Ayaan Hirsi Ali & the illiberal ‘liberals’.

March 30, 2015

In the past few months a string of new books ‘explaining’ the rise of ISIS have appeared on the shelves of the big book stores across the country. One of which is ‘ISIS: The State of Terror‘ by The excellent Jessica Stern & JM Berger. I wondered if perhaps this book – given that the authors are highly credited – would acknowledge at all the underlying problem of religious dogma (that is, the anchoring of morality to a single time & place, and belief in the universal viability of that), or if it begins from the premise that Islamic extremism is at its core geopolitical in nature, with religion as a sort of side note. My curiosity was answered on the first page, when we’re presented with a timeline, that begins “March 20th 2003 – President George W Bush announces the start of war against Iraq“.  Whilst it may go on to discuss Al Zarqawi’s beginnings and rise, the premise seems to be that we can blame everything & everyone else for the conditions in which Islamism flourishes, rather than the supremacist dogma itself. For those seeking to minimise the problem of religious dogma when accounting for conflict in the Middle East, there are two lines of attack. Firstly, claim the rise of groups like ISIS can be entirely divorced from religious dogma, and can instead be attached to geopolitics only (this feeds the larger Chomsky-esque narrative, that the US is the problem). Secondly, demonise any detractors who do focus on the problem of religious dogma. The latter – a tactic not used to quell criticism of any other concept on the planet – was surprisingly given credit this week, by anti-racism and anti-privilege writer and public speaker Tim Wise, when he posted a link to Max Blumenthal’s latest manipulation:

timwise

Ironic, given that the man who wrote the article has several of his own less than true ideas exposed by historian and journalist Eric Alterman in a beautifully concise manner. Nevertheless, It is a matter of consistency for me, that systems of oppression & supremacy – whether they’re based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or religion – must be resisted and dogma that informs those systems, discredited and opposed by anyone considering themselves liberal, and secular. This doesn’t seem to be the case with some ‘liberals’ who rightfully fight racial supremacy, yet find it difficult to retain consistency when it comes to illiberal dogma found in a certain religion. The product of which, is a curious holding of hands between those ‘liberals’, and the systems of oppression they should otherwise be opposing.

In his latest piece – Exposing Anti-Islam Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Latest Deception Max Blumenthal goes all out to attack Ayaan Hirsi Ali in what I can only describe as reworded Wikipedia article on Hirsi Ali, and a few extra manipulative additions to aid his overall premise (with the added joy of “Neocon!” yelled at anyone who calls him out on his manipulations). Take for example this paragraph:

“In Heretic, a polemic recycling many of her past arguments against Islam, she calls for the emergence of a Muslim Martin Luther — the authoritarian 16th-century zealot who called for burning down the synagogues of Jews, whom he compared to a gangrenous disease.”

– We might here be tempted to play the illiberal ‘liberal’ game, and refer to Blumenthal as Lutheranophobic for his critique of Martin Luther. But putting aside the silly tactics that those seeking to silence critique of Islam play, you’ll perhaps note here the big manipulation in the paragraph. Hirsi Ali is not at all suggesting that Islam needs a Medieval authoritarian willing to burn down Jewish temples. Hamas already exists. Blumenthal purposely recast the point to focus on Luther’s character, when in fact, Hirsi Ali is actually suggesting that Islam needs a reformation, that opens it up far more to individual critique, that it is too dogmatic as it is, too unable to progress with the rest of the World. A critique that is either disliked, discouraged, or punished in much of the Islamic World, and dismissed as ‘Islamophobia’ in the Western World. The character of Martin Luther is irrelevant to that discussion. But if there is to be a focus on the character of historical revolutionaries, I’m more than happy to start with religious Prophets.

Blumenthal then accuses Hirsi Ali of defending Anders Breivik. This too is a crude manipulation. He says:

“Junketed to Berlin in 2012 to receive the Axel Springer Honorary Award from the right-wing German publisher, Hirsi Ali appeared to blame liberal defenders of multiculturalism for the killing spree committed by the Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik, claiming they left Breivik with “no other choice but to use violence. (Breivik cited Hirsi Ali’s work in his 1,500 page manifesto explaining his plans to commit a series of terrorist attacks across Norway.)”

– It’d be just terrible to get praise from a right winger….. Like Max Blumenthal did, when the website of white supremacist David Duke praised Blumenthal’s book. Or when – as Hirsi Ali later pointed out in a conversation with Sam Harris – Bin Laden cited Noam Chomsky in a recording obtained by Al Jazeera back in 2010. We can all play the “you’re supported by extremists!” game.

Onto Blumenthal’s main manipulation in that particular paragraph. Hirsi Ali was not blaming liberals, because actual liberals are fine with, and promote the notion that all ideas – religious included – should be open up to criticism, satire, and inquiry, and that no idea – religious included – should be shielded. Especially ideas that create barriers to the secular liberty of others. Her criticism is of those vastly illiberal ‘liberals’ who work to prevent criticism of one single idea – by, among other forms, silencing ex-Muslims with manipulative articles – that create an atmosphere in which one idea is considered taboo, and that is deeply unhealthy for any liberal, secular, democracy. In other words; to push discussion, criticism, satire, ridicule of an authoritarian idea – be it religious or political, thus confirming the zealots insistence that ‘blasphemy’ is a terrible crime of expression – out of the public sphere of acceptability, has consequences. It creates a taboo around that one idea, and it is latched onto by dangerous fanatics like Breivik, who undoubtedly do mix their dislike for a faith, with racism, Nationalism, and their grotesque delusions of power. As she rightly says:

“In the long run, you get more jihadist ghettoes and intolerant right-wing enclaves. ”

– I’m fine with illiberal ‘liberals’ disagreeing with this contention, but rather than debate the point, Blumenthal has decided to claim this is “defending Breivik” – when it quite clearly isn’t. This is not an acceptable, nor respectable form of challenging an idea. It is a silencing technique, and it works only to create the conditions that Hirsi Ali speaks of.

Later, Blumenthal recounts the tale that Hirsi Ali had told the Netherlands authorities when applying for asylum, and giving a modified version of her name, and age:

” “Yeah, I made up the whole thing,” Hirsi Ali admitted on camera to a Zembla reporter who confronted her with her lies. “I said my name was Ayaan Hirsi Ali instead of Ayaan Hirsi Magan. I also said I was born in 1967 while I was actually born in 1969.”

– Now let’s look at the actual story behind the quote, rather than the simplified line Blumenthal has used. In an interview with Sam Harris, Hirsi Ali is quite clear on why she felt she had to hide her identity:

“When I arrived in the Netherlands, in 1992, I misrepresented the year of my birth at my intake interview. I said I was born in 1967, but I was born in 1969. I also changed my grandfather’s name. In many tribal societies, instead of a surname you have a string of names—I am Ayaan; my father is Hirsi; and my father’s father, when he was born, was named Ali. But later on, when he grew up and became a warrior, he was called Magan (Somali for “protection” or “refuge”), because he protected some of the peoples whom he conquered. Magan is, basically, a nickname that he acquired later in life. Technically, I did not lie about Ali, because that was also his name. I used it deliberately, because I figured that if I could get this intake interview, then my father or the man he married me off to could come and say that they were looking for Ayaan Hirsi Magan, born November 13, 1969, and they would find me very easily. I wanted to prevent that, so I called myself Ayaan Hirsi Ali and changed my birth year to 1967. I was trying to cover my trail just enough that I wouldn’t have the fear of being immediately found. I had never before lived in a system where there were any protections put in place for me.”

– Blumenthal wasn’t done with simply misrepresenting that part of the story either. He goes on:

“Hirsi Ali’s claim of honor killing threats also appears to be empty; she remained in touch with her father and aunt after she left her husband. In fact, her husband even came to visit her in the Dutch refugee center where she lived after leaving him. Even though he had paid her way to Europe on the grounds that she would join him in Canada, Hirsi Ali’s husband consented to the divorce she sought.”

– None of this is new information. Only the hideous way Blumenthal frames it, is different. Hirsi Ali herself has already spoken on her visit from her husband, in the same interview with Harris:

“I was terrified that either my father or some of our clansmen—or the man whom I had been married off to—would come looking for me and find me. And they did come! My ex-husband was accompanied by three other men when he showed up at the asylum center where I was. But by then I had been in the country for something like four to six months, and even in that very, very short period, I came to understand that I had rights.

On the day that they showed up, I went to the reception center and confessed everything to one of the people working there. Her name was Sylvia, and she said, “You don’t have to go with him if you don’t want to. You’re over the age of 18. In fact, here in the Netherlands, your marriage isn’t even recognized, because he is Canadian and the marriage took place somewhere else. So we will just protect you. I’ll simply call the police.” It was in this period that I found my independence. I had been able to live on my own for months, so I thought I could live on my own for longer.”

– The shameful manipulative nonsense of Blumenthal’s piece aside, I find there’s a bigger, and far more fundamental issue. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, A woman from an African country that consistently scores the very lowest score possible for political freedoms, and civil liberties, is abused by a very patriarchal system underpinned by religious supremacy, is mutilated as a child by a system underpinned by religious supremacy, watches as her female family members are not allowed to leave an airport without being accompanied by a man, is forced into a marriage by a system underpinned by religious supremacy, then – someone who has more right than any to call out the oppressive elements of a religious system of power – blames religious dogma for much of the trauma she and others face on a daily basis, and dedicates herself to fighting for the rights of victims of illiberal religious dogma across the World. She does this, whilst threatened with death notes pinned to the murdered body of a filmmaker she collaborated with because someone somewhere is “offended” by the content of the film. The implication is that she should just shut up about her experiences. Then come the white, upper middle class American men, not focusing at all on the supremacist dogma that informs the horrific abuse she’s suffered, or the violence she faces for speaking out, but instead they choose to focus on their own methods of silencing her with manipulations and misdirection, thus protecting the very oppressive ideas she’s fighting.

The privilege it takes for those who have never lived through her experiences, to dismiss her rather than challenge her ideas with debate, and to manipulate her calls for a reformation within the faith, in order to protect one specific religion, represents a massive confused betrayal of liberal principles, but one that we are all becoming very familiar with when illiberal ‘liberals’ put pen to paper.


“The sun has perished”: The creative myths of an eclipse.

March 20, 2015

600px-Sun_and_Moon

A couple of days ago, Pastor Mark Biltz – in 2015 – warned that the solar eclipse – a natural phenomena that we can predict and understand – was actually a sign from God, warning humanity. Biltz, using what can only be described as flawless logic, said:

“When we look at where the darkness will be, it will be in northern European countries like England and Sweden where we see the rise of Islam and anti-Israel sentiment.”

– That’s right. An eclipse that would have happened anyway, actually happened because there’s a few Muslims in England. If we can say anything about God, it’s that His ‘signs’ are often very ambiguous, and irritatingly – for His devout followers – far better explained scientifically. The creative rethinking of Pastor Biltz when it comes to natural event is not unique to a few devout believers, but the gap in which supernatural explanations reside is growing ever smaller.

The racecourse not too far from my house, has for the past 24 hours been streaming with stargazers, waiting to catch a cloudless glimpse of the solar eclipse; the moment the Sun blocks out the light of the Sun, and for a brief moment our city is plunged into darkness. Driving home tonight, I passed several amateur astronomers picking out the perfect spot. Today we watch the universe, not for the mystery of the unknown, but for the beauty of reality. Science has allowed us to understand a natural phenomena, that has a wonderfully creative history in the minds of humanity. With the Sun having long been considered a source of life, it is not surprising that most myths used to explain a solar eclipse, were more often than not, based on fear.

Babylonians were so fearful of eclipses, they would protect the King by placing a substitute King on the throne at the time of an eclipse, just in case. Over in ancient Greece, Homer’s Odyssey may perhaps be referring to an eclipse when it says:

“The sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world.”

– Several centuries later – around 500bc – the Greeks developed a method to predict eclipses, and Hipparchus used an eclipse to predict the distance between the Earth and the Moon to only 11% away from the distance as understood today. Similarly, The Vikings interpretation of an eclipse, was based on fear. The Vikings believed two wolves – Skoll and Hati – were chasing the Sun and Moon, with an eclipse occurring whenever a wolf caught up with either celestial body. Vikings would bang drums, scream loudly, throw rocks, and make as much noise as possible in order to scare the wolves away. A few centuries later, when King Henry I died just after an eclipse in 1133ad, the country was sure it was a sign from the heavens. Much like Pastor Biltz, the Islamic website onislam takes the fear of eclipses into the 21st century and gives the myth a bit of an update when they say:

The Muslim reaction to lunar and solar eclipses can be summarized as follows:
1. Solar and lunar eclipses are reminders of the Day of Judgment, when the sun, moon, and stars will all lose their light.
2. Being a reminder of the Last Day, the eclipse is a time for Prayer, charitable acts, and generally remembering Allah and seeking His forgiveness.

– The eclipse itself is no longer directly linked to a myth in itself, but instead, is based on the larger myth of Islam in general. This is perhaps the difference between the ancient myths – that tended to have the Moon and Sun as personified objects fighting or being chased (Willcox and Littman’s book “Totality” explores this idea further) – and monotheistic myths – that tend to be linked to the overall faith, manipulated by an outside force. In the Islamic example, an eclipse is encompassed into the Islamic narrative, without first proving the basis of the Islamic narrative to be true. It is in essence absolutely no different to Vikings believing in hungry celestial wolves.

A wonderful trait of human-kind, is our natural desire to understand. We look in wonder at the sky, at the Earth, at the seas, and we need to know how it all works. To this day, religious folk will remind you to ‘just look around’ if you inquire as to why they believe a God exists. When we don’t understand, we create often wonderful quick-fix myths, adding more mystery to the actual original mystery. Creative and ingenious myths grew up around natural phenomena, later becoming religions in themselves. The scientific method has grounded our desire to understand, in reality, distinguishing what we’d like to be true, with what is actually true. To continue to insist upon adding a supernatural agent to an explainable natural event, is to complicate nature, with unnecessary and unanswerable questions for the sake of preserving the religious narrative and ultimately its power structure. The wonderful thing about the abandonment of such myths, is that the reality is often far more beautiful and awe-inspiring than the myth.


ISIS and the theology of end-times.

March 10, 2015

“The spark has been ignited in Iraq, and its flames will grow until they burn the Crusader armies in Dabiq”
– Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Less than 3000 people live in the small Syrian town of Dabiq. It sits right in the north of the country in A’zaz district. It is an unassuming town that would command little attention, if it wasn’t for the fact that ISIS has carried out brutal beheadings, and even named its magazine ‘Dabiq’ in its honour.

When discussing the motivations for ISIS’s brutal regime, we find Western commentators quick to deflect from religious dogma, by narrowing the context to the Iraq war, or Blair, or Bush, or more recently… MI5. They insist that not all religious folk are out beheading aid workers, and so religious dogma can be dismissed, failing to apply the same logic that not all those opposed to the Iraq war are out beheading aid workers either. The importance of the geo-political context must be taken into consideration, but not at the complete dismissal of Islamic dogma. Dabiq is central to that dogma.

ISIS chose Dabiq for one very specific reason; a Sahih-Muslim Hadith states:

“The Last Hour would not come until the Romans land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them)”

– Dabiq is centre stage for the coming apocalypse to take place between Muslims, and Christians. A battle between Romans (whom no longer exist, and so Islamists – rather than accept that their Prophet might have been wrong, have decided “Romans” is code for “Christians”) and a resurrected Caliphate (as well as the conquest of Istanbul) is necessary to usher in the end of days. ISIS, is an end-times cult.

End times (eschatology) is central to all of the Abrahamic traditions (including offshoots – like Heaven’s Gate). The concept of the final confrontation between the chosen few, and the enemy, cannot be divorced from the religions that spawn them. They tend to see certain World events – natural and man-made – as evidence that the end is on its way. Indeed, the earliest traditions of Jesus in the Bible have him as what appears to be a man convinced that the end of time will occur within the lifetime of his followers. To this day, Christians in the US predict the World is about to end at least once a year. By the time the Biblical Jesus’ companions had died, Christians began becoming suspicious that end-times may not be on the way. Contradictory writings attributed to Paul in the Bible try to deal with that, but simply work to confuse the matter more; 2 Thessalonians sets out conditions required before the day of judgement occurs, directly contradicting 1 Thessalonians that insists that Jesus’s return would be sudden and that the Thessalonians should be prepared. By the time Islam comes along, the writers of the Qur’an make sure not to make the same mistake, and to be as teasing and ambiguous as possible:

“Lo! the Hour is surely coming. But I will to keep it hidden, that every soul may be rewarded for that which it striveth (to achieve)
Surah 20:15”

– It’s far easier if a Holy Book has God teasing – like a child – His creation. Though this is also problematic, because a truly all-knowing God would be able to look down the line and see the violent mess that His little tease had inspired, and perhaps be a little more cautious. But that’s a digression.

The arguments from all major religions for end-times – and the expectations placed on believers by their God – tend to be Theologically wide. They are divisive by their very nature. They provide – by the judgement of a divine overlord as of yet unproven to exist – a dichotomy between the morally good, waiting to be saved, and the evil non-believers deserving of the torture that awaits them. The dogma creates the extremist atmosphere, independent of the geopolitical context.

The reason ISIS chooses to murder innocent people in Dabiq, and to make sure we all know it is Dabiq, is in order to fulfill a religious prophecy of provoking the ‘Romans’ to confront the Islamic State there, bringing on the conditions for the return of Jesus, the Mahdi, and the end of times in which they will be saved. Several ISIS propaganda videos are filmed in and around the town of Dabiq for the same purpose; to fulfill a theological prophecy, providing legitimacy to their incredibly flawed cause.

This was perhaps most notable when ISIS horrifically murdered Abdul-Rahman Kassig. After the murder, the ISIS killer said:

“Here we are burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”

– Suddenly, ‘Romans’ actually means ‘Americans’ (not at all what Muhammad supposedly said, requiring a great deal of creative rewriting of his words to justify). But it goes back further than 2014. Before his death in 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq – had already alluded to the importance that Dabiq would play in the following years. In 2004 al-Zarqawi said:

“The spark has been ignited in Iraq, and its flames will grow until they burn the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

– Iraq may have been the spark, but the fuel itself was the religious dogma that inspires such an irrational and violent desire to watch the World burn. The beheading of Western aid workers, is not in response to the Iraq war, or even the civil war in Syria, instead it is an attempt to provoke a fictional battle – rooted entirely to the context of the time period that Sahih-Muslim was put together – in order to fulfill a religious prophecy. Religion is at the very core of the hideous acts of violence that have taken place – and publicised across the World – in and around Dabiq.

In the fourth edition of the magazine ‘Dabiq’, ISIS produced an article entitled:

“The revival (of) slavery before the Hour”

– The article calls for the re-establishing of slave holding, and the kidnapping of women, before the final judgement. The implication is that out-dated religious rules must be re-established prior to the anticipated apocalypse. The consequence has been the capturing and sexual abuse of Yazidi women and girls.

It is worth noting that provoking the conditions necessary to fulfill the prophecy is not the only reason for ISIS to use Dabiq in its media propaganda, it also works as a recruiting technique. The constant reference and use of Dabiq emphasises the distinctly Islamic nature of the cause (with Hadith to back it up), by linking back to the purported words of the Prophet and highlighting the idea that the final battle is on the horizon, in the hope of enticing young, disaffected kids seeking a purpose with a divinely promised victory.

The fact that a state based almost solely on what is deemed to be the necessary rape, torture and murder bestowed upon innocent people required to bring about the end of the World, is being left to flourish in an already volatile region, is hugely unnerving. Those who adhere to the end-times theological narrative cannot be defeated simply by dismissing them as “not real Muslims” (the far-right – in bizarre agreement with Islamists – also dismiss liberal, progressive Muslims as “not real Muslims”, leaving a completely undefined religion). Nor is it acceptable to dismiss the clear religious dogma that ISIS are based upon, in order to progress a very anti-Western narrative, as many on the Western ‘liberal’ left insist upon progressing far too often. Islam as a set of ideas, words, and deeds, rooted to the time in which it sprang, must be scrutinised, its most out-dated elements detoxified, and the extremes made as undesirable as Soviet Communism is to the modern left, if groups like ISIS are to be defeated. The religious element must not be dismissed.


God: The ‘fine tuning’ problem.

March 3, 2015

fine tuning, atheism

“One does not have to appeal to God to set the initial conditions for the creation of the universe, but if one does He would have to act through the laws of physics”.
– Stephen Hawking.

At first glance, one may be forgiven for presuming that the physical constants that make up our universe, are clear evidence for a very precise designer. Paley argued as much with his watch. In these more enlightened times, the physicist and author Victor Stenger, writing in ‘The Fallacy of Fine Tuning‘ wonderfully dismantles the presumptions that inform the ‘classical proof’ using the physics itself. Supporting Stenger’s critique – and far more in keeping with the theme of this article – is the “The God Argument” by A.C Grayling. In it, Grayling provides a simple, rational dismantling of the fine turning argument, that coupled with Stenger’s critique, must surely put an end to the use of the argument as evidence for the existence of a creator.

To highlight the problem with the fine tuning argument for the existence of God, Grayling states that if his great-great-great grandparents had not lived the exact life that they had, had they lived ever so slightly differently, circumstances would perhaps not have permitted his own life. The intense number of coincidences that are required to line up in order to result in the life of A.C Grayling, are amazingly unlikely…. in retrospect. And yet, one would not suggest that the history of Grayling’s family was specifically finely tuned to arrive at his life. The fine tuning argument for the existence of a creator is retrospective in exactly the same way.

The point Grayling raises, is that it is both arrogant and irrational to believe the history of your family was specifically designed in order to produce you, looking back retrospectively, and simply because you exist. Similarly – and perhaps more so – it is arrogant and irrational to retrospectively argue that 14 billion years ago, the universe was ‘created’, took 9 billion years in order for the Earth to develop, an Earth that is uninhabitable in large parts and contains the ability for natural disasters to destroy life, alongside 99% of species since that time dying out, and humanity struggling to survive the harshest of conditions, just so religious philosophers can presume it was all designed with them in mind; a species that – in the context of the time scale of the universe – exists for such a short pin point of time. Indeed, life – human life – on planet Earth is such a small momentary blip in the history of vast open of space-time, that the universe seems anything but created with life at the forefront.

But I think even before we feel obliged to move on to the logical problems with the intricacies of the fine tuning argument, before we need mention Grayling’s family history, before we note that the vast majority of the universe – throughout time – is uninhabitable, we must note that the very premise of the argument in the first instance is in fact, self defeating in a couple of ways. Let’s assume for the moment that the ‘creator’ posited in the fine tuning argument is given the traditional attributes of the God of the Judeo-Christian traditions – omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence – it would necessarily follow that such a creator could ensure life existed for any possible tuning of the universe. If that creator could not create life to exist in any possible tuning of universe, it would at the very least suggest that the creator’s actions are dictated by the conditions of life – conditions that ‘He’ has no control over. Thus, the creator did not create life, life (as we know it, because we’re here) can exist with or without the ‘creator’, requiring only the conditions to be right. The ‘creator’ is thus defeated by the very fact that the natural laws that ‘He’ must adhere to in order for life to flourish are – by definition – greater than ‘He’ because they precede ‘He’.

But even that is one big step further than we need to take to discard the ‘fine tuning’ argument as self defeating. Indeed, if a creator did in fact create the conditions for the existence of intelligent beings, the creator must have done so – and thus, existed ‘Himself’ – in conditions that permit existence, other than the conditions that He has now created. The conditions for existence, thus exist prior to the creator. And so before we even discuss whether or not a creator should be able to create life to suit any and all possible universes, we must note that the conditions for existence must precede the creator.

If human life were transplanted from Earth, to 99% of the rest of the universe, it would instantly perish. Indeed, just outside of the boundaries of our own atmosphere, we encounter radiation that would kill us in an instant. If human life were transplanted to a past state of the Earth throughout most of its history, it would not survive. And so, it is no great exaggeration to say that the ‘fine tuning’ argument for the existence of a ‘creator’ is the weakest of all the classical ‘proofs’. It is self defeating, it depends largely on our bizarre assumption that the universe – largely uninhabitable and violently opposed to life – is created with us – a split second in cosmic time – in mind, and falls apart before we even have to analyse the actual cosmological constants that permit you to be sat reading this right now.


Stephen Fry, Giles Fraser & the capricious God.

February 3, 2015

In what has become a sort of viral must-see recently, Stephen Fry took to RTE Ireland this week to express his views on the Christian concept of God, to ‘Meaning of Life’ presenter, Gay Byrne. When asked what he’d say to God, if he met him at the pearly gates, Fry replied:

“I will say bone cancer in children, what’s that about? How dare you, how dare you create a world that has such misery that is not our fault. It is not right. It is utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is full of injustice and pain?”

– Naturally, this has caused a flurry of responses across media platforms. I thought I’d address a few of the points raised in a couple of those responses.

Over at ‘Christian Today’, author Krish Kandiah says:

“In a godless universe we lose any concept of ultimate justice, good or evil. The universe is ultimately impersonal and indifferent to any of these concerns. For Dawkins, atheism’s answer to the problem of suffering is basically “Tough luck. Bad things happen. Deal with it.” Why should anyone expect anything other than blind indifference from an impersonal, randomly generated universe?”

– Firstly, I’d be quick to note that ‘atheism’s answer to the problem of suffering’ is not “tough luck” at all. We atheists say that we as humans must keep searching, studying, inquiring, testing, and developing answers and cures to nature’s hideous diseases. The responsibility is ours. No matter how hard you try, you wont find a cure to illnesses (including psychological issues that have taken on the religious-like phrase ‘evil’) by praying, or searching through a book of ancient Palestinian myths. The choice is not ancient deities or “tough luck”. The dichotomy is entirely false.

Secondly, the key problem you’ll note with Kandiah’s position, is that Kandiah expects the universe owes something to humanity. He asks; why should we expect anything other than blind indifference from an impersonal universe? I’m not entirely sure why we’d expect help from outside anyway? It strikes me as a case of passing the buck. He delegates responsibility away from humanity, to a concept that he doesn’t actually prove exists first, and cannot seem to understand that we as humans can and should assume responsibility that we’d otherwise hope an invisible force might sort out for us in an afterlife. An indifferent universe is irrelevant. Humanity is not indifferent. The indifference is in a man expecting everything to be okay in an afterlife, and so passing responsibility on from himself.

Thirdly, it is simply wrong to imply that without a divine law giver, we ‘lose any concept of justice, good, or evil‘. He has simply rehashed an old argument for God, based on morality. But on the contrary, morality does not require God. In fact, any definition of morality that predates Darwin is entirely incomplete and can – and should – be dismissed as such. Kandiah ignores human evolution entirely in his idea of human morality, ignores our survival as a group species, the evolution of empathy and so forth, and instead implies it is entirely reliant on a supernatural force. Essentially, the God of the gaps. Incidentally, for my take on the evolution of morality, see here.

Over at the Guardian, Church of England Priest, and journalist Giles Fraser tried his hand at criticism of Fry’s comments. In it, Fraser bizarrely says:

“For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity.”

– It’s true… you really do have to “think metaphorically” (in other words, dismiss what it actually says) in order to believe the God of the Bible promotes “love“. It takes a real creative mind, to imagine that God’s request to Abraham that he sacrifice his son to prove his devotion, before stopping him at the last minute, or insisting Jephthah follow through on his promise to sacrifice his child in return for victory in battle, is anything but a show of cruel self indulgence, from a God whose idea of “love” is completely linked to just how willing others are to murder for His glory. It seems self evident to me that a finite human being, with such precious little time on this Earth, offering to spend that time loving you for just being you, is a far greater love than an infinite being, unrestricted by time, offering to love you or torture you depending on how well you adhere to His list of demands, and the hideous sacrifices you’re willing to make to show your devotion to Him. Therefore, the human capacity for love, is far greater and far more advanced than that of the God of Christianity.

Secondly, Fraser completely remodels the Christian God by taking away His implied omnipotence. Suddenly God is one with humanity, restricted by natural laws, and completely at the mercy of the forces of woe that he is unable to control. He ‘suffers’ with His creation. This strikes me as defeating the point of a universal creator in the first place. I’ve always been under the impression that the Christian concept of God begins at the premise that He created everything, that He can see everything – from the beginning of time until the very end, that He can intervene at any moment (and in fact, has done, several times) and by doing so, He can transcend natural laws, implying that He is not governed by those laws. He cannot possibly suffer, given that He is the grand designer of the chain of events that lead to that suffering in the first place, and – given that He can see all of time (because, again, He isn’t restricted by time) – He knew it was going to happen this way. And so, if Fraser is correct and if God cannot be accused of the cause of humanity’s suffering, we are left with three options;
1) God is the all knowing, all seeing creator, natural laws flow from Him, and as such, He is not restricted by those laws. Time itself, is His creation, meaning that Time is a tapestry that He has full control over (otherwise, He cannot be described as all-powerful). This further implies that He knew exactly how the course of human history would be affected by the onset of Christianity, including centuries of violent oppression, and – as Fry points out – cancer in children, all to take place for the sake of a grand scheme that He refuses to reveal until we’re dead. This is appealing because it allows for the all-knowing, all-powerful God, yet leaves a lot to be desired for the notion of an all-loving God, seeming as it does to imply that God is playing a cruel game with human beings who have no choice.
2) God is restricted by time, cannot see the long stretching consequences of His actions, suffered with humanity, and is not responsible for human suffering at all, which implies He is not all-knowing, nor all-powerful, is restricted by natural laws and time, and if we look back over the course of history of the religion, reads like a series of bad decisions by the divine. For this – the God of Giles Fraser – we need to completely dismiss the Christian concept of God right up until Giles Fraser re-imagined Him to suit a weak argument criticising Stephen Fry.
3) There is no God, and the flawed species of humanity is responsible for its own shortcomings.

The concept of the God of Christianity, as with Judaism & Islam is simply a personification of the moral & social fabric and upheaval of the time in which it was conceived. This naturally brings issues with it when humanity inevitably outgrows those moral ideals of that single time and place. Indeed, most – if not all – religious folk have outgrown the moral framework laid out by their Holy Books centuries ago, which is why we end up with very absurd arguments desperately re-imagining God, like Giles Fraser attempted to do in his article. Stephen Fry is right to suggest that a God – with the traditional attributes set out above – is nothing more than a capricious maniac.


Charlie Hebdo & the importance of free expression.

January 15, 2015

For the most part, the response to the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week, has been one of staunch solidarity with the values that separate the civilised from the barbaric. The freedom to express ones thoughts and ideas, the right to criticise and satirise ideas, the rule of law; values that were attacked that day in the centre of Paris. This includes the freedom for religious folk to believe and express ideas that I myself find incredibly offensive. But every so often, we hear voices referring to themselves as liberal, or as progressives, making excuses for the violence whilst trying desperately to insist that they’re not making excuses for the violence. As the new edition of Charlie Hebdo went on sale this week, with a picture of Muhammad on the front, Sky News apologised for showing it live on air, and several commentators referred to it as needlessly ‘provoking‘ Muslims. The excuses tend to start with a line like “There can be no excuse for murder, but….” followed by a tirade of victim blaming. For example, Mehdi Hasan’s obscene article for the Huff Post here in which he begins by suggesting it is those who pronounce “Je suis Charlie” who are playing an “us vs them” game, and then himself goes on to play that very game far better than anyone else, by manipulatively implying that Charlie Hebdo focused entirely on Islam, when in reality it mocks the Pope often, Judaism, and Christianity, along with political figures across the World… Here:

“And why have you been so silent on the glaring double standards? Did you not know that Charlie Hebdo sacked the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark? Were you not aware that Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published caricatures of the Prophet in 2005, reportedly rejected cartoons mocking Christ because they would “provoke an outcry” and proudly declared it would “in no circumstances… publish Holocaust cartoons”?
Muslims, I guess, are expected to have thicker skins than their Christian and Jewish brethren.”

– He must have been asleep (or, as he puts it “so silent”) when Charlie Hebdo printed this:

charliehebdo5
– He must also not be aware that Catholic organisations have attempted to sue Charlie Hebdo on countless occasions for ‘offending’ them. So you see, contrary to Mehdi’s false game of us VS them, Islam is one in a list of ideas that Charlie Hebdo satirised. After this manipulation, Mehdi then proceeds to inform us that he isn’t sure why we’d feel the need to mock religions, but not the Holocaust. One being a 7th Century idea, the other being 6 million people murdered less than a century ago.

There are then several issues I take with the response outlined above. Firstly, I think it is vastly counter-productive. It implies that Islam is in some way different, and must be treated differently to other ideas, and that a protected space must be carved out specifically for one ideological framework of power (in this case, Islam), that no other system of belief is granted. That sort of subtle demand, is then backed by false narratives, like Mehdi’s. There was no anger or claims of racism when Charlie Hebdo mocked Catholicism. If Have I Got News For You mock conservatism, it isn’t usually followed by the suggestion that the show has ‘taken free speech too far’, nor Mehdi Hasan suggesting that Have I Got News For You should consider satirising 9/11 just for some balance. These ideas – Catholicism, conservatism, liberalism, Hinduism, capitalism – are all rightly granted no implied protection. Thus, they are considered on a level playing field, open as they should be, to criticism, mocking, and satire (despite the Pope’s bizarre insistence today that we shouldn’t ‘offend’ religious beliefs). There is no legitimate reason to protect religion – or a single religion – from the forms of criticism that all others are open to. It is in fact vital, that all religions – and in fact, ideas in general, be open to that criticism and mocking. Contrary to what detractors may assume – anti-Muslim hate (that is, the abuse of Muslims, the denial of rights, the demand for denial of equal rights, dehumanising) is not in any way to be compared with mocking the religion. One is violence aimed at human beings, the other is dis-empowering an ideological narrative, & system of morality. To conflate the two, is deeply problematic for a whole host of reasons, and the complete antithesis of secular, liberal inquiry and free expression.

In other words, it is not those of us who openly criticise, or mock Islam that create a taboo around that particular faith. On the contrary, we treat it like any other ideological framework of power. We do not seek to deny Muslims equal rights, we believe those who commit anti-Muslim hate, those who attack Mosques, are grotesque human beings lacking any sense of decency, and we will always defend equal rights & dignity for all, including Muslims. People deserve that, not ideas. Ideas must be open to critique and satire. It is those who seek to protect Islam from mockery (whilst themselves defending the freedom for the religious to continue to believe and express a belief in offensive ideas to the rest of us), that not only create a taboo out of the faith – hence, counter-productive – but also give credit to the extreme idea that one must be a little less forthcoming with our expression on one particular idea, if it might ‘offend’ believers in that one particular idea.

I would also suggest that it is a betrayal of those Muslim voices fighting for secular, liberal values, & free expression against a poisonous narrative within their faith, for liberals who should be on their side of the fight, instead choosing to give credit to the narrative on the extremes.

Secondly, it is a reflection of the authoritarian nature of a religion, when its followers suggest we should either unquestioningly respect the faith, or else keep quiet. Which, in turn, means it is vital that it be open to criticism and satire. If satirising that religion is even a matter of debate, it already has far too much power.

Indeed, your freedom to believe that non-believers are destined an eternity of violent torture in the pits of hell – alongside our apostate and LGBT friends – is my freedom to openly mock that ridiculous (and frankly, offensive) belief. The freedom for Mehdi Hasan to refer to believers as keeping the moral high ground, whilst non-believers as those who “live their lives as animals“, is my freedom to express a distinct lack of respect for that particular moral anchor. Any less, implies that your belief that I am morally lacking, to be eternally tortured, is deserving of a level of unquestioning respect, that my objection (however I express that objection) simply isn’t. Further, if your religion – or political ideal – in any way, extends beyond the individual, to the lives of others (be it non-believers, apostates, the LGBT community) – not only in belief, and writing, but also in practice in many countries on this planet – then it is absolutely vital that that religion be open to the same criticism and satire as every other system of oppression. Indeed, the greatest indicator that a religion so desperately requires being opened up to free expression in all its forms, is if it can result in your murder for doing so.

Islam – like Christianity – is a system of power, regardless of how it is framed by those seeking to protect it. When it has any sort of political power, it is oppressive. This is why it is vital to stand up for the necessity of free expression. But on a purely individual basis; if your religion insists that I am to be burned for eternity in hell for non-belief, then I’m afraid you’re not going to get away with telling me that it is I who is the one being ‘offensive’ for mocking that belief. The freedom to express one, is the freedom to express the other.


France’s March for Unity: A who’s who of global oppression.

January 12, 2015

jesuischarlie, world leaders at french unity rally

It has always bewildered me the level of hypocrisy necessary to demand curbs on expression deemed ‘offensive’ to an Islamist ideological World-view that itself daily offends apostates, non-believers, women, Muslims that aren’t considered Muslim enough, and the entire LGBT community. Nevertheless, Paris was at the centre of the World last week when three gunman brutally murdered 17 human beings for publishing cartoons. France – including all sections of society – reacted in a show of unity, strength and respect for the fundamental right to free expression. But among the marchers were those who seem so entirely out of place. Indeed, Islamists were not the only ones to display hypocrisy this week in France.

The unity march – including 1.4 million people – through the streets of Paris included over 40 World leaders, some of whom, are not too keen on the fundamental human right to free expression:

Queen Rania of Jordan.
Linking arms with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Queen of Jordan presides over a country that is far from an advocate of free expression. In Jordan, if you happen to dislike the King, and you express that particular dislike, you can face up to three years in prison. Similarly, if you ‘insult’ Islam, you may face up to three years in prison (predictably, you may use the Qur’an to insult non-believers with threats of eternal torture). In 2006, two Jordanian journalists were imprisoned and fined for reprinting the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. In 2003, the newspaper Al Hilal was closed for two months and three of its journalists arrested for publishing an article discussing Muhammad’s sex life. In February 2009, student Imad al-Ash was arrested for sharing “controversial religious opinions” online, and sentenced to two years in prison.

Prime Minister Davutoglu of Turkey.
Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code makes it an offence to insult ‘Turkishness’. In 2008, this was changed from “Turkishness” to “The Turkish Nation”. It brings with it a two year jail sentence. Internet regulation from 2014 allows the Telecommunication and Transmission Authority to ban websites it deems inappropriate. This includes websites that ‘insult’ the state. In 2007, Turkey banned YouTube, for a video that insulted Ataturk. They demanded YouTube remove the video. Rightfully, YouTube refused. In 2008, richarddawkins.net was blocked in Turkey. In 2014 Tayyip Erdogan insisted he’d “wipe out Twitter”, and subsequently, Twitter was blocked.

Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.
In 2013, the Hungarian Parliament passed a Bill that includes three years in prison for ‘harming another person’s dignity‘ in a video or voice recording. This includes political satire. The law further makes it an offence to harm “the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial or religious community.

Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra.
Algeria – that enshrines Islam as its state religion, and bans anyone from spreading any other religious idea, punishable with three years in prison – is run by its longest serving President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Under his rule, the newspaper ‘Le Matin’ was censored and closed down, and its journalist imprisoned for exposing corruption. Journalists can be fined for insulting foreign diplomats or politicians, under reforms the media law of 2012.
Article 144 ratified June, 2001:

“It is punishable by imprisonment from 3 to 5 years, and by a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 Algerian Dinars — or, one of these two punishments only — whoever insults the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), any of the other Prophets, or denigrates the practices or rituals of Islam, regardless of whether it is through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means.”

In 2006, 26-year-old Samia Smets was arrested and imprisoned (later overturned) for blasphemy for accidentally dropping a Qur’an into some water. At the 2008 Algiers Book Fair, the Ministry of Religious Affairs banned over 1000 books that they deemed to contain blasphemy. Al Jazeera was banned in 2004. Web services providers can be fined for granting access to sites that are “incompatible with morality or public opinion.” It is bizarre to me that the Algerian government believes it has a monopoly on morality, and that ‘public opinion’ is a static concept free from challenge.

UAE Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
In 2008 three Filipino workers were imprisoned for ripping out a page of the Qur’an. Their right to work in UAE was revoked. Further, The Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information and Culture bans any books, leaflets, or in fact, any form of written literature, if it is deemed offensive to Islam. Access to websites supportive of democracy & secularism is prohibited.
Article 312:

“Shall be punishable by confinement and by fine or by one of these two penalties any individual who commitsany of the following offences:
1. Offence against any of the Islamic sacred things or rites.
2. To insult and revile any of the recognized divine religions.
3. To portray disobedience in a positive light, to incite thereto, to promote it or to procure any meanssusceptible of tempting people to disobey.
4. To knowingly eat porkmeat while being a Muslim.
Where any of the above offences is committed in public, the punishment shall be either confinement for aminimum period of one year or a fine.”

– Whilst UAE’s foreign minister marched in unity in France this weekend, back home it is illegal to dare to speak your mind, if your mind does not conform to the religious dogma of those who have taken it upon themselves to declare their beliefs supreme.

Prime Minister Jomaa of Tunisia.
The interim Prime Minister joined the march, and also signed the book of condolence at the French embassy in Tunisia on Saturday. This, despite the fact that Tunisian blogger Yassine Ayari was tried for insulting state officials and sentenced to three years by the military, for criticising the military on Facebook. Article 91 of the Code of Military Justice makes it an offence to criticise the “dignity, reputation and morale” of the army. In 2012 Jabeur Mejri was jailed for posting ‘insulting’ pictures of Muhammad on Facebook… or, as the the courts in Tunisia call it; “transgressing morality, defamation and disrupting public order“. He was released in 2014 after two years in prison.

Whilst it was pleasing to see so many people stand together in defence of free expression during the Paris march for unity, it is equally worrying that so many World leaders linking arms that day operate incredibly oppressive restrictions including violence for criticism they can’t handle, perpetuating the notion that ‘blasphemy’ should be restricted & punishable, enshrining one religion into the framework of state, whilst so shamefully out in a show of unity for that same free expression they can’t themselves handle.