On Harm, Truth, and Hegemonies: Another Response to Libby Anne

Libby Anne honored me by responding to my response, and I want to than her very much for taking the time to do this, and I appreciate the opportunity to continue this dialogue.

This is her original column, this is my response, and this is her counter-response.

In short, Libby argued about why she opposes the rhetoric which calls religions intrinsically incompatible with modern values, and I argued why I disagree. If you would like read the links and keep up with the discussion.

This is how Libby opens her response to me:

Today I want to focus on Kaveh’s statement about buying into “a religious hegemony” and giving “a special status to religion.” I think what Kaveh means is that when the word “religion” is attached I’m willing to accept and treat as normal beliefs I would otherwise see as ridiculous. On some level, I suppose I am willing to “give a pass” to progressive Christians who say they believe God started the Big Bang and then watched, occasionally sticking a finger in it but never in a way that can be proved or disproved by science. But you know what? I am also would be willing to “give a pass” to someone who said they believed in Leprechauns—or mermaids—in an unfalsifiable way.

That is partly what I mean by calling it reinforcing the religious hegemony, but I also mean it in a deeper level. I have already argued for that previously on this blog, but I’m going to repeat myself in other words for the purpose of this debate.

Firstly, I think it’s wrong to assume that religion is mainly a private belief. (I don’t actually believe any idea is private, but this is not our debate here). Religion is actually something beyond every religious person – it’s a hegemony, a social system and structure. It’s also a tyrannical one. And like all tyrannical systems it survives by making the cost of dissent too high, and by defining the community around itself. If you’ve been reading this blog you will see that this is the common theme here – the Islamic hegemony makes everything Islamic in this culture, and exile everyone who doesn’t believe in it from all aspects of the community.

Now I’m sure in western countries like the USA or the Netherlands as someone in the comments mentioned the situation is not as dire as it is in Iran. However, the fact remains that the hegemony regards loyalty as the most important qualifier, therefore it is more tolerant of people who remain within the system and criticize it than those who completely leave it. Leaving the system is a costly choice, certainly costlier in some places, but costly nevertheless.

I don’t mean to generalize and say all progressive Christians and Muslims remain faithful to their faith because of that – I’m sure many genuinely believe in their interpretation, I’m sure a vast majority of them actually have not considered these questions so deeply. But I think we need to acknowledge that the social costs and the emotional bonds also play a very major role here.

So I think asking ex-Muslims and other atheists to never criticize as a whole system, and stick only to criticizing the aspects which cause harm, is forgetting the main role of the hegemonic system, and the importance of breaking the taboo of criticizing religion as a whole and as an ideology.

Because whenever as an ex-Muslim I criticize Islam, the first reply is that “But that is not the true Islam, that is the Islam of the clergies”. What am I supposed to say here? “Yes, your interpretations are equally valid?” Why would I? All our laws are rooted in Islamic sharia, everything is defined by Islam. Not only I think their representation is invalid, but also I will be placing myself in a less equal position in the debate and I reduce the worth of my own voice.

Also, and this is a serious question, why should my experience of Islam matter less than theirs? Why should ex-Muslims have free range to define Islam but not ex-Muslims? I mean, Islam is still the single most influential factor in my life, I’m still living inside it.

That is what I mainly mean by hegemony. To let something entirely define itself, and to make it exempt from the criticism every other ideology would get (as in politics, economics, etc).

But let’s go back from the topic of hegemony to the main discussion. Libby says:

I mean that I will accept their right to believe that, and accept them as people, and not let our differences in belief come between us. [...] I won’t let that difference in belief create a problem between us, say, by harping on it or constantly trying to prove to them that they are wrong.

Why should the differences in opinion come between us as people?

I mean, I’m not famous for my social charm (that is, I’m a recluse who finds human company painful in general and very rewarding only in rare cases), but at the same time, it has never been a difference of opinion coming between me and others, and especially my difference of opinion has not caused me to refuse my political support.

I’m an atheist living inside Iran promoting atheism and fighting Islam. This is a bit of a risky thing to do. But I have done riskier things too. Those riskier things were done for reformists, who are moderate Muslims (and my long time readers can testify that a great portion of this blog belongs to defending reformists passionately as well). I mean, standing in the pathway of bullets in a protest with the purpose of bringing a highly devout moderate Muslim into power counts as landing your political support to the cause of moderate religion, no?

So why would I have to be silent about my criticism of the faith when it comes to my alliance with them? Why saying “they’re wrong about Islam” means that I’m not accepting them as people?

Now, although a Muslim friend and I might agree to not argue about religion, why should this thinking extend to blogs and intellectual output too? Remember, our debate was not about “should you argue with your religious friend” but rather “Is this particular rhetoric valid or invalid”.

I would happily support moderate believers, but that silence won’t come at the price of me tip-toeing around their faith and not calling their interpretation intellectually wrong. I don’t make a condition for them to renounce Allah in order to be my friend and ally, and I would never accept such a condition either.

My goal is simply to move people away from specific toxic beliefs. If they change these beliefs by moving toward progressive Christianity, that is just as much a victory for me as if they do so by giving up religion entirely.

I would also consider that a victory. However, I don’t know why we should choose one of these victories. I would consider it a victory by convincing atheist Iranians to vote for reformists, and I would consider it a victory if deeply fundamentalist Muslims became conservative Muslims. Again, why does that should come at the cost of silencing my skepticism of their interpretation around them?

Now we come to the main gist of our debate, about truth and harm.

I think I understand why this is the case: At its core, my ethics is harm-based, not truth-based. On some level, I honestly don’t care whether or not people’s beliefs are factually, scientifically true. Instead, I care whether their beliefs cause harm. I’m against anti-vaxxing because it causes harm, not because it is factually, scientifically untrue. I’m against patriarchal Christianity because of the harm it does to women and girls, not because it is factually, scientifically untrue. My opposition to climate change denialism stems from the harm it causes, not from the fact that it is factually, scientifically. I find little value in arguing against things that are factually untrue but not causing any harm. [...] Why is it more important for a person to base base their beliefs on objective scientific fact alone than on what is most fulfilling and meaningful for them? This is, again, where I’m coming from a different approach than Kaveh—my ethics are primarily harm-based, not truth-based. I care much more about a person’s beliefs aligning with acceptance, equality, and compassion than I do about them lining up with—and being limited t0—objective scientific fact.

Can harm-based ethics exist without truth-based ethics? If we don’t have a truth-based ethics, then how can we form a harm-based ethics around it?

Every moral claim is at heart a truth claim. If we define morality as not causing harm to others, then calling anything immoral is to claim that it’s harmful to others, a claim which should be supported by reasoning and evidence. There is no morality without truth.

So how would we persuade people that patriarchy and anti-vaxx and climate denialism are harmful? Wouldn’t we have to show that they are false, first? What would we say to those who would say that patriarchy doesn’t exist anymore, or that harassment is not a big deal?

But why would we need what I call “intellectual integrity”, the absolute diligence and the unforgiving attitude towards all truth, why would we need that? Why not let people have their harmless beliefs?

Because this is a matter of attitude, it’s a matter of how you choose to interact with the world.

Because you can’t really choose to be indifferent to any untruth, because unless you examine an idea and see – with a truth-based ethics, if it leads to harm or not, we would never discover it. We especially need to break down the walls that are harder for us to break, we especially need to reexamine all those things that are dear and close to our hearts, we especially need to rethink those topics that are harder for us to rethink.

Because if we don’t examine them, how can we be sure that they are harmless? How can we even define harm, without truth?

If we now have valuable things like liberty and feminism and equality, it was precisely because we have sought the truth throughout history. All of these opinions were once radical (still are) and challenged the deeply held values, and they were once considered anomalies against the plain truth.

There is no harm-based ethics without truth-based ethics.

That is why I don’t want to give a free pass to moderate religious people. Because I want everyone to find the courage to reexamine their beliefs and their versions of their belief and to value truth and integrity beyond comfort and what feels right. I won’t be sad if I can’t deconvert them, but I will be sad if I can’t make them think.

And ultimately, although Libby  there is not arguing this and some of my commenters did, there something condescending at the heart of saying “Well all religion is irrational anyway so why do you care which version of irrationality they cling to”. People need to hear every criticism of their mentality.

As history slouches forward, and as we come across new plains of reality and face new question of our existence, as we learn new ways to be tolerant of our fellow humans, as we try to preserve the fragile gift of liberty which is not available to some people like me, we must never forget that it was only the light of truth which brought us this far, and without selfless and unforgiving search for this light, we could easily be lost in the darkness of prejudice again. And this is harm-based argument for 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.

  • Ben Finney

    Every moral claim is at heart a truth claim. If we define morality as not causing harm to others, then calling anything immoral is to claim that it’s harmful to others, a claim which should be supported by reasoning and evidence. There is no morality without truth.

    I’m amazed anyone could argue otherwise. It is desperate wishful thinking to believe that one can seek to reduce harm without giving primary importance to truth.

    This is one of your strongest pieces yet, Kaveh. Thank you for your courage and freethought.

  • culuriel

    This gets into the even older argument for giving a “pass” to moderate, progressive, liberal versions of religions. When the truth claims go unchallenged, the foundations of harmful beliefs remains, making it possible for the old harms of patriarchy, homophobia, and racism to continue.

    Also, I’m tired of more liberal believers telling me the perpetrators some new human rights outrage isn’t representative of their faith. Technically, they are correct- there are so many versions of the just the Abrahamic faiths. However, those carrying out terrorism, patriarchy, racism, and homophobia feel these progressive, moderate believers don’t truly represent the faith, either. Who’s right? Do we even have a way of knowing the answer to that question? So, it gets into exactly what Kaveh points out- how do I know what’s true unless we value truth-based beliefs over false ones?

  • http://thread-of-fire.tumblr.com/myblogs brianpansky

    If we don’t have a truth-based ethics, then how can we form a harm-based ethics around it?

    Very well put.

    I often see the problem where people think that their bigotry actually is working towards the good. That homosexuality IS HARMFUL. Whether they say it is harmful to our current world or to the person’s eternal soul, doesn’t matter. Same thing. “Harm based ethics” doesn’t oppose bigotry on its own.

    But then, she’s probably saying that “harm based ethics” is about whatever she personally thinks is harmful. So she can argue with any method she wants (whether the truth method or the harm method) to fix a situation she personally thinks will cause harm. This leaves me ponderous, not sure what else to say…

  • http://wrog.livejournal.com wrog

    Why should ex-Muslims have free range to define Islam but not ex-Muslims?

    I’m going to guess you meant, “Why should Muslims have free range to define Islam but not ex-Muslims?

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      True


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