Pox-ridden houses

I haven’t commented on those Muslim cartoons so far. I’m conflicted.

Why, you might ask? It’s a clear-cut case of religious insanity, exactly the sort of thing I ought to relish wagging an arrogantly atheistical finger at. And of course I will, in just a moment…but the difficult part is that there are actually at least two issues here, and religion is only one of them.

There are some things a cartoonist would be rightly excoriated for publishing: imagine that one had drawn an African-American figure as thick-lipped, low-browed, smirking clown with a watermelon in one hand and a fried chicken drumstick in the other. Feeding bigotry and flaunting racist stereotypes would be something that would drive me to protest any newspaper that endorsed it—of course, my protests would involve writing letters and canceling subscriptions, not rioting and burning down buildings. There is a genuine social concern here, I think. Muslims represent a poor and oppressed underclass, and those cartoons represent a ruling establishment intentionally taunting them and basically flipping them off. They have cause to be furious!

I’ve seen the cartoons, and they are crude and uninteresting—they are more about perpetuating stereotypes of Muslims as bomb-throwing terrorists than seriously illuminating a problem. They lack artistic or social or even comedic merit, and are only presented as an insult to inflame a poor minority. I don’t have any sympathy for a newspaper carrying out an exercise in pointless provocation.

So on the one hand I see a social problem being mocked, but on the other—and here comes the smug godless finger-wagging—I see a foolish superstition used as a prod to mock people, and a people so muddled by the phony blandishments of religion that they scream “Blasphemy!” and falsely pin the problem on a ridiculous insult to a non-existent god, rather than on the affront to their dignity as human beings and citizens. Religion in this case has accomplished two things, neither one productive: it’s distracted people away from the real problems, which have nothing at all to do with the camera-shy nature of their imaginary deity, and it’s also amplified the hatred.

It also doesn’t help that their riots are confirming the caricatures rather than opposing them. Once again, religiosity turns people into mindless frenzied zombies, and once again it interferes with progress.

Somehow, people are assuming from this that I’m “sympathetic to Islam”. How, I don’t know; I thought I’d always been quite clear in my contempt for all religion, and I thought the last two paragraphs above were plain enough. I am sympathetic to the problem of being a minority immigrant; that’s one issue that is being ignored too much. As I said, the real problem is being exacerbated by bad religion that amplifies the hate.

I really don’t think a Muslim would find me to be a friend to their religion.


  1. #1 AJ Milne
    February 4, 2006

    Agreed, those things are broad, ugly, hardly deserving of being called ‘comment’. As his editor, I’d have sent the cartoonist back to his desk with most of those.

    (Well, with one exception. I think I’d have gone with the ‘outta virgins’ one. Kinda grimly amusing, I guess. Worth a low chuckle, if hardly a belly laugh. Too many ‘martyrs’. What are ya gonna do. But I digress…)

    Anyway. That’s about taste. As PZ says, from outside the paper, that’s worth a letter to the editor, not a bomb. I commented elsewhere: I’d happily run an actually funny cartoon about Mohammed. Folks got problem with blasphemy, they can tell me so by such avenues as the letters page.

    And there’s a third house I’d place a pox upon, following from what’s coming up in the press now: the commenters predictably jumping up in response to the fracas to say oh, we must respect religion.

    Nope. We mustn’t. The fact that criticizing religious stupidity can and does get muddled up in classism and racism notwithstanding. Religions are ideas (and so far as I’ve seen very bad ones). Open to debate, open to critique. We still need to be able to call ’em the names they so utterly deserve.

  2. #2 Buridan
    February 4, 2006

    PZ I have to disagree with you on this one for exactly the reasons that Chuckles provides. Ethnicity was not the target here.

  3. #3 steve s
    February 4, 2006

    Nobody should be surprised, really. Kevin Drum was also equivocal about the situation. Kos hasn’t said anything about it.

    Anybody know where I can find a pro-Enlightenment political party?

  4. #4 Pierce R. Butler
    February 4, 2006

    Not that I’m a big fan of Mohammed, or even convinced that there was such a historical person, but –

    Isn’t the point of a ban on depicting gods, prophets, et al, to ensure that the believers focus on the concept and not the portrayal (much as with that “no graven images” commandment)? The prohibition on pictures of Mohammed was intended to emphasize the message above the messenger.

    Yet here we have the believers waxing wroth over a few crude lines of ink on paper, howling with rage as if Indiana Jones had stolen the jewels from the brow of the great idol in the Temple of Doom. Allowing some caricaturist to dominate their thoughts and acts from a thousand miles away is succumbing to crude idolatry, a major leap backward in understanding on multiple levels.

    However, any mullahs and imams (or political leaders) who might be expressing such thoughts are clearly being drowned out by their more simplistic and opportunistic brethren, who gain all sorts of social advantage by good old-fashioned us-vs-them rabble-rousing – rather like US politicians distracting the public from real problems by crusading against the meaningless menace of flag-burners.

  5. #5 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    February 4, 2006

    Not that I’m a big fan of Mohammed, or even convinced that there was such a historical person, but –
    Isn’t the point of a ban on depicting gods, prophets, et al, to ensure that the believers focus on the concept and not the portrayal (much as with that “no graven images” commandment)? The prohibition on pictures of Mohammed was intended to emphasize the message above the messenger.

    Not to mention that the rioters are applying this islamic rule to non-muslims.

  6. #6 Nullifidian
    February 4, 2006

    Steve S,

    Since when is tolerance not an enlightenment value?

    All PZ is doing is objecting to the use of free speech to drive a wedge between the Danish Muslim and white Danish population, much to the satisfaction of the reactionaries at Jyllands-Posten and in the Dansk Folkeparti. It’s hardly excusing the violence which has followed to analyze the social and political context in which these cartoons were penned.

    If we refuse to condemn xenophobes when they wrap themselves in “freedom of speech” then we’ll Enlightenment ourselves into another dark age.

  7. #7 Paul W.
    February 4, 2006

    Peter: They were published as an answer to a concrete attempt by the minority of lunatic Muslim radicals here to curtail those freedoms.

    Ahh… that’s some context I’d been missing; maybe I’m a victim of crummy reporting. Wouldn’t be the first time.

    Got an informative link handy?

    The movie you cite sounds interesting, but movies and editorial pages are rather different; an editorial page has a narrower “approved range” of “acceptable” opinion.
    And cartoons do tend to provoke more outrage than ideas in a column.

    (And here, we do get organized protests against such movies—even “The Last Temptation of Christ”, for suggesting that Jesus might have had an unchaste thought or two when he came to Earth and experienced being a man. Apparently, he was supposed to be tempted, but not by anything very tempting. An antisemitic gore-fest like “The Passion of the Christ” is great, though. BTW, I’m not equating picketing a movie with storming and burning embassies, or calls for beheadings.)

    There are editorials against Dark Age Christians in Danish newspapers. Indre Mission (“Inner (or Internal) Mission”) is a common target.

    Do you get editorials critizing Jesus and anybody who’d follow him—and especially, cartoons ridiculing Jesus himself? (That’s a serious question, not a rhetorical one. Maybe not all that relevant now, though, in light of your remarks to the effect that they were asking for it.)

    Religious people are not seen as particularly moral people in Denmark. They are seen as people who ought to be moral because they themselves claim to be so — which makes them great targets when they are not.

    Yeah, I know. When I was on the job market, I was tempted to go to the U. of Copenhagen, instead of coming to Texas. The (ir-)religion issue was not a small factor. (If I’d known GWB would become President of the United States, I might well have gone to Europe.)

    One subtlety there, though. In the U.S. at least, there’s a moderate amount of criticism of hypocritical Christians, of the Christians-vs.-Christians sort that doesn’t challenge Christianity itself. There is essentially no criticism of Jesus or of Christianity as a whole. That’s what bugs me.

    I think liberal Christianity is an intellecually corrupt attempt to make a silk purse out of a morally corrupt sow’s ear. Christianity is so messed up that you can’t be a Christian and not be some kind of hypocrite.

  8. #8 Nix
    February 4, 2006

    Pity this poor European: I see what’s insulting about depicting anyone as being a thick-lipped, low-browed smirker, but, um, what’s insulting about watermelons and fried chicken drumsticks? It’s a bit odd to eat them together, but I’m sure someone’s done it (probably in a kebab or something). Neither strike me as being particularly associated with any racial grouping…

  9. #9 Peter Lund
    February 4, 2006

    Do you get editorials critizing Jesus and anybody who’d follow him

    Sometimes — but not in that particular paper.

    —and especially, cartoons ridiculing Jesus himself?


  10. #10 Pierce R. Butler
    February 4, 2006

    Follow-up report: Skimming the 1,020 hits I got for “arson church” on Google News, most of the recent stories concerned the 5 churches torched Friday in Alabama. Quite a few of the others seemed off-topic: burnings on Church Street somewhere; “arson ruled out as cause of church fire”; concatenated police reports; arrests for a 2004 fire, etc. In one Arkansas case, a church secretary reportedly confessed to igniting her own workplace, possibly to cover up theft.
    All this is interesting and disturbing, but not enough to support Chuckles’s claim.
    I’m reminded of a wave of church burnings over a decade ago here in Gainesville, FL. One pastor I spoke with was convinced that a local Satanist lesbian cult required each new initiate to torch a house of worship. I kind of regret not tracking him down for comment later when a mentally unstable drifter was convicted of all these crimes – motivated, he said, by sexual abuse experienced at the church of his childhood.

  11. #11 Peter Lund
    February 5, 2006

    The reaction is very predictable – Muslim extremists are out in the street practically everyday – yelling, screaming, wailing, moaning – stomping and burning some countries flag or iffigy of the western “Satan” of the day.

    No, that was not predictable at all.

    It was likely that there would be cries of outrage from the not so smart radicals for a while here in Denmark and some “exciting” Friday prayers. Perhaps also some death threats to some of the artists (which did happen pretty much instantly, by the way).

    That it spread outside Denmark was not predictable at all.

    That the radicals organized a tour around the Middle East to spread inflammatory propaganda was not predictable at all.

    That it was mighty convenient for Saudi Arabia to have people protest because it diverted attention away from the fact that they still haven’t organized a way to have the crowds walk around the building with the meteor stone without a few hundred of them dying was also not something Jyllandsposten could have foreseen.

    That it would come in handy for Fatah after losing an election (which was held after the publication of the drawings, and which Hamas won mostly due to Fatah being corrupt and nepotistic) was not predictable.

    That the Egyptian parliament would call for a boycott because most of them are newly elected from the Muslim Brotherhood (as a protest, mainly, and because they are not corrupt) who couldn’t do anything else and still claim to take their faith seriously was not predictable. Egypt probably faces stiff fines or a trade with the EU because of this — a government is not allowed to call for a boycott, they must come from the people.

  12. #12 Peter Lund
    February 5, 2006

    Julia of Sisyphus Shrugged has an interesting take on this. She considers the original publication to have been nothing but a right-wing provocation, as the caption on one of the cartoons actually suggests, and their republication hardly better.

    I took a look and she writes this herself in the comments:

    So when I read all of those stories today about the boycott that had been going on since the pictures were published, I decided to do some homework.

    I don’t think she did her homework very well.

    Jyllandsposten is not a capital C Christian newspaper — we do have a small Christian newspaper, it’s called Kristeligt Dagblad (Christian Journal), which writes from the premise that religion is important and worthy of respect even if it is not Christianity. It is mostly left-leaning and humanistic (but somewhat conservative). I like it a lot (and I am an atheist).

    Jyllandsposten is right-leaning but it is not in any way extreme. We don’t have extreme right-wing newspapers here. It is more Liberal (in the original, non-American sense of the word — the major party in Denmark is also Liberal) than Conservative.

    It is, however, culturally conservative, and has most of it’s readers in Jutland (a peninsula atop of Germany, it is the Western part of Denmark), many of them in small villages in the country.

    It is therefore in opposition to the other national newspapers which are all from the capital, which is situated at the far East of the country. Travel from Jutland to the capital involves crossing a wide strait which used to take an hour by ferry if the weather was good. Not something you did often if you could avoid it (there is a bridge now which has improved things a lot).

    Some people in the province have an inferiority complex — including many of Jyllandsposten’s readers.

    So the ulterior motive Jyllandsposten probably also had, in addition to their stated (and true) intentions regarding freedom of speech, was to spite the other national papers in Copenhagen.

    It had nothing whatsoever to do with racism.

  13. #13 bad Jim
    February 5, 2006

    Thanks, Peter. It’s always good to hear from someone closer to the scene.

    I’ve read elsewhere that France Soir reprinted the cartoons in order to boost its circulation. Even if it’s true, so what? It is a newspaper, after all.

  14. #14 Yolanda
    February 5, 2006

    The cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban ‘unfortunately’ depicts Muslims as followers of a violent person, but even more unfortunate is that their reaction shows they are too. I didn’t hear of any catholic reaction (riots, call for beheadings, etc) because of:

  15. #15 Ruchira Paul
    February 5, 2006

    Freedom of expression is paramount in democratic societies, including the right to criticize, vilify and mock religion – all religions. No contest there. Having said that, so is the wisdom to not waste this freedom in making trivial and predictable points. What did the Danish cartoons accomplish in establishing? That medieval religious fundamentalism permeates Muslim societies much more deeply than any other religious group? That Muslims consider themselves under siege almost to the level of paranoia and are likely to resort to violence for real or perceived threat/insults to their faith? That most Islamic nations curtail freedom of speech in their own countries and want to do the same in others, in the name of religion? Ho hum. Which one of these came as a surprise to anyone? To all the freedom of speech purists here, PZ Myers and Nullifidian have it right this time. Their nuanced take on the issue is not a zero sum game – it is neither anti-free speech nor pro religion. To prove an intellectual point, when the adversary is operating on a purely emotional level, is not only unwise, it is a waste of energy. Islamic fundamentalism (like all others) has to be resisted, attenuated and eventually eliminated. But it will not happen by engaging in juvenile displays of provocation through theological football as Jyllands-Posten was attempting to do. The resistance will have to take place in the realm of universal human rights, rationality and common decency. “My democracy can beat up your prophet” is hardly a strategy that is likely to work. Mr. Lund, don’t waste your breath.

    While we are discussing fundamentalism, let us not ignore the context of racism which PZ Myers alludes to. It is perhaps worthwhile for most Americans to recognize the prevalent zeitgeist in Europe. Mr. Lund’s erudite sophistry notwithstanding, Europeans as a whole, are much more racist and xenophobic than the average American. I say this as a brown skinned person (not Muslim, not uneducated) who has lived in both continents. European secularism and pacifism are results of exhaustion from four hundred years of oppressive colonialism (the Bible in one hand and a riding crop or gun in the other) and two great wars which nearly annihiliated the continent. All the calls for assimilation – “you are here – you must be like us” is BS. The non-Europeans are marginalized, ghettoized and the implicit message to them is “stay in your place.” In spite of all overt racism in the US, an immigrant can hope to realize professional and social ambitions in the US – not in Europe. Mr. Lund would argue that the Scandinavian countries were not involved in either colonization or warfare. True. But the mindset of these homogeneous countries is not very different when faced with people who are “different”. In fact, George Bush’s disastrous action in Iraq and the middle east, is at some level, more honest than what the Europeans are up to vis-a-vis their immigrants. Kill a hundred thousand Iraqis to impose your values? Why not? How is that worse than treating minorities within your borders like s–t with the vestigial hauteur of ex-colonists? A much more honest course of action will be to deport all those whom you are not going to assimilate anyway -ever and go back to the idyllic existence of Hans Christian Andersen, milk, cheese, football and Lego. Why the pretense? Only to feel holier than thou – especially, holier than those unsophisticated cowboy Americans? Mr. Lund’s expansive crack about dating one of the last ten Parsis notwithstanding, his “secular” countrymen are much less likely to date a Parsi, a Hindu, a Buddhist and god forbid a Muslim than the average “religious” American. ‘Nuff said.

  16. #16 Torbjorn Larsson
    February 5, 2006

    Personally, I’m glad that these cartoons have started a debate that is long overdue. Both for the facts that some groups want preferred treatment, and because they get it. :-)

    “Mr. Lund would argue that the Scandinavian countries were not involved in either colonization or warfare. True.”

    Even though some of the other analysis seems excellent, this is wrong on facts. At least Sweden had a small African colony attempt, with slave trade and all, and has participated in wars against many european countries.

    “But the mindset of these homogeneous countries is not very different when faced with people who are “different”.”

    I’m not an historical expert, but I believe there are two reasons for the homogenity – historically small and spread farming or fishing communities with little education, which were easy prey to the commonplace protestantic religion that kissed up to the kings to push out the other contenders for religious power. So naturally I blame religion. :-)

  17. #17 Robert Allen
    February 7, 2006

    And what a big man you are, smugly wagging your finger at us “superstitious” sissies. A regular ubermensch you are, Professor.

  18. #18 Robert Allen
    February 7, 2006

    And why don’t you mind your own business anyway, sycophant? Let the good professor try to defend the assumption I called into question. Tough guy that he is, I’m sure he can fight his own battles.

  19. #19 ekzept
    February 8, 2006

    Pat Oliphant chimed in on the subject yesterday.

  20. #20 Robert Allen
    February 8, 2006


    BTW, I kicked the shit out of the Problem of Evil in a previous thread. If you can’t find it, my article on the subject may be found at Make my day, punk, and try to refute it.


    I won’t try anymore to justify my methods to you, let’s just leave it at I know what I’m doing and so does God. He doesn’t expect me to reach closed minds anyway, only His grace can do that, just to wage a good fight on His behalf

  21. #21 ekzept
    February 9, 2006

    Prof. Myers is spiritually ill and in another thread I tried reasoning with him- obviously to no avail.

    you REALLY think that?

    i think that people with strong religious views, even if held privately, can do overt damage to their non-believing “humanist” peers. how? because even if they don’t express their beliefs publicly, whether in writing or not, these provide them a set of (often strong) values by which they make professional judgments when they don’t have enough actual evidence. consider a psychiatrist who believes in a religious dualism of body and soul. to them, lobotomy might be a perfectly reasonable procedure if it, say, allows a previously violent patient to visit with their family. after all, the flesh is just a “container”. on the other hand, if the patient actually believes that the brain is all their is, what’s happening is that it is being grossly violated.

    it’s not like psychiatrists, doctors, attorneys, and others put their religious and philosophical viewpoints on their advertising or resumes.

    so, offhand, i’d say it’s the folks with strong, without-a-doubt, can’t-be-challenged religious beliefs who are “ill”.

    death is the state when the environment no longer causes an organism to react. a person who doesn’t change their viewpoints and beliefs through living is IMO emotionally and intellectually dead.

  22. #22 Paul W.
    February 10, 2006

    Me: …would I or would I not go to Hell, according to your theology?

    Robert: would I or would I not go to Hell, according to your theology?

    OK, it looks like you’re not the worst sort of Christian, which it sounded like you might be.

    From that point, though, I think it’s pretty predictable how this discussion would go, with you explaining your particular version of the Salvation story and me finding it utterly incoherent. Been there, done that, with too many versions. (Several while I was a Christian, a long time ago.)

    Maybe I’m wrong about that, but at this point I think I’ll just bow out. This doesn’t seem like the right forum, and I’m pretty sure not many people are is interested in having that discussion here. I don’t want to waste bandwidth on Christianity vs. Atheism 101.

    If this seems like just wimping out, and annoys you, I can understand that, but I just don’t have time for interminable wrangles with theists. (I generally avoid forums with that sort of thing going on; it got old for me 20 years ago. It is not why I read Pharyngula.)

    Sorry if I’ve offended you. I should never have gotten into it.

  23. #23 Nullifidian
    February 10, 2006

    Anyone, like Nietzsche, who gets off on malice is sick.

    Coming from you, the irony is so thick one can choke on it. The reason you can say such things without any hint of irony is because you firmly believe that your religion permits this sort of abhorrent behavior. That’s enough reason for any thinking person to reject your religion.

    It also caused you to miscue on your response to me: I’m not trying to knock you down, I’m trying to get you to take a serious look at how you’re behaving and how counterproductive it is.

  24. #24 ekzept
    February 11, 2006

    i should also say the murder of Hypatia is pertinent to the subject of the column as they did it as part of a riot.

  25. #25 ekzept
    February 12, 2006

    Some wacko Christians rioted and killed Hypatia while some contemporary Christian crackpots yearn for new crusades all of which proves Augustine had it in for mathematicians rather than numerologists? If I ever write a logic text may I use this as an example of a non sequitur?

    i said it was a counterexample. i did not say it was “proof”. proof is something far more difficult to attain and i don’t see how anyone can ever attain it on any matter with this kind of subject.

    also, there is no evidence at all, at least from Christian authorities, that the murderers of Hypatia were “wackos”. they were never excoriated. indeed, the local Christian authority was later canonized. noone has ever apologized for the incident or found it important to apologize for. there was an attempt to whitewash the incident by claiming Hypatia converted to Christianity as she was dying. indeed. similar to later “conversions” of Jews and Muslims to Christianity under torture in Inquisition Spain.

    as i wrote, this was not an isolated incident. the same kind of witchcraft killing of a woman philosopher-scientists-mathematician by a mob of Christians happened in Roman Britain.

    and you didn’t distance the Christianity of today from the Christianity of that day.

    the Crusades i meant were the historical ones. i was not aware any Christian had announced the need for another set. thanks for keeping us informed.

  26. #26 Alan Vanneman
    July 15, 2008

    I thought the cartoons were funny. They were not racist. They ridiculed terrorism and intolerance in the name of Allah. Muslims are hardly an “underclass” around the world. By and large, Muslims in Europe have left Muslim cultures to live in non-Muslim cultures by their own choice. Islam is colliding with the secular West and in many cases is becoming aggressively and even viciously anti-Western, engaging in riot and murder at the slightest offense to “the Prophet,” whom they are making sacred, aginst their own theology.

    I like secular humanist values. I don’t feel the need to apologize for them. And I don’t see why intolerant and violent fundamentalists, of whatever orientation, need or deserve to be “protected” from criticism and caricature.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.