Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, terrorism and freedom of expression: How theism distorts the dialogue

May 2013 Calgary CFI protest in support of Bangladeshi atheist bloggers.
The more things change the more they remain the same.
Well it didn't take long. Barely a week into 2015 and once again the impact of religious beliefs and irrational behaviours that can follow as a consequence, were on display for us all to see. The attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris served as a reminder, as if we needed it, of the horrors that can occur when fanatic religious beliefs get out of hand. To add even more injury to insult, we recently heard the story of Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger who is as I write this serving his sentence of a public flogging of 1000 lashes.

These two pieces of news immediately reminded me of the protest we had in Calgary in 2013, where some of us  marched in support of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh who were at that time facing persecution for their writings. That situation then was by no means as severe as the mass murders committed in Paris were, but nonetheless it was part of the overall problem we are plagued with whether through blogs, cartoons or badly produced movies. The idea is that there are some ideas, well at least one idea that has special immunity from criticism or ridicule.

As is usual in these moments, two basic perspectives came to the fore after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  One condemning the action but also reminding us that we should respect the  religious beliefs that others may hold dear. The other set proclaiming that free speech must prevail, that no ideas should lie beyond the pail of being challenged. From my photo above and the fact that I too  regularly challenge beliefs in this blog and beyond, it shouldn't be hard to ascertain in which camp I stand.

The other discussion that came up once again,  was the extent to which religion or Islam has played in the atrocity we have just witnessed. In my experience, those outside Islam scoff at the idea that things like a belief in a saviour Jesus or a commandment bearer in chief like Moses could have anything to do with Mohammed's followers' violence.

Within Islam there are attempts to disassociate the more moderate members from the radicals at the extreme end. We hear the following comments.

 "Not all muslims are like that!'

" You shouldn't paint the whole group with one brush!"

" Most Muslims are peaceful people who respect others of different faiths and beliefs and abide by the laws in the societies in which they live."

There is also the common narrative about Muslims going to grocery stores or owning a bakery at the end of a street, speaking fearfully about the backlash they are worried about as people put them into the category of 'terrorist' without a second thought. I understand these type of responses within Muslim communities and others internationally who value the rich diversity of religious beliefs as much as they love the variety of species in a wildlife reserve.

I agree that when it comes to issues of terrorism, our emphasis should be first and foremost on those who are directly responsible for the evil acts. You can't hold those who have not pulled a trigger, brandished a knife, detonated a car bomb or piloted a plane into a tower responsible for the blood of the hundreds and thousands. But far too often while looking at direct causes after these much highlighted cases of terror, we are as quick to exonerate institutions with influence as we are to condemn individuals who commit the acts.

Never a single cause: Underlying systems are often at the root

Tragedies and terrorism:
Always direct and indirect causes
In any tragedy there are direct and indirect causes. When a plane crashes, the investigation will usually lead to figuring out the direct cause.  Perhaps it's a fire on board, a pilot error, a mechanical failure or a problem with something in the communication system.

But it doesn't end there. In trying to ensure that these kinds of things don't happen again, they look at the whole process, the overall management of the airline,  the systems of maintenance on the ground, the relevant aviation regulations and the overall governance structures. This is not to say that the CEO, president or prime minister can be held responsible for a rookie pilot  ditching an aircraft into the ocean at 2 am in the morning. But the point is that in a tragedy like that, there are a number of stakeholders throughout the system, from the designer of the plane right down to to the co-pilot. We have to pay attention to all these actors and associated networks if we want to be sure that air safety is not compromised in years to come.

When it comes to air crashes, the public doesn't seem to be resistant to the practice of looking at all aspects of the system in the aftermath of an accident. However, when fatal crashes occur as a result of religious fanaticism,  millions are quick to jump up and say it wasn't me, it wasn't you, it wasn't us, it wasn't them,  it wasn't this, it 't wasn't that.

But we do ourselves no favours if we immediately try to assume that the secondary factors are irrelevant or of little relevance. The thing about systemic causes, is that they very rarely come down to the fault of an individual or even a single group of people. It's an ideology, an established rule, norm or a way of thinking that can lead to problems right down the chain.  In the case of an airline, there may be a practice of skimping on cost that leads to reduced safety or a culture where subordinates do not feel confident enough to speak up to a captain when they discover an error made by their superior. There are indeed examples where such systemic failures were identify in an airline's management system and there have been improvements made since.

Religion in general and Islam specifically are systems, which include beliefs, widely held ideologies, laws and cultural practices. These have developed and evolved over the centuries and have been influenced by a multitude of people. But whenever these things are criticized, some people immediately leap to stop you because your criticism of a system is seen as personal attack for all who follow or are in any way connected. The result is that those of us who are sensitive about not offending others, back off from the criticism of the system so as to avoid accusations of directly attacking individuals.

In looking at most if not all the atrocities committed as a result of fanatics in the last few years, I see theism being a significant and perhaps the most significant systemic problem that runs through. Notice I am saying that the systemic problem is theism and not religion. The key issue in my view is the general promotion of the idea that a god exists. This may be surprising to many. I know it is often thought that it is organized systems of faith that are the problem. Generic, nebulous god beliefs or acceptance of a higher power and a  spiritual dimension are often thought to be benign. However,  I think these ideas  all play a part in the system of thinking that makes Charlie Hebdo and the numerous other horrific acts of terror a reality.

I hope it is clear by now that I am not saying that each individual that believes in a god of some kind has blood on her hands when a suicide bomber decides to strike.  It's similar to how I am of the opinion that the sharp decline in the performance of West Indies cricket in the last twenty years relates to general problems within the mindset and psyche of Caribbean people. That does not mean that it's the personal fault of anybody with roots in Barbados, Jamaica or Trinidad when we get bowled out for 86 or our bowlers get caned by South Africa for a score of 439 for 2. Still, in as much as those of us in and from the Caribbean contribute and influence culture, we can and do play a part in the system and can explore ways in which we can help to improve things overall.

Hopefully, that illustrates the point, but let's take a closer look at how theism plays into so much of the bad stuff that happens.

Persons who believe in some kind of god or 'higher power' in the universe tend to believe the following

1. He/she/it  is all powerful or at least far more powerful than all humans that have ever lived combined. 

2. He/she/it  is all knowing or at least has knowledge far beyond the combined knowledge of all humans who ever lived.

3.  He/she/ it  is all loving or at the very least works in the best interest of humanity and generally looks out for our welfare far more than any human individual or institution does or can.

4. He/ she/ it has revealed itself in some way that those that experience the revelation can be sure that the entity exists and have at least a good idea of what that entity wants from them and all of us.

5. He/she/ it is the source of everything in life and is the ground of their entire being. 

None of these beliefs necessarily point to a specific belief in bible, koran, torah or any particular holy writing. Nor do they necessarily indicate that the believer aligns with any particular church. Indeed many religious people who will identify as non denominational, 'spiritual but not religious' or just feel that there is 'something out there' will have these five beliefs indicated.

Now if you are convinced such a god exists and has these characteristics, it makes sense to listen to what the god says and let it override your own thinking. If you know there is a being out there that can think much better than you can, see the consequences of your actions better than you or anyone else could ever do and is looking out for you better than anyone ever would, why would you not simply follow that entity, that deity, that saviour, that higher power? I know I would. If I knew for certain there was a god out there like that, I would totally lay down my own reason to follow him, her or it. Just on the basis of characteristics 1 to 3 alone.

If I am to logically follow what my beliefs suggest, I will harm or even kill others if I am convinced that is what the god I believe in wants me to. There is no room for me to use my own reason to override the message, because as can be seen from my five step belief system, my own reasoning and even the reasoning of any human being in no way compares to that of my 'super god'.

Of course many believers will say that the god that they believe in never would suggest killing innocent people. But how can they be so sure? After all, they would be suggesting their knowledge is equal to or greater than their god to presume that they know what their god would or would not do.

The big problem with people who have this super god belief, however undefined, is that it completely obscures discussions had with people who don't have a 'super god' belief. I know from experience that some will assume they can trump you in any argument because your views and opinions are only those of 'man' weak, puny, fallible, ignorant 'man'. No way that even the best humans can in any way compare to god. Even the bible says that the wisdom of man is no where near the 'foolishness of god'. So in effect what we have in discourse of most topics is an unfair advantage given to those that have this 'super god' backing. The debate becomes distorted in favour of believers. As atheists, without that god to turn to as our source, we are forced to back up all of our positions with some kind of rational argument. We have to do all the heavy lifting. We cannot as the theist do, claim god revelation or faith knowledge when our reason tank runs out of logic fuel.

With god in the discourse you distort the dialogue

In a world where logic and reasoning are generally not seen as the end all, skeptics obligation to justify all their arguments with reason can be quite a disadvantage in the public square. Arguments in defence of faith ahead of reason are given through statements like the following.

 'science doesn't know everything'
'you can't put god in a test tube'
'sometimes we need to go beyond logic and listen to the heart'
'humans are not just molecules in motion'
'sometimes faith and hope is what really matters'
'some things just can't be solved by equations'
' if you know something from personal experience no one can take that away from you'.
'you can't prove that miracles aren't real just because you haven't seen one'

These kinds of arguments allow for religious beliefs to get through without having to go through the level of rigour for acceptance that other beliefs do. The result is that there is no filter for bad religious beliefs in the way they are for bad secular beliefs. A bad idea from science and secularism will be tossed away by reason. A bad idea from a religion will be propped up by tradition, mystery and the 'heart of the believer'. Without god as part of the dialogue, all ideas would begin on equal footing and would be fairly assessed on their own merits.  Unfortunately we don't live in such a godless utopia. In our world, once a 'super god' stands behind one idea, that equity is shattered and the god idea not the good idea rises to the top of the pile.

The only way to stop this from happening is to aim to create a world where theism is not the default position. Where ideas, ALL ideas have to pass through the same filter in order to gain acceptance by the masses. The fact that people are moved to not offend Islam is because the reason for the sanction is seen as coming from god itself. If the argument was made that images should not be drawn because of tradition, culture, laws or any other factor, people would not be moved to adhere at all cost. But as soon as the words of 'my god said so' is in there, there is an immediate feeling that respect is needed even if the person moved to show the respect does not believe or ascribe to the god being touted.

The reason why? Most people have some kind of god belief themselves and want to hold on to it. They realize that if they don't respect another person's faith theirs will one day face the same consequences. So once theism remains the default, respect for and reluctance to criticize religions will stay. This means religious beliefs will stay in spite of their lack of supporting evidence. Once religious beliefs stay, some form of fundamentalist strands will stay and once those fundamentalist strands stay, terrorism and other Charlie Hebdos will keep coming.

Need to cut that umbilical cord: Belief must be separate from believer

Notwithstanding all that I have said, there is one factor ( #5 in the list above) that makes addressing religious beliefs a gargantuan challenge. It is the idea of the god (whatever that is) being the source or the ground of all your being. Many of us in the atheist camp don't have much of an idea what that means. But to the theist it usually means that god is part of everything of who they are, as essential to their continuing existence as the air that they breathe. That kind of belief makes a link between the belief and the believer that is nearly impossible to sever.

The link to the god becomes like the umbilical cord to the unborn fetus. Cut that link and death would be instantaneous.
This is what makes religious beliefs so pernicious. It's not so much that they are irrational and toss up ideas which quite simply don't comport to reality, it is the fact that they embed themselves completely with the personal identity of the believer. Even people who don't subscribe to belief in any specific religion still tend to believe that their 'god' is at the root of their existence and they would be nothing without him.

This idea is responsible for the argument that we often hear in atheist/ theist debates that says that science, knowledge, morality and our very ability to reason could not be possible without a divine provider. Extrapolating from this, any criticism of the creator is like biting off the hand of the one who feeds you. So we atheists get caught in this trap where before we even open our mouths in a debate, whatever we have to say is deemed automatically null and void in the minds of certain believers.

Belief in a god is only an idea

So how do we change things? How do we begin to separate those beliefs out from those who hold them clasped so tightly? The first thing I think we need to do is to remind people that all god beliefs are 'ideas'.

The placard I am holding in the demonstration above states that, " Ideas don't need rights, people do"

However, so long as people don't see their faith as an idea, these messages will not have the impact that we would like. We don't have to attack the idea of god, we don't have to go out of our way to say it is bad or doesn't make sense. We just have to emphasize the point that it is an idea about the world that some people hold and some people don't. As an idea it is not something that should define who a person is, their nationality, family identity, level of intelligence or moral character. It's just an idea to  be brought to the table for consideration. And ideas are always good in so far as they push the dialogue forward and  cause us to explore something valuable that we may not have considered before.

We must nonetheless not forget that god beliefs as ideas have to go through the same process as all ideas do. They don't get special privilege because there is a 'super god' inside. The super powers of your god idea have no more power to take your belief into the mainstream than Superman or any ideas conceived in the minds of DC comics can make Krypton into a real planet.

So you have to be ready to have your beliefs scrutinized, criticized and lampooned just like all the others. It's not a matter of faith being picked on. Just like other ideas, people proposing religious ideas have all opportunity to defend them, show those who push them aside why they are wrong for doing so. We as atheist have to do this all the time. When some theists laugh at our idea that the universe could come from nothing or that even the bacteria in a sewage plant are our distant cousins, we don't get mad or violent or seek to have large world media outlets protect our deeply held beliefs from being mocked. We simply attempt to explain in as clear a way as we can, why what seems ridiculous at the outset can actually be reasonable when we look deeper. All we are asking is for people who bring god ideas to do the same. If a god idea could be backed up with reasonable evidence and logic it would be treated with the same seriousness as any ideas proposed by Darwin, Einstein or Newton that have made their way into the realm of scientific fact.

The key point for the religious to recognize is that there is no double standard here. Ridiculous ideas outside of religion are also ripe for being satirized and mocked. The difference is that other ideas that don't make sense in other realms are laughed off the stage early, as those that bring them up see the logic crumble right in front their eyes.

God ideas however survive for much longer, as those who promote them try to ensure that they never have to go up in front of a critical audience even as they seek critical acclaim. But you can't hide ideas from the impact of skeptical  minds forever, and it's better to test them in small open venues before your ideas go on to get laughed off of the world stage.

Maybe if Mohammed is given a chance to take his stand up before his critics more often in years to come, our grandchildren may one day truly be able to say that all is forgiven.


  1. This is a good read. Thank you David !

  2. To anyone who intends to comment here please sign in first. If not you may lose 3 paragraphs of commentary like I just did !

  3. You're welcome, Rainer! I know you have strong views on this too. Our voices need to be heard,

  4. Oops sorry you lost those paragraphs, Would have loved to read them.

  5. I will condense my idea. I was baffled when jewish, christian and muslim believers took up swords and then modern automatic weapons to defend the honor of their prophets and divine beings. Are these gods not capable of defending their own honor without making murderers out of their followers? The logical explanation is that these gods have always and only ever been born and existed in the human imagination; they do not exist in reality and never have.

  6. Of course Rainer. Gods would have to be very weak to rely on humans to do all their dirty work. The logical explanation is that the gods are inventions of humans, created with all of our biases and flaws.

    Unfortunately, logical explanations are not what religious people generally go with when they are determining truths. If they were, the gods would have long since left human thoughts and imaginations.