We Cannot Divorce People From Culture

We Cannot Divorce People From Culture

Does the clothing make the person or the person make the clothing? While this question is typically related to dresses and women, the inquiry knows no gender. At the heart of the question is a consideration of the relationship between the created and the creator, between form and function. Clothing is not simply about covering the body, it functions dependent upon the intent of the person and the social context in which it is worn.

Follow along for a moment and we’ll get to the broader issue. In Western countries we notably wear black to funerals, brighter colors to weddings. The associations cannot be overstated, with one acknowledging an ending and the other a celebration of a type of birth or beginning. We have expectations of what to be worn at job interviews, on romantic dates, to music concerts depending on the genre. Importantly for the latter, location matters as well. Rock music played in an open stadium brings a certain dress-code, whereas the same music played in a concert hall by an orchestra will inspire a different response.

If anyone is shrugging at the significance of the impact of clothing choice, simply consider the days of High School and the social shame accompanying not wearing the ‘cool’ clothes, potential violence occurring if wearing shoes that are considered ‘must-have,’ and the time and mental anxiety accompanying what to wear for school pictures and first dances. For that matter, clothing stores have created an entire sales season out of ‘Back to School’ clothes shopping. Expand this a bit and consider wearing pastels or flowery-shirts to a funeral or ragged clothes and sandals to a job interview. Perhaps doing so was to make a statement, though it is precisely because the action is so contrary to expectations that the ‘statement’ will have any power (perhaps not great consequences though).

Culture Has Intrinsic Value

Clothing is simply one aspect of culture. Included in culture are a host of other issues that would not exist were there no human beings around to build and embody them in practice; religion, governmental systems, family structures, and social expectations at various levels. An initial focus on clothing helps us consider culture more broadly by 1) noting its intimate relationship to our humanity and 2) the impossibility of removing Value.

Any reflection on being human, collectively or individually, will inevitably involve memories associated with cultural practices. It is fair to say that to be conscious is to engage socially and one cannot engage socially without doing so through culture. Little wonder that the practices of culture have so much Value, they’re the means through which we initially inter-relate with one another.

Those building blocks for human relationships, the behavioral expectations and standards for interpersonal experience, are intimately tied to Values, even as they themselves are not such. Christianity is not a Value, nor is washing one’s hands after using the bathroom, wearing black at a funeral or democracy. What those practices support are Values; Spirituality, Cleanliness, Solidarity and Social Cohesion, respectively. We appreciate those Values and seek to support them because doing so is to align ourselves with one of the most basic of human needs: providing meaning/purpose.

Culture Has No Intrinsic Meaning

Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash

It’s impossible not to give some rationale for our behavior. When someone shrugs or declares “I don’t know,” the frustration felt is in no small part due to the bone-deep belief that a reason exists which must be found. Having a rationale for events is synonymous with ‘finding an answer’ or ‘solution.’ There’s a finality to it, despite, or even sometimes because of, the perceived ridiculousness of the story being told. The more absurd, the more the story is providing an answer regardless, i.e. the person is ‘crazy,’ ‘insane,’ ‘stupid’ or ‘evil.’ Such simple judgments pack the same punch as an involved story, they provide structure to the person’s experience.

What should be immediately apparent is the wide variation in our stories about behavior. Cultural practices are no exception. Religion may be the easiest example here, with group after group fighting, verbally and physically, over what is the ‘TRUE’ version of their particular mythology. Notice the Value doesn’t change, the need for Order/Spirituality remains constant. What the fight is over is the particular meaning to give to it. Does it drive behavior? Does it serve as a crutch? Does it provide a legitimate ground for morality?

When people of one group identify another as not being ‘TRUE,’ note that quite often the reasoning given is that the other simply doesn’t ‘understand’ properly. This focus on understanding as indicating legitimacy points us immediately back to the Value, but, and here’s the key, the Value as defined through the person criticizing. Cultural practices have no singular meaning because the story of their development for each person is as unique as each person’s genetic, familial and life histories. What’s often happening in debates of what is ‘TRUE’ religion (or any other cultural practice) are one’s own stories taking absolute ownership of a shared Value.

Cultural practices have no singular absolute meaning. They are derivatives of the human need to make meaning, not separate aspects of existence that people take on. To think of cultural practices as having inherent meaning is to divorce them from the humanity that gave them birth. Which is precisely where we all can contribute to a great deal of suffering.

Primacy of the Human

When considering a cultural practice, we can ask first what the purpose is for the person acting it out. They will provide a story that structures the meaning the behavior has for them. Before engaging with the story, a full stop needs to happen. This is to allow reflection on 1) identifying what shared Value the behavior is serving to support and 2) direct attention to how varied the other person’s personal history is from one’s own.

Identifying the shared Value can allow for an appreciation for why the person may deeply hold to the practice. Order, Social Cohesion, Family, and Cleanliness are nothing to easily dismiss, nor likely should they be. Once it is acknowledged how much weight the building of a story through a lifetime can bring to a Value, the strength of meaning/purpose becomes readily apparent.

We don’t have to agree with a particular practice, nor do we have to agree with the rationale given in support of it. However, if healthy dialogue is going to happen then we must first acknowledge that differences exist in those stories precisely because of the shared quality of being human.

Considering culture, we simply cannot lose sight of the human as a primary concern. To divorce or separate culture from the human being is to constrain humanity to a singular vision of what ‘should be.’ Such a divorce will drive the ‘war of ideas,’ a potentially fruitful dialogue exploring human expression, to simply ‘war.’

Featured image: Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

Political Identity, Relational Loss

Political Identity, Relational Loss

Political season is well and truly in full swing these days. One can barely find a cute picture of a panda online without bumping into a near-overwhelming number of memes (supportive and derogatory), quotes (false, out of context and sometimes true), and speeches (fervently pro and anti) about various candidates and the positions they likely take. Along for the ride is the “no true scotsman” logical fallacy, being thrown around with great poetic license as if it was the claymore from Braveheart.

This form of personal dismissal in the shape of a logical fallacy is the attempt to hold as sacred, inclusion in a group. As ideologies are the creation of people for the regulation of behavior and maintaining social cohesion, so then any time an ideology exists that is connected to a particular group, there will be variations. Were this a struggle for growth, for helping determine the finer qualities of what it means to follow a particular philosophy or worldview within a multi-faceted world, there’d be much room for praise. braveheart sword in groundUnfortunately, there is often little growth occurring, there is only the quest for managing power through group purity. Rather than engaging with the world and disparate opinions, there is instead the furtherance of the adversarial Us vs Them mentality, and the systematic creation of an increasingly large “Other.”

All identities are limiting, they have to be, as they determine what is and is not bound within a particular scope of selective engagement. We have our physical identities at the biological level so we know what is and is not our bodies. We have family identities so we know who is and is not family, often leading to variations in what is and is not acceptable behavior. We have social and national identities so we know what is and is not aligned with broader interests, often resulting in naming particular behavior as good when if it were done by another would be considered terrible.

Knowing who we are is intimately connected with the group identities we engage in, but by their very nature as mental constructs for limitation, too much focus on one or or another group identity can diminish the exploration of our lives. As Bronowski puts it:

“In our relations with people, and even with animals, we understand their actions and motives because we have at some time shared them, so that we know them from the inside. We know what anger is, we learn an accent or the value of friendship, by directly entering into the experience. And by identifying ourselves with the experience of others, we enlarge our knowledge of ourselves as human beings: we gain self-knowledge.” (Bronowski)

Group identity can be greatly beneficial, regardless of its ideological roots. However, it becomes oppressive when it ceases to engage with new experiences and ways of interpreting even the most sacred of ideological tenets. This oppression lays the groundwork for fundamentalism, a process of exclusion that is not limited to religious movements.

IMAGE_208Just the other day, a comment was noted that identified a person’s action as “not being a true liberal.” The current struggle within the Republican party is often characterized as a struggle for the heart of conservatism, as if such has only ever meant one thing. The politics of today is polarized precisely because people have been replaced by ideological purity. Political action is being taken by fewer and fewer people precisely because there is no longer any room for dissent. Instead of seeing how one’s worldview interacts with new information, shelter is found in building up the barriers of our personal bubbles. Instead of scratching at the walls of our echo-chambers to see where growth can occur, any and all cracks are immediately filled in by removing what is deemed contrary.

We cannot build a government for the people and by the people if we do not actively engage in generative dialogue. Generative because it is about generating new ideas from within the old, generative because it sees nuance where adversarial debate sees only steadfast positions. This is not an easy road to pursue, but the result of not doing so will only be walls and barriers, of limiting the totality of human experience to an increasingly smaller set of thoughts and behavior deemed “pure.”

“If we actively engage with an ever-widening array of our potential expressions, we have that much more with which to interact and respond to others and changing circumstances. The reverse is also true, as our reactions to others are keyed to the identities or labels they’re placed under, so how we react to others is contingent upon how varied our view of them is. The political opponent is also a spouse, worker, lover, hobbyist, etc. An expansion of perspective helps everyone.”



© David Teachout

Featured Image: Don’t Belong Here by Alena Beljakova



Bronowski, Jacob (2010-06-30). The Identity of Man (Great Minds Series) (p. 83). Prometheus Books – A. Kindle Edition.

A Democracy of Kingship

A Democracy of Kingship

America is an amazing country. We as a people have managed, despite tendencies to the contrary, to maintain and expand a democratic representative government for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. We have gone from a system where the color of one’s skin determined slavery, to being seen as only 2/3 of a person and eventually having full voting rights. We have gone from a culture where women were considered too frail in temperament to consider politics, to having full voting rights and now running and winning positions in government. We came from a feudalism where the worth of a person was more determined by their familial name than the power of their ideas and the passion of their lives. We did all this and more, yet we find ourselves tacitly accepting and overtly seeking the very loss of political freedom that drove this country to exist and persevere.

Many can likely remember the headlines when Barack Obama became president in 2008. “Change” was the word of the day and like a progressive savior he was to usher in a new era of anti-moneyed interests and fight for the common person upon which his campaign was supposedly based. Setting aside the ridiculous rhetoric out of the conservative pundits and pop-media politicians decrying Obama’s action as that of a king, there is still some comparison with the headlines and progressive rhetoric leading up to his presidency. Mainstream media has done a fine job of promoting this narrative and to an American public enamored of the Hollywood-ization of politics, the focus on a single person and family is certainly a lot easier than attempting to understand the myriad relationships and complex political arrangements of a large bureaucratic federal government. As our technology has made all things individual capable of being social, so then that same technology has made all things local into national. Cut off from any sense of empowerment through our local governments, we seek to find in the Presidency a banner-man to climb that tall hill of Washington corruption and lead the masses to victory.

obama headline 2008In “Escape from Freedom“, Erich Fromm discusses the nature of freedom within the context of human social psychology. It is worth quoting him at length here:

“Both factors, his need to live and the social system, in principle are unalterable by him as an individual, and they are the factors which determine the development of those other traits that show greater plasticity. Thus the mode of life, as it is determined for the individual by the peculiarity of an economic system, becomes the primary factor in determining his whole character structure, because the imperative need for self-preservation forces him to accept the conditions under which he has to live” (p. 16).

With this in mind, let’s consider the latest ascendent to the progressive populist throne, Bernie Sanders, and the political context that he rises within, a context that seems forgotten by the American people.

Inequality of the Masses

In “Fortune,” it was noted: “Saez and Zucman show that, in America, the wealthiest 160,000 families own as much wealth as the poorest 145 million families, and that wealth is about 10 times as unequal as income.” This inequality is not simply a reflection of an economic system creating a modern-day oligarchy, it is an indication of our political system as well. To win a seat in Congress takes money, but the amount has dramatically increased over the years. From 1986 to 2012, the average cost to win an election for the House of Representatives has risen from $360,000 to $1.3 million, an increase of 344%. During the same time period, the average cost to win an election for Senate has risen from $6.4 million to $10.4 million, an increase of 62%. The Presidential election of 2012 was the first time in which over $2 billion was spent by the candidates themselves, with a grand total from all organizations and groups at over $7 billion. To put this in context, that’s more than the entire GDP of Bermuda in 2012.

Much is currently being made, as it was during Obama’s campaign, of Sanders’s appeal to the general populace. His campaign page has the line “not the billionaires” to indicate his interests are with the populist 99%. This is not a hard case to be made, as a look at the contributors to his political campaigns shows. For the purposes of distinguishing Sanders from Hillary Clinton, Vox published a side-by-side comparison of donors since 1989. While only one of Clinton’s top 20 donors are non-corporate, 19 of Sanders’s top donors are unions. Were this merely an issue of ideological purity, the numbers would be an open and shut case of who is truly for the people rather than the vested interests of the disproportionately powerful. However, taking a look at the numbers again we see a remarkable problem, Clinton’s number one donor has given more than Sanders’s top 13 donors combined. With an acknowledgment of how much money is required to win political campaigns, we can see that the issue of being elected is not one of ideological populism but economic disparity. When that disparity is connected with the grotesque difference in wealth inequality, we are no longer discussing a representative democracy.

When faced with such distinct inequality in wealth and the absurdity of campaign finance, the solution is often presented as connected to voting. With that in mind, there are two more points to consider, both having to do with incumbency. For the congressional elections of 2014, incumbents enjoyed a heavy advantage in financing their campaigns. The average amount of money raised by an incumbent over their challenger was 12 times as much money for the Senate and for the House of Representatives, nearly 6 times as much money. This monetary discrepancy carries over to the rate in which incumbents get reelected, which in 2012 was 90%. Lest we think this was an aberration, the 2010 election saw an 85% reelection of incumbents and that was the lowest number seen since 1970, also at 85%. We are faced with a situation where it is not ideas and character which determine an election, but money and whether the incumbent is still breathing.

The American people are not merely not voting, with voter turnout in 2014 at 36.4%, the lowest since World War II, when they do they are simply voting in whatever name they remember. To be fair, 2014 was a non-presidential election year when turnout tends to be higher. In 2012 the turnout was 58% and in 2008, 62%. Those numbers are considered high, in a country governed by those who are supposed to be of the people and for the people, and yet are being elected into office by less than 2/3 of the eligible population. It is as if after having fought so long to get equal suffrage we gave up any pretense to caring for it.

IMAGE_206To quote Bernie Sanders: “Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated in this country is going to the top 1 percent. How does it happen that the top 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent? My conclusion is, that that type of economics is not only immoral, it is not only wrong, it is unsustainable.” When faced with such incredible wealth inequality, where to be elected requires monetary acquisition greater than small countries, and when those already in office possess such a distinct advantage in getting reelected it’s a serious question as to why they bother campaigning anyway, little wonder then that the American people feel powerless and reach out in emotive exuberance for anyone who seems to care. However accurate the concern being expressed by Sanders and previously by Obama is and may have been, no single person will effect the change popular sentiment desires.

From Fromm: “Thus a man, trapped in a fire, stands at the window of this room and shouts for help, forgetting entirely that no one can hear him and that he could still escape by the staircase which will also be aflame in a few minutes. He shouts because he wants to be saved, and for the moment this behavior appears to be a step on the way to being save – and yet it will end in complete catastrophe” (p. 152).

For all the good people like Sanders desire to accomplish, their will is not that of a king, no matter the hope-filled longings of those desperate for that good. Until the American populace looks beyond a name, looks beyond the social separateness resulting from identity politics, to a genuine appreciation for a government of and for the people, any change will be like the flames of a will-o-wisp.  Only when groups are more concerned with building a system that provides real opportunities for the majority rather than scrambling for the scraps from the powerful, will full social upheaval occur. So long as we remain divided by declarations of which group has had more evil done to them, we will never rise up to follow even the most charismatic banner-man to the shining city upon the hill.


© David Teachout

Blaming Anger to Ignore Legitimate Criticism

Blaming Anger to Ignore Legitimate Criticism

Identity politics in the United States is a testament to the human ability for self-blindness. Essentially the practice of identity politics boils down to “a particular social identity is considered good in itself” and then combined with “all actions therefore by true adherents of that very social identity are inherently good and right.” There are two central points to consider here: 1) actions themselves are not judged by merits but the association with a social identity and 2) by deeming only the actions of “true” adherents sacrosanct then anything contrary is removed from criticism and sets up an ideological aristocracy. In other words, those in power, whatever form that may be, get to occlude themselves from any critical analysis of their actions or the legitimacy of their ideological stance. This is not only anti-democratic, it is contrary to the pursuit of knowledge through skeptical inquiry that lies at the heart of science, and sets up the nastiest form of tribalism that such can manifest.

With knowledge, facts and even the type of questions to be asked circumscribed by social identity, there are few behavioral possibilities when dealing with external criticism. The first is a self-proclaimed elitism, where by virtue of being a “true” believer one has access to a set of information or source of knowledge that others simply don’t. This is a favorite of fundamentalist religious believers and of presuppositional apologists in particular. Unfortunately such a tactic is also becoming prevalent in the political playground. Accepting that they can’t actually prove their opinions to anyone, they resort to a metaphysical reality that is completely self-referential. In other words, anybody inside the box knows what they know is true and anybody outside the box will simply never understand. The metaphor is particularly apt considering the blinders that must be constantly kept in place and the isolation that results. The apologist ignores the inherently shared reality required to even have a conversation, and the political demagogue, with false humility in full splendor, will declare “I’m not a scientist, but…”

The second tactic is some form of ad hominem where the goal is to dismiss the critical party. This can take the form of name-calling, but often it’s about selecting an otherwise benign feature and using it to create a self-defeating caricature. The white establishment looks at black behavior as “aggressive” even though similar behavior by whites would be considered “passionate.” Males have long considered particular female behavior as “emotional” when in any other situation it would be considered as “speaking their mind.” When it comes to the religious majority, the attempt is made to declare atheists as being simply “angry” when often such behavior in another situation would simply be referred to as “critical or questioning.” The examples here are chosen because they center around “anger,” since when any actions of similar form are taken by those in power, such is no longer considered a detriment but a testimonial to the strength and righteousness of their cause.

TSBB_Frustration-440x293Dismissing critics is more than simply removing people from consideration in public discourse, it is to remove even the words themselves. We live in a country where the strength of one’s opinion is not based on the quality of rational appraisal given to it, nor the honesty with which criticism is dealt with, but whether there’s a suitably large enough gathering of supporters to buttress the opinion against the encroachment of contrary ideas. We no longer live in a marketplace of ideas, we live in a militarized zone of barbed-wire fences demarcating who can go where depending on uttering the right catch-phrases and the extent of commitment to mindless status-quo mediocrity. What this does is stop bad ideas from fading away into the dark night of mental oblivion, fit only for the worst of cranks and conspiracy theorists. That such bad ideas are often at the heart of destruction, both personal and global, only makes the dismissal and the attached criticism that much worse.

A 2008 survey found that 95% of U.S. people believe in a god. Further research has noted that those who attend religious services weekly or more and believe that religion is very important, are predominantly conservative. This fact points to why despite a scientific consensus to the contrary, the vast majority of conservative political adherents either don’t believe the earth is warming or that human behavior has nothing to do with it. Such a denial of scientific understanding makes sense when faced with another scientific consensus, that of the accuracy of evolutionary theory, where 69% of those who attend church weekly believe their God created people in the present form. The connection between the denial of evolution and the denial of climate change is truly remarkable and makes a circular form of rationality; if the earth is only a few thousand years old and your God is in complete control of all of creation, then not only can the earth not be warming due to human actions but we have nothing to worry about. Since more than 100 million people live within three feet of sea-level, the extent to which rising oceans will cause destruction and displacement is catastrophic. Dismissal then is more than removal of inclusion in public discourse, it is a complete disregard for the very real problems faced by the marginalized.

If the effects of belief remained at the global level, we might have a way of working within the masses to effect change by informed debate and gathering more information. Unfortunately, the global level of effect is predicated on an inability to note the damage caused at the individual and social levels. Vast numbers of minorities, from women and children to atheists and anybody else who doesn’t conform to the self-proclaimed moral imperatives of religious conservatives, have been and continue to be abused, maligned and their struggles dismissed as mere examples of “not being right with God.” Recent research on the caricature of the “angry atheist” note many studies showing atheists to be generally considered lacking in morality, disapproved of if selected as a spouse, unsupported if running for president and denied medical treatment. The research noted that the higher one’s stated belief in god, the greater the perception that atheists are angry. Further, when looking at traits associated with anger, atheists in no way demonstrated that they were angrier than anyone else, in fact often less so.

The authors note that such stereotypes are detrimental, as “research has shown that perceiving other people as angry can make us hostile and set the stage for conflicts that need not happen (Berkowitz, 2012; Orobio de Castro et al., 2002).” Also, “Stereotypes are detrimental to stigmatized groups because they create expectations about how people should treat out-group individuals (Bahns&Branscombe, 2010).” This is the worst of tribalism. We cannot help ourselves from identifying with groups and logically then there must exist in-group and out-group individuals. Such does not necessitate the mischaracterization of out-groups. What caricaturing the out-group does is take the natural proclivity of tribalism and move it into the support of bigotry. People are no longer looked at by their own character, but through the projected discriminatory constrictions of the powerful.



Let’s look again at how incredibly poor the myth of the angry atheist is. Remarkably, given the clear discrimination, deliberate mischaracterization and perception of mistreatment, atheists are not in fact angrier than other groups. An old piece of wisdom cautioned that prior to judgment, one should attempt walking in the shoes of the other. Consider then the situation from the atheist viewpoint. For those atheists who were raised religious, the change in ideology leads to the recognition that they were raised under a lie and the actions of their parents and caregivers were such not for their benefit but for the appeasement of an imagined deity. Further, as they were raised as such instead of offered the chance to think for themselves, the very notion of free choice was withheld from them, leading to the simple conclusion that those who raised them cared less about their individual development than the continued devotion to parental authority structure.

Now consider those atheists who were not raised religious, placed in a world in which the vast majority disagree in some form about a fundamental aspect of reality, the result of which is then to be looked at as inherently immoral and lacking in benefit for engagement in matrimony. Then consider the many uses religious ideology has been put to for denying global problems, supporting abusive punishment, vilifying a particular gender, demonizing one’s sexuality, and banishing from social discussion any form of legitimate criticism. This is but a short list, though considering the far-reaching consequences it truly becomes monumental that the myth of the angry atheist is just that, a myth. Seen from their perspective, they have every right to scream retribution from the top of every mountain.

Why the myth then? Stepping back to a point above, note that false projections of anger are utilized by those in some form of power to dismiss and disregard the existence and criticism of those deemed beneath them. This allows their actions to continue without any degree of need for introspection. Given the self-referential reality that is pervasive, placing all critics outside the box of the in-group and cut off from access to the “true revelation,” declarations of anger amount to little more than patronizing paternalism. Faced with empty and demeaning platitudes of various racist, misogynistic, discriminatory forms of “believe in order to know” (in other words, agree with me and you’ll then see that I’m right), the atheist and other minorities find themselves looking at a world that does not in fact consider them worthy of belonging.

Remember, “Persecution on one hand can be a debilitating experience when felt in conjunction with not having any support. However, persecution, or at least the feeling of it, can be rather beneficial when one feels supported by a community. This is exacerbated more so by the human tendency to hold even more tightly to one’s beliefs when feeling attacked.” If those in power can continue to paint any opposition as childish and cement their mischaracterization within the echo chamber of their own groups, there exists no reason to ever doubt their self-righteousness.



© David Teachout

Religion and the Failure of Liberal Thought

Criticizing an ideology is often difficult, prone to hyperbole and notorious for, at least in the mind’s eye of the believer, being unable to differentiate ideas from the adherents themselves. When this ideology is a religion, all of these difficulties become like Bruce Banner when he gets angry. Whatever the difficulty, what a person says about their belief has a causal or correlative connection with their behavior. To dismiss this is to ignore the very nature of humanity’s relationship with it’s existence. With the fate of future generations hanging in the balance, acknowledging and reflectively understanding what people say will determine the course of our unfolding history.

Unfortunately, this dismissal is at the heart of liberal obfuscation where it concerns religion, most recently that of Islam and its currently most vehement adherent, ISIS (or ISIL). President Obama recently stated that:

“ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state; it was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government nor by the people it subjugates.”

There have been quite well articulated criticisms of Obama’s remarks, notably by Sam Harris and Jerry A. Coyne. Their remarks should be read in their entirety. Attempting to make similar statements would be presumptuous as well as audacious. Rather, the attempt here will be to show from within Obama’s comments the deep failure that a blind allegiance to liberal ideology brings, particularly when applied to religion.

On the face of it, stating that ISIL “is not Islamic” is both patently silly and leads to a great bout of head-scratching. The organization has as its goal the establishment of an Islamic world, the head of which sits a caliph, invoking the return of the original ruling elite following the death of Muhammad. If this isn’t Islamic then the Catholic Church isn’t Catholic. Such statements by ISIL are well known and globally spread, leading to the conclusion that Obama must either be completely ignorant of them or he has a different means of ascertaining religious adherence. We find this means in the latter part of the paragraph, where Obama states ISIL is not recognized “by the people it subjugates.” While this can point to a political existence, since ISIL is a religious organization by their own word, then the claim seems that the legitimacy of such lies at the feet of a populace.

As Coyne pointed out, all religions are man-made, so the demarcation between true or not in relation to its connection to an imaginary deity is impossible and foolish to attempt. The legitimation of a religion is and can only be made at the behest of those who adhere to it. With that in mind, then ISIL is certainly Islamic, as protested vehemently by its many adherents. That some of these may be doing so at the point of a gun is undoubtedly what Obama is pointing to, but if belief is to be gainsaid by emotional and physical coercion then there are any number of parental child-rearing tactics that Obama should have equal difficulty with and yet it would appear no bombs are being dropped on America’s heartland.

Further, the causes of a person’s allegiance to a religious ideology must be differentiated from the reasons for a particular ideology being labeled religious. The first is a psychological/biological/cultural analysis, the latter is ideological identification. One may speak of a deviation, but to dismiss a stated identification by so many adherents and not a few with the scholarship to back up their claims, is to no longer be interested in real dialogue.

That last, the lack of a desire for dialogue, may be in fact what the whole point of liberal escapism concerning religion amounts to. As Obama later states:

“ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

Connect this statement with the latter of: “no religion condones the killing of innocents” and the result is a tidy, if uninformed and dismissive, rationalization for both not connecting a group with its stated religious beliefs and wallowing in the very ‘us vs. them’ mentality that those groups rather happily enjoy living out of. Terrorism is the bugaboo of the modern politician. It is both a killer of debate and a justification for any action, no matter how ill-conceived, that indicates being against.

Declaring that ISIL “has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way” begs the question of just what it is they are attempting to achieve that others would be considered as being “in its way.” For that we go back to ISIL’s stated desire for establishing a caliphate and the inevitable connection with Islam emerges. Avoiding this at all costs is the Obama and liberal agenda.

If what a group says is in no way related to what they do, then words are meaningless, dialogue fails and all that is left is the rule of the gun. Given that the speech given was concerned with justifying a bombing campaign, dehumanizing an enemy and paving the way for irrational violent action seems exactly the point.

Perhaps most telling is an article written by Volsky and Jenkins in ThinkProgress where they state: “Ultimately, the decision of whether or not one is or isn’t religious is left up to God.” Leaving aside that this insipid comment destroys any legitimacy to their article, the result is a commitment to a brotherhood of a-rationalism.

For ISIL, the legitimation for their actions reside in a realm untouched by human rationality, humanistic moral criticism or scientific inquiry. By providing the same epistemic justification, removed as it is from any real analysis or criticism, these proponents of liberalism have bankrupted their ideology. That the conservative side has a similar identification on particular issues in no way removes the problem. Indeed, that both fall into the same trap says a great deal about humanity in general and indicates why criticism is so difficult to pursue. In going after ISIL, they’d have to question their own commitments to a deity.

Manifesting new behavior, new responses to old ideas and habits, requires a commitment to challenging even, or perhaps especially, that which is held to be holy or sacrosanct. By shielding certain ideas from criticism, by refusing to acknowledge the connection between belief and action, the only future ahead of us is a meandering road to our own destruction. We can, we must, be willing to call into question every facet of our existence, else the bright spots of our future will no longer be signals of enlightenment and progress but that of gunpowder.

© David Teachout