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Mumbai 29 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Inequality & Stratification, Islam, Modernity and Modernism, Multiculturalism, War & Terrorism.
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Note: I am no expert in Indian history or politics, so this is just a casual reaction from an outside observer. I would love to hear from readers who are better informed or have deeper analyses to offer.

There is a lot of really good commentary floating around the interwebs about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, this past week, and I have been trying to sort out all the intricacies of what happened. The social scientist in me (and my base personality) goes quickly to trying to understand such an event, the structures, attitudes, and practices that would lead us to such a show of violence. Unfortunately, much of the early analysis drew facile parallels with Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism(s), but I really don’t think that works. Although global Islam is (loosely) connected, it seems that this Indian event is much more deeply tied to a particularly Indian inter-communal conflict, one that has been brewing and boiling over for decades, if not centuries. Whereas terrorism born of Saudi malcontents is anchored in an anti-modernity and anti-Americanism, that is, a long post-colonial history, it seems that the Mumbai violence, while certainly connected to British imperialism, has as much to do with internal inequalities. It looks to be a domestic terrorism only loosely (perhaps even ideologically) connected to global interactions. Although Pakistan and India are separate countries, which makes it look like an “international” affair, I think that the partition of Pakistan from India in the late 1940s is evidence of internal divisions within the subcontinent more than of an international conflict. 

To me, then, the terrorism in Mumbai looks far more like a failure of pluralism, or more pointedly, a failure of plural democracy. One of the key weaknesses at the origins of the modern state of India, which Ghandi warned of, was the imagination of India as hindu, and all others as Others. The national imagination of the Indian state wove into it the pre-existing communal conflicts between Indian muslims and Indian hindus, and really hasn’t ever allowed for a true and equal pluralism to develop. See “India’s Muslims in Crisis” by Aryn Baker for a brief primer on the status of Muslims in India.

Unfortunately, the global Ummah is made up, partially now, of a culture of terrorism, where injustices (perceived or real) are dealt with through direct violence against anyone perceived as benefiting from or participating in the oppression of muslims. It is perhaps far beyond this now, but maybe not: Is there no Ghandi for Indian Muslims? Are there no other ways for Indians to demand their full equality within the modern Indian state without resorting to violence of this kind? Or am I just naive and idealistic?

Canadian “Human Rights” Tribunal 14 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Islam, Journalism, Judaism.
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The more I read the opinions of Ezra Levant, former editor of Canada’s conservative magazine Western Standard (à la Weekly Standard…get it?), the more I disagree with him and nearly all of his wrong-headed politics. However, I stand with him on the issue of freedom of speech, expression, and conscience as foundational to a liberal society and to a functioning cultural democracy. Even if I conclude that he had unethical motives for publishing the cartoons of Muhammed from the Danish magazine, his intention should have no bearing on whether or not he should be free to publish them. The more I see Canada’s ridiculous “hate speech laws” in action (not to mention England’s and Denmark’s and Holland’s), the more convinced than ever I am that this kind of  multiculturalism, although perhaps well-intentioned, when taken in the wrong direction can be a grave threat to liberal democratic values and, ironically enough, cultural diversity itself. Here’s Levant’s opening statement to Canada’s sham of a “human rights” commission in Alberta Canada from last week. Hear! Hear!

Freedom from offense a human right? 5 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Islam, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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[Sorry for the second question-form post title in less than 30 minutes.]

Last month, the UN’s 3rd committee passed a resolution against the ‘defamation’ of religion. Not surprisingly, the resolution was written and sponsored by Organization of the Islamic Conference, and names Islam as a besieged religion. Regardless, the resolution makes the classic illiberal mistake of thinking that freedom of religion means that no one can criticize you; that if you’re offended your rights have been violated; and that you have the right to do whatever you want to without scrutiny as long as you do it in the name of religion. I’ve waxed long and hard against this issue before, so I won’t belabor the point. I will, however, point you to a great rebuttal of the UN resolution from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (an international consortium of humanist organizations):

Universality of Human Rights under Attack at the UN

Science as “Faith-based”? (The “New Atheism”, cont.) 20 December 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Islam, Judaism, Religion, Science, Social Sciences.
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In a comment on The New Atheism thread, Compassioninpolitics wrote:

Interesting concerns. I see a couple flaws with new-atheism that have yet to be answered by anyone. Hitchens et al (aka the new atheists) use hyperbole, poisoning the well, and stereotype to prove their points.

I agree about Hitchen’s rhetorical tactics, but I don’t find this to be true of Dennett, Dawkins, or not even Harris. On the other hand, as Hitchens speaks and prods and provokes with his usual bombast and disdain for those who disagree with him, he is still making arguments against religious belief, and the arguments he makes go unanswered. This is perhaps the biggest weakness in Hitchens’ style in general, that it forecloses responses by demonstrating an unwillingness to engage from the outset.

Where I usually have some sympathy with religionists in this debate is that as a social scientist, I see religion as far more complex than a mere “force for evil” in the world (and here Harris joins Hitchens, in my opinion). Claims of that nature make me roll my eyes, since religion has multiple and contradictory effects, ranging from mass murder to self-sacrifice for strangers. So reducing religion to its negative effects without at the very least acknowledging the diversity of effects and its complexity is intellectually problematic, for me. However, in the world we live in today, it is also understandable that we are focusing on the problematic, anti-democratic, and murderous effects of religion, as those are the aspects that are causing very real social problems, from Gujarat to a field in Pennsylvania.

In terms of human reason, I see the worst effect of religion being that it provides a world view that allows people to react to difficult situations out of habit. It releases adherents from moral responsibility because they already know the “truth”. That makes religion particularly dangerous in the interdependent, plural world we live in today.

Compassioninpolitics continues:

Additionally, they fail to account for the fact that their assumptions about truth are wedded to a narrow notion of science, which is itself a faith based system which fails to include all forms of truth.

What is the “broader” view of science that has to be integrated into atheism’s view? I can’t really address that concern until I know exactly what it is.

More problematic is the notion that science is some kind of ‘faith-based initiative.’ I hear this all the time from defensive religionists, but the only way you can say that science is ‘faith-based’ is to make the definition of faith so mushy and general as to no longer hold any analytic usefulness as a category. But it seems to me that faith in religious contexts means, in general, a belief that something is true that cannot be proven to be true. Scientific method isn’t “true” in a “general principles” kind of way, but it has been proven “true” in an instrumental way over and over again: people believe in the method because it works. That seems strikingly different from faith that Jesus Saves or that Allah will greet you in paradise or that Rama will guide.

[As a side note, here’s where religion adopts (without irony) the language of postmodernism to defend itself: You can’t prove anything is true, so all truth claims are equal. You see, science is just like religion! Utter nonsense, perpetrated by, unfortunately, my colleagues in so-called “science studies”.]

Whereas religionists have faith in the supernatural (especially theistic religions), what exactly do scientists have faith in? The closest thing I can think of is faith in a method, the scientific method.

But that breaks down for me immediately because, as I said above, having faith in the scientific method is not qualitatively, affectively, nor empirically the same thing that religionists mean by their faith at all. Whereas religionist faith-based thinking moves forward by beginning with unprovable axiomatic principles by which all other claims are measured (e.g., God exists), science has no axiomatic principles, only a method. Whereas religion requires group agreement (think: religion as a social phenomenon), science requires group mutual-critique and competition as a social phenomenon. Whereas religion claims Universal and Timeless Truth, science insists on contingency and the fallibility of all claims, which require observable evidence and rational analysis that don’t resort to unprovable a prioris, circular logic, or infallibility.

I can only conclude that science is a faith-based system in a sense of the word that robs it of any meaningful use in describing anything.

Placating the Religious Right 25 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Islam, Multiculturalism, Religion.
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I’ve often mentioned here my discomfort with some forms of multiculturalism. Whereas I believe that a democratic, free society should protect an individual’s right to free association and expression, I do not believe that all cultures or identities are of equal value, and indeed, it is obvious that some are even dangerous to the very tenets upon which a free society is built.

In the United States, we have a minority of conservative Christians called “dominionists” who do not believe in tolerance or rights, who explicitly desire to constrain and limit the assembly and expression of many of their co-citizens (not least of whom, “the gays”). While these people’s rights to believe what they believe (i.e., that the U.S. is evil and that they are called of God to overthrow the government) should be protected, they should not be allowed to actually harm other people (i.e., infringe on others’ rights). So far, this is a no brainer in the United States, but not so elsewhere (and the U.S. has other problems, to be sure).

There is much to admire in the ways that Canada and many European nations (mostly the Western, Atlantic EU members; not so much the Eastern European states) deal with cultural diversity, but as I’ve said many times before, there are also some dangerous trends, not least of which is the belief that pluralistic tolerance should actually mean respect, that there is no way to judge the relative value of various beliefs and practices, and that a democrat is obliged to “respect” intolerance. I have called bullshit on this idea on more than one occasion.

Nick Cohen in this weekend’s Observer comments on British foreign and domestic policy of the Labor government, which has followed a policy of playing nicey nicey with anti-liberal loons whose explicit purpose is the destruction of the core values of democracy. Cohen’s commentary gives reason to hope that British politics have, at least, turned the bend in this regard. (I’m still reeling from the German court decisions that have basically disenfranchised Muslim women in a wrongheaded effort at multicultural understanding; and the fact that Canada even considered allowing Muslims to be subject to separate shariah courts.) But Cohen points out that the change is still fragile, and if the comments section following his commentary are any indication, we’ve got a long way to go in educating people about what democracy really means and what the limits of tolerance must be for democracy to survive.

Government policy is now to support British Muslims who uphold liberal values and oppose those who do not. Rushdie’s knighthood was a sign of the changing mood. Labour politicians might have tried to impose a veto a few years ago; instead, they said: ‘Are we going to allow British policy to be decided by dictatorial bigots, who want to inflame religious passion to divert attention from their own corruption?

‘There is only one possible answer to that question and it remains astonishing how many people who profess liberal sympathies refuse to grasp it. […]

If a liberal intelligentsia that is neither liberal nor noticeably intelligent and a Liberal Democrat party that can’t stand up for liberalism and democracy want to attack the government [for refusing to placate religious fascists], let them. They will pay a price for their moral cowardice one day.

Muslim Victims or Paranoid Victimhood? 16 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Islam, Multiculturalism, War & Terrorism.
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Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-Egyptian muslim, recently denied a visa to live in the United States while he was a visiting professor, wrote a piece for the Guardian last week in which he argued that Britons should stop looking at British Muslims for the answers to violence and start examining their own liberal values. He argues that integration is not the answer and that Muslim violence is the fault of the actions of the majority in Britain and elsewhere in Europe and America.

In response, David Goodhart, editor of Prospect and longtime defender of Ramadan against his alarmist critics, takes the European-Muslim intellectual to task for falling into simplistic clichés, victimhood, and misplaced identification. Goodhart acknowledges the difficulties faced by strangers (i.e., minorities) in any culture, as humans tend to distrust the unknown, but argues that British Muslims enjoy a degree of freedom and prosperity unknown to them virtually anywhere else in the world, including in Islamic states. He further argues that Ramadan falls into tired habits of mind that see muslims as perpetual victims and refuses to take responsibility for its own actions.

In all, it’s a great pair of readings and raises some of the most important questions of our time about multiculturalism, religious pluralism, and democracy. In the past, I have been mostly impressed with Ramadan and have seen him as a possible hero for European muslims. But this latest piece gave me pause and concern. The continued identification with outsiders instead of co-citizens is disastrous for liberal democracies. Goodhart does an excellent job of pointing out the weaknesses in Ramadan’s latest arguments and calling for a rational discussion of responsibility and social integration.

Reclaim Your Right to Criticize Religion 15 May 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Islam, Journalism, Religion.
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When will we get past this notion that public critique of religion is somehow discrimination or an abridgment of rights?  A religion’s truth claims are legitimate targets of inquiry and even ridicule. A religion’s actions are legitimate targets of judgment and moral critique. Are we really saying that the right to practice whatever religion you want to means that you are protected from being offended by people who disagree with you?

If free speech means anything, it must mean the right to vet the cultural practices, including religious, of those around us. Tufts university’s recent ruling on a newspaper ad criticizing Islam reveals the utter depravity of the misguided notion that religions must be protected in their practice and beliefs from outside criticism.

Hitchens on Free Speech 15 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, History, Islam, Judaism, Law/Courts, Religion.
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I have a love-hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens, whose columns in the Nation I used to love to read, but who continues to baffle me with an almost irrational support of the war in Iraq. But lately he has emerged as a modern-day Voltaire (at the risk of overstating), poking at sacred cows (i.e., religion) and insisting on the necessity and ultimate Good of radical free speech. Like Voltaire, he seeks purposefully to offend his reader-listener precisely because he can and believes he should be able to do so.

In Canada, hate-speech is against the law and several European countries are leaning toward outlawing “offensive” speech. This is a dangerous gigantic leap backward to Voltaire’s day, when people who said things offensive to the powers-that-were (i.e., the king and the church) were imprisoned, tortured, fined, or killed for speaking their minds. Here, Hitchens speaks at Hart House at the University of Toronto during a debate about the possible decriminalization of hate speech in the frosty country to our north.* Hitchens offends everyone from Canadians, to gays, to muslims and christians, to women, Austrians and people from Yorkshire. But he does so to make his point: Free speech must remain inviolate. Watch it knowing you’ll be offended at least once, and then listen for its core argument.

Thanks be to One Good Move for posting the speech. Here are a couple of excerpts on Youtube.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

*Canadian multiculturalism is in some ways extreme in its niceness and its fear of offence, but rises to the level of anti-democratic principle as the government reifies racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious identities by funding them merely to exist. I love Canada, and was probably a black jewish lesbian from the Northwestern Territories in my last life; but I fear their efforts to create a pluralist utopia may actually end up destroying some basic freedoms.

Homophobia Wins in Jerusalem; Mexico City Institutes Civil Unions 9 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Islam, Judaism, Religion, Sexuality, War & Terrorism.
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Open House Jerusalem, the city’s GLBT organization, agreed to cancel their Pride Parade, and will have an enclosed ralley at a university stadium instead. In return, the Haredi (ultra-conservative sect) have agreed to cancel their protest and planned violence. The city says they didn’t have the police necessary, the army had refused to send help (they’ve just started a major offensive in Gaza), and they cited a fear of terrorists using the parade as cover for suicide bombings.

I’m all in favor of keeping my Israeli/Palestinian brothers and sisters safe from hateful, violent wingnuts, but I can’t help but feel like this is another loss for gay men and women, on the heels of the major losses for gay men and women in the United States this past Tuesday.

The Evangelicals who petitioned the Israeli government; the Vatican who denounced the parade as “offensive to the faithful”; the haredi Jews who threatened to murder gay leaders; and the Muslim leaders who threatened violence to draw police away from protecting the marchers have won in Jerusalem. And conservative Christians and Catholics, evangelicals and republicans have succeeded in enshrining homophobia into nearly every state constitution in the United States.

One bright spot: Mexico City instituted Civil Unions for same-sex couples today. I’m not sure, but I think this is the first form of gay marriage offered in Central and South America.

The Root of All Evil?: Part 1—The God Delusion (review) 1 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cultural Critique, Documentary Film, Islam, Judaism, Philosophy of Science, Political Commentary, Religion, Reviews, Science.
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[My review of Part 2—The Virus of Faith can be found here.]

There has been much ado about Richard Dawkins’ Channel 4 two-part documentary, The Root of All Evil?, mainly because of Dawkins’ almost strident atheism and because of the relatively inflamatory title. [The video is not yet available in North America, but both parts are currently downloadable from Google Video, Part 1 here and Part 2 here.] Having been raised in a pretty orthodox Mormon household and having family on both sides who are quite religious now, I tend to be less afraid of religiosity in general than Dawkins seems to be. And I do sympathize with the religious impulse, the desire to beleive in something greater, for an explanation of both the uncertainty and fickleness of life as well as the disappointment with the realities of our existence.

When I realized I no longer believed in God, I found myself with twin wounds, one left by the loss of community, the other by the loss of submission to something greater. Dawkins seems to miss these dynamics completely, the importance of communal bonds and identity formation in people’s desire for and attachment to their religious beliefs. On Bill Moyers’ new series, On Faith & Reason, Collin McGinn said that when he left faith behind he found the world without God to be so much more vibrant and rich than it ever was with God. Although I did also eventually arrive at that conclusion, the years it took me to separate myself from religion were painful and transformed my most basic world view. The difficulty in replacing one’s world view and/or accepting the full implications of rationality and science can be quite overwhelming, but the documentary presents Reason as an easy englightenment, to which folks should easily convert.

So the main problem I had with the documentary emerges from my personal experience combined with my training as a sociologist: Dawkins doesn’t seem to fully understand how and why religion has the power it does on people, the role that it actually plays in people’s lives to give them meaning. All he seems to be able to see is its irrationality and anti-scientific mindset, along with the horrifying moral consequences of such belief. I had no qualms or disagreement with Dawkins on these points, but the documentary seemed to set up two categories of religion and science without addressing the complexities of why people believe in the first place and why it can be so hard for an individual, emotionally, socially and psychologically, to leave a faith-community. An exploration of these dynamics can help us understand more deeply why people refuse the evidences of science and rational argument; and more importantly it could help us understand to have more productive dialogues with the faithful, something of utmost importance if we are going to save our democracies around the world from collapsing into theocracies.

Another quibble I had was that the documentary painted religion with such a big brush that suicide bombers and rabid fundamentalists are lumped in with the millions of religious who fight injustice, hunger, and violence world wide. Human religions are vastly diverse and have multiple and contradictory consequences in the real world. It is problematic to ignore these deeply moral aspects to many of the world’s religious. I don’t point this out as an apology for religion, but rather to insist on seeing religion as a form of culture in all its complexity. Dawkins’ points about rationality and science stand even in the face of the morally positive aspects of religion.
[Dawkins has responded to many aspects of these and other criticisms in The New Statesman and in a great interview with the Infidel Guy.]

In all other aspects, I found the documentary to be a solid explanation of why scientific thinking and rational thought should prevail over religious belief, especially in the public sphere. Dawkins’ discussions with the likes of Ted Haggard illustrate clearly the problems of having rational discourse with some kinds of faithful. Haggard refuses the most basic premises of rational thinking and evidentiation of argument and insists, in an odd religious postmodern twist, that all ideas are of equal value and should be given equal time. He even goes so far as to accuse Dawkins of arrogance for making scientific assertions. In another interview on Point of Inquiry, Dawkins points out the arrogance is actually making assertions for which you have no evidence whatsoever and expecting that no one will criticize your position.

As I’ve been musing lately about the merits of rationality and especially about my own work in social theory and method, I find myself frustrated by the simple fact that many people simply, willfully refuse to accept the basic mode of rational thinking. McGinn pointed out that both the academic left and the religious right have been assailing rational thought in an odd sort of allegiance for the past 30 years, where on one hand postmodern philosophy and on the other fundamentalism make similar claims that require belief without evidence and refuse the most basic of rules of logic and empirical reasoning. It may simply be that it is impossible to have that discussion where those premises are not shared. For the academic left, perhaps more empirically and rationally minded researchers can work harder to actively engage in advocating the methods of rational inquiry; and perhaps for the religious right, the best we can do is continue unceasingly to fight for the fundamental principles of democracy that would allow them their religiosity without infringing on social progress. One debate, on the left, is ongoing and will probably work itself as postmodernism continues to lose its caché outside of the humanities; but with Dawkins, I do fear the power of the fundamentalist mind whose morality is clear and justifies violence and coercion to remake society in his or her image.