Tag Archives: religion

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins is laughing up his sleeve. I wasn’t in any hurry to buy this book. I had already read and admired every other book of Dawkins’, and had read enough in the press to have a good idea of what this book contained, and to know that I would agree with it, as I Read More…

Richard Dawkins is laughing up his sleeve.

I wasn’t in any hurry to buy this book. I had already read and admired every other book of Dawkins’, and had read enough in the press to have a good idea of what this book contained, and to know that I would agree with it, as I had with Dennet’s “Breaking the Spell”.

But I saw it in the bookstore at Luton airport, and couldn’t resist buying it for Enrico – and myself. We both read through it quickly, enjoying Dawkins’ elegant prose and wry wit brought to bear on some of our favorite targets.

It’s amusing to watch all the mudslinging by religious commentators (and even some atheists), shrilly accusing Dawkins of being strident and dogmatic in his non-belief. Apparently they don’t know about the Streisand Effect, an Internet phenomenon whereby raising a fuss about something brings it more attention than it would otherwise have enjoyed.

Not that I think the world would have ignored Dawkins, but surely some of the book’s sales (23 weeks on the NYT bestseller list so far) have been due to the huge amounts of publicity he has gotten from people anxious to vilify him.

Will this book succeed in Dawkins’ aim of “converting” people to unbelief? I’m doubtful. But, judging by some of the comments on Dawkins’ website and elsewhere, he has at least made many atheists feel more comfortable with acknowledging publicly what they have long felt privately – they are indeed “coming out of the closet.”

I don’t think Dawkins deserves the label of “strident” that so many, even on his own side, have applied to him. In the interviews I’ve seen and read, he’s remarkably polite, especially considering what’s being said about and to him.

At any rate, if you think he’s strident, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. I’m now reading Perché Non Possiamo Essere Cristiani (e Meno Che Mai Cattolici) – “Why We Can’t be Christian, and Less Than Never Catholic” – by Piergiorgio Odifreddi. If this ever gets translated into English, Dr Odifreddi will probably find a fundamentalist Christian/Catholic fatwa raised against him. (Italian Catholics are generally more relaxed about such things.)

Immigration and Identity in Europe

(originally published in 2002) The assassination of Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch politician, provides food for thought. Fortuyn was “a politician who rejected multiculturalism, called for an end to immigration and excoriated Islam as a ‘backward culture’ for its intolerance of homosexuals, attitude to women and more” and “argue[d] fiercely that immigrants should integrate more wholeheartedly Read More…

(originally published in 2002)

The assassination of Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch politician, provides food for thought. Fortuyn was “a politician who rejected multiculturalism, called for an end to immigration and excoriated Islam as a ‘backward culture’ for its intolerance of homosexuals, attitude to women and more” and “argue[d] fiercely that immigrants should integrate more wholeheartedly with the host nation.” (The Economist, May 9 and April 25, 2002). Fortuyn raised valid questions about immigration and cultural identity, questions that European countries urgently need to answer.

Due to low birthrates, there is a shortage of “native” European babies, and Europe faces a demographic decline which will lead to a disproportion between the number of people being paid state pensions, and the number of people in the workforce paying the taxes to pay those pensions. Europe needs an inflow of young people to fill the demographic gap, and to do the menial jobs that native Europeans consider beneath them. There is demand for labor, and it is supplied, both legally and il-, by economic migration from poorer countries.
Yet immigration worries many Europeans. The ugly side of these fears is expressed in support for extremists like Le Pen in France. Balanced thinkers like Fortuyn, however, deserve a hearing. He posed important questions about the mutual rights and obligations of immigrants and their new home countries.

The big question is integration: How much should immigrants be expected to adopt the values and mores of their new countries? The issues are thorny when people from more repressive cultures immigrate to liberal ones (and the Netherlands’ is one of the most liberal in the world!). Which practices can or should be defended on the grounds of culture and tradition?

Some obvious lines are drawn. Clitoridectomy (“female genital mutilation“) is illegal in European countries; some women have successfully bid for political asylum to avoid being sent back to countries where they would be forced to undergo it. But other cultural conundrums run the gamut from arranged marriage, to Muslim girls covering their heads in school.

There are even culture clashes between first- and second-generation immigrants, sadly illustrated by the case of Fadime Sahindal. She moved with her Kurdish family to Sweden when she was seven, and attended Swedish schools. So she grew up between cultures, a third-culture kid, neither wholly Swedish nor wholly Kurdish. Her parents nonetheless expected that she would behave as Kurdish girls traditionally do, e.g. submit to a marriage arranged by them, with a Kurdish man. She defied them by falling in love with a Swedish man, and was murdered by her own father for “dishonoring” her family. (More)

“European populations are aging, and cannot maintain their welfare states without massive immigration; immigration from Islamic countries threatens to change European values inalterably.” (Rod Dreher, National Review Online)

Pim Fortuyn had reason to fear such changes. He was flamboyantly gay – not a problem for most Dutch, but anathema to many conservative Muslims, even those living in Holland. His murder just before the elections may already have changed the Dutch political mindset: “Mr Balkenende [expected to be the next prime minister] repudiated the country’s multicultural approach to immigration and said newcomers should assimilate with Dutch culture.” (The Economist, May 16, 2002)

Jan 28, 2007 – Revisiting this article nearly five years later, it’s hard to say that much has changed for the better. The Netherlands is having an identity crisis, spurred on the one hand by a tradition of tolerance, on the other by events like the religiously-inspired murder of director Theo van Gogh.

Italy has had its own “honor” killing. Last summer a twenty-year-old woman of Pakistani descent, raised mostly in Italy, was murdered by her father and uncle for dishonoring the family by refusing an arranged marriage and living with an Italian man. Her relatives slit her throat and buried her in the garden.

A colleague told me of a friend of hers, a north African woman in her 30s who has been in Italy for many years and lives with her Italian boyfriend. But now that her family is coming to visit from the home country (yes, I am being deliberately vague), she is going through an elaborate ruse to hide the real facts of her life, for fear that her family would literally kill her were they to find out that she is living in sin. This woman must either submit to the will of her family (marry a Muslim man of their choosing) or live in subterfuge and danger forever. Or renounce her family, but it’s possible that this would not save her life, should the family consider itself dishonored by her behavior. How is an open, tolerant society like Italy’s supposed to deal with this? What can we do to help her and others like her?

Your thoughts?

see also Integration of Muslim Students in Italian Schools

Symbols

Israel, and Italy’s Jewish community, were angry when the Israeli flag was burned during April 25th Liberation Day festivities in Milan. The burners were Italian extreme leftists, who tend to be very pro-Palestine and anti-Israel. Coincidentally, about the same time I received from a reader a reference to Michelle Malkin (a conservative blogger) about an Read More…

Israel, and Italy’s Jewish community, were angry when the Israeli flag was burned during April 25th Liberation Day festivities in Milan. The burners were Italian extreme leftists, who tend to be very pro-Palestine and anti-Israel.

Coincidentally, about the same time I received from a reader a reference to Michelle Malkin (a conservative blogger) about an incident during the immigration protests in the US, in which the Mexican flag was hoisted above an upside-down American one at an Amerian high school. Red-blooded American patriots muttered about a Mexican invasion, and protested the insult to the Stars & Stripes.

During Italy’s spring elections, there were at least three incidents of atheist voters protesting at having to vote in classrooms which contained crucifixes. Schools are used as polling stations, and many classrooms, even in public schools, contain crucifixes (that’s a whole ‘nother controversy).

Side note: Italian schools are closed on polling days. I don’t know why they can’t just use the school gym like Americans do – which would keep the kids in school, and also solve the crucifix problem: I don’t think there are crucifixes in the gyms.

The three voter protests had different outcomes. In one, the poll supervisor had the crucifix temporarily removed, over vociferous protests from right-wing party observers present and the local mayor; the case went to court, and the court backed the decision to remove the crucifix on constitutional grounds.

In another case, the polling supervisor refused to remove the crucifix. The voter called the police to register a formal complaint at being “unable to vote” in the presence of the crucifix. The police intervened and forcibly removed the cross, protecting the legal rights of the citizen over the objections of the polling officials.

All of these incidents – and the Danish cartoon mess – strike me as examples of people getting rather too worked up about symbols. What are these objects, really? Pieces of cloth or wood or even plastic, held to represent something larger because they happen to be molded into the shape of a man on a cross, or sewn with a certain pattern of stripes, stars, etc. When you endow such an object with so much symbolic weight, you’re simply giving others the leverage to hurt you – symbolically.

To give an object that much importance – isn’t that idolatry? On the other hand, if you feel that you have to make a strident point of objecting to the mere presence of the object, then you, too, are acknowledging its symbolic power. Why would a self-proclaimed atheist give so much to a plastic Jesus?

Yes, symbolic acts can be hurtful, and are usually intended to be. If you were ever teased as a child, you know how much “mere” words can hurt. But we should all be grown up enough to realize that what others say about us (or our beliefs and symbols) really doesn’t matter. Any truly strong nation or person or belief (or lack of belief) should have the moral strength and maturity to shrug off attacks on (or by) mere symbols.

Crimes of Opinion

Italy’s Laws on Opinions You’re Not Free to State Italian law on “crimes of opinion” has recently (Jan 25th) been revised as follows (excerpted and translated from here): “…Safeguarding of [all] faiths, instead of [just] the state religion [i.e., Catholicism] …Article 404 – (Offenses against a religious faith by means of vilipendio [~insult] or damage Read More…

Italy’s Laws on Opinions You’re Not Free to State

Italian law on “crimes of opinion” has recently (Jan 25th) been revised as follows (excerpted and translated from here):

“…Safeguarding of [all] faiths, instead of [just] the state religion [i.e., Catholicism] …Article 404 – (Offenses against a religious faith by means of vilipendio [~insult] or damage to property) – Anyone who, in a place designated for worship or in a public place or place open to the public, offends a religious faith, insults… things which are considered sacred or consacrated to a faith, or are used in the exercise of faith, or commits such acts during a religious function held by a minister of the faith in a private place, is punished with a fine of 1,000 to 5,000 euros.” (NB: Previously, the punishment was up to three years in jail, though I don’t know whether this was ever applied.)

“…Changes also to the Mancino law on racism, with punishment taking the form either of a fine or up to 18 months in prison for propaganda of ideas based on racial or ethnic superiority or hatred, and the instigation to commit acts of discrimination for racial, ethnic, national, or religious reasons. However, jail sentences of six months to four years are prescribed for anyone who instigates or commits acts of violence or provocation to violence for racial, ethnic, national, or religious motives.”

Hmm. How to reconcile the fact that inherent in some religions are bald statements of racial, ethnic, or sectarian superiority? Classical Hinduism encodes the idea that Brahmins are superior and Untouchables inferior to every other caste. A Brahmin’s forbidding his daughter to marry an Untouchable might therefore be punishable by law in Italy.

A “crime of opinion” seems to me a dangerous concept in itself. Who’s to decide what is and is not a reasonable opinion? Not so long ago, the idea that women should be allowed to work outside the home for equal wages as men was considered ridiculous in Europe – and is still considered ridiculous, if not illegal, in some countries.

Several European countries have laws against Holocaust denial, as recently applied in Austria to British “historian” David Irving. That, like the Italian laws about religion quoted above, is going too far. No country can (or should) make enough laws to explicitly protect against every possible kind of hurtful speech. People should be free to state whatever wacky stupidity they believe in, and other people should be free to refute it. If a nut job like Irving had a job in a reputable university, I’d be worried. But his views are anathema to most people; the resulting social and professional shunning should be sufficient punishment for him. To draw a parallel, there are white supremacists in the US who state that black people are genetically inferior to whites. They are free to state those opinions, but they don’t get hired as professors of biology (or anything else).

Trying to keep such beliefs down by law tends to be counter-productive: the believers can then present themselves as martyrs for their faith, attracting more adherents. Children raised to think for themselves will become adults who laugh at such views. Children raised to blindly follow the dictates of another person, or a book, or a way of life, are less likely to have the critical faculties needed to evaluate every opinion that comes their way.

The Hundred Years’ War

The Strange Religious History of the Straughans shot Mar 6, 2005, 7:29 mins Some of my recent articles have caused some readers to wonder why I have it in for Catholicism. Actually, I am even-handed in my dislike of religion: I don’t like any of them. But, due to family history, I have un dente Read More…

The Strange Religious History of the Straughans


shot Mar 6, 2005, 7:29 mins

Some of my recent articles have caused some readers to wonder why I have it in for Catholicism. Actually, I am even-handed in my dislike of religion: I don’t like any of them. But, due to family history, I have un dente avvelenato in particular for Catholicism, and for the American Southern Baptist church. My father’s mother was a devout Catholic, my grandfather a born-again Baptist. Why they married in the first place was never clear to me, but the decades-long war that ensued left the rest of the family with an unpleasant taste in the mouth about both their religions (none of their descendants is now Catholic OR Baptist).

While I was visiting my dad in England in March, we started what will doubtless be a very long project: getting his life, and all his stories, on video. One of my questions was: “Why did Mamaw and Pawpaw get married?” Here are his thoughts on that, and on what happened afterwards.