Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Mar/15

2

George Will on his relaxed atheism

Feb/15

28

Jamila Bey at CPAC

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Atheist Group Makes CPAC Debut:

Jamila Bey is a mom, a business owner, a Pittsburgh native—and a board member of the group American Atheists. She also, apparently, identifies as conservative. After introducing herself to the crowd, Bey used her three-minute spot to invite audience members to drop by the American Atheist table in the exhibition hall and learn more.

Jamila Bey’s Twitter.

Feb/15

19

ISIS: Looking to the North

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ISISCross-posted on the Corner:

Over in the Financial Times, there’s an interesting piece on Putin’s friends abroad, but this passage in particular caught my eye:

The current Egyptian government believes that the Obama administration’s failure to support former President Hosni Mubarak, during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, revealed the US to be both duplicitous and naive.

Hold that thought, now read this (from the Daily Telegraph) (my emphasis added):

Islamic State militants are planning a takeover of Libya as a “gateway” to wage war across the whole of southern Europe, letters written by the group’s supporters have revealed. The jihadists hope to flood the north African state with militiamen from Syria and Iraq, who will then sail across the Mediterranean posing as migrants on people trafficking vessels, according to plans seen by Quilliam, the British anti-extremist group. The fighters would then run amok in southern European cities and also try to attack maritime shipping.

The document is written by an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) propagandist who is believed to be an important online recruiter for the terror in Libya, where security has collapsed in the wake of the revolution that unseated Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 . . .

[British] security officials also share Isil’s view about the possibility of using people trafficking boats to smuggle fighters into Europe. Thanks to its vast, porous desert borders with Sub-Saharan Africa, Libya has long been a key operating hub for trafficking boats heading into Europe, but numbers have escalated dramatically since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. Italy’s interior ministry estimates that at least 200,000 refugees and immigrants are poised to make the crossing from Libya to Sicily or the tiny island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost territory. Last year more than 170,000 arrived in Italy by boat, including tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the civil war in their home country. . . .

Nasser Kamel, Egypt’s ambassador to London, warned Britain brace itself for ‘boats full of terrorists’ unless action was taken in Libya. He spoke after 2,164 migrants were rescued at sea in a 24-hour period over the weekend in what has been described as an ‘exodus without precedent’.

“Those boat people who go for immigration purposes and try to cross the Mediterranean … in the next few weeks, if we do not act together, they will be boats full of terrorists also,” he said. . . .

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Isil’s leader, has since laid claim to Libya as part of his “Caliphate”. Whilst on the whole that remains more rhetoric than reality, support for the group in this war ravaged state is growing. In September, Abu Nabil, an Iraqi and key leader within Isil, travelled to the country to build support for the group. His men took control of much of Derna, a traditionally conservative city in the east of the country, that is now being run according to the extremist group’s strict Shariah law. Hundreds of Libyans who had travelled to fight alongside Isil in Syria have started to return to fight for the group on home turf, residents say. They have expanded the group’s influence into the east of the country, taking controlling of parts of Sirte, a former Gaddafi stronghold.

Barack Obama (January 7, 2014) on ISIS:

I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

And since then there has been the claim that ISIS is somehow “not Islamic.”

The term “out of his depth” comes to mind.

In this context, this lengthy, intriguing piece by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic on ISIS is very well worth your time. Its implications are terrifying.

Some extracts:

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

The millennialist temptation takes many forms, is perennial and, at its worst, very, very dangerous, but it is not something that a president wrapped up in the soft certainties of the end of history can be expected to understand.

Wood:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it….

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute . . .

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State.

The incredulity and denial are true enough, and, ironically, Wood’s history (at this point) in a sense reflects very similar thinking. Contrary to his assertion, wars of religion (even if largely unacknowledged as such) did very nicely for themselves in Europe during the last century. Both communism and Nazism were, in many respects, millennialist cults (think of that “thousand year” Reich), and, as such cults can do, they killed millions.

ISIS may well try the same.

As for ISIS attacks on southern Europe (and in the end it would not just be southern Europe), it’s important to remember that the writings of one propagandist do not necessarily translate into deeds, but . . .

As the atrocities in France and Denmark remind us, Europe’s intertwined immigration and Islamist crises are already bad enough. They may well be about to get much worse.

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Feb/15

16

‘But’

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Lars VilksCross-posted on the Corner.

A writer for the Guardian, on cue (my emphasis added):

We are in perilous territory. Slaughter as political protest cannot be defended. Free speech as legal and moral pre-requisites in a free society must be defended. But there are also other obligations to be laid upon those who wish to live in peaceful, reasonably harmonious societies. Even after Paris, even after Denmark we must guard against the understandable temptation to be provocative in the publication of these cartoons if the sole objective is to establish that we can do so. With rights to free speech come responsibilities.

Ah yes.

“Responsibilities.”

After the uproar that followed the appearance of the original Mohammed cartoons, an article was published in Jyllands-Posten (the newspaper that first published those cartoons) included this phrase: “Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”

The translation? “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”

But there is.

As I noted the other day, Jyllands-Posten is singing a different tune these days, made all the bleaker by its bluntness. The newspaper declined to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons after the Paris murders saying this:

“We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years, and yes, that is the explanation why we do not reprint the cartoons, whether it be our own or Charlie Hebdo’s,” Jyllands-Posten said. “We are also aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation.”

In writing about the (first) Copenhagen murder last night, I linked to a 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer story that revealed how a number of the meetings due to be addressed by Lars Vilks (the artist whose event was attacked) had been canceled.

If I had to guess, I suspect that those who, however sadly, canceled those events, are today feeling, however sadly, that they did the right thing. Violence works.

There will be many more cancellations, many more invitations that go unissued, many more articles that do not get written, and many more cartoons that do not get drawn.

The noose tightens a bit more.

In a piece published by The Spectator before Copenhagen, Douglas Murray writes about a rally held in London a week or so ago:

Yesterday in London a crowd of more than a thousand British Muslims (carefully divided between males and females) gathered outside Downing Street. The rally – organised by something calling itself ‘The Muslim Action Forum’ – was a protest against freedom of speech, specifically to cartoons of Mohammed in the French publication Charlie Hebdo. Among the banners carried by protestors were ones that read, ‘I am a servant of holy prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’, the sinister ‘We love prophet Muhammad (pbuh) more than our lives’, ‘Jesus and Moses were prophets of Islam’ and the even more presumptuous ‘Learn some manners’. Among those holding a banner reading ‘Charlie and the abuse factory’ was a little boy. Others bore banners with the fantastically awful words spoken by the Pope last month: ‘Insult my mum and I will punch you (Pope Francis).’ A large banner hung beneath the stage from which speakers addressed the crowd carried the barely concealed threat: ‘Be careful with Muhammad.’

Meanwhile a group of tribal leaders presented a petition to Number 10 Downing Street which they said had been signed by 100,000 UK Muslims criticising publications which ‘sow the seeds of hatred’…. Among the speakers was one Shaykh Tauqir Ishaw, a spokesman for the organisers who said:

‘Perpetual mistakes by extremists, either by cold-blooded killers or uncivilised expressionists, cannot be the way forward for a civilised society. The peace-loving majority of people must become vociferous in promoting global civility and responsible debate. At this time of heightened tension and emotion, it is crucial that both sides show restraint to prevent further incidents of this nature occurring.’

“Restraint.” “Responsibilities.” “But.”

Murray:

Of course much though these fanatics may like to pretend otherwise there are no ‘two sides’ of the same coin going on here. The ‘expressionists’ and the ‘terrorists’ are not ‘as bad as each other’. The only two things which are in fact conjoined are the people who use guns and bombs to terrorise people for exercising their rights as free Europeans and the very large number of people from the ‘moderate majority’ who back up such violence (even while, like yesterday’s speakers, claiming to deplore it) with warnings that non-Muslims should be ‘careful’ when addressing their religion.

Quite.

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Feb/15

14

An ‘Enchanted Secularism’? No Thanks

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RealityWriting in the New York Times, David Brooks frets about what non-believers, um, believe:

Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who are atheist, agnostic or without religious affiliation. A fifth of all adults and a third of the youngest adults fit into this category.

As secularism becomes more prominent and self-confident, its spokesmen have more insistently argued that secularism should not be seen as an absence — as a lack of faith — but rather as a positive moral creed.

Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer College sociologist, makes this case as fluidly and pleasurably as anybody in his book, “Living the Secular Life.”

Oh good grief…

Secularism has “spokesmen”?

Now it’s true that most people do want to have faith in something. That’s why so many supposedly secular philosophies are anything but (step forward, Karl Marx).

But if there is anything that non-belief should not be it is a creed. In essence non-belief ‘says’ one of two things: Either that there is no God, or (in essence, I know it’s more complicated than this) that the existence of God is highly unlikely. That’s it. Move along, there’s (literally) nothing to see here. What’s on television tonight?

From what Brooks says, Zuckerman’s “creed” appears to be some variant of the usual soft-left secular humanist mush. That’s for those who like that sort of thing, but only for those who like that sort of thing. I’ll pass, thanks.

Brooks then worries about how hard it must be “to live secularism well”, claiming that secularists have to build their own moral philosophies (not really, accumulated traditions, societal and familial, often work out just fine – and they come with the plus of not needing too much thought), and that secularists have to build their own “communities” and “covenantal rituals”. They do? Why?

And then:

Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.

No they don’t “have” to. Quite a few secular individuals doubtless do feel a ‘God-shaped hole’, or some need for the transcendent, but, judging by my own experience, I suspect that there are plenty of others who do not.

The amount of time I need “to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters”: zero. It’s easy, Mr. Brooks.

If anything, what Brooks’s article shows is how difficult it is for some religious folk (particularly, I suspect, the more intellectual among them) to ‘get’ the fact that for some secularists at least, “spiritual matters” are not something they are too bothered about.

Towards the end of the piece Brooks argues:

It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.

In a way Brooks is right. If secularism (which he appears to use as a synonym for atheism/agnosticism rather than, anything more specifically political or philosophical) is to be a ‘creed’, it would have to appeal to the irrational as well as the rational. That’s how creeds work (take another bow, Karl Marx!) but, to repeat myself, there is no reason why secularism in the sense that Brooks uses it has to be a creed. It can be a simple matter of observation (or, some might say, failure to observe), complete in itself.

Brooks:

The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.

“Enchanted secularism,” “the spiritual urge in each of us”?

I’ll leave that sort of thing to the likes of Professor Dawkins and, my spiritual urges thankfully non-existent, revert to spending my time on something more fruitful.

What’s on television tonight?

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savonarolaCrux:

ROME — A new Vatican document expresses a negative view of elective plastic surgery for women, warning that procedures such as facelifts and tummy tucks can become a form of “aggression” that threatens female identity.

Surgical alterations in appearance, the document says, can “amputate the expressive possibilities of the human face, which are so connected to empathic abilities,” and “can be aggressive toward the feminine identity, showing a refusal of the body.”

The same document compares plastic surgery to “a burqa made of flesh”.

Trivialize much?

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Feb/15

1

Jumping on the Popemobile

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pope-obamaCross-posted on the Corner

It’s only fair to wait and see what Pope Francis has to say about the environment and climate change in his forthcoming encyclical, although, on the basis of a number of his comments on the topic so far, I don’t see any particular grounds for optimism.

The Obama administration, however, clearly sees an opportunity.

The Guardian reports:

America’s top environmental official has assured the Vatican that the pope and Barack Obama are singing from the same hymnal when it comes to fighting climate change.

In a visit to the Vatican, Gina McCarthy, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), conveyed a message to the pope that Obama shared his view that fighting climate change was a moral obligation.

“I want him to know that the president is aligned with him on these issues and that we are taking action in the United States,” McCarthy told the National Catholic Reporter ahead of the meeting.

She went so far as to suggest that Obama was “working with the pope” when it came to climate change.

That alliance, between Obama and the pope, followed from the view that leaders have a moral duty to preserve the earth and protect those most at risk from the consequences of climate change, McCarthy said.

“I think the most important thing that we can do, working with the pope, is to try to remind ourselves that this is really about protecting natural resources that human beings rely on, and that those folks that are most vulnerable – that the church has always been focused on, those in poverty and low income – are the first that are going to be hit and impacted by a changing climate,” she said.

EPA officials said McCarthy used the meeting to applaud the pope’s efforts to fight climate change, and to brief the Vatican on Obama’s plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming.

It’s worth noting that it is the administration that is saying that it is working with the pope, rather than the other way around (it doesn’t appear to be a Cuba re-run). Nevertheless the administration is clearly making an effort to capitalize on Francis’s popularity. That’s good politics.

Whether the result will be good policy is an entirely different question.

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Jan/15

24

Mystic and Mad

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ste-christineIn the Spectator a review by Sean McGlynn of a new book intended to show that there was more to the Middle Ages than mud and blood:

For those who imagine the medieval period along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — knights, castles, fair maidens, filthy peasants and buckets of blood and gore (you know, all the fun stuff) — Johannes Fried’s version may come as something of an aesthetic shock. His interests lie in the more rarefied world of theologians, lawyers and philosophers. So while the kings and emperors of the Middle Ages are afforded largely thumbnail sketches, it is the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, William of Ockham and Peter Abelard that attract Fried’s closest attention in his study of the ‘cultural evolution’ of the Middle Ages.

Then again:

Fried also, refreshingly, touches on less well-known cases, as in his treatment of female mystics, such as Christine de St Trond from the early 13th century, who would whirl herself into unconsciousness ‘like a dervish’ in a state of self-induced ecstasy. Her trance-like states carried her ‘quite literally to new heights, as she would clamber into the rafters of churches and climb towers and trees, flirting with death’. Her dedication went way beyond the self-punishing rituals of the flagellants…. Christine ‘tried to replicate the torments of sinners in Hell by putting herself in ovens, plunging into boiling water, having herself lashed to mill wheels and hanged on gallows, and lying in open graves’.

If there is a border between mysticism and madness it is lightly guarded.

More about Christine the Astonishing (in German, Christina die Wunderbare seems a better translation) here. Hallucinations are involved. Although she was never canonized or even beatified, Wikipedia notes that “prayers are traditionally said to [Christine] to seek her intercession for millers, those suffering from mental illness and mental health workers”.

Fair enough.

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Jan/15

11

Too Dangerous a Historical Debate

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Mohammed_receiving_revelation_from_the_angel_GabrielWriting in the Guardian, Nick Cohen on self-censorship:

Unless we find the courage to overcome fear, the self-censorship will spread, and not only in the media.

Colleagues who wanted historians at a London museum to talk about the long history of depictions of Muhammad in Islamic art last week were met with panicking press officers trying to shut them up. Historian Tom Holland, who received death threats after he challenged the creation myths of Islam, said: “I cannot think of any other area of history where debate is so nervous.” He hopes that historians will continue to say that the Koran was a manmade creation, but doubts that journalists will be keen to take their work to the public.

This is not a small capitulation. In the 19th century, the textual criticism of German scholars revealed that the supposed word of God in the Bible was a mess of competing stories. It did as much damage to Christianity and Judaism as Darwinism. Anyone hoping to repeat the exercise by taking apart the Koran and the hadiths today will be restrained by the fear that they will end up as dead as satirists who try to do the same with anti-clerical humour.

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Jan/15

11

#PasCharlie 2

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ParisCross-posted on the Corner (yesterday):

Tomorrow Paris will play host to a march designed to show France’s unity in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

The Guardian explains:

Je suis Charlie. Nous sommes Charlie. La France est Charlie.

Under the banner of Tous Unis! (All United!), France’s Socialist government has called for a show of national unity after three days of bloodshed that were felt as a direct blow to the republican values of liberté, egalité, fraternité.

On Sunday David Cameron and Angela Merkel, as well as the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, president Matteo Renzi of Italy and the Spanish premier, Mariano Rajoy – 30 world leaders in all – will take part in one of the most significant public occasions in the history of post-war France….

The Guardian continues:

While almost everyone is Charlie when it comes to defending the fundamental values of the French republic, there is less unity when it comes to dealing with threats to those values.

Everyone is Charlie?

No, everyone is not.

And the French state most definitely is not.

Writing for the Washington Post, Jonathan Turley argues (my emphasis added):

Indeed, if the French want to memorialize those killed at Charlie Hebdo, they could start by rescinding their laws criminalizing speech that insults, defames or incites hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sex or sexual orientation. These laws have been used to harass the satirical newspaper and threaten its staff for years. Speech has been conditioned on being used “responsibly” in France, suggesting that it is more of a privilege than a right for those who hold controversial views….

The cases have been wide-ranging and bizarre. In 2008, for example, Brigitte Bardot was convicted for writing a letter to then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy about how she thought Muslims and homosexuals were ruining France. In 2011, fashion designer John Galliano was found guilty of making anti-Semitic comments against at least three people in a Paris cafe. In 2012, the government criminalized denial of the Armenian genocide (a law later overturned by the courts, but Holocaust denial remains a crime). In 2013, a French mother was sentenced for “glorifying a crime” after she allowed her son, named Jihad, to go to school wearing a shirt that said “I am a bomb.” Last year, Interior Minister Manuel Valls moved to ban performances by comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, declaring that he was “no longer a comedian” but was rather an “anti-Semite and racist.” It is easy to silence speakers who spew hate or obnoxious words, but censorship rarely ends with those on the margins of our society…

Recently, speech regulation in France has expanded into non-hate speech, with courts routinely intervening in matters of opinion. For example, last year, a French court fined blogger Caroline Doudet and ordered her to change a headline to reduce its prominence on Google — for her negative review of a restaurant.

While France long ago got rid of its blasphemy laws, there is precious little difference for speakers and authors in prosecutions for defamation or hate speech. There may also be little difference perceived by extremists, like those in Paris, who mete out their own justice for speech the government defines as a crime. To them, this is only a matter of degree in responding to what the government has called unlawful provocations.

And as Turley points out, it’s not just France:

The French, of course, have not been alone in rolling back protections on free speech. Britain, Canada and other nations have joined them. We have similar rumblings here in the United States. In 2009, the Obama administration shockingly supported Muslim allies trying to establish a new international blasphemy standard.

And ask yourself this: What would have been the reaction on an American campus, Brandeis say, or Yale, if (before this week) some of its students had retweeted some of those Charlie Hebdo covers or, maybe, horrors, invited the magazine’s now murdered editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, to speak?

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