Thursday, January 15, 2015

Je Suis Charlie; suis-je Islamophobe?

A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
-John Stuart Mill

Like most people, I was upset but not surprised by the attacks in Paris last week, when several pious men with Kalashnikovs slaughtered cartoonists, editors, journalists, policemen, and customers at a Kosher store in the name of their god’s will. Just a few weeks earlier, at the height of Hollywood’s indignation over Kim Jong Un’s de facto veto of “The Interview,” I had wondered to myself where the people speaking up so defiantly for free speech were during the Danish cartoon controversy, or after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, or during the Rushdie affair. I’m surprised but pleased to see that in the aftermath of this bloodbath, the record numbers of people marching around the world seem to have got the right idea: free expression is not to be met with violence or intimidation. This is because these freedoms are essential to any functioning society. Rosa Luxemburg, the Communist hero, once said that “without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element... Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must cause a brutalization of public life...”

Soon enough, however, the caveats came. There were some Imams who more or less openly said that Charlie Hebdo got what was coming to it. A few Muslim leaders came down unequivocally on the side of free speech (usually getting lavish praise for this - condemning violence is the least a person in authority should do.) But there are also plenty of “moderate” Muslim leaders who have said that violence is the wrong answer to mockery and insult but that the insult and mockery are dangerous, too. Some of these leaders have even called for the introduction of (or in some cases enforcement of existing,) blasphemy and hate speech laws. The current pope has, unsurprisingly, said that freedom of speech has limits and that people should treat religions with “respect,” (offering no explanation as to why.) As an example he said that if someone insults his mother he should expect a punch. Perhaps Francis was trying to be playful, but the idea that an insult should naturally be met with violence doesn’t sound like the sort of justification a religious leader should be making. And it is an excellent example of blaming the victims. Orthodox Jews are getting in on the ecumenicism by photoshopping all the female world leaders out of the Paris march. This has been held up as an example of hypocrisy on the matter of free speech - it is that, but it is first and foremost evidence that what religions all too often have in common is the urge to repress the things they deem unclean. Something should be made clear: the desire for state or religious restriction on speech is not a moderate view. Although those calling for it may not be violent, the demand being made is an extremist one, one which would require rolling back hundreds of years of legal and ethical progress in most western nations and, in the case of my country, violating the cornerstone of its constitution.

The American version of free speech, which is meant to be absolute and protects even hateful speech, is sometimes confusing to people from other countries. I once attended a conference on secularism in Utrecht, Netherlands. It was around the time some hillbilly preacher in Florida was threatening to burn a bunch of Korans and people around the world were bracing for the inevitable holy consequences. The panelists at the conference, all of them Dutch, were incredulous at the idea that the President of the United States had to phone this guy up and personally ask him not to do it for the safety of Americans overseas. How backward and secularly hopeless America must be if idiots like this preacher have to be groveled to by the President! I told them that they’d missed the whole point of the story: the President had to call him on the phone and ask him not to do it - he couldn’t force him not to. Why couldn’t they see how wonderful that is?!

It’s this concept of free speech and secularism that I like most about America, even if it isn’t always upheld. Secularism looks different in different countries. In the U.S. it’s supposed to be a sort of laissez-faire situation - although I would argue that religious groups not being taxed is special treatment. In India secularism is a tissue-thin barrier, regularly breached and stained with blood. In the United Kingdom it involves equal government approval, accommodation, and even support of religious groups - a policy that has come under some much-needed scrutiny after it was discovered that several faith schools were pushing fundamentalist beliefs.

In France, the laïcité version of secularism has become quite extreme in the past few years, most notably with their ban on religious apparel or symbols in schools. This is too far, as it curtails free speech and free exercise of religion, both of which need to be present in a truly pluralistic society. I dislike the burqa as much as Nicolas Sarkozy does, and I would understand a ban on full-face coverings in certain places purely on grounds of security, but this sort of aggressive reaction is the wrong response and will only dampen public debate and dissent and further divide the polity into aggrieved groups who feel persecuted. It will make integration more difficult.

France and many European countries have an even greater blot on their ledgers: hate speech laws. These are the products of a guilty conscience, chiefly regarding the horrors of the last century, and it opens them up to justifiable charges of hypocrisy, and reinforces the arguments of those who claim that certain groups are singled out for censorship more than others. France is the nation of Voltaire but it is also the nation of Dreyfuss, and of Vichy, and it has made a cardinal mistake in thinking that the way to prevent future horrors is to stifle dissent about past horrors. Holocaust denial is illegal. The Nazi salute is illegal. And as we have learned this week, people in France are being arrested for expressing anything which might be construed as approval of terrorism. This is a travesty.

Most notably, the controversial comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala was arrested for a tweet which could be interpreted as him saying he identified with one of the terrorists. Dieudonne is a provocative tight-rope walker, often slipping from the line into outright anti-Semitism. The jokes of his I’ve seen and read aren’t particularly funny, but the French government’s response to his offensive jokes - often canceling his shows - is a huge mistake and the height of hypocrisy. Dieudonne might be a gross bigot, but he’s exactly the kind of person whose speech needs to be protected. His infamous “quenelle” gesture (a sort of inverted Nazi salute,) is understandably disturbing to many French people, but it does serve a higher function: it proves the prohibition on Nazi gestures is ridiculous. If someone can make a new gesture up, and it can arguably mean the same thing, and people are equally outraged by it, what’s the difference? Indeed, lawmakers have called for the banning of the “quenelle.” Where does this end? And what purpose does it serve? Will banning one gesture after another as well as holocaust denial and racist slogans end racist thoughts or feelings? Will it make up for the holocaust or Vichy France’s complicity in it? Of course not. It will drive these ideas underground where they are immune from counter argument. It will make martyrs of their proponents and do the public a disservice by not letting them learn what these people think and believe. As Mill points out in “On Liberty:” The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Or, as Milton once said, “Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

Blasphemy is a thought crime. According to the texts of the great monotheisms, one needn’t utter something that displeases the merciful yet jealous man behind the curtain in order for him to hear you - he conveniently and terrifyingly hears your thoughts, too. Blasphemy is, to the religious, a sin, usually a very serious one. But should a religious ban on blasphemy (a victimless crime to we atheists,) be incumbent upon those who don’t share the faith in question? Thankfully, in the wake of these attacks, countries such as Canada and Ireland are re-examining their own dusty and rarely-invoked blasphemy laws, but, just as religious groups rebranded creationism as intelligent design, zealots try to get criticism of their god or faith categorized as “hate speech” or “religious defamation.” (I confess to having a fantasy in which a hate speech law is passed in the United States and millions of atheists file suit to have the Bible and Koran banned for their hateful slander of unbelievers - not to actually ban the books but to prove an important point.)

Hate speech and religious defamation need to be protected, otherwise we’ll live in a world where, because some things are unutterable they are unquestionable and, as a result, unchangeable - the sort of static, pious, and stultifying world religious fundamentalists would apparently like to see. Many Muslims have said that we in the west simply don’t understand how it feels to have our deeply-held beliefs insulted. On the contrary, my most deeply-held belief is outraged when anyone is persecuted, attacked, or murdered just for saying something. I contend that my belief in freedom of speech is just as strong as their belief in god and his prophets, just as dear, and even more worth defending for being based on reason rather than faith.

I defend my right to criticize any religion I like, fully acknowledging that its adherents are free to criticize (but not persecute or attack,) me. So here goes:

I don’t like Islam. There really shouldn’t be a problem with me saying that, and yet there are plenty of people in the world who think I shouldn’t: some who consider it blasphemy, others who consider it racism, and more who consider it needless provocation. But it is my opinion, and believers around the world are welcome to the opinion, expressed often enough in their holy books, that I should suffer for holding it. As long as they don’t act on it (besides, surely their all-powerful god can smite me on his own, can’t he?) I should be clear that I don’t like any religions. First of all, I don’t believe any of them are true. I don’t believe the children of Israel were lost for 40 years in a tiny patch of desert, I don’t believe a galilean carpenter was born of a virgin or resurrected after death, and I don’t believe in angels, much less one of them dictating stories from the bible to a man in an Arabian cave. I think it’s ridiculous to genuinely believe any of that and I reserve my right to say so. In the case of Islam I find its holy book to be morally empty where it isn’t downright cruel, its prophet to be vicious, violent, and venal, and certainly no exemplar or role model, and I take issue with the way it is practiced in all too many parts of the world.

This doesn’t mean I hate or fear Muslims. I have no problem with any devout person believing what they like, wearing whatever they like, or following any rules which I may find ridiculous or arbitrary. And if it gives them some comfort or pleasure, that’s their business. But if anyone suggests that my right to voice such opinions is more dangerous than their religion and should be restricted as a result, they are an enemy of mine and in no way a “moderate” voice.

The question lately has come down to a controversial word: Islamophobia. It should come as no surprise that I don’t like it. I tend to agree with Twitter user Andrew Cummin’s definition: “A word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons.” A phobia is an irrational fear of something. Acrophobia is an irrational fear of heights, and arachnophobia is an irrational fear of spiders. By the same measure, Islamophobia would be an irrational fear of Islam. Of course, just because people can have an irrational fear of something doesn’t mean that there aren’t some perfectly rational reasons to be worried about the same thing. Some spiders are venomous. Some precipices are more dangerous than others. And parts of the Koran are disturbing. And some people who claim to be members of the Muslim faith are openly calling for hideous and immoral things in its name. People who claim that I’m judging the many by the actions of the few are wrong: I’m not criticizing individual muslim people, I’m criticizing the dogmas and teachings of their faith. They might hold those beliefs very dearly indeed, but I have just as much conviction in my beliefs and free speech is paramount among them.

The fatuous examples are often repeated: ISIS and the Paris murderers are no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboro Baptist Church are representative of Christianity. But the KKK and the WBC are perfectly representative of certain aspects of Christian teaching and belief. They derive their authority from the bible and can quote chapter and verse in order to do so. Just because the majority of Christians in America have successfully shucked away the more barbaric aspects of their faith (after hard-fought generations of often-suppressed criticism and - you guessed it - blasphemy,) doesn’t mean that the fundamentalists are any less Christian. Could it be that religious moderates are so afraid of the taint of these extremist groups because they know these groups are hewing closer to the word of the lord than they are?

Not liking Islam, even hating Islam, is not racist, and not just because Islam is an ideology rather than a race. Muslims are unsurprisingly proud of their religion’s global and multi-ethnic makeup. One can’t boast about how universal and pan-racial your ideology is and then call any criticism of it racist. And to hate Islam does not automatically mean hating Muslims. The people who fail to understand this don’t seem to have any trouble with this same concept when they rightly point out that criticizing Israeli policy isn’t anti-semitism. PEGIDA in Germany, UKIP in Great Britain, and the Front Nationale in France are disturbing right-wing populist parties that do often capitalize on ideas about national culture and a fear of “otherness” in order to further their anti-immigrant agenda. But criticizing Islam, Islamic doctrine, or Islamic leaders, or saying that a person’s horrific crimes might be related in some way to their belief system isn’t racism.

Sam Harris, who was the beneficiary of many insults and mischaracterizations when he said “Islam is the mother lode of all bad ideas,” defended himself by asking whether it would be as controversial if he had said “Communism is the mother lode of all bad ideas.” Obviously not, but why? The analogy isn’t exact (few analogies are,) and I certainly hold no paranoid right-wing delusions that Muslims in the West are fifth-columnists controlled from Mecca, but there are enough similarities for the analogy to be useful and relevant. Communism is an ideology that was put into practice in countries around the world. The implementation of communist government was done differently in different places (although the Comintern did have undue influence,) and it would be impossible to speak of all communists as being the same. But the foundational texts were the same the world over, even if they were interpreted in different ways, and to criticize the ideas found within them was obviously not the same thing as making blanket statements about all communist countries or all communist people.

In the case of Russia there were communists the world over who had blind faith in the Soviet system, who ignored reports of its horrors, who considered any questioning of the Comintern to be blasphemy. Those who were imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the likes of Yezhov and Beria, driven mad by their ordeal, repented for crimes they never committed, and even thanked their persecutors for bringing them back to the light of the party. Once the horrors and extent of the Soviet purges were public and couldn’t be ignored any more, those still sympathetic to Communism have always made a clear distinction between it and Stalinism, much as we distinguish between Islam and Islamism today. This is a very useful and important distinction. But the fact remains that from the USSR to Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, to Cuba to Vietnam to North Korea to China to Laos to Cambodia to the Balkans and beyond, self-declared communist countries seemed to have inordinate amounts of oppression and censorship and very few guarantees of personal liberty or individual rights. This should have sent up flags (in this case literally red ones,) that something could be amiss with the fundamentals of the ideology.

Of course, correlation is not causation and the fact that all of these different states exhibited some of the same severe totalitarian tendencies during their tenure as communist nations could be coincidence. But to swear outright that communism has nothing to do with it and shouldn’t even be considered as a possible cause of such horror is about the same as saying that Islam has nothing to do with Islamic terrorism (a term that the Obama administration is admittedly uncomfortable uttering.) In many places in the world, Communism became a secular religion with the state as its god. The writings of Marx and Lenin were its testaments, the apocrypha being supplied by the likes of Stalin and Mao. Today, we seem to have a similar situation in the world of Islam: where it holds the most power, people suffer more, rights are trampled on or non-existent, minorities are persecuted, and dissent is almost impossible. When Arthur Koestler published the testimonies of ex-Communists he called the book “The God that Failed.” When Ibn Warraq published his book of testimonies of ex-Muslims, he considered calling it “The Allah that Failed,” but ended up settling for “Leaving Islam.” Communism had its defectors and Islam has its apostates - we should learn from the past and not ignore their stories, or try to shut them up as so many frightened people do to the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It took decades of unspeakable human suffering before glasnost confirmed the horrifying reports of Soviet defectors, who had been urgent Cassandras, willfully ignored by fellow-travelers who thought that the U.S.S.R. surely couldn’t be that bad. And besides, these people are criminals with a grudge, how can we believe their testimony? And after all, the U.S.S.R. is opposed to American capitalism and therefore the good guys - how could it possibly be so brutal? And even if it is, it must be for a good reason. We ignore the testimonies of those desperate and unable to leave their faith at our own risk.

A common argument seen these past few days is that while Charlie Hebdo was an equal-opportunity offender, it’s one thing to mock those in power and another to mock a downtrodden minority. Of course, that isn’t what Charlie Hebdo was doing - the magazine was famously anti-racist and pro-immigrant - it was mocking an authority figure who they thought was being given undue respect: the prophet Mohammed. Globally Islam is not a tiny minority voice but a major player, a powerful ideology, the official religion of many states, and the beneficiary of a great deal of oil wealth by which its messages are often spread across the globe to disaffected youth, teaching them violence, sexism, and racism. Muslims in France and most other Western countries are, of course, a minority group, albeit usually one with legal protections and rights of the kind a Jew wouldn’t expect in Jeddah nor a Homosexual in Homs. Of course, the rights of minorities are infringed upon in western nations all the time, but the fact that provision is made for legal recourse is important, and it gives people a fighting chance at justice. No such chance exists where the religious judiciary holds sway.

I obviously don’t believe that all Muslims are terrorists, or extremists, or sexist, or homophobic. But I do think the Koran and the life of Mohammed are horrible moral guidelines that could go some way to explaining why some Muslims are those things. I appreciate that the religion has been shaped and altered and interpreted through time and culture, and that many Muslims practice a less strict or orthodox faith that preaches tolerance and respect. I think that that’s a comparatively good thing. But you’d have to dilute Islam to the point of atheism for me to actually approve of it, because one of the ideas at its core (and which it has in common with most other religions,) is submission to a higher power, a worshipful personal relationship with a ruler who demands you love him while threatening eternal suffering. I believe religion is the wish to be a slave and I’ll have none of it. I'm willing to tolerate another person’s religious beliefs quite far. But asking me to respect them is asking me to do something I cannot do. And aside from all that, even in its mildest form there’s no reason to believe that it’s true, thank god.

Perhaps more depressing than the Imams who blamed the dead or called for stricter censorship, were those in the West (many of them friends of mine,) who immediately laid the blame for this at their own feet. In recent years a certain portion of the left has become increasingly disappointing for caving in to religious sentiment and for only seeing evil in the mirror. There is a creeping tendency, masochistic and solipsistic all at once, to say “this is because of what we did.”

Almost immediately after the recent attack in Sidney, a tweet went viral about someone who, seeing a Muslim girl looking nervous and removing her headscarf on public transportation, told her to put it back on and offered to ride the bus with her for her protection. Many people praised this gesture and soon the hashtag #illridewithyou was trending, its users offering to accompany worried Muslims anywhere they needed to go for fear of anti-Muslim violence. I found the whole thing as self-hating as it was cloyingly sentimental. No threats had been made against Australian Muslims, no violence against them had yet occurred, and the corpse of the man who had kidnapped several terrified hostages in a cafe was barely cold before legions of Australians and westerners made it all about them, wallowing in contrition over things that hadn’t actually happened. Why, when these tragedies happen, do so many people immediately focus on, if not what they see as the western source of the problem, then at least what they see as the inevitable, ignorant, and hateful western response to the problem. I, for one, don’t like being spoken to that way. In any society there will be some idiots who retaliate with violence, but I’m not one of them and to immediately assume that the typical response to terrorism will be great waves of anti-Muslim violence is as unfair as saying that all Muslims will react violently to a cartoon of their prophet. Perhaps #illridewithyou was some sneaky way of introducing a bleating #notallwesterners protestation next to the perfectly banal and uncontroversial #notallmuslims. Of course, anti-Muslim sentiment and incidents of anti-Muslim violence can and often do escalate after a terrorist attack like this, and that should be fought against, resisted, and punished with as much force as possible. But the rapidity with which some westerners tear their shirt and demand to be flagellated for their crimes and ignorance in order to prove their own ideological purity and sympathy can be impressive sometimes (the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner focuses on this topic in his book-length essay “The Tyranny of Guilt.”)

But the best thing about the values of the Enlightenment is that they contain within them skepticism and a potent self-criticism. Much to it’s credit, this country is a place of incredible contradictions. America was the last western state to outlaw slavery, but it was also the only one which almost tore itself completely apart over it (the John Stuart Mill quote at the top of this article was written in reference to that.) America has both the legacy of Jim Crow and a black commander-in-chief. Several commentators have brought up the CIA Torture Report as evidence of American hypocrisy. But the very existence of such a savage and damning report, demanded by elected members of our government and their constituents, the public shame and condemnation, and the many calls for punishment of those involved goes to show that America is different, even better, than some countries where the idea of a government (especially a theocratic one,) ever admitting its failures, much less acting to redress them, is a fantasy. Christopher Hitchens once said that he decided he wanted to become an American citizen when he saw black police officers defending a Ku Klux Klan rally. The point is made well and at length in Aryeh Neier’s book “Defending My Enemy,” documenting the American Civil Liberties Union’s legal fight defending the right of the American Nazi Party to march through the town of Skokie, Illinois, home to many holocaust survivors. The existence of our constitutional right to free speech, the legacy of people’s struggles for freedom and equality, and the various avenues of redress through a free press and a public court system are something we can still be proud of, even if administrations have betrayed them at times. Calling on our states to impose censorship on us is a demand for tyranny, and we should never lose sight of just how dearly won our freedoms are and how they need to be defended at all times, whether from religious bullies claiming immunity from criticism or government fanatics seeking to curtail dissent. I’m reminded of James Fenton’s poem “The Exchange:”

I met the Muse of Censorship
And she had packed her bags
And all the folk of Moscow
Were hanging out the flags.

I asked her what her prospects were
And whither her thoughts did range.
She said: ‘I am off to Dublin town
On a cultural exchange.

‘And folk there be in Cambridge
Who like the way I think
And there be folk in Nottingham
Whom I shall drown in ink

‘And when we reach America
The majorettes will sing:
Here comes the Muse of Censorship -
This is a very good thing.’

I went to the Finland Station
To wave the Muse goodbye
And on another platform
A crowd I did espy.

I saw the Muse of Freedom
Alighting from the train.
Far from that crowd I wept aloud
For to see that Muse again.

Melting turtle impersonator, alleged plagiarist, and all-around zealot Chris Hedges is the prime example of the self-hating liberal, and in his grandstanding statement which did all but absolve religious extremists of their sins because of the crimes of the West, he quotes an Islamic scholar: “It is a sad state of affairs when Liberty means the freedom to insult, demean and mock people’s most sacred concepts...It’s no excuse for murder, but it explains things in terms of honor, which no longer means anything in the West...Now we are not allowed to feel insulted by anything other than a racial slur, which means less to a deeply religious person than an attack on his or her religion. Muslim countries are still governed, as you well know, by shame and honor codes. Religion is the big one. I was saddened by the ‘I’m Charlie’ tweets and posters, because while I’m definitely not in sympathy with those misguided fools [the gunmen who invaded the newspaper], I have no feeling of solidarity with mockers.”

Liberty absolutely means the freedom to insult, demean, and mock anything you want to. If others don’t like it, they’re free to ignore you or talk back. Religion may be more important to someone than their race, but religion is an ideology, and not a biological occurrence - it needs to be open to criticism. Of course Muslims are allowed to feel insulted. I hope some of them are as insulted by the cartoons as I am by their holy books and the clerics who claim to represent many of them. And the range of recent Islamic outrages, from banning snowmen in Saudi Arabia to the massacre of villagers in Nigeria, are crying out for mockery, contempt, and ridicule. But if the author thinks that we should be returning to a culture based on shame and honor codes, as he seems to be suggesting, he should be met with some much-needed resistance.

According to the New York Times, Egyptian Family House, a Coptic Christian and Muslim organization, denounced the cartoons on the grounds that they “increase the gap between people and religions.” I’d say they just about hit the nail on the head, there. That was the point. It’s perfectly correct and understandable for religious leaders to be afraid of satire and criticism because they loosen, even if only slightly, the stranglehold religion and the clerisy has had on humankind for thousands of years. Blasphemy has been one of the most reliable catalysts of progress in the western world - it’s only by openly challenging the dogmas and orthodoxies of religion that people have been able to assert their own rights as humans outside of a divine framework. Censoring oneself isn’t an act of respect to those you might offend - it’s an act of infantilization. It presupposes that the target of one’s satire or criticism isn’t grown up or strong enough to handle it. Every time a cleric says that some cartoon or novel or painting or film offends their faith deeply, they’re saying that their faith isn’t up to the challenge of a single work of art. And some members of their religion will be such crybabies and children that their tantrums will involve guns and bombs.

This is a battle over freedom of speech, between those who believe in laughter and those who believe in literalism. It isn’t only an issue of terrorism or west vs. east or the oppressed vs. the oppressors. The two sides in this war are those who believe that freedom of thought, belief, conscience, speech, and expression are inviolable rights, and those who believe not only that there are circumstances in which they should be curtailed or proscribed but that they known what those circumstances are. The possible threat of violence is a convenient background hum for anyone who wants to insist that they condemn such attacks but they can’t be held responsible for what other people do and after all why insult the deepest beliefs of millions of people? It allows the demagogue and censor to say that he didn’t pull the trigger but the murdered man should have known better.

If all the countries in the world made it illegal to show or insult mohammed, if all the foreign troops (and aid workers, and journalists, and foreigners in general,) left Muslim countries, if all support for Israel ceased today, would the likes of Richard Reid, the Tsarnayev brothers, the Kouachi brothers, Jihadi John, Nidal Malik Hassan, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Man Haron Monis, and the countless other jihadis who have attacked or attempted to attack westerners (to say nothing of the exponentially greater number of jihadis making life a living hell for Muslims in their own countries in the name of their shared religion,) be satisfied and stop what they’re doing? If we just agreed to leave them alone and not make them angry would they be content to stay in Muslim-majority countries and focus on their campaigns of rape, violence, repression and terror safely “over there?” If we allow that female circumcision, anti-secular Madrassa education, forced marriages and honor killings are valid cultural expressions would that appease them? Would we have any right to call ourselves moral if we accepted any of this? Of course most Muslims don’t do any of these things or even dream of doing them, but the fanatics are the ones making these demands, and they won’t stop making them, no matter what we do. And if we give in to even one of them we’ll have to forfeit more because they’ll know we’re afraid of them. We shouldn’t seek to accommodate barbaric totalitarianisms. They need to be resisted.

As Oscar Wilde once said: “Progress in thought is the assertion of individualism against authority…Mankind has been continually entering the prisons of Puritanism, Philistinism, Sensualism, Fanaticism, and turning the key on its own spirit…”

But political genius Russell Brand said “The right of free speech is important, but it isn’t as important as 'we’re all human beings together, let’s find solutions together'.” What he doesn’t understand is that the second is impossible without the first. One sometimes hears a comparison between Islamic terrorism and the IRA. But there’s a crucial difference, and it isn’t just that the IRA sometimes called ahead to warn people: the IRA made concrete political demands. There was some possibility of a compromise worked out without recourse to violence. What the jihadists demand in the case of Charlie Hebdo and others like it is not only unacceptable but impossible, because it violates the principle most important to the evolution and development of a civilization, and laws that seek to regulate speech are the first step toward laws against freedom of belief.
All the many religious figures who said that the cartoons were needless provocation and that it would be better if we all sought common ground, they should understand that the existence of such this common ground is thanks to the right to offend, to blaspheme, to criticize and condemn. I would like to be able to debate with Muslims on an equal footing. I’d love to tell them why I think they’d be better off abandoning superstition, submission, and a moral code based on archaic scripture and I’d like to hear them tell me why they think I’d be better off adopting Islam. But that conversation can’t take place with the threat of violence looming, or the charge that to question, criticize, or ridicule the teachings of a faith is tantamount to racism. That is unacceptable and non-negotiable.


I am not Charlie Hebdo, but I aspire to be. I hope that if I am ever told to shut up or else I’ll choose freedom over fear.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Of Dress Codes and Speech Codes

I don't always write about dandies or menswear, although I seem to have better luck getting published when I do. One might suspect that magazines and websites are hesitant to publish opinion pieces by people who don't specialize in specific fields, but a brief survey of many websites will show that expertise is rarely the standard, avowing allegiance to a particular group - biological or ideological - is often mistaken for something like a credential, and rational argument is valued less than the ability to use phrases like "I can't even," "so many feels," and "because ____." So I've decided to use this blog to publish those essays I can't help but write whether anyone publishes them or not. I write them partly to stay in practice as a writer, and partly to focus and organize my own thoughts about particular issues. If anybody reads them I hope they get some pleasure out of doing so and recognize that argument, disagreement, and dissent can be very good things. 

Of Dress Codes and Speech Codes


Recently, people have been writing an awful lot about what men are wearing. Not the usual red carpet reportage, but the sort of debate once reserved for Jayne Mansfield’s décolletage. In this case, the controversy is over two shirts (of very different styles,) worn by two men (both of whom work the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields, or STEM) and whether their sartorial choices are examples of institutional sexism (particularly in the male-dominated STEM fields.)

The first shirt was a plain gray cotton t-shirt seen on the torso of Facebook CEO and life-size Lego figurine Mark Zuckerberg. Asked at a press conference why he always wore the same plain outfit, Mr. Zuckerberg replied: “I’m in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I’d feel I’m not doing my job if I spent any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” This may seem like typical Silicon Valley productivity-worshipping egotism to most people, but New York Magazine’s fashion site The Cut published a blog titled “Zuckerberg Explains His Gray T-Shirts, Sounds Pretty Sexist” in which Alison P. Davis, perhaps nervous that an editor would discover that she hadn’t yet been outraged by anything that day, does some sexism exegesis and concludes: “Of course, male CEOs are far too focused on changing the world or building the next Big App to care about something as “silly” or “frivolous” as dressing professionally — they’ll just leave that to Marissa Mayer.” The comments section of the article shows that most readers saw this as a clear case of outrage overreach, considering that Mr. Zuckerberg said nothing about gender at all, and if anything it revealed more about the author’s own ideas on gender roles and the relative vanity of men and women after she crowbarred open the lines in order to not only read between them but insert her own prejudices. Some feminists winced at the article, saying that people should avoid leaps of logic and knee-jerk accusations of misogyny lest the movement be caricatured as a gang of eggshell-skinned puritans examining every statement with a sexism decoder ring.

I was offended by Mr. Zuckerberg’s statement, too, because it revealed a deep-seated prejudice against a small but gorgeous minority group: dandies (and their female counterparts.) As the co-author (with photographer Rose Callahan,) of I am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman and the co-founder of the Secret Empire suiting company, I take umbrage like snuff at the suggestion that paying attention to what you wear is necessarily superficial, frivolous, or inconsequential. As Lord Illingworth in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance says, “People nowadays are so absolutely superficial that they don’t understand the philosophy of the superficial.” Mr. Zuckerberg’s anti-dandyism bias is one tentacle of the insidious “normcore” pseudo-trend, exemplified by The Gap’s stultifying “Dress Normal” ad campaign. These are microagressions that scuff the shoe and chill the soul.

Shirt number two was a short-sleeve black button down with a large repeating print of scantily-clad buxom women with guns, and it was worn by Dr. Matt Taylor on the occasion of the Rosetta team of the European Space Agency landing a probe on a comet 6.4 billion kilometers from Earth. The shirt, worn during a television interview, was blasted as a sexist “microagression” and cited as a prime example of the macho atmosphere that discourages young women from seeking careers in STEM. Dr. Taylor was soon at the center of an online firestorm that distracted from the scientific achievement and resulted in a humiliating and tearful public act of contrition on his part.

Some suggested that anybody discouraged from studying science by something as inconsequential as a novelty shirt probably wasn’t cut out for a career in the sciences anyway. Feminists responded that this was merely one example of a pervasive sexist culture in the sciences. The opposition asked why women don’t run in fear from art history or English literature because of odalisques or Lolita. The feminists replied, archly, that men were getting a taste of their own medicine now that people were scrutinizing and criticizing their appearance, too. Their critics asked, arch-archly, if they were suggesting that Dr. Taylor had been “asking for it,” because of what he was wearing?

One could continue adding arches to this arcade, but there were other points, chiefly that it wasn’t the “appropriate” thing to wear for the occasion. Some asked why his colleagues (including several women,) hadn’t said anything to stop him. This slightly more subtle argument has more to do with occasion than intent: “don’t wear a pin-up shirt to your rocket science interview, it isn’t appropriate - this literally isn’t rocket science.” Dr. Taylor’s ersatz defenders said that it obviously wasn’t his intention to offend anybody and the women on his team didn’t seem to mind. Feminists argued that this just proved that sexism is so ingrained that an obviously offensive shirt wasn’t seen as such by the team, including women. Casual sexism was their watchword.

As in the case of Mr. Zuckerberg’s words, I found Dr. Taylor’s shirt mildly upsetting, but the “casual” bothered me far more than the “sexism.” A man who just helped achieve a scientific marvel wore that on the big day? If a presumably brilliant person’s idea of the perfect celebratory outfit is a nudie-lady bowling shirt, slightly more dignified than a piano-key necktie without rising to the same level of kitsch, we may have crossed the casual-wear Rubicon. But the pro-Taylor camp had a more interesting point than it knew when it said that he had a right to dress however he wanted and it was nobody’s business to tell him otherwise: this is a matter of free speech.

It has become axiomatic to the point of cliché to say “I express myself in how I dress,” but there is truth to it (although, to extend the speech metaphor, unless you’re designing and making your own clothing you’re expressing yourself by quoting others.) Clothing choices are generally protected as free speech by the First Amendment. Exceptions might be made, as in the case of incitement to violence (a swastika t-shirt is completely legal in public, one reading “Kill the Jews” might have a harder time in court,) but for the most part we can wear what we want. And we live in a time and place of unprecedented sartorial egalitarianism: women wear pants, men occasionally wear dresses, and female “topless rights” advocates continually insist on reminding everyone that they’re legally allowed to be just as obnoxious as the sweaty men who walk around in public bare-chested.

So why does the average Western person’s sartorial spectrum begin with Mormon and end with refugee? Some feminists online recently lionized a male Australian newscaster who wore the same suit every day for a year; when nobody commented on it, he concluded that he’d proven a double standard of appearance. As far as I can see, what he really proved was that men’s clothes have gotten so boring that you can’t tell them apart. If he’d worn a different, exciting, thoughtful outfit each day, people would be commenting on it. This summer President Obama departed from tradition and wore a light-colored suit while addressing the nation about ISIS. He was promptly pilloried by pundits who argued that his attire did not reflect the gravity of his message. Again, the important point was missed by most: that suit was an awful Ahmedinejad taupe, the color of the drop ceiling of a strip-mall MRI office. Kudos to the President for trying something different, but it was an awful suit, and it looked shabby and un-Presidential no matter the talking points.

Which brings us back to “appropriateness.” If clothing is protected First Amendment speech, then it follows that an abridgment of sartorial rights is censorship. In other words: dress codes are speech codes. Naturally, private institutions have some control over their dress codes: a restaurant can refuse a topless rights activist of any gender, a church can ask that women cover their tantalizing shoulders, a school can insist on a uniform to keep students focused.

When it comes to dress codes (and speech in general, for that matter,) I’m a First Amendment absolutist. I object to banning the headscarf for the same reason I object to making it mandatory: in both cases it’s an authority telling someone how to dress, a government in the first place and a deity (or his cronies,) in the second. I do appreciate some exceptions - it seems right to me that full-face coverings shouldn’t be permitted in government buildings for security reasons (and frankly, that strictest of dress codes, the Burqa, is the apotheosis of everything I’m against.) Ideally, our permissive and ostensibly equal-opportunity sartorial culture should inspire people to experiment, to take the opportunity afforded by freedom to clothe themselves with some personal panache and a modicum of intellect. Instead, most people are trend-chasers and sartorial agnostics, the sweat-panted and flip-flopped multitudes who consider ease a greater virtue than style.

Perhaps it was the stricter, pre-Woodstock, pre-JFK, pre-Silicon Valley dress codes which allowed dandies and eccentrics to so magnificently push and bend the box they were put in. Maybe dress codes are the convent’s narrow walls, the scanty plot of ground where they paradoxically find freedom. When I interviewed the men in my book I asked each one if he would dress the way he does if everyone else dressed that way. About half of them were excited at the thought of more people dressing up, but the other half confessed that they’d have to find some other way of standing apart from the crowd. One can only hope that the excremental state of dress in America will be apt fertilizer for new, bolder sartorial expression.

What needs to be refuted is Mr. Zuckerberg’s cop-out dismissal of dressing as something separate or distracting from the important things in life (like online socializing, presumably.) Clothes are important - if you opt out you might freeze to death or get arrested. Like food, they can be fun when approached with passion and thought. The Zuckerberg theory that seriousness and dressing well are mutually exclusive is a complete reverse of the previously accepted idea that dressing well is a sign of professionalism, self-respect, and dignity. Look at the civil rights marches of the 1960’s and you’ll see men and women deliberately dressed their best, even when being attacked by dogs or hit by high-powered hoses. For black Americans fighting for their human rights, nice clothes were a powerful symbol of dignity, a repudiation of the dehumanization their ancestors endured as chattel - naked livestock at auction.

One of the dandies in my book, Dr. Andre Churchwell, tells a story about his father Robert Churchwell, the first black reporter on the Nashville Banner. Although he was covering the civil rights beat he wasn’t allowed a desk at the paper’s segregated offices and had to work from home. But each morning he still put on his Brooks Brothers suit and tie, even if he wasn’t leaving the house. He was a professional, and that’s how his children learned about the power of dressing well. Nowadays people may scoff at style as a superficial affectation, and insist that it’s wrong to judge people by how they dress. But dress, like religion and philosophy and unlike race and gender, is a personal choice, and for people like Robert Churchwell it was anything but superficial; it was a way of insisting that they be taken seriously as people who care enough about themselves to put effort and intellect into every aspect of life no matter how mundane.

Should we judge Dr. Taylor by how he’s dressed? Or should we be hypocrites like the dreadlocked hippy who screams, “don’t judge me,” one minute and calls someone a “suit,” the next? At one point it may have surprised people to see that the ESA doesn’t have a more “professional” dress code, but people didn’t even notice until something as gaudy as Dr. Taylor’s shirt assaulted their eyeballs. We take it for granted that scientists in our time wouldn’t wear old-fashioned clichés like lab coats and neckties. In fact, Dr. Taylor’s shirt may have been an example, like NASA’s “Mohawk Guy”, of scientists trying to show the public that they’re not a bunch of stuffy nerds.
“Hey,” they seem to say, “We’re just like you!”

“No you’re not!” I shout back, “You’re rocket scientists and you just put a probe on a comet! This is the feat of a lifetime. You could be wearing gold tuxedos right now. Why are you dressed for a barbecue?”

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Militant" Atheists Aren't Militant Enough

I don't always write about dandies or menswear, although I seem to have better luck getting published when I do. One might suspect that magazines and websites are hesitant to publish opinion pieces by people who don't specialize in specific fields, but a brief survey of many websites will show that expertise is rarely the standard, avowing allegiance to a particular group - biological or ideological - is often mistaken for something like a credential, and rational argument is valued less than the ability to use phrases like "I can't even," "so many feels," and "because ____." So I've decided to use this blog to publish those essays I can't help but write whether anyone publishes them or not. I write them partly to stay in practice as a writer, and partly to focus and organize my own thoughts about particular issues. If anybody reads them I hope they get some pleasure out of doing so and recognize that argument, disagreement, and dissent can be very good things. 


“Militant” Atheists Aren’t Militant Enough
My life among the nonbelievers of the “new atheism.”

Thanks to the rise of ISIS, one of the most savage religious groups of the modern era, the so-called “new atheists” are back in the news and, once again, they’re being criticized for their stridency, their intolerance, and their militancy. But if anything, atheists have toned their message down far too much in the past few years (certainly since the death of Christopher Hitchens, who spectacularly threw the “willing to compromise” curve of the atheist movement way off,) and the only thing more troubling than the fact that it took something as extreme as the Islamic State to bring atheists back out swinging is the fact that all too many of them still seem reluctant to join the fight.

I was raised in a very secular household in the heart of Greenwich Village. My parents are both liberal college professors. My mother’s rather Anglicized Indian family was half-Hindu, half-Sikh, and she had attended Church of England boarding schools in India. My father came from a nominally Methodist family from Texas, but his subsequent career as a clinical psychoanalyst seems to have superseded all other forms of mumbo-jumbo. The variety of my religious experience growing up began and ended at friends’ Bar Mitzvahs, and the only time I ever felt jealous for not having a faith was when I saw the congratulatory stuffed envelopes from grandmothers. Of course, the most cursory reflection on a deity who was anti-bacon but pro-circumcision easily disabused me of any envy I felt at not having been one of God’s chosen people.

Religion had so little impact on my life that atheism seemed like the natural way of things, the obvious default position. In September 2001, during my first week of classes in my freshman year at NYU, when religious hatred and violence was visited upon my hometown in cataclysmic fashion, simply not believing was no longer enough. I soon realized that battle had been joined whether I wanted it or not, I and everyone I knew was fair game for religious violence, and the only right thing to do was to push back. My unlikely year-long stint as a clerk in a gift shop at a Catholic Church brought me into contact with priests and true-believer parishioners alike and what I saw overwhelmingly pointed to a lot of otherwise kind and caring people (and some genuine rotters,) embracing ignorance, superstition, tribalism, hatred, and the most arbitrary and capricious moral system imaginable. My parents had read bible stories to me alongside world mythology, but now I turned to the original scriptures with a critical eye for the first time and found - whether in the Old or New Testament or the Koran - a heap of nonsense seasoned with a large helping of viciousness. I soon came to the conclusion that if such a god did exist (and we should all be very glad that there’s no evidence that he does,) it would be the moral duty of any decent person to rise up and resist such a tyrant. I concluded that the very premise of most religions - of a watchful, judgmental, guardian creator god, no matter how loving - is an insult to humanity, not least because it almost always denies humanity’s rather canny role in its creation.

Fortunately, my change from passive atheist to passionate anti-theist came at a very opportune time. In the mid-2000’s atheism was a rising force, something exciting, urgent, and important. I was an early and enthusiastic participant in what then seemed very much like a movement. I had signed copies of books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I subscribed to both Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazines. I watched Penn and Teller’s TV show and traded links to youtube videos with like-minded friends. I had friendly email exchanges with Hitchens, started a petition (that ultimately went nowhere,) to ask the US Government to pay for Hirsi Ali’s bodyguards, and eventually worked as a volunteer for the non-profit Science Debate, a campaign to encourage a science policy debate for that year’s presidential candidates, and was thrilled to take notes for conference calls with the likes of Bill Nye, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil Degrasse Tyson.

I attended book readings by Ibn Warraq, Salman Rushdie, and Austin Dacey. I blogged and spoke out in support of the Danish cartoonists. I attended every debate Christopher Hitchens had in New York City and watched with delight when he eloquently eviscerated the opposition every time - like a lion boxing a jellyfish. I went to a conference hosted by the Center for Inquiry called “Secular Society and its Enemies,” in a building overlooking the crater where the Twin Towers once stood and heard presentations by Peter Singer, Ann Druyan, and Fouad Ajami. Atheism was my intellectual awakening – as Hitch had pointed out, the argument against god was the fons et origo of all arguments worth having. 

I also spoke up about my own atheism. I didn’t go picking fights, mind you, but when my opinion was asked I didn’t lie or water things down in an attempt to avoid offense or make nice. I made a conscious decision that honesty about my own beliefs (or lack thereof,) was not only the right policy, but it meant that I respected the people I was speaking with enough to not condescend to sugarcoat my ideas. I recall arguing with one Rabbi shortly after the 2008 Mumbai attacks and saying that the men who carried out the assault on the Jewish center there were by all accounts just as pious and devout in their faith as he was in his. “How can you call these men pious when they killed and tortured people?” he kept saying, over and over again. His repeated inability to separate the concepts of piety and morality comes to mind when religious people and fellow travellers like Ben Affleck seem hell-bent on missing the point and mischaracterizing the arguments of atheists.

In one circumstance, a devout Christian co-worker at one of my jobs began talking with me about religion. I gave her my opinions unvarnished and she seemed genuinely interested. For several weeks we had a friendly debate about the matter, and it seemed like she was, for the first time in her life, genuinely questioning the faith she’d been raised in, or at least approaching it critically. Then one day she came in looking sullen. I said hello. She grunted. I asked her if everything was ok. She muttered that she’d told her brother about our conversations and he’d told her to stop talking to me about these things or he’d come in and speak to me about it himself. The threat was immodestly unveiled, and she stopped speaking to me after that, whether more for the safety of my body or her soul I’ll never know.

Some encounters were less tense. At one point, Richard Dawkins had come up with a debatably useful way of having atheists “come out of the closet:” red letter “A” pins to signify one’s philosophical stance and reference the intolerant religious branding of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. The idea was that atheists would proudly wear their heresy on their sleeves (or lapel, rather.) The result was mixed. At a drugstore in midtown, a clerk pointed at my pin and said “You an Atlanta Braves fan?”
I was confused for a moment then laughed and said “Oh, no, I’m an atheist.”
He stared at me.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“It means I don’t believe in god.”
He recoiled in shock, then, because the situation couldn’t possibly be as dire as he imagined, he asked: “But you believe in the Bible, right?”
“No, not really.”
He looked for all the world like I’d just sprouted a tail and spoken in tongues. He called the other clerk over and the line of cross-armed people waiting behind me fumed and tapped their toes as one.
“He says he doesn’t believe in god. Or the bible,” he informed his co-worker.
She squinted, as though her contact lenses had trouble focusing on such an unfathomable creature.
“They other people like you?” she asked.
“Yes, lots of them.” I replied.
Their eyes widened. She let out a sigh and shook her head.
“Well,” she said, “good luck.”

But the biggest test of my newfound openness about my disbelief in and dislike of religion involved my girlfriend at the time. She had been raised Catholic, and one day she mentioned to me that she still prayed every night before bed, and even included me in her prayers. I was surprised, taken aback, and a little uncomfortable. I never liked the idea of people praying for me. I’d always found it condescending and presumptuous. But I loved her very much, and I wasn’t sure if it was right of me to try to disabuse her of a faith which clearly gave her comfort and was, for the most part, genuinely benign and mild. She wasn’t any sort of fundamentalist zealot, she and I pretty much agreed politically, she’d simply never really spent much time examining or questioning her faith until she began a serious relationship with someone who took his disbelief more seriously than she seemed to take her belief. I didn’t go out of my way to change her mind, I didn’t insult her for praying or disparage her beliefs directly, but I did continue to write and talk about my own uncompromising thoughts about religion. Eventually, she told me that she’d stopped praying. My mother quipped that any girl who dated me was bound to lose faith in something, but I get the impression that she’d just decided it wasn’t necessary, and she didn’t seem any less happy, content, or ethically grounded for having stopped.

Her family was a more delicate matter. They were no more zealous or intolerant than she was, but their faith seemed more firmly rooted. One year I was invited to their beautiful home for Wigilia, a traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner (I’ve never had a problem participating in the symbolic or traditional cultural rituals nominally associated with particular religions, as long as they require no false oaths or superstitious activity on my part - I thoroughly enjoy a good Diwali celebration, Seder dinner, or Christmas party.) The big news that year was that one of the cousins was bringing her new fiancé to the table for the first time, and it was clearly going to be an opportunity for the extended family to give him the once over. They subjected him to a friendly but thorough grilling, and I was glad I wasn’t in his seat. The occasion being what it was, they asked him about church - whether he currently attends, whether he’d attended as a child, whether he thought it was important. He deftly and diplomatically dealt with the questions. He admitted that he didn’t currently attend church, but then he said that he thought it was very important to raise children in a faith so that they’d have a proper moral grounding. This met with approval all around. The motion was seconded by family members, who concurred that the best, if not the only, way to ensure a moral child is to give her proper Christian instruction. I sat quietly, prepared to hold my peace, reflecting on the miracle that decent peoples’ faith in the moral standing of the Catholic church could remain so unshaken in the wake of recent revelations about the industrial scale of child rape and cover-up by members of its protected clergy.

Then, in a move to his credit, and for which I will always be very grateful, my girlfriend’s father decided to include me in the conversation, knowing full well that I was an active and vocal atheist, and aware that I might say something others disagree with. To this day I hope that my response to his question didn’t hurt his personal feelings too much, and I hope that he appreciates my candor as a sign of respect.
“Natty, did your parents take you to any sort of church or service when you were growing up?”
I was surprised at being asked, and I answered with something like a reflex:
“No, my family has never been religious and we don’t believe in anything supernatural.”

When I recount this story to people today, even non-religious people, they gasp and say that my response was the height of rudeness. I’d dismissed and insulted the beliefs of everyone at the table. I’ll admit that I surprised myself, and I still feel a little bit of that initial shock that comes with the sense of a line being suddenly crossed. But I couldn’t have given a more honest answer. Some might argue that both decorum and honesty would have been satisfied if I’d left it at the first clause, but there was a reason that wouldn’t have been enough: I’d sat silently for several minutes while most of the adults at the table had repeatedly implied that a person who wasn’t raised in the church couldn’t be morally sound. With every measure of confidence and self-assuredness they’d asserted that morality was impossible outside the context of not just any religion, but their religion specifically. I had been prepared to let this insulting and untrue concept go, but then I’d been asked about my own experience, and I’d felt obliged to give it as honestly and fully as I could.

People were a bit taken aback, and there was a pregnant silence before my girlfriend’s father deftly maneuvered the conversation elsewhere. By the end of the dinner it seemed to have been more or less forgotten, and when we broke the traditional opłatek wafers and told each other our wishes for the New Year, my girlfriend’s parents said they looked forward to seeing more of me in the future. At first, their genuine kindness made me feel a little guilty for having so abruptly punctured the consensus, but after dinner an aunt and uncle took me aside and said “are you an atheist?”
I told them I was.
“So are we, but we were always too afraid to tell anybody,” they confessed.

After that, I was very glad for what I’d said, and I tried to imagine being so afraid of one’s own family’s opprobrium as to constantly lie and hide one’s own deepest thoughts and beliefs from them, something which atheists around the world often have to do, in some places for fear of murder at the hands of their own relatives. The thing I learned that night was that when people say you shouldn’t bring up religion at the dinner table they usually mean that you shouldn’t disagree with the religious consensus, and that most moderate religious people are probably unaware of just how insulting and intolerant some of their most basic core beliefs are.

2007 was a big year for atheism. The Atheist Alliance International convention was held in Washington DC and it featured an impressive lineup: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens were all speakers, and the quartet met for drinks at Hitchens’s apartment that week to record the now-famous “Four Horsemen” video. I attended the convention, met fellow atheists from around the world, shook hands with the icons of the movement, got my books signed, and even, after handing over my bag to a bodyguard, met Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose appearance hadn’t been announced in advance for obvious security reasons. The speeches were all exciting, although to be fair the speakers couldn’t have been preaching to a more sympathetic choir, but the speech which caused the most discussion - and controversy - was Sam Harris’s.

Harris’s speech, which can be viewed on Youtube with the title “The Problem with Atheism,” immediately divided the attendees. Part of the speech was about his belief in the value of meditation and “spiritual” practice without superstition or dogma, which is the subject of his excellent new book Waking Up. That met with skepticism from many in attendance, but the really controversial part of Harris’s speech was his argument that atheism, as a non-belief, was a very strange thing to have a convention about. After all, he said, people don’t have conventions about their common lack of belief in astrology. Not only was it strange, said Harris, but it was harmful to the project of a world governed less by faith and more by reason, because it allowed peoples’ arguments about specific beliefs to be dismissed by virtue of their belonging to a particular group. Harris argued that atheists should stop calling themselves atheists, agnostics, secularists, secular humanists, or (shudder) “brights.” Instead, they should not call themselves anything, taking their lack of belief as the reasonable default, as it were, and committing themselves to advocating for reason and against bad ideas in any form. Predictably, Harris’s contention that atheists shouldn’t call themselves atheists was frustrating to many of the atheists attending the atheist convention, who were presumably feeling pretty good about being atheists at that moment. But it was one of the most important moments of the convention for me, because it illuminated the limiting edges of atheism as a movement.

At the time I was a member of the New York City Atheists. I had joined in my first burst of enthusiasm for the subject and I’ll forever be grateful that they, seeing some sort of potential in me as a young and semi-eloquent champion of the cause, asked me to be the host and moderator of their monthly meet-ups. On one Tuesday of every month, several dozen nonbelievers of different ages, races, occupations, genders, sexual orientations, and styles would meet in the back room of a Murray Hill bar. I would lead a discussion for about an hour and a half and then people would socialize. For me, the meetings were an opportunity to bring up and discuss issues which I thought were of vital interest to people opposed to religion. I soon realized that for many of the other attendees that wasn’t the point of the group.

To many people the meet-up was simply a social event, a good way to meet like-minded people. Friendships, romances, and at least one marriage that I know of, resulted from the meetings. I understood the social value of the meetings, but I had hoped they would have the potential to be more. I was dismayed to see the number of people who were content to sit around quoting Richard Dawkins and patting themselves on the back for being so much more enlightened than their religious neighbors. I soon noticed another divide among the atheists: those who had been brought up in a faith saw the group as a potential replacement for the social functions of a church, whereas those of us, like me, who had been brought up in an entirely secular environment felt no such need. I already had friends, and I was relatively competent at meeting people without recourse to first discussing all the things we didn’t believe in.

One of the common criticisms leveled at atheism, and especially the “new atheism,” is that it’s just like a religion. It seemed to me that some members of the NYCA were determined to prove this true. People suggested “un-baptisms” and I cringed. People wanted some kind of Sunday meeting to counteract church services and I was left wondering why. Worst of all, the New York City Atheists proudly boasted that they’d been invited to attend Mayor Bloomberg’s inter-faith breakfast for the first time. I found this counter-productive - surely the right course of action is to protest the very idea of an inter-faith breakfast rather than participate and further encourage the image of atheists as just another religion-like special interest group. I didn’t want a seat at the table with priests, rabbis, and imams, I wanted to smash the table and say that politicians shouldn’t be taking advice or guidance from people who spend their days lying to children (especially since this was the same mayor who, faced with a scandal involving Brooklyn Rabbis giving fatal cases of herpes to several infants whose freshly-mutilated penises they’d placed in their mouths to suck away the blood after a circumcision, had said that the most important thing in that case was to respect religious sensitivities.)

But the people who came to the New York City Atheists meet-ups didn’t seem to have the same concerns as me. They were unsurprisingly partisan, most of them being staunch Democrats, and many seemed incredulous when I suggested that atheist organizations should be resolutely non-partisan and instead focus on specific issues. When I tried to discuss activism, they pointed to the ads they had placed on city buses and the street tabling in which they advertised their organization and invited people to join (to be fair, that’s how I found out about them,) although I was always a big fan of the blood drive they organized on the ridiculous “National Day of Prayer,” with the slogan “While religious people are on their knees, we atheists will be on our feet, giving a part of ourselves for the benefit of humanity.” Some members scoffed at the intelligence of religious people, and were dismissive when I argued that they’d be mistaken to underestimate people of faith, and that there were plenty of perfectly capable and intelligent people who believed highly unlikely and even absurd things. And unlike many other atheists I met, I wasn’t convinced that the simple solution to religious belief was a more scientifically-literate society. I had read about too many engineers and doctors in suicide vests to think that a technical or scientific education was an easy antidote to religious indoctrination.

My biggest split with the New York City Atheists and my subsequent exit from the group was in one sense sparked by Sam Harris’s speech. I began to argue that congregating as atheists was fine, and that atheism as a personal philosophical stance was both necessary and worth defending, but that atheism itself was a terrible political cause to rally around. I said that we should organize politically as secularists, and find common cause with religious people who believe in the separation of church and state and who resist theocracy. I was very clear that we shouldn’t hide or adulterate or compromise our personal views about religion, but that when it came to politics, we should support the rights of persecuted religious groups around the world - Copts in Egypt, Muslims in India, Rohingyas in Myanmar. After all, what philosophical minority group was more persecuted around the world than the atheists, the apostates, the infidels and heretics? Ok, maybe the Jews, but the point is that as people who were against religious bullying it seemed perfectly natural to me that atheists should support freedom of belief and conscience in all its forms, even those we disagree with, with the political goal being the guarantee of the right of free thought around the world. The people fighting theocracy are often religious moderates and reformers who needed support, and I saw no reason not to give it to them as long as they equally respected our right to not believe, to disagree, and to express our non-belief, even if they found it offensive.

This proved too much - or too confusing - for many of the people in the group. The idea of rallying under the banner of secularism in support of the rights of religious minorities wasn’t something most members could get behind, and wasn’t nearly so appealing as watching The Life of Brian again and complaining about “In God We Trust” being on the money (stupid though that may be.) The other major problem was the same one we seem to be facing today: plenty of Western atheists are willing to condemn Christianity, but they fail to subject Islam to the same level of scrutiny, or they at least make some tenuous equivalency to assuage their liberal conscience, saying that American evangelicals trying (and failing spectacularly,) to stop gay people from getting married through ballot measures is somehow as bad as Muslim theocracies criminalizing homosexuality, sometimes calling for the execution of anyone accused of it. It seemed like too many of my fellow atheists had assumed that an opposition to George Bush’s foreign policy was enough to identify someone as a liberal, and they never bothered to explore mainstream American Muslim websites like muslimmatters.org where there was recently a blog post arguing that women in “immodest” clothing are guilty of a more insidious sexual harassment than the men who catcall them and another about hating the sin of homosexuality but loving the sinner that could have been written by someone from the Catholic league if you replaced the word “Allah,” with “God.” The usual excuse for this double-standard was a vague “we need to focus on our own problems.” I don’t know when secularism or human rights became so provincial, or when morality was so wedded to geography, but it depressed me that some atheists didn’t take as internationalist a stance as they could have.

In the years since I became somewhat disillusioned with atheism as a movement and stopped actively participating in it, I attended journalism school. I made new friends from all over the world, some of them religious, and I had two professors, Gershom Gorenberg and Samuel Freedman, who wrote regularly (and brilliantly,) on topics of faith. I stepped out of the “new atheist” bubble and saw how petty, nerdy, and myopic many aspects of the movement looked to outsiders. I avoided talking about religion, and I started to keep my still-uncompromising views to myself in the service of social harmony. For a while I even managed to convince myself that atheism was becoming so accepted (the oft-cited polls showing a rise in the number of Americans who check “none” for religion seemed to confirm it,) that the ideological battle against the worst elements of religion had been, although not won, at least shifted in favor of reason (or at the very least moderation.) The Christian right in America had seemingly been gelded at the polls, creationism was getting struck down in whichever courtroom it reared its pathetic head, Islamic-inspired terrorist attacks in the West were regularly thwarted and seemed to be becoming more infrequent, even if there were dismaying examples of religious groups bullying institutions like Yale and Comedy Central into self-censorship. And in 2009 Barack Obama even mentioned “non-believers” in his inauguration speech.

But it’s clear that things are no better now, and possibly even worse. According to a Pew report, religious hostility is at its highest point in six years. We’ve seen the rise of ISIS and Boko Haram, the advances of Al-Shabab, the persecution of Pussy Riot and the crackdown on homosexuality by the Russian Orthodox Christian establishment, the resurgence of Islamist parties in the wake of the Arab Spring, the ascendance to power of a Hindu fundamentalist with a history of (at least tacit) approval of anti-Muslim pogroms in India, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali being bullied into silence by American campus groups (including atheist groups - for shame!) and suddenly it seems like being polite and giving religion the benefit of the doubt and hoping it becomes more moderate and less divisive if we tolerate its more troubling claims under the guise of “respect” is not only no longer possible but no longer moral. In what could be an ironic headline from the Onion, The Guardian published an article called “Religious extremism main cause of terrorism, according to report.” Although studies show encouraging signs that support for religious violence and Islamist groups is down, Pew’s report on the Muslim world last year showed wide support for Sharia law, the execution of apostates, and a desire for more religious influence in politics. In a troubling parallel, apparently many Americans are lamenting the decline of religion in politics, too. For all the evidence and testimony that Muslim’s aren’t liked or trusted by their fellow Americans, a recent Pew poll shows that atheists are just as disliked. Another recent poll, this one conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, found the same thing: Atheists and Muslims are almost equally disliked, and held in lower esteem than immigrants, gays and lesbians, Catholics, and Jews - everyone but Communists. And yet atheist student groups don’t seem to cry foul and complain about hurt feelings and offended sensibilities nearly as much as faith-based ones do whenever someone who disagrees with them speaks on campus. This despite the fact that there’s plenty of anti-atheist rhetoric to be found in the holy books on every pulpit of every church, synagogue, or mosque. And still one doesn’t see many atheists seeking to ban scripture on the grounds that it contains hate speech, or silence preachers with whom they don’t agree. The tolerance of nonbelievers for speech they disagree with (and which consistently insults them,) should be lauded - we’ve certainly had to put up with it for long enough.

In the years since I ended my public involvement in the “new atheism,” I’ve made some religious friends, as well as non-religious friends who follow the Ben Affleck example of apologetics (and insist, despite video evidence to the contrary, that he actually won anything resembling a debate rather than shouted down an opposing view without listening to it,) and I’ve more or less kept my opposition to religion to myself. I see friends who I respect and admire using the term “Islamophobia,” with a straight face and reposting articles on Facebook automatically calling any criticism of Islamic doctrine, dogma, or scripture racist and bigoted (this despite the fact that they seem perfectly able to understand, quite rightly, that criticism of Israeli government and policy doesn’t automatically equate with anti-Semitism.) And I hope that they’ll listen to what I have to say and engage me in debate rather than ignore me, slander me, misrepresent my views, or try to shut me up. If the current climate is any indication, I don’t have high hopes for this. But things are getting worse and well-meaning people are allying themselves with and making excuses for the most reactionary and oppressive (and patently absurd,) ideologies ever committed to papyrus.

People often describe “new atheists” as militant, despite the fact that atheists aren’t currently blowing up mosques and churches or executing non-atheists in the name of disbelief. This was most absurdly put by Karen Armstrong in a recent Salon interview in which she said that the ideas of Sam Harris and Bill Maher “is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps.” Apparently Ms. Armstrong thinks that Harris’ and Maher’s criticism of Islamic ideology is more reminiscent of Nazism than state-sanctioned Hindu nationalist educators in India saying things like “the truth is that historically we have been a far superior race," and advocating the burning of books they disagree with or Muslim protesters in Germany chanting “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.”

If the “militancy” that critics are referring to is the unvarnished and unapologetic opposition to faith-based belief on an individual level and religious power on a political level, than we could do with a lot more militancy. Religious hatred, violence, power, and bullying need to be resisted, and our side needs as many voices as it can get. We must be unafraid and true to our own consciences and we need to make no apologies and refuse to compromise with abhorrent ideologies. The discourse is calling out for a heaping dose of honesty, and we nonbelievers need to hold the line and not give in to hypocrisy and wishful thinking.

We should by all means encourage and support religious moderates and reformers, but only as long as they recognize our right to exist and speak our minds as nonbelievers without fear of censorship or reprisal. The holy books and doctrines of the world’s major religions all take a condescending, insulting, and sometimes actively hateful and violent view of non-believers. We are continually maligned in their pages as, at best, fools who live in ignorance of god’s grace and are destined to be judged at the end of time or, at worst, dangerous people who god (who presumably created them and made them atheists, for some reason,) would be very pleased at the destruction and torture of. We shouldn’t be so quick to shut up in the name of a “respect” that has never been reciprocated. This issue is far too important to ignore or sugarcoat, and atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers need to be more vocal and politically active on secular issues globally, not simply ending their commitment at the borders of their own countries. Religion will probably never be eradicated, but the fight against it must never cease if there’s to be any hope for a future of less psychological tyranny, theocratic repression, and sectarianism based on a thin but spreading tissue of ancient lies.