Bending the World Around Yourself

In light of all the momentous events currently taking place around the world, this next story might seem somewhat trivial in the grand scheme of things. But it illustrates some important points that are of more general application, and more importantly to me, it concerns my own alma mater, Binghamton University, of which I am a proud alumnus.

It seems that a Binghamton sophomore, Aaron Akaberi, recently converted to the Rastafarian religion. As part of his conversion, he decided to adhere to a strict interpretation of the Rastafarian dietary rules, Ital, which entail, among other things, total avoidance of meat, of non-organic produce, and of any food prepared using metal cookware (!).

Akaberi considered the standard cuisine offered by Binghamton University’s dining-services provider, Sodexho, to be insufficient to meet his desires, and resented that, as an undergraduate living in a campus dormitory, he was required to purchase a meal plan. When he made his complaints known, a campus dietitian made a proposal in which chefs would specially obtain and prepare food just for him, tailored to meet his dietary standards. Akaberi refused this offer. The university then offered to move him from his current dorm to a room in the graduate apartment communities, where he would not be required to purchase a meal plan and would have access to a kitchen to prepare food to his own liking. Akaberi refused this offer as well. Then, apparently feeling as if his special demands had not been sufficiently catered to, he went on a hunger strike. After 12 days, the school informed him that he was seriously endangering his own health, and that he would be subject to an involuntary medical expulsion if he insisted on continuing it. Akaberi finally gave in and ceased his self-starvation, though the next step in this wrangle remains unclear. (I obtain this information from two articles in Binghamton’s campus newspaper, Pipe Dream: one, two.)

Based on the facts as they have been presented, it seems to me that Binghamton University has been more than fair. Whatever legitimate grievance Akaberi may have over the mandatory purchase of a meal plan is more than outweighed by the petty and selfish behavior he has repeatedly displayed, even when the school went out of its way to accommodate him. More to the point, the rules he claims to follow are absolutely idiotic. There are legitimate reasons not to eat meat, but a demand that food not come in contact with metal is a ridiculous and irrational superstition. Although I believe in respecting differing beliefs as far as is practical, such respect definitely does not mandate that reasonable people must go out of their way to bow down to the demands of unreasonable people.

The more general principle at work – one believed in an extreme form by Akaberi, but held in a less extreme form by much of society – is a misguided belief that any demand originating from religion should always be met, as if holding a belief for religious reasons gave one the right to bend the world around oneself, and to demand that everyone else change their ways of thinking and acting to accommodate that belief. (In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins gives the telling example of excusal from mandatory military service: until recently, a nonbeliever who objected to all war on the basis of profound and deeply considered philosophical reasons would have an extremely difficult time obtaining an exemption from the draft or would be unable to do so at all, while a person claiming membership in the Quakers or some other pacifist religious sect would be granted an exemption far more easily. Evidently, “because God told me to” is somehow considered more compelling than “because I personally reasoned it out”.)

Rastafarianism in general, in fact, is an extremely silly belief set, even by the lenient standards one is forced to apply when judging among different religions. Dedicated Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie I, ruler of Ethopia from 1930 until shortly before his death in 1975, was God incarnate, and the messiah who will unite all people of African descent and lead them to the promised land. His being dead is not viewed as a significant handicap in this. Notably, Selassie had no affiliation with Rastafarianism, played no role in initiating, organizing or promoting the movement, belonged to a completely different church (the Ethiopian Orthodox church) his entire life, and never claimed to be God. Rastafarians consider this further proof of his divinity, as the true God would not display the sin of pride by publicly proclaiming himself so. Next to such a laughable claim, the refusal to eat from metal cookware seems almost rational.

In reality, just because a belief is derived from religion is no reason to respect or abide by it. To the degree that such beliefs are rational, we should accommodate them; to the degree that they are not, we should refuse to do so. Some have cast doubt on the sincerity of Akaberi’s conversion, but truthfully it does not matter: whether his beliefs are sincerely religious or not, they are unreasonable, and other people should not have to make any special effort to accommodate them. Atheists are sometimes accused of demanding special rights, but in reality, we ask only for the same rights and tolerance as everyone else. This is a true example of a person demanding special rights, and most of these people, like Akaberi, do so for reasons stemming from religion.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex Weaver

    The not-eating things that have touched metal rule is a classic case of reductio ad absurdum. It means he can’t eat anything, since certain metals (magnesium and I believe iron) are essential, as I understand it, to the metabolic processes of all lifeforms and thus will invariably be found in trace concentrations in anything he might make a meal out of. Not to mention the metals dissolved in the water it would be cooked in, even if non-metal cooking utensils were used. And even if we limit it to visible and conspicuous amounts of metal, it’s likely that every single edible plant on the planet contains at least some atoms that have at some point in the earth’s 4-billion year history been in contact with metal ore or elemental metal. The same is true for finished metal products, I suspect, since oxygen from the air routinely winds up in food.

  • Montu

    What exactly was he trying to accomplish? If they were going to make meals prepared according to his religions standards, or offer him a place where he could prepare the food himself and this wasn’t acceptable, then what would be? Did he want the entire school to become rhasta?

  • http://secularplanet.blogspot.com Secular Planet

    At first I thought you said he converted to Pastafarianism, and I was wondering when the administration was going to throw out the case because they don’t respect the FSM.

  • BigJim

    The guy is pissed off that he has to purchase a mandatory meal plan because he lives in the dorm, and he probably figured he could get an exemption based on his religious beliefs. Fortunately, the school isn’t that stupid.

  • valhar2000

    Why didn’t the school just ignore him? If he is in college, he is not a child anymore, and he should be expected to take care of himself, in whatever way he deems best, without the assistance of others except when offered voluntarily. Therefore, if he wants special food, let him purchase and cook it himself, just like the rest fo us do.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    Rastafarianism in general, in fact, is an extremely silly belief set, even by the lenient standards one is forced to apply when judging among different religions.

    I dunno, I think the gold standard for silly beliefs is the magic underwear of Mormonism.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    In reality, just because a belief is derived from religion is no reason to respect or abide by it. To the degree that such beliefs are rational, we should accommodate them; to the degree that they are not, we should refuse to do so.

    Reminds me of the complaints lodged against the City of New York by a group of Lubavitch Hasidim that the drinking water contained microscopic crustaceans. As I remember hearing it, some officials from the Public Health department went over to Crown Heights and explained that virtually all fresh water on Earth contained these critters. Everyone–including Jews–had been likely drinking them their entire lives.

    I don’t remember what the response was–I got all this third-hand–but I suspect it was one of those religious-head-exploding moments.

  • Terry

    Reading about all those silly beliefs only makes me stronger in the one true faith, Frisbeetyrianism, and serene in the knowledge that when I die, my soul shall remain on the roof, forever frustrating all attempts to retrieve it.

  • lpetrich

    He seems like a spoiled brat.

  • Andreas

    I wonder if he likes knuckle sandwiches. (Just kidding.)

  • C

    Please, I knew this kid back when he went to the Air Force Academy. He tried to pull the same stunt during basic training. Except that this time, his religion was “aaronism.” He’s just using the religion to weasel his way out of having to buy a meal plan.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Did you indeed know Akaberi personally, C? That’s very interesting to hear, if he’s done something similar before. Nevertheless, the point remains that whether his beliefs are sincere or not, the more important issue is that they are ridiculous, and should not require anyone else to cater to him. I’m reminded of the case where some federal prisoners started a religion called the “Church of the New Song” and claimed it was part of their religious beliefs that they had to be provided with steak and wine at meals. The court didn’t buy it, needless to say.

  • Alex Weaver

    The Church of the New Song thing reminds me of a comment a friend made a while ago. “If I say my religion is ‘Onanism,’ will they let me ‘pray’ on my break?” Of course, the difference is, these wankers (couldn’t resist x.x) were apparently serious…

  • DSSSS

    I went to high school with this kid… don’t remember him being like this… sounds like a lame way to be cheap and not buy a meal plan.

  • AJ

    I also remember him trying to pull crap like this at the AFA. Specifically, when we return from leave, that night, we have to pay out of pocket for our dinner. Aaron didn’t much like this policy (I think the price was something like $2.30 for dinner) so he got pissed and decided if he had to pay, he was going to take as much as he pleased. He filled more than one carry-out box with hamburger patties and was still going when the staff called in the cops. Not sure what became of that situation because I grabbed my food, paid, and took off. It was quite a site, though.

  • C

    Yea, he was in my squad. There is nothing sincere about his beliefs and they are simply a means for him to get what he wants. If you picture this guy as sneaky and willing to manipulate anything in order for him to have his own way with things, that’d be a pretty accurate picture of Aaron. His beliefs are empty, and he doesn’t have respect for anything but himself, which is apparent through his actions.

  • WS

    I was one of the Cadets in charge of Aaron at the Air Force Academy in CS 18. He stated that his religion (which he named after himself) excused him from various mandatory activities and thus he attempted to get out of PT and other events. He made it all up to try to get around the stringent standards of the Air Force. I believe he was finally expelled for violating the Honor Code….

  • hay

    Original e-mail written by him:

    Fellow Nightriders,

    (Sorry for another mass email 2007ers, but the causation which precipitated this mailing is no fault of my own)

    Sir or Ma’am, I write to you this evening in a saddened and disappointed tone. Allow me to explain my dismay. On Monday, the 18th of August, 2003, Mitchell Hall served Chocolate Taco (ChocoTaco™) ice cream bars as dessert for the noon meal. I was intrigued by the name of these delicacies and by Cadet Baber’s enthusiasm for them.

    Having a strong sense of will power however, I realized that ice cream was not the best dietary supplement to build my body in preparation for the Physical Fitness Test (I had previously failed this test with an shameful 160 points). As such, I resolved to set aside my table’s uneaten Chocolate Tacos in our squadron freezer, in a clear plastic bag with my name clearly labeled (typed actually) and the date that I submitted these desserts for freezing.

    I considered them my future reward for passing the Physical Fitness Test (if that were even possible I thought) – a motivation of sorts to push myself to excel physically in preparation for a test of strength, stamina, and skill. Always in the back of my mind, these ice-cream-filled sugar cone shells along with the hope of getting off ReConditioning kept me going in times of hardship leading up to the Physical Fitness Test.

    So on 9 September 2003, a day after accomplishing a goal I could only dream of up until then (actually passing the Physical Fitness Test with an improvement of 104 points after only one month of preparation), on a day that will live in infamy in my mind forever, I approached the squadron freezer, ecstatic about my victory over my inhibitions and at a pinnacle of delight. I had finally done it! Finally, I could relax and enjoy myself, as well as those ice cream bars I had been saving for just such an occasion. So, as I opened the freezer, ready to take a bite into that chocolaty deliciousness, what do I find? NO MORE CHOCO TACOS™!

    I was devastated. “How could this have happened?” I asked myself. “I’m at the United States Air Force Academy, an institution dedicated to producing officers of INTEGRITY, a place where one cadet would not dream of depriving another of his property.” My faith in the honor code and the precepts that constituted it was abruptly and drastically challenged. Don’t get me wrong – I am not making a generalization about the entire Academy, but rather am disheartened by the individual(s) who decided to take this course of action.

    I am a realist. I acknowledge the fact that my Chocolate Tacos are gone, never to be seen again. I would REALLY appreciate it however, if this (or these) Chocolate Taco lover(s) would offer at least a humble apology and an assurance that it will never happen again, and in the process, perhaps rejuvenate my lost confidence in the honor code, a common bond that I thought was indissoluble in this squadron.

    Some may mock and ridicule me – saying “stop overreacting – it’s just ice cream – get over it.” I can only hope that you; my fellow squadron mates, can see past ignorance and understand that this is about more than just lost chocolaty deliciousness – it is about a strong bond of integrity that ties us all together, a bond that was severely weakened only 2 weeks ago.

    I do realize that 2 weeks is quite a bit of time to wait to send this electronic mail, but the elapsed days do not diminish the atrocity of this crime. Again, I ask person(s) responsible for my missing ice cream bars to come forward, renounce his or her light-fingered ways, and ask for forgiveness – I will give it readily. I just want to know that the honor code is still a valued guide that each one of us holds dear.

    Today, with Chocolate Tacos again on the menu, I have managed to partially restock my supply of these delectable treats. Please Stallions, I beseech thee, leave my ChocoTacos™ alone this time and have a nice day.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Very Respectfully,

    Cadet Fourth Class Aaron Bayaz Kohn Akaberi

    Cadet Squadron 18 “Nightriders”

    Post Script

    If the ChocoTaco™ Bandit happens to be no one from our squadron, I am deeply sorry for bothering you all.

    Also,

    On a completely different note, does anyone have a bicycle that I could borrow for a trip to the Base Exchange this week? I would really appreciate it. Thanks again.

  • Alex Weaver

    While he does sound like an ass, I’m not sure publicizing his private correspondance is the best approach to this…

  • livhimalone

    I think those of us who think Aaron is overreacting are the ones who are , in fact, overreacting in here. Aaron is a friend of mine, and I am writing this not in his defense, but simply to allow us to think more critically and constructively. Aaron fights for what he wants both for himself and other students out there(even some of us) who simply are hopeless about changes, and think that changes are impossible. If you are happy with the mealplans, the foods made available at our school, the price of the mealplans, the compulsary nature of mealplans, then that’s your decisions; but not all of us are happy with that. This is due to the fact that some of us have different diet, not necessarily religious; but also personal and cultural, some of us simply upset that we have no option but to be on the mealplan; some of us think the mealplan is simply too costly, etc. In Aaron’s case; he does NOT like the fact that students are obliged to be on the mealplan, coupled with his especial diet [that was never met even when he had to pay for the mealplan]

    If it is a r eligious requirement that Aaron should stay on certain diet, then he has the right to ask that the food be prepared in his way, if possible given the fact that he pays for the mealplan. And YES, everyone could do the same if they think the food is not prepared in a way that we want. And this is how it should be; that is we should fight for what we want; and we should be able to get what we paid for. despite school does not provides what he wants, at least he tried and fought for what he wanted. Being college students, we should think critcally about things rather than taking them the way they are. “we should think out of the box”. So why dont we leave him alone, especially if his strike does not have any affec per se on us.

    It sounds pathetic to raise our concerns on whatever Aaron beleives in, especially when we live in this country, where freedom of beliefs is guaranteed under our own constitution, maybe more than any other country. I am not labeling anyone of being stupid [despite some of you said Aaron's claim as being idiotic]; but hey, WAKE UP!!!!!..we leave in free and most democratic country than many countries out there in Africa, Asia, etc. If you have such rights and freedom, use them while you can because millions of people allover the world dont, and many lost their lives for daring to ask for such freedom.

    So all I wanted to say is that let him do what he wants to do as far as its “voluntary” and does not effect you personally. Thankyou

  • Yash

    I think we need more people like him on this planet. He is experimenting with the system, testing it’s boundaries and raising questions over how things are defined. He is in a way playing a very positive asset to the system.

  • cal

    I support this guy for 2 reasons: a) He’s completely nuts, his ‘conversion’ to rastafarianism is a joke (yeah, I got really into Bob Marley for a while too), his demands unreasonable, and he’s made the whole spectacle pretty entertaining to watch – check out his “Daily Show” interview for a real hoot.
    and b) – there’s a serious point here – why should residence on campus mandate a meal plan contract? Sure the school can set whatever policy it sees fit, but so too can a student question that policy. The demand that Sodexho cater to his (or anyone else’s) whims is rediculous, but why not let him cook his own damn food, and not have to pay Sodexho? It might improve the meal plan for everyone if they had to ‘sell’ it to students, instead of mandating it. My university had no link between housing and dining. Mr.Akaberi could have made this point WAY more coherently… (but then it wouldn’t be as funny)…. just my 2 cents.