Archives For Atheism

View this on my HuffPost blog – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/liam-deacon/atheism-sunday-assemblies_b_4993851.html

How ‘Atheist’ should Sunday Assemblies be?

In a recent twitter exchange had between myself, @dimacdonald, @alomshaha, @AlexGabriel and Sanderson Jones, co-founder of Sunday Assembly movement, we discussed the difficult question of just how ‘Atheist’ Sunday Assemblies should be?

MacConald points out, “it’s sadly true that Sunday Assembly has divorced itself of explicit atheism… the Sunday Assembly’s philosophy of ‘live better, help often and wonder more’ [could] end up neglecting that very cornerstone of freethought – freethinking itself.”

I Share his concerns. I hope Atheist assemblies can find a way of marrying the theatre, uplifting spirt and sense of community monopolised by religious assemblies without, “the Sunday Assembly speaker platform just become[ing] an opportunity for every nutter off the street to promote their own personal pseudoscientific self-help shite,” as he put it.

7630a748b4c0ad5cb41b5e3c76e2453f

Atheism, and Atheist assemblies, should always maintain a focus on reason and a commitment to the scientific method that elevates them above the sometimes dangerous dogmatism of religion. Furthermore they should be democratic and pluralistic organisations in opposition to the autocracy, hegemony and pressurised conformity of religion.

I really support the essence and ambition of the Sunday Assembly. However, Atheism’s greatest strength will always be it’s intrinsic inclusiveness, honesty, openness and enlightened spirit. This must not be forgot in an attempt to market the Sunday Assembly as a friendly (yet ignorant) song and dance.

Really well said by @dimacdonald !

This was written for the African Affairs Network of the University of Sheffield. It also appeared on my HuffPost blog.

The recent bill persecuting gay people in Uganda is caused by imperialistic Western Christian fundamentalists. 

Watching Uganda’s president chuckle as he signed into law a bill that meant life imprisonment for homosexuality and not reporting gay family members a criminal offence was chilling. Many western observers shared an intuition that the West should surely respond in swift and principled manner to this ‘odious’ bill (as Obama described it). Sweden has suspended aid to Uganda and Richard Branson has already withdrawn all investment in the country. “I urge other companies worldwide to follow suit. Uganda must reconsider or find it being ostracized by companies and tourists worldwide,”[1] he said, capturing a commonly expressed opinion held by statesmen and businessmen alike.

235528-a2d77872-9db8-11e3-b163-d60ea6e39be3

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6ITGKyllfc

Their well-intentioned responses are misled. Ruthless economic ‘sanctions’ will indiscriminately increase poverty for all Uganda’s – gay, straight, liberal and bigoted. Cutting commercial investment will harm the economy and slashing governmental aid is futile; the vast majority is spent via NGOs, so little direct pressure will be put on the relevant legislators. However, a less draconian and potentially more effective response is available that has received little consideration in the ethnocentric and historically Christian west.

Homophobia is rife in much of Africa and homosexuality is illegal across most of the continent, so much of the western reporting has deplored this regressive law as characteristic of a distinctively African moral issue. But, particularly in the case of the much publicized and criticized law in Uganda, the problem is representative of a recognizably western, institutionalized homophobic narrative which has been financed and facilitated by politicized western religious extremists and justified by some ‘bad’ science coming out of America.[2]

A recent film by called ‘God Loves Uganda’, by Rodger Ross Willis, has exposed in detail the fundamentalists who have been traveling to Uganda in their thousands and investing vast sums of money to insure their twisted religious social agenda is enforced. The social conservatives who have been definitively losing the ‘culture war’ on ‘sexual immorality’ back in America, as gay marriage has been legalized state by state, have now intensified their efforts to spread and legislate their hatred elsewhere – and they see developing nations such as Uganda as the perfect place to install their intolerant and violent interpretation of Biblical law.

Hate preachers like Scott Lively, who have previously written how, “homosexuals [are] the true inventors of Nazism and the guiding force behind many Nazi atrocities”[3] are very active in Uganda. He was instrumental in organizing a conference about “the gay agenda… that whole hidden and dark agenda, and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family,”[4] and just one month later, a Ugandan politician with close ties to American evangelicals introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009. Lively was even invited to address the Ugandan parliament for five hours to propagate his violence and hatred.

Following in their footsteps, thousands of young ‘born again’ American evangelicals have been traveling to Uganda in search of adventure whilst attempting to do something that’s “gonna blow god’s freakin mind!”[5] and they have gained influence over politics, business, education and entertainment. There’s something infuriatingly obnoxious and patronizing about white-bred, middle class kids trying to save people afflicted by poverty, war and AIDS with backward and bigoted sexual moral codes. These people and their ‘missionary work’ have “set a fire they can’t quench,”[6] and now Uganda is facing a wave of homophobic violence that these westerners are largely responsible for.

Hate preachers like Lively are in the same category as Anjem Choudary and Abu Qatada – if they were Muslim they would be swiftly labeled terrorists and reprimanded. But Lively and his accomplices like Lou Engle[7] have been permitted to continue propagating violence simply because they are ‘Christian’. During the Bush administration, many American officials actually praised Uganda’s ‘family-value policies’ and directed millions of dollars into abstinence programs.[8]

I recently blogged about the controversial and ordinarily employed term ‘islamophobia’, of which there is no equivalent term to describe and distinguish those who irrationally fear and hate Christianity from those who simply criticize it. But what is not questioned is the fact that the Christian equivalent to the term ‘Islamism’ (dominionism) is hardly evoked at all. Could this linguistic deficiency be revealing of a subliminal cultural prejudice? I think so.

Strains of politicized Islam have seen resurgence in Egypt and recently Turkey, and have received plenty of media coverage. Generally in the west Christianity is less political. But in parts of America, literalist, intolerant and explicitly political Biblical interpretations are prominent, and they are potently dangerous when exported by wealthy and influential zealots who forcefully propagate their ideology in developing, sovereign nations like Uganda.

I see little difference between some Saudi Wahabis that the West labels terrorists (because they fund extremism and violence) and the evangelical Christian fundamentalists doing the same in Uganda, but are labeled ‘missionaries’ instead. They too have an explicitly political agenda and wish to impose archaic, religious conceptions of morality upon diverse and pluralistic population. They see no place for gay people in “God’s kingdom” and have been vigorously promoting violence on the African continent, backed by millions of dollars of donations given in America churches.

Missionaries first went to Africa to “civilize” and “save” the African people. But it was an aggressive form of moral arrogance that manifested as cultural imperialism and has overwhelmed, undermined and eroded many fragile and unwritten African cultures. The American evangelical missionaries who continue this tradition today are some of the most aggressive, ignorant and dangerous yet, and are directly responsible for the Ugandan bill.

The ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims lineage back to Solomon – but European missionaries converted the vast majority of protestant and catholic Christians in Africa today. Islam swept out of Arabia in the seventh century and established a Muslim tradition across North Africa. Later, European colonialists, Victorian enthusiasts, Jesuits and now the equally self-righteous American evangelicals continue to arrived and fuel a monotheistic proxy war being fought out on African soil – a theological war that has recently become very real in the Central Africa Republic and Mali.

CAr

President Museveni of Uganda claims he is asserting himself ‘against western imperialism’, but in reality he is promoting and fostering a pernicious western cultural import. As Jomo Kenyatta famously said, “when the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

Successful diplomatic response from the West to moral and human rights crisis in the developing world are never easy. We must strive to uphold the highly regarded principles of universal human rights, avoiding behaving like cultural imperialists of the past yet also not slide towards cultural relativism. Recent western attempts to ‘punish’ other African nations for human rights violations (such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Sudan) have not often been successful, and have simply pushed these nations closer to China.

In the case of Uganda, it would make more sense for the west to resist harsh economic sanctions that will directly increase poverty and instead address a major cause of the gay rights crisis, which is coming directly from the west. We should begin to question the naive and harmful western evangelical missionaries and punish the most dangerous hate preachers who are so pervasive and powerful in African and continue to openly fund and promote violence and homophobia.

References

This also featured on my HuffPost blog – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/liam-deacon/maajid-nawaz_b_4905802.html

Rights, Democracy and Cartoons

Last week journalists and politicians attempted to have a serious debate over a comic strip. Much ammunition was spent in the ensuing media trial of Maajid Nawaz who provoked the petition that prompted the debate. But frustratingly little of that discussion touched upon the motivating tension behind the issue. Tension derived from the controversial question of weather there is a need or democratic will to sign away certain individual rights to protect certain group rights here in the UK. Including and in particular the religious sensibilities at hand in this case.

The debate over group rights is contested, but what shouldn’t be, is the fact that calling for instant and somewhat arbitrary retributive action against a single MP candidate, who has exercised a right afforded to everyone else, just isn’t a convincing way to invite this debate into the public domain. Neither is it just or democratic.

They issue will remain controversial, but it certainly may be fair to invite the question into democratic conversation as the nation changes – to query if certain group identities might now need protecting by the curtailing of certain individual rights, such as those of Mr. Nawaz. It’s a discussion that’s been had in Canada, where the assignment of fishing rights to native ethnic groups and religious rights to particular immigrant groups has been very contentious.

Many assert that their existence creates different levels of citizenship and is ultimately divisive. The philosophical viability of group rights is sometimes rejected outright, because they are seen to utterly undermine the existence of essential universal and human rights. But supporters also argue that assigning group rights and protections in diverse democracies is essential to the survival of the distinct identities and cultures of minority groups, even if protections are only used temporarily.

I’m sure those who are really concerned with protecting religious traditionalists from cartoons are perusing the relevant lobbying or legislative pathways. But those who also lost their temper over the actions of one political figure have shown their increasing assertion of certain purported religious rights to be representative of what the opposition contends them to be – misappropriated as a tool to silence those who disagree.

A major argument advanced by those who attempted to have him ousted is that that many Muslims do not favour Mr. Nawaz or feel he is representative of them as a demographic group. This might be true; however, Mr. Nawaz’s message is that Islam is a diverse group and is not always appreciated as such. He wouldn’t claim for a moment to represent all British Muslims. He represents the change he and his organization wish to see and it is for the electorate of Hampstead and Kilburn to decide if they want him to represent them. The 20,000 signatures are entitled to be offended, but it certainly has not yet been decided by a court or in parliament that this ‘offender’ should suffer punitive measures for exercising his freedom of speech.

In terms of the Lib Dems, I would hazard a guess that it was an understanding of the importance of individual rights that led Mr. Nawaz towards his chosen party. To then witness them be so dilatory about upholding those very rights, rights they actually purport to embody, must have been despairing. Most worryingly of all, it signaled to the tiny minority who also threatened violence that their actions were productive.

This article appeared on freethoughtblog.com as guest post –http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2014/01/06/guest-post-critiquing-islam-or-islamophobia/ 

Critiquing Islam and Islamophobia

For nine years in a row a controversial resolution on, “Combating Defamation of Religions,” described by some as an, “international blasphemy law,” has been consistently losing support in the United Nations General Assembly. Until 2010, the only religion mentioned in the legislation was Islam, when the authors of the legislation, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, invented the terms; “Judeophobia and Christianophobia,” too quell criticism. Domestically too, the term Islamophobia has come under intense scrutiny, just this week. Opinion is sharply divided.

The discourse here in the UK often mirrors the international debate. In one camp, the appropriateness of the terms very existence is questioned; critics lambast the fact that in reality there is no equivalent terminology in existence to describe those who critique other ideologies and religions (other than Anti-Semitism, of course). They say it is telling of the particular defensiveness and privilege that Islam demonstrates and is often afforded. Others, however, maintain that the phenomena is one of the most concerning and potentially dangerous of our age. They contend that the recent increase in Islamophobia is akin to the rise of Anti-Semitism in the last century and portray Islamophobia as a current of hate, engulfing Europe and risking unrest, conflict even.

There is truth on both ends of this dialectic. Islamophobia clearly exists. It is a genuine phenomenon. A ‘phobia’ is an irrational fear or hatred of something – one need only browse the Internet momentarily before confronting a plethora of overtly irrational, hateful and inflammatory views directed towards Muslims. On the other hand, the term is very commonly misappropriated to deflect genuine and much needed criticism of Islam. And it is grossly misappropriated when used to scare and accuse those interested in discussing theology, ethics and progress of racism and bigotry.

The comparison between Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism can be useful. Both are genuine and both are often misappropriated. (Israel frequently claims Anti-Semitism is at work when policies of the apartheid state are subject to criticism.) Mohammad Ansar explains here the increasingly worrying similarity between Islamophobia today and Anti-Semitism of the previous century,

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/01/29/3678693.htm

However, misappropriation of the term is so common, and confusion so easy, because alongside the rising tide of irrational Islamophobia described by Ansar, there is an increasing need for a rational critique Islam (a process Ansar is deeply involved in himself).

Religions are not static or homogeneous. They change / evolve over time and at any one time there is often a plurality of voices within any religion advocating differing interpretations. Rigorous and continuous criticism is an important catalyst for this ongoing process. Denying the need for such a critique, and assuming Islam is static and unchanging, is as crude and misleading as islamophobia itself.

Religion is a historical process of change and modernization. Many early religions described man’s relationship with nature. There were Gods of sun, thunder and earth. Later, religions are often seen to embody man’s relationship with the state. The god of Athena, say, represented to the Greeks their relationship with the polis. Later, the great monotheistic religions of Islam and Christianity began to function as the Polis itself. Church and state became one; it was the fear of God, rather that the Police, that kept citizens in line and it was parish / sharia courts who made judicial rulings.

After coming to dominate politics in Europe, Christianity did not give up its political power lightly. From Galileo to Copernicus, for centuries, owners of any voice of decent were persecuted. It was a long and bloody battle before Christianity began to communicate with post enlightenment thought. Christianity was battered and berated into submission by a reformation, enlightenment and a well-established tradition of biblical criticism. The result was the subdued and less political Christianity we know today (maybe not so in America). The simple fact is that Islam is not as far through this stage of its historical development, through which it will be brought to communicate with post enlightenment thought and secular politics, as Christianity, which began it in the 17th century.

Comparatively, very little is know about the true origins of the Koran. Historians such as Patria Crone and Tom Holland have only recently begun this mammoth task. Historical and Archeological examinations of the Bible helped Christians a great deal in reconciling their views with the realities of the modern world. Hopefully the same can be true for Islam.

Incongruity, or harmony?

As I’ve said, Islam is far from monolithic; Muslim feminists and gay rights activists are a historical fact. But today, particularly since the Islamic resurgence, Islam is dominated by conservative, and primarily male, voices. Such voices have been politicizing the religion and pushing an oppressive, conservative social agenda. This has resulted in the social regression we see in Iran and more recently, Turkey and Egypt. Critiquing the authoritarian, misogynistic and homophobic values of these interpretations of Islam is of pivotal importance for the survival and wellbeing of millions of people worldwide.

Another issue at hand is the confluence of Islamic culture with Islamic faith. If such a critique is to be as successful as it has been for Christianity then it is likely that many Muslims, especially those living in the west, will come to reject the dogmatism of religion and embrace Agnosticism and Atheism. It is critical that Apostates of Islam can hold on to their cultural identity despite losing their faith. It’s been decades since people, un-ironically, discussed ‘Christendom’ or ‘Christian culture’ instead of ‘western culture,’ and it’s time Islamic culture was more commonly afforded such respect, as something quite distinct from mere faith.

As conservative Muslim populations living inside western liberal democracies become more vocal and politicized, it must be remembered that a central condition of freedom of religion is the freedom of others to criticize your religion. New Atheism and ‘Dawkinism’ are consistently more abrasive and less patient with conservative religious views. If every time the two groups come into conflict commentators call it Islamophobia, the true meaning and importance of the word will very soon be lost.

I must stress, none of what is said above is written to suggest that the majority of Muslims today are not already moderate and do not accept post-enlightenment thought. Rather, if we are to begin to see the end of political Islam and the small but significant strains of radical Islam that western media is so obsessed with, then a vigorous and open discussion must be had about Islam. At a time when genuinely Islamophobic views are on the rise, keeping such a rational discussion distinct from genuinely Islamophobic, irrational prejudice will be increasingly difficult.

Footnote

1) I tweeted the article to Tom Holland (one of the historians mentioned above), and very kindly he replied,

The essay he sent brings out a far more nuanced distinction between Christianity and Islam than i am able to describe in this article. As he explains in the essay, with a full examination of scripture and historical context, the holism and doctrinairism present in Islamic scripture is likely to distinguish Islam’s own idiosyncratic evolution from Christianity’s journey. It’s well worth a read.

2) Many of the Reddit comments have pointed out that i omit to define either, or draw a clear line between, Islamophobia and legitimate criticism. I merely describe one as rational and the other irrational or prejudice. Unfortunately this was simply not within the scope of the article. Kenan Malik draws such a distinction, quite excellently, here,

http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/when-does-criticism-of-islam-become-islamophobia/

References

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2010/03/25/104041.html

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/01/29/3678693.htm

http://cnsnews.com/news/article/un-passes-religious-defamation-resolution-sponsored-islamic-nations-support-dwindles

The idea concerning the evolution of religion and a dialectic of truth is obviously very Hegelian. Taken from Bob Stern’s guide The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Tariq Ramadam is an intellectual and orator who i much admire. He’s brave enough to stand up to a berated Christopher Hitches and defend his faith (www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-spKm13v6c), but also question and confront the authority of those within the faith. As a religious apologist, his rational and anti-literalist critique of Islam presents real hope for reconciliation with post enlightenment thought and for internal evolution and progress in the faith. An imminent critique that Islam can shy away from no longer.
However, It is a fact that cannot be omitted, that Professor Ramadam is a rational thinker who owe’s much of his clarity of though to the western philosophical tradition, something he too often denies. In this fascinating but misleading lecture Ramadam claims to talk of ‘Religion’ and ‘spirituality’…. but, he speaks only of reason and Philosophy.

He starts with Isaiah Berlin and Rousseau of freedom. Rousseau famously declared that we must be “forced to be free,” eluding to a distinction Berlin would make over a century later, between positive and negative freedom. I’m with Hegel on this one, Freedom is a ‘social achievement.’ Western, liberal, consumer society constantly reminds us of how we are (negatively) free to get an education, get rich and buy a BMW, but consistently fails to tell us how we are positively free to achieve anything – be that material, ethical or ‘spiritual.’ My freedom to extend my fist ends at your nose, but my freedom to find affluence and peace begins with my society. Finding freedom is a complex and sometimes contradictory process. To be free we must be restrained and those restrictions must be self-legislating but also universal. Only Philosophy can tackle this issues, Religion is impotent in the face of such complexity.
Then Professor Ramadan deplores rule base, dogmatic moral systems – precisely the sort of closed deontologies religions peddle. In a diverse, modern, liberal society only openminded secularism stands any chance of rectifying the plurality of thought on ethical issues we see, with the aim of create cohesive, peaceful societies. Religious dogmatism appeals to emotion and superstition and it makes little room for disagreement, which can only lead to conflict.

And, through-out, Mr Ramadam claims to promote social and cultural understanding and cohesion. But, once again, normatively it is his treasured religion that arrogantly preach moral superiority and the need to convert others to your way of thinking.

This is not a ‘spiritual’ man – this is a rational man. I encourage religious thinkers to follow Mr Ramadam in rationalising their theology. But it would be better still if the religious simply appealed to the source of such rationality, spared the apologists such a Ramadam the painful and laborious task of rectifying and revamping religious dogma and embraced reason and philosophy in it’s purest form as the only source of just and proper moral systems in the modern world.

I Was an Angry Atheist On Tuesday

I attended a little Christmas event at a Church hall with very good intentions to get involved. I felt unwelcome, slipped out early, marched home and wrote this. Sorry Nan.

cat-dawkins

“Growing up in a Christian community and attending a C of E primary school, I remember those dastardly Christians (they were really nice actually), constantly trying to assert one fucked up thing around this time of year. That, “we must remember what Christmas is REALLY about”. And that is obviously Jesus (and the associated values he stood for, blah blah blah)

After I started listening enough at my Christian primary school to realize this God stuff was bull, something about that particular festive comment (above) started to really bug me. It seemed to imply that those of us who didn’t believe in the super natural could not, or were not entitled to, find value in and promote Christmas and it’s associated principles. Morally intuitive principles such as loyalty to one’s family, helping out in the community and giving to the poor. Years later, I think I might have worked out what’s so wrong with that shit Christian catch phrase.

I’m no historian of Christmas, but I know that a pagan festival of a very similar format and ethos existed long before some politically motivated leader of a desert tribe caballed together the Old Testament. This festival, positioned close to the winter solstice made a lot of sense for some very familiar reasons. It brought families’ together in the depths of winter when we needed each other the most. When we needed something to look forward to and to cheer us up. It reminded us of our social commitments to care for our fellow human beings when many will have been suffering. Then they called it Christmas and we all had to stop having sex.

So when a Christian next tells me to remember what Christmas is “really about”, firstly ill tell him to fuckoff and mind his own business. Then I’ll go on to explain to him how his little club hijacked Christmas values from a long-standing and very sensible tradition. Like a lot of religious values, they are based on intuitive, instinctive, uniquely human values. Christmas can live on in a post religious world. And fuck it, maybe when the Muslims start getting past the Quran and all that shit, we can get them involved with their similar tradition of Edie. And then maybe we’ll actually be able to start “loving thy neighbor”, instead of condemning each other to eternal damnation.