Monday, August 30, 2010

Subcultures and What It Means to be Human

The question of what it means to be human is a common one. One of my favorite vloggers, John Green, once said that humans were the only animal that didn’t know how to be itself. Dogs, he claimed, know how to be dogs; at the very least, they don’t seem to worry about it in any outwardly apparent way. Whether or not dogs know they know how to be dogs is another question entirely. Anyway, I obviously don’t have the answer, but I have some ideas.

My first thought is that the question is wrong. Admittedly, this is often my first thought when I don’t know the answer to a question. But it seems that the question of what it means to be human is often conflated with what makes humans unique, which is completely different. I’ll leave that one to the evolutionary psychologists, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists and all manner of other scientists, who come up with a new wrong idea every few years or so.

So one idea is that what it means to be human is tautological. We are human. By definition, we’re experts at it; certainly no one else does it better. So whatever it is we do with our lives is what makes us human. One might even argue that the sheer fact of living is so incredible that it doesn’t take much else to make living meaningful.

An easy way to understand what it means to be human is to find the very question meaningful. We can start with the fact that the sheer miracle of our existence is mindblowing. As Carl Sagan says, we are bits of star matter gone cold by accident. This planet, life, sentience, each individual human life – all of these are deeply, only barely calculably improbable events, and they’re fantastic. We can also use this reasoning to appreciate the multitudinous opportunities available to us, and perhaps begin to siphon through them to decide which of these should occupy our time.

If we allow, perhaps, that the goal is then to find those activities that give us happiness, that give us meaning, ignoring for now the possible differences between these goals and the difficult in achieving them, then we have found a possible purpose for human life, a goal of being human. And the best example I’ve ever found of people doing this, doing it passionately and well, is the preponderance of subcultures.

I’m a biker, and biking has played, in part, a political role in my life. When I lived in Miami full-time, my father and I would do critical mass the second Saturday of every month, and that was really fun. It was a group of socially minded people who live out their values and enjoy spending time with others who feel the same. They also just happened to be fun people. Anyway, so my dad and I decided to do a critical mass this last weekend, but it was on Friday. I thought maybe it was just a different version of the usual ride, which they sometimes do. Instead it was the actual Miami Critical Mass, whose formula is traditionally the last Friday of every month. And it was huge! There were at least 200 people there, maybe more.

I’ve been a part of a lot of groups, and sometimes it’s incredible to share a great deal of values and interests with the people around you, but in this case, we were all brought together by one thing: we were bikers. That was it. And seeing the diversity within that subculture was absolutely amazing. There were hipsters with their fixies, parents getting their kids into biking, tricksters doing wheelies, semi-professionals in all their gear, mountain bikes, hybrids, road bikes, people with and without helmets, in and out of athletic clothing. There was a teacher from my high school, and a guy playing the uke while biking. We were a real critical mass, blocking the roads, riding through red lights, and having a wonderful time being part of a grassroots, almost flash community. It got better, too, with the reactions we received. Some people were angry, obviously, as we were blocking the roads (or, one could claim, they were), but most people were shockingly supportive. They yelled, hollered, hooted, honked and generally showed their appreciation for the way we had decided to live, or just spend an evening.

We went through Viscaya, Allapattah, Midtown and Little Haiti, and everywhere, people came out on the streets to watch us go by, ask us what we were doing, and cheer us on. Kids bunched up and waved at us. I think my favorite part was a guy standing outside of his restaurant just holding up a thumbs up as we passed. But these weren’t one sided interactions, either. We all responded, certainly, and the people who were blocking the cars were talking to the drivers, explaining what we were all about.

That connection with people, the bikers, the people of the community, the people who I share this earth with, has always been the most meaningful experience I’ve ever found, and I was so glad to have it on the Friday. It reminded me that subcultures are a way of immersing yourself fully in some of the beautiful things that life has to offer, with other people who feel similarly, and that they are conduits through which to connect to the rest of humanity.

There are lots of other reasons I like subcultures, but having them teach me about what it means to be human isn’t a bad start.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


CFI just sent this out:

The statement issued by the Center for Inquiry on Friday, August 27 concerning the Ground Zero controversy was interpreted by some as calling for a prohibition on the placement of mosques or other houses of worship near Ground Zero or otherwise speaking out against freedom of religion. That was not the intent of the statement and we regret any misunderstanding. A revised statement that clarifies the Center for Inquiry’s position is set forth below.


The Center for Inquiry’s Statement on the Ground Zero Controversy

CFI fully supports the free exercise of religion; protecting the rights of believers and nonbelievers is central to CFI’s mission. Accordingly, CFI endorses President Obama’s recent statement reminding the country that Muslim Americans enjoy the same rights as other Americans and should not be treated as second-class citizens. There should be no legal impediment to the placement of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero, just as there should be no legal impediment to the placement of a church, temple, or synagogue near Ground Zero.

Further, CFI laments the effort by some to turn the proposed Islamic center into a political issue. Government officials and candidates for office should not intervene in disputes over the alleged offensiveness of a place of worship. Such conduct violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Establishment Clause. Government officials should not be deciding who is a “moderate” Muslim any more than they should be deciding who is a “moderate” Christian or Jew.

A number of private individuals have protested the proposed Islamic center. The tone and substance of these protests covers a wide range. Some protesting the Islamic center have raised legitimate questions, but to the extent the objections to the Islamic center mistakenly equate all Muslims with Muslim extremists, CFI condemns them.

CFI maintains that an Islamic center, including a mosque, near Ground Zero, in and of itself, is no different than a church, temple, or synagogue. It is undeniable that the 9/11 terrorists were inspired by their understanding of Islam, and that currently there are far more Islamic terrorists in the world than terrorists of other faiths, but those facts are not relevant to the location of the Islamic center, absent evidence that terrorists are involved in this endeavor, and there is no such evidence.

CFI’s unequivocal support for the legal right of Muslims to place a community center near Ground Zero does not imply that CFI views the new center as an event to be celebrated. To the contrary, CFI is committed to the position that reason and science, not faith, are needed to address and resolve humanity’s problems. All religions share a fundamental flaw: they reflect a mistaken understanding of reality. On balance, CFI does not consider houses of worship to be beneficial to humanity, whether they are built at Ground Zero or elsewhere.

This statement supersedes any prior statement issued by CFI regarding the Ground Zero controversy.

Overall, this is a fair and balanced statement regarding the position of CFI, and for this I applaud them. It must be noted, however, that the entire thrust of their mistaken argument was reduced to a controversial but valid statement in the last sentence, and the rest of this press release is filled with fairly obvious ideas to anyone who values freedom of religion. It becomes clear, then, if any status quo-changing argument they could make is fallacious, and they are left to reiterate banal tropes about religion, it would probably have been to CFI's benefit not to get involved at all. They're an atheist/secularist organization, it's not as if anyone was waiting with bated breath to see where they'd fall. This brouhaha has simply discredited them and made their goals that much harder to achieve. I wish them better judgment in the future.

On the bright side, it's totally fantastic that they listened to us, and that the members of CFI cared enough to make a fuss. This is very much a victory, and I'm proud to have been a part of it.

I'm looking forward to a better world.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lindsay's Clarifications Don't Make Him Any Less Wrong

I now want to address Ronald Lindsay’s statements vis a vis my argument (which I emailed to the proper address). His arguments are starting to look more and more like the ADL's, which weren't good either. The outcry is warranted. I couldn't find Lindsay's full remarks online, but they're being released by the Department of Communications, so I'll keep an eye out for them. I was emailed them because of my complaint email. Anyway, the important parts are as follows:

CFI in no way called for a “legal ban” on the Center. “Defense of the rights of believers and nonbelievers is part of our mission, as reflected in our mission statement.” But, “Whether such a building would be a good thing for humanity, all things considered, is another issue.” Part of the message is that “faith-based reasoning is not a good thing and, further, without in any way implying that Ground Zero is “sacred,” there is a special poignancy to a new faith-based institution being placed at Ground Zero when the 9/11 attacks were an instance of faith-based terrorism.”

The problems with this are many. Firstly, of course CFI didn’t call for a legal ban on the center. It’s part of their role as an institution to protect freedom of religion, and anyone who cares about the Constitution at all is staying far away from legal arguments, because they obviously hold no water. I didn’t mention anything about a legal ban. I used the phrase “freedom of religion” not because I felt CFI was attacking the principle through legal means, but by targeting this particular edifice unnecessarily, and thus putting undue pressure on the most prominent example of a religious building built around Ground Zero rather than applying the principle equally and consistently. That is cowardice; there is huge controversy surrounding the building already. It’s all too easy for CFI to just jump in the mix, rather than address all religious buildings, such as the Greek Orthodox Church being proposed (though its future is uncertain). By the way, that one is intended to replace the one that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. There is just no way to apply this principle consistently, and so it isn’t useful.

Secondly, he says that the building might not be good for humanity. I demonstrate above that if the CFI Board of Management really felt that all houses of worship were bad for humanity, they’re doing an awful job of demonstrating that consistently. But let’s look at this for a moment. All houses of worship are bad for humanity? We’re equating Unitarian Churches, Reform Synagogues, the Westboro Baptist Church and a Buddhist monastery? Not that I think it matters much; to defend the Islamic Center solely because it satisfies our notions of progressiveness is just as bad as opposing it on Islamophobic grounds. We either support people’s ability to worship as they will or we don’t. But still, it’s a massive oversimplification.

Thirdly, I would argue that there is a tenuous causal link between the existence of places of worship and the flourishing of faith as an epistemology. If all religious buildings evaporated, that wouldn’t eliminate religion, it would just drive it further into the public square. The buildings are just the outward expression, and opposing them does little. If we were discussing the environment created by prominent religious buildings, that’s a different issue, but Linsday didn’t address that. Opposition to this cultural center (which contains many services besides a place of worship) also does nothing to promote rationality and humanism, just a very militant, French-like secularism, which I don’t much support. It’s also, as I say above, an impossible task and one that is, in many ways, counterproductive, offensive and alienating.

Fourthly, let’s look at the alternatives. Does it really appear that public opposition and heckling of a peaceful Muslim community is good for humanity? Because I would like to address the environment created by our actions, and I think it promotes misunderstandings, lack of a public, reasoned response, and xenophobia, especially when we look at the general tenor of the debate. I seriously doubt that CFI would have released a press release if this were a church, mostly because there would have been no public furor to hide behind, which implies that they’re just taking advantage of other people’s bigotry, even if not promoting it themselves. Not much better, in my opinion. Honestly, this brouhaha has made me think that this community center would be excellent for humanity; we need way more Muslims in this country, so that they cease to become the “Other” and become another facet of Us.

Lastly, and I hope this is obvious, there being a “special poignancy”, which is itself up for debate, to building the Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero is not reason enough to oppose it. Again, it simply dovetails with the notion that these Muslims are the same as all Muslims, who support organizations like Al-Queda. I do not claim that CFI believes this, and they’ve certainly been clear about stating that they don’t, but the fact remains that the ideas complement each other.

I appreciate Mr. Lindsay responding to the outcry that has erupted in response to his remarks, but unfortunately, the clarification is not better than the original, and all of my arguments still stand.

And a Furor Erupts!

I’m not going to lie, this makes me pretty happy. I woke up from a nap, checked my email and found an email from Nathan Bupp, the Vice President of Communications of CFI, who I’d emailed yesterday. He asked me to correct my “public blog entry” stating that he was the CEO of CFI, which I’ve done. To explain the error, it must be said that the email contained no information as to the writer, except that it was the CEO of CFI, and the full press release on the website listed Nathan Bupp as a contact. Of course, I still have every responsibility to fact check, and to feel stupid, given that Ron Lindsay is quoted in the actual press release as the CEO. I promise I read it, more than once actually, but I was focused on the content so that I could argue against it.

Anyway, that would have been mildly exciting, given that an official of a prominent organization found my blog, but it gets better. He sent me Ron Lindsay’s preliminary remarks that are defending and clarifying the press release. Now, I don’t pretend to be that influential, so I went and checked out the CFI forums, and they are a-buzzing. People are mad. Honestly, I think it’s great, for several reasons. Firstly, as I mentioned in the previous post, when you have a free marketplace of ideas, and a lot of smart, incendiary people, when you do something stupid, people are going to be all over it. Obviously, Mr. Lindsay and the board can do whatever they like, but they know now that their base is angry with them.

Secondly, it’s a relief to know I wasn’t alone in my angry reaction to the press release. I’ve written before about the irritation I feel at people focusing too narrowly on atheism to the exclusion of social justice and humanism. It gets to the point where tribalism comes into play, the rationalists versus them, the irrational, uneducated masses. I’m far from an accomodationist, but I would have to be an idiot to think that only atheists have something to offer to this debate. Even if you just want to talk about creating a social epidemic, finding out who our allies are is a really good idea, even outside of the atheosphere. We’re not going to have any impact just sitting here and talking to each other about how great we are, though there’s a time and a place for that. And if you want to talk about error reduction, note that there are a lot of stupid atheists, which will only get truer as the movement grows, and a lot of very intelligent religious, spiritual or theistic folk who have a lot to add to the discussion.

Anyway, it appears that there is much hope for this movement. We have atheists who are worried about religious freedom not just because it’s legal, because it’s enshrined in the constitution, and because it implies freedom from religion, but also because it’s important to other people, people who are valuable and important. The atheist community also appears to understand that even if it were our ultimate goal to eradicate religion entirely (as a secular Jew who understands the possibility that religion has to be of cultural and historical but not theological significance), going about it by declaring all houses of worship “bad for humanity” is the wrong way of going about it. It’s unproductive, unlikely to work, gratuitously offensive, overly simplistic and not actually in line with our goals. We also understand that even if we’d decided that that were our goal and that were the means by which we would achieve it, targeting the Park51 Community Center rather than any other religious building anywhere, or close to Ground Zero, is cowardly, and feeds xenophobia and bigotry. So that makes me happy.

Center for Inquiry CEO Screws Up

I follow and receive newsletters from a fair few organizations, pertaining to my varying interests. One of these organizations is the Center For Inquiry, which usually does good things like foster a secular society and all that. Organizations like these can bother me sometimes though, when they focus too much on the atheism and the anti-religionism and not enough on the curiosity, the rationalism and the inquiry. Usually, though, I can trust them not to go too far out of line.

So imagine my surprise when I get this delightful piece of news in my inbox: a press release, written by the CEO of CFI, Ron Lindsay, that includes this sentence.

“To honor those killed by faith fanatics, Ground Zero and its immediate vicinity should be kept free of any newly constructed house of worship — of any religion.”

The rest of the press release can be found here.

To summarize: it’s awful. Absolutely idiotic. Demonstrably so, for many many reasons. I saw no reason why such simplemindedness perpetrated by a prominent and ostensibly influential figure ought to go unchallenged, so I wrote to him, detailing my objections. After all, a free marketplace of ideas means nothing if ideas are not up for criticism once in the public sphere. My email went as follows:

“Dear Mr. Bupp,

I am afraid I must wholeheartedly denounce your statements in the recent press release regard the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center. I have supported CFI for many years, but your values seem to have been compromised by your vision for a perfect world.

CFI describes itself as a secular organization, one committed to a variety of social goods including, no doubt, secularism. As you no doubt know, secularism refers not to disbelief in gods or non-religiosity, but simply the removal of religion from public life. As it currently exists in the American consciousness, secularism has taken the tack of ensuring that there is as little government sponsorship of religion as possible. This, in contrast to, for example, the French laïcité, preserves individual freedom of action, thought and conscience. As such, I support this type of secularism.

However, this system of thought would demand that we respect the rights of any group to build whatever structure they deem appropriate on private property. To treat Ground Zero as hallowed is to buy into the false narrative of the Religious Right. I would not have expected you to support such a nebulous and vaguely religious view of sacredness. If two blocks is too close, what about three? Or ten? Or 18,000, as in the mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee?

I was also surprised to see you employ the argument of sensitivity. As secularists, we anger many who claim the shield of offendedness and sensitivity, but we decry their claims as cheap attempts to shift the focus of debate, as we should. We must apply the same reasoning in this case. New Yorkers, Americans and others may feel sensitivity towards Ground Zero, but that cannot affect the way others choose to live. There are churches and coat factories and porn stores right around Ground Zero. Oughtn't this to trigger sensitivity as well?

Furthermore, your view as a secularist seems to blind you to the political motivations behind Islamic fundamentalism. I would advise you to read Dying to Win, by Robert Pape. It is clear that terrorism is a strategically motivated political act, and has been employed throughout history by religious and nonreligious groups alike. Should we then ban any political groups from building around Ground Zero? To ignore this motivation is to dangerously oversimplify the role of Islamic terrorism in the current political arena.

Finally, you seem to forget that it is not the job of any person, or of CFI, to forcibly make America less religious. That is not the goal of progressive social change. We must simply change the context of the America in which we all must live. You seem to feel however, that if we simply reduce the number of religious buildings, that religiosity will decrease. This is absurd reasoning. Religion must be a part of public life because it is important to people, and they have the freedom to express their values. We must appreciate that it is in the public square so that it is open to critique and public pressure. Driving it underground will cultivate groupthink, group polarization and general antipathy towards secularists, as if we needed any more of that.

I appreciate all that you and your organization have done to create a better America. However, I ask you to consult your humanist understanding of the world when you unthinkingly politicize, as you accuse others of doing, the controversy surrounding the Park51 Center in order to create a less religious America. Your press release supports intolerance, harms religious and nonreligious secularists alike and undermines the work of your own organization.

I ask you then, to please retract your statements.

Thank you,
Chana Messinger”

There are many other arguments I could have brought to bear, but I didn’t want it to get too long. Now I wait and see what happens. I hope he lives up to the values he espouses and sees the error in his ways.

CORRECTION: As the email I received noted that the piece had been written by the CEO of CFI, and the contact was listed as Nathan Bupp, I assumed that they were one and the same. I erred in this, and I take full responsibility for not doing my research. I received an email from Mr. Bupp asking me to correct myself in this blog post, and so I have.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Ground-Zero Mosque, Islamophobia and General Bigotry

And so the controversy rages on. The problem? Muslims. Or traffic. It’s unclear.

What is clear is that there is a growing group of people opposed to any obvious or growing Muslim presence in their communities. It began, of course, with the “Ground-Zero Mosque” which is anything but. It’s not a mosque, but rather an Islamic cultural center, and it’s two blocks away from Ground Zero, where a 12 story building will hardly be seen. Not that any of that should matter in the least. What are the arguments here? That a mosque will be a signal of triumph for the Islamic world over the Western world?

Well, I suppose that makes sense. Except that Islam is no more a monolithic religion than any other, and has given rise to many sects and denominations over its millennium and a half existence. There are liberal Muslims and moderate Muslims and fundamentalist Muslims and Sunnis and Shias and Iranian Muslims and Afghan Muslims and Egyptian Muslims and Arab Muslims and many many more. And in case this isn’t stunningly obvious, while many current terrorist organizations appear to be influenced by a violent strain of Islam, the people they’re fighting are often also influenced and living in the name of Islam. Or isn’t it understood that Muslims fight Muslims, and that mosques are blown up on a regular basis, or that the radical Sunni elements in places like Iraq are fighting back against marginalization executed by American forces, which have placed only Shias in power and oppressed Sunnis, who feel that they have no voice in their government. I’m sorry, is that too complex? I know, political theory and history actually take thought to understand.

It would also be just delightful if it were understood that 9/11 was hardly a triumph for Islam. It was a superficially successful endeavor undertaken for political reasons in order to throw off a foreign invader. In case this wasn’t noticed, the campaign generally failed. We still have troops in Saudi Arabia, whose presence likely began the resentment Al-Qaeda used and grew out of, and now we are killing people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and possibly Yemen and/or Iran next. Ignoring for the moment that these are separate nations with distinct histories and relationships with Islam, it doesn’t look like much of a success. I’m sure all those dead civilians are just thrilled that 9/11 “worked.” For whom, exactly? Certainly the military-industrial complex, the Defense Department, the CIA, Blackwater, other mercenary groups and plenty morally bankrupt organizations, but we won’t go there right now. Not for Afghanis, not for Iraqis. And not even for al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

You know who it certainly didn’t work for? American Muslims. Yeah, they’re celebrating the tremendous triumph of being blamed, mistrusted, marginalized and discriminated against for going on a full decade for things they did not do. I’m sure the peaceful Muslims who want to build a cultural center and are being widely opposed by a rapidly formed and well-organized set of organizations, including from groups like the Anti Defamation League who should be on their side, are just giddy with glee at their ‘triumph.’ Get real, people.

So given that the arguments are pure bullshit, what is left? A metric fuckton of bigotry, racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, ignorance, right-wing paranoia and dangerous idiocy, being fed and encouraged both by the entire right-wing in this country and enabled by the centrist bias in the media.

Let’s start with the first part. How do we know that these influences are at work? Well, it’s blindingly clear that their supposed arguments are absolutely worthless, which would seem to imply some sort of antipathy towards Muslims. But that’s silly, because it’s just about the symbolism of Ground Zero. Oh, wait. No it’s not. Tennessee, California, Wisconsin, California again. People are turning out in droves to opposed Muslim groups building places of worship or Islamic culture anywhere in their community. Sometimes they hide it in the transparently idiotic argument of traffic, and sometimes they don’t bother.

“Shelton was among several hundred demonstrators recently who wore "Vote for Jesus" T-shirts and carried signs that said: "No Sharia law for USA!," referring to the Islamic code of law.”

- Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Opponents worry it [a 25,000 square foot mosque] will turn the town into haven for Islamic extremists.

- Temecula, California

Anyone see something wrong with the first one? Vote for Jesus sounds a lot like a political message rather than a religious one, which is exactly what they’re accusing the Muslim groups of. Sometimes the Muslim centers are just bigger versions of those that were already there. A haven for Islamic extremists? What blatant idiocy and fear-mongering. And everything else I said before.

Here’s what’s up. Right-wingers feed into the paranoia and ignorance of their base in order to create issues where none exist. And that’s how we get the brilliant framing of the ‘Ground-Zero mosque” that drives the right into such a frenzy that they become incoherent. (Not that she wasn’t already). This is evil, disgusting and immoral, for the Muslims, for the possibly well-meaning protestors who are being pushed by groupthink further right/insane, and certainly for America at large.

Then the centrist bias comes in and says that this is a legitimate issue, that there actually is a debate here. “These local skirmishes make clear that there is now widespread debate about whether the best way to uphold America’s democratic values is to allow Muslims the same religious freedom enjoyed by other Americans, or to pull away the welcome mat from a faith seen as a singular threat.” NO! No they do not! There is no debate here! We have a first amendment! We place value on acceptance and tolerance. We do not demonize and marginalize politically less powerful groups. Islam is not all the same. It is a religion that is not fundamentally at odds with American values or the Constitution. Most Muslims, like most Christians, most Jews and most atheists are entirely peaceful citizens. Quote-mining the Koran leaves open the very distinct possibility of opening the gates to a demonstration of all the horribly shameful and violent parts of the Torah and the Bible and any other holy book you want. And this is just the principled stuff. Empirically, most Muslims have committed no act of violence. They have been a part of American culture for decades. And also, mosques stop terrorism. So suck on that, idiots.

There is no debate. None whatsoever. This is blatant bigotry in its worst form, and should be fought at every turn. Muslims, like all other religious groups, are welcome to believe and practice as they wish. Those are the freedoms they hate us for, right? And as a constitutional right, no amount of popular opposition can undermine that. By the way, too, further marginalizing this population is a viciously unsuccessful way of breaking down the fear and resentment towards Muslims that have been present since 9/11.

Let’s get our heads on straight and fight for real American values (that happen to be basic human values), shall we?