Atheists Have an Islam Problem

Don’t worry, this is one is not about Trump, socialism, or racism. It’s time for an old-fashioned religion post.

So, Richard Dawkins has been banned from speaking at Berkeley because of his negative statements on Islam. I could do a whole post on that issue alone, but again I want to avoid politics on this one. At the end of the day, Berkeley is legally permitted to ban whoever they want from speaking on their campus. Whether or not it’s a good idea is where the debate would come in.

Anyway, I want to talk about the relationship between atheism and Islam. Things seem to be a bit tense right now for both sides so I want to attempt to inject some sanity into the discussion. Look, atheists are never going to agree with most of the tenets of Islam. Muslims are never going to agree with most of the tenets of atheism. I am not here to provide some magical solution that enables the two sides to co-exist, though. I don’t have one. There is certain to be disagreement between the two groups as long they both continue existing.

What I do know however is that atheists in particular need to be a lot more careful and thoughtful in their critiques of Islam. Not necessarily for legal or moral reasons, but for academic reasons and credibility. Famous atheists like Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are all excellent at reasoning and logic for the most part, but their arguments tend to fall apart from a rational perspective whenever they start talking about Islam. They seem to be capable of separating Christians from Christianity and Jews from Judaism, but they seem to be incapable of separating Muslims from Islam. This is problematic, as those guys tend to be the ones people think of when people think “atheism.” I’m especially displeased with Dawkins these days, as he is supposed to be the one with special skills in communicating with people. He says that he’s misunderstood by people a lot, and while that is possible, he needs to realize that if he’s the one being perpetually misunderstood then the problem lies with him and not everyone else.

Is there plenty to criticize within the doctrines of Islam? Absolutely. There’s plenty to criticize in the books of all major religions. That’s what atheists do, for the most part. We criticize and try to spur others into critical thinking as well. What is particularly annoying though for me is that many atheists, along with the 3 mentioned above, subconsciously revert to the logical fallacy that just because someone follows or adheres to a religion that means they believe everything presented by the religion. Of course, this is simply not true. While some religious folk do believe that the Bible/Koran/Torah/whatever is literally true, many more do not. Many Christians for example view the story of man’s creation in the Bible as a parable, not a factual accounting of how it all happened.

The same is true of Muslims. There are over 1 billion of them in the world. They are not a hive mind and it is guaranteed that no two Muslims view Islam in the exact same way. When Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris go in on some of the more backward tenets of Islam, what they do is they end up offending the whole religion because of their mysterious inability to put nuance to their arguments. It comes across to me like they view all of Islam as being like ISIS or Saudi Arabia, when of course it is much more complicated than that. Just because those groups are hostile to human rights doesn’t mean every Muslim thinks that way. I can’t believe I have to say this to 3 men with advanced degrees from prestigious universities, but not every Muslim is out to kill or convert you! You thinking that is ironically exactly what groups like ISIS want you to think. They want a radicalization of the entirety of Islam, and you guys spewing your asinine criticisms is only going to contribute to that.

Go to the cities in America and Canada with a large Muslim population. Go to the UK, France, and Germany. Meet the Muslims in those places. You will find that the overwhelming majority of them love the places they live and want nothing more than to practice their religion in peace. Even if you still don’t agree with their individual values, you’ll still see that they aren’t interested in harming anyone.

Is it wrong for ISIS and for countries like Saudi Arabia to force people to follow their religious beliefs? Yes. Islamo-fascism is evil and it must be stopped. Simultaneously however, the atheist must be able to realize that the government of Saudi Arabia and Khaled down the street do not share the same views. After all, Muslims would not live in the West if they did not like at least some of the values of this society.

Why is the burden on atheists though? Atheists aren’t out here forming paramilitary groups and nation-states based on atheism. Atheist’s aren’t forcing people to adhere to their view of the world through violence. Why do we have to be the ones who are careful with what we say? Well, because atheists are supposed to value reason and logic above all else. Atheists are supposed to criticize based on fact, not emotion or belief. Whenever an atheist starts saying things like “Islam is _______” or “Christianity is ______”, he seems to be stating more what he believes instead of what is objectively true. No atheist should be able to support such stereotypical thinking.

What really pisses me off most though is when atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens play the victim when they are criticized for their statements. Dawkins acted like he was personally offended that Berkeley cancelled his speaking gig, and when Hitchens was alive he always complained about being attacked for his “free speech” whenever he made his sometimes-bigoted arguments against Islam. Well, what did you think was going to happen? If you come out and attack over a billion people, those people and friends of those people are going to get pissed off. I might be more on the atheists’ side if they were simply making valid criticisms, but too often those valid criticisms are wrapped in layers of fear-mongering and xenophobia. It’s incredibly off-putting. It gets even worse when those who actively dislike Muslims hear these arguments, and then they start using those arguments from Dawkins and Hitchens to bolster their own bigoted beliefs! While this is incidental and not intended, they still need to realize what the full consequences of their statements are.

Atheists can and should criticize organized religion as much as possible. However, atheists need to be clear in their criticisms and must, at all costs, avoid slipping into logical fallacies. Separate the people from the religion. Otherwise, people won’t take atheism seriously and the movement will suffer.


Christmas vs. Xmas

Well, finals are over so now I can get back to the writing I really enjoy doing. This is my first post since August, so I have decided to take the blog back to it’s roots. This is supposed to be a religion blog after all, and I feel like I’ve strayed too far away from the subject in my previous posts.

Anyway, in case you miraculously haven’t noticed, the holidays are upon us once again. Trees are being sold in parking lots, images of Santa Clause are literally everywhere, “Jingle Bells” is on repeat in department stores, and Fox News is taking personal offense at every instance of someone saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Tis the season!

Since I make no secret of my atheism, I am often asked by people (either in-person or online) about what atheists do during this time of year. It makes sense, given that Christmas is easily the biggest holiday in most parts of the West and it has a tendency to make people a bit more cognizant of religion. People will often ask me if I celebrate Christmas or if I do any sort of substitute holiday, and I often hear, “I could never be an atheist; I love Christmas too much” before I can respond. Interestingly, one of the main questions I get asked is whether or not I give/receive any presents at Christmas time. People ask me all this because they are looking for an explanation of the seemingly hypocritical nature of an atheist celebrating a religious holiday.

*Disclaimer – every atheist is an individual person and is going to go about celebrating/not celebrating holidays in their own way. What follows is my particular approach.*

We all know that Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, which happened roughly 2000 years ago. They believe that Jesus, who was born of a virgin, would be the Christ who saves all of mankind from its sins. Even though Biblical scholars agree that Jesus was born in early spring, his birth is celebrated on December 25th. This is the date that was adopted by the Catholic Church in the 4th century, so adopted because it coincided with the celebration of the pagan festival of the Winter Solstice, usually celebrated on December 20th, 21st, or 22nd. Since Christianity wasn’t especially prevalent in Europe yet, everyone who wasn’t a Christian was a pagan of one form or another. Pagans, for those who don’t know, are polytheists who generally worship the divinity they find in objects in nature; such as the sun, the moon, trees, rain, etc. Since everyone was already used to celebrating a holiday in late December, the Church thought it would be prudent to just substitute the birth of the Christ in for the Winter Solstice.

So right away, we see that Christmas is not free from the influence of paganism, even in its inception. Even though Christmas is based on the event of the birth of the Christ, almost nothing about Christmas as it is celebrated today is reflective of those events. Christmas trees, lights, Santa Clause, elves, flying reindeer, many Christmas carols, Christmas dinner, and even mistletoe are all added-on traditions to the celebration of the birth of the Christ. Finally, thanks to the rise and influence of capitalism, there are now abundant amounts of consumerism and materialism included in the holiday as well.

All of these add-ons and outside influences (whether it be from paganism, secularism, or economics) are the reason why I think that what started off as “Christmas” has since devolved into two separate holidays: Christmas and Xmas. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the Christ, but nothing more. Xmas is everything else that has since become familiar tradition around this time of year. Xmas is leaving out cookies for Santa. Xmas is Black Friday shopping. Xmas is buying a tree and putting ornaments on it with your family. None of that is included in the doctrines of Christianity, so I feel no conflict about partaking in any of those traditions if I so choose. I know for a fact I feel no conflict about my favorite Xmas tradition, hanging lights on my house. I am Clark Griswold when it comes to Xmas lights. I feel no conflict about Xmas lights because 1) Jesus didn’t have electricity in the manger, and 2) decorative lights have nothing to do with the birth of the Christ. There’s simply nothing to feel hypocritical about.

The one crossover tradition (and it’s a big one) found both in the original Christmas story and the later “add-ons” is the tradition of gift giving. Putting presents under a coniferous tree was originally a Germanic tradition that has been incorporated into Christmas, and the Three Magi in the Christmas story brought gifts to baby Jesus after following a star to where he was born. People love giving and receiving gifts, so this is what people really mean when they ask if I “celebrate” Christmas. Personally, I see no hypocrisy in gift-giving around this time of year. As an adherent to secular humanism (the philosophy behind friendly atheism), I always encourage people to be more thoughtful of others, and if it takes a holiday season to accomplish that then so be it. I like it when people take the time to consider other people’s wants and needs before their own, and Christmas/Xmas generally does a good job of making people feel that way, if even for a short while. There should be a limit of course, as we all see every year the economic behemoth that the holiday has become. Hell, if retailers have had a crappy year they sometimes rely on Black Friday and Xmas shopping to boost revenue. Again, economics have nothing to do with the original Christmas story.

Christians sometimes purport to be offended at the spelling of “Xmas” with the X, as they say it separates the religious story from the holiday, something they don’t feel is right. That’s fine, but what some of those same people need to do is take a look in the mirror. Christians are the very people that fuel Christmas, and are primarily responsible for the reason why I feel we now have this “Xmas” distinction. It’s not Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or secularists out there breaking down the doors of Wal-Mart and Best Buy the day after Thanksgiving. There might be a few for sure, but the majority of the people that feed into the consumerism of the holiday (a trait abhorred by Jesus of Nazareth by the way) are ones who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. They are primarily the ones who contribute to the non-Christian myths as well, such as Santa and the flying reindeer. I think that if they don’t want Christmas to be further separated from its religious roots, then they shouldn’t perpetuate the myths and consumerism that divided Christmas/Xmas in the first place. Don’t get mad about the perversion of your religious holiday if you are helping to pervert it.

Last argument, in case you are still not convinced that there is no hypocrisy here. When I am asked if I celebrate Christmas, I ask if the other person celebrates Halloween. Unless the person is a Jehovah’s Witness, then I find that Christians almost invariably do some sort of Halloween celebration. They’ll let their kids go trick-or-treating, they’ll carve pumpkins, tell scary stories, and go to costume parties. If me putting a present under a tree is supposedly hypocritical, then surely pumpkin carving is hypocritical for a Christian to do. Pagans originally carved pumpkins as representatives of spirits or demons that they believed to be active or present during the festival of Samhain, which was an annual celebration of the fall harvest. These pagan spirits and demons do not exist in Christianity, but does a Christian feel a sense of hypocrisy when carving a pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern? No, of course not. Halloween, just like Christmas, has been largely separated from its religious roots and turned into a secular, culture-based holiday. It is easy to argue that Easter has also gone the same route.

The only time it would be hypocritical for an atheist to celebrate a religious holiday is if the atheist actively believes and partakes in the religious/divine origins of the holiday. I personally do not believe in the original Christmas story, but I still partake in the Western/American holiday of Xmas.

The Problem With Richard Dawkins

It’s been well over a month since I last posted anything, so it feels good to be writing for fun again. I’ve been so bogged down in writing that I don’t want to do I haven’t had the energy until today to do anything creative.

As you can probably imagine, this particular post will be an analysis of probably the world’s most famous atheist: Richard Dawkins. Why am I doing this? Because I feel that the manner in which Dawkins goes about discussing/debating atheism with the general public serves as a great contrast to my ideas about friendly atheism, which after all is the whole point of this blog. There’s more about my ideas in previous posts, but I’m hoping that this blog will serve as a “comparison by contrast” to illustrate what this whole friendly atheism thing is when it’s contrasted against one of the leading voices on atheism in the mainstream.

Full disclosure: I agree with 95% of what Dawkins says about evolution, the origin of the universe, and most other important topics we atheists talk about. It’s evident he’s very intelligent, and the fact that he is British I think is good for the image of Britain worldwide. I have read The God Delusion and found it to be fantastic (if a bit wordy). My issue with Dawkins are his methods for going about telling the masses about atheism. Now, he is/was the Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford (a position created for him), so I may be way off base here. Maybe he knows better than me the best ways people learn about atheism. 

But, when I listen to or watch Dawkins debate religious scholars or religious leaders I don’t necessarily listen to what he is saying, I like to listen more to how he says it. Sometimes he can come across as pretentious, condescending, and even snobby. I don’t know if this is because of his ego, his tone, his attitude, or a combination of the three. If I am a religious person who wants to learn about atheism (for purposes of de-converting or just simple curiosity) then I would be turned off by that whole approach. I don’t like it when people talk down to me about anything, and I might even feel insulted by Dawkins every time he belittles my religion.

He needs to fully realize that for better or worse, people’s religion is important to them. There are plenty of ways to explain atheism and your reasons for it than by being condescending and/or acting like you simply know better than everyone else because your intellectual and educational level is higher than everyone else’s. Being intelligent doesn’t give him or anyone the right to look down upon others; religious and non-religious. 

Here’s the approach I would like to see Dawkins try, as he is the world’s most visible atheist. He shouldn’t set out to disprove the stories in the Bible, Torah, Quran, Bhagavad Gita, or whatever religion (however easy it may be). Most religious people don’t take the stories in ancient texts to be literal anyway. Most see the various fables and stories as allegories. Also, most people aren’t religious for the stories in the books. Most are religious because it serves a purpose for them in some way. Comfort, security, a sense of community, whatever it may be. Religious people are fully aware of the problems within their religion, and us atheists pointing that out doesn’t help solve the problem.

What Dawkins should do is set out to prove atheism is a reasonable alternative to religion. You win arguments and win people’s attention by appealing to reason, and it’s not reasonable to tear down tenets of faith in an effort to show why atheism is better. I’m sure Dawkins would argue that he does precisely this and that some religious people are incredibly unreasonable in their views, and he’s right to a certain extent on both points.

I think Dawkins’s problem has mostly to do with ego. I think because he’s relatively famous it’s gone to his head a bit, and as a result he get’s overly defensive when a religious leader inevitably attacks him in a debate/interview. But, you won’t win an argument in the eyes of an objective observer by meeting dickishness with dickishness. An atheist in a discussion with a religious person should defend his positions on the topic with vigor, but it should never escalate to attacks on the person’s religion. It’s a poor form of arguing and in the end the religious person will feel they were in the right. Progress stalls. 

Dawkins atheism is the opposite of friendly atheism when it comes to methods of talking about atheism with non-atheists. Personally, I don’t see it as my job to de-convert the world and get everyone to embrace our primate ancestors. But, I have a policy when it comes to my opinions: if you ask for them I have to give them to you. I will not back down from my atheistic ideas, but I will also not attack you for your choice to be religious, barring some very extreme examples (i.e. if you are cult member). I’ve never debated someone in a cult, but I would tell that person that they are in a cult and that cults are bad news. That’s one caveat to the friendly atheism tenet of not judging other people.

Anyway, I agree with what Dawkins says and I applaud him for bringing atheism closer to the forefront of people’s minds but I have a few issues with how he has gone about doing it.