Chomsky isn’t satisfied with mere equivalence:
Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.
You’d think a linguist would have a better grasp of the word, “uncontroversially.” Hitchens responds:
[I]t is remarkable that he should write as if the mass of evidence against Bin Laden has never been presented or could not have been brought before a court. This form of 9/11 denial doesn’t trouble to conceal an unstated but self-evident premise, which is that the United States richly deserved the assault on its citizens and its civil society. After all, as Chomsky phrases it so tellingly, our habit of “naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Tomahawk … [is] as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy.’ ” Perhaps this is not so true in the case of Tomahawk, which actually is the name of a weapon, but the point is at least as good as any other he makes.
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?
Many activists today hate their own societies so much that they defend barbaric customs typical to religious cultures because they feel guilty recognising the ethical superiority of secularism. There’s a disturbing trend amongst these activists to label themselves progressives, when more accurate labels would be “religious apologists” and “religious pluralists.”
These are people—including “atheists,” agnostics, and theists of all kinds—who argue that religious faiths are reasonable and defensible, and that all religions are equally valid. They’re usually only concerned with defending human rights when they personally feel oppressed, or when they believe their own societies oppress others.
However, as religious cultures violate the human rights of millions of people, apologists and theists defend these crimes with the two-faced shield of normative relativism and argue that we have no right to judge other cultures. More specifically, apologists argue that we have no right to judge religions in general, even though religions themselves claim superiority over all others.
Many theists have thus invented an imaginary right to not be mocked or criticised for their ridiculous beliefs, claiming that religion serves the interests of the abject, impoverished and despairing. However, theism only serves to empower despots. In fact, theism itself is so fundamentally authoritarian that it threatens our most basic rights to life, liberty, and security of person.
Disgusted by imperialism and xenophobic rednecks, apologists fancy themselves anti-nationalists and resort to normative relativism to make sense of the differences between Western culture and those of the “colonised.” Such apologists are most commonly young college students or recent graduates, and they typically have developed their relativist philosophy as a means of rebelling against the bigotry of their parents or other people they have come to hate.
Combined with the questionable ideal of multiculturalism—i.e. diversity for diversity’s sake—these apologists have resorted to an unreasonable tolerance that compels them to defend all sorts of dysfunctional cultures despite the overwhelming evidence that they are harmful, barbaric and incompatible with our own.
For example, Daniel Bragança recently argued that the West has “the right, and often the duty to point out when certain cultures are increasing suffering and failing to respect the human rights of others.” Bragança criticised Afghanistan’s culture for its ingrained paedophilia: Afghan men regularly keep underage boys as lovers and status symbols because misogynist Islamic principles require women to be covered from head to toe. However, as clearly wrong and ill-conceived this practice is, Bragança was met with a chorus of apologists—some atheist, some agnostic, and some theist—who claimed that his criticism of Afghan culture was radical and misguided. Seriously? Is it seriously radical to point out that sexual molestation and misogyny is wrong no matter where it happens? Is it radical then to not mutilate a child’s genitals? Is it radical to believe that you shouldn’t rape kids, kill people you dislike, or pretend to know things that you don’t?
There’s an inherent irony in using relativism to defend theism and its by-products because religions themselves are straightforwardly objectivist: to the religious, right and wrong are matters of divine authority, and are not susceptible to the whims of forward-thinking philosophers like the Founding Fathers or Enlightenment thinkers. Christian theists proclaim their absolutist objectivism on a regular basis: “Homosexuality is an abomination!” “Premarital sex is a sin!” “Nobody reaches God except through Christ Jesus!” But as soon as a secular thinker applies reason and scientific inquiry to religion, theists and their apologists claim critical immunity: “If it’s right for us or them, who are you to judge?”
“We have a right to not be mocked or offended,” the religious say, as was the case with Muslims in response to the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons controversy of 2005, or with Christians in response to any sort of social progress in the United States. Luckily for the West, we know how to define human rights: they are are legal, social or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement which apply to all humans. Human rights are conceived entirely within an egalitarian context—all people have equal rights and should be treated as equals in certain respects—and the only atmosphere that is conducive to these human rights is one that is free and democratic. Anything that threatens that atmosphere, such as the moral dictatorship of theism, threatens human rights in general. Thus, anything that requires the curtailing of freedom and democracy—such as “a right to not be mocked or offended”—cannot possibly qualify as a human right. Nonetheless, religious apologists argue that religion does the weak and the disenfranchised some sort of good that atheists should acknowledge and respect.
In a speech dubbed “The Tyranny of a Callous God,” Christopher Hitchens asks what it means to believe:
[T]hat there is a divinely supervising father […], that there is someone who knows, and watches and cares. What does it mean to believe that? I think it has two very disagreeable implications. One is that we are subjected all the time to a permanent, unending, ’round-the-clock surveillance that begins at least when we’re born, some would say before, and doesn’t even quit when we die. There’s no privacy, there’s no freedom, there’s nothing you do that isn’t watched over, and that you can be convicted of thought crime. You are already guilty, because we know you at least were going to think about it. This is an absolute definition of unfreedom—it’s what Orwell means when he says that all totalitarianism is essentially theocratic. Is this for the weak? No, it postulates a hideous strength, to borrow a C.S. Lewis term, a horrible, unchallengeable despotism that could never be voted out or overthrown or transcended. [Theism] is not the small voice of compassion—it’s the utter arrogance of absolute power.
It’s a mistake to separate the cultural authoritarianism of religion—the dogma that morality is a product of divine authority—and political authoritarianism, as Kevin Carson explains in his recent article:
Cultural authoritarianism—such as occurs in the family, church and workplace—tends to exist in a mutually reinforcing relationship with political authoritarianism. Authoritarianism isn’t easily compartmentalized. People who are in the habit of unquestioning obedience to authority in a major part of their lives, and have their freedom of judgment subordinated to the will of others, are unlikely to fight very vigorously for their personal liberties against the claimed authority of the state.
In a world where religion is accessory to oppression, to shield it from criticism and mockery is to forsake the lives of the millions oppressed, and to pervert the very idea of a human right. That’s why I confidently criticise, mock and offend the sensibilities of theists and their apologists. I can’t help that they get offended because of their childish, backward insecurities and medieval morality. Their true discomfort, though they won’t admit it, is with my belief in universal human rights and with my adherence to reason. In some cases, they’re offended by reason itself, and in the words of Jonathan Swift, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”
This is why I support Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. It’s why I support charging and trying the Pope and members of the Catholic Church for the child abuses they have committed, concealed and denied. It is why I oppose arranged marriages and criticise other cultural practises that violate human rights. It’s why I argue with the supposed “liberals” who defend such barbaric customs. Theism—religious faith, by any other name—opposes freedom itself.
And thus, I reject God.
Thomas Iodine is a political writer from New England living in California. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Daniel Bragança.
Well today, September 20th, is “Everybody Pray For Hitchens Day.” I’m not necessarily going to promote that action – however much I’m sure he appreciates the motives – I think it’d be much better for his morale if you purchased one of his books. That will certainly have an effect in the material world. But look, I agree with Hitch, if praying makes you feel better, pray away.
In my previous post on this topic, I laid out my argument and others’ for allowing the proposed mosque to be built. President Obama courageously and dutifully addressed the nation and also supported the religious freedom of Muslims to build a mosque on private property.
I completely agree when the President says,
As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.
He or I did not, however, comment on what he calls “the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.”
Well Sam Harris tries to thread the needle by distancing himself from “many who oppose the construction of this mosque [that] embody all that is terrifyingly askew in conservative America—“birthers,” those sincerely awaiting the Rapture, opportunistic Republican politicians, and utter lunatics who yearn to see Sarah Palin become the next president of the United States (note that Palin herself probably falls into several of these categories). These people are wrong about almost everything under the sun.” He’s attempting to jab his carefully threaded needle into the wisdom without puncturing the liberal values of America’s founding and its citizens’ constitutional rights. Outside the piece he explains that he wrote this article before President Obama gave the speech – the editors wrote the title and lead in. Within his essay, I do think he bursts President Obama’s diplomatic statement that “Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam -– it’s a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders -– they’re terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children.” I do worry that careless readers with fall into the trap of thinking Harris is too easily grouping moderates and extremists; failing to discriminate. Further in however Harris’s thread comes close to falling out.
And the erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory—and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice. This may not be reason enough for the supporters of this mosque to reconsider their project. And perhaps they shouldn’t. Perhaps there is some form of Islam that could issue from this site that would be better, all things considered, than simply not building another mosque in the first place. But this leads me to a somewhat paradoxical conclusion: American Muslims should be absolutely free to build a mosque two blocks from ground zero; but the ones who should do it probably wouldn’t want to.
Harris might be right that it is unfortunate that these peaceful American Muslims would want to build their mosque so close to Ground Zero if they are actually interested in easing tensions between communities (clearly that isn’t working yet), but I’m not sure he’s right that it shows that “liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.” Even if some terrorists overseas view it that way, in my mind it highlights the strength of our values to withstand even what a majority of our citizens find “offensive.” I don’t want to be held hostage to whatever religious terrorists may think about our decisions or values. Furthermore, allowing the construction stands in stark contrast to how many in the Muslim world treat things they find offensive. Christopher Hitchens spotlights that gambit.
A widespread cultural cringe impels many people to the half-belief that it’s better to accommodate “moderates” like Rauf as a means of diluting the challenge of the real thing. So for the sake of peace and quiet, why not have Comedy Central censor itself or the entire U.S. press refuse to show the Danish cartoons?
This kind of capitulation needs to be fought consistently. But here is exactly how not to resist it. Take, for example, the widely publicized opinion of Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Supporting those relatives of the 9/11 victims who have opposed Cordoba House, he drew a crass analogy with the Final Solution and said that, like Holocaust survivors, “their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.” This cracked tune has been taken up by Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who additionally claim to be ventriloquizing the emotions of millions of Americans who did notsuffer bereavement. It has also infected the editorial pages of the normally tougher-minded Weekly Standard, which called on President Obama to denounce the Cordoba House on the grounds that a 3-to-1 majority of Americans allegedly find it “offensive.”
Where to start with this part-pathetic and part-sinister appeal to demagogy? To begin with, it borrows straight from the playbook of Muslim cultural blackmail. Claim that something is “offensive,” and it is as if the assertion itself has automatically become an argument. You are even allowed to admit, as does Foxman, that the ground for taking offense is “irrational and bigoted.” But, hey—why think when you can just feel?
I have to admit, when I first heard that they were building a “Ground Zero Mosque” I assumed it was going to be in the new Twin Towers. Viscerally and immediately I opposed that; but once I learned it was being built on private property and off the site of the Twin Towers, I couldn’t find any reason for restricting the freedom of fellow Americans. Now I still don’t think I’d argue in favor of putting a mosque there if I was making the decision (fortunately in America we don’t allow the opinion of random citizens to decide such questions), and I can’t help but understand the emotional appeal of people like this 9/11 firefighter in opposing the mosque’s construction (which I watched as I sat in the ER). I don’t agree with all his arguments but I can empathize with his perspective. This puts me in a difficult place. How can I on the one hand give his argument from offense weight while actively instigating offense in campaigns like “Draw Mohammed Day” (e.g. here and here)? Well to me it illustrates the essential difference in supporting freedom in practice to just giving it lip service. Conor puts the opposition to the test.
Imagine a suburban street where three kids in a single family were molested by a Catholic priest, who was subsequently transferred by the archbishop to a faraway parish, and never prosecuted. Nine years later, a devout Catholic woman who lives five or six doors down decides that she’s going to start a prayer group for orthodox Catholics — they’ll meet once a week in her living room, and occasionally a local priest, recently graduated from a far away seminary, will attend.
Even if we believe that it is irrational for the mother of the molested kids to be upset by this prayer group on her street, it’s easy enough to understand her reaction. Had she joined an activist group critical of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the molestation, it’s easy to imagine that group backing the mother. As evident is the fact that the devout Catholic woman isn’t culpable for molestations in the Catholic church — in fact, even though we understand why her prayer group upsets the neighbor, it is perfectly plausible that the prayer group organizers never imagined that their plan would be upsetting or controversial. In their minds (and in fact), they’re as opposed to child molestation as anyone, and it’s easy to see why they’d be offended by any implication to the contrary.
Presented with that situation, how should the other people on the street react? Should they try to get city officials to prevent the prayer meetings from happening because they perhaps violate some technicality in the neighborhood zoning laws? Should they hold press conferences denouncing the devout woman? Should they investigate the priest who plans to attend? What if he once said, “Child molestation is a terrible sin, it is always wrong, and I am working to prevent it from ever happening again. I feel compelled to add that America’s over-sexualized culture is an accessory to this crime.” Does that change anything?
I’d certainly side with the woman who wants to hold the prayer group, and her fellow orthodox Catholics.
Does anyone think any of those talk-radio hosts opposing the mosque would similarly oppose the Christian prayer group? What about Gingrich or Palin? Certainly, the mosque case is more extreme in degree, but I fail to see any difference in principle.
I still believe that once tensions simmer down, America will be stronger for allowing this construction. As I argued before, we’re not so fragile that we can’t live with this. We must remember that even if it is unadvisable or unwise for these Americans to build their mosque here, they aren’t responsible for 9/11. Feelings aren’t permanent, freedom should be. And, hey, we can always support building a gay bar next to it.
Christopher Hitchens writes about his battle against cancer.
I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. Of course my book hit the best-seller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?
(image from Wikipedia)