Saturday, November 10, 2012

Is America Becoming More Like Europe And Canada?

survey conducted by the Pew Forum on religious and public life indicates that the "nones" - those who do not consider themselves part of any organized religion, represent about 16.1 percent of the U.S., and are growing at a quicker rate than any religion. The statistics are even more encouraging when you factor in age. According to the American Values Survey 2012, the number of those "unaffiliated" by any organized religion jumps to 32 percent for those between the ages of 18-29, and falls to 19 percent for those between 30-49. This shows that the younger you are, the less religious you will tend to be. No surprise by most measures; it is already generally understood that young people tend to rebel against the religious institutions they're raised in and then become religious again as they age. But what is encouraging here as a long term trend, is that the survey also shows that as people grow older, smaller numbers are keeping the religion they were raised in.

For example, among Catholics, there is a 9.4 percent loss from those who were affiliated with Catholicism when they were children, to those whose current affiliation is still Catholic. White Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant and White Evangelical Protestant affiliations saw drops as well although not as dramatic. Those who were unaffiliated with any organized religion as children grew from 7 percent, to 18.6 percent as adults, and represent the only group that saw dramatic increases in numbers between childhood and adulthood.

See the interactive survey results here:

All these statistics provide an encouraging trend towards a gradual reduction of Americans being affiliated with any organized religion, a trend already mimicked in Europe and Latin America. For those 16.1 percent of Americans who are unaffiliated, that does not mean they are atheists. In fact, the survey shows that only 39 percent of the unaffiliated or "nones" consider themselves atheist/agnostic. Some of them believe that god is an impersonal force, others believe in a more traditional god but reject any religion organized around it. Either way, the rejection of organized religion even if one retains their belief in a deity is good news for secularists like myself.

Now even considering the good news, an openly non believing presidential candidate today has little chance to get elected in the U.S. That can all change in a moment however, but in my estimation it will take another 15 - 20 years or so until the hostility towards atheists subsides enough to the point where we can get a plausible chance at the White House.

I suspect as many others do that Barack Obama is a closet atheist, or that he is really far less religious than he has to pretend to be to the American people. This is one of the reasons why I like him. One day I hope in the not too distant future, we will see a time when presidential candidates do not have to pledge their undying love for Jesus Christ, and make the ignorant declaration that their faith guides their every decision.

In some European countries, like in England, candidates running for office do not have to overplay their religion and doing so can actually be seen as a negative. It is odd how in a country like England, which has an official state religion - the Church of England, they have a more secular approach toward their elected officials then we Americans do. I predict given the trend, that this will change in the decades to come.

On issues like healthcare, Americans voted for keeping Obamacare. Now I have given my two cents on healthcare, and fully support a system of "socialized medicine". I believe that it is a basic human right to not have to die if you cannot afford healthcare, and I also think corporations should not be profiting by being able to decide who gets to live and die based on how profitable it is for them. All signs indicate that we are headed towards a more European-style system on healthcare and in the absence of religion from politics.

During the Bush administration in the last decade there was this growing fear among liberals that the U.S. might be heading towards a fundamentally religious and conservative political system, while the rest of the developed world moved closer towards secularism. Since Obama became the president this fear has not been actualized and we are seeing the reverse, but those on the right continue to beat their war drums in the fantasy of a full-blown conservative Christian take over of American politics.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Moral Hypocracy of Religion

Debating with fundamentalist theists is always entertaining, especially on the issue of morality. It is my contention that on morality, no where is there a worse basis for moral absolutes then there is with religion. When cornered, many believing theists admit they disagree with the "absolute" morals of their own religions and struggle with the reconciliation between them and what they believe is moral in their hearts. Yet they still proclaim, often proudly, that through their religion's absolute moral stance is the best and only way to think critically of moral issues. Let's examine this issue in detail on several points.

First, what is moral absolutism?

Moral absolutism is defined as "the ethical belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act."

Moral absolutism and relativism can get us into some murky waters here so we have to be careful what we are talking about. Theists of many faiths will reluctantly admit that some moral relativism exists. I recently had a very conservative theist argue that Old Testament morality "was relative to a particular time and place." Thereby he admits that some moral actions are right and wrong, depending on where, why and how they were committed. That is moral relativism.

I would agree with this considering the virtually infinite number of possible situations where a moral choice must be made. The questions of where, why and how they were committed is often a determining factor to calculate its morality. However, this does not have to force you to dive head on into total moral relativism. The standards by which you calculate an action being wrong or right can be the same and apply across all cultures and time periods equally, even if different situations result in different determinations as to whether something is right or wrong.

No religion gives us a complete moral code. We are always going to be debating what is or is not moral, whenever new issues arise. Just think of the invention of the internet and how many new laws and regulations needed to be debated and passed as to what would be moral or not with this new advance in technology. No holy book will decide that, for this we must use our brains.

I further argue, that no religion really gives us the standards by which to calculate moral actions. In ethical philosophy, there are three main branches of thought to calculate morality: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Religion uses a divine command theory of ethics. That means god commands it to be right or wrong, period. So if you're a Muslim, eating pork is wrong, because god said so. If you are a Christian, you cannot suffer a witch to live, because god said so. You are required to accept these moral commandments and thinking for yourself and reconsidering what is right or wrong is strictly off limits: The boss has already done the thinking for us.

The atheist's problem with this is the source of these ethics. We are told that we just have to accept that these commandments were revealed to people years ago, from an all knowing god, and perfectly translated through many languages and many generations to the present. What the atheist insists upon, is questioning everything, and every moral, so that nothing is accepted by blind faith. And if we can consider a better moral based on the moral calculations of utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, guided by the latest science, then we should be perfectly right to discard the moral we derived from religion.

The Cherry Pickers of Morality

I often enjoy accusing theists that they are merely cherry picking their morality from their holy books to suit their personal beliefs, while they discard many of the other "absolute" morals. In Christianity, the Bible condones a host of "absolute" morals that include various forms of slavery, fathers selling their daughters into slavery, indentured servitude, forcing underage girls into marriages with older men, stoning to death all homosexuals, adulterers, witches, unruly children, those who worship false gods, those who work on the sabbath, allowing the rape of female captives in war, and throwing war captives off cliffs. There are certainly more that I do not have the time to mention.

Now if a theist adhering to a moral absolute standard believes that these above mentioned morals were relative to a certain time and place, that is hypocricy. You can't have all morality to be absolute and relative at the same time. This puts the theist into a bit of a conundrum.

So a theist could ask, "Does admitting perplexity about the Bible’s teachings in one area, while strongly affirming its teachings in another area, make me a hypocrite?"

Well it would certainly make the theist a selective literalist. I personally do reject the Bible on account of several things. First are its contradicting, and fallacious moral teachings, that are the product of an angry, jealous and superstitious tribe, bent on justifying the harm they committed by believing it was divinely sanctioned. Second is the historical and scientific inaccuracy when compared to modern science.

As an atheist I do not accept the authority and validity of the Bible. So how then should Biblical morality be interpreted? If one must continue believing in the god of the Bible, they should take from the Bible whatever morals are beneficial, and disregard whatever is no longer relevant. This is pretty much exactly what almost all theists do anyway. Most logical Christians today know the Bible in its entirety is not meant to be taken literally, and a strict literalist interpretation of the Bible will only continue to shave away adherents as a result of the torrent of secular criticism. The best hope for religion is to reform itself to include what modern science and philosophy provide us. If not, religion, much like the republican party, will continue to see its numbers of adherents decline with time.

The theist could counter with a comparison, "Should we reject science and its findings because it is not entirely amenable to our understanding?"

There is simply no comparison of the practice of science and the practice of religion. First, as I've written before, science is just the method by which we build and organize natural explanations for everything based on testable evidence and predictions. Science is an activity, it is not a set of faith-based beliefs. No one who uses science is forced to commit themselves to one particular scientific theory or not. There is no hell for not believing in string theory. Although when the evidence for a scientific theory is overwhelming, scientists will sometimes look down upon those who deny it (just think of how ridiculous flat Earth proponents look today).

Religion is a set of dogmatic beliefs surrounding a deity that requires faith to believe in, and skepticism and doubt about these beliefs are frowned upon. Comparing science to religion is to compare apples to oranges. They are two different camps. The scientific understanding of matter at the subatomic levels, however perplexing, is not tantamount to our understanding of morality from a Biblical perspective. Scientists are not "revealed" scientific truths from an absolute authority that they then have to reconcile with contradicting testable results. In religion however, we are "revealed" not only moral truths, but scientific "facts", that we then see are contradicted by our moral intuitions and the natural world.

The Role of Science in Morality

When Europeans first encountered black Africans, they didn't even consider the Africans to be human beings. They thought of them as some kind of sub-species, without the same intellectual and emotional capabilities as Europeans. This falsely held belief lead to centuries of slavery and colonization that they helped justify with the Bible. Today with modern genetic science, and the unraveling of the human genome, science has proved that all human beings share a common ancestor and that all human beings came from Africa. In effect, science has shown us that we are all Africans. With this new found scientific knowledge, one cannot justify the inferiority of African people with their previously held beliefs.

Having scientific knowledge about ourselves and our world is necessary for making the best possible moral choices. The reason why I don't regard Biblical or religious morality with any serious regard, is because they were decided at a time when humans lacked the most basic scientific understanding of the nature of reality. We used to be a people who believed in the powers of alchemy, sorcery, witches who could control the weather and disease; we believed that the world was flat, and that it was the center of the universe, that being left handed was a sign of wickedness, and that children should be buried beneath the foundations of buildings to ward off bad luck. Why would anyone seriously consider believing forever, moral cues derived from a time when this ignorant nonsense existed?

The problem with religion is that it is philosophy frozen in dogma. Just as we shouldn't have considered permanently freezing all of our beliefs when we were ten years old, the ignorant "wisdom" of the Iron-age should not be our permanent guidelines on how to live and think morally.

We may never have all the scientific knowledge of ourselves and the universe to guide our moral thinking. What we should do then, is make the best moral decisions given the (always) limited knowledge that we have and continue to improve them as new information is derived. This is called moral growth and we all do it, whether theists like to admit it or not.

By What Basis Is Biblical Morality Unethical?

Theists claim that an atheist is in no position to critique Biblical morality since he doesn't have his own absolute standard to judge it by. To this I respond in two parts. First the theist has no absolute standard, since all theists reluctantly admit that morality is at least in part, relative. Imagine a world with no human beings. Who would the ten commandments apply to? Lions? Dogs? The ten commandments are only relative to human beings existing. We cannot expect animals to behave to our moral laws. So all morality is at least relative to the human species. Furthermore, think of lying. It is considered generally wrong, but who would argue against lying to save a life, such as if Nazis came knocking at your door to ask if you were hiding Jews and you were. This is situational relativism which the Christian theist also reluctantly agrees is true.

Second, in what sense is morality objective? Any argument made for whether something is moral or not, has to be justified for a reason. So for example, kindness, love, compassion and fairness are good in and of themselves for justifiable reasons. It doesn't help us any better at all to believe there is a god who says these things are also good. Would kindness, love, compassion and fairness be any less beneficial to the beings affected by it if there was no god, or if god didn't agree that these actions were good? Of course not! No one's opinion, not even god's, makes any difference as to whether kindness, love, compassion and fairness are good things. They are naturally good in and of themselves and do not require to be backed up by authoritative power.

We get our moral intuitions from the sociobiological evolutionary process. As a species of social primates, human beings had to learn to get along and live civilly with one another. Living in small tribes for hundreds of thousands of years, everyone was dependent on each other for survival. Collectivism reigned supreme. In the modern world, we've had to adapt this tribal way of thinking to a world where we largely don't personally know our neighbors. The great struggle of humanity has been to look past race, ethnicity and differences to recognize all fellow humans beings as extended members of the same tribe. The tribal and ethnic warfare of the Old Testament is indicative of our early failures to understand this. That is another reason why the validity of absolute morals from this era should be disregarded.

In Conclusion

I'd like to summarize my points:

  • Religion and theism cannot provide an absolute basis for morality. Every religion created has relativistic morals for different situations and morality is only relative to human beings.
  • Divine command theory of ethics is a "might makes right" reasoning to understand moral truth.
  • The religious all cherry pick their morality. Furthermore, since some morals contradict themselves, the theist is often forced to cherry pick morals. 
  • There is no way to compare the endeavour of science with the dogmatic practice of religion. One uses the scientific method to find natural explanations of our world; the other asks believers to frown upon doubt and skepticism and to accept "revelations" as fact. 
  • Scientific knowledge has greatly helped our moral understanding and the morality of religion came largely before the scientific era, that is why many of its teaches seem ludicrous.
  • Some actions are naturally good or bad in and of themselves regardless of anyone's opinion of them.  The effects of actions are objective regardless of what someone's opinion of it is. Introducing a deity to the situation merely adds one more unnecessary opinion.

Finally, on morality the theist should consider these questions:

  • Couldn't it be possible that the counter-intuitive morality of the Bible is largely a product of our Iron-age superstitious thinking, which lacked the most basic understanding of science and human nature?
  • Isn't trying to reconcile Biblical morality so that it all fits into modern morality simply a futile waste of time? 
  • If Biblical morality is indeed right, why is it right? By what basis is this justified? 
  • If Biblical morality is indeed right, shouldn't we still be practicing it now? What are the justifications for doing so or not doing so?
  • Is something good because god commands it, or does he command it because it is good?
  • If something is good because god commands it, then couldn't he command murder to be good?
  • If god would never command murder because murder is inherently bad, then murder must naturally be bad in and of itself, and couldn't this be recognized by human beings without the requirement of god? 

The Election Results 2012

Yesterday I made my way over to my local voting center and I voted for Barack Obama as I did in 2008. I spent the night watching the news results closely to see who won, just as I did in 2008 as well. Of course I am thrilled that Barack Obama was reelected president but there were also several other notable state ballot measures concerning marijuana legalization and gay marriage.

  • Maine and Maryland approved gay marriage initiatives, the first time gay marriage has been approved at the state level with a popular vote. Washington state appears to be doing the same with its referendum.
  • Marijuana legalization passed in Colorado and Washington state with ballot initiatives.
Since I both agree with the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage I am quite happy with the results. The fact that gay marriage and marijuana legalization are winning popular votes in states, (something we never saw before), is further indication of the liberal trend towards more reasonable morality. 

If you look at the younger generation today, which would be those under 35, there is a clear consensus of support for both of these issues. Some might argue that it is due to an indoctrination of the public school systems with liberal professors, but others like me believe that as we learn more about human nature from science and the consequences of our actions, it logically concludes that those who are born gay are given equal rights to marry who they choose, and that our war on drugs has been an abysmal failure in need of policy change.

I look forward to the day where I see a United States more consistent with the values I hold. It is only a matter of time before this happens. The older, conservative beliefs of the past are going to die out as quickly as the aging people who hold them. I must say that this moral evolution does not mean to indicate that morality changes with each generation, but rather that we are evolving towards a better moral code, more compatible with the latest scientific understanding of our world. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Do Atheists Have Faith In Science?

One accusation of those who have religious faith in god, is that atheists too have that same faith in science. However, this is not true. Science is just the method by which we build and organize natural explanations for everything based on testable evidence and predictions. So having faith in science would be like having faith in math. Math is the method we use to determine and calculate numeric representations and the relationship between them.

No one will argue that math is not a very reliable way of dealing with numbers; our modern world depends on it, and even animals can use it. Science, likewise is a very reliable way of finding information about our world, because it has proved its reliability time and time again. All of our modern technology is the result of science, and one doesn't require any faith to understand its brilliance.

Furthermore, no atheist justifies evolution by saying it is true because "Darwin says so." I have debated with theists whose last resort at reasoning is to say "because the Bible says so" or "because the Qur'an says so." The idea that a supposed "holy" book merely saying something in and of itself makes an assertion true, without any credible evidence to back it up, is reasoning gone bankrupt. That is faith, plain and simple.

Now science cannot explain each and every aspect of our universe and it might be impossible for our body of knowledge to contain everything that there is to know. Theists jump on this and assert the hand of god where there is a gap in our knowledge. And if that gap is ever closed, they then have two gaps that they fill with the hand of god. The god of the gaps method is a very weak way to assert the existence of any deity. It is best that theists simply do what they do best, which is to maintain that believing in god is a matter of faith.

"Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do."
                                                                                                                                    -Bill Maher

"Where there is evidence, no one speaks of 'faith'. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence."

                                                                                                                         -Bertrand Russell

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why Secularism?

Debating with theists recently regarding opposing conceptions of government has lead me to ask the question: Why secularism? In other words, why do I believe in a secular government? Is secularism a religion unto itself? And is a secular government unfair to those who oppose it?

Secularism is defined as "the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of a religious element." Phrases like "the separation of church and state" are often evoked. Secularism is necessary in order to prevent laws from being passed that are based not on reason and science, but from a religious customs, traditions, rules and scripture. It it the absolutism of morality guided by revelation that I have such abhorrence for.

The idea is very simple: in a pluralistic society like the U.S., where many faiths are practiced, secularism becomes necessary to prevent laws from being passed and enforced onto people that are based on another person's religion. Most of us would not want to be forced to live under the rules of a religion that we do not hold, such as Islamic Sharia. Many people who are of a particular faith also do not want their religion's rules legislated onto them because they feel that many of their religion's obligations are a matter of personal observation. This is why secularism has been so successful in the West and continues to spread around the world.

As an atheist, I want to live in a society whose laws are rational and just, and based on reason and science. Religious laws sometimes enforce conduct that when examined through the light of reason and science, make little to no sense. For example, Jews and Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. Why? Because god says so. Now imagine a law forbidding pork from being served, regardless of whether you are a Jew, Muslim or not. "Because god says so" is not a justifiable way for a law to be passed, for reasons rather obvious to the atheist and theist alike. This also gets you into the problem of just whose god will it be whose commandments get inscribed into law. You will either have to have a national religion or some sort of religious partitioning that will usually lead to prolonged conflict. To prevent all of this, separating religion from government seems to be the obvious solution.

But the argument is far from over. Let's look at some issues made by some of those critical of secularism. Some claim that secularism is itself a religion, and that a secular government is merely one that has secularism as its state religion. It is certainly possible to define religion many ways. If religion is defined as to not include a deity, but to simply represent a system of beliefs, such as a political ideology, then one could twist out an argument that makes secularism look like an imposing force like so many theocracies today and of years past. The problem here, is that if you dilute the definition of religion to include any set of beliefs, then every belief could be come a religion. In other words, being a democrat or a republican can be your religion. Being a socialist or a capitalist can be your religion. So then under this diluted definition of religion, wouldn't our capitalist economy actually be a religion being imposed on every American, regardless of whether they agreed with it or not? All governments have to impose some system of rules and beliefs onto their citizens. It is just simply impossible to have a system so free that no one has anything ever imposed on them. That would lead to anarchy.

Now what about the person who opposes secularism? Are they being treated in a similar manner to how an atheist would be treated in a theocracy? In a theocracy, the atheist will have to be subjected to religious laws, at home and within the workplace. What they eat, who they can have sex with, how they can dress, whether they can drive or not, might be affected. They might have part of their income taken and given to the state religion, they might face penalties for not observing religious duties that could include jail time. They might not be able to speak out and criticize the state religion or the religion's leaders, with penalties ranging from fines to death. It might also be illegal to influence others with another religion or political ideology with similar penalties. A theocracy can force the believer and non believer alike to live as close as possible to the religion's rules, and this may include violations of some of the most basic of human rights.

Under modern secularism, those who wish to observe their religions can do so freely, so long as it does not violate common sense laws based on reason and science. So for example, if your religion allows the forced marriage of underage girls to older men, if it allows honor killing, or if it prevents various justified civil liberties, then the secular government will have to step in to prevent this. This is no more of a violation of one's religious freedom as it is a protection of other's rights. If your religion does not recognize these civil rights, let me remind you that all Abrahamic religions condone various forms of human slavery. So the emancipation of slaves in the American south under this argument would technically qualify as a secular government limiting the "rights" of slave holders to continue their practice of slavery. The moral problem we see when faced with religion is that as the forces of modernity, precipitated by morality guided by a deeper scientific understanding of reality, clashes with Iron Age ideas, we are increasingly seeing hostility in a culture war where the battle lines are drawn in our classrooms and bedrooms.

Freedom gives you choice; it gives you options. If you don't like gay marriage, don't have one; if you don't like abortion, don't have one; if you don't like eating broccoli, don't eat it; but do not prevent others from doing so. And if you are against any morality based on reason and science because it violates your religion, then mount an argument based on science and reason against it without appeal to scripture. Revelation just doesn't cut it as a valid argument.

Finally, I want to add that it is certainly possible that a secularist can become so fundamental that they begin acting like the theocrats in various oppressive regimes. When secularists start acting like adamant communists in their treatment of religious freedom, I oppose them as I would the theocratist. Freedom of conscious is fundamental and must remain so. So I guess therefore what I am really against is any system that stifles freedom, whether it be theocratic or secular. Modern liberal secular democracies offer us the best hope for a free society, with the most justified laws, based not on Iron Age "revelations" when human knowledge of the world was in its infancy, but by using the powers of science and reason. It is because of this that I regard secularism as the best political system.

Friday, November 2, 2012

How To Talk To A Christian: Debating School Sanctioned Prayer


It is rare that I get to discuss religious issues with true believing theists in the secular metropolis of New York, but every once in a while I come across one. A few weeks ago at a student discussion group for atheists, a young-Earth creationist Christian name Daniel Mann joined in and as you can imagine, some debate ensued over religion's role in the public school system. We exchanged information and we soon began debating my blog post regarding school sanctioned prayer in public school. 

In my blog I think I laid out my point of view pretty clear. School sanctioned prayer violates the Constitution, because it violates the separation of religion and government. So Daniel then disagrees with my definition of religion. Religion to me is defined as the belief in and worship of a deity. But he defines religion as any set of beliefs at all. This would include humanism, Dawinism, socialism, capitalism, and just about every other "ism" or belief one can think of. So an organization that thinks the Yankees are the best baseball team in the world as their core beliefs, would be defined as a religion according to him. Go figure. It became apparent when dealing with theists like Gareth Bryant and Daniel that they assume everyone else's beliefs are just as religious as theirs because they are so religious themselves.  

So I am then forced to point out the obvious problem this would cause, which is that teachers wouldn't be able to teach anything if all beliefs were banned. But the issue is clear, the Constitution does not prohibit these "isms" from being mentioned or taught, but it doesn't prohibit the establishment of religion, which school sanctioned prayer would violate. But this theist and theologian, stubbornly holds his ground, motivated by his emotional dislike of secularism, while completely not addressing the legal issue at the heart of the argument. 

I cannot deny by pleasure in arguing with theists because it exposes their way of thinking which often becomes so evidently absurd. For example, Daniel actually said to me in person that we should bring back stoning to death adulterers now in the twenty first century because it would be an effective way to discourage adultery. Need I say more? People like him want to legislate their religion onto everyone else, while they accuse secularists like me of trying to do the same. What they fail to realize, is that we live in a secular democracy, with a secular constitution, and our nation's founding fathers enshrined this system into our founding documents because they were well aware of the problems that occur when one religious group wants to make their faith-based beliefs into law. 

Below is a transcript of our debate. His blog post is also linked below along with my original blog post that started the discussion.

Our debate:

The ThinkerOctober 28, 2012 8:03 PM
The issue here is whether school sanctioned prayer is constitutional, not whether your personal dislike of certain "isms" can be mentioned in public school. Nowhere in our founding documents does it say that socialism cannot be taught or any other non-religious ideology. Only religion is specifically mentioned because we live in a secular democracy. 

You said "Materialism makes the counter-factual assumption that our material world is all that there is". How is this counter-factual when all that we can test exists in the material world and every other realm is mere subjective speculation?

Mere "consensus" doesn't hold the moral fabric of a culture together. It was the consensus that slavery was moral for many years that allowed it to exist in the U.S. for so long. Diversity in race and religion, united under secularism, that is necessary in order to prevent one religion becoming officialized and imposed onto others is what makes our country so great. That is why the secular model is being followed by more and more countries around the world. So secularism is far from dead, it is on the winning end as it rightfully should.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Malcolm X: The Intellectual

I have been meaning to write a blog about Malcolm X for quite sometime but I just never got around to it. If you know me or have read my blog at some length, you will know that my heroes in life are intellectuals. I had always knew about Malcolm X growing up, but never knew the details about him until the last few years. Malcolm X is often dismissed by many as a loud, angry, militant black Muslim, and that is also how I understood him for so many years. When I began reading about him, and watched his speeches and debates and the documentaries about him, I began to see the human being behind the facade. I have to admit I was quite impressed with his agility with words considering he was largely self educated in prison, and his polemic nature. Malcolm X was a true intellectual, and for that reason he has my utmost respect.

Now it may come as a shock to some who have read my philosophy on religion, particularly Islam, why a polemic black Muslim like Malcolm X could have gained my respect. But Malcolm X was different. He was no Lewis Farrakhan, or a Khalid Abdul Muhammad, rather he is up on the pillars of black intellectuals along with Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin. Malcolm X didn't spend his time preaching radical Islam, he spent his time largely speaking out against the institutionalized racism against black people all over the world at the hands of their white oppressors. It was civil rights, not religion, that was the issue of his day.

Now some have called Malcolm X a racist. I see Malcolm X as a black man coming to gripes with the nature of his reality, within the confines of a culture that at that time, saw him as less than a human, and not guaranteed any of the rights that all Americans were told that they have and should enjoy. He reacted as only one could imagine, given his life experiences. He experienced racism throughout his life, his father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, his family house burned down by them too. He experienced just about every form of racism you could throw at a person that it is no wonder that Malcolm X was as pugnacious as he was.

One of the characteristics that Malcolm X had that made him different, was his moral character. After he left the Nation Of Islam, he began to expose the corruption he saw within its ranks, particularly of its leader Elijah Muhammad, who Malcolm accused of having eight children with six of his teenage secretaries. These allegations later turned out to be true. Other corruptions Malcolm exposed of the NOI involved the mishandling of funds to buy expensive jewelry and clothes. It seemed that Malcolm was uncorruptible in his ways and lived according to the philosophy he preached. He was never involved in any sexual misdoings; he never committed any violence towards others. He certainly did professed using violence as a means of self defense, but few of us will argue against this on moral terms.

Towards the end of Malcolm X's life he softened up a bit on his views towards white people. In early 1964 he made the Hajj, the pilgrimage required by all able-bodied Muslims to make to Mecca. There he saw Muslims of all races coming together to celebrate their common humanity and to worship. It was this sight, that Malcolm later spoke of that encouraged him to review some of his opinions on racial attitudes. I am glad that Malcolm made this transition, just a year before he would die, for it bettered his legacy. But what frustrates me, is the idea that a black man from the U.S. would have to travel so far away to foreign lands, and within the Islamic tradition, in order to have to see people of different races come together in unity. What shame this makes me feel for the culture of the United States of America at that time, preaching freedom on the one hand, while turning on the fire hose with the other. Although I proudly affirm the core principles of our secular democracy, the history of American racism and prejudice written in blood sometimes makes my stomach turn.

Whether Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the NOI or whether it was part of a larger conspiracy I am not qualified to say. It would have been interesting to see how Malcolm's views changed with the times had he lived. He died right as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was beginning to be implemented and he never lived to see what became of it. Prior to this legislation it can be argued that most previous attempts to enact civil rights for black people were abysmal failures are were never really implemented. Because of this Malcolm X had little faith that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would produce better conditions for his people, and I don't blame him.

Even though Malcolm X was a Muslim and held views that I disagree with, that doesn't mean that I as a pugnacious atheist cannot see him as a human being, struggling for the universal recognition of humanity for him and for his people. His fight was not with atheism, it was for the dignity of black people against white racism, oppression and colonialism, and for this I would fight with him. I deeply sympathize with him and I get brought almost to tears when I think of what he had to go through. He certainly was an interesting human being and sadly died too soon.

Malcolm X    (May 19, 1925 - February 21, 1965)

Malcolm X At The Oxford Debates:

PBS Documentary Malcolm X: Make It Plain:

Malcolm X Interview At UC Berkeley:


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