Step right up! That’s right folks, step right up!
Have we got a deal for you! Today only, come get yourself some worldview! And if you get one today, we’ll throw in some values, causes, and issues free! No need to wonder why these free extras come along with your worldview today, just know that you aren’t being charged extra for them, and that if you don’t take them, the people around you will question whether you really are one of them!
OK…that’s a little too overt and heavy upon your head, I think. No subtlety or nuance here, so far. Let’s take a different approach….
I grew up in a progressive world, at least in terms of education. I went to, for 13 years, a Quaker school full of LGBT-friendly activists concerned with social justice and peace, where values such as compassion, tolerance, and diversity were held in great esteem. It was a good education, compared with many other schools, and it gave me values that are overall good, and I liked the Quakers. Mostly.
Part of my family is rather conservative, traditionalist, and even reactionary. My father would throw around the ‘N’ word as casually as I would throw around “fuck” or “the,” and I once made a joke at dinner (when I was an adult, mind you) that I couldn’t eat the ham because I had become a Muslim. My father’s reaction was quite serious and memorable; “No son of mine is becoming a Muzzie.”
This was a few years after 9/11 (fuck…that was 17 years ago, today), and he definitely identified with the pro-Bush (“Dubya”) camp, politically, and wanted to kill all of the Muslims and turn the deserts of the Middle East to glass, as I remember. At the time, all I could think was “Jesus, dad, you really don’t know me; I’m an atheist. I find Islam as silly as your Christianity, and would be very unlikely to become one”. In my world, being a Muslim wasn’t a bad, evil, scary thing, it was just another thing to be. For him, Islam was the enemy.
Neither my father nor I were going to become Muslims, but for quite different reasons; he was afraid of, and therefore hated, Muslims because they were a threat to his idea of a Christian America, and he saw this enmity as defending his traditional view of what that America was and is supposed to be. I, on the other hand, was a member of the early atheist community,* and my opposition to Islam was a mostly rational and educated opposition, rather than an emotional and jingoistic reaction to the presence of an alien religion attacking my tribe.
As the culture wars started to become further defined in the years that followed 9/11, how people saw Muslims became attached to a political identity. People on the political Right, the conservative and traditionalist people who are overwhelmingly Christian and often evangelical (think of the Battle Cry events, and similar proto-nationalist, Christian, and politically conservative events like it, that dominated the Bush years), started to oppose Islam, Mosques, and Muslims encroaching upon American culture and space. The rhetoric was of an invading culture, and the Right was opposed to it vehemently
On the other end of the spectrum, the Left started to take the opposite strategy, and started to defend Islam, and welcome the cultural change that involved more Muslims being welcomed into communities. The values here are the same as those I was raised with in my Quaker school upbringing; compassion, tolerance, and diversity. And, in at least one respect, these values are ones I share; I support the rights of Muslims to live in our culture just as much as I support Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or Pagans. That is, I recognize all of their rights to exist, legally, while I would very much prefer that they all become rationalists and atheists, because ultimately I think religion is not worth our time, as humans, and we should just leave all that behind as the toys of our species’ childhood.
And this is where the problem begins, for me. The world I live within, specifically West Philadelphia, is one dominated by political Leftism, tolerance, compassion, and diversity. There is a strong sense of wanting to welcome people to their communities, whether they share their religious or ethnic backgrounds, where more conservative areas would be more likely to feel uncomfortable with people of color or minority religious traditions moving down the street.
This is just one of the many particular examples of how the differences in political worldview has real world consequences on how we feel about other people and their ideas, and usually you can tell someone’s political identity by how they would think about Muslims; either they are not comfortable or tolerant of them being neighbors, or they are welcoming. Because conclusions, opinions, and support for issues is largely an indicator of one’s identity or inclusion in a worldview, or the tribes which hold such worldviews.
But what happens when you disagree? What happens when you, for example, are uncomfortable with Muslims? Not because their religion is different from yours, but because they are part of a religion that has many problematic beliefs and traditions which are at odds with your values? What if you are uncomfortable with Muslims in the same way you are uncomfortable with people who still practice Catholicism, despite the fact that it has been shown, again and again, that the Catholic church is a criminal organization?
Well, that’s intolerance, right? It’s at odds with one of the fundamental progressive values, and it is too much like the intolerance, fear, and hate coming from the Right of the political spectrum. In other words, it doesn’t fit in with the worldview of most progressive people, so holding such opinions places you in a precarious position, politically and culturally.
Where does that leave you?
The problem with the tribalistic nature of worldviews and the cultures they create is that if you don’t belong in one place, you must belong somewhere else. For many skeptics, atheists, and other people who attempt to use rationality as the framework for making decisions, this leaves them in some middle ground, the political “center,” and you are stuck next to Sam Harris.
Now, don’t get me wrong; Sam Harris has some really interesting things to say about metaethics, and I am on board with how he talks about morality with his analogy of landscapes. When I first read The Moral Landscape, I found a strong argument that was very similar to how I viewed the problem of morality in a world arguing over whether morality was absolute, relative, or objective (no, objective and absolute are NOT the same thing, here). I recommend the book for anyone interested in the subject of ethics.
In fact, the distinctions between those who accept some authoritative moral framework (the Christian Right, for example), those who accept a relative framework wherein we need to tolerate different views are valid (the Progressive Left, for example) is a fair analogy for the Left/Right worldview split I was talking about above in some ways. And if one does not find either satisfactory or convincing, one is left with having to find an alternative. In the case of Sam Harris and myself, that takes the form of objective morality. In fact, watch Matt Dillahunty’s video (below) where he argues for the superiority of a secular (and in his case, objective) morality. Like Sam Harris, Matt and I are mostly eye-to-eye here, and it is a nuanced, middle, position between two views on morality I find equally problematic.
Just like how we view Muslims in America, how we view morality is largely attached to the political and cultural worldview we identify with. All too often I run into Leftists (which I largely am) who become infuriated or offended if I suggest that, for example, some cultures, religious views, or moral values are better than others. To ask a progressive-minded person if they thought that (for example) Islam might be a more problematic religious worldview than Buddhism, to answer yes would be tantamount to seem to agree with the “racist” and “intolerant” Right, and to be seen as having something in common with a political/cultural worldview they are opposed to. They might ultimately agree, but the suggestion is one met with resistance, in most cases.
This is why people like Sam Harris are seen as racist and conservative to people on the Left, and it is why Sam Harris will never think of himself as a Leftist, but rather a “classical liberal” (a term that means, for the Left, he’s actually just another racist and intolerant right winger). There is a disconnect on values, here, which makes Sam Harris not seem doctrinally pure enough to be part of the Leftist tribe, even where Sam Harris largely is a progressive (to be fair, he is resistant to what he calls “identity politics, which would place him more in the center, but he’s much closer to a progressive than a Republican and definitely not a Trump supporter). All it takes is to be critical in a way that alienates him from progressives for them to dismiss him as a racist and conservative, and thus ignored and ostracized by most people on the Left. Tribalism at work.
But these issues are not digital; One is not either completely accepting of Islam, Muslims, and all the cultural, historical, and ideological baggage that can be attached to those sets of worldviews or intolerant and hateful of them. There are nuances here, and in an age of Twitter, soundbites, and knee-jerk reactions to not being confused for the other side of whatever political spectrum you identify with, you are wise to be careful about expressing an opinion that doesn’t fit in with the worldview of those in your tribe. Better to stick to the party line, and keep up appearances.
It would not go over well, in a conversation in the back courtyard of Dahlak where everyone is an anarchist, progressive democrat, or radical waiting for the revolution to finally come, if you were to suggest that 9/11 happened (even if only in part) due to genuinely held religious beliefs consistent with a fair reading of the Koran and the Hadith. No, it was definitely American foreign policy, military action, and colonialism. And this isn’t to say that people all over the world don’t have legitimate political grievances against the United States for decades of bad behavior which might cause people to want to retaliate militarily and with terrorism. But it is simultaneously true that Islam is a great ideological tool to implement such actions, and one could get from Koran to terrorism without any need for political grievances as an intermediary.
Yes, that last paragraph was inspired by a real conversation I had in exactly that space. And yes, my interlocutor insisted that religion could have had nothing to do with 9/11, because Islam is a religion of peace, and it would be intolerant and racist to imply that Islam might be violent and dangerous as an ideology. He stuck to his guns, ran the party line, and maintained consistency with his worldview which values of compassion, tolerance, and diversity. Just not truth. It’s not like the guy ever read the Koran or studied the history of Islam, or anything, but he knew that conservative jingoists hate Islam and he’s not like them, so he has to accept Muslims as a non-problematic addition to the culture in which he lives, without sufficient criticism.
The Left is too afraid to be critical of religious and spiritual beliefs, where criticism is not only valid, but perhaps necessary.
Where do I belong?
My issue, here, is that I’m largely a progressive. If you sat me down with a bunch of Social Justice advocates who wanted a tolerant and diverse political and cultural society, I would get along with them and agree on many things, but I’d be at odds with them on some others. And I get myself in trouble when I disagree with some issue or position. Many rationalist and secular people find themselves in this position. I see people around me, politically, defending religious nonsense and even genuinely believing in paganism, tarot, or psychics. More and more, recently, I hear people talking about magic, reiki, and nature spirits in my progressive circles, and it’s becoming worrying to my skeptical heart and mind.
In some sense, I get it; it’s a reaction to the authoritarian and patriarchal religious identities of conservatives. Rather than a vengeful and authoritarian Jesus, we have the nature loving and progressive gods and goddesses of pagan lore (let’s ignore the fact that Islam’s Allah is a lot more like Yahweh/Jesus than those pagan artsy spirits). It fits with the political and cultural worldview better, but it does not fit my worldview at all. I’m left with the choice of a tribe who accepts that God is judging you or one that believes crystals or healing hands on your body might be able to heal cancer.
They are both laughably absurd, and I will not accept them as legitimate. I do recognize that they are equally protected under the law (at least in theory), so I definitely am closer to the Left than the Right here in terms of tolerating religious beliefs, where the right tends to defend the privileged status of Christianity, but it’s hardly an association I’m happy about.
Again, it all boils down to skepticism for me. We need to be able to not only challenge particular issues, beliefs, and people within our tribes and worldviews, but we need to be able to question the height of the pedestal we place our values upon. Values are good to have, but they are not absolute.
The Left has values, the right has values, everyone has values. And whether they are authority, purity, compassion, tolerance, diversity, etc, we all have these values to greater and lesser extents. In short, we value them to differing degrees. They are not worthy of worship or unquestionable, they are guidelines at best. Tolerance is a good value, but what are you tolerating, and why? How much do you know about the thing you are tolerating, and would there be a point where you would stop tolerating it?
Muslims are people. As such, they deserve legal protection, a willingness to hear their concerns and experiences, and the freedom to live their lives as they want to so long as they are not harming others. But we also need to be aware that there are many terrifying and dangerous ideas that are contained within the many ideologies called “Islam,” and insofar as people have those beliefs, their actions will be compelled accordingly. And similar to how many Christians oppose women’s right to choose how to live their lives and make decisions, gay rights, and many other progressive issues, Islam is no friend to many of those things in similar ways. We need to be as wary, as Progressives, of Islam as we are of Christianity.
The fact that Islam does not currently have political power here is a fair point, but if we actually seek to give Islam a seat at the cultural table, we need to be aware that if Muslims were to earn their legal right to that political power, the ideas they bring with them would be as problematic as those of Christianity or any other religion.
And if the Left, with it’s tolerance and practices of paganism, new age religion, Buddhism and all the other ideas that contain problematic views about reality, continues to not be skeptical about these things, then we will continue to live in a world where we’re forced to choose between anti-gay Jesus and vaccine-avoiding Progressive morons who will endanger us all by rejection of medicine, science, and reason.
I’ll end with an old favorite video, because it’s still relevant today.
More skeptical, rational, progressives please.
*this may have been before the various books were written and the community started to gain some traction, but my memory is not clear enough to remember precisely when this was. My guess is around 2005