By Shaun Ewart | 12 January 2015
The Meaning of Nothing
Because of the tendency for criticism of religion to be misconstrued as an ad hominem attack on theists rather than the critical analysis of unsubstantiated ontological claims, it is necessary to provide an explanation as to why I regard offence on religious grounds to be unfounded and hypocritical.
When attempting to silence a critic of their religion, the generic defence for many theists comes in the most vacant of claims; a statement that says nothing yet demands so much: “I’m offended.” This assault on our freedom of expression has stagnated discourse in Western countries where it has become acceptable to employ the argument of offence with the expectation of being taken seriously, as though frayed sensibilities equate to a justifiable point.
Crying offence is the adult equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and rolling on the ground screaming until the other person stops speaking. It poses no counterarguments, it needs no justification and it degrades discourse by limiting contributing opinions to a uniform few. Utilising offence as a method of argument says nothing more than “my feelings trump reason, so I don’t have to listen anymore.”
Okay, you’re offended. So what?
I’m offended that the Catholic Church still sends missionaries into countries ravaged by HIV and overpopulation to preach misinformation about the effectiveness of contraception. I’m offended that it’s deemed to be a faux pas to question archaic texts which justify the oppression of women and homosexuals along with a plethora of other repugnant ideas (corporal and capital punishment, genital mutilation, slavery, war, child brides – just to name a few). I’m offended whenever I accidentally stumble across a reality TV show and bear witness to the seemingly endless parade of vapid idiots lowering the collective IQ of the country. But my offence in itself is not cause for these things to cease, that would require justification in the form of a reasoned and rational argument, not base emotion and childish stubbornness. In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens: “If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings I’m still waiting to hear what [their] point is.”
The need to challenge bad ideas
The defence of offence has allowed religious apologists to depict those who challenge contentious beliefs as marauding fundamentalists, the crusaders of the pseudo-faith of “New Atheism” who are bent on proselytising an ideology as dogmatic as the religious institutions which they claim to despise. This assertion is little more than a diversion tactic employed to deflect the focus from the questionable tenets of a particular religion by attacking the character of the individual making the criticism.
This line of argument would have us believe that the ideas being critiqued are nothing more than a series of benign personal philosophies rather than strict doctrines which billions of people believe to be literal. If this were the case, and the organised religions and cults of the world (the definition varies depending on the number of followers) were merely harmless individually held belief systems which help to guide people through life, then the above description of their critics would be close to justifiable (it still wouldn’t prove any supernatural claims made about the nature of the universe). But in the real world spirituality is vastly different to the rigid teachings of organised religion. It is the competing claims to a divine understanding of existence, made infallible in the hearts and minds of believers, that are counterproductive, and, at times, dangerous.
I emphasise that this position should not be misinterpreted as a blanket attack on spirituality. One who, through self-reflection and contemplative thought, reasons that there may be more to existence than what we currently perceive would be disinclined to strap a bomb to one’s chest and detonate it in a crowded market because of ideas derived from a 7th century text. Nor would they be likely to enforce a Bronze Age nomadic tribe’s explanation for existence on school curriculums through the influence of powerful political lobby groups. And I very much doubt that as a result of an individual’s musings they would determine that they are sanctioned by a divine power to build settlements on contested land despite international condemnation. These are acts motivated and justified by immutable ideologies, not mere faith in something beyond our realm of perception.
Of course there are social, political and economic factors that contribute to the process of indoctrination and radicalisation, without which the aforementioned acts would likely never occur (I plan on expanding on these topics in future posts on this blog). But ignoring the ideologies which direct these factors towards anti-social and violent behaviour is an act of grievous intellectual dishonesty and political correctness gone awry.
When considering a Muslim suicide bomber, a failure to acknowledge the influence of violent tenets within the doctrine of Islam which linger like a bad hangover from its militaristic origins would be akin to reviewing the Holocaust without taking into account the affect that the ideology of National Socialism had on the actions of German soldiers. Yes, there was – and always is – a plethora of other factors at play. But the influence of belief on susceptible people is the proverbial (and at times literal) finger on the trigger. A bad idea coupled with the irrational faith instilled by indoctrination and exacerbated through lack of education and opportunity can justify any behaviour, be it the belief in a martyr’s reward of eternal paradise or the inferiority of the Untermenschen. Just like the jihadist who knows that killing apostates is the will of Allah; we are all capable of committing atrocities given the right circumstances. Especially if we truly believe that what we are doing is right.
Why should we allow these bad ideas to fester unchecked because it might hurt some people’s feelings?
Despite its potential to be twisted, faith itself is not inherently bad. We all commit acts of faith every single day. Even atheists, despite what some may claim, have faith. Entering into a relationship is an act of faith. Trusting in friends, family, society and oneself requires faith – albeit a different variety to the supernatural kind, it remains a belief in something that, at times, we may not be able to rationally justify. And this is most definitely a good thing. Human civilisation could not function without it. But when this faith is manipulated by ideologies that preach violence, anti-intellectualism, sexism, racism and a myriad of other bad ideas; we must acknowledge it, challenge it, and, most importantly, encourage believers to reform the doctrines which continue to espouse it.
We would expect this approach if the ideology was based on political, economic or social beliefs (who would question someone for challenging the negative aspects of Nazism or Stalinist/Maoist Communism? Is it offensive to critique Keynesian or Marxist economics?).
So why not religion?
Why offence on the grounds of religion is hypocritical
If I ever appear to be simply ridiculing a particular religion perhaps it seems that way because we are approaching the subject from two very different positions. My central thesis is that the teachings of one religion will appear alien and untenable to another, and thus; even the most devout disciple of one faith who believes every aspect of its doctrine to be literal will be sceptical towards the claims of competing religions. It is through this foreign perspective that I approach each belief system. If a Christian (or a person of any faith – the argument is interchangeable) were to deem something I wrote in regards to their faith to be offensive, I would make the following argument (obviously adapted to suit which ever faith the individual holds):
What would be the reaction of a person who was not a Muslim (a Christian for example) who decided to read the Qur’an and came across a passage such as the following:
Qur’an (8:12) I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.
Or perhaps this piece of wisdom:
Qur’an (4:34) Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and forsake them in beds apart, and beat them.
(NOTE: Examples from the Bible or other religious beliefs and rituals could just as easily be substituted for the above passages from the Qur’an – though most haven’t been applied the same zeal over the past few centuries)
It would be fairly safe to assume that in the 21st century the non-Muslim reading these words for the first time would find them to be (at the very least) outdated – or more likely, abhorrent. The above quotes are examples of passages which moderate Muslims often claim are taken out of context by those who wish to denigrate Islam. The first example (from Surah 8:12) has been defended as a specific reference to the battle of Badr in 624 CE and not a command for modern Muslims to behead infidels. Rather, it is argued, the passage must be read in the context it was written, a time of war when Muslims needed to defend themselves against persecutors, therefore justifying the violence as an act of self-defence.
It may well be that with a greater understanding of the Qur’an in its entirety these passages can be explained in a way that isn’t utterly barbaric. Or perhaps some contemporary progressive Muslims simply disregard the outdated and violent passages of their sacred text as being only relevant to the time in which they were written – as some Christians do with most of the Bible – but believe the overall message is still positive and applicable to our lives.
These explanations may satisfy a person who already holds these beliefs and is only seeking reassurance, but explaining to someone who is not a member of your religion that your god used to view violence and war as a legitimate way to solve a problem, but has recently changed its mind, isn’t exactly a great endorsement. It can come across a little bit like this:
I find that offensive! You’re taking that out of context… Allah only used to tell his army of followers to cut non-believer’s heads off if they were threatened while they were fighting wars to spread their faith. It’s not like anyone is still being beheaded…
Irrespective of how many people regard it to be literal truth (and how many people continue to be beheaded), I contend that a rational individual who has not been indoctrinated to believe that the Qur’an is the final word of God would be concerned or bemused by some of its content (this claim is applicable to at least part of every religious belief when viewed by an outsider). Even if every sentence was explained in context by an imam, a non-Muslim would still find it difficult to accept many (all?) of the stories and beliefs. Such a person would be inclined to highlight a logical flaw or a passage which they cannot reconcile with their own moral perspective and modern knowledge of the natural world, even if they were not willing to point it out publicly (possibly due to fear resulting from atrocities inspired by such passages and the underserved stigma of bigotry that has become synonymous with criticism of religion).
Think about it this way: What if the constitution of a developed democratic country still stated that women were not equal to men in their citizenship? Even if the vast majority of the population believed it to be false and women had equal rights under the law, there would still be a furore over the fact that a document which is meant to be the foundation for a society (and guide the way people live their lives) could contain something as archaic and offensive. No one would accept a defence which argued that this position is relevant to a time when gender roles were vastly different to today so we must read it in its historical context to be able to understand its merits. Claims that we should leave it as it is in order to maintain the country’s history would be ridiculed and discarded. The outrage over this idea still being promoted in an influential text would then be compounded if a small minority of people were using it as a justification to commit acts of violence and oppression against women. It would be changed. The words would lose their power and be consigned to an embarrassing and bizarre chapter in history books.
Yet religious scriptures are not held to the same degree of scrutiny which we examine every other aspect of our lives, making it difficult to reform the outdated and potentially dangerous ideas that they propagate. Rather than addressing the contradictions and negative aspects of their doctrines, many theists chose to condemn the people who dare to question these points as intolerant bigots who are intent on tearing down other people’s faith.
This is not true.
I am not making an ad hominem argument. In the above example from the Qur’an I am not claiming that Muslims are inherently bad or unintelligent because the Qur’an says some vile and unfounded things, but rather I am commenting on some of the ideas within the text itself. Terrible ideas exist in ideologies besides religions, I have already made note of National Socialism and Stalinist and Maoist communism, the list could go on for pages. The difference is in our ability to question these ideologies without attacks on freedom of speech in comparison to the unwarranted reaction from theists and apologists when religious beliefs and histories face similar scrutiny.
I do not accept the defence that cries racism and bigotry because a person points out a bad idea, one that – if it wasn’t part of a religious doctrine – would have been eradicated decades or even centuries ago. If this charge of bigotry is valid then the same logic must deem every person who criticises a political party, trade union or any other ideological grouping to be an intolerant bigot and, somehow, racist. These groups are an integral part of people’s lives, cultures and beliefs – just like religion. But disagreeing with a political party doesn’t necessarily mean you hate its followers, it means you don’t like some of the ideas it promotes. Yet that doesn’t stop a person from agreeing with, and even adopting, some of its other teachings.
The same is true for disagreeing with a religion. Adopting outdated attitudes towards women and homosexuals is not going to benefit anyone, neither is believing that humans were created in their current form 6,000 years ago or that prayer can cure cancer. But the compassion and forgiveness preached be Jesus, or the charity of religious alms, or the pacifism of the Jains, or many other ideas promoted by religions are worthy concepts for even the most rigorous of atheists to contemplate.
This should not be a partisan issue. A bad idea is a bad idea, regardless of its origins. Questioning misogyny in rap music should be no different to challenging misogyny in the Qur’an or the Bible, and those who espouse it deserve to be held to account. Yet if a politician came out today and said in the media: “The hip hop genre has a serious issue with its attitude towards women and homosexuals,” the repercussions would be minimal and easily countered with a plethora of examples indicating that the genre as a whole does seem to have an issue. But if that same politician said: “Islam has a serious issue with its attitude towards women and homosexuals,” the politically correct crowd of believers and non-believers, eager for the chance to be offended, would demand apologies, diversity re-education training, resignations, boycotts and more; all while conveniently disregarding Islam’s poor record with misogyny and homophobia.
Is it intolerant to ask for a level playing field? How can we make necessary social changes when we are not allowed to discuss one of the contributing factors in many problems?
My point from the Qur’an example is this: When it’s not your belief a rational person can notice something that does not make any sense.
My desk lamp told me I have to bring democracy to North Korea.
Of course you don’t believe this and you would probably think I have serious psychological issues if I actually believed this to be true.
A burning bush spoke with the voice of God to tell Moses he had to free the Israelites from Egypt.
This is an accepted belief in the Abrahamic religions, but to someone outside of these faiths it is about as plausible as my prophetic lamp. Ask yourself, if someone were to make an equivalent claim today would your first thought not be along the lines of “this person needs psychological help”? Does the fact that more people believe the story of Moses and the flaming bush than believe in my lamp’s prophecies make it more likely to be true? No. Every single person on the planet could hold an identical incorrect belief (the earth is flat) but it has absolutely no bearing on the truth of the matter. The only difference is now we have a greater understanding of human psychology and a reluctance to believe modern adaptations of such claims. Whereas stories like that of Moses are able to shroud their contradictions by wallowing in the murky waters of ancient history.
I would go as far as to argue that deep down every theist agrees with what I’ve said on religion; with the exception of the one faith that they hold above the scrutiny that allows them to not believe in all the others. How many people out there honestly claim to be a devout Christian and a Hindu? Or a Jew and a Buddhist and a Muslim and a believer in Indigenous Australian Dreamtime all at once? There would be no way to rationally defend holding such contradictory views (a bold statement, but I would enjoy hearing the sophist who attempts to argue otherwise). Theists disregard other faiths for the same reasons people won’t accept theirs. Would a Christian or Muslim or a follower of any other faith be able to claim with a straight face that the following beliefs are as plausible as their own?
- There is a growing religion which teaches its followers that trapped within all of us are tortured alien souls called ‘thetans’. Only through paying for self-help books (which progressively increase in price) written by the religion’s founder (a science fiction author who was involved in one of the largest criminal infiltration of an American government department in history) can we hope to gain a higher level of self-awareness. That (and a whole lot more) is what Scientologists believe. And yes, you are perfectly justified in questioning these ideas; they are unfounded and irrational. But Scientologists believe this with the same fervour as many Christian’s believe in the Bible.
- And what about Mormon? The prophet who compiled the history of his ancient North American civilisation (which was visited by Jesus Christ after the resurrection) on plates of gold which were then buried in New York State. The plates were recovered when Mormon’s son Moroni returned to the United States as an angel in 1823 to show a man named Joseph Smith where they were hidden. Smith was then able to translate the plates into what we now know as the Book of Mormon, another religious text you can read, and, if you weren’t raised in the Mormon faith, probably find a little hard to believe.
So who is right? Because they cannot all be.
The first pillar of Islamic belief, the Shahadah, proclaims: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” One of the Bible’s Ten Commandments explicitly expresses a similar point: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Other religions carry similar clauses which state that they are the only true religion and a believer must not believe in any other lest they be eternally damned. Once again it comes down to religious people believing that they are correct, and (whether they are willing to be so blunt about it out aloud) everyone else must therefore be wrong.
If a theist is able to maintain faith in one religion yet find the above examples a bit hard to swallow, then on what grounds do they have the right to be offended when someone points out similar flaws in their own belief system? But perhaps these examples are silly whereas (insert name of religion) is not? The gods of Ancient Greece are just as irrational to a Christian as Yahweh (the god of the Old Testament) and Jesus would have been to worshipers of Zeus and Poseidon. Aliens trapped in my body are no less likely than Jesus being the only son of God born to a virgin (with what we know about human physiology and how little we know of possible advanced alien technology, I would say the aliens are actually somewhat more plausible than a virgin birth). One idea has just been around a lot longer and developed a greater degree of social acceptance and respectability. It doesn’t sound as odd because we have become accustomed to hearing it. While the other comes across exactly as it is: the ramblings of a dangerous cult. Yet if you were raised in one faith chances are you would believe its teachings while viewing the other with suspicion or even ridicule. Stephen F. Roberts aptly articulated this point when he said: “[If] you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
If some of the things that other religions preach can make a Christian think “that cannot be right” or “this is just ridiculous” then hopefully they can understand how a person can view parts of the Bible with nothing more than a burst of laughter or a palm to the forehead. The Scientologist you mock for believing that ancient aliens were dropped into a volcano in the islands of Hawaii by Xenu (the dictator of the Galactic Confederacy) is just as “offended” as the Christian who gets shitty about someone saying that the creation story in Genesis makes about as much sense as… Scientology?
A final word on sarcasm
Towards the end my tongue might have been pressed so far into my cheek that if I bit down I would never speak again, but I don’t believe it’s a matter of trying to be funny; I’m just commenting on what’s already there. The religions are the ones telling the jokes.
So before you are outraged by someone criticising a tenet of your particular faith, stop and remember that you feel the same way about someone else’s beliefs. Even the politically correct appeaser who, between sips of his soy piccolo latte, proclaims “Everyone can believe what they want” is quietly re-affirmed by the voice that whispers from within: “But what I believe is right!”
Reprinted with permission from the author.
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