Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Threat of Atheist Tribes

In 349 days, I start my first day of classes.

On September 11, somebody took a lighter and set fire to the clothing of a Muslim woman - a dentist - while she was shopping.

Atheists need to concern themselves with the question of how much of their rhetoric is actually criticism of an idea, and how much of it is promoting hatred of a group of people that causes innocent people to fear for their lives, which they cloak behind a veil of "criticizing an idea".

One of my hobbies has been, for the past several years, listening to podcasts made of public lectures at the London School of Economics. I like this series because of its international focus - looking at issues as diverse as that of failed states, economic development in Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the so-called BRIC countries), global issues such as Climate Change, the European Union, and a view of the United States from the outside. I make it a point to listen to lecturers from diverse backgrounds (e.g., Senator Rick Santorum, the CEO of British Petroleum, and a number of Muslim speakers) as a way of stepping out of my social and political bubble.

I do this because I think that morality has to have relevance to real-world problems. If a moral philosophy has nothing to say about real-world issues, then that should be taken as evidence that t really is not talking about morality at all.

This week, they posted a lecture, Professor Yehuda Bauer on Anti-Semitism in the Modern Age."

This topic is related to that of Islamophobia - which was mentioned in the lecture.

The Holocaust tells us how powerful and destructive tribalism can be - about the costs of identifying a group of people as "the enemy" and making them the scapegoat for all problems. So does slavery, the subjugation of women, the near-genocide of Native Americans, the Crusades, the 30 Years War, and countless other examples of human history. However, the Holocaust now serves as our go-to example.

Yesterday was also the 15th Anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. As has become traditional, Atheist sites I monitor filled up with Islamophobic memes and rhetoric - claims that are not substantially different from those that contributed to the Holocaust 80 years ago. These are memes and statements whose purpose was not to criticize an idea, but to promote hatred of a whole population.

There seem to be a lot of atheists who seem to think that they represent some sort of superior form of life - whose beliefs are entirely checked by reason - and who are immune to the cognitive biases that afflict lesser humans. As such, we can expect that merely because they are atheists, they are not going to fall victim to the type of tribal psychology that gave us the Holocaust and these other ills. They tell us that it is "religion" that is responsible for all of these evils and, if we can only rid the world of religion, we can rid the world of these evils.

But - where does religion come from? What is it that makes a religion successful and causes those beliefs to become widely accepted in a community? Atheists speak of religion as if it is something outside of humanity - something given to us as if from a divine or supernatural source. Those who accept it are responsible for all the social ills, while those who reject it are the virtuous "we" that represent the best of humanity.

The way many atheists speak and write, they may be surprised to learn that religion did not come from a divine source. Humans invented religion and humans decided which religious interpretations they are going to adopt. Religions are a product of human psychology and atheists - those who are not religious - are still human. They are still subject to the same cognitive biases and still prone to creating the evils that they want to blame on religion.

It often goes without notice that act utilitarianism - the most popular secular moral system - also justifies stoning people to death, torture, terrorist attacks, killing civilians, even genocide whenever it brings "the greatest good for the greatest number". Hitler justified the Holocaust more on utilitarian grounds than on religious grounds. Moral relativism, social Darwinism, Marxism, Libertarianism, moral nihilism - all non-religious philosophies - have all been used to justify their share of evil.

This represents the types of cognitive bias found in tribalism. It includes a disposition to cherry-pick data - to focus and embrace those claims that denigrate the target group while ignoring anything that would draw attention away from the target group.

Representative of the types of facts that the atheist tribes are likely to ignore is a three-day international conference in Marrakesh earlier this year on the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. (See, Morocco Hosts Conference on Protecting Religious Minorities in Muslim Countries.

At this point, extremists on both sides of this debate try to draw us into a false dichotomy.

On the one side, there are those Muslims and multi-cultural liberals who take the arguments that I have given so far and carry them to one extreme. That extreme says that any criticism of anything that a Muslim might do and claim to be a part of his religion constitutes promoting tribal hatred and must be condemned. Honor killings, the killing of apostates, terrorist acts, death threats and executions of those who violate Islamic rules, acid-attacks on women, throwing homosexuals off of buildings and burning non-Muslims alive, must not be criticized. Any criticism is attacked as promoting tribal hatred of all Muslims, which cannot be permitted.

On the other side, there are those that say that since the criticism of such things as honor killings and throwing homosexuals off of buildings must certainly be legitimate, that the most blatant examples of hatemongering must also be permitted. Anybody who criticizes those statements that clearly aim to establish a tribal hatred of all Muslims is taken to be a defender of honor killings and terrorism and, consequently, their criticism is set aside.

What is missing is the possibility of objecting to honor killings and murdering apostates while, at the same time, also objecting to the type of tribal rhetoric that has resulted in the worst atrocities in human history. As soon as one criticizes tribal rhetoric, one is painted as a defender of honor killings and the murder of apostates. As soon as one objects to honor killings and the murder of apostates, one is accused of propagating the type of tribal rhetoric of a style responsible for the worst atrocities in human history.

This is a rhetorical trap, it is not basing conclusions on the best evidence. Somebody who knows that humans are disposed to these types of cognitive biases and wishes not to be deceived by them

There is a distinction between criticizing an idea and promoting hatred against innocent people. There are those who try to confuse the two. There are those who try to characterize any criticism of their beliefs as an attempt to promote hatred against them. At the same time, there are those who try to promote hatred against a people and try to give themselves cover by calling what they do "criticism of a belief." Decent people try not to confuse the two.

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