Yesterday was actually the second day of the annual AHA meetings in Chicago, but the first day in which the conference was in full swing. I arrived in the late afternoon and so was able to make only one panel discussion: “Examining Honor Culture in Islam”, with Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider (co-founders of the Ex-Muslims of North America) as well as Mya Saleem, a former hijabi who works with that organization.
The discussion was pretty good, with Saleem questioning the notion of what “choice” means when it comes to religious covering like the hijab. Her own story belies the notion that a Western Muslim always wears the hijab by choice: she was forced to wear it in a religious school starting in her teens, and then was shamed by other girls when she tried to take it off after school: they said the “good girls” wore their hijabs all the time. Mya continued to wear it for over a decade after school. Haider said that she thinks there should be no laws in the West forbidding wearing religious clothing, but that even discussing such legal strictures is premature: first we must have a conversation about what wearing such clothing really means. And that conversation is only beginning.
The question I would like to ask those who celebrate the hijab as their “choice” is this:
“What criteria, exactly, would lead you to agree that wearing the headscarf is not someone’s choice?”
As a determinist, in this discussion I take “choice” to mean “an action that was taken without any social pressure to perform it.” (n.b.: This does not mean that I accept a compatibilist version of free will.) Using that criterion, I think there’s much less choice than people maintain. If your parents or schoolmates tell you or pressure you to wear it, it’s not a choice. And in the vast majority of cases, I suspect, there’s parental and social pressure, eroding the narrative that it’s a “choice” in the sense above. How many Muslims living in the West don the hijab if they didn’t come from a family that urged them to wear it (many Muslim schools in the U.S. put the scarf on girls as young as 5), or didn’t belong to a group of hijab-wearing friends and coreligionists?
If you want to see the Authoritarian Leftist celebration of the putative choice, just check out the PuffHo Religion Page. For the past few months PuffHo has been celebrating the hijab: here are a few recent articles.
PuffHo’s motivations are good: to help dispel bigotry against Muslims; but their incessant pro-hijab campaign rings hollow, as they never discuss the difficult issue of whether wearing the garment is really a “choice”. Nor do they mention that in countries like Iran and Afghanistan, it’s not a choice, nor is it in places like Egypt or Turkey where, although wearing it isn’t mandatory, there’s intense social pressure to do so.
The evening’s banquet featured two notables getting awards: Bishop John Shelby Spong and Jared Diamond. (The noms were pretty good, too: a nice salad, chicken breast stuffed with greens, good bread basket and a lovely cheesecake for dessert. Sadly, there was no free booze, and the prices at the convention bar were outrageous: $10 for a glass of wine and $9 for a beer. Fortunately, Elizabeth Loftus offered me a “you fly and I’ll buy” deal, giving me $20 for drinks if I’d go and get them.)
I knew about Spong, of course, as he’s famous for being the Nonreligious Bishop: a man who, while Episcopalian Bishop of the Diocese of Newark for many years, wrote several dozen book about the silliness of conventional Christianity, all while preaching a doctrine of tolerance and nontheism. You can read about him at the link above, and about some of his beliefs here, but his religion is basically secular humanism. Spong doesn’t believe in a personal or anthropomorphic God, and sees the manifestation of God as our living of a good life and “wastefully” dispending love (he also mentioned the “Ground of Being”). He sees the Bible as a completely manmade document, and argues that in no sense should it be taken literally. (I’m not sure how he feels about Jesus.)
Spong’s speech, which he he gave after receiving the Religious Liberty Award, was magnificent: the perfect after-dinner combination of humor (we were in stitches much of the time) and seriousness (a commitment to equal rights for all)—all delivered in a wonderful, fluid style and an appealing North Carolina accent. I suspect the talk, which was filmed, will be on YouTube, as the AHA posts its award videos. I’ll thus put it up eventually, and leave you with one thing Spong said. During his life, he noted that he’d received sixteen serious death threats, and none of them were from atheists. They all came from his fellow Christians. Not much of a surprise there!
Along with Martin Luther King, Jr., Spong may be the preacher I most admire. Spong has fought tirelessly for women’s rights and gay rights, ordaining the first openly gay priest in his Church in 1989. He got in big trouble with his Church for that: they passed a resolution “disassociating” themselves from Spong’s diocese. But in the end he won, and there are now many gays and women who are Episcopal priests.
During the Q&A, I wanted to ask Spong (but didn’t) why he considered himself a Christian, for he rejects most of its tenets and doctrines. Someone did ask him why, if he valued Judaism so highly (he had a great spiel on the demonization of Jews by Christians), he wasn’t a Jew. He didn’t really answer, but gave his idea that the New Testament was really made up to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and that any ancient Jew would have immediately recognized the New Testament as a completely confected, nonliteral document.
Would that all the world’s preachers were like Spong! Were that the case, with their flock believing likewise, I’d have no problem with religion.
The AHA’s Humanist of the Year Award for 2016 went to Jared Diamond, whom all biologists know as a man who has successful (and simultaneous) careers as a physiologist, avian ecologist, and anthropologist. (He’s still going strong at 78, and still making expeditions to New Guinea.) Many of you will also know him as the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel, an analysis of why some human societies flourished and others didn’t.
Diamond’s 20-minute talk, which he said he wouldn’t have given nearly so passionately before a “regular” audience, was about the incompatibility of science and religion—a topic dear to my heart. He mentioned several scientific issues that, he said, didn’t necessarily show that two areas were wholly incompatible, but that theologians had yet to face.
One was the issue of other planets in the Universe harboring intelligent life. Diamond noted that of the nearly 3000 planets that we know of outside our Solar System, about 0.3%—nine—were in the “life zone,” with temperatures amenable to the evolution of carbon-based life. He is certain that there are many planets in the Universe that do harbor intelligent life, but said theologians haven’t settled on a doctrine of how God would deal with them. (Well, Michael Ruse has: he wrote about an “Intergalactic Jesus” who could fly from planet to planet, bringing salvation to all!) Diamond also wondered how theologians would deal with the salvation of hominins who didn’t leave descendants, like Homo erectus or the Neandertals, or how they’d deal with those early hybrids between “modern” humans and Neandertals.
Finally, Diamond discussed why he thought we’d never even learn about intelligent life elsewhere. The reasons were varied, including the notion that intelligent civilizations have only a limited window of time to send out “flying saucers”. For example, Diamond sees our society collapsing to the point that by 2050 we will no longer have the ability to send out space vehicles, so that over all of human history there was only a hundred-year window for interplanetary communication. Even the closest star is several light years away, making interplanetary travel nearly impossible. Further, the chances that a vehicle sent out by an intelligent civilization would find intelligent life on another planet would be low: such planets are rare.
In response to a question about why alien vehicles couldn’t home in on our electromagnetic signals—whether the signals come from SETI project or just regular t.v. and radio transmissions—Diamond said that endeavors like SETI angered him, because the meeting of two intelligent species would undoubtedly lead to Big Trouble. He used the examples of what humans have done to chimps and gorillas, and how different human cultures historically dealt with each other when they met.
All in all it was one of the best evenings I’ve had at a secular/humanist/atheist meeting, with great talks and good food.
Oh, and here’s the panorama from my room at the Hyatt. On the left is the Chicago skyline, and in the center looms one of my favorite buildings: the R. R. Donnelley Printing Plant (built 1912-1929), a great specimen of brick Art Deco architecture. I’ve heard that most of the telephone books in the U.S., as well as the Sears Catalogue, were made in this printing plant. It closed in 1991, 5 years after I moved to Chicago. You can see a bit of Lake Michigan to the right:
Noms: I forgot to photograph the individual cheesecakes last night, each bearing a chocolate AHA symbol; but here’s a picture from the AHA Facebook page. It was scrumptious!