You know what I love most about being an atheist? The freedom of knowing that, if I do something kind or generous, that I can take complete credit for my actions. I consider myself to be at the most fundamental levels an ethicist. I don’t believe that certain basic human decencies merit a Nobel Prize or, as is more common in this modern era, a hash tag. I want to do good for the sake of doing good. I want to be kind for the sake of being kind. I strive every single day (and sometimes fail) to treat people the way I would like to be treated, because it is quite simply the right thing to do.
Removing religious dogma from the equation has made it much easier for me to be a consistently ethical human being, because I don’t balance conflicting moral lessons from someone’s interpretation of a religious text written before the modern age.
…and I don’t believe in God.
I am also the only one responsible for my failures. My losses. My disappointments. My heartbreaks. While this can be a sobering reality, it is nonetheless an imperative in moments of extreme grief, sadness and anger. I experience the same temptation as believers when it comes to the desire to blame others for my misfortune, but the integrity that is at the very core of who I am, will not entertain this as an acceptable reaction. There is no fate. There is no destiny. There is only what I do with the time that I have.
That’s how I feel.
I do not feel that religious people should automatically abdicate their moral high ground to people like me. It would be very difficult for me to pull rank on Mother Theresa on the subject of compassion and humanitarianism while keeping a straight face. Nor can we ignore the contributions of the Stalin’s and Mao’s of the world when discussing atheism as part of any particular national identity.
But by criticizing the actions of a few people, good or bad, instead of the ideological differences between religion and atheism, we’re not actually having a constructive discussion on religion; we are, in fact, engaging in overly simplified, broad sweeping generalizations based on the actions of these few people, which believe it or not, is very the definition of bigotry. And while it may just be easier to capitulate to ridiculous stereotypes and ignorance, I have to make one thing perfectly clear – You’re not critiquing anything. You’re just an asshole.
Mightier than the sword…
The murders at Charlie Hebdo made me sad. Aside from truth, I value humor above all other things (and the two are often intertwined). As an artist and a writer, I grew up admiring the ability of two-dimensional genre in exposing hypocrisy, and flat lining the egos of even the most pompous narcissists. Even though we should all be sad and disgusted with the events of this week, I am also incredibly moved by the reactions of cartoonists around the world who have responded in the best way possible – by being fearless with their art. I take great pleasure in the fact that it’s an incredibly dangerous business to piss off comedians, because they do fight back.
Satire is the most threatening form of humor. From Hamlet to John Stewart, there has been a historical tradition of mocking and ridiculing government, religion, authority and power. Doing so should be cause for offense, dialogue and controversy…but never death. I say this even though Charlie Hebdo published comics that were blatantly racist, which is why I don’t feel the need to support them anymore than I just have. I can defend their right to be offensive satirists without enjoying all of their satire, and I certainly don’t intend to jump on the bandwagon otherwise known as #jesuischarlie which is just rhetoric cushioned by social media do-gooders who have otherwise never taken a stand off of their laptops.
Are you able to identify when discourse is devolving into rhetoric? When people start regurgitating the same things over and over again without a real understanding of what they’re saying which, if they stopped to actually analyze the words, make no sense. Rhetoric is contrived, rehearsed and rooted in an agenda that obstructs honest conversation. Rhetoric also tends to be oblique for various forms of discrimination.
Tell me if any of these sound familiar:
“I find the burqa confronting.”
“I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman.”
“I don’t see color.”
“Support the troops.”
And then…there has been a disturbing dialogue circulating amongst the masses since the rise of Islamic State last year, and that is “the right to criticize Islam.”
The problem is that nobody is actually criticizing Islam. A critique is by its very definition “a detailed analysis and assessment of something”…which nobody is doing. Nobody is talking about the ideology itself, or analyzing the Koran or comparing and contrasting the various sects and denominations, of which there are two, four or dozens depending on whom you ask. We’re not debating the virtues of fasting, or salat. We’re not have any meaningful discussion on the religion whatsoever, because a meaningful discussion breaks down misconceptions, educates and challenges people to consider multiple opposing views at once.
Instead, people are doing a piss poor job of disguising their constipated thinking and bigoted rhetoric as free speech, which it isn’t. This strategy is not sophisticated or intelligent. It’s lazy and, to be perfectly honest, it’s idiotic.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but religion is not the problem here. Religion is not the enemy. Religion is not what murdered the dozen innocents at Charlie Hebdo. Religion is simply the ideology behind which hatred hides in order to gain legitimacy. And without religion, you can rest assured that the same monsters who shot and killed Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer also shot at point blank range as he lay injured on the sidewalk, would still have found a way to become radicalized terrorists who hate the world, and everyone in it. And without religion Ahmed would still be the good guy who put his life on the line to stop them.
The moment you label both Cherif Kouachi and Ahmed Merabet as Muslims, is the moment you deny a hero’s right to be distinguished from a villain.
Bigotry requires that we deny people the right to individuality based on the actions of a few. So, even though there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, the same people who are claiming a “right to criticize Islam” are the same people who are denying Muslims a right to fall outside the bell curve of their critique. Why? Because it’s easy. Because identifying a false cause of the problem creates a false sense of security, fragile and inevitably shattered…but to the bigot, that’s beside the point. It’s facile to blame an entire group of people, rather than acknowledging the many complex historical, political and cultural factors that contribute to terrorism.
But just because it’s difficult…doesn’t mean it’s optional.
Social Media Warriors
If I ever needed an indication as to how bravery has translated itself in the 21st century, all I need to observe is the hash tag frenzy.
Human beings require hash tags in order to stand up and do anything these days. I’ll never forget the reaction after the Martin Place siege last December. The hash tag #Illridewithyou was a digital phenomenon where thousands of non-Muslim Australians decided to collectively pat themselves on the back for supporting everyone’s right to ride on the train without being physically assaulted. This must have been a huge relief to Muslims, who experienced a moment of human compassion which, we can all agree, is a more amenable position to being labeled the pariahs they went back to being called one week later. But it didn’t address the problem…
As far as reactions go, #Illridewithyou is one of Australia’s best, considering that many Aussies have a proclivity towards the opposite. But I wish it had stopped there, because now I’m just confused. The same people posting and sharing a dozen articles a day on hash tags that condemn racism and Islamophobia are the same people who also tacitly participate in it when the spotlight is turned off.
The audacity of social media is that lazy desk jockeys who make racist, sexist or homophobic jokes in their free time, can also redeem themselves through sharing, liking or posting articles and pictures that provide that warm fuzzy feeling of synergy without being challenged. But as soon as the social incentive to collectively participate in our obligation to be decent to one another disappears, so do they…and then long live the thinly veiled back handed privilege that never actually went anywhere.
It’s easy to defend Islam when everyone else is doing it. It’s right to defend Islam with nobody else is doing it.
So unless you actively incorporate the themes of equality into your every day life when nobody is looking, you are undeniably part of the problem that causes Muslims, blacks and transgender people to live on the margins of society for fear of being persecuted. You can misquote Voltaire all you like, but you will never fully grasp the concept of free speech because you only extend that courtesy to people who think, look, act and believe as you do.
The monopoly on moral judgement
When I was a young girl, my mother would take me every Sunday to whatever megachurch whose TV program she was a fan of that week. I was young and impressionable. I believed whatever she told me because she was my mother, and the concept of her being wrong about anything was as inconceivable as the idea that she was not the most beautiful woman in the world. As a result, I grew up believing that homosexuality was an aberration, sex was disgusting and that if I ever dared to lay with a man before marriage, I would be damned for all eternity. In order to maintain the mind control she held over me, she spoke in tongues, danced and sweated in the living room to religious music and TV programming. She made me throw out my music. She burned my entire collection of R.L. Stine books.
When I was sexually assaulted at 19 years of age, she told me that it was God’s way of hindering my sexual development so that I could stay pure for marriage to a good Christian man.
My mother has borderline personality disorder and clinical depression. She got that from her mother, not the bible.
She tried her best to mould me according to her twisted beliefs so that she could legitimize her way of thinking and continue a downward spiral into insanity accompanied by her loving, devoted daughter. I see no difference between this kind of indoctrination and the tactics employed by Islamic State, except that my mother never told me to behead anyone…but if she had, I probably would have done it.
Those beliefs lost their hold on me for the same reasons they kept their hold on her, because at our very core…we are two different people. Religion played absolutely no role in her lifelong struggle with mental illness, nor is it responsible for the shittier moments of my childhood. It is merely the filter through which the damage was done, but I now know as well as ever that she was the one doing the damage.
To say that I spent many years frothing at the mouth and twitching at the mention of Christianity is an understatement. There was a time when even the sound of the word caused me to feel something a lot like hatred. Even now, as I write about it a million miles away from the life I knew, I can feel the familiar knotting in my gut required to even complete this sentence.
But I’m also willing to acknowledge the many people who do believe in God as having been instrumental in helping me to overcome these same difficulties. These have been people of many different faiths, ideologies and cultural backgrounds; this makes it very difficult for me to make sweeping generalizations about any of them without lowering my IQ by twenty points.
So even though I would prefer if religion did not exist, the ethicist in me cannot conscionably blame it for my what happened to me anymore than I could blame it for what happened at Charlie Hebdo. Or Martin Place. Or the World Trade Center. Those were terrorists, not Muslims. It’s repugnant that so many people can’t tell the difference themselves.
But people still like to conveniently ignore this when it comes to Islam, only affording Christianity and Judaism the benefit of the doubt when it comes to murdered abortion doctors, terrorized little girls or shelling schools in Gaza which, let’s be completely honest, is as much about racism as it is about Islamophobia. Religion does not wield people; people wield religion. People wield hatred. People wield politics, racism and sexism to further an agenda.
And unless you’re devoted to doing what is right despite your beliefs, you will inevitably end up encouraging the people who do wrong for theirs.