Glimmers of secular hope

There has been a great fracas recently within atheist/secularist circles as ‘Horseman’ Sam Harris has been subjected to repeated critique* as the avatar of a disturbing trend within atheist circles: using “reason” to mask anti-Muslim sentiment in politically pallatable language. I have noted this tendency previously:

I don’t think anyone could confuse me with someone who is pro-Islam. As much as I find all religions repugnant, the face of Islam we see today is one of repressive fanaticism that stifles human progress. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of fanaticism in Christianity as well, to say nothing of Hindu and Buddhist repression happening in India and other parts of Asia. Whether it is due to anti-Muslim bias and the collision of Islam and secularism in Europe, or a reflection of the true excess of Islamic regimes, the news consistently carries stories of Muslim-dominated countries carrying out horrible acts with the excuses of Qur’anic license on their lips. I will not relent or shrink from criticizing this inhuman (or perhaps all-too-human) display of authoritarianism with claimed divine mandate.

That being said, there is a backlash against Muslims that is not based on their beliefs per se, but about our attitude about the danger that Muslims (and Islam) pose to the world. This attitude is not informed by evidence, but fueled by paranoia and misinformation. It qualifies, by every comparative standard that I can think of, as just as worthy of criticism as racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, take your pick.

My concern is that atheists find it far too tempting to single out Islam for particular opprobium because the stories we hear about Islamist-dominated countries are so dramatic. We conclude from the drama that Islam per se is a particularly twisted ideology, above and beyond the ideology of, say, Christianity. My counter-claim to this assertion is that Christianity contains essentially all of the same commandments and prohibitions and exhortations that Islam does, but time and the rise of secular society have rendered it, in the aggregate, less overtly oppressive than the current incarnation of Islam (again, in the aggregate). [Read more...]

Happy Easter!

Easter and the ‘Passion of Jesus’ is one of those things that makes way less sense the more you think about it. I remember being profoundly affected by the passion story as a child – a man making the ultimate sacrifice for the redemption of sins. It was a touching tale. Until I thought about it as an actual event, at which point it became a story about a street preacher getting tortured and killed by a brutal occupying force with the political support of a wealthy religious elite. Not exactly terribly inspiring or even unprecedented – sad, to be sure, but not particularly unique. And then there’s the whole “being a god” and “knowing he would return from the dead” thing that kind of takes the edge off the ‘sacrifice’ theme.

At any rate, maybe if they had showed this in Sunday school instead, I’d have had an easier time believing:

The payoff comes at around the 3-minute mark and is just non-stop hilarity right through to the end.

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He who fears God…

When I was in Catholic school, right before we had our Confirmation (the Catholic equivalent of a bar mitzvah), we had specific instruction in Catholic dogma and catechism. Unlike the horror stories that I’ve heard from some others, all of the Catholic schools I attended were fairly secular, save for the mandatory religion class and the prayers during the morning announcements after the national anthem. We didn’t, for example, get fire and brimstone during science class or disciplined by dour nuns. To my recollection, we didn’t even get much by way of instruction in the Catholic beliefs on sexuality. Of course, it was elementary school, so that was likely due to squeamishness over the topic rather than evidence of the enlightenment of the instructors.

In any case, we were taught about the seven “gifts of the Spirit“, which are distinct from the seven virtues, which are themselves a counterpoint to the seven deadly sins – please believe that Catholicism is well steeped in the same numerology that defines the quirkier aspects of Judaism. Wisdom, understanding, counsel, piety, counsel, knowledge, fortitude… sure. Even at thirteen these seemed pretty self-explanatory (even if they were plainly not evinced by those who claimed to be “strong in the Spirit”). But it was the seventh that gave me trouble…

Fear of the Lord.

My catechism teacher tried to convince me that this simply meant ‘awe’, and a recognition that Yahweh was much greater than we were. Fine, I said, but why not just use ‘awe’? Why ‘fear’? If Yahweh was benevolent and loved us and all that jazz, why would it be right to fear him? After various attempts to explain that ‘fear’ was a metaphor (the Catholic dodge for just about everything), I was simply told to ignore the ‘fear’ language as an anachronism. Of course, once I learned about Stockholm Syndrome in undergraduate psychology, the anachronism suddenly made a lot more sense.

Of course, since rejecting theist belief, I have come to understand ‘fear of God’ in an entirely different way:

A church billboard saying

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Required Reading: Deconstructing ‘Masculinity’

One of the important roles for male feminists is to use our male privilege as a means of cutting through some of the most cynical dismissals of feminist positions. When anti-feminists can’t say “well she’s just saying that because women are trying to oppress men”, they have to find more convoluted (and increasingly less probable) explanations for their reflexive dismissal. By providing obvious counter-examples to the meme that feminists are just women who hate men, male feminists have the opportunity to ‘signal boost’ the messages from other feminists.

But a role that I think is increasingly relevant (or, at least one that I am becoming more aware of) is that of providing male critiques of the way in which masculinity myths fail to serve men. There are no shortage of harmful myths about how women ‘should’ be, and we should be combatting them vigorously – they often place women in situations that are disempowering and often dangerous. At the same time, there is room in feminist discourse to turn the analytical tools of gender critique on all constructs of gender. Today I want to walk through two examples of doing just that: [Read more...]

Atheism is a social justice issue

This is part of a series of articles intended to illustrate the usefulness of treating atheism as a social justice issue, rather than trying to wall atheist discourse off from social justice discussions. Read the introductory post here. Read the second post here. Read the third post here. Read the fourth post here.

What I hope we have seen from the previous examples is that, in the exact same way that race ‘intersects’ with LGBT issues, or that class ‘intersects’ with gender issues, religion is tied up in other so-called ‘social justice’ topics. Insofar as no social justice issue can truly be well understood without an appreciation for the differential ways they impact other groups, it is impossible to understand and intelligently critique religion without first learning to identify and analyze the other elements that ‘intersect’ it.

I certainly cannot speak on behalf of all atheists – perhaps there are indeed people who enjoy talking about their non-belief with the same rough intent as people who collect stamps or build ships in bottles. They may not care at all about what other people believe, so long as they are allowed to pursue their atheism hobby unmolested. If such people exist, I have not come across them – although I consequently wouldn’t, so maybe that’s a Catch-22. My experience of organized atheism, and of the far-less-organized world of online atheism, is that atheists believe passionately in secular government and that religion deserves public criticism. It is to these atheists that this series is addressed. [Read more...]

Atheism is a social justice issue – colonialism edition

This is part of a series of articles intended to illustrate the usefulness of treating atheism as a social justice issue, rather than trying to wall atheist discourse off from social justice discussions. Read the introductory post here. Read the second post here. Read the third post here.

One of the social justice issues that I have become increasingly aware of, as a direct consequence of aboriginal activist groups in North America and Africa, is the issue of colonialism. The fact is that, with only a handful of exceptions, our current geopolitical system carries with it a legacy of colonization by various European powers as they attempted to expand their domain and their powers. Indeed, even our very idea of what a nation is has been essentially cribbed wholesale from the colonial powers. Because we exist in a history and an existential philosophy that was created by the colonizers, identifying colonialism is often quite difficult. Its effects, however, are easy to observe (if not to properly attribute).

Even the most cursory examination of the history of colonialism will stand testament to the fact that religion is a major and intrinsic component of colonialism. During the physical colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, religion provided not only a major source of the justification for the domination of the people aboriginal to that region (i.e., the need to ‘Christianize’ and ‘save’ those people), but informed the mechanism of action (e.g., foreign missionaries, residential schools, destruction/adaptation of local religions/customs). It is not possible to understand religion without understanding colonialism, and vice versa.

Which is why this ‘contribution’ from atheist standard-bearer Dr. Richard Dawkins was so ill-conceived: [Read more...]

Atheism is a social justice issue – race edition

This is part of a series of articles intended to illustrate the usefulness of treating atheism as a social justice issue, rather than trying to wall atheist discourse off from social justice discussions. Read the introductory post here. Read the second post here.

One of the most common critiques of discussing issues of race in atheist communities is that it is ‘divisive’. For a moment, I will hold my bile and grant the most generous interpretation of this kind of statement – since race is not a valid reason to divide groups of people, we should not treat people from different racial groups differently; discussing race divides the population into arbitrary groups, and that’s not fair. The reason that it is almost exclusively white people who make this statement is perfectly illustrative of the problem with it: race may not be a morally valid way of dividing the population, but racialized people are acutely aware of the fact that it does divide the population. Pretending that isn’t so does not somehow make the effect disappear.

At her new blog Freethoughtify, Bridget Gaudette tries to tackle this meme head-on: [Read more...]

Al Qaeda faces its own tone scolds

There are few arguments I find more tedious than the ones about the ‘tone’ that atheist organizations should take. The James Crofts of the world will have you believe that they’re only acting out of the strategic best interests of the group (with delightful British accents and unflappable pep), but all too often the fight over ‘tone’ boils down to “you’re factually correct, but the way you said it wasn’t flattering enough to the majority group, and therefore it’s wrong”. Sometimes the majority group needs a sharp five across the eyes in order for them to realize they’re in the wrong. Further, I will not begrudge a minority group the use of whatever language it needs to articulate its position – it is the oppressors who need to adjust their language; not the oppressed.

I am not, by any means, suggesting that language use has no effect on persuasive strength. What I am saying is that in an instance where I feel that a minority group is not being as persuasive as I personally think they could be, my response is to advocate on their behalf, not chide them for failing to be “civil” enough. Ultimately, I imagine that groups articulating the dynamics of their oppression are smart enough to figure out on their own that flattery is better received than insult. I am also quite aware of the fact that “civility” breeds complacency, and that anger usually comes after diplomacy has failed.

With that in mind, I couldn’t not laugh at this story: [Read more...]

Atheism is a social justice issue – contraception edition

This is part of a series of articles intended to illustrate the usefulness of treating atheism as a social justice issue, rather than trying to wall atheist discourse off from social justice discussions. Read the introductory post here.

As I intimated in the panel discussion of masculinity we had last weekend, the fight over women’s access to contraception was a particularly illustrative example of the existence of gender oppression at the expense of women. No moment was more visually perfect than what occurred in a panel about the right of religious organizations to deny insurance coverage of contraception to their employees. This image is forever burned into the feminist discourse:

Five men sit on a Congressional panel about contraception

“The uter-what? That’s where the irrational emotions and original sin come from, right?”

But that image, hilarious though it may be, typifies a reality for women in America that is anything but funny: [Read more...]

B.C.’s premier speaks about her faith

And into the charged atmosphere that is Canada’s current grappling with the theocratic urges of its federal government comes this statement by British Columbia’s premier, Christy Clark:

During her informal 50-minute talk before the ethnically mixed audience, Clark discussed what it means to be a lifelong Anglican, her support for “faith-based” social services, her views on same-sex marriage, her commitment to “kindness” and her approach to the Bible.

“For me it’s been kind of an interesting experience to realize, for the first time in my life, that perhaps being a Christian is something that I should not talk about. But I reject that,” the premier said. Saying B.C. has more “declared atheists” than any province in Canada, Clark nevertheless said for her “the most important thing is to go to church every week and be reminded, by someone whom I respect, to be kind … to be compassionate.”

Now, it should be noted that Premier Clark went out of her way to acknowledge that atheists are not less charitable by disposition, and that she raises them only to contrast secular urges to give with the fact that her giving is inspired directly from her Christian beliefs. In so doing, Clark is walking the well-trodden road of the religious moderate – ‘well it works for me, and religion is all about kindness and compassion and puppies and rainbows’. While it provokes naught but eye-rolling from anti-theists like myself, it is likely to resonate with the people of British Columbia who are a rather mushy lot.

This, however, should be a giant red flag: [Read more...]