Thursday, December 10, 2015

Guns and Islam: A Philosophical Public Service Announcement

The mass shooting by a pair of radicalized Muslims in San Bernardino fueled two ongoing conversations in this country: one about guns, the other about Islam. And I've noticed that a few of the arguments tossed about in the gun conversation have some logical parallels in the conversation about Islam (and vice versa).

I think these parallels are worth pointing out in the service of our collective effort to be more consistent thinkers--a kind of quick Public Service Announcement of the sort philosophers are especially suited to offer. If you don't care about logical consistency, feel free to ignore what follows (and be ignored in turn by those who do care). But if you care about consistency, then here are some things you might want to think about.


Suppose you think along the following lines, as many advocates of gun rights do:

"Most gun owners are law abiding citizens who don't kill innocent people. Therefore, when it comes to the problem of innocent people getting killed, guns aren't the problem."

If you think that, then as a matter of logic you should accept the following reasoning:

"Most Muslims are law-abiding citizens who don't kill innocent people. Therefore, when it comes to the problem of innocent people getting killed, Islam isn't the problem."


Suppose you think along the following lines, as many advocates of gun rights do:

"Even if we were to grant that taking away all guns would make our society safer, you can't justify such a policy on those grounds alone because people have rights. We have to protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners even as we aim to keep ourselves safe from the criminal ones."

Setting aside the fact that no political leader is talking about taking away all guns, if you accept this reasoning, then as a matter of logic you should accept the following reasoning (which, unfortunately, refers to something that a current candidate for President is seriously talking about):

"Even if we were to grant that closing our borders to/deporting/tracking all Muslims would make our society safer, you can't justify such a policy on those grounds alone because people have rights. We have to protect the rights of law-abiding Muslims even as we aim to keep ourselves safe from the criminal ones."


Suppose you think along the following lines, as many advocates of gun rights do:

"Even though some gun owners occasionally kill innocent people, it doesn't follow that gun owners are the enemy. Most gun owners would never do such things, and so we should treat them with respect, focusing our outrage at the individuals who actually commit these crimes."

If you think along these lines, then as a matter of logic you should accept the following reasoning:

"Even though some Muslims occasionally kill innocent people, it doesn't follow that Muslims are the enemy. Most Muslims would never do such things, and so we should treat them with respect, focusing our outrage at the individuals who actually commit these crimes."

(I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of the parallel arguments here. Feel free to share any that occur to you in the comments section.)


In each of these cases, you may be tempted to respond along the following lines: "But wait! There's more to the story! While most (gun-owners/Muslims) aren't violent or dangerous, there's something about (guns/Islam) that contributes to the problem even so, something that is present in the one case that doesn't apply in the other."

But if you say that, you have conceded that the reasoning in both of the parallel arguments is unsound, because there is more that you need to know in order to draw the inference made in either argument. If you think Islam is a problem even though most Muslims are peaceful and law abiding, then you can't logically hold that guns aren't a problem just because most gun-owners are peaceful and law abiding (and vice versa).

In general, if you think the reasoning in one case is incomplete and unpersuasive, you should think the reasoning in the other case is likewise incomplete and unpersuasive. And so you should reject the argument in favor of something more nuanced.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

I Fixed It! Gun Slogan Edition

I don't pretend to know how to solve the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Even if, in theory, our country would be safer if far fewer people had guns and guns were much harder to acquire, the reality is that the guns are already out there in huge numbers. And the gun culture in the US pretty much ensures that any attempt to forcibly reduce the number of guns that are out there would be met with entrenched resistance--not just political resistance but other forms, in some cases armed resistance that could magnify bloodshed in this country rather than reduce it.

It seems to me that some policies make sense, even if they don't make a huge dent in the problem: closing the gun-show loophole, instituting mandatory training and licencing for gun owners, registering guns and keeping track of ownership in something like the way we do with cars.

But while I don't have a clear sense of how to solve the problem, I do know that certain slogans don't help us to think clearly and carefully as we collectively pursue a solution. So I've decided to correct a few of these problematic slogans. Here goes:

Slogan 1: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people."

Correction: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people--but they frequently do it with guns, at least in the US, since guns are one of the most efficient tools for killing people and they are readily available. Since guns are tools specifically designed to kill things, they make it so much easier to quickly and efficiently (or accidentally, in the case of careless owners and toddlers) turn a living human being into a corpse."

Comment: The slogan above trivializes the killing power of guns. But the first step in responsible gun ownership is to respect the deadly potency of these weapons. Just as with cars, a gun in the wrong hands is a tragedy waiting to happen. It is recognition of this fact which inspires us, as a society, to train would-be drivers and test and license them before we let them operate a car unsupervised. Promulgating slogans that obscure how dangerous guns are is a bad idea if we want to come up with sound public policies and encourage private responsibility.

Slogan 2: "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."

Correction: "If guns are regulated such that everyone who purchases a gun (even at a gun show) is required to undergo background checks designed to block those we all agree shouldn't be entrusted with a gun, everyone will still have access to guns, but those who can't get them legitimately will have to rely on the black market and so will be guilty of a crime for which they can be arrested--meaning law enforcement will have a legal basis for taking action in cases where, had the guns been available for legal purchase, police hands would be tied until the guns were actually put to use in tragic ways."

Comment: Outlawing guns is not seriously proposed, nor is it politically feasible in the US. Arguably, it's also unconstitutional. More careful regulation of gun sales to keep guns out the hands of "outlaws" will, in a perfect world, mean that outlaws won't have access to guns but law-abiding citizens will. In our less-than-perfect world, "outlaws" might still get them from the black market. But if they do, they've committed a crime. And that magnifies the options that law enforcement has for preventive action.

Slogan 3: "The surest guard against tyranny is a well-armed citizenry."

Correction A: "The surest guard against tyranny is a military with a conscience."

Correction B: "The surest guard against tyranny is an informed and engaged citizenry with a conscience."

Comment: If the US government decides to impose tyrannical rule, armed citizens won't have much of a chance against the US military. Really. They'll get slaughtered. If the government decides to turn its formidable coercive power against its own citizens, our best hope is that our military, made up of our own young men and women, will say no.

But of course, tyrannical regimes tend to know that soldiers won't happily start shooting their own. They know that their power depends on the obedience of the soldiers who kill for them, and that these soldiers come from the very communities the tyrants want to control.

That's why tyrants are much more sneaky and incremental. They use ideological indoctrination and propaganda that plays on our fears and insecurities, selling their repressive system bit by bit as an essential means of promoting safety. They'll be especially interested in winning the allegiance of those who are most angry and most well-armed. They do this by pandering to these groups and carefully directing their fear and anger towards scapegoats who are blamed for everything that's wrong with the country. Pretty soon, the well-armed citizenry has been absorbed into the tyrant's forces and is kept busy herding Muslims into concentration camps (or something along those lines).

But if we live in a society that refuses to be sucked in by these us/them ideologies, a society whose citizens stand for human rights without discrimination and who keep themselves informed about current events and engaged in political life, then these indoctrination tactics are far less likely to work. Tyranny will be stripped of one of its most tried-and-true strategies for taking control.

In short, reasoned discussion about guns requires each of the following:
(a) Appreciation of and healthy respect for the lethal power of guns.
(b) Recognition that the choice is not between unrestricted access and a ban; the aim, instead, is to find a regulatory scheme that reflects the kind of balance between public safety and individual rights that is in play with automobiles.
(c) Setting aside naive fantasies that large-scale gun ownership is an effective safeguard against tyranny, and replacing it with the more realistic view that our best guard against tyranny is a citizenry committed to fairness and human rights and politically aware and engaged in our democratic processes.

Monday, December 7, 2015

When Your Muslim Neighbor Preaches Peace, How Will You Respond?

Today I saw a video of a Muslim poet expressing his distress at the appropriation of Islam by extremists. It highlights in a helpful way the points I was making in my previous post, and so I want to share it here. Take a couple of minutes to watch the video.

Religious traditions, Islam included, are complex phenomena with rich histories and sources of authority. Depending on what one identifies as essential, these complex traditions can be used to underwrite extremism or to support peace and justice.

So how should we respond to those who endorse the message (shared by the Muslim majority) that is expressed by the poet in this video? Should we support and encourage them in their fight to reclaim Islam from the extremists? Or should we say, as some do, that the truth about Islam is what the extremists teach, and this poet is an inauthentic sellout?

Every time Islamist extremists perpetrate a new horror, there are those in the West who call for moderate Muslims to denounce them (as if they aren't already doing so). Here we have a poet who is denouncing them with passion and eloquence. Should we respond to him by sifting through the complex tradition of Islam to find every element that is at odds with his peaceful vision? Shall we make certain that there is no way for moderate Muslims to win, nothing our Muslim neighbors can do that will not spark our hostility?

Or should we, perhaps, reach out to him and those like him in a spirit of love and say, "You are my brother"?

I know which choice will do the most to disempower the extremists. And I know which choice the extremists most want us to make.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Religion vs Religionism: The Case of Islam

Predictably, Western responses to the terror attacks in Paris have sparked ongoing discussions that amount to a kind of Western forum on Islam.

I have been actively engaged in some of these conversations. Through those conversations, I've encountered more than once a view that I want to address with some care on this blog. It goes something like this:
"Islam as a religion is bad, but Muslims as people are not. In fact, most Muslims have a basic decency that causes them to resist the pernicious teachings of their faith. But they are capable of displaying moderation only because their conscience and humanity have led them to reject what Islam really teaches. The majority of Muslims are decent people in spite of Islam, while the minority are terrorists because of it." 
A good example of this perspective can be found here. In many ways, the reasoning is similar to the "love the sinner, hate the sin" rhetoric that many conservative Christians invoke with respect to homosexuality. But in this case, it's "I love Muslims but hate their religion." They say it's Islam that needs to be opposed, not Muslims (who are victims of a bad religion along with the rest of the world). They resist the "Isalmophobia" label (just as Christians who condemn same-sex intimacy resist the "homophobia" label), and they generally concede that the majority of Muslims oppose the violence of ISIS and Al Qaeda.

What are we to make of this stance towards Islam?

First of all, I think there is something initially suspicious about defining a religion's essence in terms of something that the majority of that religion's adherents repudiate. But I don't want to explore that issue directly here. What I want to focus on are the serious pragmatic dangers I see in this anti-Islam perspective. I say anti-Islam, instead of Islamophopic, for a reason. I think it is too quick to simply lump this perspective in with more overt expressions of Islamophobia. But precisely because it is less obviously pernicious, I think this view has the potential to do harm in ways that overt Islamophobia can't.

Let me develop my concerns in terms of a distinction I made in my first book, Is God a Delusion? There, I distinguished between religion and religionism. By "religion," I mean a way of life and way of seeing our world meant to offer a distinctive understanding of ultimate reality and a path to orienting our lives in relation to that reality. By "religionism" I mean an ideology of division that uses religious identity markers as the basis for distinguishing in-groups and out-groups and representing them as locked in a zero-sum struggle that allows no quarter.

In other words, religionism sees the chosen group--selected by religious identity markers--as pitted against another group in something like the way racism sees different races as pitted against each other. Any gain for the "other" is a loss for the chosen group (and vice versa). The chosen group has a mission--to usher in the good and the right--whose achievement demands that the other be put down, marginalized, or destroyed.

Most religious traditions have, among the authorities to which they appeal and the historical and cultural resources from which they draw, a range of elements they can use to delineate a way of life and a way of seeing the world. But their traditions also contain elements that can be exploited by those who seek to build ideological communities of hate.

In other words, they contain elements suited to constructing a religion, and elements suited to constructing religionism. This mix of elements is certainly evident in Islam. There are those who will claim that the resources for religionism are especially strong in Islam. I am not expert enough to speak to the relative degree to which such resources are present in different faith traditions, and dwelling on these differences strikes me as a distraction--a way to chest-thump and say, "My faith is better than yours," rather than focus on the more urgent task.

And what is the more urgent task? It is the task of discouraging religionism, of encouraging faith traditions to focus their resources on building a religion rather than an ideology of hate.

This task cannot be pursued without due attention to those features of a faith tradition that lend themselves to religionism. As such, we cannot be naive. We must avoid rosy glasses. We do no one a favor by pretending that features supporting Islam's brand of religionism don't exist, by obscuring them or hiding them under the rug. In my own faith tradition--Christianity--I try to be conscious of how religionism can creep in. It is only by being realistic about the dangers that I can stand against Christian religionism from within.

Likewise, there are many Muslims who are determined to stand against Islamism from within. The vast majority of Muslims attach their allegiance to Islam not to Islamism, to religion not religionism. As such they can, without denouncing their religion, denounce the use of their tradition's resources to cultivate divisive ideologies that motivate terrorism and violence.

Moderate Muslims are committed to opposing Islamism, to attacking it in terms of the very religious resources that Islamism invokes. To the extent that they do so, they are probably the best hope for overcoming Islamist extremism--and certainly the best hope for overcoming it with minimal bloodshed and pain.

If we ignore their efforts, we cannot honor or support those efforts. And it seems to me that honoring and supporting those efforts is utterly crucial.

Again, let us not be naive or unrealistic. Honoring the work of moderate Muslims does not preclude frank conversations and earnest debates about the challenges of reconciling certain elements of Islam with the values and practices of Western democratic liberalism. Those who respect and honor each other can debate and discuss differences and even offer forceful criticism--because the purpose of such debate and criticism is to help each other grow and pursue the goal of living in community together.

But if we say that all of Islam is the problem, we play into the Islamist us/them division, providing fodder for the narrative that all of Islam is threatened by the West and that the survival of the former requires the latter to be brought low.

If we say that moderate Muslims have betrayed the essentials of their faith, we do nothing to help moderate Muslims in their effort to stand against extremism from within. In fact, we make their efforts more difficult. Instead of honoring them, we label them as sell-outs who don't represent their faith.

And we essentialize the problem of Islamist extremism. We say, in effect, "Extremism is so essential to Islam that there is no way to eliminate extremism without eliminating Islam itself."

Once you have adopted that kind of absolutizing stance towards Islam as a whole--in the face of the majority of moderate Muslims who disavow extremism--you force moderates to rush to the defense of their faith.

At best, you distract them from the task of fighting Islamist extremism. At worst, you fuel the divisiveness that drives religionism, thereby strengthening the extremists and weakening the moderates.

People do not easily give up their religious identities, their traditions, their communities of faith. For people of faith, these things are central to who we are.

It is one thing to invite people to build their identities around those elements of their faith tradition that are about religion rather than religionism, to encourage them to see those elements as what is truly essential, and to celebrate and support the internal efforts of a faith community to fight extremism in those terms. If you do that--if you cheer the message of those who would build their faith tradition around its messages of peace and coexistence--you are not their enemy. Peaceful coexistence is possible (even though you might disagree strongly about many things).

But what if, as an outsider to a faith tradition, you slap the label of "inauthentic sell-outs" on those who would build that faith tradition around peace and coexistence? What if you insist that the "real core" of their faith is its endorsement of us/them extremism?

What if, when confronted with the majority of moderate Muslims, your message to them is this:
"You cannot with integrity be a moderate Muslim. As an outsider to the faith, I understand the faith better than you do and know that it is inherently violent and extremist. If you want to disavow violent extremism with integrity, your only option is to disavow your faith. If you don't disavow your faith, I will conclude that you are lending cover to extremism and implicitly supporting evil." 
If you adopt that view, what are you doing?

You are demanding that they give up their religion.

You are expressing a commitment to wiping from the world something central to their identity.

And when you do that, you help the extremists to construct the picture of zero-sum struggle that defines religionism and feeds cycles of violence. You help to fashion a world in which peaceful co-existence becomes progressively harder to realize.

This is the pathway to spreading the cancer of extremism rather than cutting it out. This is what I fear. This is what I pray we will resist.