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Calling it justice doesn’t make it just

Barack Obama shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s new king Salman
Credit: Jim Bourg/Reuters

Apparently in the uproar over beheadings committed by ISIS, some have noticed that America’s ally Saudi Arabia has committed quite a few of them as well:

The escalation of the war against the Islamic State was triggered by widespread revulsion at the gruesome beheading of two American journalists, relayed on YouTube. Since then, two British aid workers have met a similar grisly fate. And another American has been named as next in line by his terrorist captors. Yet, for all the outrage these executions have engendered the world over, decapitations are routine in Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Arab ally, for crimes including political dissent—and the international press hardly seems to notice. In fact, since January, 59 people have had their heads lopped off in the kingdom, where “punishment by the sword” has been practiced for centuries. 

In an article published today, a representative of Saudi government actually attempted a defense of this:

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told NBC News that Saudi criminal punishments were legitimate because they were based on “a decision made by a court” rather than ISIS’ “arbitrary” killings. . . “When we do it in Saudi Arabia we do it as a decision made by a court,” he said. “The killing is a decision, I mean it is not based on arbitrary choices, to kill this and not to kill this.”

ISIS regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law.

Al-Turki said that “ISIS has no legitimate way to decide to decide to kill people,” adding that “the difference is clear.”

 “When you kill somebody without legitimate basis, without justice system, without court, that is still a crime whether you behead them or kill [them] with a gun,” al-Turki said, referring to ISIS’ killings.

“Arbitrary” means “random, without reason.” If ISIS “regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law,” then ISIS’s killing are not arbitrary– they are based on Shariah law. When the Islamic State murdered French mountaineer Herve Gourdel in the mountains of Algeria, it was to threaten the French into ceasing airstrikes on the area. That is not arbitrary. When they beheaded beheaded Raad al-Azzawi, a TV Salaheddin cameraman, east of Tikrit in Iraq, it was claimed to be in retaliation for the TV station “distorting the image of Iraq’s Sunni community.” That is not arbitrary.

Is it legitimate? Is it just? No, of course not. It’s barbaric and inhuman. But is that because it doesn’t take place within a “justice system”? Within a court?

Saudi Arabia’s “justice system,” as it happens, is also based on Shariah law. As it happens, it also hands down brutal sentences.

Now, Mansour al-Turki does have a point– when you kill someone without legitimate basis, it’s still a crime regardless of how you kill them. Although in Saudi Arabia, it’s not at all uncommon for people to be killed by the “justice system” without legitimate basis. But for just a moment, let’s look at a case where someone wasn’t killed:

A Saudi Arabian man suspects his five year old daughter of losing her virginity. He forces her to get an examination, then brings her home, where he repeatedly rapes her, and beats her to death with a cane and cables. He crushed her skull, broke her back, ribs and left arm, and burned her in several places. The Saudi royal family prevents him from being released after only a few months in jail and a fine, and a court eventually sentences him to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes. However, he pays her mother blood money ($270,000 – a boy would have been worth double that price), and is released after only a couple of years.

This case is intended to be in contrast to another case of another person who wasn’t killed– at least, not yet– but has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes with a whip, for the “crime” of apostasy. Raif Badawi. According to Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme,

Badawi – who founded “Saudi Arabian Liberals”, a website for political and social debate – has been in detention since June 2012 on charges including “setting up a website that undermines general security” and ridiculing Islamic religious figures. . . “Raif Badawi’s trial for ‘apostasy’ is a clear case of intimidation against him and others who seek to engage in open debates about the issues that Saudi Arabians face in their daily lives. He is a prisoner of conscience who must be released immediately and unconditionally.”

Barbaric? Yes. Inhuman? Absolutely. Exceptional in any way to Saudi Arabia’s “justice system”? Nope.

Whatever the reason for the timing, the wave of executions at the same time as jihadis in Iraq and Syria were beheading captives has brought new scrutiny to the practices of a country whose values are so different from those of its Western allies. While Saudi Arabia has joined U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and has deployed its senior clergy to denounce militant ideology, its public beheading of convicts, particularly for non-violent or victimless crimes like adultery, apostasy and witchcraft, is anathema to Western allies. “Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.

So if ISIS were to establish its own courts, and refer to the proceedings of those courts as “justice,” and claim that this makes their own barbarism “legitimate,” could we expect the Major General Mansour al-Turki to agree?  I suspect not.

I suspect that even he knows that.

Maybe somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knows that barbarism is in how you kill someone and what you kill them for.

That torture is barbaric regardless, but especially in judgment of the content of a person’s speech.

That legality is not morality, and just because an appointed group of human beings in a particular society says that something is wrong, doesn’t mean that it is. That appointed groups of people are not, all things being equal, necessarily any better arbiters of morality than any individual human being on his/her own– and in fact, sometimes they’re worse.

That enforcing religious rules as laws may not inexorably lead to barbarism, but it will always punish apostasy over immorality, and therefore the enemies of that faith rather than those of the state.

Okay, yes, he wouldn’t agree to that. But nevertheless, the contradiction is clear. Don’t even try to defend it, Mansour al-Turki. You cannot.

And neither can we Americans. If Saudi Arabia is our ally, we will be judged by the company we keep.

In the virtue stakes, reverence leaves empathy at the starting line

In France, individual citizens run a satirical magazine, the Charlie Hebdo, which publishes cartoons making fun of Muhammad among countless other current world leaders and historical figures.

In retaliation, terrorists storm the office and murder 12 people at that office, as well as five more at a kosher market. As far away as Sudan, angry mobs attempt to swarm French embassies, and people call upon the government to expel their French ambassador.

In Saudi Arabia, people are imprisoned, tortured, and even beheaded by the government for such victimless offenses as apostasy and “sorcery” on a regular basis. That same government arrests a blogger, Raif Badawi, for blasphemy and he is sentenced to suffer ten years of imprisonment and 1,000 lashes with a whip, at a rate of 50 per week.

In retaliation, Americans trickle out to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Houston and politely wave signs asking for Raif Badawi to be freed. Nobel laureates from various places around the world gather to jointly ask Saudi Arabian academics to join them in vocally condemning Badawi’s imprisonment and torture.

Now, I’m absolutely not saying that we should adopt the tactics of terrorists and ransack and pillage Saudi Arabian embassies, or anything like that. I am, rather, asking the following:

Why the hell can’t the West seem to muster even a fraction of the same outrage concerning the ongoing torture and murder of human beings for exercising their freedom of speech, as some Muslims are able summon concerning the fact that some people, somewhere in the world, feel that the same freedom protects their right to make the occasional joke at the expense of religion?

Beliefs? I’ve got ’em.

This meme spotted on Facebook. It’s far from the first one I’ve seen…hence this post.
Hat tip to Ed Brayton for pointing it out in annoyance. 

I have beliefs. Some of them are almost certainly false, but I still have them. I do the best I can to hold onto the true ones* and let the false ones go, but sometimes I fail.

I’m hardly rational, all the time– I’m practically made of biases. I can try to correct for those, and realizing that I have them is a huge part of that, but I can’t make them go away.

 My default state is not rationality– rationality is what happens when I’m able to focus on an issue and carefully consider it without my emotions running high, using the tools I’ve been taught. Sometimes I use them wrong. I don’t always use the ones I should.

I let the beliefs related to theism go, some time ago– most of them, but I still tend to anthropomorphize all kinds of things, see patterns that aren’t there or at least aren’t there intentionally, and sometimes I’m guilty of magical thinking.

In all of these things, I am very like every other atheist out there. Because I’m also a human being, and that’s how we work. If you consider yourself a rationalist, please stop pretending otherwise. That really isn’t rational.

*Knowledge being justified true belief. 

A bit of mulling over

Following up on Sunday’s post, I can’t help but keep returning mentally to Dr. Darrel Ray’s talk at Skeptics of Oz last month, which you can see and hear (both are important in this case) here.

In a nutshell, the thesis of Ray’s talk (and, I assume, of his book Sex & God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality, although I haven’t read it) is that the essence of religion– in particular American Christianity– is sexual control via shaming. Shame and guilt, actually– Ray doesn’t differentiate between the two, although I find the distinction between them very important. He says that religion causes people to be filled with sexual shame to the extent that even as they grow up and live out their lives as mature, sexually active adults, they are compelled to lie about that sexuality to themselves, their friends and family, and especially their children. They lie about the fact that they masturbate. They lie about the fact that they have sex outside of marriage, whether before, during, or after. They lie about sexual attraction being a part of them that exists quite independently of the desire to create and raise children, and as such isn’t something which sprang into existence on their wedding day and exists only for the person they married.

In support of this position, Ray points to higher than average levels of divorce, pornography consumption, and teenage pregnancy in the more fundamentalist parts of the U.S. Sexual shame is the source of all this lying, he asserts, because we can’t escape from being sexual beings, and yet religious people– again, mainly American Christians– yearn to escape this aspect of our nature so badly that they are driven to simply deny it. This shame manifests itself even people who have deconverted, as a vestigial part of our moral thinking as adults, which can be observed when the more secular amongst us nevertheless engage in activities such as slut-shaming against others as well as when they turn it inward and deny their own impulses. In order to properly reject this, Ray says, we must be “secular sexuals,” embracing our own sexuality as well as that of other people– to admit publicly that we masturbate and have since we were kids, to refrain from slut-shaming and condemn those who do, and recognize that other people have their own preferences and these are their own business. In this way, we can subvert the popular assumption that sex sullies a person– particularly if she is female– and encourage education while discouraging ignorance and bigotry.
Okay, that wasn’t exactly a nutshell. Sorry.
Now, this was both a safe and audacious talk for Ray to give at a meeting like Skeptics of Oz. Audacious because those are some very strong claims– the original claim was that religion is a “sexually transmitted disease,” that religion is all about sexual control, religion is fundamentally about making people feel ashamed of their sexuality and deny it their entire lives even while dating, marrying, producing children, and in general living a typical adult sexual life. And religious people hearing this would think “No, that doesn’t remotely describe my experience.” Which, in America, for most religious people, is probably true. It’s possible that religion in America is as much about sexual control as veterinary medicine is about euthanizing peoples’ pets– a phenomenon which is a near-monopoly, but far from an all-consuming purpose. Which leads to why it was a safe talk for Ray to give at a conference for skeptics– because when it comes to conferences, “skeptic” generally entails, if not translates to, “atheist.” (See this excellent talk by Matt Dillahunty at this year’s American Atheists conference for what the distinction is, and why it’s important.)

He wasn’t likely to hear a lot of argument from the audience about religion’s role in sexual shaming and deceit– and in fact, there was none. And that is because, I feel comfortable in saying, we– not just secular, but anyone other than socially conservative Americans– are sick to death of social conservatism. And social conservatism, especially that relating to anything sexual, invariably comes with an appeal to religious sensibilities. Because this is America, Christian religious sensibilities. Abortion? God’s against it. Birth control covered by health insurance? Same. Pornography? Same. Gay rights? Same (but please don’t look at how many politicians and clergy have been caught having gay affairs). Sex outside of marriage? Same (but please don’t examine how many of us have stuck to that). Adultery? Same (but please don’t look at our divorce rates). We’re used to this, if anything but happy about it. It’s called the religious right, and it shows no sign of going away. So of course a group of secularists– sworn enemies of the religious right– are not going to speak up about a talk saying that religion (American Christianity) is, fundamentally, about sexual control.

I just think it’s overstating things. Just a tad.

To be continued.

Will the real Islamophobes please stand up?

Richard Dawkins in a still from The Root of All Evil?

No, you don’t have to have read the Qur’an to have opinions about Islam.
Legitimate opinions.
Even scientific opinions.
There, I said it.

Look, I understand that there’s this common assumption that a religion can be summed up in its text. That all believers in a religion believe that the text is the true, unchanging word of God and therefore it can be assumed that the text dictates their beliefs in all regards, which means that adherents of a religion who don’t abide by (your interpretation of) their faith’s text are either renegades or hypocrites or both.

The problem with this is it’s not true.

It’s a myth perpetuated by religious believers who think that because their faith is based on a belief in the text of their religion, wholly and completely, and everybody else who either openly (by their words) or more implicitly (by their deeds) does otherwise is not a true insert-religion-here.

In reality, religion is as much about behavior as it is about belief. In reality, not everybody believes that religious texts are the end-all and be-all of their beliefs. And when they do believe this, it would be the understatement of the year to say that their interpretations of those texts differ (heck, some religions don’t even have texts). In reality, probably the worst thing someone could do when trying to evaluate the effects of religion would be to listen to what religious believers themselves say is a true representation of their faith, and only base their assessments on that. Because– apologies if this sounds harsh– they don’t get to decide what their religion is and does. At least, not for anyone but themselves. The fact of what self-proclaimed adherents say and do is what determines that. And what self-proclaimed adherents say and do is often not in line with what their texts say they should say and do. Sometimes unconsciously, and sometimes very deliberately.

Yes, I’m aware of how central the Qur’an is to Islam. I am aware of the belief that the Qur’an should not even be translated into a language other than Arabic, because Arabic is believed to be God’s own tongue and any reading of the text in another language is therefore inherently flawed and mistaken. I am also aware of the astonishing diversity of beliefs and behaviors on the part of self-professed Muslims regardless.

I am aware that text does not dictate what religion is.
I am annoyed by believers and atheists alike who pretend otherwise.

I also know, for that matter, what real Islamophobia is.
Real Islamophobia is a distortion of reality which makes Muslims inherently lesser by virtue of being Muslim. Real Islamophobia constructs conspiracies of what Muslims believe and do and shrieks about those, rather than things Muslims actually believe and do. Real Islamophobia is “creeping Sharia” in Oklahoma. It’s “Obama is secretly a Muslim.” It’s “Muslims don’t have the same rights as we do because Islam is not a religion; it’s a political agenda– so let’s ban the construction of a Muslim worship center anywhere near Ground Zero.” It’s “We should forbid Muslims from immigrating to our country, because they will take it over and ruin it.” It’s differentiating Muslims from “us” in the first place. It’s rampant in the US and the EU alike, and it’s disgusting. It is bigotry. It is wrong.

You know what doesn’t make you an Islamophobe? Criticizing Islam without having read the Qur’an.

Now, I should stipulate that I’m not saying that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens aren’t Islamophobes (wasn’t one, in Hitchens’ case). In fact, they may well be/have been. Failing to differentiate between Islam (belief) and Muslims (people) is a good sign of it, and I think all three have done that.

You shouldn’t treat beliefs like people, or people like beliefs, which is one of the reasons why focusing on the text of a religion is so problematic when you’re trying to discuss what the people who actually practice that religion are doing. Sure, you might accuse them of cherry-picking as a last resort if you find that they are actually friendly, polite, non-bigoted, genuinely decent people in spite of the nasty things you’ve found in the text to which they ostensibly adhere. But you can’t make them examples of the great evil that their religion purportedly inflicts on the world, and when talking about this great evil you are not only doing them an injustice but are factually incorrect when you implicate them in your accusation. That’s the problem.

I know it’s a little more complex than just parroting “He hasn’t read the Qur’an and yet says bad things about Islam; he must be a bigot.” But geez….in the interests of accuracy and arguing in good faith (sorry), try and get it right.

Oh, and try not asserting that all atheists (or even “New Atheists”) must agree. Not only do we not have a text; we don’t have clergy either…not being a religion, and all.

The most concise explanation of how marriage equality threatens the institution of marriage

…comes from James Sweet, in a comment on Dispatches:

For some people, marriage is still an institution that is defined by proscribed roles. The man has certain rights and responsibilities (mostly the former), and the woman has certain rights and responsibilities (mostly the latter), and these are handed down by God and should not be questioned — and even if you don’t agree with the theological angle, our culture has defined it that way, so you’ll be safe from Jeebus’ fig tree-hatin’ wrath either way.  Same-sex marriage, by not filling the “appropriate” genders, challenges the notion that proscribed gender roles are necessary for a successful marriage. If two men can have an effective relationship, and one of them fulfills the role that was “supposed” to be assigned to the woman (or, GASP, even more sinful, if they work out their own individual division of responsibilities in an equitable and loving way, that doesn’t necessarily conform to 1950s gender stereotypes — oh god I can’t believe I typed that GET THEE BEHIND ME SATAN!) then the next thing you know, women in heterosexual relationships will be wavering on the whole “unquestioned obedience” principle. It’s a slippery slope, you know?  Despite some sarcasm in that last paragraph, I’m not joking at all. Marriage equality poses a direct threat to the patriarchy. So in that sense, the wingnuts are dead-on accurate: If your definition of the institution of marriage inherently requires a patriarchal arrangement, marriage equality is corrosive towards that institution.

*applauds*

Bravo. I have nothing to add to that.

Further adventures in abusing the notion of respect

Previously I wrote about how it’s incorrect to say that you respect women if that respect is contingent on their dressing and behaving according to your notions of modesty.

It’s also incorrect to say that you respect people while maintaining that for them to have children is “child abuse”:

Francis is still a conservative choice, but has taught the ‘importance of respecting gay individuals’. However he strongly opposed same-sex marriage legislation introduced in 2010 by the Argentine government, calling it a ‘destructive attack on God’s plan’. In a letter to the monasteries of Buenos Aires, he wrote: ‘Let’s not be naive, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. ‘We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.’ In the past, he has also called the adoption of gay couples child abuse, saying it was discrimination against children.

You know what’s really child abuse? Child abuse. The kind which has been covered up and gone unnoticed and unpunished, time and time again, within the Catholic church. I wonder how many children of gay parents would like to slap the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics for asserting that the existence of their family unit is equivalent to an actual crime committed against countless children by people under the auspices of his institution over so many years.

Father of Lies, indeed.

Haunted socks

In which Pat Robertson advises someone who frequently buys second-hand clothing that she should “rebuke any spirits that happen to have attached themselves to those clothes” lest there be any demons who might have become connected to them via the prayers of a witch, as he heard had happened once in the Philippines:

Okay, first let’s all remember Frazer’s rules of sympathetic magic: similarity, and contact/contagion. The rule of similarity entails that an object may take on properties of another object by virtue of being very like the original object in appearance (“like produces like”); whereas the rule of contact/contagion entails that the object takes on these properties by virtue of having been in contact with the previous object, long after the contact has ended. These rules appear to be intuitive, and take effect in various ways. For example, a person might be disgusted by a brownie that resembles a turd, and refuse to eat it (similarity), or refuse to drink from a glass that once contained a cockroach, regardless of how thoroughly or frequently it has been washed since (contact/contagion). We intuit that properties transfer in ways that they actually don’t, which produces some understandable (since we share intuitions) but illogical (since they’re not actually based on anything) conclusions about what it’s okay for us to look like, consume, or otherwise associate with.

The notion that negative spirits, or demons, are behind this association– that they are, in fact, the association itself– is just one step further, really. The religious step. Because religion puts agency behind everything. Most importantly, it puts agency behind what is important to us. What we value. What we feel. What frightens us. What we love. If you demanded that I define religion for you, I would…probably do so a lot more readily than a lot of people who study religion academically. But my definition would go something like “A practice of systematically placing non-human but human-like agency behind our most important intuitions.” That’s a little more elaborate than Stewart Guthrie’s “systematized anthropomorphism” and also more specific than and contrary to Pascal Boyer’s minimally counter-intuitive concepts, because Boyer thinks that traits such as invisibility and non-corporeality are counter-intuitive notions about an agent. I think they’re intuitive. I think that we perceive invisible, non-corporeal agency all of the time and probably have evolved to do so, and that demon-infested clothing is just one tiny, apparently ridiculous* but not actually unique or even very unusual manifestation of this tendency.

I’m looking forward to reading Robert McCauley’s book Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, because I’m interested to hear his take on a now common refrain among cognitive scientists of religion, which is that perceiving agency in the world around us, behind unusual but significant events, behind our existence itself, is all-too-human even for the most secular of us. But subjecting supposed facts to rigorous testing and objective examination really isn’t– we are certainly quite capable of it, but it has to be learned. This is no longer an alarming hypothesis to me, and in fact it would take quite a lot of evidence to convince me that it’s not true. But the alarm really seems to stem from a notion that the intuitive is somewhere inherently more trustworthy, more insightful (see “women’s intuition”) and the counter-intuitive wrong, while nothing could be further from the truth. Intuitions exist for reasons, but after all, those reasons are not necessarily ours.

*Ridiculous, I think, because of the mundane subject matter. Not even the most materialist of us would be surprised to hear that someone associates supernatural agency with, say, an amulet or a relic. We might not believe it ourselves, but we’re familiar with the concept. Clothing from Goodwill, by contrast, is about as ordinary as it gets, so Robertson suggesting that demons might be attached to it sounds as superficial and weird as praying for a good parking space. But if there are supernatural agents out there who are interested in our lives, the postulate that Robertson accepts and many if not most religious people do as well, why should this interest not extend to such things as parking spots and laundry? 

Full of Sound and Fury: The Media Response to Dennett

This post previously published as an article in the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion in 2008.

What is the best way for a well-known, unabashedly atheistic philosopher to have a discussion with the American general public about the value and nature of religion? It is not an easy question to answer. Daniel Dennett’s recent undertaking of just that task in his book Breaking the Spell has certainly not been short of controversy or criticism, which is entirely as he expects. “By asking for an accounting ofthe pros and cons of religion,” Dennett explains, “I risk getting poked in the nose or worse, and yet I persist” (257). Clearly, he believes the potential nose-poking an acceptable risk to take in order to deliver an urgent message to Americans: that they need to take a hard look at the matter of why religious belief and behavior is so compelling in the first place, as well as what religion is really “good for,” and for whom. The appropriate way to address this matter, Dennett argues, is through a scientific approach-that is, one based on methodological naturalism. Contra Eliade, there will be no privileged space for the sacred, no sense in which religion will be considered sui generis. Dennett dwells in the overlapping realms of evolution and cognition, and it is in these terms that his inquiry takes place.

But wait a minute …. hasn’t this inquiry been going on for quite some time already? What exactly is Dennett trying to do which hasn’t been done already by scientists such as Tom Lawson and Bob McCauley, Pascal Boyer, D. Jason Slone, David Sloan Wilson, and Walter Burkert? The main, critical difference is that Dennett is not only trying to present the best explanations for religion from cognitive science so far, but additionally to a) advocate for this form of inquiry in the first place to the American general audience, and thereby b) encourage a detached evaluation of the purposes (pragmatic and normative) that religion may serve for such an audience. Make no mistake; Dennett is wading into the culture war. And he is trying to do so from the vantage point of the concerned counselor, but whether the audience will accept him in this role is a different story.

A reader used to Dennett’s previous work, expecting a treatment of religion along the lines of Consciousness Explained, may well find Breaking the Spell a bit of a shock. The reason for this is itself an interesting thing to contemplate. The book is explicitly speculative, offering tentative explanations but stipulating that the exploration of religion as a naturalistic phenomenon still has very far to go. Fair enough. But nevertheless Dennett wants to use these ideas to put forth the notion that maybe, just maybe, religion not only does not benefit us in the proximate, here-and-now sense (as opposed to the ultimate sense, a distinction evolutionary accounts often make), but perhaps it doesn’t even benefit us ultimately. perhaps it exists simply to further itself. To make this case he must establish it on memetic theory, painting a picture through a series of metaphors of religion as a possibly parasitic, possibly symbiotic sort of virus that infects humans because of certain qualities which make it appealing because of adaptations we have evolved for other purposes. Certain inference systems we already have make certain aspects of religion “catchy.” It is an epidemiological account, applied to religion previously by Boyer. But it’s a bit unfortunate that Dennett had to introduce this concept, indeed introduce the book, by likening religion to the lancet fluke-a parasite that invades the brain of an ant and causes it to climb to the top of blades of grass in order to be more easily consumed by cows, into whose bellies the parasite seeks to travel. A cunning analogy? Certainly, but not very flattering. Dennett draws this comparison to point out that humans have evolved to a point at which our own biological fitness-producing a larger number of grandchildren than our neighbors-has taken a backseat to proximate interests. Democracy, freedom, justice-these are “ideas to die for,” as he puts it, and we’re comfortable admitting that. But we wouldn’t say that the ant is “dying for” the lancet fluke. Rather, it is killed by, which is a different kettle of fish entirely. And that is why memetic theory, even (or especially) if it is true, is so discomforting. But then again, some respondents simply find the idea vacuous. Columnist Andrew Brown of the Guardian complains that Dennett “sees the difficulties [of theorizing about religion], marches bravely into the swamp and then – about halfway through the book, at exactly the point where we’re wondering how to reach firm ground – he stops, inflates a hot air balloon that’s labeled “memes”, climbs into it and floats away” (February 25, 2006). H. Allen Orr of the New Yorker agrees: “The existence of a god meme is no better established than the existence of a god” (March 27,2006).

Dennett wants to argue that religious memes are ideas that we sometimes die for or kill for, but more commonly devote our lives to, and that perhaps we should step back and contemplate whether we ought to be doing so. But this requires exhorting us to “rebel against the tyranny of selfish replicators,” as Dawkins originally put it when he coined the term in 1976, leaving us to ask precisely who is doing the rebelling, and with what. For it seems that everything is a meme. It remains highly questionable whether the meme of memetic theory-indeed, of naturalistic inquiry into religion-can be more infectious than the religious memes themselves, and perhaps Dennett is being too optimistic to expect them to be. I suspect that he would say that he has to espouse them regardless.


What kind of counselor? 

Probably the most interesting thing about the reactions to Dennett’s book is the perceptions of how he treats his reader. The book is sprinkled with particular asides to particular types of audiences, ostensibly so that he can cover all of his bases and acknowledge the variety of worldviews that people might bring to his work. But quite a few readers have deemed Dennett not to have the best bedside manner. In a particularly scathing appraisal in the New York Times Book Review, Leon Wieseltier complains that “if you disagree with what Dennett says, it is because you fear what he says … Dennett’s own ‘sacred values’ are ‘democracy, justice, life, love and truth.’ This rigs things nicely. If you refuse his ‘impeccably hardheaded and rational ontology,’ then your sacred values must be tyranny, injustice, death, hatred and falsehood” (February 19,2006). Rupert Sheldrake agreed in the Toronto Globe and Mail that “he is pompous when he tries to persuade, even bully, religious believers to go on reading his book, and patronizing toward those who have not achieved the intellectual superiority to which atheists lay claim” (February 4, 2006). But how much of this reaction might stem from Dennett’s candid and proud self-description of atheism? Sheldrake continues that “his commitment to atheism makes him dismiss out of hand the significance of religious experiences.” Adam Kirsch of the New York Sun accuses the book of “frank hostility to religion” and objects that because of his own lack of faith, Dennett is missing the point completely: “at the heart of organized religion, whether one accepts or rejects it, is the truth that metaphysical experience is part of human life. Any adequate account of religion must start from this phenomenological fact. Because Mr. Dennett ignores it, treating religion instead as at best a pastime for dimwits, at worst a holding cell for fanatics, he never really encounters the thing he believes he is writing about” (February 8, 2006).

What sort of response might the book have received had Dennett made no mention of his personal (a)religious convictions? It’s difficult to tell, and as a vocal proponent of the “bright” movement, Dennett would likely argue that that would be missing the point (July 12, 2003). Attempting to give an objective account of religion and its value should not mean taking for granted that religion is true, therefore there shouldn’t be any problem with a person endorsing just that approach who isn’t religious himself. Of course to some people, this makes about as much sense as a tone-deaf person studying music. But such a person can study music-he can study it from the detached perspective of examining how people produce it and how it affects them, which is precisely how Dennett proposes to study religion. That the old insider/outsider problem should rear its ugly head again comes as no surprise, however we must not make the mistake of assuming, as Dennett himself occasionally seems to do in advance, that any objection to his tone or presentation of the issues should be based on that.

Near the end of the book, Dennett describes believing in God as “a kind of falling in love”- no rational evaluation is made, but rather a kind of helplessness in the face of the object of one’s affection (or faith) which results in a steadfast and enduring commitment (254). And ind~ed, his tone occasionally makes Dennett sound like he is playing the role of relationship counselor to an abused spouse. But he may be up against a love much stronger than he bargained for-after all, people tend to fall in love with more than one person in the course of their lives, and at least with another human you have their continuing presence directly confronting you to remind you of their flaws. When one’s love object is perfect and immaterial, who (or what) can compete? A blogger known as Razib on the blog Gene Expression wrote, “Dennett’s schtick that those who think that religious people can’t analyze their beliefs rationally are being patronizing seems really laughable to me. Most atheists I know have a hard time getting around the fact that many people who are extremely bright (no pun intended in the context of Dennett) sincerely believe that supernatural agents exist and affect the world around us … If the likes of Dennett wish to examine religion as a ‘natural phenomenon,’ they need to acknowledge that perhaps for many humans it is as crucial to their cognitive functioning as elimination is to their digestive system” (March 5, 2006). And indeed, that is exactly the basis on which Kirsch argues that Dennett wants to eliminate religion: “By showing that we evolved to believe, Mr. Dennett hopes to reduce belief to the status of an ordinary human disposition, no more mysterious than our appetite for sweets or our sexual drives. And from there, he hopes, it will be only a short hop to demolishing belief altogether, as a vestige of our prehistory that has become maladaptive in an advanced civilization” (February 8, 2006). Dennett does make the argument that religious memes have become “domesticated” over the years, requiring human stewards for their maintenance and reproduction in a way similar to that in which sheep require shepherds. It would not be too far off the mark to suggest that he is also arguing for them to be domesticated in the sense of pacification as well. Not the absence of Christianity or Islam, but rather a “toothless” version, which doubtless is frightening enough to some.

But … is there a god? 

Perhaps the issue that most readers on either side of the fence, theistic or atheistic, anticipated Dennett addressing was the one that has fascinated analytic philosophers of religion for years does God exist? “Is the theistic account ofthe cosmos true or false? Dennett, amazingly, does not care,” writes Wieseltier. ”’The goal of either proving or disproving God’s existence,” he concludes, is “not very important'” (February 19,2006). And indeed, precious few pages are devoted to the question. Precisely because the topic has been quarrelled over for so long without a good record for converting people from either side to the other, Dennett is not especially interested in wading through the arguments, whether they be ontological, cosmological, or teleological (readers interested in the latter argument would be better advised to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea). However, this is not to say that attributes ascribed to God cannot be tested-and this is precisely what Dennett advocates. If a theist wishes to affirm the existence of a god with empirical effects on the world, such as miracles of healing, then these can and should be proved or disproved using empirical methods.

Such a god, a creator god who is a person to whom you could pray, who intervenes in the world, is the one in relation to whom Dennett is an atheist (“bright”). This he makes clear in the book, though it is not (in my impression) the explicit mission of the book to make all readers into atheists as well. There are obviously those who disagree, and it is difficult to tell whether they would do so regardless of what Dennett wrote, provided he also included the commentary about being a “bright” and being proud of it. Does this mere admission amount to evangelism? And does Dennett’s outspoken atheism, in combination with his reliance on and endorsement of evolutionary theory both in past books and the most recent one, equate evolution itself with atheism? Florida State philosopher of biology Michael Ruse seems to think so, as does Intelligent Design proponent Michael Dembski, and a couple of writers at the Guardian seem uncertain, after a recent print exchange which took place in a variety of formats.

The first shot was thrown by someone who wasn’t actually a participant in the conversation- Wieseltier, who in addition to being personally offended by Breaking the Spell, pronounced it a “sorry instance of present-day scientism,” and other reprehensible things. After reading this review, Ruse decided to email Dennett and jab him about it, to which Dennett replied that he thought the New York Times Book Review under the spell of the “Darwin dreaders,” and suggested that Ruse might be unwittingly helping them out. The exchange grew yet more heated, with Ruse taking umbrage at this comment and taking the opportunity to note that he didn’t find Dennett’s new book worthy of him, with a culminating comment: “I think that you and Richard are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design – we are losing this battle, not the least of which is the two new supreme court justices who are certainly going to vote to let it into classrooms – what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues – neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas – it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard claims – more than this, we are in a fight, and we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will” (February 21, 2006). Then for some reason Ruse decided to pass on these emails to William Dembski, who promptly (probably gleefully) posted them on his blog Uncommon Descent. 

The exchange was then picked up by the Guardian’s Andrew Brown, earlier the author of a less-than-flattering review of the book, who described the blow-by-blow in a gossipy tone as a battle between evolutionists on the question of how best to combat creationism (March 6,.2006). Then columnist Madeleine Bunting, also of the Guardian, related the matter as part of a piece entitled “Why the intelligent design lobby thanks God for Richard Dawkins,” agreeing with Ruse that both Dawkins and Dennett provide unintentional aid to ill proponents because of their ferocity and frank atheism. She quotes Ruse explaining a particular concern: “If Darwinism equals atheism then it can’t be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool” (March 27, 2006).

Dennett then replied that this was nonsense, as the public schools in American routinely teach facts that conflict with certain religious doctrines-especially in biology (no virgin births, sony) and geology (the earth’s a bit older than 6,000 years).2 But we need to pause now and consider an element of Ruse’s allegation a bit more closely. “If Darwinism equals atheism” … what exactly does that mean? There are several possibilities. Clearly, Ruse does not himself believe that Darwinism “equals” atheism, but he is afraid that Dawkins and Dennett are giving the impression that it does, so the precise meaning must be considered. And would any possible meaning make his statement of the implications correct?

Perhaps he means that evolution forces atheism-that upon hearing about evolution, any theistic person will be instantly de-converted. This obviously is not the case, and no sensible person would claim such since all one need do to disprove it would be to produce a theistic evolutionist (Kenneth Miller would do the job nicely). Then perhaps Ruse is saying that evolution means atheism-that describing evolution is the same as explaining that God does not exist. This would be a hard one to argue, since there is no reason to mention God at any point in a lesson on evolution (one could argue that this in itself is the evidence, though one need not mention God in order to explain how to bake a cake either, and it would be daft to say that cake-baking “means” atheism). Then maybe Ruse means that, rationally considered, evolution makes belief in God incoherent or at least unnecessary. This is a possibility. At least with the respect to the type of god regarding whom both Dawkins and Dennett are atheists, Dawkins at least would likely affirm this to be true. Dennett is rather more cautious, though in his reply to Bunting he notes that “A few evolutionists, such as Ruse and Eugenie Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education, favor the tactic of insisting that evolutionary biology doesn’t deny the existence of a divine creator … Many others, such as Dawkins and myself, fear that the evasiveness of this gambit fuels suspicion and so contributes to ongoing confusion in the US” (April 4,2006).

I think it would be a fair assessment to say Dennett believes that evolution makes consistent the justification of atheism (if atheism needs justification), and logically negates the type of god in whom most Americans profess belief (whether they really believe, or merely believe in belief), the type of god who receives so much space in his book. Is this what it means to “equal” atheism? And if so … so what? What are the implications?

This year’s meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society featured a lunch-time presentation entitled “It’s Time to Speak Up: A Panel Discussion on the Role of Evolutionary Scientists in Public Discourse.” Dennett was a member of the panel, as was U.S. District Judge John Jones, who presided over Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. After Jones had given his talk (introduced with a standing ovation), Dennett stood to praise all of the work that Jones had done, and to take exception to a single statement from the conclusion of the Dover ruling: “Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator [emphasis added].” He questioned whether these scientific experts had had their “feet held to the fire,” and was thankful (with a wink) that he and Richard Dawkins had not been the experts called to the stand.

Michael Ruse and those who agree with him may be doing their best to make evolution palatable to the religious believer in the U.S., and may even be correct that people such as Dennett and Dawkins are not helping their cause. But that is a matter of public relations, not constitutional rights, and anyone who tried to make a freedom of expression case on the grounds that evolution “equals” atheism would not have a prayer of winning. If the claim is going to be made (repeatedly) that evolution is compatible with belief in God, then perhaps we ought not leave it at that. Perhaps an attempt ought to be made to explain exactly how it is compatible, and with which kindof god. This is the case Dennett is making, in the name of forthrightness. In every issue on which science is in conflict (or apparently in conflict) with public opinion, there will be those who lean more toward palatability, and those who lean toward “Just the facts, ma’am.” It seems pretty clear who is on which side in this matter. Dennett’s political campaign is not just for the acceptance of evolution, but for the acceptance of atheism-for the population of “brights” in the country. How can he reasonably be expected to remain silent about one while espousing the other?

In Breaking the Spell, Dennett really pulls no punches. The urgency of the book, the candidness of his tone, and his moral arguments mark it as not merely as an introduction to the cognitive science of religion, but an overt attempt to persuade Americans of faith (and without) to carefully, objectively, consider what that means for them as individuals and for society. This in itself would earn the book a negative response from many, leaving aside the question of whether Dennett comes off as genuine in his open-minded approach of “religion may be good for us or bad-let’s find out.” That will have to be left to the reader. Many have waded in on the subject already, and doubtless many more will follow. But when doing so, hopefully they will remember that most of Dennett’s arguments can easily be made by a theist as well, and become intrigued to discover more about what the scientific study of religion has to offer. After all, we’re still only at the beginning, and there are exciting times ahead.

No special snowflakes

Dr. X commented recently on just world bias, as displayed by Oprah while interviewing Lance Armstrong:

Just one slightly weird blip in an otherwise good job. She asked Armstrong more than once if he expected his day of reckoning to come. Fine enough question, but with an almost cult-like, true believer, fast-clip delivery, she explained the basis for her question, and I paraphrase: 

Did you expect that this day would come, because the Second Law of Movement says you will get what you put out? 

I’m watching and I’m like, what the hell, Oprah? I assume she was referring to Newton’s Second Law of Motion, which is about physics, not mental life or cosmic justice. I found it a bit annoying that she not only misused the concept but, in particular, she used it to assert the Just World Hypothesis which isn’t a law of nature; it’s a known psychological bias — a pernicious distortion of reality. Oprah isn’t just wrong; she came off as having zombie-like belief in a falsehood that does a lot of harm to people. Applied to Armstrong’s situation, it may not sound like a bad thing. But the unexamined flip side is, for example, if you were raped, it was because of something you did that was wrong. So the rape was a natural outcome of your own bad actions. It’s cosmic law. Excuse me, but that’s fucked.

Fucked, maybe, but certainly common, if not commonly described as the “Second Law of Movement.” I would dare say, even, that just world bias is the unfortunate glue that binds traditional religions and more New Agey beliefs together. If you believe in God, then God is supposedly the reason that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. If you believe in The Secret (or karma), then you are the reason. Either way, you have a situation in which the universe itself not only cares about the moral significance of your behavior but actually responds to it, positively or negatively.

And Dr. X succinctly points out the problem with and the very unscientific nature of that position– science never appeals to a cosmic will to explain reality. Not because such a thing is utterly impossible, as because such a thing hasn’t been demonstrated to exist, and therefore appealing to it has no explanatory power. Good thing, considering how often very bad things happen to people who are very good, or just minding their own business!

If anything, the truth is that science keeps uncovering more and more ways in which the universe doesn’t give a damn, and religion becomes less and less powerful in its ability to punish the scientists who reveal this.

And we– ordinary, evitable, happenstance beings that we are– we go on.

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