No, Sam Harris is not Islamophobic

Cue the liberal freak-out over the title of this post.

Frequently antagonistic comedian Bill Maher made news last week when he and Ben Affleck got into a Fox News style shouting match over Islam. Maher was joined by fellow atheist and famous neuroscientist Sam Harris. Both of them made the argument that while most Muslims are peaceful and moderate, the main problem with Islamic jihad is Islam itself.

Ben Affleck’s first response to the completely valid point was predictable: That’s racist!

“[It’s] the only religion that acts like the mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book,” Maher said. “There’s a reason why Ayaan Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards 24/7.”

Harris’ response was more eloquent and – I’d argue – relevant…

“[Muslim cultures] often keep women and homosexuals immiserated…we have to empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change it,” he told Affleck. “And lying about doctrine and this behavior is not going to do that.”

He’s absolutely right.

Islamophobia exists. I’m not debating that. Far-right leaders and talking heads proposing the abolition of First Amendment freedoms for Muslims is probably the best example. It is ludicrous to think that most Muslims are fanatical jihadists, too. The Muslim faith has a-billion-and-a-half adherents worldwide. Incredible and brilliant people are among its followers. Islam – like the world’s other large religions – is also full of different theological interpretations of the Qur’an. Liberal and moderate Muslims exist, despite most press coverage.

But the Qur’an, like the Christian Bible, is also an incredibly violent book with troubling morality. Calling for the death of blasphemers or stoning women and homosexuals can be found in both. Genocide, sexism, homophobia, racism….these are all central themes of the Old Testament and the Qur’an. Pointing this out is not Islamophobic or anti-Christian – it’s a fact. It also has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that most Muslims have darker skin than Europeans and Americans.

Even though I’m not religious, I have immense respect for religious leaders who recognize Bronze Age religious texts for what they are – too-frequently barbaric. Just like Harris, I believe that these brave men and women should continue to be empowered to fight fanaticism and savagery within their cultures. Progressive Muslim Akmal Ahmed Safwat of the Democratic Muslims of Denmark says it best for religious reformers: “The Qur’an’s divine instructions were interpreted and explained by fallible and mortal men who were the product of their time and culture.”

If secular liberals and progressives are to continue to fight the spread of fundamentalist Christianity (as we should definitely continue to do), we have to be intellectually honest and continue to denounce radical and fundamentalist Islam as well. That’s not racist, bigoted, or neoconservative. It’s vital to maintaining a pluralistic society.

Sam Harris

 

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21st Century Prophecy

Internationally, times are incredibly tense these days. Syria’s years-long, bloody civil war has recently taken a turn for the worse – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used deadly chemical weapons – banned under international law – on over 1,400 of his own people as a way to cripple rebel forces. Now the United States may use a military strike against Assad to send him a message that such barbarism will not be tolerated anywhere…a message that could very easily become yet another U.S.-involved war in the Middle East. Oh, yeah, and Russia is one of Syria’s most vocal allies.

Naturally, Americans are worried and deeply divided as to what exactly should be done, especially since it’s the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. After warring in the Mid East for over a decade, the American people are weary of the prospect of more war. Most Democrats, Republicans and political independents agree that we should not get involved. Now that Assad has said he will turn over his nation’s chemical weapons to the international community, I expect national public opinion to further sour on the prospect of a military strike.

However, for some, that worry has turned to the to-be-expected belief that this latest episode of turmoil in the Middle East is just another “sign” of the “end times.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with one of fundamentalist Christianity’s favorite obsessions, “end times” refers to the larger eschatological belief that the New Testament book of Revelation contains prophecies written specifically about the modern world. In this worldview, literally every breaking news story about tension in the Middle East is instantly tied to some vague passage of the Bible to support the belief that the “soon” and “coming return” of Jesus Christ may be around the proverbial corner. Ironically, this has been the understanding amongst fundamentalists since the 19th century (Napoleon was once seen as the Antichrist). The fact that these prophecies do not typically outlive the lives of fire-and-brimstone clergymen never seems to sway these fundamentalist believers.

Fox News host Neil Cavuto recently featured a segment on the possible Syria-prophecy connection by interviewing a “scholar” who followed the end times mold to a T. Joel Rosenberg, author of several books on “end times” prophecies, peddled the idea the conflict in Syria was possibly mentioned in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah (because nothing sells books better than the creepy air of possibility…). “…you have seven million Syrians already on the run—two million have left the country; five million are internally displaced,” Rosenberg told Cavuto. “The Jeremiah 49 prophecy says that people will flee, but there’ll still be people in Damascus when the prophecy happens. So the bottom line is we don’t know.” Cavuto was easily convinced and told his viewers, “It’s in there. It’s worth a read.”

Cavuto’s right – it is worth a read. When you read the Old Testament for what it is, a Bronze Age religious document that chronicles stories of conquests, kings and glory (with a lot of genocide, sexism and homophobia, too), you don’t find a secret decoder ring to the modern world. You find numerous examples of tragedy and megalomania. The cycle of civilizations rising, falling, crumbling in on themselves, and overtaking each other all tend to center on fighting, be it over religious superiority/inferiority, natural resources or the throne itself. In the end, these civilizations have all died out, closed off from the rest of the world and new ideas.

It’s not prophecy and mysticism. It’s the darker side of human nature. The only prophecy here is the fact that civilizations are prone to making the same mistakes as their predecessors.

In 2013, communication with anyone on the planet is possible. Ideas, philosophies, popular music, movies and even funny cat memes are shared around the world. With the proliferation of the World Wide Web in the Middle East and the Arab Spring, beginning in 2011, it would seem that the region may be able to change for the better. “Secular” culture and ideas, like equality and democracy, are starting to become mainstream. That’s what led to the conflict in Syria in the first place – rebel groups tried to overthrow their authoritarian government. Never before have such revolutionary ideas spread so quickly all over the globe.

one of NASA's most famous images

The world is rapidly changing faster than it ever has before. The “new” is quickly replacing the “old.” National cultures are becoming part of an emerging global culture of shared values and even entertainment. If we are to avoid the rise of powerful and tyrannical dictators like Assad, we must continue to work through diplomacy and international cooperation as well as strategic, economic sanctions. Civil and regional wars usually become international conflicts because the world is so interconnected. It affects us all. Given the weapons of warfare of the 21st century, we should be doing all that we can to avoid armed conflicts.

We have the knowledge and agency to make sure that the oldest prophecy of all, a civilization’s self-destruction, doesn’t happen.

 

 

Dear Brian Browns of the world….

With everything that has been written about the oral arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court case challenging California’s Proposition 8 (spoiler alert: Prop 8 will most likely be a thing of the past), I’d like to take  a different approach and address the haters…….of the LGBT community, specifically those who frequently bring religion into the equation.

Brian Brown, head of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), recently compared same-sex marriage to slavery. He is one of many on the far religious right who have, for years, demonized and insulted members of the LGBT community. People like the American Family Association’s (AFA) Bryan Fischer and the Family Research Council’s (FRC) Tony Perkins have consistently outdone themselves in a sick game of who can say the most outrageous and degrading things about gays and lesbians. According to bigots like them, gays and lesbians are perverts, degenerates, pedophiles, into bestiality, unhealthy, Nazis, and unfit to raise children. Don’t believe me – simply visit the websites of these hate spewers.

Because actual  professionals in psychology, psychiatry, sociology and even biology long ago destroyed the many ridiculous arguments against homosexuality with reason, rationality and compassion, bigots like Brown and Perkins are left with using old-time, Hellfire and brimstone religion. However even that is becoming unacceptable as more and more religions and faiths move to accept members of the LGBT community just as they are. How do they respond: Homosexuality is wrong because sexist, homophobic, genocidal Bronze Age men said so!

To which I respond with this: If there really is a higher power, whether it is an actual being or energy force or what ever, I strongly suspect it does not care who I fall in love with just like it doesn’t care that women vote or people from different ethnic backgrounds marry. Your side of the argument has consistently used god and religion to fight against everything progressive, from the abolition of slavery to women’s rights and interracial marriage. What kind of deity punishes people with eternal damnation and suffering anyway?! What about the “God of Love?” The whole “You will burn in Hell for ________ (insert various actions)!” line is really getting old. Times change. Cultures change. The meaning behind words are in a constant state of change (Communication Theories 101). Religions, thankfully, also change.

If you still want to use hate, go right ahead; it’s a free country. However, here in the United States, there is separation of church and state. All citizens are seen as equal and are consitutionally guaranteed equality under the law. There’s a pretty big difference between consitutionally protected civil rights and religious doctrine. No one is coming or will come to your church and force you to marry same-sex couples. It’s not going to happen – get that myth and scare tactic out of your mind.

It is 2013 CE, not 2013 BCE. We don’t stone women and children and we no longer think Earth is the center of the known universe. America is not a theocracy, nor are its churches controlled by the state. It is time for your loud screaming and hate to go the way of Senator Joe McCarthy’s career – a disgraceful part of our history.

If you still cling to a brand of religious faith that preaches such hate and intolerance of everything different from it, that says something about your humanity (or lack thereof). The fact that there are countless compassionate, intelligent religious leaders and practitioners who accept their LGBT family, friends, doctors, lawyers, and coworkers just as they are delegitimizes your excuse for continuing to use religion as a tool to discriminate and oppress. Evolve or be left on the wrong side of history.

marriage equality

Classic Arguments for Discrimination Showcased in Video

These days, viral videos of anti-gay, backwards ministers and fringe-idea leaders are somewhat commonplace. “Another video of a minister calling for the criminalization of homosexuality? Another example of bigotry and ignorance from a fundamentalist Southern church? *YAWN* What else is new?”

However, one video in particular has created quite the buzz around the World Wide Web recently.

 

Watch it, and be sure to see it through to the end:

 

 

 

**SPOILER ALERT**

 

 

 

Quote from the video:

“I worry about the future of our city. Any accurate reading of the Bible should make it clear that gay rights goes against the plain truth of the Word of God.

“As one preacher warns:

‘Man, in overstepping the boundary lines God has drawn by making special rights for gays and lesbians, has taken another step in the direction of inviting the judgment of God upon our land.

‘This step of gay rights is but another stepping stone toward the immorality and lawlessness that will be characteristic of the last days.

‘This ordinance represents a denial of all that we believe in and no one should force it on us.

‘It’s not that we don’t care about homosexuals but that our rights will be taken away, and un-Christian views will be forced on us and our children, for we would be forced to go against our personal morals.

‘Outside government agents are endeavoring to disturb God’s established order. It is not in line with the Bible. Do not let people lead you astray.

‘The liberals leading this movement do not believe the Bible any longer, but every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent, Orthodox Christian can read the word of God and know what is happening is not of God.

‘When you run into conflict with God’s established order, you have trouble. You do not produce harmony. You produce destruction and trouble and our city is in the greatest danger that it has ever been in in its history. The reason is that we have gotten away from the Bible of our forefathers. You see, the right of segregation…,’

“I’m sorry, hold on.

 ‘The right of segregation is clearly established by the holy scriptures, both by precept and example.’

“I’m sorry, I’ve brought the wrong notes with me this evening…I’ve borrowed my argument from the wrong century. It turns out what I’ve been reading to you this whole time are direct quotes from White preachers from the 1950s and the 1960s, all in support of racial segregation.

“All I have done is simply take out the phrase ‘racial integration’ and substituted it with the phrase ‘gay rights.’

“I guess the arguments I’ve been hearing around Springfield lately sounded so similar to these that I got them confused. I hope that you will not make the same mistake. I hope you will stand on the right side of history. Thank you.

This Week in Bizarro World, Part One

Bill Clinton “opened a door of demonic into our nation” by getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky. The Loony Jacobs (Mike and Cindy) of televangelist-faith healer fame, literally said that kids starting having oral sex parties because the President told them it was okay…and there’s demons involved, or something… You can’t make this up…

 

“One Million Moms” and other sexually-repressed groups got bent out of shape because Ellen Degeneres is now the spokeswoman for JC Penney. What specific offense did Ellen commit? The very fact that she’s a lesbian drives them crazy. Her very existence sends them on hateful mailing campaigns. By the way, did you know that JC Penney is leading our culture in “defining deviancy?” Neither did I…

Marketing 101: Religious Version

The documentary “Selling God” examines the ways that religions market and sell their image of god. Using good ‘ole humor and marketing models, this film delves into the world of, put simply, selling god. Here’s a section of the film that examines religion’s marketing approach:

———

All modern marketing works the same way, whether you’re selling clothing or cars, soda or salvation, selling god is no different. The first thing that must be done is to create a need. The second is to offer a product or service to fill that need. The third is to offer rewards for buying the product or service and consequences for not buying it. And the final step is to create urgency. There has to be a deadline to act or people will just keep putting it off.

For children, one of the most well-known figures that uses these concepts to adjust behavior is Santa Clause. Yes, Jolly Old Saint Nick; the omnipotent craftsman that lives up North has been used to control the habits of children for centuries. He keeps a list of who’s naughty and who’s nice, so you’d better be good and do what you’re told or you’ll get coal for Christmas instead of toys.

Evangelism in any religious movement uses the same basic principles to spread their message throughout the world and adjust the behaviors of followers. First, they must start by creating the need. If you’re basically a good person, you don’t need what they’re offering. But if by just being born you’re a sinner, then you’re definitely in need of salvation. Next, they offer Jesus Christ who, having already died for your sins, is the perfect product to counteract your previously established ‘sinful nature.’ And attending their church or watching their program is the perfect service to help you fill this newfound void in your life. Guilt is an incredible motivator. Then they offer rewards and consequences, a carrot and a stick, Heaven and Hell.

You go to Heaven if you’re good, which means you obey us. And if you don’t obey us, you go to Hell. And you’re talking here about your eternal soul, either for reward or punishment, which appeals to normal greed of people. And at the same time, it’s a real winner as far as getting their business.

– Bob Harvey, Ph.D. – UCLA Professor Emeritus

Each religion’s conception of heaven and hell is different, but historically, heaven represents everything good and hell everything that’s to be feared. And finally, they create urgency by reminding people that life is fleeting or even that Armageddon is coming; The world is coming to an end and the Rapture, or Second Coming of Christ, is on the horizon. There’s a cottage industry of saving the lost and delivering their souls.

Over the years, there have been repeated periods of religious revivalism, great revivals when fundamentalist beliefs…spread over the country in a kind of hysteria.

– Noam Chomsky, Ph.D. – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Prayer For A Better World

I had the privilege of attending my cousin Kerrianne’s Bat Mitzvah a couple days ago.

As someone who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church and is no longer religious, it was refreshing to see a congregation where intellectual curiosity and meekness are staples. The temple is a part of Reformed Judaism. This “denomination” is accepting of all views and backgrounds. Science is completely accepted and gays and lesbians are even welcome and affirmed. As the world changes and progresses, members of Reformed Judaism grow, adapt and accept it rather than cower back in fear and hate. I’m not saying that I’m a full-fledged member of Reformed Judaism. Rather, I find it to be a beautiful, adaptive religion, one set on improving the human condition through understanding.

As Kerrianne was leading us in recited prayers, one stood out to me…

For the expanding grandeur of Creation, worlds known and unknown, galaxies beyond galaxies, filling us with awe and challenging our imaginations, We give thanks this day.

For this fragile planet earth, its times and tides, its sunsets and seasons, We give thanks this day.

For the joy of human life, its wonders and surprises, its hopes and achievements, We give thanks this day.

For human community, our common past and future hope, our oneness transcending all separation, our capacity to work for peace and justice in the midst of hostility and oppression, We give thanks this day.

For high hopes and noble causes, for faith without fanaticism, for understanding of views not shared, We give thanks this day.

For all who have labored and suffered for a fairer world, who have lived so that others might live in dignity and freedom, We give thanks this day.

For human liberties and sacred rites: for opportunities to change and grow, to affirm and choose, We give thanks this day.

We pray that we may live not by our fears but by our hopes, not by our words but by our deeds.

If only the world’s major religions were this open and affirming…