Removing the “New” from Religion and Atheism

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 11.38.41 AMDuring the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Lawrence Krauss, who is a physicist and relative newcomer to the New Atheism camp, debated Peter Rollins, who has become known as a leading thinker in Emerging or postmodern Christianity. Their debate was billed as “New Atheism” versus “New Religion,” although neither man sat well with the title his side had been given.

I have seen Krauss in other debates, particularly in Unbelieversthe recently released movie featuring him and Richard Dawkins arguing with a host of religious conservatives, primarily Christian and Muslim. What I found amusing in this particular debate, however, is that Krauss didn’t quite know what to do with Rollins. They had too much common ground. Rollins argued three things about New Atheism. First, he claimed that it can and has become for many an identity source just like religion, meaning that it is not functionally different from the religious traditions it decries. Second, he suggested that the direct attacks against fundamentalism serve to strengthen rather than weaken it. Lastly, he proposed that atheism does not have the “capital” to serve as a viable alternative to religion.

In terms of its function, it is undeniably true that atheism can become as much of an unthinking identity as religious tradition, but it should be unpacked a little bit. Rollins argues his case by suggesting that fundamentalism is not the problem, but the solution to a problem. It is this deeper problem that can be seen in fundamentalism and atheism alike, although I would add that the historical and fantastical accretions of religion make it a more hospitable location for dogmatism than atheism. In any case, while Rollins doesn’t specify what the deeper problem is, it can obviously take many forms in economic or social deprivation (or a defense for economic and social privilege), but almost always in a skewed sense of identity that needs reconciliation. I have spoken with people for whom atheism is clearly an identity, having shifted from a negation of religious belief to a positive affirmation of an absence of religion as a dogmatic stance.

In this case, it would be difficult not to agree with those Christians and Muslims who argue that New Atheism, or simply atheism, has developed into a position akin in many ways to religious tradition, which means that it can become unthinking. Krauss is much less able to recognize this position than is Rollins, because Krauss appears to be a clear and logical thinker. He doesn’t and doesn’t need to bank on an atheist identity. Consequently, while he acknowledged that atheism for some can become a positive identity, something more than “not-skiing” as a sport, he doesn’t understand it as a common, albeit illogical, approach. It is ridiculous to Krauss that an intellectual stance or what amounts to subjecting religious wisdom to scientific scrutiny could become a dogmatic stance, because it is clear that it shouldn’t. Indeed, it violates the principles of a scientific approach to form a dogmatic stance about it. In fact, it’s logically impossible to establish a dogma around a fundamental openness to new evidence. However, it is entirely possible to rest on such a stance based on what recent scientific thinkers have said about religion, namely that it is patently false. Without possessing the ability or will to question the truth of particular situations, one can easily and freely adopt the stance that all religion is false and religious folks are imbeciles, just as many religious folk are convinced that atheists are willfully ignoring God or are influenced by the devil.

Rollins, on the other hand, understands the paradox that even a belief in nothing, or the negation of belief in something, can become itself something. In a slightly different form, this has been one of the primary points of his critique of Christianity. According to Rollins, most Christians already know that the claims they make are untrue on some level. Consequently, when they are criticized from the outside for the ridiculousness of their claims about prayer or God’s will, etc., Rollins recognizes that, contrary to curing them of their illogic, it will often drive folks further into their irreconcilable positions. As a recent example, the Friendly Atheist was incredulous that the missionary doctor who received treatment for Ebola from an experimental drug spent most of his time in his first speech on release giving thanks to God for saving him rather than the drug and the doctors who nursed him back to health. However, the doctor no doubt didn’t refuse the experimental drug when offered so that God could do the work of healing. He simply holds two contradictory positions: one, that God healed him; and two, that modern medicine saved him. The first position makes no sense unless God likes the two white missionaries more than all those who have died from Ebola in the most recent outbreak. The second position makes enormously more sense: the missionaries received proper medical care and lived, others did not and died. Paul Farmer talks about this from a practical perspective in a recent interview on Democracy Now.

To put it another way, religious believers cannot fully accept the world scientifically until they address its incompatibility with their belief, but the only way to address the fallacy of their belief would be to fully adopt an open and questioning stance, a scientific stance. What many atheists are unwilling to admit is that this is much more than an intellectual shift. It carries tremendous social and psychological baggage, and it is predicated on sufficient cultural capital, on social, political, and/or economic stability. Rollins thus realizes, I believe, that directly exposing the contradictions of particularly conservative religion is inefficient at best, which was revealed by his third point against New Atheism, that it lacks the cultural capital to provide religious folks with an alternative. This point, too, is fundamentally inconceivable to Krauss and the like, who cannot grasp that the lies we tell ourselves rival the power of truths about the universe, even when the latter are demonstrably true and the former are not.

In terms of a paradigm shift, then, Rollins’ position is perhaps more viable. It is true that he has an economic interest in maintaining ambiguous ties with Christianity because liberal or postmodern Christians are primarily the folks that come to hear him. To the outsider, of which Krauss provided a quintessential example in this debate, Rollins’ circumlocutions seem unintelligible. His is the language of the existentialist, the language of deconstruction, but it is also storytelling, narratives that Christians are familiar with. If he could succeed in recasting Christianity not around dogmatic principles about the world and the afterlife, but around breaking down those principles and questioning our dogmatic assumptions about the world, the fundamental and unthinking ways that religion allows folks to operate in would be shifted. Religion would not provide a safe haven for rigid belief and unthinking behavior. It is certainly not to say that it would eliminate it. The very fact that atheism can provide that same haven for unthinking should be an indication that institutionalization, not the content of an institution, is all that suffices to become dogmatic.


They’re Right. The Debate Really is About Religion.

About 30 miles from where I live, I drove past a sign informing me there’s a Hobby Lobby coming to my neighborhood soon. And just when I was getting ready to put it in the back of my mind, now that the initial fury has died down. I can do that, of course, because it doesn’t directly affect me. (You can’t always tell that someone is directly affected by a case just because they have strong views on it, but a sure fire way to tell someone has no interest is the comment, “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.”) So I’ve been thinking more about the question of religious influence this week.

I’ve also been reading a book called How Good People Make Tough Choices for potential use in the classroom. In one section the author, Rushworth Kidder, uses the public debate over abortion to make the case that each side is closer to the other than it thinks. He contends that the debate here, as in many other cases, is not really over values but over definitions, particularly over the question of when life begins. He asks us to imagine a debate between articulate and thoughtful folks on either extreme of the debate. Certainly they both value life. Neither side supports murder, both value the concept of freedom of choice, both value children, and neither side thinks disposing of unwanted children is an acceptable societal practice. Both also value women and their choice, at least as a matter of principle. Both think that law should be followed and unjust laws should be changed. Most on both sides, he thinks, probably even agree that religion does and should play a role.

As mentioned, this all points to the idea that this debate is not really over values. Life for one side begins at conception, which is fixed at some (early) indeterminate point, and for the other at gestation, which is also fixed at a (later) indeterminate point. The debate is also unlikely to be decide on those grounds because of the indeterminacy of the evidence, just as with our difficulty of deciding exactly when someone is dead.

He almost won me over. But then he continues, “if the pro-life side were suddenly convinced that life had not yet begun by this or that week, they would have no more difficulty allowing the woman an abortion at that time than they would in letting her decide to clip her nails, since they feel strongly about individual choice” (98). Kidder is absolutely right about the notion that there is much more common ground among all parties than is typically granted in the media.  And he is also right that if we grant pro-life advocates were truly convinced—hypothetically, since he’s not advocating one side or the other—then they would have no issue with terminating pregnancy at that stage. The likelihood against that happening, however, is astonishingly high.

The issue that Hobby Lobby is the latest iteration of is not really about abortion, or women’s rights, but religion. I have to agree with advocates of “religious freedom” on this point, and the debate would certainly be more focused if all parties focused on religion as the beginning and end of the debate. Maybe initially it was about the actual content of the debate, but that has long since ceased to be the case.

Here’s where this begins to apply to Hobby Lobby. It is increasingly clear that many of the drugs the owners of Hobby Lobby disagree with do not actually cause abortions, and thereby do not terminate life, but that has not, as of yet, changed many minds on the side of the defense. (Lest one thinks the weight of the evidence only needs to settle in a little more, one only needs to think of human impact on the global climate, or evolution, about which there is overwhelming evidence, and yet disagreement falling uncoincidentally along similar lines.) Evidence is not a clear determinant of the case.

Let us just say however, that sufficient and justifiable ambiguity remains for the owners of Hobby Lobby not to change their minds yet. And let us say that we want to protect people from being discriminated against on the basis of their religion as well as their sex, race, class, body type, gender, ability, etc. And let us say that we want to allow as much latitude as possible to exercise freedom within those identity categories or others. These are all good things. How do we maneuver through this ethically?

The concept of discrimination may provide a way forward. What makes discrimination problematic, what makes it something that we societally seek protection from, is that it is action based upon an irrational judgment (prejudice); in other words, a judgement that is irrelevant to the case at hand. When this discrimination is sustained, it becomes institutionalized as oppression, and that oppression is masked as cultural norms, nature, “the way of things,” and as such hides its arbitrary heart. But we have gradually seen through (although certainly not eliminated) such legitimacy in the past and begun to expose it for the façade it is.

So if you want, don’t call it discrimination. Call it irrational judgment. Either way, it results in an ethical failure. For this reason we should not limit the access to guns on the basis of race. We also should not limit the access to cultural and artistic enrichment on the basis of socio-economic class. We should not limit the access to land to build a church (or a mosque) on the basis of religion. And we also should not limit access to contraceptives or birth control on the basis of sex. All of these forms of discrimination have to an extent been institutionalized based upon arbitrary beliefs, and their insidiousness lies in their power to coerce the implausible scenario they portray into existence.

What Kidder fails to recognize, then, is the uniqueness of religion in its ability not just to supplement, but to replace ethics. Earlier he notes, “Worship and faith, combined with charity and mercy, are powerful contributors to the health and well-being of our communities.” This has indeed been true, but the opposite is also true, that religion is a powerful contributor to the sickness and destruction of well-being of communties. If and when this is combined with the notion that there are millions of folks that somehow have similar human values irrespective of religion, one is more inclined to think that ethics and religion are not the same, and that there are broader, more inclusive, bases upon which to judge and protect the individuals in our communities. Although we protect religious freedom, although we understand the depth of its historical tradition and its far-reaching influence in America, we cannot allow religion—again, in an irrational relation to the facts at hand—to be used as a means to circumscribe the rights of certain individuals, against their will, when we have established them as rights of citizenship.

To be clear, the point is not to reverse some dangerous trend toward increasing religious discrimination in America, at least in the long view. Discrimination based on religious (Protestant Christian) belief has always been a part of the American heritage. Neither is the point to eliminate religion of any sort from society as a whole, at least by force. That too would be immoral. The point is to continue progressing toward limiting religious privilege in the public sphere. One way to do that is to make clear the distinction between religion and moral/ethical value.

There can be broad overlaps between ethics and religion, but they are not synonymous. In response to Socrates’ question to Euthyphro, “It is loved by the gods because it is pious,” and not the other way around. Where that leaves ethics and how ethics can be valuable if not rooted in the supernatural is a question that keeps many holding to a causal connection between the two, usually because it is how they were first encountered. That there is no necessary connection between religion and ethics is important because it removes the justification of a distinctive religious identity to trump or receive preferential treatment, or exceptions, over any other social identity in the public sphere.

The wild card in this scenario is Christians who disagree with the position of Hobby Lobby’s ownership. These Christians are key stakeholders in the drive to separate “good” religion from “conservative” religion in order to protect their beliefs. Insofar as religion and state remain separate, this position may be defensible. When the line becomes blurred, though, the attempt to dismiss the issue as a case of bad religion or about something else besides religion obscures bigger problems, including the attempt to conflate ethics and religion and the irrational basis of judgment, at least in this case. What is one to do, who both identifies as Christian and believes that corporations should not be able to limit the access of their employees to contraception and birth control on religious grounds? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I’m convinced that it is these folks who will increasingly be crucial in debates over religion in America and globally.


Reflections on last weekend’s tragedy in Isla Vista

As I reflect on the actions of one young man to intentionally end the lives of six others, I have no frame of reference. There is literally nothing that I can call on in my own experience or the experiences of others I have known to “understand” what happened. And what needs to be understood? What refuses understanding? As far as I can tell, it is how one human could overcome seemingly insurmountable psychological and emotional prohibitions and end the lives of other human beings. But is that really so surprising? This happens on a regular basis. It’s not as if we don’t know the ways that this can be accomplished, even orchestrated on a large scale.

There is something more that catches my interest. My family and I lived at the edge of Isla Vista for six years. I spent time near all the locations where Rodger killed. I have many fond memories of the beautiful environment in which I grew and changed as a scholar and an individual. I also know that these details are meaningless in relation to the weekend’s tragic events. That these render the event more significant to me points at a certain egotism. Yes, things happen elsewhere, but not here. Not close to me or to a place that I love. The unfathomable is based in part on my arbitrary location in the world.

Yet surely even those not personally connected with the events struggle with their seeming absurdity. It is not just a geographic location that we are invested in, but a socio-economic or cultural location, as others have pointed out. When life is lost on the battlefield, in the Third World or in the ghettos, there is an element of anticipation that softens the blow. This anticipation itself is often revealing of our prejudices. Yet we are surprised, or more so, when tragedy strikes in a movie theater, at an elementary school, or in a beautiful community by the ocean. Why? Because we believe that the socio-economic backdrops against which the latter events and activities take place provide protection against murder. Comparatively, that is true, but when that pretense of protection is violated, we feel vulnerable and exposed.

This is not at all to trivialize the pain and loss that comes from death, although to a certain extent any socio-cultural analysis cannot fail to trivialize the individual death. Rather, the access points of my reflection tell me that their function must be considered. They say as much about me and my interests as they do about the invaluable lives involved.

There is no tidy equation that will return us to stasis. We cannot add up the contributing factors and predict this terrible outcome. As others have noted, while we can and should explore all the elements of this event, from masculine culture to mental illness to population density, we should resist the reductionism that usually accompanies these conclusions. In the aftermath of tragedy, the public conversation is usually reduced to a squabble over the one response we should have. Shouldn’t it be possible to maintain multiple conversations, multiple avenues of improvement? It is clear there is no quick fix. It is also clear that whatever approaches we take should not be about reestablishing our illusions, but working toward substantive change. Demonizing Rodger provides the quickest end to the pain felt by many, and the quickest societal end to the uncertainty of disruptive events. But it does nothing aside from quickly patch the hole left by the tragedy so we can bide our time until the next.

On the other side of the coin, we should not confuse our frustration at the slowness of change with the ability to change. I have seen this already in many fatalistic responses that bear the influence of Western Christian epistemologies. As this story goes, gun control or mental health work or fighting a misogynistic cuture won’t ultimately make a difference. These things will happen again despite our best efforts. Of course these assertions are correct. I have seen a version of this response often in the classroom when dealing with huge issues deeply embedded in our culture. Nothing I do will make a difference…so I can do nothing. I argue that this reasoning is implied by our reading of the supernatural.

I grew up understanding that the biggest issues in life were resolved by a simple conversation with God. Even in the thoughtful philosophy of Kierkegaard, God inhabits the place of the absurd, the limit of my understanding. Rather than continually struggle, I simply submit and the uncontrollable is controlled. With that divine standard, the mundane inch-by-inch progress that is the hallmark of change in our world seems fruitless. Just as with the individual contexts that mark the importance of these events in our minds, the issue is not really about others, but ourselves. If I am convinced that true change only happens by supernatural intervention, lesser slogs through the social and political mud of the American landscape is too much work. But this is also how, viewed in the lens of history, any earthly change is made.

Thus, a couple things I can take from the events. First, our meaning-making has more to do with ourselves, though we engage in it against the foil of victims and perpetrators. Second, it is counterproductive to tout these events, whose meaning refuses to be contained, as reducible to trite slogans or policy changes. Yet we must engage in our communities. We must take action without providing solutions.

What can we as a society begin to control? We cannot force folks into mental health services before they have committed crimes. We cannot force (though we continue to try) a traditional version of the ideal nuclear family. We cannot systematically shut down all sources of misogynistic culture, nor those of fetishization or commodification. We cannot limit or control access to firear…wait a second. That might be a good start.

Access to firearms would not have prevented at least three of the deaths in last weekend’s tragedy as they occurred. Or perhaps they would have. In his written manifesto (that I confess I skimmed but did not read) Rodger reflects on the feeling of power, a feeling he had been longing for, that came from the acquisition of firearms. If he had been unable to obtain these weapons, would he have carried out his plan? Guns are guns and people are people, but the combination certainly seems to enhance the power of both, and it undoubtedly enhanced the confidence of Rodger to go forward with his plan.

Yet whether access to firearms would or would not have made the difference is not the really the point. The question is whether limiting access would be a step in the right direction. Quite possibly. Would it infringe on the rights of upstanding individuals to purchase, own, and discharge certain weapons? It certainly would, if such rights existed. Even if that were the case, though, we would want to ask how many victim’s lives would outweigh the pleasure of these upstanding individuals and the relative ease with which they can procure their weapons. Some would say that the loss of even one life outweighs the ability of many to own and use firearms. I don’t think that is the case. There is no easy answer. But I think we can have a smarter conversation about it than the one that currently dominates the political landscape.

I struggle to say something meaningful in the face of meaninglessness without resorting to trivial or banal statements. I have no prayers to give. My heart has hurt as I thought of the tragic events, but that means little. We balance what we can do, and what we should do. For my part, I will continue to seek authentic conversations about the factors that contributed to Rodger’s tragic actions, both to process and to help make changes for the better.


Ignorance is the Answer

Following the turnaround by Brandeis on honoring Ayaan Hirsi Ali, further incidents in the last few weeks have raised questions about the complex web connecting religion, identity, and violence. Two weeks ago, the interfaith advisory panel for a soon-to-open 9/11 museum in New York objected to an approximately seven minute film that they say draws strong parallels between the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks and other Muslims. In a telling statement, the sole imam on the panel who resigned in protest claimed that Muslims would be offended and “unsophisticated” patrons would be unable to make a distinction between the average Muslim and an Al-Quaeda terrorist. (There’s an insightful take on the fear of Islamophobia in connection to Ali’s case and the 9/11 museum here.)

I’ve tried to adopt a charitable position regarding the reservations of this interfaith panel. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are those who work to make strong connections between religion and violence, and there are also those who work to dissolve all such connections on a case-by-case basis. I think it fair to acknowledge that religion is not the sole cause of violence, nor are religion and violence exclusive spheres. So the goal in these situations is to accurately represent what the nature of the connection between religion and violence is (and not merely protect one’s own identity).

One of the issues at hand is how much to cater to the ignorance or “unsophisticat[ion]” of the average person. This is difficult to determine without begging the very question at hand. Certainly if it were the case that Islam inevitably led to physical violence and destruction, it would not be misleading to say as much. On the other hand, if it was the case that we could prove by any acceptable measure that religion did not or could not play a role in physical violence, it would be misleading to make such a connection. But I’ve just suggested that neither of these is actually the case, so it is no easy thing to determine how strongly to posit the connection. There is something ironic, however, about nuancing the connection of religion to violence out of fear of violence.

Perhaps, then, it is ignorance that is really at issue here. After all, proponents of a religious tradition that denounce those who commit violence in the name of their tradition usually argue that those “extremists” have misunderstood or misrepresented the “truth” of said tradition. I understand the desire for the peaceful threads within a religious tradition—or those relatively insulated from the effects of religious violence, as in much of the West—to denounce the violent threads as wrong or at best misguided. There are only two choices that I can see in adopting that paradigm, however. One would be to make an argument using the evidence of the tradition that said religion is truly aggressive or truly peaceful. These arguments have been raging for centuries, and while they matter greatly to those committed to the traditions, they are of little value to those outside the tradition because they appeal to a body of evidence that is substantiated in the first place by faith. History, textual, and cultural traditions all point to a spectrum of peace and violence within each religious tradition.

The other possibility for those who wish to denounce violence is to do so based on a value external to religious belief, such as that violence is wrong because it fails the test of reciprocity—you wouldn’t want it done to you—or that the prohibition of physical violence is the precondition of human social interaction. This defense, though, obviously calls into question the validity of the religious tradition as a source of fundamental value if it is necessary to incorporate values outside of religious tradition to regulate it.

I am quite obviously in the latter camp, arguing that the extremes of faith can only be limited from outside religious tradition. Consequently, I am fully willing to acknowledge, though it may be taboo to suggest, that ignorance, not unsubtantiated religious belief, is a greater point of leverage to make societal change. In other words, I’d be happy to argue that education—critical inquiry into how the world functions and the diversity of positions within it—would make a more substantial impact than directly attempting to disabuse folks of their religious belief. (It is quite clear that extremist groups also fully understand the threat that education poses to religious belief, as evidenced most recently by the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram.)

The question this raises for me is whether the more peaceful and less coercive groups within religious tradition are so because education provided them with a more accurate or truer interpretation of their own religious beliefs, or if education allows folks to “outsource” the evidential weight that religion is required to bear to make sense of the world. If the former is true, there is a long road ahead to determine just what historical contingencies account for the depth of past mistakes, and what sort of opaque supernatural plan is at work, having forced humanity to crawl around in the dark and destroy each other in ignorance for most of human existence. Further, how is it possible to find a way forward, to “prove” the correct interpretation of religious belief so that we can limit antisocial and violent acts as effectively as possible?

If the latter is true, if education or knowledge allows one to unknowingly shift the existential burden from resting solely or ultimately on religious tradition to being shared among social, biological, psychological, political, and economic factors, then we—those who are comparatively privileged in the aforementioned areas—should take a thorough assessment of the weight each of these factors bear.

I’ve written before about how, when I was a Christian, my church caught onto a sort of epistemological breakthrough. Evangelical trends from the places where Christianity was and is spreading (in the South) suggested that one could be more effective in spreading the Gospel if, rather than coming right out and telling people they need Jesus, we attempted to meet people’s “felt needs.” Coercion is a played-out model in a free society, and just being really nice wasn’t getting the job done, but if a subject says that what they really need is a meal, or their roof fixed, or a place to meet friends, and the evangelist addresses that problem, the subject is more receptive to supernatural claims. Rather than consider that what people actually need is some help with their very practical problems, we concluded that their practical problems were barriers that we had to get out of the way so that we could give them what they really needed: Jesus.

We told them the reason we helped is that we had Jesus’ love in our hearts. Don’t you want to be part of a group that has it all figured out? If I had been forced to assess my own situation when I was a young Christian, I would have thought, “Well, yes I’ve never really wanted for any of the basics in life such as food, clothing, water, shelter, safety, etc. Yes I’ve always had a good support network. Yes I’ve always been economically well-off, comparatively. Yes, I’ve received a full twelve years of primary and secondary education and had ample opportunity to receive higher education. Yes I’m culturally privileged from the perspectives of race, sex, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, and body image, among others. But the reason I am who I am is because I’m a Christian.” Is that enlightenment or is that ignorance?

I can look back now and say at least that the relative security I had in all of those areas allowed me the freedom to distribute the existential weight of those factors as I saw fit with very little consequence, with little chance of my thinking being challenged. Then I looked at those with few or none of those privileges and, completely devoid of context, prescribed the same logic. It is indeed true that religion can be peaceful, can be motivational, can be life-changing. But it is intellectually dishonest to assign the existential weight to a category that cannot be tested, but must be accepted on faith. And because it cannot be verified in the world, it is systemically, symbolically, and even often physically violent, to impose its order. Thus, I am perfectly willing to agree that ignorance is the real culprit in religious violence, but this does not bode well for those maintain the purity of religion from all acts of violence.


“The tolerance of intolerance is cowardice,” but the intolerance of the intolerance of intolerance is expected

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was in the news last week when Brandeis reversed their decision to give her an honorary doctorate for her work. Many people have discussed the ridiculousness of Brandeis’ response, which is either deception or woeful ignorance. I’m not interested in those issues as much as I am in the justifications of those who argue it was the right thing to do. A blogger on altmuslim claimed that Ali promotes the same intolerance that she claims to be fighting against. He also noted that although Ali’s arguments as treated as scholarship, “her words and arguments are not academic or scholarly.” These points deserve further examination.

Intolerance is an accusation that hurts the feelings of many a liberal, for they also use it liberally. It is most often backed up with the unspoken presumption that one should never want to be labeled as intolerant. Yet it is a poor definition of tolerance that says it is a quality to be valued for its own sake. In other words, if one is to make an argument for tolerance, it must be justified not on the basis of tolerance itself, but on some other fundamental value, such as that of life, freedom, etc. Few of us would suggest being tolerant of those who commit egregious acts of violence (unless, of course, these are committed against animals). There are plenty of things we can and should be intolerant of (corporate business practices, disregard for environmental destruction, etc.), so long as our intolerance is not accompanied with physical violence or the impending threat of violence against individuals.

It is, as this blogger implies, the hallmark of a scholarly or academic argument to carefully separate “bad” acts from “good” religion. In fact, scholars of religion could often be the unintended subjects of Ali’s comment that “Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” They join much of the world in pleading with folks not to print cartoons or make films that might cause offense. There are some who systematically dissociate acts of violence from their religious context, even when overt. And this is seemingly well-intentioned. The blogger contends that “her approach is not driven by an academic or scholarly need to help the oppressed,” but it is because Ali does not only walk the careful line of disinterested scholarship that she has a passion for change.

If a freethinker criticizes religion, if he or she suggests that the world would be better off without “x” religious tradition, he or she is not insulting God. To the freethinker there is no divinity, and there cannot be one in the public sphere. In the public sphere, there is only humanity. To be sure, the religious may believe that the divine rules public life as well, but this cannot be a community motivation if we desire a free society.

Nor is the freethinker insulting a tradition. There are no traditions we can assess beyond their embodiment in assemblages of people and buildings that make them up. In the public sphere, there are only people, and these people must live with each other. I’m sure there are thousands, perhaps millions, that are offended by the words of Ali. There are also thousands that are offended by the words written in suppposedly holy texts. Are there as many of the latter group? Perhaps not, but does it really matter? It is the hallmark of a free society to be able to offend. Offense and intolerance, insofar as they describe feelings and words, are a signal that an open society is at work.

I’m not talking about allowing people to scream “Fire” in a crowded theater. I’m arguing that suggesting the world would be better off without a particular tradition, no matter how improbable that may seem, is a proposition that should not (and will not) be shut down by claims of intolerance. In other words, it is intolerant, and that is good. It is not intolerant for its own sake, but because of the connections between religion and violence that are evidenced by Ali’s own life. The common refrain that such-and-such particular practice is not actually encouraged in a particular text is no argument against the historical and cultural connection between religion and suffering, particarly considered in an impoverished political and economic context. The point is not that there is a tidy equation, that violence and oppression would magically disappear if religion lost its hold, which is the point that defenders seize upon. I would even argue that such a direct attack is an inefficient approach to the problem, but it does not automatically invalidate the correlation she suggests by adhering the label intolerance.

In 19th century America, there were once mean slave owners and nice slave owners as well, and there were even perhaps willing and unwilling slaves. Many of these men and women, I’m sure, were “good” people. Few of us now would argue that the institution of slavery should have been kept around because there were quite a few folks for whom the system worked quite well, who never hurt anyone and generally got along just fine, or even benefited from its perpetuation. In retrospect that seems silly to consider, but it certainly wasn’t for many at the time. It is the hope of Ali and others, I believe, that we will someday look back at religious traditions the same way, wondering how we justified its abuses for so long.

Of course, the case of religion is different in many ways. It would be as deplorable to prohibit the individual practice of religion as it is to mandate it. But the individual practice of religion is a maximum, not a minimum threshold, and until it is certain that all individuals are aware of their options for understanding the world outside of religious tradition, we are still far above the maximum threshold of individual practice as a basis for tolerance.

It may be best in the end that Ayaan Hirsi Ali did not receive an honorary doctorate from Brandeis, because it is not academic to be so bold, at least in the field of religion. But it would be a welcome addition if more were.