Thursday, February 19, 2015

What Does ‘Longing for the Divine’ Mean?

            Very often in the various discussions that go on around the subject of gods and their existence, you will hear someone on the theistic side refer to a universal human longing for sanctity, the spiritual, the pure, and/or the divine. I have a confession to make about that: I haven’t the faintest clue what they’re talking about.

            It’s not merely that they usually bring this up in the context of claiming that the fact that this longing is a universal feature of human nature must somehow mean that the things we long for actually exist. It’s also not just that I don’t understand how they seem to make the leap to the idea that their god is the correct answer to this longing, while everybody else’s is incorrect despite the fact that they all seem to answer the desire equally well (“oh, sure, everyone longs for the divine! It’s just that when they think they’ve found it, they’re wrong, and when I think I’ve found it, I’m right”). No, it’s even more fundamental than that.

            I don’t know what they mean when they talk about sanctity, the spiritual, the pure, or the divine. I just don’t.

            Yeah, I know I can look up the dictionary definitions of those things, which seems to chase down a rabbit hole of interlocking definitions for things that don’t seem to reference anything real. I can get a sort of intellectual understanding of what people seem to mean when they talk about these things. But I don’t know what they are. Not in any real sense.

            Let’s just take one of those terms: sanctity. You look up the definition of that, you get referenced to things such as sacredness, holiness or divinity. Look up holiness, and you get referenced to things related to a gods or religions, or things dedicated to religious use, or things that are entitled to worship or veneration. Those are all human concepts. They aren’t an inherent property of anything. They’re just meanings that we choose to associate with certain social structures and emotional states. They’re not anything I long for.

            But I get the feeling that when religious people talk about these ideas, they use them as if they refer to something that has an actual, real manifestation beyond merely our emotions and expectations. As if, even if there were no human beings anywhere in the universe who would attach these meanings to things, some stuff could still have the property of being “sacred,” or “holy.” And I just… I don’t see it.

            If someone handed you a hunk of rock, telling you nothing about it, do you think you could sense some holiness about it? What if they told you that it was holy? Would that change your perception? Do you think the holy icons of other religions actually have some property of sacredness to them beyond the reverence that their devotees direct at them? Do you suppose they see any holiness in your sacred icons beyond the reverence you feel for them? Somehow, I don’t think so.

            As near as I can tell, these are just abstract ideas in which people invest certain emotions. That doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize that they can be meaningful or powerful, or that the emotions they engender are real. But they’re not actual things. Sure, I could point at a cross, and tell you it’s sacred. But only because I grew up in a culture that tells me it’s sacred; not because I can identify any property in it that makes it so. Certainly not because it possesses any property that I long for.

            When people make the claim that this longing is a universal feature of humanity, I just don’t think they’re telling the truth. Or, at best, they’re confusing a feature of human cultures with a feature of humans themselves. It seems to be the case that it’s common enough for people to have the emotional experiences and mental states associated with what we call the divine, and that they become sufficiently fascinated with them to explore them and to share the methods and stories they use to achieve them with others. They can be powerfully motivating experiences, and so once shared they seem to spread even to many people who wouldn’t otherwise have encountered them on their own. That doesn’t mean those people were longing for those things all along, though; just that it had a powerful effect once introduced. And it doesn’t indicate that any one set of stories or rituals that produces these experiences is any more true than any others that have the same effect.

            But it also seems that, for a certain percentage of the population, these abstractions don’t hold much allure, if any at all. That may be hard to comprehend, for someone who regards these experiences as powerfully real… or who simply want them to be. Or it may be that these claims of the universality of “longing for the divine,” are just convenient lies told in order to “other” us nonbelievers. Maybe it’s a mix. I don’t know, and I won’t claim to know. But when I hear a nonbeliever claim that they don’t know what those things are, I believe them. Because I’m in the exact same boat.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Is it Racist to Criticize Islam?

            It almost goes without saying that the subject of Islam is a bit of a hot button these days. Conflicts sprout up on an almost daily basis, and rare is the month that goes by without some form of atrocity getting committed by some person or group claiming Islamic inspiration. Whether it’s mass kidnappings of young girls, beheading members of other religions, rioting and even outright mass murder over cartoons of their prophets, suicide bombings, inter-sect warfare, or whatever new item that comes up in the news, it’s hard for an outsider to come away with a positive impression of the faith these days.

            At the same time, Islam does not lack for defenders even among those who decry these atrocities. It’s not unusual at all for non-Muslims to excuse the religion from culpability, claiming that the perpetrators aren’t “true” Muslims, or that those who level criticism are being Islamophobic or even racist. And sometimes, such defenders may even have a point, because it’s also not unusual for people to go way over the top in broadly labeling everyone who bears a Muslim identity as a potential threat. But on the other hand… not so much.

            Of course, the easy response to claims that criticism of Islam is racist is that Islam is not a race. But as true as that is, it also kind of glosses over the fact that opposition to Islam is often used as a mask to justify anti-Arab bigotry. I’ve read more than a few articles about people condemning a community of Arab ethnicity for their Muslim beliefs, when the community was in fact majority Christian. Since it’s not acceptable in modern America to attack people simply for being Arab, people do sometimes attack the religion associated with being Arab as a sort of racism-by-proxy.

            The other issue that such a glib response tends to gloss over is the fact that religious bigotry is a thing. It’s not technically racism, but it’s still bigotry.

            So am I saying that it may not be racist (at least not directly) to criticize Islam, but it’s still bigoted to do so? Well, no, that’s not what I’m saying either. The point is that both sides kind of have to exercise a bit of nuance and critical thinking on the subject. Look at the circumstances, the context, and the content of the criticism. Generally speaking, if someone is criticizing Islam because it’s something strange, brown people practice, then it’s probably racist criticism. If someone is criticizing Islam by lumping everyone who identifies by that label into the stereotype of violent misogynist, it’s probably religious bigotry of some stripe. For that matter, if someone is opposing a particular idea simply because it’s Islamic, that is also probably religious bigotry.

            But there are legitimate criticisms of Islam. As a religion and an ideology, Islam is a collection of ideas (though not necessarily the same collection from one person to another). Some of those ideas - such as encouragement of charity and community responsibility - are good or could have good arguments made in their favor. We shouldn’t reject those ideas merely because they are Islamic. Some of them - such as the ideas that Allah exists and has marching orders to give us, Muhammad was a god-inspired prophet who conveys those orders, or that people who stop believing either of those ideas should be killed - are bad. We shouldn’t refrain from criticizing those ideas merely because they’re Islamic. Ideas, religious or not, are legitimate targets of criticism, and opposing the bad ideas contained in Islam is not the same being bigoted towards Muslims or toward any particular race.

            Once again, we return to a recurring theme that comes up in my blog: one of the great bad ideas of religion is the packaging of ideas together under a defining monolithic label. The good ideas (and indoctrination) can be used to generate deep commitment to the monolith, which in turn makes it incredibly fraught to try and attack the bad ideas. Such attacks are perceived as assaults on the monolith itself, and with it the good ideas that it contains. So you end up with situations where people refuse to question whether their religion’s creation myths are true, because that implies questioning the authority of the religion that proclaimed it, which in turn implies questioning that same religion’s pronouncements against murder. But there’s no logical link between the myth and the moral pronouncement other than the fact that they both got packaged into the religion. Breaking these kinds of links is one of the reasons that criticism of religion is essential to a progressing society.

             So to bring the topic back around, I guess the answer to the question in the title of this post is “not necessarily.” The mere practice of criticizing Islam (or any other religion) is not inherently racist or even bigoted. But there are ways to use the excuse of criticism to engage in racism and religious bigotry. It’s up to all of us to think carefully about the criticism we encounter, as well as the criticism we produce, to ensure that we are avoiding those pitfalls.