Sunday, 19 July 2015

Tim Farron's Illiberal Beliefs

As a LibDem supporter I voted for Norman Lamb, but did not have too many qualms over Tim Farron's election as LibDem leader. Farron made these statements in his leadership election blog and supporting document:
I love this party because in my heart and in my soul I am a liberal.
I believe in a society in which we are all free to make our own choices and live the lives we want. But freedom means very little when the only choices we have to make are whether to feed our children or heat our homes.
Now we must be the voice for the poor and the disadvantaged, the underdog and the despised. We must defend fundamental human rights and freedoms from Tory attack; it falls to us to make the unequivocal economic and moral case for immigration; and I will proudly make the case for Europe in the forthcoming referendum.
Liberalism is about championing the individual against the powerful, that means standing firm for our Human Rights Act, against internet surveillance and illiberal extremism orders. But it’s also about protecting individuals from those giant evils that rob people of their freedom: poverty, poor housing, inequality. 
A free society that glories in diversity is a stronger society.
We believe that everyone is entitled to equal respect, whatever their income, personal characteristics, way of life, beliefs or sexuality.

This is all excellent liberal stuff, and pretty much in line with my left of centre thinking, so there seems little reason to question his position as leader of a national political party.

I was vaguely aware that Farron was a Christian, but that did not worry me; we live in a culturally Christian country where many people adopt some kind of religious belief from their family or community, so it's not front page news that the leader of a political party is a Christian. Even though many Christian beliefs strike me as odd and groundless, it's illiberal to insist on a certain way of thinking, or a certain set of beliefs.

A corollary of that, then, is that it's liberal to maintain a certain level of epistemic humility, and illiberal to display certainty in one's beliefs.

It's disturbing then to read these sorts of comments from Farron:
He thinks God knows everything. ‘Every hair on your head is numbered,’ he says, without blinking. God knows every hair on his head? ‘Yeah.’
He scoffs at the idea of a ‘half-baked distant God – either he created every bloomin’ atom in the entire universe or he didn’t’. He derides those who believe in ‘some kind of part-time, low-wattage God’.Similarly, he believes Heaven and Hell really exist. Heaven is ‘a place where there’s no more tears, no more crying, no more pain, no more suffering, no more death’.
It exists as a physical entity? ‘Yeah. It’s what the Bible tells me.’
Such certainty strikes me as illiberal. His conversion to Christianity sounds ill-considered:
He became a Christian at 18, when marooned in a house in rainy Singapore on a trip with his mum. ‘There was nothing to blinkin’ read and I read this weird-looking book on God. It was life-changing,’ he explains.
For something so 'life-changing' you would hope that a deep thinker would need more than one book.

As John Sergeant writes, these things suggest a fundamentalism to Farron's Christianity that should disturb any liberal:
There are past statements of his...which strongly suggest he holds fundamentalist views regarding the Christian faith...
Such peculiar but (too?) strongly held views can lead to bizarre political actions. He signed a letter to the ASA saying:
...unless you can persuade us that you have reached your ruling [that the Healing On The Streets ministry in Bath are no longer able to claim, in their advertising, that God can heal people from medical conditions] on the basis of indisputable scientific evidence, we intend to raise this matter in Parliament.
He subsequently conceded that this was silly, but still maintained the ASA 'really aren’t appointed to be the arbiter of theological matters, I think they’ve overstepped their remit.' and admitted:
As a Christian I believe that prayer helps – although my belief is that God mostly heals through medicine, surgery and human compassion and ingenuity.
So he does believe in prayer-healing, which is pretty daft on evidentiary grounds, and completely daft on scientific grounds.

He said 'the ASA decision offends my Liberalism far more than it bothers me from a Christian perspective'. This appears to be based on his appeal to freedom - 'an organisation that makes a faith based claim that is clearly subjective (in the same way that a political party makes subjective claims) should be able to make those claims within reason.' But prayer-healing is not a subjective claim; it is that prayers heal people ('God can heal people from medical conditions'), not that they make them feel better. It is a statement about reality, not a value judgement.

Farron's religious beliefs have here led him to a confused position. CAP code 12.1 clearly sees medical claims as objective, so there is no sense in which the ASA have overstepped its bounds; instead Farron would have to campaign for a rewrite of the CAP code. Any such rewrite would leave us all open to advertising claims that could not be objectively adjudicated.

Perhaps Farron is appealing to my principle of epistemic humility, arguing that we should never discount the possibility of prayer-healing? Perhaps, but the ASA is not saying that prayer-healing does not work; just asking for justification of any advertising claims to protect consumers in an environment where snake-oil salesmen will exaggerate the efficacy of their products. And would Farron like us to take his statements about the world with a similar pinch of salt? Like this one?
Christianity, I am convinced, is not ‘a bit’ true. It is either not true, or it is so compellingly utterly true, that almost nothing else matters … There is no middle way.
...which he apparently made at a National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in 2013.

One would hope that Farron's liberalism would lead him to a more liberal view of  touchstone issues, but fundamental religious beliefs like these, not held lightly or humbly, naturally cause Farron difficulties on the question of SSM and abortion, on which he said:
Abortion is wrong. Society has to climb down from the position that says there is nothing morally objectionable about abortion before a certain time. If abortion is wrong, it is wrong at any time.
The worry from his response to the prayer-healing debacle is that he will mould his liberalism in the light of his religious beliefs, not mould his religious beliefs in the light of his liberalism. As Catherine Bennett writes:
It seems only fair to ask that, when ethics are debated, [MPs] disclose which supernatural affiliation has dictated their response, along with any penalties for disobedience.
(Photo "Tim Farron 2014" by West Berkshire Liberal Democrats from Newbury, England - IMG_1781. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

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Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Greenwald on Charlie Hebdo

As a follow up to The Disgusting 'Buts', a quote from Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is wrong on the Charlie Hebdo affair; he is another who thinks the Western hegemony narrative is the lens through which these murderous events should be viewed. His comments in Salon are rather more guarded than one might expect; perhaps he's mellowing slightly. Nevertheless, this extract clearly betrays his sympathies:
So you have a magazine that became known in the Western world, regardless of what the reality is, for publishing images that are very offensive and upsetting to the Muslim minorities in the West, and whose cartoonists were turned into heroes and martyrs … who were victims of Muslim violence. I think the reason why people are so eager to turn them into martyrs and heap all sorts of praise and awards on them is because it does make us Westerners feel good about ourselves; it tells us that we’re the victims and the people who we’ve been bombing and invading and torturing and pillaging for the last 15 years are actually the evil ones.
It fuels this whole war narrative that has been sustaining a lot of really bad policies in ways that are quite propagandistic and manipulative, because of the heavy emotions involved.
That 'regardless of what the reality is' is telling; Greenwald is talking about his and his confreres' perception of CH as Islamophobic, not the reality of CH, which, as I wrote before (and GG acknowledges), is somewhat different. I agree a lot with his concerns about the war narrative, and it's obvious that Western intervention has been toxic in the Middle East. I certainly don't feel good about it; I presume he means that it feeds some kind of dehumanisation, an othering, of Eastern culture, and I don't doubt there is still a lot of that going on.

But that issue is being clumsily crow-barred into the CH affair. CH have become victims of the chilling effects of totalitarian religion on public discourse - that is the primary lens through which these events should be viewed. They line up alongside other victims of that narrative, such as Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman and Raif Badawi.

Is it too much to hope that Greenwald might recognise that these threats to free speech override his bete noire? After Snowden, you would think he could see that.


Report from the Washington Post on the Award ceremony:

(Photo "Avijit Roy" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

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Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Disgusting 'Buts'

“It is quite right that PEN should honour [Charlie Hebdo’s] sacrifice and condemn their murder without these disgusting ‘buts’"

So said Salman Rushdie, referring to the boycott of the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo, and I agree with him. But, and I hope that this is not a disgusting 'but', I want to suggest one reason why the 'shameful six' (and more) see things differently. In short, I see Charlie Hebdo as more a latter day Freethinker whereas they see it as more a latter day Der Stürmer.

The Freethinker magazine was prosecuted in the UK in 1883 for blasphemy, eventually found guilty and its writers and publishers sent to prison. Der Stürmer was published from the 1920s to the end of World War II with no threat from the blasphemy laws, as far as I can tell. George Foote, Freethinker's founder, wrote in Prisoner for Blasphemy:
IN the merry month of May, 1881, I started a paper called the Freethinker, with the avowed object of waging "relentless war against Superstition in general and the Christian Superstition in particular." I stated in the first paragraph of the first number that this new journal would have a new policy; that it would "do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation," and that it would "not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that might be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense."
Julius Streicher expressed no such aim for his Nazi rag.

Here I have a confession: my A-level and poor conversational French is inadequate to judge the contents of Charlie Hebdo. There are resources springing up to help the anglophone and French culture illiterati - see Understanding Charlie Hebdo Cartoons. If it was just down to my viewing of its cartoons, I might think they were racist. In fact, I think it's possible they have published racist cartoons. Nonetheless, from the views of its principals it's clear to me there are significant disanalogies between the Nazi tabloids and this French magazine which means we can celebrate it.

To be fair to the dissenters, let's be clear to what they object: they are happy to defend Charlie Hebdo's freedom of speech. Francine Prose writes:
I believe in the indivisibility of the right to free speech, regardless of what – however racist, blasphemous, or in any way disagreeable – is being said.
Prose admires their courage too:
...I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire...
Here's her disgusting 'but':
I don’t feel that their work has the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honor. 
And later she says:
Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.
A Freethinker cartoon
This last comment is reminiscent of The Spectator's comment on the Freethinker blasphemers compared to more illustrious blasphemers, such as Matthew Arnold and W.K. Clifford:
So far as we can judge, the only difference between the language and caricature-pictures of Mr. Foote and the language of se[v]eral of our recent Freethinkers, is that Mr. Foote used the bludgeon, while they used the rapier.
The Speccie was actually defending Foote on the grounds that he was low-born and therefore inveterately crude! But the same patronising attitude to the output of Freethinker and CH is displayed by the Victorian magazine and Prose.

Prose cites 'saying things that need to be said' and 'working actively to tell us the truth' as the things that PEN should be supporting. In fact, of course, it's clear to those of us who support PEN that CH are saying things that need to be said, and it's hard to understand Prose's view that they are not (and perhaps the truth of what they say could be defended too).

Peter Carey said:
All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.
And Teju Cole wrote: recent years the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations, and its numerous anti-Islam images have been inventively perverse, featuring hook-nosed Arabs, bullet-ridden Korans, variations on the theme of sodomy, and mockery of the victims of a massacre. It is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullyingly racist agenda, but it is necessary to try. Even Voltaire, a hero to many who extol free speech, got it wrong. His sparkling and courageous anti-clericalism can be a joy to read, but he was also a committed anti-Semite, whose criticisms of Judaism were accompanied by calumnies about the innate character of Jews.
Cole is clearly wrong to say that 'the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations', as the graphic here indicates. In the last 10 years the vast majority of CH output is political; of the religious satire, ridiculing Christianity and other religions outnumbers attacks on Islam by more than 5 to 1. (It would be interesting to see a similar analysis of the last three years, say, to see if Cole's accusation carries any more bite more recently.) Of course, that CH is racist is not a given either. But the evidence suggests that Cole, and Carey, see CH more as a race hate organ like Der Stürmer than a bastion of free speech pushing against blasphemy, like the Freethinker.

In fact, in the face of violent threats to their free expression CH refused to be cowed; that courage is what PEN should celebrate, regardless of the content. Well, not completely regardless; in my view it is their challenge to blasphemy that specifically qualifies them for this award. Blasphemy is a victimless crime established to defend orthodoxy. Katha Pollitt in an excellent piece in The Nation:
These attacks had nothing to do with supposedly racist insults from privileged white people, and everything to do with perceived deviations from orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is anathema to free thought, and free expression is a vital tool in the spread of free thought. Without free expression, free thought withers; a sort of Millian heterodoxy is the goal of the Freethinker and CH alike, and they want to challenge anything that threatens our ability to express what we think, regardless of orthodoxy. Religious extremism, powered by blasphemy, is therefore a prime target. And note that Islamists more often attack Muslims they consider heretics than they do satirists. The CH murders were not a result of any putative racism on the cartoonists part, but a result of their blasphemy.

One CH journalist said:
We want to laugh at the extremists — every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept,
And Charb told the LA Times:
It's not exactly our drawings that have power, it's our stubbornness — a stubbornness to continue doing what we feel like doing, through drawing.... It comes from the fact that I have nothing else. The only thing we have is our freedom of speech. If we give up on that, we'd need to change fields. Do other things.
Is that not worth celebrating, especially in the light of the price they have paid? CH's work is necessary, contra Prose, especially given how pusillanimous the mainstream press is when it comes to blasphemy. Deference is given to religious sensibilities which is never given to political sensibilities. Another CH contributor, Robert McLiam Wilson, wrote:
Yes, Charlie is tasteless and discomfiting. Have I somehow missed all the gentle, polite satire? That amiable, convenient satire that everybody likes.
That's the point of it, it will offend. And if offendees have established a bogus offence to protect their beliefs, that offence must be exposed as bogus, often, to reduce its power of taboo.

Der Stürmer, on the other hand, was prosecuting a crude anti-semitism descended from centuries of Christian hate crimes. True, it attacked other faiths too, but its primary target were the Jews, including individual Jews. This was not pushing against extremism of all types, nor was it pushing back against blasphemy.

Perhaps the dissenters see the analogy with hate speech in the crude cartoons that CH and Der Stürmer both employ? I think CH's cartoons have been defended successfully, but what if they couldn't be?

In that case, I think their courage in standing up to those who want to impose an orthodoxy by enforcing their blasphemy laws on the rest of us is still worth celebrating (although it might be more muted), especially by an organisation that is set up to defend free speech. Incidentally, Leonard Levy writes in Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie, of Freethinker's G.W. Foote:
Foote relished being vulgar and vicious, and he was every bit as bigoted as the worst of those whom he savaged. (p.480)
Levy's otherwise excellently footnoted book gives no support for this claim, but I bow to his scholarship. Even if Foote was a bigot, he should still be celebrated for his courage in standing up to the blasphemy laws of the time, in defence of the principles of free speech. No such courage could be attributed to the publishers of Nazi tabloids. They had no interest in free thought; they were looking to impose their own orthodoxy.

For standing up, largely alone, against the traducers of free speech, Charlie Hebdo deserves celebration.

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Thursday, 15 January 2015

A Compendium of Charlie Hebdo Posts

An index to some good pieces on Charlie Hebdo...

Pieces previously discussed, by Stephen Law and Kenan Malik.

Daniel Fincke's excellent analysis of the worst responses to CH:
Charlie Hebdo assumed disproportionate risk because they kept their head up where it was a target when the rest of the media ducked. That made it so that the extremists could say, “We can finish the job and make it so no one satirically depicts Muhammad if we can just pluck off those few heads remaining!”
Jason Rosenhouse, 1, 2 and 3:
Claiming that publishing satirical cartoons constitutes openly begging for violence is awfully close to claiming that violence is an appropriate response to blasphemy.
Jerry Coyne, Charlie Hebdo's cartoons weren't racist:
But of course even if CH was racist, sexist, and homophobic, that doesn’t excuse what happened.
Taslima Nasreen, Cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo and me:
The murder of so many talented people by a few insane and barbaric men to please their God and their prophet, in order to get into paradise, is an offense to human decency.
Accusations of racism are generally beside the point when discussing Charlie Hebdo and their attackers; the cartoonists were murdered for blaspheming the prophet, not for racism (or sexism or anything else).

Nabila Ramdani made this error on PM last night (@15mins), when she complained that the cover depicted above was stigmatising but when challenged simply said this was because it depicted the prophet, and that offended her. How could a mere depiction of a supposed Mohammed (no-one knows what he looked like), which does not denigrate the prophet, stigmatise? Remember, it's the mere depiction that is blasphemy. She describes images like the one above as 'a vicious stereotype', and I fail to see how it is. If the cartoonist depicted the prophet as a Frenchman, would that avoid the charge of stereotyping, and therefore be acceptable to Ramdani? I doubt it. She constantly slides between her subjective offense at the image and the objective racism of the image. This is unacceptable behaviour. The religious frequently claim offence at some arbitrary sleight whilst denouncing non-believers as less than human and destined for some unpleasant eternal punishment. That should be considered more hateful than any blasphemy, but in the skewed worldview of the religiously sympathetic it is considered de rigueur.

Ramdani said that because people would respond negatively to blasphemy, this is a good reason not to publish; but if blasphemy is a tool, or is used as a tool, to prevent examination of some ideology's core beliefs and to buttress its authority, that is the very reason why such images must be published.

Therefore, a discussion needs to be had about the role of blasphemy in western societies. My view is that blasphemy itself needs to become as taboo to proclaim as the contents of blasphemous views currently are to the religious; just as we now wince at the n-word and frown on anyone who drinks and drives, so we should come to find bizarre anyone taking blasphemy seriously. Ramdani should be embarrassed to suggest that blasphemy is a good reason to curtail publication in a free press. Sadly this is far from being the case at the moment, when many countries still have blasphemy on the statute books.

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Thursday, 8 January 2015

Blasphemy must be Normalised

Below is a good discussion between Douglas Murray and Maajid Nawaz. Murray says:
...the gunmen went in to assert Islamic blasphemy laws in a European city on twelve people in the office of Charlie Hebdo... to enforce a particular idea of blasphemy law.
If nothing else is clear, that surely is. This is not to say that global politics has not played its part in fomenting disaffection amongst Muslims in the world, but it is to make clear the proximate cause of the atrocity; if Charlie Hebdo had never committed blasphemy against the prophet, they would not have been targeted.

I have often puzzled at theists, and not a few atheists, who complain about those who ridicule religion. Theists consider their gods sacred, and, finding them empirically indistinguishable from imaginary friends, resort to high dudgeon in defence of their beliefs. An excellent tactic for the ambitious authoritarian belief system is to invoke horrendous punishment for any questioning of what they can't prove empirically.

But ridicule is a perfectly normal part of social interaction. It can go too far, that much is true, but its power is in its debunking of authority. Bogus authority needs something to raise its balloon, so it can climb in the basket and look down on us, and hot air and pomposity do just the job. Ridicule punctures that balloon of pomposity to release the hot air, and since religions are amongst the most pompous institutions in the world, it is often an appropriate response to their teachings. Rather than grounds for ring-fencing religion, I see grounds for exposing it to more ridicule than other institutions.

I'm glad to see this sentiment in some responses to Charlie Hebdo. Here is Kenan Malik:
To ridicule religion and to defend free expression is not to attack minority communities. On the contrary: without doing both it is impossible to defend the freedoms of Muslims or of any one else. So, yes, let us challenge the Islamists and the reactionaries within Muslim communities. Let us also challenge the anti-Muslim reactionaries. But equally let us call the fake liberals to account.
And another excellent article by Stephen Law, who articulates my own feelings well:
Laughter may not be the only way of getting people to recognise the truth, but it’s sometimes the quickest and most effective way. Satire and mockery are tools that can be employed entirely appropriately, particularly if we’re criticising figures and institutions that maintain a faithful following in part by fostering attitudes of immense reverence and deference. What the pompous and self-aggrandizing fear most is that small boy who points and laughs - and whose name, in this case, is Charlie Hebdo.
Sadly the little boys and one girl who pointed with their pencils at the Muslim emperor were murdered for their ridicule.

It's good to hear Muslim Maajid Nawaz, from the moderate Quilliam Foundation, saying this:
...the editors need to get together ... to share the risk, enough is enough, satire plays an important role in democratic societies, and freedom of speech an even more important role...
Quite right; the appropriate response to Charlie Hebdo is for everyone to blaspheme, to normalise it, to debunk it and to own it; blasphemy is no reason to harm someone, anyone, and ridicule does not need to tread carefully around religion, any more than it has to around any subject.

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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Angry at God

Philosopher Stephen Maitzen has an excellent piece, called Perfection, Evil, and Morality, which will appear in a forthcoming volume edited by James P. Sterba. It details some of the reasons atheists find incompatible the existence of a perfect god with the suffering all too evident in the world around us. In particular it highlights how obligated such a perfect being would be to prevent the suffering we see. I recommend it.

One response he has seen suggests that morality has a significance in and of itself. But as he points out it's not something that needs to exist or is worth saving, because it only exists because suffering exists. No suffering, no morality. There is no morality required in a universe populated by senseless rocks.

At the end Maitzen mentions something else that is worth highlighting; the notion that atheists complaining about the problem of evil are somehow "angry at God"; Maitzen writes:
Living in a society still dominated by an inherited theistic outlook, atheists like me are not infrequently accused of being “angry at God” and venting our anger in the form of arguments such as those I’ve offered here. The accusation is patronizing, question-begging, and false. Any atheist who can think straight knows that anger at God makes no sense. I’m no more “angry at God” than I’m angry at Santa Claus for failing to relieve me of the burden of Christmas shopping. If I’m angry at anyone, it’s at those of my fellow human beings who (to extend the metaphor) would say morally outrageous things in order to defend the Santa Claus story as true and to excuse Santa Claus for repeatedly failing to do what the story makes it clear he ought to do. 
That summarises well how absurd that particular accusation comes off to me, and I think he is right to blame some of this on an 'inherited theistic outlook'. It still puzzles me that theists don't see how abhorrent their attitude to suffering is. For just one example, consider the discussion thread here. A theist called CodyGirl824 (I presume not a Poe) says, in response to an atheist discussing the problem of evil:
The fact that only humans are capable of evil, because evil requires formulation of intent and acting on that intent. So every evil act is an act of free will. Without free will, there can be no evil. If God were to choose to "prevent" every evil act of any and every human being, He would take away all free will, since God can't just intervene when an evil act is about to occur without obliterating that evil-doer's free will, and the consequences thereof. Without free will, there can be no love. Love is God's purpose in creation. (The Bible tells us so). So we people of faith understand perfectly why there is evil in the world as it exists. As we learn from the metaphorical, allegorical, mytho-poetic narrative of Adam and Eve, all acts of evil are acts of disobedience of God. We really do have all of the atheists' and naturalists objections covered. They simply refuse to recognize this fact.
...and continues in much the same vein despite her many errors being pointed out repeatedly. A sterling job done by her responders on that thread.

Now, to be fair, we cannot judge all theists on one rather obtuse example, but the appearance of callousness in this response does seem to recur in many a theist's response to the problem. What I find callous is the acceptance of suffering in their accounts, when we are taught, and perhaps know, that we should ameliorate it. They are explaining why suffering is necessary, when we (surely) know that it's not.

At least, a suffering-free world appears to be logically possible, and it is surely what is anticipated in heaven, or what existed before this vale of tears was supposedly created. One would expect our world to reflect its maker, if its maker were perfect, and it's simply not. This doesn't strike me as a particularly difficult notion to grasp, and repeated attempts at theodicy suggest that many theists do grasp it.

In the end something must give; their god's perfection, or the wrongness of suffering. Too many refuse to give up their god's perfection.

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Monday, 29 September 2014

The Armstrong Paradox

Stephen Law has written an open letter to Karen Armstrong, in response to this article in the Guardian. I think he addresses well Armstrong's mistaken idea of secularism, which is, as Gandhi knew, a friend to religion, not an enemy. This secularism, or Secularism, as Law has it, is a pluralist vision enabling a society in which many flowers may bloom.

But I wanted to draw attention to the secularism that Armstrong instead paints. This "aggressive secularism" may be more to blame for the violence we see than religion. She suggests this by ending her piece:
Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs. There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional. When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction – and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.
While Armstrong concedes in a number of places that there are religious elements in the causes of violence, she is keen to highlight the phrase "the myth of religious violence", as if there is no such thing as religious violence. Here is a quote from the article which I think sums up much of Armstrong's thinking:
In almost every region of the world where secular governments have been established with a goal of separating religion and politics, a counter-cultural movement has developed in response, determined to bring religion back into public life. What we call “fundamentalism” has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularisation that is experienced as cruel, violent and invasive. All too often an aggressive secularism has pushed religion into a violent riposte. Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, convinced that the liberal or secular establishment is determined to destroy their way of life. This has been tragically apparent in the Middle East.
This highlights a paradox in Armstrong's views, which goes something like this:

  1. Religious violence is a myth.
  2. Aggressive secularism is responsible for the violence.
  3. Secularism targets religion, by separating it from politics.

If Armstrong wants to maintain that religious violence is a myth, then attacking secularism would hardly be the way to show that, if (as she seems to think, contra Law) secularism is cruel, violent and invasive to the religious sensibility. If religion wasn't an engine of violence then secularism would have nothing to provoke. To be fair, Armstrong points out religion's close association with politics in many of its forms, but this just re-iterates the issue for secularists: some religions want to monopolise the body politic and in a pluralist society that is undemocratic. This would be so for any ideology that looks to dominate (such as communism); but religion is the most prevalent form of this sort of authoritarianism and is also a privileged form. Religions have co-opted sacredness to inoculate them from criticism; some more successfully than others.

Now, I suspect that Armstrong does think that there is some religious element in much of the violence that is attributed to religion, but she maybe thinks it's overstated. If that is so, then I think her mission would be better served by acknowledging more clearly that religion is to blame for some of it, and to avoid phrases such as "the myth of religious violence".

Her article seems historically well-informed but is fatally flawed by this constant need to deflect the proper appropriation of blame away from religion to all the other, admittedly diverse, causal factors of violence. A reasonable modern atheist doesn't look to blame religion for all society's ills; she looks to assign the level of blame that properly attaches to religion but which for centuries has been diverted by religious privilege. Sadly some people, like Armstrong, still work to maintain that religious exceptionalism.

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