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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, August 30, 2010

CFI gets it wrong ... then gets it right

When I saw this statement, released by the Center for Inquiry a couple of days ago, I was horrified. Over the weekend, I've been mentally composing my detailed response. I'm still concerned that such a statement was ever issued and I hope that there will be wider consultation before the CFI ever again goes down such a path. I for one would have been opposing the statement loudly if anyone had asked my opinion.

Fortunately, the statement has been withdrawn and replaced by something that I fully agree with. All I need to say about the original statement is that I disagree vehemently with the idea that religious houses of worship should be banned from the vicinity of Ground Zero, the World Trade Center site. I don't see how else the statement can be interpreted, but I don't need to offer my full reasons for disagreeing with it, as I thought I'd have to do.

It seems that wiser heads at the CFI have prevailed, so congratulations to the organisation for getting this one right, even if an initial error was made. The swift retraction of the original statement restores my trust considerably. Hopefully, no illiberal statements of policy will issue from the CFI again.

Just briefly, my position on the Muslim centre being established a couple of city blocks from Ground Zero is that it should meet the same zoning regulations as a cinema, a shop, a secular cultural centre, a business's corporate headquarters, a Christian church, or whatever else might be put there. If it causes no more problems for the physical amenity of other people than those other things would, it should be able to go ahead on the same basis.

The CFI now agrees with me:

CFI maintains that an Islamic center, including a mosque, near Ground Zero, in and of itself, is no different than a church, temple, or synagogue. It is undeniable that the 9/11 terrorists were inspired by their understanding of Islam, and that currently there are far more Islamic terrorists in the world than terrorists of other faiths, but those facts are not relevant to the location of the Islamic center, absent evidence that terrorists are involved in this endeavor, and there is no such evidence.

The mere fact that some might find the idea of a mosque near Ground Zero offensive is not relevant. It's true that some kinds of extreme offence shade into harm and are cognisable by the law - e.g. if you nauseate me by defecating in front of me on a tram. But in a case like that there are also public health issues, so mere offence will not be the only consideration. In any event, the law should not generally be banning something solely because it causes offence to certain others, especially if it's not extreme in-your-face offence of the kind that produces nausea or disturbs the peace. It's most certainly not enough that the mere idea of something happening offends certain people. It would be nice if we could all keep the Millian harm principle in mind in these public policy debates.

In the end, there should be no impediment to the proposed Muslim centre merely because some people find the idea of such a thing in the vicinity of Ground Zero offensive. If the centre meets ordinary zoning provisions, that should be the end of the story as far as the law is concerned.

Of course, we can still investigate and criticise the beliefs and activities of the people involved with the centre. Christopher Hitchens has been doing that, and I applaud him for it, but he's made it clear that this is completely different from calling for the centre's prohibition. He's been able to combine tolerance, in the relevant sense, with criticism. That's the standard we should all be aiming at.

Edit: It seems that the original statement has now been removed from the site, which may be a good thing as it only creates confusion to leave it there while superseding it with something else.


Robert said...

CFI might actually do well to not get involved. Muddying the waters here is in no way helpful and is by definition also adding its own political agenda to the situation. It's statement is in in itself self serving.

The revised statement is little better than the original in its purpose.

In countries where faith does play an important part of the social makeup the CFI voice is little more than an ignorant verbal; barely an annoyance and easily dismissed as it often misses valid points of view. If, as they state, they see no difference between mosque and church, then it stands to reason, and it is reason CFI always state, that no personal considerations need be entered into in any instance and for any reason. Perhaps the building of a statue of Hitler would also meet these suggested standards of CFI - if not, then it must run foul of the hypocritical.

Many times I have found not just the CFI, but like organizations, trying to get politically vocal in areas it usually has little understanding. Dissappointingly is also the offered arguments and statements. Sometimes the reason and logic trips itself up and in the end it eventually raises other questions about true validity...

Eamon Knight said...

I thought the first statement was trying to be tongue-in-cheek provocative, but not succeeding very well. The sort of thing PZ might spout, only he'd probably manage to phrase it so it worked ;-).

Charles Sullivan said...

It sounds like Orac had an influence.

Anonymous said...

"CFI might actually do well to not get involved."

Well, everyone else has got involved! With so many voices of lunacy, mostly from the (Christian) right, why should the voices of secularism not be heard?

Apparently in the US, the main secular viewpoints are put by organisations like CFI, ACL, etc. If they aren't heard from, what chance is there for secularism in the debate? Even if they get it wrong from time to time, they usually get corrected pretty quickly by their allies.

I don't know enough to comment on the nature of the Imam Rauf group, except that Sufis are usually a relatively benign aspect of Islam. The other angle is that anyone who for a moment starts saying things like "but it is not sensitive of them to build so near Ground Zero" is conceding points to the idiotic critics. The entire furore is totally confected and redolent of bigotry.

The harm principle - yes, very relevant. Also Jefferson: "it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg".

[still can't sign in normally!]

Sean P said...

Well said Russell.

Robert said...

Well, naturally I don't agree to everything stated by CFI. In principle I do have some agreement over the non descriminatory stance but things do get a bit problematic and cannot be solved by something called - Logical debate -

The whole issue in this case is emotionally charged, and not just charged by Christians as suggested. Of the 3 and some thousand killed when the attack occured it would be a long stretch to say these people were all Christians and that their families only reason for opposing the mosque was Christian based. This is where we run into the argument makers failings (both sides) the absolutes claimed over the finer and truer issues.

Sensitivity does need to be shown along with a calmness that does take on board the highly chargerd emotional debate, to ignore than would not only be disasterous, it would be politically dangerous.

Is there a moral highground to be claimed here? No, not in the slightest. The population is divided and it is easy to understand why and it doesn't need some philosopher sitting at a big desk spouting self serving wisdom to explain it all as something else.

Does racism exist in the argument, yes, and again it isn't without reason. That doesn't make it right but you still can't ignore it.

Muslim terrorists attacked NYC, that is a fact, so naturally putting a a Muslim house of worship on the spot will draw great levels of anxiety, frustration and even the thought that the government doesn't even care about what happened on 9/11. You can theorize all you like but simplicity does sum op the general feeling. It is not wanted.

Anonymous said...

The people that influences the revision were the employees and members who wrote in with their thoughtful criticisms.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the general statements made by CFI as well; my only concern is that CFI, along with almost everyone else, almost bends over backwards to come out in support of Islamic groups with a fervor I find especially disturbing. Replace "Muslim/Islam" with "Nazi" (I don't mean to invoke Godwin's law, but in this case I think the comparison is apt) and I doubt the passionate defense of freedom would be so swift - and, I'm almost afraid to suggest - rightly so.

In our efforts to maintain liberty, we are permitting the progress of ideologies that are themselves inherently anti-freedom. The recent Terry Jones issue has made it obvious that free speech takes a back seat to sensitivities to Muslim "feelings" (there were of course better arguments than this against burning Korans, but my sense is that a lot of this is knee-jerk emotion)

This isn't an objection to the Ground Zero mosque directly, I'm simply voicing my concern that by granting the same passionate defense of freedom to EVERY view, including those of a missionary religion with many members who desire more than anything else to attain enough global dominance to wipe such liberties out to begin with, because those liberties are antithetical to their worldview, will ultimately prove to do more harm than good.

On the other hand, I suspect such efforts will ultimately further Islamic assimilation in the West and that our views will dilute their radical element over the generations.

Anonymous said...

What I would have liked to see is far less pontification over the rights of Muslims - of course they have that - and more of a point that despite being permitted these liberties, Islam really is a bad thing. This latter point simply isn't emphasized enough; it almost seems like an afterthought. "Oh yea, before we forget...Islam is wrong and bad for the world", as if this was barely relevant.

I suppose my main point here is that toleration of intolerance could in principle lead to the undermining of the very edifice upon which such tolerance can be granted in the first place, and that being "pro-tolerance" ought to sometimes entail curtailing the freedoms of others.

If a religious group started that was exclusively composed of individuals who lived for no other purpose than to strip all freedoms away and force everyone to follow their religion, and actually had enough power that the prospect of their success was not entirely absurd, would this not be sufficient grounds for intervention?