Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

May 13, 2015

Moderate Muslims are moderate in some things

Filed under: Bangladesh,Religion — David Hume @ 6:13 am

Bangladesh bloggers: Clear pattern to killings:

Since then, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appears to have reached an accommodation with Hefajat. The Islamist group has confined itself to the madrassa premises and the government has put five bloggers in jail for allegedly hurting the religious feelings of Muslims.

The government now appears to be walking a tightrope.

There is little doubt the prime minister wants to pursue a secular future for Bangladesh. But she appears to have little time for atheists who are on a collision course with Islamists.

The bloggers don’t just want protection from killers and justice for those murdered – they also want to enjoy the freedom of speech that is enshrined in the constitution. The government does not seem to think that freedom should stretch to the criticism of religion.

And Islamist extremists want to strike terror into the hearts of such writers and bloggers through targeted killings.

Why is the government walking a tightrope? Because, as Omar Ali observes the majority of Bangladeshis are Muslims, and many of these individuals are wary of standing up for the rights of those who verbally attack their religion. Many “moderate Muslims” may enjoin peace, but won’t fight for it on behalf of others.

Overall, compared to a sectarian hell like Pakistan Bangladesh is doing well. But if it wants to continue to be an exemplar of liberal economic practices grinding away poverty one percentage point at a time it needs to also stand by principles of liberal social tolerance. It is difficult to have one without the other in the long term.

March 1, 2015

George Will on his relaxed atheism

Filed under: George Will,Religion — David Hume @ 10:22 pm

September 30, 2014

George F. Will, American atheist

Filed under: George F. Will,Religion — David Hume @ 9:55 pm

Several years ago George Will declared that he was an agnostic on the Colbert Report. Last week he pulled no punches:

RCR: Do you believe in God?

GW: No. I’m an atheist. An agnostic is someone who is not sure; I’m pretty sure. I see no evidence of God. The basic question in life is not, “Is there a God,” but “Why does anything exist?” St. Thomas Aquinas said that there must be a first cause for everything, and we call the first cause God. Fine, but it just has no hold on me.

RCR: Were you raised with any religion?

GW: My father was the son of a Lutheran minster, and therefore he was an atheist. What I mean by that is — he went to so many church services, his father preached in many churches up near Antetum, eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania — my father had had his full of religion. He used to sit outside his father’s study and listen to him wrestle with members of the church over reconciling grace and free will. I think that’s where my father got his interest in philosophy.

I majored in religion in college. I was very interested, but I just came to a different conclusion. I’m married to a fierce Presbyterian and she raised our kids fierce Presbyterians.

I’m an amiable, low-voltage atheist.

RCR: Does that present a problem for you as a conservative?

GW: No. The Republican Party’s base is largely religious. It would be impossible for me to run for high office as a Republican. Since I have no desire to run for office, it’s a minor inconvenience! I think William F. Buckley put it well when he said that a conservative need not be religious, but he cannot despise religion. Russell Kirk never quite fathomed this, which is one of the reasons why I’m not a big fan of The Conservative Mind. For him, conservatism without religion is meaningless.

RCR: Your friend Charles Krauthammer likes to say he’s an agnostic.

GW: I think he’s an atheist. He flinches from saying it. I saw what he said: “I don’t believe in God, but I fear him greatly.” Oh, please!

August 4, 2014

What is Europe’s anti-Semitism problem about?

Filed under: anti-Semitism,Islam,Religion — David Hume @ 3:08 pm

In SlateEurope Has a Serious Anti-Semitism Problem, and It’s Not All About Israel:

recent Anti-Defamation League survey found that 24 percent of the French population and 21 percent of the German population harbor some anti-Semitic attitudes. A recent study of anti-Semitic letters received by Germany’s main Jewish organization found that 60 percent of the hate mail came from well-educated Germans. So this isn’t just a problem with young, disaffected Muslim men.

After all, the two worst recent incidents of violence against Jews in Europe—the killing of three children and a teacher in a 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse and the shooting of three people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in May—took place during times when there wasn’t much news coming out of Israel. Continentwide statistics on anti-Semitic incidents leading up to the most recent uptick don’t show much of an overall trendin Britain, anti-Semitic violence is becoming less common while online abuse is becoming more frequent—or a correlation with events in Israel and Palestine.

antisemitismThe perpetrators of the two incidents in question? 29 year old Mehdi Nemmouche and 24 year old Mohammed Merah. That’s what I call chutzpah. Or, the author of the piece is flying under the radar of the implicit red-lines of what is permissible in Slate by inserting those links which actually support the idea that anti-Semitism is a problem of disaffected young Muslim men. Mind you, I grant that anti-Semitism has broad, but shallow, roots across much of Europe. The key is whether mild antipathy flips into politicized violence. Because of the Arab-Israeli conflict people of a Muslim background often have casually anti-Semitic views above and beyond what you might expect. Some individuals take the political dimensions very seriously, and the drum beat of vociferous coverage of the actions of the Israeli state bleeds into perceptions about Jews as a whole.*

Though the American media seems to be taking an antiseptic attidue toward the demographic composition of anti-Israeli rallies which have become anti-Semitic in a cartoonish sense, they haven’t censored the photographs. It’s rather obvious that young men of Middle Eastern heritage are prominent at these rallies. They aren’t a representative slice of the populations of France and Germany, to name two countries.

* To be even-handed, some Jews elide and erase the distinction between being Jewish and being Israeli.

January 28, 2013

Spinoza: genius is as genius does

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Gaon of Vilna,Jews,Religion — Razib Khan @ 11:32 pm

An Emperor of Nothing

This morning in Slate I encountered a rather peculiar piece, The Original Jewish Genius: How the Gaon of Vilna helps explain Jewish intellectual achievement. The reason I found this piece peculiar is that it strikes me as something of a rewriting of the conventional historical narrative for anyone who is not what we today term an Orthodox Jew. The Gaon of Vilna may have been a luminescent mind, but a figure such as Moses Mendelssohn, also an Ashkenazi Jew of approximately the same period, is much more the spiritual ancestor of the typical modern Jewish intellectual, who synthesizes their cultural identity within the broader currents dominant in the gentile milieu.

The Gaon of Vilna was the culmination of over 1,000 years of Rabbinal Judaism, an intellectual tradition which had marginal impact on the gentile world, as Christianity and Islam sealed off the Jews from the outside in the centuries after the Babylonian Talmud came into being. The Lithuanian Mitnagdim who looked to the Gaon ultimately became foes of the Jewish Enlightenment, which witnessed the emergence of identified Jews as prominent figures in Western civilization for the first time in 2,000 years (since Josephus and the Jewish courtiers who were familiars with the Julio-Claudians). In short the Gaon of Vilna is rightly a marginal figure from a gentile perspective, no matter his parochial brilliance.


There is a Jew who preceded him by generations who is much more relevant to modern Jew and gentile alike. Baruch Spinoza, a Sephardic Jew who grew up in the Netherlands, and came from a religiously fluid community fleeing persecution in Iberia. Not surprisingly Spinoza is the individual who Albert Einstein credits as being most philosophically influential upon his thought. While the Gaon of Vilna was the object of acclaim during his life from his people, Baruch Spinoza was an outcast. A religious heretic who was melodramatically excommunicated by the Jews of Amsterdam,  his Christian correspondents were also discomfited by the reality that Spinoza’s flight from Judaism did not entail an acceptance of Jesus Christ. Rather, Spinoza’s metaphysical views prefigured the Deism which came to be so dominant during the Enlightenment. If ever there was a patron saint of contemporary cosmopolitan individualists, it was Baruch Spinoza.

Neither Jew nor gentile, just a man

With hindsight some of Spinoza’s rationalist fancies strike us as naive. And the certainly he must be held to account for the excesses of Enlightenment hubris. Spinoza did not grasp the limits of human analytic capacities. But no one denies that Spinoza was a great figure in Europe’s 17th century Republic of Letters. He looks forward to a secular world which takes seriously the abstruse contemplation reminiscent of the pre-Socratics. The Gaon of Vilna was a prefection of the past, while Spinoza was a coarse prototype of the future.

To understand why I say this, consider this passage from The Essential Talmud:

However great the scope of Torah, the sages were never concerned with scientific speculation for its own sake and displayed no interest whatsoever in philosophy, whether in its Classical Greek, Hellenistic, or Roman versions. Talmud study of subjects correspondending to general philosophy is constructed in a totally different fashion. Similarly, the sages wer indifferent to science itslf, whether astronomy, medicine, or amthematics. In these, as in other spheres of science and knowledge, they recognized only the boundaries of Torah and they studied these matters on only two planes, dealing with science only wen it related directly to halakhah and with the natural sciences only when there were general ethical and ideological implications.

To a great extent I find this sort of passage damning of the intellectual jewel of Rabbinical Judaism, the elaboration of Jewish law. Because of the occupational constraints of Ashkenazi Jews, and their narrow ecological niche as an non-agricultural minority, the development of a religious specialist class whose stock and trade was extensive commentary and interpretation of law is not entirely surprising. But it is also totally parasitic upon the genuine productivity of a society. The reality is that for a society to flourish you do not need thousands of ethical rules to follow. Like many investment bankers and “patent troll” attorneys the great rabbis of yore many have had fast processing units, but they did not utilize them toward productive ends. In modern Israel the haredi, many of whom are direct descendants of the Gaon of Vilna’s Mitnagdim, exhibit a parasitical relationship to the Jewish mainstream.

Ali Sistani

Of course this institutionalized flight toward obscurantism is not limited to Jews. Muslims have a similar legal tradition to Jews, and historically the “best and brightest” have been drawn to this domain. Many of my own recent ancestors have been ulema in the Hanafi tradition of Sunni Islam. The same sort of hagiography of the great rabbis occurs with Muslim eminences, such as the ayatollahs of Shia Islam, who are termed “proof of Islam” if they have mastered an eclectic array of frankly useless intellectual skills.

Genius is more than just cleverness and flexibility of mind. It is the application of that mental acuity to problems of broader general relevance which make a permanent impact upon history. Baruch Spinoza was a genius who just happened to be born a Jew. The Gaon of Vilna was a genius about things pertinent to Jews. If there ever was a “Jewish physics,” it would be of far less interest than just plain physics.

December 17, 2012

Conservative atheists not rare in South Korea?

Filed under: Politics,Religion,South Korea — Razib Khan @ 11:30 pm

In a few days South Korea will have a new president, and this is very important because of how large North Korea looms in geopolitics. An interesting aspect of this race for Americans is that the candidate of the conservative party, Park Geun-Hye, may be an atheist, running against a Roman Catholic liberal. I say may be because there are some confusions over Park Geun-Hye’s religious identity. Her parents were Buddhist, she was baptized as a young woman as a Roman Catholic, and seems to have drawn without much discrimination from a variety of religious teachings to inform her world-view. It wouldn’t be shocking if Park Geun-Hye was an atheist. According to the World Values Survey ~25% of South Koreans are convinced atheists.

I was curious if atheists in South Korea leaned to the Left or the Right, and from what I can tell there’s no strong correlation. This may surprise Americans, but the historical experience of the two nations is very different. Until recently South Korea has had weak institutional religions, and a substantial portion of what we might term “progressives” were Christians, in particular Roman Catholics. Below are the results for the USA, Great Britain, Sweden, and South Korea for the World Values Survey using religious identification and political self positioning. Percentages and sample sizes are included.

 

N Religious person Not religious person Convinced atheist
Great Britain 854 49.90% 39.10% 11.10%
Left 30 40.00% 36.80% 23.20%
2 24 39.60% 36.40% 23.90%
3 70 40.30% 34.60% 25.10%
4 78 41.20% 48.70% 10.10%
5 340 50.20% 42.20% 7.60%
6 129 56.30% 38.30% 5.40%
7 80 48.40% 43.90% 7.60%
8 56 55.50% 28.40% 16.10%
9 23 59.70% 18.60% 21.70%
Right 24 70.80% 15.80% 13.30%
United States 1175 71.80% 24.70% 3.50%
Left 21 51.10% 33.70% 15.20%
2 18 67.90% 27.10% 5.00%
3 70 50.80% 41.00% 8.20%
4 96 62.80% 31.20% 6.00%
5 418 72.30% 26.60% 1.10%
6 233 71.10% 25.80% 3.10%
7 130 77.00% 16.90% 6.10%
8 104 82.90% 11.70% 5.40%
9 43 97.50% 2.50% -
Right 43 69.00% 31.00% -
Sweden 953 33.10% 49.70% 17.20%
Left 26 25.70% 49.20% 25.10%
2 36 26.80% 36.40% 36.70%
3 137 28.40% 54.10% 17.60%
4 132 27.30% 51.80% 20.90%
5 139 32.70% 51.20% 16.00%
6 109 42.50% 47.80% 9.60%
7 156 32.70% 49.00% 18.30%
8 149 32.50% 53.20% 14.30%
9 41 48.70% 39.50% 11.80%
Right 29 45.90% 37.50% 16.60%
South Korea 1195 30.10% 41.40% 28.60%
Left 18 17.00% 56.30% 26.70%
2 32 28.00% 31.70% 40.30%
3 148 41.70% 30.00% 28.30%
4 145 34.60% 37.20% 28.20%
5 245 22.10% 50.10% 27.90%
6 142 30.20% 40.20% 29.60%
7 169 26.00% 38.20% 35.80%
8 182 36.80% 39.80% 23.40%
9 62 27.20% 51.90% 20.90%
Right 54 20.40% 51.20% 28.30%



December 15, 2012

Merry Christmas, hold the Hanukkah?

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:02 pm

It’s that time of the year, and I quite like “the Holidays.” I am, of course, looking forward to my daughter’s first Christmas. Though no one in our family believes in the religious justification for the holiday, it is still an important time of the year, for reasons I have outlined before. But for the first time in 16 years I am going to a “Hanukkah party,” and my feelings about this are a little mixed. The reasons is that the more I heave learned about Hanukkah, the more I’ve become irritated by the fact that this minor Jewish holiday just happens to align well chronologically with Christmas. Most people are aware that as a religious matter for Jews Hanukkah bears no equivalence to what Christmas does for some Christians. But most non-Jews, and even many Jews, know little about the festival aside from the miracle of olive oil.


In The National Post David Frum highlights the salient aspects which concern many Jews. In short, Hanukkah is a  celebration of rebellion, violence, and realpolitik. There is no gain in reducing these ancient events into simple truisms, but a Jewish friend of mine expressed the heart of the matter when she stated that “in antiquity the Jews were al-Qaeda.” In relation to the Maccabee revolt one only needs to follow up on the broad outline of the Wikipedia entry. In a positive light one might frame the Maccabees as religious nationalists, but in a negative light they were reactionary chauvinists.

The story of the Maccabees is the first chapter in the ancient conflict between Jews who were ambivalent toward Hellenization,* and those who were unabashed synthesizers. The Maccabee response to those factions who wished to debase what they viewed as Judaism qua Judaism was to decapitate and disembowel them. The savagery and cultural intolerance of the Seclucid tyrant in this case seems to be easily explained by the rhetoric and behavior of the anti-Hellenists. When it comes to the old dichotomy between Athens or Jerusalem, I clearly sympathize with Athens. More broadly I think most modern Westerners would see their own world view much more in the Hellenists than their enemies, whose victory Hanukkah celebrates.

Ultimately this isn’t going to make me a grinch about Hanukkah. We don’t celebrate the real Hanukkah, we celebrate a Jewish holiday which happens to be near Christmas in timing, and so accommodate what we perceive to be legitimate sensitivities while a good time is had by all. And in an ironic twist the particular party I am attending is dominated by gentiles, with the only Jews present being those who are in relationships with gentiles. So I suppose in the end we make our reasons for this particular season.

* Though some Reform Jews claim to be heirs of Hellenistic Judaism, ultimately only the Pharisees who opposed the Hellenists maintained cultural continuity from that time down to the present. I say ambivalent because traditional Judaism itself has been influenced by Greek thought.

October 16, 2012

Atheist conservatives and libertarians are not rare

Filed under: atheism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 10:45 pm

A generous definition of rare I would think is 10% or less (you might argue for a more stringent threshold, but let’s work with 10%). So what are the politics of atheists? I bring this up because someone named Bridget Gaudette is looking for conservative and libertarian atheists to ask them about their views (so naturally I came up), but prefaced her inquiry to me by the assertion that “conservative/Republican” and “Libertarian” individuals in the “Atheist community” are rare. I don’t think this is empirically valid, depending on how you define the atheist community (e.g., atheist activists are probably to the Left of the median atheist). But even among the types who are motivated enough to attend secularist conferences, a substantial minority are non-liberals. I know because many people approached me after I spoke about my conservatism at the Moving Secularism Forward event last spring, and expressed their libertarianism, or specific conservative heterodoxies. Many of the young male atheists who I encountered in particular tended to be libertarians. Genuine self-identified conservatives are moderately rare, to be fair.

Nevertheless, to probe this question let’s look at the GSS. The variable GOD has a category which includes those who ...

October 9, 2012

More atheists in the Age of New Atheism

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 12:14 am

Pew has an important new report out, “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Here is the bottom line in terms of numbers: over the past generation the proportion of Americans who explicitly reject a religious affiliation has doubled, from ~10 percent, to ~20 percent. In addition, the, the proportion who hold to Christian fundamentalist religious views has also declined. The United States of America is still a very religious nation in the context of the Western world, but 1990-2012 has been as second period of secularization after the “pause” of the 1970s and 1980s (after the initial wave of defections in the 1960s).

And these numbers apply not just to those with no religion, but atheists & agnostics as well. There has always been a tendency for more people to hold to atheistic and agnostic positions than those who would admit to being atheists or agnostics. That gap is closing. Why? I have no idea, but I do think that people need to stop talking about how terrible the New Atheism is for secularists. I doubt this wave of secularization has anything to do with the ...

August 11, 2012

Hindus invented the missionary religion

Filed under: History,Religion — Razib Khan @ 4:31 pm

A comment below:

To be honest with you, being of a Hindu background I’ve never ever understood the concept of conversion. It seems so alien to me and seems to be prevalent only among the monotheistic religions, to me it seems to be a sort of rejection of the other.

Two qualifications. First, by “Hindu,” I mean Hindu-as-Indian, not Hindu as the set of native Indian beliefs which matured and crystallized under Turco-Muslim and British Christian hegemony. Second, inventing a missionary religion is like inventing the hypertext link or “one-click purchasing.” Someone was going to invent this. People of “Hindu background” seem to routinely forget that the first non-tribal religious system with universalist aspirations arose on the soil of India, Buddhism. This makes some sense because most people don’t know any history.

Below is a map which illustrates the nations which the Indian king Ashoka reputedly sent missionaries. One does not need to take this literally in all the details. Rather, it does establish the likelihood that Buddhism, which was a native Indian tradition, sent out missionaries across much of the civilized world centuries before Christianity in any form existed. In fact, it is almost certainly the case that Buddhism was a presence within China proper when Christianity was still self-consciously a Jewish sect, in the 1st century.

Of course, it must not be denied that Hinduism as a recognizable religious tradition has engaged in proselytization. The Cham Hindus of Vietnam and the Balinese are both relics of a vast domain of Southeast Asian Hinduism, which stretched from Cambodia south to Java.

Share

July 25, 2012

Hindus earn like Episcopalians, vote like Puerto Ricans

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 9:24 pm

A few years ago I pointed out that as among American whites religious affiliation was often the best predictor of voting patterns among Asian Americans. The Republican party is for all practical purposes the white Christian party, but the minority of Asian Americans who are conservative Protestants are quite congenial to the Republicans. Their common religion transcends the racial gap. It is also no surprise that the two most prominent Indian American politicians who are Republicans are both avowed Christians (converts). It is unlikely that a non-Christian Indian could achieve national prominence as Republican; they would have two strikes against them, their race and their religion.

Pew’s new report on Asian American religiosity, Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths, highlights this well. American Hindus are stridently partisan Democrats. In contrast, evangelical Asian Americans leaned toward John McCain even in 2008 (though not as much as white evangelicals). People have made comparisons between Indian Americans and Jews before, and in some ways this is facile, but when it comes to socioeconomic status and politics the similarities are striking. Like Jews, American Hindus are well off and well educated. And like ...

May 27, 2012

Why blasphemy matters

Filed under: blasphemy,Religion — Razib Khan @ 12:39 pm

Via Facebook I stumbled upon a page where an ex-Muslim Pakistani female expat has a picture posted of a Koran placed in front of her vagina (she’s naked). Whether you think this sort of behavior is juvenile or courageous or boring depends upon your perspective. But it does illustrate the power of blasphemy and symbols. Blasphemy as a concept and cognitive reflex is deeply rooted in our mental super-structure. The reflex may be the same, but the stimuli can vary a great deal. For example, Hindu statuary which elicits reverence from those who follow the Sanātana Dharma may be repulsive and blasphemous to believers in the Abrahamic religions or Arya Samaj. Actions which may seem meritorious for one perspective may be blasphemous and disrespectful from another. Blasphemy is not objective, but subjective. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have real consequences and concrete & valid results.

The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was a shocking act of offense and destruction from the perspective world at large, and in particular Buddhists, but from a narrow iconoclastic Muslim viewpoint it was only a recapitulation of thousands of years of idol-smashing on the part of the heirs of Abraham. The destructive actions which Abraham and Muhammad are reputed to undertaken against the idols revered by their peers seem to be acts of righteous piety in hindsight, but in the context of their times they were profoundly shocking and transgressive. But you now comprehend where Abraham and Muhammad stood in relation to their motives; by their very belief and practice the pagans of their age violated norms which these two men held sacred.

The actions of radical atheists may seem shocking and blasphemous, and they’re meant to be seen in such a manner, but they’re also done with purpose. That purpose is the same as that of Abraham and Muhammad, to testify to the falsity of delusion which they perceive in others by a symbolic act. The truths which you hold dear may be the lies of another, and vice versa. But in a multicultural society the problem is that individuals with contradictory positions live cheek-by-jowl. Many Muslims, and South Asians more generally, don’t understand that in the West the norms are such that this contradiction is resolved by acceptance that communal beliefs are not sacred, because beliefs vary across communities. Rather, they attempt to import into the West Islamic and South Asian norms where communal harmony, where it is maintained, is obtained by an equilibrium of mutual distance and adherence to a wide set of taboos.

And that is why “blasphemy” is critical. Until people understand this radical norm, they need to be reminded by the act of subjective transgression.

Addendum: Muslims make great noises about the blasphemies to which they are subject, but they naturally don’t acknowledge that they are among the most thorough blasphemers the world over, disrespecting & neglecting the patrimony of generations past. Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Oriental Christians who see their ancient holy sites and relics fall into disrepair and disuse in Muslim lands must accept that as the way of the world, but this does not negate the offense and hurt which they feel. Though many Muslims can at least empathize on one level: Salafi ideology has been transforming historic Mecca into a giant mall. By profaning what other Muslims hold to be holy the Salafis believe that they are discouraging shirk.

May 10, 2012

Collective “honor”

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 9:16 pm

Ultra-Orthodox Shun Their Own for Reporting Child Sexual Abuse:

The first shock came when Mordechai Jungreis learned that his mentally disabled teenage son was being molested in a Jewish ritual bathhouse in Brooklyn. The second came after Mr. Jungreis complained, and the man accused of the abuse was arrested.

Old friends started walking stonily past him and his family on the streets of Williamsburg. Their landlord kicked them out of their apartment. Anonymous messages filled their answering machine, cursing Mr. Jungreis for turning in a fellow Jew. And, he said, the mother of a child in a wheelchair confronted Mr. Jungreis’s mother-in-law, saying the same man had molested her son, and she “did not report this crime, so why did your son-in-law have to?”

Sound familiar? I accept the importance of ethnic pride and collective consciousness as normal parts of the human experience. But clannishness can become unbalanced. This is clearly the case among many South Asians, who seem to lack any moral compass when it comes to outgroups. Because Hasidic Jews today tend to be inward looking this group’s own internal morality comes under less scrutiny from the outside, but some transgressions, such as sexual abuse, pull back the veil for moments.

May 6, 2012

Every tribune a Rick Santorum!

Filed under: Islam,Religion — Razib Khan @ 12:03 am

After the power of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt made itself felt, and current domination of Iraq by Shia political parties, and the likely strength of Islamists in Libya, the media finally has become more cautious about pushing any narrative which makes them look as prescient as Paul Wolfowitz about the nature of the Arab body politic. So, for example, this article surveying the Islamist strands within the anti-Assad coalition in Syria. The problem for the Islamists is that Syria is “only” on the order of 75 percent Sunni, and they do not want to project the image of chauvinist exclusivity which has come to the fore in Egypt, lest the religious minorities dig in in their strongholds (e.g., along the coast). But I think it needs to be pointed out here that in Iraq the Shia Arabs are only somewhat more than 60 percent of the population. In other words, there is no question that a democratic order will result in the regression of minority rights in Syria if the Islamic Brotherhood wishes this to the the nature of things.

Why are we even talking about this in ...

April 9, 2012

Understanding across cultures

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Islam,Religion,Turkey — Razib Khan @ 10:37 pm

One of the non-science aspects of this weblog which I’ve been addressing over the past 10 years is attempting to get a grip upon cultural variation. There are two major dimensions in terms of the problem. One is positive, in that people don’t really have a good sense of cultural variation. This is simply a function of stupidity, or ignorance. In the latter case the primary problem is that the media and public intellectuals aren’t very good at concisely transmitting information (I don’t expect normally curious people to pick up ethnographic or historical monographs). For example, “elite” publications like Slate routinely flub facts which could be confirmed via The World Book Encyclopedia, such as whether Iran is an Arab country. Sometimes the confusions are more obscure, but nonetheless misleading. In 2004 I slammed an Iranian American writing for Slate (this publication deserves to be picked on because of its quasi-New Yorker superiority; it’s a “smart” webzine which doesn’t live up to its own billing too often in substance if not style) for asserting that Iran’s Islamic history has been predominantly a Shia one. Going back to that 2004 post, I realized now that it was written by

April 8, 2012

Baby tossing

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 5:32 pm

Yoga and religion

Filed under: Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:26 pm

In Queens, Seeking to Clear a Path Between Yoga and Islam:

As a community activist in Queens, Muhammad Rashid has fought for the rights of immigrants held in detention, sought the preservation of local movie theaters, and held a street fair to promote diversity.

But few of those causes brought him anywhere near as much grief and controversy as his stance on yoga.

Mr. Rashid, a Muslim, said he had long believed that practicing yoga was tantamount to “denouncing my religion.”

“Yoga is not for Muslims,” he said. “It was forbidden.”

But after moving to New York in 1997 from Bahrain, he slowly began to rethink his stance. Now Mr. Rashid, 56, has come full circle: not only has he adopted yoga into his daily routine, but he has also encouraged other Muslims to do so — putting himself squarely against those who consider yoga a sin against Islam.

From what I have heard the modern history of yoga exhibits some complexity, insofar as Western and de facto secular interest in the practice elicited a counter-reaction from Indian thinkers, who reclaimed the practice. As part of the reclamation project there was an attempt to imbue yoga more definitively with Indian religious concepts.

February 24, 2012

How common are godless liberals?

Filed under: atheism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 7:43 am

 

I’m going to be speaking at the Moving Secularism Forward conference in Orlando next week. They invited me because I’m a conservative atheist public intellectual, and the three other conservative atheist public intellectuals in the United States were presumably busy. In any case, going over what I’m going to talk about I was double-checking political breakdowns by atheist & agnostic proportions and ideology in the General Social Survey for after the year 2000.

I used the “GOD” variable, which asks people about their belief in God. Those who did not believe, or said there was no way to find out, I classed as “atheists & agnostics.” This means that the total percentages in the population are higher than self-reports; that’s because the word atheism in particular has a negative connotation (I recall that Julia Sweeney’s parents were tolerant of the fact that she did not believe in God, but were aghast that she was an atheist!). “POLVIEWS” what the variable which I crossed “GOD” with. It has seven responses, from very liberal to very conservative, and I just put all liberals and conservatives into one category.

The first table displays what proportion in the whole society atheist & agnostic liberals (or conservatives) are. Since the total proportion of atheists & agnostics is small, naturally these percentages are small. The two subsequent tables just display what percentage of atheists & agnostics are liberal, or what percentage of liberals are atheist & agnostic.

 

All cells combined = 100%
Atheist and agnostic Not atheist or agnostic
Liberal 3.7% 22.8%
Moderate 2.3% 36.0%
Conservative 1.5% 33.5%

Rows = 100%
Liberal Moderate Conservative
Atheist and agnostic 49.7% 30.6% 19.7%
Not atheist or agnostic 24.7% 39.0% 36.3%

Rows = 100%
Atheist and agnostic Not atheist or agnostic
Liberal 14.2% 85.8%
Moderate 6.1% 93.9%
Conservatve 4.3% 95.7%



When I see these results I’m always surprised by the proportions of atheists & agnostics who define themselves as conservative. It seems way too high. I think this is due to libertarians who check the conservative option.

February 13, 2012

Working class vs. middle class white seculars

Filed under: Data Analysis,Religion,Religious — Razib Khan @ 9:27 am

Rod Dreher at The American Conservative, White Working-Class ‘Seculars’:

What’s interesting to think about is that these working-class non-churchgoers are probably not secular in the same way white intellectual elites are secular. I bet if you polled them, 999 out of 1,000 would say they believed in God and considered themselves to be Christians. It’s just that they don’t go to church. Where I live, during deer hunting season, to be a white male is to be seasonally “secular” in this way.

One way to answer this question is look at the GSS. I used the ATTEND (attend church that is) variable to ascertain secularity. Those who never attended church or did so less than once a year (in other words, some years they did attend, in other years they did not), are “secular.” Those who attend nearly weekly, or more, are “religious.” To assess class I simply divided the non-Hispanic white population into those who had a college degree or higher (middle class), and those who did not (working class).

Below are some responses to a selection of questions.

 

 

Secular Religious
No College College No College College
Atheist + agnostic 13 32 1 2
Know God Exists 39 17 89 79
Bible World of God 18 2 57 31
Bible Book of Fables 31 61 3 6
Religious fundamentalist 18 5 45 29
Humans from animals 68 91 18 40
Hell definitely exists 33 10 82 65

Qualitatively Dreher is roughly correct. Working class seculars are more ‘religious’ than middle class seculars. But they are still more secular than the religious middle class. This isn’t too surprising. In many Western societies there is a pattern where:

1) The church-goers tend to be more middle class (positive correlation between socioeconomic status and church-going)

2) The church-goers tend to be more religiously orthodox/conservative in their beliefs

3) The middle class tends to be less  religiously orthodox/conservative in their beliefs ( (negative correlation between socioeconomic status and orthodoxy/conservatism)

These results confuse because because many are assuming that if A is correlated with B, and B is correlated with C, then A must be correlate with C. This may be true, but it is not necessarily true. Ergo, you get this pattern where in the USA and many Western nations there is a positive correlation between institutional religious adherence and class, and a positive correlation between skepticism of orthodox religious beliefs and class. To be coarse about the main difference is that there are relatively few religious liberals within the working class, and proportionally fewer orthodox non-church-goers among the middle class. There is also a more punctilious adherence to institutions among middle class of all stripes.

For example, among the working class 73 percent of those who believe that the Bible is the word of God attend church at least nearly weekly. In contrast, the figure is 95 percent of the middle class of the same beliefs. The difference is greater for those who believe that the Bible is the inspired word, 42 vs. 72 percent. In other words, very few church-going mainline Protestants among the working class. Finally, it is notable that even among those who believe that the Bible is a book of fables 12 percent of middle class respondents went to church nearly weekly, vs. 8 percent of the working class!

Metaphysics Matters

Filed under: philosophy,Politics,Religion,Top Posts — Sean Carroll @ 8:38 am

Chattering classes here in the U.S. have recently been absorbed in discussions that dance around, but never quite address, a question that cuts to the heart of how we think about the basic architecture of reality: are human beings purely material, or something more?

The first skirmish broke out when a major breast-cancer charity, Susan Komen for the Cure (the folks responsible for the ubiquitous pink ribbons), decided to cut their grants to Planned Parenthood, a decision they quickly reversed after facing an enormous public backlash. Planned Parenthood provides a wide variety of women’s health services, including birth control and screening for breast cancer, but is widely associated with abortion services. The Komen leaders offered numerous (mutually contradictory) reasons for their original action, but there is no doubt that their true motive was to end support to a major abortion provider, even if their grants weren’t being used to fund abortions.

Abortion, of course, is a perennial political hot potato, but the other recent kerfuffle focuses on a seemingly less contentious issue: birth control. Catholics, who officially are opposed to birth control of any sort, objected to rules promulgated by the Obama administration, under which birth control would have to be covered by employer-sponsored insurance plans. The original objection seemed to be that Catholic hospitals and other Church-sponsored institutions would essentially be paying for something they though was immoral, in response to which a work-around compromise was quickly adopted. This didn’t satisfy everyone (anyone?), however, and now the ground has shifted to an argument that no individual Catholic employer should be forced to pay for birth-control insurance, whether or not the organization is sponsored by the Church. This position has been staked out by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and underlies a new bill proposed by Florida Senator Mark Rubio.

Topics like this are never simple, but they can be especially challenging for a secular democracy. On the one hand, our society is based on religious pluralism. We have freedom of conscience, and try to formulate our laws in such a way that everyone’s rights are protected. But on the other hand, people have incompatible beliefs about fundamental issues. Such beliefs are often of central importance, and the duct tape of political liberalism isn’t always sufficient to hold things together.

When it comes to abortion and birth control, there’s no question that down-and-dirty political and social aspects are front and center. Different political parties want to score points with their constituencies by standing firm in the current culture wars. And there’s also no question that restricting access to contraception and abortion is driven in part (we can argue about how big that part is) by a desire to control women’s sexuality.

But there is also a serious question about human life and the nature of reality. What actually happens when that sperm and ovum get together to make a zygote? Is it just one step of many in an enormously complex chemical reaction that ultimately gives rise to a new person, who is at heart just a complex chemical reaction him-or-herself? Or is it the moment when an immaterial soul, distinct from the material body, first comes into being? Question like this matter — but as a society we hardly ever discuss them, at least not in any serious and open way. As a result, different sides talk past each other, trying to squeeze metaphysical stances into political boxes.

If it were really true that “a human life” was defined by the association of an immaterial soul with a physical body, and that association began at the moment of conception, then making abortion illegal would be perfectly sensible. It would be murder, pure and simple. (Very few people are actually consistent here, believing that mothers who have abortions should be treated like someone who has committed murder; but there are some.) But this view of reality is not true.

Naturalism, which describes human beings in the same physical terms as other objects in the universe, doesn’t actually provide a cut-and-dried answer to the abortion question, because it doesn’t draw a bright line between “a separate living person” and “a collection of cells.” But it provides an utterly different context for addressing the question. Naturalists are generally against murder, but it’s because they recognize certain collections of atoms as “people,” and endow those people with rights and privileges as part of the structure of society. It all comes from distinctions that we human beings ultimately invent, not ones that are handed down from a higher authority. Consequently, the appropriate rules are less clear. A naturalist wants to know whether the purported person can think, feel, react, and so on. They also will balance the interests of the fetus, whatever they may be, against the interests of the mother, who is unquestionably a living and functioning person. It’s perfectly natural that those interests will seem more important than those of a fetus that isn’t even viable outside the womb.

Most everyone, religious believers and naturalists alike, agrees that killing innocent one-year-old children is morally wrong. Consequently, we can happily live together in a society where that kind of action is illegal. But our beliefs about aborting one-month-old embryos are understandably very different. The disagreements about these issues aren’t simply political, they run much deeper than that.

It matters how people think about the world. Political liberalism is a good system, but it only works insofar as the citizens can agree on a core set of values and push cultural/religious differences to the periphery. Naturalism doesn’t answer all the value-oriented questions we might have; it simply provides a sensible framework in which they can be profitably discussed. But between naturalists and non-naturalists, profitable discussion is much more difficult. Which is why we naturalists have to keep pressing, making the best case we can, trying to convince as many people as we can reach that there is only one realm of existence, governed by unbreakable laws, and that we are part of it.


Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress