So you’ve been persecuted…

church-christian-persecutionLately I have been trying to push my mind to the other side of the aisle on the issue of Christian persecution in America.  I know that for most of my readers you will wonder what for.  Maybe it’s because my mother is a Christian and feels that this is the case and so I always like to take what my mother says with more consideration, because I respect her.  My mom, for instance feels, that forbidding certain Christmas songs to be sung in class is an example of going too far.  The holiday is after all a Christian one and about Jesus Christ.  When she was a pre-school teacher she says that mothers of multiple nationalities didn’t have a problem with it back in the day, so why should it be a problem now?  Then I came across this article that tries to be academic, by Mary Eberstadt, about the situation and was recently in Time magazine.  I have not read her book, It’s Dangerous to Believe (Religious Freedoms and It’s Enemies), but tried to get a more expansive idea of her views by reading a longer article she wrote on religious intolerance.  I do find there are some legitimate cases where things have been carried too far and these are referenced in her articles.  That being said there are some big picture things that I see being ignored in these articles and are typical of many opinion pieces even when written by scholars discussing what Christianity faces in an increasing secular America:

  1. not-persecutedThere is rarely a discussion about why some people might feel anti-religious or anti-Christian sentiment.  Perhaps you are one of the good Christians out there and that’s wonderful, but given the history of Christian oppression in this country and in the west in general, might there not be some reasons for concern?  If we are going to talk about legitimate instances where good Christians were punished simply for a harmless expression of their belief, should this not be balanced against instances where those who claimed they were Christian also caused harm to others?  If we compiled a list of those two types of instances, who would have the most?  And I’m not saying two wrongs make a right, but I’m saying there has to be a more honest discussion, because if Christians fail to understand why might not want their beliefs in the public sphere anymore, then it will appear to others that they are uninterested in taking responsibility for the harm their belief system has caused or how alienating it might make some people feel.  Again, this always brings someone out who says, well if they were causing harm they weren’t really Christians, because Jesus said this or that.  All that is great, but it’s of little consequence to those being marginalized, hurt, or oppressed, when the perpetrator claims their actions are justified by their religious beliefs.  It means your belief system isn’t making friends, and if you truly believe in the peaceful message of your religion it as much your responsibility as anybody else to oppose people wrongly using your religion.  We don’t see this as often as we should, from any religion.
  2. In a transcript of one of my favorite speeches given by Douglas Adams he says the following:

“Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.”

I think this is a very real thing to remember.  Religious beliefs are protected in a way that other ideas are not.  It is a relatively new thing to simply be able to challenge religious ideas.  I think it’s a good thing.  Notice the language that Eberstadt “…a new low for what counts as civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs”.  That phrase itself implies that there are certain rules which apply to religious beliefs that don’t necessarily apply to others.  Now I’m not saying that uncivilized criticism is effective, but you would hardly see a lot of angry protests for uncivil criticism for highly tested scientific theories.  There are no biologists out there claiming there is a war on evolution and complaining about the mean things Christians have said about people who accept the evidence for evolution.  And while I do get upset when I see atheists insulting and demeaning religious people, in the end these are just words.  The past and present is full of less than tolerant reactions by the dominant religion to even civilized criticism which Eberstadt is asking for from others.  So as much as I would like to see people with religious beliefs not attacked personally and only the ideas, this has not been the case historically when religious ideas have been criticized in the past.  Just looking at the past 100 years, the Scopes Trial in 1925 had a teacher jailed for teaching evolution, and it wasn’t until 1966 that the Supreme Court deemed state statutes unconstitutional that prevented teachers from teaching evolution in public schools.  Presidents have to be open about their Christian beliefs to have a reasonable chance to be elected.  Currently 7 states have it in their state constitutions that atheists can’t hold public office.  And while this is clearly unconstitutional, the fact remains that this is a much higher brand of intolerance than that which is being shown towards Christianity.  In such states, trying to fight those unconstitutional state constitutions will simply alienate yourself from voters even more. How many politicians can be openly gay?  How many people of other religions can make it to office in the U.S.?

  1. And finally, it’s a point that many make, how many Christians would be equally sympathetic to the teacher that was suspended for giving a Bible to a student if it was a Koran?  How many Christians in this country would be okay if a coach decided to lead them all in a Buddhist meditation session before a game?  How many people would care if that City Fire Chief was let go if he published a personal book saying Sharia Law is great, even if it didn’t impact his work?  The work of the Satanic Temple has formed to challenge this attitude, and we find that all of a sudden, a lot of Christians don’t believe in freedom of religion, only the freedom of Christianity to go unfettered, remaining unchallenged in a position of privilege.  Now it may be that Christianity is under attack more than other faiths but it is only because it is the faith in a position of privilege in this country.  Most secularists would have an equal problem with any religion enjoying such privileges.  When one faith or ideology is proselytized over others in the public sector, that depends on faith and belief, without evidence, this is a dangerous path to go down.

Can a push from one direction go too far?  Certainly, and we do need people to keep that in check.  Nobody should be persecuted. But losing privilege is not persecution. It also seems there are parallels between the reaction to the loss of Christian privilege as there are to the loss of white privilege or male privilege.  So any conversation about how Christianity is treated should include a discussion about how other religions are treated, and see if they are on equal footing.  And I don’t mean just according to the law, but from a cultural standpoint.  Because even if the law did allow a teacher to give a Koran to a student, I think we can agree that this teacher, even if not punished might be in a lot more danger in certain communities than he would by passing a Bible to a student.

Perhaps a question that might lead to further posts, is how easily can religions be inclusive to other religions and consider them equal if by definition a religion sees their beliefs as the true ones, while others are false?

More than Words

The discussion of free speech has once again risen up after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  For some interesting reads please take a look at this article on the Ethics of Free Speech and this article that presents a Muslim’s perspective on the situation.  Many of the ideas in these articles are important and so I wanted to throw them out first so that I don’t repeat their points too much.  If you’re too lazy to read them (I barely had time to write blog posts anymore so I understand)though I’ll list some important points that are guiding my thoughts right now:

  • How do we decide what freedom actually means?

    From http://bearingdrift.com
  • The argument for freedom of speech often gets turned into a “Those who want that freedom” and “those that don’t”. This is a false dichotomy because generally the disagreement lies where along a spectrum of “Freedom” we must draw the line on free speech.
  • Is freedom of speech always a good thing?
  • Words have power

When the news broke about what happened in France on January 7th, I have to say my reaction was not one of surprise.  Muslim extremists are nothing new, and given the anger that was sparked when Danish cartoonists depicted the prophet Mohammed in their publication, I just wasn’t surprised.

Now this not to say that I didn’t think it was a terrible tragedy.  Of course it is.  I don’t want anyone to think that my position is that those at Charlie Hebdo got what was coming to them. There is a difference between not being surprised and thinking such an act of violence against them was deserved.  There is no question that these Islamic extremists have got it wrong.  They don’t understand their faith, they will fail in achieving whatever dream world they want to live in, and they will simply cause more harm to others and themselves with time.   I can say that with certainty, in the long run, they will fail to get what they want and it is clear that all good people should and do oppose their aims.

Before looking at Charlie Hebdo let’s take a closer look at this whole cartoon depiction of Mohammed stuff.   Perhaps by putting things into context you will understand why I was not shocked to find that this happened.  First, we can agree that killing somebody over such a thing as a cartoon, no matter how offensive,

From the South Park Wiki. The picture of Mohamed was available, but I chose to show Buddha instead. I’m okay with that. 🙂

is ridiculous.  That being said it is not unreasonable for someone to be offended when their religion is ridiculed.  People do it all the time, they just don’t go all the way to killing somebody.  I am sure there are many other moderate and peaceful Muslims who were offended by Charlie Hebdo or the Danish cartoons previously.  And of course some number close to 100% of them never killed anybody over it.  Satire, comedy and comic depictions of religious figures is not new, but it is relatively new.  Such things quickly got you killed in Europe not so long ago if you tried to ridicule Christianity or religious leaders.  And while I believe the world as a whole, on average, progresses forward in terms of morality and reason, there are pockets of people going in reverse. As an example, I find it interesting that prior to 9/11 there was no outcry about a South Park season 5 episode in which various deities from other religions banded together to save the day.  I guess Mohammed was not ridiculed but still a cartoon is a cartoon.  This episode was even available after 9/11 for a number of years and has only recently been pulled.  I guess it was off the radar for awhile and perhaps South Park Studios didn’t want to take the chance anymore.  The point is that the backlash against Islam post 9/11 seems to have had a more polarizing impact on Islam and the west, such that those who wish to do us harm have looked for more reasons to do so.  Therefore, it seems to me, those who perpetrated the attack on Charlie Hebdo would have likely found another target had they not been drawing cartoons, but their doing so simply added them to a list of possible targets.  Crazy people generally don’t have good reasons to cause such harm, so should we be surprised that in a country with a lot of Islam vs French tension, where a magazine is ridiculing Islam that this simply puts them on the radar of the crazy people?  Personally I don’t think so.

Now let’s get back to freedom of speech.  We can also agree that it’s important, but just because you have the freedom to say something that doesn’t mean you should.  If you’re wife asked you if she looked fat in something, then you would have the freedom to tell her the honest truth, but I think you know how well that will work out for you.  Also having freedom doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t consequences for exercising that freedom, and law may have very little to do with it.  In truth, I have the freedom to go and kill somebody.  But there are consequences to that action.  Those consequences may simply be a fear of getting caught, more often than not though it is our own moral center that prevents us from doing such a thing.  We may even have a good reason to do so, but I also think about what my friends and family would think about me, how I would provide for my child, the times I would miss with my family, etc.  We are free to do a lot of things when you think about it, but our choice to act on those freedoms must be weighed against the consequences of our actions.

One of the Charlie Hebdo satirists said “We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than to live like a rat” in regards to whether he was

From http://www.beheadingboredom.com

worried about angering Muslim extremists.  While I can feel a certain amount of respect for someone who lives by their convictions, I do wonder about the value of that conviction.  Of course, the chance of dying from a terrorist attack in the west is extremely small, and perhaps if he knew that there was even a 10% chance of being a target of Muslim extremists, he might not have been so sure of himself.  I am also opposed to religious extremism (or really any kind of extremism) but if I am going to have convictions on the matter that are worth dying for, satirical cartoons seem like a strange way for me to take a stand.  If we want to defeat extremism, are satirical cartoons helping the situation?  I doubt if any extremist has looked at one of their cartoons and said to his fellow crazy Jihadists “Hey guys…you know what…I didn’t get it before but this cartoon has really shown me we’re being ridiculous.  Let’s just relax and maybe talk to some more moderate imams about interpreting the scripture in the Koran more carefully”.  Furthermore it seems one of the best way to quash Islamic extremists is actually by having most of the Muslims who are more moderate on your side.  Doing something that most Muslims find offensive, might not anger them into attacking you, but it doesn’t exactly win their hearts.  Therefore if anybody thinks that drawing satirical cartoons of Mohammed is in any way taking a stand against Islamic extremists then you are quite simply wrong.  It does nothing but divide people.  At best, those who appreciate the cartoons are a group of secular intellectuals who appreciate the wit and who already agree with the points you are making.  At worst, those who appreciate the cartoons are bigots wishing to eradicate all Muslims from their country.  The point is, such cartoons aren’t helping and are most likely making things worse.

What people seem to forget is that 1) being right isn’t always the most important thing, and that 2) even if you want to be right there are multiple ways to make your point.  Richard Dawkins is right about a lot of things, and yet many people, even humanists, atheists, and agnostics think he’s an asshole.  In thinking about these cartoons, I was reminded about my confrontation with the gay bashing fundamentalist Christians who came to our campus.  I asked the main guy point blank “Even if you are absolutely 100% right do you think that your offending and insulting them is going to convince them to your point of view?”  He was sure that they were going to hell and so he felt that what he was doing was the strongest most direct way to get them to change their sinful ways.  Anybody else of course can see that such anger and unkindness would never win the hearts of those they intend to save.  The only people who are supporting them are those who already agree with them.  So even though Islamic extremists are crazy, they don’t understand their faith, they cause harm, and their actions will ultimately cause them to fail to achieve their over arching aim, how we expose the extremists for what they are is just as important.  Being martyrs is one of those possibilities, but the freedom to draw cartoons of the prophet Mohamed just seems like a silly way to make that stand.

From http://thebilzerianreport.com

Freedom of speech is an extremely important one to a free society.  Speech has the power to sway.  As it sways it can raise the consciousness, inspire, and lift men and women to more.  However, speech also has the power to divide, misinform, offend, anger, and mislead.  To quote Uncle Ben Parker “With great power, comes great responsibility”.   I don’t wish for any government to censor publications like Charlie Hebdo.  Taking away freedoms doesn’t help the situation either, and is never an answer to terrorism (i.e. The Patriot Act). Nevertheless, no matter how “in the right” we think we might be, let us also think about how we communicate our message.  Freedom of speech is an important one to fight for, but there are many other good things to fight for and so it’s important to not get so lost in one fight that we start to lose the others.