Tag Archives: Free Speech

Je Suis Charlie – All Is Forgiven

13 Jan
Tout est pardonne

All is forgiven

All is forgiven“.


Powerful words.

We don’t feel any hate to them. We know that the struggle is not with them as people, but the struggle is with an ideology.” So said Zineb El Rhazoui today, a surviving columnist at Charlie Hebdo magazine.

And this is a most important distinction here – the criticism of an idea is very different to the criticism of a person. That line must not be blurred in this debate.

Here is a more mundane version of the same issue – it may seem trivial in comparison, but the principles at stake are why Charlie Hebdo continues to satirise islam.

So in another office in my company, a cyclist comes in wearing lycra each morning, switches his computer on, then goes off to have a shower and change into his business clobber.

Now, a few months back a muslim in the office complained because “as a muslim” she found “such dress offensive“.

Management got this guy into a room to ask him to get changed before he came into the office to avoid such offence in the future.

If I found myself in the same situation, I like to think events would have played out like this:

Me: “So Mrs Muslim, where in the Koran does it say you can impose your idea of appropriate dress on a non-muslim? Chapter and verse please.

She splutters “How dare you?! I’m a muslim. It’s offensive to me as a muslim“.

I retort that “this is not an answer. Offence is in the eye of the beholder. I do not give offence. You take offence. The choice to be offended is yours.

At this point the manager, keen to defuse the situation, and fearful of “causing” further offence, appeals to my ego: “as the rationalist in the room, can you not concede, carry your clothes on your bike, and get changed before you come into the office?

I respond “would you say the same to a jew supporting the state of Israel with a small Israeli flag on his desk, when confronted by a Palestinian who finds the flag an insult to him and his countrymen?” (This happened in an office where I used to work.)

The manager, wanting to stick to acceptable norms says “that’s different. Let’s focus on the case at hand. Won’t you, for the sake of peace, adhere to this request?

I then make my stand: “If that’s your position, then this is mine. I find Mrs Muslim’s head scarf offensive. The word islam means submission, and this head scarf represents the submission of women to men. As an egalitarian, this is offensive to my beliefs. It says she should be ashamed of her beauty. Even worse, it promotes the dangerous idea that men do not have control over their urges. I want her to stop wearing this at the office so my beliefs are not offended.

It would be a wonderfully juicy Mexican standoff.

And more to the point, this is what saying Je Suis Charlie really means. Are you willing to stand up to the religious when they try to impose their ideologies on the rest of society? Are you willing to bust a few taboos for the greater good?

The post Rushdie years have seen a steady decline in free speech. It’s time to turn the tide.

And so, coming back to the more serious situation in France, until muslims stop insisting that they have the right to impose their views on others, Charlie Hebdo will continue to publish cartoons of Mohammed.


Criticising Religion – Why Not Let Them Be?

27 Nov

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.

– George Bernard Shaw

People sometimes ask me why I criticise religion. They ask me why I don’t just take the attitude of live and let live.

Because of nasty shit like this and this and this and this and this and this and this and especially this and certainly this. And that’s just taking one version of one religion.

Because religions are just stories and they can be criticised like any other stories.

Because religions are ideas and they can be criticised like any other ideas.

Because religious prophets, messiahs, gurus and the like are just people and what they say can be criticised like anything said by any other person.

Because religious people seem to think they can impose their ideas and “morals” on society, on government and on children.

Because religious people persecute others who don’t hold to their views.

Because basing your life on a book crammed full of heinous immorality is neither good for a person nor for society.

Granted most religious people I know largely cherry pick the nice bits from their religion, but most carry at least some nasty views, and the more fundamentalist types take the whole thing literally. Most religious people are moderate but they pave the way for extremists when they say that faith is a good thing, that believing in something with no evidence is a virtue. This is a toxic idea.

Some of the religious explain away the more ludicrous stories – such as magic fruit and talking snakes – as metaphorical, and they try to ignore the nastier ideas in a similar vein, claiming they’re allegorical, or by arguing that they only apply in a limited context (a fun demolition of the contextual approach is here). The problem is that this pick and mix approach is not taken by all adherents and many do take these ideas literally.

For example the islamic holy book says infidels should be killed; some people will go ahead and do it as their faith in the sanctity of their holy book means they must.

Then the christian holy book says gays should be stoned to death; some people will go ahead and do it as their faith in the sanctity of their holy book means they must.

And I couldn’t leave out the jewish holy book which repeatedly advocates genocide; some people will go ahead and do it as their faith in the sanctity of their holy book means they must.

This assumption that religion provides us with morals – as well as being absurd – is pernicious and dangerous for society.

There’s an assumption floating around these days that saying something about religion is angry, extreme or militant because we have this unwritten social rule that we don’t criticise religious belief. But it’s not, because when you listen to the criticisms it is actually logical and rational to say that religion is silly, and further that it should have no bearing on our moral decisions.

As one brave atheist said: “When I realized that there was nothing out there to redeem me, or tell me how to live, or that I needed to obey, I began to take true responsibility for myself. I sought to examine my thoughts and actions more carefully, and established a morality based on reason and humanity.

Stephen Fry passionately said: “We must remember that the church is very loose on moral evils because – although they try to accuse people like me, who believe in empiricism and the enlightenment, of what they call moral relativism, as if it’s some appalling sin whereas what it actually means is thought – they, for example, thought that slavery was absolutely fine, absolutely okay and then they didn’t. And what is the point of the catholic church if it says ‘oh we couldn’t know better because nobody else did’. Then what are you for?!

Education is a big one here. The religious continue to try to indoctrinate children in one third of state funded schools in the UK. This is bad for children and society on so many levels. It encourages segregation. It stifles healthy learning and development. Children should be taught critical thinking and logic in a secular and rationalist environment. They should be taught to ask questions, to be critical about every idea they are taught. They should not be taught what to think but how to think. Anything less is to abrogate our responsibilities to children. Yet astoundingly the UK government is encouraging more of these schools, where it’s okay to dismiss a teacher if they don’t conform to certain beliefs or based on their marital status, where it’s okay to refuse a child on the grounds of whether their parents believe in a fairy tale, where homophobic attitudes are aired and where healthy sex and relationship teaching is withheld. Still, at least in this country they think it’s okay to educate kids, unlike others.

Then many countries are introducing new laws against blasphemy. Blasphemy is essentially criticising, or not showing enough respect for, a religion or a religious figure. There are far too many atrocious examples of such laws being used. Many even want the UN to impose an international law against it. After all, the bible dictates death to blasphemers.

The idea that a being with supernatural powers is so sensitive to criticism that it needs such ludicrous laws is obviously very silly. More seriously, the sensitivity of the religious to criticisms of their beliefs, and the ends to which they will go to silence critics of their views, is on its own reason enough to justify my critical position.

Many people argue that I should ‘respect’ people’s religious beliefs. This is ridiculous as I patently have no respect for religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot respect a person. One must separate respect for a person from respect for their beliefs.

So in conclusion I defend religious freedom but not religious privilege. I defend the right of anyone to hold a view and discuss it in public, but I will not stand by when views I consider wrong are imposed on others. And I stand up for my right to criticise views with which I disagree.

Islam – Whose Story?

17 Nov

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. That which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
– The Hitch

After watching the documentary “Islam – The Untold Story” (here’s my quick overview) I went to a debate about the issues raised by the film, organised by some islamic organisations. The panelists were:
– Tom Holland, the novelist and historian who made the film
– Sajjad Rizvi, a professor of islamic history
– Rokhsana Fiaz, director of the Coexistence Trust
– Kevin Sim, the director of Holland’s documentary.

Holland began by talking about himself, what interests him, and how he got onto the topic of the origins of islam. Usually, he said, it would take 3 years for him to study an area and then produce a book with his findings, but this project took 5 years given its complexities and the lack of historical evidence available. While he seemed to be avoiding the core issues, he did attempt to separate the issue of faith from the historical origins of islam and the Arabic conquest.

Rizvi then spoke, attacking “revisionists”; he insisted he wasn’t directing his comments at Holland although it was very clear that he was. It became rather ad hominem, with attacks on his motives rather than addressing the points in his documentary. He was essentially answering the question posed in the title of the debate ‘Whose Story?’ with: ‘It’s ours. You’re not allowed to question it‘. The best answer to that is given in this clip: “islam claims that it is the total solution to all human problems, and the sooner that it’s imposed on everyone the better. Well, that’s a point of view. But if it’s going to make such claims, it has to drop the demand that it be immune from criticism and especially from satire.

Fiaz tried to downplay the reaction to the film by saying that the level of complaints to Ofcom about the documentary was initially low. However she then went on to say that Ofcom had a responsibility to protect the sensibilities of the religious. Ofcom state that they have a legal duty to ensure that “people who watch television and listen to the radio are protected from harmful or offensive material”. Of course this is a ludicrous proposition given that offence is in the eye of the beholder and, like section 5, this kind of approach gives people the right to censor views they don’t like under the pathetic cover of the offence argument.

Holland made the curious claim that the christian literary tradition has always had a rather harsh questioning approach, particularly because of the need to harmonise the contradictory events described in the four gospels, whereas the islamic tradition is a lot less critical. He said this is why we’ve ripped away the foundations of the christian religion in the west. I can’t disagree that this has happened, but I would question whether this is due to a peculiarly christian mindset. I’ve read a bit of the fun loving Omar Khayyam, the muslim polymath who was openly critical of islamic norms, and on the other side there is the obvious example of the inquisition. He then went on to say something more important: because the koran and islam are being put under increasing scrutiny and criticism, the foundations of believers will be increasingly challenged. He diplomatically suggested that muslims must decide how they are going to react to this trend.

While people were quick to point out that they didn’t sanction death threats or violence of any kind, there were snarky and sometimes angry argumentum ad hominem attacks from far too many of the muslim members of the audience. There were accusations of Holland talking nonsense, of a poor quality or “rather pathetic” documentary, of an attitude of superiority and there was even an accusation of him suggesting that Arabs were backward. It got a bit silly.

What I didn’t hear, at any point of the debate, was someone question either his historical evidence, or the conclusion he tentatively proposed in the film.

This was disappointing as I was hoping for the case to be made for the traditional view. Alas the counter argument I heard can be crudely simplified into two parts: i) attack the messenger; ii) well it just is, why would anyone question it? Being from a religious background I can understand this reaction from people that base their world view not on empiricism, but on faith.

After scouring the web for counter arguments I found a lot more vitriol along similar lines. After all, Channel 4 did cancel a repeat screening due to a death threat. However I did find that the Islamic Education and Research Academy has put forward some more comprehensive opposing arguments. Some of their rebuttal seemed silly, such as their justification of the reliability of the oral evidence. I’ll be honest and say I’m stepping into an area I know little about, however comments such as “the entire science of Hadith” seem to contradict what muslim friends have told me about how they pick and choose which parts of the Hadith they prefer and dismiss the rest as “unreliable“. That said it cites some interesting pieces of evidence from non-muslim sources, as well as opposing views from other historians, and I’d like to hear what Holland has to say about these.

The point I agreed with most during the debate was from a muslim chap on the front row who roughly said: “ideas should be open to criticism. Debate and criticism are important parts of a democratic and pluralistic society. If we truly believe that islam is the truth then we should be happy for it to be questioned as it will only strengthen it.

Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Belief

24 Jun

For goodness sake, when will the christians quit whining about persecution, when the real issue is that they’re slowly losing the power to persecute others?

Besides, they still have far too much power:

Their main organisation is part of the state. They have permanent seats in parliament. They have a say in legislation as self-appointed religious leaders are so often consulted by legislators and government committees. They have tax breaks. They have chaplains that proselytise in schools, hospitals and the army paid for by the tax payer. They have the bloody queen. They even have capitalisation in spell checkers!

As far as I’m aware we’ve not had an atheist prime minister in the UK or an atheist president in the US. Sadly it seems it’s not considered to be a vote winner.

From the Boston Standard

The latest silly christian censorship story is best described in this witty post. In short, a pensioner has had a little sign in his window for the last few years that says “Religions are fairy stories for adults”.

Fair enough you might say, churches often have much larger billboards telling us we’re doomed to an eternity of fire-based torture if we don’t sign up, but no, apparently the coppers had a quiet word with John here and told him to take it down.

The Lincolnshire Police backtracked with this weasel-worded statement, but it’s a bit late now.

Christians whinge about not being able to discriminate against homosexuals, and whine about not being able to withhold contraception from people that need it. This is persecution?!

Thankfully the christian-only blasphemy laws were (belatedly) repealed in 2008 otherwise I could in theory be prosecuted for promulgating such heretical views. It was only 400 years ago that people were last burnt at the stake in England for disagreeing with the church’s dictated beliefs.

So I was a christian in my youth, and thankfully I was able to extricate myself from the belief system. It wasn’t easy as this is how I was brought up and how I thought. My life was based on these beliefs and christendom was my world. But thankfully things have moved on in the christian west in the last few centuries thanks to the many brave luminaries of the enlightenment, so these problems are piffling compared to what they used to be. I can’t imagine having to do what I did under threat of jail or even death by fire.

However that’s what many muslims still have to go through should they start to exercise their grey matter.

Thankfully we’re a long way ahead of other countries. Indonesia have just fined and jailed Alexander Aan for stating his atheistic belief on facebook. In Kuwait, Hamad al-Naqi has just got ten years hard labour for his twitter posts – thankfully the Emir did not allow the death penalty to be added to the new legislation, but it was close.

I tell you, if Orwell was around he’d have a thing or two to say.

In a debate I saw recently, Sam Harris said that “A recent poll in the UK showed that a third of British muslims say they want to live under sharia law and think that anyone who leaves the faith should be put to death for apostasy. 68% of British muslims think that their neighbours who insult islam should be arrested and prosecuted. 78% think that the Danish cartoonists should be brought to justice. These people do not have a clue about what constitutes a civil society.” This poll was not taken in Iran; it was carried out in the UK. Sheesh.

As a result I’ve recently started to support these very brave people: the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.

Here’s their manifesto. Here is their donation page.

Offence and Censorship

19 Mar

Right. So this whole offence thing has really got me going.

A person chooses to be offended. It is not the person speaking that gives offence; it is the person listening that takes offence. It is the offendee that chooses to be offended.

For example, if someone disses my mum I’ll probably get offended. But I’ll be choosing to get offended. I could choose to just reply with a witty retort instead, and move on.

To compound the issue, people willfully do not distinguish between attacking a person and attacking an idea. Respecting a person doesn’t mean to say one can’t disagree with what they believe. One can have great respect for a person yet not respect a belief they hold. It’s a very important distinction.

That said if a person chooses to define themselves or their life by a viewpoint, then they will find it more difficult to hear ideas that question that. But it is a level of maturity to which we should aspire if we want to grow both individually and as a society.

I point out the quote often misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

The mighty Stephen Fry has it right in this clip on offence:

“It’s now very common to hear people say “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more than a whine. “I find that offensive”. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that”, well so fucking what.”

Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about this area, said: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

Ideas need to be challenged, whether scientific or beliefs or politics. If an idea someone holds cannot stand up to rational and logical criticism then it needs to be reviewed. If it can withstand disagreement then all the better – a true or worthy view will then be strengthened by the process.

In fact free debate is a cornerstone of a pluralistic and democratic society.

Offence and the Religious

To the more specific point: for too long religion has been able to censor debate, free thought, literature and science. From Galileo to Salman Rushdie to Copernicus to Danish cartoonists. Even now it is slowing genuine scientific research that may lead to treatments that stop the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people – such as genetic manipulation or stem cell research – as it goes against their idea of god’s order.

In fact, I have the feeling this is more about power – the power of people to control those around them, to control debate in the public sphere and control how people can say things they don’t like. In the case of established religions, I’ll go as far as to say it’s the cry of a rapidly diminishing power.

On this point I’ll give the last words to Douglas Adams:

“Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.”

(The full text of the speech is here.)

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