Enlightenment, atheism, reason, and the humanist Left 25

This is a kind of review. But it is more of an argument about ideas that vitally affect the real world.

I am in emphatic agreement with roughly half of what Professor Steven Pinker says in his new book Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress*, and in vehement disagreement with the rest of it. Like him, I esteem the Enlightenment most highly; profoundly value science; and certainly want progress in everything that makes us happier and better informed, our lives longer, healthier, less painful, and more enjoyable. Like him, I am an atheist. It is chiefly with his ideas on Humanism that I disagree. Which may seem strange since humanism is atheist. And, certainly, on all his criticisms of religion I am in complete accord. More than that: where small “h” humanism is concerned with humane morals – the imperative to treat our fellow human beings and other sentient beings humanely – the great professor and I could sing in harmony.

“The moral alternative to theism,” he writes, “is humanism.”

But Humanism-the-movement holds principles that I not only do not like, but strongly dislike. They are principles of the Left. And  while he is not uncritical of the Left, Professor Pinker upholds those principles. Humanism, wherever it may be found, is a Leftist ideology. And because the Humanist movement is well-established, widespread, its opinions prominently published, and taught (or preached) where scholars gather, atheism is assumed by many to belong to the Left, inseparably, part and parcel of its essential ideology.

Atheism may be indispensable to the Left, but Leftism is not necessary to atheism.

Atheism as such carries no connotations. No political or ethical ideas logically flow from it. It is simply non-belief in the existence of a divine being. Nothing more. A person’s atheism does not itself make him more humane or less humane.

Steven Pinker implies that it does. Although he states that “atheism is not a moral system … just the absence of supernatural belief”, he also declares that “secularism leads to humanism, turning people away from prayer, doctrine, and ecclesiastical authority and toward practical policies that make them and their fellows better off.”

He reasons along these lines:

“Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.”

Not from holy books. Agreed.

“Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.”

Agreed.

There being no supernatural moral authority, and as human beings have natural needs –

“Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.”

So far, no cause for quarrel. But he elaborates on this last statement to demonstrate that Humanists do this “deriving” well:

“Humanists ground values in human welfare, shaped by human circumstances, interests and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem …”

There it comes, as if it followed logically from scientific knowledge and humane secularism, one of the main obsessions of the Left: concern for the planet, for which, the Left claims, human beings bear responsibility. The words “man-made global warming” silently intrude themselves; as does the “solution” for it – global governance, by those who know what the human race must do; total communism, the highest principle of the Left; its vision of a whole-world Utopia. Though Steven Pinker himself is not a Utopian, he writes a good deal in this book about the virtues of “globalist” politics. He sees globalism as an enlightened, reasonable, science-based, progressive, humanist creed. To “maximize individual happiness”, he remarks, “progressive cultures” work to “develop global community”. He has much praise for international institutions – including, or even led by, the (actually deeply evil) United Nations. He is confident the UN and other international bodies such as the EU, formed after the end of the Second World War, can help keep the world at peace. In fact, there has not been a single year since 1945 when the world has been without a war or wars.

To the globalist view he opposes the populist view. Not wrong when stated thus. But he does not see the populist view as the one held by 63 million Americans who voted Donald Trump into the presidency of the United States because they wanted more jobs, lower taxes, and secure borders; or that of the British majority who voted to withdraw their country from the undemocratic and corrupt European Union. No. He sees populism as a cult of “romantic heroism”, a longing for “greatness embodied in an individual or a nation”.

He is adamantly against the nation-state. He thinks that those who uphold the idea of the nation-state “ludicrously” envision a “global order” that “should consist of ethnically homogeneous and mutually antagonistic nation-states”. Who has ever expressed such an idea? And he puts “multiculturalism” (the failing experiment of enforcing the co-existence of diverse tribes within a nation’s borders) on an equal footing with “multi-ethnicity” (the melting-pot idea that has worked so splendidly for the United States of America).

To him, nationalism is ineluctably authoritarian and fascist. He sees President Trump – who is in fact unswervingly for individual freedom – as a “charismatic leader” of the dictatorial Mussolini mold. The politics of the Right for Professor Pinker are irredeemably dyed in the wool with Nietzschean anti-morality, “superman” aspirations, and genocidal urgings. Libertarianism is tainted with it too. He writes: “ … Ayn Rand’s celebration of selfishness, her deification of the heroic capitalist, and her disdain for the general welfare had Nietzsche written all over them.”

Interestingly – and restoratively to my esteem for him – he also asserts that certain Marxists and certain Leftist movements are equally, or even more, colored with Nietzsche’s inhumanity: “[Nietzsche] was a key influence on … Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, and a godfather to all the intellectual movements of the 20th century that were hostile to science and objectivity, including Existentialism, Critical Theory, Post-structuralism, Deconstructionism, and Postmodernism.”

Steven Pinker’s humanism, then, is not far to the Left, just “left-of-center”. And most of the humanists I have known (and argued with) would also place themselves on that section of the political spectrum. “[T]he moral and intellectual case for humanism is, I believe, overwhelming …,” he writes.

He concludes (and here he specifically rejects Utopianism):

We will never have a perfect world. And it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing. This heroic story … belongs not to any tribe but to all humanity – to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”

That is the vision of the Decent Thinking Western Man. He believes that all human beings ultimately want the same things; that the good life is defined for all in the same general terms; that all  would agree to the Golden Rule, which has been “rediscovered in hundreds of moral traditions”.

But are those beliefs true? He himself records that there are many who do not value knowledge above ignorance, reason above superstition, freedom above coercion, even life above death. Which is to say, he writes about Islam (in which there is no Golden Rule). He knows Islam has no trace of “Enlightenment humanism”. He declares it an “illiberal” creed, and observes that “[M]any Western intellectuals – who would be appalled if the repression, misogyny, homophobia, and political violence that are common in the Islamic world were found in their own societies even diluted a hundred fold – have become strange apologists when these practices are carried out in the name of Islam.”

He finds one explanation for the double-standard of these intellectuals in their “admirable desire to prevent prejudice against Muslims”. But when it comes to revulsion against ideologists of repression, misogyny, homophobia, and political violence, is it prejudice or is it judgment? He says also that some of the apologetics are “intended to discredit a destructive (and possibly self-fulfilling) narrative that the world is embroiled in a clash of civilizations”. (Or, as I see it, of civilization against barbarism.) I wonder how anyone can look at the drastically changing demographics of Europe, or at least the Western part of it which will surely be under Islamic rule before the century is out, and not notice the clash.

But he does say that “calling out the antihumanistic features of contemporary Islamic belief is in no way Islamophobic”. Being the decent thinking Western man that he is, he is firmly for critical examination of all ideas.

His optimism shines out of the book. He thinks Islam can be reformed, even that a Muslim Enlightenment is possible. He believes there was an earlier age of Islamic Enlightenment, an “Islamic Golden Age” which could serve as a precedent. Well, if one wants to see bright possibilities, Islam may come to prefer science to the assertions of its prophet. It may become humane in its law and stop oppressing women. It may contribute to human progress. But whatever changes may come to Islam in the future, at present it does not value life above death, freedom above coercion, knowledge above superstition. And there is no good reason to believe it ever will.

 

Jillian Becker    April 12, 2018

 

*Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker, Viking, New York 2018. The quotations in the article come from the last chapter, Humanism.

“God” remains superfluous 1

Today we add a new book review to our Pages list.

We also post it here.

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Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan by Anthony T. Kronman, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2016, 1161 pages.

Notified of the existence of this book by its publisher, I undertook to review it. When it reached me I knew immediately that my review would be short, for out of its bruised packaging, which had barely contained its load through the mail, thudded an enormous volume that would surely daunt a professional theologian sentenced to life imprisonment. One thousand one hundred and sixty-one pages! One thousand and seventy-six without the notes and the index. The use of so many words could only mean one thing to me – that the writer had little or nothing to say.

About what then has he so little, or so much, to say? Nothing useful like Nuclear Physics for Dummies. Just one man’s religious meditations, plastered thick on an armature of historical and cultural exposition. In such cases, the weight of the physical book is almost always in inverse proportion to the weight of its message. In this case, the title is a sufficient miniaturization of the contents. My advice to a browser who comes upon it is, look no further than the title; what you’ve got is what you’d get, without growing old over it.

It would be amazing if it were not typical that an opus so physically heavy is composed of pronouncements as light as these that I now quote. (I choose them from page 1074 because the author himself says that they re-state the idea that his immense labors were exerted to express.)

We are awash in eternity. God is present in every thing and every moment. In this sense, the atheist has it backward. The real challenge is not to disabuse ourselves of the idea of eternity. It is to open our eyes to it; to see how fully present it is even in the least of things.

The fundamentalist has it wrong too. There is no God beyond the world. The world itself is divine. To reach eternity, it is not necessary to go outside the world; indeed, this cannot be done. …

Our encounter with eternity is brief. Death comes all too soon. But it cannot cut us off from the everlasting and divine because we are already in it. We are born to disappointment but not to despair. Our condition is one of joy, however long it lasts.

There opines a lucky man!

As for the world itself being divine: the world itself IS. Call it divine if you will, delight in it, wonder at it, but it remains literally mundane. And astrophysicists tell us it is doomed to extinction.

If out of intellectual generosity you are tempted to grant Professor Kronman a point for echoing Spinoza’s idea – declared by him in an age when atheism was punishable in Europe – that nature is God, it is still to be remembered that giving nature an additional name adds nothing to it. God remains superfluous to all requirements.

 

Jillian Backer    March 2, 2017

Posted under Religion general, Reviews by Jillian Becker on Tuesday, April 4, 2017

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Islam victorious? 3

It is a common belief among conservatives that the democracies of the West are proof against attack by hostile ideologies; cannot be damaged, let alone destroyed by them, because they can absorb them simply by allowing them free expression. This was true when the threatening ideology was Communism in the last century. Internally, no democracy was mortally harmed by Communist movements. Only formidable (though not supreme) military power, surrendered to by profoundly immoral diplomacy, delivered Eastern European countries freshly liberated from Nazism into the mailed fist of the Soviet Union.

But Communism was not an alien ideology. It was European. It was built on the same foundations that liberal democracy itself had in part been built on – an aspiration to make society fair, kind and good according to definitions inherited from Christianity. Liberal democracy discarded dogmatic orthodoxy, and welcomed secular doubt. But Communism, like Christianity itself, pursued its aspiration with the utmost arrogance, injustice and cruelty.

Now the Western democracies are under attack from a very different enemy: Islam. It shares no moral principles with liberal democracy. Despite claiming to be related to the “moral religions” of Judaism and Christianity, and despite having the word “merciful” in its description of its god, it is not a moral religion. It simply demands total submission to the god’s commandments, as they were issued through the mouth of an illiterate warlord of the 7th century. The commandments are frankly cruel and merciless.

And they are obeyed. Obedient Muslims will offer us Westerners a choice between conversion to Islam, or underdog status bought with tribute, or death. They reject freedom of speech because it allows us to criticize them and their creed. From their point of view, everything that can and must be said about the way human beings should live has been said –  by their god through the mouth of his “prophet”. It can only be repeated, never questioned. If you challenge it, if you mock it – you’ll die.

Against such an enemy, our democracies are not proof. We are losing to it. Islam is winning. We are being subjected to Islam.

From Gatestone, by Giulio Meotti:

In the summer of 2005, the Danish artist Kåre Bluitgen, when he met a journalist from the Ritzaus Bureau news agency, said he was unable to find anyone willing to illustrate his book on Mohammed, the prophet of Islam. Three illustrators he contacted, Bluitgen said, were too scared. A few months later, Bluitgen reported that he had found someone willing to illustrate his book, but only on the condition of anonymity.

Like most Danish newspapers, Jyllands-Posten decided to publish an article about Bluitgen’s case. To test the state of freedom of expression, Flemming Rose, JyllandsPosten’s cultural editor at the time, called twelve cartoonists, and offered them $160 each to draw a caricature of Mohammed. What then happened is a well-known, chilling story.

In the wave of Islamist violence against the cartoons, at least two hundred people were killed. Danish products vanished from shelves in Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, Oman, the UAE and Lebanon. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of the European Union in Gaza and warned Danes and Norwegians to leave within 48 hours. In the Libyan city of Benghazi, protesters set fire to the Italian consulate. Political Islam understood what was being achieved and raised the stakes; the West did not.

An Islamic fatwa also forever changed Flemming Rose’s life. In an Islamic caricature, his head was put on a pike. The Taliban offered a bounty to anyone who would kill him. Rose’s office at the newspaper was repeatedly evacuated for bomb threats. And Rose’s name and face entered ISIS’s blacklist, along with that of the [subsequently] murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier.

Less known is the “white fatwa” that the journalistic class imposed on Rose. This brave Danish journalist reveals it in a recently published book, De Besatte (The Obsessed). “It is the story of how fear devours souls, friendships and the professional community,” says Rose. The book reveals how his own newspaper forced Rose to surrender.

The drama and the tragedy is that the only ones to win are the jihadists,” Flemming Rose told the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen.

The CEO of JyllandsPosten, Jørgen Ejbøl, summoned Rose to his office, and asked, “You have grandchildren, do not you think about them?”

The company that publishes his newspaper, JP/Politikens Hus, said: “It’s not about Rose, but the safety of two thousand employees.”

Jorn Mikkelsen, Rose’s former director, and the newspaper’s business heads, obliged him to sign a nine-point diktat, in which the Danish journalist accepted, among other demands, “not participating in radio and television programs”, “not attending conferences”, “not commenting on religious issues”, “not writing about the Organization of the Islamic Conference” and “not commenting on the cartoons”.

Rose signed this letter of surrender during the harshest time for the newspaper, when, in 2010-2011, there were countless attempts on his life by terrorists, and also attempts on the life of Kurt Westergaard, illustrator of a cartoon (Mohammed with a bomb in his turban) that was burned in public squares across the Arab world. Westergaard was then placed on “indefinite leave” by Jyllands-Posten “for security reasons.”

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In his book, Rose also reveals that two articles were censored by his newspaper, along with an outburst from the CEO of the company, Lars Munch: “You have to stop, you’re obsessed, on the fourth floor there are people who ask ‘can’t he stop?'”.

Rose then drew more wrath from his managers when he agreed to participate in a conference with the equally targeted Dutch parliamentarian, Geert Wilders, who at this moment is on trial in the Netherlands for “hate speech”. Rose writes:

He starts yelling at me, “Why the f*ck did you say yes to appear on stage with this terrorist target, are you stupid? Do you have a secret death wish? You have grandchildren now. Are you completely out of your mind? It’s okay if you want to die yourself, but why are you taking the company though all this?”

Jyllands-Posten also pressured Rose when he decided to write a book about the cartoons, Hymne til Friheden (Hymn to Freedom). His editor told him that the newspaper would “curb the harmful effects” of the book by keeping its publication as low-key as possible. Rose was then threatened with dismissal if he did not cancel two debates for the tenth anniversary of the Mohammed cartoons. …

After the 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo, Rose, no longer willing to abide by the “diktat” he was ordered to sign, resigned as the head of the foreign desk of Jyllands-Posten, and now works in the US …

Rose writes in the conclusion of his book: “I’m not obsessed with anything. The fanatics are those who want to attack us, and the possessed are my former bosses at Jyllands-Posten.”

Rose’s revelations confirm another familiar story: Jyllands-Posten‘s surrender to fear. Since 2006, each time its editors and publishers were asked if they still would have published the drawings of Mohammed, the answer has always been “no”. This response means that the editors had effectively tasked Rose with writing the newspaper for fanatics and terrorists thousands of kilometers away. Even after the January 7, 2015 massacre at the weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris, targeted precisely because it had republished the Danish cartoons, Jyllands-Posten announced that, out of fear, it would not republish the cartoons:

We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years, and yes, that is the explanation why we do not reprint the cartoons, whether it be our own or Charlie Hebdo’s. We are also aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation.

Is democracy lost? The headquarters of Jyllands-Posten today has a barbed-wire fence two meters high and one kilometer long, a door with double lock (as in banks), and employees can only enter one at a time by typing in a personal code (a measure that did not protect Charlie Hebdo). Meanwhile, the former editor, Carsten Juste, has withdrawn from journalism; Kurt Westergaard lives in hiding in a fortress, and Flemming Rose, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, fled to the United States.

Much, certainly, looks lost. “We are not living in a ‘free society’ anymore, but in a ‘fear society'”, Rose has said.

Of course, no Western democracy has tried very hard – or at all! – to resist the Islamic onslaught. Governments have invited Muslims into their countries in large numbers. And protected them from criticism.

But that appalling – and inexplicable – state of affairs may be about to change. Perhaps democracy is not lost. Perhaps now that America is about to be led by a man who does not contemplate the possibility of defeat, this most horrible of all possible enemies may be halted, repelled, and discouraged from any renewed attempt at conquest, whether by infiltration or arms, for a very long time.

We hope so.

The case against God 1

Prometheus Books has reissued George H. Smith’s book Atheism: The Case Against God, first published in 1979. The new edition has a foreword by the atheist physicist Lawrence M. Krauss.

Smith systematically – and usefully – refutes many “proofs” of the existence of God.

He denies that Christianity is a source of moral good. He says bluntly in his concluding chapter: “The precepts of Jesus simply do not merit a serious or comprehensive refutation.” We agree. The teachings of the biblical Jesus (a fictitious character even if based to some degree on a living person) are not illuminating, interesting, or persuasive. They are not worthy of serious refutation, but in the light of their effects on the history of the human race, they require judgment. Like Smith, we judge them to be bad.

He writes:

“The major precept of the biblical Jesus is … obedience and conformity. … When Jesus says “believe” he means “obey”. …

“When conformity is required, as it is in Christianity, what are the results? … The sacrifice of truth inevitably follows. One can be committed to conformity or one can be committed to truth, but not both. The pursuit of truth requires the unrestricted use of one’s mind – the moral freedom to question, to examine evidence, to consider opposing viewpoints, to criticize, to accept as true only that which can be demonstrated – regardless of whether one’s conclusions conform to a particular creed. …

“The fundamental teaching of Jesus – the demand for conformity – thus gives rise to a fundamental and destructive teaching of Christianity: that some beliefs lie beyond the scope of criticism and that to question them is sinful, or morally wrong. By placing a moral restriction on what one is permitted to believe, Christianity declares itself an enemy of truth and of the faculty by which man arrives at truth – reason.

“Whatever minor points may be offered in defense of Christianity, they cannot compensate for the monstrous doctrine that one is morally obliged to accept as true religious beliefs that cannot be comprehended or demonstrated. It must be remembered that this teaching is not incidental to Christianity: it lies at the heart of Jesus’ mission, and it has played a significant role throughout Christianity’s history. It was this belief that “justified” the slaughter of dissenters and heretics in the name of morality, and its philosophical consequences may be described as the inversion – or more precisely, the perversion – of morality.”

Smith writes clearly and vividly. For atheists, his book is a pleasure to read. For a religious reader, if any will attempt it, it could be an ordeal – or an enlightenment.

 

Jillian Becker  July 13, 2016

Posted under Christianity, Religion general, Reviews by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, July 13, 2016

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The terrifying army of the black flag 4

A review of a book on ISIS at Commentary, by Michael J. Totten, is full of interest. It explains some of the Byzantine intricacies of Arab, middle eastern, and Islamic politics.

The book is titled ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. It’s written by Michael Weiss & Hassan Hassan.

The review begins with two sentences with which we emphatically agree. We wish that all who report on ISIS would take note of them.

ISIS isn’t a terrorist organization. It’s a transnational army of terror.

And a very formidable army it is in its size and its armor.

The CIA claims it has as many as 31,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, thinks the number may be as high as 200,000. When ISIS fighters conquered the Iraqi city of Mosul last year, they stole enough materiel to supply three fighting divisions, including up-armored American Humvees, T-55 tanks, mobile Chinese artillery pieces, Soviet anti-aircraft guns, and American-made Stinger missile systems. ISIS controls a swath of territory the size of Great Britain and is expanding into Libya and Yemen.

The book relates the history ISIS. The midwife of its birth was Bashar Assad, the president of Syria.

ISIS began its life as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after the United States demolished Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. The Bush administration saw Arab democracy as the solution to the Middle East’s woes, and Syria’s tyrant Bashar al-Assad didn’t want to be the next Saddam. Assad waged a proxy war to convince Washington that participatory politics in the region would be perilous. Weiss and Hassan quote former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi, who says candidly that “[Assad] started to work with the mujahideen.” He dispatched Syria’s homegrown jihadists to fight American occupation forces [in Iraq], and most of those jihadists would sign up with AQI. Assad pulled off a win-win scheme, purging Syria of potential enemies while teaching both the American government and citizenry a lesson they still haven’t forgotten: Occupying and democratizing an Arab land is a far messier and bloodier business than most in the West are willing to stomach.

It worked so well in Iraq that Assad would eventually replicate it inside his own country. When the uprising against him began in 2011, he framed the conflict as one between his secular regime and Islamist terrorists, even when the only serious movement against him consisted of nonviolent protests for reform and democracy. Few in the West bought Assad’s line at the time, so he then facilitated an Islamist terrorist opposition. His loyalists like to present a choice: “Assad or we burn the country.” And they are not kidding.

As Weiss and Hassan detail, Assad opened the jails and let Islamist prisoners free as part of an ostensible “reform” process, but he kept democracy activists in their cages. He knew perfectly well that those he let loose would cut a burning and bleeding gash across the country, casting him as the only thing standing between the rest of us and the abyss. …

ISIS is a terrible force; as terrible as any in history or fiction.

The first thing ISIS does when conquering a new city or town is set up the grisly machinery for medieval punishments in town squares. “Letting black-clad terrorists run around a provincial capital,” Weiss and Hassan write, “crucifying and beheading people, made for great propaganda.” It was all Assad could do to ensure the Obama administration wouldn’t pursue a policy of regime-change as it had in Libya and as the previous administration had in Iraq. …

Had Assad been forced into exile or dragged from his palace before the Arab Spring soured, Syria might look strikingly different today. Weiss and Hassan cite an International Republican Institute survey of Syrian public opinion in 2012 that found 76 percent of the country favored one kind of democratic transition or another. But Assad guarantees that bullets rather than ballots will decide political outcomes, and millions would rather flee to squalid refugee camps abroad than get caught between the anvil of Syria’s totalitarian state and the hammer of ISIS. …

ISIS’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, loved beheading hapless victims on camera as much as the new leadership does, and his grisly behavior earned him the nickname “Sheikh of the Slaughterers”. He hated no one on earth — not even Americans — more than he hated Shia Muslims who, in his view, were beneath even Sunni Muslim apostates. …

Abu Bakr Naji, one of ISIS’s intellectual architects, published a book online outlining its strategy and vision: The Management of Savagery. It is used today as a manual not only in Syria and Iraq but also by al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Yemen, and Libya. “Jihad,” he writes, “is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [people], and massacring.”

The authors make a compelling case that ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a would-be Saddam Hussein in religious garb…. Like Zarqawi before him, [he] is even more genocidal than Iraq’s former strongman. Al-Baghdadi has “so far demonstrated nothing short of annihilationist intention …” …

Annihilationist, that is, first and foremost of the Shi’a, who are “marked only for death”.

[But] Syrians and Iraqis aren’t the only ones threatened by all this, of course. ISIS aspires to wage its exterminationist war beyond the Middle East, not only in the United States but also in Europe. “We will raid you thereafter,” it boasts in its online magazine, Dabiq, “and you will never raid us. We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the Permission of Allah, the Exalted. This is His promise to us.”

And that, since ISIS became the enemy of Assad – the despot who brought it into the world – puts the US and Europe “tacitly on the side of Assad”. And as Assad is kept in power by Iran, they are also tacitly on the side of Iran and “their joint Lebanese proxy Hezbollah”.

It is a state of affairs that the Iranian rulers delight in.

Tehran can hardly contain itself. “One of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism,” Weiss and Hassan write, “now presents itself as the last line of defense against terrorism.”

[But] the idea that a state sponsor of terrorism could ever be a reliable partner against international terrorism is ludicrous. “Whatever Washington’s intentions,” Weiss and Hassan write, “its perceived alliance of convenience with the murderous regimes of Syria and Iran is keeping Sunnis who loathe or fear ISIS from participating in another grassroots effort to expel the terrorists from their midst.”

ISIS continues to grow at an alarming rate and has so far recruited thousands of members from Europe. “What draws people to ISIS,” the authors write, “could easily bring them to any number of cults or totalitarian movements, even those ideologically contradictory to Salafist jihadism.” Indeed, its ranks are swollen with tribal sectarians, thrill seekers, former “socialist infidels”, foreign losers looking for meaning and community, and psychopaths pining for butchery. Many find the execution videos of “Jihadi John” — a modern version of what 19th-century Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane called propaganda of the deed — darkly compelling. For the most dangerous ISIS recruits, what the rest of us see as bad press is seductive.

Many, however, are painfully naive. Savvy ISIS recruiters do an outstanding job convincing the gullible that its notoriety is unjustified. “Don’t hear about us,” they say. “Hear from us.” Weiss and Hassan dig up comments from some of ISIS’s obtuse fans in online Western forums who have bought the sales pitch: “Does the Islamic State sell hair gel and Nutella in Raqqa?” “Should I bring an iPad to let Mom and Dad know that I arrived safely in caliphate?”

The foolish recruits are more likely to become victims themselves than to victimize others — in March, ISIS forced a 12-year-old boy to execute an Israeli Arab man for trying to flee — but ISIS will continue to attract newcomers as long as it’s permitted to thrive. And thrive it will until it faces a more determined resistance force and as long as radical Sunni Muslims around the world feel galvanized by the perceived American-Iranian axis against them.

As the authors say in their book’s stark conclusion, “the army of terror will be with us indefinitely”. 

Spiritual adventures: aesthetical, ethical, and pharmaceutical 1

Sam Harris is an atheist. We like a lot of what he writes and says. Just recently one of our readers sent us this statement of his, which we acknowledge, sadly, to be most probably true:

For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way.

We have watched videos of him lecturing. We have read some articles of his. And all with appreciation. So when we were sent his new book for review, we expected to like it.

Do we like it?

To read  Jillian Becker’s review of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris, click on its title in our margin, under Pages.

Posted under Atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Miscellaneous, Religion general, Reviews by Jillian Becker on Monday, August 18, 2014

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Edward Snowden: loyal to the people of America 2

These are extracts from a Washington Times report of an interview it had in Moscow with Edward Snowden, the man who “betrayed” the secrets of the National Security Agency (NSA):

Snowden is an orderly thinker, with an engineer’s approach to problem-solving. He had come to believe that a dangerous machine of mass surveillance was growing unchecked. Closed-door oversight by Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was a “graveyard of judgment” he said, manipulated by the agency it was supposed to keep in check. Classification rules erected walls to prevent public debate.

Toppling those walls would be a spectacular act of transgression against the norms that prevailed inside them. Someone would have to bypass security, extract the secrets, make undetected contact with journalists and provide them with enough proof to tell the stories.

The NSA’s business is “information dominance”, the use of other people’s secrets to shape events. … Snowden upended the agency on its own turf. …[and] succeeded beyond plausible ambition. The NSA, accustomed to watching without being watched, faces scrutiny it has not endured since the 1970s, or perhaps ever.

The cascading effects have made themselves felt in Congress, the courts, popular culture, Silicon Valley and world capitals.

The basic structure of the Internet itself is now in question, as Brazil and members of the European Union consider measures to keep their data away from U.S. territory and U.S. technology giants including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo take extraordinary steps to block the collection of data by their government.

For months, Obama administration officials attacked Snowden’s motives and said the work of the NSA was distorted by selective leaks and misinterpretations.

On Dec. 16, in a lawsuit that could not have gone forward without the disclosures made possible by Snowden, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon described the NSA’s capabilities as “almost Orwellian” and said its bulk collection of U.S. domestic telephone records was probably unconstitutional.

The next day, in the Roosevelt Room [at the White house], an unusual delegation of executives from old telephone companies and young Internet firms told President Obama that the NSA’s intrusion into their networks was a threat to the U.S. information economy. The following day, an advisory panel appointed by Obama recommended substantial new restrictions on the NSA, including an end to the domestic call-records program. …

In the intelligence and national security establishments, Snowden is widely viewed as a reckless saboteur, and journalists abetting him little less so. …

It is commonly said of Snowden that he broke an oath of secrecy, a turn of phrase that captures a sense of betrayal. NSA Director Keith B. Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., among many others, have used that formula. …

Snowden noted matter-of-factly that Standard Form 312, the classified-information nondisclosure agreement, is a civil contract. He signed it, but he pledged his fealty elsewhere.

“The oath of allegiance is not an oath of secrecy,” he said. “That is an oath to the Constitution. That is the oath that I kept that Keith Alexander and James Clapper did not.”

Beginning in October 2012, he said, he brought his misgivings to two superiors in the NSA’s Technology Directorate and two more in the NSA Threat Operations Center’s regional base in Hawaii. For each of them, and 15 other co-workers, Snowden said he opened a data query tool called BOUNDLESSINFORMANT, which used color-coded “heat maps” to depict the volume of data ingested by NSA taps.

His colleagues were often “astonished to learn we are collecting more in the United States on Americans than we are on Russians in Russia,” he said. Many of them were troubled, he said, and several said they did not want to know any more.

“I asked these people, ‘What do you think the public would do if this was on the front page?’ ” he said. He noted that critics have accused him of bypassing internal channels of dissent. “How is that not reporting it? How is that not raising it?” …

By last December, Snowden was contacting reporters, although he had not yet passed along any classified information. He continued to give his colleagues the “front-page test”, he said, until April. …

Just before releasing the documents this spring, Snowden made a final review of the risks. He had overcome what he described at the time as a “selfish fear” of the consequences for himself.

“I said to you the only fear [left] is apathy — that people won’t care, that they won’t want change.”

The documents leaked by Snowden compelled attention because they revealed to Americans a history they did not know they had. …

With assistance from private communications firms, the NSA had learned to capture enormous flows of data at the speed of light from fiber-optic cables that carried Internet and telephone traffic over continents and under seas. According to one document in Snowden’s cache, the agency’s Special Source Operations group, which as early as 2006 was said to be ingesting “one Library of Congress every 14.4 seconds”, had an official seal that might have been parody: an eagle with all the world’s cables in its grasp.

Each year, NSA systems collected hundreds of millions of e-mail address books, hundreds of billions of cellphone location records and trillions of domestic call logs.

Most of that data, by definition and intent, belonged to ordinary people suspected of nothing. But vast new storage capacity and processing tools enabled the NSA to use the information to map human relationships on a planetary scale. Only this way, its leadership believed, could the NSA reach beyond its universe of known intelligence targets.

In the view of the NSA, signals intelligence, or electronic eavesdropping, was a matter of life and death, “without which America would cease to exist as we know it”, according to an internal presentation in the first week of October 2001, as the agency ramped up its response to the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

With stakes such as those, there was no capability the NSA believed it should leave on the table. The agency followed orders from President George W. Bush to begin domestic collection without authority from Congress and the courts. When the NSA won those authorities later, some of them under secret interpretations of laws passed by Congress between 2007 and 2012, the Obama administration went further still. …

In the Moscow interview, Snowden said, “What the government wants is something they never had before,” adding: “They want total awareness. The question is, is that something we should be allowing?”

Snowden likened the NSA’s powers to those used by British authorities in Colonial America, when “general warrants” allowed for anyone to be searched. The FISA court, Snowden said, “is authorizing general warrants for the entire country’s metadata.”

“The last time that happened, we fought a war over it,” he said.

Technology, of course, has enabled a great deal of consumer surveillance by private companies, as well. The difference with the NSA’s possession of the data, Snowden said, is that government has the power to take away life or freedom.

At the NSA, he said, “there are people in the office who joke about, ‘We put warheads on foreheads.’ Twitter doesn’t put warheads on foreheads.”

Privacy, as Snowden sees it, is a universal right, applicable to American and foreign surveillance alike.

“I don’t care whether you’re the pope or Osama bin Laden,” he said. “As long as there’s an individualized, articulable, probable cause for targeting these people as legitimate foreign intelligence, that’s fine. I don’t think it’s imposing a ridiculous burden by asking for probable cause. …

When it comes to spying on allies, by Snowden’s lights, the news is not always about the target.

“It’s the deception of the government that’s revealed,” Snowden said, noting that the Obama administration offered false public assurances after the initial reports about NSA surveillance in Germany.  “The U.S. government said: ‘We follow German laws in Germany. We never target German citizens.’ And then the story comes out and it’s: ‘What are you talking about? You’re spying on the chancellor.’ You just lied to the entire country, in front of Congress.”

In hope of keeping focus on the NSA, Snowden has ignored attacks on himself.

“Let them say what they want,” he said. “It’s not about me.”

Former NSA and CIA director Michael V. Hayden predicted that Snowden will waste away in Moscow as an alcoholic, like other “defectors.” To this, Snowden shrugged. He does not drink at all. Never has.

But Snowden knows his presence here is easy ammunition for critics. He did not choose refuge in Moscow as a final destination. He said that once the U.S. government voided his passport as he tried to change planes en route to Latin America, he had no other choice. …  “I have no relationship with the Russian government. I have not entered into any agreements with them.”

“If I defected at all,” Snowden said, “I defected from the government to the public.”

We don’t think it likely that the NSA will stop its surveillance of the whole earth and your and our emails. It’s a power beyond the wildest dreams of all governments ever to be able to know everything about everyone, and now that it has become possible, and is being used, it will never be given up. No court judgment will stop it. No act of Congress. Preventing terrorist attacks is the excuse. Power is the reason.

At least we know about it now. For that we have to thank Edward Snowden.

“The Prophet Muhammad” did not exist 4

Muhammad the Prophet of Islam is fictitious.

In his new book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, Robert Spencer demonstrates, with an impressive mass of detailed evidence and close logical reasoning, that Muhammad was invented, and that the Koran –  in all its versions – was written over a long stretch of time starting many decades after the imaginary life of the fictitious prophet ended (according to the fable) in 632 C.E.  

At a  joint meeting of the Middle East Forum and Gatestone Institute in New York City on April 24, 2012, the author spoke about his intentions in writing the book.

We quote from a report of his address by Tommaso Virgili of the Middle East Forum:

Did the Prophet Muhammad really exist, or was he a sacred myth fashioned by the Koran decades after his purported death? Robert Spencer has addressed this thorny question with a dual intent:

To serve the interests of freedom of expression as a rebellion against the tyranny of censorship by the likes of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation and the leftist idolatry for political correctness, which attempt to silence any debate on Islamic issues.

To play in the Islamic world the same positive role that non-religious, scientific research played in Judaism and Christianity, triggering a rational debate that can lead to the rejection of strict literalism.

There is, he said “an abundance of historical evidence supporting this thesis” that Muhammad is a myth.

Particularly intriguing is the absolute absence of a mention whatsoever of Muhammad, Islam or the Koran, either by the Arab conquerors or the conquered, in written records, inscriptions, coins, etc. during 630-690, i.e. to the period of Muslim conquests following the (alleged) death of Muhammad.

Furthermore, the life of Muhammad is shrouded in mystery given that the first biographies were written no sooner than 125 years after his death, and it is well acknowledged by Muslim scholars, among others, that many of the hadiths which hand down sayings and actions of the Prophet are false, artfully created for political reasons.

Nor is the Koran itself a more reliable source: it is supposed to have been collected and distributed in its standard edition no later than in 653, but one cannot find any mention of it until the 690s, and the traces of Aramaic and Christian traditions inside the text indicate a well established contact with the conquered territories.

Indeed Robert Spencer demonstrates that there are plentiful and convincing signs of Christian and Jewish sources – deliberately distorted or misunderstood or both – for much of the Koran. In particular, a Syriac Christian document was plundered or plagiarized by the authors of the Koran – and in our opinion dumbed down even from the low standard of Christian documents. Dumb and dumber, one might say.

In conclusion, historical evidence tells a very different story from the traditional one, namely that of political and military events which occurred at a time when some Arabian tribes expanded at the expense of the “sick men” – the Persian and Byzantine empires – and which necessitated a glue to bind them together and to form a central focus of identification. And what could offer a better nucleus for the nascent Arab empire than religion?

We strongly recommend Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins by Robert Spencer because, as he said, it is “a rebellion against the tyranny of censorship”. But also for reasons of our own. Islam is a revolting ideology and this meticulously researched and well reasoned study, by putting its lies and nonsense under the microscope of scholarship, is a serious blow against it. Wounding certainly. Crippling we hope. Death-dealing – time will tell.

Footnote; There is only one thing in the book we would take issue with: the theory that it is not a promise of 72 virgins that lures Muslim terrorists to paradise, but 72 raisins. We do not believe even a Muslim would kill himself for 72 raisins.

Posted under Commentary, Islam, Muslims, Reviews by Jillian Becker on Sunday, August 26, 2012

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Review: The Last Testament 6

The Last Testament: A Memoir by God (with David Javerbaum), Simon and Schuster, New York,  383 pages

God is a happily married divinity. He and his wife, Ruth (yes, she of the Book) have three children, Zach, Jesus, and Kathy.

Zach’s nickname is “the Holy Ghost”, H.G. for short.

Kathy begged for a sojourn on earth to enjoy some martyrdom, so God sent her to be Joan of Arc.

Jesus is “a classic middle child”. His frequent weeping irritates his father (“the kid was a pussy”). When Jesus wanted to be born as a human being, God was strongly against it.

“My son, a person?” I screamed at him.

However, after much cajoling by Ruth (“It might just be the best thing that’s ever happened to our little Jeez. Would you think about it, dear? For me?” ), God “softened somewhat”. He explains to the human reader:

At least insofar as accepting that Jesus was my son; and that as his father it was my duty to support him in whatever career path he chose to follow; even one as patently silly as dying for thy sins.

So for his sake, and Ruth’s, I swallowed my fury; and told him that whatever help he needed, I would provide; and whatever trials and tribulations he would face on his mission, I would help see him through. So that when it was all over, if Jesus’s time on earth ended (as I was sure it would) in some kind of nightmarish ordeal,

At least he could not accuse me of forsaking him, or leaving him hanging.

As we know from a previous Testament, he didn’t keep that promise. By his own account – confirming the information provided in two previous Testaments – he is a mischievous deceiver.

Far worse, he is a sadist. He candidly admits that he likes watching human beings suffer.

For lo, I had destroyed the world in a Flood; I had razed the Tower of Babel; I had leveled Sodom and Gomorrah [not for being gay-friendly cities but for being “the twin hubs of a massive international money-laundering operation”]; all manner of catastrophe had I already visited upon you, in the name of righteousness;

Yet it was only then – after finding myself enthralled by the slow silent agony of one I greatly loved [Abraham as he prepared to sacrifice his son];

I say, it was only then, that I first began to consider the possibility, that there was something seriously wrong with me.

He confesses the “real reason” why he allowed Job “to be so horribly afflicted”.

“It was not to test Job, but to test me.

I wanted to see if I could watch him endure his agonies without experiencing any of that same unnameable thrill I had derived from watching the binding of Isaac … and the countless other atrocities and tragedies that I had over the centuries allowed – or, sometimes, caused – to happen.

Such as the Crusades:

For pure spiritual entertainment, nothing compared to the Crusades …

There is nothing more gratifying than watching tens of thousands of people express their undying love for thee by running through tens of thousands of other people who possess equally undying love for thee with a pike.

(Especially knowing that in the end, the theological problems of two great faiths amounteth not to a hill of beans in thy crazy world.)

He’s also politically correct, and like any lefty he will boast of his compassion without minding that his deeds contradict his words.

How he feels for Goliath!  The giant had to be killed by David  – God guided the killing stone himself  – but the poor guy’s death caused the King of the Universe more than a pang or two. “Never have I felt more sadness about ending a life,” he says, because:

Goliath was a faithful husband; Goliath was a trusted friend; Goliath was a community activist; Goliath worked with troubled youth in inner-city Gaza; Goliath was cofounder of the Philistine Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

He’s no deep thinker. He offers no profound analysis of why he created the universe or the way he’s run it. His tastes are not refined.

“No anecdote or commentary I provide [of the story of Joseph in Egypt] could ever improve upon Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

And when he effects, with difficulty, the conception of Jesus through a “miraculous act of asexual reproduction”, in order to show the world “from the start that he was both Word and flesh; Man and God; a subtle concept we knew would be difficult of comprehension”, he adds: “Indeed, I myself have never really figured it out.”

His Testament is a tell-all book that doesn’t quite tell all. He will not divulge the secrets of the afterlife. He doesn’t offer the least illumination of his “mysterious ways”. In  fact, he couldn’t do that if he wanted to:

I move in mysterious ways; and my reason for doing so is even more mysterious; and the reason for that reason’s mysteriousness is so mysterious, even I forget what it is.

Yet he craves understanding and sympathy (in addition to burnt offerings). After much boasting and gloating and wisecracking, a cri de coeur of existential doubt bursts from him:

For 6,000 years I have tried to be the kind of God people could believe in; but recently I have come to question the very nature of my divinity. …

What is wrong with me, me? …

I feel useless.

I feel like there’s no point in going on.

Maybe humanity would be better off without me …

So I’m turning to me.

I’m putting it all in my hands.

Yea, I made the universe; I made mankind; out of me spools the totality of all that ever was and is and ever will be.

But who am I?

Why am I here?

Do I even exist?

God knows.

I am the Lord everyone’s God, King of the Universe. …

I am he to whom people turn for comfort after being devastated by acts of me.

And I am he in whose name  hundreds of millions of people have given their lives, or taken others’; and they would not do that for just anybody. …

But I am the entity without whose constant presence all of humanity would plummet into reason.

And I amback!!!!

Still he needs to go into rehab, spending “a few months in a secluded fractal of the tenth dimension getting my head together”.

He returns with “a new self-acceptance”, in time for the run-up to Armageddon which he and H.G. and Jesus have definitely scheduled for December 21, 2012 – unless The Last Testament sells well enough to justify “a little wiggle room to leave time for a sequel”.

Unaccountably, he cannot foretell if his book will be a success.

He fears it may cause offense to Muslims, although he treats Muhammad gingerly, feeling “great apprehension concerning the writing of this section”.

I am Allah, the Wise, the All-Powerful, yet these days even I get a little nervous talking about Islam.

He indemnifies his publishers “from any and all outrage, fatwa, or all-out jihad that may result from the contents of the portions of this book pertaining to Islam.”

No doubt the old rogue savors the irony that the most appreciative readers of his Last Testament are likely to be atheists. He might even have written it specially for them.

Jillian Becker    November 1, 2011

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Note to our readers:  The publishers of The Last Testament have let us know that “God could not be more thrilled” with our review. 

Posted under Atheism, Christianity, Humor, Islam, Judaism, Reviews, satire by Jillian Becker on Tuesday, November 1, 2011

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Review: God, No! 14

God, No! by Penn Jillette, Simon & Schuster, 231 pages (published today)

Penn Jillette is half the comedy-magic act, Penn & Teller.

God, No! is full of real-life stories, some of them exuberantly pornographic. It doesn’t tell you how the magic tricks are done, or even describe any, but it does tell you a lot about Penn Jillette.

In the entertainment industry there may be many atheists, but few say they are. Penn Jillette does, and for that we applaud him.

We know there are very few stars of stage, screen and television who are not lefties. Penn Jillette is one of the few, and for that too we applaud him.

He states plainly and emphatically what he means.

Reading the Bible is the fast track to atheism.

There is no god and that’s the simple truth.

You have to make it clear to everyone, including your children, that there is no god.

It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government take money by force through taxes to give poor people money is compassion.

Atheism was a real comfort to me when my mother and sister died. … I could never have understood suffering as part of an all-powerful god’s “plan”.

There is a world of safety in doubt. The respect for faith, the celebration of faith, is dangerous. It’s faith itself that’s wrong.

One of the stories is about an orthodox Jew who loses his faith. With Penn’s assistance he orders, and much enjoys, his first non-kosher meal. But not yet being comfortable with his atheism he asks himself, “Who will take care of me?”

Another new atheist says: “For me the biggest part of letting go of god was holding myself accountable for my own actions… It felt safer to be a passenger in my own life than to take the wheel.”

Perhaps with time, experience, and Penn’s influence, those two came to feel as excited as Penn himself clearly is to be responsible for themselves, as happy as he is to be free.

Posted under Atheism, Humor, Reviews by Jillian Becker on Tuesday, August 16, 2011

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