Sana Saeed and Salon Muddles Science, Name-Drops Richard Dawkins for Clicks:

By now, you are all used to the headline style.  Some online rag finds a religious defender who writes an article wholly unrelated to Richard Dawkins and anything he actually said or did, but leads in with a headline that screams his name like a cat in heat (and later in the article lists the other usual suspects) just to set up a big, fat strawman to rail against and gain clicks while ranting and spouting inanities.

Salon writer Sana Saeed; Muslim and budding Islamic apologist, has picked up this bad habit rather quickly in a rambling article whining against ‘New Atheists’ (as opposed to what?  Old atheism?  Did the ‘old’ atheists refer only to Zeus or something?) and claiming (through nothing but a one-person anecdotal story) that religion can’t possibly be in conflict with science because she liked science fairs as a kid or something.

Ok, Saeed ‘busts out’ a bit more than that.  She also drags out the trope that Islam was once a vast center of science and culture (yes we know; then it entered into its own Dark Ages a bit later than we in the West did and began to spend lots of time blowing all that culture up.  Today that trope is pretty irrelevant.  Lets not forget that much of that science and philosophy was developed by Western slaves, servants and dhimmis in the ’employ’ of Islamic courts).  Sure, there are shiny modern parts of the Middle East, and they are something to be rightfully proud of…and every one of them is modern in spite of Islam and big, fat targets for extremists everywhere.  Then there is Turkey, a nation that had to ban Islam outright to achieve modernity.

Regardless, the idea here is a pretty common claim; that science actually owes its advances, if not its very existence to religion, and early scientists were all religious.

Well, so what?  Budding proto-scientists had to be religious.  There simply wasn’t any other choice in the Middle Ages, and new ways of thinking were just re-emerging.  If you lived in the West in western science’s formative years you had to be a Catholic (or a Protestant in later ages, although for some time that was a death sentence if the authorities found out) and in the Eastern world one was more or less either Greek Orthodox Christian or of one of the Islamic sects.  A few slaves and scattered communities of other faiths (and the Jewish people of course, and look how both cultures treated them) were exceptions that proved the rule.  But original thinkers of all stripes were persecuted and killed by both religions, and when a coherent voice for atheism was formed, that too was immediately attacked and atheists were persecuted and even killed wherever they were found, right up to the enlightenment and beyond.  The list of great men killed in the name of original inquiry by Christians is profoundly sad, but the number of nameless men and women not remembered in the timeline of history is truly appalling.  Whole towns of original thinkers were slaughtered in the name of religion, such as the Cathers of the south of France.  Whole nations were decimated by the missionaries and conquistadors.  Whole cultures were converted by force, such as parts of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean by Islam and Saxon tribes by Christians.

Science itself was of course, just beginning to develop its methods during the Middle Ages, after suffering a bit of a set-back since the Greeks and Romans began developing it.  It disappeared almost entirely in Europe, replaced with secretive guilds that hoarded knowledge for the Church’s exclusive use, and the rote learning of fixed and officially-approved knowledge taught at universities (such as certain aspects of the blood circulation system which people could see for themselves was dead wrong every time a corpse was dissected.  But to say so meant imprisonment, torture, death).  All of this was controlled and regulated by the Church (Islamic universities were somewhat better but again, their ‘little set-back’ came later).

Italian universities for example, were strictly controlled; only teachers were allowed to even touch books from the Index of Forbidden Books, and could teach from them only to refute them.  The inquisition strictly monitored both teachers and students, demonstrated by the fate of Pomponio Algerio (1531–1556), a civil law students who was killed by the inquisition for his attitude of free inquiry.  In a time when early forms of Protestant movements were growing in number, he wrote that:

“… the Roman Catholic Church is a particular Church and no Christian should restrict himself to any particular Church. This Church deviates in many things from truth.”

At his trial, he wore his student’s robes to remind the Church that as a student, he was supposed to have the right to free expression.  Apparently, the Church saw things differently.  They boiled him in oil.  It is said that he took 15 minutes to die, and kept his composure the whole time.

The point is that both in the West and in the East, people were in the middle of a process; a process of growing away from strictly religious thinking and towards a more secular world view.  This left many people trapped in two worlds, so to speak.  To say that these people were ‘Christian’ or ‘Islamic’ is to oversimplify what was happening.  Many of these people had heretical ideas of what Christianity or Islam was all about.  Others may have been outright unbelievers, but for the sake of their heads, they kept their silence.  Still others were perfectly devout, but understood that religion alone couldn’t provide the answers to their inquiries, and that’s the key to understanding how one could be religious and still work in fields that conflict with religiosity.  It’s the ability to compartmentalize different ways of thinking, just like an anti-capitalist can still operate in a capitalist society–because they have to.

Their really is a conflict between science and religion (of any kind), but religionists get it completely wrong by thinking of it in terms of a war or battle (like they always do when criticized).  Its the claims that are in conflict, and it is the methods that the two fields use to come to those claims that are incompatible.  Revealed knowledge can never arrive at any form of truth, save by accident.  This is because, at the very least, it is impossible to verify the truth of what a ‘revealer’ says.  A prophet could by lying, a faith-healer may be sincere but deluded, a visionary might have been on drugs and hallucinating at the time; we just cannot know, and without some real means of independent verification, revealed knowledge can never hold a candle to the scientific method, which does provide the means of independent verification, faith or no faith.

This isn’t to say that there are no actual battles that pit the two concepts against each other.  Creationists are certainly waging an organized, high-stakes battle against evolution, and we fail to take this battle seriously at our peril.  Christian Evangelists did a great deal to hold back stem cell research in the U.S. costing many lives and putting us behind other countries.  I don’t need to talk about Catholics and Aids, and Islamic groups target schools all over the Middle East and Africa.

We certainly can’t wax all poetic and dream that both concepts sit all chummy and comfortable side-by-side, like the way that religious moderates like Saeed want to present the situation.  When Saeed and people like her present their own stories and go on about how they don’t understand where this ‘conflict thesis’ comes from, they either don’t get the concept, or they are being intellectually dishonest.  What they don’t get is that they are nobodies–completely irrelevant.

When adults talk about a complex situation, they often take verbal shortcuts by making generalizations.  Both sides of the discussion; if they are being honest, understand this, and come to the table knowing what main terms and concepts mean.  So when we say, “science and religion’ are in conflict, we understand that by ‘science’ and ‘religion’, we are talking about the leadership and powerful, influential members of a church or scientific institutions, or the claims made by many people from these disciplines, or any official doctrines or dogma that may be relevant, but not the rank and file and moderate nobodies, although there are plenty of nobodies that have no problem supporting extremists, and plenty of useful indoctrinated idiots willing to do the work of religious leaders for them; just recently, excavations from as late as the 17th century revealed the body of an astrologer stoned to death by an oh-so-moral mob after accusations of rape and black magic were leveled at an astrologer.  This type of mob law (perpetrated overwhelmingly for moral and religious reasons) was far too common in the Middle Ages and often left unrecorded.  It the main though, we are talking about the small group of people with the ability to directly shape their institutions.  In the case of religion, overwhelmingly, these people embody the criticisms that New Atheists level at religion.  Just look at Bill Donahue or Pat Robertson.   Even the new Pope, for all his liberal ideas, is almost medieval in his thinking when it comes to the right to criticize religion.

So, if you are the type who goes around wailing about how atheists ‘have childish definitions of religion’, maybe you need to look a little closer to home.  Unless they actually did provide a definition, it says more about you than it does about atheists when you are the one providing that definition by accusing others of having it.  If you don’t ‘get’ the generalization, you don’t deserve a place at the table yet; go back to reading.  At least atheists engage with the actual religious texts directly.  It seems that ‘sophisticated theologians’ of any faith just make up whatever they feel like when an atheist is in the room and then returns to the definition of religion we all know damn well once they leave.  All that ‘God’ is big and unknowable malarkey is just that.  Neither Christians nor Muslims believe in Pantheism, and we all know it.

Getting back to science itself, Sana Saeed all out gushes about Islamic ‘science’ as if their ridiculous claims about science are somehow better than Christianity’s outlandish claims.  For her big example, she makes much of Al-Tusi’s ‘theory’ of evolution, that denies that humans are related to apes and argues some kind of learned hereditary inheritance.  She further writes of Al-Tusi’s theories:

“Al-Tusi’s discussion on biological evolution and the relationship of synchronicity between animate and inanimate objects is stunning in its observational precision as well as its fusion with theistic considerations. Yet it is, at best, unacknowledged today in the Euro-centric conversation on religion and science. Why?”

I propose that the West doesn’t ignore this theory out of Eurocentric considerations.  Perhaps the West ignores Al-Tusi because his theories are a muddled mish-mash of unscientific woo mixed with mythology and stories of genies and elemental monsters.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe Western scientists are just jealous and want to engage in a vast conspiracy to suppress religious-based science (a pretty good feat of cooperation when they are all competing against one another).  But if you want to be taken seriously as science, one must play by the rules of the scientific method.  If Al-Tusi ever used “observational precision” to see fire-monsters, I want to know how others can verify this (or a list of ingredients from his pipe!)  There were many others who theorized that organisms evolved; both in the East and West.  We don’t talk much about them because they were wrong and Darwin was right.

One last thing; Saeed makes a big point about how ‘free’ she is as a woman thanks to Islam.  I would really like to see those “Quranic verses and references from the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad” that ‘prove’ that Islam doesn’t subjugate women.  I followed the link she provided, and just found an article about her father where she once again references her ‘rights’ as a woman (ala the Quran, of course) without actually mentioning what those rights happen to be (why should you even need the Quran if they are rights?).





Reza Aslan Tells Atheists, “You Aren’t Doing It Right, Buy My Book!”

By Lance Luther, on behalf of C.R.A.S.S. and C.A.A.C.A.

My collar comes off to Reza Aslan, our favorite apologist, for his brilliant column in Salon last month in which yet again he tells those atheists what is and isn’t atheism for them (no need to thank him, folks!  Just doing his job!) while also putting down the defined-by-Aslan “New Atheists” for being what Aslan defines them to be while all the while hawking his book and doing it with one hand tied behind his back!  Drum-rolls please!  A truly inspiring performance!

Before beginning his deconstruction of atheism, he showed everybody a scroll, and allowed one end to drop to the floor where it then rolled halfway to Montana while it listed his vague credentials.  I just want to say here that I heartily agree from the bottom of my soul that a Creative Writing Professor is most certainly qualified to speak on religious books.  Stop picking on him for that!  Besides, he has a book to sell.

Reza want us to believe that atheism and anti-theism are two separate things,  and furthermore, he has a book to sell.  Well, duh.  Even I don’t think that my colleagues are that stupid.  But never mind that,  what he really wants you to know is that the ‘New Atheists’ (of whom he only knows two) aren’t really atheists, and it takes a Muslim who preaches down to Christians about Jesus (with the old ‘radical’ chestnut, no less) in a book (Buy it!  Buy it!) to tell them that.  But don’t worry, he’s qualified to speak!  He’s a ‘scholar of religion*’.  He’ll tell you that if you forget, or even if you don’t.  If you buy his book, you can read it over and over again on the inside jacket.  You won’t figure out which of his credentials are relevant, but you can enjoy them forever.

No, those ‘New Atheists’ are really just nasty-‘ole ‘anti-theist’s’; those who are actually opposed to religion.  They can’t be both, mind you!  And nobody seems to remember poor Daniel Dennent, who is certainly considered a ‘New Atheist’ but hey!  He doesn’t fit the ‘insult-to-sell’ marketing model (I’m so gosh-durned jealous of that idea!).  Dennent is just so nice about his criticisms, and a LOT harder to quote-mine, and besides, understanding him is too much like work.

In an astounding masterpiece of weasel words, Aslan calls anti-theism a ‘historically-new phenomena’, then tells us how the word atheism was taken from the ancient Greek ‘a-theos’ (without gods), and rightly points out that the word was a pejorative.  He says the term “doesn’t necessarily” (magically causing at least half the word’s definition to disappear in a puff of weasel-fur) mean people who out-right rejected gods, but was used for people who were simply “unaware of” gods or who simply “acted as though the gods didn’t exist”.  Of course, we all know the term was predominantly meant for people who actively rejected the gods and rejected the belief in their interference in the affairs of men.   You know, like ‘anti-theist’s’ do!  When they did so in public (and sometimes not even then), the crime of atheism was punishable by death.  The sources we get this from are even predominantly Christian!  Even I don’t try this argument with atheists; they are too well-read.  Aslan’s willingness to insert boot-in-mouth is sheer bravado, lack of basic intelligence, or something that speaks volumes about Aslan’s opinion of his readership’s intelligence and level of literacy.

As we all know, Aslan was the one who revived the years-old ‘nuclear war meme’ on poor old heathen Sam Harris, long after it was debunked and everyone else had moved on to Richard Dawkin’s tweets (Quick primer: Harris posed a hypothetical terrorist situation to illustrate the dangers of religious fanatics getting their hands on modern WMD, and the type of response other nations may find themselves forced into.  The passage was quote-mined out of context worse than archaeological artifacts dug up in Israel).  The column he addressed this in accompanied the quote with a photoshopped image designed to make Harris look frightening and the very model of bigotry.  You know, like this:

Aslan Meme

It also included a plea to buy Aslan’s book, we’re fairly certain, but just to be clear; Aslan’s preferred method of dealing with people who are in the grips of religious fanaticism is to kill them without mercy.  At least according to the rules that he plays by.  But back to the atheists, who clearly need Reza Aslan and his big dic…um, big credentials (whatever the hell they are.  Nobody’s been able to make sense of them) to explain atheism to them.

Aslan would have us believe that, thank’s to the evil mechanisms of the ‘New Atheists’ (what a wonderful way to avoid lobbing accusations upon individuals.  Saves on word count as well.  Typing “Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins” all the time must be exhausting and Macros are complicated.  We all know Aslan would NEVER actually read something he was involving himself with; like a Microsoft Word manual or The End of Faith) atheism has become no better than the fundamentalists they decry.  Aslan points out that religion is “embedded in culture” so therefore, criticizing any component of religion, or even religion itself, is automatic bigotry (in other words, “don’t worry folks, it only “lacks nuance’ when the other side does it!”)

He writes:

“In seeking to replace religion with secularism (sic) and faith with science (sic), the New Atheists have, perhaps inadvertently, launched a movement with far too many similarities to the ones they so radically oppose (sic)…Like religious fundamentalism (sic), New Atheism is primarily a reactionary phenomenon, one that responds to religion with the same venomous ire (sic) with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheism.”

Aslan has hit the nail right on the head!  ‘New Atheists’ really do possess the exact same “venomous ire” as religious fundamentalists!  Why in this very week, while Boko Haram or one of its adoring off-shoots kidnapped 100 schoolchildren to sell into sexual slavery to the type of Muslims who believe that the Koran justifies this sort of thing (and anyone else with the cash) and the Pakistan Taliban murdered 146 people, almost entirely children, in their ongoing feud to make their Islam top-dog in the region, atheists violently threw word-grenades at their own families, at holiday celebrations, no less, while muzzling their family’s free-speech rights (as we reported in a recent post about an article by Fred Silverman), and worse, somebody left Richard Dawkins alone in a room with access to a Twitter feed again.  Its been a brutal month for anti-theist fundamentalism that’s for sure, and the world should definitely take note of the difference between them and religious fundamentalists.

One thing Aslan really hates is when atheists generalize about a problem and claim that what should be properly defined as a ‘social’ or ‘political’ problem is really a religious ones.  Take female genital mutilation (FGM).  Atheists are pretty well-known for condemning this practice and blaming it on Islam.  Aslan insists that Genital mutilation is not an Islamic problem; that “It’s a Central African problem” (which is pretty bigoted in itself, since the problem is quite widespread out of Africa).  He rolls out a pretty impressive-sounding suite of statistics to back himself up with as well, and claims that many of the places that practice this barbarism are actually progressive bastions of equal rights for women with just a few ‘bad eggs’.  Except that his words are all weasel-words, half truths or even outright falsehoods.

Fortunately, we had Heather Hastie to parse Aslan’s apologetics for us.  Her blog, ‘Heather’s Homilies’ masterfully demonstrated that Aslan may be “…entitled to his own opinion of course, but he’s not entitled to his own facts.”  Not only is FGM a predominately Islamic practice nowadays–whatever its original cultural origins, but also nations like Indonesia and Malaysia are not the shining beacons of female equality that Aslan gushes forth about (although they have made great strides).   The article can be read here.

The point isn’t to pick on Muslims, the point is that if we don’t honestly place condemnation where condemnation is due (and yes, non-Muslim Africans share some of the blame), there is no hope to bringing an end to such practices, so that my missionaries can move in.

Aslan writes that New Atheism is ‘reactionary’ (breathtakingly ballet-dancing right over the irony of a religious apologist saying that), as if the ‘New Fundamentalism’ isn’t.  We here at C.A.A.C.A. are simply awestruck by the power of this Lv. 80 High-Wizard of Creeping Agnosticism, but nonetheless, we must conquer our fear and awe and work to bring him down.

Finally (thank God), Aslan writes that if you are an anti-theist:

“…if you truly believe that religion is “one of the world’s great evils” – as bad as smallpox and worse than rape; if you believe religion is a form of child abuse; that it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” – if you honestly believed this about religion, then what lengths would you not go through to rid society of it?”

I don’t know, maybe the lengths people went to in order to establish the Enlightenment and separate Church and State?  Maybe the lengths Gandhi and his followers went to in order to realize their goals?  Maybe the methods that Many Arabs and Muslims resorted to in order to bring about the Arab Spring?  Maybe the lengths that Rev. Martin Luther King jr. went to for desegregation and the Rights of minorities? The ongoing struggle to reform the Catholic Church when it comes to the institutionalized protection of pedophile priests?  The revolution against the British occupation of Egypt? Non-violent resistance (rare as it is) to Israeli construction of Jewish settlements and of the West Bank Barrier?  The non-violent downfall of Apartheid in South Africa?  Non violent resistance to the draft and to war during the Vietnam war?  Non-violent resistance in Ireland (yes it has been a large part of Ireland’s often-turbulent history).  The mostly-non violent downfall of the Soviet Union?  All of the non violent methods that secular and moderate Muslims are resorting to all over the world to revolutionize their faith?  etc…etc…

Nah, anyone Aslan doesn’t like would just blow things up and murder people.  But buy his book, please.  And read his credentials.

*-Copyright 2012, Reza Aslan