Why I am an Ex-Muslim

Whilst I find biographical writing egotistical in most cases, I hope to indulge here in a trajectory of thought rather than a life. I hope to show my own severing of the Islamic veil, which shrouded everything within its bleak dichotomous imagery, and how it is that ex-Muslims are a rarity. Though we are growing in number, there are not many who are willing to openly criticise Islam – I consider this to be part laziness, part apathy and part incredulity by “moderate” Muslims.The major reasons and criticisms will be dealt with in the second part.

Is it racist to loathe some one’s nonevidential-based and metaphysical beliefs? I do not think so. If this were true, I’d be considered alongside the person who decided “Whites Only” was a good sign to make on park-benches. We do not find black people declaring themselves ex-black, or white people declaring themselves ex-white. To say then that I am a racist is incorrect. I was Muslim, now I am no longer.

The question then is why declare oneself by what one is not. Why focus on being an ex-Muslim?

Power in Words

Defining oneself by a negative is something we as sceptics and atheists often have to puzzle over. Indeed, such a sentence might itself preclude this notion. I have said and I will continue to say that atheism is not a thing, a group, a set of goals. It is not a group of people clamouring for their world view to be adopted, since it is not a world-view. It comes close to be meaninglessness as air comes to being an ocean breeze. Indeed, the harshest critiques of labelling arises from amongst the “upper” echelons of the pursuit of reason.

Sam Harris in his address at Atheist Alliance in 2007, picks up on this theme of racism and atheism too, when he states:

Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves. So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” …  “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.”

We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

No doubt, my dear readers, some of you will already have objections to this. Whilst I am not dealing with atheism in general, the application to ex-Muslim can be seen as a two-pronged defence: To labeling ourselves atheists and maintaining the use of ex-Muslim.

The main reason: No, there is no such thing as non-racism. But there was a very prominent, destructive, irrational and un-evidential claim known as racism. But we can not deny the activism of “black consciousness”; No reasonable person today would support my country’s history of apartheid. Yet during that time, people proudly – but sometimes in secrete for fear of reprisal – called themselves “anti-apartheid activists”. Yet would any of us today call ourselves “anti-apartheid”? Well, yes, if there was an apartheid to oppose.

Similarly, the tide must turn with faith. I believe it must be eradicated, for good if we are to even grasp at the near-infinite beauty of a good life. No: We do not call ourselves non-astrologers, as Harris states. Nonetheless, just as it needed activism to render most people’s accepted world-view of “race” into something aversive, I think it will take such “activism” to render faith into the vice it is. But this is for another article.

I believe, then, that the use of reason effectively dealt with racism, such that only stragglers and madmen could present themselves proudly as racists today. Similarly, with faith: It too is a great retardation of intelligence. But one so great that even those who do not have “faith” sometimes think it must be sacred, left to its own devices, “it’s not harming anyone” (those I call IDGAFS1).

And a form of faith that has coiled into a great fist, smashing the ground beneath our feet, is Islam. All religions have their horrors and their extremists, no one denies this. Essentially, it is our main point in critiquing it: Religion is man-made. That must be religion’s most salient and nocuous property.

And no more so demonstrated than through the repugnant, almost childish knee-jerk reactions from fundamentalist Muslims. Having unwoven the threads of caustic intellectual abuse, by the hands of the vice of faith, I can finally step back to see this for what it is. But there are no woods to step out of to see trees of respect, love, or reason. Faith would have us cover our eyes and just nod to shadows. Islam, being what it is, as dangerous as it is, would send those shadows out to fight. It is time to fight back.

We know what a terrible darkness such shadows of truth hold.

The Triumph of Reason

I can admit something I was never very proud of before: I do not think I ever truly believed in a god or afterlife. Along with probably most of you, I am the addressee of Pascal’s Pensées: He who is so made that he can not believe. I learnt the Quran – and still know it – from beginning to end. I can read and write in Arabic. It is a very beautiful language and the incredible aesthetic beauty of its script no less appealing.

But what does the Quran say? If you had asked me that after I had read it the first time, then proceeded to memorise it, I would have stared at you blankly.

As we speak, there are approximately 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, comprising 22% of world. The results may vary but we can assume this: There’s a lot. Of those, I’m an uncertain how many of those are children of Muslim parents (did you flinch when you thought of “Muslim children”?). We can safely say though that millions of children around the world are taught to read, learn and recite in Arabic without understanding a word they’re saying.

I did not know I was reading this, when I recited:

98:6 Lo! those who disbelieve, among the People of the Scripture and the idolaters, will abide in fire of hell. They are the worst of created beings.

88:23-24 But whoso is averse and disbelieveth /Allah will punish him with direst punishment.

These are mere tips of growing icebergs, as fundamentalists freeze ancient ideas into growing pandemics of destruction.

Perhaps your own thoughts can formulate on why it is dangerous to learn in a language you essentially do not speak, to learn sentences you would not condone. I do not condone murder or destruction or harm to any person, yet here I was, learning verses spoken by “Allah Himself” (via Jibreel, to Muhammad, to the scribes, to etc.). Who was I to question my duty as a Muslim?

I attended seven madrassas. At each one, I was physically abused by the jaded jackals of god’s word. If we did not pronounce certain Arabic letters correctly, our fingers were bleeding after a good dose of punishment by a cane. We were yelled at, screamed at, hair was torn out in anger as we were not feeling Allah’s power and grace and beauty. It is neither hard nor uncommon to consider such occurences and perhaps that’s what makes it so wrong. A lot of my ex-Muslim friends also went through similar conditions. All this amidst a growing society, fresh from the battle against oppression – a society still licking its war-wounds and scrambling for some semblance of stability.

I neither consider myself scarred, harmed or abused to any great degree. I am neither angry at those men nor wish them harm. In a sense, I thank them for instilling the most powerful seed that resides in the human mind: Doubt.

We all know the foundation for stable thought in analysis begins with Cogito ergo sum. Yet, we must also remember Dubito ergo Cogito (I doubt, therefore I think), THEN Cogito ergo sum. I found myself wondering, if god’s love is so great, his power so immense, why do I constantly feel nothing but the biting cain against my knuckles?; Why do I feel nothing but paper when I touch the Quran?; and where is that rapturous experience that exudes from all the imams and mullahs I had interacted with?

It was then that stumbled across the most important book in my life: The Satanic Verses. It was to render that doubt into reason, to turn my apathy into action and so stabilise why I think being an outspoken ex-Muslim is important…

ENDNOTES

______

1. Idgafs are not necessarily “not giving a frack”, as the term suggests, but they are primarily nonbelievers who treat faith as something that should not be attacked, mocked, criticised, or at least attempted to be understood using emotion. Most nonbelievers I know are like this, even though they would be supporting me in any other area to promote reason.

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Will Mumbo-Jumbo Come Back to Haunt Us?

Dedicated to the 18,901 people, including children, harmed by those not thinking critically.

Goya’s famous painting should be the siren to our sensibilities. “The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” is written in an effort to engrave it in our conscious. The great Carl Sagan seemed to carry this idea forward, holding the tiny flame of reason forth in the wild-winds of absolutist ideologies: “The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

Warnings to us all, yet not easily embraced. Whilst the sirens blare, most do not heed its call. We are like villagers who set up our watchtowers to crumble; who create warning-bells of cloth; and who sleep blindfolded whilst the village burns to cinders.

I am not focused on religion or faith. Perhaps some could be ascribed to the same inherent need that most have for religion or faith; but this affords a different place in our investigations. I am speaking on the vast array of absolute nonsense, which describes itself as “science”, “medicine”, “therapy”, “health”, “philosophy” or some such vagary of truth. My friend, Damian Thompson, dubs these and the language used to deal with it “Counterknowledge”. His (and his punchy writers) excellent website brings howls of consternation and tidbits of admiration, yet never ceases to get people thinking. Damian is fast becoming bullshit’s greatest enema inducer.

Yet, why do we as sceptics (or skeptics – curse Americanese!) seem to offer nothing but negative viewpoints with regards to things that are for “entertainment purposes only“? Isn’t it immoral or wrong to remove something which makes people feel good? It’s not like its hurting anyone!

Wrong.

If you don’t believe bullshit can hurt you, consider this website. Even the seemingly simple things can get us killed. By process of induction – which none other than the great sceptic himself, David Hume, warned us about – we must be wary to blame purely the quack treatment. You’d probably associate Ayuvedic “treatments” as another silly quackery – but… Consider the case of David Flint. “David sought out ayurvedic treatments from (among others) Deepak Chopra. At one point he was told his leukemia was gone. It was not. David died four months later.”

Now, did the treatment kill him? No. But that’s not what we should be concerned about.

What about the now infamous destruction of Myanmar’s economy? The summary on Whatstheharm:

General Ne Win’s astrologer and numerologist told him his lucky number was 9 and he would live to be 90 if he was surrounded by 9s. He reissued the currency in multiples of 9 causing mayhem and new insurgencies. He resigned within a year.

Do we blame astrology for it? No.

But, what we do blame are those who peddle these things, astrology, ayuverdic medicine, Christian science and so on – as actually yielding scientifically positive results. And by that, I mean the notion of the scientific method which,

can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other

In the same paragraph, Einstein writes “It is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.” It has a nice subtle echoing ring off and of Hume’s Fork:

All objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds …Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic; and in short, every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain. That the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of the two sides, is a proposition which expresses a relation between these figures … Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe. Though there never were a circle or triangle in nature, the truths demonstrated by Euclid would for ever retain their certainty and evidence.

Matters of fact, which are the second objects of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality. That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood. Were it demonstratively false, it would imply a contradiction, and could never be distinctly conceived by the mind. [emphasis mine]

My apologies for the extensive quotation but, where a better writer can say his or her thoughts, I must give way. In this sense, we must question and attempt falsification (Indeed, such is the basis for Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery). Why then this focus, from matters which we can know and matters which need to be falsified? Why apply this to quackery and snake-oil merchants?

As sceptics we must use the power of reason, the weapon of Ockham, and the open-mindedness of a teetering cup: just open enough not to let the contents spill. But the question arises, again, why should we critique or stand against charlatans?

People lose money, lives, health and gain suffering, debilitation and overall a nuanced view of life. There is much beauty in the scientific world, in the materialistic “mundane” potentially evidence-based world we sceptics live in. We are proud to defend reason and fight for truth. We do not accept things as a given, but judge them according to their claims and whether they live up to them.

Even now, one might dismiss this ideological notion. Where does our complacency come from? I believe, it comes from scepticism itself. As AC Grayling, in his book Scepticism and the Possibility of Knowledge, says:

The sceptic, in other words, has adopted the habiliments of relativism. Relativism, indeed, is the ultimate form of scepticism, because it challenges us to justify, as a whole, the scheme within which mundane judgments get their content and have their life.

Grayling is focused on the subtler pretext of philosophical implementations of scepticism. But, we can for our use perhaps extend this to our view of adopting strategies that we would otherwise think idiotic! The position of the stars, moon and planets can tell us something about your personality, your future, your life, your beloved? Hogwash. By looking at the lines and marks of your palm, we can tell everything about you. Further hogwash. These beautiful cards each represent an aspect of you. We can try detect your angel-guide, who is with you and protecting you… And so the list grows, like weeds blocking out the little flame. Wouldn’t we all love Ockham’s Razor to slice them down?

I recall a parable of Schopenhauer’s: “A rose always has thorns, but a thorn does not always have a rose.” Indeed, some idiotic schemes in the past may have led the way to beneficence. But now, we understand the methodologies to test whether the claims are true. We can say whether these crystals work. We can test astrology, as has been done many times.

We disprove these things – to a great degree – but people continue to use them, listen to the advice of “sages” who know nothing about medicine or nutrition (need I remind anyone of Patrick Holford?), and ignore our warnings. Niall Ferguson also questioned this, in his treatise on the evil of the 20th century. He says, in The War of the World: “Megalomaniacs may order men to invade Russia, but why do the men obey?”

And I think it is our horrid past of relativism. The paradox of being sceptical of the sceptics: How can you know it doesn’t work for them? Maybe their ancient art of x, y, or z, does work for them, but your scientific/materialist/Western/colonialist view is simply arrogant if you think it’s better.

Well I think its high time we do away with this silly notion. I think it’s high time we actually “stick our noses in” and point out the man behind the curtain. I think it’s time we continue to fight against the purveyors of Counterknowledge and bullshit. To quote Ibn Warraq on the notion of interfering with “alien” or other cultures:

The British intervened in the affairs of an alien culture and abolished the ancient tradition of suttee, whereby a widow had to throw herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. This must be considered a step forward in the lot of the women and the moral progress of mankind.

Some intelligent critics might say it was not better at all to intervene. The woman might face scorn, rejection and so on for not performing suttee. Thus her life is actually worse – but I say, it’s life nonetheless. The potential is snuffed out by the fires of her husband’s pyre. But I’d be interested as always for responses to any of the claims I make.

It seems then, that our natural past in leaving the “natives to their native traditions” or the savages to their savage views, is now long dead. We have means of repeating objectively verifiable data in the world. We can get to the truth, in a way that can benefit our fellow man. One might hasten to call it truth and Truth – but I don’t really care what you call that which is repeatable and demonstrable to everyone.

Claims of the charlatans are not true. And we should not be treating or paying for something which is packaged as true, but which demonstrably is not.

These charlatans and the snake-oil merchants and the quack-doctors and the bullshit merchants, need to come under the gaze of those who care about humanity. We need to stop allowing people to think Tarot readings are true in the same way Einstein’s prediction’s were true; we need to alert them to the better, broader world which awaits their grasp. This is not arrogance and I don’t mean us to charge into every person’s house who gazes into a crystal ball; or rob every one who loves relaxing with acupuncture. I simply mean we should not be afraid to point out the green man, with the smoke, making the giant head. We, as sceptics, do this for the benefit of all. Indeed, I would love nothing more than for there to be psychic powers that heal. How great would it be to utilise it … for science and medicine! It would just become another scientific method. Therefore, even those who are “against” science because they believe in psychic powers, etc. can benefit from helping to galvanise their position in the light of reason and science.

For that light is the light of all good. All the good that can shine humanity’s happiness forward. We are a young species, but we are a growing one. Every hand should be used to raise that flame of reason a little higher. It can only shed its light on us all.

SA Student Magazine Offends Christians

Update and Apology (11/09/2012): In previous versions, I had said a particular individual had lodged a complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission. However, this person, who prefers not to be named, contacted me to say this is factually incorrect. I apologise to this individual for making this claim and thank them for correcting me.

The University of Cape Town’s satirical student magazine, Sax Appeal, has been pulled from shelves. Is there mocking of religious beliefs? You bet. Is it tasteful, reasonable or witty? Not in the least.

To quote from the Galilee International Ministiries (SA)‘s blog, the outcry that led to the eventual shelving of the magazine was the following:

There is an article entitled “Top ten atheist retorts to fundamentalist Christians – Richard Sagan puts them in their place with these handy replies“.

: Jesus died to save us from our sins – “I bet he feels like a tool now”

: Praise the Lord, it’s a miracle! – “No you stupid C.*.*.T. (Christian who Understands No Theorems) statistically they happen every 365 days”

In one picture a man with a megaphone shouts to passing people “I love God”. The caption above him reads; “F**k off to heaven and leave the rest of us alone”.

In another, a women is lifting her leg saying; “pervert” with the caption underneath “God sees everything” In a picture of two men lying in bed at opposite ends, “Without God you will never be happy” – “I’m pretty happy when I’m drunk, high on crack and having freakish man sex”

These and many other exclusive attacks on Christianity are spread throughout the magazine. A full page of Zapiro cartoons mock the Levitical injunction against homosexuality.

The pestilential voice of Errol Naidoo, from the Family Policy Institute, found its way into the inboxes of many Christian groups. Naidoo is quoted as saying the actions of Sax Appeal are “wrong and immoral”. Then, of course, the yard-stick of religious response, namely violent Islamic barbarism, is thrown in as an excuse for their Christian placidity. “If this was directed at the Islamic faith,” said Naidoo, “there would be a massive outcry, maybe even with violence. Thankfully we won’t respond that way, but that does not make us whipping boys.”

Crunching knuckles and shifting their heavy-weight shoulders, they none the less have a mean, desperate look in their eye. Sure, the hanging shadow of Islamic idiocy still has bloody knuckles and that twisted gleam in his eye, but hey! These Christians are not crazy Muslims! At least they won’t bomb or hack or murder or mutilate people because someone drew a cartoon mocking their faith.

If that is not bad enough, a Christian group has filed a complaint with … the SA Human Rights Commission! It seems that mocking irrational beliefs is a gross misconduct of human interaction, to be dealt with by the same body that:

[is] established to entrench constitutional democracy through the promotion and protection of human rights by:

· Addressing human rights violations and seeking effective redress for such violations

· Monitoring and assessing the observance of human rights

· Raising awareness of human rights issues

· Educating and training on human rights

The infringement on our secular society by religious groupings is one we constantly have to push back. It is the “rough beast” of WB Yeats, slouching toward our constitution to be born within its pages. Yet religious bodies forget the primary basis is that human rights commissions judge according to human-rights standards, a framework set up within the UDHR. I have my own qualms with this document but it nonetheless gives no privileges or special treatment to people who believe in talking burning bushes, virgin births and the denial of evolution. To make a case at the very centre where religious ideas – not people, ideas! – finds no hold, is about as welcome as dressing in a Boy George outfit at a biker bar.

This is why I am part of the campaign for One Law for All – a simple, easy-to-understand situation which states that everyone, regardless of creed, culture or country must be governed under one law and judged accordingly. This is why when religious leaders take their issues to human rights commissions and call blasphemous acts “immoral” (which is superfluous to the faithful), we must take issue with it.

The right to feel offended and express that offence, to be vocal and opinionated about what one disagrees with, the open facilities capable of disclosing such sentiments within a framework of open ideas, and the realisation that one could be wrong is all inclusive in free-speech. “I might not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is a quotation (Voltaire or Diderot, I believe) that captures this notion of free-speech. And I will defend Naidoo to be able to say that he thinks it is immoral, I will defend Elistam if he wants to express his view that blasphemy (a victimless crime) is a human rights violation.

It does not mean I agree with them – I do not. But certainly I will defend free-speech and freedom of thought. This means that offence will be rain down like arrows, striking some, missing others but inevitably hurting many people. But these are things we must learn to deal with as adults. There will be things in this world that will offend us all the time (for me, its gender inequality, religious bullying and Sandra Bullock). Calling them immoral, asking for UCT to retract its statements, pulling magazines off the shelves, is simply special treatment for a nasty, bullying and whining child.

Grovelling at the feet of the offended, Cameron Ardense, UCT RAG’s Chairperson said: “UCT Rag unreservedly apologises to everyone who has been offended in this way”. We have become so used to these sorts of statements from those in the media who offend the sensitive, childish Christians that we simply shrug it off. And that is bad. We are dealing with adults here.

If the Christians and other faithful want to be seen as adults, they should act as such. Jane Duncan, from the Freedom of Expression Institute states beautifully:

The statements contained in the publication are silly and childish. Many of us would simply dismiss as student toilet humour and move on to more enlightened literature, which is perhaps how Errol Naidoo and UCT should consider dealing with the matter.

Duncan also points out that blasphemy is no longer a recognised ground for restriction of publications.

[Therefore] arguments to restrict the publication on this basis do not hold water … It is debatable whether the article advocates hatred against the Christian religion. The statements ridicule Christianity, but that does not mean that they encourage people actively to hate the religion.

But what is not debatable is that the statements do not involve incitement to cause harm, as they do not call on people to harm Christians.

Things are getting out of hand however. Christian Democratic Alliance spokesman, Colin Fibiger, said:

We consider the content of the UCT magazine to be a deliberate and planned, discriminatory attack on Christianity and will seek full restitutional measures.

This includes the immediate removal of the Executive Director of Student Affairs, as well as the Project manager and all editorial staff.

The balance does not seem fair or rational. Because a few adults – please note, we are dealing with grown human beings – have their feelings hurt, people must lose their jobs in a dishonourable way? That smells to me of discriminatory, arrogant religious bullying. Throughout the trawls of articles written about this and other beautiful blasphemy, the religious can never explicitly say why we should take such strong measures against those (like me, I suppose) who deliberately attack religious ideas.

Please note again: Firstly, we are dealing with grown human beings who can be offended on all manner of levels, yet demand no constitutional reprieve. Yet when the opportunity to raise a storm over a ripple arises, the leaves are tossed and fire is thrust into rickety houses of their ideas. And, secondly, there has been no incitement against religious people or restrictions to their expression of ideas – it has been a simple dismissal of their irrational beliefs.

If we mocked druids and Wiccans, how many of those flakes would be doing rain-dances and summoning Thor to strike us down with Mjollnir (his hammer)? I do not imagine a lot. Jesus himself is reported to have said that his followers must expect to be mocked. Have they not read their Bible recently? This is part of the “faith” anyway, to be mocked by the addressee in Pascal’s Pensees: “He who is so made that he can not believe”.

Once again, Christians are failing to recognise that an attack on their ideas is NOT an attack on them as autonomous human-beings. We respect and maintain human rights, in which is framed the spectrum of hate-speech (which is something very specific). But we do not have to respect ideas.

I do not think any ideas are beyond criticism, all ideas should be mocked and “blasphemed”. Even those of us who are not religious believe we each have ideas which are good or true: The equality of the genders, the need for compassion and respect, and so on. But that does not mean we view them as sacred.

We do not view the equality of genders as a topic of which no one shall speak. For example, I view the limitations on women in Islam as a gross “offence” to this idea of mine. But I do not for a second consider imposing that view by claiming human rights interventions, restricting the publications of people (men and women) who think it is OK for women to be restricted or below men, and so on. Change will come through a harmony of ideas not through the discord of restriction.

Another aspect that is upsetting is the deliberate namecalling from atheists. I imagine that if Christians wrote and namecalled atheists – which of course never happens – the atheists would also be upset. But when was the last time we witnessed nonbelievers demanding special treatment, human rights interventions, etc.? The deliberate namecalling from nonbelievers is giving those of us who attack religious ideas, from the standpoint of defending reason, a bad name.

The question remains: What should be done? In my opinion, I agree with Duncan. Christians should just button up their adult-jackets, straighten their mature ties, and lick their grown-up hair straight. We are better than this. I do not agree with the magazine’s tasteless namecalling, but, hell, it is another trashy little magazine. There are better things to read and more important things to be doing with our time. In this case, the atheists are not advocating hatred of people who believe in Christianity, they are not asking for them to sit on seperate benches, they are not asking for their jobs to be revoked. The same can not be said for the believers.

We will continue to mock their Bronze-Aged myths and silly deities, yet defend their right to say why it is wrong. As I respect their right to say what they want, they must allow the same for me. By saying only they can have special treatment on what to say, whilst those of us who do not believe must be silent, is to invoke despotism. The Christian Democratic Alliance needs to rethink their totalitarian thinking if they are meant to represent. An open, civil society with free-thought and free-speech will not be restricted, from either side. That to me seems fair: They can say what they want, in an open, reasonable way and the same for us.

Hence when either side begins namecalling and evokes childish arrogance, I think we have lost the mark. Let us all just grow up a bit and realise ideas are not people. As Maryam Namazie says, rights belong to people not ideas. Once we all realise this, we can begin focusing more on making people’s lives better instead of placating overtly-sensitive and arrogant religious leaders.

POSTSCRIPT: I have namecalled within this post. But notice that the difference is that I picked out specific people and groups and showed why I think so. The atheist in the magazine simply generalised for all Christians. This is not the way to mock. Even mockery can come under the dominion of reason.

See also the follow up to this post.

And the latest assessment here.

Potato Preacher – a Sceptic’s Guide to Angus Buchan

When some 60,000 men gather in a rural area for a Christian-themed event, my senses begin twitching. Not only the number but the exclusive gender sent alarm-bells chiming in discord. This happened in April 2008 and it was/is called, disgustingly, the “Mighty Men” conference. Held at Greytown, here in my country South Africa, men – and only men – flew from all around the world to see the preaching of a man in a hat. (At one point, the largest tent in the world was used. Yes – in the world!)

His name is Angus Buchan. He first came to prominence after the release of his book, followed by a movie, entitled Faith Like Potatoes. As the IMDB plot-summary says:

Angus Buchan, a Zambian farmer of Scottish heritage … leaves his farm in the midst of political unrest and racially charged land. [He] travels south with his family to start a better life in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. With nothing more than a caravan on a patch of land, and help from his foreman, Simeon Bhengu, the Buchan family struggle to settle in a new country. Faced with ever mounting challenges, hardships and personal turmoil, Angus quickly spirals down into a life consumed by anger, fear and destruction. Based on the inspiring true story by Angus Buchan the book was adapted for the big screen … and weaves together the moving life journey of a man who, like his potatoes, grows his faith, unseen until the harvest

He began giving talks and preachings across the country soon after. As he told The Argus:

“God gave me a directive to turn fathers back to sons and sons back to fathers, to take back the family unit.”

Although he has been asked why there was no conference for women, he said his directive had been to challenge men to stand up and be counted: “To be prophet, priest and king. They must be the breadwinners, protect their wives and discipline their children.”

“God gave me…” – Yes, we have someone else who has a red-phone connection to god. The number 60,000 is quite staggering. Apparently, 80% of the men who attended were Afrikaners which only makes sense. There is a high religiosity amongst the Afrikaner people here in South Africa, of a particular conservative kind. I know quite a number and have been to church services – the passion runs deep to engage with their lord. They are friendly, open people neither racist nor stupid but certainly very isolated from having a figure that represents them on an international level. They have found that in Buchan.

Buchan himself is often shown to be the epitome of an Evangelical Afrikaner: friendly, passionate, warm and very conservative in his beliefs. To say that the Afrikaner people – or Christian people in general – are clutching at straws would be nearer the mark given his statements and views.

Call me paranoid, but I’m wary of anyone who speaks or knows something about the monotheist god that I do not. Or rather, I’m mortified by someone who has a real-time feed to god’s consciousness.

Buchan, in July,  drew an audience of 70,000 people at Loftus (also in South Africa). He tapped into iGOD and was able say: “God is here. The Lord is here” (3). The resounding cries of “AMEN!” could shake the fabric off any veil of reason.

Not only were over 70,000 people crying their hearts and eyes out, the event “was also broadcast live to about 500-million people around the world on GOD TV, one of the world’s largest Christian television networks.” (3) We are not dealing with small fish here. There was nothing particularly new, enlightening or incredible about Buchan – except for his readings of the Bible that sees the lowering of women to be “looked after” by the husbands and for the “discipline of children”.

Until recently…

Not a week ago, he was in my city of Cape Town defiling the air with nonsense. According to Buchan, prayer has cured homosexuality, illness and depression. I have problems with saying “prayer” does anything let alone “cure”. Let us avoid that and say rather a “positive outlook” cured the illness and depression (I don’t know one way or the other if prayer has ever had an effect but so far the view is still zero, alongside the Loch Ness Monster and fairies). Curing is great. But what on earth does he mean by “curing” homosexuality?

I find it hard to fathom that these talks, which he’s still giving around my country, is based on logic like this. This is an insult to reason and humanity. What is more insulting is the lack of rationalist critique. We are a fragile nation, prone to acts of violence against ourselves. We’ve seen it recently in our mad xenophobic attacks, our change of power – its a soil teeming with uncertainty. As I said, when someone like Buchan comes along, exuding confidence, Christianity and conservativeness, you have an engine roaring to go. The Buchan machine is moving through the country and, with his nonsense spewing out, he is continuing to defile the air.

Harsh? Hostile? Yes. I’ve never presented myself otherwise to a decent person’s reasoning. I’m angry not at Buchan – he can keep his views. I am angry, upset and largely disappointed that he is having sell-out shows. I am upset that no one is taking notice of people who are no doubt longing for some answers to our confused place in history. Where do we go, what do we do, who do we learn from? Our future president Jacob Zuma is drowning in a sea of corruption charges, fighting sharks invisible and real who are rightly placed to point their fingers at his abuse of justice.

I will now take the fallacy of the straw man quite literally.

The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:

1. Person A has position X.

2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).

3. Person B attacks position Y.

C. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.

I have focused on his statements and shown the context in our volatile, fragile and somewhat desperate and desparate nation. But perhaps it serves a motif: All these people are clutching at straws and Buchan is that strawman.

He stands for racial equality and integration (speaking fluently in one of the many beautiful official languages in South Africa). But he misses the boat by relying in Bible (il)logic. This will not do. We must make a stand for reason, we must face the teeth of superstition with the hammersmack of logic. We are not so far gone as reasonable, decent people to invoke this man as a pathway to the numinous. We all long for the numinous and the transcendent. Religion’s usurpation of this longing, framed in the light to the “one god”, is relentless in using this as an undertow to a natural wanting. No more.

It matters not that the feelings expressed tapped into something. Remain at a cold-distance to those who know the mind of god and claim to cure homosexuality. Rather, we should remain sceptical of his approach until such time as he has given us reason to be other than suspicious of his rehashed, evangelical ramblings.

God’s Messenger

Originally posted at Butterfliesandwheels.com

In the Cape Argus for July 24, 2008, I was drawn to an article about a “cult”. The article was your typical shocking piece of journalism, where the accused are a “deranged” lot. Their beliefs most would scoff at: “How could they have done that?” “Anyone can see they were crazy to belief that nonsense!”.

It says:

Durban (in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, in my country South Africa) brother and sister Hardus and Nicolette Lotter [who are] charged with murder of their parents, had apparently belonged to a cult. They had been influenced by Nicolette’s boyfriend, Mathew Naidoo, who claimed he was “God’s messenger”.

After being called to the house, 20-year old Hardus told police he was accosted in his house and locked in his bedroom. His 26-year old sister returned from work to find both her parents slain. Their father had been strangled, their mother stabbed several times. After picking up Naidoo for questioning, all three were charged and brought before the court.

And this was not the first time.

Apparently the three had conspired previously to kill the parents, Johan and Riekie Lotter. One of the previous attempts involved poisoning Johan Lotter’s drink. The Lotter siblings retracted their statements, saying “they were under the influence of Naidoo, who told them he was ‘God’s messenger’ and the ‘third son of God’ and that he [Naidoo] had received a message from God that they should kill the [Lotter] couple.”

Which God, you might wonder? I expect all sorts of No-True-Scotsman fallacies to be quivering in most reader’s thoughts. The article ends with: “Johan and Rieikie had received several anonymous death threats with messages from the Bible.”

Let me summarise: Naidoo believed that the God from the Bible had chosen him as His third Son. The God from the Bible, as Naidoo believed, had then told him that the Lotter couple must die. The newspaper article defined them as belonging to a “cult”. But why? What is a ‘cult’? And why does the article not say “religious fanatics”?

I find this a reasonable question: What is the difference between a cult and a religion? To answer simply: not much, only in so-called mild religions, people can still live open, thriving lives. Michael Shermer gives these characteristics of one of these (I ask you whether he is talking about a cult or a religion. I will give the answer at the end):

  • Veneration of a leader: Glorification of the leader [to the point of virtual sainthood or divinity].
  • Inerrancy of the leader: Belief that the leader cannot be wrong.
  • Omniscience of the leader: Acceptance of the leader’s beliefs and pronouncements on all subjects, from the philosophical to the trivial.
  • Persuasive techniques: Methods, from benign to coercive, used to recruit new followers and reinforce current beliefs.
  • Hidden Agendas: The true nature of the group’s beliefs and plans is obscured from or not fully disclosed to potential recruits and the general public.
  • Deceit: Recruits and followers are not told everything they should know about the leader and the group’s inner-circle, and particularly disconcerting flaws or potentially embarrassing events or circumstances are covered up.
  • Absolute truth: Belief that the leader and/or the group has discovered final knowledge on any number of subjects.
  • Absolute Morality: Belief that the leader and/or group has developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to members and nonmembers alike. Those who strictly follow the moral code become and remain members; those who do not are dismissed or punished.[1]

Shermer here is describing characteristics of cults. But perhaps the terrifying similarity to religion was demonstrated by a silent reading, stemming the tides of self-veneration upon contemplation. This is not a unique case, I am not claiming it as such. Call it a reminder, call it a question. Why is Naidoo and the Lotter’s grouping called a ‘cult’ and not religion?

Perhaps the question lies in: Who is the cult-leader? Is it Naidoo or the God from the Bible? I feel this is a legitimate question. I think we need to radically assess this in light of the source of Naidoo’s absolute truth, his morals and his beliefs. The source lies in the drawers of nearly all hotels around the world: a Bible. Once again, I am not attacking religion as a cult because that is an old argument. I am simply assessing the usage of the term ‘cult’.

The line of separation is as thin as dust between fanatical religious belief and cults. In Shermer’s case, he was making the claim that there is in fact a cult surrounding Ayn Rand, in the US. It fit the criteria I have highlighted above. I won’t go into detail as it does not play a part in this discussion but I urge you to read this very important book to understand why (I myself love Ayn Rand, but do not subscribe to her bizarre philosophy in any way, shape or form. Her abilities as a ficiton writer are all that fascinate me).

Let me reiterate: Why did the Argus dub these people belonging to a cult? After all, Naidoo was using the Bible, the Christian Holy Book. He claimed he was the “third son of God” – I have yet to discover who the second is if Jesus is the first (if we’re all God’s children, what use is a Son?). Unless we are speaking of Adam – but I do not think that Naidoo was being austere to technical theological obscurity. He claimed he was God’s messenger.

I just find it strange that we label him a ‘cult’ leader (or member) and not a religious one. I find it strange that because “ordinary” people branch off into violence, like a burst vessel of the body of society, and claim a religious justification they are a ‘cult’. Yet when someone who believes he is doing Allah’s work blows himself and many others to pieces, he is a ‘religious fanatic’.

Let us drop the semantics and the playground name-calling. Let us call it what it is: blind faith. This the damage that absolute faith in a personal deity can have. Sure – the Lotters and Naidoo balance on the so-called fringe of ordinary, humble religious people. But those same good people who would reply: “They are crazy to believe such nonsense”, I ask this: How can you prove Naidoo is not “God’s messenger”. Is he not a “true Christian”? A “true believer”?

A true Christian would never commit such atrocious acts you say, but that is the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

You can not disprove he was God’s messenger. You can not say his God was any different from the God of Abraham (who also asked for strict obedience and no-questions when commanding Abraham to slaughter his son); the God of Deuteronomy (who commands you to kill any person who professes sympathy for other gods even if he/she is family); or the God of the New Testament. He used the same book did he not? The same book that justifies genocide, that justifies slavery, and also abolishment and so on.

I can see no way for a Christian to display Naidoo being any different in his belief. Yes, you are correct: his beliefs are bizarre. But why are they different from any religious believers’. I think we have seen that it is incorrect to label this a ‘cult’ activity because there is no difference. Why is this a ‘cult’, but not Al’Quaeda? Why is Naidoo a cult leader, but the Ayatollah Khomeini was not?

We need a radical reversal of understanding. We need to tear these veils and see them for the blind-faith that encompasses it all. As Žižek highlights, ‘With God, everything is permitted.” Even the coercion of ordinary people into murdering their parents. Why? Because God said so.

********

UPDATE: The replies I have received from people reading this have fairly attempted to answer the question: “Why is Mathew Naidoo considered a cult leader but not the Ayatollah Khomeini, Bin Laden, Ted Haggard, Rick Warren, Paul Hill, etc.?” The answer I predicted was going to be “Well, they had a political agenda and it’s wrong to place all those kinds of people into one category.”

1. I speak about Paull Hill a lot, but he is once again an appropriate example. His agenda was not political. His agenda was based on the fact that the doctor was “killing babies”. Readers are welcome to view it for themselves by looking at Rev. Spitz’s comments on my article “Belief as Poison”. You can even visit the Army of God website. There is no political agenda here, unless you want to get into the pathetic semantics of what constitutes “political”.

The opening words are from Psalms, their basis for attacking and killing doctors is based on the Bible. What does this sound like? Blind faith, yet again. There is nothing political here so this answer does not work. I ask how we define the difference between this radical right-wing Christian group that believes that “babies” are being killed by doctors and God has told them to stop this at any cost – and Naidoo being told he is God’s messenger, and being told to kill the Lotter family at any cost.

2. Sure, lots of these are political. I do not ever make the claim that religion is the source of evil or dismay in the world. In a lot of cases, people are actually made happy by it. But if you accept this, I feel that you must accept that people unconsciously separate ‘cults’ and ‘extremists’ groups. Though the one might have a political agenda, it still fits the criteria for a cult. I still think we need to radically reassess our views on cults and so-called fringe religious mindsets. Both will give their lives to the cause, both obey the leader as speaking for or from God, etc. This also raises no opposition to my point.

Reference

1. Michael Shermer (2002) Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: Owl Books. Pp 119-120

Perhaps It’s Beauty?

I want you to consider your favourite piece of music, song or artist. Let it waltz, drum, fade-in and ameliorate your current mindset. Be it the clash of cymbals, the baritone voice; the rhythmic pulse of drums or traditional percussion like heartbeats of an ancient era; the rising soprano with the quivering glass; the electric hoorah of the last chord in a guitar; or whatever fits the glove of your appreciation. Grab it, hold it, and shake hands. This, dear reader, is your projected beauty. And only one part!

If our bodies are temples, then longing for beauty is the stained-glass window. It is wonderful to appreciate those things we find beautiful: music, literature, art, dance, movies, engineering, sunsets. The list is as endless as a flowing microcosm. For that is exactly it’s point: It grows and shakes and moves.

Answer the question: How many people do you know who hate music?

I have yet to meet one, but I do not doubt there exists such.

Or perhaps: someone who hates literature?

I do not doubt our extent for hate, but it is my trust in what we can love that rises above the negative. And it is focusing on what we love, what we find beautiful, that often unites us. It is easy to raise our swords and words, our fingers are eager to point at a moving target. We are programmed to be ready with torches and baying hounds to lynch-mob a group, a person, an idea. And too often we forget that it is in fact easier to unite for the opposite reason: To replace the pitchforks with handshakes, the finger with the wide eye.

Who does not have an intake of breath at the awe, mystery and wonder of the universe? Who does not rejoice in our ongoing treatment and fighting of diseases: medical, political, or societal? We are quick to anger at the kidnapped child, yet forget the average happy child growing and living. The incredible network we have stepped into, a realised world awaiting our hands to mold it into something even more beautiful. With our brains and our awareness, we have a responsibility – not just to protect this world, but to love it, to cherish it. Loving is not the same as cherishing: We can all love our lives, but how often do we cherish that we are alive, are in a complex beautiful network of interconnected species?

Literature is my passion. I love asking people of their favourite writers. To be sure, my snobbery from my English degree has made me somewhat disdainful of trite, unthinking literature (Dan Brown, Jackie Collins, etc.) But the question remains and the value is retained. My love lies in Russian literature (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol) and Southern Gothic American (Faulkner, Morrison, McCarthy), with snatches of French classics (Sartre, Camus, Stendhal) – but it is ever growing. I am in awe of writing and language and the beauty it creates.

But that is my own stained-glass. It is ever shattered and ever remade. When is yours being remade? When do you look through your windows, into a multicoloured world and think: Where else does my beauty lie?

Being Part of the “One Law for All” Campaign

I was invited by Maryam Namazie, the spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britian, to be a petitioner; along with AC Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christopher Hitchens, and others. You can find yours truly on this list along with other better, greater writers and thinkers.

It was launched on the 10th December, 2008, the same day I wrote my article on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

According to campaign organiser, Maryam Namazie, ‘Even in civil matters, Sharia law is discriminatory, unfair and unjust, particularly against women and children. Moreover, its voluntary nature is a sham; many women will be pressured into going to these courts and abiding by their decisions. These courts are a quick and cheap route to injustice and do nothing to promote minority rights and social cohesion. Public interest, particularly with regard to women and children, requires an end to Sharia and all other faith-based courts and tribunals.’

The campaign has already received widespread support including from AC Grayling; Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Bahram Soroush; Baroness Caroline Cox; Caspar Melville; Deeyah; Fariborz Pooya; Gina Khan; Houzan Mahmoud; Homa Arjomand; Ibn Warraq; Joan Smith; Johann Hari; Keith Porteous Wood; Mina Ahadi; Naser Khader; Nick Cohen; Richard Dawkins; Shakeb Isaar; Sonja Eggerickx; Stephen Law; Tarek Fatah; Tauriq Moosa; Taslima Nasrin and others. It has also received the support of organisations such as Children First Now; Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain; Equal Rights Now – Organisation against Women’s Discrimination in Iran; European Humanist Federation; International Committee against Stoning; International Humanist and Ethical Union; Iranian Secular Society; Lawyers Secular Society; the National Secular Society; and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

The campaign calls on the UK government to recognise that Sharia law is arbitrary and discriminatory and for an end to Sharia courts and all religious tribunals on the basis that they work against and not for equality and human rights.

The campaign also calls for the Arbitration Act 1996 to be amended so that all religious tribunals are banned from operating within and outside of the legal system.

In the words of the Campaign Declaration: ‘Rights, justice, inclusion, equality and respect are for people, not beliefs. In a civil society, people must have full citizenship rights and equality under the law. Clearly, Sharia law contravenes fundamental human rights. In order to safeguard the rights and freedoms of all those living in Britain, there must be one secular law for all and no Sharia.’

Roy Brown, immediate past president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union said, “IHEU is lending its full support to this campaign. It is intolerable that the very values on which UK society is based – human rights, equality and the rule of law – are being undermined by the quiet and insidious application of systems of law that have no basis in equality or justice.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, which is also supporting the One Law for All campaign, said: “It is a grave error for the authorities in this country to give credence to Sharia in any form – whether legally or in terms of informal arbitration. When women are being subjected to violence in their marriages, it is not acceptable for religious authorities – which are, by definition, misogynistic – to arbitrate. A two-tier legal system, with women’s rights being always secondary to religious demands, is unnecessary, undesirable and ultimately unjust.”

To RSVP to attend the launch or for more information, please contact Maryam Namazie, email: onelawforall@gmail.com, telephone: 07719166731; website: onelawforall.org.uk. The campaign’s website will be available on the day of the launch.

One Law for All

Campaign against Sharia law in Britain

Declaration

We, the undersigned individuals and organisations, call on the UK government to bring an end to the use and institutionalisation of Sharia and all religious laws and to guarantee equal citizenship rights for all.

Sharia law is discriminatory

Sharia Councils and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals are discriminatory, particularly against women and children, and in violation of universal human rights.

Sharia law is unfair and unjust in civil matters

Proponents argue that the implementation of Sharia is justified when limited to civil matters, such as child custody, divorce and inheritance. In fact, it is civil matters that are one of the main cornerstones of the subjugation of and discrimination against women and children. Under Sharia law a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s; a woman’s marriage contract is between her male guardian and her husband. A man can have four wives and divorce his wife by simple repudiation, whereas a woman must give reasons, some of which are extremely difficult to prove. Child custody reverts to the father at a preset age, even if the father is abusive; women who remarry lose custody of their children; and sons are entitled to inherit twice the share of daughters.

The voluntary nature of Sharia courts is a sham

Proponents argue that those who choose to make use of Sharia courts and tribunals do so voluntarily and that according to the Arbitration Act parties are free to agree upon how their disputes are resolved. In reality, many of those dealt with by Sharia courts are from the most marginalised segments of society with little or no knowledge of their rights under British law. Many, particularly women, are pressured into going to these courts and abiding by their decisions. More importantly, those who fail to make use of Sharia law or seek to opt out will be made to feel guilty and can be treated as apostates and outcasts.

Even if completely voluntary, which is untrue, the discriminatory nature of the courts would be sufficient reason to bring an end to their use and implementation.

Sharia law is a quick and cheap way to injustice

Proponents argue that Sharia courts are an alternative method of dispute resolution and curb legal aid costs. When it comes to people’s rights, however, cuts in costs and speed can only bring about serious miscarriages of justice. Many of the laws that Sharia courts and religious tribunals aim to avoid have been fought for over centuries in order to improve the rights of those most in need of protection in society.

Sharia law doesn’t promote minority rights and social cohesion

Proponents argue that the right to be governed by Sharia law is necessary to defend minority rights. Having the right to religion or atheism, however, is not the same as having the ‘right’ to be governed by religious laws. This is merely a prescription for discrimination, inequality and culturally relative rights. Rather than defending rights, it discriminates and sets up different and separate systems, standards and norms for ‘different’ people. It reinforces the fragmentation of society, and leaves large numbers of people, particularly women and children, at the mercy of elders and imams. It increases marginalisation and the further segregation of immigrant communities. It ensures that immigrants and new arrivals remain forever minorities and never equal citizens.

One law for all

Whilst arbitration tribunals are part of British law, they are subject to such safeguards as are necessary in the public interest. Clearly, public interest, and particularly the interests of women and children, requires an end to Sharia and all faith-based courts and tribunals.

Rights, justice, inclusion, equality and respect are for people, not beliefs. In a civil society, people must have full citizenship rights and equality under the law. Clearly, Sharia law contravenes fundamental human rights. In order to safeguard the rights and freedoms of all those living in Britain, there must be one secular law for all and no Sharia.

Petition

One Law for All

  • We call on the UK government to recognise that Sharia and all religious laws are arbitrary and discriminatory against women and children in particular. Citizenship and human rights are non-negotiable.
  • We demand an end to all Sharia courts and religious tribunals on the basis that they work against and not for equality and human rights.
  • We demand that the Arbitration Act 1996 be amended so that all religious tribunals are banned from operating within and outside of the legal system.

reposted from Butterfliesandwheels.com.