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Fearless Philosophy For Free Minds: Can Mysticism Co-Exist with Reason and Liberty?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Can Mysticism Co-Exist with Reason and Liberty?

Lately I have noticed a trend in the news regarding the believers of mysticism (religion) and their intolerance for others who freely express views contrary to their beliefs. Obviously this is nothing new; history is replete with examples of religious intolerance including: The Crusades (on the part of both Christians and Muslims), The Spanish Inquisition, The Salem Witch Trials, and virtually every government influenced by Islam from its inception to the present day. Beyond this undisputed history, both the Bible and the Koran have many tales of genocide and God’s wrath against the ‘infidels’ who dared to live according to their own consciences. God’s wrath is not restricted to the ‘sinner’ in either book; innocent people including infant children were wiped out for simply having the misfortune of being born into a ‘wicked’ society. Today we call this terrorism.

Although things were much worse in the Dark Ages, with all the advances in the scientific fields of medicine and technology with unprecedented and almost unlimited access to information, far too many people continue to rely on ‘faith’ as opposed to ‘reason’ to live by. Until the faithful threaten my life, liberty, or property, I have no problem with someone believing that The Great Pumpkin will someday return with gifts on Halloween, that the earth is flat, or that a higher being is guiding every aspect of the entire universe. Unfortunately, far too many of the faithful would love nothing more than to do just that to anyone who simply does not believe in their imaginary friend(s) or perceptions of reality.

As I write this, a man by the name of Abdul Rahman is facing execution for converting from Islam to Christianity in Afghanistan; a supposedly ‘tolerant’ democratically elected Muslim government since the U.S. removed the Taliban from power. Does this suggest that Islam is incompatible with liberty? We recently witnessed the overreaction by thousands of Muslims to half-dozen or so cartoons that dared to portray Islam in an unfavorable light. Those who published these cartoons are undoubtedly in fear of their lives. Do you still think Islam is compatible with liberty? In 2004, Theo Van Gogh, the great nephew of Vincent Van Gogh, was murdered by Muslims who objected to his anti-Islam film titled: Submission (a very appropriate title I might add). Islam, is it compatible with liberty?

Rahman ,Van Gogh and the Danish cartoonists are hardly the first targets of Muslim fanatics; in the late 1980’s Salmon Rushdie published a book titled The Satanic Verses which provoked the Ayatollah Khomeni to issue a fatwa (death order) against him and his publisher. Leonard Peikoff of The Ayn Rand Institute wrote an excellent article back in 1989 in response to the fatwa and the circumstances surrounding the lack of courage from the West. Peikoff wrote:

Whether Rushdie's book in particular is good or evil, noble or depraved, is now irrelevant. Once death is threatened, there is only one issue to discuss and defend: an individual's right to speak, whether anyone or everyone likes what he says or not…

[…]

If blasphemy is the issue, we submit that a religious dictator inciting murder is blasphemy against the sanctity of human life. It is said that Rushdie's book impugns the faith of believers. So does science. It is said that the book is offensive to the values of the Ayatollah's followers. So is the United States of America.
Peikoff went even further to criticize American politicians on both the Right and the Left because both sides had “betrayed the philosophic ideas necessary to act.”

Peikoff continues:

Conservatives have become dominated by religionists, who openly base their views on mystical dogma and want the government to impose their dogmas by force which is just what the Ayatollah is doing. Homegrown fundamentalists are in no position to lead a crusade for free thought. Can these groups maintain that it is wrong to ban Rushdie, but right to ban Darwin?

All of us owe a debt of gratitude to liberal groups like PEN and the Author's Guild for their courageous condemnation of the Ayatollah's threats. But these groups do not offer principled opposition, either--because of their philosophic commitment to collectivism and cultural relativism. Liberals characteristically hold that individual rights must be sacrificed to the "public good," and that Western civilization is no better than the "culture" of tribal savages. Those who counsel appeasement as a principle of foreign policy will not and cannot demand action against the Ayatollah.
I know that it may seem like a giant leap from the likes of Ayatollah Khomeni to fundamentalist believers of other religions in America but Peikoff has a very valid point. The danger of religion and mysticism begins whenever believers try to enforce ‘anti-blasphemy’ codes against those who do not respect their beliefs or simply offer another alternative to their beliefs. When someone says that his or her religion is above criticism and should be protected from ‘hate speech’ we find ourselves on a road that leads to censorship, bigotry and tyranny.

Not only has the MSM not stood up for free speech because of cultural sensitivities, the Vatican has also even gone as far to say that free speech does not include ‘offending’ someone’s beliefs. As if that wasn’t offensive enough, Isaac Hayes the voice of ‘Chef’ on the pollitically incorrect and hilarious cartoon South Park has decided that his religion of Scientology is above criticizm. Where has this guy been? Isn’t this the show that routinley makes fun of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Atheists, televangelists, politicians, celebrities, and everything else in-between? Did Hayes happen to miss the episode when ‘The Super Best Friends’ (a parody of The Super Friends which is made up of Jesus, Mohamad, Moses, Joseph Smith, and of course, Sea Man) saved the day from a gigantic Abraham Lincoln who was terrorising Washington D.C. by making an equally gigantic John Wilkes Booth? (if you haven’t watched South Park you are really missing a funny show). So Trey Parker and Matt Stone make a joke of Scientology as the do everything else and what does Hayes do? He morphs into Cartman and says: “Screw you guys, I’m go’n home!”

We all need to lighten up a little bit. Some people ridicule my beliefs. So what! Are my beliefs challenged with both reasonable and unreasonable arguments? Of course they are. I can handle it. Actually I encourage it. This is the primary difference between many people of faith and those who beilive in such things as science over Sunday school, reason over religion, and facts over faith. Go ahead and call me an infidel, I will readily embrace this lable. I’m a heritic and I offend your religion? Maybe your religion offends me. But don’t worry, I’ll fight for your right to believe in any crazy thing you want. Can you offer me the same in return? If so, your beliefs can co-exist with reason and liberty.

Related Posts by Others:
Sultan of Enlightenment by Cox & Forkum (Be sure to visit the link for the transcript of the Al-Jazeera a interviw with Wafa Sultan below the cartoon.)
I don't have an imaginary friend, and I don't date people who do by Jaqueline Mackie Paisley Passey
"God's Land" by Michael J. Hurd
Just Say No To Muhammad's Hit Men: What we've learned from the intoonfada by Tim Cavanaugh

5 Comments:

Blogger Mastiff said...

You are starting from the premise that religion is fundamentally irrational. This is understandible, since the vast majority of religions are indeed plagued with internal contradictions and faulty premises, yet Religion need not be irrational.

My own religion, boiled down to its essence, is absolutely compatible with reason. (Don't want to turn this into a religious flamewar, so I won't tell you which religion I follow. If you care, check out my blog and you'll find out in short order.)

The chief danger comes when an irrational religion is confronted with its own flaws, and rather than adapting in response decides to eradicate its challengers. This is not a danger unique to religion.

The other danger is when a religion advocates a certain standard of behavior that is not being upheld in broad society. Remember that behaviors are typically enforced for a reason. Violating these standards is seen as harmful for society (which it often is). So religions must choose between doing nothing and allowing the greater society to decay, or else acting to stem the decay. Some do so by means appropriate to a civil society. Others use coercion or violence.

This is especially harmful when the behavior being enforced is not, in fact, beneficial for society, such as forbidding women to drive cars or leave the house unescorted.

Yet again, this danger is hardly unique to religion.

Furthermore, the principle of liberty is fundamentally based on the sanctity of human life. This sanctity cannot exist without a metaframework through which to view life, i.e. some sort of belief in Transcendence. Without the sanctity of human life, what is the justification for liberty beyond enlightened self-interest? Why should the strong not oppress the weak if they can get away with it?

You ask, can mysticism coexist with liberty? I ask, can liberty exist without mysticism?

4:12 PM  
Blogger Stephen Littau said...

Mastiff, let me respond to each of your points individually.

“You are starting from the premise that religion is fundamentally irrational. This is understandible, since the vast majority of religions are indeed plagued with internal contradictions and faulty premises, yet Religion need not be irrational.”

You have correctly stated my premise, religion is fundamentally irrational. It seems the more irrational the claim (the creation story in Genisis, Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, the Virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the many miracles of Christ, the resurecction, etc.) the more faith is required. Rational thought is discouraged in most if not all religions. A rational person, for example, would look at geolocical, fossil, archeoligical, and anthropological record and find that all of these contradict the Old Testament’s account of the beginning of life on Earth. For one, many Biblical scholars say that Adam and Eve arrived on the scene some 6,000 or so years ago. For this to be true everything we know about geology, archeology, and anthropology would have to be wrong.

Also, we need to take a look at the historical record: are the events in Genesis compatable with other recorded history? If we say that 6,000 (circa 4000 B.C.) years ago was the beginning of humanity, how long after did Noah build his ark; maybe 500 to 1000 years later? For the sake of argument, let’s say 1000 (3000 B.C.). Time goes on and Noah and his family makes an effort to repopulate the Earth. How much time should we give them? How much longer after that does the Tower of Babel story happen? I would think that at least another 1,000 or so years would have had to pass (but realistically, probably 2,000 to 3,000). If we want to say that the Tower of Babel happened around 2000 B.C. we start running into problems: China’s first dynasty, the Xia Dynasty, began around 2033 B.C. Where then do other major events of human existance take place such as the Asian migration to Norh America during the last Ice Age? Can we still believe the accounts of Genesis literally happened?

“My own religion, boiled down to its essence, is absolutely compatible with reason. (Don't want to turn this into a religious flamewar, so I won't tell you which religion I follow. If you care, check out my blog and you'll find out in short order.)”

It isn’t my intention to start a ‘flamewar’ but I think these kind of discussions are very interesting. I would love for you to share how your religion is compatible with reason as most religions rely on faith. Deists believe in God but not religion. Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson are perhaps the most famous Deists.

"The chief danger comes when an irrational religion is confronted with its own flaws, and rather than adapting in response decides to eradicate its challengers. This is not a danger unique to religion.”

I agree.

”The other danger is when a religion advocates a certain standard of behavior that is not being upheld in broad society. Remember that behaviors are typically enforced for a reason. Violating these standards is seen as harmful for society (which it often is). So religions must choose between doing nothing and allowing the greater society to decay, or else acting to stem the decay. Some do so by means appropriate to a civil society. Others use coercion or violence.”

When government forces an individual to do something, there should be a ‘good reason.’

”This is especially harmful when the behavior being enforced is not, in fact, beneficial for society, such as forbidding women to drive cars or leave the house unescorted.

Yet again, this danger is hardly unique to religion.”

I agree.

”Furthermore, the principle of liberty is fundamentally based on the sanctity of human life. This sanctity cannot exist without a metaframework through which to view life, i.e. some sort of belief in Transcendence. Without the sanctity of human life, what is the justification for liberty beyond enlightened self-interest? Why should the strong not oppress the weak if they can get away with it?”

I think the opposite is true when it comes to the sanctity of human life. Non-believers believe that this life is all we have and we should make the most of it. Most believers of religion are more focused on ‘the next world’ and therefore tend not to value this life as much as they might otherwise. What is the motivation for suicide bombers? They do it because they believe that they will be sent to heaven with a harem of virgins. When was the last time you heard of an atheist carrying out a suicide bombing attack?

On your point about justifying liberty ‘beyond enlightened self interest’: what more justification do we need? Why can’t happiness be an end to itself? I explain this in greater detail in my post titled: The Virtue of Selfishness (my analysis of part of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy by the same name). Those who are truly enlightened and selfish will not oppress the weak because those who are rationally selfish understand that treating others poorly ultimatley gets in the way of their happiness.

”You ask, can mysticism coexist with liberty? I ask, can liberty exist without mysticism?”

I believe that liberty’s best chance of survival is when reason is championed and mysticism is rejected. Our constitution is a secular document which expressly prohibits religious tests for office holders and advocates the seperation of church and state in the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Religion has time and again been used as a tool to oppress people. Great philosophers historically use reason to free oppressed people.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Don said...

I thought I'd point out that mysticism is not synomomous with religion. Below are some definitions found on Internet dictionaries:-

The belief that one can achieve direct consciousness of God or truth through meditation and intuition. In mystic practices, one attempts to merge with God or the source of creation.

the articulation of experience beyond any symbolization

direct communion with the divine through behavioral practice

3:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Believing in things for which there is no evidence is irrational. In some cases, it seems the diminishment of evidence tends to strengthen belief, which is a phenomenon some of us find shocking.

10:43 AM  
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8:01 PM  

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