18 December 2008
15 December 2008
12 December 2008
10 December 2008
On the occasion of Human Rights Day, the Center for Inquiry just released this statement on ongoing work to uphold the universality of human rights and the launch of a campaign concerning Shari'a courts in the United Kingdom.
Today we mark the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and above all its affirmation of the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and expression.
At the United Nations General Assembly meeting in Paris in December 1948 at which the Declaration was adopted, Eleanor Roosevelt told the assembled delegates: “As we bring to fruition our labors on this Declaration of Human Rights, we must at the same time rededicate ourselves to the unfinished task which lies before us.” That task was to make the Declaration “a common standard of achievement” for humanity, and it remains unfinished.
Read more at Center for Inquiry. My bags aren't packed for Holland (I leave tomorrow night), but at least I think I know what I am going to say.
29 November 2008
De filosoof Austin Dacey woonde een zitting bij in dit ’tragikomische theater aan de Rhône’ en zag dat een open debat over religieuze kwesties al bijna onmogelijk is geworden. „Godslastering is teruggekeerd op het politieke wereldtoneel.”The entire article is available (in Dutch) online.
25 November 2008
29 September 2008
23 September 2008
Thank you, Mr President.
We welcome the new Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mr Githu Muigai, and we welcome the call from his predecessor, Mr Doudou Diene, to replace the notion of “the defamation of religions” with the legal concept of incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence. Not only does the former notion have no legal basis, it is a threat to human rights and to religion itself.
Existing instruments such as ICCPR Article 20 already protect believers against expression that constitutes incitement. To go further would be to protect the contents of belief itself. Such protection has no basis in international human rights law. Rights belong to individuals, not ideas.
U.N. resolutions combating the defamation of religions are dangerous, as noted by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ms Asma Jahangir, since they can be used to legitimize blasphemy laws that "punish members of religious minorities, dissenting believers and non-theists or atheists”
In Afghanistan, a 23-year-old student named Sayed Pervez Kambaksh sits in prison, convicted of blasphemy for circulating an article critical of wmen's status under Islam. For this he has been sentenced to death. Religion does not need protection from Pervez Kambaksh. He needs protection from those who act in its name.
Ultimately, schemes to safeguard belief by law will defeat themselves since faith flourishes best when left to the free conscience of individual persons.
Geneva is an old city, old enough to have seen the burning alive of Miguel Servetus for heresy on 27 October 1553. Jean Calvin approved, explaining, "There is no question here of man's authority; it is God who speaks, and . . . . we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory." 
Calvin was convinced that his victim had defamed religion (as no doubt was the Afghan judge). Yet every advance in religious understanding begins with someone who speaks the truth as his or her conscience dictates it, no matter who may disagree. Belief depends on the right to doubt, to dissent, to discover. To combat the defamation of religions is, then, in the end, to combat religion.
Would this Council return Geneva to the era of heresy and blasphemy? Or will it work to guarantee to Pervez Kambaksh and to all people, the freedom of expression enjoyed here today? We urge member states to return focus to the protection of persons and to abandon the dangerous notion of the defamation of religions. Thank you, sir. 
1. Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, on combating defamation of religions (Mr Doudou Diène), U.N. Doc. A/HRC/9/12, para. 45, 65.
2. Report of the Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, on elimination of all forms of religious intolerance (Ms Asma Jahangir), U.N. Doc. A/62/280, para. 76.
3. "Blasphemy case shows Afghan divide," BBC News (9 September 2008) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7605395.stm.
4. Jean Calvin, Defensio orthodoxai fidei. Quoted in John Marshall, John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture: Religious Intolerance and Arguments for Religious Toleration in Early Modern and 'early Enlightenment' Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 325.
5. For additional discussion, see Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations, and Is There a Clash of Civilizations? The Failure of the United Nations Response, at www.centerforinquiry.net/UN.
Shortly thereafter, Roy Brown made it through (with one interruption) the following statement on behalf of the Center for Inquiry and the IHEU:
We were pleased to note the desire of Mr Githu Muigai, the new Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, to move the discussion from the idea “defamation of religions” which many agree has no place in human rights discourse, “to the legal concept of incitement to national, racial and religious hatred, hostility or violence”.
We also applaud his proposal to gather data on hate speech in order to make “fully informed, empirically sound and factually robust analysis about this phenomenon”. Racial discrimination and xenophobia are indeed a serious and widespread problem. It is essential when dealing with such a complex issue, involving education, language skills, economic opportunities, deprivation, media sensationalism, and opportunism, that proposed solutions be based on accurate information.
In our view, the term “Islamophobia” is both misleading and unhelpful. It falsely implies that any criticism of Islam is based on “irrational fear” and must lead automatically to hatred of Muslims.
The widespread use of the term “Islamophobia” may actually be exacerbating the problem by confusing the issue. Immigrants, and not only Muslims, do face discrimination, but this problem will not be solved by such catch-all, simplistic labelling. The accusation of “Islamophobia” is now widely used as an ad hominem weapon to silence opponents by equating any criticism of Islam with racism. Mr President, criticism of Islam, or of any other religion, is not racism: it is a human right.
There is now some evidence that the incidence of hostility to Muslims is being exaggerated. We cite for example, the United States government’s latest data on hate crimes which show that [There were 147 reported cases of hate crimes against Muslims in 2006, and 362 reported cases against Jews. Yet the population of Muslims in United States (estimated at 9.5 million) exceeds that of Jews by a ratio of three to two , so] Jews are on average more than three times more likely than Muslims to be the victims of hate crimes even in the United States, which in 2001 was the victim of the world’s worst ever terrorist attack, carried out by Muslims.
Finally, Mr President, we wish to comment on two glaring omissions from the last report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mr Doudou Diene. He makes no mention of attacks on Christians, Bahais , Ahmadis and others that have become commonplace in several Arab states, and in Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh . And whilst he mentions growing Antisemitism in Latin America and its historical roots in Europe, he makes no mention of it in the Muslim world, where according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center : “anti-Jewish sentiment is endemic”. These omissions again call into question the impartiality of that Special Rapporteur.
May we respectfully suggest that, rather than focussing exclusively on “Islamophobia”, States address the deep-rooted Antisemitism and general hatred of “the other” within their own societies?
Thank you, Sir.
http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hc2006/table1.html http://www.factbook.net/muslim_pop.php http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/US-Israel/usjewpop.html http://www.bahai.org/persecution/iran/update http://www.thepersecution.org/ai/aius0411bd.html http://bangladeshwatchdog.blogspot.com/2006/05/amnesty-international-report-2006.html http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=248
22 September 2008
12) H.Res. 1361 – Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States should lead a high-level diplomatic effort to defeat the campaign by some members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to divert the United Nation’s Durban Review Conference from a review of problems in their own and other countries by attacking Israel, promoting anti-Semitism, and undermining the Universal Charter of Human Rights and to ensure that the Durban Review Conference serves as a forum to review commitments to combat all forms of racism.
It is coming out of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Howard Berman, Democrat of California.
19 September 2008
18 September 2008
17 September 2008
At noon I spoke on a panel on "Religion and Freedom of Expression at the Human Rights Council," along with Walid Phares, Naser Khader, and Tarek Fatah (sponsored by the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Center for Inquiry). The session was attended by representatives of several governments. Walid, Naser, and Tarek, as outsiders to the UN system, could speak candor seldom heard within the halls of the Palais. They connected the scrimishes inside the HRC with a wider "war of values" being waged by Islamists against secular, liberal ideals. For my part, I asked what "respect for religions" would demand.
In the final analysis, it is not religions that deserve our respect. A religion is a collection of metaphysical ideas and moral ideals. Ideas are believed or disbelieved; ideals are pursued or rejected. Admiration, appreciation, perhaps, but respect? No. What deserves respect are persons. Surely, the feelings of persons--individuals believers--can be affected when their beliefs are attacked or ridiculed. These feelings are real and important. However, feelings of offense do not generate a right not to be offended.
Respect for persons does not require that we never hurt their feelings, but rather that we treat them as possessing dignity equal to our own, and therefore hold them to the same fundamental intellectual, ethical, and legal standards to which we hold ourselves, to see them as autonomous, self-legislating creatures. Therefore, respect for a person is not only consistent with criticism of a person's beliefs; respect for a person sometimes requires criticism of his or her beliefs. Sometimes in order to respect, we must disagree. Anything less is not respect, but indifference.The debate over "defamation of religions" seems to be galvanizing a response. There is optimism in the air that the resolution can be stopped at the next General Assembly, perhaps by a push led by the U.S.
16 September 2008
On 11 September he released a statement in which he describes Islamism as a form of racism, and urges the Danish government to condemn it during the Durban II:
Later this year, the United Nations will hold a conference on racism. Durban II in Geneva. In spite of this conference, which, like the first, is being hijacked by Islamic countries to support Sharia, the Danish government has chosen to participate. Other countries, including Canada, will boycott it. Now that Denmark chooses to participate, this opportunity must be seized to make a firm stand.
I believe that the Danish government should use Durban II to propose a condemnation of political Islam as a racist ideology. We owe it to ourselves and to our soldiers, who set their lives on the line fighting terrorism on the battlefield, that we at the lofty conferences in the international society act equally firmly and with principle against Islamism.
12 September 2008
We stopped by a lunchtime session by the Sudanese government delegation, on the situation on Darfur. They were giving away sandwiches at the door and peddling dubious versions of recent events. Unfortunately I only got the latter. Remarkably, none of the attending country delegations (including the U.S.) made any comments or questions after the remarks. The only questions came from Roy and a French journalist.
11 September 2008
So far, I have found Switzerland to be an impeccably clean, disciplined, well-ordered, prosperous country (and one, it should be said, with many ways to prevent all but the impeccably clean, disciplined, well-ordered, and prosperous from becoming a part of it).
The Human Rights Council was closed today on account of a national holidy. This afternoon we attended a meeting of the Geneva Forum, an association for the numerous international NGOs based here in the city. The meeting was presided over by the UN representative for the Quakers. Tonight we dined up on the hill in the old city, seated across from the Hotel de Ville, the site of the old city hall, and in the shadow of the Cathedrale St Pierre. It was Jean Calvin's Geneva, and I found myself haunted by the spirit of Miguel Servetus, the man Calvin had burned in October 1553 (for the heresy of questioning infant baptism and doubting that Jesus could have been his own father).
I am thinking of blasphemy as I prepare a statement for the HRC on "combating the defamation of religions," a recent push led by the Islamic states at the United Nations to make "respect for religion" an acceptable constraint on freedom of expression in international human rights law.
This topic is emerging as a hot one for this session of the HRC, as the Special Rapporteur on elimination of all forms of racial discrimination (et al). and the High Commissioner will be delivering reports on the matter next week. Plus, the scheduled April 2009 Durban II conference on racism has many ready to boycott, including the governments of the U.S., Canada, France, Great Britain, and Israel. It is shaping up to be another occasion for politicized bashing of "Islam-bashing."
An excellent freedom of expression NGO from the U.K. called Article 19 just issued a fine statement on the matter along with two leading Egyptian human rights groups.
We could all learn something about quashing heresy from Calvin:
Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man's authority; it is God who speaks, and . . . . we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.
10 September 2008
Some say in ice.
Some say in supercooled magnets.
Here in Geneva, I had a front row seat to what some feared would be the end of the world by black hole, as the Large Hadron Collider was officially initiated today. Over 1,000 magnets, cooled to near absolute zero (colder than deep space) and arranged along at 27 km track under the Swiss-French border, will steer beams of protons at close to the speed of light, in search of the "God particle."
As it happens, I'm staying in Geneva as the guest of a senior scientist from Cern, who will treat me and my colleague Hugo to a personal tour of the LHC. I'll be especially careful not to spill coffee on anything.
09 September 2008
Littman went on, probing the taboo on religious subjects imposed by Uhomoibhi's predecessor: "We understand there are a list of words that we may not use. Can you tell us what that list is?" Uhomoibhi responded without hesitation, "There are no taboos in the Council as far as I am concerned." Littman queried, "There are no words?" Uhomoibhi repeated, "There are no taboos."
"You cannot insult me and insult my belief and say that you are free. You cannot humiliate me and my belief and say that you are free."
Problems arise "when people are opinionated and they think they hold absolute truth." he said. Instead, the President concluded, with something close to exasperation, "Let us be humble. Let us not think we can be god to another person. This is my plea. Because this world is complex, but it is beautiful. This is really my bottom line."
It was an effective statement, but of course it left Littman and the rest of us wondering what exactly it implied. Clearly the matter was close to the President's heart. I think the most charitable reading, which I urged my colleagues to adopt, is that comments on religious subjects may be advanced if done in tones of civility, humility, and mutual respect.
We should take the President at his word, which he has elaborated in media interviews: "No subject is taboo in the Council. Everything that touches on human rights ought to be discussed in total openness. Some believe that to address one subject authorizes them to abuse another. Debates must take place with mutual respect."
ASSOCIATION FOR WORLD EDUCATION
INTERNATIONAL HUMANIST AND ETHICAL UNION
CENTER FOR INQUIRY
by Representative David G. LITTMAN (AWE) – Tuesday (am) 9 September
UNITED NATIONS HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL – Ninth Session (8–26 September 2008)
Annual Report of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights and Reports of the OHCHR… (item 2)
[Words reduced and in square brackets were not pronounced in the 3 minutes available]
Thank you, Mr. President. [This is a joint statement by the Association for World Education (AWE), the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the Center for Inquiry – on the Address by Ms. Navanetham, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Opening of the 9th session of the HRC (“in particular, I refer to the 60th anniversaries of the UDHR.”)]
We congratulate you, sir, on your election and extend a hearty welcome to our new High Commissioner.
As you stated, Madam, in your opening address:
“… we must focus on the challenges that remain in bringing to reality the comprehensive vision of human rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration. This vision is a beacon of hope for the future.”
Madam, you personify for civil society and many here that Shakespeare line: “For now sits Expectation in the air.”
The theme of the 60th anniversary of the UDHR is “dignity and justice for all”. In this context, we maintain that articles 18 on “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and 19 on “the right to freedom of opinion and expression” should be neither diminished nor qualified – other than as indicated in articles 29 and 30.
Six months ago, a veteran Paris-based NGO, the LICRA [Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et Antisémitisme/Inter- national League against Racism and Antisemitism] circulated a substantive statement worldwide signed by thousands [including Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel]: The United Nations versus Human Rights.* The title speaks volumes.
[The key question it posed – and being asked more and more within civil society – is this: “Will 2008 be the year when the United Nations celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and simultaneously destroys its own principles? There is, indeed, cause for great concern because the institution has lost its own way in recent years, becoming a caricature of itself.”]
Surely, sir, it is time for this Council to resolve not to make any further concessions that weaken the principle of “dignity and justice for all.” The universal standards of the United Nations should be upheld, not watered down by cultural relativism or special pleading, nor should restrictions on human rights be dignified with the status of UN Regional Instruments.
We are making available our two joint NGO written statements on this subject: Sixty Years after the UDHR: Threats to the Universality of Human Rights [A/HRC/9/NGO/2]; and The Cairo Declaration and the Universality of Human Rights [A/HRC/7/NGO/96].
350 years ago, Spinoza attempted to substitute the concept of secular law for the 17th century European notions of the Deity as the source of law. On the triumph of the ‘sectarians’ – a term covering religious fundamentalists of all stripes – he was explicit. I quote:
… inasmuch as concessions have been made to their animosity, […] they have gained state sanction for the doctrines of which they are the interpreters. Hence they arrogate to themselves state authority and rights, and do not scruple to assert that they have been directly chosen by God and that their laws are Divine, whereas the laws of the state are human and should therefore yield obedience to the laws of God — in other words, to their own laws.”
He concluded, and I quote “… in a free state every man may think what he likes and say what he thinks.”
And: “I have thus shown […] That it is impossible to deprive men of the liberty of saying what they think.” **
Mr President, we urge all participants at this Council to consider carefully the relevance of Spinoza’s words today.
Thank you, Sir.
* LICRA – Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et Antisémitism / International League against Racism and Antisemitism It was signed by many eminent personalities, including Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel. www.licra.org/news/pdf/get_file.php?file_name=the_united_nations_versus_human_rights__english_version_.pdf
** Conclusion of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670, by Baruch/Benedict de Spinoza, The Works of Spinoza, R.H.M. Elwes, I, chapter XX, pp. 257–66, New York: Dover, 1955]
08 September 2008
04 September 2008
03 September 2008
I arrived in Paris last night and in Montparnasse met up with my colleague Hugo Estrella, the European director for the Center. Today we saw Simone Veil speak at the opening session of a United Nations conference on "Reaffirming Human Rights for All: The Universal Declaration at 60," held at UNESCO Headquarters.
In the city where Eleanor Roosevelt enjoined the General Assembly to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Veil invoked Auschwitz, and the culture of "hate and death" that spurred the creation of the United Nations. 1400 representatives of 537 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had gathered for the 61st annual NGO conference of the UN, and the Center for Inquiry was now among them. Hugo and I had come to enlist allies in the advocacy we will be undertaking at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva later this month.
At their worst, NGO meetings at the UN are a kind of ritual observance, wherein civil society activists partake in rites of moral self-purification by bathing each other in well-meaning verbiage. This is no exception. The public computer room at UNESCO where I sit is decorated with a temporary display of fabric panels designed to form part of a peace "ribbon" to encircle the Pentagon (one of them says Save the Whales). But these meetings also draw interesting people doing important work. Hugo and I met many of them today, and tonight at a lavish Hotel de Ville reception hosted by the Mayor of Paris.
30 June 2008
We often hear that some new scientific discovery has confirmed ancient religious teaching. It now appears that this hearkening back has gone full circle, and modern religion is coming around to ancient secular wisdom.
I take this up in a new guest column at Washington Post's "On Faith" site. Other contributers to "On Faith" include Elie Weisel, Cal Thomas, George Weigel, Sam Harris, Karen Armstrong, and Mohammad Khatami (where can I get tickets to that dinner party?).
At the recent "Seeds of Compassion" event in Seattle, the Dalai Lama spoke of three paths to compassion and moral development in children: the theistic path of the Abrahamic faiths, the non-theistic religious path of Buddhism, and the "secular, scientific" approach. Surrounded by brain researchers and empirical psychologists, he recommended this secular way as the most promising. For some time he has held that if any tenet of Buddhism contradicts contemporary science, science must trump.
Meanwhile, during his first papal visit to the United States, Benedict XVI stressed the coequal roles of reason and faith in the religious life, and urged Catholics to translate their contributions to public life into a "public theology" accessible to all. At the United Nations, he enjoined religious leaders to "propose a vision of faith not in terms of intolerance, discrimination and conflict, but in terms of complete respect for truth, coexistence, rights, and reconciliation." In his first encyclical, Benedict wrote, "A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the church," where politics is "the sphere of the autonomous use of reason." He may not like the sound of this, but that sounds like secularism to me.
08 June 2008
I urge you to check out a new book by secular philosopher Austin Dacey: "The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life." Dacey disagrees with most religious opinions about the big ethical issues of our time, and I disagree with him. However, I strongly agree with him that it's wrong to reject an opinion about some moral issue just because the person who makes it is religious.Gellman concedes the significant secularist point that "the apprehension of the moral truth " can come "from unaided human reason."
All of us, secularists and religious folks, must talk to each other and be prepared to give good reasons why we judge some act right or wrong. Saying there's just one truth in the world doesn't free any of us, religious or secular, from the responsibility to give good, sound, accessible reasons for our moral judgments. That's what Dacey believes, that's what I believe, and that's what the best religious thinkers I know believe.
24 May 2008
During the more than two hour interview with Peter Steinfels in preparation for this article, I could tell that he had read the book closely. It turns out he is sympathetic to some of its main themes. This comes as a big relief to me, because I was so jet-lagged at the time I have no idea what I said!
By coincidence, a story about my work also appeared today in another publication, one which has never faced high-profile accusations of story fabrication: my hometown newspaper (well, near my hometown, which was so small that it had no daily paper). See The Marshall Independent for the local-boy-makes-good scoop.
20 May 2008
I'm taking a copy with me as I'm off to Raleigh-Durham for a reading at The Regulator bookstore, serving the Duke University campus.
14 May 2008
In a major article in the newly released anthology, Secularism & Science in the 21st Century (edited by Ariela Keysar and Barry A. Kosmin and published by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, at Trinity College), I look critically at their writings. I find little evidence for their claim, and put forward my own hypothesis, which I dub The Dawkins Effect:
discussion of science-religion conflict in mass media-driven public discourse results in greater public awareness of messages of science-religion harmony. . . . it also makes the harmony messages seem like a reasonable compromise between anti-scientific religion and anti-religious atheism. In short, the presence of overtly agonist scientists such as Dawkins may make accommodationist scientists like [Francis] Collins appear more reasonable to religious believers, and may make the prospect of adopting accommodationist views as the basis for public policy seem more judicious and fair to the moderate middle.My contribution, "Evolution Education and the Science-Religion Conflict: Dispatches from a Philosophical Correspondent," along with the rest of the book, is available for free download at the Institute.
11 May 2008
09 May 2008
In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Austin Dacey argues for the objectivity of morality from a nonreligious perspective. Maintaining that the conscience is prior to and independent of God and religion, he advocates an "ethics from below" that steers a middle course between an empirical "science of good and evil" and a transcendental religious ethic. While sharply criticizing what he sees as simplistic and misleading applications of evolutionary science to moral matters, Dacey defends a naturalistic understanding of the right and good. He explains the advantages of consequentialist moral theories that seek to promote individual well-being, and returns to John Stuart Mill's On Liberty to show that the belief in objective values is perfectly compatible with the social philosophy of secular liberalism. Dacey also responds to Chris Hedges' assertions that secularists do not grasp the nature of evil and that the Enlightenment notion of moral progress is a myth.
08 May 2008
"Making this book available in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and other languages of the Muslim nations would be an immense service," writes Amir Taheri in a review of The Secular Conscience for Asharq Al-Awsat, a leading Arabic international paper.
Dacey is aware of the fact that the debate over secularism is no longer confined to the post-Christian Western democracies but has also spread to other parts of the world where religion, especially Christianity and Islam, retains a strong hold on the popular imagination. Thus, he cites a number of examples that directly concern the Muslim world to show that Muslims, too, would benefit from an open, honest and respectful debate of the issue facing humanity as a whole.
07 May 2008
What I Lost
1. my glasses (someone sent them to me later)
2. my laptop (for one harrowing afternoon)
3. my beloved cuff links constructed of the "shift" key from an antique typewriter.
4. too much money
5. my personal copy of The Secular Conscience, complete with notes and corrections. Apparently someone took it by mistake at the Barnes & Noble, Greenwich Village book signing (whoever you are, you now know where all the typos are!)
6. my hat
All in all, it could have been worse. Plus, I have:
What I Found
1. some old friends
2. lots of new friends
3. new confidence that there is a real need and an audience for my message
02 May 2008
I am writing from Utrecht, where I am attending a conference on the future of secularism in Europe. The conference featured a lot of interesting people, including Stephen Law, a senior lecturer in philosophy at University of London and author of The War for Children’s Minds; David Nash, reader in history at Oxford Brookes University, and author of Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History; Herman Philipse, a leading Dutch atheist philosopher; and Azar Majedi, an Iranian women's rights activist and wife of the late Mansoor Hekmat.
Interestingly for me, the conference statement of purpose described secularism in precisely the terms I attack: "secularisms claims that religious arguments should not be used in politics"; and "religion should be a private and personal matter." I was happy to stir the pot.
I enjoyed some spirited after-hours discussions on Iranian secular politics (and jams to American rock & roll) with Azar. A committed socialist, she worries that Western anti-Islamists have discredited themselves by aligning themselves with neoconservatives.
I also had a good debate on the freedom of expression with Danish philosopher Malene Busk, who became a prominent secularist voice during the cartoon controversy and who now writes for Jyllens Posten. Eventually we agreed that blasphemous speech cannot be defended without presupposing some moral evaluation of its content. One reason why liberal societies should actively stand up for blasphemous speech--even while they actively oppose anti-Semitic speech--lies in the positive moral value of contesting illiberal religion.
29 April 2008
28 April 2008
Woody Allen confesses that he once failed a philosophy exam when he was caught looking into the soul of the student next to him. Like metaphysics, morality is not the kind of thing that can be lifted from someone else. And to the extent that one tries, one usually loses it in the process. This could pretty well describe what has been happening lately with the Democratic Party's relationship to religion and values in public life.Read the full article at USA Today.
Meanwhile, I'm heading over to University of Illinois for an afternoon talk.
23 April 2008
Not surprising given the reason for the book's sense of urgency, which is the incipient Islamist apocalypse: "In the face of a challenge to the future of European values, the official ideology of multiculturalism has become a pact for mass cultural suicide." By this point near the book's end those who believe that our civilisation depends on the freedom to publish racist cartoons will be nodding energetically.I'm convinced Mill would be with Phillips, and me, on Islamism. Of course, neither of us would be with her in her doubts about evolution, which she has called "a theory with holes in it."
Tomorrow I drive east for a Barnes & Noble outside of Detroit, Michigan and then a late night of writing a piece tentatively titled "New Religious Discoveries Confirm Ancient Secular Wisdom."
22 April 2008
20 April 2008
18 April 2008
My mind is still racing from yesterday's intensive hour of discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences, where I got some of my most probing questions yet, mostly on the nature of reason and the neurobiology of conscience.
We've often heard about new scientific discoveries confirming ancient religious wisdom. Hearing the Dalai Lama's remarks at his "Seeds of Compassion" event in Seattle last weekend, it struck me that this circling back has come all the way around, and now it is modern religion that is confirming ancient secular wisdom. The Dalai Lama mentioned three paths to compassion and moral development in children: the theistic path of Western religions, the non-theistic religious path of Buddhism, and the "secular, scientific" path. Surrounded by brain researchers and empirical psychologists, he declared this secular way the most promising.
Meanwhile, the pope is emphasizing reason's coequal role in the religious life, and urging Catholics to translate their contributions to public life into a "public theology" accessible to all. That sounds like secularism to me.
16 April 2008
Having just arrived back in New York City for a few days, I found myself watching the sun set over New York Harbor and catching up in conversation with DJ Grothe, who had just finished an interview with Chris Hedges. Apparently there were some fireworks, which I look forward to catching on Point of Inquiry. Hedges' new book is I Don't Believe in Atheists.
I just learned I'll be filling in for my boss Paul Kurtz at a lunchtime address at the New York Academy of Sciences here in Lower Manhattan tomorrow, April 17.
13 April 2008
If I didn't know better, I'd say Obama had been reading The Secular Conscience. He chastised liberals who seek to preclude religious reasons from the public square, but also insisted that believers play by the rules of public conversation. They should not try to stop the conversation by citing divine authority, but admit that they can be wrong. He closed by reminding the audience "we are not just a Christian nation. We are a Jewish nation. We are a Buddhist nation. We are a Muslim nation, Hindu nation. And we are a nation of atheists and non-believers."
11 April 2008
UPDATE 4/12/08: A second post, on liberals and Islam, is now up and generating some heat.
When you criticize Christianity or Judaism sharply, you may be deemed impolite or politically incorrect. But when you hurl similar criticisms at Islam, you may well endanger your life and precipitate an international crisis. Dacey understands, but never gets to the heart of this essential difference.This confused me, as I devote an entire chapter to Islam, as well as an extended discussion of how its inherently political nature sets it apart from other faiths.
From its beginnings, Christian thought placed a wedge between the temporal order and the spiritual order: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” With the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, God and Caesar found themselves sharing the same throne. Increasing interference by Rome the Empire in Church affairs spurred Christian leaders to define the civil and ecclesiastical roles more sharply. In the early fifth century, Augustine described Christians as dual citizens dwelling in the earthly City of Man but belonging to a heavenly City of God, the community of all saved souls. . . . This foundational Christian dualism has no analogue in Islamic civilization. . . . Muhammad was simultaneously the spiritual, civil, and military leader, a tribal chief. Whereas the first Christians kindled the light of their prophet in cellars, catacombs, and caves hidden from the sword of earthly power, the first Muslims followed their prophet into battle, conquering cities, then empires, for him. Where they went, they would become the earthly power.
10 April 2008
In the new issue of Science magazine, I'm an author, along with my colleagues from Science Debate 2008, of a Policy Forum editorial entitled "Science and the Candidates." It explains how "the U.S. science community has converged at record speed with the unified goal of raising the profile of science in our national dialogue." Science Debate 2008 has issued a standing invitation to the candidates for an April 18 forum in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, I'm preparing to speak at University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
09 April 2008
07 April 2008
04 April 2008
A Secular Age is a polemic. Exceptionally drawn out and mild though they may be, serious arguments are at work in it. If successful, they would vindicate a number of highly controversial philosophical claims about the nature of morality and the good life. Unfortunately, Taylor’s controversial philosophical views are neither clearly identified as such nor justified through rigorous argumentation. Instead, they often surface only in his rhetorical framing (Taylor chooses to describe humanism as “exclusive” rather than “self-sufficient,” and to talk of a “Great Disembedding” instead of a “Great Liberating”), in the hues of his prose, or in the mood that hangs over the book. That mood is, in a word, ennui:
Almost every action of ours has a point; we’re trying to get to work, or to find a place to buy a bottle of milk after hours. But we can stop and ask why we’re doing these things, and that points us beyond to the significance of these significances. . . . The issue may arise for us in a crisis, where we feel that what has been orienting our life up to now lacks real value, weight. . . . But the sense of emptiness, or non-resonance, may arise in a quite different way. It can come in the feeling that the quotidian is emptied of deeper resonance, is dry, flat; the things which surround us are dead, ugly, empty; and the way we organize them, shape them, arrange them, in order to live has no meaning, beauty, depth, sense. There can be a kind of “nausée” before this meaningless world.The cost of the secular age is this malaise of modernity, the malaise of immanence. We moderns are “restless at the barriers of the human sphere.” We have “deeply felt need” for something more, something beyond our ordinary flourishing. We are haunted by the thought that the suffering all around us is irredeemably pointless. If Taylor were sitting in a café this Sunday afternoon, he’d be the one gazing dejectedly while his tea goes cold, thinking, Is this all there is?
Taylor explores several different cultural responses to the perceived malaise of immanent humanism. Alongside the reactions by traditional, transcendental religion, Romantics sought transcendence in nature or beauty, rescue from the alienation of instrumental reason from the sensual world. And an “immanent counter-Enlightenment”—exemplified by Nietzsche—indicted the morality of humanism for denuding life of the heroic, tragic, and Dionysian by valuing equality and universal happiness above all. In its most virulent expressions, neo-Nietzschean anti-humanism gives meaning to suffering by embracing it, and deals with death by becoming the death-dealer. Believers and humanists might align against neo-Nietzscheans to affirm the worth of mercy and justice, while neo-Nietzscheans and believers converge in thinking that humanism’s vision of life is lacking in some crucial dimension.
Is humanism missing something? What are we to make of these feelings of emptiness, or the specter of irredeemable suffering? Can we continue to find sense in our moral strivings for a better world? What are we to do with these longings for a transcendent good? For those of us who are moved by such questions at all, I see three possible strategies.
Fast. We acknowledge the hunger for the transcendent and we resolve not give in to it until it can be satiated in some good beyond life, perhaps The Good. We accept no substitutes.Taylor takes the Fast approach. Of course, any Faster needs to explain why his favored good is the only kind that can successfully stave off transcendent hunger. Although he devotes zero space to analyzing the concept of transcendence in A Secular Age, Taylor characterizes it as “the full-hearted love of some good beyond life” or “some goals beyond human flourishing.” Why think that these goals must be found in traditional religion, let alone in a relationship to the God of Abraham, as Taylor hopes?
Diet. We acknowledge that the hunger for the transcendent is real, but because we also realize that it cannot be satisfied in any way we can live with, with we learn to live with the hunger. We sometimes get pangs, but we perceive them for what they are.
Feast. We recognize the hunger for the transcendent, and while we see that it cannot be met by some good outside of life, we find that it can be nourished by others goods, by forms of transcendence within life.
Anyway, why assume that having God around will relieve ennui? Given all that we know about human beings, why not instead expect that if there were a heaven, someone would be sitting there this Sunday afternoon thinking, Well then, is this all there is? So long as we remain persons in the next world, such questions may be inescapable. And inasmuch as we do not remain persons, we literally have nothing to look forward to. I’ve decided that if there are any goods worth wanting in the next world, they will turn out to be goods that we already have in this one—goods like love, knowledge, and beauty. Can the Fast approach conceive of some other-worldly values so different in kind from this-worldly values that they promise a nourishment of a different order?
What should further weaken the will of the Faster is the fact that there are plenty of naturalistic explanations for the transcendent urge. To the extent that we find sources of this urge in inescapable features of the human condition, we stop seeing them as the stamp of a real supernatural realm, and we become inclined to Diet rather than Fast.
For example, as Thomas Nagel has observed, the occasional impression that our deepest pursuits somehow lack metaphysical heft might be explained by a simple fact about persons, that we are capable of seeing our lives at once from the subjective point of view and from the objective point of view. From the subjective point of view, the view from the inside as it were, our concerns strike us as real and important; they are always splashed across our psychic foreground. But our cognitive equipment also permits us to regard ourselves and our lives as objects, and in this view our concerns disappear into the uniform grain of the physical cosmos. When these two frames of reference collide, the effect is absurdity, much as when a head of state slips and falls off a stage in mid-address. The absurdity, and, often, humor, spring from the sudden juxtaposition a frame of reference appropriate to persons—with the dignity of intentional agency and responsibility—and a frame of reference appropriate to objects—inert players in the slapstick of Newtonian dynamics.
Astonishingly, Taylor neglects empirical scientific explanations for transcendent longings. He seems to think that Freud’s discredited psychodynamic accounts are still the state of the art in this field, ignoring decades of new literature on the evolutionary psychology and neuroscience of religious and moral experience. He does mention the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who in The Fragility of Goodness cautioned against the impulse to “transcend humanity,” locating the root of that impulse in our discomfort and anxiety about our own bodily finitude, neediness, and vulnerability. But Nussbaum is not opposed to stepping beyond the bounds of ordinary experience. She points towards a Feast strategy, which embraces the kinds of going-beyond of which we are capable: “There is a great deal of room, within the context of a human life . . . for a certain sort of aspiration to transcend our ordinary humanity.” We can seek and cherish transcendence of an “internal and human sort.”
Taylor gives an extended hearing to the Feast strategy, but in the end fails to show why it is inadequate. He presents Luc Ferry’s exploration of “le sens du sens”—the meaning of meaning:
[Ferry] sees in the succouring of human life and well-being universally a goal which really transcends the ordinary ambit of life. And he cites moving testimony how service in organizations like Medécins Sans Frontieres has effectively given a strong sense to life for many young people. It is as he argues a kind of transcendence of our ordinary existence, but one which is horizontal, not vertical. He even wants to use the term sacred . . . but this doesn’t take us outside the human domain; on the contrary, it is very much part of the human life-form to propose such ends which transcend the ordinary.Horizontal transcendence delivers us from the small, cramped world of the self and its hide-bound concerns. And by calling us to impartial, universal moral regard for well-being, it gives meaning to suffering and injustice: they are our enemies. What is wrong with Feasting? Should we not celebrate the worldview that makes possible these secular people who find self-transcendence and le sens du sens in extraordinary service to others? Is something still missing? How could the ascendance of immanent humanism be considered a defeat for humanity, let alone “a victory for darkness”?