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I hope this should be immediately obvious, but it is not okay to exploit the death of a 12 year old child to score a cheap point against religion. It’s troubling that this is something I even need to say, but Terry Firma and the commentariat at The Friendly Atheist seem far too eager to pin the suicide of a 12 year old child on her belief in heaven.

Here are the facts on the ground, as relayed by Firma and reported in unsourced UK tabloids:[ref]and I use the words “facts” and “reported” liberally. Funny how standards of evidence seem so low when it comes to things we want to hear…[/ref] a 12 year old girl killed herself, ostensibly distraught by the 2009 death of her father. She left a note that said “Dear Mum. Please don’t be sad. I just miss daddy so much, I want to see him again.”

Firma writes:

But the account also confirmed for me that the idea of heaven can be both comforting and toxic — make that deadly — at the same time. If Maria’s head hadn’t been filled with nonsensical ideas about heaven, where it’s all about the posthumous family reunions, she’d probably be alive today.

Her death is the somewhat prettier equivalent of the Islamic suicide bombers who think they’ll go on to great rewards in the hereafter.

Religion kills.

Let me start by pointing out that we have no reason to believe that any of the reported information is true. Reporting from an unsourced tabloid isn’t something we should accept as reasonable evidence for anything, and neither a google news search of the 12-year-old’s name nor a reverse image search of the photos in the article turns up any sources apart from the UK tabloids and blog commentary. I’ll resist the urge to rant at length that religion is not specially bad and atheists are not specially rational, evidence-sensitive, or less susceptible to the problems they point to in religious believers.

But let’s grant for a second the tabloid-reporting that The Friendly Atheist now apparently takes part in. None of that, if true, would change how factually inaccurate, sensationalist, and exploitative every sentence of Firma’s commentary is.

Even if someone leaves a suicide note detailing their wish to spend eternity with their father, there is no good reason to suppose they killed themselves for religious reasons. It’s telling that Firma looked at a 12 year-old so hurt by her father’s death 4 years prior that she killed herself not as indicative of, say, clinical depression, but rather the asinine and melodramatic conclusion that the belief in heaven—cue dramatic music as I vom everywhere—can kill.

It’s hard to determine causation from a sample size of 1, since there are a host of different causes that might produce the exact same data we have available (i.e the suicide note). Firma says that this girl would still be alive today without the belief in heaven, but there is no way at all to know that—people readily and often construct post-hoc narratives to explain their feelings and behavior, and it’s entirely possible[ref]read: much more likely than the idea that she just killed herself because she believed in heaven and wanted to see her dad again.[/ref] that the child was suffering from an intense mental illness and simply used the death of her father to rationalize the grief, despair, or hopelessness she was feeling. It would make no sense to pin the blame on religion when what caused those feelings to begin with was mental illness.

And again, this is all granted the story is even true and let me repeat we have no reason at all to believe that. Literally none. It’s an unsourced tabloid story that exists on the internet only as a tabloid story why do I even need to write this blog post?

Even more, there’s no way to generalize from that one anecdote to broad psychological facts like “the belief in heaven is dangerous because you might hang yourself to see your dad,” since this anecdote starkly contradicts more or less all available evidence on the relationship between religion and suicide. Religious believers are less likely to kill themselves, and study after study will tell you that.[ref]e.g.[/ref] I take it that those (sourced, not tabloid-based) facts don’t quite so conveniently fit Firma’s “religion bad, atheism good” narrative, so I doubt they’ll be mentioned any time soon.

Science, unlike Firma’s piece, isn’t based on confirmation bias and anecdotes. If we want to learn whether belief in heaven is dangerous or might otherwise cause suicides, we need to look further than British tabloids to actual patterns in behavior. Those legitimate looks turn up empty for the “look how harmful the belief in heaven can be!” hypothesis, so the melodramatic clincher that “religion kills”— in line with the rest of Firma’s writing, it seems—looks like little more than irresponsible and alarmist pulp.

Vlad Chituc is a Research Associate in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He has a pretty dope dog and says pretty dope a lot and is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Sam Harris has a new article on his site that somehow transitions from “why are perpetrators of mass violence almost always male?” to “and here’s why Islam is bad.” It’s summed up with some commentary on The Friendly Atheist by Terry Firma.[ref]Terry Firma says in his bio that he has had “feature articles” published in The New York Times. I was kind of skeptical and, after a Google search and some digging around on the Times site, all I could find was this comment he left on a blog post. It’d be nice if someone could clear that up. UPDATE: Hemant clears that up.[/ref]

There’s a general tendency I’ve noticed among critics of Islam to paint themselves as the straight-talkers concerned with facts, while everyone else is just appeasing Islam while caving into Political Correctness or intellectual cowardice. But it seems like both the original post and Firma’s commentary actually seem to show how poorly supported by facts such strong anti-Islamic rhetoric actually is.[ref]Your first hint might be that Harris isn’t referencing “cancer” or “aging” or “parochial apathy toward the 30,000 children who die preventable deaths every day because of global poverty” or like, literally anything else when describing what he sees as “the most terrifying and depressing phenomenon on earth.”[/ref] First, Harris writes in his post:

Whenever I point out the role that religious ideology plays in atrocities of this kind—specifically the Islamic doctrines related to jihad, martyrdom, apostasy, and so forth—I am met with some version of the following: “Bad people will always do these things. Religion is nothing more than a pretext.” This is an increasingly dangerous misconception to have about the human mind.

The fact that otherwise normal people can be infected by destructive religious beliefs is crucial to understand—because beliefs spread. Until moderate Muslims and secular liberals stop misplacing the blame for this evil, they will remain part of the problem.

This perfectly highlights the attitude I mentioned above, while showing how almost absurd Harris’s claims are on their face. Let’s take seriously for a second the idea that specific beliefs are to blame for religious violence, and that this is a problem because beliefs spread. How would we expect the map of all suicide bombings to look, then? Would we expect them all to be bunched by geography or political conflicts[ref]As they very obviously are. lol facts.[/ref] or by where Islam has (very widely, I might add) spread?

If it’s “the Islamic doctrines related to jihad, martyrdom, apostasy, and so forth” driving such kinds of Islamic violence, would we expect to see the modern suicide attack pioneered by the (secular, nationalist) Tamil Tigers? If suicide bombers are just motivated by getting heaven-virgins and killing infidels, would we see suicide attacks limited almost exclusively to the specific, secular context of occupation? If Islam is dangerous because it’s an idea and ideas spread, then isn’t it weird that violent Islam seems so geographically isolated? Why don’t we see violent Islam in Minnesota? Or even Indonesia, the country with the most Muslims in the world but, as far as I know, no suicide attacks or regular infidel-murdering?[ref]I can’t even handle all these facts I am ignoring because of political convenience wow I wish I were as intellectually brave as Sam Harris someone teach me integrity plz.[/ref] What a dangerous misconception about the human mind, right?

Even more misleading is Ferma’s commentary on Harris’s article. Ferma writes:

How do we know that hundreds of millions of Muslim support these atrocities? That’s a key fact from the major international Pew Research study that came out half a year ago. The PDF of the full report is here, but here’s one eye-popping finding:

The survey found the global median for Muslims opposed to violence in the name of Islam was 72 percent.

So a solid majority of Muslims do not openly engage in (nor openly support) killing for Allah. 72 percent! Terrific! Except… well, what about the other 28 percent? There are roughly 1.3 billion Muslims on this planet.

Wow, with eye-popping statistics like that, it almost does seem like Islam might be a uniquely violent religion instilling cruelty in its adherents. Except that, of course, Ferma does no work at all to put these statistics into any kind of relevant or appropriate context. So let me fill in the gaps.

28 percent of Muslims in the world say that violence against civilians might sometimes be justified, sure. But how does that compare to other religious groups? What about people in the U.S.? Let’s look at some Gallup data:

So 21 percent of American Muslims say that violence against civilians is sometimes justified. But then again, 58 percent of Protestants and Catholics say the same. Even 43 percent of American seculars do, too. Compared to that, it doesn’t really seem that the 28 percent looks so bad.

Let me reiterate this: atheists in America are more tolerant of targeting and killing civilians than the global Muslim population is.

A lot of people complain about the word “Islamophobe.” If there’s something better to describe people who irrationally and prejudicially hold some religions and religious groups to different standards, I’ve yet to hear it. Until then, I think it’ll do.

Vlad Chituc is a Research Associate in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He has a pretty dope dog and says pretty dope a lot and is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

In August, Daniel Trilling introduced himself as the incoming editor for New Humanist, stating that he would take over in September in a blog post at the Rationalist Association. New Humanist is actually one of the oldest continually published magazines, having been spreading the gospel of critical inquiry, science, and human rights since 1885; the magazine is published by the Rationalist Association, a UK-based secular advocacy group. Trilling’s blog post prefigures a heightened humanistic commitment to fighting oppression, and it’s important that humanists take note.

Though it operates generally as a rejection of broad tendencies exhibited by Richard Dawkins and as a promise that New Humanist will not be doing any of that, the introductory piece also identifies a few radical ideas Trilling will be attempting to advance as editor. Perhaps the most controversial idea Trilling lists is the fact that criticisms of Islam can be racist. Inevitably when this subject is raised, irrational atheists clog their ears, shout “Islam isn’t a race,” and conveniently ignore systematic subjugation and violence perpetuated against Muslim-looking individuals. Trilling anticipates this knee-jerk response and urges his new readership to explore political context rather than ignore it, and be wary of rhetoric which “paints the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims as a monolithic bloc, or tries to make out they are uniquely savage, or violent, as a result of their religion.”

Trilling urges his readers to apply skepticism liberally at studies purporting to show the intellectual superiority of atheists, noting that the metrics such studies take are highly suspect and rooted in factors like income, employment, and education—clear traits of high socio-economic standing. He also advocates a unity between the religious and nonbelievers, going as far to say that the “key to political progress is an ability to find common ground between people of different religious beliefs and none.” These comments are extraordinarily welcome to us interfaithers (but perhaps not too surprising given that New Humanist previously found Chris’s vision of religious pluralism favorable enough to give Faitheist a 5-star review).

For me, the most promising part of Trilling’s introductory piece came at the end, when he noted that while he hopes the Rationalist Association can work with Dawkins in the future, it’s more important that he can work with individual lay-folk. This pledge to value average atheists rather than placate big names comes at a time when the atheist movement is doing just the opposite.

Naturally, Trilling received a lot of flak in the comments for calling attention to Big Atheism’s problems as personified by Dawkins—all the more reason why what he has to say is so important.

Previously, Trilling has written for The Guardian and served as the assistant editor at New Statesman; he has also written a book on the rise of fascism and racism in Britain. While his work largely focuses on far-right politics in Europe, there are astonishing parallels to be drawn which make his writing relevant across the pond. Of particular interest are his analysis of the developing popularity of xenophobic language in politics, the need to defend the rights of protesters from a police state, and how expecting immigrants to acclimate to the English language perpetuates classist inequalities. Though Trilling has written extensively on these issues in the past, it is significant that he will now be controlling and directing such content explicitly towards nonbelievers considering how hostile we largely are to social justice issues (especially violence against Muslims, a group oft targeted by fascist British rhetoric).

Trilling’s paper trail is one that shows a commitment not just to free thought, but to an intersectional and inclusive ethic concerned with fighting global oppression. As the editor for New Humanist, he promises to advance atheism beyond its holier-than-thou narrative which has reigned for far too long. At a time when leaders in the atheist movement are increasingly failing to represent the values of compassion and nuance, Trilling’s direction is much needed. You should follow him on twitter. You can subscribe to New Humanist here.

Stephen Goeman is an atheist and interfaith activist. He studied cognitive and brain sciences and philosophy at Tufts University, where he also served as President of the Tufts Freethought Society. After becoming radicalized late in his undergraduate career, he joined a variety of social justice causes operating both at the student level and within Tufts’ administration. He is also an Interfaith Youth Core alumnus and VIA volunteer coordinator at the Humanist Community at Harvard. He tweets here.

A Great Dream’s Anniversary

August 28th, 2013 | Posted by:

Friend of the blog, Eddie O’Byrn, shares his reflection on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

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Today I write these words to help contextualize the great dreams of the many who have struggled to make America a nation of happiness and prosperity for all. We hope these efforts have not been in vain. I write these words to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., a revolutionary Christian who believed that overcoming the barriers that separate us of race, nationality, and religion, was possible. As a Christian, King believed in the power of his tradition to bring peace to our planet, but as a marginalized black man, he knew this task could not be done though the solitary actions of a single tradition. Rather than force his tradition on those who didn’t practice Christianity, King engaged with practitioners of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and folks in the Secular community. He didn’t believe in his message to spread Christianity to all the corners of the globe. His intention was driven by his interfaith convictions believing that we all have work to do in combating the existence of systemic oppression, whether oppression is racial, religious, sexual, or economic.

Fifty years ago, a great American, stood in Washington D.C. and addressed the Civil Rights March with his magnificent dream. Standing in the symbolic shadow of Lincoln he reminded many Blacks, Negroes, and African Americans that they were still not free a hundred years after slavery’s legal destruction. Still stuck in the chains of poverty constantly commodified by the whips of our material society; fifty years ago King’s words rung true in the hearts and minds of many folks here in America. He had a dream, and we must ask ourselves today if we still find it worth achieving.

King’s dreams were for more that just the end of segregation; a system that has simply morphed into gentrification and financial separation. He dreamed of a world where the sons and daughters of former slaves and slave owners could come together and discuss the complexity of the world. Instead today we have rekindled these master and slave relationships in our city streets, jails, and prisons justified by wars against terror and drugs. The grandchildren of former masters and slaves oppressing the grandchildren of former masters and slaves. He dreamed that we could use our new found strengths to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. And as he promised what we see today is people of all colors going jail together, standing for freedom together, struggling and praying together, but we still find difficulty getting our symphony of freedom and prosperity for all to ring across the nation.

King dreamed that his children would live in a world where they could be judged by the content of their character. But nowadays the color of our skin continues to be used as the justification for terrorizing civilians, predominately those who are Muslim. He dreamed of a world where the heat of injustice and oppression could be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. But the injustices of yesteryear have solidified themselves within the booming prison industry systematically incarcerating more Blacks and Latinos than ever before. All while oppression of our local youth continues. Everywhere we look there are images of the new generations being oppressed due to police violence, gunned down because of street violence, sold into a system of debt for education, or intoxicated by the allure of the music, film, and television industries.

King believed in his dream that even the vicious racists that imprisoned him in Birmingham, Alabama would be transformed. But alas today, profiling to discern a person’s immigration status has been legalized in many southern states, justifying racist practices against predominately colored folks.  He even dreamed that the glory of his God would be shown, revealing the promised land here on Earth for all of us to share. A dream to be shattered by fifty years of increased warfare, wealth disparity, and the banality of racism. Dr. King had a dream, and I often wonder if we will ever achieve it. But in our time of despair we must remember King’s words “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

We cannot deny that the world has come very far since 1963, but the very institutions that activists of the past hoped to extinguish have not disappeared. Segregation still exists today in the rural communities of our nation, as well as the neighborhoods of our metropolises dissected by wealth. In these fifty years we have invested in revealing apparent problems while intensifying those we often ignore. If King, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, or Stokely Carmichael were still alive today, they would agree with figures like Angela Davis, Michael Dyson, bell hooks, and Cornel West that we are still in a great struggle for the basic rights to freedom. A gift not to be handed to us by the powers of government goons or corporate thugs. If we hope to achieve a free world we must resist the corruptions of our institutions today. Just as King’s words asked us to do so long ago we must stay vigilant and not rely on hatred and force to solve our qualms, “In the process of gaining rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deed. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Dr. King’s message was one of transcending the boundaries that divide us, not to forfeit our traditions to an unclear majority, but to incorporate and experience the beliefs of others. He came to this realization as a Christian, but we don’t need to be Christians to understand his message. Today we have been charged by the monolithic figures of our past with the responsibility of making their dreams a reality. As we continue pushing forward Christians, Jews, and Muslims must reconcile. Seculars, Agnostics, and Atheists must engage with the massive religious communities of our globe. Today we must take King’s message seriously and not judge each other based on our affiliations alone. Each of our traditions creates prejudice and it is up to all of us, believers and non-believers alike, to dismantle the institutions that disregard the content of any person’s character.

So today we must ask ourselves if the American dream of plurality and equality can be achieved, instead of continuing to preserve the false image of a post-race America. Equality has not been achieved by the election of a president of color, just as equality wasn’t achieved in baseball when Jackie Robinson started to play in the major league. The dreams of Dr. King will continue to remain a distant hope as long as we ignore the plight of folks in America delegitimized by bad policies meant to control and categorize our population. Maybe in the spirit of all those Americans who have fought valiantly to transform America we should March in the footsteps of King. We can head to Washington and fight for the civilians of this country and this world against corruption, against greed, for prosperity, and for the dignity of our fellow human being. No one faith will do it alone without relying on domination, but if we weave our traditions together, build interfaith connections, and confront stagnant stereotypes, growth away from systemic discrimination is possible. Until then, all we will have is a dream.

PhotoEddie O’Byrn is an agnostic, mixed race, philosophy graduate student at Penn State. Born in California, and raised in Minnesota, his interests focus on contextualizing the significance of political dissent movements, social agency movements, and systemic inequality. He graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN with a degree in philosophy, minoring classical studies.

Islamophobia and the Egyptian Massacres

August 18th, 2013 | Posted by:

Last week, sit-ins across Egypt in support of the former President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, were met with violent disruption by security forces of the new secular government. About 700 protesters were killed and 4,000 were wounded. The New Yorker reports:

On August 14th, [General] Sisi and his allies, claiming unconvincingly that the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators were “terrorists” responsible for hoarding huge quantities of arms, acted as a junta is apt to. The Interior Ministry promised that security forces would clear the streets with the gentleness of lambs, in order “not to shed any Egyptian blood.” Instead, they set out, at around 7 a.m., armed with tear gas and bulldozers, and moved quickly to live fire. They aimed, according to witnesses, at the head, neck, and chest.

You can mistrust the politics and the ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood. You can point out that, during its year at the head of an elected government, it exploited its victory to embed its religious ideology and its goals as deeply as possible in the new constitution. Its views on women’s rights, its efforts to intimidate journalists, and attacks by its supporters on Coptic churches and Christian believers are just a few of its deplorable features. The history of the Brotherhood and of its impact in the Middle East inspires no admiration. But how does a military coup, along with the kidnapping of an elected President, and widespread, indiscriminate arrests, announce the resumption of democratic practice? Islamists make up roughly a third of the Egyptian population. The slaughter on the streets will surely radicalize many of them, and set back democratic development throughout the region.

Politics in Egypt are certainly complex and thorny, and it’s true that no side has their hands entirely clean. But to further quote the fantastic New Yorker piece above, “There comes a point when a thing demands its proper name. A coup is a coup. A despot is a despot. And a massacre is a massacre. “All else equal, I agree that a secular democracy is preferable to an Islamic one, but not if it comes at the price of slaughtering hundreds of peaceful protesters. Though many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies and practices deserve strong condemnation, they have the right to peacefully assemble, protest, and engage in their countries’ democratic process.

One of the most troubling aspects of the massacre is how quickly the protesters were labeled “terrorists,” and how that was used to justify their slaughter. It seems that most definitions of terrorist are ignored when Islam comes into play. The Boston bombings were called terrorism despite any clear political motive, while the Sandy Hook shootings were labeled the acts of a deranged killer. Terrorism has more or less become dog-whistle for “anything we don’t like done by a Muslim,” with the ugly consequences clear in light of last week’s events.

Every so often, debates will surface about the appropriateness of “islamophobia” as a term, but it seems obvious to me that there are certain prejudices and irrationalities that operate specifically on Islam as an ideology and religion. Many critics of the term suggest “Islamophobia” is used to silence criticism of Islam—something I’ve only seen rarely, if ever—and others suggest that a word like “Muslimophobia” would be more appropriate, since you can’t be prejudiced towards a religion. I disagree.

Many types of bigotry that sustain racism, for example—generalizing across all members of a group and using specific behaviors of individual members as indicative of all members—seem entirely at play with Islamophobia. That, and the tendency to treat any adherent to Islam as interchangeable, suggests to me that the prejudice stems directly from an attitude about the beliefs, not anything necessarily to do with the believers taken as an aggregate (explicit racism aside). Just as racism focuses on attitudes towards races, not necessarily individual people, so too does Islamophobia.

There is this difficult balancing act when it comes to Islam—Muslims are a marginalized religious minority that are often victims of severe prejudice and violence, but the extreme adherents of their religion display some of the most harmful prejudices. Delegitimizing Islamophobia seems to come from a place of aiming to preserve our criticism of those extremists, but I’m concerned it does so at the expense of the typical Muslim. Islamophobia is at play whenever massacres are justified by naming protesters terrorists, or when Muslims in San Francisco can serve as proxies for Muslims in Tunisia. If hundreds of secular protesters were killed by the Muslim Brotherhood, atheists would be outraged and denouncing the violence of extremist Islam. But now that the situation is reversed and Muslims are victimized, where are we? Whatever problems atheists are facing won’t be solved at the expense of other religious minorities, and our silence at the violation of their rights is damning.

Vlad Chituc is a Research Associate in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He has a pretty dope dog and says pretty dope a lot and is also someone that you can follow on twitter.