After Religion, Then What? Enlightenment Values
By Robert Bernstein
Our May Humanist Society talk was well attended, with over 50 joining in by Zoom.
Here I have posted some screen shots of the meeting.
Before the talk began Humanist Society President Judy Flattery told us about the case of Mubarek Bala who is the President of the Humanist Society of Nigeria. He was disappeared for making comments deemed to be "critical of Islam".
Which was a perfect introduction to the talk by Armin Navabi: "After Religion, Then What? Enlightenment Values."
If I had to summarize this talk in a sentence I would say it was about whether it is better to liberalize religion or to confront it head on.
Navabi was born in Iran in an Islamic environment. But he was exposed to other input. His parents were very liberal and secular. They were opposed to religious authority.
But his school was very religious. His father had him question everything.
Who was going to burn in hell was a topic that came up. He was worried he might end up there. His aunt who lived with them said it is just rapists and murderers and other worst of the worst that end up in hell.
But in school they told a different story. Most people will end up in hell. Non-Muslims will all end up in hell and cannot get out. But most Muslims also go to hell. They have to pay for their sins to work their way out.
But his family won't get out. Because they broke all the rules they will burn in hell forever. Young Armin lit a match and put it on the skin of his arm. He couldn't imagine enduring that for even a few minutes, let alone for thousands of years.
He tried to argue with the religion teachers at school. His father is kind. He does free surgery on the poor. Why should he go to hell? He was told that does not matter if he doesn't follow the Muslim requirements. Armin asked if he could pray and fast in their place.
He was told to do the math. His parents had never prayed. There is not enough time in his life to make up for their lack of prayers for their lifetime. Could he hire others to pray for them? Yes, but that also would be impractically expensive.
It seemed to Armin that this should be everyone's top priority to avoid hell. People seem more worried about their careers and fashion. To this day he thinks that if you believe in hell this should be your top priority.
Children are innocent in Islam. Unlike in Christianity where everyone is born with original sin. The age of reason is 15 for boys and 9 for girls. (I will note that Muhammad married his second wife Aishah when she was six years old, but waited until she was nine years old to consummate the marriage.)
There is no sin before that age. Armin was happy to realize he could commit suicide before that age without going to hell for it. He asked his religion teacher if he would go to heaven. The teacher said you didn't "earn" heaven that way. But he conceded that you would go to the "lowest" part of heaven if you die as a child. The highest part is for martyrs.
"I don't give a sh-- what part of heaven. I just don't want to burn." He was getting close to the age limit. He may have been 13 or 14.
It seems like a dumb gamble to risk going to hell on the off chance of getting to some better part of heaven.
So, he jumped out of an upper floor window of the school. He broke both legs and his back and suffered other serious injuries. He was in a wheelchair for months. He would have tried again 100 more times except that it hurt his parents so much. By then he was 15 and it was too late.
But that is not relevant to what he really came to talk about. He really wanted to talk about how people try to come up with ways to make religion less harmful.
After all, there are Christians who are friendly to gays. Why not do more of this liberalizing of religion?
His main point: It is not the conclusion we are fighting. It is the methodology. We are fighting for certain values that go beyond atheism.
The wrong methodology can give you good answers sometimes. And the right methodology can give you wrong answers, too. You go with the methodology that works best on average.
What we want are Enlightenment values. The scientific method. It works better on average than anything else we have.
His personal story is important for this reason: His logic for suicide was flawless. His conclusion was correct. He doesn't know why other Muslims don't do what he did. The problem was that the premises were flawed.
Being liberal is not helpful. Being liberal with religion often requires reinterpreting holy writings in absurd ways. This means fixing bad premises with bad methodology!
The fundamentalists are the most logical people in Islam. "Moderates" and liberals are not being logical!
Imagine a doctor arrives in a village. Disease is spreading. She finds a medicine that will help. She offers it but no one will take it. So she tells a story of meeting fairies in the forest who recommend it. People agree to take the medicine and everyone is saved. Seems good.
But after she leaves, she has left a narrative that others can use. They can also claim to have talked to the forest fairies to get people to do a range of harmful actions. They might even get people to take harmful drugs.
Sometimes lies work in the short run. But it would have been better in the long run to educate people. It has a better return on investment. It is not about telling people what is good or bad. It is giving people the tools so they can tell good from bad.
People often have a comeback to him: If not God, then what? That is not an appropriate response.
Imagine your house burns down. You are horrified to discover that your insurance company is a fraud. You had paid premiums for years but now they offer no help.
You see that a friend is about to buy insurance from that same company and you warn them. Imagine if your friend's response is that you should give him insurance! It makes no sense!
"I don't have a guide for life for you. Atheist groups just point out the fraud." But humanist organizations are offering such guidance options.
The original Enlightenment movement had to give "BS reasons". They claimed our rights were given by the Creator. Nonsense! The Universe doesn't care about our rights!
In this case, a bad argument doesn't mean a bad idea. Enlightenment values are a good idea: Scientific methodology, free speech and a government accountable to the people.
You can see the difference between South vs North Korea from space. That difference is the Enlightenment.
He told another story from back in Iran. His parents were grateful when he came out as an atheist. Thank God(!). But now he couldn't keep quiet. The same as when he was a Muslim and tried to evangelize for his views.
It is dangerous to be against Islam. Even more so to oppose the Supreme Leader. Which shows their true priorities!
An Iranian writer wrote an open letter critical of Khamenei. Navabi was impressed with his courage. He was scared even to see the letter on his screen. But then he printed the letter. He felt daring. He put it in his school bag. He walked outside with it in his bag.
But then he tore it in pieces and tried to flush it down the toilet.
A lot of people who have free speech have no idea how amazing it is. They take it for granted. If you start drawing lines to limit free speech, see how that ends up. Free speech is the most important Enlightenment value. Why? Because all other values depend on it.
What about those people whose views are so abhorrent and disgusting? Do we really need free speech laws for nice views? We already agree with that. "The test is when people say stupid or disgusting sh-t."
The same with human rights. We have to defend the human rights of ISIS people or those rights mean nothing.
We have to defend the worst possible speech or we are not defending Enlightenment values. Everyone fights this from the far right to the far left. The fundamentalists hate free speech and demand blasphemy laws.
Some only defend free speech for themselves. They want to get on the free speech train, but get off at their stop. The "woke" left is like that. But the far right is the main anti free speech side, historically. Remember that.
He even defends the free speech of those who say he should be put to death as an ex-Muslim atheist! He has talked to real Nazis and got into trouble for that.
He talked to a Muslim who said why wife beating is OK. Why sex with children is OK. Why gays should be killed. Why he should be killed. He put it on YouTube and people liked that.
But when he talked to Nazis who said stupid things, but were not violent? YouTube took that down. The Muslims said worse things than the Nazis. But people have sacred cows that they don't want to be touched.
"If you draw a line, then I have to cross it." Which is why he does "Draw Muhammad Day". Why that? It hurts peoples' feelings. Why do it? Muhammad is like your mother.
So… Imagine your mother is a powerful politician. She makes a law against making cartoons of her.
"I am not doing it to upset you. You can ignore my cartoons. My intention is to cross barriers if you put them up."
Which is why he burned a Koran. People say, "But Nazis burned books." No. Nazis burned other peoples' books. "This Koran was mine. I paid for it."
The value of books is not the ink and paper. There are free apps of the Koran. He didn't deny anyone access to the Koran by burning his copy. It might even make more people read it.
Some were even upset with the carbon emissions! So he made a video showing he bought carbon offsets! He even burned a copy of his own book alongside the Koran. To make a point: It is not about hating Muslims. It is showing that it is just a book.
Before the talk started we were told the situation of Mubarek Bala who is head of the Humanist Society of Nigeria. He was disappeared by the Nigerian government. "We don't have to pay a price like he does. Is it too much for us to be hated by a few people?"
At this point the audience was invited to ask questions.
Navabi noted that he is sad that his mother has passed but glad to know she is just dead and not burning in hell. He considers himself to be an "agnostic atheist" because there is an infinity of non-existent things to deny.
I challenged his claim that every religion has a hell. As far as I know, the Jewish religion does not. Navabi agreed that hell is not in Jewish scripture, but it was introduced by some.
Navabi responded to a question from Mars Cheung by pointing out that some Protestant "reformers" ended up being more extreme than the Catholics.
I asked him to comment on the Ugandan-Canadian Muslim reformer Irshad Manji who spoke at UCSB in 2004. He did not agree with what she is doing to liberalize Islam by highlighting the good parts.
He said that the Bible and the Koran have good stuff mixed in with a lot of really terrible stuff. The Koran says to take care of orphans. That actually makes the Koran more dangerous because it encourages people to believe the worst parts, too.
He is outraged that "feminists" are promoting a book (the Koran) that says it is OK to enslave captured women. That child brides are OK. That it is good to beat your wife just because you "fear her possible disobedience".
"Imagine we did that with Mein Kampf? Let's do reform Nazism. Maybe blacks and Jews could be Aryans." We would never try to "reform" another book as violent and sexist as the Koran. "Religion gets special privilege."
Philip Calderone wondered if Humanism can bring people together as effectively as religion. Navabi agreed that evidence is not effective at rallying people. "We need better cheerleaders for Enlightenment values."
He reminded us that not all Western values are Enlightenment values and vice versa. Nazism and Communism came from the West. And South Korea has adopted Enlightenment values. He said we need to make heroes out of Voltaire and great scientists in a way that sells. With good stories.
Mars Cheung gave Star Trek as such an ideal vision and story via Chat. I agreed!
Navabi lives in the Philippines now. It is one of the most religious countries on Earth. But he said atheists in religious countries also are motivated to have big atheist communities. And it is relatively safe to be atheist in the Philippines.
He ended by reminding us of his organizations:
Atheist Republic https://www.atheistrepublic.com/
Secular Jihadists for a Muslim Enlightenment https://secularjihadists.libsyn.com/
Armin Navabi YouTube Channel https://www.youtube.com/user/ArminNavabi