As more evidence mounts it has become increasing clear that the Boston Marathon bombers were influenced by their radical Islamic faith. Yet, some writers have acted as if noticing that is unjustified Islamophobia.
But beyond that issue, even those assuming the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers seem to have no basis at all for claiming that this was an act of “terrorism” in a way that would meaningfully distinguish it from Aurora, Sandy Hook, Tuscon and Columbine. All we really know about them in this regard is that they identified as Muslim, and that the older brother allegedly watched extremist YouTube videos and was suspected by the Russian government of religious extremism (by contrast, virtually every person who knew the younger brother has emphatically said that he never evinced political or religious extremism).
Others like Kevin Drum and Conor Friedersdorf, agree, and take the position that we should just remain agnostics on whether the suspects’ interpretation of Islam played a role in their actions until more evidence proves it.
So I am grateful for reminders from cooler heads about how frequently what everyone “knows” to be true turns out to be false. At worst, those warnings delay the moment when an inevitable conclusion is reached, as I suspect will be true in this case. That delay is the worst thing that could happen. Is that so bad?
There should be no objection to waiting for evidence and displaying skepticism toward knee-jerk assumptions. Everyone is and ought to be legally entitled to due-process to prove any guilt. But the problem with writers such as Greenwald and others that are quick to label opponents as Islamophobes is that their skepticism never ends – in practice they remain permanent agnostics that religion could really motivate terrorists or other enemies of civil society. Scott Atran, for all his valuable insights, argues that “the greatest predictor from going from support [of the Jihad] to violence has nothing to do with religion; it has to do with whether you belong to a soccer club or not.” This type of statement is representative of those who divorce statistics from a coherent casual theory.
Everyone agrees that politics, social alienation, nationalism, and brain structure are reasonable factors in the casual chain, but for some religious apologists their Pyrrhonian skepticism only kicks in when you point out that some doctrines of Islam contribute to violent acts. Even Greenwald is happy to cite politics as the suspects’ motivation in another post despite chastising everyone else with a reminder that “media-presented evidence is no substitute for due process and an adversarial trial” when they mention religion.
Given what we know, we can provisionally consider the Tsarnaev brothers terrorists that are more than likely partially motivated by religious ideology. Obviously it’s not impossible that’s wrong (which is why we have due process), but it’d be a strange scenario indeed for something so important to their lives to NOT have influenced their actions.
Tamerlan was apparently kicked out of his mosque for being too extreme in his religion. A foreign government noticed and alerted the US that he was potentially a dangerous religious extremist before the bombings. They had an interest in Jihadist videos. Tamerlan traveled to areas that are “hotbeds” of political and religious extremism. The two brothers committed an act seemingly designed to purposefully create public terror and, as Dzhokhar says, “he and his brother had learned to make the pressure-cooker bombs that they used at the marathon from Inspire, the online Al Qaeda magazine.” Neither brother has a known history of diagnosed mental health problems. At a certain point when data begins to fit into a coherent theory it verges into reasonable inference. I’m more than happy to concede nothing is “proven,” but again, I refuse to not notice out loud what is obviously the most likely scenario - religious ideology inspired these two alleged terrorists.
If it’s true that some people unfairly and prejudiciously assume any suspected terrorist is an Islamic fanatic -and that unfortunately happens- a converse is also true; some people overcompensate and go to unreasonable lengths to deny what is most parsimonious: those seemingly radical Islamic bombers of innocent civilians at a highly public event were actually radical Islamic terrorists.
(photo: John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
On a recent episode of Up with Chris Hayes the panel discussed atheism in America. Richard Dawkins provocatively suggested that there isn’t too much discussion of religious beliefs in the public square, but too little. Dawkins believes that private religious beliefs should be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other belief candidates may hold.
Hayes, an atheist, strongly disagrees and emphasizes that private and public beliefs are separate because “no one is legislating on transubstantiation.” I don’t need to check the legislative calendar to know he’s right, but I’m not sure that means we should “respect a distinction between beliefs on public matters and public policy and private beliefs.” Superficially, the distinction makes some sense, but practically we run into difficulties.
We don’t treat other private beliefs that way
Candidates get asked questions about their families and other non-public matters all the time. Off the top of my head:
- Romney’s dog or is Romney an emotionless robot
- Dennis Kucinich’s UFO
- The sexual lives of countless politicians
Now, maybe Chris Hayes himself has never brought up any private issues. That’s a respectable position, but the media as a whole doesn’t seem to honor that distinction. “Character issues” either matter or they don’t. Sheltering religious beliefs from criticism is purely convention and cowardliness. Arguably, all the “private” issues that the media currently discuss are far less consequential than a candidate’s faith.
We don’t know in advance what issues will be public
Let’s take a look a few innocuous private religious beliefs:
- The 2nd Commandment prohibition on images of God’s likeness
Turns out that really caring about drawing heavenly images is why we see deadly riots after Danish cartoons. How strongly you feel about the second commandment will probably affect your response such controversies.
- Life begins at conception
It wasn’t that long ago that no one ever talked about stem-cell research. But again and again as technology progresses, a naive little conviction that life begins at conception affects public policy. Abortion>In vitro fertilisation>stem cell research>?
- The Noah’s Ark Myth
We all know that creationist style beliefs about the age of the earth lead to politicians promoting nonsense in science classes. But what if a politician takes a short passage in Genesis 8:21-22 seriously? It’s exactly those words that lead Rep. John Shimkus, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, to dismiss global warming as problem. That’s what God told Noah, apparently.
So, should the press assume that evidence-free beliefs will never become a matter of public concern because no one is legislating on them right now?
The Way We Think
Subjecting public figures’ style of thinking to skepticism and examination should not be taboo. If someone credulously accepts nonsense that’s important to know. The media should expect to be loathed. Politeness is never an excuse for the Fourth Estate. We’ll never know every issue that will confront us before we elect our representatives, which is exactly why appraising how they think is so crucial to voters.
Anyone that cares about women’s rights and health is rightly upset at the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s break with Planned Parenthood. The decision to stop grants to Planned Parenthood was clearly motivated by anti-abortion politics, but E.G. from the Democracy in America blog wonders why the healthcare provider receives such a high level of aggression:
The bulk of its activities are focused on contraception, STI screening, and cancer screening, and it places a particular emphasis on providing reproductive health care to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access. They also provide abortions, which are controversial, obviously, but legal, obviously. And insofar as access to contraception and other family-planning services reduces the demand for abortion, Planned Parenthood also prevents abortion. In my view, it is an important part of civil society. Even from a pro-life position, I would think it qualifies: being pro-life is a coherent moral position, and not one that necessarily implies a lack of concern for women’s health. So I really don’t understand why Planned Parenthood gets so much grief from the right.
It’s difficult to understand because most of the pro-life right is not anti-abortion because of a reasoned moral opinion, but rather because of religious dogma. So when E.G. looks at a moral calculation based on the consequences of behavior and policy and she notices that contraception services reduce the number of abortions it seems inconsistent to disapprove. However, if you recognize that fundamentalist religious ethics is based on a rule-based system that says abortion, contraception, and church-unapproved sexual activity are all evil in principle it makes “sense.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say the religious consciously don’t care about the effects on actual people, but religious ethical dogma is not concerned about the effects on actual people. It’s not morality. It’s fundamentalism.
“Being the president of the United States has to be the hardest job in the world. And the idea that one of us sitting around this table could do it with our own human intellect, our capability, is beyond any of us” - Rick Perry at the Thanksgiving Family Forum.
Looking around that table… I couldn’t agree more:
On a more serious note there was some truly disturbing theocratic rhetoric. Shortly after Perry’s insight, Newt goes on to argue that Americans have “attempted to create a secular country, which I think is frankly a nightmare.”
Kirk Murphy’s mother became worried about her son’s behavior:
I was becoming a little concerned about playing with the girls’ toys and stroking the hair – ya know, the long hair and stuff. I was seeing effeminate mannerisms. That bothered me because I wanted Kirk to grow up and have a normal life.
In order to give her child the most normal life possible she subjected Kirk to experimental behavioral control therpy, emotionally neglected him, and allowed her husband to beat him as part of a reward/punishment plan. His brother says he became empty, couldn’t relate to people, and was never a happy child again after the age of 4. Kirk killed himself at 38.
Watch the beginning of Anderson Cooper’s 3-part series on George Rekers’ homosexual cure therapy.
I finally got around to watching the “Does Good Come From God?” debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig. There are a number of interesting aspects of this debate – Sam’s thoughts on it are here – but I want to challenge Dr. Craig’s foundational assumption, which I thought could have been more clearly undermined. Every apologist that wants to argue that morals come from God need to answer the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, if God commands an evil act would it be good? If not, the good is clearly independent of God.
To escape this Dr. Craig asserts that God by his nature is perfect and good and cannot issue an evil commandment. But that just begs the question of what it means for something’s nature to be comprised of moral goodness. If kindness is by nature good then God – the divine commander in Craig’s view – is unnecessary for morality; we only need to refer to the good itself. Good by Craig’s logic is more fundamental than God – thus, Good doesn’t come from God.
Possibly even more problematic for his view is how “goodness” is defined by nature. If love and kindness is self-evidently a property of perfection and goodness, why again is God necessary for moral foundation? Staying true to theological tradition, his answer just pushes the question back a step. Let’s look at this game Craig plays: (I interjected some questions after Craig’s points – Craig never argues his positive case beyond these contentions) Seeing his arguments in print have a way of exposing their deficiency.
Where does good come from?
Craig: “Objective moral values are grounded in God.”
Skeptic: What if God commands something evil?
Craig: “Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with his holy and loving nature.”
Skeptic: How do you know God’s nature is good?
Craig: “As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore, the highest good.”
Skeptic: How convenient, but what defines goodness?
Craig: “He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth.”
Skeptic: But why are those attributes morally “good”? Why aren’t hatred, jealousy, and cruelty “good”?
Craig: [God] is not merely perfectly good; he is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured.”
Skeptic: You haven’t answered anything.
All these theological gymnastics illustrate the absurdity of the religious project. How does Craig or anyone else know that God is perfect or good by nature? How do we know perfection or goodness are defined in the way Craig says they are? If God’s nature (whatever that even means) was evil, would love still be good? If God really did issue morally obligatory commandments how would we be certain of their divine origin? As Dr. Harris points out throughout the debate, the bible repeatedly gets major questions of morality wrong (e.g. slavery) so we don’t have any obvious source to learn His commandments.
This improvisational fiction is not unique to Craig. The latest issue of Time magazine chronicles the debate between evangelicals on whether hell really exists or not and if so what its nature is. No one seems to notice that no one has any clue. If it wasn’t so consequential, Time might as well have reported on the debate between my alarm clock and my iPod.
Back in November I explained that kosher and halal slaughter methods are needlessly cruel. Well, here’s a video to prove it.
It starts off with the comparatively “humane” bolt killing of a cow – then we get to see the ways god is satisfied by animals writhing in pain as they drown in their own blood after having their throats “naturally” slit. It’s just another example of how faith and dogma can get well-meaning people to proudly support gratuitous barbarism.
(video via Pharyngula)
In his New York Times opinion piece Nicholas Kristof highlights how religious thinking can cause people to care more about dogma than living human beings.
The National Women’s Law Center has just issued a report quoting doctors at Catholic-affiliated hospitals as saying that sometimes they are forced by church doctrine to provide substandard care to women with miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies in ways that can leave the women infertile or even endanger their lives.
Of course, stalwart apologist of the liberal religious Kristof champions his version of Jesus against those rule-sticklingly traditionalists.
The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us.
I happen to agree with Kristof about the absurdity and callousness of the Church’s excommunication of a nun for saving a woman’s life, but how does he justify his judgement on religious grounds? Many sincere believers consider an embryo or a fetus to be an unborn human child equally deserving of moral compassion as a fully conscious adult. From their premises, they are being perfectly rational. Yet, Kristof summons the Nazarene in his court of moral opinion even though Jesus never told us what he thinks on this issue. However, there is certainly some biblical warrant to suppose God isn’t supportive of abortion. It’s not my burden to resolve this issue for either side. This thick haze just doesn’t obscure morally normal vision – there is no need to try to look through it. An unconscious blastocyst does not have the same moral weight as a breathing pregnant woman.
Sadly, it appears the Republican Party is lost in the fog and continues to exhibit more symptoms of moral vertigo with their push to redefine “the definition of rape and incest” in order to limit federal assistance for abortion.
For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.
With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.”
The sooner we abandon the notion that religion has a purchase on morality the better.
I encourage everyone to watch this debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair on whether religion is a force for good in the world. I’ve watched Hitchens debate and speak on the topic of religion countless times and this might be his best performance.
Start at 3:50 to get past the introductions.
The rest of the debate can be found (at least temporarily) here.
Of course religion inspires people to do good works and to commit evil acts. Apologists like to point out all the good parts of the religious traditions – Sermon on the Mount, love thy neighbor, etc – while opponents point out the barbarous portions – Leviticus, Crusades, etc. I have no problem admitting that religion motivates acts of compassion and no problem recognizing the cruelty religion animates. The trouble with religion is precisely the nature of that malleability. The traditions, texts, rites, and dogmas are still part of a set – you get the good and the bad yoked together pulling the fracturing cart where you sit. Reason works differently: there are good ideas and bad ideas. Do nonreligious people commit acts of wickedness because of nonreligious reasons? Of course. But as reasonable people we’re free to reject bad ideas in favor of good ones.
Faith in any religion (or secular ideology) makes it impossible to successfully arbitrate between the epistemological truth of one interpretation over another. Not only that, but the more faithful one is to these ancient texts cruelty often becomes easier to justify. Apologists like Tony Blair believe his peaceful and tolerant form of religion is true, but he has no recourse in faith to undermine more extreme strains. God, for some reason, seems content to remain mute. By contrast, ideas held by reason are amenable to correction in light of new evidence and argument.
You might be tempted to counter that religious people ignore the bad bits in their religion despite, for example, the bible reminding Christians that every jot and tittle of the word of God should be fulfilled and Muslims believing the Quran is the perfect unalterable word of the Creator. Certainly the religious often neglect to carry out every commend of their holy book, but notice that it is precisely because they are dismissing part of their religion that the religion becomes more benign. I’m always surprised how often religions’ apologists argue that people doing good by ignoring religion shouldn’t be counted as a strike against religion.
Not being religious doesn’t compel a secular thinker to repudiate the positive messages found within religious texts. I need not refuse to be a good samaritan. I need not rebuke the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita. I need not rebuff non-violence because it is practiced by the Jains. Inspiration can be drawn from Shakespeare or Dickens, from Bentham or Kant, from Jesus or the Buddha. Skepticism just repels treating any book as inherently superior or moral. It is a component of religion that appraises its message as unearthly. Admit it or not a religion is, among other things, a set of beliefs supposedly divinely inspired. Once someone accepts that a set of beliefs came from God or from a prophet of God only skepticism of those beliefs or our innate and culturally formed compassion can temper any of the pernicious dogmas of that faith.
Religion cleaved from its superstitions and creeds is not religion. If you insist that you are still a Catholic if you don’t believe in Catholic dogmas, the divinity of Jesus, or the holiness of the bible you’re not actually religious. You might identify with that culture, but that’s not religion. It’s for that reason a Jewish atheist, for example, isn’t an oxymoron. Subverting the supernatural need not crumble our communities.
So ask yourself, would the world be better off if people became more religious or more reasonable?
I always considered a bit of intellectual cowardice from myself to not fully consider and acknowledge the cruelty that one is responsible for when eating meat. I eat meat and I have no strong case for not abstaining from eating meat, but I do hope and expect that our farmers (and their regulators) at least attempt to minimize the suffering of these animals as much as possible. Most people, I imagine, are with me in the belief that we shouldn’t purposefully slaughter animals with methods that needlessly increase pain and terror. Yet, as Johann Hari explains, we allow exactly this to happen if the butcher wants to appease an invisible deity.
There’s a good example of this religious modus operandi playing out on a dinner table near you – and this week, we found out it is becoming more and more common. In Britain, it is a crime to kill a conscious cow or sheep or chicken for meat by slashing its throat without numbing it first. The reasons are obvious. If you don’t numb an animal, it screams as you hack through its skin, muscle, trachea, oesophagus, carotid arteries, jugular veins and major nerve trunks, and then it remains conscious as it slowly drowns in its own blood – a process that can take up to six minutes. So we insist that an animal is stunned before its throat is slashed, to ensure it is deeply unconscious. There isn’t much humanity in our factory farming system, but this is – at least – a tiny sliver of it, at the end.
But there is a loophole in the law. You are allowed to skip all this and slash the throats of un-numbed, screaming animals if you say God told you to. If you are Muslim, you call it “halal”, and if you are Jewish you call it “kosher”. Back in the Bronze Age, or the deserts of sixth-century Arabia, it was sensible to act this way. You needed to know your meat was fresh and the animal was not sick, so you made sure it was alive and alert when you killed it. As Woody Allen once said, it wasn’t so much a commandment as “advice on how to eat out safely in Jerusalem”. But we have much better ways of making sure meat is fresh and healthy now. Yet for many religious people it has hardened into a dogma, to be followed simply because it was laid down in their “holy” texts long ago by “God”.
I get if you want to follow some sort of traditional diet in order to impose discipline on yourself or you just enjoy the sense of connection customs can bring. But there are plenty of customs that can be practiced without torturing animals. Also, what kind of God is it that would continue to mandate such a practice in the 21st century?