NOTE: Please see my most recent thoughts on this and other controversial subjects here: Response to Controversy.—SH
Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs—in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity—it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. For those who make it their business to debate the ethics of torture this is known as the “ticking-bomb” case.
While the most realistic version of the ticking bomb case may not persuade everyone that torture is ethically acceptable, adding further embellishments seems to awaken the Grand Inquisitor in most of us. If a conventional explosion doesn’t move you, consider a nuclear bomb hidden in midtown Manhattan. If bombs seem too impersonal an evil, picture your seven-year-old daughter being slowly asphyxiated in a warehouse just five minutes away, while the man in your custody holds the keys to her release. If your daughter won’t tip the scales, then add the daughters of every couple for a thousand miles—millions of little girls have, by some perverse negligence on the part of our government, come under the control of an evil genius who now sits before you in shackles. Clearly, the consequences of one person’s uncooperativeness can be made so grave, and his malevolence and culpability so transparent, as to stir even a self-hating moral relativist from his dogmatic slumbers.
One cannot criticize religious dogmatism for long without encountering the following claim, advanced as though it were a self-evident fact of nature: there is no secular basis for morality. Raping and killing children can only really be wrong, the thinking goes, if there is a God who says it is. Otherwise, right and wrong would be mere matters of social construction, and any society would be at liberty to decide that raping and killing children is actually a wholesome form of family fun. In the absence of God, John Wayne Gacy could be a better person than Albert Schweitzer, if only more people agreed with him.
Ever since the atrocities of September 11th, 2001, there has been a lot of hopeful talk in the Western press about the vast majority of Muslims who are religious “moderates.” Being moderates, they necessarily repudiate the theology of Osama bin Laden and disavow terrorism. Nor would they ever dream of killing another human being over a cartoon. Where are these moderate Muslims? How many of them exist? And how can we best empower them? These are all questions of crucial importance to the future of civilization, and they are questions for which I do not have any answers. But there is another question worth asking in the meantime: How do we recognize religious moderates in the first place?
In recent days, crowds of thousands have gathered throughout the Muslim world—burning European embassies, issuing threats, and even taking hostages—in protest over 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that were first published in a Danish newspaper last September. The problem is not merely that the cartoons were mildly derogatory. The furor primarily erupted over the fact that the Prophet had been depicted at all. Many Muslims consider any physical rendering of Muhammad to be an act of idolatry. And idolatry is punishable by death. Criticism of Muhammad or his teaching—which was also implicit in the cartoons—is considered blasphemy. As it turns out, blasphemy is also punishable by death. So pious Muslims have two reasons to “not accept less than a severing of the heads of those responsible,” as was recently elucidated by a preacher at the Al Omari mosque in Gaza.
Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of 6 billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl s parents believe at this very moment that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?
The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.
In my last post, I argued that there is a direct link between Islam and suicide bombing. Many readers of this blog considered this post to be offensive, tendentious, and even irresponsible. An addendum seems to be in order. Criticism of my argument fell into a few broad categories:
1. Sam, you don’t know a damn thing about Islam, the Koran, or Muslim history. Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by extremists.
This objection is generally put forward by people who have not read the Koran or the hadith (the literature that recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet). Some readers also pointed out that the bible contains some very scary passages. This is true, and I discuss the consequences of biblical literalism in my other writing. But the bible is a vast, self-contradictory book. It is very easy to just read the “good parts” and ignore all the barbarism found in books like Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, etc. The fundamental message of the Koran is impossible to ignore and far easier to summarize. And there is no Sermon on the Mount in there to break the spell. Yes, there is a single line that can be read as a prohibition against suicide (4:29 – “Do not destroy yourselves.”), but this line can also be read as an admonishment to Muslims to refrain from killing other Muslims. In any case, we are talking about one line set in a wilderness of other passages that clearly admonish the faithful to despise unbelievers. On virtually every page of the Koran we are informed that Allah is in the process of “mocking,” “cursing,” “shaming,” “scourging,” “not forgiving,” “not reprieving,” the infidels. Had Allah wanted to guide the infidels to the true path, he would have. So he has cursed them with their doubts. He allows them to prosper in this world only so that they may have a greater opportunity to heap sin upon sin and more richly deserve the eternal punishment of the fire whose “fuel is men and stones.” As a basis for religious tolerance in a pluralistic world, the Koran is one of the least promising documents ever written—despite the few lines that, read in isolation, seem to counsel patience, charity, tolerance, etc. And the hadith is even worse.
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