Monday, March 31, 2008

Islam and Christianity: Equally Power-Hungry

Many American atheists are alienated by anti-Muslim rhetoric; after all, it's quite often the Christian Right defending their turf against outlanders, which is something we can identify with.

The problem that atheists sometimes fail to recognize is that the challenges of atheism are in reality political ones. And to boil it down, what most atheists oppose is any argument-from-authority that seeks political power, whether that argument-from-authority is religious or not.

Of course, religion is the classic argument-from-authority, but then not all religion seeks political power, and not all authoritarian political orders are religious. This is why American atheists usually don't have a big problem with (for example) Navajo spiritualism - because Navajos have not (for example) demanded that Arizona biology textbooks contain an account of man's emergence into the Shining World, as an alternative to evolution. On the other hand, though North Korea is emphatically a secular state, most American atheists would have a big problem with its denial of freedom of religion - although as Christopher Hitchens pointed out, North Korean "secularism" has become oddly religious in the absence of questions posed to authority.

It's unfortunate that the Christian Right's monopoly on anti-Muslim rhetoric has muddled the issue and made us get that creeping feeling that any criticism of Islam, even extremist Islam, is necessarily serving the agenda of religious conservatives. You hear it from a co-worker, you wait for the "Why can't they just recognize that Jesus is the only way?" You hear it on the news, and you glance at the corner of the screen for the FOX logo. But we can't let that confuse what's important. Much as the Democratic party has finally separated patriotism from religious conservatism in the minds of Americans, we have to separate the recognition of political Islam's very real global dangers from the far-right agenda such criticism has served until now.

As atheists know too well, there are real opponents to tolerance and openness out there, and they're vehement and numerous and organized. Political Islam is in the running for the top spot. Millions would have you live in a medieval theocracy like Saudi Arabia, where women driving cars is controversial and separation of church and state is unimaginable. Picture a Rick Santorum presidential administration, and you're not even close to what Sharia is like (YIKES! Exactly.) Because of simple geography, Europe is having to sort out these conflicts between tolerance and preservation of an open society earlier than North America, due to simple geography: they're closer to Muslim theocracies than Canada and the U.S. One woman on the front lines of this struggle is Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who I will write about soon) is a Somalian-born former Dutch lawmaker and certified atheist hero who wishes we would all wake up.

Karl Popper, quoted at length in American Fascists, said it best:

"Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them."

- From The Open Society and its Enemies

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