One of the best lines in the movie Mary Poppins was, I think, given to Mrs. Banks to sing:
"Although we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they're raa-theer stoooo-pid."
Seldom has the inanity of man to man (not excepting woman) been more richly on display than in Dublin, at the World Atheist Conference a few days ago, when Iranian dissident Maryam Namazie gave a popular keynote speech on the horrors of religion, comparing Christian and Muslim inquisitions.
In my last post (please read first, it's short), I asked the obvious question, that seems to have escaped those who invited Ms. Namazie. If you're going to defame religion for causing inquisitions and offer atheism as the solution to such evils, wouldn't it be better to invite someone who is NOT on the Central Committee of a communist party to make the point? Even in the goodthinking frenzy of the moment, isn't it just possible that some non-atheist in the crowd, who still remembers the long-forgotten 20th Century (it HAS been 11 years, now), might gently point to the Killing Fields or Gulag, and ask why it's better to kill fifty million people to end religion, than to kill three thousand to keep it afloat?
No doubt, "as a group" we Christians can be "rather stupid," too. It is probably healthy for us to get beat over the head for past sins, from time to time -- lest we ever forget that Christians can put people on the rack, too.
But we also need to think clearly about history, and try to learn the right lessons from the past.
In the interest of doing so, I will now analyze and respond to the substance, not just the spectacle, of Ms. Poppins' -- I mean Maryam Namazie's -- speech. Much of what she says shows deep ignorance and lack of reflection. One can admire her passion, though, and I think she does hit a few nails on the heads.
The Islamic Inquisition / Maryam Namazie / Keynote address at the World Atheist Conference / June 4-6 2011
"In this day and age, Islam matters because of Islamism. Islam per se is fundamentally no worse than any other religion. The tenets, dogma, and principles of all religions are equal."
How can anyone get away with thinking, let alone saying, such blithering nonsense in public? Quakerism is the same as the Peoples' Temple? "Love your neighbor as yourself" is the same as, "sacrifice your neighbor on top of yon pyramid and cut out his heart so the gods will keep Earth going?"
Atheists like to portray themselves as being especially in tune with the spirit of science, but from a scientific point of view, when are different objects in a single class equal to one another? Is a lime as sweet as a strawberry? Does a weiner dog pull sleds as heavy a load as a husky? Can one live as comfortably on a planet circling a quasar as on our own beloved Earth?
The reason Namazie could get away with such nonsense, of course, is that she was speaking to New Atheists, who think their own views are true, and dismiss with contempt those they don't believe in. This is one of the ways in which Gnus are like fundamentalists: they hold to a radical form of what in the theology of religions is called an "exclusivist" understanding of religion, or rather "ontological exclusivism:" the idea that we are right, and everyone else is just wrong, full stop. It's a very naive view, suitable for adolescents in reaction, not for people who have fairly surveyed the world of religions. It's not at all what I think Christianity teaches. But a lot of Gnus seem to be stuck in it.
"I don't believe in good or bad religions; in my opinion all religion is bad for you."
In the face of the millions of people who have quit drugs, stopped drinking themselves to death, learned to love parents, children, or spouses better, in the face of religious reform movements that combated slavery, foot-binding, human sacrifice, and started tens of thousands of hospitals, schools, and rehab centers around the world, what can one deduce from such Machivalean thinking? This sounds like a mass of people trying to convince themselves something by the sound of their preacher's roar.
"Religion should come with a health warning like cigarettes: ‘religion kills.’"
Another easy applause line. How simple the world can seem!
"But even so, today - as we speak - there is a distinction to be made between religions in general and Islam in particular, but for no other reasons than that it is the ideology behind a far-Right regressive political movement that has state power in many places with Sharia law being the most implemented legal code in the world."
When Namazie is speaking about Islam, she can say some interesting things. But why reduce a religion that has existed 1400 years to a vague modern political ideology?
"Islam matters to us today because we are living through an Islamic inquisition and not because it is becoming more ‘popular’ as its proponents like to argue. They call it the fastest growing religion. I’d personally like a count of how many people are leaving it, or would like to leave if they could without being killed."
Of course one cannot obtain such a count. But there is no doubt the number of Muslims in the world has grown in recent decades. Largely that is because of a high birth rate in most Muslim countries, until recently, when it has begun to fall in some Arab states. It is also true that many have left or would like to leave Islam, but that this can be dangerous in many Muslim countries -- which is no doubt why Ms. Namazie left Iran.
"Islam’s appeal has not grown amongst the general public; in fact it’s the opposite. Its record in political power speaks volumes for itself: stonings, honour killings, amputation of limbs, child ‘marriages’, sexual apartheid, decapitations, public hangings, bombs in discotheques and on buses, the slaughter of entire generations in the Middle East and North Africa ... "
Which "general public" is she talking about? The number of Muslims in the UK appears to have grown by about a million in the past ten years. A quarter of Muslims in the US are converts.
Frankly, a little madness doesn't always hurt the prospects of an ideology. Look at communism: everyone knew those folks were out for blood, and still it kept growing. The willingness to risk your life for a belief creates what sociologist Rodney Stark calls a "high-tension" religion, which tend to grow.
"It is the difference between Christianity today and one during the inquisition. A religion that has been reined in by an enlightenment is very different from one that has political power and is spearheading an inquisition."
The "Enlightenment" can be as dangerous as anything. The French Revolution followed the Enlightenment. Both Nazis and Communists adopted some of its values and language. But here Namazie touches on the real issue: the danger of allowing any one ideological group monopoly power.
Stark argues, and I think he's right, that aside from ideology -- which really does matter -- it's a problem if one ideological group monopolizes a society, or if two big groups struggle for control. A better situation is a free market of ideas. That's what we've had in the US for 200 years, and as a result, religion has been both vibrant and free.
"Under the inquisition, you were killed even if you confessed. A confession would just mean that you would be strangled before being burnt to death rather than being burnt alive. The same applies for Islamism. It’s a killing machine."
Most of what Namazie says about the Inquisition appears to be based more on popular myth than reality. A very small percentage of those subject to the Inquisition were killed; most were given light punishments. But I agree that the Inquisition was a terrible event, and part of a bigger problem after nationalized churches became supreme in Europe.
"Sharia law is designed to teach the masses the damnable nature of dissent. Moreover, under the inquisition, once you were baptized, it could not be undone. The same is true with Islam. You are just not allowed to leave."
There is, indeed, a parallel between the worst excesses of the "Christian" Middle Ages and oppressive Muslim regimes. Weak religions commonly borrow from stronger religions. When Islam was on the rise, it borrowed practices from Christians, Jews, Persians, and Arab polytheists. Later, as Islam ruled most of the richest parts of the Mediterranean world, and threatened to conquer the rest, Europe naturally adopted some Muslim beliefs, such as jihad and Mohammed's teaching that those who die in holy war go straight to heaven. Christianity also borrowed from the tyranical system of ancient Rome, which had persecuted the church, and turned on its persecutors.
"If you look at Christianity for example, it’s not that the tenets, dogma, and principles have changed; it has not become more humane since the days of the inquisition and witch burnings."
This looks like one of those weird Middle Eastern conspiracy theories. Few of the practices that Namazie derides are new to Islam -- most have parallels in the life of Mohammed himself, who I do not believe was a CIA agent.
Did anyone mention communism?
"Religious schools by nature must teach the superiority of their belief system and the baseness of non-believers and kafirs . . . Education is meant to give children access to science, reason and the advances of the 21st century. It is meant to level the playing field irrespective of and despite the family the child is born into. It is meant to allow children to think freely and critically – something that religion actually prohibits and punishes."
If Christian schools are such terrible things, why have billions of young people managed to get a decent education in the things? Why was I so bored when I went to public school in 4th grade, and sat in my desk a year or so waiting for all the "free-thinking, critical" kids around me to catch up?