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Independence of Thought

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Since it’s July 4th, I’d like to begin by wishing everyone an enjoyable holiday. It’s going to be a hot one at 103F (39.4C) here in the San Fernando Valley! I’m just glad we don’t have the kind of humidity normal to the U.S. south and east coasts.

We now have two major days of remembrance that impact the national psyche. July 4 and 9/11.
But for atheists and humanists, today’s celebration of national pride is beginning to become a bit uncomfortable. Speaking for myself, while I love many things about life in America, that love is far from unconditional. And I’ve long ago ceased being a ‘patriot.’ Patriotism has become a religion every bit as mesmerizing as others. David Gelernter has just published a new book about Americanism as the fourth ‘great western religion.’ While Mr. Gelernter may be right about this state of affairs, it doesn’t mean we should be happy about it.

I propose a reframing of these two days of significance: July 4 should become “question your government” day, and 9/11 should become “question your religion” day. If you disagree, I ask then what exactly is the meaning of “Independence?” How does the individual even fit within the collectivist paradigms of government and religion? (Except as a mindless cog.) How do we push back against the overwhelming tide of conformity from both quarters?

It’s no coincidence that I published my blasphemy about El Morya on July 2nd. I’ve had it sitting in my draft folder for the better part of a year, and I thought: what better time to declare my mental and spiritual independence from that cranky old coot than July 4th? But I didn’t want to ruin a perfectly good holiday with that.

So you can think of this multi-day posting as sort of my mini-version of the “July conference.” I know there’s at least 3 going on now between CUT and its major pretenders. But this July, my message is in solidarity with the blog against theocracy. I’m also going to use this occasion to kick off a series of posts based on several half-hour podcast scripts I wrote about a year ago. The whole podcast thing is a little tough for me, since it adds the element of the recording and production process to the normal writing workload. It works well for interviews and off-the-cuff comments. But as far as authored posts are concerned, I figure why not just write them?

Some of what I’m now calling the “Independence of Thought” material has been covered since then, but there’s a lot of value here I think, particularly about philosophical basics, human universals, and more of my personal journey. You be the judge.

Part 1: The Concrete Perils of Belief

Today, I want to talk about the concrete perils of belief. I’m going to discuss some of the problems and effects of religious belief systems. Now please understand, that although I’m going to cast an unflattering light on beliefs, I want to state right up front that I am not attacking the believers. Many sincere, devoted, and otherwise competent people subscribe to belief systems that do not ultimately serve them or humanity. Though these beliefs may produce a good feeling, and provide believers with a strong sense of purpose, but I submit that they exact a price from the human race that is far too high.

The minds of believers are usually cast in a mold before they have the ability to even become aware of what is happening to them. Children accept these religious concepts taught by their all-powerful parents, simply because the only authority they know tells them they should. I know this because I was raised that way as well. Since much of the world shares this experience, there is a real need to understand the phenomenon in humanistic terms. And also to acknowledge that much of human endeavor takes place in spite of, or at the very least against the backdrop of religious belief systems.

Clearly religion makes many claims for which there can be provided absolutely no evidence. Some examples of such claims would be “intelligent design” creationism, existence of heaven and hell, the existence of angels–the idea that we are being watched from above, that prayers are answered, and so forth. And clearly, I’m a fan of science because science is the antidote to all such damaging forms of unreality and illusion we see rampant in the world today.

Turning on the news recently I was bombarded with images of angry Muslims who were incensed about the knighting of Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses.” A Pakistani MP even claimed that he would kill Rushdie if he saw him.

Lahore, June 22: Punjab Assembly Speaker Afzal Sahi has said that he will kill controversial writer Salman Rushdie if he comes across him. “Death is the only punishment for a blasphemer” said Sahi, and declared that according to Islam, a blasphemer should be killed and if any blasphemer would come in front of him, he would definitely kill him.

But as you know, many Muslims need no provocation. They see themselves in an endless war against what they call Dar-ul-Kufr, the “land of unbelief.” It’s obvious that none of this would be happening if there weren’t over a billion people in the world who are convinced Muhammad is a real, living, eternal, immortal godlike figure. They apparently consider him to be so beautiful that any human depiction of him is blasphemous. They consider his revelations to be so profound that even discussion of alternative verses by Rushdie is punishable by death. But it’s strange they think that their Prophet could be so powerful, divine and loving, yet be harmed or somehow offended by human writing, or even crude human drawings.

Islamic belief in the existence and divinity of this ‘prophet’ has caused all manner of dire and absurd consequences in the world. Aside from the obvious Islamic inspired terrorism and wars, it has caused the murder dozens of its cultural opponents, including Theo Van Gogh, and at least three translators who worked with Rushdie. Last year’s temper tantrum in the streets was over the idea that no one should even be allowed to draw satirical cartoons—or face the murderous wrath of a billion people.

9/11 remains for America, the anti-4th of July. It signified the end of the fantasy of benevolent religion. It showed the destructive power of religion in the most undeniable way imaginable. That event along with the continuing violent protestations by believers, and the constant death threats, has further galvanized the atheist movement. It inspired Sam Harris to write The End of Faith.

Beliefs can no longer be considered harmless, because they have a direct correlation to indoctrination, cultural movements, and negative events. Such beliefs are protected under the well-meaning tradition of freedom of religion. But the same people who want the freedom to hold such incendiary beliefs want to deny other citizens of the world their right to speech and artistic expression. It’s an absolutely unresolvable hypocrisy. They couch this hypocrisy in terms of “respect” for beliefs. But must we respect beliefs we do not hold? If so, what exactly is the role of parody and satire? What is the role of intellectual discussion? What is the role of empiricism? How do we challenge people to become more objective if we treat all beliefs with equal respect?

Even the US State Department has weighed in on the side of the religion. After the cartoon flap,they said: “Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or [images mocking] any other religious belief.” The Council on Islamic-American Relations is trying to set itself up as some kind of ADL for Islam. Trouble is, Islam has this little “bomb problem” with which it must deal before it gets a legitimate seat at the table of public dialog. Islam won’t drop its tactics if the rest of the world doesn’t keep up the pressure.

Unfortunately, the new British Prime Minister has now stopped referring to the religious dimension of terror attacks. These examples may be calculated political efforts to appeal to moderation and promote calm, but they won’t work. The latest terror suspects are doctors, for crying out loud, setting themselves on fire. So much for the idea that terrorism is the result of poverty or lack of education. No. The inevitable eruptions of violence are the unavoidable and concrete perils of belief itself. They cannot and will not stop until the beliefs themselves are subdued. Former Islamic radical Hassan Butt confirms this in his recent article in the Daily Mail.

We in America need to learn this before we are attacked again. We need to remember it even if the next attacks prove devastating and plunge us into chaos. May that day never come. The temptation in that situation will be strong to appeal to religion to salve our wounds. But we are not a religious nation, Christian or otherwise. Religion is what got us into this mess, and more of it will not get us out.

We have no obligation to grant special treatment to beliefs. We need to keep this issue clear in our minds as we pursue objectivity. What we should be doing this July 4 is championing the U.S. Constitution and its secular tradition of freedom of expression, for which our ancestors paid in blood. This is what the United States was meant to stand for. Now we seem to stand for political expediency, political correctness, and a kow-towing to extremist religious sensitivities that, frankly, have no place in the public square.

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Comments (7 comments)

vjack / July 4th, 2007, 2:38 am / #1

Bravo! You've given us much on which to reflect today. I'm not so sure about 9/11 being a day to question religion, however. I'd like to see that happen every day until religion becomes a private matter with minimal public significance.

Still, I really like the idea of July 4 as a day to consider how our nation is doing and how best to face the challenges ahead. For me, that has so much more value than the mindless flag waving (which reminds me way too much of mindless bible waving). There are so many great things about America that are worth celebrating, but let the celebration not overshadow reality. Wouldn't it be great to celebrate a new commitment to lead by example? Now that might even be a case of worthwhile patriotism!

Garrett from Wishtank / July 4th, 2007, 1:14 pm / #2

Hey Sean,
Good piece here. We just released an article on Rushdie and the importance of protecting free speech in our magazine Wishtank: Journal of intellectual freedom. It can be found at http://www.wishtank.org .

I’d be curious as to what you think about the comments The New York Times made that likened the protection of free speech to religious acculturation. Feel free to email me at editor@wishtank.org if you ever want to share anything.

humbly.
Garrett Heaney
Founding Editor
Wishtank magazine
http://www.wishtank.org

BlackSun / July 4th, 2007, 1:51 pm / #3

Garrett,

Nice job on the Rushdie article. The way I see it, the world is broken up into two types of people: those who can take criticism (and self-critique) and those who can’t. Religions largely fall into the latter category. Which is what makes them so weak intellectually. Worse are the post-modernist multi-culturalists who, while personally disagreeing with a wide variety of cultural beliefs and practices, still insist that those beliefs and practices are off-limits to criticism, no matter how harmful they may be.

Your site looks good, I’ll bookmark it. Now I’m going to eat some barbecue!

BlackSun / July 5th, 2007, 8:14 am / #4

Vjack,

Thanks for the comment. Last night I was with a group of very progressive friends–who still spontaneously started belting out patriotic songs as the fireworks launched. I do have to say, with all my questioning of the American political and religious landscape, we do have an amazing amount of diversity, freedom and unlikely juxtapositions of points of view. There were other people at the fireworks display with their kids who almost seemed embarrassed by the patriotic outburst–yet they seemed far more conservative than our group.

Having said all that, I still think the ultimate expression of “patriotism” is to remember the tyranny our founders were running away from, and how strongly they felt about making sure there was no way for government to ever impose that level of burden on its citizens again. And our responsibility is to keep up the opposition to efforts to take away our liberties. It is that reality that moved me last night and gave me an epiphany of sorts as to the direction to channel what’s left of my patriotic feelings–into resistance.

Your point is also well taken that this is something we need to remember every day, not just on the “special” days.

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