bookmark_borderHeadscarf politics

I often have occasion to complain about the nasty politics of the religious right in the United States. Still, to keep things in perspective, I should also be grateful it’s not an Islamic religious right, and that our political culture, as corrupt as it is, is at least not a Middle Eastern political culture.

Here’s an example from a Turkish Islamist newspaper, Vakit. It’s old news, from last month, and Türkan Saylan, the woman pictured, just died a week or two ago. But the level of nastiness is still impressive.

The commentary next to the picture of the dying Saylan, undergoing chemotherapy and its associated hair loss in the last stages of her struggle with cancer, is supposed to be a comment by a reader. It says “She dedicated her life to enmity toward the [Islamic] headscarf. At the end of her life she was forced to wear a headscarf. My God you are capable of everything!”

Saylan was a leading medical doctor, and a staunch secularist, much reviled by the Islamist press.

bookmark_borderThe Constitutional Rights, Privileges, and Immunities of the American People

I have not contributed any blog to the Secular Outpost for quite some time. And a decent respect for the opinions of humankind requires an explanation. The truth is that I have been very occupied with writing a book about the general theory of the constitutional rights of the American people. I am pleased to annouce that my book has been just been published. So here’s the citation: The Constitutional Rights, Privileges, and Immunities of the American People: The Selective Incorporation of the Bill of Rights, the Refined Incorporation Model of Akhil Reed Amar, Dred Scott, National Citizenship and Its Implied Privileges and Immunities, the Second Amendment Right, and Much More (Bloomington, In.: iUniverse, Inc., 2009). The book is available from the publisher,,, book retailors, and other sources.

The provisions of the Bill of Rights (Amendments I-VIII) (adopted 1791) do not as such apply to the states. It is by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment [n. 1] (adopted 1868) that most rights specified in the Bill of Rights are deemed by the Supreme Court to equally apply to the states. When jurists and writers talk about a state law abridging the First Amendment, this is just a way of speaking but a misleading one at that. The Court’s theory is that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is the incorporating instrument. But this theory is very analytically flawed and historically unjustified, as I show in my book.

My theory is the privileges or immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that incorporates the freedoms of the First Amendment but no other right specified in the Bill of Rights. Of course, there are rights, other than the First Amendment freedoms, that are constitutional privileges or immunities of the American people and that the states are forbidden to abridge. These include freedom of travel throughout the United States and freedom from racial and ethnic discrimination. That the privileges and immunities of the American people are predicable of all free American citizens does not entail that only free American citizens are entitled to these rights. The due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment are virtually equivalent in meaning, and have important substantive aspects. But, for example, although the due process clauses by their own force each limits the power of government to abridge freedom of speech and the press, this does not mean that the clause prohibits every abridgment of freedom of speech or the press. However, freedom of speech and the press cannot be constitutionally abridged by the United States and the individual states because of the First Amendment and the privileges or immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. According to my theory, the specific right of each due process clause equally includes some other rights specified in the Bill of Rights as component rights (e.g., the Eighth Amendment right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment); but some other specific rights are not component rights (e.g., the specific right of the grand jury clause of the Fifth Amendment).

Last year, the Supreme Court held in Heller v. District of Columbia that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is a personal right unrelated to service in the militia. Whether the Second Amendment right is incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment is the big issue that will sooner or later come before the Court. My book contains a thorough discussion of this issue and concludes that the Fourteenth Amendment does not incorporate the Second Amendment right. However, it is another question whether there are some gun-rights that are within the substantive aspects of the due process clauses by their own force. That is, it is at least fairly arguable that the due proces clauses by their own force prohibit some but not all infringements of the Second Amendment right.

My book discusses religious freedom and church-state relations. I expect that a fair number of those who (like me) reject any positive religion (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam) will strongly disapprove some of my conclusions on constitutional issues pertaining to religion. All I ask is that my book be given a fair reading on these and other matters.

I now hope that I may contribute from time to time to the Secular Outpost in defense of commonsensible naturalism.

Arnold T. Guminski _____________________________________________________________________________________
[n. 1] Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States, and of the State in which they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person shall any State deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

bookmark_borderAllen’s Fatuous Screed

I see that Taner has already had a crack at at Charlotte Allen’s particularly inane and virulent diatribe against atheists, but I think it deserves a bit more comment. Actually, “deserves” is not the right word, because that implies that her effusions possess respectable intellectual content, worthy of reasoned riposte. They do not. Her remarks deserve contemptuous dismissal, and, after all, doesn’t such a screed serve as its own best refutation? What a colleague of mine said about the postmodernists applies also to Allen and her ilk: “There is an algorithm for refuting them: Quote them.” Alternatively, a response of the same intellectual quality of Allen’s piece would be to thumb one’s nose in her general direction while emitting a loud Bronx cheer.

Alas, things are not quite so simple. As practitioners of Big Lie propaganda from Dr. Goebbels on have realized, even transparently fallacious charges, if repeated loudly enough and often enough, will often stick. This is why even harangues like Allen’s need to be challenged, though it is distasteful and tedious to do so.

Allen has three big complaints about atheists: (1) They are angry, (2) they whine that they are victims, and (3) they don’t take the serious arguments of theists seriously, but dismiss religious people as stupid and uninformed, and harp on a few, hackneyed issues like Darwinism or Biblical inconsistencies. Let’s consider these in turn:

Allen says that “what primarily seems to motivate atheists isn’t rationalism, but anger…” Her evidence? Well, she cites the “big four” bestselling atheists–Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens–and looks at some atheist blogs and websites. The article’s biographical blurb says that Allen is the author of an academic-sounding book, The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus. If she followed the same standards of research in preparing that book that she did for this article, it must have a scholarly quality approaching Chariots of the Gods or The Bermuda Triangle.

Adopting Ms. Allen’s methodology, I could peruse some of the leading religious right crusaders and cruise some of the more scurrilous “apologetics” websites and blogs and conclude that Christian charity and meekness have rather eroded in our day. Indeed, if we look at the scriptures of the major theistic religions, we might conclude that, paraphrasing Allen, what primarily seems to motivate God is not love, but wrath. The Qur’an, for instance, contains much furious denunciation. Here are some samples:

Sura 22.9 “As for the unbelievers, for them garments of fire shall be cut and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatever is in their bowels and skins shall be dissolved and they shall be punished with hooked iron-rods.”

47.4 “When you meet the unbelievers, strike off their heads; then when you have made wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives.”

9.29, 30 “Declare war upon those to whom the Scriptures were revealed but believe neither in God nor the Last Day…”

9. 5-6: “Kill those who join other gods with God wherever you may find them.”

8.12: “I will instill terror into the hearts of the infidels, strike off their heads, then, and strike off from them every fingertip.”

Likewise the Judeo-Christian scripture has so much vindictive violence and genocidal smiting that it prompted Tom Paine’s famous eruption in The Age of Reason:

“When we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon rather than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”

The point is that it is a cheap and facile charge to say “atheists are angry.” I could with precisely equal justification say “Christians are angry” or “Muslims are angry,” or “God is wrathful.” With the magic of biased sampling and selective quotation you can prove anything you want.

Now some atheists are angry–Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, to name three (Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is quite cooler). But being angry is not per se blameworthy. Indeed, there are plenty of things we should be angry about. Allen must mean that D, H, & H are mad about things that they should not be angry about. However, to make this case, she would have to engage the arguments of D, H, & H, but logical argument, as opposed to arrogant moralizing, does not appear to be her strong suit.

Do atheists play the victim card? Well, if we ever do, we are pikers compared to the leading spokesmen of the religious right. They have a boundless capacity for self-pity and a bottomless sense of martyrdom. For instance, the removal of “Roy’s Rock,” a 2 1/2 ton granite block inscribed with the Ten Commandments from the Montgomery, Alabama judicial building, was loudly decried as proof of the “persecution” of Christians in the U.S. It was this perfectly absurd charge of persecution that Jon Stewart satirized before the last election when he wailed “Oh, if only a Christian could be elected President of the United States! Maybe 43 of them.” Do I make this point merely to toss a tu quoque in Allen’s face? No, but to make an eminently Christian point: Remove the beam from your own eye before you remove the mote from another’s eye.

Finally, do atheists ignore the serious arguments of theists while concentrating on red herrings? Well, if Ms. Allen had read such atheists as, say, Wallace Matson, J.J.C. Smart, Adolf Grunbaum, William Rowe, J.L. Schellenberg, J.C.A. Gaskin, Michael Martin, J.L. Mackie, Evan Fales, Taner Edis, Michael Tooley, Richard Carrier, Theodore Drange, Jordan Howard Sobel, Graham Oppy, Robin Le Poidevin, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Nicholas Everitt, or, ahem, yours truly, she would have found the serious episemological and metaphysical arguments of theists addressed in great detail. She upbraids atheists for allegedly not considering the serious arguments of theists. Too bad she is so woefully incapable of taking her own advice with respect to the serious arguments of atheists.

bookmark_border“Whining atheist” stereotype

Charlotte Allen of the right-wing Manhattan Institute has an op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times, “Atheists: No God, no reason, just whining.” (Thanks to Eddie Tabash for the heads-up.)

It’s not much worthy of attention except for its airing of some common stereotypes about nonbelief the wave of “new atheism” seems to have activated. Allen describes atheists, represented by Dawkins, Hitchens & Co., as angry, whiners, suffering from a persecution complex, intellectually shallow, etc. etc.

Thing is, I agreed to give a folklore colloquium on campus in the Fall semester. (Yes, I do carry interdisciplinarity to the point of madness.) I figured I could best make some connection to folklore if I brought in a pop-culture stereotypes angle. The title of my talk is “Angry Atheists and Soulless Scientists: Stereotypes of nonbelief in the era of the ‘New Atheism.'”

In other words, I should be collecting stereotypes about nonbelievers, especially those current in the media and those activated by the new atheism. Articles like Allen’s are helpful examples.

While I’m at it, do you have any suggestions about stereotypes that strike you as being very prominent? I welcome comments.

bookmark_borderWhy atheist activism?

Take a look at the most recent cartoon by Ted Rall, comparing people getting together based on nonbelief in God to “non-fans of golf com[ing] together around their common non-interest.” (I don’t know how relevant it is to the cartoon, but Rall believes in some sort of God, though he is not conventionally religious.)

Rall has a point. Shared nonbelief is not much of a basis for even a very thin form of community. And nonbelievers are notoriously impossible to organize.

On the other hand, Rall also misses the point. In highly religious societies, lack of belief, never mind opposition to belief in God, can be a significant social handicap. Even the sense of being disadvantaged by a common underlying cause is a powerful incentive for people to get together. There are some real common interests expressed by the current “hot” period for atheism.

Now, the situation becoming as absurd as in the cartoon might well be an aspiration for many nonbelievers. I, personally, would welcome the sort of social change that would make my skepticism about religion as socially insignificant as my preference for real football (soccer) over the American abomination we please to call football. But we’re far from such a condition, and given how deeply religion is lodged in human nature, it is hard to see how to get there.

In that case, as far as I’m concerned, there is a role for atheist activism and nonbelievers coming together around common interests, into the foreseeable future.

bookmark_borderNot fully human?

There’s a fuss going on in places like (excellent site for nonbelief-relevant news!) about this statement on BBC radio by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, that “atheists are not fully human.”

I’m not sure I agree with the fuss. In the context of his religious beliefs, O’Connor’s statements are reasonable. Most theists, liberals as well as conservatives, think that there is something important lacking in people who do not believe. Most also think that atheists are closed to—even, sometimes, that they deliberately shut themselves off from—critically important transcendent depths toward which religious people orient themselves. And again, it’s hardly unusual if theists think this has moral consequences, not to mention that nonbelievers therefore are deficient in appreciating the purpose humans are made for. “Less than human” strikes me as merely an honest, even mild, way of expressing that conviction.

As long as such sentiments don’t have strong political consequences, such as handicapping nonbelievers in public life because they are not “fully human,” (and I see no reason to think the Cardinal meant this) I don’t see much of a reason to complain here. If some nonbelievers are tempted to get nicely outraged over these sorts of statements, well, perhaps that should also lead them to more sympathy toward Muslims who get worked up over insults to their way of life.

bookmark_borderBook on benefits of religion?

I recently got a question, asking me what book I would recommend to read up on arguments for the social and personal benefits of religion.

I had to admit, I don’t know of any single book that fits the description, but it would be mildly surprising if some such book didn’t exist. There is a sizable social science literature on the benefits of religion, but my acquaintance with it is limited: brief discussions in other books, the occasional article, and so forth. It would be nice to have some resource that summarized the current state of debate and research for those of us who are not social scientists.

If anyone who reads this knows of a book that does this, even approximately, please write a comment or email me.

bookmark_borderAtheism and Naturalism

Nicholas Covington asked me to review his new book, Atheism and Naturalism.

So I’ll give it a mention. It seems interesting enough. Most of the material is based on the sort of exchanges familiar from debates on various Internet venues concerning atheism and the Christian version of theism. There’s also some wandering over familiar territory from the philosophy of religion. If you enjoy Internet-style wrangling over religion, you may like the book.

That said, I’m probably not the best person to review the book. I’m ambivalent about the type of debate that goes on in electronic environments. It’s freewheeling, but it also lacks quality control and tends to promote a logic-chopping kind of style. And I’m more than ambivalent about the philosophy of religion: I’m largely against it. I think of naturalism not as some kind of alternative metaphysical position or a viewpoint in the philosophy of religion, but as an approach that promises to get us out of that rut.

bookmark_borderWhen secularism collapses

It’s commonplace to note that secularism and secularity are not the same worldwide. Secular politics and secular society means somewhat different things in France and the UK, never mind India or Turkey or the USA.

Still, there are commonalities, and I think social scientists who speak of secularizing trends in the modern world draw a decent broad-brush picture of a process driven by technological and economic changes. But there is also a political aspect of secularization. For example, increasing opportunities for broad-based education and increased literacy rates have religious consequences. We should expect rising fundamentalism, as religious masses gain more direct access to sacred texts. As the old religious elites lose power, there are also openings for more secular changes. But mass education, and breaking the power of established clergies, happen as a result of political struggles, not some inescapable reflection of underlying economic structures. Secularization has a political history.

I also have an interest in the flip side of that observation: it should be possible to reverse secularization by political means. In the US, observers who worry about Religious Right attempts to re-Christianize American institutions are right to worry, I think. Indians who oppose Hindutva, Pakistanis who want to go back to a less aggressively Islamic character for Pakistan, and secularists worldwide who see religious politics as the curse of our generation have a point. It’s not difficult to find examples of reversals in the degree of secularism of the legal regime or political climate of a country.

But how many examples do we have of a much more serious reversal in secularity, indeed, of a collapse of secularism? I guess France after the revolution has examples of the restoration of official Catholicism. I don’t know enough about French history to say whether “collapse of secularism” would apply to such episodes; I suspect it would be overblown. Then there is the Iranian revolution of 1979, which established a theocracy. But I think “collapse of secularism” may be overdoing it here as well. The Iranian case might be better described as a failure of a particular regime’s forced secularization attempt.

I would like to suggest that the recent history of the Republic of Turkey comes closer to the description of a collapse of secularism, though the process has been long (decades) and still has not run its course.

Turkey is still routinely described as a secular state, and as the Muslim country that has become most Westernized and secularized. This can be misleading. The segment of the Turkish population that is secular in a social and lifestyle sense has always been small, largely confined to a elite stratum. It has been larger and more powerful when compared to other populous Muslim countries, but that is not saying much. And even in legal and governmental terms, Turkish secularism has been incomplete and ambiguous. Islam has not been the official religion of the Republic, but religion and state have never been separate. The Sunni clergy in Turkey are, and always have been, government employees. The Turkish state has attempted to control and tame Islam, through a powerful Directorate of Religious Affairs charged with promoting an official version of Islam that is intended to support modernization efforts. And the Turkish state has never been neutral toward the religion of its citizens. High government and military officials have always been Muslims, with no exceptions.

All that said, the peculiar Turkish version of secularism still served to create a degree of governmental distance to religion, and even sustained a good deal of social space where many Turks, especially among elites, could live as modernized, nominal Muslims, or even had almost nothing to do with religion. For many secularized, nonobservant Turks, Islam became akin to an ethnic label. It was something you vaguely belonged to due to birth and history, but it was not necessarily a matter for passionate faith and commitment. You believed in God and darkened the door of a mosque for funerals only. And in an environment of urban anonymity, you could get away with not even doing that. In these senses, “Turkey is a secular state” or “Turks lead more secular lives than Arabs or Iranians” were, once, accurate enough as broad-brush statements.

Today, this is much more doubtful. The country has been, and continues to be, re-Islamized. Culturally, educationally, in the realm of political legitimization, Islam is riding high. More people are more observant more visibly. Moderate Islamists have controlled the government, and enjoyed strong democratically-based support, on and off in the 1990s and continually since 2002. They are now institutionally entrenched. Civil society also has a more Islamic coloration, not to mention the mass media and many powerful corporations. Various religious sects, such as the Fethullah Gülen movement, are very influential in all aspects of public life, including the police forces.

Only the military holds out as a secularist power. But the Turkish military’s ability to influence politics is more limited today—which, if you hold to democratic ideals, is a good thing. The military even shows signs that its customary resistance to infiltration by sects such as that of Gülen is breaking down.

So today, I have great difficulty in describing Turkey as a secular state or a secularized society. I don’t see how such labels could possibly fit any longer. Flawed and incomplete though it was, Turkey once enjoyed a measure of secularism, and throughout my adult life, I have been watching its slow collapse with every passing year. Turkey is, now, a Muslim country first and foremost, in practically all aspects of public life. Yes, it is very different from Saudi Arabia, and I expect it always will be very different from that and other examples of theocratic rule. But that just points out a failing of the secularist political imagination. Secularism and theocracy are not the only alternatives. It is possible to be a deeply religious, nonsecular country, with more-or-less democratic politics, where religion conditions law and legitimates policy without a clerical class in control of government or economic life. Turkey in the present day is ever closer to being an example of such an unsecular, even desecularized country.

And when historians and social scientists look at the story of how secularism collapsed in Turkey, I expect that they will give politics its due, along with broader postmodern social changes. Turkish varieties of Islam have been politically successful. They have preserved piety against long-term secularist pressures to confine Islam to the mosque. They have re-Islamized Turkish society from below, successfully mobilizing rural and newly urbanized populations against older secular elites. They have successfully organized civil institutions in education and in the productive economy, and taken over or at least infiltrated many governmental bodies.

Turkish secularists today have to recognize that it is over—they have been defeated. They have been reduced to hoping for a military coup. From the outside, they look like a discredited, antidemocratic elite trying to hang on to their old privileges. That perception is, I think, largely accurate. Turkish secularists now have to think about how they might live, perhaps as an enclave, within a society with a distinctly and unapologetically Islamic character. Or they can emigrate.

Personally, it does not matter greatly to me. I left Turkey 22 years ago, and have long come to terms with political defeat. Indeed, I have become much more ambivalent, compared to my youth, about secularism—certainly the Turkish variety of top-down, imposed secularism. Even as an object lesson that may say something conn
ecting to my current political worries about secular life in the United States, Turkey might be too distant and too dissimilar. But this, perhaps, I can say with some confidence: secularism is a political matter. Those of us who enjoy a more secular way of life in the Western world have to defend it, politically. It is very much possible to be out-organized, out-funded, even out-thought by people who think our lives should be organized among much more explicitly religious lines.