Are we “getting” Islam?

May 2nd, 2013 | Posted by:

A little more than two years ago, I invited Sean Faircloth to speak to members of the Yale and New Haven nonreligious communities. At the time, he was the executive director for the Secular Coalition of America, and he struck me as one of the most compelling and persuasive political advocates for issues such as Church-State separation and countering the religious right.[ref]I should note that my opinion hasn’t changed.[/ref] He’s since published a book, Attack of the Theocrats!, and joined the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science as the Director for Strategy and Policy.

Faircloth published a lengthy essay this morning, asking “Are liberals finally going to get it this time about Islam?” The idea being the (at this point somewhat familiar) refrain that liberals ought to condemn Islam; that beliefs are not deserving of respect or protection, but rather believers; that open criticism is necessary for liberalism; and so on. Faircloth pleads, “My fellow liberals: please stop ignoring reality.”

It’s worth noting that I largely agree with Faircloth here, but the small bit where we disagree matters a lot and largely colors our respective attitudes towards Islam. There’s a subtle shift in Faircloth’s language throughout the piece, and I think this is rather emblematic of this difference. Faircloth says:

If liberals can – with great vitriol – condemn the Christian Right (as they do constantly), then liberals can treat Islam like any other ideology — because Islam is just another ideology – like the Tea Party, like the Christian Right. Islam must be subject to the same rough and tumble of ideas as is any other ideology.

And this I think is the main problem. Faircloth doesn’t discuss liberal condemnation of “conservatism” or “Christianity,” as if they were unified and broad ideologies. He references specific and narrow branches—the far right Christian radicals like the Westboro Baptist Church, or the extreme mix of misguided libertarianism and Christian theology that is the Tea Party. Faircloth is right that liberals often, and ought to, condemn these ideologies. But notice how quickly his language broadens, and how easily specific language lapses into generic language. Faricloth references Islam, not as a diverse mix of ideologies that’s often as varied as its billion-and-a-half adherents, but as one, monolithic, unified thing. 

We can very easily and conveniently talk about how the Tea Party’s policies might be anti-women, but Faircloth goes too far by suggesting that, therefore, Islam, writ large, full stop, should be the proper target of our criticism, too. As if Islam, writ large, full stop, is a violent ideology that is anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-liberalism. Or that Islam, writ large, full stop, has been the cause of terrorist activities.

I’ve written before that one of the most blatant and troublesome aspects of Islamophobia[ref]Taken here in I guess the narrower sense—not as racism or general anti-muslim bigotry, but irrational prejudice against Islam and its adherents. I’m obviously not suggesting that all criticism of Islam is islamophobic or racist.[/ref] is that we generalize about Islam in a way we don’t with any other ideology or religion. It seems that any muslim can stand in for a radical (as we’ve seen with the FEMEN protests and Everybody Draw Muhammed Day); any behavior of a radical generalizes to the ideology of the moderates in a way that doesn’t hold in reverse (no one looks at peaceful or charitably acts by Muslims and goes on to say that they’re the result of Islam, even if they fit the same criterion Faircloth wants to apply in terms of “expressed religious motivations” following a “religious path that has become familiar”); and any behavior by radicals has to be swiftly and loudly denounced (whether or not you’re listening) by the moderates, or they’re somehow implicated in the action.

So I largely agree with Faircloth—we ought to, and very loudly, protest human rights violations by Islamic extremists. In fact, I don’t know many liberals who would disagree.[ref]I’m not interested in whether any liberal disagrees. I am sure that they exist. What I’m not convinced about is that they exist in large enough numbers to be seriously representative of what could meaningfully be called a liberal position.[/ref] But a failure to go and criticize Islam, writ large, full stop, is not moral cowardice on the part of liberals. It is not PC gone mad. And that’s I think where Faircloth gets it wrong.

It’s telling that there are only two groups of people who blame 9/11 on Islam—far right Christians and a certain brand of atheist. Few political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, liberals, or anyone else studying religion, really,[ref]I literally know of none. I say “few” to simply have some buffer, but I don’t want to understate how really rare a position this is among any serious scholar who has looked at religion and politics.[/ref] says “Islam caused 9/11.” Yet Faircloth and many other atheists present it as established fact. So why the disparity between modern scholarly thought and the anti-theist position?

It could very well be that a conspiracy-like story is true—liberals know Islam is responsible for these atrocities but don’t have the brass to say it, and the liberal academe, poisoned by postmodern multiculturalism, is too afraid to point out what atheists and Christians see so obviously. Or it could be that liberals, like me, might have a better view on Islam than atheists like Faircloth and the religious right do. It’s us who “get it” — Islam is not a broad, unified ideology; politics and social factors seem to be much more relevant in explaining suicide and terror attacks than Islam; proper criticism should be specific and not whitewash an entire ideology; and so on.

Now someone like Faircloth might sensibly object that Islam as an ideology, writ large, full stop, is to blame for these things. That the commonalities in the ideology shared by all 1.5 billion Muslims on Earth is the problem. Now they might have trouble squaring that with contemporary scholarly thought on the topic, but it’s a fair point they could make. But note that this isn’t a conversation about moral courage anymore, or whether criticism of Islam is islamophobic, or whether liberals need to be consistent. This conversation isn’t about when liberals will finally come around to reality (or why they might be hesitant to), but instead about what reality is. Disagreements are about the nature of Islam—if there can even coherently be one—and what the proper attitude we should take towards that is.

And there, I think, Faircloth falls somewhat short. Faircloth mentions some statistics (and there are some good ones coming out of this recent Pew survey), and references a few cases of terrorism, but I’ve gone on long enough for this post. I’m not convinced and I’ll address them shortly in a follow-up.

I’d just like to note[ref]For like, the fifth time. I really don’t want to understate how great Sean is.[/ref] that I think Faircloth and I agree a lot, and I don’t mean to imply that I think he’s racist, or bigoted, or that his motives are insincere. Faircloth is largely right: liberals should condemn anti-liberal practices and policies, and this includes swaths of radical Islam. But whether Islam is an appropriate target for that condemnation is unclear to me, and I haven’t seen a good case for it yet.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience 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 is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Vlad’s Duke Event Audio

April 7th, 2013 | Posted by:

To anyone who was waiting for a recording of the dialogue I had with my friend Neil Shenvi last week, the audio is now online, hosted on Neil’s website.

I listened to it this morning while walking my dog and the audio came out surprisingly well. It’s not without its issues (some clipping here and there, a few moments where it cuts out during transitions, and so on), but definitely listenable.

My opening statement starts at around the 18 minute mark, and our conversation starts after a short bit of silence.

I had a great time at the event, and even met a few readers I had no idea lived in the area.[ref]I’m always down to grab coffee and chat with anyone in the area. You can hit me up on Twitter (@vladchituc) or my email address ( to schedule something![/ref] Neil’s a really smart and friendly guy, and we were having a lot of fun up there. If you want to hear me talk really quickly, laugh a little too much, and bash Sam Harris way more than I remembered doing, you can take a listen here! (Warning, the audio starts a little loud).

I’ll be taking some time in the coming weeks writing more about what I covered in my talk, since it involved ideas I’ve been developing for a while, and it was nice to try to articulate them for an audience. If I was ambiguous or unclear at any points, leave a comment and I’ll try my best to address it!

Thanks again to the Duke InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (who hosted the dialogue in place of their normal group meeting), the Duke Secular Alliance, and of course, Neil Shenvi for making the event a lot of fun.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience 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 is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

In The New York Times Opinion Pages this morning, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about the evolution of religion. This is a topic I’m really interested in, and I encourage others to check out work by Jesse Bering, such as his book The Belief Instinct or this controversial Salon essay.

Sacks, though, misrepresents some science and draws a few bad conclusions from data I like. Misusing science to forward an agenda irks me quite a bit, so while I think there’s a lot of good to glean from Sack’s writing, allow me a few quibbles.

In the first half of the piece, Sacks seems to endorse group selection, or at least suggests that it has shaped our social cognition. He writes:

The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

Other than the obviously false last-sentence (unfortunately, we are bested by ants and naked mole rats), it’s a bit off to suggest that individual and group selection somehow resulted in two competing brain processes. It might be a nice metaphor but isn’t really true. We can explain human behavior just fine without group selection.

That aside, Sacks points to research by sociologist Robert Putnam to explain why religion is valuable. He writes:

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.

This is completely true, and I love these data. They speak not to the importance of religion but to the importance of communities. We’re social animals, and we’re at our best in social groups. Religion just happens to be a really accessible group.

Chris points to this in his MSNBC interview to justify the importance of humanist communities. James Croft pointed to these same findings in his article in The Humanist. And in a similar vein Paul Bloom, one of my professors while I was at Yale, wrote in a Slate article a few years ago:

The positive effect of religion in the real world, to my mind, is tied to this last, community component—rather than a belief in constant surveillance by a higher power. Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others. This is the moral of sociologist Robert Putnam’s work on American life. In Bowling Alone, he argues that voluntary association with other people is integral to a fulfilled and productive existence—it makes us “smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.”

The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community—they just don’t believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.

But Sacks seems to take these findings and come to the exact opposite conclusion. It’s not community that matters, but religion. He writes:
Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.
But, as Bloom noted, that’s not what any of this shows at all. Losing their sense of God is what happened with the Danes and the Swedes. That’s what has happened with many secular Jews in the United States. That’s what happens to nonbelievers who go to church because of their spouses and are just as civically engaged as the believers in the community. Communities are important, not their theological commitments. And there’s no reason that humanists can’t create just as successful moral communities themselves.

So I encourage readers to join communities and be civically engaged. It doesn’t necessarily mean join the Unitarian Universalists or even a local humanist group. Bowling leagues and charities and clubs all seem to work just fine. But just because religion has been the largest source of our social capital doesn’t mean it has to be the only one. And it doesn’t mean we can’t do without it.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience 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 is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Breaking Up With God

July 31st, 2011 | Posted by:

Today’s guest post comes from Wendi Wheeler, a Creative Associate at Augsburg College, where I went for my undergraduate degree. Wendi and I met last winter when she contacted me to do a story on my work for the Augsburg Now magazine. We’ve since stayed in touch, and the other day she sent me this blog post, written for her personal blog. I’m flattered by her kind words, but the real reason I’m sharing this here (with her permission) is because I think she’s got some very valuable insights on living a meaningful life without religion, and what the transition from religious to nonreligious is like for some. I’m extremely grateful for her honesty, openness, and bravery to share this with the world.

breakupYears ago I went out with a guy who identified as an atheist. He was a student at Concordia College in Moorhead, a Lutheran school for crying out loud, and he didn’t believe in God. I think he was a philosophy major. Go figure. When he told me he was an atheist, I expected him to also say he worshipped Satan and ate babies and stole communion wafers so that he could defile them.

I remember asking him how he knew the difference between right and wrong if he had no moral compass in the form of a God–and that God’s laws and teachings–to guide him. I remember him standing in front of the mirror, jumping up and down in order to get his tucked-into-khakis pink button down shirt to hang right, saying he used his own beliefs and ideas. I thought that was bullshit. How could that possibly work? If left to our own devices, I believed, we would all be horrible, nasty, sinful people.

We didn’t date very long. He was incredibly vain, and he would only let me have ONE Tic-Tac. Who gives a person only one Tic-Tac? The answer, I thought for a long time, is atheists. Atheists were mean in my book.

Then this winter I got connected to the work of Chris Stedman, a graduate of my school who studied religion as an undergrad, got his master’s degree in religion, and now is a big voice in the interfaith movement. Chris identifies as a secular humanist, and for the record, he doesn’t believe in God. What he does believe is that we, as people with common needs and desires and struggles and triumphs, need to work together to make our world a better place. I’m paraphrasing. You can read more about him on his website, or you can Google him. You’ll find lots of interesting stuff.

I met Chris and interviewed him for a story I wrote, and I’ve sort of fallen in love with him since then. Not in a weird “I want to date him” kind of way, but in an “I want to know more about this stuff” kind of way. I was so impressed by him and intrigued by what he writes and the people he knows and reads.

I think I am breaking up with God, and I feel like a pariah.

I am going to read Sarah Sentilles’ book, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, soon. My friend, who is studying to be a Lutheran pastor, is loaning it to me. Sentilles wrote that breaking up with God “…was like a divorce when all the friends you had as a couple are forced to choose sides and end up not choosing yours.”

Word, Sarah. I feel you.

This is what she wrote for the Huffington Post in June of this year:

“When you break up with someone, it doesn’t mean that person ceases to exist. You bump into each other around town. You see your love with other people, and it makes you jealous, makes you consider getting back together, makes you wonder if you made a mistake when you called it quits. That’s what makes breaking up so hard. The version of God I used to love is still out there in the world, hanging around in churches, showing up in people’s prayers and hearts and imaginations, playing important roles in the stories we like to tell, saving some and condemning others. But I know he’s not the right God for me. I try to remember that.”

So I am breaking up with God. Here’s the deal: I am not going to worship Satan or sacrifice babies. I am not going to start punching random people in the face or smashing my car into theirs even if they are ridiculously stupid drivers who don’t pay attention and put other people in danger. I am not going to use more swear words than I already do. I am not going to steal your lunch out of the refrigerator, and I’m not going to tell you or your impressionable children that God doesn’t exist.

I will still be compassionate toward others and help those in need and listen when someone needs to talk and give money to beggars on the street and volunteer with local organizations and bring homemade cake to work. I am pretty sure I don’t believe in God anymore, but I do still believe in good.

wendiWendi Wheeler is a writer, a runner, and a creator of pretty dresses for girls of all ages. She is the “Creative Associate – Editorial” (a 12-syllable way to say “I write”) in the marketing department of a Minneapolis college. She also keeps a blog, Living in Love, which started out as a way to share her ridiculous dating escapades and morphed into stories about being in love with herself, with others, and with the world. She completed her first marathon a week before she turned 40 and currently is training for her second while also coaching runners. And when she is not writing or running, she spends time in her studio crafting beautiful clothes and chasing her cat, Melvin, off the sewing table.

Making Peace with Religion

April 22nd, 2011 | Posted by:

Check out this awesome guest post by the amazing Serah Blain, who does everything and anything there is to do around Humanism, atheism, LGBT issues, and interfaith in Arizona (check out her bio at the bottom of the post and be impressed by what a champion she is!). I’m inspired by her work; and today, I’m inspired by her words:

kissI spent a lot of time in the atheist blogosphere this week and really enjoyed the diversity of voices within our movement, the exposure to new ideas and approaches, and the passion of those (particularly the young people) who are out there doing things and writing about it. But I also grew tired of reading about how much we have to hate religion if we want to be good at atheism. I struggle with the way Sam Harris-nicks advocate that we speak out against all religion, period.

It is not specifically religion I oppose as an atheist. I oppose fanaticism—and the way certain kinds of religious tenets seem to make people more vulnerable to it. I oppose spreading the idea that knowledge is gained by authority or revelation to the exclusion of the scientific method. I oppose the dehumanizing in-group versus out-group dynamic many religious communities create. But if a progressive religion (Unitarian Universalism or Ethical Culture, for example) does not entail that kind of thinking, then I fail to see how its existence perpetuates the kind of harm fundamentalism does. In fact, such progressive religions are in a unique position to criticize the harmful aspects of wrongheaded religious thought. This is a vitally important role.

Further, many religions are moving toward more critical, reason-based thinking in general, and I support that. United Methodists, for example, emphasize a fairly balanced approach to belief that involves weighing experience, scripture, tradition and reason, and are doing a better job of being engaged in the world in an ethical way as they continually re-evaluate their conclusions using this method. This is not so different from the way I approach my beliefs about the world—particularly in ethical decision making. I often begin with having an emotional experience that tells me something feels wrong about the world. I’ll read more about it—not from religious scripture, but from writings I find authoritative (such as particular philosophers, scientists, or humanitarians whose credibility is evident in their work). I look at history and how progressive people in the past have responded to various ethical challenges (these progressives constitute my tradition) and then I make, as best I can, a reason-based assessment. If more people adopted this kind of well-rounded analysis, it would benefit our world. And I do not think it would matter whether those undertaking such analysis were religious or otherwise. As atheists, we should be clear about what we oppose within religion, and not seek to oppose all religion simply because a community of people chooses to use the word.

I am particularly concerned about the baby-out-with-the-bathwater tack because we are clearly damaging our ability to effect change when we refuse to work with progressive faith communities. We need to stop being antagonistic to all people of faith and to all values that motivate people of faith—and in fact, where those values align with our own (and they often do; we are all people, after all) we should find ways to work toward living out those values together. Obviously, where religious people advocate for ways of thinking that cause detriment to the well-being of our human family or our planet, we need to boldly speak out. If someone is doing something good and is motivated to do so by religious values that themselves cause harm, we cannot ignore that harm. For example, while the Catholic Church does some of the most amazing, compassionate and effective charity work on the face of the planet, the Church also teaches ways of thinking and ways of viewing oneself as a human being that cause serious pain and damage. And when evangelicals do compassionate charity work but at the same time lobby to keep real science education out of schools, thereby undermining the ability of the future generation to cope with the major challenges they will face (climate change, overpopulation, poverty)—challenges that cannot be solved without creative scientific thinkers—we cannot allow the religious perspective that empowers the erosion of science to go unchallenged.

But when we are willing to work with people of faith, we gain a credibility with them that allows us to speak out against the harmful aspects of religion—and religious people are willing to dialogue with us in ways they would not if we wrote them off entirely. When we become utterly dogmatic in our anti-religious stance, we are undermining our own values of reason and compassion. And we are undermining our ability to see religious human beings as human; the dehumanizing “us” versus “them” mentality causes too much harm to the human family for us to entertain it. We can do better—but we have to be willing to think clearly and compassionately and perhaps even take some risks in trusting that religious people, if we give them the opportunity, can do better, too.

This post originally appeared on The Majesty of Being.

serah blainSerah Blain serves on the boards of the Secular Coalition for Arizona, the Arizona Coalition of Reason, and the Prescott Pride Center. The Executive Director of QsquaredYouth, a nonprofit organization that supports LGBTQ youth in Prescott, AZ and surrounding areas, Serah is also the organizer of the Prescott Freethinkers, a thriving community of nontheists in Northern Arizona that meets regularly for discussion, fellowship and fun. She also co-chairs the Secular Student Alliance at Prescott College where she is working on a B.A. in Engaged Humanism. Her current interfaith volunteer projects include hospice care, and faith outreach for the Prescott Pride Center. Serah and her husband Robert have two children who they are raising to be conscientious, compassionate human beings.