Naming Activist Fallacies: The Separatist Paradise

By Scotlyn

Apologies, folks, this post took a bit longer than promised. I have been struggling for two weeks or so to write a post on the activist fallacy of the “Righteous Victim,” but it seems that the post which wants to be written first is the fallacy of the “Separatist Paradise.” This concept, the concept that we will be safer, or happier, or freer, in the company of others of our own kind, (and sometimes accompanied with a concept of “our own kind” as being special, exceptional, even) often underlies certain types of nationalism – it was a defining feature of Hitler’s Third Reich, of the Basque separatist movement in France and Spain, and it has had an influence on strains of Irish nationalism. It is likewise a defining feature of Zionist philosophy, and it has had a huge influence, for awhile, on the black power movement in the 70′s and on feminism in the 80′s and various other liberation movements in history. Currently, I see it as a motivating force in the development of the tea party, which seems to be unable to articulate its aims exactly, but which have something to do with finding common cause with “folk like us.”

The underlying concept of fairness that has always underwritten the struggle for a more equitable society, is not, I think, an arcane or complex one – most of us were able to make a pretty effective “Argument from Fairness” in kindergarten, when Charlie wouldn’t share the paste, or when the teacher kept picking Sarah to hand out the crayons. Therefore, it is rarely necessary to persuade people of the benefits of fairness in and of itself – most people are already mightily convinced on that score. The battle that we must continually fight is about where we should draw the circle that includes the people that we believe are entitled to fair treatment, and that excludes those who we believe do not. (For the sake of brevity, and in memory of a place where valuable moral lessons are often learned, alongside other important issues such as bladder control, permit me a “kindergarten-ish” term – let’s call this our Fairness Circle).

The reasons for making exclusions from our Fairness Circle are many, and they are more or less persuasive, depending on our personal experiences or upbringing. The consequences of making exclusions from our Fairness Circle are, of course, severe on the excluded – beyond the pale, anything goes – threats, extortion, theft, dispossession, rape, torture, murder, denial of justice, denial of rights, silencing of speech. If we can be persuaded that the members of a specific group are a threat to us, then excluding them from our Fairness Circle, either temporarily or permanently, until the threat is neutralised, is traditionally an easy sell. Think Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib. A variation on this theme is if we think members of a certain group may hurt us in the future, in which case ejecting them from our Fairness Circle before they can do so, can be seen as a pre-emptive strike. Think internment of Japanese Americans, and confiscation of their homes and businesses, during the Second World War. If we can be persuaded that, in a variety of ways, people are somehow “not like us,” (lots of relevant words here – childlike, primitive, inferior, uncivilised, fanatical, evil, elite, monstrous, disgusting, treacherous, etc) then the task of persuading us that our kindergarten-simple concepts of fairness and equality simply do not apply to them is made so much easier. Such words have been variously used during the course of American history to deny some or all of the benefits of the American Fairness Circle to black people, women, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, gay people, native people, communists, trade unionists, and others, seizing always on this or that identity tag that marks out membership in the excluded group.

The struggle that must be waged in each case is to demonstrate that the excluded group belongs within the Fairness Circle fold, where we can all agree that its members are perfectly entitled to the same standards of fair treatment as everyone else, rather than outside it, where they may continue to be discriminated against. But in arguing that, yes, people with black skin, or that, yes, people with vaginas, or that, yes, people whose parents had them circumcised or baptised as infants, happen to be people, just like other people, we who are in the struggle may get hung up on this issue of difference. Whatever the marker is that initially led to us being in the excluded group, it can take on a magical, powerful aura of its own – a fatal attraction, if we allow it to ensnare us in its glamour. And a fatal distraction, if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that the goal is to find a separate safe place where we can set up our own Fairness Circle, beyond the reach of those who excluded us from theirs.

Terry Pratchett calls us “Pan narrans,” the story-telling ape, many liberation movements of people who have experienced exclusion, intimidation and discrimination, are held together by the story of their sufferings, and by the story of how those shared sufferings make that people special. And how we will naturally be happiest and safest in the company of others in our “special” group. I want to illustrate my point with two different takes on the same story – the story of the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy 34:1-5 tells the story of Moses, who having led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and having placed them on the road to the Promised Land, is not permitted to go there himself. However, he is permitted an eagle’s eye view of the Promised Land from the mountain top, just before he dies.

“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab upon mount Nebo… And the Lord said to him: This is the land, for which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying: I will give it to thy seed. Thou hast seen it with thy eyes, and shalt not pass over to it. And Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, by the commandment of the Lord:”

The biblical story of the liberation of a people formerly enslaved and suffering, is a powerful story. As we shall see, it has an archetypal resonance, even today. But the original story of the land that God had promised to Israel also tells that it had people living in it already. So was God promising the Israelites a shared inheritance, a land in which all God’s children could live in peace and brotherhood? Not so:

Deuteronomy 7:1-8
“When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

This is the story of a liberation, but it is fatally flawed. The Israelites are not liberated because slavery is wrong, but to fulfill an oath that God has made. And in order to help God fulfill His oath to them, the people of Israel must destroy the people who already live in the land God recklessly promised to them. They are not to find common cause with the native inhabitants, they must instead believe that they are called to be a “special people.” If they were to find common ground between themselves and the Canaanites, they might be tempted to spare them.

The biblical Promise to Israel, therefore, is a Separatist Paradise – a Special land for a Special people, one where they would reside in covenant with God, but enter no covenant with any other earthly people. To my mind, this is not the story of a true liberation. Or, it is the story of a liberation that got sidetracked away from the true road of liberation based on the rights of all humans, down the cul-de-sac of “liberation” based on special privileges for the chosen few. But, if people gain the right to the land because God has chosen them to be special, what happens if, or when, God chooses differently?

It is interesting what happens with the story of the Promised Land in the hands of Martin Luther King Jr, one of the greatest orators on the theme of liberation in the 20th century. He draws on a deep well of Biblical symbolism in his speeches, as expressed in the subversive tradition of Gospel music. Just as generations of slaveholders had found comfort in Scripture for their slaveholding ways, generations of slaves had been inspired with the hope of deliverance by the biblical story of the Israelites being brought out of slavery in Egypt into their promised land. In Memphis, in April 1968, the night before his assassination, Dr King gave a poignant speech in which he presciently invokes the possibility of his death, saying it does not cause him fear or dismay, because, like Moses, he has been to the mountain top:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

But, there are differences, huge differences in Dr King’s use of this imagery. And by changing key features of the story, he avoids the biblical Separatist Paradise fallacy. Take a look at his “I have a Dream” speech, given in Washington DC in a more optimistic 1963. The Promise being claimed in Dr King’s speech is not God’s Covenant for a Special people, and it is not a promise to be claimed the expense of any other person. Rather, Dr King shows that the Promise being claimed in that speech, was based on a human covenant – a human covenant which promised the same rights to every citizen:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
    But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

The danger of Separatism, of Exceptionalism is that it comes to base its claims not on true justice, or rights, or fairness, but on Special Privilege. Which is seductive. But once we argue for a special privilege – once we claim a “right” for ourselves, that we are unwilling to grant to others, we have lost our fight for rights, and the only road we can travel is to be the most persuasive as to our entitlement to special privileges.

Dr King unfailingly avoided this pitfall and his speeches still have an illuminating quality for anyone who cares to study a path of liberation and justice. He said, “I know that justice is indivisible, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are all in this together. There is only one fight for justice and we must keep waging it always on behalf of one another. And there is only one Fairness Circle – and every human being on earth belongs inside it.

Photo Sunday: Stone Wall, Winter
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Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
“Choose Faith in Spite of the Facts”
About Adam Lee

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

  • Aegis

    Beautifully written. Love it.

    Did anyone else get a weird feeling this should be read in Carl Sagan’s voice?

  • Scotlyn

    Hey thanks, Aegis.

    But I do hope you would not consider reading Dr King’s words in any other than his own inimitable and gloriously uplifting voice – if you have not yet heard him speak, please lose no time in browsing through his speech clips on youtube and immerse yourself in both the voice and the words of a man who combined vision, intelligence, charisma and an unswerving focus on the goal of liberation – all in one incredible package.

  • Nathaniel

    From what I can tell, the thinking basically boils down to “If we get rid of everyone who disagrees with us, everything will be perfect.”

    Its been tried before. Spanish Inquisition anyone?

  • jack

    Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.

    Evolutionary psychologists have an interesting take on what you call the Circle of Fairness. They argue that the extent of our circle of fairness (or acceptance, tolerance, inclusion, empathy, morality, or whatever) is not intrinsically based on skin color, religion, ethnicity, gender, language, or any other such differences, although all of these things can and often are used to set the boundaries. They say that what’s really setting the boundaries is simply the criterion that those with whom we interbreed are on the inside, and everyone else is outside. This idea seems to do well at explaining the evolving circle (or circles) of fairness within the USA over the last two centuries or so.

    One of the defining attributes of a cult is an extremely small, tight and heavily-policed circle of fairness. Cult members are expected to shun any family members or friends who don’t join. And within the circle, fairness usually is a bit skewed: all glory, wealth and sexual favors tend to accrue to the cult leader, and everyone else bows down in submission.

    By the way, I agree with your comment on hearing King in his own voice. There some parts of his speeches, including the passages you quote, that I cannot hear without being brought to tears.

  • kagerato

    Martin Luther King is a great example, perhaps the ultimate example, of how religion is merely a tool. Depending on how you use it, it may be good or evil.

    It has always struck me as odd how religious believers will not merely select passages from holy texts and ignore the rest, but explicitly select passages which reinforce their current view. To a certain degree, I do not think they even realize what they are doing. There’s nothing wrong with selecting good passages and discarding evil passages; yet one must have a reason or basis for selection. Otherwise, the whole exercise degrades into an attempt to divide and malign people; to assert and maintain one’s current power.

  • Scotlyn

    Hi Nathaniel:
    You are right that that is the thinking – but its even worse if you carry it to it’s logical conclusion. Once we go down the road of feeling threatened by people who are “not like us,” it becomes easier to see that even the people who are most “like us” can still be different enough to be threatening, until the only “safe” place to be – when you come right down to it – is stuck up our own arses.

    As for contemporary examples of extreme “Separatist Paradise” thinking, two spring to mind: the founding idea of Israel as a Jewish state; and the American Tea Party, which wants to keep America safe for “Americans” (with their very peculiar connotation of that term).

    Hi Jack: The idea you mention – that we set our Fairness Circles in accordance with recognition of “those with whom we interbreed.” (your italics) starts off sounding interesting, but when you parse it a bit, perhaps less so. Being human, I personally could (if I was a bit younger) potentially “interbreed” (or simply “breed” as most of us say), with any male human being on the planet, and (being as how my sexuality has turned out to be fairly indeterminate) I can potentially take a sexual interest in any human being of any gender at all anywhere on this planet. So I guess that gets every last one of those human beings included in my personal Fairness Circle.

    (….too much potential, too little time, though…more’s the pity).

    Given that this is theoretically also true of us all (ie there is no potential human-human breeding pairing that wouldn’t “work” so far as I know), this turns out to be a tautology. We include people in our Fairness Circle, because they happen to fulfill our preferred potential breeding partner requirements, because they are in our Fairness Circle, because they happen to…. you get the idea.

    I agree with you about cults – their circle may be a circle of familiars vs the forbidden outside, but it is usually not even a fairness circle, because it is instead simply a circle that has formed around a dominant (often deeply flawed but charismatic) leader.

    Hi Kagerato:
    You are right that someone like Dr King, who was undoubtedly a committed Christian, could make even the Bible sing of liberation, of justice, of freedom…to me it is a tribute to his own creativity that he could do so.

    I don’t really see it as odd that religious believers “select passages from holy texts and ignore the rest.” There is probably no other way to take any holy text. Such texts usually contain so many internal inconsistencies that you have to make a choice, or go crazy trying to reconcile them all. I can’t find the reference right now, but I was struck recently reading research into how believers “believe” that God happens to hold the moral values they themselves hold. The researchers carefully calibrated their experiments to show that the believers they tested “owned” the moral value and retrospectively assigned it to their conception of God, rather than the other way around. When someone like Martin Luther King Jr, or Ghandi, comes to hold high moral standards, they can easily find the images and words in their sciptures to support that, and in so doing appeal to other members of their faith communities to do good. But anyone else can do the same thing – Hitler, Torquemada…

  • jack

    Being human, I personally could (if I was a bit younger) potentially “interbreed” (or simply “breed” as most of us say), with any male human being on the planet

    I didn’t phrase the Ev Psych idea very well (my shortcoming, not theirs). What I meant was, a given society’s circle of fairness includes all those with whom it is socially acceptable for members of the society to have sex and produce offspring. So, for example, in the society of the white antebellum South, it was socially unacceptable (and in many places probably illegal) for whites to marry blacks, and blacks were outside the circle of fairness. That didn’t prevent interracial sex and offspring at the time, but such couplings were considered a dirty little secret and swept under the rug. As interracial marriage has become more acceptable in recent decades, the circle of fairness has been more inclusive of African Americans. It’s a group or cultural circle of fairness, not an individual one. God’s commandment prohibiting intermarriage, quoted in your post, is just a typical example of this.

  • Lynet

    Human in-group/out-group dynamics are fascinating, aren’t they? They can explain both our best impulses and our worst.

    It’s intriguing to consider the impact of group dynamics not just on our moral sense but on our reasoning. We tend to be more likely to listen to, and agree with, people who are within a (sometimes even smaller) group of accepted persons. For example, we’re more likely to listen to and agree with people we already agree with politically, or people we consider to be similarly intelligent to us, or people who make similar amounts of money to us. Expanding our Circle of Rational Consideration (to coin a term) can be almost as fundamental to our reason as expanding our Circle of Fairness is to our morality.

    Lovely clear post, Scotlyn. I’m so glad this series has started — I’ve been looking forward to it.

  • kurmujjin

    There is another dynamic at work here, too. There are the professed beliefs and there are the privately held beliefs, which may differ from the professed beliefs.

    I do not believe that everyone inside a circle of fairness is likely to completely accept an entire set of beliefs. But they might verbally assent for the purpose of belonging, giving rise to a certain amount of hypocrisy.

  • Sharmin

    I love this post and can’t wait to read more entries written by you! I think you make a good point here, that it’s deceptively tempting to think that things will be better and/or perfect to live in a society controlled by people of one group or religious belief, even though we’ve seen that it doesn’t turn out well. That’s one of the reasons why Heaven seems bad to me in some ways; it seems like the ultimate “separatist paradise” as you put it.

  • Ritchie

    I also think that there are levels of acceptance – rings within the Circle of Fairness, if you will.

    As the old saying goes, ‘Me against my brother, my brother and me against my uncle, my uncle and me against the stranger’.

    When a community is small, that in-group commeraderie is probably enough to unite them all. However, should too many people be allowed to join this in-group, then subgroups start to emerge.

    Perhaps humans simply can’t cope with having feelings of kinship for more than a limited number of people…?

  • Scotlyn

    Sharmin – Heaven as the ultimate Separatist Paradise – I love it! You are right, that is one of the things that puts me right off the idea, too.

    Ritchie- I think you are right – we are always balancing our feelings about others between higher and lower levels of fellow feeling. If I can clarify my own post – I think that it is easy to see how we evolved to be co-operative within our own group and suspicious of outsiders. But such habits are difficult to maintain in a complex, multicultural, multifaith world such as we now inhabit. We KNOW what fairness IS, the trick is to be persuaded that it is a good idea to extend FAIRNESS to everyone, EVEN THOUGH we still feel suspicious of them, EVEN THOUGH they feel alien and different to us. THAT is what makes the US Constitution so brilliant (although of course it still needed some mathematical work (3/5 = 1)). That is what makes multi-cultural, multi-faith living possible.

    Jack – thanks for the clarification, and yes, I think people are most willing to extend fairness to those they can conceive of becoming related to (ie interbreeding). This post, as I said, is about taking the fairness concepts that are part of our deeply ingrained evolutionary heritage in some circumstances, and pushing them outward, past other barriers that we are also evolutionarily programmed to be wary of. To make fairness universal, even when trust or feelings of kinship aren’t.

    Lynet – a Circle of Rational Consideration, eh? Nice one – that’s certainly another big discussion, though.

    Kurmujjin – you are right about hypocrisy, nevertheless, groups do put pressures on people that are perceived and felt internally – wanting to please, wanting people to have a good opinion of one. It is personally uncomfortable (for most of us) to feel that we have incurred someone’s bad opinion.

  • Ebonmuse

    Thanks, Scotlyn, for a great post! There’s a lot here to stimulate thought and conversation.

    It strikes me that the history of human moral progress is really a history of expanding the Fairness Circle. At the beginning of society, it was a very small circle indeed – limited to boundaries like “my family” or “my tribe”, and judging people outside those narrowly circumscribed bounds as “the other”, not really people at all and certainly not deserving of respect or moral consideration. I’ve read that there are places, such as the wild and remote inlands of New Guinea where people still live in tribal hunter-gatherer societies, where the normal response upon meeting someone not of your tribe is to either flee in terror or try to kill them. The story of humanity, to a considerable extent, is the story of our learning to push those bounds further out and consider larger and larger groups to fall within the circle of our allegiance.

    The nice thing about this metaphor is that it explains why moral change is progressive. As our Fairness Circle grows larger, it becomes increasingly unjustifiable to keep anyone else out – our enlarged perspective makes the further omissions that much more noticeable and more egregious. “My race” and “my gender” have lost most of the power they once had, although their pernicious effects still linger. Increasingly, it’s “my religion” and “my nation” that circumscribe most people’s Fairness Circles today. But what we really need to be truly enlightened is to expand this circle to be genuinely global – to stop thinking in terms of “my” and start thinking in terms of “our”. “Our species” is much better, but even so, not complete. “Our world” would be the best one of all, if we ever get that far – and of course, if we ever detect intelligent alien life, the boundaries of that circle will be in need of further pushing.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Nice post, Scotlyn. I can see why you were struggling with whether to begin with the separatist paradise or the righteous victim. In so many ways, these two fallacies are inextricably intertwined with one another. Bring on the righteous victim piece!

    Ebonmuse, I think you really hit the nail on the head.

    This is why I am trying to destroy religion, along with all forms of tribalism and dogma.

    Religion is just another tribalism, which we can no longer afford to tolerate.

    As I like to say — that ship has sailed. We no longer have the luxury of thinking we can isolate ourselves from one another, geographically or otherwise.

    We will either learn to shed our ancient idiocies, religion especially, or we won’t survive as a species.

    But, we did just find what appears to be another Goldilocks planet — i.e. one capable of supporting life.

    I think we should think about trying to colonize it. (I know it’s too far away right now.)

  • kennypo65

    Scotlyn, great post. I’m looking forward to reading the next one.

    Ebon, the fairness circle taken to include intelligent extra-terrestrials is The United Federation of Planets, ala Star Trek.

  • kurmujjin


    I for one don’t want to eliminate religion. I think dogma is unnecessary and usually wrong and I would like to eliminate bigotry. I think we can have and, in fact, will always have religion.

    And I would be careful about the colonization concept. I once saw a poster in my daughter’s elementary school classrom that said, paraphrased, that Columbus didn’t discover the Americas. He invaded them.

  • Sarah Braasch

    As long as religion exists, bigotry exists (and dogma too, for that matter). That’s religion’s stock and trade; its raison d’etre.

    We’ve already destroyed this planet. If we don’t find a way to get off of it, we’ll die along with it.

    Like I’ve said before, I don’t hold out much hope for our species surviving this century, but isn’t it worth it to try?

    Some don’t think it is.

    Some hold their ancient idiocies more dear.

    And, most don’t care, because they think a heavenly separatist paradise awaits.

    But, only for their kind.

  • Scotlyn

    It’s great to get all this feedback!

    Sarah Braash: You are absolutely right – the separatist fallacy and the righteous victim fallacy are intertwined. So the next post will amplify and build on some of the themes discussed here.

    I also agree that idiocies and dogmas we could live without, but I would lean more towards Kurmujjin’s views on the question of whether it is desirable or necessary to destroy religion or tribalism, per se. My personal “mission” is to persuade people that if their religion or their tribal ways are important aspects of their identity and sense of community, then please, keep and enjoy – BUT learn to live in peace with others by extending FAIRNESS universally, EVEN WHILE holding dear the markers of your own identity, should they be religious, ethnic, tribal, whatever – BECAUSE (and here I’m in agreement with you again) our ability to isolate ourselves from one another is long gone, and our challenge is primarily to find ways of living peacefully with those with whom we differ and disagree, and especially with those we most distrust.

    Also, before “colonising” (a word arising from the acts of Cristobal Colon – or as we know him in English, Christopher Columbus), I’d like to be sure there is no one already in occupation for us to dispossess – per kennypo65, Ebonmuse and Kurmujjin.

    Ebonmuse: you are right that there is a progressive aspect to widening our Fairness Circle. We are an adaptive species, and, as a social species, the primary environmental component we must adapt to is other humans. We carry both an evolved “insider” tendency towards co-operation, and an evolved “outsider” tendency towards hostility, but the human villager faced with living in a city must now adapt to a multiplicity of potentially hostile “outsider” encounters every day. Widening the Fairness Circle may turn out to be an adaptive necessity.

  • Sarah Braasch


    I hope I’m not pulling your thread off topic, but I find this subject endlessly fascinating.

    I love what you’re saying here:

    BUT learn to live in peace with others by extending FAIRNESS universally, EVEN WHILE holding dear the markers of your own identity, should they be religious, ethnic, tribal, whatever

    BUT, that universal fairness has to extend to all human beings — adults and children, men and women, those who are allegedly “members” of whichever so-called communities and those who are not.

    The problem is that a tribe, however defined, is an entity. And, an entity will seek to perpetuate itself by treating the women as sex slaves and brainwashing the children.

    This is, in my opinion, a version of the separatist paradise — that a community’s leaders (usually men) have the right to deal with those whom they define as belonging to them as they will. And, they love to employ the righteous victim fallacy as justification.

    This is why I say that only individual human beings are rights bearers. There is no universal fairness otherwise.

    Group rights should never be recognized. Only individual rights may be legally recognized. There is no universal fairness, if we recognize group rights. The recognition of group rights inevitably and inexorably leads to human rights violations.

    I would never support the criminalization of religiosity or tribalism, of course.

    But, I do fight for secularism. Governments must protect individual rights, not group rights.

    Governments should not favor or support communitarianism, religious or otherwise. Governments have a responsibility to protect individuals’ human and civil rights, regardless of whether or not they have been claimed by whichever tribes.

    All of those tribal markers must enter the global public marketplace of ideas without privilege.

    And, all of those so-called tribal members must be free to leave or stay and adopt or reject whichever of those markers they so choose.

    (Of course, I also abhor nationalism as a tribalism. And, I do think that the nation-state is passe and on its way out, but this will also take longer than we have.)

    But, if this were truly the case (all tribal members have the same access to that universal fairness we all wish for), then religion would fade away, along with all other tribalisms and dogmas. Religion has no reason to exist, if its members are free to come or go as they will and adopt or reject whichever of its tenets.

    This is what I fight for.

    But, like I said, I hold out little hope.

  • konrad_arflane

    Also, before “colonising” (a word arising from the acts of Cristobal Colon – or as we know him in English, Christopher Columbus)” disagrees with you:

    Colony late 14c., “ancient Roman settlement outside Italy,” from L. colonia “settled land, farm, landed estate,” from colonus “husbandman, tenant farmer, settler in new land,” from colere “to inhabit, cultivate, frequent, practice, tend, guard, respect,” from PIE base *kwel- “move around” (source of L. -cola “inhabitant;” see cycle). Also used by the Romans to translate Gk. apoikia “people from home.” Modern application dates from 1540s.

    It’s perhaps also worth pointing out that Columbus’ real name wasn’t Colon, but Colombo (or even Corombo) – he was Italian (Genoese), even though he ended up working for the Spanish crown.

  • Scotlyn

    konrad_arflane: correction accepted! and with a smile… I think I succumbed to a case of onomatopeia … we do call Columbus “Colon” in Latin America (where I spent my childhood, and in my mind’s ear I heard Kurmujjin’s reference to Columbus (Colon) circle around and connect to “colonisation” (of course my mind’s ear could have gone somewhere entirely more anatomical if we had been discussing something else at the time!). So let me amend the statement to something like

    “colonising” (a word evocative of the acts of Crisobal Colon…)”

    . Thanks for attending to the needs of accuracy.

  • Scotlyn

    Sarah Braasch:

    BUT, that universal fairness has to extend to all human beings — adults and children, men and women, those who are allegedly “members” of whichever so-called communities and those who are not.

    Absolutely – this we must insist on.

    But, I guess the phrase you used – “destroy religion” seems far more ambitious than that – and reminiscent, to me, of scenes like Cortez’s men flinging stone idols down the steps of pyramids, and undermining a whole society’s self-love and self-pride sufficiently to render them helpless before the onrush of Spanish hegemony. I know by “destroy religion” you think to save the people, while to me “destroy religion” is a phrase that, in certain hands, could spell the destruction of people.

    I agree that individuals are right-bearers. But among the rights that individuals bear are the rights to their identity, their beliefs, their self-respect, their self-love, and often these are bound up with their cultural, religious and ethnic sensibilities. These cannot be “destroyed” without destroying those individual people.

  • colluvial

    Great post Scotlyn!

    While it should certainly be our goal to expand our in-group to include all of humanity, that’s not enough. This concept needs to be extended to the rest of the biosphere as well. Otherwise it will be an increasingly impoverished planet – one with less and less capacity to support life – on which we find ourselves.

  • Sarah Braasch


    I concur. Except that I don’t think cultural rights exist. Even though I am well aware that they are part of the international human rights paradigm. I think for a right to exist, you must have the right to not engage in that behavior. It is silly to talk about cultural rights. Even on an individual, not group, basis. You don’t have the right to not participate in or contribute to your culture. I am participating in and contributing to and altering my/our global culture right now. However, I totally support rights to autonomy and self-defined personhood and freedoms of conscience and self-expression and all that. I think when you start talking about cultural rights, you are treading dangerously close to notions of group rights.

    I’m not sure if I’m beating a dead horse or if this conversation is interesting to others or only to myself. But, I like it.

    I just think it’s interesting (and disheartening) that when I say, “I want to destroy racism,” everybody yells, “Woo hoo.” And, when I say, “I want to destroy misogyny,” some people yell, “Woo hoo.”

    But, when I say, “I want to destroy religion and all forms of tribalism and dogma,” most people yell, “Bigot.” (I’m not saying that you have done this. But, you and others have expressed concerns that there is an element of colonialism in the effort to destroy religion.)

    We cannot and should not criminalize racism and misogyny, just as we cannot and should not criminalize religion. But, we should still do our utmost to fight against it in the public marketplace of ideas. And, legally and politically, we must insist upon secularism and equal protection of the law and individual rights.

    Religion is racism. Religion is misogyny. Religion is bigotry. Religion is hatred.

    When I say that I want to destroy religion, I think that should be as uncontroversial a statement as saying that I want to destroy racism. Especially on an atheist blog.

    If you can’t get a bunch of atheists to get behind a campaign to destroy religion, then what hope is there?

  • kurmujjin

    Religion is racism. Religion is misogyny. Religion is bigotry. Religion is hatred.


    I disagree with you regarding that statement. I believe it to be too general. I can point to Unitarian Universalists as an example of how that is not true. UU is one of the religions I would be happy to see thrive to the extent that there are people who want to uphold the limited UU dogma. Esoteric buddhism is another, and christianity as well, so long as it can be de-dogmatized (made up word…). After all, I believe christianity started out without a dogma, per se.

    I want to see an end to all of those quoted evils. And I do not feel it is necessary or desirable to eliminate religion to do that. We do need to educate people and encourage free and critical thought.

    Many religions will never countenance free and critical thought and I am pleased to see them pass out of existence.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I hear you, kurmujjin (love that name).

    But, I think of UU as more of a social organization than a religion.

    What would Xtianity be without the dogma? Something infinitely better than Xtianity, I”m sure, but not, in my opinion, a religion. (I don’t think that Jesus existed either. So, there are no REAL teachings of the man Jesus to go back to. Xtianity w/o mythology = nothing.)

    Esoteric buddhism — I waffle on buddhism. But, even if it isn’t a religion, it is most certainly a tribalism with some very shady aspects — including, as was revealed to me in a thread on this site not long ago, an ignominious thru line of misogyny.

    If these are your only arguments for keeping religion, I have to say that I think they are pretty weak. And, far outweighed by the negative.

  • Jim Baerg

    Re: destroying religion

    I would not call a belief set a religion if it doesn’t include the idea that it is good to believe things ‘on faith’.

    To believe X on faith is to believe despite a lack of evidence for X or even despite an abundance of evidence against X. Thus faith in that sense is an enemy of truth.

    So it is good to be an enemy of faith & religion should be destroyed. The means of destruction should be argument & ridicule so people would be ashamed to believe on faith.

  • kurmujjin


    Those are not arguments in favor of keeping religion. They are arguments in favor of encouraging tolerance toward religion so long as the religions are tolerant. In other words, I think one makes unnecessary enemies by taking a hard-line stance on eliminating religion, which I also believe to be an impossible task. If religion disappears, so be it. I just don’t think it will.

    Conversely, I think people generally should be intolerant of intolerance.

    Perhaps the issue is with the definition of religion. My definition is an organized and communal way for people to honor their sense of spirituality. So I can see UU as a religion or maybe more correctly as a religious organization. After all, they do have a weekly liturgy, a clergy and a physical presence in a church building.

    Buddhism has many paths. There are paths that are not at all mysoginistic. In such cases, a woman may be the roshi and have disciples or students.

    In my view of religion, an esoteric religion(esoteric meaning mostly an inward experience) will cling to the highest thinking and principles and avoid the superstitious and anthropomorphic concepts. In this view, an esoteric religion would not discourage free and critical thinking. And an esoteric religion would be in favor of expanding the circle of fairness. The focus is an inward path to truth. The religion aspect of it comes when groups of such minded people organize to share their experiences.

    When humans organize, the need to be right can always trump truth and tolerance. So we need to always encourage seeking truth and being tolerant and calling people on their tendency to bigotry.

  • kurmujjin


    I was just becoming aware of the limitations of language as you posted. I wandered off and looked up a number of definitions of religion and have to confess that my own definition is not among the result set I found…

    I will borrow from

    “Religion is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a philosophy of life, and a worldview.”

    In this definition, faith is not a requirement, unless the dogma makes it so.

    Of course, you will notice that according to this definition, Atheism is also a religion, an opinion that is stated on that site… ;-)

  • Sarah Braasch

    I love this conversation about language. So fascinating.

    “specific system of belief about deity” . . . . close enough to dogma and faith for me, unless the site is suggesting that there is a religion with actual evidence that its god(s) exist.

    keeping religion OR tolerating religion . . . 1/2 dozen of one, six of another for me.

    tolerant religion . . . . oxymoron if ever I heard one. In order to qualify as tolerant, religious communities not only have to tolerate one another, they have to tolerate the apostasy and defection of their so-called members and they have to allow these said members to adopt or reject whichever tenets they so choose.

    But, I am attacking all tribalisms and dogmas, so my fight does not rest on the question of whether a particular tribalism or dogma is a “true” religion or no.

    I agree that we should be intolerant of intolerance. That is why I am intolerant of religion.

    I truly believe that if all religious communities were forced to practice tolerance to all persons, both inside and outside of their respective communities, because truly secular governments enforced the human and civil rights of all of their citizens, then religion would die, along with all other tribalisms and dogmas.

    This is what I fight for. This is what I think all atheists should be fighting for.

    I am always amazed by how far freethinkers will go in defending religion when I suggest that we do everything in our power to get rid of it. Persons who would normally deride and mock and cast aspersions upon religion with the best gnu atheists out there.

    But, interesting points all.

  • kurmujjin


    Would that I could convice you that religion can (and many will) be tolerant of all people both inside and outside the circle of belief. Same holds true for the idea that encouragements to explicitly eliminate religion slow the advancement of overall tolerance. But seems we will have to agree to disagree.

    I do not believe that religion will ever die. I think it will morph, but not die. It will be interesting to see what Scotlyn’s upcoming post on the righteous victim brings up!

  • Scotlyn

    Hey, I’m delighted this conversation is taking off!


    I truly believe that if all religious communities were forced to practice tolerance to all persons, both inside and outside of their respective communities, because truly secular governments enforced the human and civil rights of all of their citizens, then religion would die, along with all other tribalisms and dogmas.

    You know, you might be right, in terms of the process you foresee. You might even be right that religion and tribalism are so incompatible with actual tolerance or fairness to all persons, that simply enforcing tolerance/fairness to all persons would be sufficient to make it wither on the vine.

    And I do agree with you – cultures don’t have rights, individuals do. But cultures are a constant creation made by individuals in concert with one another. And as we create a culture between us, that culture creates us. We and our culture(s) “tune in” to each other. (I use plural because people often participate in different culture creating zones simultaneously).

    The line I draw, the ONLY line I draw, is at the (potential) destruction of individual people. Here’s where I’m coming from. If you take the old Marxist revolutionary saw – “we need to destroy private property” (since property is theft). Friedrich and Karl actually made pretty good arguments (and the current failure of the “Free Market” would seem to bear out some of their ideas – although fewer people read them, nowadays). BUT, what happens when people try to figure out how you actually go about “destroying private property.” What you get then is mobs burning people out of their houses, wrecking businesses, and lining people “of property” (although as the frenzy thickens this could end up being anybody) at the guillotine, or for the gulag.

    Where people are concerned, I am wary of the wanton use of the word “destroy”. Even in such a straightforward phrasing as “destroy racism.” People are messy, untidy, irrational a lot of the time, strangely attached to their habits and customs for good or for ill, and we carry our tribalism, our beliefs, our comfort zones, deep within us. Unless we give them up voluntarily, then prising them off us might just require radical surgery. The word “destroy” when used of any human institution can become a Procrustean bed.

    My quest is, don’t try to reform the people (cause people will be people -messy, unpredictable, odd, irrational, selfish, etc – always and ever), because you WILL eventually have to resort to chopping off heads. Instead, create human-size and human-shape institutions that take this messiness into account and provide for it – like the Constitution’s balancing of power.

    Fairness needs to be extended to everyone (and we need laws to enforce this on behalf of every individual). But the whole point of the “fallacy” that I am making, is that we should be able to persuade people that they can be fair to others EVEN when those others unaccountably fail to change their ways to make us more comfortable with them.

    I guess Sarah, if we aren’t to keep talking around one another on this (because we have such a large area of agreement on the whole), I would ask for clarification from you. When you use words like “force” and “destroy,” what exactly do you mean? And what actual actions do you envisage taking in order to accomplish the said “forcing” of tolerance, and the “destruction of religion.”

    I do not defend religion (as you know), but I will defend its practitioners from forceful and destructive acts. Because they too, as it happens, are inside of my fairness circle – for better or for worse.

  • Scotlyn

    Kurmujjin –

    Would that I could convince you …[of] the idea that encouragements to explicitly eliminate religion slow the advancement of overall tolerance.

    I happen to agree.

    What is the problem with the statement “I want to destroy homosexuality?” As we know, it puts a lot of homosexuals in the line of fire – sometimes even real fire from people who can’t tell the difference between the mental concept and the people.

    How is that different from the statement “I want to destroy religion”? This happens to put a lot of religious people in the line of fire – sometimes even real fire from people who can’t tell the difference between the mental concept and the people.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I’m sorry, Scotlyn. I fear I am monopolizing your thread. Forgive me.

    I’m going to make this one last point, and then I am banishing myself for the evening anyway.

    Let’s pretend that Xtianity is a truly tolerant religion that eschews tribalism and dogma.

    Let’s pretend that the Pope said, “You can call yourself a Roman Catholic, even if you reject the divinity of Jesus, even if you reject the Bible as the Word of God, even if you accept Mohammed as Allah’s final and ultimate messenger, even if you decide to have abortions and use contraception, etc., etc. . . . and we don’t think we’re any better or worse than anyone else, and you should feel free to marry Protestants or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists and infant baptism is optional too, and just feel free to pick and choose to abide by whichever tenets and/or scriptures and/or sacraments as you see fit. In fact, even belief in God is optional. And, homosexuality is cool. And, we’re going to start recruiting for women priests. Don’t worry about the celibacy thing and feel free to disseminate condoms at will. And, if you decide not to call yourself a Roman Catholic, you’ll still go to heaven or not as you wish, but don’t worry about that everlasting hellfire thing anymore. In fact, just enjoy your human life and do whatever you want.”

    Is it still Roman Catholicism? Is it still religion? Or is it just a social club a la UU?

    Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing I could want more, but I think this is essentially what I was arguing for — the destruction of religion.

    Tolerant religion ceases to be religion.

    I think people are just hung up on the word destroy. It sounds too aggressive. So, I’ll use another word next time.

  • Scotlyn

    Colluvial (nice name, makes me think of rainforests)…
    I almost missed your comment – and I do agree that fairness needs to be extended to the whole living world (and probably eventually to the wierd and wonderful inhabitants of the Gliese 581 system). The project of extending fairness is probably never-ending.

  • Scotlyn


    Let’s pretend that the Pope said, “You can call yourself a Roman Catholic, even if you reject the divinity of Jesus, even if you reject the Bible as the Word of God, even if you accept Mohammed as Allah’s final and ultimate messenger, even if you decide to have abortions and use contraception, etc., etc. . . . and we don’t think we’re any better or worse than anyone else, and you should feel free to marry Protestants or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists and infant baptism is optional too, and just feel free to pick and choose to abide by whichever tenets and/or scriptures and/or sacraments as you see fit. In fact, even belief in God is optional. And, homosexuality is cool. And, we’re going to start recruiting for women priests. Don’t worry about the celibacy thing and feel free to disseminate condoms at will. And, if you decide not to call yourself a Roman Catholic, you’ll still go to heaven or not as you wish, but don’t worry about that everlasting hellfire thing anymore. In fact, just enjoy your human life and do whatever you want.”

    Is it still Roman Catholicism? Is it still religion? Or is it just a social club a la UU?

    As it happens, the vast majority of Irish Catholics practice exactly the brand of Catholicism you describe, and they couldn’t give two figs for the pronouncements of the Pope. Do they still think it is Catholicism? Yes. (Although lots of them are leaving, a vast majority are quite comfortable staying in on their own terms). Do I? Who cares – I’m not Catholic so my opinion is irrelevant. Am I bothered? No, the alternative (a bunch of Catholics in thrall to the Pope) is infinitely worse.

    But Ireland has seen anti-Catholic laws – they still have folk memories of hiding priests and risking life and limb to do it. If I set out to campaign in Ireland for the “destruction of Catholicism” do you think these a la carte Catholics would not take that personally? Would they have any reason not to believe I’m gunning for them? I don’t think so.

    Sarah, you’re not monopolising at all, and I really, really wish you wouldn’t leave the conversation without saying what the word “destroy” means to you. I do presume you have a good reason for using that word, and that you do not, in fact, harbour violent fantasies to go rampaging about and setting fire to the place. What thoughts are going through your head when you use this word, which I rather think gives you great comfort and hope? I’d really love to hear more from you on this specific question.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I will be super super quick, and then I have to run.

    If Roman Catholicism is turning into UU in Ireland, nothing could make me happier.

    But, I would aver that they are hardly practicing Roman Catholicism or religion, which is exactly as I would wish. (I do think they have a responsibility to reject the institution itself, in order to stop the irreparable harms caused to so many millions around the world by the Catholic Church.)

    When I use the word destroy — I mean that I wish to do everything in my power to bring about the end of religion.

    I harbor no notions that this is a possibility. Religion will destroy us before we destroy it.

    But, I feel compelled to try.

    When I use the word destroy, I see the means as being polemical writings and speech in the public marketplace of ideas.

    I think the use of strong language is called for. I think that people need to be jolted from their complacency.

    I abhor violence. But, attacking someone’s ideas, even the ideas he or she holds most dear, is not violence; it is not attacking the person.

    That is what religions would have you believe. That is how they like to argue that attacking religion is bigotry.

    But, I refuse to play that game with them. I love blasphemy.

    I really really have to run. I’m really banishing myself.

    So, feel free to respond, but I’ll have to continue this conversation tomorrow.

  • kurmujjin

    As it happens, the vast majority of Irish Catholics practice exactly the brand of Catholicism you describe, and they couldn’t give two figs for the pronouncements of the Pope. Do they still think it is Catholicism? Yes. (Although lots of them are leaving, a vast majority are quite comfortable staying in on their own terms).

    I was born and raised in this kind of environment. I lived in a suburb of Rochester, NY that had a large number of Irish and Italian Catholics. I went to 17 years of Catholic school (including kindergarten and college). I was an altar boy, boy scout and, for a couple years, a seminarian.

    I agree with Sarah that the RC church contains all of the evils she rails against (and I rail against, as well). I believe the church is wrong in so very many areas, if not most or even all of them. I did not, however, directly experience most of the evils.

    In spite of my misgivings about the Catholic church, I am still more comfortable around Catholic people than most other religions. I know for a fact, as Scotlyn points out, that many, many Catholics define Catholicism to fit their own life where it really matters. If it doesn’t matter that much, they conform. And they don’t all spend much time talking about the fine points of dogma. They talk more about what’s going on in their life, vacations, kids, job, health, etc. My experience of Catholic people is often what I would call experiencing friends. There is an ethnic and cultural bond, more than religious.

    I think this can be generalized true as often as not.

    I do not want to eliminate their religion. But I do want to help them think about the ramifications of their choices. And I will speak out about an evil when I encounter it.

    A couple of thoughts come to mind here.

    First, it is probably better to speak for that which we want rather than speak against what we don’t want. Often what you resist persists, and does so out of spitefulness. There are exceptions, of course, where you must speak or act quickly and forcefully against a thing.

    Second, if everyone who had misgivings about some aspect of an organization left it, who would be left to change it? In this case, I understand that Sarah would like nobody to be left and no organization, either. I think, though, that there are sometimes good reason to stay and advocate for new thought and help the organization change.

  • Scotlyn

    Hi Sarah,
    Well I agree that the marketplace of ideas IS the appropriate place to wage our fight (although we can and should resort to the law to level the playing field as much as possible).

    So what can, and should, we do there? Yes, we should challenge any wrongful ideas we find there, and hold those who hold such ideas to account. Yes, we should introduce better ideas, more persuasive ideas, rational ideas that stand the test of evidence. Strong language may absolutely be called for. But, the marketplace of ideas is full of people. Each of them has the same rights there that I do. And I don’t have the right to expect other people to find my ideas persuasive just because I will it. They have the right to listen, and to disagree and use strong language right back at me. For my ideas to be persuasive, I have to put some effort into making them so.

    You say:

    When I use the word destroy — I mean that I wish to do everything in my power to bring about the end of religion…. Religion will destroy us before we destroy it.

    Sarah, I can picture you so clearly (I really hope you don’t mind me saying) – a 21st-century St George squaring up to that dragon called “Religion.” You are brave, you are willing to take it on when it seems no one else will, and you seek to defend humanity from that monster, determined to vanquish it before it vanquishes us. Your bravery is even more admirable in view of your pessimism:

    I harbor no notions that this is a possibility…But, I feel compelled to try

    The apparent difference between our worldviews is this… I just can’t see that dragon as being “out there.” I see it as being “in here.” I cannot see religion as having an existence separate from the people who practice it. To take a sword to that dragon, I would have to start by plunging it first into my own breast.

    And, since you mention it, I guess I do have a hang-up about the word “destroy.” I have a word I prefer to use, and that is “create.”

    (Are we two sides of the same omelette, I wonder?)

  • Peter N


    I understand what you are saying, that quite apart from the Catholic doctrines and practices, the Catholic people are your people — your family, friends, former school chums — the community you know and are comfortable with. So it seems that if the Catholic Church were dismantled from the outside, or from the inside, that community would be destroyed also.

    I also understand that if all the “good” people leave the Church, only “bad” people will be left in control.

    But the core tenets of the Church have always been wrong, and in the 21st century are completely out of touch with even mainstream morality and ethics (condemnation of divorce, birth control, and homosexuality, just to name three), and the entire hierarchy, right up to the Pope, is rotten to the core. Can you, and all your decent, honorable relatives, friends, etc. honestly claim membership to this institution, without feeling tainted by its many wrongs?

    Please read Greta Christina’s essay Why Are You Still Catholic, and see if it changes your mind.

  • kurmujjin


    What I was saying is that a large portion of my friends and family are, in fact, Catholic as you point out. However, I’m not making a case for preserving the formal RC Church as we know it. It will survive or self-destruct on its own. And, no, I don’t think that a formal church disappearance will destroy the community. Quite the opposite. I was just pointing out that I am ethnically and culturally very comfortable with people who are Catholic. I also pointed out that I was a member of that community from a faith perspective for a long, long time. I am not now.

    My point for this thread was that the Church does not define the community. The community defines itself. Individual community members choose to follow Rome’s lead or not, and still self-identify as Catholics. Individual Catholics use birth control, despise pedophile priests, think priests should marry and think that women should be allowed to be priests. Those members of the community need to be encouraged to increase their circles of fairness and some of them will pressure the hierarchy to do the same.

    I agree whole-heartedly with Scotlyn that the dragon is not “out there”. Projection is a tool we use to give us something to attack. The real work is “in here”.

    I believe that the church can be likened to a gun and that the entity is not inherently evil. It is how and by whom it is used that causes damage.

  • Sarah Braasch

    But, religions are not just comprised of people. There is a reason why I refer to all religions as cults. The only requirement on the part of the “members” (most of whom have been brainwashed since birth) is mindless allegiance. Religions are institutions comprised of icons and leadership and hierarchies and tenets and scripture and massive wealth and political and economic and legal influence and centuries and millennia of the development of the infrastructure of societal control.

    In a way, it is like a dragon, which must be slain, but this cannot be accomplished by a single person. Not even close.

    And, I understand exactly how hard it is to shed the mind and social control of a cult.

    I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. I was brainwashed into believing that I was a cipher with a vagina who must pay blind allegiance to Jehovah God or be tormented by demons. I walked away from my entire life as a teenager, with nothing, and recreated myself anew. And, it almost killed me. It did kill one of my brothers. And, it drove the other one mad.

    I had a hard time denouncing the institution, the organization too. For a long time. Even after everything I had suffered as a result.

    But, you have defined yourself as an atheist. To steal Greta Christina’s essay title:

    Why Are You Still Defending Religion?

    Think about it. (And, I’m not upset in the least. I think this will be an illuminating conversation for many. Or, at least, I hope it will.) You are an atheist. And, I am an atheist. But, because I keep attacking (with ideas only) religion and religious institutions and religious ideas, you keep painting me as violent. You keep painting me as aggressive. You keep painting me as hurtful. You keep painting me as attacking persons physically. You keep painting me as a colonizer. As a Spanish conquistador. You keep painting me as a megalomaniacal martyr. (I’m really not upset in the least; I think this has turned into a brilliant conversation and gets to the heart of a very thorny issue within the atheism community, which should be addressed head on.)

    I am not attacking persons. I am attacking ideas. I am attacking institutions.

    But, you are not defending persons when you do this. You are defending an institution that is responsible for untold death and destruction and genocide and sex slavery and brainwashing and rape and war and disease and famine and colonization and imperialism and torture and, most likely, the destruction of our species and our planet.

    I’ll repeat GC’s brilliant title:

    Why Are You Still Defending Religion?

  • kurmujjin


    I defend religion because I defend freedom and liberty. Freedom of religion is a tenet of the American experiment, which includes freedom from religion for those who choose it.

    It is not my place to define another’s path to happiness.

    I agree with you that many religions foster bigotry, intolearance, violence. And I also believe that there are forms of those religions that are completely about an inner journey to truth, however that path meanders.

    I am all for imposing, enforcing tolerance. I am not for abolishing religion except that it abolishes itself. I simply think that it will not happen because many religions will morph into forms that simply are not threatening.

    By the way, I am not an atheist. I am more of a agnostic lapsed Catholic who falls into the NOMA school of thought (the late Steven Jay Gould wrote about NOMA and it resonates with me). I’m known in our small town as the village heretic…

  • Sarah Braasch

    Thank you, kurmujjin.

    I appreciate your comment so much, because it illustrates a point of mine beautifully.

    You are not defending freedom of religion by defending religion. Religion must enter the public marketplace of ideas without privilege and sink or swim. If religion is so wonderful, then it shouldn’t be worried about being attacked by little old me.

    This is what American secularism has become. We think that the government has a responsibility to protect and favor religion. And, if the human and civil rights of the so-called religious community members are violated, then so be it. Or, the same may be said of persons outside of the religious community.

    No. That is not secularism. That is not freedom. That is not liberty.

    Again, when I speak of a campaign to destroy religion — I speak of a campaign in the open, public, free marketplace of ideas — a nonviolent campaign waged with words.

    I am not speaking of criminalizing religion or religious ideas or religious institutions or religious persons.

    I have just as much right to express my anti-religion ideas as a religious person has to express his or her religious ideas.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I agree with Sarah; religious bodies tend to be hypersensitive.

    If they truly are the Message of God Almighty, what fear should they have of any mortal complaint?

    I don’t advocate the legal limitation of any faith, or lack thereof. But any faith which claims to be the Divine, Universal Truth ought to be able to suffer questioning. If it cannot, it likely is unworthy of credence.

  • kurmujjin

    I agree with Thumpalumpacus.

    Sarah, you have me backwards. American secularism may be as you describe. I want no part of it as you describe it. I want the government to stay out of it except to be referee to level the playing field.

    I refuse to defend religion at the expense of atheism. I make no case on any religion’s behalf other than to assert its right to exist. I will neither defend a religion from criticism nor remove the requirement that the religion respect persons and laws of the host society. I want to live in a society where we are free to believe and free to speak about the ills embodied by any religion or lack thereof.

    My point was that when you use words like “enemy” and “destroy”, I think you are working against yourself. Treating religion as the enemy tends to entrench it. The words tend to raise defenses. People can be very emotional about these things. Like it or not, humans are very emotional creatures and emotion often trumps logic. I believe it will take a long, long time for that to change if it ever changes. It’s not just about education. It’s also about evolution, genes, chemistry, nerves and physiology.

    I think you are right to insist that religions make their case in discussions and right to point out when they are hypocritical and hyper-sensitive to criticism or question.

    I am suggesting choosing your battles strategically. In this forum, where the majority of participants are sympathetic, you will be cheered by most. Outside this forum you might be derided as fostering culture war.

    I am making a case that given your stated desire to engender the widening of our collective fairness circles, I believe that treating religion as an enemy or stating that you want to destroy religion works counter to that stated purpose. It perhaps paints you with the same brush as a religionist who wants to destroy atheism.

    It would be a shame to lose your message because your intended audience covered their ears.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I appreciate your comment, kurmujjin.

    I guess what surprises me and, I’ll admit it, makes me sad and disheartened is the fact that I am speaking to my intended audience — atheists — on an atheism blog — and trying to get them behind a concerted effort to undermine and dismantle (better words maybe?) religion and I am shocked by how unsympathetic the response is.

    Unsympathetic to the point that I am arguing against valiant defenses of religion by ATHEISTS.

    How does that happen?

    I’ll admit that I did the same when I was in the process of shedding my religion.

    It is hard to deprogram oneself.

    But, I guess, (maybe I should create a separate post and thread at this point) — sorry Ebon and Scotlyn — that I would really love to ask that question to all the atheists out there who are unsympathetic.

    Why are you still defending religion?

    In fact, don’t answer. I will go ahead and do a separate post and thread. I already feel guilty enough about usurping Scotlyn’s thread.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I don’t see a defense of religion. I see a defense of the freedom of conscience, which is a different thing.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Yeah, I think you’re right, Thump.

    But, no one is suggesting that we criminalize religion. I think people are having a hard time separating church and state. I think the American public needs to be re-educated about what secularism means.

    When I attack religion in the public marketplace of ideas, with ideas, I am defending the freedom of conscience.

    If you want to defend the freedom of conscience, defend the blasphemers. The poor, little religious institutions (sarcasm) can take care of themselves.

    C’mon, atheists.

  • Scotlyn

    Hi folks, I’ve had to get stuck into other work for a while. It’s great to come back to find this ticking over.

    Where to start?

    But, you are not defending persons when you do this. You are defending an institution that is responsible for untold death and destruction and genocide and sex slavery and brainwashing and rape and war and disease and famine and colonization and imperialism and torture and, most likely, the destruction of our species and our planet.

    Sarah, I don’t actually recognise myself in this statement at all, since I am defending neither institutions nor individuals that are “responsible for untold death, etc”. So, this statement simply is not about me or my words. (Although, it has succeeded in getting me started on another fallacy post – the “if you ain’t fur us you’re agin us” fallacy).

    Here are things we agree on (reading between the lines, anyway):
    1) the need to enforce a strict separation of church and state (and in Ireland this means getting the church out of education and health care, where it got in because of state abdication of its responsibility)
    2) the need to vigourously expose, in the free marketplace of ideas, the deficiencies, logical and moral fallacies, and false justifications of evils and abuses typically found in religious thinking (with strong language? YES, by all means!!) – and yes, religion must “sink or swim” on the basis of how persuasive it can be in that marketplace when the field has been levelled by the necessary laws
    3) the need to empower people whose self-respect and trust in their own decision-making power, has been eroded by their religion – in particular girls and women, whose fertility and whose bodies often become the battlefield for control
    4) the need to provide real and effective supports and support networks for dissenters and apostates when their decisions to protest or leave their religion are being blocked by their co-religionists.
    5) the need to widely disseminate the different elements in the toolbox of rational and moral thinking that we are collectively developing in these types of atheist, humanist and sceptical fora.
    6) the need to eliminate the possibility of religion being used as a shield for bad behaviour – honour killings, rape of children, etc

    So what, exactly, are we disagreeing about. Perhaps it is contained in this statement, in which you very concisely define the terms in which you see the problem:

    But, religions are not just comprised of people. There is a reason why I refer to all religions as cults. The only requirement on the part of the “members” (most of whom have been brainwashed since birth) is mindless allegiance. Religions are institutions comprised of icons and leadership and hierarchies and tenets and scripture and massive wealth and political and economic and legal influence and centuries and millennia of the development of the infrastructure of societal control.

    And, I think our disagreement is about the fundamentals about the nature of human society and institutions. Yes, there are people with a lot more power, wealth, and control, and people with a LOT less power, wealth and control, and the latter are at a great disadvantage. But no one, no matter how powerless, is a completely mindless “faithbot” – some of what might seem to be that on the surface is “slave-stupid,” some of it is “going into my special place and not watching what’s happening to me,” denial, but nevertheless powerless people will reach for a chance when there is a shift in the balance of power (simply growing older and being less amenable to parent-figures can be one such power shift).

    Likewise, no one, no matter how powerful, is more than a person. So long they can persuade others to be impressed by the magical glamour and influence of their power and wealth they can appear to be bigger than they are.

    But any human institution (a religion, a marketplace, an internet) is an emergent feature of the collective interactions of the people in it, both the more and the less powerful. The people can exist without the institution (although they will always create others – we are a social, institution-creating species), but the institution cannot exist without the people.

    So, what I think we need to do is:
    1) use the law to re-distribute power – effective measures need to be put in place to prevent it being concentrated into too few hands, and such measures should apply to religious institutions, as to other human concentrations of power. Meanwhile, those who have the least power, and remain vulnerable to exploitation, should be empowered – physically, educationally, and economically.
    2) (returning to the dragon metaphor) – sharpen lots of mini-metaphorical swords and hand them out to anyone who wants one, provided they want it to slay their own internal religious “dragon.” Each of those people could then be loaded down with mini-swords and “internal dragon slaying” instructions, which they may use and follow if they wish.
    3) however, if people continue to want to befriend and make a pet of their own internal dragon, I will never have a problem with this, so long as they keep it on a leash and prevent it from harming anyone else.

    Does this make sense?

  • Scotlyn

    Sorry, point 2) on my second list should read as follows:

    ….Each of those people could then be loaded down with mini-swords and “internal dragon slaying” instructions which they may share with others to use and follow as they wish…

  • Sarah Braasch

    Hey, Scotlyn,

    I’m good. I think this conversation has run its course. I feel like I’ve said my piece (and my peace). I’ve never really known which it is.

    So, I’ll let you have the last word. I feel bad for having taken over your thread.

    Unless, you think there is really some point that we need to discuss further. If you do, I’ll be happy to address it.

    Really. Thanks for a stimulating conversation.

  • Scotlyn

    Thank you, too!

    (And it’s not my thread…you certainly belong here as much as anyone!)

  • stag

    Hi Scotlyn,

    may I echo the voices of praise on this thread for your article. Nicely done.

    However – there had to be a however – I sometimes worry that questions of real political import can be rehashed as mere matters of primitive, exclusive group dynamics. Do you see this as a risk?

    For example, in the UK, people who raise concerns about immigration are often gently chided for mild bigotry, for their unfashionable “us and them” attitude. Here we have an example of a real, complex and difficult political issue being hush-hushed by gentle ad hominem attacks from the left and centre-left.

    your comment about the Tea Party smacked of this, for me.

  • Scotlyn

    Stag, you don’t have to like people or find them congenial to hang out with. You just have to all agree to apply the rule of law fairly to all. Basically, no one gets to define law on the basis of congeniality. You cannot own rights that you are not prepared to grant to others.

    Not sure what you mean about “primitive.” Not sure what you mean about “concerns about immigration.” Not sure what you mean by “a real, complex and difficult political issue being hush-hushed.” So I can’t reply properly to any of that.

  • Wednesday

    This is a lovely post.

    I do think there are times when groups seeking separation are not engaging in the fallacy – it may be that the surrounding society is so overwhelmingly hostile to their existence that separation is necessary for their individual safety and survival. Once that threat is past, though, there is the problem of getting the resulting separated society to broaden their fairness circle to outsiders…

  • Scotlyn

    Wednesday, thanks for the comment. I agree that groups don’t always (probably don’t usually) seek separation with the idea that the rest of the world is not worthy of fair treatment. Quite often they are reacting quite honourably against unfair treatment towards themselves and, as you say, have developed a perception that “separation is necessary for their individual safety and survival.” However, this is, in fact the hub of the fallacy. There can be no ultimate safety in separation.

    When you are a separatist, you must, of necessity, draw distinctions between “us” (safe) and “them” (dangerous). Since people will never fall neatly into those categories, this can only end in a self-defeating spiral of continuing recriminations, accusations, and splits, once the community has accepted the main tenet of the Separatist Fallacy – that difference is both important, AND a marker for safety. (In another thread I gave the example of certain Jewish Israeli parents who do not want their children schooled with those of other Jewish Israeli parents, for fear of the ideas they might pick up). So the idea of Israel as a place of safety for Jews has become, for some of them, a place where even other Jews are threatening. In relation to that issue, as to any other issue of difference – true safety comes from making the whole world a safe home for Jews (and for everyone else). And to do that we have to convince people that our differences are not significant when it comes to fair treatment.

  • Wednesday

    Scotlyn, I meant to refer to instances where separating from — that is, leaving — the current society really _is_ necessary for the safety and survival of individual members of the group, in the short term. I would say this type of separation only can become the separatist fallacy afterward, when the immediate threat is past. Perhaps in this case separation isn’t quite the right word for what’s occurring – it’s less “let’s shut out the rest of the world” and more “let’s get the heck out of Dodge”. I’m thinking of groups actively fleeing pogroms and genocide. Once the threat is past, yes, if they continue to view the Other as dangerous, it becomes the fallacy.