Freedom of speech is a right that many of us in the ‘First World’ take for granted…which is why it can sometimes come as a shock when somebody in a less permissive country is punished for saying something that we could say every day without fear of retribution. In 2007, Kareem Amer was sentenced to four years in prison for the ‘crime’ of writing blog posts critical of Islam and the Egyptian government.Nobody should be imprisoned for criticizing their government or their government’s religion.
I’m often frustrated at the feeling of helplessness these situations inevitably bring on, but thanfully there is a concerted effort to pressure the Egyptian government into freeing Amer. You can sign an Amnesty International petition calling for his release here, or visit this site for a list of other ways to help. (Although as ebonmusing has said over at Daylight Atheism, it might be a good idea to refrain from donating money to a group we know nothing about.)
Events like this should be a stark warning to all of us who take freedom of expression and thought for granted. There are people out there who dearly wish to control what you say and even what you think, and some of them are a hell of a lot closer to home than Egypt.
I’m short on time, so let’s make this quick.
I came across a post this morning whose author apparently expected atheists to be outraged or indignant at what he had to say. Being an accomodating guy, I decided to be both! Not because of anything particularly offensive or startling in the post, mind you, but because he decided to post this idiotic image:
For the love of God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, the Pope, Ardi, whoever, could everybody please stop using this image? Even jokingly? Its stupidity actually hurts me. I mean, ‘bits which then turned into dinosaurs’? Argh. Argh.
Oh, I guess the rest of the post was kind of annoying too. It manages to combine the ‘atheists have no way to be moral and consistent at the same time’ canard with the ‘they know God exists, they just suppress it THE BIBLE SAYS SO GUES’ pile of crap – two horrible tastes that taste horrible together.
The author cites “crimes’ committed by the Nazis during WWII as “atrocities.” What, in the atheist’s world, makes these acts “atrocious?” To the Nazis – in their worldview, a decidedly non-theistic one, to be sure – their actions were nothing more than consistent with their inward motivations and desires. How can one atheist tell another atheist that what he or she does is “wrong” or “criminal” or “atrocious?” What makes pedophilia or pederasty or any particular sexual act “deviant” or “criminal” in an atheistic world? Murder? Theft? We could go on ad infinitum. Has every society always deemed these actions “criminal?” No. We can look at Rome and Greece in the past for how they thought of these sexual acts and numerous societies that have seen nothing wrong with murder and so on.
(I like the Wikipedia links to the definitions of ‘pedophilia’ and ‘pederasty’. Thanks, I needed a definition or else I would have been confused.)
The mention of ancient Greece and Rome is interesting (assuming he’s actually talking about the ancient versions and not the modern country/city, in which case it would just confusing). Read almost any ancient Roman or Greek philosopher, and you’ll find some mention of morality. ‘X is wrong’, they’ll say, and then they’ll go on to give some sort of reason for why X is wrong or Y is right. Those reasons are often not ‘because God says so’, which makes sense given the nature of religious belief at the time.
Where exactly did their morality come from, I wonder? Did God inscribe a moral code upon the hearts of everybody who’s ever lived without telling them about it for hundreds of thousands of years? Because I’ve gotta say, if that’s the case he took his damn time. It’s also funny that many, many civilizations managed to exist and flourish without needing the ol’ Good Book around to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong.
To sum up: history shows that morality, moral codes and stable societies built on said codes are all possible without the Bible being present. So…where do we see any evidence that the Bible is uniquely suited to impart moral wisdom? (And before anybody says ‘But those old societies are all immoral!’, take a look at any Christian kingdom, empire or nation prior to, oh, 1900.)
Conservapedia has apparently launched a new initiative to correct some ‘liberal’ elements of the Bible. Yes, they want to correct the Bible, the book that most of their members seem to regard as divinely inspired. The arduous task of unknotting just what went into the Bible (and more importantly, why) is a worthy scholarly endeavor, particularly for those who are into ancient history or the evolution of new languages and cultures, but I somehow doubt that many scholars would consider it appropriate to use ‘liberalness’ as a benchmark for what should be considered canonical or not.
Here’s a short list of some of their goals:
Liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations. There are three sources of errors in conveying biblical meaning:
- lack of precision in the original language, such as terms underdeveloped to convey new concepts of Christianity
- lack of precision in modern language
- translation bias in converting the original language to the modern one.
Of these three sources of errors, the last introduces the largest error, and the biggest component of that error is liberal bias. Large reductions in this error can be attained simply by retranslating the KJV into modern English.
- Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
- Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
- Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level
- Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop; defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”.
- Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”; using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census
- Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
- Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
- Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story
- Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
- Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.”
Just how late are these ‘later-inserted’ passages? Because I’m pretty sure the modern meaning of the word ‘liberal’ didn’t come into force until, oh, the 20th century, and last time I checked, most of the Bible was a little bit older than that.
Of course, there’s a good chance the whole thing is a joke, or a ‘Poe’, as they say. Conservapedia has been hit hard by moles and trolls since its inception, and this sounds like something a smart but not terribly mature atheist would try. (I say atheist because of the strong religious element, but I guess it could be a liberal theist as well. Or, hell, a conservative who’s just irritated by the site’s blatant stupidity.)
Potential Poe-ness aside, the rest of the article has some real gems. Observe:
Socialistic terminology permeates English translations of the Bible, without justification. This improperly encourages the “social justice” movement among Christians.
For example, the conservative word “volunteer” is mentioned only once in the ESV, yet the socialistic word “comrade” is used three times, “laborer(s)” is used 13 times, “labored” 15 times, and “fellow” (as in “fellow worker”) is used 55 times.
What the hell is a ‘conservative word’, anyway? I have a sneaking suspicion that this is the kind of thing that would make a linguist want to murder somebody. Or possibly several somebodies.
What say you, internet? Is this real, or is it just a very elaborate ruse? And for what it’s worth, the associated discussion page seems to be genuine enough…
You may have heard about the religious right ‘Take Back America Conference’, which sought to break the world record for the number of hysterical claims made in one venue per hour take back American from the Liberal Hordes. There’s a recap over here, which, if accurate, is utterly terrifying. Some highlights:
- [T]he fervent belief that America is at a tipping point between freedom and fascist power: President Obama and his congressional allies are on the verge of delivering America into Socialism, Communism, and/or Nazi-style tyranny, and that government is therefore to be feared and resisted
- hostility not only to same-sex marriage but also to any legal protections for LGBT Americans and same-sex couples
- a new push to use “abortion as black genocide” as a wedge between African Americans and pro-choice progressives built around a new “documentary” portraying abortion as 21st century genocide
- American exceptionalism – the belief that America’s founding was divinely inspired and the nation has been uniquely blessed by God – is alive and well, though America is now living under a curse for having elected Barack Obama
I was really starting to think that, as a species, we had moved beyond believing in curses and arbitrary bouts of divine protection for certain countries. (Although then again, I also thought we were beginning to move beyond believing that gay and transgender people need to be ‘cured’ of their hideous afflictions. My rapidly blossoming misanthropy is apparently more justified than I thought.)
I’ve occasionally felt uncomfortable when reading Islamic articles or transcript of speeches by Muslims that have very ‘militaristic’ overtones, for lack of a better term. You know the ones I’m talking about, where there seems to be this general feeling that spreading Islam throughout the world is all-important and that all of the ‘false’ religions (and atheists) should just get out of the damn way. For some reason, that kind of talk always makes me think of the many defenses that were written in favor of European colonialism – there’s a perverse sense of entitlement there, a kind of ‘We can take over because we’re right‘ that just makes me extremely annoyed.
You can imagine my sense of disgust, then, upon reading this article from the Baptist Press:
INDIA (BP)–The Hindu god who removes obstacles was no match for a tree limb.
Southern Baptist representatives Brendan and Alyson Strizek* watched from a balcony as celebrating Hindus tried to navigate a trailer-mounted image of Ganesha through a narrow alley. A low tree limb soon blocked the 10-foot idol’s progress. The crowd, unable to back the trailer out of the alley, tried in vain to sever the tree limb so the idol could proceed.
“It took them about 45 minutes to figure out what to do,” Brendan Strizek said. Finally, a child removed the top of the makeshift temple covering Ganesha, barely giving the idol enough room to pass under the tree limb en route to a time of worshipping the idol, also known by the names Ganapati and Ganesh.
“If that’s not the perfect picture,” Alyson Strizek said. “They’re expecting this god to remove obstacles in their lives, but he can’t even remove a tree limb.”
I have no idea who ‘Alyson Strizek’ (it’s a pseudonym) is or what she’s like in real life. She could be the nicest person alive, for all I know. But the quote above makes her sound condescending in the extreme. Here we have a group of people who worship statues of a man nailed to a cross; who, if pushed, could almost certainly provide no evidence whatsoever that their own god has ever done so much as physically move a tree limb, and yet they have the nerve to belittle another religion for being ‘false’? Look, I think Hinduism is a great big sack of crazy as well, but this whole ‘Poor heathens, we just need to show them real religion!’ attitude makes my stomach turn.
The article goes on to get even more surreal when it starts describing aspects of Hinduism that the Christian audience is presumably supposed to find bizarre or quaint:
“There’s a lot of disappointment that they would devote so much of themselves, so much of their time and money, to something that is just clay,” Brendan Strizek said. “It’s obvious it’s not living, and there is no response back from this clay statue — but they are still devoted to it.”
Each fall, Hindu families and communities celebrate the Ganesha Chaturthi festival in Ganesha’s honor, crafting idols in Ganesha’s image from clay and plaster. Many compete to have the largest, most ornate Ganesha idol possible, with some communities pooling their resources to make 30-foot statues.
Hindus take the idols into their homes for up to 10 days, where they follow a set of rituals in caring for and worshipping the idols.
“They provide food for it when it’s in the home, and they treat it like it’s a person,” Brendan Strizek said.
On the 11th day of the festival, with great fanfare and celebration, the Hindus take the Ganesha idols to rivers, lakes or the ocean where they submerge and leave them to symbolize the cycle of creation and destruction in nature.
I’m not sure if the forced inclusion of the phrase ‘the idols’ twice in one sentence is just bad writing or an attempt on the author’s part to drive home a point.
The first quote up there is just ridiculous. ‘It’s just clay’? ‘There is no response back from this clay statue’? Do I really need to point out what’s so weird about this?
The whole thing reminds me way too much of that Islamic attitude I mentioned, but with a healthy dose of European superiority thrown in with it. Quick, bring Jesus to all the misguided Asians and save them from their silly elephant statues! Here’s a super idea: how about we all realize that a person’s beliefs are their business alone and only interfere if they ask us to? No proselytizing, no superiority complexes, and no trying to convert the foreign heathens.
Today is Blasphemy Day! Hurrah, we know have a good reason to act immature about religion for a day while pretending we’re working for some sort of noble humanistic purpose.
All right, that came across as overly critical. Here’s the deal: I absolutely support people having the ability to commit blasphemy. Whether it’s to make a good point, a bad point or no point at all, everybody should be allowed to do it in relation to whatever religion or deity they feel like – just as anybody should be allowed to insult and belittle the strongly-held beliefs of any political or special-interest group you care to name. I’ve said some pretty insulting things about homeopathy, crystal healing and the religious right in my time, after all.
So, I support the right to blaspheme. But would I condone it? Well, that depends…
You do not need to be deliberately insulting in order to make a point about religion. You do not need to be mocking or condescending in order to criticize even the most outlandish religious beliefs. Some people will always accuse any criticism of their religion on the grounds that it’s offensive or blasphemous, but here at least we can reply by pointing out that we weren’t trying to offend. If I speak my mind and somebody is outraged by it, that’s their problem. But if I set out to annoy them, if I find their figurative weak spots and exploit them solely for my own amusement…well, I’d find it a lot harder to justify my actions.
‘Blasphemy Day’ is a chance to point out that we atheists will not be silent just because we annoy some religious people. Theists take for granted their right to proselytize (in the USA and Europe, at any right) and refuse to be silenced when they get a negative reaction for it. We shouldn’t be knocking on people’s doors or shouting from street corners, but we should be able to speak our minds without fear of accidentally stepping on somebody’s fragile toes. We should be able to produce films, books and paintings that affront religious sensibilities without fear of censorship or even death. We should, in short, be confident of our right to offend, if offense is the inevitable outcome of saying what we believe to be true. It’s a right that should be shared by everybody, theist or atheist alike.
Atheists are frequently accused of imagining the universe in cold, overly rational and dead terms. “If it’s just matter and nothing more,” we’re asked, “what’s the point? Where’s the meaning?”
I suppose that’s a good question, although it has its problems. Those problems are perhaps best elucidated by this post here, in which the author compares a materialistic universe to (and I genuinely love this analogy) hailstones falling randomly on the keys of an electric typewriter and, by chance, writing a book of poetry:
If you’re an atheist, what’s wonderful about the universe? I know it’s pretty in places, and really big and hard to comprehend in detail, but if you’ve concluded that the universe consists, ultimately, of chance matter shuffling in the void, without any mind behind it, what’s to be in awe of or to feel wonder about? In other words, does atheist wonder amount to a tepid substitute for religious wonder in which the mind of God is replaced with blind mechanisms that just happen to build wonderous things?
Let me offer an analogy. Let’s say I encounter a book written entirely by the chance landings of hail upon an electric typewriter, and I read this sentence from it:
He halted in the wind, and—what was that
Far in the maples, pale, but not a ghost?
Is there anything to wonder about it? It was made by accident. It means nothing, right? It might be nice to know the blind mechanism that made it, but it has no intelligence behind it. It’s pretty and intricate, like a leaf in autumn, but to give it additional meaning you would have to treat it as if it were made by intention. Absent intention, the meaning, wonder, interest, and admiration that you might have brought to it loses its salience. If it is a product of chance, then the human imagination either must make meaning of it, or else it is nothing.
And isn’t that also true of nature, if atheism is correct? Nature is a book without an author. It happens to be beautiful and complex despite itself, and that makes for wonder, for it appears designed by an author. It is the appearance of design in the absence of design that makes for atheist wonder, is that right? It’s the sheer power of chance and natural selection that holds the atheist’s awe. If the Christian says—”Jesus is awesome!”—the atheist says—”Darwin is awesome!”
Stop right there. I suppose some atheists might reply to ‘Jesus is awesome’ with ‘Darwin is awesome’, but I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t be using the word ‘awesome’ in quite the same way. (Unless by ‘Jesus is awesome’ one means ‘Jesus was an awesome person because he wrote a cool book that I haven’t read and probably never will’.)
I object to the idea that there must be conscious agency behind a phenomenon in order to make it awe-inspiring. To stick with the poetry analogy, I find it perfectly sensible to be stunned by a poem’s beauty and moved by its meaning despite not knowing who the author was or what their intention was in writing it. Knowing its history and context and literary categorization is very interesting, and I certainly wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to discover all of those things, but I can appreciate it on a purely aesthetic level without knowing anything about it. The same is true of a piece of music. I recently heard Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 at the Royal Albert Hall in London without knowing anything at all about who composed it or from what musical traditions it drew its inspiration – indeed, I purposely avoided looking at the programme until after the concert was over because I just wanted to listen to the music. Now I know much more about it, but I could still enjoy it even if it was, for me, ‘author-less’. When I let myself be carried away by the music, when I close my eyes and try to focus solely on the complex interplay of each individual thread of sound, the piece’s authorship is the last thing I’m thinking about.
Can anybody out there genuinely tell me that their appreciation for a starry night or sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree or even a blade of grass encased in frost depends so heavily on believing that all of these things were designed? Is God honestly what you’re thinking about when you see something truly startling and beautiful? Because if Darwin is supposed to be ‘our Jesus’…well, let’s just say that the vast, tangled web of life is most emphatically not the only thing filling my mind when I see a flock of starlings dancing through the sky.
Do we really have to treat this as if it had an intelligent creator in order to ‘give it meaning’? (And no cracks about how photos are made by humans, please; you know what I mean.) Why does it need any more meaning? It doesn’t necessarily matter what causes it, although we know that as well; it is what it is, and injecting it with the idea that it was made by some designer so that we’d have pretty lights to look at in the sky really would rob it of its significance.
But apart from the rush of emotion brought on by, say, hearing a piece of music for the first time, we have available to us the more subtle delight to be found in intellectual inquiry. The two may not be initially compatible for some people, but once the initial shock of delight has worn off, it does deepen our experience of something to understand how it works; hence the reason why anybody goes into science in the first place. The aurora borealis is awe-inspiring, and so is its explanation, although it inspires awe of a rather different variety.
This is one reason I’m an agnostic, and not an atheist. Agnosticism (for me) inhabits a middle position between two dubious certainties. I don’t know if the universe has an author. But the very possibility makes for an interest that atheism prohibits. Being an agnostic is like encountering a book where you don’t know whether it was written by hail or Frost (pun intended, I suppose). But so long as there is the possibility that Frost wrote it, there is something to consider outside yourself, and to speculate about some meaning out there, beyond you. Yet once you know the book is written by hail, then it loses it’s exterior meaning and wonder (unless you bring the meaning and wonder from within yourself, from your own imagination). You can’t, afterall, derive wonder or meaning outside yourself from one damn thing after another, can you?
And why not?
Atheism doesn’t close off any possibilities, actually – or at least it doesn’t do so necessarily. I’ve toyed with the ideas of a hundred different gods and spirits and supernatural entities. And why shouldn’t I? I have no dogma to restrain me, no fear of punishment to limit the avenues down which my imagination can wander, and my identity does not hang solely on the proposition that there is one type of god and one type of god only. I currently reject the idea of there being some transcendental meaning to the universe only because I don’t have any compelling reason to do otherwise. I’ve already said that atheism does not result in a monochrome universe of middling significance, but even if it did I would still be an atheist, because my choice is not based on the amount of significance a worldview imbues the cosmos with. Everything I’ve said above becomes important once I’ve reached the stage of being an atheist (or a theist or an agnostic or anything else), but when it comes to actually deciding between those worldviews, it’s all totally irrelevant – just as it’s irrelevant to the idea of choosing Christianity that I find Biblical morality repulsive. It could still be true – the universe does not order itself to my likes and dislikes, after all.