On Communicating when Cataloging Religious Violence

[I had this post in my drafts, half completed, when I read and wrote about the Conan O’Brien tweet. I have left the original material intact. Everything that’s new appears in the Other Thoughts section.]

Terry Firma is getting more criticism from fellow atheists about his posts on religious violence and harm. This time, it is coming from PZ Myers.

The story at the heart of the back-and-forth between Myers and Firma is recent news that Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria beheaded an ally by mistake. Myers takes Firma to task for “celebrating a decapitation”. Myers suggests that Firma “dehumanize[s] people by calling them diseases” (emphasis in original). Lastly, he faults Firma for “using the Bible to justify violence.”

Though he may be my rival, I feel the need to come to the defense of Firma on this account. It seems to me Myers greatly misrepresents Firma’s original post. Though it may be fair to say the post delights in the irony of the situation, it seems an exaggeration to suggest Firma is “celebrating a decapitation”. Moreover, Firma does anything but “[use] the Bible to justify violence.” Firma quotes “live by the sword, die by the sword” to note that there is little shock in the fact that a violent extremist would meet a violent end, but this is hardly a justification.

Myers’s critique is perhaps on firmer ground regarding his suggestion that Firma “dehumanizes people by calling them diseases.” In the final paragraph of his original post, Firma says the following:

“Mohammed Fares [the man beheaded] was another Islamist boil on the ass of humanity. It’s an unpleasant procedure, but boils need to be lanced. Or beheaded — same thing.”

Myers is correct to point out that Firma equates Islamists (i.e., people) with boils. Being strict to form, Firma’s wording suggests we need to behead Islamists. But this is a rather ungenerous reading of the line. I don’t think it is a stretch to understand this to mean that humans need to rid themselves of violent religious extremism. I may want to make a stylistic critique, but I agree with the substance.

Other Thoughts:

Firma wrote a response to PZ Myers. It contains an update in which he quotes Myers using a similar tone. Firma is on strong grounds to call Myers out on this. I don’t comment on Myers because I very rarely read his blog. But, back in the “accommodation wars” of 2010, Myers was often critiqued for the exact same approach Firma took in this post.

At its most basic level, my issue with Firma’s (and Myers’s, for that matter) writing is stylistic. I’d never read him until he was appearing on the Friendly Atheist blog. As I noted in the ‘Other Thoughts’ of my previous post, I think a large part of my issue with Firma is that his style and tone are very different from that taken by Hemant Mehta, and Mehta’s tone and approach are a large part of why I read the Friendly Atheist blog. My “rivalry” with him, at heart, is a self-mocking acknowledgment of this.

In most cases, I am neutral or in agreement with most of the points Firma makes, but I often dislike his style in expressing these points. I only comment on his posts when I have a substantive disagreement with him because there’s no point in simply railing against someone’s writing style.

Interestingly, in his response to PZ Myers, Firma also notes that he does not consider himself a Humanist (as he defines- “stressing the potential value and goodness of all human beings”). This, for sure, puts some perspective on his stylistic choices. In rejecting the “stressing” part of a humanist ethos, light is shed on why I often find his tone uncaring. I don’t mean to suggest he is uncaring, but he is not going to make an effort to stress care.

In my post on out-group shaming, I discussed that I understood a place for websites that aggregate negative stories. Firma’s Moral Compass site is an example of this.  As a reader, because the content is focused on pointing out and criticizing negatives, one can become prone to read a certain delight or enjoyment into the authors motivations. It is easy to see their focus on negative stories as them actually taking pleasure in pointing them out. It is important to remember, as a reader, to not add motivations where they are not expressed. I say this as a personal reminder as much as a general reminder.

Finally, in his response to Myers, Firma notes that commentors on Myers’s post call Firma an Islamophobe. I have, likewise, noted that I find some of Firma’s posts borderline Islamophobic. Now, some of this comes down to style. It is easy to read more into Firma’s tone due to his style of writing. As noted above, PZ Myers has received plenty of criticism as having outright disdain for the religious because of his style of writing (see Firma’s update for a good example).

However, even if the author is not and never intends to write something bigoted or disdainful of a people, the combative style risks getting there anyway. Firma’s post on the Conan O’Brien tweet is, to my mind, a good example. To be completely honest, in the first draft of my post on the joke, I called Firma a bigot, outright. I reined in the language, obviously. However, I still clearly draw the connection. And, to my mind, for good reason.

The paragraph starting with “Muslims and their humorless advocates,” in context, is vile. If he removed or reworked that paragraph, I’d still disagree with his take on the backlash to the tweet, but his post would feel a lot less disdainful. When you skirt that line with your language and tone, you will cross it. It may not be intentional, but the effect is there, all the same.


On Being Offended by Jokes

Apparently, the Conan O’Brien twitter account tweeted about a new Marvel character, a Muslim woman. The tweet can be viewed at Firma’s post, but it reads:

“Marvel Comics is introducing a new Muslim Female superhero. She has so many more powers than her husband’s other wives.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Conan O’Brien received some backlash for the tweet. People found it to be in bad taste. Some even labeled the tweet “racist,” “bigotry,” and “having a laugh at the marginalized.” As a result of the backlash and criticism, the tweet was deleted.

Comedy that makes an individual person or group of people the butt of a joke is likely going to offend. Of course, the mere fact that a joke is offensive (i.e., it offends somebody) doesn’t mean it should be condemned. Humor can be a tool for commentary and justice. As such, we must reserve the right to offend. However, this does not mean all offensive humor is in good taste. Sometimes, a joke is exploitative or bigoted. In these cases, it is worthy of condemnation.

Now, I am not bringing this up to pass judgment on the tweet. It was made; it received some backlash; it was taken down. So it is. I’m discussing this matter because Terry Firma’s commentary (admit it, you knew that was coming) on the episode is …how should I put this… interesting (bigoted? Islamophobic? fucking aweful?).

What’s Jeff On About This Time?

It is probably best that you read his post, but I will try to fairly summarize his argument. Basically, Firma notes that the joke is based on the “incontrovertible fact” that the Qu’ran permits polygamy. Because the joke is based on this fact, he treats the joke as akin to any other commentary on Islam.

From here, he proceeds to accuse the complainers of a double standard. He insists that, were the joke made at the expense of Mormons, there would not be the same backlash. Moreover, Firma uses the Mormons as an example of a religious group capable of taking a joke for their even-handed response to the Book of Mormon musical.

Unlike the Mormons, Muslims want special protections from criticism and ridicule. In Firma’s own words: “Muslims and their humorless advocates have no business claiming special treatment for Allah’s tribe. Like many other groups, atheists included, they’ll occasionally come in for a good ribbing. They should learn to like it.”

Throughout the post, Firma links to various examples of people being threatened or punished for using humor to criticize Islam. He links to an article about a Turkish pianist receiving a criminal conviction for joking about Islam on Twitter, an Australian university banning a satirical piece on Islam in fear of it inciting violent protest, and the section on the Charlie Hebdo Wikipedia page about the attacks on the magazine’s office because of an edition satirizing Islam.

It’s Just a Joke

In the comments section, there are a number of people who point out that this was just a joke. And, in a way, they are correct.

Was the joke distasteful? Yeah, probably.
Was it made at the expense of a marginalized group? Sure.
Did it possess any value as social commentary? No, not really.
Was it even funny? I don’t think so.

But was it some grotesque act of villainy? No. Far from it. This is your run-of-the-mill off-color joke. And, it seems to me, this is your run-of-the-mill backlash to an off-color joke.

It’s Just a Backlash

Recently, in Marietta, Georgia, a child bought a children’s book about color in Islamic culture while attending her school’s book fair. When the child brought the book home, her father was upset that she could get the book at the book fair. He didn’t want his daughter reading the book because “[t]hat culture there doesn’t seem to have anything good coming out of it.

I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I suspect Terry Firma would be in complete agreement with the sentiment expressed by the child’s father. Other people see it as a sign of prejudice. The bad kind of prejudice. [Edit: Terry Firma has rightly called me out for this comment (see the comments section below). I will leave it in for posterity’s sake while acknowledging its inappropriateness.]

In the United States, people are free to voice bigoted viewpoints. They can make off-color jokes. Heck, they can even make musicals poking fun at an entire religious group. As it turns out, people are also allowed to be offended by said bigoted viewpoints. They can be upset by off-color jokes, and they can let it be known that they are upset.

Furthermore, sometimes, an off-color joke appears on the twitter page of a comedian and late night television host. Occasionally, that comedian will receive some backlash for said off-color joke. If the comedian fears that the backlash will harm his career, he may feel motivated to delete the joke. He may, even, feel compelled to apologize.

You’re Either Criticizing Islam or You’re an Islamic Extremist Sympathizer

Apparently, this rather banal and benign description of what transpired is insufficient for Firma. No, the backlash Conan O’Brien is receiving should be lumped in with the criminalizing of blasphemy in Turkey, the censorship at the Australian university, and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Why? Well, the only unifying factor I can find is that the controversial comment relates to Islam.

It seems Firma is treating this with the same subtly President Bush brought to American foreign policy post-9/11 – you’re either with us or against us.

A sample of some of the backlash to O’Brien’s tweet can be found here. Here’s an example of one of the tweets:

@LVRiot13: “Really? We get a female Muslim super hero and you decide to diminish this victory with a cheap and tasteless joke? Disappointed”

Here’s another:

@luckyturner: “she’s 16, AMERICAN and reps Jersey City (my town): She’s not an alien. You can do better, Coco”

Somehow, in Terry Firma’s mind, this is akin to Turkey arresting one of its citizens on blasphemy charges or extremists fire-bombing a magazine office simply because the causal factor in all three was a joke related to Islam.

Islam is not a Race

In his post, Firma noted that Islam is a religion, not a race. As such, the charge of racism is misguided. Terry Firma is correct. We should not confuse Islam (a religion) with a race (a group of people). Yet, he seems incapable of making this very same distinction when discussing Muslims. Remember, the joke hinged on an “incontrovertible fact” about Islam. However, Firma finds that the problem is “Muslims and their humorless advocates….” I’m sorry, Mr. Firma, but Islam (a religion) is not Muslims and their humorless advocates (a group of people).

I know what you’re thinking, I’m insisting upon a distinction without a difference. But, consider the joke and the backlash. It may hinge on a fact about Islam, but it is a joke about a Muslim girl. What people are objecting to is that the joke is made at the expense of a positive representation of a Muslim female, a person. They are not objecting to the fact that the joke relates to Islam, a religion.

It is one thing to not make this distinction and insist “it’s just a joke.” It is another thing, entirely, to miss this distinction and conclude that it is another example of “Muslims and their humorless advocates,” of “Allah’s tribe,” demanding special protection from criticism with criminal conviction or fire-bombed offices as a consequence of non-compliance. It seems to me, that requires a certain disdain for Muslims, the people, and not just Islam, the religion.

Other Thoughts:

In a way, what bothers me most is that Firma’s posts are appearing on the Friendly Atheist blog. I’ve always valued that blog because it didn’t fall back on this “religion is evil (especially those rabidly violent Muslims)” bullshit. And, if you remove Firma’s posts, the blog otherwise stays true to form. But Terry Firma’s posts are a near unanimous example in delighting in the demonization of other people.

Here’s a quote from Austin Cline’s atheism.about page on respecting religion and theism:

“Second, beliefs themselves do not merit automatic respect and deference. Humans certainly deserve some basic level of respect and respectful treatment, but beliefs aren’t people.”

I really don’t see this as all that difficult to apply. Yet, over and over again, Firma seems to fail in applying this rule. I suspect this failure is on purpose.

On Behalf of Doubt

A recent daily prompt asked bloggers to cure a single ailment. One of the responses was freshly pressed. The ailment to be cured, in MV’s* words: “Doubt. I would cure … doubt.”

I want to offer a defense of doubt. Far from an ailment, I would suggest that doubt is a virtue. I do not intend this response to be any sort of direct critique of MV’s post. The concerns she raises about doubt are legitimate, but she underdetermines the role doubt plays in life.

“Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.” -Jack Handey

Doubt moderates credulity and mitigates gullibility.

“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” -Voltaire

Doubt permits us to question. It humbles.

“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. ” -Robert M. Persig

Doubt troubles. It is a source of vitality.

“The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.” -Rollo May

Doubt solidifies commitment.

“The problem with certainty is that it is static; it can do little but endlessly reassert itself. Uncertainty, by contrast, is full of unknowns, possibilities, and risks.” -Stephen Batchelor

Doubt opens new possibilities. It suggests a new path.

“We’ll never survive!” 
“Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.” -William Goldman

And, yes, doubt hinders. Doubt halts. Doubt kills opportunity.

Like many virtues, doubt must be balanced. It must be kept in check. But we would suffer if we rid ourselves of it completely.

Nietzsche called doubt the beautiful luxury of a strong faith. By this, I think he meant that, as certainty is neared, one is permitted to doubt. Questioning, revisiting, and exploring, therefore, become possible again.

My best attempt at an aphorism for doubt: Doubt is the enemy of beginnings and the friend of ends.


*MV is short for MommyVerbs, the nom de plume of the eponymous blog’s author. Congrats on being freshly pressed.

On Iceland v Croatia

In a matter of minutes, Iceland will kick off the first leg of their world cup qualifier against Croatia. Croatia are definitely the heavy favorites. Iceland have never previously qualified for a world cup. Also, if they did qualify, Iceland would become the smallest nation (by population -and by a long shot, too, I’m pretty sure) to have ever qualified for the world cup.

Let’s go Iceland.

Fill the moments building up to kick off by celebrating some of Iceland’s musicians:

Sigur Ros:


Of Monsters and Men

On What I Am Now Calling “Jeff’s Great Rivalry”* (Until I Come Up With A Better Name)

Here’s Daniel Fincke questioning the ethical quality of Terry Firma’s approach to criticizing religion.

Here (I totally stole the link from Daniel Fincke’s post) is Vlad Chituc on the same topic.

*Though I haven’t thought up a clever name yet (like the Melodrama in Ljubljana), I’ve written a few times about the questionable approach taken by Terry Firma and Sam Harris when offering critiques of religion (here and here are two good examples). So, I figure, to help drum up controversy, I’m declaring an official rivalry between myself and the combined forces of Sam Harris and Terry Firma (don’t sweat the details).

Vlad Chituc, coincidentally, also commented on the violent Islam posts of my rivals.


Other Thoughts:

Obviously, the rivalry thing is mostly tongue-in-cheek (mostly), but Fincke’s post does a good job of explaining how the approach is harmful.

If you have suggestions for the name of my new, public, intellectual rivalry, please submit them in the comments section. (Bonus points for good alliteration.)


On Books Men Must Read – Part 1

In line with all the great achievements of the greatest of men, here is part one of my reading project – years late and accomplishing a fraction of what I promised.

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

I’m glad I read this book in my 30s. However, the “moral of the story”, to my mind, is one best learned in one’s 20s. This is the paradox of the novel. The extra decade of living needed to understand that the story is about the narrator and not Dean is a decade you don’t want to lose.

Lesson for Men: Though sex may be acceptable as either a sport or a pastime, women are neither.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

In high school, I worked at a pizza place. One night, I closed the restaurant with two of my co-workers, both female peers I found attractive. After work, they decided to drive out to the sand pits and get high.

Though a veritable teetotaler in high school, I was excited to join them. I had a bit of a crush on one girl; the second girl had a bit of a crush on me. Both were cool kids, generally.

We got in the van, drove out to the sand pits, and hung out. They got high; we listened to loud music and joked around. After an hour or so, they drove me home.

My experience of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was like that evening. It was a good experience, in general, but I was left feeling like more should have happened and wondering if I missed out on something.

Lesson for Men: “Booze takes a lot of time and effort if you’re going to do a good job with it.” Raymond Carver said this before the rise of microbreweries and homebrewing. These days, enjoy with moderation.


Other Random Thoughts:

  • Salter’s prose is amazing. He just crafts amazing sentences.

This is what allows him to write rather explicit depictions of sex without ever crossing the line into pulp. I’m not even sure it can be considered erotica. His writing can get hot, but it remained literary without becoming titillating.

  • Truth be told, I suspect part of what I found lacking from Carver is more a reaction to reading Carver after Salter.

Carver’s style is sparse, minimalist. It is different than Salter’s sing-songiness (I’m not sure if ‘lyrical’ properly captures my experience of Salter). Had I read Carver first, or allowed more time between reading the two, I suspect I would have enjoyed him more.

  • Carver writes with a strong, male voice.

I both love and loath authors that can write in a strong male voice. It is easy to want to identify one’s masculinity with that of the character given a strong, male voice (in fact, I think a large number of the books suggested by Esquire are suggested because their authors can write with a strong, male voice).

The problem arises when the masculinity on display in the novel is misogynistic. Charles Bukowski, to my mind, is a good example of this. Read Women (on Esquire’s list). Bukowski is great with the everyman man’s man. But, my goodness, is he misogynistic.

Now, let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that misogynistic characters shouldn’t be written. I just worry, when they’re written well, do they seem more appealing than they should? I hope not, but I worry.

On Being Kinda Embarrassed

So, back in October, I wrote a quick response to a post by Francis Spufford at the Daily Beast. If you were looking out at that time, you might have noticed Spufford’s name appear in a number of other places. That’s because he’s recently published a book – Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can still Make Emotional Sense.

As part of the press getting the news out, a Tumblr for the book was set up. Right there, at the top (as of my writing this), is a link to my blog post. Crazy.

If you’ve found your way to my blog from that Tumblr, a hearty welcome!

The funny thing is, as I suggested at the beginning of that post, the response I gave was very off the cuff. It was not well thought out. After a second reading, there is a lot I would change. In fact, I’ve been thinking about writing a follow up post. So, perhaps this means I will have to write a follow up post.

But, I have to admit, I’m a little embarrassed that was the post to get a link from anyone more famous than myself. Oh well.

On the Books Men Must Read (Project Adjustments)

A year and a half ago, I set out to read a series of books deemed must reads for men. I was going to chronicle this project on this blog. Well, aside from the introduction of the project, I haven’t posted a thing.

If you haven’t read the introduction, I suggest giving it a look to see my objectives. But, in short, I envisioned myself writing interesting reviews of the novels while using them as launching points to discuss issues relating to men and masculinity. This ambition, as it turns out, has been my downfall. I’ve been reading the books, but I never completed my first review. I worked on it last October, November, December, January…. Each time, I would start over, trying a new angle. Each time the result was way too long and way too boring.

So, I’m going to pare down my ambition to something much more manageable. Doing two books at a time, I will provide brief commentary on the novel and a lesson for men.

Part one should be out soon. Carry on, my wayward son.

On Those Poor, Unsatisfied Women Having All That Casual Sex

While religious society sees men as untamed, lecherous monsters that need the soft touch of a woman, I see men as capable of having healthy relationships.

“Wait,” you may be saying. “That’s a completely unfair representation of the views of the religious. You’re just poisoning the well, Jeff.”

And you’d be correct. Of course, I’m just taking the approach Rabbi Shmuley Boteach took in his recent article on the Huffington Post:


With this as the lead in, Rabbi Boteach explains why we shouldn’t listen to secular society’s demanding that we be the rabid sex-fiends it clearly wants us to be: casual sex is less pleasurable for women.

Yup, Rabbi Boteach is just looking out for the ladies. Here’s the problem, Rabbi Boteach’s framing of the problem and solution are mostly blind to the research he cites (or, more accurately the New York Times article he cites). Instead, he builds up a boogieman so that he can justify his crappy cure.

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