Wednesday, May 27, 2015

If You Invite a Stranger to Comment on Your Article, You May Get Over 1300 Words

Despite my grand goals of writing regularly to this blog, I just haven't. Earlier this month, though, I read an article in Salon that I felt really did a good job of addressing the cognitive dissonance the American left is experiencing right now concerning criticism of Islam. I did something that lots of people do when they read an article they agree with and feel was well-written - I tweeted some praise to the author, Jeffrey Taylor, and followed him.

Apparently, my 140 characters or less approval of Mr. Taylor's article was enough to bring me into the discourse writ large, as a rebuttal to his excellent article was written and published, once again in Salon, who apparently is like an arms dealer selling weapons to both sides of a conflict. The author, Mr. Qasim Rashid, may or may not be the owner of the Twitter handle @Muslim_Writers, who tweeted to me an invitation to read the rebuttal.

So, fine. I can't write a comparative critique of the two articles in 140 characters, so I'll use this platform, instead.

Mr. Rashid begins his article with this interesting admission, "As a practicing Muslim, I don’t believe Islam is above criticism. I do believe that Islam backs free speech. I also believe that Islam champions secular governance."

I hate to stop only three sentences into the article, but I have to point something out already. The Quran does not paint a picture of a free-speech-loving, criticism-accepting, secular-coddling deity. Mr. Taylor himself linked to a long list of Quranic verses that condemn non-believers, "infidels", Jews, and Christians, which Mr. Rashid doesn't address, because he can't. If he were to address them, perhaps he'd say that they were taken out of context, which is an argument that religious people of all faiths use when confronted with their own scriptures. It's hard to do, however, when there are so many of them. At any rate, I think most people can read and comprehend words as they are written, and the Quran is not a defense of secular values. If it's a matter of poor translation, then Allah should have definitely made sure to get a good linguist to do the job, because it certainly comes through in the English version that Muslims are to hate and despise everyone who is not a good Muslim - as well as women, when they're having their period (Quran 2:222). More direct calls to violence can be found in Quran 4:89, "if they [people who converted to Islam] turn back [from Allah] then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them".

In the second paragraph, we find Mr. Rashid claiming that early Islam was not founded on military conquest, and that "Islam forbids spreading faith by the sword and permits fighting only in self-defense". I'm not a historian, and can't address this properly, though all of the reputable sources I'm able to find don't seem to support this. I'll let someone more knowledgeable on history address this, but suffice it to say that I am not convinced.

Mr. Rashid then goes on to defend Islam's lack of support for freedom of speech (which he says doesn't exist), by claiming that the West does it, too, by pointing to European and Canadian laws that he says curtail free speech - laws that are specifically against hate speech against classes of people, and to my knowledge are rarely if ever enforced. Certainly, an adherent Muslim would have to be against anti-hate laws, because the Quran is almost nothing but a hateful screed against non-believers and people of other faiths. Mr. Rashid points out that some European countries still have anti-blasphemy laws on the books, which I agree is unfortunate, but when was the last time you heard of Denmark flogging a blogger for blasphemy? Which is really besides the point. Whenever you resort to the argument of, "They do it, too," you've already lost.

The next few paragraphs of Mr. Rashid's article seem to be implying that terrorism originating in the Muslim world is entirely the fault of the U.S.'s foreign policy. What can you say to someone who claims, as Mr. Rashid does, to be proud of being an American citizen, and yet implies that terrorism against U.S. citizens is justified because of bad behavior of the U.S. government? We can (and I do) criticize the U.S. government for bad foreign policy, but once you say that terrorism exists only because of that policy, and has nothing to do with the religion of the terrorists, then you are not facing reality. As Mr. Taylor pointed out, we don't have to guess at the motivations of ISIS, Boko Haram, or Al-Qaeda are, they tell us. Over and over again, with every video depicting the beheading or burning alive of prisoners, with every claim of responsibility for attacks. How many times do they have to tell us they're doing it in the name of Islam before we believe them? I'm a pacifist, and denounce the military adventurism of the United States, but does that mean I should give religious extremists a pass? I say no.

But right after excusing the violence of Islamic extremists, Mr. Rashid goes back to claiming that there is no violence in Islam. As proof of the peacefulness of Islam, Mr. Rashid describes his own brand of Islam, the Ahmadiyya. By all accounts, Ahmadiyya is peaceful, and that's great. If most Muslims in the world felt the way the Ahmadi do, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. Ahmadiyya only accounts for about 20 million adherents worldwide, or just barely over 1% of all Muslims. I don't have to point to ISIS (with its roughly 30,000 members), as Rashid warns us not to do, to prove that all Muslims are violent, because that is not what we're saying. For a writer who accuses us of creating straw men, he seems adept and building them himself.

The argument isn't (or shouldn't be) that all Muslims are violent. The argument is that Islam tends towards violence, and as of right now majority-Muslim countries are among the most brutal, violent, and repressive in the world. Majorities of Muslims support imposing sharia law in many countries (so much for Islamic support of secular society). 40% of Muslims (40%!) in Russia say that honor killings against women are sometimes justified. That number is 78% in Iraq. Globally, 28% of Muslims (about 420 million, or more than the entire population of the United States, and 21 times as many Ahmadi as there are in the world) say that suicide bombing is sometimes justified.

Mr. Rashid leans upon the "No True Scotsman" fallacy to say that his particular (peaceful) brand of Islam is the correct one, and is proof that Islam, as a whole, is peaceful, but 420 million other Muslims, worldwide, seem to have different idea of what Islam is. Mr. Rashid means well, but the problem with liberal Muslims (as is the problem with liberals of any religion) is that they don't want to see the evil that lies at the core of their own religion.

Trust me, I don't want to harangue on Islam. As an atheist in a mostly Christian country, Christians are the biggest irritant I deal with on a daily basis. As a rationalist and a humanist, it is clear to me that all religions, even the peaceful ones, are harmful to one extent or another, but right now, globally, to its own citizens, to its neighbors, to its woman, to its minorities (especially homosexuals), to people on the other side of the globe, there is no more dangerous religion than Islam. Until the many peaceful, liberal Muslims like Mr. Rashid acknowledge that there is a problem within their religion rather than making excuses for the extremists, it's not going to get any better.

Monday, February 16, 2015

On the Chapel Hill Shootings

As someone who has expressed anti-religious comments before, I find it necessary to comment on the Chapel Hill shootings. I don't want anyone to think I'm just ignoring it.

The official story is still that Mr. Hicks was motivated, at least primarily, by a parking dispute. The victims were his neighbors and they had been fighting, significantly enough, over "territory", that territory being parking spaces at their apartment complex. The fact that he was also an anti-religious atheist and the fact that the victims were shot in the head, "execution-style", and that the victims were Muslim, have lead many to assume that this was a religiously-motivated (or anti-religiously motivated) hate crime. It could be. It seems to me, however, that if that were the case, then the victims wouldn't be people that the killer knew personally and had had personal conflicts with over an extended period of time. In any case, I'll let a court decide that.

More to the point, however, some are now pointing to this case as being an indication that anti-religious sentiments are dangerous and could lead to violence. I have a number of thoughts on this idea:

1. Atheism is not a belief. It is a lack of belief. Anti-religion is a sentiment or opinion that religion, in general, is harmful. I agree with this sentiment. Religion, at it's worst, has caused or been used to justify more death, suffering, destruction, and oppression than any other belief or philosophy in the history of the world. At it's best, religion provides comfort and may inspire people to act beneficently, but it does so at the cost of priming people to believe nonsense, to accept magical thinking over reason and evidence, and by doing so it sets humanity back. I am anti-religious, and yet, anti-religion is not a code of conduct for human interaction.

Many (possibly most) atheists, myself included, also identify as "humanist". Humanism is a code for how to interact with other people. It has to do with treating other people kindly, doing our part to maximize happiness, minimize suffering, advance science and education, and generally leave the world a better place than we found it.

Based on what I've read of Mr. Hicks, he wasn't a humanist. Being an atheist isn't enough. You can't just reject the failed superstitions of mythology and think you're done. You have to replace it with something. You have to take action to improve human society. Atheism describes what you don't believe, and fine, but now what do you believe? If you can't answer that, then you might be more susceptible to acting on violent impulses, like Mr. Hicks.

2. If anything does indicate what Mr. Hicks believed in, it might be the 13 guns and massive amounts of ammo in his apartment. He was a gun nut. He may have been anti-religion, but he certainly wasn't anti-gun.

What are we to take from this fact? Many people in America own guns. In fact, gun ownership is higher in America than any other country in the world, so to own one or two guns, as most would put it, "for self defense", doesn't raise red flags. Owning 13 guns, and keeping them in his little apartment, indicates more than just a passing interest in firearms or a desire to protect himself from burglars. Reports indicate that he openly displayed a firearm on several of the previous encounters with the victims, so he wasn't just a collector. He was already using his firearms as an intimidation tactic to try to get his way. When that didn't work, he went to the next step.

So, Mr. Hicks was an anti-religion atheist. He was also a person obsessed with firearms and a propensity to use them inappropriately. Which of these two facts do you think contributed more the incident on the night when Mr. Hicks admittedly took the lives of three unarmed people? While the answer, to me, is obviously the latter, the media and those declaring this a hate-crime, has focused almost exclusively on the former.

So, I'll end with this. I am an atheist. I am anti-religion. I stand with the right of anyone to state what to me is obvious: that religion is harmful to humanity. That is as far as I can go with Craig Hicks. As a humanist, I will always denounce murder and violence. If, as appears to be the case from his confession, Hicks did commit this crime, then he should be punished to the full extent of the law. If the court determines the religion of the victims was a factor in the case, then I support the federal hate-crime charge being added on.

Atheism describes what I am not. Anti-religion describes what I am against. Humanism describes what I am for. Without the last one, I'm just an empty shell.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Welcome to Jurassic Heaven

If you have any Catholic friends, you have probably seen links on Facebook about how great it is that Pope Francis has declared that all animals go to heaven.

How wonderful it is that we will get to see Little Miss Muffet and Mr. Powderpuff again!

I frankly don't think they've thought this through. While it would be nice to be able to see my beloved pets once again, it also means that the Celestial Kingdom is chocked full of quadrillions of cockroaches, spiders, scorpions, and parasitic wasps. In fact, for every human soul in heaven, there will be trillions of insects. Yes, taking the Pope's statement literally, every bedbug and dust mite on the planet has an eternal soul.

And don't forget, if life begins at conception, as the Catholic church still professes, that includes a few bathtubs full of maggots for every sainted human. (Picture excluded so you can keep your breakfast down.)

But, don't stop there. If all animals go to heaven, that includes extinct ones. Once you achieve your just reward for living a good Catholic life, I hope you find that the millions or billions of tyrannosaurus rex, velociraptors, and dakosaurs are now living in peaceful harmony and have no interest in eviscerating you.

Welcome to heaven. Here's your stegosaurus.

"Yes, well, but, I'm sure the Pope didn't really mean all animals." Not so fast. The Catholic church still teaches papal infallibility, after all, the doctrine that what the Pope says cannot be wrong. Ever. Except when it is and another Pope takes it back, later.

Does all this seem really silly to you? It should, if you're a rational person.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Scientia, Ratio, Veritas, Pax

Welcome to Pax Scientia. This blog will focus on four topics, specifically, and how they affect our world.

Scientia - Science

Science is a structured and methodical way of thinking. It is not the body of knowledge often associated with science. Science results in knowledge and understanding, but it is not itself knowledge and understanding. It is self-correcting, and as at this point in its development, it is self-refining. We no longer have amazing discoveries of science that completely overturn everything we knew, but rather we have amazing discoveries of science that further sharpen the image we have of the universe.

Science is also not technology. Technology is a result of scientific inquiry paired with practical engineering, but two societies could start with the same scientific understanding of the universe and develop completely different technology. One of the more frustrating things of being a proponent of scientific thinking is hearing science be denigrated for the horrors of misused technology. Technology is neutral; it is, quite literally, a tool, which can be used for either good or evil. If it is used for evil, that is the fault of those who wield it, not the technology itself, or the science which lead to the development of the technology.

But before one can make a judgement about whether an application of a scientific discovery is good or ill, one first must understand the science. It is for this reason that I propose that everyone should become a scientist. I don't mean that you should engage in science for a living (though that is certainly a great profession to engage in), but I mean that each of us should become scientists in our daily lives. Apply the concepts of science to the development of our own worldviews.

Why should we all become amateur scientists? Because science is the only method of seeking knowledge that is proven to work. That's it. There is no other method for gaining knowledge that actually produces more knowledge. If you want to live your life intelligently, in a way that doesn't rely on trial and error, nothing beats science.

Ratio - Reason

Reason is the mother of science. The scientific method developed from an formalization of rational thought. But reason in a broader sense is thinking without the underpinning of emotion, superstition, and prejudgment.

Much of the harm in the world is caused by people acting on irrational impulses. Violent crimes, religious extremism, and all forms of bigotry are based on emotional drives and preconceived notions that are the antithesis of rational thought. This isn't to say that people can't commit atrocities based on reason, but it rarely seems to be the case.

This isn't to say that we should live our lives devoid of emotion. Emotion drives our impulses and our ambitions, but should not drive our actions. Emotions give us a reason to live, but not guide how we live.

Veritas - Truth

It may seem counter-intuitive, but science does not deliver truth. It, instead, helps us create a framework for understanding the universe that is both descriptive and predictive in nature. That can look like truth, but it is a model of truth, not truth itself.

So what is truth? Can it be said that there is such a thing as objective truth? These are questions that this blog will explore, but let us start here: objective truth is what can be observed and measured, particularly when those observations and measurements can be duplicated by others. Much of what affects us daily - politics, the economy, relationships, religion - are not any sort of truth in this objective sense, but are only true or false in the context of an agreed-upon social construct.

Knowing the difference is crucial, because objective truth can only be changed through the application of technology, if even then. "Everyone dies" is an objective truth, based on millennia of observation, and it can only be changed by technological means, if at all. "White people are better than black people", "some people will always be incredibly wealthy while others starve", or "tall people make better leaders" are social constructs that exist as truths in the minds of those who accept them, but do not have a basis in objective reality. They persist only because a preponderance of people believe them to be true, even if they don't think it's right, and may be acted upon without people even realizing that they believe it. Prejudice can be a subconscious drive, which makes it that much harder to overcome.

Some social constructs may have a basis in our own genetic predispositions, programmed into us through evolutionary processes. This does not make them true. The seeking of revenge, for instance, is a drive that may very well have its roots in evolutionary development. That doesn't make it rational, and that doesn't make the need for revenge a "truth" that must always be indulged.

Pax - Peace

What is the good of understanding the universe through science, directing our actions through reason, and discerning the difference between objective truth and social constructs? The purpose can be and should be to make the world a better place. Humanism, or the belief that all of us can strive for a world of equality and freedom, is a value system, another social construct, but one that can be applied for a greater good. It will be the goal of this blog to explore the topics above with the goal of furthering humanism, which can be the only way of developing lasting peace in the world.

Scientia, Ratio, Veritas, Pax

Thank you for joining my exploration. It is with hope that I begin this journey, and trepidation that others may not come with me, but the destination very well may be the salvation of human kind. This may seem hyperbole, but without an adoption of scientific rationalism and humanism as our guiding principles, the human species may be on a precipice. We can build a society meant to serve our existing social constructs, or we can build one that serves humanity. I don't believe we can do both.