I’m Sorry Ed Brayton, But I Will Continue to Say These Things

Ed Brayton wrote an article today called Atheists, Please Stop Saying These Things (or maybe it was yesterday in your time) that, like always, is very reasonable and eloquent and I enjoyed reading it. I agree with most of it, but there were some points that I personally disagreed with, and in the name of debate I thought I write this and voice my own thoughts. I suggest you read the article.

I only quote the parts I want to discuss.

3. On a related note, please stop explaining the creation of religion in equally simplistic ways. “Religion was just created to control people” is one that I hear often. Again, there are many reasons why religion was invented. It serves a wide range of needs in society, some of them quite well (creating community and channeling charity, for example). And there’s a good deal of scholarly research and writing on the subject of why human beings are prone to create and belong to religion. If you really think it can be explained so easily by a throwaway phrase like the above, I’m almost ashamed to have you on “my side” of these questions.

Now, of course, it might be more something of my worldview (which might be simplistic). It might be the result of my life in Iran which has warped my view – when you have an oppressive regime which pokes its nose in every aspect of your life, then everything is about power. If a girl wears a short-sleeved jacket it’s a revolutionary move because it challenges the dress code. So, to us Iranians, all aspects of our lives is political and about control.

But I don’t think that my view is warped. I think my view is actually better than someone who lives in a democracy. Truth is, everything that you do is about control. If you defecate in the toilet and not in the dining room, you are observing a social norm. You are being controlled by the society telling you where it’s OK to defecate and where it’s not OK to defecate. Now, this is a very good social rule, I abide by it myself. But, it’s still about control.

When us humans started this thing called “civilization”, we based it on power, and from then on power is the currency exchanged in every action we do sleeping or awake 24/7. There is no human activity that is not about control.

Ed says that religion has good parts too. I agree with that. I disagree that those parts aren’t about control. They’re about good control, but control. Ed uses “communities” and “charities” as example of good parts, which is strange, because they are the most “controlly” aspect of religion.

Communities feel very good to those who are part of them. Not so much to those who are ostracized from them. Communities are about those who are included and those who are excluded. And Islamic Shiite community consists of people who believe in Allah and go to Friday prayers and mourn Imam Hussein every year and all of this is cool and dandy – but also of people who are not gay or atheist. This sense of community, this warm feeling of belonging, is the advantage of being in a community, and the advantage that is taken away from the person who doesn’t belong. That’s why we have closeted atheists. They don’t want to lose the “community” aspect.

Now, what about charities? Aren’t charities a very good method to control people? Aren’t they meant as a moral money laundering system? Of course that’s not true about many charities, but can’t that be true about some of them?

Khamenei’s assets are entirely based on some charities. One of them holds more money than the budget of the nation. These charities have been enriched by western sanctions, while the economy of the nation is going bankrupt. They provide an economic empire for Khamenei. They are the reason that the regime supporters don’t turn against the system, because they are very poor, and meager money they receive from these charities is enough to keep them from not dying. What they really deserve is a democratic governmental welfare system and some jobs that pay them, but what they receive is charity that is connected to military and the regime.

Why do you think Islamist groups are popular in Middle East? Charities. That’s why. No, they’re supporters are not all fundamentalist haters and it’s not because of western imperialism (I hate to break this to you, but not everything we do in our countries is because of you or as a consequence of your actions). The Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt after the revolution because they were the only group with some organization and base. They were allowed under the Mubarak regime to function as charities, and the charities provided them with both the organization and the support among population. Hezbollah has built houses and hospitals in southern Lebanon, working with organized charities. Hamas spread its roots in the Gaza trip using charities. People support Islamist groups because those groups help them.

Seriously, where does the funding for religions come from if not from charities? I mean, all those priests, good or bad, who live positive of negative, are funded by charities, no?

And, ultimately, whether religion has good functions or not, (of course it does), what is its ultimate function? What is the function that all those functions serve? To control.

I’d go further – that is the purpose of human culture. Every other function of human culture is a form of control. It can be good or bad, but it’s control.

4. Stop conflating fundamentalism or Biblical literalism with Christianity itself. Pointing out mistakes, absurdities or contradictions in the Bible may work quite well against a Sola Scriptura advocate, but those people are not the One True Christianity. There is no One True Christianity. In fact, as I said during the panel discussion on Tuesday, there is no Christianity. There are lots of Christianities. The fact that Fred Phelps and Bishop Tutu are both labeled Christian tells you almost nothing about what they actually believe about anything. Christians are not a monolith, they are a diverse and varied group with a wide range of beliefs. Instead of presuming what they believe based on a label, try asking them what they actually believe about the subject under discussion first.

 Now I agree with most of these parts: religious people are not monolithic and we shouldn’t assume they are. I disagree with one part though: We might not have One True Christianity, but we do have One False Christianity.

Religions are based on some texts. People claim to follow those texts. It’s true to say that those people who follow those texts more closely are the better practitioners of those ideologies. That they’ve gotten those ideologies better. My dear friend whom I have the utmost respect for, Dan Fincke, disagrees with this. I disagree with his piece too (and I usually agree with him on everything). He says:

Fundamentalists “pick and choose” what they want to believe just as much as liberals do. Christian fundamentalists claim that they are strictly obedient adherents to literal Bible but that is a dubious claim.

Well, my reaction to this is this: they’re still truer followers than the moderates. Like, if we had some grade for “How much do you really follow the religion you claim to follow” fundamentalists get D and moderates get F. Maybe that’s because Christianity has become much more moderate overall, maybe the last true Christian was Torquemada and all of the future Christians are false Christians who are just somewhat closer or farther from the “not Christian” end of the spectrum. Maybe there never even was a True Christian, because no one ever followed all those weird rules in Leviticus, maybe True Christian is a logical impossibility because of all the contradictions in the Bible…

Nevertheless, it’s legitimate to call people on their inner contradictions, and it’s legitimate when to cry bullshit when a moderate Muslims makes absurd claims such as “But if you look at Quran or the Prophet’s life you will see that Islam is not against equality for women” or “when Quran says apostates must be killed it actually means…”

I can logically prove and with a variety of evidence that Quran is a sexist book and it says kill apostates. I am happy that there are moderate Muslims who distance themselves from this stuff, but I still want to call them out on it because we need to teach our children that truth matters and that you still call out what you deem is wrong even if that wrong is less harmful or actually completely harmless.

And it’s not like that this is always against the religion. Like, I agree that Islam really doesn’t support FGM, as there is no verse or hadith or anything in the tradition to suggest it.

8. Tax the churches! Churches are tax-exempt under the same section of the IRS code as the FFRF, ACLU, Americans United and American Atheists. There is no coherent reason why churches should be taxed but not all the non-religious non-profits. The real problem is not that churches are untaxed, it’s that churches are treated differently from other non-profits that are tax-exempt (they don’t have to fill out 990s, don’t have to apply for the status and get special privileges like parsonage allowances). I’m all for equal treatment for churches and other non-profits, but equal treatment also means that if you’re going to tax the churches you have to tax the others too. So unless you’re willing to yell “tax American Atheists” or “tax the ACLU” at the same time, you really need to stop yelling “tax the churches.”

This one is not much of a disagreement but just stating that I do yell “tax American Atheists” or “tax the ACLU”. I mean, if someone attacks the American Atheist headquarters they’re still going to call the police, yes? The municipality is still removing the trash from around their street? Then they should be taxed. Basically, if money goes into it, some of that money is government’s.

I agree with the other points on the article.

Dear Ed, thank you for giving me a voice and a place at Freethought Blogs, so that I have an opportunity to disagree with you.

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About Kaveh Mousavi

Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He is passionate about politics, video games, heavy metal music, and cinema. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit.

  • rorschach

    Ed says that religion has good parts too. I agree with that.

    Well, I sure don’t agree with that. Religion was our first attempt to understand nature, to make sense of death and disaster. But it was all wrong, not true, and this has held humanity back for centuries. These days, it makes people bash each other’s heads in, in the case of Islam, even over the question of succession of a guy who claimed to be a prophet 1500 years ago.

    Religious community is based on us vs them, in-group vs the outside, and thus it fathers and protects ostracization and oppression of minorities.

    “The Golden Bough” or “Religion Explained” are good starting points to explore the origins of religious belief.

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    I read Ed’s post last night and liked it and thought it made some good points.

    Having read this one now, I have to say the same about this – also enjoyed your above post, Kaveh, and think it too has made some very good points. I don’t know what to think, call me indecisive but, yes, can see both sides of this.

  • brucegee1962

    Regarding the origins of religion –

    I agree with Ed that there are a whole complex of reasons why religion got started. I’m a big fan of meme theory, though, and I’d say that the bottom line is that the only explanation why so many societies formulated religion independently was that the societies that had it tended to out-compete the societies that did not have it.

    It was probably true that societies with more centralized control had advantages over societies that were more diffuse — particularly in the military realm. For instance, one obvious advantage of religion is that it makes your soldiers braver if they believe that dying in battle leads to a good afterlife. But the same thing could also be said of something like epic poetry (the Iliad or the Norse Eddas). Are those all about control too? If I give an inspiring speech before a battle about defending our homes and families from the invaders, is that control?

    Even if we grant that religion is mostly about control, it was probably originally a BETTER form of control than the alternatives. I can get a lot more people to follow my centralized authority with “Huitzilopotchli wants you to do as I say” than I can with “Do as I say or one of my goon squad will break your kneecaps.”

    • Ed

      I’d say using powerful rhetoric to whip up your soldier’s enthusiasm to go into battle is almost the definition of exercising control. Now, this may be justified in some cases, like defense against imperialism or genocide by the other group. And some war propaganda , from the ancient epics to excellent epic films like Alexander Nevsky transcends its original purpose and is rightly recognized as great art.

      But people in democracies are often not willing to think about how hierarchical and manipulative all power structures are. We sometimes have a vague sense of the way we live being the product of mutual agreement and compromise or a general will of the people, but can be tempted to overlook how little power most people have in shaping the world around them (and how much others have).

      There is something very refreshing about hearing the point of view of someone from a blatantly authoritarian state like Iran for whom it is obvious that there are leaders and followers and that culture and public standards are often the product of a very few highly motivated people. Again, this is not always bad or even avoidable but it is wise to stay aware of it.

  • jedibear

    Being “about control” and “involving control” are two different things. The first is a statement about purpose.

    Arbitrary rules can be said to be “about control,” as can rules whose specific purpose is to increase the power of one party over another. The rule about not shitting where you eat is about comfort and sanitation, even if it involves control.

  • Ed

    I think we should recognise non-profit status up to a point, including with religious groups, but there need to be limits. Don’t treat them the same as businesses, but like you say, they’re taking up public services the same as anyone else. Religions usually differ from groups like the ACLU and other advocacy groups in that they own massive amounts of land and often have many highly paid employees.

    Some good rules would be

    –make them pay property taxes in order to support the public infrastructure they make use of.

    –clergy salaries should be tax-free only up to a certain point; perhaps only up to middle income status.

    –the private use by clergy of buildings and equipment owned by the religious group should count as income.

    –investments by religious groups is a business activity for profit and should be taxed while perhaps allowing a certain amount of tax-fee savings in traditional bank accounts.

    –the finances of religious groups should be analyzed by tax authorities as thoroughly as other non-profits.

    • http://www.gregory-gadow.net Gregory in Seattle

      I think the defining line for a non-profit is: does it give more to the community than it takes? If so, then being exempt from most taxes seems fair recompense.

      For example, Northwest Harvest. The largest food bank in Washington State, they handle close to 20 million pounds of food a year, either collected through donations or bought with donated money. Most of their staff is volunteers, and their paid employees are given a living wage but not outrageous. It is most certainly in the government’s best interest to encourage their existence; without Norwest Harvest, the work would fall to state and local governments, who would not have the vast network of volunteers and donations. The loss of tax revenue is more than amply paid back by letting them do the work.

      I think it is quite reasonable to hold all 501(c)(3) organizations to a similar standard: if you can show that your organizations provides a clear benefit to the community — services such as food distribution to the hungry, education, consumer advocacy, tilth collectives, humane societies the list of possible qualifications is extensive — then you can be tax-exempt. Giving an exemption to religious organizations solely because they are religious organizations, without them having to establish that they benefit the community, should be abolished.

      • flex

        I’m with Gregory on this one.

        Another way to look at tax-exempt status is to view it as a subsidy by the state for performing a function which would cost the state more money to perform itself.

        To take Gregory’s food bank example, there are several things which a food bank does which saves local, state and federal governments money. First, it provides food (and often other goods, our local food bank loves getting those sampler packets of toothbrush/toothpaste/etc. that our dentists hand out, people really can use those). This is the obvious result.

        But by providing food they lower the necessary state assistance for people who need food. By providing food they also help keep people healthier, which reduces medical problems and the number of ER visits.

        By re-distributing food they keep the waste food out of the sewer system and landfills. Local municipalities worry quite a bit about landfills, it can cost between $5-$15+ per cubic yard for a landfill. While some municipalities require the citizens to contract a waste hauler who adds the cost to their bill, other municipalities have to pay the landfills directly. And the costs of landfills will continue to go up. Any diversion from the waste stream, especially of usable items, saves money.

        The municipalities also have to repair and maintain the sewer system, and one of the biggest problems for sewer systems is fatty food waste. The fat binds with the water to form a gel like grey goo, this is one of the major reasons sewers clog.

        So, a food bank, operating independently from the government, does save the government money. Lots and lots of money. Governments like that, it gives them either the opportunity to spend money on other public projects or even lower taxes. Governments like to support such projects, and sometimes they can give grants and other help to non-profits which perform functions which reduces the cost of government to their constituents.

        But giving grant money is precarious. As people within a government change, non-profits cannot rely on getting that money every year. A municipality may decide that the public would be better served by spending the money elsewhere.

        A tax exemption, however, is in effect a direct and permanent government grant. It is the grant from the government for exactly the amount the organization owes in taxes. It is a grant to help a food bank perform it’s function; or a local theater build community; or reduce the number of stray animals roaming around.

        Allowing tax exemption does serve a purpose.

        I would also like to make clear that the above argument is strictly one of economics, not of the other social goods which can be improved by tax exempt organizations. There are other, quite good, arguments to be made for social benefits of tax exempt organizations. Regrettably, the economic argument appears to be far more convincing these days.

        All the above being true, all tax exempt organizations should be able to show that they provide benefit to the community to an impartial observer, including religious organizations, and that the exemption they claim is commensurate to the benefit they provide. A 501(c)(3) chess club may get a tax break of $50-$100/year (on copies or other clerical type paraphernalia), which is probably about about the level of community building they provide. A food bank may operate with a $100,000 budget, but if $70,000 is used to help feed people, the loss of tax revenue is more than repaid by the service they provide. A mega-church, which brings in $10,000,000/yr in tithes, and might provide as much as 10% of that back to the community, probably should have it’s tax-exempt status looked at a little closer.

        And, of course, all 501(c)(3) organizations should have publicly accessible accounts.

    • John Horstman

      Why on earth should clergy salaries be tax-exempt? I worked for a non-profit theater company, and my pay certainly was taxed, as it should have been. The ability of all of us to sell our labor relies on the infrastructure we have, and income should be taxed to support that infrastructure. The same is true for ‘clergy’, who should have zero special legal recognition, and should probably be secularly classified as combined unlicensed (or licensed if they are, though it doesn’t generally appear to be a job requirement) counselors and professional public speakers.

      • Kevin Kehres

        Actually, they’re not.

        Clergy are allowed to deduct a “parsonage allowance” from their taxes. But otherwise are subject to the same tax rules as anyone else.

        Long-ago friend of mine is a rabbi; she pays taxes on her salary.

  • Philip Hansen

    I don’t feel torn about this at all. I think you (Ed Brayton and you) are considering the statements on wildly different premises. I take Ed’s point to be : stop characterizing all religious behaviour in simplistic, overreaching terms. You seem to be saying : religion seems to be very much about control, much like other cultural systems.

    I see no contradiction in terms there, and so no actual disagreement, because you consider the statement “religion is invented to control people” to be true not only for religion, but for culture in general, but that’s still different from what I think is typically meant by the people who say this. Usually, this is invoked as if it is a special characteristic for religion, in which case both you and Ed disagree with that viewpoint, albeit in different ways.

    Likewise regarding “One true christianity”, where the point of Ed’s post seems to be : You shouldn’t presume you know everything about a christians belief, just because they self-describe as christian, you ought rather engage with people and actually find out what they believe. You seem to be quibbling about the theological accuracy of different practitioners, which while true, is not a disagreement with Ed’s post.

    I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think this post has lots of interesting observations, but the title seems confused and the disagreements appear invented, at least according to this reader.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      That’s a very interesting reply. I think in both cases I weren’t disagreeing with Ed’s central points but his details. Like, I really wanted to discuss communities and charities, and also how we can claim that some versions of religion is inaccurate. I wanted to discuss these things from a different perspective, which leads to some minor disagreements.

  • Ed

    To make matters clear, I, the Ed from posts 3.1 and 5 am not the Ed that the article is about. :)

    I was re-reading the thread this morning and was worried that this might confuse new readers or make me look dishonest if I didn’t point it out.

    Kaveh, I love this blog! Great job!

  • doublereed

    I don’t think tax exemption for nonprofits is that weird. They’re run differently from a profit organization, and they encourage civic participation.

    But more importantly, there are tax exemptions from charitable deductions. People generally don’t get taxed on income that they donate to charity. By taxing charities and nonprofits, you would in fact be taxed on those donations just at the charity level. Essentially, it would hurt the nonprofit.

    Charities and Nonprofits always have a fundamental problem. They need to raise money, and they need to spend money on administration: people who raise money, and people who increase efficiency of the charity. Taxing them would create even more overhead for organizations and would most likely discourage charitable giving (as overhead cost is a simplistic metric of charity efficiency).

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      “But more importantly, there are tax exemptions from charitable deductions. People generally don’t get taxed on income that they donate to charity.”

      Yeah, that’s a tax loophole and should be closed.

      • doublereed


        That’s not a tax loophole. That’s supposed to be there. We want people to donate to charity. If you get rid of that, then the wealthy would be more encouraged just to take that money home or invest it.

        • Kaveh Mousavi

          I was using the term “tax loophole” in a snarky and “make your point in a bitter way” way.

          The wealthy are helping to charities to make image, they will continue to do so. It’s a form of advertising.

          • doublereed

            The wealthy doesn’t necessarily mean the top 1%. In this case it would probably be more like the top 20-30%.

          • Kaveh Mousavi

            If we agree that charities deserve tax exemption, then I agree that faith-based charities and secular ones should be treated equally. I disagree though, still.

        • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com Leo Buzalsky

          I have a few problems with your comment.

          First, Kaveh already called out this assumption that people will be discouraged from donating to charity. This seems to stem from “common sense” rather than anything based on actual evidence. I reject it.

          Second, there can be alternative solutions. Like, raise taxes on the rich. Seriously, I have wondered if this comes out of libertarian ideas that one should be able to spend their money where they want instead of the government directing it. I don’t buy into such libertarian arguments.

  • http://lifetheuniverseandonebrow.blogspot.com/ One Brow

    Well, my reaction to this is this: they’re still truer followers than the moderates.

    Followers of what? Books and dead people don’t lead, living people lead. Moderate Christian are followers of their moderate leaders, and fundamentalist Christians are followers of their leaders. The Bible is silent on its modern-day preference.

    • John Morales

      Followers of their own purported religious rules.

      (Surely you don’t imagine rules can’t be followed because they’re not a living person!)

  • A Masked Avenger

    Religions are based on some texts. People claim to follow those texts. It’s true to say that those people who follow those texts more closely are the better practitioners of those ideologies.

    That’s very much an assumption about what the text is, what it’s for, and what it means to “follow” it. Suppose that I follow the holy text of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Is it necessary to believe that the albatross was a literal bird? What am I supposed to make of the thousand thousand slimy things that lived on (and so did I)? The holy writ does verily call them “slimy things with legs,” so of course it’s rankest heresy to visualize them as worms or fish–but must I believe they actually “did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea”? Did they walk on water? Or are they like water striders: small enough not to break the surface tension? And in what way is the sea “slimy”? Was there a layer of foam or oil floating on its surface?

    Fundamentalists of course assume that the Rime is literal: the mariner was an actual man; that the crews’ souls really did pass him by like the whizz of his cross bow; and then they really groaned, they stirred, they all uprose; etc., etc. To a fundamentalist Rimatarian, your goodness is measured by how literally you take the text. You cite a background in Iran, surrounded by fundamentalism, so it’s no surprise that you implicitly assume that this measure is self-evidently right. Liberal muslims are bad muslims; reformed Jews are bad Jews; liberal Christians are bad Christians; etc. They themselves would disagree with not only your assessment, but with the standard by which you’re measuring them to reach that assessment.

    I think that Ed is right: informing them that they’re substandard Christians, Muslims or Jews is not going to help deconvert them. It’s only going to lead to an argument in which you tell them what they do, or should, believe. And it’s incredibly arrogant–on the order of born-again GW Bush telling the Muslim world what is or isn’t “true Islam.” (As opposed to allying himself with more moderate Muslim factions, which can be done respectfully.)

  • jesse

    Look, far be it from me to tell you what it’s like to live in Iran. But I do think you’re conflating a few things about religion in general and the way it plays out in your case.

    Let me throw something out at you: the Navajo (Diné) — if you don’t know, a Native group that lives in the Southwestern US. (I don’t know how much you know about Native Americans). Anyhow, supposedly their language hasn’t even got a word for religion. I’m no great fan of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as I think it’s limited, but clearly they have a religion, right? They believe in gods and such, of a sort very, very different from the religions you or I are more familiar with. In fact, much of their theology would make little sense to a priest or Imam, because the very premises it’s built on are different.

    That religion wasn’t based so much on control in the sense you mean as survival. That is, it was likely invented as part of a survival strategy. And it works. (Or did, until the active suppression efforts from the US government started up).

    So that would by itself say to me that religions aren’t a matter of control per se except in the same manner that any cultural norm is. And cultural norms aren’t invented in a vacuum. Iranian culture is rather different from Uzbek, Arab, and Tajik because there were different pressures and problems to face, no? All three I mentioned are heavily influenced by Islam. But Germany and Poland are both heavily influenced by Christianity, and nobody would suggest that their cultures are the same in every particular.

    So the “religion is about control” premise seems to me to need a lot of qualifiers. Religions crop up in very different environments and circumstances.

    Take Islam. Islam is not practiced the same way in Iran as it is in Saudi Arabia, as in Iran the population is mostly Shi’ite and in the Arab countries it is largely Sunni, unless you go to Iraq or the minorities in Bahrain and the Gulf states. But which is the true Islam? Both could claim to be literal followers of the Qu’ran. There are real historical reasons that Shi’a Islam took hold in Iran and not in, say, Jordan, correct?

    For Christianity, the problem of claiming to be a “true Christian” is that the passages in the Bible can not only be interpreted in multiple ways, (this is true even if you were reading it in the original Hebrew for the Torah, or Old Testament, and Greek for the New Testament books) but they are self-contradictory. That’s why we have a split in 1000 AD between the Eastern and Western Churches and a further one in the 16th century with Martin Luther. In Islam the same problem arises — I mean, that’s a big part of the reason that there’s even such a thing as Shi’ite, Sunni and Sufi, is it not? and Muslims are ostensibly still reading the book in Arabic.

    What you are bringing up, it seems to me, is a very different kind of problem. Iran is an authoritarian religious state in many ways. (Though one could make a case that it is also a “managed democracy” of sorts, that’s another discussion). But the issues that come up there have a lot to do with the particular historical circumstances of Iran.

    For example, I don’t think you would disagree that the Shah was imposed on Iran by the Western powers. The Shah was a semi-secular dictator who eliminated the left political opposition as best he could and served a wealthy elite in Iran, as well as wealthy elites abroad by guaranteeing the flow of oil. Well, that meant that when he fell, the only political opposition left that had any organization (and hadn’t been executed or jailed) was the religious parties, and even then it wasn’t clear which ones would take control. I’m old enough to remember when there was some concern that the Iranian left might win the political struggle just after the Revolution. That was wrong, as it turned out. But you know even better than I the outline of the splits even within the movement ostensibly led by Khomeini.

    All this did not bode well for democratic governance in Iran. But it all has to do with the particular historical circumstances in that country. Islam was a big factor, but so was interference from the West and the destruction of Mossadegh’s political organization, the circumstances around the way the government was organized in the 1950s, and the internal politics of Iran and the aspirations and actions of Iranians.

    I bring all this up — ancient and likely obvious history to you, (and do correct me if you think I am utterly wrong anyplace), because it isn’t like nominally Christian nations haven’t had the same problem. Spain was a military dictatorship until 1975 — one of the central planks of Franco’s program was protection of the Church and expanding its power (he was a cynical opportunist, but the Church did well by him and he by the Church). Portugal was the same (and a dictatorship until about the same time). Greece also was ruled by military dictators in the 1970s with a strong religious bent, as was Chile (Pinochet did not relinquish power until the 1980s). In Guatemala, a Christian fundamentalist named Rios Montt made it his business to exterminate the Mayans — who make up at least half the populace in the 1980s.

    At the same time, in for instance, Guatemala, there were many in the Catholic Church who tried to stop the genocide. In Spain there was a strong presence of progressive priests by the 1960s and 1970s who were active against the reactionary Spanish leadership of the Church in Spain.

    So which one is the true set of Christians? Which one is the “true” follower of any political or religious movement? Is a real socialist only one who follows Stalin? Or reads Marx to the letter?

    The thing is the issues you both bring up are complicated. Brayton, as I understand it, was also touching on the issues of marginalized populations in the US. Here, for example, there is a strong religious presence in black and Latino communities who face daily discrimination and marginalization. This is even more true of the Native religious minorities. So the whole discussion of religion has to account for that. I would imagine Zoroastrians in Iran run into similar problems.

    I don’t live in Iran. But I think it’s safe to say there is a rather large difference between religions that are privileged by law (as in Iran or the Gulf), those that are privileged by culture (mainstream Christianity here) and those that are marginalized (the non-white Christians here, whose practices for example santería, are decried as “false” when in fact they are no more so than any other form of Christianity). And you as an atheist in Iran are in a much different position (and a more dangerous one, I do understand that) than one in the US or UK.

    Again, the whole topic is a complicated one. And if you think I am speaking out of turn about Iran (I know some, but I am no expert) then by all means tell me.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      I’ve read your comment twice and I see nothing I disagree with it, but also nothing that necessarily contradict my claims as well. I’m really sorry to give such a short reply to your long comment, but that’s the only reply I can think of.

  • http://infidel753.blogspot.com Infidel753

    I think the problem is party one of semantics. “Religion was just created to control people” means “religion was created only for the purpose of controlling people and not for any other purpose”. That would clearly be a false statement, since even if it’s true that everything about religion has some controlling effects, clearly the reasons why religion was created include things other than control. At least in that paragraph, he’s talking about reasons why people create religions, not about the effects of religions.

    I do agree with you that it’s possible to prove objectively that hard-line religionists are genuinely following their religion’s rules, based on those brutal rules actually being in the holy books. The case is somewhat fuzzier with Christianity than Islam since the Bible contradicts itself much more than the Koran does. That may have been the basis of Brayton’s contention, since he’s presumably more familiar with the Bible than the Koran.

    • steve84

      I think that much of the modern organized religions are certainly all about control and money. Religion itself didn’t start out that way when you go back to pre-historic times. Christianiy and Islam didn’t necessarily start that way either, but it’s what they turned into within a few centuries once other people got hold of the founder’s ideas and made them their own. A lot of what is considered Christian dogma today was invented much later. Same with Islam where clerics constantly publish interpretations that they want people to follow.

  • http://cycleninja.blogspot.com cycleninja

    Mr. Mousavi,

    Thank you for an elegant and thoughtfully-written article. It’s a pleasure to see such a clear voice in the community. I’m a bit late to the party, but welcome to FTB and I hope your experience here is a pleasant one.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches Ed Brayton

    You dare to disagree with me? Off with your head! Seriously, thanks for contributing to the discussion. I knew not everyone would agree with everything I said (obviously, or I would not have had to say it). I was just hoping to get people to be more thoughtful about the arguments they make and recognize complexity and ambiguity over simplistic taunts and sneers.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      I thank you very much for starting the discussion.

  • jamessweet

    Re: #3… I feel like this definition of “control” is too expansive as to be really meaningful. Taking your example of shitting in the toilet instead of the kitchen… Sure, technically there’s a control aspect I guess, but the motivation is clearly one of sanitation, and if somebody went around saying “Toilets were just invented as a way of controlling us, MAN!”, that would be, um, kinda lame. There is no doubt religion is wielded as a means of control, but I imagine its origins were probably much more organic. In that sense, I agree with Ed.

    Re: #8, I feel that churches should (for now) continue to have non-profit status, but they should have to open up their books the way that other charities do.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      That’s a very interesting point that you raise, but allow me to disagree. First, I’ve said many times that control is not necessarily bad. I believe freedom is also a form of control, and it is the form of control that I have devoted my life fighting for. Also, I think having that expanded view of control (by which I really mean power), is very useful. We don’t necessarily need to challenge power, we must be aware of it all the time though. It helps us to review every human interaction to see if power is unbalanced, or if we need to democratize it. Take romantic relationships. People tend to take these things as automatically good, but actually romance may lead to your complete oppression. Or it might help liberate you. Point is, we won’t know if we don’t analyze it.

      I don’t think sanitation is not a motive for not shitting in the kitchen. But, no matter how complex the real situation, I still think power structure and negotiations are the aspects that HAVE to be discussed and are more important.

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  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    You quote Fincke saying:

    Fundamentalists “pick and choose” what they want to believe just as much as liberals do. Christian fundamentalists claim that they are strictly obedient adherents to literal Bible but that is a dubious claim.

    And you reply:

    Well, my reaction to this is this: they’re still truer followers than the moderates.

    That may be true of Islam — my opinion on that is not an informed one — but it is definitely NOT true of Christianity, and you should be careful whose claims you believe. The Christian fundamentalists and other simplistic extremists loudly CLAIM that they’re the “truest” Christians because they adhere so much more strictly to the letter of the Bible; but that claim is clearly false — there are several very significant parts of their stated doctrine that they flat-out ignore when they want to (as in, huge chunks of what Christ himself actually said), and the parts they brag so loudly of obeying more consistently than everyone else, are mostly extremely peripheral and/or outdated bits that clearly have little or no relevance to most people’s lives and moral decisions. Fincke is right on this: fundamentalists do indeed cherry-pick their doctrine as much as us liberals do, if not more so, or more maliciously so.

    If you believe the fundamentalists’ claims of being “THE truest adherents of Christianity,” then you are believing a falsehood and giving them a victory. That’s not a good thing to do, nor is it necessary.

  • eric

    Much like @6, I think your response to Ed’s #3 is not really a disagreement. I see his point as really saying “don’t assume Christian belief is any less complex in motivation than atheist belief.” Your point seemst to be that both Christian beliefs and atheist beliefs come down to power. So you might see them both as simpler than Ed does, but I think you could still probably agree with his main point, which is that we should not treat believer-beliefs as being more simple than atheist beliefs. “They’re both complex” and “they’re both about power” are both statements that support the notion of not dismissing the other guy’s beliefs as being less well justified than ones’ own.

    Personally, I think the tendency to use simplistic explanations for others’ beliefs (but rarely our own) is a common human bias related to the attribution bias. That is to say, ALL humans have a tendency to think that beliefs we don’t agree with must be externally or superficially motivated (“you believe because your parents taught you that”), while thinking that the beliefs we agree with must be internally or deeply motivated (“I believe because I have thought hard about it.”). What we’re seeing here is just how our attribution bias manifests when it comes to religious beliefs, but you’d see the exact same attitude if we were talking about political beliefs (“mine are well-reasoned, my opponent’s are because he’s a greedy jerk”) or job success (“I earned my promotion – my competitor just got lucky”).


    Regarding #4, I don’t think the issue is as simple as matching personal beliefs to a list of what the bible says and the one who matches the most should be considered the truer follower. Firstly, different sects have different opinions on how much the bible itself matters, and how much the OT vs. the NT matters. They weight biblical comments differently, which is a major problem for the sort of comparison you want to make (which seems to assume a simple equal weigting for each biblical belief claim or command). Secondly, the bible says contradictory things. If we are both facing a witch, and you adhere to “stone the witch” and I adhere to “turn the other cheek,” its hard to grade either of us as truer. But in fact the major differences between the big Christian sects probably come down to just this sort of disagreement. The difference between RCC and protestantism, for example, can be seen as whether one adheres more to Matthew 16:16-19 more or Mark 7 (and Matthew 7) when they are in conflict. When the Pope calls for an exception to the Golden Rule, which holds precedence? Its hard to see either answer as being “truer” to the bible, since both adherence to (the successors to) Peter and adherence to the golden rule are biblical implications.

  • deepak shetty

    Well, my reaction to this is this: they’re still truer followers than the moderates.

    If you define your religion as being a set of rules defined in a holy book that must be interpreted literally then it may be true that fundamentalists may be truer followers (again not necessarily given that the bible has contradictions)

    If on the other hand , you treat the holy book as a subjective guideline , then clearly there is no ‘truer’ follower.

    So when you make the statement as above – you are effectively saying , If I use the fundamentalist definition and the fundamentalist interpretation , I find the fundamentalists are truer followers – well what a surprise. But I’m curious why you want to grant them that.

  • exi5tentialist

    Religions are based on some texts.

    No, they’re really not

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  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @ ^ exi5tentialist : Surely it depends on the specific religion and the specifics of that religion?

    Some religions are very amorphous, diverse and based on people living and arguing and thinking about their beliefs. Others are very much based on “Gawd seddit rite here in da Babble / Koron so we have to do it that way!”Many prolly lie somewhere in-between.

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