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The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression? April 13, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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1 comment so far

Many have argued that the burka ban reflects an intolerance of Islam and is a form of restricting religious freedom. But these claims make the presumption that religions should be exempt from scrutiny when it comes to compliance with basic human rights, or even social integration policies. The truth is that the French constitution protects the individual’s rights to religious freedom, but also the sanctity of secular, liberal values. In other words, the law seeks to protect an individual’s right to practice his religion, as long as those practices do not conflict with the liberal values of equality.

Firstly, what we all must realize is that there is a limit to religious tolerance. This is true for France, the USA, Singapore or any other country in the world that claims to support freedom of religion. One cannot hide under the shield of “religious freedom” to defend practices that cause harm to an individual or to society. In countries like Singapore and the UK, it is illegal to cause religious offence or incite violence, even if such actions are condoned or even encouraged by a particular religion. So it should come as no surprise that a believer’s right to wear the burka must be balanced with the offense that it causes to a society that believes in equality between the sexes. France has simply decided that French secular values trumps this right. (On a related note, why don’t I have the right to walk around naked in Singapore? Because the government has decided that my right to wear nothing is trumped by society being offended by public nakedness due to its conservative sensibilities. Fair enough.)

Secondly, wearing the burka is not a religious requirement, but a cultural one. There are millions of Muslim women all over the world that do not wear the burka. Even in France, there are only about 2,000 Muslim women that do wear it. A ban on the burka does not compromise one’s ability to practice Islam in a peaceful and moderate manner; but it only affects those who interpret Islam in a radical way that involves the indoctrination of girls in an environment that is anti-choice and devoid of personal freedom.

Cultural freedoms have limits too: the cultural practices of female genital mutilation, forced marriages and honor killings are outlawed in the civilized countries that recognize an individual’s basic rights to safety and to choice over the supposed value of preserving cultural norms. It is fallacious to suggest that all culture is sacred simply because many people have been practicing it for a long time. Such an argument can be used to defend all sorts of atrocities that are otherwise traditional and cultural: bride snatching, slavery, the list goes on.

Ultimately, whilst there must be tolerance and respect for different religious and cultural practices, a line must be drawn somewhere. France has decided to draw the line at inculcating young boys and girls with misogynistic notions of a woman’s worth being related to how she dresses. And frankly, I see little problem with them choosing to draw the line there – I too would like to live in a society where girls and women are not continuously faced with threats of shame and dishonor, and boys and men are not taught to use excuses like a woman’s dressing to defend rape and disrespect. Cultural and religious tolerance does not automatically mean tolerance of oppressive cultural and religious practices.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

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Christian evangelicals and their religious high horse February 20, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Religion, Singapore, Unbelief.
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4 comments

As a kid, I never enjoyed telling religious people I that was a “freethinker”. It wasn’t because I had any desire to be religious, and I sure as hell wasn’t ashamed of my freethinking. No, it was because my declaration as a freethinker almost always immediately brought about a look that was a mixture of condescension and pity, and – as if they were doing me a huge favour – was often accompanied by an offer: would you like to come to church with me some day?

For some reason, the word “freethinker” gave most people the idea that I was not (yet) exposed to religion, that I was brought up in a nonreligious environment and had not had my eyes “opened”, that my entire sense of morality, spirituality and philosophy had yet to be examined.

But by the time I was a Primary 3 schoolgirl (in a catholic school, no less), this was certainly not the case. I knew all the hymns, prayers, rituals and Bible stories. I even had friendly debates with my Christian friends about the existence of god during recess and we always came to the same stalemate: they were convinced, and I simply wasn’t. My status as a freethinker was not due to a lack of a religious influence, but a result of it. Believe me, if there was any 9 year old that could argue against the existence of a benevolent omnipotent being, it was me. I got so sick of the assumption that the only reason why I was a freethinker was because I had not yet been “awoken” by the Bible that by the time I reached secondary school, I felt it necessary to add a qualifier to my answer. Are you a Christian? No, but I went to Christian schools for the past 9 years, just to ward off the umpteenth attempt to invite me to church.

Perhaps this kind of assumption was a product of the religious demographics of Singapore. Many, if not most of the Christians here are the result of conversions and are “born again”. Or perhaps this was a byproduct of the religion itself; if Christianity is the one true religion, maybe believers cannot fathom why anyone would be an unbeliever unless they had not yet been exposed to the “wonders” of the bible. Either way, both mindsets probably play a part in believers looking at nonbelievers with condescension, as people who are not yet enlightened, as people to be “saved” from the abyss of unbelief.

In my teenage years, though I was comfortable with my unbelief, I was acutely self conscious of being openly atheist and subject to judgement by these so-called “enlightened” born again evangelicals. Even in a secular secondary school, it was almost as if going to church was “cool”, a sign that one was a member of the upper echelons of society. Being a Christian was synonymous with being English educated and intelligent enough to reject the pagan gods of one’s parents. Needless to say, things did not get much better in my Methodist junior college, where freethinkers, Buddhists, Hindus and Taoists alike were “fair game” for conversion; a goal with a motive and enthusiasm behind it not unlike that of the missionaries that sought to convert the primitive idol worshipping natives of the new world.

But what Christian evangelicals often fail to realize is that this desire to evangelize is presumptuous, disrespectful, and sometimes downright insulting. Who are evangelists to assume that just because I do not subscribe to a particular religion, it means that I have not given each religion a considerable amount of thought and based on my own reasoning, rejected them all? Who are evangelists to judge Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, ancestor worship (or other more mystical beliefs of their parents) as beneath Christianity; beliefs that should be outgrown? Who are evangelists to assume that my life as a “heathen” is any less fulfilling or meaningful than that of a believer such that I would need a belief in a deity to fill some kind of purported emptiness in my life?  Whether or not they realize it, believers who keep trying to convert the rest of us are making these condescending and patronizing assumptions. They are sitting on their religious high horses, with the belief that their worldview is superior, that one cannot possibly be spiritual, moral, or contented unless one subscribes to their philosophy.

Today, I’m perfectly happy to describe myself as a freethinker because I now see the word for what it really means – I think freely; free from doctrine, free from conformity to a status quo,  free from an authority telling me what to think or do. But this doesn’t mean that I sit on an atheistic high horse either. Granted, I may never agree with the beliefs of Christianity and some of them may even seem nonsensical to me. But one thing I’ll acknowledge is that its believers, through a combination of personality, personal experiences and brain chemistry, hold those beliefs to be true. All I am asking is for believers to give me that same respect to acknowledge that the tools I use to seek the truth – science, reason, rationalism – have meaning to me, make sense to me, are true to me, and that my atheistic worldview is at least as valid as their theistic worldview. To assume that they have the monopoly on truth and morality is mere arrogance. It is unfortunate that many sects of Christianity emphasize the importance of evangelism, but in such cases it really is up to the individual to choose: is it more important to be a good Christian, or to be a tolerant, respectful and empathetic human being?

Footnote: I was inspired to write this post when I was looking through old comments and found this “gem” here: “The only mandate we Christians have is to lead godly lives and share the gospel with the unsaved. I thank God that He sent someone do that for me because 25 years ago, I was just like you and your readers.” Maybe the author was purposefully making a passive aggressive insult. Or maybe he was simply oblivious to how patronizing he sounded. It always reminds me of how evangelists make me feel when they talk down to me as a “lowly” unbeliever.

An atheist’s holiday message December 31, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Rants, Religion, Unbelief.
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2 comments

I had originally wanted to pen a post on what it means to be an atheist during the holiday season, or rather, what the holiday season could possibly mean to a godless, souless heathen. You see, this is the time of year when excessive public displays of (the Christian) faith is supposed to be socially acceptable. It is CHRISTmas, after all, as many of them like to point out, oh so unaware that the practice of Christmas was actually a pagan festival adopted (or hijacked) by the Christians, and that December 25 is nowhere near the estimated birth date of Jesus. And what kind of holiday encourages you to lie to your children about a fat bearded man in the North Pole watching to see if they’re naughty or good? Probably a holiday adopted by people whose entire moral system is based on a bearded man in heaven deciding who gets to go to hell.

But I digress. All that was supposed to be in my original rant, but I decided not to be a Grinch. Let the Christians have their Christmas, stolen rituals and all.

Then I came across a holiday message that I really did want to share. In his holiday message, the comedian Ricky Gervais shared about why he is an atheist in the most eloquent, non-inflammatory and yet non-apologetic way. I loved his message so much that I even posted it on my facebook, something I rarely ever do, which them prompted some nasty self righteous comments calling me a fool and a corrupter – but that’s another story.

Anyway, the point is that I’m glad that I did not go ahead with my holiday rant because I could not have possibly put things in a better way than Ricky Gervais did.

Wow. No God. If mum had lied to me about God, had she also lied to me about Santa? Yes, of course, but who cares? The gifts kept coming. And so did the gifts of my new found atheism. The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. I learned of evolution -– a theory so simple that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals and us –- with imagination, free will, love, humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza are all good enough reasons for living.

 

Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is. But that’s exactly what it is -­‐ a virtue. Not just a Christian virtue. No one owns being good. I’m good. I just don’t believe I’ll be rewarded for it in heaven. My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life. And that’s where spirituality really lost its way. When it became a stick to beat people with. “Do this or you’ll burn in hell.”

You won’t burn in hell. But be nice anyway.

Ultimately, we cannot assume, and we cannot let Christians assume, that all that we strive to achieve during holidays –  goodwill towards mankind and peace on earth – can be monopolized by one faith alone. Ironically, perhaps the only way we can achive those ideals is to abandon such faith-centric mindsets in the first place.

Radicalism – no single religion’s burden October 15, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Religion.
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6 comments

Today I chanced upon a quiz in the New York Times on the topic of religion. It’s no ordinary quiz. It forces us to rethink our preconceptions of the main religions that we encounter around us and in the news. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, most of us form a certain stereotypical impression of different religions. We tend to attribute certain traits to different religions, and such labelling of certain religions as “good” or “bad” are also conveniently tainted by one’s own religious preferences. Especially in the age of islamophobia, plenty of other religionists are quick to point their fingers at Islam for encouraging extremism and violence, without themselves taking a look at their own religion’s scriptures.

By no means am I defending one religion over another, or accusing any one religion of being especially guilty of promoting radicalism. The truth is that any holy book from any religion can be interpreted in as peaceful, or as violent as one wishes. Instead of just passing off certain individuals as simply “misinterpreting” the holy texts, religious leaders and followers have to first come to terms with accepting just how easily and dangerously their text can be interpreted. And as long as such verses remain in holy scripture, who can blame a devout follower for taking the text too literally? Whose fault is it, when an enthusiastic follower decides to kill unbelievers, or stone his daughter, or endorse acts of terror in the name of religion, if not the religion itself?

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The radical Islam that we see today is no worse than the radical Christianity that fueled the atrocities committed in the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, which is in turn no more forgivable than Zionist or Hindu motivated political violence.

While it may be true that it takes a certain personal or political motivation to cause an individual to interpret religious text in an extreme way, the question remains: why keep such inflammatory verses at all? Why make it so easy for extremists to justify their cause? Is it due to the blissful ignorance of the nasty parts of one’s own religion? Is the the fear of questioning how something so cruel and violent can be part of a supposedly peaceful faith? Is it the silent endorsement of the truth of such verses, whilst still maintaining a veil of tolerence necessary for living in a multi religious world? Is the comfort of cognitive dissonance really worth the number of lives destroyed by religious extremism?

If any new religion or philosophy today came up with a manifesto containing half the amount of violence glorification as that in the holy texts of Christianity, Islam and Judiasm, its leader would never be able to get away with the simplistic explanation that the verses were meant to be taken metaphorically. There is no reason why any religion should be spared of taking responsibility for providing the rationale for radicalism and extremism. “Kill all unbelievers! P.S. don’t take that literally” Just doesn’t cut it.

Karma and the Just World Fallacy May 23, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Philosophy, Religion, Society, Uncategorized.
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18 comments

The concept of karma is almost universal, only differing in name across other belief systems and cultures outside of Buddhism.  Some label it as “you reap what you sow”, or “what goes around comes around”. It basically involves the belief that the world is just; that the universe (or god) is fair, and kind deeds and hard work are rewarded while evil doers are punished.

Now you may be wondering: what so bad about such a worldview? Sure, it may be naive, irrational or overly optimistic, but what harm could possibly come out of the idealistic notion that the universe is fair and just? If anything, wouldn’t this worldview motivate some to be good and kind?

Well, aside from the fact that there is nothing commendable about performing good deeds for the sole purpose of collecting “gold stars” to get into the universe’s (or god’s) good books, this “just world fallacy” also produces a troubling artefact when one is made to rationalize the gross injustices and tragedies that befall seemingly good people.

When one believes that the world punishes bad people and rewards good people, what happens when they observe someone falling victim to an act of evil or to unfortunate circumstances? Unable to solve the contradiction of tragedy befalling someone good and moral in a universe with a karmic self correcting mechanism, the “just world” believer would then come to the conclusion that the victim must have done something to deserve his fate. Believing that the world is fair and just leads one to the troubling outcome that is victim blaming.

The just world phenomenon and the victim blaming that comes along with it are far from uncommon. In a study conducted by Lerner (1966) in which subjects watched videotapes of a “participant” of an experiment being made to undergo painful electric shocks, the subjects devalued the victim and viewed her as deserving of her fate.

Belief in a just world was found to be strongly linked to religiosity and authoritarianism. (Rubin and Peplau, 1975). This hardly comes as a surprise, considering how the extreme religious right has been known to attribute hurricane Katrina to god’s punishment for New Orleans’ acceptance of homosexuality, and the 2004 tsunami to god’s revenge for the “wicked ways” of women. When “everything happens for a reason”, some people can’t help but weave god’s (or the universe’s) vengeance into the picture in order to rationalize an otherwise inexplicable force of nature. It is also hardly surprising when such rationalizations evolve into a sense of superiority and self righteousness: “I told you so. This is what happens when you don’t listen to (my) god.”

In a way, believing in a just world is also a form of self preservation and a source of comfort. It is so much easier to simply assume that only bad people fall victim to catastrophes or acts of evil, because by believing so, we are convincing ourselves that since we are good people, bad things won’t happen to us. Since I am not a slut, I will not get raped. Since I donate to charity, god/karma will ensure that I won’t get cancer. All these little lies we tell ourselves help us feel in control of our lives, instead of being subject to an unforgiving and unfeeling world where we are vulnerable to the evil acts of others, or to the indiscriminate acts of mother nature.

But when we start to blame the victim, we not only cause the victim to suffer unnecessary guilt and shame, we also stop being (rightfully) outraged by the real sources of injustice. We start to fixate on the untruth that rape victims somehow “ask for it”, instead of focusing on the fact that rape and violence is unacceptable and always the fault of the perpetrator, regardless of how the victim dresses or acts. We start to rationalize that the poor and disadvantaged deserve their fate as punishment for being stupid and lazy, instead of looking at the structural, institutional and social impediments to their upward mobility in society. We start to tell ourselves that only stupid, careless people who show off their wealth fall victim to theft, instead of focusing on the choice made by the thief himself or addressing the possible social and psychological reasons that may cause one to resort to such forms of crime. We focus on blaming HIV/AIDS on homosexuality and promiscuity instead of on finding the cure, or on preventive education, or on providing subsidised medication. We even rationalize that victims of domestic abuse must have done something to deserve it, or were at least stupid enough to remain in an abusive relationship, instead of spending that time and energy offering our empathy.

Ironically, staunchly believing that the universe is naturally just prevents us from addressing the real injustices of the world. As long as we assume there is a supreme being or magical force that will somehow ultimately mete out justice, we fail to take responsibility for ensuring that justice is served. The sooner we can accept the fact that bad things do happen to good people for no reason, and that nobody deserves to be raped, or assaulted, or murdered, or to live on the streets, the sooner we can replace disdain and self righteousness with respect and compassion.

Belief is not a Choice March 8, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Philosophy, Religion.
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13 comments

I’ve heard a fair share of testimonies by Christians who proudly proclaim how they “chose” to believe in Jesus and how much their lives have changed for the better after that decision. I have also faced many proselytization attempts based on the general idea of “choose Christianity or suffer eternal damnation”. These religious zealots present the choice as an easy one: believe in Jesus and enjoy eternal life in heaven, or disbelieve and endure fire and brimstone in hell. Who would be so stupid or defiant as to deliberately choose to get into the bad books of an omnipotent omnipresent being? But the fatal flaw in this is the assumption that we can choose what we believe in the first place.

We must first define what “belief” is. Simply put, believing in something means that your brain perceives that it is true. Can it be a conscious choice?

Let’s take a simple, secular example. Let’s say that there is a red ball placed on the table in front of you. Can you choose to believe that the ball is blue? What if someone offered you $100 to believe that it is blue? What if someone threatened you that if you did not believe that it was blue, you’d get a smack on the head? What if someone told you that not believing that it’s blue is immoral? It’s one thing to be able to make yourself say “that ball is blue”, but it is another thing altogether to actually force yourself to believe it. When you choose a belief knowing that it is false, is it really considered “believing”?

Well this is precisely how the skeptic sees the Christian argument and Pascal’s wager. The evidence, if any, is simply not sufficient enough to convince me to believe that the metaphysical assertions made in Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, are true. Telling me to choose to believe that Jesus is god is as absurd to me as asking me to choose to believe that I have two heads. Presenting me with Pascal’s wager does not make any difference: a belief cannot be consciously switched on or off, regardless of the purported consequences of unbelief.

Belief is not a choice, because the word “choice” implies that there are alternative options. It is impossible to choose to believe in something knowing that it is false, just as it is impossible to reject a true belief. Belief is something we have no control over; it is simply a stance taken by our brains after having considered the available evidence.

It makes me wonder what people really mean when they say that they have chosen to believe in Christianity. If you are already sufficiently convinced by the bible, religious leaders, or anecdotal evidence, then what is there to “choose”? But if you actually need to make a conscious choice, be it to disregard your skepticism, to ignore contrary evidence, or to simply disallow counter arguments from reaching your eyes and ears (aka the “la la la, I can’t hear you” method) then isn’t that just self delusion? Committing such acts of intellectual dishonesty to oneself is simply not worthy of respect, in my books.

Being “sensitive” enough to hide our intolerance February 10, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Religion, Singapore.
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6 comments

It was all over today’s newspapers: Pastor Rony Tan of the Lighthouse Evangelism independent church was called up by the Internal Security Department for his insensitive comments about Buddhists and Taoists in videos posted on his church’s website.

Let’s not pretend that this is shocking news. I even wrote about it a couple of posts ago: religious texts, especially those of monotheistic faiths, do not lack in their praise and justification for the intolerance of other beliefs. So why would it be surprising if the religious leaders themselves expressed such opinions? Having attended some Christian services myself (Don’t ask why. Long story), where palmistry, astrology, atheism, Islam and “mystical” religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, were described as being the “worship of false idols”, “black arts of the devil”, or “sure ways to damnation”, all in the span of a single sermon, I can say that the only thing unique about Pastor Tan’s case was the fact that it was recorded and exposed to the public eye.

All this brings me to an important question: does this mean that such “insensitive” comments should be censored out of sermons? In his apology, Pastor Tan himself stated that he would not make such comments again. The ISD’s position is also one which requires being sensitive to other religions.

But what good would this do, except merely to maintain a thin veneer of religious tolerance over a festering sentiment of continued disrespect and intolerance that is never addressed? What is the point of trying to shield ugly beliefs from the scrutiny of the multi-religious public sphere, when those beliefs are still held in the individual and collective minds of the faithful? Is that really a better option than allowing those ugly beliefs to be expressed, and condemned, out loud? We will never reach true religious harmony (a fragile equilibrium state of peace, maybe, but not harmony) if we continue to mistakenly equate “the hiding of intolerance” with “tolerance”.

Racism, intolerance, sexism and homophobia have been protected and defended by the untouchability of religion for too long. It’s time we question the morality and validity of religious beliefs and texts, instead of just sweeping these jarring examples of intolerance under the rug of false harmony. Censoring intolerance would not make it disappear, especially when such intolerance and disdain for those who are not “like us” continues to be glorified in holy texts.

In this way, I’m glad that Pastor Tan said what he did, and all of us Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and nonbelievers came to know about it. If anything, it serves as an excellent opportunity for religious leaders and followers to re-examine their beliefs, and to open their eyes to see the fuels for intolerance not so subtly hidden in their religious texts and teachings.

Religion is inherently divisive August 22, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Religion, Singapore, Society.
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8 comments

At this year’s national day rally, PM Lee emphasized the importance of religious tolerance in ensuring the peace and stability of Singapore’s society. It may be the pessimist in me speaking, but I highly doubt that all this talk about “cohesiveness” and “harmony” is going to translate into anything in our real life society until a very touchy and unpleasant subject is acknowledged: the inherent divisiveness of religion.

 

When in comes to something like religion, we are not simply dealing with “I’m on the basketball team, you’re on the swim team, we’re different but we’re equals”. It’s actually more like “I’m on the basketball team, and basketball is the only true and good sport in the world. My basketball doctrine tells me that all other sports are false and inferior and that people who don’t play any sport at all are heretics who deserve to burn for all eternity”

 

A hyperbole, you may say? Well if we boil religion down to its core beliefs and functions, we are simply faced with in group out group politics. A complicated, convoluted version of tribalism. For without defining a “foe”, there is no such thing as “friend”. Without the demonization of others, there is no glorification of one’s own group. The very core of all religions is the identification of a group of people, and along with it the blaming, or shunning, or demonization of the “other”.

 

We just have to take a look at the historical origins of religions and the tribalist themes in holy texts. After all, the origin and essence of Judaism is the assertion that the Israelites are “God’s chosen people”, distinct from the gentiles. The Bible’s Old Testament is brimming with genocidal incitements, where “God’s army” is sent to exterminate the people of other nations (including the Midianites, the Canaanites the Amalekites and the Hazorites, to name a few).

 

It seems that the key aspect of most religions is their emphasis on how “special” one particular group is, and how it is superior to or “more correct” than others. Even today we see examples of how religious dressing and public displays of faith are used by individuals to define themselves as a member of one particular group, and not another.

 

Related to this is fact that it is logically impossible to be one hundred percent certain about the truth of one’s own belief, without also being one hundred percent certain about the beliefs of others being false. Simply put, if I make a claim that Religion A is the one true religion, the only path to salvation, I am also implicitly stating that Religions B, C etc are false, and are paths to damnation and hellfire.

 

Take for example how the key differences in beliefs of the major monotheistic faiths directly contradict with each other. Central to Christianity is the belief that Jesus is God, but Judaism not only rejects this, it also asserts that Jesus is a false messiah – an assertion that Christians themselves may find offensive. Similarly, Islam also rejects the divinity of Jesus, and claims that the Jewish Tanakh and Christian New Testament are corruptions of God’s message. How could such a claim sit well with Christians and Jews?

 

This is definitely not helped by the fact that the holy texts of monotheistic faiths are pretty explicit about the recommended treatment of unbelievers, other religionists, and infidels.

 

The bible not only justifes of the destruction of believers of other gods,

Exodus 22:20 He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed.

 

It also encourages the demolition of the images, altars and places of worship of those with different religions.

Exodus 23:24 Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works: but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images.

 

Deuteronomy 7:5 But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire.

7:6 For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.

 

In fact, just kill all those with religious beliefs different from your own

Deuteronomy 17:2 If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant,

17:3 And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;

17:5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.

 

Apparently we’re not even supposed to trust our family or friends, for those with different beliefs are liars and evil doers.

Jeremiah 9:4 Take ye heed every one of his neighbour, and trust ye not in any brother: for every brother will utterly supplant, and every neighbour will walk with slanders.

9:5 And they will deceive every one his neighbour, and will not speak the truth: they have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves to commit iniquity.

9:6 Thine habitation is in the midst of deceit; through deceit they refuse to know me, saith the LORD.

 

And believers are also advised to shun those who disagree with their religious beliefs

Romans 16:17 Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.

16:18 For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.

 

Christians are also advised not to associate with the likes of us heathens and unbelievers

2 Corinthians 6:14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

 

It’s not just us unbelievers who should be avoided. Avoid all non-christians altogether.

2 John 1:9 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.

1:10 If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:

 

Unfortunately, the Quran is no less forgiving in its advice regarding religious freedom and the treatment of unbelievers.

 

Humiliation and wretchedness were stamped upon the Jews who did not believe in Allah’s revelations

2:61 …And humiliation and wretchedness were stamped upon them and they were visited with wrath from Allah. That was because they disbelieved in Allah’s revelations and slew the prophets wrongfully. That was for their disobedience and transgression.

 

Kill disbelievers

2:191 And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.

 

Don’t believe anyone who isn’t a Muslim

3:73 And believe not save in one who followeth your religion

 

For non-Muslims are “evil-livers”

3:110 Ye are the best community that hath been raised up for mankind. Ye enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency; and ye believe in Allah. And if the People of the Scripture had believed it had been better for them. Some of them are believers; but most of them are evil-livers.

 

Christians are considered disbelievers because they believe in Christ

5:17 They indeed have disbelieved who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary.

 

And don’t take Christians or Jews for friends

5:51 O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them. Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk.

 

When holy texts explicitly state that unbelievers, or polytheists, or those belonging to other religions, or those who are not “god’s chosen people”, are inferior to believers and deserve punishment, how can we expect believers themselves to think any differently? Even if believers do present a tolerant, politically correct version of themselves to the secular public space, we cannot ignore that by virtue of their faith, they are almost compelled to maintain the (albeit non vocalized) view that their own religion is superior to others, and that unbelievers or followers of other religions deserve the eternal wrath of god.

 

But is all hope lost? Not necessarily. As is already apparent in our society and the world around us, it is perfectly possible for people of different religions to coexist peacefully, and even enjoy each other’s presence. But to do so, a certain aspect of internal inconsistency or even cognitive dissonance is required. That is, at least for that point in time, one has to temporarily ignore his religious teachings, in order to allow himself to accept people with opposing beliefs as equals (and not simply some other inferior folk who are going to hell anyway). But religion is something that many would regard as over and beyond the self, the family, the society, the state, or even humankind – is it realistic to expect this of religionists?

 

Tolerance and harmony requires one to compromise his own deeply rooted beliefs about the superiority of his particular metaphysical views. Maybe religious moderates have the ability to compartmentalize their brains and momentarily disregard the sheer hostility that their holy texts encourage against nonbelievers. But to expect such sacrilegious compromise from holy text literalists, religious fundamentalists and right wing extremists (which I’m sure are not insignificant among religionists) is simply wishful thinking. Religious tolerance and mutual respect is and can only be possible when religionists themselves are willing to pretend that certain parts of their holy texts do not exist, for religion itself is anything but respectful or tolerant of other beliefs.

French secularism and the burka June 24, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Liberalism v Conservativism, Religion.
Tags: , , , ,
8 comments

 France is considering a ban on the burka, on the basis that the garment is a symbol of female submissiveness and male dominance, and is thus contrary to the French republican principles of women’s rights. To be honest, I am completely torn as to which side I would take regarding this issue. On the one hand, as a liberal, I am opposed to the idea of the government having a say in the personal choices of its people. But on the other hand, as a woman and as a feminist, I am totally and completely offended by the burka and the rationale behind its use. In this post I will attempt to explain my views, and perhaps come to a rational and consistent position.

 

Why I am against the ban

As I mentioned earlier, (and perhaps way too many times in this blog), I am a liberal when it comes to the limits of government control. This means that I believe that the government has no right to interfere in the personal choices and actions of its people, as long as those choices and actions cause no harm to others. In the case of the burka, I find it alarming that the government would deny women the right to choose how they wish to dress. To me this is no less atrocious and authoritarian than the governments of those Muslim countries which impose the burka or the veil on its female citizens. I don’t think it is wise for a civilized Western country sink to that level.

 

Why I am against the burka

Firstly, the notion of “the freedom to choose the burka” is problematic because how much of these women’s decisions are actually made freely without coercion? Is the choice to cover oneself up really free if that choice is being made by someone who has undergone a lifetime of indoctrination with the message that this is the only proper way for a woman to dress? If a man tells his wife, “you’re free to decide whether or not you want to wear the burka, but only immodest women and bad wives choose to expose themselves.” then that is no longer considered a choice; it’s considered social pressure and coercion.

 

Of course the argument could then be turned around to the western women. Isn’t our society pressuring us to wear makeup and short skirts too? While that may be true, the key difference lies in the degree of coercion. If I choose to go out without makeup, I am merely considered an anomaly amongst women. But if a woman pressured to don the burka chooses not to, she may be shunned by her family and community, often without sufficient education or resources to fall back on. In this way, it is no longer considered a free choice when the “choice” is between the burka and a woman’s means to existence.

 

Secondly, the reasons behind the burka are flawed and incredibly insulting. The main premise behind the burka is this: women should cover themselves up in order to protect themselves from unwanted advances and sexual assault from men. This premise is insulting to both men to women: it assumes that men are sexually aroused at the mere sight of female flesh, it assumes that men cannot control their sexual urges, and it assumes that female sexuality is a negative thing.

 

Take for example, the outrageous and offensive comments made by a Muslim cleric in Australia a couple of years ago, blaming women for getting gang raped because of how they dressed:

“The uncovered meat is the problem.”

The sheik then said: “If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”

He said women were “weapons” used by “Satan” to control men.

Such is the rationale and mindset behind the coercing of women to cover themselves up, and the punishing and ostracizing of those who choose not to. It involves the abhorrent notion that women and their bodies are mere sex objects and should be covered up to prevent men (weaker beings with no self control or dignity) from temptation.

 

But as an educated woman, I know that it is not my obligation to dress in order to prevent men from being tempted. Educated, self-respecting men should know that it is their own responsibility to control their urges and actions. Men are not children, or worse, animals, who have no control over their desires and who require women to remove temptation away from them. Assuming that they are is insulting and simply untrue. Furthermore, the burka is also a symbol of the belief that female sexuality is a threat to men, or even society. At best, such a belief is simply unfounded paranoia. At worst, it is a manifestation of male dominance and the need to control women by limiting their freedoms, their intellect, their voice, and their sexuality.

 

Thirdly, the burka is alienating and dehumanizing. As a garment, it does an effective job of making its wearers both literally and figuratively invisible and indistinguishable to others. Unlike the hijab, which is commonly worn by Muslim women in Singapore and allows us to see their faces and facial expressions, the burka covers the woman’s entire face, only allowing a mesh screen for her to see through. This alienates the woman by preventing her from effectively communicating and engaging with the outside world. It also dehumanizes her because the rest of us can’t help but see her as a mound of cloth, rather than as an actual thinking, feeling human being.

 

Fourthly, arguing that the burka should be respected because it is justified as a religious practice is not good enough. I am against the burka for the same reason why I am against female genital mutilation, female illiteracy, the practice of sati, honor killings and other misogynistic practices which are often justified using religion. In this way I somewhat agree with the French government’s reasons for bringing up the issue:

 

“If it were determined that wearing the burka is a submissive act, and that it is contrary to republican principles, naturally parliament would have to drawn the necessary conclusions,” he said.

 

Religious justification is simply not enough. There should definitely be a limit to religious freedom, and that line should be drawn when religious practices encroach onto human rights, no matter how deeply entrenched such practices are in the religious community. In the case of France, where laïcité is a core principle in their constitution (because of historical problems the State had with the Catholic Church, outward displays of religion in France are now taboo), it is understandable why the French would want to ban something that threatens their hard fought secular values.

 

Fifth, the burka is not “freeing”. It is sometimes argued that women who expose flesh are not taken seriously by men because they are only valued for their looks, while a burka frees a woman by allowing her to be judged for who she is rather than what she looks like. Other than the fact that this is simply false (People will now judge the woman based on her overt and extreme expression of religion more than her intellect or her personality), the burka is in fact highly impractical and restricts many practical freedoms. For example, a burka clad woman would not (and should not) be allowed into a bank for security reasons, and would be ineligible for many jobs as face-to-face interactions are a prerequisite for engaging interpersonal interactions, professional or otherwise.

 

A conclusion?

 

Are the atrocities that are represented and perpetuated by the burka worth compromising my liberal values of non interference in personal choices? For now I don’t think I can resolve my own internal conflict. But ultimately, a burka ban would only treat the symptoms of the problem, and not the true evils of misogyny, female oppression and victim-blaming.

 

Instead, I believe that education is key. Secular, unbiased education (as opposed to religious indoctrination) for women and girls opens up options and opportunities so that these marginalized women have the ability to make informed choices for themselves, so that they can truly be emancipated from such social and religious coercion.

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