Why People Believe and Why People Kill: Countering Dennett and Harris

A few weeks ago, I said I would be sharing a few more passages from Dr. David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions. In this citation from early in the book, Hart is in the midst of pointing out some of the bad arguments, poor understanding of both religion and history, and sanctimony in the anti-religious rhetoric of the “new atheists”….

Cover to Breaking the Spell“That there might be such a thing as religious experience (other, of course, than states of delusion, suffered by the stupid or emotionally disturbed) is naturally never considered, since it goes without saying that there is nothing to experience. Dawkins, for instance, frequently asserts, without pausing actually to think about the matter, that religious believers have no reasons for their faith. The most embarrassingly ill-conceived chapter in [Daniel Dennett's] Breaking the Spell consists largely in Dennett attempting to convince believers, in tones of excruciating condescension, that they do not really believe what they think they believe, or even understand it, and attempting to scandalize them with the revelation that academic theology sometimes lapses into a technical jargon full of obscure Greek terms like ‘apophatic’ and ‘ontic’. And [Sam] Harris is never more theatrically indignant than when angrily reminding his readers that Christians believe in Christ’s resurrection (for example) only because someone has told them it is true.

It is always perilous to attempt to tell others what or why they believe; and it is especially unwise to assume (as Dennett is peculiarly prone to do) that believers, as a species, do not constantly evaluate or reevaluate their beliefs. Anyone who actually lives among persons of faith knows that this is simply untrue. Obviously, though, there is no point in demanding of believers that they produce criteria for their beliefs unless one is willing to conform one’s expectations to the kind of claims being made. For, while it is unquestionably true that perfectly neutral proofs in support of faith cannot generally be adduced, it is not a neutral form of knowledge that is at issue. Dennett’s belief that no one need take seriously any claim that cannot be tested by scientific method is merely fatuous. By that standard, I need not believe that the battle of Salamis ever took place, that the widower next door loves the children for whom he tirelessly provides, or that I might be wise to trust my oldest friend even if he tells me something I do not care to hear.

Harris is quite correct to say, for instance, that Christ’s resurrection — like any other historical event — is known only by way of the testimony of others. Indeed, Christianity is the only major faith built entirely around a single historical claim. It is, however, a claim quite unlike any other ever made, as any perceptive and scrupulous historian must recognize. Certainly it bears no resemblance to the vague fantasies of witless enthusiasts or to the cunning machinations of opportunistic charlatans. It is the report of men and women who had suffered the devastating defeat of their beloved master’s death, but who in a very short time were proclaiming an immediate experience of his living presence beyond the tomb, and who were, it seems, willing to suffer privation, imprisonment, torture, and death rather than deny that experience. And it is the report of a man who had never known Jesus before the crucifixion, and who had once persecuted Jesus’s followers, but who also believed that he had experienced the risen Christ, with such shattering power that he too preferred death to apostasy. And it is the report of countless others who have believed that they also — in a quite irreducibly personal way — have known the risen Christ.

It cannot be gainsaid that Christians have faith in Easter largely because they belong to communities of believers, or that their faith is a complex amalgam of shared confession, personal experience, spiritual and ethical practice, and reliance on others, or that they are inevitably obliged to make judgments about the trustworthiness of those whose word they must take. Some also choose to venture out upon the vast seas of Christianity’s philosophical or mystical traditions; and many are inspired by miracles, or dreams, or the apparent working of grace in their lives, or moments of aesthetic transport, or strange raptures, or intuitions of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and so on. None of this might impress the committed skeptic, or seem like adequate grounds for faith, but that does not mean that faith is essentially willful and irrational. More to the point, it is bizarre for anyone to think he or she can judge the nature or credibility of another’s experiences from the outside…..

…[L]et us graciously grant that there is indeed such a thing as unthinking religious conviction, just as there is a great deal of unthinking irreligious materialism. Let us also, more magnanimously, grant the truth of the second conviction I attributed to these writers above: that religion is violent, that religion in fact kills. At least, let us grant that it is exactly as true, and as intellectually significant, as the propositions ‘politics kills’ and ‘color reddens’. For many things are true in a general sense, even when, in the majority of specific cases, they are false. Violent religion or politics kills, and red reddens; but peaceful religion or politics does not kill, even if it is adopted as a pretext for killing, just as green does not redden, even if a certain kind of color blindness creates the impression that it does. For, purely in the abstract, ‘religious’ longing is neither this nor that, neither admirable nor terrible, but is at once creative and destructive, consoling and murderous, tender and brutal.”

Note: I don’t remember reading anything to indicate that Hart is a complete pacifist. So, when he refers to “killing” here, I assume that exceptions would include things like “just war” and capital punishment by the state, at least in the Judeo-Christian context. I must also assume that, as a Christian, Hart also accepts the God-directed wars and judgments in the Old Testament as just, as well. (I won’t address that now, since that is a topic for another time.)

Jesus Christ before Caiaphas the High Priest

Jesus Christ before Caiaphas the High Priest

“I take it that this is because ‘religion’ is something ‘natural’ to human beings (as Dennett so acutely notes) and, as such, reflects human nature. For the broader, even more general, and yet more pertinent truth is that men kill (women kill too, but historically have had fewer opportunities to do so). Some kill because their faiths explicitly command them to do so, some kill though their faiths explicitly forbid them to do so, and some kill because they have no faith and hence believe all things are permitted to them. Polytheists, monotheists, and atheists kill — indeed, this last class is especially prolifically homicidal, if the evidence of the twentieth century is to be consulted. Men kill for their gods, or for their God, or because there is no God and the destiny of humanity must be shaped by gigantic exertions of human will. They kill in pursuit of universal truths and out of fidelity to tribal allegiances; for faith, blood and soil, empire, national greatness, the ‘socialist utopia’, capitalism, and ‘democratization’. Men will always seek gods in whose name they may perform great deeds or commit unspeakable atrocities, even when those gods are not gods but ‘tribal honor’ or ‘genetic imperative’ or ‘social ideals’ or ‘human destiny’ or ‘liberal democracy’. Then again, men also kill on account of money, land, love, pride, hatred, envy, or ambition. They kill out of conviction or out of lack of conviction.

Harris at one point approvingly cites a platitude from Will Durant to the effect that violence follows from religious certitude — which again, like most empty generalities, is vacuously true. It is just as often the case, however, that men are violent solely from expedience, because they believe in no higher law than the demands of the moment, while only certain kinds of religious certitude have the power to temper their murderous pragmatism with a compassionate idealism, or to freeze their wills with a dread of divine justice, or to free them from the terrors of present uncertainty and so from the temptation to act unjustly. Caiaphas and Pilate, if scripture is to be believed, were perfect examples of the officious and practical statesman with grave responsibilities to consider; Christ, on the other hand, was certain of a Kingdom not of this world and commanded his disciples to love their enemies. Does religious conviction provide a powerful reason for killing? Undeniably it often does. It also often provides the sole compelling reason for refusing to kill, or for being merciful, or for seeking peace; only the profoundest ignorance of history could prevent one from recognizing this. For the truth is that religion and irreligion are cultural variables, but killing is a human constant.”

I find Hart’s responses to Dennett, Harris, et al., to be very informational and compelling, and the color-blindness metaphor was particularly eye-opening. (Hah!) It would be easy to dismiss what he says as merely the equivalent of “You can’t prove what I believe isn’t true, and I know what I know, so leave me alone!” and “Lots of non-religious people kill, too, so stop picking on religion just because some religious people kill.” But, that would be entirely missing the point.


In Favor of the Legalization of Medical Marijuana

“You have to go to the doctor. You have to be diagnosed with the debilitating disease or medical condition. You have to get that diagnosis in writing. You have to send that written diagnosis to the Department of Health and wait for the department to send you an identification card in order to become a medical marijuana patient. You can’t just walk into your doctor’s office, walk out and buy marijuana.”  — Ben Pollara of United for Care, speaking in favor of Florida’s Amendment 2

You may be surprised by my position here, but this issue is one of those rarities where my libertarian streak shines through. Of course, it would really be apparent if I argued for the legalization of marijuana and/or other recreational drugs across the board. I’m still pondering this and gathering reports pro & con, but at this point I’m not quite ready to go that far. Too many things in the negative column. But, marijuana for legitimate medicinal purposes? Absolutely.

woman-smoking-marijuana-140121Marijuana/cannabis should not be vilified outright, simply because some people use it as a mind-altering “drug” and other, violent people make money cultivating and selling it. It is an herb, a plant put here on this planet by God. Like most things, it can be used for good or for ill. Like many plants of various sorts, it has certain uses, certain effects, and can be modified for other uses or to increase or reduce certain effects. That is part of the wonder of God’s creation, which He has provided for our benefit, and I believe He wants us to use the minds He gave us to learn and develop new things — including treatments for medical conditions.

Marijuana is still a federally illegal substance, but 23 states (plus D.C. and Guam) have medical marijuana programs and 12 more are considering it. (It is also legal for recreational use in 4 states and D.C., as of this writing.) There are many concerns about legalizing cannabis for any reason, and some believe that even legalizing it for medical use will still lead to the “unintended consequences” of long-term health and societal ills. Pot has long been considered a “gateway drug” leading to the use of more serious (i.e., more dangerous and expensive) drugs. But, marijuana has issues of its own, too. For example, it is highly addictive and causes intellectual impairment (e.g., cognitive decline, poor attention and memory, decreased IQ), which in turn lead to lower educational attainment and/or employment problems. On an even more serious note, marijuana can cause mental illness (including paranoia), sometimes leading to suicide (e.g., teens who smoke pot are 7x more likely to attempt suicide), suppression of the immune system, and lung-related health problems. Of course, the more immediate effects of marijuana use include panic/anxiety, increased heart rate (and, therefore, chance of heart attack), sensory distortion, slowed reflexes, and poor coordination, all of which can result in traffic-related and other accidents.

Most concerns, though, are really more applicable to a general legalization of marijuana, when large numbers of people would be using it, which leads to matters of broader socio-economic impact, public health & safety, employee drug-testing, etc., and appropriate laws for dealing with those who commit anything from driving a vehicle to serious crimes while under the influence and/or seeking “funding”. I am only recommending a very limited legalization for very specific purposes.

Proponents point to studies indicating, for instance, that legalization of marijuana even just for medical use has led to reduced beer sales (by 5%) and fewer traffic fatalities (by almost 9%). On the other hand, pot-positive traffic fatalities in Colorado have doubled since voters legalized pot there in late 2012. On the other other hand, overall traffic fatalities in Colorado have gone down since 2007. Keep in mind, this is in a state which has legalized marijuana for recreational use, not just medical use. Advocates also point out that a comparison of CDC surveys indicates that the feared increase in pot use by teens apparently did not happen in medical marijuana states, which makes sense if the state programs are set up in a way to ensure only those with serious medical conditions have access to the (legal) marijuana. Also, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reports an overall 25% drop in fatalities associated with prescription drugs taken for chronic pain in states where medical marijuana is available as an alternative.

But, probably the strongest argument in favor of legalizing medical marijuana is the relief from pain and suffering that would be available to many thousands of people with serious medical conditions who now cannot find that relief, or can only at exorbitant prices, or with terrible side effects.

I suppose legal medical marijuana could lead to “long-term health and societal ills”, and the pro-cannabis activists certainly see it as a stepping stone to broader legalization. But, that is why it needs to be closely regulated and monitored, much like other controlled substances with medical applications that people can get only with a doctor’s prescription. (See quote at top of post.)

I don’t know all the details of the recently proposed Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, but I like what I hear and think something like this is definitely needed. The bipartisan bill would legalize medical marijuana at the federal level, reclassifying marijuana from Schedule I (under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970) to Schedule II. So, while still recognizing its highly addictive nature and potential for abuse, the law would also recognize its medicinal value, grouping it with narcotics like morphine and codeine and stimulants like amphetamines and methamphetamines. Beyond that, of course, it is up to each individual state to decide how they want to handle the specifics. (See “Legality of cannabis by U.S. jurisdiction”.) But, at least those growing, selling, and buying cannabis products will no longer be raided by federal law enforcement.

On the state side, some people & programs prefer to only allow a certain number of cannabis producers to grow in their state. I think this is a mistake for economic reasons, since it smacks of state-run cartels, hinders entrepreneurship and free-market competition, and benefits an ongoing black market. Sales should be handled only by doctor’s offices, hospitals, pharmacies, and other closely-monitored, licensed dispensaries. Sales taxes on cannabis products should not be prohibitively high, complicated, or inconsistent.

Medical-Cannabis1Any state legislation to establish a legal market and infrastructure for medical marijuana must be tightly-written to ensure that it is not easy to get cannabis in just any form, from just anybody, for just about anything. Despite assurances from people like Ben Pollara (see quote above), this was the problem with Florida’s Amendment 2, which I reluctantly had to vote against in Nov. 2014. Non-smokable forms are preferable (e.g., pills, vapors, oils), but states should probably allow the smoking of raw cannabis in some cases, if it is indeed the best way to treat medical conditions, as some claim.

Any cannabis product should only be sold to an adult (age determined by state). When the patient is a minor, it should be administered or supervised by a parent, legal guardian, or medical professional. I don’t believe illegal sales/distribution or possession — either by a dispensary owner/employee, an authorized patient, or an individual who got their hands on someone else’s supply — should ever be a felony, but that should still be up to the individual states. A reasonable fine and replacement of the product (or retail price thereof) seems fair punishment for civil violations and unclassified (or lesser) misdemeanors; community service would be preferable to jail time (and is less costly for the state), except maybe for repeat offenders. By and large, these are not violent offenses, after all.

Marijuana use must be restricted to a limited list of the most serious diseases and debilitating medical conditions, the symptoms of which have been shown by authorized testing to ease from the use or application of some form of cannabis. Things like leg cramps, stress, and trouble sleeping — which some people currently use it for — should NOT be on such a list. Those which would be on it include forms of severe epilepsy (e.g. Dravet Syndrome); multiple sclerosis; Parkinson’s Disease; various cancers; glaucoma; HIV/AIDS; severe pain, severe nausea, cachexia (i.e., dramatic weight loss and muscle atrophy) from other conditions.

When dealing with extreme pain and disability from conditions like these, possibly even the threat (or promise) of death, the physical dangers and consequences of “smokin’ pot” seem negligible by comparison. I know that if I or a close relative was diagnosed with one of those debilitating conditions that has proven responsive to some form or derivative of cannabis, I would at least want the option to be available without threat of federal prosecution. Assuming production and dispensation are tightly (but fairly) controlled, I see no moral/ethical, economic, or pragmatic reason why it shouldn’t be.

UPDATE 3/17/2015: Debra J. Saunders at Townhall.com has a good article about the CARERS Act and who in the Senate (and White House?) might support it: “Medical Marijuana Bill Lost in Smoke”.


Facts Are Stubborn Things

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”  — John Adams, Esq., Argument in Defense of the British Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials, Dec. 4, 1770.

We all, at some time or another, are guilty of jumping to conclusions, of believing something without adequate evidence, of accepting a particular accounting of events, because it satisfies our suspicions or even a broader worldview. If that account is later shown to be false, our willingness to admit we were wrong and accept the facts as they are now understood is a measure of our intellectual honesty.

Holder speaking about Ferguson report

Holder speaking about Ferguson report

Such premature acceptance of a particular narrative often happens when a very traumatic and (seemingly?) unfair event occurs. And it doesn’t even need to happen in our neighborhood or to people we know. With today’s 24/7 news coverage, if it is deemed sufficiently newsworthy (and this itself can be a point of contention), it will be all over local, state, even national media — not to mention the Internet. Whether it involves someone losing his/her life, livelihood, or “merely” life savings, emotions run high and people look for someone to blame. Many, especially those who can in some measure identify with the victim(s) and their family, get angry at the perceived injustice. And, in many cases, the “court of public opinion” has already tried and convicted the perpetrator long before all the pertinent facts are in.

One recent example of this was the fatal shooting by a (white) policeman of an unarmed (black) man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, MO. With racial tensions already high in the nation, largely due to the somewhat similar shooting of Trayvon Martin two years prior, many people latched onto the story by supposed eyewitnesses that said Brown was mercilessly gunned down after raising his hands in surrender. Even professional sports teams and members of Congress expressed their identification with the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative and Brown’s assumed innocence. This narrative also had supporters in the highest levels of the Executive — namely, President Obama and Attorney General Holder.

A few days ago, Holder announced the release of the Department of Justice’s official, criminal investigation into the Ferguson shooting. Reluctantly, he admitted that “[O]ur report may leave some to wonder how the department’s findings can differ so sharply from some of the initial, widely reported accounts of what transpired.” Here is a crucial passage from the DoJ report:

“Although there are several individuals who have stated that Brown held his hands up in an unambiguous sign of surrender prior to Wilson shooting him dead, their accounts do not support a prosecution of Wilson. As detailed throughout this report, some of those accounts are inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence; some of those accounts are materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible for otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time. Certain other witnesses who originally stated Brown had his hands up in surrender recanted their original accounts, admitting that they did not witness the shooting or parts of it, despite what they initially reported either to federal or local law enforcement or to the media. Prosecutors did not rely on those accounts when making a prosecutive decision.”

Furthermore, Officer Wilson’s account of the incident was confirmed by witnesses and corroborated by the actual evidence. Also,

“Wilson’s conduct in shooting Brown as he advanced on Wilson, and until he fell to the ground, was not objectively unreasonable and thus not a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242.”

Short version: 1) Physical & forensic evidence do not support “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative. 2) So called “witnesses” have recanted their testimony claiming Brown’s surrender. (So, it seems some “witnesses” felt compelled to lie in order to support the larger narrative of racism and police brutality.) 3) All evidence points to a justified police shooting.

I wonder how many of those who bought the whole “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative will admit they were wrong to do so prior to a detailed investigation. After all, this report was conducted by a Justice Dept. run by Holder (a Black man), who answers to Obama (a Black man). I also wonder how many will dismiss the facts, saying they don’t matter, in favor of the “more important” issue of highlighting racism and police brutality.

Surprised Wet Yellow Smiley Face Emoticon With Open Mouth and Raised Eyebrows in SurpriseNow, let’s back up a bit from this particular story and consider a much broader range of issues and the stories that come out in the press. Since the mainstream media is known to be predominantly liberal/progressive, it is no surprise that the usual perspective (spin?) on various topics is left-leaning. (Yes, I am showing my own right-leaning bias. Sue me.) However, in many cases, a closer look at the data — at the “stubborn facts” — reveals a different picture.

An article that came out a few weeks ago serves as a brief but telling corrective on many of these issues. In “15 Statistics That Destroy Liberal Narratives”, columnist John Hawkins culled quotes from several other columnists, journalists, and commentators, who had gathered data on everything from civilian killings by police to Latino support for amnesty to the “wicked” one-percenters to gender identity. Here are a couple examples:

“6) Teenagers under 17 who use cannabis daily are 60 percent less likely to complete high school or get a degree than peers who have never taken the drug, researchers said on Wednesday. They are also nearly seven times likelier to attempt suicide and are almost eight times likelier to use other illicit drugs later in life. The data, published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry, comes from an analysis of three large, long-running studies in Australia and New Zealand. — Newsmax

“10) But the evidence shows that women lie about rape all the time -– for attention, for revenge and for an alibi. All serious studies of the matter suggest that at least 40 percent of rape claims are false. The U.S. Air Force, for example, examined more than a thousand rape allegations on military bases over the course of four years and concluded that 46 percent were false. In 27 percent of the cases, the accuser recanted. A large study of rape allegations over nine years in a small Midwestern city, by Eugene J. Kanin of Purdue University, found that 41 percent of the rape claims were false. — Ann Coulter”

Alright, one more…

“15) The survey taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked a simple question of 34,557 adults nationwide: “Which of the following best represents how you think of yourself?” The five possible answers were straight, lesbian/gay, bisexual, “something else” and “I don’t know the answer.” Transgenders, the “T” in LGBT, were not included. The survey found that a mere 1.6 percent of the adult population self-identifies as “lesbian/gay,” and an even smaller 0.7 percent told interviewers they were bisexual. The bisexuals were outnumbered by the 1.1 percent who didn’t know, wouldn’t answer or said they were “something else.” This result was far from the 10 percent that homosexual rights advocates have claimed since the 1970s. — The Washington Times

You should read the rest, too. None of the topics are covered comprehensively, of course, and further investigation is always a good idea. But, should you ever need to counter the typical liberal claims about some of these issues, Hawkins’ article will at least give you a fair start. Good stuff!

UPDATE 3/12/2015:  Here is a good article that just came out which speaks to much of what I discussed above: “Inside the Leftist Mind: The Primacy of Narrative Over Facts”.

UPDATE 3/17/2015: Here is an article from a respected liberal journalist (who is Black) who admits he and everyone else were wrong about the Ferguson narrative: “‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie”.


Primer on Net Neutrality

“Title II regulation of the Internet is a solution in search of a problem.”  — Logan Albright, Research Analyst at FreedomWorks

I confess, I have been putting off taking the time & effort to get up to speed on this whole “Net Neutrality” thing. I mean, I had the gist of it but didn’t know enough to talk intelligently about it. (Whether or not I can now is still up for debate.) But, feeling impelled by the recent FCC vote, I finally dug into some research to get a better handle on the issue and put together this primer. Hope you find it helpful, too.

NetNeutrality - red, urgent“Net Neutrality”, in essence, is the idea that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally, regardless of the type of data or the identity of the customer. Sounds fair, right? The way proponents want to do this is by extending the reach of Title II. This refers to the section of the Communications Act of 1934 which declared telecommunications utilities (i.e., telegraph and old-style telephone services) to be “common carriers”, which the federal government can regulate. By declaring that Internet broadband providers (including wireless) fall under the same classification, thereby redefining the Internet to be a “public utility” rather than a mere facilitator of information-sharing, the federal government will be able to tax and regulate the Internet as it sees fit.

Title II regulation is said to be necessary to protect consumers and innovators against unscrupulous Internet service providers (ISPs) who like to 1) play favorites and 2) squash potential competition. However, none of the supposed dangers (see numbered below) have been proven. As per Logan Albright over at FreedomWorks:

“Despite allegations about what ‘might’ happen if we allow the Internet to remain unregulated, as it has, for the most part, always been, no one has yet demonstrated a market failure that would justify government intervention.”

In fact, according to researchers James Gattuso and Michael Sargent at the Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies,

“[M]ost of the practices that have been identified by regulation supporters as activities that should be prohibited are in fact beneficial to consumers or are conducted by challengers in the marketplace, rather than by the big, dominant firms.”

In his statement encouraging adoption of “Net Neutrality”, President Obama listed four primary concerns that the new regulation will address. They are the need to:

1) Eliminate Blocking (i.e., an ISP’s ability to block customer access to certain (legal) websites & services)

2) Eliminate Throttling (i.e., an ISP’s occasional slowing down or speeding up delivery of select content)

3) Eliminate Paid Prioritization (i.e., requiring certain services to pay a fee, lest they be kept in a “slow lane”)

4) Increase Transparency (i.e., applying “Net Neutrality” rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet, not just the “last mile” between ISPs and consumers)

This all sounds reasonable and very egalitarian, and, if they were actual threats, they might be worth pursuing. But, as Logan Albright and others have pointed out, it is actually a “smokescreen” for what the real impact of such regulation would be. In this article, Albright gives counterarguments for each of the four above. It all comes down to economics (the best allocation of finite resources) and free-market capitalism (competition through product differentiation, responding to consumer demands), without requiring unnecessary hurdles and costs. Albright concludes:

“The president’s push for Net Neutrality stems from a misguided egalitarian instinct that doesn’t make sense when dealing [with] the incredible diversity of web content. Providers need to have the flexibility to allocate their resources as their customers demand, not be forced to adhere to a strict standard that doesn’t differentiate between text, video, audio, or interactive content.”

Speaking of transparency (see #4 above), if the President’s 317-page “Net Neutrality” plan was so great, why wasn’t it made public? (This sounds really familiar.) One reason might be that people would be able to read for themselves how the plan gives the federal government — i.e., the Executive Branch via the FCC — ultimate control of Internet service provision and use in America. (Thanks to Ajit Pai, one of the two Republican FCC Commissioners, for giving us the heads-up.) In other words, it is yet another example of Executive overreach by this administration.

Also, remember how I mentioned taxes earlier? You better believe the government will use this newfound authority to its benefit, and that includes taxes, taxes, and more taxes. According to an article in Reuters by Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist and Patrick Gleason:

“Under this decision to reclassify broadband, Americans would face a host of new state and local taxes and fees that apply to public utilities. These new levies, according to the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), would total $15 billion annually. On average, consumers would pay an additional $67 for landline broadband, and $72 for mobile broadband each year, according to PPI’s calculations, with charges varying from state to state.”

Obamacare for the InternetAdvocates of “Net Neutrality” claim that the recently extended Internet Tax Freedom Act would prohibit extra taxes and fees by state and local authorities, and, as an extra safety measure against them, suggest that the FCC can designate broadband as an interstate service. Norquist and Gleason explain why such assurances are false. They also explain why higher taxes and intrusive regulation are bad for the economy.

Some dissenters against “Net Neutrality” are most concerned with the free-market implications — that is, the government will be able to interfere with ISPs’ freedom to provide service how and to whom they want. The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Radia says,

“It’s not about speech being regulated by the government. It’s about speech being regulated by private companies [as they have a right to]. If you build a network, you own it, you operate it and you decide that your policy will be just to allow certain types of messages. You should be free to do that. Of course, your subscribers are free to choose who their provider is.”

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler insists, “This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech.” That is sort of ironic, since it obviously is about Internet regulation, and some opponents see that it could have consequences for free speech, as well. (In fact, many of its advocates insist that “Net Neutrality” is necessary to ensure freedom of speech.) As conservative activist and attorney Matt Barber told Charlie Butts at “One News Now”,

“We know that any speech that the progressive left disagrees with they want to classify as ‘hate speech’. I’m concerned about the free speech aspects of this on the Internet as well.”

The FCC’s Ajit Pai agrees. With newfound authority to regulate Internet service directly and indirectly, the Executive Branch could indeed instruct the FCC to crack down on those it sees as ideological threats or merely in the way of its agenda. (Sort of like it does with the IRS, EPA, etc.) This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that such regulation would increase the government’s ability to spy on its citizens. (As if it isn’t bad enough having companies like Google and Facebook pressured to turn over user information.)

To add insult to injury, Pai thinks this recent push for “Net Neutrality” is largely a political move by the Obama administration.

“If you look at some of the reports, it’s pretty clear the White House was casting about for a political issue after the November election and they settled on net neutrality.”

He also says that the FCC was originally headed in a different direction, until the administration pressured them into pursuing this more aggressive, “progressive” plan, which is contrary to the government regulation-free Internet agreed upon by the Clinton administration and Congress in the 1990s.

“It means,… instead of the Internet being governed by engineers, technologists, and innovators, it’s going to be governed by lawyers, bureaucrats, and politicians. It’s a massive shift toward government control of how the Internet works and nobody knows exactly how this brave new world is going to play out. One thing is for sure, it’s going to be bad for American consumers and entrepreneurs going forward.”  — Ajit Pai, FCC Commissioner

As of Feb. 26th, the FCC voted 3-2 in favor of the President’s proposed Title II regulation of the Internet. Now, the courts will likely begin reviewing the plan, if they haven’t already. They rejected earlier such attempts in 2005 and 2010, finding that the FCC didn’t have the necessary authority. The new proposal has even broader ramifications, so let us hope and pray that the current courts also see the wisdom in striking this down. Congress will want to weigh in, too, as they should. But, their options are limited, as they will likely need a lot of bipartisan support to pass a veto-proof bill against it. Regardless, the battle will continue for a while, so we “the People” must continue to make our voices heard on this issue!

“Title II regulation of the Internet is a clear example of unnecessary federal overreach that would saddle ISPs with the same costs and inefficiencies as traditional utility carriers, with no clear justification for doing so.” — Logan Albright

For the full analyses by FreedomWorks and Heritage, respectively, follow these links:

“Issue Analysis: Title II Regulation of the Internet”

“Beyond Hypothetical: How FCC Internet Regulation Would Hurt Consumers”

Also, for an audio discussion on Title II from the Cato Institute, check this out: “Net Neutrality, Obama and Oatmeal”

Finally, Nick Sanchez at Newsmax put together this quick list of “7 Reasons Net Neutrality Is a Threat to Your Freedom”.


On Ethical Monotheism and Friedrich Nietzsche

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  — Friedrich Nietzsche, influential 19th-century philosopher and cultural critic

Late last year, I posted excerpts from the Introduction to Dr. David Bentley Hart’s book, Atheist Delusions. I finally starting reading the rest of the book — slowly, now and then — and am really appreciating Hart’s clear thinking, fair-mindedness, and eloquent prose. (He also throws in the occasional word that I am unfamiliar with, so I am expanding my vocabulary, as well.) So, I decided to share a few more excerpts from the book on various topics, which I will likely spread out over the next few months. Here is the first:

“I can honestly say that there are many forms of atheism that I find far more admirable than many forms of Christianity or of religion in general. But atheism that consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism. And it is sometimes difficult, frankly, to be perfectly generous in one’s response to the sort of invective currently fashionable among the devoutly undevout, or to the sort of historical misrepresentations it typically involves.

WRONG_ReligionCausesWarTake for instance Peter Watson, author of a diverting little bagatelle of a book on the history of invention, who, when asked not long ago by the New York Times to name humanity’s worst invention, blandly replied, ‘Without question, ethical monotheism…. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.’ Now, as a specimen of the sort of antireligious chatter that is currently chic, this is actually rather mild; but it is also utter nonsense. Not that there is much point in defending ‘monotheism’ in the abstract (it is a terribly imprecise term); and devotees of the ‘one true God’ have certainly had their share of blood on their hands. But the vast majority of history’s wars have been conducted in the service of many gods; or have been fought under the aegis, or with the blessing, or at the command of one god among many; or have been driven by the pursuit of profits or conquest or power; or have been waged for territory, national or racial destiny, tribal supremacy, the empire, or the ‘greater good’; or, indeed, have been prosecuted in obedience to ideologies that have no use for any gods whatsoever (these, as it happens, have been the most murderous wars of all).

The pagan rhetorician Libanius justly bragged that the gods of the Roman Empire had directed the waging of innumerable wars. By contrast, the number of wars that one could plausibly say have actually been fought on behalf of anything one might call ‘ethical monotheism’ is so vanishingly small that such wars certainly qualify as exceptions to the historical rule. Bigotry and religious persecution, moreover, are anything but peculiar to monotheistic cultures, as anyone with a respectable grasp of human culture and history should know. And yet, absurd as it is Watson’s is the sort of remark that sets many heads sagely nodding in recognition of what seems an undeniable truth. Such sentiments have become so much a part of the conventional grammar of ‘enlightened’ skepticism that they are scarcely ever subjected to serious scrutiny.

My only impatience with such remarks, I should confess, would probably be far smaller if I did not suffer from a melancholy sense that, among Christianity’s most fervent detractors, there has been a considerable decline in standards in recent years. [Here, Hart proceeds to mention and give proper due to a few critics of Christianity from the past, from Celsus and Prophyry to David Hume and Edward Gibbon.] The extraordinary scientific, philosophical, and political ferment of the nineteenth century provided Christianity with enemies of unparalleled passion and visionary intensity.

The greatest of them all, Friedrich Nietzsche, may have had a somewhat limited understanding of the history of Christian thought, but he was nevertheless a man of immense culture who could appreciate the magnitude of the thing against which he had turned his spirit, and who had enough of a sense of the past to understand the cultural crisis that the fading of Christian faith would bring about. Moreover, he had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was — above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion — rather than allow himself the soothing, self-righteous fantasy that Christianity’s history had been nothing but an interminable pageant of violence, tyranny, and sexual neurosis.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

He may have hated many Christians for their hypocrisy, but he hated Christianity itself principally on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased; and, because he was conscious of the historical contingency of all cultural values, he never deluded himself that humanity could do away with Christian faith while simply retaining Christian morality in some diluted form, such as liberal social conscience or innate human sympathy. He knew that the disappearance of the cultural values of Christianity would gradually but inevitably lead to a new set of values, the nature of which was yet to be decided. By comparison to these men, today’s gadflies seem far lazier, less insightful, less subtle, less refined, more emotional, more ethically complacent, and far more interested in facile simplifications of history than in sober and demanding investigations of what Christianity has been or is.”

I have commented before about how atheistic ideologies have been responsible for more deaths by far than any other ideology, which Hart alludes to with his comment about “the most murderous wars of all.” But his main point in that section was that, when one counts up the number of wars and looks specifically at the supporting ideological causes, a rather (surprisingly?) small percentage are/were based on religion of some sort. I did a little more digging and came up with the image above, which gives some numbers to illustrate the point.

The other thing that was news to me and of particular interest was the bit about Nietzsche. I don’t really know all that much about him, to be honest, but I suppose his abhorrence of the Christian mandate to care for “the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased” is consistent with the general sense I have of the harshness of his views.

There are many other such places in the book, but this is also an example — and this goes to the fair-mindedness I mentioned earlier — of Hart’s willingness to acknowledge the strengths of past opponents of Christianity, if only to demonstrate the rather inferior quality (in many ways) of today’s “new atheists” in comparison.


Ants vs. Global Warming

FUN FACT: Ants make up 15-25% of the total mass of living animal tissue on the continents!

We’ll get back to the ants in a minute. But, first…

The Sun

The Sun

The Sun is a nuclear furnace. Hydrogen, the lightest element and most abundant chemical substance in the universe, is constantly being fused within it into helium. Over the eons, this nuclear fusion has caused the Sun to get brighter and brighter. According to astronomers, the Sun is now about 25% brighter than it was when life first showed up on Earth more than 3.5 billion years ago. You know what’s strange about that? It is estimated that it would only take a 1-2% change in the Sun’s luminosity (i.e., instrinsic brightness, which is accompanied by heat) to sterilize the planet. So, how is it we are even here?

Apparently, we have a combination of life-forms and natural processes to thank for that. Some things are amazingly designed to remove much of the excess “heat-retaining” (aka “greenhouse”) gases — you know, the sort that cause the Climate Change alarmists fits — from the atmosphere, thereby keeping the Earth habitable. The most effective way this is done is via the weathering of silicates (i.e., silicon compounds). Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere reacts with rainwater to make carbonic acid, which then reacts with continental silicates to produce sand and carbonates. The relative amounts of continental silicates available and the carbon dioxide removed depends on the organisms involved.

That’s where the ants come in.

Field with large anthills

Field with large anthills

Geologist Ronald I. Dorn recently published a paper in the journal Geology about his discovery of how these ubiquitous little critters contribute in a major way to the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Field studies have shown that weathering of calcium and magnesium silicates is magnified by a factor of 50 to 300 times in the vicinity of ant colonies! Consider also that the number of ant species — and the overall number of ants — increased a lot during the Paleogene era (66-23 million years ago). This was the period when, following the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event, the mammal population suddenly expanded from a few, relatively small & simple forms into a large and quite diverse group with a great range in size.

The ants may not realize it any more than most of us have, but they have played an important part in keeping the planet temperate enough for life to endure long enough to allow humanity to show up at the best (only?) time to launch and sustain advanced civilization. As SNL’s Church Lady would say, “How con-veeeeen-ient!”

* Adapted from an earlier adaptation (titled “Ants: Amazing Agents of Change”) of an article by Dr. Hugh Ross.


New “House Freedom Caucus” to Push Conservative Agenda

“If the RSC shrinks from its duties, if it allows the executive branch to establish the entire legislative agenda, if it refuses to “frame the issues” in a conservative manner by bowing to the ideological deviations in store, the Republican Study Committee will sink to an impotent posture. However, a new group of ideologically committed conservative House members and staff aides willing to establish and implement a conservative legislative agenda will undoubtedly move in to fill the vacuum.”  — Ed Feulner (1983), conservative icon, founder of both the RSC and the Heritage Foundation

It seems that several of the more conservative Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have been growing increasingly concerned and frustrated with Republican leadership, saying that it is not conservative enough. This isn’t really news, and many of us “average citizens” share those feelings. But, the concern has now spread to include the internal watchdog over GOP leadership — the 170-member Republican Study Committee (RSC). This caucus was originally launched by conservative activists in 1973 to work with external conservative groups (e.g., The Heritage Foundation, National Rifle Association, Cato Institute, Focus on the Family) to guide the House GOP, keeping it true to conservative principles and holding its leaders accountable.

U.S. Capitol BuildingOver the years, however, more and more moderates have “infiltrated” the ranks, and the RSC’s purpose and focus began shifting to the center. Last year the group began purging itself of its more conservative staffers. It is now accused of having “disrupted relations with outside conservative groups” and, in effect, become a mere “conservative seal of approval” for rather non-conservative measures and members. There is also concern that, with membership now comprising two-thirds of the Republican conference, the RSC is too unwieldy. Generally inactive members also end up having undue influence over caucus policy and elections.

With the RSC having lost its way, precisely as Feulner predicted, some have suggested that a new group needs to be founded to pick up the old mantle. Rumors began a few weeks ago that such an endeavor was underway, and now it appears that the rumors were true. Just a few days ago, the founders of the House’s new “Freedom Caucus” announced its formation. According to the organization’s mission statement,

“The House Freedom Caucus gives a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them. We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety and prosperity of all Americans.” (italics added)

The invitation-only group hopes to start off with about 30 members, likely maxing out around 40. (As some have noted, a 29-person membership would put it in a position to block Republican legislation that members don’t support.) The nine founding members are considered some of the most hard-line conservatives in the House. They include de facto chairman (pending leadership elections) Jim Jordan (OH), Raúl Labrador (ID), Justin Amash (MI), Ron DeSantis (FL), Mick Mulvaney (SC), Mark Meadows (NC), John Fleming (LA), Matt Salmon (AZ), and Scott Garrett (NJ). According to Joel Gehrke at National Review Online, membership dues will fund the hiring of three to four staff members. As an expression of their commitment, the nine founders will pay a higher amount, called a “mortgage”. (Yikes!)

The House Freedom Caucus was not conceived as being specifically anti-Boehner or anti-RSC. (However, the reported “last straw” in mounting tensions was last November’s election of Rep. Bill Flores as RSC Chairman. Like his predecessor Steve Scalise, Flores is a moderate and has stated that he “does not believe the RSC’s core mission should be to put pressure on leadership.”) Members are not required to resign from the larger group, though some likely will, or will simply stop participating in RSC meetings. Rep. Jordan, for one, intends to be active in both. As Gehrke puts it, “The lawmakers hope to refine the process by which conservatives pressure leadership, so as to shape policy outcomes while avoiding melodramatic floor fights between Republicans.” Labrador insists that they fully intend to work with, rather than against, their peers. To be effective in their mission, they need to “sit down with leadership and let them know what we want, why we want it, [and] what ideas we have to improve the product or the process.”

“Our main hope is that we can represent the voids and valleys for our constituents back home,” Rep. Labrador told The Daily Signal. “With a small group that is nimble and able to work on issues that are of importance to our constituents, we can make a difference in Congress.” The new caucus’ most immediate plans as per Jordan are to address pending bills on border security, Department of Homeland Security’s funding, and “the President’s unconstitutional executive amnesty” for illegal immigrants. (Yes, I used the “I”-word.)

“We want to accomplish an agenda of conservative reform, something where we represent the values of the people back home. Both parties make the mistake of representing special interests and lobbyists and the groups that give money to their campaigns. We really want to represent the people, and that’s what we want to make sure we do in the House Freedom Caucus.”  — Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-ID)

I am encouraged by the formation of this new caucus. I was not previously aware of how watered-down the RSC had become, so I am glad that these truly conservative leaders have taken steps to influence legislation with a more consistently conservative, more constitutional agenda. My main question, though, is how effective they can truly be, while the House is still under control by Boehner and the GOP “establishment”. That said, the House Freedom Caucus has my prayers and my support!


Keystone Conundrum

“As a serious strategy for dealing with climate, blocking Keystone is a waste of time. But as a strategy for arousing passion, it is dynamite.”  — David Victor, global warming policy expert at the University of California, San Diego.

Anti-Keystone protest outside White House

Anti-Keystone protest outside White House

Back in November, I suggested that the Lame Duck session of the 113th Congress could and should work with President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline before the end of the year. Well,… it didn’t happen. (Surprised?) But, with the issue being debated again last week and this week for an upcoming bill, I wanted to look at it a little closer myself.

The proposed “XL” is not a totally new project but an extension of the already existing Keystone pipeline. It would consist of 1179 miles of new pipeline being constructed — 840 miles of it in the U.S. — and provide an alternate, shorter route between Hardisty, Alberta, and Steele City, Nebraska, than the one already in place. It would carry an estimated 800,000 barrels of crude oil per day, including from the Albertan tar sands and from the Bakken region of Montana and North Dakota. The existing pipeline extends in two directions from Steele City — east to Patoka, Illinois, and south to Cushing, Oklahoma. A second project — the Gulf Coast Pipeline Project, completed in Jan. 2014 — extended the pipeline another 485 miles from Cushing down to refineries in Nederland, Texas, for export from Port Arthur. The 48-mile Houston Lateral Pipeline Project, expected to be completed this year, will allow for oil near the end of the pipeline to be diverted to refineries in Houston.

Once upon a time, President Obama assured Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper that he was only delaying approval until the proper environmental studies could be done to assure the XL pipeline would not harm the environment. He said he would only deny approval for the project if it was shown to have negative ecological effect. In fact, multiple environmental studies have been done, each confirming that the pipeline poses minimal environmental risk to soil, water, wildlife, etc., and negligible climate impact. Yet, still the President put off his decision about issuing a Presidential Permit, while seemingly “evolving” towards a more negative position. This has greatly harmed America’s relationship with Canada, our “closest ally and biggest trading partner.”

The green lobby, of course, has continued to write about all sorts of imagined dangers and has put a huge amount of pressure on the administration to kill the project. As the Weekly Standard‘s Fred Barnes has noted,

“It’s a power play. If it works, the political clout of the movement will grow. And environmentalists are already a forceful special interest in Washington.”

Enviro-activists are using the recent rupture in the Poplar pipeline in Montana to paint all pipelines as bad, dangerous. Some Keystone protesters are staging “die-ins” and chaining themselves to the White House fence (see pic). The most alarmist claims by certain environmentalists, however, are being decried by some of their fellows.

“The extreme statements — that this is ‘game over’ for the planet — are clearly not intellectually true…”  — David Keith, Canadian climate scientist now at Harvard University

Some legislators on the left are trying to make it more difficult for the Keystone XL bill to be approved by tacking on amendments that require more regulations, restrictions, and other headaches. For example, Sen. Al Franken proposed a protectionist “buy American” provision, which may sound patriotic but is bad for many reasons.

Obama has stated mistakenly that the U.S. would not receive any oil or benefit from reduced gas prices from the Keystone XL expansion. But, a WSJ editorial pointed out that “Oil markets are global, and adding to the global supply might well reduce U.S. gas prices.” The president also doesn’t think many U.S. jobs would be created from the project. But, his own State Dept. projects 42,000 new jobs and a $3.5 billion boost to the economy. (I don’t know for sure, but this likely includes new and expanded businesses built up around the new pipeline workers and their families.)

According to an article last month by the Tribune News Service, some — including the Manhattan Institute, a free market-oriented think tank — are questioning if the Keystone XL is still financially feasible. According to Sandy Fielden, director of energy analytics at Texas-based RBN Energy, “The economics of this project are becoming increasingly borderline.” The issue is whether or not the additional effort and costs associated with extracting oil from tar sands are still justified by the market’s now-declining prices. (Some analysts are predicting further drops in the near future.) When asked about this, the pipeline’s owner, TransCanada Corp., pointed to their decades-long investment in the pipeline as evidence of their commitment.

“We sign binding, long-term commercial agreements with our customers so they can reserve space to deliver the crude oil they need to their customers. [Oil-shipping investors] have a good understanding of what the market needs over time. They do not make decisions based on short-term views or changes in commodity prices.”  — Mark Cooper, TransCanada spokesman

Pro-Keystone meeting

Pro-Keystone meeting

Their strategy is obviously much more long-term, their thinking is more big-picture. The Keystone pipeline and the resources that flow through it are very important to the Canadian economy. One way or another, that tar sand oil will find its way into the global market. If the XL proposal is not approved by the U.S., the crude will be shipped either to Canada’s west coast or to New Brunswick in the east, where it will be refined and exported. So, rejection by the U.S. won’t be helping to reduce any greenhouse emissions. (I can still admire the integrity of those who reject it on principle, despite pragmatic benefits, but I think those principles are misguided and/or misinformed.) As long as the companies investing in the pipeline continue to see long-term benefit in building & using it, it should be approved.

Of course, there are additional reasons, such as the broad support for the project. A December poll conducted by USA Today found 60% of Americans want it built, while only 25% are against it. Most Republicans and conservatives are for it. As for Democrats, most of the working class are for it, as are the unions (whom Obama says he is beholden to). Those against it are those who lean green, including the upper-class “elitists”. Fortunately, there are a few in Congress (mostly from states who would benefit from it) who are willing to vote in favor. The votes last November had only 15 Dem senators and 31 Dem representatives approving. Some of them are gone now, but there are also more on the right side of the aisle.

Oh, yes. There is also the benefit of reducing American dependence on oil from Venezuela and the Middle East by up to 40%.

The decision to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline Project is not really much of a “conundrum”, if ya ask me….

The new Congress is expected to pass and send Obama a bipartisan bill in favor of Keystone XL, and the President has indicated he will still veto it. The only possible reason I can see is that he puts his misguided, disproven, far-left ideological agenda over the welfare of the American people. Sadly, it wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last.

I guess the next question will be whether or not enough Democrats in Congress — yes, I’m pretty sure it comes down to the Dems — have the guts to vote in favor and ensure an override of the President’s veto.


Defining Islam

Nabeel Qureshi

Nabeel Qureshi

Last week’s post included an excerpt from Nabeel Qureshi’s book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity (2014), and I would like to include another one here. It is particularly relevant today, with the jihadists being called “radical” and other Muslims being called “moderate” and all of them saying their interpretation and practice of Islam is true to the Quran and the teachings/example of Muhammad. To help put Qureshi’s remarks in context, I should probably explain that his family — both maternal and paternal — are from Pakistan. They are devout followers of the lesser-known (and oft-maligned by other Muslims) Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, with Ahmadi missionaries on both sides. The author’s father served in the U.S. Army and was stationed (with his family) in Scotland for many years, but they moved back to their adopted home of America when Nabeel and his sister were still children.

The excerpt below follows directly after the tragic events of 9/11, just days after Qureshi began his freshman year at college….

“As the days progressed, it became clear that the hijackers were indeed Muslim and that this attack on our nation had been carried out in the name of Islam. But what Islam was this? It was clearly not the Islam I knew. True, I used to hear of Muslims in distant lands committing atrocities in the name of Allah, but those accounts were too remote to create any cognitive dissonance. This hit much closer to home. This hit us in our hearts.

Over the following weeks, news stations mercilessly looped footage of the crumbling towers. Again and again and again, I witnessed thousands of innocents massacred in the name of my God. It finally became too much. I had to learn the truth about my faith once and for all. I had to figure out how to reconcile my Islam, a religion of peace, with the Islam on television, a religion of terror.

In the twelve years since that day, I have learned that the question is far more complex than it first appears. The most important consideration is the definition of Islam. If by Islam we mean the beliefs of Muslims, then Islam can be a religion of peace or a religion of terror, depending on how it is taught.

In the West, Muslims are generally taught a very pacific version of Islam. Just like [my sister] Baji and I, Western Muslims are taught that Muhammad fought only defensive battles and that violent verses in the Quran refer to specific, defensive contexts. Jihad is here defined as primarily a peaceful endeavor, an internal struggle against one’s baser desires. When asked about their religion, Western Muslims honestly report what they believe: Islam is a religion of peace.

In the East, though, Muslims often have a less docile view of Islam. They are taught that Islam is superior to all other religions and ways of life and that Allah wishes to see it established throughout the world. They often define jihad as a primarily physical endeavor, a struggle against the enemies of Islam. When asked about their religion, these Muslims will honestly report what they believe: Islam will dominate the world.

So if we define Islam by the beliefs of its adherents, it may or may not be a religion of peace. But if we define Islam more traditionally, as the system of beliefs and practices taught by Muhammad, then the answer is less ambiguous.”

Perhaps I should interject here to point out that Qureshi is, of course, writing from his experiences growing up. But, as is becoming more apparent every day, not all Western-raised Muslims are taught the peaceful version of Islam. We know that more & more are being radicalized — or, at the very least, taught to hold a rather negative view of the West — in the U.S. and in Europe, even as they reap the many benefits of living here/there.

Qureshi continues here by mentioning something he didn’t realize until he really delved into the actual history of Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam, since most Muslims are taught a rather sanitized version….

“The earliest historical records show that Muhammad launched offensive military campaigns and used violence at times to accomplish his purposes. He used the term jihad in both spiritual and physical contexts, but the physical jihad is the one Muhammad strongly emphasizes. The peaceful practice of Islam hinges on later, often Western, interpretations of Muhammad’s teachings, whereas the more violent variations of Islam are deeply rooted in orthodoxy and history.

Of course, like all people, Muslims in the East and West generally just believe what they are taught. Rarely is there much critical investigation into historical events, and the few that invest the effort usually do the same thing I had done in my TOK class: attempt to defend what is already believed, potentially ignoring or underestimating evidence that points to the contrary. This is only natural, since it is extremely difficult to change beliefs that are dear to the heart.

Such was the case with me. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to know the truth about Islam, but it would be nearly impossible to challenge my childhood beliefs just by investigating them. I would keep finding ways to ignore difficult truths. What I needed was something that would not let me get away with my biases. I needed something that would mercilessly loop my bad arguments before my eyes, again and again and again, until I could avoid them no longer.”

Bible and Quran

Bible and Quran

Intrigued? I certainly would be, if I hadn’t already read the book. Qureshi’s descriptions of his home life, his indoctrination into the Quran (Muslim holy book), the hadith (collection of traditions containing sayings of Muhammad), and the Muslim rituals and way of life are very interesting. He explains how close the family unit is, the ways in which the Muslim beliefs and practices are interwoven throughout their lives from the moment they are born, and the important role of community. The reader is given a slightly better understanding (even appreciation?) of those things that often seem so alien to the non-Muslim. It also helps one to understand the great sacrifices of family and community that a person raised in that culture makes when converting from Islam to any other belief system. It is an extremely difficult choice, despite the positive aspects that may be had.

But, as the author states in the epilogue, “All suffering is worth it to follow Jesus. He is that amazing.” Amen! You can read all about what — or, rather, who — that “something” was that God used to encourage and challenge Qureshi’s investigation into the truth about both Islam and Christianity, as well as the amazing events that helped him finally surrender his troubled heart and spirit into the care of the one, true and Living God. Read the book!

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