By / Aug 19

The award-winning novelist Salman Rushdie remains in critical condition after he was attacked while waiting to speak at a cultural center event in upstate New York. 

Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old from New Jersey, allegedly stabbed Rushdie 10 times, striking the writer in the neck, stomach, right eye, chest, and thigh. A preliminary law enforcement review of Matar’s social media accounts shows he is sympathetic to Shia extremism and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In an interview from jail, Matar said, “I don’t like [Rushdie] very much. He’s someone who attacked Islam, he attacked their beliefs, the belief systems.” 

The threat to Rushdie

Rushdie has been threatened with assasination since the publication of his 1989 novel, The Satanic Verses. The book sparked controversy because it portrays a fictional retelling of the birth of Islam’s key events that imply Mohammad, rather than Allah, was the source of the revelations in the Quran. Muslims believe that, in the original Arabic, the Quran is a divine book (and not merely divinely inspired). 

At the time of its publication, the novel was banned in 13 countries with large Muslim populations including India, Pakistan, and South Africa. A year later the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme leader, issued a fatwa (a legal ruling in Islamic law) saying the book was blasphemous and calling on “all brave Muslims” to kill Rushdie and his publishers. A bounty of over $3 million was offered for anyone who killed Rushdie. 

A number of Muslims responded to the call for violence. The novel’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death in 1991. The Italian translator was beaten and stabbed, but lived, and the Norwegian publisher was shot three times, but survived. A Nobel-prize winning Egyptian author who had defended Rushdie also survived being stabbed in the neck by a Muslim extremist. 

Rushdie tried to have the fatwa lifted in 1989 by apologizing and saying, in part, “I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam.” The next year he signed a declaration affirming his Islamic faith and asking his publisher to neither issue the book in paperback nor to allow it to be translated. The actions failed to appease his critics.

Rushdie, an Indian-born British citizen who is now a citizen of the U.S., was put under police protection by the British government for nine years and spent many years in hiding. In early 2005, Khomeini’s fatwa was reaffirmed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a message to Muslim pilgrims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. But Rushdie had been living openly in New York for the past few years and had believed he was no longer under immediate danger.

When threats to religious freedom cross international borders

The attack on Rushdie emphasizes the need to continue promoting ​​religious freedom around the globe, and shows why religious freedom and freedom of speech are inextricably connected. But it also shows that threats to religious freedom easily cross international borders.

Rushdie was born into a Muslim family but later became an atheist. According to Muslim tradition and law, the penalty for apostasy from Islam is execution. This poses a threat to former Muslims wherever they live, even outside of Islamic countries. 

Because of advances in transportation and communication technologies, the global world has become increasingly less segmented and isolated. The result is that refugees fleeing religious persecution can find themselves targeted wherever they live. Over the past few decades there has been a rise in what has been called transnational repression, specifically harassment, surveillance, and intimidation of people who have fled countries where individual freedoms are denied. As the human rights organization Freedom House notes

Far from being a foreign problem, transnational repression impacts the lives and freedoms of people living in the United States. It violates their right to privacy, free expression, and free movement. The violence and harassment directed by authoritarian governments is not just a problem for the targeted individuals. Hindering their rights and freedoms has direct consequences for the quality of America’s democracy and institutions.

Baptists have a long history of promoting freedom of religion and expression. As the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states, the Christian ideal includes “the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.” In the past, though, Southern Baptists have tended to assume this applied primarily to the civil power within a nation. But as the Rushdie incident reveals, we also must push back against the interference in the sphere of religion by civil powers outside our own borders. In an increasingly open world, transnational repression could become one of the greatest threats to religious liberty in this century. 

By / May 3

Western Christians have long lamented their loss of influence in the public square. As secularism continues to take root in Europe and the United States, Christianity appears ill-equipped to combat many of the claims made by secular moralists and atheists, who argue that universal morality, benevolence, and human rights are achievable without the aid of a religious framework or a higher deity, while simultaneously arguing against the existence of God on the basis of science.

Of course, there are exceptions for every absolute. Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, is one such exception. In his concise polemic against what he calls “new atheists,” Smith refutes, rather unflinchingly, what he considers to be instances of intellectual overreach by many of the movement’s leaders. What makes Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver unique, and perhaps more persuasive than other books on the subject, is Smith’s intellectual honesty about the limits of the arguments advanced by these new atheists. In the book’s introduction, Smith makes it clear that he’s not attempting to “show that atheism as a worldview is fundamentally right or wrong” (3), but rather, that many of the leading arguments put forth by new atheists go too far, risking intellectual dishonesty. “Atheism, in many of its current expressions,” Smith argues, “is overreaching” (4).

Smith divides Atheist Overreach into four sections, written as essays that can be read congruently or individually. While the arguments and analysis presented within each essay stand on their own, for the casual reader or curious skeptic, the essays are best read in corresponding fashion, as each chapter tends to build off of the others, despite Smith’s promise that they do not. Those with minimal knowledge of the intellectual and philosophical nuances of new atheism will find a complete and chronological reading of Smith’s work advantageous.

In his first essay, Smith asks, “Just how ‘good without God’ are atheists justified in being?” (45). While Smith admits that “atheists can be good despite not believing in God,” he argues that in most cases, atheism holds to an ethical standard that is more stringent than their corresponding humanistic morality allows (10). Working from the argument set forth in the previous chapter, in his second essay, Smith asks, “Does naturalism warrant belief in universal benevolence human rights?” (45). Smith sets out to determine whether or not those who adhere to a naturalist universe have a valid reason to believe in “universal benevolence and human rights as moral facts and imperatives” (48). If truth is relative, then it would be logical to conclude that morality – a form of truth – is also relative. Smith argues against a relative view of morality, preferring a more consistent and objective view (79). Through critical analysis, he argues that “people don’t invent these moral principles, nor do they necessarily derive from the will or character of God. They simply are what they are, just part of the fabric of our reality” (79).

In his third essay, Smith asks “Why scientists playing amateur atheology fail?” (87). Here, Smith attempts to determine “who has the right, the competence, the legitimate authority to make claims that stick, claims that others should recognize as valid” (88). For example, the constraints of the scientific method logically prohibit a definitive solution to the question of God. Science deals with the physical, natural world, and is therefore – by its own working definitions – unable to prove or disprove, even in theory, the existence of God. Theology on the other hand, which deals extensively in the realm of the supernatural, is in a better position to make such claims. For Smith:

“The bemusing irony in all of this is that the presupposition that authorizes only science to tell us what is real and true, and that produces such dramatic conclusions about the universe’s pointlessness, is not itself a scientific statement and could never, ever itself be validated by empirical science. It is instead a philosophical presupposition, something not unlike a faith commitment.” (94).

Smith’s most convincing arguments are found within this chapter. While his other essays are philosophically and sociologically nuanced and engaging, they appear to leave the reader wanting. Not here. The overreach of atheism as Smith understands it is on full display in this chapter, and is effectively exposited through his high-caliber understanding and implementation of rhetorical logic.

In his fourth and final essay, Smith asks, “Are humans naturally religious?” (105). Moving beyond the “academic curiosity” (105) of the question, Smith approaches the topic in relation to its larger practical implications. Even so, he utilizes empirical data to offer an answer to the question. Ultimately, Smith posits that while “humans are naturally religious or by nature religious,” such features will not always be actively expressed (122).

Atheist Overreach, while grounded in strong sociological and philosophical arguments and analyses, does not offer a definitive solution to the subject presented within. Showing admirable humility, Smith concedes as much in his conclusion, contending that his book “is clearly not the definitive word on atheism’s prospects and limits,” but should instead be used as a propellent for “ongoing public conversations” (130). Smith’s acknowledgement of the limits of his own arguments is refreshing, given our current climate of public debate. Of course, any book which argues the overreach of certain ideas without being conscious of its own potential for overreach, ultimately fails on its own merit. Smith’s work is self-aware enough to avoid this dilemma and as a result offers a much needed addition to the ongoing debate between atheists and people of faith, that is worth consuming.

By / Feb 28

Hello, this is Questions & Ethics, and this is Russell Moore broadcasting here from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. This is a program where every week we take a question that you have about something going on your life, in your church, in your family, your neighborhood, and talk about it.

This week’s question comes in about an issue that I think a lot of people have to wrestle with pretty consistently, and that is when it comes to attending and going to weddings, should I go to a wedding? Should I participate in a wedding? And this comes from a mom who is writing in about her daughter, and she says, “My daughter is an atheist. She is living with an atheist, and she now plans to marry him.” And the mom wants to know, should I allow my other daughter to be in the wedding as a bridesmaid? Should I support the wedding financially? Should I go to the wedding? I want to honor God, but I still want to be a mom.

Okay, that is a really good question and I think one that we ought to spend some time thinking about. I remember several years ago I was serving a church, and I had a lady who came up to me after the service, and she whispered, and she said, “Could you pray for my daughter. She has gone to college, and she has become an atheist.” And I said, “Why are you whispering?” And she said, “I don’t want anyone to overhear me, because then they will know that I am the mom of that atheist girl.” And as I started talking to her it became clear, she thought somehow that that would make people think that she has done something shameful in her own parenting.

That’s crazy. We have got to eliminate that within the church. Throughout the Bible, you have family after family after family—it’s hard for me to think of a family in the scripture that doesn’t have a prodigal somewhere in the family. So we don’t say that because a child is going through some rebellion that that means that the parents are deficient. Not at all! And also we need to recognize that parents love their children, and families are to stay together, and we are to maintain those avenues of connection with our children as much as possible and to provide a means for those prodigals to come home. And prodigals do come home. These rebellious times don’t always last forever. And sometimes you have someone who is just going through a time of questioning, a time of confusion. Keep those avenues open.

I would also say that I understand why the mom is concerned about this, because the scripture tells us that a believer is not to marry an unbeliever. We should not be unequally yoked, as the Apostle Paul puts it. But that’s not what’s going on here. Instead you have a professing unbeliever marrying a professing unbeliever. Marriage is something that the scripture tells us is a creation ordinance given to all people; Genesis, chapter 2, “It is for this reason that a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” That’s not only true for Christians. That’s true for all people. So marriage is a good thing for everybody, including for atheists.

It seems to me that in this situation, you have a couple who are doing the right thing: not living together, but instead committing themselves to one another and marrying. If, Mom, you don’t have any other objection to this guy other than his atheism, and if your daughter is an atheist too, I would see this as a creation ordinance, and I would not have one qualm at all in going to that wedding, in having the sister serve as a bridesmaid. I wouldn’t have any problem financially contributing to that wedding.

Now, I think it’s a different story when it comes to the church officiating the wedding. I wouldn’t do the wedding for a couple of atheists. I wouldn’t officiate as a pastor, because I think that signifies the accountability of the couple to the church. That couple doesn’t have an accountability to the church; they are not under the I Corinthians 5 discipline of the church. But as a civil ordinance, getting married, I would go.

Now, if you have some reason to think that this man is harmful or abusive or dangerous, then no, you put your foot down, and you go to the matt for this. But if your only problem with him is that he’s an atheist, I would go. I would be kind, and I would seek to continue to share the gospel with your daughter and with your new son-in-law as time goes on. I would recognize that marriage is a good thing that God has given to all people.

And I also would just really encourage all of those parents out there who are going through a situation with your children—parents of atheist children; parents of agnostic children; parents of children who are going through times of moral rebellion, not just intellectual confusion or questioning or whatever—don’t be ashamed of your kids. Don’t cut off connection with your kids. Remain in contact. Love your children, and don’t be worried about what people are going to think about you. This is not about you; this is about loving the children God has given to you.

What’s a question that you have? Maybe you are reading through the Bible and a question comes up to you or something that is happening in your neighborhood or in your church; maybe something you are talking about in a Bible study or community group that you are wondering about, or something that is coming up in your workplace or your family. Just let me know. Send me an email at [email protected] or on twitter with the hashtag #askrdm, and we will take the question up here on Questions & Ethics.