I Guess Ben Affleck is Still a Decent Director

This post is fairly contextual, so I guess I should start with some context:

It all started when a group at Yale invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak on Islam.  Ms. Hirsi Ali was raised as a Muslim in Somalia, which, somewhat predictably, has led her to have some pretty harsh words for Islam on the subject of women’s rights.  There’s a whole lot more to her life, but in this abridged biography, let’s just say that some of her comments have been strong enough to get her banned from a number of US institutions for being “Islamophobic” (more on that word later).

The Muslim Students’ Association (along with a veritable alphabet soup of other campus groups) got upset and wrote this letter.  Yale responded by allowing her to make a speech on campus.  And then Bill Maher weighed in on the debate, drawing national attention with his comments on Muslim theocracies.  Ben Affleck went on Maher’s show and called both Maher and fellow guest Sam Harris “racist” for their comments about Islam.  Reza Aslan went on CNN to criticize Maher’s “facile” views on Islam.  And then a couple of ex-Muslims wrote an article explaining why Aslan is an extremely disingenuous debater when it comes to matters of Muslim faith.

Phew.  That was a lot.  Feel free to peruse those articles as you like.  If you’re not in the mood to read a lot, the last article kind of sums everything up, as it’s the most recent one of the bunch.

But anyway, now that we’ve caught up to today, the overwhelming issue here is that liberals in America need to grow the fuck up when it comes to Islam.  I get that most Muslims in America are going to vote Democrat when given the choice, but that doesn’t mean that Islam is untouchable.  It especially doesn’t mean that criticism of an extremely problematic religion is racist, much less “Islamophobic”, which is possibly the most idiotically overused term in this whole debate.

The general attitude of American liberals toward talking about Islam in any kind of critical terms can be summed up in a paraphrased tweet that has been mentioned again and again by Muslim apologists.  In a nutshell, Americans can’t criticize Islam for the actions of a few fundamentalists, because we don’t judge Christianity based on the actions of groups like the Westboro Baptist Church.

Well, first of all, we do that all the fucking time.  American liberals are more than happy to call out the Christian Right on their bullshit, and they should be doing it more often.  Taking a soft line on Christian fundamentalism has reintroduced creationism in science classrooms across America.  Three cheers for a completely distorted definition of tolerance!

But speaking of a distorted definition of tolerance, that same group of people who will scream bloody murder over the Hobby Lobby decision (which, again, they should) are astonishingly silent about the medieval mentalities exhibited in a disturbingly large portion of the Muslim world.  Worse than that, they attack people who dare mention these issues as symptomatic of larger problems with Islam as a religion.  And why?  Because apparently when you can get Americans to view you religion as a racial group, you gain protected status.

Now, let’s be very clear here.  I am absolutely a critic of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, [insert faith-based religion here], because I strongly believe that these belief systems have been a force for evil in the world rather than good.  Feel free to debate me on that, but please also do me the courtesy of not calling me a bigot for criticizing people’s freely chosen beliefs.

Note: I am fully aware that there are actual bigots who will twist their uneducated views on Islam in to racial bias against all people with darker skin.  But let’s be frank: those people are just looking for a reason to hate people with darker skin.  They just have an easier time using the word “Islamic” than they do “not-black-but-still-dark-enough-to-scare-me”.

However, there are certain religious beliefs that are more outlandish or more harmful than others.  We can somewhat objectively say that Mormon beliefs regarding the settling of America by white, Jewish Egyptians are more ridiculous than Catholic beliefs regarding Mary, which are in turn more ridiculous than the Buddhist adherence to the Eightfold Path.  Similarly, I can say that Christian beliefs that seek to dehumanize LGBT people are more harmful than Christian beliefs to love thy neighbor (Weird that those two philosophies come from the same faith, huh?).

So that’s why I feel comfortable saying that Islam is a religion that promotes violence and oppression.  The Qu’ran (pick your English spelling) has hundreds of passages devoted to the slaying of infidels in the pursuit of establishing the House of Islam the whole world over.  And it has plenty of passages deliberately allowing for or promoting the subjugation of women.  Now, just like halfway-intelligent Christians can understand that some of the more unsavory parts of the Bible should be taken as historical insights rather than divine commands, halfway-intelligent Muslims can do the same thing with problematic passages in the Qu’ran.  The issue is that plenty of people don’t.  And the bigger issue is that plenty of those people are in charge of governments.

So again, let me just stress that I don’t find these beliefs any less problematic than Biblical notions of (oh, just for example) womanhood, slavery, violence, etc.  I do, however, find their modern-day implementation much more problematic.  Believe me, if there are any Christian theocracies getting to this level (Uganda’s getting close), I have some strong words for them.  But as these atrocities are happening in the Muslim world, that’s where my concern and anger are directed.

See, because I don’t live in the Middle Ages, I find the stoning of women to be barbaric.  I find killing infidels to be barbaric.  I find formally-declared religious death threats against cartoonists to be barbaric.  I find any “holy” text that would not only sanction, but encourage these kinds of actions to be unacceptable in any kind of civilized global society.

And let’s be even more clear: people are dying.  Lots of people are dying.  People are being oppressed in ways that make American complaints about racial profiling and sexual harassment seem like pebbles next to boulders.  Not that those issues aren’t important, but I think we can agree that risking death to attend school is a tiny bit more serious than having your ass grabbed.

And the fact that not all Muslims adhere to these kinds of fundamentalists beliefs is not enough.  Clearly, enough Muslims do that they have nations centered around these horrific practices.  One might as well respond to all these arguments with a #notallMuslims hashtag.  Yes, it’s that ridiculous.

These comments are not “Islamophobic”, any more than any of my other comments are “Christophobic”.  And yet people are being shouted down for daring to criticize the antiquated and backward belief system of millions of people, and that’s being hailed as brave.

Rational people across the world have a moral duty to fight against oppression and violence, especially when that oppression is inspired by adherence to an old book.  Excluding Islam from religious criticism due to fears of being labeled as racist or bigoted is cowardice.  No religion gets special protections when it comes to committing atrocities.

And if anyone wants to declare a fatwa on me, you can find me at the following address: 3701 SW 12th St, Topeka, KS 66604.  Happy hunting!

Truth: Magical Thinking is Bad

Jezebel has always been a really hit-or-miss site for me.  Sometimes they post brilliant, thoughtful, often-feminist critiques of society, etc.  Sometimes.  The rest of the content seems to be devoted to celebrity gossip, ridiculously hyperbolic taglines, and fluff journalism.  The article I came across today falls in to that third category.

*Side note: anyone else think that it’s insanely hypocritical for a site that posts lots of opinion articles about the sexist objectification of women to also post articles about Taylor Swift’s dating habits and Jennifer Lopez’s ass?

Back to business.  Here’s the Jezebel article that got me a little riled up today: “Truth: Everyone Believes in at Least One Crazy Thing”.

I know that most people don’t want to read a whole two articles worth of stuff, so don’t worry, I’ll quote the most relevant bits here.  Suffice it to say, you can probably guess what most of the content of the article is from the title.  After all, you can only expand so much on the oh-so-thoughtful generalization that everyone believes in something crazy.  But let’s unpack what the author is really arguing for, because by the time we get past the benign opening statement, she’s actually making an extremely dangerous point.

First, I’ll start with my only point of agreement: Los Angeles has a higher frequency of idiots/nutjobs/Scientologists than the rest of the country.  Having spent some quality time in the LA, I can confidently say that the author is absolutely right.  There are more supposed psychics, remote viewers, astrologists, prophets, LoA practitioners, cultists, Scientologists, and vegans** in LA than in almost any other area of the country.

*Additional side note: the article cites “Overheard in LA”, which is hilarious and 100% accurate.  You should read it.

Why does LA have more of these people than other places?  It’s anyone’s guess.  But as I said, this is where my agreement with Ms. Moore ends.

She moves on from amusing anecdotes about the insane shit people say to relative strangers in LA to the assertion that “everyone believes at least one crazy thing.”  Hey, there’s that article title again.  Nifty.  It’s like she practically didn’t have to write anything else.  Her examples from her friends are as follows:

Mine is probably the achingly sincere hope that I will get to time travel or win the lottery

Still want to believe in “wishes”

I definitely want to believe in metaphysics

I believe in the presence of the Yeti

So let’s first start by acknowledging that only one of these is a crazy belief: the last bit about believing in the Yeti (in spite of the overwhelming lack of scientific evidence to support its existence).  The other three aren’t beliefs.  They are desires.

Hoping that you’ll get to time travel, no matter how sincere your hope is, is not a belief in the current existence of a viable time machine.  Wanting to believe in wishes isn’t the same as believing that if you think about a red bike hard enough, you’ll get one (For more on that, read The Secret.  Actually, don’t.  It’s terrible.).  Definitely wanting to believe in metaphysics is not actually a fantastical belief, as metaphysics is a wide school of philosophy, but assuming that the speaker was talking about the bullshit-brand of metaphysics practiced by New Age “healers” across the nation, wanting to believe in it still isn’t the same as actually believing it.

And that’s a big distinction, because as much as I might want to believe that thinking really hard about piles of cash will make them manifest in my life, I know that the Law of Attraction is a lie, made up by opportunists who have figured out yet another way to separate gullible people from their money.  I don’t actually have a crazy belief in the Law of Attraction.  I just wish it were true while I continue to do a variety of interesting-yet-often-soul-sucking day jobs to pay the rent.

Now, ignoring the author’s big gap in logic there, let’s get to the worst assertion in the article: “Magical thinking is silly, childish, wishful and—most importantly—harmless.”  I would be remiss in not noting that she immediately clarifies this statement:

And of course there’s a difference between the belief that a room must be cleansed of bad energy versus, say, a belief that vaccinating your children will kill them. Don’t throw me in with the real crazies, dig?

Well, that’s a pretty tall order.  Even Ms. Moore notes that a strong delineation is nearly impossible, because how can you determine which magical beliefs will lead to harm?  After all, isn’t pretending to talk to someone’s dead mother (or honestly believing you can) clearly less harmful than not vaccinating your children?  Well, yes and no.

Obviously, in the above scenario, there’s an immediate, physical danger to the unvaccinated child (not to mention all the children surrounding that child).  On the other hand, there’s no immediate, physical danger to the grief-stricken person being offered false solace.  Sure, any psychologist worth their salt would tell you that it’s extremely detrimental to engage a grieving person in a way that prevents them from dealing with the reality of death.  Even so, it’s hard to compare that to a potential outbreak of measles/dead children.

So why do I still think that the author is wrong in her assertion that her kind of benign magical thinking isn’t dangerous?  Because it’s the exact same method of thought being applied in both cases.  Even ignoring people’s general tendency toward confirmation bias, if one starts engaging in magical thinking (a firm belief in something that has been disproven or that has absolutely no evidence to back it up) about one subject, they are training their brain to think that way about anything.

Mentally, what’s the difference between believing that you had a past life as Beatrix Potter and believing that vaccines cause autism?  Your brain is engaging in the same kind of irrational thought process in order to arrive at both beliefs.***

And Ms. Moore goes on to claim that, “There is a significant, and harmless, middle ground: reasonable, science-supporting people who believe in research and critical thinking and skepticism, but still give magic a bit of a chance.”  Those people already exist: they’re called skeptics.  Or scientists.  Or rational people.

Science doesn’t just leave room for “magic”, it explains it.  Ms. Moore, and others like her, seem to think that the act of explaining something renders it unexceptional and boring.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  And any good scientist approaches an outlandish claim with a burning desire for it to be true.  Because how cool would it be to prove that there really are unicorns?  How amazing would it be to discover actual evidence of telepathy?  The only difference is that rational people accept that if it can’t be proven, then it isn’t currently true.

Notice the word “currently” in that last sentence.  Science is constantly evolving and changing because science is open to new possibilities.  Magical thinking isn’t.  Magical thinking is open to one possibility: that the world functions according to a set of principles that can never be proven and therefore have to be true.  It is the opposite of open-minded inquiry.

Magical thinking caused 9/11.  Magical thinking caused the Hollywood Hills murders.  Magical thinking caused someone to take a gun into a Wichita church and assassinate a doctor.  Magical thinking caused otherwise “ordinary” people to beat the life out of a gay teenager and leave him to die on a fence in Wyoming.  Magical thinking has already caused untold numbers of deaths throughout history, and it is continuing to cause them today.  Magical thinking, no matter how innocuous it may seem, is dangerous.

**Just kidding, vegans.  I love you.

***Anyone who has read Sam Harris’s exceptionally good book, The End of Faith, probably recognized this argument.  Please pretend that I’m not borrowing it.  And if you didn’t recognize the argument, do not, under any circumstances, read that book.  Continue believing that I came up with that on my own.