Burning Korans, drawing Mohammed, avoiding hypocrisy, creative vs. destructive protests — religion just makes the whole frickin’ world crazy!

There’s a truth about the upcoming Koran cookout planned by Dove World Church and its grandstanding (and light-fingered) pastor Terry Jones: they have every right under the Constitution to do this thing. Are they a bunch of dicks who don’t care about the potential devastating backlash of their actions as long as they get the publicity they crave? Yeah, I suppose they are.

Recently, atheists proudly participated in an online event called Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, which was as deliberate a middle finger to Islam as we could have thought up. Before that, PZ Myers famously threw a cracker in the trash, making him the bête noire of Catholics worldwide. (Though they conveniently forget that he also trashed a copy of The God Delusion at the same time.) As people who are not above acts of deliberate provocation ourselves — indeed, as people who are currently arguing amongst ourselves about the merits of “being a dick” in our encounters with religionists — it would hardly be honest of us to join the chorus of chest-beating outrage against Jones’ church for the horrible offense of burning somebody’s holy book. While most of us, I’m sure, take Fahrenheit 451 to heart and deplore book-burning on general principles as a disgraceful act of intellectual cowardice and the suppression of ideas, we should also acknowledge the legitimacy of the act as a form of protest speech. After all, I can’t very well defend the rights of flag-burners while condemning a Koran-burner. Don’t work dat way!

I suppose where the conversation ought to go from here for atheists is in whether or not Jones is motivated by a desire to conduct a legitimate form of protest, or if he’s simply a crass political opportunist, playing into a rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry in order to increase his profile from “obscure pastor of an outcast hick church” to “internationally famous martyr and warrior for Christ”. Well, what is legitimate protest in this context? Yes, radical Islamists brought down the World Trade Center. But all Muslims are not radical Islamists, and all Muslims did not partake in, let alone condone, the 9/11 attacks. So if Jones’s idea is that he’s protesting Islam for 9/11, he’s clearly throwing his net way too wide. The thing is, I suppose he knows it, but doesn’t care. He’s getting the publicity he wants.

The potential for hypocrisy in criticizing the upcoming burning has been much on my mind, and I’ve been forced to think about the similarities and differences between what Jones is about to do, and, say, Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. And then I’ve been forced to question whether or not any of my ideas are simply bullshit justifications I’ve been making up to feel better. I don’t think they are. But I do think it’s a positive thing, overall, that I’m willing to be self-critical. This is an advantage the godless life offers, I think, over the brazen certainties of God-botherers like Jones, who confidently assert that God (i.e., their projection of themselves upon the universe) truly wants them to do what they’re planning.

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, for one thing, was on the whole a creative rather than destructive act of protest. It was a response, not only to the real Islamist violence and threats of violence that erupted in the wake of the publication of a few innocuous (and not especially good, when you think about it) cartoons, but to the arrogant assumption on the part of Islamists that non-Muslims were somehow obligated to follow Islam’s rules. Also, at the end of the day, what you had were a bunch of silly cartoons. While there was a little huffing and puffing about EDMD, in the end, the message I think got across (to the general public, if not to radicals) that taking someone’s life over a lame doodle was both insane and pitiful in equal measure. Lame doodles themselves can’t possibly hurt a fly. EDMD might have offended some Muslims. But in the end, no one killed anyone.

Now, piling up a couple hundred copies of the Koran and torching them — that would be a destructive form of protest. Furthermore, it’s hypocritical of Jones to justify it by condemning Islam as a hateful, intolerant religion, when he has a history of hate speech (against gays, the usual suspects) and intolerance. While I think Jones has the right to go through with his speech, I don’t think his motives are honest. He’s exactly what he condemns, except that his religious radicalism wears a cross rather than a crescent moon and star. (The atheists who took part in EDMD might condemn Islam and Islamist violence, but we’d never want to deprive Muslims of their right to worship, as many right-wingers do right now.)

Could this event trigger more terrorist attacks and counter-strikes against our troops overseas? Yeah, I suppose it could, though it isn’t as if they needed more reasons to do that. But if Jones ends up giving them one, the first such attack will be all the vindication he needs. “See, we were right about how violent Islam is!” Not caring that, in this instance, he threw the first punch. Yeah, it’s entirely valid to condemn radical Islamists for doing what they actually do, which is kill people who aren’t sufficiently “respectful” to their beliefs. But you limit your condemnation to those individuals and groups who do the violence. As has been pointed out to an indifferent Jones, it’s absurd and dishonest as hell for him to suggest that he’s only protesting the violent Islamists, and that “moderate Muslims” ought to support him, when it’s their holy book he’s burning too.

In the end, I think what we as atheists should take away from all this insanity is a sobering realization that this is the kind of world you get when religion runs the show. Belief pits us against our fellow man for the most absurd of reasons: failure to worship the correct invisible magic man in the correct way. And for all that defenders bleat about the alleged benefits of religion — that sense of charity, well-being, love and community we are told believers enjoy better than any of the rest of us — they always leave out the part about religion’s innate tribalism. Whatever benefits religious beliefs confer are only enjoyed by those within that particular belief community. If you’re an outsider…run.

We rationalists can only hope humanity outgrows its penchant for religious tribalism one day, and that all these vile superstitions are eradicated from our cultural landscape completely. (Not through violence, of course, but through intellectual and moral awakening.) There really ought to only be one tribe — humanity.

But until then…yeah, go ahead, burn that Koran. Whatever. I’ll be at home that day. Let me know when the smoke clears and it’s safe to breathe free again.

Cal-irony-fication

The California Supreme US District Court is currently hearing a case over whether 2008 Proposition 8 (which bans same-sex marriage in the California State Constitution) is itself constitutional. If the court rules that it is not constitutional (by the state’s US constitution), then same-sex marriage would revert to being allowed in the state. This is a pretty important case as many people feel that California is a cultural leader for the entire US–not to mention its sheer size.

There has been a recent side-show as to whether the hearing would be (video) broadcast to the public. One can make an argument that public interest is served by transparency, especially in such an important case. This little debate went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States that decided today that there should be no such coverage. The 5-4 decision (with the conservative Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Alito in the majority) was ostensibly decided on a technicality. Not too interesting so far; but let’s look under the hood, shall we?

The very fact that SCOTUS even heard the case and issued a decision was based on an urgent claim of “irreparable harm” to someone. According to one source, “The Court also found that the high-profile nature of the trial might intimidate witnesses and cause irreparable harm if the rule were not stayed.” However, the dissenting justice wrote (page 24-25): “I can find no basis for the Court’s conclusion that, were the transmissions to other courtrooms to take place, the applicants would suffer irreparable harm. Certainly there is no evidence that such harm could arise in this nonjury civil case from the simple fact of transmission itself.” (This article has a good analysis.) Perhaps a broadcast on YouTube would cause irreparable harm to their cause.

So what’s going on? The religious supporters of Proposition 8 are wanting have their free speech rights to make false and emotionally manipulative claims, but they are crying persecution when it comes to taking responsibility for them. Consider defendant Hak-Shing William Tam, who wrote, “On their agenda list is: legalize having sex with children,” and that, “other states would fall into Satan’s hands,” if gays weren’t stopped from marrying in California. A successful advertising campaign during the Proposition 8 election claimed that homosexuality would be taught in public schools. They want to perpetrate thuggery on gays, but they’re playing the persecution card when it comes to taking responsibility for their lies–and the conservatives on the Supreme Court are backing them up. Apparently, taking responsibility is irreparably harmful to the religious.

The irony is so thick here you could build a church with it. Some supporters of Proposition 8 have gotten harassing phone calls and e-mail messages. I can’t say I feel any pity for these people. They are being subject to much milder versions of the same tactics they have done to gays and others over the years. (Religious readers are referred to Exodus 21:22-25 and Matthew 7:12 for a little morality lesson and some tasty just desserts. I long for the day when the majority of gays vote on the Christians’ right to marriage, just as the Christians have done to gays.) Christian death threats are a common intimidation tactic and the religion has plenty of people who are willing to carry them out. Gays have been subject to (real) hate crimes for years, most of which have been religiously motivated. Christians have made a big business out of persecuting gays. Proposition 8 itself is just part of that business. If same-sex marriage becomes normalized, they will have a much harder time vilifying gays and their red-meat lovin’ constituency will turn to other pursuits and take their tithes with them.

Same-sex marriage in the US will happen eventually, but we can count on the religious fighting unfairly every step of the way.

Christianity and the allure of “cheap grace”

One aspect of religion that has often come under atheists’ critical fire is the way in which it enables the most egregious hypocrisies amongst its most devout adherents. Considering how important Christians will tell you Scripture is to their lives, it’s remarkable how selective they are in their reading of that Big Book of Multiple Choice. The warnings against hypocrisy among believers that comprise most of Matthew 6 would be sufficient to shut up almost the entirety of the American Christian Right, if they were the kinds of people who practiced what they preached.

But I think there is something about religion that’s even more insidious than hypocrisy, and that’s the way it puffs up believers’ hubris, allowing them to think they’re more special and entitled and deserving, even (and especially) without having done anything to earn it. Religion tells people they’re part of a select group, favored over others by God. And yet these are the same people who routinely like to attack unbelievers — and the intelligentsia many unbelievers are part of — as “elitists.” What could be more elitist than believing everybody but you deserves eternity of torture in hell, simply because you belong to the Jesus Fan Club and they don’t?

I’ve been thinking about this over the last couple of days since my attention was drawn to something that hasn’t really turned up on atheists’ radar: the Manhattan Declaration. This is a kind of manifesto that has recently been put together by several prominent conservative Christian figures — among them arch-bigot Tony Perkins and Kazim’s old pal Chuck Colson — as something of an ideological purity test. It begins as follows:

We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are:

  1. the sanctity of human life
  2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
  3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Some quick Googlage has revealed that this Declaration has already ruffled the feathers of liberal, progressive Christians, who have quickly called the whole thing out as an effort to enshrine conservative prejudices as “fundamental truths about justice and the common good.” Only the most smug and arrogant bigots could claim with a straight face that a Declaration that openly repudiates GLBT marriage equality is one that favors “justice” in any form. I think that word, to quote The Princess Bride for the 80 billionth time, doesn’t mean what they think it means.

Basically, the highfalutin language of the thing does little to disguise the fact that it’s a huge anti-gay-rights and anti-abortion petition, and it takes a Bushian “with us or against us” attitude that is nothing less than a gauntlet thrown down to all those liberal Christians who haven’t toed the Hate Line to the satisfaction of their conservative betters.

Surfing the blogosphere, I come upon this post by blogger Hugo Schwyzer — who, as an avowed pro-GLBT liberal feminist Christian, is about as far from the fundies’ notion of ideological purity as a guy can get — where he takes the Manhattan Declaration to task for being little more than a reactionary pushback against the tendency among the younger generation of modern Christians to reject right-wing fundie obsessions with “pelvic morality” (basing culture war talking points on sexual and reproductive issues to the near exclusion of everything else) in favor of broader moral concerns — saving the planet, helping the needy — that are generally of interest only to those damn latté sipping libs. Schwyzer makes an astute point about the “cheap grace” enjoyed by fundies whenever they beat their chests and pontificate over such narrow-minded issues: that these are fights they love precisely because they have nothing at stake.

Here’s the thing: fighting against abortion and gay rights is, in the end, cheap. It requires no particular personal sacrifice or reflection on the part of those who claim these are the top issues. Men who will never get pregnant; heterosexuals who have the privilege to marry those whom they love — they surrender nothing precious to them by fighting tooth and nail against reproductive and glbtq rights. The struggle against global poverty and the struggle to save the planet from environmental degradation, on the other hand, make radical claims on all of us — particularly on the affluent in the West, whose unsustainable consumption patterns are directly linked to human and animal suffering. Fighting against climate change and poverty require that the wealthy transform their lifestyles; fighting against gay rights requires nothing more than censorious and self-righteous indignation.

Bam! — direct hit, below the waterline. But I’d caution Schwyzer not to forget that, in a very real way, “cheap grace” is at the heart of all Christianity, not just the version practiced by wingnutty Sarah Palin and Carrie Prejean fans. Christianity presents believers with this odd notion about morality, sin, and fate: that, merely by virtue of being alive, a person is a worthless sinner damned to eternal agony because of the Fall; but hey, not to worry, because Jesus took all of that punishment upon himself, poor chap, and now by virtue of his sacrifice, you’re good to go, and all you need to do is make sure (at some point before you die) you publicly high-five Jesus for taking one for the team, accepting him as your savior. So, we’re damned, but we’re not, and eternal salvation is ours simply by the rough spiritual equivalent of clicking a confirmation email.

So right from the outset, Christians are more or less raised in the extremely confident belief that all the heavy lifting for their own personal redemption was already done 2000 years ago. Their own efforts require no personal sacrifice at all. If this is not cheap grace, what is?

The very thing that Christianity tries to sell as its most morally and spiritually profound element — salvation by proxy — in fact cheapens the entire notion that in life, self-respect, the respect of others, and an enduring reputation as the kind of good person whom the rest of us should want to emulate, must be earned. The whole notion of salvation by faith and not works (which, admittedly, might be more favored by conservative Christians than liberal ones, though I think God, if he’s up there, ought to do his job right and clarify matters) gives Christians the ability to think pleasingly of themselves as among the saved elect, regardless of how they might actually behave in their lives. The popular Christian bumper sticker “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” conveys egotism, not humility, as it’s basically saying, “Yippie! I’m a Christian, and I never have to change, never have to better myself, never have to take responsibility at all.” The very hypocrisy Matthew 6 rails against is enabled by Christianity’s entire salvation mechanism. How else could so many arch-scumbags (insert names here, but off the bat I think of Kenneth Lay and Jim Bakker) preen with such pride while living the sleaziest, most immoral lives they could manage?

So, while I’m always pleased to see liberal Christians who aren’t afraid to take on the Right Wing Noise Machine (a thing we have pointedly challenged them to do for a decade on AETV), I’d caution Schwyzer and his liberal Christian brethren not to overlook the cheap grace at Christianity’s very foundation. But to be fair, perhaps the fact that guys like him, at the very least, do try to live decent lives of higher personal responsibility, supportive of the real meaning of terms like “justice” and “equality” that the wingnut
s simply treat as pious catchphrases, means they’re more aware of it than they might like to admit.

Conservapedia to form their own schism

Right now, lots and lots of people are emailing us to make absolutely sure that we’ve heard the exciting news that the geniuses behind Conservapedia want to rewrite the Bible without all the bits that they consider too liberal. To be blunt, it reminds me of trying to rewrite Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds by removing the ones who wet their nests. (And to see opinions I’ve already rendered on Conservapedia, check out this older post at Kazim’s Korner.)

I have to say, when I first saw this at Pharyngula I immediately assumed it was a hoax. Then I saw the actual page on Conservapedia (which at the time of this writing is down, probably flooded by hilarity-seeking atheists). But I still imagined that somebody had punked them. I mean, anyone can edit the site, and their famous objective standards are a bit, hmmmm, what’s the word, nonexistent. So clearly some silly person was seeing what he could slip by the censors.

Then I saw the discussion page. It may or may not be a joke, but enough of the regulars there take it seriously that it looks like it’s taken on a life of its own.

So, okay. A nontrivial number of Conservapedians really think that their Bible should be improved. After all, if you leave the Bible in its current inferior form, then terrible liberals like E. J. Dionne are free to claim that the book actually supports their point of view, which is clearly ridiculous and unthinkable.

Now, you might say that this is an act of tremendous hubris, but I say, really, what’s the big deal? It’s not like it is without precedent, for a group of people to write or rewrite some holy text to suit their convenience, and claim the end result to be unchanging eternal truth. I mean, for starters, we’ve got the original authors of the Bible, unless you accept that they were divinely inspired. Then you’ve got the Council of Nicea, who went through all the books that were candidates for inclusion at the time and decided which ones did and didn’t fit in with their conception of what the Bible should be.

Then you have the big Catholic/Protestant split in the 16th century, which by now has spawned alternate versions of the Bible. You have the Book of Mormon, supposedly dictated by an angel, and you have L. Ron Hubbard who specifically announced his (highly successful) intention to start his own religion.

What I’m saying is that, to borrow a description from the great George Carlin, it’s all bullshit anyway. What difference does it make whether you take a 2000 year old book and claim that it is infallible as written literally, or you retranslate it and claim that the translation is infallible, or you make up some entirely new bullshit and claim THAT’S infallible? It’s all bullshit, and the beauty of this Conservapedia project is how close they come to flatly admitting that it doesn’t matter.

Don’t tell me you take any of this stuff seriously anyway.

Obama’s education speech: a quick one

So, Obama’s upcoming speech to students is now online, and it looks as if all the right-wing hysteria about how this is going to be an exercise in Marxist Hitler Youth Indoctrination (or whatever scary buzzwords conservatives have figured out how to pronounce this week) is, surprise surprise, a tad overblown. It’s a nicely composed pep talk about the value of education, not the tiniest bit controversial, not even — for me — in its standard-issue “God Bless America” signoff. I know that kind of language has earned a sneer from PZ and some other atheists, but I’m not the kind of guy to think seven words of boilerplate political-speech language detracts from the actual content in any way.

I’m hopeful that, once this speech is out there, more people will begin to wake up to just how out of control the right has become in their reactionary scaremongering over our Eeebul Socialist Kenyan President, and a few hot heads start to come off the boil a bit. I’m also hopeful I’ll find 10 million dollars in a paper grocery bag abandoned in a ditch and that Chris Jansing will knock on my front door tonight wearing nothing but baby oil. We’ll see which of these little hopes pans out first.

Now, I do think there is a legitimate objection to the idea of making the watching of this speech a mandatory class event. Let’s be honest, if Dubya had prepared a speech for mandatory school viewing, those of us who were less than his most ardent fans would have objected too, and probably voiced concerns about possible inappropriate political proselytizing. Some bloggers have made the point that, where the students are concerned, this will merely be a boring interruption in an already boring school day, something lame that the grownups want them to take part in, like eating vegetables, that you’ve got to do because it’s good for you. I’d say that, with YouTube and other internet sources set up to make a speech like this available on demand, into perpetuity, there’s no reason for watching it to be some kind of class requirement. Indeed, to make it one would smack of demagoguery, regardless of how inoffensive the actual speech content turns out to be. Better perhaps to encourage students to watch it, perhaps at home with their parents, and maybe earn extra credit for doing so and writing a couple of paragraphs of feedback. Sure, there is that terror-stricken element of the ultra-right freak fringe who hear Obama’s name and immediately think of The Scary Nazi Communist Black Man Who Wants To Kill Grandma. But those people are not exactly big on the whole education concept in the first place, are they? If they were, at the very least, they’d know that the Nazis and Communists loathed each other.