The Theocrats crying discrimination.

March 12, 2015

As someone who writes, and occasionally speaks on religion and its unearned privileges, I’m more than aware that often claims of oppression from the religious, tend to be just a backlash against a society having progressed far beyond the barbarism of the more conservative religious sects and what they advocate, and so inevitably tantrums erupt. Christians unhappy that they can’t stop a gay couple from expressing their commitment through marriage insist they are oppressed, or Jehovah’s Witnesses unhappy that the concept of disfellowshipping is particularly frowned up. There is something about religion, that demands privileges.

Yesterday, the Guardian published a statement signed by – among others – several conservative Muslims in Britain, having what appears to be a collective tantrum over the fact that their fringe views, are not unquestioningly respected:

“This joint statement expresses a position with respect to the ongoing demonisation of Muslims in Britain, their values as well as prominent scholars, speakers and organisations.

– The statement goes on to firstly present a false dichotomy between a state that can only possibly focus on either Islamist extremism, or the NHS and economy, and then proceeds to list a variety of grievances, including two particular connecting points that I wanted to pick up on here, especially with regards to the people who actually signed the statement:

“5) Similarly, it is unacceptable to label as ‘extremist’ numerous normative Islamic opinions on a variety of issues, founded on the Qur’an and Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), implying there is a link between them and violence, using such labels as an excuse to silence speakers.

7) We affirm our concern about peace and security for all. We, however, refuse to be lectured on peace-building and harmony by a government that plays divisive politics and uses fear to elicit uncertainty in the general public, whilst maintaining support for dictators across the Muslim world, who continue to brutalise and legitimate political opposition to their tyranny.”

– The implication of point five is that oppressive views are not to be labelled as such, simply because they are “normative Islamic opinions“. As if where they come from, is at all important. It is a desired privilege. Contrary to the aggressive tone of point 5, we are all within our rights – especially in a secular, liberal country – to label any ideological view point – regardless of what it is based upon – as extreme, if it includes the control & oppression of other people. The right to an opinion is to be protected, but the opinion itself is absolutely open to all forms of criticism, and mockery, especially If those views include the lives of anyone else, chained to the religious rules of another. It does not matter if it is “based on the Qur’an and Sunnah“. It does not matter if an opinion is a “normative Islamic opinion”. Neither of those reasons, makes the opinion any less extreme. To highlight this point, it is prudent to consider two signatures on the list; that of Reza Pankhurst & Dr Abdul Wahid, of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Note that in point seven, the focus is on “concern about peace & security for all”. Consider that claim, when analysing Article 7C of Hizb’s own draft constitution:

“Those who are guilty of apostasy from Islam are to be executed.”

– I guess “peace and security” is far more likely if you just execute anyone who leaves the religion. Here they are, reaffirming that same belief. It isn’t just apostates exempt from Hizb’s “concern for peace & security“, Hizb’s African sect wrote:

“Homosexuality is an Evil that Destroys Societies!”

– Obviously here they offer no actual evidence for such a petty and vicious claim (that undoubtedly they teach to younger, impressionable minds, further perpetuating homophobia). They’re not finished with apostates and gays either. Hizb in Bangladesh wrote:

“The Muslims joining the demonstration called upon the Muslim armies to march forth to fight the Jews, eradicate Israel and purify the earth of Jewish filth.”

– And so it appears that demanding the murder of apostates, whilst dehumanising homosexuality, and calling for the ‘eradication of the Jewish filth” is – according to Hizb – absolutely fine. But referring to those hideous ideas as ‘extreme’ is completely unacceptable.

Dr Pankhurst has a bit of a history of having a tantrum at the way Hizb are treated. When The Times published an article linking him to Hizb, he responded:

“Rather, this is a wider debate in which there seems to be an attempt to demonise anyone holding ideological opinions the British government doesn’t like, in a manner that the dictatorial “hereditary democracy” that is Egypt would be proud – hounding them into either remaining silent or else face being forced out of their profession.

– Still, I suppose “demonising” oppressive theocratic beliefs is a little more civilised than executing anyone who changes religion. Pankhurst goes on to make the most amusing statement I think I’ve ever heard from a member of a group who believe in disenfranchising non-Muslims, limiting ultimate power to male Muslims only, punishing homosexuality, and killing apostates:

“I would like to point out that no other religious or political grouping is treated in such a manner, whereby because someone is a Muslim who believes in Islamic values and the revival of an Islamic State in Muslim countries means that their professionalism is automatically questioned. This is actually a form of discrimination.”

– That’s right! It’s a form of discrimination to demonise the idea that apostates should be executed and homosexuality oppressed. It’s like the KKK claiming discrimination on account of the fact that their particular brand of supremacy is demonised. In the light of Pankhurst’s tantrum about discrimination, it is worth noting that Article 112 of Hizb’s draft constitution enshrines constitutional discrimination based on gender:

“It is not permitted for a woman to assume responsibility for government”

– It seems to be more the case that grown ups with such ingrained and bigoted supremacist views, views that dehumanise and disenfranchise millions whilst elevating one group of people to power and perpetual terror over everyone else based on nothing more than their belief in one particular god, play the cowardly victim the moment those views are under examination.

The LGBT community are targeted by another signature on the statement. Abdurraheem Green of iERA once wrote on his blog:

“The “harm” of the punishment for adultery is offset by the need of the “benefit” and protects the wider society. All of this also goes some way to help understand way acts of homosexuality are simlarily treated so harshly.”

– What “Green” means by “wider society” is actually the opposite; a very patriarchal, heterosexual dominated society. It is true that breaking irrational and oppressive barriers to liberty, erected originally by people like Green, for the benefit of people like Green, is a threat to people like Green. I am absolutely fine with that.

Another signature is that of Shaykh Tauqir Ishaq of the Muslim Action Forum. Ishaq arranged a protest in London in February over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in cartoon form, as offensive to Muslims. I am yet to see Ishaq arrange protests for those of us who aren’t too keen on hearing that non-believers are likely to burn in hell. Indeed, Ishaq’s freedom to believe that non-believers are destined for an eternity of violent torture in the pits of hell, is my freedom to openly mock that ridiculous (and frankly, offensive) belief and any man (considered a Prophet or not) that may have uttered the words. But this isn’t what Ishaq is having a tantrum about. He wishes the right for religious folk to believe, and perpetuate out-dated, bigoted & offensive ideas, whilst protecting the religion itself from criticism and satire. As mentioned at the beginning, this is a case of the religious struggling to deal with not being afforded special privileges.

Mohammed Hamid was convicted and jailed for training terrorists for a failed attempt at a second attack in London in 2005. In court, the jury heard recordings of Hamid speaking on those murdered during 7/7 London attacks, in which he said:

“Fifty-two? That’s not even a breakfast for me.”

– It may amaze you, but such a grotesque human being with so little sense of human decency has at least one supporter. That supporter is Uthman Lateef. Lateef signed the “concerned about peace & security” statement shown in The Guardian yesterday. Here is Lateef on his Facebook profile:

Untitled
– So to neatly summarise yesterday’s tantrum, several of those signatures are from an illiberal group whose constitution and the author of that constitution calls for death to apostates, oppression for women, dehumanising non-believers (a joyful existence we’re expected to pay for), controlling the minds of our children for the sake of the perpetuation of the faith, the suppression of free expression, oppressing homosexuality, anti-Semitism, and all out war on Israel, followed by another signature from a man who offers his support to a hideous convict unhappy that not enough people had been brutally murdered in the July 7th attacks. The irony of the entire statement is that several of those accusing the government of “crude and divisive” tactics, themselves are some of the most crude and divisive, illiberal, and anti-secular people in the country. They just want us to be a little bit nicer to them.

For another excellent response to yesterday’s joint statement, see Homo Economicus Blog.


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.


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.


The nature of religious privilege…

December 29, 2014

On BBC local radio here in the UK after the Sydney cafe siege, the presenter had a conversation with a local Imam on the subject of religious extremism. The Imam reiterated that the attacker was a lone nut, who didn’t represent Muslims. The conversation was one of damage limitation and worry for Muslims who may be abused and attacked in the aftermath. The rise of anti-Muslim hate must be addressed – one would hope with the promotion of civil rights & protections for all – but I was unsure that the conversation on BBC local radio that day was particularly helpful, when at one point, the presenter insisted that ‘all religions promote peace and love‘. To begin from that uncritical premise – as if it is a matter of undeniable fact – is just as problematic as beginning from the premise that all religions are violent and oppressive. The problem of religious dogma – that is, the chaining of morality to a single time and place (usually very patriarchal, middle eastern tribal squabbles) – is suddenly dismissed, and other explanations for extremism take its place. The rise of ISIS was blamed on Blair, Bush, and the Iraq war, sometimes on Israel, but little attention payed to religious dogma. It is almost as if it is too uncomfortable to accept that such ingrained religious traditions & much loved religious ideas may present issues within themselves and autonomous of surrounding context. And so it is a distinct religious privilege, to free its problematic dogma from shouldering any blame for extremism, instead blaming everyone else for its problems. No other ideological framework of power has that privilege. But it isn’t the only privilege religions currently enjoy…

When the debate over same-sex marriage came up before Parliament last year, the only dissenting voices – and those who believed themselves to have the privileged right to tell others whom they can and can’t marry – were those of the religious. It is as if “it’s unnatural, because Leviticus says so” is a legitimate argument in a 21st century that has extensive knowledge of the natural spectrum of sexuality. It is therefore a religious privilege for Christians to believe that firstly they own the institution of marriage; Secondly, that they and they alone have the right to tell others whom they can and cannot marry based on discredited myths; and thirdly, that breaking the barriers to equal rights and freedoms regardless of sexuality, is an assault on Christianity.

It is breathtakingly delusional to believe that extending rights that you have always enjoyed, to those traditionally oppressed by your faith, is oppressing you. It is even more delusional to assume that the institution of marriage is a solely Christian, unchangeable institution. Hebrew society engaged in polygamy much of the time, it certainly wasn’t frowned upon. Monogamy in a marriage is a pretty new development. We know that the Mohammad married Aisha when she was 6 years old. In Ancient Rome, marriage was civil, it was not overtly religious. In India, if the bride was born when Mars and Saturn are “under the 7th house”, she is considered cursed and could end up murdering her husband. And so to break the curse, the bride must first marry a tree, the tree is then destroyed, and the bride is free from the curse forever. In the Tidong community in Northern Borneo, after marriage, the couple must not urinate for three days. Marriage is not official within the Neur tribe in Sudan, until the bride has had two children. It was only in 1967, that the US allowed interracial marriage. By 1910, Arizona, California, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah had all banned interracial marriage. And what was used to justify anti-miscegenation laws in the US? Of course it was the Bible. The destruction of all other concepts of marriage, to the benefit of just one concept – the Christian concept – and then attempting to ensure that single concept reigns supreme, is wildly oppressive to say the very least.

A couple of months ago on the Bill Maher show over in the United States, in a debate on extremism Sam Harris referred to Islam as the ‘mother lode of bad ideas‘. Consequently, actor Ben Affleck- also appearing on the show – referred to Harris’ statement as ‘racist‘. It is a curious criticism and one that had me considering the unique nature of religious privilege, the language that sustains it, and its lashing out – by among other things, demonising criticism – when challenged. It is a religious privilege to be able to claim racism at criticisms of an idea. As a secular liberal, I define racism as the institutional disenfranchising and denial of equal civil rights based on ethnicity. Language can & does of course further add to the perpetual dehumanising of an ethnicity. Also as a secular liberal, I believe all ideas must be up for inquiry, criticism, satire, and mockery. Religions are not immune to this, nor should they be. Racism is not criticism, or even complete contempt for a religion. Much like racism is not criticism, or even complete contempt for a political ideology. Further, and by implication, I would argue that if words that offend a religion are to be deemed racism, then equally words that offend non-believers must also be deemed racism. And so, left-leaning commentators like Mehdi Hasan would be deemed racist, for rants like:

“We know that keeping the moral high-ground is key. Once we lose the moral high-ground we are no different from the rest of the non-Muslims; from the rest of those human beings who live their lives as animals, bending any rule to fulfil any desire.”

– I am quite certain that if Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris had referred to all Muslims as ‘living like animals’, Hasan would be the first to call racism. Further, the New Testament, Old Testament, and Qur’an would be deemed incredibly racist books. Most chapters of the Qur’an begin with God explaining how great he is (a little arrogant), followed by a lovely little description of the fate that awaits those of us who have not been convinced that a God exists:

“[10:4] To Him is your return. This is Allah’s promise that will certainly come true. Surely it is He Who brings about the creation of all and He will repeat it so that He may justly reward those who believe and do righteous deeds, and those who disbelieve may have a draught of boiling water and suffer a painful chastisement for their denying the Truth.”

– Whilst Sam Harris simply referred to a religion as a bad idea and was deemed racist for doing so, Holy Books go beyond criticism, and become threats of eternal torture for non-belief. This of course would also mean that the idea of a Caliphate – in which non-believers are barred from highest office – is institutionally racist. It would mean that South Carolina was institutionally racist when Herb Silverman ran for the post of Governor in 1992 but was discarded from the race for refusing to swear an oath to God. It took five whole years for the courts to rule in his favour. It is therefore a massive religious privilege to demand and expect respect for a book that threatens people like me, with religious institutions that disenfranchise anyone ‘outside’ of the religion, whilst yelling racism if I am to call that book the ‘mother lode of bad ideas’. If one is to be considered racism, so must the other.

Along with compulsory worship in schools, and a Monarch whom also happens to be head of the Church of England, it is a religious privilege in the UK, for over 25 Bishops to have a permanent position in the national legislature, as if they have some sort of natural right to consider legislation based solely on which invisible being it is they believe in. To be called ‘Lords Spiritual‘, as if spirituality is a supernatural phenomena consigned to the religious only. The perpetuation of privilege based on the bizarre belief that a deeper understanding of a very unproven deity somehow grants one a position to legislate above the rest of us. It is worth noting that no religious scholar has any more of an idea about what happens after we die, than the rest of us, and that filling in that gap in human knowledge with myths is a ‘science’ consigned to the history books in every other realm of human understanding, yet when it comes to this particular question, we put Bishops in the Lords for their adherence to 1st Century Palestinian myths. It is also worth noting that spirituality does not in any way require a belief in God, or an afterlife, and is a perfectly natural and human trait. Religious supremacy has no more place in a national legislature, than racial supremacy, sexuality supremacy or gender supremacy. The very fact that structures of religious supremacy are not treated with the same contempt as those of racial, or gender supremacy, is in itself, a vast privilege milked for every drop it is worth by those in positions of religious power.

Often, religious privilege is sustained by the powerful few, & the denial of many. Those who are so invested in their religion, refuse to accept that it might be flawed. Jumping back to the racism theme, not too long ago Twitter exploded in rage at Lady Gaga wearing a full face veil. The charge was that she – a white westerner – had ‘appropriated’ a cultural symbol of the Islamic east. It is a wildly hypocritical religious privilege to claim the veil for one religion, thus dismissing it from every other culture that has ever used the veil, whilst refusing to acknowledge that Islam has appropriated Christian & Pagan stories, Temple Mount, the Hagia Sofia, the Palestinian freedom cause (Palestinians are all who live there – not simply heterosexual Muslim men), every piece of land deemed to be “Muslim land” (no land belongs to a religion), and when Mo Ansar recently mentioned the French invading Muslim Tunisia in the 19th Century as an act of western imperialism, he neglected to mention that Tunisia was only “Muslim” by the 19th Century, because imperialist Arab Muslims had invaded it and established the Arab Aghlabids dynasty in the first place. It is a religious privilege to rewrite history by deflecting onto others, the often violent ‘appropriation’ of cultural symbols into its own black hole.

It is a religious privilege for Christianity to be so enshrined into state constitutions, that it requires a national constitution to protect everyone else:
Arkansas’ Constitution:

No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this
State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.

Maryland Constitution, Article 37:

That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.

Mississippi Constitution, Article 14, Section 265:

No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this State.

South Carolina Constitution, Article 17, Section 4:

No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.

Tennessee Constitution, Article 9, Section 2:

No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State.

Texas Constitution, Article 1, Section 4:

No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

The list of religious privileges is endless. It includes Jehovah’s Witness families torn apart if a member decides they don’t believe any more. It includes apostates dehumanised and abused for leaving Islam & then referred to as ‘Islamophobic’ if they dare to speak out. It includes women covered from head to toe so as to not arouse the apparently uncontrollable lust of men. It includes Uganda’s Christian Minister for Ethics condemning homosexuals to a life of fear, whilst insisting that the rape of young girls in his country is, and I quote:

“… the right kind of child rape. It is men raping girls and that is natural.”

– It includes Pakistan’s grotesque blasphemy laws that punishes the ‘offending’ believers, whilst institutionalises the ‘offending’ of non-believers. It includes the Boy Scouts of America prohibiting the inclusions of atheists and whose charter states:

“The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.”

– It includes ‘In God we trust’ and ‘One nation under God’ placed on US institutions in blatant disregard of the secular founding. It includes Iran murdering gay people because an ancient, unenlightened, out-of-date myth condemns homosexuality and is taught to impressionable young minds as truth – despite the fact that many of those young minds, will be gay – whilst neglecting to teach the actual biology and genetic base for sexuality. It includes all of these things causing little uproar, whilst a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, or a “There is no God” billboard on the side of buses causes the religious to insist that their faith is under severe attack. It is the moment the religion of one, extends to control the liberty of another. In short, the nature of religious privilege.


Re: The $100,000 atheist challenge.

September 5, 2014

Dear Joshua Feuerstein,

Your recent YouTube video challenging atheists to disprove god for $100,000 has, as you know, received a lot of attention and criticism. I thought I’d offer my thoughts on why I am an atheist, and why it is unlikely that your God exists, because, well, I could really use that $100,000. I have four quick points I wanted to make:

Firstly, it’s important to note what the atheist proposition actually is. Contrary to your statement that we’re trying to claim there is no god that exists outside of our individual knowledge, we invite you to provide evidence that there is, at that point we can have a meaningful discussion. You cannot just assert the existence of a god, and decide it’s meaningful, without it actually based on anything other than you just asserting it. I could assert that I have an invisible, silent monkey on my shoulder, and the fact that the claim cannot be tested and proved or negated doesn’t render it more likely to be true, it renders it the opposite. Very few – if any at all – of us would ever claim with certainty that god doesn’t exist. We simply claim that there is no reason to believe god does exist, and that believers throughout history have never provided a substantial reason for us to believe god exists. The fact that we provide evidence that gravity exists, rather than forcing people by the sword to accept gravity without criticism, implies that evidence can stand on its own whilst precarious falsehoods require coercion to survive.
We do not claim certainty on anything. We do not even claim certainty on the Earth being a sphere. We assert that we are 99.9999% sure that the Earth is a sphere, but we leave 0.0001% open to doubt, because doubt is what drives scientific progress. We do not shut out all arguments that the Earth is not a sphere, instead we weigh the evidence. If the evidence for one position holds greater than the evidence for the other, we accept it. We want to disprove assertions, in order to come to stronger assertions about the nature of nature. So again, my proposition is that you have not provided any reason for me to believe a god exists; this is entirely different from insisting with certainty that god doesn’t exist. Further, by weighing the arguments for gods existence (usually the cosmological argument – which I try to refute here), and the teleological (from design/fine tuning) argument (which has been masterfully refuted by Victor Stenger – though I’d argue that an infinite and unrestricted god could create life for any possible universe, and so the ‘fine tuning’ is rendered unnecessary), and the moral dimension (which you predictably brought up with regards Hitler, and which I wrote on here) I come to the conclusion that I am 99.999% sure that god doesn’t exist. And since you asked for “proof or evidence“, I thought I’d provide what I’d consider evidence that god doesn’t exist.

Secondly, since all the arguments for the existence of god seem to be philosophical in nature, the refutations must be philosophical (when you provide material evidence, we can then scrutinise and attempt to refute it in the way we do with everything else). And from a philosophical point of reference – whilst based on what we know of the observable universe – the idea of a god seems to me to be entirely self defeating. Prof. Hawking notes:

“Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang.”

– With that in mind, let’s examine the implications. If time began at the big bang, by implication everything that exists – since existence requires time (unless you have evidence to the contrary?) – has therefore always existed. There was never a moment when ‘nothing’ could exist. There was never a ‘before’ the big bang, given that ‘before’ denotes a measurement of time, and is entirely reliant on time existing. Also reliant on time, is cause. Since the cosmological argument argues that everything that begins to exist has a creator, we must be consistent and accept that everything that begins to exist, was created in time and space. If god therefore created time and space, He would have required time and space in order to create time and space. We are left with three options; 1) Accepting the absurdity of that. 2) Asserting that god exists in another realm of space and time, that he used to create this realm of space and time. Or 3) Causation does not require space and time at all. If we take option 1, well, you’re close to owing me $100,000. If we take option 2, then you need to provide evidence for a time outside of time, it’s characteristics, and whether or not that realm of time preceded god, which then becomes an endless chain of realms of time, before you give up and accept that what we know of time appears to render god obsolete. Or we could take option 3, which is to say, we require abandoning everything we know of space and time, and starting from scratch, which would only eventually lead us back to where we are now.

Thirdly, there is nothing in nature that requires divine intervention in order to exist. Life itself, did not require the hand of a creator. The entire basis of modern medicine, of modern biology, zoology, genetics, botany, is based on evolution by natural selection (note, this is different from the social Darwinist example you raise when you ask “how is Hitler not the fittest?”). If you seek to suggest that the beautiful tapestry of nature came about not by natural selection, but by divine magic, I await your thesis disproving the basis for all modern biology, zoology, medicine, genetics and botany and replacing with a theistic model. Good luck with that. Whilst it’s true that the biochemical study of the origins of life are yet to fully understand how life sprang into existence, there is no reason to place god in the gap. Indeed, the god-in-the-gap answer has a terrible track record of being wrong on every occasion, and so there’s little reason to suspect it is true on this occasion. By contrast, the scientific method has a pretty great track record.

Fourthly, a quick mention of your suggestion that the knowledge that murder is wrong – and moral principles – came from a divine source. You are right that our ability to deduce right from wrong is an in-built concept (though devout religious folk over the centuries appear to be the exception, as they murdered their way across the globe). But a lack of divine moral structure, does not imply that all moral conclusions must therefore be equal, dismissed as equal opinions. Our understanding of right and wrong is the result of a complex set of ideas. Murder contradicts our evolved ability to empathise with others, whilst posing a direct threat to our survival as a species if accepted universally. We rationalise, and we empathise, and we come to conclusions based on what we understand at that point in time. Sometimes we get it wrong, but we progress. Empathy is an evolved trait from the earliest days of mammal life. From taking care of young, to group living in order to survive, empathy was required for species survival. This isn’t a guess. neurologists invest vast time, and effort into understanding the evolution of empathy. We empathise; that is to say, we imagine ourselves in the position of the other. As we expanded, grew together, asked questions, created art, philosophised, our social needs evolved with them, and morality became very complex. Is that a basis itself for objective moral standards? Perhaps, though not in the form crafted by the religious, of an outside standard that transcends humanity. It is as much a part of our nature, as breathing. It is not separate from humanity. If indeed morality were a set of distinct rules, separate from humanity, existing prior to humanity, set out by a God, it would make sense – if God is to be considered ‘good’ – for those rules to be succinct and lacking ambiguity when handed to humanity. For those rules to be ambiguous, requiring 200,000 years of human suffering and violence to attempt to work out – which God would have known, given that he can see all of time and space – implies a vastly immoral game by the divine rule giver.

Lastly, I think a far better explanation for the origins of the concept of god stem from our evolved sense of curiosity and language to convey that curiosity through art, stories, music etc. At the primitive age of our species, a time in which rainbows were inexplicable and an earthquake was a sure sign that a small tribe had angered god, we had no explanations based in observable science. But we do have wonderful imaginations, a desire to understand, and we appeal to forces beyond our understanding, because we’re influenced by mystery. At a time when tribes across the World wished to explain the origins of their community, we see wonderful stories of Romulus of Rome, we see P’an Ku’s egg in China, we see the Lakota tell the tale of Ite, and we see the people in around Judea tell the story of Adam & Eve. We are a beautifully imaginative species, but when we apply the scientific method based on observed and repeated evidence, instead of coming closer to proving god, we shrink the space in which he resides, whilst at the same time sending Voyager 1 to the very limits of the solar system and beyond, and creating the internet for you to issue challenges. The scientific method works, and it hasn’t led to god. That is why I am atheist.

Sincerely,

Futile Democracy.


Defining Islamism.

August 31, 2014

There has been a curious holding of hands in recent years between the Western political far right and those of the Islamist persuasion, both insisting that any individual interpretation of Islam and the definition of Islamism are in fact one in the same. The rhetoric from both is eerily similar in many instances. They both do not care too much for equal secular and liberal protections, and seek to restrict liberty for those they don’t particularly like – this is clear from the Bendigo Mosque case, and the anti-secular opposition to it – and they both insist that a state controlled by the dictates of one faith, is a duty for every Muslim to work to fulfill; a narrative used to justify oppression from both sides of that aisle. The implication is that anyone identifying as a Muslim, but not subscribing to a World domination interpretation of their faith, is not a ‘real‘ Muslim. When it comes to conflating personal faith, with political ideology, both the Western far right and Islamists agree.

The implication that any Muslim not actively pursuing a Caliphate is not a ‘real Muslim’ is a weak one of course, because no single Muslim has the privilege of speaking for the entire faith, nor carrying the definitive interpretation of the faith. Belief is dependent on a variety of concepts, not least personal life experience, socio-economic status, all working in unison to produce an individual interpretation. Islam; the Qur’an and Hadith are so vast in content, anchored to a time and place we know so little about, with a long history of contradiction that no one in the 21st Century can claim a definitive interpretation. Indeed, whilst we see Islamists insisting that homosexual people must be oppressed in the most abhorrent ways, we also see a Swedish Imam blessing a Muslim same-sex marriage last week, and wonderful Islamic gay rights groups like the Al-Fatiha Foundation working to protect and advance the rights of the Muslim LGBT community. Whilst we see ISIS beheading its way across the Middle East, justifying its hideous actions with Quranic passages, we see Imam’s like Dr Usama Hasan issue religious edicts condemning the group, using Quranic passages also. The scope for interpretation is so vast, that for anyone to claim to be speaking for the entire faith, speaks only to their own deluded sense of superiority.

So what do we mean by Islamism? Some claim it is a term that is so diluted, it is indefinable. I disagree. I think it has a clear definition. I’ve had this debate on social media over the past few days, and I’m yet to come across a notable objection to the term, that offers any reason to think the term itself is indefinable.

How I define & use the term Islamism:
A desire to enshrine Islam into the mechanisms of state, with law and rights based on the Shariah. The desire to elevate Islam to state privilege and power.
You may reasonably be described as Islamist, if you believe that I should be free, until my freedom contradicts the Shariah.

Indeed, the Sudanese Islamist leader Hasan al-Turabi uses the term ‘Islamism’ as I use it, in his book ‘Islam and Government‘. Al-Turabi notes that Islamists are:

“Political Muslims for whom Islam is the solution, Islam is religion and government, Islam is the constitution and law.”

– That’s it. It’s that simple. If an individual believes my liberty should be dependent entirely on the dictates of Islam – believing Islam having any inherent jurisdiction over my life whatsoever – this is Islamism. this is Islamism. Erecting institutional barriers to freedom according to the principles of Islam (however you interpret the principles), is Islamism. If an individual believes Islam must be granted state privilege of any variety, this is Islamism. If an individual believes my right to pursue my own goals ends where the religion of Islam begins, this is Islamism. The means of achieving that end may vary between democratically elected heads of state like Erdoğan slowly de-secularising a country and privileging one faith, or violent extremists willing to go the extra mile and wipe out all opposition (note; that is not to say that all violent extremists are Islamists). Indeed, the two may vehemently disagree with each other on progressing the end goal, or may differ theologically (some may argue that apostates deserve execution, others may not; the fact that both believe they have a right to decide whether an apostate lives or dies, rather than neither a believer nor an apostate having any right to decide who lives or dies, is the point), but the end goal remains the same. Whether you parade the streets of London with a sign reading ‘Freedom go to hell!’, or you wear a suit, attend a nation’s Parliament and seek to impose Islam by restricting equal civil liberty via an outwardly respectable legislative process; the end goal is the same.

When I peer out of my window, I see two trees, both of different appearance and levels of imposition. There’s a big tree with red leaves that blocks direct sun light from entering my window after a certain time. There’s a tiny tree with green leaves that balances precariously during windy nights. The two are very similar yet contain nuances that suggest differences; we still call both a tree, because the nuances do not negate the roots. It is fair to say that all ‘isms’, though rooted to the same principles, contain degrees of nuance to the point where one may refer to another as ‘not a real…[insert ism as applicable]’. An ‘ism’ is an umbrella term for a set of ideas. Socialism has a wildly varying degree of proponents from the peaceful to the violent, all seeking a similar goal. With Islamism, the nuances – the means of achieving control of the apparatus of state for Islam; thus the lives of others – may differ, but the principle itself remains the same. If you believe the liberty of others should be chained to the religious dictates of the faith of Islam – however you see that goal achieved – this is Islamism. I am yet to understand why this is a controversial definition, though I suspect it is less controversial, and more uncomfortable for some who fall under this definition.

One objection appears to be that we do not share similar terms with those of others faiths working toward the same end. I agree with this objection to a point, though fail to see how it negates the solid definition of the term ‘Islamism’. It simply – and rightly – suggests inconsistent use elsewhere. In the past, we have used ‘Clerical fascism’ – a well defined term focused on Christianity. In the 21st Century, we tend to refer – perhaps sloppily – to those we should refer to as Christianists as the Christian-right. We don’t refer to Islamists as the Muslim-right. This isn’t a distinction without meaning. We do this largely because by the 1950s, what we should call Christianism started to become aligned to the mainstream political right wing, especially in the US, and had several successes, not least ‘In God We Trust’ placed everywhere, slowly chipping away at the principle of church/state separation. The Christian-right are to this day aligned to the Republican Party, continuing its fight to enshrine Christian privilege into the mechanism of state (particularly Oklahoma). It is a similar tale in the UK. It was unsurprising that the voices of dissent over the UK’s same-sex marriage bill, were almost all conservatives (Tory and UKIP), using a Christian narrative in order to withhold equal rights for others. Tony Abbott’s right winged Liberal Party in Australia, appears to favour Christian dogma, over secular liberalism. That relationship between Islamists and mainstream politics isn’t as clear as it has been for their Christianist counterparts and so the term ‘Muslim-right’ would be wholly inadequate. So we use ‘Islamism’ – a term that seems to have gained its rebirth as an new concept in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution through to 9/11 and beyond; and so both ‘Christian-right’ and ‘Islamism’ are founded upon a social, historical context, both with a very clear foundation in the desire to impose the faith of one, over the lives of others through the functions of state.

Perhaps our familiarity with the term ‘Christian-right’ is a reason we do not change it to ‘Christianism’, we already have an established term. Indeed, whilst the term ‘Christianism’ and ‘Christianists’ is at times used – A Time article and Guardian article use it – I would argue that it isn’t used enough (on this blogging platform ‘Islamist’ is recognised as a real word, whilst ‘Christianist’ is underlined to suggest a spelling error) and that it is an objection Muslims are right to raise, though not in the context of negating or diluting the clear definition of ‘Islamism’ (as the Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mohammed Amin implied here, whilst bizarrely questioning why the media doesn’t offer a positive image of Islamism from time to time).

As noted at the beginning of the previous paragraph, the lack of a similar word (not a lack of any word, because we absolutely do use other terms to describe them that mean the same thing) for those of other faiths progressing the same desire, does not negate the definition of Islamism as an ideological narrative that seeks to control the lives of others, according to the dictates of Islam. This is a political narrative, and regardless of what both Islamists and the Western far-right insist, is not a term to be used interchangeably with Islam. And so as far as I can tell, the definition of Islamism may be uncomfortable for some, but stands as a perfectly adequate definition.


The fallacy of religious ‘objective morality’.

August 29, 2014

All atheists have come up against it at some point in their lives. Along with ‘so you think everything came from nothing?’, it is the main weapon in the ever shrinking theist arsenal. I’m talking of course, about the obsession with ‘objective’ morality and the absurdity that follows; ‘How can you condemn Hitler? By what standard?’ At first glance, it sounds like a philosophical conundrum that we may find troubling to deal with. But scratch the surface, and it really isn’t that difficult to respond to, without even having to begin to quote vastly immoral passages from those books.

There are several key problems, but the one I wanted to focus on is the misguided belief that religion provides a desirable objective moral standard. It is simply untrue that a moral
Statement magically transforms from ‘subjective’ to ‘objective’ by preceding it with a simple “my God says….”. I thought I’d highlight where I see the problems:

Firstly, to insist on an ‘objective’ moral base sent straight from heaven to humanity – the very base upon which a ‘subjective’ moral conclusion becomes ‘objective’ – one must conclusively prove the existence of your particular God. This means not simply convincing yourself of the existence of God, but convincing the rest of us also. Otherwise, the word ‘objective’ seems very familiar to the word ‘subjective’ and any moral judgement can be declared ‘objective’ if it is preceded with the phrase “My God said…“. We often hear from the religious the rather manipulative dichotomy presented as ‘Man’s law, or God’s law‘. Without first proving the existence of your God, what that dichotomy actually breaks down to, is 21st century Man’s law, or 1st/7th century Man’s law. If you cannot conclusively prove the existence of your God (this requires first proving the existence of a creator, followed by proof that the creator is all ‘good’ rather than all ‘evil’, followed by the leap from creator to your specific God) – through more than simple philosophical guesswork – the case for ‘objective morality’ or ‘God’s law’ falls before it’s even begun.

Secondly, both the Bible and Qur’an are subject to a myriad of interpretations and continual revisions depending on the context of the time and place, and the individual believer. Sit a liberal, secular Christian in a room with the Westboro Baptist Church, and the differences between them will be an ocean the size of the Pacific. Indeed, we see members of ISIS differing intensely in interpreting Islam’s ‘objective moral base’ from that of their immediate family members. If members of the same faith, in the same household, cannot agree on the meaning of countless ambiguous passages, nor can scholars over the course of time agree, constantly revising its meanings to fit a more modern narrative, it doesn’t get the luxury of being referred to as an ‘objective base’ for morality. If a divine being sent down obscure passages that believers in the same house hold cannot agree on, I’m afraid that reflects terribly on God’s ability to convey his message.

Thirdly, our nature is often – not always – in direct conflict with the idea of objective moral standards. Religion did not inform us that senseless murder is wrong (often, religion permits murder). We know this intuitively, and we punish murder, because murder contradicts our evolved ability to empathise with others, whilst posing a direct threat to our survival as a species if accepted universally. We empathise; that is to say, we imagine ourselves in the position of the other. Is that a basis itself for objective moral standards? Perhaps, though not in the form crafted by the religious, of an outside standard that transcends humanity. It is as much a part of our nature, as breathing. It is not separate from humanity. If indeed morality were a set of distinct rules, separate from humanity, existing prior to humanity, set out by a God, it would make sense – if God is to be considered ‘good’ – for those rules to be succinct and lacking ambiguity when handed to humanity. For those rules to be ambiguous, requiring 200,000 years of human suffering and violence to attempt to work out, implies a vastly immoral game by the divine rule giver.

It is then essential to note that humanity is not perfect. We are a wonderful yet very flawed species, and that reflects on our collective ideals over time, as we learn and grow. Morality is informed by complex interactions, including but my no means limited to our collective knowledge, our history, our mistakes, our experiences, and our evolved human intelligence – this essentially includes empathy and the ability to rationalise – at any given time. We are a complex species with deep flaws. Morality does not escape that. It evolved from our basic need to cooperate in order to survive the harshest of conditions, and grew as we grew. It is a natural condition in which without it, humanity would not have survived. Indeed, morality is essential for the survival of our species, yet not confined to our species. We see through the research of primatologists like Frans de Waal that our ape cousins show basic forms of moral reasoning; cooperation, conflict resolution etc. Morality is natural, and ever evolving. As with most natural occurrences – sexuality, gender, spirituality – religions tend to try to grab hold of nature, as if they own it, and shape it to fit the dictates of the faith, which in turn has the most awful consequences for those ‘outside’ of its narrow spectrum of what is to be considered God’s plan. In the case of morality, chaining moral progress by attempting to anchor moral ideals to tribal squabbles of 1st Century Palestine or 7th Century Arabia, and the obscurity of the passages that emerged as a result of those squabbles, is a distortion of nature, an attempt to reshape our nature, and by extension will without exception always end in oppression, because it cannot abide the nature of updated knowledge that contradicts 1st or 7th century far less informed dictates. From lands that were very patriarchal and very heterosexual dominated, it should come as no surprise that heterosexual males are the ones who coincidentally, God seems to offer the most privileges and power.

Further, there is a bizarre suggestion from the faithful, that no divine objective set of moral standards implies all moral conclusions are to be considered equal. For me, this isn’t true. One moral conclusion may be based on the available evidence and data, applied on a framework of our natural inclinations encompassing empathy among others, whilst the opposing moral conclusion may lack all evidence basing itself on mere belief, dismissing all contrary consideration. The two are not to be considered of equal weight. This is why I object to the reductive terms “objective” and “subjective” when speaking of morality. I don’t accept either.

So, we have noted that what the religious refer to as ‘objective’ requires as a bare minimum the conclusive proof of the existence of their particular God to begin its journey to actual objectivity; that what they tend to call ‘objective’ right now is simply their own subjective interpretation of ambiguous passages; and that anchoring morality to the moral ideals of a specific time and place is both unnatural, and by definition oppressive. So when theists insist that you as an atheist do not have an objective moral base distinct from humanity itself, by which to make moral judgements, the simple answer is; neither do you.


Spirituality does not require religion.

August 26, 2014

Buddhist Temple in Leshan, China.

Buddhist Temple in Leshan, China.

Back in 2010, the culture editor of Jesuit magazine ‘America’, the Jesuit priest Reverend James Martin wrote a book titled ‘The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything‘, in it, he criticises those who consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. I thought I’d offer my criticisms of several points Martin raises.

I felt it worth pointing out first – as a reference – exactly what spirituality means to me. For me, spirituality is serious inner engagement with what it means to be human. Whether we as individuals choose to involve religion or not in our personal journey, we are all spiritual, because we are all flawed and we do not like flaws. As a complex and diverse species blessed with curiosity and a burning desire for definitive answers – this, I believe is the reason for the development of religion – we cannot deal too well with flaws. We want definitive answers now. Prior to the scientific method of inquiry, we invented wonderful tales and myths to explain the seemingly inexplicable – and often terrifying – in a simple way, because we need answers, even when answers seem so complex and far away. It is how we explained volcanoes and earthquakes, rainbows and vast oceans. Not only that, but we evolved as a group species, across habitats, with a yearning for individual freedom, creating diverse social bonds. We are intrigued by beauty, we cry at the pain of others, we try to grasp fleeting happiness and make it last, we have different triggers that anger us, and we have no idea what the hell is going on most of the time, and that’s a frightening idea. We are simply very confused apes. Spirituality is a way we deal with that confusion. Evolved human intelligence has produced brilliant, yet tangled minds that brought great development aiding the survival of the species, but at the cost of inner emotional turmoil that affects us all. Spirituality is simply an individual shaped by the majesty and flaws of human evolution, and by their own experiences and memories, attempting to reconcile those confusions and those contradictions, a sort of unraveling of tangled wires in our minds, by our own minds. If religion helps an individual with that, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too.

Martin says:

“Religion can provide a check against my tendency to think that I am the center of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.”

– For Catholics to speak of their faith as humble, despite having their own city state and a massive palace, takes quite the imagination. And so I would argue the opposite to that which James Martin asserts. Religion does not check a tendency to believe oneself to be the centre of the universe. Quite the opposite, religion teaches that the chosen few are the centre of the universe. We inhabit an infinitesimally small section of time, in a universe so massive in both time and space that it requires great arrogance to believe a small section of a global population on a tiny planet are the ones blessed by a universal creator. We do not know how a universe springs into being. It is religion that teaches us that a personal God did it. A God that created everything specifically for humans, and cares who you have sex with. Indeed, not only are the chosen few the centre of the universe, not only was all of time waiting for over 13 billion years for them to spring up for a few seconds, but the rules of the chosen few must be placed upon those who do not adhere to its beliefs. The shackles of religious privilege in a secular country like the US can be quite clearly observed when we note how long it is taking to afford equal rights to same-sex couples, and the absurdity by which Christian bosses at Hobby Lobby believe the private lives of their employees, are to be linked to God against their will. We see ISIS insisting that their brand of Islam must engulf an entire region, whether the people of that region accept it or not. Martin’s implication that spirituality requires religion, is not humility, nor is it checking a tendency to believe oneself the centre of the universe. It is the exact opposite.

“More problematic than Sheilaism are spiritualities entirely focused on the self, with no place for humility, self-critique or any sense of responsibility for the community. Certain “New Age” movements find their goal not in God, or even the greater good, but in self-improvement — a valuable goal — but one that can degenerate into selfishness.”

– This strikes me as a particularly bizarre passage. The implication is that without a religious base for spiritual development, there can be no sense of humility (again, ironic given the history of the Catholic church), self-critique, or sense of responsibility, yet the goal is self improvement; which requires self-crique, and a sense of humility and responsibility. Critique, humility, and a sense of responsibility are not wholly owned subsidiaries of the religious community, which is why Eastern traditions – like Taoism – do not invoke an all powerful personal God for spiritual guidance. Gautama Buddha rejected the notion of a creator and personal God, and by Martin’s standards, Buddhists are therefore lacking a key ingredient to spiritual development. Critique, humility and a sense of communal responsibility are evolved traits from a communal and individual species, that informs our decision making, our daily interactions, and our progress as individuals and as a species. Without the development of human intelligence from Homo Habilis, through to Homo Sapiens, there would be no religion usurping the legacy of our wonderful ancestry. Religion owes its existence to evolved developments in human intelligence, not the other way around.

“Human beings naturally desire to be with one another, and that desire extends to worship. It’s natural to want to worship together, to gather with other people who share your desire for God, and to work with others to fulfill the dreams of your community.”

– This is true. But it’s not limited to gathering for religious purposes. Spiritual people do not require a belief in God to gather and to share spiritual experiences and stories. Church or Mosque or Synagogue are places that may facilitate that communal sense in-built to human beings, but we’ve been gathering, telling stories, painting art works, playing music, listening to each other and progressing long before the first Church sprang up. Secular atheists do not require the invoking of God in order to gather, to share stories, and to ‘work with others to fulfill the dreams of the community’. We don’t believe in a God, so it wouldn’t aid our spiritual journey to do so.

As an atheist, my spiritual journey is an attempt to understand myself on a deeper level, to progress, to love, to be a better person, to experience beauty, to always question my motives and thoughts, to establish my place within the wider community, and to reconcile conflicts in my life and in my mind. It does not require a belief in God.

It appears to me that the Reverend James Martin has attempted to claim spirituality and the natural human ability for self critique and development, for religion. As religious folk attempt to do with morality, it seems the religious are now taking credit for the evolution of human intelligence. Quite contrary to Martin’s attempts, Christianity simply attempted to anchor the moral musings, as well as spiritual developments of a single time and place – 1st Century Palestine – for the rest of forever. Religion therefore jumped on a moral and spiritual train already speeding along the tracks, whilst implying that they have been driving the train all along.


The Island of Secular, Liberal, Democracy.

July 15, 2014

Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800

Involving myself in several debates this week with members of Hizb and their supporters threw up one consistent theme; secular liberal democracy oppresses Muslims, and so by advocating a return of Khilafah, they are in fact fighting oppression (nothing says ‘fighting oppression’ quite like ISIS beheading ordinary people). The obvious question then becomes; how does a system that advocates – according to Hizb’s constitution as drafted by al-Nabhani – the execution of the ex-Muslims (essentially, genocide), and the oppression of the LGBT community, whilst forcing non-Muslims to pay to uphold it and disallowing women from holding high office, get to be considered anything but oppressive?

The response was predictably deflective, the points raised were not addressed (save for the ill-informed “being gay is unnatural” argument often used to defend the hideous oppression of the gay community by religious supremacists), instead opting on far more occasions than I ever considered possible, to just keep insisting that secular, liberal, democracy is in fact an oppressive religion itself. Whilst I’ve argued the case for secular, liberal democracy on several occasions pertaining to the specifics – the veil, or sexuality, free expression, or the building of mosques – I thought I’d use this article to explain my fundamental reasoning behind why I believe secular, liberal, democracy is the opposite of oppression.

Let us imagine there are ten of us on a desert island. We propose to come up with a governing system. Two of the new inhabitants are Muslim. Two Atheist. Two Christian. Two Hindu. Two FutileReligion (my new faith for the purpose of this article). The ten on the island consists heterosexual people, homosexual people, bisexual people, men and women, lighter toned skin and darker toned skin, red haired, blonde haired, blue eyed, green eyed people.

When coming up with our system, we all agree that the green eyed people – on account of having green eyes – have no inherent right to state privilege, nor the blue eye’d people, nor the blonde haired people, nor those with light toned skin. If we were to suggest that green eyed people are entitled the distinct privilege of law making, we imply that no one else is capable. We imply the superiority of one eye colour, to the inferiority of all others. We do so, without any reasonable justification. We therefore not only chain the rights of others whilst privileging green eyed people, we also chain green eyed people who could have their lives improved by the ideas in the minds of the non-green eyed people for improving island living. It is an absurdity. We acknowledge the equality of all when it comes to eye colour. And so we must then ask; if we accept that one particular eye colour isn’t naturally privileged, nor do we accept that the island is naturally a white supremacist island, why would we presume one particular faith must be granted state privilege and supremacy? And if we do believe one particular faith should be permitted an inherent right to state privilege, whose religion shall it be?

Well, the FutileBelievers believe the state should be theirs, and so all Christians and Muslims should be executed immediately for their sinful religion, because FutileGod insists that they are in fact unnatural. We presume that if we call it “God’s law“, it somehow permits it a privileged position to control and punish according to its rules, even those who don’t consider it to be “God’s law“. According to the two Muslims, the state should be Islamic with everyone else paying jizya to uphold the system and that the three gay people on the island should be immediately executed, and the four women disqualified from high office. The four women and the three gay people aren’t given a say in this, because the Muslims automatically presume a right to control those lives, simply on the basis of their personal religious belief. Again, an absurdity. The Christians believe the system should be completely controlled by Christians, with no Muslim being allowed high office, they also seek to burn any condoms they find and your private sex life will essentially be handed over to the two Christians. Muslims don’t get a say over whether they are allowed power in this Christian state, they simply have to deal with being institutionally inferior to their Christian rulers, who have taken it upon themselves to declare supremacy. So, who in this scenario gets to enshrine their particular religion into the framework of state?

Contrary to Hizb and other religious supremacists bizarre notions of oppression, you may note that secular, liberal, democracy enshrines the right to believe whatever it is you choose to believe. It protects that right fully for the individual. No single sect can take that away from you, in a secular, liberal, democracy. It is not anti-religious, it is anti-religious supremacy and privilege. To achieve a state that enshrines religious privilege, and supremacy, requires force and it requires the institutional subduing of others. It is the definition of oppression.

Let us be clear; by privilege I mean the institutionalising of one belief – and so, the power of state handed to two people on the island at all times – into the framework of state; perhaps insisting that gender and sexuality of all inhabitants must be subject to the rules of one faith. I do not mean banning those people from invoking their beliefs when it comes to island debate. Simply, the institutionalising of one belief; The perpetual chaining of everyone to the dictates of the faith of those two. Who gets to make that decision? How might we expect the other 8 react, if the two FutileBelievers were to say “… right, we’re in charge, we now run this place. First thing’s first, all Qur’ans and Bibles are to be burnt“. I imagine they’d react in the same way Catholics reacted when Protestants permitted themselves state privilege and oppression ensued. Or how Shia react when Sunni permit themselves state privilege and oppression ensues. It is a recipe for perpetual oppression and inevitable conflict, because it relies on the oppressed staying quiet and resigning themselves to an inferior status, and history teaches us that if you chain people to the privileged few, those in chains will fight to break them.

We have a situation in which ten people are currently free and equal. Eye colour does not get to control other eye colours, hair colour does not affect our right to participate in society and to an individual life. We extend that principle to belief. The freedoms are equal to all. There are no barriers erected to our liberty. None of those people were born attached to the religious beliefs of any of the others. Therefore, the burden is on those seeking to chain others to their religious beliefs, to convince others to hand over their liberty to that particular belief. As of yet – not just on our island, but on the entire planet – no one has succeeded in convincing others to become subservient to the beliefs of one individual, through anything other than threat and force.

So, how do we develop this impasse into a framework of state? Well, we could all insist that our particular religion is deserving of institutionalised state privilege, that others must be chained to our supernatural beliefs, thus putting us in constant conflict with everyone else on the island who similarly believe themselves privileged, and everyone else subordinate. This is unlikely to end in anything other than violence, when those threatened with the rules of the faith of the other start to break the chains. Or, we could enshrine into the framework, our acceptance that we should all be free to practice our own religion where it does not encroach on the same freedom for others, and where our freedom on the island is not chained to the beliefs of anyone else. We devise a system that is constituted firstly to protect each other, from each other. That is the primary basis of a free and equal society. The freedom of Person A – regardless of sexuality, or gender, ethnicity, or faith – does not end where the religion of Person B begins.

Once individual liberty, to pursue our own goals, is protected through a constitutional framework, we can then all jointly involve ourselves in the political process. The structure of the democratic institutions – be them Parliamentary, or Presidential, direct or representative, comes next. We compromise on decisions that effect us all, we split power, we get it wrong at times, but we learn and we move forward, and our participation in the political process is in no way dependent on our belief, gender, sexuality, hair colour, eye colour, ethnicity, if we’re missing a toe on one foot, or any other biological trait. All of those are irrelevant to our ideas and our participation within society, and so the initial protection of us all is the only possible way to allow everyone our full potential without fear of repression. The burden is on those who seek to remove our liberties, to explain why we should be forced to give them up.

The 10 person society is run on the basis of compromise and free and open debate and discussion. We can inquire, scrutinise, and progress without our ideas and creativity and contribution withheld simply because we have a particular eye colour, gender, or sexuality. If you disagree with a policy, you are free to protest, to run for office on your platform, to scrutinise, to mock, to critique. This is as true for you, as it is for me. This is secular, liberal democracy. It isn’t a religion, and it privileges no single individual or belief above any other. It is the neutral protection of all, from all, and the freedom for all to participate in the process of state. The governing of state in no way inflicts restrictions upon your right to live according to your religion, where your religion does not damage the liberty of anyone else.

To believe secular, liberal democracy is oppressing you, is simply another way to say you believe your faith should be granted state privilege to harm the liberty of others. This isn’t oppressing you, this is denying your determination to oppress others. And on that charge, I absolutely agree, and that is exactly why liberal, secular democratic institutions are the only way to guarantee civil protections for all.


Serving God and Money: Hobby Lobby prove Jesus wrong.

July 1, 2014

Hobby Lobby, Ohio. Author: DangApricot Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hobby Lobby, Ohio.
Picture credit: DangApricot
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision to allow ‘closely held’ companies the right to opt out of secular law, to interfere with the private health decisions of female employees, based on extremely faulty premises and still receive tax benefits, shines a light on Hobby Lobby and their business dealings that might surprise many. Molly Redden at Mother Jones brilliantly reported back in April, that Hobby Lobby has been investing in the very companies that manufacture the pills they have a ‘moral’ objection with providing to their employees.

Hobby Lobby’s employee 401(k) plan held around $73,000,000 in mutual funds for investments in companies that include Pfizer, who make pills that induce abortions, TEVA who make IUDs and Humana; a health insurance company that offer surgical abortions and emergency contraceptives on their plans. Most notably, Hobby Lobby specifically mentioned IUDs, and Plan B as violating their religious principles. They submitted this objection, whilst investing in TEVA and Actevis; two companies that produce Plan B (which simply prevents the ovaries from releasing an egg – Hobby Lobby believe this amounts to murdering a baby) and IUDs.

In short, whilst Hobby Lobby have been seeking to chain women’s health and reproductive rights to the beliefs of the CEO, the company has been profiting from the very drugs they have a ‘moral’ objection to. It’s perhaps also worth noting that Hobby Lobby still covers Viagra for men. Whilst female employees will no longer be able to request morning after pills (manufactured by companies Hobby Lobby invest in, and perfectly acceptable to Hobby Lobby prior to the ACA) on their health plan, men will still be able to request help for erectile problems. The argument seems to be that Viagra aids procreation whilst Plan B and IUDs prevent it. One wonders then how they defend the fact that Hobby Lobby still covers vasectomies for men.

The Hobby Lobby management have appointed themselves the decisions makers for the health and wellbeing of female employees by mandating the boss’s religious views upon employees, whilst simultaneously violating their own apparent ‘moral’ standard when profiting is involved. Hobby Lobby is an extension of the Christian-Right’s war on women, masked as ‘religious freedom’, and completely irrelevant when there’s an opportunity to make more money. I guess the Jesus was wrong, when he said:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
– Matthew 6:24

– Naturally, the Republican Party appear to fully endorse the Supreme Court decision. The Speaker took to his Twitter account to announce that the 5-4 court decision (the five being all men, the four being all women plus one man) was a victory for religious freedom. This shouldn’t surprise anyone given the party’s ceaseless attacks on women’s health and rights over the past few years. From Mitt’s “binders full of women” to Akin’s “legitimate rape” to Chambliss almost whimsically shaking off the seriousness of sexual assault in the military by claiming it’s simply down to young men’s “hormone level created by nature“, to refusals to renew the Violence Against Women Act, to under funding important health services and attempts to completely gut Title X of all funding; the GOP has been the political mouthpiece for obscene gender inequality for the past several years.

It seems apparent to me that if you wish for a healthcare system that ensures employees are dependent on the coverage provided by the company – that they work and contribute to the success of – for basic health and wellbeing, those employees should not be chained to the boss’s fondness for 1st century tribal Palestinian stories. The boss’s religious beliefs have absolutely no connection to the health and wellbeing and individual choices of employees. The sex lives of female employees have nothing to do with the boss of the company. There should be a set standard across the board, secular in nature. The company has no religious beliefs. It is not a person. Indeed, the Founder’s were not fond of corporate entities, believing them to be in need of careful regulation and certainly not to be treated as individual human beings. The boss’s religious beliefs should not be granted an opt out of secular law, nor should a boss be permitted the right to force thousands of employees to abide by his personal religious beliefs, where their choices do not affect his life in any way. A Jehovah’s Witness has no more right to deny an employee access to a blood transfusion, than a Christian has a right to prevent a woman making her own choices on her own sexual health. Health is vital. A company providing access to birth control does nothing to violate the religious freedom of the individual boss, but restricting access to birth control absolutely violates the right of the employee to personal choice and freedom. The CEO is not the company. The CEO is not paying for the health and wellbeing of anyone else, the employees are working for that coverage. They pay for it. The company is everyone who works for it, including the women that Hobby Lobby’s boss David Green doesn’t particularly care about, as he profits from the drugs he seeks to restrict access to, whilst ensuring men can still get it up.


“What makes stoning objectively wrong?”

June 5, 2014

I recently had a discussion with a Muslim guy at a Daw’ah table in the city centre, who held some incredibly extreme views and refused to accept contradictory thought. Afterwards, a friend of mine who considers himself a liberal Muslim, advocates free expression, LGBT rights, and considers the Shari’ah to be a system between him and his God only, told me – quite emotionally – that he does not recognise the Islam that the man at the Daw’ah table was espousing. I was reminded of this fundamental – and growing – split in Muslim thinking during a Newsnight debate between Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam and headteacher Ibrahim Hewitt of Interpal on the subject of extremism in schools. Nawaz asked Hewitt if he would condemn the practice of stoning, homophobia, or amputation of limbs for theft. After deflecting the question, Hewitt said it was a “complex issue”. I took exception to this, finding it particularly unnerving that a headteacher would not openly condemn executing people by throwing rocks at them, chopping off limbs, and dehumanising the LGBT community. After taking issue, I was asked on Twitter:

“But what makes stoning objectively wrong?”

– This curious – and rather grotesque – question echoes a lot of conservative religious apologists when seeking to defend abhorrent and archaic practices, by philosophising on objectivity in the hope of giving themselves a base by which they can legitimise the oppression of others. I find the framing of the question to be aimed in the wrong direction, and based on an incredibly faulty premise. The question presumes that the burden is on those of us who do not wish to be controlled by a single faith, to provide an explanation as to why our life is ours, and not owned by their religion.

The framing of the question – by presuming the burden is on us – implies a self evident privileged position for those that claim stoning is ‘objectively right‘, and that it is up to the rest of us to argue that it is in fact, wrong. The premise of the question itself is not proven first, and so the actual question has no reasonable basis. The premise is one in which I am wholly owned and subject to that particular faith, without offering proof as to why that should be true, whether I like it or not. It further implies that if I wish to free myself from the faith of those claiming ownership of my life, I must argue why their self-proclaimed right to subject me to religious punishment, is “objectively wrong“. This is an untenable position to start at, because at its core it permits religious folk the right to control me according to their faith, me the right to control their life if I simply say “My God says it’s objectively right“, it permits my neighbour the same right, and her neighbour the same right, and we end up in a situation in which all of us believe we have some sort of divine right to force others to abide by our personal religious beliefs. It is one big hellish Hobbesian condition of war. It offers no reasonable position as to why I shouldn’t be allowed to viciously oppress Muslims, if I simply add the phrase “… because God said so” at the end of an oppressive judgement, without first proving the validity of my premise; or indeed, the existence of my God. On the contrary, it appears to permit that state of all out God-wars. Each of us would thus begin from the position that our belief is true and must be inflicted upon others (whose beliefs must be presumed “objectively” false), without having to first offer conclusive proof. This seems entirely self defeating and based solely on who can subdue the other the quickest.

It seems to me that the only basis for a progressive and civilised society, is one that permits each the freedom to believe and to worship according to one’s conscience, but restricts that freedom at the point in which it inflicts upon the freedoms of others. So the case must be made that it isn’t my burden to explain why it is “objectively wrong” to punish me – with stoning or any other form of punishment – according to your faith. I begin life completely free from ideological dogma and chains. If you seek to erect barriers to my freedom, according to what your faith demands of you, you’re going to have to convince me to go along with it, otherwise it is simply oppression. Your faith does not own me at birth. If you believe it does, conclusively prove it, convince me. If you fail to do so, you have absolutely no authority by which to subject me to the punishments of your religious beliefs. Whether I live or die, must not be decided upon by the religious beliefs of anyone else. Therefore, the burden is yours to explain why it is “objectively right” that I be ideologically chained to your faith in the first place, before I am at all required to offer a rebuttal. It is not up to me to prove that I shouldn’t be subject to your religious beliefs, it is up to you to prove that I should. Good luck with that.


The right to blaspheme.

May 20, 2014

benjamin_franklin

I’m deeply suspicious of those who believe their God expects them to do His dirty work in punishing blasphemy, without their God first offering conclusive proof that He exists. His followers seem to be affording themselves a privileged position – a position in which they free themselves to oppress – based on nothing more than how much they believe in their particular God, and how much the rest of us don’t. Indeed, for those of us who aren’t religious, we see no reason why you shouldn’t be free to believe in faiths that offend our every principle, at the same time as we’re free to ridicule that offensive faith. Neither you, nor I get to privilege ourselves by defining what is and isn’t to be considered universally ‘offensive’ when it comes to beliefs.

Today is international draw Muhammad day. Whilst argument persists about the nature – is it ‘Islamophobic’? Isn’t it? Who cares? – of the idea of ‘draw Muhammad day’, I’m left wondering why no one is concerned about the atmosphere that leads to this sort of a protest in the first place. It is the 21st century, and billions across the World continue to be denied the fundamental human right to express their view, if it happens to contradict the often far more vicious views of those who believe themselves inherently privileged on account of their religion. An atmosphere that appears to afford a bizarre “right” to not be offended – even among Western ‘liberals’ who clearly feel uneasy at offending religious concepts or arguing the superiority of liberal, secular values – a position of higher dignity than the right to self expression.

It is bizarre, because when it comes to individual liberty, only one of those previously mentioned presumed ‘rights’ is by its nature oppressive. When we express, we do not rescind the civil liberty of anyone else, and nor should anyone else – whether in the majority or not – rescind your civil liberty, for expressing contrary opinions. Our civil rights are equal, we are protected, I am simply expressing an opinion that is contrary to yours. I choose the way that I express that opinion, but I have no right to injure your liberty in the process. You might be offended by my expression, and that’s fine. Nothing happens. That’s it. You’re offended, and you move on with your life. Your liberty is protected, as much as mine is. The same is not true, of the presumed “right” to not be offended. This obnoxious presumption can only manifest itself in the removal of civil liberties – through blasphemy laws – of others, and so the privileging of your view above all others. Why – for example – should you have a right to believe in a faith that offends me, yet I shouldn’t have a right to offend that faith? This is you privileging your faith, or faiths in general, claiming ownership over my voice, this is supremacy, and it is by its nature, oppression. It is the claiming of ownership not only of the voices of others, but of skepticism in general. The very fact that you may seek to privilege your specific belief, protecting it from forms of criticism arising from skeptical inquiry on account of how deeply you believe it to be true, is the exact reason it must be open to criticism; to deflate its authoritarian desire to control my freedom to express.

For example, the anti-secular group ‘Christian Voice’ freely expressed their displeasure at homosexuality this week, when they grotesquely stated:

“The Eurovision Song Contest sank to a new low on Saturday night as a bearded homosexual drag artist swept to an overwhelming win.”

– So, given that ‘Christian Voice’ utilises the freedom to express and perpetuate their beliefs without reproach, one has to wonder why they refuse to support that same freedom for others. In 2005 ‘Christian Voice’ threatened to picket outside of the cancer support centre ‘Maggie’s Centres’ if the centre took a £3000 donation from ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’, because it was full of “filth and blasphemy”. The donation would have been used to provide a better standard of palliative cancer care for sufferers and their families. ‘Christian Voice’, not content with dehumanising the LGBT community, also took £3000 away from vital cancer research. This is what happens when the religious claim ‘offence’. Not only do they seek to restrict the liberty of others to express opinions contrary to their own, they’re willing to put lives at risk for that privilege.

Similarly, Rashid Rehman – a lawyer in Pakistan representing a Professor accused of blasphemy – was shot and killed by armed men posing as clients, for defending blasphemy. In Pakistan, for even defending the right to a fair trial for someone accused of simply expressing their opinion, will get you killed. These people appear to be under the curious impression that harming another human being for words, is acceptable. The implication is that Islam must be considered privileged and protected, simply because believers in Islam say so, and you will die if you openly express disagreement. The irony is that one must be severely insecure in one’s beliefs – almost blasphemously so – if seeking to completely eradicate criticism of the faith, and only permitting a single narrative.

Those who seek to punish those deemed to be ‘offending’ faith, tend to be the most offensive people on the planet, themselves. You will find that most religious sects that position themselves as a political entity, seek to restrict criticism of their faith to some degree, whilst freely and happily expressing their own offensive views in public. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Uthman Badar argued that Prophets and religions should be protected from insult. The same Hizb ut-Tahrir that called for the eradication of Jews, and followed on by insisting that homosexuality is an evil that destroys societies. Such is the nature of the child-like followers of organised religion; the hypocrisy, and self indulgent tantrum is breathtaking.

It is worth noting again, that you should be free to believe whatever it is you choose to believe, according to your own conscience, where that belief doesn’t manifest in shackling others to your belief. The state has no inherent right to restrict your personal belief, where it pertains to your life only. But the freedom to express, is as true for me as it is for you. And so if you choose to believe in a faith that seeks to, or has a long history of, condemning all those who don’t quite fit its narrow spectrum for salvation, then you must expect dissent. You must expect criticism and you must expect to have your beliefs offended. You must expect the life and words of your role model and the person you seek to emulate – be it Moses, Abraham, Jesus or Muhammad – critically examined. You must expect to accept that defending the dignity of your God, is irrelevant to those of us who don’t believe, and we won’t be told what we’re entitled to say about your God, by you, especially if the rules laid out by that God offend our principles. You must expect those who abandon a belief in your God, to speak out on their experiences free from harm. You must expect those who have been shackled by your beliefs, to fight to break free from those shackles. You must expect those who find your religion to be morally corrosive, to express exactly why they came to that conclusion, in their own way, and in a way that does nothing to harm your liberty. If your religion is strong, it will combat the falsity of the contrary opinion through reason, rather than force. That is the nature of the basic human right to inquire, to believe, and to express without fear. It comes hand in hand with your right to believe and to express that belief.

Blasphemy laws are an archaic expression of religious supremacy, an irrelevant, and irrational power structure that cannot deal with challenges to its authority in the modern World. We know better now. And so if you are more offended by blasphemy, than you are by the violent removal of the basic human right to expression, your principles desperately require redress.


What secularism isn’t…

March 30, 2014

I’ve always been ever so slightly bemused by the term ‘militant secularist’. It is generally used by two groups primarily; those who wish to oppress the rights of the religious and presume secularism is a backdoor for Sharia. And ironically, the religious sects who think secularism is out to destroy their religion. From both sides, it’s an odd attack.

Secularism is particularly easy concept to grasp. It is quite simply the denial of religious supremacy and privilege – through the power of state – over the lives of others. Civil rights and protections come first. Religious belief is not inherently permitted to interfere with this. And so the term ‘militant secularist’ seems to be an attempt at a slur by religious sects unhappy that their institutional privileges – gained through centuries of erecting hideous barriers to equal civil rights – are increasingly under scrutiny. What is it that constitutes a ‘militant secularist’? Someone who militantly wishes the same protections for you, as for they? Baroness Warsi gave us her unique interpretation of the phrase, whilst completely misrepresenting what secularism actually is:

“For me, what I define as a secular fundamentalist is somebody who says that there should be no public space for faith.”

– And so begins my ‘what secularism is not…’ rant. Secularism is not seeking the outlawing of faith-based arguments in the public space. If someone wishes the state to punish those who argue from a position of faith in the public sphere, they aren’t secularists. For example, every argument against same-sex marriage in the Commons in 2013, was based on faith to some degree. This isn’t banned, nor do secularists wish to ban it. We do not advocate the state punishing anyone for arguing a principle according to their beliefs, nor, even, to stand for election according to those beliefs. I am absolutely fine with The Christian Party existing, with The Islamic Party existing, and I’ll always defend their right to exist. Progress and knowledge derives from free debate and inquiry, on a framework protecting all from oppression. Secularism protects free expression, inquiry, and belief for all. What you are not allowed to do, is force others to live according to the dictates of your religious beliefs only. To do so, is by its nature advocating the supremacy of your individual faith over the freedoms of those who do not subscribe to your beliefs. It presumes the superiority of your beliefs. You’re entitled to this belief, you just have no right to enforce the rest of us to accept it.

In 2012, Peter Popham – foreshadowing Warsi two years later – writing for the Independent, published a curious article entitled “No secularism please, we’re British“. A horrid title that presupposes those of us that hold secular principles dear, are not to be considered British. In it, Popham goes on to misrepresent – or simply misunderstand – secularism, and conflate it with a plethora of completely unrelated ideologies and concepts:

“But the fanaticism of the Islamists has provoked an equally intolerant and intemperate reaction from secular and other quarters, with the ban on headscarves in France and on mosque-building in Switzerland and the rabid anti-Islam rhetoric in the Netherlands; while in Britain it has produced a sudden lurch of opinion among our noisiest public intellectuals against any and all religion. All religions are wrong, goes the argument, everyone knows they are wrong, and their time has expired. As Dawkins put it at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month, faith is “a virus”; he looked forward, he said, to the “complete death of organised religion” in his lifetime.”

– This brings me to my next point on what secularism isn’t. Secularism is not anti-religious oppression. Indeed, for secularists, the idea of the state punishing people for their choice of clothing is grotesquely anti-secular. Whether the state punishes someone for choosing to wear headscarves, or the state punishes someone for choosing not to wear headscarves, for secularists it is equally as oppressive. It is not secularism. Secularism does not grant certain faiths privileges over others. To deny others the right to worship freely where they choose, and to develop property that they are as entitled as me to develop, denying them purely on the basis of what they choose to believe is an act of supremacy and oppression. This is not secularism.

The second point to take from the quote above, is that Popham apparently sees no difference between the French state banning religious garments, and criticism of religion in Britain in general. The two are entirely different concepts, and both have nothing to do with secularism. The former is the state interfering with the private lives and choices of its citizens through threat of punishment – a clear violation of the separation of church and state principle – whilst the latter is individual expression and critique of religion. Secularism ensures an individual the right to wear whatever she or he chooses, without fear of punishment, as well as ensuring the right of the individual to criticise all ideologies. Thus, Popham conflates secularism, with atheism. This ridiculous conflation ignores the myriad of religious secularists, like the wonderful ‘British Muslims for Secular Democracy’. We atheists do not have a monopoly on secularism.

Popham then goes on to rewrite history, in justifying his anti-secular, pro-religious supremacy position:

“What is staggering about the secularists is their arrogance and the shortness of their memories. The materialist utopianism of the Communists and Nazis is to blame for all the worst atrocities of the past century.
Dawkins may appear to make sense, but it is incredible that we should be ready to pay serious attention to a prophet whose message is the same as those whose schemes led straight to the hells of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge.”

– It is difficult to know where to be begin with this, given the amount of misrepresentations to appear in such a short paragraph. I’m choosing to ignore the ridiculous comparison of Richard Dawkins, to every major dictator of the 20th century, because it’s pathetic. I will address the premise of the argument itself. Here, Popham – again conflating secularism with atheism, and both with anti-religious oppression – is entirely wrong. Secularism ensures equal protection for all, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or belief. No single ideology allowed a privileged position to oppress at will. Here’s the wonderful thing about secularism; you can be a secular Christian, a secular Muslim, a secular Atheist, a secular Communist, a secular Fascist. You’re beliefs still are not permitted a place of privilege above any others. You are equally protected, equally free from oppression. The right of Christians to publicly say that homosexuality is unnatural, the right of Wahhabi Muslims to insist that Sharia is greater than secular democracy, is protected by the same laws that protect my right to blaspheme and mock religion. What secularism doesn’t allow for, is a Nazi-esque extermination of an entire religious sect based on the dictates of one ideology (despite Popham’s claim, I am yet to see Richard Dawkins advocate this). For that, a state requires centuries of religious propaganda:

In Germany in 1543, Martin Luther produced his work “On the Jews and their lies“. In it, Luther calls for Jews to be put to work as slaves, for Jewish schools to be burnt to the ground, that Jewish people are the enemy of all Christianity. Johannes Wallmann writes:

“The assertion that Luther’s expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment have been of major and persistent influence in the centuries after the Reformation, and that there exists a continuity between Protestant anti-Judaism and modern racially oriented antisemitism, is at present wide-spread in the literature; since the Second World War it has understandably become the prevailing opinion.”

– Nazi policy toward Jewish people was not a new thing. It was the conclusion of 2000+ years of hideous Church sponsored anti-semitism. Luther is vicious in his criticisms and his ideas for the future. But it wasn’t just Luther. The Nazi precedent of forcing Jewish people to wear something that makes them identifiable as Jews, and inferior to the Christian population, was not a Nazi precedent at all. It began much earlier. The Nazis simply appropriated it. Pope Paul IV issued Papal bull Cum nimis absurdum in 1555. The bull states:

“Moreover, concerning the matter that Jews should be recognizable everywhere: [to this end] men must wear a hat, women, indeed, some other evident sign, yellow in color, that must not be concealed or covered by any means, and must be tightly affixed.”

– The Bull also insisted that Jews be moved to Jewish ghettos:

“…all Jews are to live in only one [quarter] to which there is only one entrance and from which there is but one exit.”

– To suggest that the concept of separating church from state – ensuring freedom of, and freedom from religion – is responsible for the terrors of the 20th century, is so incredibly short sighted, and requires a complete rewrite of history. Indeed, if you need to rewrite history to make your case; you’ve already failed.

As is usually the case when an argument fails on so many logical standards, Popham predictably then gets insulting:

“… religious faith can do what secularism cannot: open doors on to areas of human experience – compassion, altruism, serenity, even enlightenment – which have no meaning for the secularists.”

– Here, Popham has decided not to conflate atheism with secularism anymore, because it suits his purposes not to. For Popham, secularism is now soulless. Divorced from all ethical standards. A big grey wall blocking human compassion and enlightenment. And so again, here is what secularism is not. Secularism is not and does not claim to be a ‘moral anchor’ (as Hamza Tzortzis likes to call it) to one specific time and place (1st century Palestine, or 7th century Arabia). It makes no moral judgement. It isn’t trying to be a system of morality. This is why it isn’t an atheist concept. It appeals to all concepts. It rightly presupposes that the state has no right to claim religious truth and force uniformity through it. It acknowledges that you do not get to force the principles and beliefs that guide your life, onto me, and vice versa. Equal protection on a line of equality, ensuring that no ideology be granted special privilege. How you frame your individual moral compass, is then up to you. I see no example of state power combined with religious power, that ended in anything but oppression of those that did not fit its dogmatic heavenly vision.

Indeed, over the centuries compassion, altruism, serenity and enlightenment were strangely absent from religious societies (unless you observed the state religion as instructed). Prevalent in non-secular states; forced conversions, state murder for anyone deemed to say something heretical, forced payment to uphold the state faith, rampant homophobia (see Uganda). Most of those, still occur in nations whose institution of state is shackled by faith. For this, Popham has no basis by which to tell me, as a secularist, that compassion, altruism, serenity, and enlightenment have no meaning for me. I decide that, not him. Further, I believe Popham has the same right by which to decide what compassion, altruism, serenity and enlightenment mean for himself, as I do for me, without fear of state interference.

Another description of constitutes a ‘militant secularist’ comes to us via Mo Ansar:

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– If opposing the ritualistic genital mutilation of children is to be considered ‘militant secularist’, I am happy to wear that badge. No one has a right – under any pretext, including ‘religion’ – to mutilate anyone else, especially children. There is no other area of life where this would be considered even slightly acceptable, and it doesn’t get a free pass simply for being shrouded in ‘faith’.

Secularism, coupled with democracy, is the only system that has an inbuilt mechanism by which we progress. Since its inception, we have slowly worked to break down oppressive barriers (most, originally erected by the parties of faith). I cannot imagine that states with an enshrined religion are ever likely to accept they have no right to viciously oppress sexuality. For this, secular democracy is necessary.

Secularism protects us equally. It is a system that allows for the religious to believe and express the violent notion that we non-believers are cursed to spend eternity burning in the unforgiving flames of hell. That is your right to believe and to say. Similarly, I have a right to say that I find that to belief to be horrific, outdated, and worthy of nothing but ridicule and condemnation. I have no right to censor that belief, in much the same way as you have no right to censor my expression.

It is secularism that protects religious minorities. No longer are Catholics permitted to utilise the power of state to oppress Protestants or vice verse. Sunni Muslims are not permitted the power of state to dictate how Shia Muslims observe Islam according to their own conscience, and vice versa. The secular state cares not for whether you believe the Pope to be the authority on Christianity, nor whether Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman were rightful Caliphs. That’s up to the individual believer to decide. Evangelical Christian sects in the 1770s aligned themselves with the secularists in public life, in the hope of enshrining secular protections for all religious denominations. Within a century, the US was filled with a variety of denominations, from Catholics, to Mormons, none having power over others to enforce uniformity through privilege and oppression. The playing field is level. This is secularism.

The prominent arguments against secularism seem to follow the same underlying logic, regardless of how it’s presented. Firstly, the argument tends to be a misunderstanding of secularism as anti-religious oppression. Perhaps this is derived from fear of retribution for centuries of religious oppression. But it isn’t actually true. If indeed a state pursued policies designed to oppress the religious, it would follow that the state lost its secular title the moment the oppressive policies were instituted. Secondly, the arguments – especially from the Christian right in the US, and the more Wahhabi Muslim sects in the Middle East – tend to be nothing more than a child-like refusal to accept that their faith does not inherently deserve a place of privilege to interfere with the liberty of others. The former argument, is often an obvious mask for the latter.

It is perhaps worth remembering that had religion not so horrifically abused state power through grotesque persecution when it had it, there would be no need for ‘secularism’. The concept would almost certainly be considered a natural societal condition. The fact that we need a specific ‘ism’ to protect basic individual rights, speaks volumes of the history of religious oppression that preceded it, and how fast and loose they tended to play with human lives. Today, secularism must be the starting point. No one gets to claim their personal religious belief is more worthy of privilege and supremacy, over any other. A line of neutrality, on a framework of civil rights regardless of sexuality, gender, ethnicity and belief, is the only natural and reasonable position for a state to observe. If you wish to impose your personal religious principles on a population, you need to (not be forced to) accompany it with a reasoned argument. Your personal belief is not an adequate reason in itself. If the argument stands up to scrutiny, then it will stand by itself. If you wish your faith to be granted specific institutional privilege – as with the institution of marriage, for example – you’re going to have to provide a reasoned argument as to why the rest of us should accept your inherent right to a position of superiority, and live according to the dictates of your personal faith. If your argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it would be prudent not to take this as a green light to claim oppression. To do so, comes across as one big child-like tantrum.

Secularism isn’t anti-religious oppression. Secularism isn’t the wish to ban religious folk from the public sphere. Secularism isn’t a system of anchored morality. Secularism isn’t Atheism. In short, secularism isn’t anything that anti-secularists seem to believe that it is.


Uthman Badar: Rationalising the irrational.

February 7, 2014

“Give to every human being every right that you claim for yourself.”
– Robert Ingersoll.

In November last year, Recital Hall in Sydney played host to a debate with the motion: “God and Prophet’s should be protected from insult”. Arguing for the motion was Uthman Badar of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Naturally, Badar’s position was one in which he attempts very weakly to rationalise the irrational, advocate oppression, whilst trying to appear not just to be having a bit of a tantrum. I thought I’d address several of Uthman Badar’s claims in this article.

I was immediately struck by this incredibly hypocritical line from Badar:

“Here’s a frank memo to the liberals…. enough of the self indulgence.”

– If this isn’t the most ironic statement made by someone who advocates a global Caliphate based on the supremacy of his particular ideology above all others… I don’t know what is. It isn’t liberals who punish apostates, or call for the execution of those who make jokes out of our ideas. It isn’t liberals who poison and injure the minds of children with dogmatic stories of eternal torture for non-belief. It isn’t liberals who burn down embassies if someone publishes a cartoon we don’t like. It isn’t liberals who insist on banning people from marriage if they don’t have the specific set of genitals we deem to be ‘acceptable’. So it is perhaps prudent of Uthman Badar in future to look closer to home when it comes to centuries of religious self indulgence before churning out the pitiful line that it is liberals that are the self indulgent ones.

“Free speech is a liberal position. It is an ideological liberal position. Not some logical, universal position”.

– Very simplistic. Free expression absolutely is a logical, universal position. Liberals didn’t invent the idea of not being punished by oppressors for words that those oppressors don’t like. Oppressing expression requires an ideological framework of power, like, say, religion. Oppressing expression does not extinguish the thoughts, it simply reduces the person who has those thoughts, to silence through fear. It chains the tongue and instills fear into the mind. This is incredibly unnatural, very dangerous, and completely contemptible. The erected oppressive barrier is thus simply a form of control over others. Liberals may have broke down that oppressive barrier in periods of enlightenment and emphasis on human rights and individual liberty. It is the barrier itself that is not a natural one. Nature does not inherently permit the oppression of thoughts and expressions that run contrary to the dictates of a 7th Century Middle Eastern sect. The thoughts and expressions of others, are not the property of any ideology.

To be free to express oneself is a natural condition that is only subject to oppression in some form or another from ‘outside’. We erect walls of oppression around the freedom to express oneself that must also be reasonable and logical if they are to be acceptable to us collectively; defamation for example. I know of no one who would argue that defamation laws are not beneficial to us all, or that they restrict others in their pursuits. They protect us equally from damage to our reputation by those who seek to harm us. It is more than expression in that respect. Similarly, threatening through words to murder someone has implications to the safety of the person, and so is likely to encourage a visit from the police. This is entirely different from words that someone may find offensive about the ideas they quite like. We are not naturally restricted in how we express ourselves. Those who wish to do so, simply seek to enslave the mind of those they cannot win over any reasonable way.

It is therefore the burden of those seeking to erect barriers to that natural liberty, that must explain why they have that privilege, why they believe our lives are theirs to play with, and why the rest of us must acquiesce. Free expression is not ideological, it is natural.

We are also endowed with curiosity. This is expressed in terms of critiques (like this article), or artistically – through music, or comedy, or theatre, or any other form of self expression. It is this self expression – and primarily through comedy/satire/mocking – that Uthman objects to. What then Uthman Badar is arguing for, is the legitimacy of erecting further walls of oppression over a natural human condition, based solely on what he deems to be “offensive” for what he holds as sacred beliefs. It is no different to a non-Muslim advocating the banning of Islam or the Qur’an, if they find it to be offensive. For me, this is intensely irrational and dangerous. Why must we take Badar’s supremacy seriously, but not the individual wishing to restrict Islam? (Similarly, I have defended the right of Muslims to build a Mosque in Bendigo, when other supremacists demanded it stopped).

We know what happens when defensive, insecure and paranoid religious folk have power over the cogs of state. Currently, 72 year old Brit Masud Ahmad – part of the Ahmadiyya sect – faces three years in a Pakistan prison for reading the Qur’an out loud. Apparently blasphemy if carried by a ‘non-muslim’. The logic behind just what actually constitutes blasphemy in Pakistan, is irrelevant. The very fact that someone can face jail time for “blasphemy” is so utterly abhorrent, and enough to remind us of just why a state should never be governed along religious principles. When a state is governed by religious principles – the dogmatic adherence to moral ‘rules’ set out centuries ago by one group in one place in one time – human freedoms quickly erode, human progress quickly erodes, replaced by personal beliefs of the dominant group and the inevitable oppression of others.

Badar never actually explains why causing offense to a religion – blasphemy – should be off limits, yet other forms of offense shouldn’t. He never offers an explanation as to why his particular authoritarian idea – that includes political control over others – should be protected from the mocking words of those they seek to control. Defamation is quite clear cut and covers us all. Trying to ban offending someone’s beliefs isn’t as clear cut, and only seems to cover religious beliefs. If Badar’s demands for a ban on offending religious beliefs, doesn’t extend to offending political beliefs, or indeed, any form of offense that one might cause someone else through any medium including practically all forms of comedy; then immediately his argument falls down through a massive hole of inconsistency, and he is relegated to simply having a silly little child-like “I hate blasphemy” tantrum. 

Indeed, every human being ever condemned as a heretic or a blasphemer, and violently punished or killed as such across the centuries, must today be considered a hero in the cause of human freedom.

“To insult others is to treat them with gross insensitivity, insolence, or contemptuous rudeness. Those who want to allow this, the onus is on them to prove that such depravity should be allowed.”

– Yes. Exactly right, to insult others. Though it shouldn’t be banned by the state, insulting others for the sake of it certainly shouldn’t be encouraged and should indeed be discouraged. As adults, we should of course regulate ourselves as best we can. For example, Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman failed miserably on that, when he said:

“The kaffar, the disbelievers, the atheists who remain deaf and stubborn to the teachings of Islam, the rational message of the Quran; they are described in the Quran as, quote, “a people of no intelligence”, Allah describes them as; not of no morality, not as people of no belief – people of “no intelligence” – because they’re incapable of the intellectual effort it requires to shake off those blind prejudices, to shake off those easy assumptions about this world, about the existence of God.”

– This Kuffarophobic bigotry should indeed be discouraged. I wouldn’t wish to see Mehdi Hasan punished for expressing his bigoted views toward people he’s never met. He is entitled to hold those views and to say them. I should not be trying to punish that. And I wouldn’t wish to silence the words of his God, who considers me someone of “no intelligence” apparently. This is insulting to me as a person. Not to my beliefs, but to me as a human being. Insulting other human beings is entirely separate. Challenging authoritarian ideas and concepts – be them political or religious, with critique and satire, with criticism and poking fun – should be considered uncompromisable and absolutely necessary. Authoritarian ideas like Islam must not be afforded the opportunity to regulate our thoughts and our expressions. Humanity is not to be chained by a single ideology.

In his follow up article (it’s the same wording as the video, with a few tweaks), Badar says:

“…Would we accept white people using the “n word” against blacks?”

– No. The issue here isn’t the expression, the issue is the sentiment behind the expression. The sentiment behind the expression is one rooted in the history of an oppressive, supremacist ideology based on race. It is supremacy that is the problem. Racism is institutional supremacy, and its partnered language further goes to solidify those supremacist notions. For example, if a group – such as the one Badar represents – was to openly suggest “eradicating” Jews from the Earth, we may say that the words themselves are not the issue, the issue is the sentiment behind it. A very neo-nazi sentiment seeped in violent, oppressive history.

Secularism ensures a line of equality. It affords the same rights for you as a person as it does for me as a person. My gender, my sexuality, my race, or my beliefs have no more right to oppress you, as your gender, sexuality, race or beliefs have a right to oppress me. It is the only safeguard against supremacy. Anything that deviates from that line – the elevation of one race above another, or the elevation of one system of belief in a place of power above all others – is supremacist. This is the problem. This is what Badar advocates.

Badar says:

“Insulting another person’s beliefs does not encourage them to think. Instead, it makes them more entrenched, defensive and prepared to retaliate – that’s human nature.”

– Two problems with this quote also. Firstly, Badar makes the mistake of presuming that offending religious beliefs, is primarily about trying to encourage people to think about those beliefs. Why does he presume that’s the case? I am quite certain that the ‘Life of Brian’ or ‘Father Ted’ were not intended to encourage people to think. They exist to make people laugh. Political satire equally is there to make people laugh, not primarily to make people think. Though, some is. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show exists to make people laugh, but also – as with the Kramer interview – to encourage thought. Still, Stewart mocks political ideas. For Badar, this is unacceptable.

Badar appears to believe any criticism of ideas must only be encouragement to think. I reject this wholeheartedly. Indeed, even when it is presented as a thoughtful discussion, it tends to be claimed to “insult” those who hold beliefs to be sacred. Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason” was so insulting to Christians, that in Britain he was condemned:

“…as an enemy of proper thought and of the morality of decent, enlightened people.”

– In this respect, Paine was writing to make people think, and simultaneously managed to insult people. Centuries earlier, the Syrian al-Ma’arri wrote poetry that openly mocked religion, but it is also conducive to thought and understanding; the history of non-belief in this case. This immediately shows just how mistaken Badar was when he claimed insulting beliefs does not encourage thought. It doesn’t have to be primarily about encouraging thought, but often when that is the primary point, it is still considered insulting anyway. It is often true, that most great leaps forward intellectually, were considered incredibly insulting and offensive when first proposed.

Secondly, in insisting that insulting another person’s beliefs is fundamentally wrong, Badar appears to be disagreeing with his own God. And he goes on to contradict the words of his own Holy Book again later, when he states:

“When it comes to critique – as opposed to insult – I’d say, bring it on. Any attempt to quash or stifle serious debate is unacceptable in Islam.”

– And yet, the Qur’an begins almost every chapter with a vivid description of the punishment awaiting we non-believers if – even through serious debate – we conclude there is no God. Here, a quick example:

“Surely it is He Who brings about the creation of all and He will repeat it so that He may justly reward those who believe and do righteous deeds, and those who disbelieve may have a draught of boiling water and suffer a painful chastisement for their denying the Truth.”

– Essentially, let’s debate it… but if you don’t end up agreeing with me, you will be tortured forever. This should be insulting to anyone who values free thought, and critical inquiry. It is insulting to me as a non-believer. It is a threat. I am insulted by this. It isn’t encouraging me to think. It is nothing but intimidation. When I point this out to Muslims, most say “You don’t believe it, so you shouldn’t be offended.” This cop-out completely misses the point. Just as it is not my place to tell you that you shouldn’t be offended by a cartoon of the Prophet, it is not your place to tell me I shouldn’t be offended by what is written in a Holy Book I find to be repugnant. And if a Holy Book spends so much time insisting that I as a non-believer deserve to be tortured for eternity, then I absolutely reserve the right to mock it. It deserves nothing less from me. There is no inherent right for this one particular ideology to be respected without question. It must earn our respect, and for me it has managed the complete opposite.

Further, the suggestion seems to be that if we non-believers do not inherently respect your religion, and your Prophet, then we should be forced to respect your religion, and your Prophet through threat of punishment. It seems rather obvious to me, that if you need to force people to respect your religion through blasphemy laws – chances are, it’s not a respectable religion.

Indeed, what I defend as a freedom for myself to express without force or punishment, I defend for those whose actual existence I am so vehemently offended by. I am insulted that Hizb ut-Tahrir wishes to establish a Theocratic system whereby I am relegated to a social rank below Muslims who are to have power over me, protected by a thoroughly Islamic constitutional framework. I am offended by Badar’s expression of this goal, but I do not wish to punish him for having it or expressing it. The same freedom that allowed for Graham Linehan’s wonderful ‘Father Ted’ blasphemous comedy, allows for Hizb ut-Tahrir to announce on their East Africa website that:

“Homosexuality is an Evil that Destroys Societies!”

– This is insulting on such a grand scale. Incredibly offensive. It is this that we can compare to use of the “n word” Badar mentioned earlier. When I read this statement, it is like reading a KKK white supremacist pronouncement of the evils of those with darker skin. It is supremacy based on the idea that one biological trait is supreme and must have control over others, for the benefit of that one trait. This is hideous to me. Sexuality, like race, is largely genetic and a vast spectrum that has no “right” or “wrong” and the only reason sexuality has been oppressed so viciously over the centuries, is entirely down to religious supremacy; a heterosexual male dominated sphere of influence. Similarly, the only reason those with darker skin tones have been so viciously oppressed over the centuries, is racial supremacy. The poison is the same; the irrational oppression of freedom forged by those with power over those with no power, in order to ensure conformity to that particular oppressive ideology.

It is because of that inherently oppressive nature of supremacist ideologies – they are not just ‘beliefs’ if they seek control over others – that I maintain that not only should mockery and criticism not be punished by the state, but if that mockery or criticism is aimed at supremacist ideologies with a long history of oppression and with very imperialist, supremacist doctrines that I find offensive – then mockery and criticism become vital and necessary. Similarly, I absolutely support Badar’s right to offend my views on the superiority of secular democracy and human rights. The line of equality is essential.

If Uthman Badar wishes me not to “offend” his God, or his Prophet, then I demand with equal passion, that the Qur’an be rid of all references to the vicious eternal punishment awaiting we non-believers. Why is me feeling insulted by the words promoted in a book that believers have long used to oppress people like me, less important than the feelings of muslims with delusions of the importance of their doctrines? Why, if I find an ideology so repulsive to my own ideas of human freedom and rights, must I keep that to myself? When that faith no longer demands power over the lives of others through the mechanism of the state, when it longer seeks to indoctrinate children, when it no longer punishes apostates, when it doesn’t tell my gay friends they’re “unnatural” or shouldn’t be allowed to marry, when we’re not constantly told how awful the “kuffar” are or how evil the “west” is….. when all that self indulgence and Islamic supremacy stops, then I might cease criticising and mocking Badar’s ideology. Until then, I reserve the right without fear of punishment, to believe that all authoritarian ideas – of which Islam is certainly up there – should be open to criticism, mocking, and satire. And that those like Uthman Badar, a danger to the very basics of human liberty and dignity. Blasphemy is not just acceptable, it is absolutely vital to extinguishing the illegitimate power of religious oppression and supremacy.

It is quite simple, if you are not secularist, if you do not believe in a line of equality regardless of faith, race, gender, sexuality, then you are by definition advocating the power of one race, or one faith, or one gender, or one sexuality above all others. In Badar’s case, he advocates a state in which his particular ideology deserves power over the lives of us all, should be given special privileges over all others, simply because he believes its premise to be true. This is the advocating of oppression, regardless of how it is dressed up. No supremacist – to my knowledge – including Uthman Badar has ever provided a reasonable position as to why we should all accept their particular brand of supremacy as legitimate over our lives.

Let us be clear; free expression, freedom of belief, human and civil rights based on racial, religious, sexuality, and gender equality are not “liberal” principles. They’re not “Western” principles. They’re just not oppressive Theocratic principles. Those of us who hold those ideals; those of us with a respect for human beings before ideologies; those of us who believe in equal treatment under secular law… we should be intensely proud of those values.


James Madison: The Father of Secularism.

January 22, 2014

James_Madison
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
– James Madison

The year was 1785 when Patrick Henry of Virginia worked tirelessly to push for the state to pass a law diverting tax dollars to directly funding “Teachers of the Christian Religion“. The oppressive nature of state sponsored religion so attached to the governing principles of the old world seemed to be one step closer to infecting the new world also. The genius of the American experiment in self government was put at risk in 1785. Had laws binding the state to a religion passed in Virginia, the Constitutional Congress may well have produced a document far different to the one that we all know today. The principles of the Enlightenment may not have been so beautifully enshrined, and the American experiment may have turned out very differently.

As it turns out, Patrick Henry had one very formidable foe in his attempts to directly establish a church-state binding link. James Madison – Father of the Constitution – existed at the moment in history, and in the exact place he was most needed, to argue so eloquently for the establishment and enshrining of secular ideals. Madison had astutely recognised the difference between tolerance, and liberty. Tolerance, in matters of state, he was certain, was the opposite of liberty. His words and brilliance worked to define secular ideals that permeate to this very day.

In the same year, Madison penned “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments”. A beautifully articulate and concise declaration of religious freedoms, in response to the Bill forwarded by Patrick Henry. In it, Madison states his reasons for opposing the Bill:

“Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men.”

“…If “all men are by nature equally free and independent,” all men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions; as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights. Above all are they to be considered as retaining an “equal title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience.” Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.”

– In two short paragraphs, Madison sets out the secular ideal. He makes clear the point that no single religious doctrine should be considered superior to any other, that the state should not promote dogma over reason, and that an individuals’ right to believe according to his or her own conscience is negated the moment the individual restricts the same right for another. For Madison, religious power over state had had its opportunity, and it was abused. For centuries religious power had fostered nothing but religious tyranny. With the minds of Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, the new World was not going to reflect the mistakes of the past when it came to religious power over state.

Further, Madison’s belief that no single religious doctrine be recognised as ‘official’ by the state, nor restricted therein is reflected in his support of Thomas Jefferson when establishing the University of Virginia. Both Jefferson and Madison believed religious theology had no place at the university, and Madison worked hard to ensure that the library books at the university contained moral philosophy, but no specific doctrinal teachings, so as to ensure a level playing field. The argument was simple, either the state has the right to invade and attempt to restrict the conscience of the individual, or it doesn’t. Madison’s response to Henry was a key factor is Henry losing the battle to divert tax dollars to the establishment of a religious order.

After the defeat of Henry’s Bill, Madison worked to ensure Jefferson’s ‘Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom’ passed through the Virginia Assembly, completely breaking the ties between the state government, and the Church of England. Indeed, Jefferson was so proud of penning the Statute, that he insisted on having it remembered on his tombstone. A tombstone that doesn’t even mention that he was President. Jefferson was in Paris on diplomatic orders as the Statute was up for discussion back home in Virginia, and it was James Madison who worked tirelessly to ensure its passage through the Assembly. The Statute states:

“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

– Not only does this ensure freedom of religion, it enshrines freedom from religion. No individual shall be compelled to support any ministry whatsoever. This is what was important to freethinkers and deists alike. Further, the statute makes clear that the beliefs of individuals should not affect their civil capacities. A line of equality drawn unequivocally. Virginians were to be considered equal in conscience, with no single faith or sect preferred in matters of state. This is reflected in a statement found earlier in the Statute:

“That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry”

– During the debate in the Assembly, a motion to include the name of Jesus Christ in the wording of the Bill was easily defeated. Once passed, the Bill was translated into several European languages and became a beacon for secularists across the old continent. The revolutionary importance of the Virginia statute is difficult to overstate. Indeed, in the US it took another 30 years before Catholics were permitted to hold public office in the state of New York. For Madison – as for Jefferson – liberties such as that of the freedom of conscience, fought so hard for during the revolutionary years, with a basis in reason rather than Christianity, were essential for the experiment in republican ideals and civil rights to succeed.

In 1776, Madison had amended George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, and specifically, article 16. The vision of liberty as opposed to tolerance became a reality in the words that Madison had so beautifully penned:

“All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.”

– At this time, Madison – still in his mid-20s – was now the voice of secularism and freedom of conscience in the Virginia House of Delegates.

In the Federalist Papers, Madison argued that by levelling the playing field, and equalising belief whereby one faith or one sect of one faith is not permitted to rise above another, nor recognised by the state, fosters an environment for open debate, free thought and discourages oppression. We must note how revolutionary this concept was. The preceding centuries were centuries of religious war. Indeed, Christians spent an awful amount of time killing other Christians, for being the wrong type of Christian. In England alone, the Tudor monarchs were at odds with each other, murdering religious supporters of their rivals, simply for not adhering to the correct ‘sect’ of the same faith. By 1850, new Christian sects – such as Mormonism – with their own interpretations, were springing up everywhere, without fear of oppression. Separation of church and state is absolutely beneficial to the religious. Far more so, than when one sect controlled the reigns of power.

Madison had also argued that attempts to compromise between religious sects whilst still holding onto the state-church connection – the Elizabethan settlement was simply a compromise – failed, and that only complete liberty of conscience under a state framework neutral in matters of personal belief, could ensure the protection of all. This isn’t to say that religious tension was forever banished from society, far from it, simply that it created an atmosphere preferable to the religious tyranny and the climate of fear that leads to such vicious oppression, and the stifling of progress of the preceding centuries.

In 1822, Madison expressed another key secular concept, in a letter he wrote to the Jurist, Edward Livingston. In it, Madison expresses his belief that whilst religion should ordinarily be free from state interference, the state should interfere to limit religious power if that power attempts to infringe upon civil rights:

“I observe with particular pleasure the view that you have taken of the immunity of Religion from civil jurisdiction in every case where it does not trespass on private rights or public peace.”

– Practically, this thought process can be seen in 21st century America. After the decision in 2013 of the Supreme Court to deem the Defence of Marriage Act unconstitutional, President Obama made this statement:

“This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.”

– The President is right. He was politically wise not to mention that the only reason same-sex couples are so viciously discriminated against, their rights trampled, treated as second class, is because of the supremacy of religion over the state. To paraphrase Madison, the court was absolutely right to step in and limit the power of the religious, when that power attempts to infringe upon the rights of individuals. The decision to overturn the Defence of Marriage Act represented the very essence of secularism.

Madison was convinced that the only way to ensure the freedom of inquiry, the freedom of expression, and the freedom of conscience for all, was to break the chains of church and state and enshrine reason and liberty into the founding framework of a nation. His vision for America – predicated largely on secular ideals – was the vision that won out. It is no surprise that Madison’s chose the first Amendment to the Bill of Rights to ensure this principle, enshrining religious freedom, and forever inhibiting the state from establishing a religion in the United States. The secular ideals that I base much of my political beliefs upon, derive from the works of James Madison. I reflect on his writings often, and they work to solidify my conviction that secular freedoms for all upon a democratic framework, are the only possible way to ensure the civil rights of all. To this day, Madison’s clear, concise, and rational arguments are far more persuasive than any other system of governance thus conceived. We owe many of freedoms and protections to James Madison: The Father of Secularism.