Over the years I’ve been locally involved in a general skepticism movement — although somewhat at a distance, due to how I chose to prioritize my life while I was still trying to escape the kind of deep introspection I now engage in as frequently as possible. A significant portion of the people who frequent skeptics events identify with an ideology that I feel runs too close to cultural imperialism for my politics. This ideology, which is referred to as anti-theism, is described as an active opposition to religious dogma and everything that comes with it: justifications for bigoted ideology and action, religious infiltration into governments, and the kinds of terrible things that privately operated religiously motivated programs can get away with when none of its believers stand up against injustice, even when it is perpetrated against their own children (see this entry for a more specific example, which actually leads some North American atheists to try to claim oppressed status, in part due to terrible things like this happening occasionally to North American atheists from religious families).
The problem I have with anti-theism is quite simple. While I empathize with people who take an active stance against dogma, I cannot stand by them so easily (or at all, in many cases) when they take this to mean that it is their personal responsibility to aggressively dismantle religion at the individual level, seeing this action as a cure-all for bigotry where it is successful. This strikes me as a blatant act of cultural imperialism. And the anti-theists who aren’t helping me to see it any other way are the ones who say things like “Muhammed the child rapist”; or who argue that a particular religion is a thousand or more years younger than it really is; or who argue that because a religious text that was finally put into written word so long ago is an accurate depiction of how every individual across the world today, who subscribes to a given faith, personally acts on it.
Why Is It Called Anti-Theism If The Problem Is Dogma?
This is a question I can’t personally answer. I’m not one of the many white guys from all over North America and North-Western Europe who have published volumes of books on the topic in the past few decades. My best guess is that, in the eyes of people who subscribe to anti-theism, the danger of calling it anti-dogmatism is to invite introspection, equal in magnitude to that which it demands of devouts, onto itself as an ideology. That’s a terrifying thing to do, as anyone who subscribes to feminism can tell you. For many people, it’s the last thing in the world they want to embark upon — making it a self-inflicted top priority obviously runs in direct contradiction to the goal of putting it off as long as possible.
I see anti-theism as an absolutely remarkable oxymoron in this regard. Remember that anti-theism is an aspect of skepticism — well, skepticism is a dedicated interrogation of one’s beliefs in the search for biases, fallacies, and internalized dogma, so that it can be eradicated, thus leaving a further enlightened mind. Doubt plays an essential role in this process. I personally subscribe to the view that this is the most right way to engage with the world as a human being. And I believe that because I am always going to be a human being (until I’m not, in which case, I’m no longer an individual because I’m decaying organic matter, no different from detritus), I will probably never be capable of objectivity, which is itself a construct of an imperfect human mind. But that I’m not capable of it doesn’t stop me from trying. And so, I need doubt to keep myself humble. I can’t resist quoting at this time, from The Satanic Bible: “The truth alone has never set anyone free. It is only DOUBT which will bring mental emancipation.”
The Satanic Bible is a wonderful and relatively brief book that declares itself as dogma. As far as I see it, this is precisely the source of the primary failure of anti-theism, which denies its own nature as a form of dogma, while simultaneously arguing against the identical characteristic of all other self-denying interpretations of the canonized literature of the world’s religions. I actually find this utterly hilarious in my private thoughts. I believe if LaVey were alive today, he would be quietly writing volumes about how anti-theism is the religion of character inversion for atheists who seek to avoid introspection, and cackling flamboyantly about it with everyone he crosses paths with when he wasn’t locked up in his study. The word is schadenfreude. Moving on before this entire blog entry becomes swallowed by an infinite regression of sarcasm…
Religions are contained within innumerable cultures worldwide, and within religious communities, microcosms of culture exist. It is really intellectually dishonest to ignore this fact, as many anti-theists tend to, as if religion exists in a timeless vacuum. When a North American anti-theist in particular starts to construct a debate around how North American culture needs to change because of terrible atrocities that take place in the name of Islamic faith somewhere in a microcosm within the vast and diverse region known as the Middle East, for example, we’ve got a complex situation erupting. When that same North American anti-theist changes their tune and starts making claims about how North American culture needs to change because infant boys are unnecessarily circumcised thanks to the Christianization of the dominant culture, it’s equally complex. Removing religion isn’t like waving a magic wand that makes all the world’s problems go away. In fact — and this is going to sound like an extraordinary claim — removing religion is more likely to make the world’s problems become invisible, but they’ll still be there.
Islam and Violence Against Women in the Middle East
Take, for example, a favourite claim by anti-theists, that women in Middle Eastern countries are forbidden from socializing with the opposite sex outside their own families, or that they are beaten (sometimes murdered) over what they are wearing, or that they are frequently married to abusive husbands. The argument is that the dominant culture is very Islamic, therefore women are oppressed, and the burqa is just (cue instant rimshot) the face of it. When I point out that these events are evidence of misogyny, that hatred of women isn’t representative of Islamic faith, and that women are hated everywhere in the world (suffering the same ends regardless of their religious beliefs, at a frequency that makes me OUTRAGED), I am met with citations of the Qur’an that are alleged to inspire misogynist beatings and murders. Sometimes I am even met with the claim that Islam is a misogynist religion. I’m not even going to dignify the latter any further, but in the former case, what the argument means is that individual Muslim people (regardless of where in the world they are) possess neither autonomy nor independent thought. That’s pure horse shit.
I argue (and continue to argue) that when a woman is beaten, raped, and/or murdered, for reasons that are exclusive to the unequal treatment of her entire gender, she was beaten, raped, and/or murdered because she is a woman. A man doesn’t wear a burqa, therefore it follows that we are talking about gendered violence. This is like how Pickton wasn’t cruising the male escorts or transgendered sex workers who pick up their johns in the Vancouver Downtown East Side — he was selectively targeting high-risk sex workers who were women.
It doesn’t matter what reason(s) is/are cited by someone who has beaten, raped, and/or murdered a woman for no reason other than her gender, because the motivation is misogyny in these cases. It doesn’t matter if the culture is predominantly religious or if it’s secular. It doesn’t matter if it’s dressed up differently overseas than it is here. It doesn’t matter if the victim’s skin colour is different there than it is when it happens here. What is significant is that misogyny isn’t seen as the cause by people outside that particular community. What is significant is that misogyny still isn’t seen as a hate crime in North America, where many other marginalized groups are legally protected by similar legislation. Instead, we ask the perpetrator why they did it and take his/their word for it. That’s like catching a compulsive liar in yet another web of lies, asking them why they tried to deceive you, and then believing that you’ve been told the truth this time. Anything but admitting to yourself that they’ll never admit to you that they hate women and it could have been any one of them. Pickton is a sign that North American culture needs to change because it’s fucked up — we don’t need to go colonizing overseas for confirmation.
Christianity and Infant Male Circumcision
So how about the argument against medically unnecessary infant male circumcision in North America? I have to apply multiple specifiers because this issue is complex. And it still is. The dominant culture in North America is Christian, and though infant male circumcision is a Jewish tradition, it has become syncretised over time as a part of the North American mainstream. Don’t ask me how, because that is in and of itself an extremely complex, multi-faceted equation. But the anti-theist argument is that medically unnecessary infant male circumcision is categorically bad, therefore removing religious influence will magically stop this practice. Except that cultural syncretism means that the practice has become so embedded in the North American mainstream through so many vectors, that this argument doesn’t make sense. Remove religious influence, and those for whom this practice is culturally critical will continue to defend it through many other methods of argument. And a news flash for all those anti-theists who think that because the dominant culture has Christian values, then the practice is religiously motivated: belief in the existence of God isn’t integral to having your infant boy circumcised. Non-religious families choose to circumcise too.
The “intactivist” stance is also extremely insensitive to cultural differences that distinguish various racial/ethnic and religious communities. It assigns a rather upsetting negative value to the people who belong to those communities, remarkably in the case of boys and men who have been circumcised, for a choice they didn’t make themselves. We aren’t just talking about hurt feelings, here. We’re talking about ideas as enormous as racism, sexism, and what attributes of human beauty and whiteness are considered superior to all other attributes of humanity. I’m not arguing that, as an outsider to these cultures, I’m completely satisfied that the right thing to do is just ignore the issue as soon as they say “but I’m Jewish and this is an integral part of my faith” or even “but I’m Christian and this is a part of my religion/culture.” I’m arguing that it is up to those communities to determine that for themselves. For those of us in North America for whom medically unnecessary infant male circumcision isn’t an integral part of our religion or our culture, we are free to discuss why that is and how we can continue passing on our religion/culture to those who are a part of it.
It should be relatively clear by this point that I have adopted the stance that cultural relativism isn’t a categorically terrible thing. For instance, I wouldn’t wipe out all religious influence everywhere in Canada and the United States if it was as easy as an incantation and the wave of a slightly crooked twig. If I were to do that, I would be perpetrating a significant act of cultural assimilation against a vast array of different people throughout North America, who have few other means with which to share in and pass on the cultural traditions that are a part of their racial/ethnic identities. This idea runs exactly parallel to the cultural genocide that has been perpetrated against the colonized aboriginal peoples across the continent (one which continues to this day), and it is equally wrong. There are simply no grounds on which one can argue that the default setting for humanity is atheism, so we should all be forced to abandon it today.
Take a moment to acknowledge just some of the wide variety of cultures that exist in North America. There are many indigenous cultural groups within larger aboriginal communities, who still use indigenous languages and observe the traditions and spirituality of their pre-colonial ancestors (with unbelievable restrictions in Canada thanks to the Indian Act — I am not adequately educated about indigenous life in the United States to speak to the restrictions on their cultures). There are many different communities within Latin American culture, including immigrant families for whom Catholicism plays a defining role in shaping their present-day culture, and Latin@s who were born in the United States and identify with the dominant North American culture. In Black communities across the United States and to a lesser extent in Canada, going to church on Sundays brings people together (importantly, this also provides unique opportunities for women of these communities to come together) in places where significantly limited opportunities present themselves otherwise. Temples (and churches and mosques) for Middle Eastern, Asian, and South Asian communities serve a similar purpose to transmit traditional ways of life, teachings, and resources to the community members that frequent them.
I can’t deny that these are important spaces for any of these communities, because there were times that I needed the people who congregated in similar spaces in my communities. There have always been times, historically and still into the present day, when these spaces were a critical component of active resistance to white supremacy in the dominant culture. They aren’t perfect, but perfect is a standard that is simply too high for humanity. Even North American atheist humanity. And like my stance on a wide range of topics as politically charged as religion is, I’d rather find common ground than actively work towards making an enemy out of everyone who thinks differently than I do.
The way North American culture is presently constructed, many communities need these spaces, traditions, and teachings to maintain and pass on the cultures they come from. Cultural relativism doesn’t mean that each of these communities exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t take away our ability to try to be as objective as possible. It’s a method of intellectual and political empathy that, when limited to the scope of religion, is referred to as interfaith dialogue. I don’t have to give up my belief that there is no God to be able to show empathy to someone who believes that there is one (or more). I don’t have to give up my commitment to the ethics I hold myself to, either. But again, I’m committed to doubt — and that includes self-doubt. As a result, I remain open to the possibility of changing my ideas (including anti-theism, and whether I should have just stayed in bed from 2 a.m. when I started writing this because I couldn’t sleep, as it’s now 5 hours later). It’s also important to note that whether someone believes in Allah, God, Shiva, or Amitabha, simply has no bearing on my beliefs. I do not see the purpose of radical attempts to dismantle another person’s faith, except to create barriers to dialogue while two people start giving each other sermons.