5:06 PM
"Her secularist critique of certain Muslim extremists who serve for her as an exemplar of all that is wrong with contemporary Muslim and Arab culture is unoriginal. Typical of irate secularist and modernization discourse, her argument consists of the standard flustered response to religion that we have heard since the Enlightenment: you are backwards and ignorant, grow up and get over it."
Is this -- "grow up and get over it" -- not what atheists, were it put somewhat more gently, do believe? Is it not merely "typical" of the "secularist...discourse" but necessary to it? Can you disbelieve without thinking others are wrong, even ignorant, to believe?
The Clash of Eras
posted on 03.15.2006 at 12:30 PM
We tend when talking of the beliefs of others to be cautious, to mince words, show respect. That's part of what's interesting about the recent statement (made on Al Jazeera!) by the Arab-American psychiatrist, Dr. Wafa Sultan (quoted, most recently, by Tom Friedman). It is blunt; it is bold; and it has earned Dr. Sultan (as if to prove her point) numerous death threats:
"The clash we are witnessing ... is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on the other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings."
No cultural relativism here. No fear of seeing progress in history. No fear of questioning or judging another's beliefs -- the fear that sometimes seems to paralyze anthropologists. (Wilhelm Schmidt: "There is but too much danger that the other [the nonbeliever] will talk of religion as a blind man might of colours.") Dr. Sultan, a nonbeliever, talks about religion.
(If you absolutely require a cynical perspective, try the Daily Kos.)
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?
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 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?
Where Are All the Atheists?
posted on 01.23.2006 at 5:40 AM
Are there situations -- outside of Kandahar -- where it is difficult now?
And let me throw in two related questions borrowed from comments below:
George asks why some periods seem less tolerant of infidels than others. Are we (as liberal optimists like me want to believe) making gradual, though not so steady, progress toward increased freedom of irreligion? Or are some other factors making things better then worse again for nonbelievers?
And Boelf asks whether intolerance of atheism is just a subset of general ultra-orthodox, Taliban-like intolerance of those who don't share The One True Faith. Or is it something different?