Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When critiquing Islam, focus on secularism

When atheists construct critiques of religion, care must be taken to avoid prejudice and racism. This means avoiding blanket statements such as this one from Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death,” or this one from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “Islam is not a religion of peace. It's a political theory of conquest that seeks domination by any means it can.”

Blanket statements like these are inaccurate, prejudicial and simply wrong.

Islam is not a single set of beliefs. There is a wide range of beliefs represented under the umbrella term “Islam” just as there is a wide range of beliefs covered by the term “atheism” or “Christianity” or “Judaism.”  Failure to understand this makes one appear prejudiced, whether or not that is the intention, and clarity, not intention, makes for good writing.

This is not to say that critiques of Islam as a religion are always wrong. Belief in a God, whether it’s Jehovah, Yahweh or Allah, is unreasonable, unscientific and wrong. Further, specific commands found in the Koran, such as death for the “crimes” of apostasy or blasphemy are properly critiqued as archaic barbarities of a less enlightened time. The full force of our ability to prevent such penalties from being enacted must always be made a high priority.

The mistake in criticizing all Muslims for the terrible stoning of an accused adulterous in Iran should be obvious, but I will spell it out here anyway. Would we be willing to criticize all who value Democracy because a democratic government once attempted to terror bomb a civilian population into submission? Would we criticize all atheists because a putatively atheistic regime once ruthlessly oppressed its people for decades?

Those who bring forceful critiques against Islam, rather than against another religious group such as the Quakers, do so because they see Islam as presenting a very real danger to the safety and security of the world. Certainly there are no Quaker versions of Boko Haram or the Islamic State committing soul sickening violations of human rights. Quakers are known for their pacifism, and those Quakers who embrace pacifism believe that they have been guided by God to hold such a position.

Atheists know that a Quaker is no more drawn to peace by God than a Muslim is drawn to violence by Allah, yet we fiercely attack Islam, and leave the Quakers relatively unscathed. This is because the object of our concern is human rights and wellbeing, not religion. There are two different conversations happening, and we must be careful to properly aim and frame our critiques.

To avoid the charges of racism and prejudice we must construct our critiques through the lens of human rights. Blasphemy and apostasy, if there is a God, may well be sins, but sins are to be reckoned with in the afterlife, not here on earth. As human beings we all have the right to freedom of conscience and the attendant freedom of speech and freedom of association. We have the right to sin against God, but not against each other.

A human rights framework allows me, as an atheist, to accommodate beliefs held by the religious that I find silly. Just as I maintain my right to choose to not believe in Allah or Jesus or Thor, so do I have to respect the rights of those who decide differently. It isn’t a choice or a right if we are compelled to believe one way or another. We have to have the right to express our beliefs and live according to our consciences.

So we need to consistently champion the protection and expansion of human rights within a secular governmental framework. This isn’t atheism, this is secularism. In doing this work, we will find that we are allied with many who have religious beliefs that we think are silly, but not immediately dangerous. We will be working side by side with Quakers, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and yes, Muslims as we work to convince governments to respect the rights of all people, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or any of a number of other important metrics.

It is secularism, not atheism, that will ultimately change the world, but only if we strongly advocate for human rights and free ourselves from the counterproductive and inaccurate  language of prejudice, hate and racism.

1 comment:

  1. It's fair to judge a religion by its holiest book. By that standard, it's hard to see anything wrong with what Sam or Ayaan said. There are Christians and Muslims too stupid to understand their own religion. That is hardly anyone else's fault, nor does it change the religion itself, which exists independent of people claiming to adhere to it.

    At no point does race come into it. Religion is not race, obviously, for the world's largest religions. People of many different races are Christian. People of many different races are Muslim. This is a red herring used to cut off serious discussion.

    I don't advocate for human rights because I'm not sure I believe in either aspect of the term. Humans (should) have no particular value over other species. Rather, there is something about most individual humans (like some individuals of other species) that means we have things we call "rights". However, the fact that men who imagined "rights" saw fit to keep slaves makes me doubt the whole thing. Further, all of our "rights" disappear whenever someone in power wants them to, so what does it matter any way?