The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘freedom’

Draw Muhammad Day: A Defense of Free Inquiry & Expression

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 3, 2010

Lately the news of threats against Matt Stone & Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, for displaying a likeness of the Muslim prophet Muhammad have gotten a lot of press.  And I’ve decided to post my views on the matter.  Usually, mostly because I am surrounded by it, when I talk about religious woo & stupidity I am referring to Christian fundamentalism. But this post is going to be dedicated to taking on what is becoming increasingly obvious to me – the creeping influence of politically-correct arguments made on behalf of fundamentalist Islam with the intention of shutting down any & all criticism and/or free inquiry regarding that religion.  I have a pithy two word response to this notion: F%@k that!

Bottom line: when dealing with fundamentalist religion, especially when faced with a brand of fundamentalism so whacked out that it preaches violence against critics (such as the modern-day radical “Islamists”), in my view you have but one of two choices:

1. Cater to the fundamentalists and watch your liberty slowly slip away, or

2. embrace your fundamental freedoms – such as the freedom of inquiry & expression.  This means you’re going to have a fight on your hands.

Guess which one I choose?

I won’t go into a long screed on how I think the South Park guys are just totally badass for having the guts to take on, well, everyone’s goofy beliefs and poke fun at them (even hardcore atheists such as Richard Dawkins).  I also won’t waste time pillorying the weak-kneed panzies over at Comedy Central for capitulating to a bunch of idiotic radical Muslims who should be, if anything, basically ignored.  I won’t even take more than this line to point out the obvious: if you cannot handle your religious beliefs being questioned and, sometimes, being ridiculed by non-believers, then you have deeper issues that need to be addressed and should go live on an island in the middle of nowhere.

In the spirit of fighting back against this creeping notion that “we cannot criticize the religious beliefs or take a chance on ‘offending’ anyone who holds such belief”, specifically regarding Islam, I want to pass along a really great idea I stumbled upon a few days back: Draw Muhammad Day (DMD).

May 20th, 2010, will mark the first DMD – despite the fact that the cartoonist who originally came up with the idea decided to back out.  It’ll happen regardless, because now the whole idea of DMD has gone completely viral on the Internet.  No doubt that some people will take this opportunity to draw the prophet Muhammad in a less-than-glamorous light, such as outlined by this image…

… and I’m sure that some jerks will come up with many much more offensive images than that which are specifically designed to offend.  Fine by me – being a jerk is well within the bounds of free speech; but, in my view, being a jerk isn’t what DMD should be about… it should be about promoting free inquiry/expression.  What is bothersome to me, more than anything, is the notion among some of these radical Muslims that any depiction of Muhammad is somehow offensive, and that to spare them from “offense” everyone else (including many moderate Muslims) should cater to their whims.  It is also worth noting that the image of Muhammad has been depicted countless times over the course of history, even by various Muslim cultures – this is an important detail the radicals would rather have you not know!

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Blasphemy Day, Bill Maher, and Free Inquiry

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 30, 2009

Happy Blasphemy Day, everyone!  For the last 5 years, to commemorate the anniversary of the publication of the now infamous Danish cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, on Sept. 30th the Center For Inquiry has celebrated International Blasphemy Day.

**Aside: Even if you’re religious, read this article all the way to the end.  There’s an interesting twist at the bottom – and a very important message for my fellow skeptics/atheists.

International Blasphemy Day isn’t about the non-religious thumbing their noses at the religious so much as it is about defending free inquiry and demanding that the free & unfettered exchange of ideas be respected.  More specifically, in CFI’s own words…

Free speech is the foundation on which all other liberties rest. Without having the right to express our opinions, however unpopular, those willing to use political clout, violence, and threats will stifle dissent, and we must all suffer the consequences of this. As George Bernard Shaw quipped, “Every great truth begins as a blasphemy.”

Blasphemy Day International is a campaign seeking to establish September 30th as a day to promote free speech and to stand up in a show of solidarity for the freedom to challenge, criticize, and satirize religion without fear of murder, litigation, or reprisal. The event was created as a reaction against those who would seek to take away the right to satirize and criticize a particular set of beliefs that have been given a privileged status over other beliefs.

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Science & Democracy

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 29, 2009

Yesterday I read an amazing essay in the New York Times titled “Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy” by Dennis Overbye about how the pursuit of science & governing by democracy are inextricably linked. By the time I’d read to the end, I almost had tears in my eyes – I cannot really do it justice, so I will simply recommend that you read it in its entirety. Allow me to share a few of the highlights.

How some criticize modern science:

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.

Overbye’s response to those critics:

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

I especially like this part – science is a methodology employed by all people, regardless of tribe or creed:

It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.

How science & democracy go hand in glove:

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.

Overbye’s point about science and democracy is well made. If you study the history of science, you will learn that it grew out of the Western tradition of natural philosophy handed down by the Ancient Greeks. Most historians of science trace the origins of natural philosophy to Thales of Miletus, who famously proposed a theoretical understanding of the basis for all things in the cosmos – Thales believed that everything was made of “water”. This idea may sound silly to us now, but the thought processes put in place in ancient Greek natural philosophy gradually evolved into what we now call modern science. Consider, if you will, that many physicists have drawn a page from Thales when they contemplate that all matter & energy in the universe is an expression of ultra-microscopic strings.

That same ancient Greek civilization is also the birthplace of democracy. It was the contemporaries of Thales who created the rudimentary institutions of democratic government, including electing representatives from the community to meet, debate, and vote about the politics of the day. Both modern science & modern democracy are the descendants of Thales and his fellow Greeks, and we have inherited both traditions.

In closing, I’ll leave you with one final thought from Overbye’s New York Times article. It’s a warning, echoed by most scientists, about placing limits on our explorations:

But once you can’t talk about one subject, the origin of the universe, for example, sooner or later other subjects are going to be off-limits, like global warming, birth control and abortion, or evolution, the subject of yet another dustup in Texas last week.

And, as Carl Sagan stated in the closing chapter (“Real Patriots Ask Questions”) of his famous book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen – or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for the Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.

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