Friday, February 17, 2006

The End of Faith

I finished Sam Harris's The End of Faith yesterday. His central thesis is that faith itself - the practice of believing something without proof - is extremely dangerous and ought to end. It was piecewise an extremely scary book. The book emphasizes that it is only by reason and evaluation and discussion of facts that we can obtain knowledge of the world. I have been moving in the direction of these ideas before - as a scientist, of course I believe that reason and "experiment" is the best way to gain knowledge of the world - and my main reason for not being religious is the line of thought in the book. Harris argues that once the truth of a religious text that claims infallibility in all its parts, as they all do, it then follows that one must be a religious fundamentalist in order to follow the religion. In my brief stint with religion, that was what I felt as well - to be logically self-consistent, I would have to be a fundamentalist. At that point, religion conflicted with my sense of reason and ethics, and I considered being moderate.

Harris continues to argue that religious moderates "betray faith and reason equally," in that they invoke secular knowledge as justification to ignore religious directives. As he puts it, religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and religious ignorance. Why don't Christians actually kill everyone who "takes the Lord's name in vain?" Well, because it seems so crazy, right? You can't kill someone just for that, it's very Middle Ages. It runs against our current sense of ethics. But the Bible explicitly instructs Christians to do so. Harris gives the Bible quotes for punishment for breaking the Ten Commandments, for example: Leviticus 24:16 mandates that the punishment for taking the Lord's name in vain is death. I say "Oh god" as an expression of surprise or disappointment fairly frequently. Therefore, under Christian theology, I should be killed. The punishment for working on the Sabbath is also death (Exodus 31:15). If the Bible is the infallible word of God, everyone who's ever worked on a Friday night or a Saturday should be killed. Everyone who's committed adultery should also be killed (Leviticus 20:10). I doubt that any Christian today would advocate actually doing this. (If there are, I am very afraid, give that there is a high likelihood they're in the country that I currently live in.)

The intolerances built into Christianity, paralelled by intolerances in other religions, are to me ethically repulsive. Harris elaborates on this as a central part of showing why religious faith is dangerous. He does an excellent job of showing how beliefs lead to actions, and follows by showing that holding beliefs that compel people to commit murder and other atrocious acts of all magnitudes, which makes religious beliefs dangerous as they all contain ideas that encourage violence. As another example, the Bible also advocates having me killed for being an atheist. In medieval times, the Church logically noted that the Bible has several suggestions for eradicating heresy. Apparently, a literal reading (which is necessary if the Bible indeed is the infallible direct word of God) requires heretics to be killed. Even worse, Deuteronomy requires that anyone refusing to take part in such killings also be put to death. (Deuteronomy 17:12-13) These parts of the Bible caused the Inquisition, hardly a pinnacle of morality or good for either Christianity, Europe, or humanity at large. The wtich-hunts were caused and enacted similarly, along with persecution of Jews, and as we all know those were equally dark times for humankind.

He also delineates how similar problems plague Islam today. Harris goes through various demands that Islam makes of its adherents that make it virtually impossible for a Muslim who truly believes that the Koran is the infallible word of Allah to live in peace with non-Muslims, as well as that the acts of Muslim terrorists makes perfect sense if one accepts what the Koran and the Hadiths say: "Nothing explains the actions of Muslim extremists, and the widespread tolerance of their behavior in the Muslim world, better than the tenets of Islam." There is much to be said on that topic, but I don't want to type out all of it here. Readers who are interested are recommended to read the book.

In addition to religions, he also takes a side-swipe at secular ideologies that demand the abandonment of critical reasoning and proof. National socialism and stalinism are use as examples of terrifying movements where a key part of the movement was unquestioning obedience to a leader and taking the leader's word as truth.

I could not bring myself to accept large parts of Christianity on moral grounds, and as Harris points out, I was using secular ethics to reject it - and recognizing the strain on my psyche of accepting something without proof and the logical inconsistency in rejecting some religious teachings but not others on non-religious grounds, I could not bring myself to be religious on either ethical nor logical grounds.

Harris does not see religious moderates as benign, however. "The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivalled." (p. 20, emphasis author's)

Harris also anticipates some counter-arguments, many of which I would have used, in a section entitled The Danger of Wishful Thinking. He writes, "He [Paul Berman] notes that the twentieth century was a great incubator of "pathological mass movements" - political movements that "get drunk on the idea of slaughter". He also points out that liberal thinkers are often unable to recognize these terrors for what they are. There is indeed a great tradition, in Berman's phrase, of "liberalism as denial." [...] Because they assume that people everywhere are animated by the same desires and fears, many Western liberals now blame their own governments for the excesses of Muslim terrorists. [...] Berman observes, for instance, that much of the world now blames Israel for the suicidal derangement of the Palestinians. Rather than being a simple expression of anti-Semitism (though it is surely this as well), this view is the product of a quaint moral logic: people are just people, so the thinking goes, and they do not behave that badly unless they have some very good reasons. The excesses of Palestinian suicide bombers, therefore, must attest to the excesses of the Israeli occupation." (pp134-135) I have to admit, I think like that. I haven't considered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in those terms, but I definetly have considered Muslim terrorists in that light. Surely, they must be crazy in the medical sense, some chemical imbalance or something that makes them different from "regular" Muslims, who surely must be as secular-minded as European Christians.

And this brings me to my great mistake. For most of my life, I have been immersed in a secular environment where going to church other than perhaps midnight mass on Christmas because the candles are pretty, if you can be bothered to sit through a long mass just for pretty candles, is seen as a sign of serious and unusual religious commitment. The kind of religious commitment that might be viewed as a barrier to serving in public office or in the PTA. The kind of religious obsession that might cause people to go through life with a hidden agenda, trying to manipulate people. When I was a kid in the US, my parents went to significant efforts to keep me away from American Christians, despite that they are religious themselves. In Sweden, the Church is most appreciated for maintaining pretty graveyards. My parents are religious moderates, and I suspect rather typical of Nordic Christians. And here is the root of my mistake: Nordic Christians either have substituted large parts of the Bible and previous Church teachings with secular humanism or cede authority on actions to secular humanism. I am completely mystified, for that reason, by the idea that religious people might actually be religious, in the sense that they swallow religious teachings whole. I did not seriously entertain the idea, prior to reading this book, that millions of human beings, millions of educated, otherwise rational human beings, could suspend all rational judgement when it comes to right and wrong. I even found out that the United States is far more religious in the fundamentalist way than I had understood or perceived, again because I could especially not imagine that a well-off, well-educated country could suspend critical thinking when it comes to right and wrong. My lens of the world included - and probably still does a bit - that people are basically secular. I am clearly wrong.

This ties in with another book I read recently called "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?" by Susan Moller Okin. The main thesis of the book is that granting group rights to minorities must be very carefully examined, as such rights run the risk of granting minorities rights to oppress women, effectively denying them their rights. That also relates to my experiences this past year with immigrants and expatriates from very sexist cultures in the West. Universal human rights supercede any religion and any cultural tradition. Religion is no excuse for oppression and immoral behavior, and neither is culture. My previous tolerance of intolerance can be dangerous. In protecting my rights as a human being and in being an ethical human being, I must judge faith and culture under the same criteria; neither can be worth respect unless they embrace peaceful, tolerant coexistence.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Irshad Manji's take

As always, pretty funny and to the point. I especially appreciate this:

"To judge the root problem here, let us first determine how the cartoons became an international incident. Last September, these comics ran beside a story about the hurdles encountered by a Danish author in finding someone - anyone - to illustrate her children’s book about the Prophet. Every artist she approached declined the job out of fear of having to contend with Islamist extremists. [...] We Muslims love to lecture about the need to assess touchy matters - such as offensive Quranic verses - ‘in context’. The context in which the Muhammad cartoons first appeared suggests that frustration, not malice, was the motive."

Looks like the illustrators asked to help with the book were right. These riots certainly send the message that one ought to be afraid of the extremists. But just as with 9/11 and the London bombings, we cannot let extremists control our everyday lives with fear. That is giving them power. We - all of us, muslims and non-muslims - cannot let them control what we do.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


The more I think and read about the cartoons, the more strongly I feel that there can be no case made for that the cartoons should not have been published. The same points are made over and over again in commentaries, and regardless of circumstances basic cornerstones of liberal democracy cannot be sacrificed by Denmark. It is regrettable that people got so upset, but no outsider has the right to tell Denmark to change its system of government, of which the cartoons are a small by-product. If it were acceptable for non-Danish muslims to require Danish press to conform to their ideas of right and wrong, we would have a world of chaos and oppression of all by all. What Denmark does is Denmark's business - and if Danish muslims wish to change their country because of the cartoons, they can, because they are Danish. It it their country to change. However, I suspect that most do not, because by being Danish they most likely also prize liberal democracy just as much as danish atheists and christians.

Neither does Denmark as a whole, which isn't even involved other than indirectly, speak for the entire West. No one has the capacity to speak for millions and millions of people of different cultures, different histories and different languages as a unified voice. As a Western TCK, I am actuely aware of this. There are huge cultural variations within the West, and a commitment to that pluralism is especially prevalent in the European Union, which could not exist without such pluralistic acceptance. Even within every western country, there are regional sociocultural differences of all kinds. A reality of globalization is, as Friedman puts it, that "No one is in charge." Everyone reading this has probably noticed that America and Europe disagree on a lot of policy issues, as well as have different basic value systems in many ways. (Not to mention Americans eat more crap.) There is no monolithic West any more than there is a monolithic set of muslims. The political leaders of Western nation-states do not even really speak for their entire populations, let alone one person speaking for all of the diverse Western countries!

It pisses me right off when people see the West as the US, the UK, Germany, Australia and France - there are many other Western countries that are distinct from the bigger ones! My ancestors were not in any way, shape or form involved with colonialism other then as initial explorers who got pushed aside by the bigger countries. My ancestors did not have anything to do with slave trade, holding slaves, building empires, smallpox, or any of the other atrocities committed by Western nations. They haven't got the bomb now either, they don't fund secret prisons or give guns to rebels they support nor engineer elections abroad. They have no military bases anywhere outside their territories and few within them. I'm not saying they were so noble that they didn't want to. They probably did. But their histories took other paths, because their countries were small and relatively powerless. Just as in the world wars. Finland fought a war of independence, because they did not have resources to do anything else. Sweden sold ore to the nazis because they knew they didn't stand a chance in a fight. Estonia got taken by the Russians because they did not have enough resources to fight them off, and no one assisted them. Poland has been split and occupied many times by neighboring countries. The perspectives of small countries are NOT the same as those of big countries! So how can little Denmark, which few of the people who are pissed probably can find on a map, suddenly be a spokescountry for the West? Small European countries get ignored and confused with each other by non-Euros all the time. I have yet to meet a Chinese who knew off the bat where Finland is. Sweden and Switzerland get confused all the time in both the US and China. I bet you about 1% of both Americans and Chinese know Lichtenstein even exists. But we all have our own national histories, languages, and traditions, which we take great care to distinguish from our neighbors. Part of the reason non-Anglo European countries reacted so strongly to America's stance on Iraq is exactly that - to make it known to both the Americans and everyone else that the US prez and the UK PM do not speak for Europe as a whole as well. We have our own voices, expressed in our own media, and we will use our plural voices to whatever end we think is right. If that doesn't please the US or anyone else, then too bad. We have our own national heroes, our own popular culture, our own fashion and music... our media reflect our debates, in our languages, for the benefit of no one but ourseves and our own democratic process. Small Western countries are not some sort of tack-on onto the larger ones. We do not just follow, we create our own destinies and determine our own actions.

Any Huntington-style reading of what's going on is supplying all kinds of assumptions that are not there. How can there be a fight between two entities that do not exist?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

It gets more complicated...

I wanted to see the cartoons for myself, and although I haven't found them yet, I did find some other interesting things...

"Earlier this week, imam Abu Bashir appeared on BBC World showing a caricature of Mohammed with a pig's snout and ears to representatives of the Arabic League. Bashir falsely claimed that the caricature was one of the 12 Jyllands-Posten drawings."

"Since then a number of offensive drawings have circulated in The Middle East which have never been published in Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten and which we would never have published, had they been offered to us. We would have refused to publish them on the grounds that they violated our ethical code."

Die Welt has the cartoons, and of course, discussion. I found a very well-written commentary that makes the basic point: "Es gibt kein Recht auf Satireverschonung im Westen." [There is no right to be spared from satire in the West.] Asking for anything else is asking for special treatment. Period.

"In der westlichen Welt regt sich nach anfänglichem Verständnis Widerstand: Die Zeiten der Inquisition will man nicht in islamischer Form wiederkehren sehen." [In the West there is aaccording to initial understanding agreement: we do not want to see the Inquisition return in an islamic form.]

After seeing the cartoons, I see absolutely no reason for getting so upset. It may be my deficient sense of what will offend religious people, but I really fail to see what there is to even demonstrate peacefully about, let alone burning flags and embassies. I am confused and unsettled.

Addition: After thinking about it some more, I think because of Europe's religious past and the atrocities committed, we feel it is very important to be able to criticise religion openly and even harshly if necessary. (And therefore, we are angry that others reacted to violently - it was just a couple of semi-satirical drawings, not even serious - and we reserve the right to be harsh if we need to) Blindly following a leader - any leader - is dangerous. My mother has told me that when I didn't clean my room as our agreement was when I was a kid, she would sigh and think, "At least she doesn't blindly do whatever someone asks of her." We have specific, detailed, historical reasons to be suspicious of religious leaders' motives. After readon those commentaries and Smittenbyu's comment, I think we are seeing contemporary reasons to be suspicious of religious leaders as well.

Addition II: Found a blog written by an Arab-American who gets to the point quickly.

Addition III: Chirac is an idiot. I'm starting to agree with dad. "French President Jacques Chirac, however, focused on the European media, condemning decisions to republish the cartoons as an "overt provocation"." Also, this is the first time Condi's talk appeals to me. That alone makes me worried I'm making a big mistake somewhere. Must read more about what exactly she's saying.... but it's possible she's making good sense for once.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Cartoons and Cross-Cultural Communication

Yesterday, I was reading opinions on the Danish cartoons on BBC, and had some opinions that I wanted to write in my LJ. I sign on today, open BBC - and am greeted by this:

"Embassies burn in cartoon protest

Syrians have set fire to the Norwegian and Danish embassies in Damascus to protest at the publication of newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. "

Say.. WHAT? I just finished writing a comment in shirou's LJ about the cartoons about whether or not Islam is more violent than other religions... and this really, really isn't the way to convince people that Islam is a religion they can deal with having next door. 1. No torching of embassies, for any reason, will make you look good. Especially, it will not make you look peaceful. 2. Torching of an embassy which isn't involved in the row REALLY doesn't make you look reasonable in any way, shape or form. Hey, look - if you can't keep straight which country you're pissed at, why are you expecting us to give your religious icons special treatment? Who knows if we can even be held responsible for telling them apart? Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, old guys in beards - who the hell knows who's who? Same shit, right? Especially in countries that are so secular.

Which brings me to the point I was thinking of yesterday. I think a root of the cultural miscommunication here is both sides not being able to imagine what living in a country that's very secular/religious is like. My experiences with the US have shown me that many Americans who are themselves secular have learnt, often by fear, to not offend Christian ideas. They have an uncanny intuition for what's going to piss them off, an intuition which I lack - because while I was here, my parents provided a buffer and in Europe, things are secular. Secular in a way I don't think Americans can really imagine, perhaps unless they've been expats for 10-20 years. (Or TCKs, of course, but then they're not American per se either.) If a European prime minister said anything involving "God, "bless", and the name of their country there would be a media frenzy and probably instant loss of re-election. Just for starters. I think in a similar but more extreme way, also supported by some other interpersonal intercultural encounters. I don't think that people who grow up in a socially controlling environment, especially where the control is done under the guise of religion, can imagine what living in an environment where that control is lacking, in this case being freedom of press.

However, that does not mean that both sides are equally confused. Au contraire. A large part of the democratic nation-states are (at least limited) universal human rights and freedom of speech, movement, press, etc. This is especially true in Europe. This has the consequence that we have countries in which all kinds of things get criticized all the time, including by children, by women, by ethnic minorities, by all kinds of people. No one is supposed to have a duty to shut up. Every day, major Western newspapers run political satire drawings. Every day, the leaders of the free world get made fun of by their citizens and each other. In the States, people are more reluctant to make fun of religious figures because it is a very religious country, as mentioned before. However, that is not the case in Europe, where the cartoons were published. One of the comments, by Dr Yunes Teinaz, was "We respect the heroes of other religions and we would expect the same from the followers of other religions and ideologies. No Muslim, for example, is allowed to portray a picture of Jesus." Let me be very clear: Europe cannot be criticizing some religion as compared to its own, because Europe is secular, not religious. I don't believe in either Jesus or Muhammad. Make fun of either, I don't care. Teinaz - and probably many others - are assuming that everyone is religious, which is blatantly untrue in the case of Europe. Just like I've said before: Muslims have a much better case to argue deliberate and unjust exclusion in the US, where Christianity enjoys such a prevalent, accepted and privileged status, than in Europe, where most people are thoroughly secular.

Sometimes the litte, everyday details make things more clear than the grand scheme. I remember standing around with a group of girls in 4th grade on the schoolyard, gossiping. (The kind of thing I eventually always got excluded from, but anyway.) One of the girls said, "Did you know that (name of boy) believes in God??" with that tone that little Swedish girls use when they are socially outcasting someone. (I know that tone very well.) We laughed at how silly he was to believe in something of which there is no proof. Later, in high school, I always knew who in my circle of acquaintances was Christian. It's odd, so you remember. They... go to church. They... pray. Like in the middle ages or something. Even so, they never mentioned it in conversations. If they hadn't admitted to it, (admitted is the word that first comes to mind) I'd never have known. My parents are Christian. I know, because my mother told me once when I was about 14. My parents thought that it was important that I make up my own mind. They asked me to get confirmed so that I would at least know what Christianity was before I rejected it. You will never know that my parents are religious from meeting them. They never say anything to betray it, because to them it is private, to be kept to themselves. I think a large part of it is that they know that if they talk about it, they alienate others - meaning they create conflict, dissonance, problems. They don't feel a need to talk about it, so why cause the problems?

We had religion instruction in school. In the beginning, it was Christianity specifically. The thought behind it was that because Christianity had historically been part of Europe, it was useful to know some of the key concepts and myths of Christianity. That was exactly what it was. In 4th grade, we started building little paper huts in the archetechtural style used in then Palestine around the time of Jesus' birth. We were told that Israel used to be called Palestine, which was news to pretty much all of us. I remember thinking, "why would you want to switch names for the same country?" We were told about the Roman empire a little bit. But we spent a lot of time making the huts. It was fun, because I liked arts and crafts. Later in high school, everyone had to take religion class to graduate. Religion class now being knowing the basic tenents of all major world religions. There was no religious religion class offered, ever, and no one ever mentioned the idea. It did not occur to me that religion might be taught as a religion in schools until I came back to the US. Looking back, anyone in the PTA who had brought something like that up would probably looked like a religious fanatic, trying to brainwash children. That's not wise in Sweden - you will be permanently outcasted for being antisocial for that sort of thing. People will talk, news of your fanaticism will spread.

Hell, you look a bit fanatic for going to church (As in, christian church) regularly, which no one except old ladies who want company does. No one's going to trust someone who's so obsessed with religion to be able to set it aside and be secular when they need to. And this is Europe's historical religion. Muslims may get some more flexibility out of concern that people are not accepting enough of multicultural differences, they may get less because they are Other - I don't know how it all works out, but I do know that religion is not close to Europe's heart. It's not part of people's lives, their concerns, their social undertakings, their thoughts... I know more about Christianity than most of my Euro friends. Laughing at a religious figure or leader is just like laughing at a secular figure or leader. After all - if there is no God, then all power religious figures and leaders hold is just as secular as that which politicians hold. People being religious and supporting one person (male, of course) or other is just like being an ardent political supporter of someone. Your choice, whatever, blah. Won't stop anyone from laughing at satire of that person. The cartoons was drawn and published in Denmark, for amusement of the Danish - and the cultural context in which that happened is not intended to offend muslims. Period.

And then conversely, I'm still not used to the very prominent political role that religion plays in the US. I guess fundamentally, I still hold it for so self-evident that for a non-uniform society to work, it must be secular that I expect religious people to adjust their behavior accordingly. They don't, a significant part of the time. I know I'm not capable of imagining living in an even more religious context, and especially not an extremely sexist and controlling religious context. I have no idea, and for that I am grateful. However, if muslims are anything like American christians, they take offense so incredibly easily on religious matters because the religious is political to them, and hence confusion over what the prime minister of Denmark could do about the row. (To me, clearly, the prime minister cannot and should not do anything to interfere with a newspaper's right to publish whatever the fuck it wants as long as it's not committing a crime.) Well, too bad for both the Americans and the Muslims - you do not have an universal human right not to be offended by people who don't share your religion, or even better, don't have a religion at all. The international community would only have a case to ask something of Denmark if universal human rights are being violated - and they very simply are not. If you don't like the cartoon, don't look at it. If you freak out easily, take some ritalin or something. If you can't handle being made fun of, justly or unjustly, you simply can't handle living in this world. You may be hurt, of course, but burning embassies and calling for the death of the cartoonists is just a little too far. And not to mention... Jyllands-Posten apologized for any unintended offense already. Don't be torching embassies when you got your apology! What else could you possibly, reasonably expect?