Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Jena 6, Imus & O'Reilly

One of the missions of the Center for Inquiry is to defend freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor.  On occasion, this mission leads us to scrutinize many prevailing orthodoxies involving society, politics and religion.  If we apply the scientific method to test the reliability or truth content of many such orthodoxies, we may conclude that they are either likely true or untrue.  If we apply humanistic standards to these orthodoxies -- in other words, we assess, to the best of our abilities, whether the practices of a prevailing orthodoxy contributes  to humanity’s well-being or whether the orthodoxy causes misery – we sometimes formulate serious moral criticisms.

Such criticisms and truth content judgments when sincerely and conscientiously applied to religious claims and practices are not examples of bigotry or prejudice.  To the contrary, this mission is highly moral if not polluted by pre-conceived biases and falsehoods.  Unfortunately, despite this “purity” of purpose, even well-intentioned religious criticism is typically poorly accepted and it is not uncommon for the religious to condemn ALL religious criticism as bigotry and an affront to religious freedom when it may actually be the opposite.  It is typical that the first victim of religious intolerance is the religious dissident whose sincere criticism of a religion is often punished by the State on behalf of that prevailing religious orthodoxy.  Yes, sometimes the many may have it exactly wrong and the few may have it exactly right.

In a strange sense, more acceptable than a scientific and humanistic approach to the claims and practices of religions is actual bigotry or prejudice!  Elected officials, such as Rep. Virgil Goode, have actually been able to object to a Muslim, Keith Ellison who was duly elected to the House of Representatives of the United States, taking his oath of office on a Koran (as opposed to the Christian bible) – without being hounded out of office in disgrace!  One wonders how many votes Mr. Goode may have actually gained via his bigotry.

But if Rep. Goode had instead said that according to the evidence, there is no reason to believe that Abraham or Moses had ever existed, or that there is no reason to believe that Jesus was divine or that Mohammed or anyone else had received revelations, and that the only appropriate printed material for an oath of office was a copy of the Constitution of the United States, his career would have possibly been over!

Here is a question: Are there more Virgil Goode types or are there more (atheist) Pete Starks types in the House of Representatives?

So it is in this wild context that it seems that a bias crime against a person of Iranian descent was committed recently on Long Island, in Locust Valley, Nassau County.  A female proprietor of an upscale nail salon was robbed at gunpoint and assaulted according to a Newsday story.  The perpetrators apparently scrawled anti-Muslim messages in her store and called her a terrorist.

THIS is bigotry, not a reasoned critique of religion.  The alleged victim has been in the US ever since the Ayatollah came to power, escaping to the US legally in 1982.  She became a US citizen as a response to 9-11, according to Newsday, and said of the US, “It’s my home now and nobody can take it away.”  She says that she is not religious.

Religious or not, this is the kind of immigrant we should be welcoming to our country, not terrorizing.  This is a person who is not a burden, and values the United States in the most important way possible – in the form of the freedoms as defined and guaranteed in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Another example of Islamophobia (or perhaps we should call it Muslimophobia) may be that of Long Island’s own Rep. Peter King.  According to a number of websites, King was quoted in an interview with radio and television host Sean Hannity saying that 85 percent of the mosques in this country are controlled by “extremist leadership.”

There is absolutely no way that King could have data of this detail even if we overlook the fact that simply defining “extremist leadership” is no simple task!  If he could define “extremist leadership” sensibly and produce the data supporting his contention, we’d all love to see it.

But at least his contention about Muslims leads to something we should think about: for example, if a majority (or close to it) of Christians in this country believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, it would mean, logically, that they endorse what is contained in the Bible, including the obligation to kill witches, unruly children, adulterers, and in some cases, non-believers.  Would that make most Christians terrorists or extremists, based on their own word?

Skeptics often point this sort of thing out and by doing so, condemn the religion in general even though most Christians would be appalled by the murder of “witches” and “unruly” children – yes appalled by their own infallible religion—if they weren’t in such deep denial.

And so it goes with Muslims.  Yes, the leadership can be dogmatic and their scripture heinous, as it is in most all religions; does this make them all “extremists”?  It makes those who know and accept what their scriptures and beliefs actually endorse “extremists” (such as Christian extremist Randall Terry); but the truth is most persons are in blissful ignorance or denial of their own religion’s extremist dogma.  They are not personally extreme even though they claim to believe in the religion completely as if it were infallible – they just don’t know what they’re talking about.  Nothing is simple when trying to figure out what a person is really saying – general incoherence must be considered in making a generalization or analysis.  This should lead us to be very precise in our accusations or condemnations.  Rep. Peter King should take note.

As skeptics, seekers of truth and humanists we must denounce and reject religion based bigotry.  It does not mean we must self-censor ourselves when we believe a religious belief is untrue or a religious practice is harmful.  There is far too little constructive religious criticism as it is.  It does mean, however, that we must judge persons for what they actually do and not for the labels we assign to them or they assign to themselves.  We all know persons who claim to be one thing but behave in ways totally incompatible with their stated beliefs, for both better and worse.

The world is truly a troubled place.  Many naively believe that the cure to all our problems is accepting their preferred dogma over some other opposing dogma, while at the same time having little idea of the content of the opposing dogmas.

Humanists have the better idea: to avoid all dogmatic beliefs in favor of promoting what actually works to lift humanity.  Humanists are concerned with deeds.  Creeds are only important in how they may affect behavior.  Creeds are to be judged, as is everything else: by their “truthiness” and their consequences on well-being.

If freedom and democracy truly are components of a better world, as most humanists would agree, we must prove to those whoeither are unconvinced or reject these ideals that freedom and democracy would improve their lives as well; and there is no better proof than proof by example.

(The whole story @ Newsday:,0,5170531.story. )



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