Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Too tolerant of tolerance?

            Many people may have heard about the recent controversy surrounding Ben Affleck and Sam Harris’s “debate” (if you can call Ben Affleck shouting “racist” over every word that came out of Harris’s mouth a debate) regarding the criticism of Islam. Harris argued that we should be able to freely criticize Islam because Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas” and its doctrine supports many terrible things. Affleck claimed that Harris is racist and disgusting and that it’s Islamophobic to criticize Islam.


            There are a ton of articles that go in-depth about why Sam Harris was right or wrong, (including Harris's own response to the controversy) and I believe that Harris was absolutely correct that people should be able to criticize Islam (or any religion for that matter) and it’s not Islamophobic. Harris kept attempting to point out that he was in no way attacking Muslims as people, but only Islam’s dangerous practices, such as a death sentence for apostasy. However, Affleck obviously didn't understand that (probably because he refused to listen to a word Harris said) and claimed that Harris was attacking individuals for their beliefs, when that wasn't actually the case.
            There is a huge difference between a religion and its followers, and people refuse to see that difference once a religion is criticized. The second someone condemns an aspect of a religion, many people claim that person is condemning every person who follows that religion. As one online commenter stated, we should “hold religions responsible for those who do evil in their name, but don’t hold the practitioners of the religions responsible for what other practitioners do.”
            I think the uproar that arose from Harris’s comments regarding Islam stems from the widespread belief that we need to tolerate everything and everyone no matter what. While I’m all for tolerance of people and their culture and customs, tolerance can be a very bad thing when taken too far. There are many customs and ideas that we should stand against and not tolerate, but it’s ingrained in us that if we protest another’s culture or belief, we are being prejudiced.
            Last year Leyla Hussein conducted her own experiment to see how far people would go in the name of political correctness. She went around London and asked people to sign a petition in support of female genital mutilation (FGM). She would tell them that she was trying to protect her culture, tradition, and rights, and that “it’s just mutilation”. 19 people signed the petition in only 30 minutes. They told Hussein that they didn’t actually support FGM, but that they would sign the petition to protect her culture.
            We need to learn to differentiate between criticizing dangerous and harmful practices and criticizing the people that support them. It is never okay to discriminate against or hate someone because of what they believe. It is okay, however, to condemn and hate the belief itself. I’m not just talking about Islamic practices. The KKK is a Christian organization, which is a fact most people overlook. If we have groups like the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church and worse running around doing and saying horrible things because of the Bible, maybe we need to take a look at their motivations. Obviously most Christians are not horrible racists and a lot of them are good people, but you can’t deny that the Bible has some pretty racist and terrible practices in it. That doesn’t mean that all Christians believe in these practices, but the fact that groups of people do is an indicator that we should at least critically examine the doctrine. In a free and just society, we should be able to freely critique any religious doctrine, and not be accused of being prejudiced against the people who follow that religion.

            Tolerance of individuals is a must. Tolerance of their belief system is not. Once we get past the idea that we must tolerate everything or else we’re being prejudiced, the sooner we can critically evaluate outdated ideas and practices and become a better society.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Suffering and Religion

I'll admit it. I found out about Brittany Maynard from a click bait title on my Facebook feed. Hers has all of the parts of a perfect viral story: beautiful 29 year old with lethal brain cancer decides to legally end her life through the Death with Dignity Act in Oregon. Maynard's story is bringing back to life the debate surrounding the idea of physician-assisted suicide and the ethics of terminal patients willingly ending their own life instead of suffering through their disease.

Ever since the announcement last week, people from around the world have weighed in on the subject. I have ignored most of the discussion on the topic because this is, and should be, a personal decision. However, a religious friend of mine posted about a plea to Brittany to continue to live and dispose of her pill. This response caught my attention because it comes from another terminal cancer patient.

Kara Tippets, the author, suffers from breast cancer that is slowly killing her. Naturally, she should have some valued insight on fighting such a terrible disease and staying strong throughout the difficult treatments. Tippets instead says that Maynard's choice of action is not "what God intended". She further implores Maynard to stay alive because her suffering will bring beauty to her life. Maynard's doctors fed her a lie about the pain and suffering in dying of terminal brain cancer. Additionally, Tippets states that Jesus died and overcame the death that these women are facing in cancer. Jesus only wants to shepherd her to death the natural way.

After reading this response, I was speechless. Tippets is asking a woman making the most difficult decision of her life to change her mind because of the big guy in the sky. Tippet seems to think Maynard should suffer through losing her ability to walk, talk, eat, and control her bodily functions because Jesus will show her beauty in a horrific death. My first thought was "where is the beauty in losing the one thing we value the most, our mind?".

As I tried to piece together Tippet's train of thought from her post, I noticed one overarching idea. The promise of paradise in a religion overrides every other option. Religion tends to make people think that suffering is the only way to reach the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick. I am not saying that people who believe in a deity would not chose to end their life like Brittany or vice versa. I am saying that religion has a funny way of deluding people into thinking that suffering a prolonged and painful death is worthwhile to potentially see Heaven. It is hard for secularists to wrap their mind around this concept because we do not have a paradise at the end of our lives. We just have a wooden box buried under six feet of dirt. For us, there is no beauty in the suffering of terminal cancer, only pain and sadness.

Whether or not Brittany goes through with her end-of-life plans, one thing is clear. The decision a terminal patient faces in this situation is difficult and emotional. If the individual decides to forgo suffering for a dignified death on their own terms, I believe that is their right. Religious people should not condemn patients for valuing their life over a potential paradise.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Preacherman's Past

Tommy Nugent is coming to U of I on October 29 to perform "Preacherman", the hilarious story of his journey from a youth minister to an atheist. Before you see his show, you should know a little more about his experience, so here it is.




Tommy was born into a household where his mother was religious, but not his father. Even so, he and his mother attended Baptist churches semi-regularly. Later on, his mother enrolled him in a private Baptist school from sixth grade through high school. From his Baptist high school, he went straight to North Central Bible College in Minneapolis.

During his time in college, his fear for his father's soul grew, and he cried over the idea of his father going to Hell. But then, at the end of one summer, Nugent was given the opportunity to give a sermon at his church; his dad attended church to hear it. Then, during the altar call, his dad stepped forward and committed to faith, and Nugent's fears became joy.

Nugent started his ministry and his work as a youth pastor right out of college at age 21; he moved to Detroit with two other pastors, and he soon had a congregation of over 100. At the time, he thought the Holy Spirit was calling him to do this. However, just two years later, he de-converted, and he now believes that what originally drew him to become a youth minister was actually a combination of his desire to be onstage, his desire to follow in the footsteps of his youth minister, and to have a job that would help the world.

Tommy Nugent will elaborate on and continue his story on October 29, so stay tuned for the hilarious "Preacherman" coming soon!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Freethought Book Project and Pen Pal Program

If any of you ever volunteer for Urbana-Champaign’s Books to Prisoners Project at the IMC (Illini Media Company) building as I have in the past (or really, know anything about prison systems and their libraries), you already know the heftiest and most frequent donations received tend to be Bibles. NIV, KJV, pocket Psalms. You name it, they probably have it. And within the warehouses of such charity groups, shelved somewhere between ‘mythology’ and ‘Christianity’, you will find the requisite atheist author. But it’s akin to searching for a green pea buried deep in a vat of mashed potatoes. You’ll discover it eventually, you will, but who knows when another green pea will appear again?

In response to the rampant proselytization in penitentiaries, Leslie Zukor founded the Freethought Books Project in 2005, which is now coordinated by Jesse Markus (CFI-Portland) and Sarah Kaiser (CFI field organizer). The main goals are to a) simply provide literature of a secular nature b) demonstrate to those incarcerated that, indeed, religion is not necessary to live an ethical life. On one hand, it’s straightforward volunteer work. On the other hand, it’s also a way to build a secular presence in institutions we know are already dire and uncomfortable to say the least, especially for the nonreligious and other minority groups.

But it doesn't stop at books. Last year, CFI's volunteers began a pen-pal program and received, according to their website, “over 40 requests” for correspondents. While that doesn’t seem like a lot at all, it should be considered that even if we round up with statistics, there aren’t a lot of openly atheist, secular, and agnostic people in prison.

You would think that with such a reasonable amount of requests, everyone would have someone to talk to and they’d be flooded with items to send inmates and everything would be joyous, lovely, peachy-keen, completely covered.

Alas. I wish that was the case. Truth is, there are many prisons that don't even have libraries. Inmates are only allowed to possess a certain number of books (to keep within their cells). Sometimes three, sometimes seven. It varies from state to state, and from one correctional center to another. Some are allowed hardbacks, some strictly paperbacks. Sometimes there’s a weight limit on what can be sent. Sometimes there’s not. It’s infinitely more complicated than it should be, but the most direct and supportive action secularists can take is to donate magazines, journals, and texts while also making a concerted and personal effort to reach out. These are people struggling daily to tolerate existing in cramped, festering quarters with not-exactly-nutritional food and little time to themselves. 

Regimentation, dehumanization, overpopulation. It’s not a pleasant picture, and for those with limited options in reading material, it’s worse. For those without access to some form of education and sparse contact with the outside world, on top of being surrounded by strangers and the ugliness of the judiciary branch, it’s psychologically damaging in a way we will never realize or understand unless we’re there.

If you would like to contribute, please visit CFI's website for more information about the Pen Pal Program and how to send gently used and brand new literature.