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

 

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.

 

 

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…

My Two Cents on Bachmann’s Extreme Beliefs

The more that is revealed about Michele Bachmann and her beliefs, the more insane the thought becomes that she could become the presidential candidate for a major political party in the United States. “Crazy Eyes” is not only far from the mainstream, she’s downright dangerous to our democracy.

For example, Bachman adheres to Dispensationalism, the fundamentalist Christian belief that the return of Jesus Christ is nigh. This eschatological system flourished in the early 20th century in direct opposition to rapid societal change. Rather than adapt and accept new attitudes and scientific discoveries, dispensationalists formed religious denominations, such as the well-known Assemblies of God, and closed themselves in from the rest of society

This explains why in the year 2011, we still have people who believe the earth is 6,000 years old, Darwinian Evolution is false (despite the massive amounts of evidence), homosexuals can be “cured” or should even be arrested and/or put to death and that women belong exclusively in the home. It also explains why in early the 21st century, despite great scientific, technological and societal advances, millions of Americans believe that the end of the world is near.

Bachmann had this to say in 2006 while praying for a friend’s anti-gay ministry:

Lord, the day is at hand. We are in the last days. You’re Jehovah God. We know that the times are in your hands and we give them to you, but we also, Lord, are astute enough to recognize the blossom on the fig tree is opening. The day is at hand, Lord, when your return will come nigh. Nothing is more important than bringing sheep into the fold and bringing new life into the kingdom.

When someone believes that the return of Jesus Christ is “nigh,” we simply call them “nutty.” However, when someone who sounds like a crazy televangelist is close to becoming the most powerful person in the world, it is frightening. Who cares about diplomacy, global stability, making the world a better place or advancing humanity into a global civilization when Jesus is comin’ ’round the mountain?

It should also come as no surprise that Michele Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, has been exposed as a fraudulent therapist. His “quality, Christian counseling” office was busted for practicing reparative therapy, a dangerous and unsound “treatment” aimed at curing patients of their homosexuality. The American Psychiatric Association, The American Medical Association, The American Psychological Association, The American Psychoanalytic Association, The American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Association of Social Workers all state that sexual orientation cannot, and should not, be changed. But who cares what they say? They’re just evil, secular organizations bent on destroying the American family and bringing about the Anti-Christ, right?

Mrs. Bachmann shares her husband’s sentiments on homosexuality, claiming homosexuals are in “[spiritual] bondage” and a “part of Satan.” And this woman wants to be President of the United States of America??! (She has said countless other insane things, as I’ve written about here and here)

Michele Bachmann may be a favorite of the religious far-right, but she’s bad news for the rest of the country and the world. The thought of someone like her in control of the nation’s nuclear arsenal and military is frightening. The thought of someone like her directing any kind of policy should be enough to make anyone vote against her.

Comical Revision of Genesis

I doubt you’ve ever heard a creation story like this.

Enjoy Michael Shermer’s comical “revision” of the Genesis creation myth:

Genesis Revisited – A Scientific Creation Story

“In the beginning – specifically on October 23, 4004 B.C., at noon – out of quantum foam fluctuation God created the Big Bang, followed by cosmological inflation and an expanding universe. And darkness was upon the face of the deep, so He commanded hydrogen atoms (which He created from Quarks) to fuse and become helium atoms and in the process release energy in the form of light. And the light maker he called the sun, and the process he called fusion. And he saw the light was good because now He could see what he was doing, so he created Earth. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, Let there be lots of fusion light makers in the sky. Some of these fusion makers He grouped together into collections He called galaxies, and these appeared to be millions and even billions of light years from Earth, which would mean that they were created before the first creation in 4004 B.C. This was confusing, so God created tired light, and the creation story was preserved. And created He many wondrous splendors such as Red Giants, White Dwarfs, Quasars, Pulsars, Supernova, Worm Holes and even Black Holes out of which nothing can escape. But since God cannot be constrained by nothing, He created Hawking radiation through which information can escape from Black Holes. This made God even more tired than tired light, and the evening and morning were the second day.

And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the continents drift apart by plate tectonics. He decreed sea floor spreading would create zones of emergence, and He caused subduction zones to build mountains and cause earthquakes. In weak points in the crust God created volcanic islands, where the next day He would place organisms that were similar to but different from their relatives on the continents, so that still later created creatures called humans would mistake them for evolved descendants created by adaptive radiation. And the evening and the morning were the third day.

And God saw that the land was barren, so He created animals bearing their own kind, declaring Thou shalt not evolve into new species, and thy equilibrium shall not be punctuated. And God placed into the rocks, fossils that appeared older than 4004 B.C. that were similar to but different from living creatures. And the sequence resembled descent with modification. And the evening and morning were the fourth day.

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that hath life, the fishes. And God created great whales whose skeletal structure and physiology were homologous with the land mammals he would create later that day. God then brought forth abundantly all creatures, great and small, declaring that microevolution was permitted, but not macroevolution. And God said, Natura non facit saltum – Nature shall not make leaps. And evening and morning were the fifth day.

And God created the pongidids and hominids with 98 percent genetic similarity, naming two of them Adam and Eve. In the book in which God explained how He did all this, in one chapter He said he creates Adam and Even together out of dust at the same time, but in another chapter He said He created Adam first, then later created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs. This caused confusion in the valley of the shadow of doubt, so God created theologians to sort it out.

And in the ground placed He in abundance teeth, jaws, skulls, and pelvises of transitional fossils from pre-Adamite creatures. One chosen as his special creation He named Lucy, who could walk upright like a human but had a small brain like an ape. And God realized this too was confusing, so he created paleoanthropologists to figure it out.

Just as He was finishing up the loose ends of the creation God realized that Adam’s immediate descendants would not understand inflationary cosmology, global general relativity, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, biochemistry, paleontology, and evolutionary biology, so he created creation myths. But there were so many creation stories throughout the world God realized this too was confusing, so created He anthropologists and mythologists.

By now the valley of the shadow of doubt was overrunneth with skepticism, so God became angry, so angry that God lost His temper and cursed the first humans, telling them to go forth and multiply themselves (but not in those words). But the humans took God literally and now there are six billion of them. And the evening and morning were the sixth day.

By now God was tired, so He proclaimed, “Thank me it’s Friday,” and He made the weekend. It was a good idea.”

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Whacked Out Preacher, Meet Teen Psychological Abuse

The following video makes my blood boil.

Aside from the brainwashing and psychological abuse this ignorant whack job is inflicting on his audience of teenagers, the very look and style of his “ministry” is troubling. We see “hip” clothes and modern hairstyles…masking an old-time, fire-and-brimestone, ignorant, anti-science, extremist sect of Christianity.

In this view of world, it doesn’t matter what the facts of life are. “Science? Why that’s just ‘code’ for ‘liberal brainwashing!’ Psychology? Those doctors do Satan’s bidding!”

This is the very reason why so many gay youth are taking their own lives; They’re told that they are disgusting and sinful and that they have to hate who they are. This is child abuse, plain and simple.

As the world advances and progresses further into the 21st century, lunatics like the man in the video are dead-set on dragging the young and vulnerable into the Stone Age.