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Archive for the ‘secular’ Category

Where are the secular Republicans?

Modern GOP candidates know that getting elected requires an expression of faith. It’s expected by both voters and party leaders and it’s not negotiable. There are regions of greater or lesser pressure in this regard, but the expectation remains.

This dynamic creates a strategic bind for the Republican party. Faith-based supporters are reliable voters, but declines in church attendance and a rise of self-identified secular people means their demographic is shrinking.

Options for retaining power?

Change the game: make voting less relevant or irrelevant. Create hurdles to voting. Amplify messaging – lies, when they’re effective, but anything that will stick – with dark money. Create facades of inevitability.

All of which the GOP is doing now in plain view.

There’s an alternative strategy the GOP can adopt without surrendering ties to its primary sponsors in the business world. Simply this; embrace secular Republicans. They can campaign on the traditional themes of fiscal conservatism, law and order, national security, but do it on a rational basis.

Secular Republicans can do business without the embarrassing baggage of religious conservatives; the treatment of women and minorities as second-class citizens, the ignorant dismissal of science, the insular arrogance that demands their way or the highway.

The modern GOP leadership doesn’t want democracy. It wants mob rule. If you’re not a member of a faith-based club, you can’t hold office. Extending that viewpoint beyond the GOP extinguishes democracy. Empowering a mob can be good for business as long as it does business’ bidding; the day may come when it doesn’t.

There are, always have been, people who put on a mask of faith for public view and discard it in private. This utility of this mask is eroding. There are people of goodwill in both secular and faith communities. Appealing to that goodwill, rather than dividing people over faith, will allow us to return our focus where it belongs – on the values that sustain a healthy democracy.

Written by Influential Prose

April 10, 2015 at 3:59 am

Building Better Humans

In response to David Brook’s column at

“Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries.”

Indeed. And those creeds were not created with their self-interest in mind.

“Secular individuals have to build their own communities.”

Yes. We’re doing exactly that. Quite a few of them. They’re growing.

“Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice.”

If you regard being terrified of a nonexistent hell and an all-too-real tendency to main, torture and kill people who reject the rituals and the sacred practices as something that “binds people together”, then sure.

“Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.”

Yep. Doing that. And we don’t need special practices to make our lives and communities meaningful, because when you realize this is the only life we get, every single day is meaningful.

“Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths.”

Mine is sleeping in on Sunday morning. Perfect bliss.

“Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.”

“Spiritual” matters? And that would be? I get plenty of inspiration from a clear night sky, from a field covered with snow, from a stroll on a beach, from an evening of laughter with friends. Everyone gets theirs where they find it.

“Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well.”

I find the Golden Rule to be all the motivation I need. Maybe folks without any empathy at all need more. I’m certain many people of faith need more as well, because an awful lot of them don’t seem to be sufficiently motivated to stop behaving badly.

“Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him.”

If you find moral motivation in subservience to a being that doesn’t even exist, knock yourself out. But don’t look too surprised when the earthly representatives of your Supreme Being take advantage of you.

“The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. “

Burdens? I’m sorry, as a secular person I don’t find living a healthy life of mutual respect and cooperation a burden. Oh, you mean you find THINKING a burden? Figuring things out for yourself is too much work? Well, you have a choice. You can fulfill a scripted role as subservient children of a silent, unknowable deity, or you can get off your knees, stand tall, use the mind and body you were endowed with at birth and LIVE.

“People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.”

Oh, ok, so secular folks are aimless drifters. Got it. So that would include some 90% of the National Academy of Sciences membership. I don’t think many of them feel a loss of meaning or suffer from an unconscious boredom. Maybe you’re projecting here?

“We are not really rational animals; emotions play a central role in decision-making, the vast majority of thought is unconscious, and our minds are riddled with biases. We are not really autonomous; our actions are powerfully shaped by others in ways we are not even aware of.”

Here we can agree somewhat. I can’t recall now who said it, maybe Heinlein, but the phrase is, “Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal”. And I would agree that for many, what effort they put toward thought often goes toward rationalizing behavior they don’t understand and sometimes don’t control very well.

But maybe if they were taught that they CAN manage their own behavior, that they’re not broken, not inherently flawed due to a long-ago mistake, they’d do a better job of moderating their darker impulses – which, by the way, make a LOT more sense when viewed from the prism of evolution. But religious creeds don’t embrace evolution fully yet, not even in 2015. While our behavior is influenced by many things, we CAN be in the driver’s seat. But people need to know that. Faiths keep telling them they’re not.

“Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.”

No. Secularism encourages a balance of healthy emotion and reason. Religion focuses on emotion and treats reason as a redheaded stepchild at best, or actively hunts it down and murders it when it conflicts with faith. And it ENCOURAGES this behavior. The only reason that behavior has moderated in the Western world is because reason had a little party in the 17th century call the Rennaissance. Islamic regions didn’t participate in that party, fell behind in the sciences, and as for aggression…check the latest headlines for the headless body count.

“Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love.”

Got news for you; you don’t have to be selfless and sacrificial to be good. Expanding human capacity for mutual cooperation would accomplish MUCH more. And secular people have something of a head start there, because they don’t waste time trying to appease someone, somewhere in the Great Beyond. Secular people are solving social problems by taking into account our strengths and weakness and engineering social arrangements that work through trial and error. All of modern medicine attests to our capacity to do right by each other. (Quite apart from the business entities that exploit our medical systems for profit.)

“Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.”

Somehow I don’t get the feeling that conservative people of faith agree that Obama is worthy of the highest dignity because he radiates divine light. There seems to be some dissonance between your lofty rhetoric and actual behavior.

“The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second.”

Funny how you left reason out of the mix there. Emotional relations are important, certainly. The confused teens who fumble through their early sexual experiences because they were denied accurate sex ed; the newly pregnant woman who must decide if she’s ready for a child or if the small collection of blastocysts should be aborted; the civilians trapped on a mountain and surrounded by religously motivated warriors; the parents faced with a dead child because their faith taught them that God would provide when they should have seen a doctor; the young girl who is sold to a man who uses and treats her as a sex slave, or the wife, in a situation not much different from the young girl, who is encouraged to be submissive to her husband.

Those are emotions that need addressing, and we can accomplish that by teaching people early and often that they can make rational choices and develop personal autonomy. Yes, we address emotion; we also teach reason, and the need to balance emotion and reason.

“I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.”

I suspect that religion will ultimately collapse from its own confused, inner contradictions, but it’s possible humanity will suffer another spasm of misguided faith and endure a few centuries of needless pain, fighting and repression. We’ve seen plenty of it in Western history. We see it now in the Middle East.

Maybe it’s time we tried something new.

Written by Influential Prose

February 3, 2015 at 12:43 pm

Too Important to Ignore

Today’s news includes a report about a sport federation that has banned Iran from hosting international volleyball games. Why?

Because an Iranian woman was arrested for wanting to watch the game.

In the West, this is bewildering. Why in the world would a women be arrested for wanting to watch a ballgame?

The answer to this question has very deep roots that go back centuries. It’s not particularly complicated, but the explanation is so far outside the experience of most Western peoples that it is best explained from the perspective of a woman who has lived in the culture, knows it intimately, knows the customs, knows the religion. While the focus of the explanation provided here is on Islam, Iran’s dominant religion, the roots of the practices and values described here pre-date the Muslim faith.

The full intensity of these conditions is greatest in Saudi Arabia and much of central sub-Saharan Africa. I’m a reasonably well-read, inquisitive, intelligent person and yet at 52 I’ve gone a lifetime not fully understanding that women in these parts of the world are routinely treated with less respect than we give our pets.

If you find this at all interesting, or if it just seems too improbable to be believed, I strongly recommend reading Ayaan Ali Hirsi’s books, Infidel and Nomad. They’re both real eye-openers.

We sometimes ask why so many stood by and did nothing when they knew what was happening to Jews during WWII. After reading this, can you stand by and do nothing?

From pages 152-156 of Nomad:

“Long ago, in the desert, nomads in clan societies bound themselves together by family ties, through old lineages that gave them protection and assistance across great distances. Outside the clan lineage lay danger and chaos, every man for himself. In a clan society, every kind of human relationship turns on your honor within the clan; outside it, there is nothing — you are excluded from any kind of meaningful existence. This was the most precious lesson that Grandma tried to teach her grandchildren.

“A man’s honor within a clan society — and these societies are, largely, about men — resides in his authority. Men must be warriors; shame consists in being seen as weak. Women are the breeders of men, and women’s honor lies in their purity, their submission, their obedience.

“Their shame is to be sexually impure, and it is the worst shame of all, because a woman’s sexual disobedience defiles herself, her sisters, and her mother, as well as the male relatives whose duty it is to control her. No Muslim man has any standing in society if he does not have honor. And no matter how much honor he builds up through wise decisions and good deeds, it is destroyed if his daughter or his sister is sexually defiled.

“This can happen if she loses her virginity before she’s married, or if she engages in sexual intercourse outside of the marriage — and that includes rape. Even the minor that she may have had sex is reason enough to label her “defiled” and lead to loss of honor for her whole family.

“A father who cannot control his daughters, a brother who cannot control his sisters, is disgraced. He is bankrupt socially and even economically. His family is ruined. The girl will not fetch a bride-price, and neither will her sisters or her cousins, because the mere suspicion of independent feeling and female action in their family taints them too.

“Such a man suffers a social death, exclusion from the mutual assistance and respect of the clan—the worst possible fate that could befall a person, whether child or adult, male or female. Controlling women’s sexuality and limiting men’s access to sex with women are the central focus of the code of honor and shame. Muslim women are chattel, and every Muslim girl must be a virgin at marriage. Once wed (with or without her consent), she must be faithful to her husband, who, in traditional societies, she will never refer to by his first name but only as rajel, my lord.

“In case of divorce or widowhood, the job of monitoring her sexual activities is assumed by her new guardians: her sons, if they are adults, or her husband’s father and his male bloodline. These men may select a new husband for her. Few Muslim women are ever free to choose whom they will have sex with. An element as powerful and potent as a Muslim girl’s virginity also has great commodity value, which means that virginity is above all a man’s business.

“Daughters are bait for attracting alliances, or they can be reserved for the highest bidder. Power, wealth, and the solidifying of clan relations may hinge on marriage alliances, so raising daughters of quality who are modest and docile is important. Using violence to ensure their obedience and to warn them against straying is a perfectly legitimate reminder of the law in a system of values in which women have only a little more free will than livestock. There must be blood on the wedding night from her broken hymen or she will be condemned as a slut.

“This ancient code of sexual morality is derived from tribal Arab culture. It dates from long before the Prophet Muhammad began receiving revelations from the Angel Gabriel, which were written down by his disciples on pages that have long since turned to dust. At the time, in that place – the desert towns of Mecca and Medina, whose distant tribes worshiped many different idols and gods – honor and shame were the central ideas that governed life between men and women. Islam cemented this into an everlasting rule.

“As Islam grew and spread, it brought its sexual mores to other countries, from Mali to Indonesia. Under Shari’a, a Muslim woman is effectively the property of her father, brothers, uncles, grandfathers. These men are her guardians, responsible for her behavior, in charge of her choices. Above all, she must remain sexually pure.

“An inextricable mass of traditional dictates and rituals has been incorporated into Islam, and it is being further amplified by the Islamic revivalist movements that are sweeping through the Muslim world today. The fundamentalists seem haunted by the female body and neurotically debate which fractions of it should be covered, until they declare the whole thing, from head to toe, a gigantic private part.

“When and why did Arab, and subsequently Muslim, societies become obsessed with controlling women’s sexuality? Perhaps there was once some logic to it. For a tribe to be strong, its warriors need to be loyal to each other. Maybe independent female sexuality undermined that. Maybe fighting over women was even more divisive to a male society than fighting over camels, and so, once upon a time in the desert, it was resolved to control the women, to confine them to their homes, banishing them from the public sphere, or to veil them so they became invisible, to cut their genitals to limit their sexual desire and sew them shut to make sex unbearably painful.

“Grandma did not busy herself with such questions. She understood only that we had to follow the rules as if our lives depended on it – as, perhaps, her own life once had. She explained and enforced that code in our household. As she never tired of saying, “All I am trying to teach you is to survive.”

“Even today virginity is the linchpin of a Muslim girl’s education. Growing up, I was taught that it is more important to remain a virgin than it is to stay alive, better to die than be raped. Sex before marriage is an unthinkable crime. Every Muslim girl knows that her value relies almost wholly on her hymen, the most essential part of her body, far more important than her brain or her limbs.

“Once the hymen is broken, a girl is a thing used, broken, filthy, her filth contagious. This is h ow my cousin Hiran felt about herself when she succumbed to desire and then was diagnosed with HIV. This is how Ladan felt about herself and how she lost her self-esteem. She saw herself through the eyes of those closest to her, people like my grandma, and those old ghosts seemed to blame  her and scream at her, “Whore!”.

“Muslim cultures have evolved various means to police and guarantee women’s virginity. Many confine their women, depriving themselves of their labor outside of the home, and monitor their movements obsessively. This constant whisper of gossip, the continual surveillance of every untoward gesture and raised eye, is also a form of confinement, strangling every movement. When a woman leaves the house, she veils, another form of confinement: every breath of air you take outside your four walls is stifled by a thick, heavy cloth; every stride is hobbled, every centimeter of skin enclosed from the sun.

“Even out of doors a veiled woman is inside all the time. The air she breathes is stuffy; thick material presses against her eyes, her nose, and her mouth. Everything she does is h8idden and furtive. Blindfolded and reduced, erased from public contact, Muslim women often lose confidence in their ability to undertake independent action. Even independent motion seems strange. Every woman who has worn such a veil for years and then taken it off will attest that it is difficult to walk at first. It is as if, uncovered, your legs do not work the same way.

“After a girl first menstruates, she must have as little contact as possible with men outside the immediate family. In Saudi Arabia women are shut in their homes by law; this is not the case in other countries, but confinement is still common everywhere that there are Muslims.

“Even after they are married many Arab women are not permitted contact with an unrelated male. It is an offense even to look a man in the eye. Other societies, too poor to do without their women’s labor out of doors, must police their chastity by other means: it must be built into their bodies. This may be the origin of female excision, the only possible incontrovertible proof of virginity.

“And chastity must be built into their minds. Victims of rape do not report it if they survive it; unmarried women who get pregnant are banished or put to death. Too often girls take their own lives after losing their virginity in a way deemed to be illicit. Although Muslim doctrine has certainly amplified and confirmed this attitude, the tight web of restrictions on women that characterizes Arab and Muslim clans goes back further than Wahabi Islam, the most common school of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

“The very word harem, the section of the house where the women dwell (in Arabic, hareem), is derived from haram, forbidden. In most Muslim cultures people still retain memories of the old, pre-Islamic beliefs in jinn and ghouls. (This is sharply disapproved of by most Islamic purists, who believe it raises the possibility of deities other than Allah.) Those ghouls are most often withered old women or sexually voracious young women, who inspire fear and disgust in equal measure. Defiled every month by menstruation, the female is naturally closer to evil.”

Written by Influential Prose

November 11, 2014 at 6:59 am

The Big Fork

Beginning over twelve hundred years ago, Islam enjoyed a three hundred year run of science advancement, a cultural golden age. It ended due to a government collapse and military losses.

Thus it was that the entire Reformation and Renaissance period in Europe bypassed most of the Muslim world. The principle difference, the one that made the west the West, is the idea of secular governance; government doesn’t mix with religion.

The stark differences between Western and Islamic cultures are a direct result of this fork in development. From that point forward, two cultures sharing the same planet for over 500 years went in very different directions.

If the Reformation and Renaissance had never happened, global culture today (with the possible exception of China) would likely look like Islam in its more resource-poor regions. Five centuries go by without the advancements of Western science.

I’m not saying this to attack Islam. I’m saying that science needs secular space to thrive. This is just a real-world look at what happens when one society has that space and another sharply limits it.

Islam had three centuries of sustained science development. The West has had five. Let’s keep it going…and encourage it globally.

Written by Influential Prose

November 9, 2014 at 12:39 pm

The Practical Effect

The practical effect of accepting a faith is that rather than choose your own values, your faith does it for you.

Written by Influential Prose

October 10, 2014 at 6:46 am

Posted in advocacy, secular

Shaving Off The Years

In Ray Bradbury’s short story The Sound of Thunder, a group of adventurers sign up for a time travel trip into the deep past. In the course of their visit, one traveler breaks the rules, gets out of their vehicle and steps on a butterfly. When they return to their own time, it has been permanently altered.

Similarly, if we were to travel back to pre-agricultural times when humanity was clustered in small tribes of hunter-gatherers, most of them extended families, we would see a lot of chaos – violence due to the lack of police, linguistic barriers and misunderstandings due to lack of language standardization, widespread ignorance and confusion. Rough neighborhood.

They were tough hombres and they weren’t dumb, not all of them, but there was a lot they didn’t know. They had basic social structures and customs to deal with conflict, but anyone from our time could suggest improvements.

If you were somehow trapped in that time, you might want to jump in and do that, make some suggestions, help them do better. Your efforts could shave thousands of years off humanity’s future development.

In our own time, we’re still dealing with the legacy of various mythologies, and to illustrate that, I’m going to quote an observation by Eric Feris, one of the regulars in the Deaf Freethinkers group on Facebook:

Taking into account how religion comes to dominate in a society; the murder, the misogyny, the lies, the deceit, the rape and pederasty, the absolute cornholing of truth, the needless warfare, the willful ignorance and the oppression, the vile and pernicious slander, victimization, and cruelty, the absolute disregard for human rights, justice, and progress, the evil people who selfishly and joyously promulgate, inculcate, and perpetuate all of this, and the many and multifold layers upon layers of more of the same, decade after decade and century after century…

Faced with that reality today, I feel compelled to do what I can to build a more rational, secular society today. Maybe we can shave a few thousand years off humanity’s future development by doing so.

Written by Influential Prose

October 8, 2014 at 12:37 pm