I thought I might attempt to delegate my brain work and see if anyone can help me out with a critique of a recent article by Ross Douthat that appeared in The New York Times last week.

It starts with what Douthat finds to be an interesting discussion on the website the Edge, “Death is Optional,” between Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Daniel Kahneman, a noted academic and psychologist. It’s an interesting conversation that covers a lot of ground speculating on what changes in technology might mean for human society. Douthat, however latches onto one thing that they say that Douthat says he found “provoking.”

In the original conversation, in trying to speculate on what might happen in the future, Harari talked about the industrial revolution and how society responded to that.

What I can say is that maybe we are again in analogous position to the world in 1800. When the Industrial Revolution begins, you see the emergence of new classes of people. You see the emergence of a new class of the urban proletariat, which is a new social and political phenomenon. Nobody knows what to do with it. There are immense problems. And it took a century and more of revolutions and wars for people to even start coming up with ideas what to do with the new classes of people.

What is certain is that the old answers were irrelevant. Today, everybody is talking about ISIS, and the Islamic fundamentalism, and the Christian revival, and things like that. There are new problems, and people go back to the ancient texts, and think that there is an answer in the Sharia, in the Qur’an, in the Bible. We also had the same thing in the 19th century. You had the Industrial Revolution. You had huge sociopolitical problems all over the world, as a result of industrialization, of modernization. You got lots of people thinking that the answer is in the Bible or in the Qur’an. You had religious movements all over the world.

In the Sudan, for example, you have the Mahdi establishing Muslim theocracy according to the Sharia. An Anglo-Egyptian army comes to suppress the rebellion, and they are defeated. They behead General Charles Gordon. Basically, this is the same thing that you’re now seeing with ISIS. Nobody remembers the Mahdi today because the answers that he found in the Qur’an and the Sharia to the problem of industrialization didn’t work.

This was the part that provoked Douthat. In response, Douthat writes:

New ideas, rooted in scientific understanding, did help bring societies through the turbulence of industrialization. But the reformers who made the biggest differences — the ones who worked in the slums and with the displaced, attacked cruelties and pushed for social reforms, rebuilt community after it melted into air — often blended innovations with very old moral and religious commitments.

When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.

I don’t have the necessary depth of historical knowledge to refute this completely, but I do have to wonder how accurate his version is. It seems to me, writing off the top of my head, that well over a millenium and a half of Christianity did nothing to wear away the institution of slavery and it was only with the arrival of the Enlightenment that individual became more valuable than the community and institutions like slavery could be drawn into question. Slavery in France was ended with the Revolution. Many of the prominent freethinkers in the U.S. in the decades before the Civil War, like Robert Ingersoll, Ernestine Rose, Elizur Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, were abolitionists, as well as being active in other social movements like feminism.

The reformers who worked in the slums have a somewhat checkered record and many of them supported eugenics themselves. I don’t know much about the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century reform movements, although I see monuments to that period about the city. A quick look turned up a book titled Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. From the synopsis of the book:

Many religious leaders embraced eugenics, often arriving at their support through their involvement with other social reform movements, including campaigns to sterilize the “feebleminded” in the states; new efforts by the state to regulate marriage; the birth control movement; efforts to combat “social evils” such as venereal disease; and the movement to restrict immigration.

Although much of the left in the United States traces its heritage to the Progressive Movement, I know embarrassingly little about the period. However, one of the major educational reformers of period was John Dewey, an atheist and humanist.

I don’t want to go to the other extreme and deny the work of religious people during this period, but I’m not willing to accept the statement that the “reformers who made the biggest difference” were those who were religious and the agnostics, freethinkers, Humanists, and atheists were irrelevant.

So, I would love a little help from my friends here. I should add that I’ve been fixating on the U.S., but that is only because I know the history better. Harari was most certainly talking about historical trends that will affect the entire world. Douthat writes:

As the developing world has converged in prosperity with Europe and America, old religious ideas that have been given new life — Christianity in China, Hinduism in India, Pentecostalism in Latin America and Africa — are playing as important a social role as any secular or scientific perspective.

Take a look at Douthat’s column and let me know what you think.

One interesting thing about writing down my memories slowly and online, is that I am confronted by the assumptions people make based on their own experiences and some of the assumptions I make based on mine. For instance, I didn’t realize how “white bread” many people assume the United States to be. Meanwhile, I assume it is a “nation of immigrants” and that, if I say that I grew up in an ordinary suburban town in New Jersey, everyone will assume that there was an ethnic and religious mix. To me, that is ordinary.

However, the towns around New York are occasionally associated with one group or another. This doesn’t negate what I said about pluralism. For instance, Bergenfield, New Jersey, is sometimes known as “Little Manila” due to the concentration of Filipinos. According to Wikipedia, about seventeen percent of the population is of Filipino descent. So, in this area, a concentration doesn’t mean any sort of exclusivity. The town where I lived when I was in grammar school and junior high school was known for having a concentration of Jews. This means that many of my childhood friends were Jewish, including my best friend, the first boy I kissed, and so on. It’s hard to describe without making it sound more interesting to me than it was. When you’re a child, you just accept things as a matter of course. This, to me, is just the way the world is. There are people of different backgrounds in it, and they’re your neighbors. So, when I was in seventh grade and the local synagogue was vandalized, it wasn’t just an attack on Jews, but an attack on my friends and an attack on our town. It drove home the point, in a profound, emotional way, that antisemitism exists and is real.

When you grow up in a pluralistic town, accommodating other people becomes second nature. My mother would get two sets of cards, one that said “Merry Christmas” and another that said “Happy Holidays.” Our school would have a “seasonal” music recital around mid-December. Typically, we’d have one obviously Christian song, one obviously Jewish song, and the rest would be songs about winter or “holidays.” Going easy on the obviously Christian iconography in public places like the school was not meant to accommodate atheists, but to be inclusive to Jews. This also helped relations among Protestants, Catholics, other Christian sects, as well as the small number of Buddhists and Taoists. I’m tempted to say that we had no Muslims or Hindus in our town, but part of the point of having a secular society that downplays religion in the public sphere is that I can’t even tell you for certain. Again, it’s hard to communicate how uninteresting this was to me. There was no sense of making an effort to do this. You had friends who were different religions and you wouldn’t want them to feel uncomfortable, just like you wouldn’t say rude things on other topics that might make them uncomfortable. I wouldn’t think it was even worth mentioning, except it seems that other people didn’t grow up this way.

When I first heard about Bill O’Reilly’s “War on Christmas,” I actually was shocked that someone on television would be promoting something so obviously antisemitic. You see, I didn’t hear this as an attack on “secularists,” and I still think it’s mainly antisemitic. Greedy merchants who want to take your money but won’t say “Merry Christmas,” what is that if it’s not a nasty stereotype of Jews?

Many atheists who come from Christian families still celebrate some version of Christmas. After all, my mother was a non-believer sending cards that said “Merry Christmas” to her friends. She wouldn’t send any of the deeply religious one with bible verses, but a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, even an angel were all fine with her. We put up a tree. We exchange presents. We used to eat a big ham until my sister and mother became vegetarians. (Yes, yes, Sis. I know. You’re not really a vegetarian; you just don’t eat meat.) We don’t have a problem with Christmas; it’s people from ethnic groups that were never Christian to begin with that have a problem with Christmas.

A while back, Hemant Mehta put up a post about a woman getting an anonymous note telling her that her Christmas display was tacky. Mehta wrote:

We don’t know if the letter-writer (and I’m assuming there really was a letter-writer here) was an atheist, but it looks that way.

However, the incident reminded me of something that happened to my sister. Shortly after she moved into her current home, one of her neighbors stopped by. Now, my sister is frequently taken for Jewish. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the New Jersey accent. Her neighbor said to her, “Whenever someone new moves in and they put up Christmas lights, we say, ‘There goes the neighborhood.'” Although it was unspoken, in the context it was obvious that she was referring to the Jewish character of the neighborhood and has mistaken my sister for Jewish.*

I guess I’m a goy who’s a bit too steeped in Jewish subculture, because when I read Mehta’s post, some things stuck out to me that Mehta seemed to miss. First of all, the tenor of the criticism, “cheap”, “tacky”, “bad taste,” said to me that there was a cultural aspect beyond religion to this. The other thing that leaped out at me was the location, Newton, Massachusetts. Upper West Side, Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Englewood, the aforementioned Bergenfield, Short Hills, Pikesville, Brookline, and, you guessed it, Newton, Massachusetts. According to Wikipedia:

Newton, along with neighboring Brookline, is known for its considerable Jewish and Asian populations. The Jewish population is estimated at roughly 28,000, about one-third of the total population.

We need to stop giving into the framing of the Christianists. We all know that there’s no “War on Christmas.” There’s a war on pluralism that was started by the Christianists. Let’s call it what it is.

This long rant was originally meant to be a short introduction to the following video. Since many of my internet friends acquaintances are non-believers, I thought you’d all get a kick out of this. If you like it, stop by the original post and give Michael Luciano some love. (Warning: The Daily Banter is now metered, so if you go to that page you won’t be able to look at anything else on that site until tomorrow.)

Another code for “Jewish”: Hollywood.

* I’m always a bit hesitant to repeat this incident. As I said before, I’m very aware of real antisemitism and I’d hate to write anything that feeds into it, even unintentionally. Therefore, I’d like to add that this incident, like that anonymous letter in Newton, is rare.

As many people may know, I take a fairly extreme position as far as freedom of speech is concerned, opposing hate speech laws. Of course, in privately owned spaces people can have whatever rules they like. The Guardian is a privately owned newspaper and accompanying website and they can take down whatever items they like. However, since as a newspaper they are in a position of trust regarding information, it would be nice to know what their policies are regarding moderation of comments. Indeed, they have a page explaining their community standards.

Recently, they took down a comment by someone representing the ExMuslims Forum (h/t Ophelia Benson). Before it was taken down, Ophelia Benson had reproduced the comment because she thought it excellent. I am reproducing it here because it has been taken down. ExMuslims are hardly a “privileged” group and they are silenced in many spaces. I’m copying it from Benson’s site. (I’ll save my own thoughts for below.)

As Exmuslims, we critique Islam because there are many aspects of Islam that need to be critiqued. In particular, we seek to oppose Islam’s apostasy codes, which are oppressive and lead to persecution.

We have found it is quite difficult to get some people to listen to our stories because they fear that acknowledging these issues will contribute to a critical view towards Islam.

The idea is that particularly reactionary teachings and aspects of belief that lead to critical judgements of Islam are in and of themselves prejudiced. The resulting logic of this is that Islam should have special privileges, in as much as basic human conscience and ethical critical judgement of people living in a secular culture should not apply, or be expressed, towards Islam.

The fact that criticism exists, is the offence.

Effectively, this is to propose a kind of proxy blasphemy code and apostasy code, wherein the liberal secular space defers to Islamic taboos. Dissenting Muslims and Exmuslims have to conform to these proxy codes too. Everyone else is free to critique their own religion, and other faiths and ideas too. But Islam must be protected.

However, Muslims are free to critique all religions, belief systems and moralities, because evangelising Islam, and proffering critique and judgement is not only a divine prerogative, but the closing down of ethical, critical judgement towards Islam is also a divine right.

As we can see, this is an ethical and moral mess.

This is an aspect of liberal relativism that is morally flawed and unsustainable without damaging basic principles of liberal secularism. It also means that aspects of Islam that need to be criticised, like Islam’s apostasy codes, remain unexamined, and with that authority unquestioned, their capacity to hurt people and cause harm increases.

Another fear is that being critical of aspects of Islam manifests in prejudice towards Muslims, and this is an understandable response given how parts of the far-right do project generalising narratives of communal responsibility on Muslims. As Exmuslims, we understand this, because being from ethnic minorities ourselves (apart from growing numbers of former white converts) we are also prone to be in the targets of bigots who project their hostility onto anyone who ‘looks’ Muslim, whatever that is supposed to be.

The key to dealing with this is for the Left to take ownership of the issues that need to be critiqued, and do so through the prism of liberal secular values, so that they cannot be co-opted by the nationalist right, who have agendas that are not tolerant.

Sadly the instinct of relativism too often prevents this reckoning from occurring. The silencing of Exmuslims voices is the norm, although we are trying to change this.

There are three main layers of silencing of apostates voices. The first layer is the hardcore religious silencing, which includes notions that we deserve to be killed and harmed. Under that is a second layer of some Muslims who may not agree we should be persecuted, but don’t want to have these problematic aspects or religion talked about, because of feelings of embarassment, fear of the consequences, or cognitive dissonance regarding apostasy / blasphemy codes. The third layer underneath this is the relativism of white liberals who are often in concordance with silencing instincts over these issues, including silencing of Exmuslims, for the reasons we outlined earlier. Often, relativist liberals simply pretend we don’t exist.

But silencing never works, and it only increases the problems.

It is important to understand that anti-Muslim bigotry is real. At the same time, the reality of the need for Islam to be critiqued has to be acknowledged by the Left, and by Muslims who live in liberal secular democracies too.

epilogue: Some of these issues were touched on by a Pakistani-Canadian Exmuslim called Eiynah, in a response to the recent heated debate over Ben Affleck’s appearance on Bill Maher’s show. You can read it here. Please do check it out.

The comment was posted after an article by Andrew Brown. The content of the article is almost entirely summed up by the title and subtitle, “Why I don’t believe people who say they loathe Islam but not Muslims: It is psychologically unnatural to claim that you hate an ideology without hating the people in whose lives it is expressed.” I don’t know about you, but I for one am getting sick of people declaring something to be “natural”, or in this case “unnatural”, just because it suits their own preconceived notions. Does he cite any studies?

Here’s a first hand case of disliking a religion while liking individual. It is one that I expect a great many people will relate to.

I really adored my maternal grandmother. I know it’s commonplace to go on about how much a person liked his or her grandmother, but I had two grandmothers and I liked one much better than the other. She was very pretty, and a little bit vain. She was very athletic, a competitive speed skater. She smoked like a chimney, and was constantly nervous. She was funny and loud, but also very sweet and kind, one of the kindest people you could want to meet. However, what she was not was especially intellectual. When things would go wrong, she would clutch her medals and mutter, “Dieve mano,” quietly to herself. In a family of atheists and agnostics, she continued to believe.

Now, I think the Catholic Church is one of the most dangerous and damaging institutions on the planet. We only need to look at the recent revelations by retiring Cardinal Francis George to realize what a negative effect this organization has had. The dramatic, criminal actions are only the tip of a very destructive iceberg. That doesn’t begin to account for the emotional and psychological damage the Catholic Church does to almost all its adherents by telling them that sex is inherently sinful and shameful, or the physical toll endless, unwanted childbearing has on women. I just recently read that in Ireland caesarean section were avoided in favor of symphysiotomy, a dangerous procedure in which a woman’s pelvis is broken, because that’s what the Catholic Church wanted.

I am very much opposed to the ideology promoted by the Catholic Church, yet this had no effect on my feelings for my grandmother, a believing Catholic. I feel very confident that a great many people can make similar statements.

Similarly, I had a wonderful boyfriend in high school who was a Mormon. Mormonism was founded by the convicted con man Joseph Smith. I find it hard to believe that any sensible person could truly believe in that faith. Yet, my boyfriend was fabulous. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have married him, that’s how wonderful he was. Adorable, smart, sensitive, kind, sweet, and a practicing Mormon.

This experience is so commonplace, I’m a bit flabbergasted that Andrew Brown could make such a statement claiming that this is “unnatural.” If that is the case, my family is comprised of nothing but “psychologically unnatural” people, including my brother-in-law, a confirmed atheist whose parents were highly active in the Methodist Church and whose brother was a Presbyterian minister.

And what should I make of my acquaintances who are Libertarians or Marxists?

My mother has a friend, a practicing Jew, whose son converted and now works for Pat Robertson, of all people. They have conflicts, but she never stopped loving her son. She hates her son’s politics and religiously motivated ideology, but she does not hate her son.

Anyone living in a pluralistic society knows dozens of stories like this. I could go on indefinitely. A Jewish friend who I have heard complain very loudly of Christian privilege who fell in love with, and married, a Christian man. They must be going on over twenty years of marriage together. The more I think of it, the more people who come to mind.

ExMuslims, who find Islamic beliefs about apostasy directly threatening and oppressive, must have family members whom they have not stopped loving just because they stopped believing.

Why did The Guardian delete this comment? I think they should give this regularly silenced group a clearer indication of which of their community standards were violated.

While I’m discussing this atrocious article, which Jerry Coyne has deemed “click bait,” I might as well take a moment to defend Sam Harris. I’m hardly a Sam Harris fan, so you know that I writer is basically spouting lies when he pushes me to defending Harris. Andrew Brown says, ‘Stalin and Mao would have enthusiastically endorsed Sam Harris (above) when he wrote that “there are some beliefs so terrible that we are justified in killing people just for holding them”.’ This is taken so far out of context as to be deceitful. This quote comes from Harris’ book, The End of Faith. A couple of lines later, in the same paragraph, he writes, “There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense.”

I don’t have a copy of The End of Faith at hand. When I read it years ago, I recall thinking that many of his arguments were sloppy and this may very well be one of them. Still, it is quite a stretch to call him genocidal, as Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald have done.

The left has a problem with ExMuslims, and this is a problem we need to confront. Simply silencing ExMuslims and deleting their comments will not allow us to consider some of the inherent contradictions in our beliefs and how to reconcile them.

Something just struck my eye. In an article on the Daily Beast website about the “Christian Right” there is an illustration accompanying it which shows a pair of hands, palms together, clasping what I believe is a rosary, superimposed over a map of the United States. While I have to give some credit to the Daily Beast for actually commissioning illustrations rather than simply using stock photos, the fact of the matter is that the article mostly names “evangelicals”, a group who generally do not pray using rosaries. I know diddly about religion, and even I know that.


Okay, I’ll ‘fess up right now, the title borders on trolling, however there is a point to it right now. If you got your nose too out of joint before reading further, the eleventy-one should have been a big tip-off that it was tongue in cheek.

Yesterday, I wrote a post about whether or not atheists are oppressed and, while researching the question, I realized a great deal of what we categorize as oppression today centers around group identity. I spent a fair amount of time reading Cressida Heyes’ article on the subject on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website. It’s an interesting article and I highly recommend it.

When I read the statement, “Oppression… is the systematic limiting of opportunity”, I decided to do a bit more research to see if there was much information on the matter of discrimination against atheists. I tried searching using the terms “fired from job for being an atheist.” This led me to a post on Reddit, written by someone from Toronto. The writer worked as a waitress. A customer asked what church she went to and she answered that she didn’t go to church. When asked why, she said that she didn’t believe in God. Shortly afterward, she was fired.

That left a lasting impact on me. For many years I hid the fact I was atheist, not knowing exactly how people would react. It took me till my early 40’s until I was more comfortable admitting my views. It was a shame I let people effect me that way all those years.

What bothers me most is that now, when I get into discussions with theists, they don’t believe my story. They’re in denial about the discrimination atheists face. Does anyone else have a similar story of being fired or being discriminated against?

I continued reading the thread and in it was a link to an article in Scientific American, “In Atheists We Distrust,” that I’ve read before and I’ve seen quoted widely.

Atheists are one of the most disliked groups in America. Only 45 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified atheist presidential candidate, and atheists are rated as the least desirable group for a potential son-in-law or daughter-in-law to belong to. Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia recently published a set of studies looking at why atheists are so disliked. His conclusion: It comes down to trust.

Gervais and his colleagues presented participants with a story about a person who accidentally hits a parked car and then fails to leave behind valid insurance information for the other driver. Participants were asked to choose the probability that the person in question was a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist. They thought it equally probable the culprit was an atheist or a rapist, and unlikely the person was a Muslim or Christian.

Having seen this study referenced again and again, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and read the actual study by Gervai, Shariff and Norenzayan, “Do You Believe in Atheists.

Since this article was published, I’ve seen this statement many times, “Americans trust atheists less than rapists,” in comment threads. Although mainstream news sources reporting on this study have been slightly less distorted, the impression is definitely left that it was about the extent of discrimination against atheists in the U.S. population. In fact, the study was intended to not to survey the extent but to explore the psychology of anti-atheist prejudice. According to the authors:

Although prejudice has been a central topic of social psychology for decades, most of this research has been along racial, ethnic, and gender lines. Despite its prevalence and peculiarity, little is known about the social psychology of anti-atheist prejudice. The present article offers the first known systematic exploration of the social psychological processes underlying anti-atheist prejudice and contributes to the scientific understanding of both the psychology of prejudices and the cultural evolutionary landscape of religion.

It’s a shame that this study has been reduced to a click-bait headline because we can use exactly this sort of information. Regarding my own troll-like title, the study had six parts, five of which were done in Canada. In fact, the least interesting part of the study, which is significantly different from the others, is the first part, which was done in the U.S. So, technically, it’s Canadians that trust atheists less than rapists. 😉 Okay, maybe it’s a handful of Canadians.

Another thing that’s inaccurate in the Scientific American report is that the participants were not asked to choose if a person was a Muslim, Christian or Atheist. It utilized a concept known as “conjunction fallacy.” Since the probability that two things are true is less likely than that one thing is true, it is always less likely that the person under consideration is two things rather than one thing. In the study under discussion, they described to the participants someone who commits a variety of selfish and illegal acts. Then they asked if they thought

it more probable that the man was a teacher or a teacher and (a) a Christian, (b) a Muslim, (c) a rapist, and (d) an atheist.

What this demonstrates is a “representative heuristic.” Let’s remember that the researchers are not trying to find out the extent of anti-atheist prejudice but what might lie behind it. They note:

To understand a given form of prejudice, researchers must first understand the threat that the target of prejudice is seen to pose. Only then can they formulate precise hypotheses about the possible reactions that characterize any specific prejudice.

They go on to note that the evolutionary psychologists have been puzzled by large-scale cooperation in human societies. Gervais, et al. cite Frans L. Roes and Michel Raymond. In their paper, “Belief in Moralizing Gods,” they state:

Moral rules imposed by humans invite the suspicion that some members of the group will profit more from these rules than others, but such concerns are alleviated if the rules are convincingly portrayed as having been imposed by impartial gods without material or reproductive interests. If obedience to a certain religious moral rule indeed serves the interests of certain people, they may be expected to deny selfishness and to maintain that the rule reflects the will of the moralizing god. Finally, gods are often considered immortal, so their rules may last for many generations. We therefore suggest that an effective way to impose moral rules on society members is to have these rules prescribed by gods. Belief in these gods signals acceptance of the rules and, for the reasons stated above, we expect more support for the rules (and thus more belief in moralizing gods) in larger societies.

Roes and Raymond did indeed find a “modest but highly significant” correlation between the size of a society and the belief in supernatural beings that can enforce morality.

The particular hypothesis Gervais, et al. set out to test is whether or not anti-atheist prejudice is based on distrust. The use of “rapist”, besides making great click bait, was intended as an example of someone who would not be trusted. They establish that distrust is a feature of anti-atheist prejudice.

There are very few studies about atheists. It’s even difficult to make seemingly simple statements about how many of us there are and what our demographics might be. If we want to combat anti-atheist prejudice, it would behoove us to take a look at the few studies we have a note what they actually say. To this end it would be worth taking a look at some of the conclusions of this article.

Different prejudices have different characteristics. Anti-gay prejudice is often characterized by feelings of disgust. In contrast, anti-atheist prejudice is characterized by feelings of distrust. It appears to have little to nothing to do with unpleasantness. Someone might like an atheist but not trust him or her. (So don’t bother about being a “nice” atheist, maybe?) People who are religiously unaffiliated also distrust atheists. However, people who reported a stronger belief in a god or gods are more likely to distrust atheists.

Supporting another key prediction derived from our framework, belief in God proved to be a potent predictor of atheist distrust (Studies 1, 3–6). Importantly, this relationship was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God monitors their behavior (Study 4).

The authors note that they chose a framework that would enable them to make generalizations about anti-atheist prejudice around the world, not simply in North America. Because strongly religious people were more distrustful of atheists, the researches expect that more religious regions will have more anti-atheist prejudice. They also note the context-sensitivity of anti-atheist prejudice. People who are in a mating market they perceive as competitive report increased religious belief.

The authors further note that religion helps to explain cooperative human behavior in the absence of large-scale institutions. Furthermore, “societal-level existential security (as guaranteed by many modern social institutions) is a persistent predictor of reduced religious belief.” That government institutions guaranteeing some security reduce anti-atheist prejudice is a possibility that our libertarian and anarchist friends might like to mull over.

Via Kaveh Mousavi:

A blogger found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammad in his postings on Facebook has been sentenced to death. An informed source told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that the blogger, Soheil Arabi, will be able to appeal the decision until September 20, 2014.

Agents from the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Sarallah Base arrested Soheil Arabi, 30, and his wife in November 2013. Arabi’s wife was released a few hours later, but he was kept in solitary confinement for two months inside IRGC’s Ward 2-A at Evin Prison, before he was transferred to Evin’s General Ward 350. Branch 76 of the Tehran Criminal Court, under Judge Khorasani, found Arabi guilty of “sabb al-nabi” (insulting the Prophet), on August 30, 2014.


“Soheil had eight Facebook pages under different names, and he was charged with insulting the Imams and the Prophet because of the contents of those pages. He has accepted his charges, but throughout the trial, he stated that he wrote the material without thinking and in poor psychological condition,” the source told the Campaign.

(Source: International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran)

Kaveh Mousavi added:

I think it’s more likely that they will not execute him. But please share this widely, if you have a blog, blog about it: let it become major news. Maybe the international pressure of public opinion will save this man.


George Jacob Holyoake, a British writer and newspaper editor, coined the term “secularism” in 1851. In his book, English Secularism, he quotes Harriet Martineau, the British sociologist and Unitarian,

The adoption of the term Secularism is justified by its including a large number of persons who are not Atheists, and uniting them for action which has Secularism for its object, and not Atheism.

Although this statement sets up a contrast that distinguishes Secularism from Atheism, in the rest Holyoake’s book the line is blurred. For instance, he contrasts “Secular education” and “Secularism”:

Secular education is by some confounded with Secularism, whereas the distinction between them is very wide. Secular education simply means imparting Secular knowledge separately—by itself, without admixture of Theology with it. The advocate of Secular education may be, and generally is, also an advocate of religion; but he would teach religion at another time and treat it as a distinct subject, too sacred for coercive admixture into the hard and vexatious routine of a school. He would confine the inculcation of religion to fitting seasons and chosen instruments. He holds also that one subject at a time is mental economy in learning. Secular education is the policy of a school—Secularism is the policy of life to those who do not accept Theology.

Today, The National Secular Society in the UK defines secularism in the following way:

Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

They go on to specify:

Secularism is not atheism

Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Secularism simply provides a framework for a democratic society. Atheists have an obvious interest in supporting secularism, but secularism itself does not seek to challenge the tenets of any particular religion or belief, neither does it seek to impose atheism on anyone.

Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere, for believers and non-believers alike.

This more closely resembles the concept of the separation of church and state rather than Secularism as it is used by Holyoake. Citizens of the United States may have taken notice that the coinage of the word “secularism” post-dates the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The word secularism may have two possible meanings, but there is no other single word which is used to describe the concept that the state should be neutral in matters pertaining to religion.

Although the word secularism was not coined until 1851, its root, secular, has been around since the fourteenth century, and means earthly, worldly, temporal or profane, as opposed to spiritual, or sacred. We find it being used by John Milton in Paradise Lost.

Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places and titles, and with these to joine
Secular power, though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God, promisd alike and giv’n
To all Beleevers; and from that pretense,
Spiritual Lawes by carnal power shall force
On every conscience; Laws which none shall finde
Left them inrould, or what the Spirit within
Shall on the heart engrave.

This appears in the last book when the angel Michael tells Adam what lies in store for humanity. This summary is inflected with Milton’s own ideas regarding liberty. He describes corruption in the Church. The representatives of the Church seek worldly, or secular power while pretending to still be spiritual. With this power they shall force their law on every conscience. This passage is not surprising since Milton argued for a separation of church and state and religious toleration, as least as far as Christian sects were concerned.

Although the notion that the state should refrain from involvement in religious affairs has antecedents stretching back to at least the Ancient Greeks, much of our contemporary understanding of the concept comes from the Enlightenment. We owe a tremendous debt to John Locke for many of the concepts the make the modern world modern and the concept of the separation of church and state is not least among them.

The American and French Revolutions would give a chance for many of these ideas, including the idea of secularism, or laïcité in French, to be put into practice. However, many Western countries would not follow for a long time. England, with a monarch who is also the head of the Church of England, is a particularly difficult case. Until 1778 Catholics were unable to own land or to keep a school. In 1791 further restrictions were removed from Catholics and 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed, allowing Catholics to serve in Parliament, although a few restrictions remained in place. Although nonconforming Protestants were not persecuted as severely, they were not allowed to hold civil or military office. To matriculate from Oxford or to graduate from Cambridge it was necessary to be taking communion in the established Anglican Church. The Anglican Church today is still the official state religion of England, although not of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

As in England in the nineteenth century, in the United States during a comparable period the strongest supporters of the separation of church and state were religious minorities like the Baptists. The separation of church and state protect religious minorities even more than it does non-believers, as atheists have no religious practice to be restricted.

Support for a separation of church and state is an essential protection of the liberty of all individuals. It is distinct, and entirely so, from atheism. It is a position about the best way to order the temporal authority of the state regarding spiritual matters. Secularism, has often been the word used to describe this political viewpoint.

2. The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition


1. (Philosophy) philosophy a doctrine that rejects religion, esp in ethics
2. the attitude that religion should have no place in civil affairs

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged


2. the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the influence of religious beliefs.

Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary


1. a view that religion and religious considerations should be ignored or excluded from social and political matters.

-Ologies & -Isms.

It is essential in our current political climate that we have a word for this. I grew up believing that word was “secularism.” Apparently Jaques Berlinerblau did so as well. He calls the association of secularism with atheism “groundless.” Until I started researching for this post I thought so too. However he does note, and I believe rightly, that the religious right has profited from this confusion.

Second, for secularism to reinvigorate itself it needs to reclaim its traditional base of religious people. As I noted in my forthcoming book, the secular vision was birthed by religious thinkers, such as Martin Luther, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (the last two, admittedly were idiosyncratic believers, but believers nonetheless).

Throughout American history it has been groups like Baptists, Jews, progressive Catholics as well as countless smaller religious minorities who have championed secular political ideas. But religious believers today, even moderate religious believers, will not sign on to secularism if they think it’s merely the advocacy arm of godlessness.

He also points out:

Yet it is not only foes, but friends of secularism, who sometimes make this mistake as well. Nowadays most major atheist groups describe themselves as “secular.” Many are in fact good secularists. But others, as we shall see, are beholden to assumptions that are strikingly at odds with the secular worldview.

Which brings me to why I wrote this post.

I see that there is a new action afoot called “Openly Secular.” To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this differs from the “Out Campaign.” Perhaps that one had simply stopped receiving enough attention. To say that one is “secular”, well, what the heck does that even mean. I am secular, earthly, temporal… okay, but I thought that goes without saying. Even people who call themselves spiritual would probably say that they are also of this earth.

This muddies the water very badly, and I think for no other reason than people think there is some advantage to be had to avoiding the word “atheist.” To see the danger that Berlinerblau is warning us about we need look no further than Rick Santorum’s recent comments.

I think we should start calling secularism a religion,” Santorum told a grinning Fischer. “Because if we did, then we could ban that, too, because that’s what they’ve done: they’ve hidden behind the fact that the absence of religion is not a religion of itself.

I’m afraid my voice in this movement is very small, but I hope that I’ve persuaded you to not use secularism when you mean atheism. Like all people who do not belong to the majority religion, atheists do have a self-interest in this. I hope everyone keeps Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance” in mind and advocates for the freedom of conscience, not only for ourselves, but for all.

If, some months from now, Openly Secular continues to draw attention, perhaps we will need to take a page from Holyoake’s book and coin a new word.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my first unwanted pregnancy and the subsequent abortion. My original intent was to put it in its proper place as I was recounting my memories, but that project has been moving so much more slowly than I originally planned and a post on Robert Nielsen’s blog made me decide it was time to write about it. Robert’s post was about Ann Lovett, a fifteen year old who died from hemorrhage and exposure while giving birth in a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the human woman who, according to Christian legend, gave birth to a god. The child died from exposure as well. The realization that I had had a safe, legal abortion within a month of her death affected me strangely. For ages, I have said that women who have had abortions should come out of the closet about it and lately, as the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is being whittled away, that sense has only grown stronger. Therefore, I decided to write about my own.

Another post I did a while back was inspired by the movie Philomena. Based on a true story, the main character of the movie had been sent to a Magdalen Laundry after she became pregnant out-of-wedlock. The laundries were run by the Catholic Church and the women were forced to engage in unpaid labor, usually against their will, with the complicity of the Irish government who would return any runaways. Any children born were put up for adoption, and the women often felt that they were forced into it.

Scandals regarding the Magdalen Laundries have been rocking Ireland for a few years now as survivors have sought redress and the Catholic Church has guarded its money. (The Magdalene Laundry – CBS News ; Magdalene survivors ‘being punished twice’ ; Excessive burden of proof on Magdalene survivors, Dáil told ; The slaves of Magdalene ; there are a great many other articles on the subject online ) The last of the laundries closed as recently as 1996. Sinead O’Connor, a singer who had a couple of hits back in the early nineties had been in one. This is far from ancient history.

So, it is not surprising to hear the latest news coming from Ireland. Some time ago, I went to hear a Celtic rock band, a young woman in the audience turned to me and said, “Don’t you wish you were Irish.” I just smiled and shrugged because, “What are you fucking crazy?” struck me as containing a sour note. In any case, it’s not likely. I was born out-of-wedlock and, in Ireland, twenty-five percent of children born out-of-wedlock never reached their first birthday. In the home portrayed in Philomena, the death rate was an astounding fifty percent. I was small, delicate, underweight, colicky and prone to skin rashes. I feel fairly certain I would have been one of the children tortured and killed. So, in all likelihood, would have my sister who was also born out-of-wedlock and who suffered very badly from asthma. The word torture seems inflammatory even as I type it, but what else are we to call it when one of the causes of death is malnutrition and some of the others are illnesses associated with malnutrition. With women imprisoned and forced to work for virtually no pay and children who are starved to death, it’s hard to see these places as being anything other than concentration camps.

The remains of approximately 800 infants and young children have been found in a septic tank in Tuam. The mass grave was first discovered by two boys playing in the nineteen seventies.

Mr Sweeney said: ‘It was a concrete slab and we used to play there but there was always something hollow underneath it so we decided to bust it open and it was full to the brim of skeletons.”

The men say they have nightmares even to this day.

It seems a sick irony that the infants were buried in unconsecrated ground. Supposedly, the justification of the harsh treatment of the young women, many of them the mothers of the murdered children, was that this life was less important than the afterlife and that the women were presumably paying penance for their sins. What terrible sins had these children committed? Children less than one year old? Did the murderous nuns think they were sending these children to an eternal torment? Do they even believe their own myths? What was the rationale of the treatment of the children?

A local historian, Catherine Corless, has been researching the Home in Tuam. A report from 1944

described the children as “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile” with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.” The report noted that 31 children in the “sun room and balcony” were “poor, emaciated and not thriving.” The effects of long term neglect and malnutrition were observed repeatedly.

The pot-belly, emaciation and loose flesh, these are the widely knows symptoms of starvation. It’s hard to see hunger on this scale and for this length of time as anything other than intentional. The writer of the article doesn’t say so in so many words, but it’s hard for me to come to any other conclusion.

Corless believes that nothing was said or done to expose the truth because people believed illegitimate children didn’t matter. “That’s what really hurts and moved me to do something,” she explains.

Later in the article, the writer elaborates:

Living and dying in a culture of shame and silence for decades, the Home Babies’ very existence was considered an affront to Ireland and God.

I am put in mind of the “honor killings”, which we are very quick to condemn in the Muslim world. I do not disagree that these killings should be condemned, however, I wonder if we can see the parallel when it takes place in a culture that is a little bit closer to our own. Some of the young women sent to the workhouses had been raped. Some were only suspected of sexual behavior. Some came from families unable to support them. Most chillingly, some never left, staying in the Homes until death, life imprisonment for minor infractions or even being a victim of rape.

Somehow, I find it deeply disturbing that the Catholic Church which has for so long opposed birth control and opposed abortion was complicit in starving to death hundreds of children because their births were inconvenient.


The name Ayaan Hirsi Ali first entered my consciousness on Wednesday, November 3, 2004, however, at the time, I barely took note of it. The morning of the day before, Theo Van Gogh, a portly, forty-seven year old, Dutch filmmaker was riding his bicycle to work through a comfortable neighborhood in Amsterdam when a man shot him several times. Two bystanders were also hit. Now on foot, Van Gogh fled his attacker and collapsed on the other side of the street crying, “Mercy, mercy! We can talk about it, can’t we?”

The assassin, a twenty-six year old bearded man, Mohammed Bouyeri, walked up to the man lying on the ground and shot him several more times. He then cut the dying man’s throat and tried, unsuccessfully, to decapitate him. Then, with the thrust of a knife, pinned to his chest a note. The note long, rambling and barely coherent, begins with

Open letter to Hirshi Ali

In the name of Allah – the BeNeficent – the Merciful

Peace and Blessings from the head of the Holy Warriors

Then, a little later, it says,

This letter is Insha Allah (God willing) an attempt to stop your evil and silence you forever.These writings will Inshallah cause your mask to fall off.

It continues, with some antisemitic paranoia and apocalyptic language.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali had conceived of the film, Submission for which van Gogh had been killed, and was the writer. Submission Part 1 is a monologue in which a devout Muslim woman who is going through a difficult time personally seeks guidance from God. Hirsi Ali, at that time, was also a member of Parliament and a Somali immigrant.

I’m not sure when next again I heard of Hirsi Ali. She was soon in the newspapers again.

Checking the New York Times to find what it might have been, I found she was briefly mentioned in an article written in 2002 by none other than Salman Rushdie.

Finally, let’s not forget the horrifying story of the Dutch Muslim woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has had to flee the Netherlands because she said that Muslim men oppressed Muslim women, a vile idea that so outraged Muslim men that they issued death threats against her.

It seems that Hirsi Ali began receiving death threats before making Submission, before running for Parliament, when she was still a researcher and analyst affiliated with the Labor Party.

In April 2005, she was the subject of a lengthy profile in the New York Times Magazine. A year later, she was in the paper again when she the Dutch government threatened to revoke her citizenship. She “would resign from Parliament… and speed up her intended departure for the United States.” Whatever the reason, I became familiar with her name. As I mentioned in a previous post, difficulty reconciling various conflicts of interest arising from multiculturalism is a large part of what led me to a political view that could better be described as liberal rather than leftist, a view which emphasizes the individual rather than the group. Needless to say, in this context Ayaan Hirsi Ali held great interest for me. Shortly after her book came out, I headed over to the library to borrow it.

Infidel is an extremely well written autobiography and a great pleasure to read. Hirsi Ali is best known as a defender rights of women and girls, especially those from immigrant backgrounds. She is not, however, a white savior. The culture that she criticizes is the one in which she was raised. Some of the things against which she fights, like forced marriage and genital mutilation were done to her. Born in Somalia, she has lived in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, as well as the Netherlands, and is now a citizen of the United States.

Her description of her childhood and adolescence is vividly described and a large part of what makes the book so enjoyable, but it is the actions that take place in the Netherlands that have made her famous. Due to the various moves she made during her life, Hirsi Ali arrived in the Netherlands speaking five languages and would soon acquire Dutch as well.

She… worked as a translator for immigration and social-service agencies. She interviewed Muslim women married off to reprobate cousins because they had lost their honor (virginity) and no one outside the family would have them. She interviewed battered wives and women infected with the AIDS virus who were under the impression that Muslims could not contract it.

She eventually received a Master’s degree in Political Science. As a politician and a member of Parliament in the Netherlands, she referred to Muslim women as “my issue.”

Hirsi Ali’s legislative work on women’s issues has certainly been substantial. Last year, she drew up a plan to better enforce the law against genital mutilation, which passed the chamber. She has spent recent months trying to stiffen enforcement of laws against ”honor killings,” prevalent among certain Muslim immigrant groups, especially those from Turkey. She wrote a legislative paper on the economic integration of Muslim women and has urged closer scrutiny of new Muslim schools before they are accredited.

But she prefers to describe her legislative achievements in broad terms. ”I confront the European elite’s self-image as tolerant,” she says, ”while under their noses women are living like slaves.”

She has been cast by many as a conservative due to her work for the American Enterprise Institute, but it is worth noting that she applied for a job with the Brookings Institute as well. It was the American Enterprise Institute which offered her a job when it appeared that her Dutch citizenship would be revoked.

Over the years, Hirsi Ali has received many honors and awards. This year, Brandeis University offered Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree. According to theNew York Times:

At first, it was bloggers who noted and criticized the plan to honor Ms. Hirsi Ali, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Within a few days, a Brandeis student started an online petition against the decision at, drawing thousands of signatures. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group, took note, contacting its members though email and social media, and urging them to complain to the university.

Brandeis withdrew its offer, stating “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” One is left with one of two conclusions, either Brandeis does not know to whom it is giving honorary degrees or the school buckled to the pressure of people who would like to shield Islam from the same criticism that we make all the time of Christianity.

Although Brandeis did not speculate exactly which words of Hirsi Ali’s it had in mind, it has been widely speculated that it was from an interview in Reason, a magazine with a libertarian bent. Certainly what Hirsi Ali says is strong, but it should be read in context.

Reason: But do you feel at all uncomfortable with that heavy emphasis on religion in American public life?

Hirsi Ali: Yes. And the good thing is—and that’s what I’ve tried to tell all my European friends—I’m allowed to say so.

Keep in mind these are the words of someone who lives under a very, believable concrete death threat, who has lived in hiding and who has fled one country for speaking her mind on the subject of the abuse of Muslim women.

I accept that there are multitudes seeking God, seeking meaning, and so on, but if they reject atheism, I would rather they became modern-day Catholics or Jews than that they became Muslims. Because my Catholic and Jewish colleagues are fine. The concept of God in Jewish orthodoxy is one where you’re having constant quarrels with God. Where I come from, in Islam, the only concept of God is you submit to Him and you obey His commands, no quarreling allowed. Quarreling or even asking questions means you raise yourself to the same level as Him, and in Islam that’s the worst sin you can commit. Jews should be proselytizing about a God that you can quarrel with. Catholics should be proselytizing about a God who is love, who represents a hereafter where there’s no hell, who wants you to lead a life where you can confess your sins and feel much better afterwards. Those are lovely concepts of God. They can’t compare to the fire-breathing Allah who inspires jihadism and totalitarianism.

After reminding her of some positive statements she made about Islam in her autobiography,

Reason: Should we acknowledge that organized religion has sometimes sparked precisely the kinds of emancipation movements that could lift Islam into modern times? Slavery in the United States ended in part because of opposition by prominent church members and the communities they galvanized. The Polish Catholic Church helped defeat the Jaruzelski puppet regime. Do you think Islam could bring about similar social and political changes?

Hirsi Ali: Only if Islam is defeated. Because right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.

Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?

Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.

There’s an interesting note here which many people seem to have missed. She mentions mystical Islam and sees it as being something different.

There are subjects on which I do not agree with Hirsi Ali. I do not have a strong, well-developed opinion as to whether or not Islam can be compatible with modernity, which inherently includes a degree of secularism. However, I feel obligated to read her arguments, the arguments that have been called Islamophobic, in the context of the life of the woman who made them. We are talking about a woman who has lived under a death threat, a credible one made by people who took the life of someone she knew and sent her into hiding. Were I living under a death threat, I do not think I would feel complaisant towards the people who made it or anyone who fails to condemn it. To regard the event of Brandeis’ withdrawal of its honor without the context distorts it in a way that is entirely unfair to Hirsi Ali.

The oppression of women has hardly been unique to Muslim cultures. During the past couple of centuries there has been a great deal of change in the position of women in Western countries. Many of the people who have resisted that change have done so while citing religion, culture and tradition as their justification. Many of the people today who would like to drag us backwards come from the politicized Christian Right. I’m failing to find a quote right now, but Hirsi Ali should note that some Fundamentalist Christians have articulated a desire to undo the achievements of the Enlightenment. There are atheists in the West who wonder if Christianity will always revert to its harshest form or if our current secular government can be maintained with a large number of believers.

I also believe that she is too alarmed regarding the fate of Western culture in the face of Muslim immigration. Western culture is not as fragile as she believes. We must, however, continue to hold strong regarding our values of freedom of expression.

I wanted to get into the subject of freedom of speech, censorship and some related issues. However, this has already gotten rather long.

In closing, I would like to say that it is rarely, if ever, advisable for outsiders to try to change a culture. For this reason, critics of Islam who are or were adherents of the religion are invaluable. With this in mind, it’s concerning to see people try to cancel showings of the Honor Diaries, a film Hirsi Ali recently helped to produce. The women in the film are all from countries with Muslim majorities. Some are still practicing Muslims. They have a diversity of views. These are the people whose voices need to be heard. There is no progress without criticism. Ayaan Hirsi Ali may not be right about everything, but hers is an important voice to hear in the discussion. Certainly, dismissing her as an Islamophobe accomplishes nothing.

Silence Ayaan Hirsi Ali