Tag Archives: ISIS

Atheist versus Agnostic: Why it is necessary for Atheism to win this war of ideas.



As an outspoken Atheist If I received a euro every time someone put it to me that the Universe is a big place and that I don’t have all the answers, I would undoubtedly be a very wealthy man. All too often when it comes to religious ideas, sitting on the fence is perceived as the safest and most intelligent option. The 17th century French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal proposed what would become known as Pascal’s wager. It essentially declared that the intelligent man should live as though god exists on the basis of the notion that if he doesn’t, then very little is lost whereas if god is real the individual would risk eternal damnation.


There is a difference between theoretical and practical Agnosticism



When Richard Dawkins declared himself an Agnostic in principle there was a media frenzy. In Febuary 2012 the Daily Mail published the headline ‘I can’t be sure God DOES NOT exist’: World’s most notorious atheist Richard Dawkins admits he is in fact agnostic. In relation to the same story the Daily Telegraph in Britain went with the line “He is regarded as the most famous atheist in the world but last night Professor Richard Dawkins admitted he could not be sure that God does not exist”.   Because the press and secular activists don’t make for good partners, the media on this instance yet again failed to illustrate the very important message that Richard Dawkins was trying to deliver.  There is a world of difference between being agnostic in theory and agnostic in practice. Like Dawkins, I too am agnostic on the issue of god. I am also agnostic in my position of whether or not the stories of those who claim to be abducted by aliens are true.  Im agnostic in my position of whether or not ghosts exist or whether or not David Koresh who established the Davidian religious cult in Waco Texas is indeed a prophet of god.


No doubt if I was as high profile an Atheist celebrity as Dawkins, the media would seize on my last paragraph and have me declared insane. Yet theoretical agnosticism is the hallmark of all scientists and skeptics. We must remain agnostic to all things that cannot be disproved. If sufficient evidence existed for any of these claims I could in theory be convinced of their validity. The reason why I am so sceptical of the idea of god or any other of these claims is precisely because of a lack of supporting evidence when taken in the context of our 21st century understanding of science and human behavioural psychology. Of course neither the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail mention this, as the idea of militant Atheism spreading across Britain is a far more sensational headline and of course the militant Atheist of their imagination could never be convinced of anything other than their rigidly held irrational beliefs. In the eyes of the media and all too often society in general they are perceived as being overly dogmatic like religious extremists. The greatest irony is that articles like these are the very reason people like Dawkins feel the need to promote science and reason so vigorously. However if this theoretical position of agnosticism moved further to what practical religious agnosticism means and where people genuinely feel a pressing need to question whether David Koresh is a prophet or whether or not god is telling you to do things or that he will punish someone in an afterlife for believing the wrong thing about him then I believe this has pushed the boundary between a sane version of Agnosticism and its paranoid brother. The word agnostic refers to lacking knowledge of a subject matter. In theory no one can know whether or not god exists and in theory we can never know whether or not we will be invaded by aliens. Yet if your life is governed by a genuine uncertainty of whether or not aliens are going to attack us, then a visit to a psychiatrist might be advised. There lies the difference between scientific agnosticism and its religious paranoid version.

A question for religious agnostics; Do your fear an alien invasion?



If you believe uncertainty is the best approach to the question of god as advised by Pascal then shouldn’t we be entertaining the possibility of an alien invasion? Im sure Dawkins and most other scientists would argue the same case that they cannot be certain that malevolent extra-terrestrials are not about to invade earth any day now. By the same token we cannot be certain that there are not monsters of the sea that pose a danger to mariners that have yet to be discovered. How do we know that everyone we certify as insane for declaring themselves prophets and messiahs are not in fact telling the truth? I am presuming that by now you get the idea that the distinction between a theoretical lack of certainty and an uncertainty that alters how you perceive the world are two entirely separate world views. No doubt most people will be in agreement that we shouldn’t sit on the fence when it comes to any of these examples. These examples are not far fetched. The idea that a book such as the bible being the ultimate form of truth is less convincing to me than the prospect of our planet being attacked. Needless to say I do not live in fear of being visited by E.T but even less so for doubting the edicts of any religious texts.


Being a scientist and a skeptic makes me both Agnostic and Atheist.

bill NYE


By now Im hoping most people will realise that the terms Atheist and Agnostic are not mutually incompatible. Until science has a theory of everything we must be open to new objective evidence and must be willing to change our position on the basis of new evidence. This is the very essence of being agnostic. The scientific community achieves this to a degree greater than any other branch of human affairs. This is not a weakness or a failure of science as would be perceived in any other field of human endeavour but it is precisely what makes science so incredibly useful in finding out how things work. By the same token science doesn’t need to have a theory of everything to form an objective opinion. When all prevailing theories point in one direction the scientific community will state such things as our best available evidence leads us to believe that …………………..   That is why science has taught me that it is very unlikely that intervening beings alter the laws of physics and human behavioural psychology has taught me why so many people believe that they do. Probability teaches that we cannot explain one set of improbable circumstances by creating an even greater improbability as a conclusion. The known universe is less complex and therefore more probable to exist than a universe creator. Atheism is merely the outcome that blind faith and gut feelings do not trump objective scientific evidence even if on occasion science gets things wrong. The relatively small failings of science do not legitimise non evidence based beliefs. We need only look at the history of humankind to understand that religious faith will not tell us with any degree of reliability what happens when we die or whether or not god exists. Religious texts that do not understand such things as basic evolutionary biology are very unlikely to provide an intelligent counter argument to 21st century neuroscience etc. As any objective scientist would state I can’t know for certain what happens when we die but science will offer no compelling reason to believe anything other than loss of consciousness. This is a scientific question as much as a religious one and seeing as religion has never created a working knowledge of our world it is incredibly unlikely to be a source of knowledge as to what happens after death. In short the same set of skills that lead me to being agnostic also lead me to be an atheist.


Atheist activists are required because religion and other forms of evidence denial are destroying our planet and threatening our species with extinction.


I am an outspoken Atheist because all the evidence suggests that we should be more scared of our infinite ability to deny evidence with earth shattering consequences than we should be of imaginary beings passing judgement on our thoughts and beliefs. Our susceptibility to psychological cognitive biases are no longer a subject for debate within psychology and are used by political despots, con artists and advertisers the world over. I used many of them myself to demonstrate just how easy it is to influence vulnerable people in my Shooting the Messenger blog on Lorna Byrne. These psychological predispositions include 1) authority bias which leads us to be more inclined to believe those we perceive as figures of authority. A direct consequence of this is our insatiable appetite for celebrity culture. All too often the irresponsible and ignorant rants of clueless public figures falsely lead us to ignore science and data. There are countless examples such as climate change denial in the US Republican Party, Jenny McCarthy contributing to anti-vaccine hysteria etc.

2) Social bias leads us not to question evidence denial within our own cultural and social group. We are predisposed to believe dangerous dogma coming from our own social and cultural group and to be more sceptical of ideas that were not born of our tribe. This is one of the root causes of religious wars. Even within political strands within US politics the right/left political divide come with their own set of pseudoscientific beliefs. The left all too often point out the legitimate failings of the US right leaning political class when it comes to such things as fantastical religious claims or their history of climate change denial yet the political left have their own set of scientific falsehoods that they cling to such as GMO paranoia and Monsanto conspiracy or that cannabis does not cause any harm or that the pharmaceutical industry is against so called natural remedies. It is easier for both groups to accept these beliefs as they are a common badge of belief within their community.

3) The confirmation bias makes it easier for us to believe things that fit neatly within our existing set of beliefs. If people are taught from an early age that religion is good and that it is necessary for having a moral compass then when someone comes along and says that Atheists are bad, it will be much easier for that group to whip up hatred towards them. We need only look at Donald Trump’s sheer ability to stir up anti-Muslim hatred among evangelicals. Furthermore the yearning of people to have their belief system validated makes them dangerously exposed to being negatively influenced. This psychological technique has been used by politicians since the dawn of time.

type1 error

4) Type 1 bias. Humans and other vertebrates are creatures of superstition. A type one error in psychology refers to our inherent bias towards seeing intention when it isn’t there. If we win a raffle we see ourselves as being lucky. If a number of unfortunate events happen in close succession we wonder if we are jinxed. I have often told the story when I thought of being in a RTA only to turn on the TV and the news reporting about a road death. If I were not a skeptic I would have possibly drawn the wrong conclusion. I am not psychic and that event although unusual was a product of coincidence. Decades of research have shown this but yet so many believe in psychic experiences and premonitions or the idea that we can tempt fate.


Practical agnosticism is not hedging your bets, it is a failure to confront what is often dangerous religious delusion where it is obviously present and granting a sense of intellectual legitimacy where none is warranted. Knowledge is like wealth and is not spread evenly. It is undermined when for cultural sake we pretend tribal religious beliefs in the absence of scientific inquiry represent counter arguments to those made on the basis of science and evidence.


Rejecting all religious texts for the glaringly obvious reason that there is nothing within them that could not have been written by the people of their time is not the other side of the false coin as those who dogmatically believe they are inherently divine. We need not spend any more time debating whether or not a book that calls for the stoning of non-virgin girls by their father on their wedding night is the word of god. A book that clearly has nothing to say about evolution or genetics or that believes that all creatures were once vegetarians demonstrably knows nothing about the origins of life. A book that fails to point out the evils of slavery or child marriage has nothing to teach 21st century humans about ethics. The fact that millions of people cannot see this is not cause for celebration of tolerance of intellectual diversity but an existential threat to mankind.


Evidence denial exists in many forms but religion is the only form that makes it a virtue. Religious leaders like to pretend that religion is compatible with scientific inquiry and social progress, however the data refutes this.


 There is more than ample evidence why we should not make a virtue out of evidence denial. Islamic leaders are keen the point out that Islamic culture invented algebra and other fields of mathematics or Christians often cite the fact that Isaac Newton was a devout Christian. However it is in spite of this that they became brilliant minds. It would have been near to impossible to be openly Atheist in these periods and because pseudoscience was still rampant in the time of Newton even he was unable to resist the false charm of pseudoscientific baloney such as alchemy and belief in psychic powers and the occult. Even today within the Islamic world many doctors and medical professionals are so devoted to the religion that they join Islamist terrorist groups. Ayman al-Zawahiri is a qualified surgeon and leader of Al Qaeda.

Donald Trump

In the 21st century the US remains the only openly devout religious country in the developed world. We need only look at its political system to realise that it is anything other than ethical or just. The entire Republican party has fallen into the hands of mobs of religious extremists, fascists and bigots. People like Donald Trump exploit the easy prey that this religious society has given him. Christian societies in Europe gave us the dark ages. In Ireland the Catholic Church left an horrific legacy that to this day has infected our political system. India is a country governed by superstition and corruption and its neighbour Pakistan is a near wasteland and home to the Taliban. Across the Middle East and Persian Gulf, cultures that have remained for thousands of years have been gutted and broken by religious mobs in ISIS.  I declare myself Atheist because it is intellectually wrong to entertain what in any other context would openly be considered nonsense worthy of laughter at best but most importantly because I consider religion like every other form of cultural delusion to be extremely dangerous and worth fighting against. Our inherently flawed psychology that gives rise to such irrational belief is reason in itself to believe that even if such a god like being did exist he would probably not come in peace.


Je Suis Charlie: The Charlie Hebdo Legacy And The War On Terror


The religion of peace showed how peaceful it was yet again this week with the ruthless and callous murders of 5 of France’s top cartoonists. The deranged actions of two gunmen wiped out the entire office of Charlie Hebdo and took the lives of 12 innocent people. The courageous staff knew the dangers they faced having had their premises fire bombed before and yet still summoned the courage and the resolve not to be intimidated. As their warm dead bodies lay lifeless, one of the gunmen shouted “We have avenged the prophet Muhammad”. The staff at Charlie Hebdo dedicated their careers and ultimately their lives to a just, necessary and noble cause, that being the advancement of human values through the medium of satire and comedy. They were not Islamophobic as their satire covered not just Islam but every strand of religion and politics. Undoubtedly their cartoons pushed the boundaries of satire when it came to Islam. However it was nothing that other religious and political figureheads hadn’t already received. The Pope, Jesus and other religious figures are openly satirised every day. This is not a bad thing as it is partly the reason why most Christians will respect my right and that of others to mock Christianity. Many will even agree that this is essential for the advancement of reason. This is not the case when it comes to Islam and this must be acknowledged. While the majority of Muslims in the western world are honest law abiding people who reject violence; one has to confront the delusion that the majority of people of the Islamic faith are as comfortable with secular values as Christians, Hindus or Jews. This is simply not true and if we are to confront the reasons why the vast majority of sporadic religiously motivated atrocities involve Islamists we must accept this.


The War on Terror needs to be a war of words not weapons.

While it is understandable that the relatives of the slain and many media outlets referred to the terrorists as murderous cowards and it is true that the staff didn’t have a fighting chance when confronted with armed terrorists, the reality is more disturbing. One thing the killers cannot be accused of is a lack of bravery. The reality is the fate of most terrorists who commit these types of atrocities is either death at the hands of swat teams or a life in prison. The chances of them getting away are remote to non-existent. They were not motivated by financial or other reward either. It was a stupid, heinous and evil act carried out by terrorists whose only reward was ideological. I say this not to trivialise the justified sense of anger and rage at this senseless act but rather to point out that we are fighting a battle of ideologies. This is still true when it is the actions of a lone wolf or mentally ill individual. They are not mutually exclusive. It was a devotion to a medieval sense of governance based on mythology and superstition of the worst form that motivated the gunmen to kill for simply ridiculing an ideology so senseless that humour must play a role in its opposition. The idea that millions of the world’s adherents of one particular religion get so enraged at silly drawings of a 7th century desert warlord is so childish that it would be the stuff of “The life of Brian” were it not resulting in countless acts of senseless violence. Our fear of Islamic terror on our streets has silenced the majority of the mainstream media into a deeply unjust and unnerving form of self-censorship. Their rationale is that publishing the cartoons may provoke more violence or unjustly hurt the sentiment of Muslims. While this is a legitimate and ethical concern in the short term, it is blind sighted in the long term. Our appeasement of words has not stopped the violence on the streets and every indicator suggests it is getting steadily worse. While Muslims may very well be offended by the publication, this is a necessary step in their enlightenment. When Europe’s Christians felt the same sense of grievance at having their religious figures mocked and questioned in previous centuries, Christendom was equally responsible for many of the horrors and human rights abuses that the Islamic world partakes in today.

The Killings Had Everything To Do With Islam

While it was somewhat heartening that many Imams and other Muslims in the western world came out to condemn the killings by suggesting that the killers were not Muslim and that they had offended the prophet by their evil deed; this view is not homogenous within the Islamic world. Sharia law holds that mocking the prophet Muhammad is a mortal sin and as such the penalty can be anything up to death. In countries that adopt Sharia law such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many more, the fate of the staff at Charlie Hebdo would be almost the exact same at the level of the State. The only difference would be the method of execution. Pakistani madrassas turn out thousands of students who study the Koran to a degree at least as high as any western scholar of Islam. They have a very clear version of Islam and it is one that is very different to the sincerely held convictions of the Muslims in France whose heart was in the right place when they condemned the killings. The same can be said for Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam. Undoubtedly Muslims who live in secular majority cultures have a much more benign form of religious belief for the most part than their counterparts in the Middle East. Islamic sentiment also becomes more benign in some of the former Soviet States. It goes without saying that the majority of Muslims in the UK, Ireland and the west do not support or condone violence but that is not enough to make them moderate Muslims.

Being a moderate Muslim involves more than condemning murders: It involves celebrating free speech

Many of my liberal friends were eager to post links about the heroic Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet who bravely gave his life defending French secular values. He was gunned down by Islamic terrorists as he dutifully tried to protect those satirising his faith from those extremists of his own creed who did not share his version of what it meant to be a Muslim. He was a moderate Muslim but more importantly a hero. He is the vision that both liberals and moderate Muslims want the Islamic religion to be. However it is delusional to believe that there are not millions of Muslims in western countries who do not share these liberal ideals. Even many of those who condemned the murders could not be described as moderate Muslims. One could always argue that the word moderate is subjective which it is, however when taken in a western context, Muslims who do not support free speech and want to curtail it by invoking anti-blasphemy laws could only be deemed as fundamentalist extremists. It is fair to say that an enormous number of western Muslims (if not an outright majority), support anti-blasphemy laws with strong penalties. In Middle Eastern Muslim society, anti-blasphemy laws are the norm and are often enforced by special branches of religious police. Perhaps increased levels of religious sensitivity among Muslims are the reason why Islam gives rise to so much senseless violence. The corollary of this is that violence and terrorism may very well be reduced when the majority of the world’s Muslims realise that it is healthy and indeed necessary to engage in satire and allow critical dissent.

Dr Ali Selim is a case in point

This week Ireland witnessed what can only be described as a threat to democracy that took place on Prime Time television. On the day of the massacre one of the spokesmen for the Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin warned that if any media outlet published the cartoons that resulted in the murders, he would seek to punish them under Ireland’s outdated anti-blasphemy legislation. His chances of securing a conviction under this law are near to impossible as most writers and critics wish to stand in solidarity with the slain and are not acting in an effort to produce mass religious offence. Offence is a secondary consequence of legitimate argument and necessary ridicule of the absurdities and ultimate harm caused by tyrannical unquestioned ideologies, religious or otherwise. The anti-blasphemy law explicitly states that comedic or academic value and intellectual argument are fully covered against prosecution. The fact that he went on to use the denial of the murder of millions of the world’s Jews during the holocaust as an example of a limitation of free speech only furthers my opinion that he is an extremist. It is perverse in the extreme to compare the satire of a 7th century figurehead with the genocide of millions. It is deeply ironic that he has written articles about Islamophobia in Ireland and the dangers of stereotyping Muslims. While I’m sure there are many moderate Muslims living in Ireland, Ali Selim is not one of them. Neither are Muslims who support his dictatorial views. He is an extremist and a threat to democracy. Moderate Muslims who support democracy and secular values need to distance themselves from him. This is not because they have anything to prove to non-Muslims, but rather he may very well cause genuine anti-Islamic sentiment and genuine Islamophobia. It is in the interest of moderates who wish to experience as little prejudice as possible to accept criticism and ridicule of your religion as a normal everyday experience. Christians do and even those of no faith are often criticised. Acceptance of criticism is a duty we all owe as members of a civilised society. This is rightly the case for every other religious and political leader.

Those who ridicule Islam are not haters in the same way those who ridicule the Pope or George W Bush are not haters either. No matter how opposed one is to any given ideology it does not constitute hate or intolerance. Not even if that ideology is ridiculed or lampooned in the most extreme way. On the contrary attempts to censor free speech for these reasons are an act of intolerance. If a Muslim is aggrieved by an argument or cartoon it is perfectly acceptable for them to argue their case against the views of their opponent and even attempt to ridicule them but it is never OK to let ones outrage cause oneself to seek to move toward censorship or violence. Unfortunately many Muslims do not share these values and the outrage shown to trivial things results in a minority taking this inappropriate rage to its most extreme form as in violent acts of terrorism.

A fitting tribute to the deceased staff at Charlie Hebdo

One way to honour the values of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo would be for the world’s superpowers to realise that Islamic extremism should be defeated by the argument of words and cartoons and not by bombing countries far away in the hope that they will assume democracy. Just as the Christian enlightenment happened by words and not violence so too will the Islamic version. There is hope. I just heard a Radio Kerry interview with a member of Atheist Ireland, Peter Hinchliffe and Dr. Rizwan Khan, a genuinely moderate Muslim spokesman who believed in free speech. Self-righteous US conservatives who openly cheered the war in Iraq while simultaneously stigmatising those who argue against religion have now created a monster. That monster is ISIS. It is the reason why we need to have the courage to stand up for secular values even more. World leaders and Islamic spokesmen continually wave the idea that it is the extremists that hijack the religion. I disagree. With the exception of some of the former soviet Muslim majority states such as Azerbaijan, most other countries with Muslim majorities are repressive in nature. If all the other indicators such as economic deprivation that are often cited as arguments for the growth of extremism really were the causative agent for Islamic violence then why do we not see as many sporadic bombings and killings in the name of Christianity among its poor and disadvantaged? Certainly poverty does not help the problem of any form of extremism, however Islamic extremism cannot be solely blamed on this as oil rich nations such as Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are also repressive in nature despite having huge financial resources at their disposal.

Today I heard yet another variant of Islamic apologetics from Reza Aslan. It is the argument that the so called “New Atheists” are unsophisticated in their treatment of Islam and that they generalise too much. He went on to say that there is no one Muslim State and that Islam is encompassed by several different cultures. Atheist critics of Islam don’t need to be told this as we already know. It is the very reason why it is not racist, bigoted or in any way intolerant to point out the inherent failings of Islam. Its worst failings are in its very birth place of Saudi Arabia. It has reduced one of the richest nations on earth to the level of human rights abuses of some of the poorest. Due to poverty and corruption, Christian extremism is rampant in many African nations notably such places as Nigeria and Uganda; however the degree of Christian extremism is greatly surpassed by that of Islamic militancy. Al Shabaab militants and tribal warlords have reduced Somalia to one of the most dangerous countries on earth. While Nigeria has its fair share of problems with Christian preachers such as Helen Ukpabio who are doing untold damage by instilling the notion of childhood demonic possession that results in a generation of lost children; again this tragedy is dwarfed by the affairs of Boko Haram. On the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Boko Haram was responsible for the loss of life of up to 2000 people in Baga town Nigeria. When Islamic apologists deflect an argument by saying all religions have their extremists, it is them who are generalising and not the critics of Islam. One point that he did correct Bill Maher on was the issue of female genital mutilation that is not specifically a Muslim tradition although there were cases of Muslims in Europe being sent abroad to have this procedure. Aslan even suggested that Indonesia was an ideal Muslim State. This is a country where 76% of adherents wish to have sharia law and almost half of those support the stoning to death of adulterers and the amputation of limbs for petty theft. Indonesia recently imprisoned Alex Aan for coming out as an Atheist. He was assaulted by work colleagues who were not prosecuted and had to receive the assistance of Amnesty International to act on his behalf. In France one poll suggested that 16% of French Muslims supported ISIS. This amounts to a rough estimate of up to 700,000 French Muslims who essentially want to usher in a period similar to the 14th century Christian crusades.

Islamic terrorism is not an extremism problem. Violent extremism is an inevitable outcome of extreme literal interpretation of 7th century texts and a predominantly serious culture that is unable to laugh at itself.

Muslims have to realise that their religion itself is extreme. The bar chart below goes to the heart of why the Islamic world is torn.


The vast majority of Muslims of all cultures and skin colour believe the Koran is the inherent word of the creator of the universe and wish to implement a legal system based on a 7th century mind set. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims equate the insult of Muhammad as being as bad as any crime committed against another human. One can only refer to Sam Harris “mother load of bad ideas” expression. Such a view of the world is not compatible with genuine scientific and ethical progress.

We must not be afraid to criticise and satirise Islam. Innocent Muslims must have full protection from those who would oppress them. Our enlightened society recognises their right to practice their religion privately. Violence against Muslims or their property is never an acceptable outcome of our genuine concerns about where this religion is going. In times of Islamic terrorist atrocities their communities and mosques need protection from criminal thugs who serve no useful purpose. However we have no duty to grant intellectual respect to any religion especially when it results in deaths on our streets. In these instances ridicule and satire as well as peaceful protest are essential. Our reluctance and inability to do so has ultimately driven us to war with violent extremists, a minority that stem from an extreme form of religion itself. The staff at Charlie Hebdo were not guilty of this failure of global politics. Their fearless dedication to liberal free speech cost them their lives.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of all who died defending freedom in Paris and to those who still summon the courage to confront militant Islam without fear.

Nous sommes tous Charlie


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The Quest To Find The Real Islam: In defence of Bill Maher and Sam Harris against the criticism of Ben Affleck (Irish Perspective)

sam harris

An Irish perspective on the now infamous debate featuring Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on last Fridays episode of Real Time with Bill Maher.

A self-declared army of god marches through the harsh desert of what one day would become Iraq and Syria. The scorching sun and imminent risk of death through disease, exhaustion, starvation or by falling at the end of a sword is no deterrent for this rag tag militia of relatively inexperienced fighters. Their confidence is more than justified. A belief in martyrdom and new founded religious zeal will work in their favour. Within the space of a year this band of fighters will swell in numbers from about 13,000 to over 100,000 and bring the most powerful armies in the world to their knees. The year is 632 and Abu Bkr has become successor to the founder of one of the world’s newest religions. The Islamic Caliphate (spiritual & political homeland) would largely survive the next 1300 years in various forms before being quashed by the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic would be born in 1923.

In the remaining 1382 years the world would change beyond anything recognisable to the inhabitants of Mesopotamia and Syria in the year 632. We would begin to discover the modern science of human anatomy in 1543 when Andreas Vesalius published his ground breaking book “The great anatomical treatise”. In the 17th century William Harvey would create a new science of physiology by showing that the heart pumps blood around the body through the circulatory system. In that same century we would discover that the body was made up of units that would be called cells. Ground breaking treatments would be pioneered when Louis Pasteur discovered that bacteria could cause diseases and the science of bacteriology would be established. The advent of the antibiotic penicillin would be noted as one of the greatest medical advances of all time. Queen Elizabeth 1st could not have imagined that one day the antibiotic streptomycin would virtually eradicate the causative agent of the great plague of London. She would have to endure the fact that despite the belief in her appointment by god her saviour, she would be in no position to fight the stench of death that had invaded her city and country. For now at least all she and her countrymen could do is offer prayers in a despairing attempt to appease god’s anger. For centuries this would remain an unsuccessful and futile strategy as the bubonic plague would make its mark across Britain and Europe for several years more.

The advent of modern day antiseptic surgical procedures would spring from Pasteur’s germ theory of disease and in 1867 Joseph Lister would discover that operations carried out under sterile conditions by the use of carbolic acid resulted in significantly less post-surgical mortality due to infection. The notion of demonic possession would be largely confined to history as a new understanding of neurology and psychiatric medicine emerged. Exorcisms and the burning of witches would firstly be replaced by the lunatic asylums of the Victorian era before evolving into modern day psychiatry. In the 20th century we would decipher the genetic code of life and begin the process of using this knowledge to map the human genome. We would carry out the first organ transplants and begin the process of stem cell research that will ultimately grant us the ability to grow organs on demand. We would eliminate one of the world’s biggest killer diseases small pox through routine vaccination and greatly reduce the mortality rates of cancer and heart disease. The cumulative medical advances of the last 200 years would have doubled life expectancy and greatly reduced human suffering beyond anything imaginable to the soldiers of Rashidun army.

A further 860 years would pass before the Native Americans would witness the arrival of the Spanish to their shores. The new devotees of the prophet Muhammad would have marvelled at the technology that gave us the first bicycle. Almost 1200 years would pass before the first train journey would be hailed as the cutting edge of 19th century transport technology. The inhabitants of 7th century Mesopotamia could only have looked on in bemusement were they to witness the first powered flight by the Wright brothers some 13 centuries later. They could not have imagined that less than a century later mankind would have set foot on the moon and sent rovers to land on Mars. Empires would come and go and the two great wars of the 20th century would change the face of warfare beyond anything imaginable to the desert cavalries of the 7th century. The first phones would send messages in real time connecting the farthest reaches of the globe. The invention of the radio and later the television would change cultures and introduce new ideas on a scale not seen in the history of the human species. This progression would be turbo-charged by the advent of the internet and the rise of the social media age. It is true to say that human cultures and ideas that had survived for scores of millennia would be destined to be confined to antiquity. The scientific and cultural progression of the intervening 1400 years would render even the most astute student of history almost unable to converse with the soldiers of the armies that gave rise to the first Islamic Caliphate in 632.

The expression history repeating itself has often been used. What is happening in Iraq and Syria in the last two months under the latest Jihadi group ISIS could aptly be described as a wiping of the slate. The only evidence of the passage of almost one and a half millennia since the Rashidun conquest is the battle cries of war are delivered not only from the mosques and villages but beamed across the world by social media. The weaponing of social media and the appliance of the latest technological advances of the 21st century to achieve aims that could fit snugly within 7th century norms should not go unnoticed. It is the ultimate yin and yang of human intellectual achievement. Young Muslims from countries that had not even been discovered when the idea of the first Caliphate was conceived, fervently tweet and facebook message the call to jihad on their latest branded smartphones. Military propaganda that has for centuries been an essential component of warfare has turned youtube into a mass propaganda machine of the most macabre nature. The Geneva Convention governing the rules of war would have no place in ISIS war ethic. After all they were rest assured in their belief that the Koran and various hadiths had all the rules and ethical standards necessary to wage war against the infidel while still keeping in gods favour.

Cognitive dissonance & liberal western values


As Iraq and Syria fall to ISIS and several beheadings of westerners are broadcast around the world, governments ponder over the virtues of military intervention in the region. President Obama and David Cameron reassure their people that this has nothing to do with Islam and the tired worn out expression that Islam is a religion of peace is regurgitated yet again. Their assertion that the vast majority of Muslims across the world are not Jihadists is a lesson in truth economics that society can ill afford. While this assertion, when taken at face value, is patently obvious to all but the most right wing and uneducated, it masks a growing malignancy within Islam. The problems of Islam run much greater than the relatively small numbers of Muslims who would embrace violent Jihad.

Cognitive dissonance is a term that most Atheists and secular activists will be relatively familiar with. It refers to the tendency of the mind to reconcile diametrically opposing beliefs when both are of emotional importance to the believer. Belief evolved not only as a method of understanding the world but also as a way of uniting tribes of people. This is why Atheists and those of religions other than the religion under scrutiny will immediately notice the absurdity of many tenets of that particular belief system.

Cognitive dissonance is the answer to the question of why some otherwise extremely intelligent people believe in doctrines that are demonstrably false and lacking in even the most basic of intellectual rigour. Anyone who has debated and argued with religious people will undoubtedly have numerous examples of cognitive dissonance at work. I have two most memorable anecdotes of this phenomenon. The first notable example was on Lorna Byrne’s facebook page. Most readers here will be familiar with her claims of being able to speak to and see angels. Many of her supporters would observe a handful of grammatical errors or the occasional spelling mistake on my part. As my arsenal of argument was apparently blemished by these literary imperfections, it could surely be presumed on the part of the believer that my entire argument could safely be discredited. Once again despite much evidence to the contrary Lorna Byrne was the loving caring lady who was gifted special powers from god and the angels that would take away all the problems of her numerous devotees. To be more precise their beliefs had not been altered by any of my arguments in the first place. My second example was yet again with a highly articulate and intelligent individual. It was another slight variant on the literary theme. Their observation that I wasn’t especially versed on the historical origins of the word “Atheist” could in their mind invalidate everything I had to say on the subject. The fact that intelligent people can believe dogma that is not alone patently false but equally socially destructive should concern us. Nowhere is this more prevalent on a global scale than in Islamic societies.

However it is not only religious conservatives who display such mental gymnastics in their approach to evidence. Western liberal dogma of tolerance and diversity as well as fears of being perceived as racist are imposing a sort of self-censorship when it comes to criticising the nonsensical and dangerously deluded beliefs of what are perceived to be other cultures. I am a liberal who believes in the rights of women, homosexuals, racial minorities and those of any religious persuasion to seek contentment and have equal protection under the law. However life is much more nuanced than that of the mind-set displayed by the proponents of either conservative or liberal dogma. Liberal Atheists often have a misplaced belief in belief. Such arguments are often put forward as “I know an old lady who never did any harm and her faith means so much to her as it gives her hope”. While this may be true and indeed the majority of religious do not harbour dangerous forms of religious delusion. However it is this promotion of delusional belief en masse that forms the scaffolding for religious extremism. Religious extremism, while only attributable to a minority of devotees in the west is nonetheless an inextricable part of religion itself. Furthermore if religion is good then why is religious fundamentalism bad? As Sam Harris eloquently put it “The problem with Islamic fundamentalism are the fundamentals of Islam.

Getting back to the harmless old lady whose faith gives her hope. If we really want to see how potentially harmful the public belief of bad ideas actually is, we need only look at the societies of Irish parents of the 30, 40 and 50 something generation. Who could have said that they were in any way bad or lacking in principle? Our generation will all have heard anecdotes of our parents walking miles to school often barefooted. They were materially much worse off than us and yet worked hard and sacrificed what little they had to rare us in the best possible way for their time. Yet this is the same generation and generations before that coexisted peacefully with and often supportive of the Catholic industrial warehouses of torture of women and children. The vast majority of their religious beliefs while being delusional in the extreme could in no way be described as particularly harmful. The belief that the creator of the universe commanded believers to attend public worship every Sunday, while being exceptionally peculiar, would not of itself give rise to wars and genocide. Neither would the belief that they can somehow commune with a 2000 year old departed Israelite or that god demanded the telling of sins to a specifically appointed human being. The belief that it was intrinsically bad to eat meat on a Friday could in no way be directly blamed for cold and callous actions. However when liberal Atheists use these examples as an excuse not to publically criticise religion for fear of offending people, it is yet another exercise in truth economics, that for the sake of human progress must be challenged. The above beliefs, while harmless when taken individually, promoted and encouraged a society so delusional that it produced the proverbial train that would eventually be derailed. No human society can maintain this level of delusion without eventually running into harm’s way.

Unlike ISIS, the Catholic Church never had a military coup to establish the theocratic State that was Ireland up until the 1990s. No tanks or guns were necessary for this institution to establish its hold over the Irish people. Yet this organisation wielded an amount of money and power that would be the envy of mafia godfathers and military dictators alike. This is the power of ideas. It is the reason why an understanding of nuances means everything when debating either liberals or conservatives. Neither liberal nor conservative sound bites alone can dictate how we should behave when dealing with controversial issues.

Liberal cognitive dissonance is even greater when it comes to Islam

Ben Affleck

Just as in the above argument there are equally important nuances to be learned when it comes to western liberal dogmas of tolerance and respect for what is perceived to be the beliefs of other cultures. Liberal westerners intuitively find it easier to criticise irrational and dangerous religious and cultural dogmas within their own culture but appear highly reluctant to do so when it comes from other cultures. Perhaps this can be attributed to post-colonial guilt or that possibly others may wrongly perceive such commentary as being of a racist nature. This may be fuelled by the fact that the groups most likely to publically show a dislike of Islam often tend to be far right groups. It is understandable that there would be deep rooted concerns about activists being in anyway associated with such bigotry. Far from achieving their objectives these groups cause further damage to society by making it even more difficult to have a rational discussion about Islam. The British National Party and its US equivalent Neo-Nazi and tea party movement use both legitimate and illegitimate arguments about Islam as part of a wider agenda of hate not just against Muslims but anyone they consider to be foreign or not in line with their narrow minded political agenda. This is entirely in contrast to the activities of people like Maryam Namazie, Ayan Hirsi Ali and other former Muslims who are now secular campaigners who rightly highlight why being concerned about the growth of Islam and its implications for the world is not only rational but is a conversation that we cannot have soon enough.

Liberals defending the objectives of political Islamists is the ultimate display of cognitive dissonance as it is a self-defeating contradiction of loyalties. Unfettered and uncritical loyalty to the principles of respect for ideas when it comes to Islam only serve to undermine the ability of communities to be truly liberal in their outlook. One such example is the acceptance of Sharia law in the family courts of the UK. While the proponents of this idea tell us that British law will still take priority over Sharia and Muslims are free to seek a settlement in the traditional British court service, this nonetheless marks a retrograde step in the promotion of liberal ideals. It gives religious fanatical theocratic ideas a place of recognition at the level of State. Even worse is the idea that fanatical religious ideas are put before the human rights of Muslim women who may feel religiously and culturally compelled to accept the judgements of these religious courts or possibly even under threat of violence. Even worse again such acceptance of even a watered down version of Sharia law shows tacit support for a legal system that gets people sentenced to life imprisonment or death for non-violent crimes including such imaginary crimes as sorcery. Sharia law in Pakistan would hand me down a death sentence for writing this blog on grounds of blasphemy and offending Islam.

Would the real Islam please stand up


When President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron loudly declare that ISIS do not represent Islam just what form of truly Islamic country do they believe in? If International relations were to be taken as an answer to this question then Barack Obama’s idea of a truly Islamic country might very well be Saudi Arabia. The US and Saudi Arabia are such bed partners that in 2010 the US administration made the biggest ever arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom purchased in excess of $60 billion worth of arms and munitions from the US government. This is the country that produced 15 out of the 19 hijackers on September 11th 2001. If beheadings have nothing to do with Islamic Sharia then perhaps President Obama could make his views known when he next meets the Saudi royal family. In August alone 19 people were beheaded at the behest of the Kingdoms Sharia based legal system. One of the executions was for the crime of sorcery and another for the practice of adultery. Thankfully this observation did not go unnoticed by the editor of the Washington Post.



Surely the concept of true Islam could be found where the very idea was originally conceived in the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. If this is indeed the true Islam then it would appear much closer to the ISIS version when it comes to the treatment of women and non-believers. As the article from the Washington Post below illustrates, the closer one gets to the epicentre of the Islamic world, the greater the percentage of adherents that would seek the death penalty for apostates. The majority of Muslims in the Middle Eastern territories support such a punishment for non-believers. (78% Afghanistan, 64% for Egypt and Pakistan and still a majority in the Palestinian territories). As one would suspect support for the death penalty decreases as the Muslim world becomes less homogenous and is diluted by the influence of other religions and cultures such as Muslims living in the former Soviet territories. David Cameron’s idea of a true Muslim might well be a British citizen from Croydon who supports liberal secular values and treats women and people of other religious and sexual persuasions as their equal. However when put to a vote across the entire Muslim world (especially in the Middle East), rather than be voted as the truest Muslim such a vote might well call for this persons beheading or at the very least a lengthy prison sentence were such a moderate individual to vocally express their views. Indeed this is the fate of many would be reformers and bloggers within the borders of Middle Eastern Muslim countries.


 Why do Islamic extremists embrace violence to a much greater extent than any other branch of the Judeo-Christian based faith?


This is a difficult question to answer but it is an important exercise in reason that both moderate Muslims and everyone else should agree upon. While there is much effort on the part of the Irish Atheist and secular community devoted to challenging the retrograde views of the Iona Institute and other religious campaigners on such things as gay marriage, access to abortion, secular schooling or any other of their theocratic ambitions, it must be acknowledged that neither David Quinn, John Waters or even Dana Rosemary Scallon pose a threat to life and limb of the non-believer. Even the most noxious American Christian bigot will be unlikely to launch an orchestrated campaign of violence. While the Westboro Baptist Church may be one of the most hated groups of Christian fanatics in the US they are still not Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban or Boko Haram. Neither is It that the Koran is anymore intrinsically violent than the Christian Bible or Jewish Torah. I believe that it is not that Christianity is any less predisposed to violence than Islam. After all there is truth to the claims made by Islamists that the religion was a beacon of light during the Christian dark ages. Scientific progress in the Islamic world far exceed that of Christendom during the period. I believe the protestant reformation of 1517 would pave the way for modern secular free thought to take root in Europe.

Bibles were printed in the vernacular for the first time and people were encouraged to read it. Various reformations took root across Europe. Critical thought was first tolerated within a religious context. Later a much greater emphasis would be placed on evidence and out of this the enlightenment movement was born. More recent Christians deviated from literal interpretation of the Bible and would later cease to read it at all. This freed them to create their own less violent and more humane version of the religion. From this point on autocratic forms of Christianity would lose influence. As regard for evidence based values increased in the west religion would go into decline. This may also have been due in part to centuries of war and conflict. The Islamic world has not had this cultural revolution and those that try to bring it about risk their lives as much of the Islamic world still cling to a 16th century Christian mind-set.

Secondly it may be in part due to the fact that mainstream Islamic leaders incentivise religious outrage. This is not a product of fundamentalist extremists. It is demonstrably visible in the rhetoric of the vast majority of Islamic leaders across Europe. The Christians of the post enlightenment world tolerate criticism of their religion. A society that is capable of doing this is much less likely to resort to violent extremism. This point would become increasingly clear in recent months as the Irish government announced its intention to hold a referendum to remove the crime of blasphemy from the constitution. Dr. Ali Selim is one of the most senior public figures promoting Islam in Ireland. This is what he had to say about the upcoming referendum.

“According to Islam, God, angels, holy scriptures, prophets, disciples or companions and places of worship are to be protected by the state against any publication or utterance of blasphemous matter”.

Islamic groups appear to be the only parties actively campaigning to keep this outdated law. Furthermore Ali Selim is on the record as stating that Muslims will not tolerate insults against Islam. It would be important that he clarify this position in the likely event that the law is repealed. The fervent regard among the Irish Muslim population for maintaining the Irish anti-blasphemy law was shown again this week during a radio debate on 4fm between Atheist Ireland chairman Michael Nugent and Imam Ibrahim Noonan. Even when Nugent put it to him that the Irish blasphemy law was being hailed by Pakistan while they use the same law to sentence Ahmedi Muslims (Ibrahim Noonans own sect) to prison it was still not a sufficient argument for him to change his position on the blasphemy law.

Why focus on Islam even if all the above is correct?

Bill Maher

Islamic extremism is likely to be a much greater impediment to secular values going into the future than those dangers posed by Catholicism or any other form of Christianity. The position of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the number of adherents of religions other than Islam across the developed world will likely go into decline. At some stage this will probably happen in the Islamic world too, however this cannot be expected anytime in the short to medium future. The Islamic community in Ireland will continue to grow as we have both legal and moral obligations under the Geneva Convention to assist those in genuine need of asylum. It is likely that the Muslim world in the Middle East and Africa will be at war for the foreseeable future and thousands of Muslim refugees will continue to seek refuge in western countries.

Unlike the confident rhetoric of President Obama I believe we will never crush militant Islam by the use of force. Just as I believe secularism is best achieved in countries that are irreligious likewise this is the case in the Islamic world. We need to acknowledge the bravery of both secular Muslims and ex-Muslims who try to change public opinion in these regions. We need to recognise that criticising Islam is not racist. It is simply criticising a stock of really dangerous concepts many of which have no place in civilised democratic societies. It is important to recognise the risk of radicalisation of young Muslims in our schools and colleges. When I introduced this as a reason for petitioning for a secular education system it gave rise to a degree of unease among some of those who supported my petition. There are those who will not be convinced by the human rights argument when it comes to the secularising of the Irish education system. It is important that conservatives who wish to keep the status quo intact realise that an education system that is based on an un-regulated school ethos will inevitably result in some Islamic schools becoming breeding grounds for radical Islamists. This is a threat we must take seriously. If one thinks this is alarmist then heed these words. They are not from a far right activist but from an Imam at the Dublin Islamic Cultural Centre in an article in the Sunday Tribune in May 2010.

“Al-Saleh said many of the extremists came to Ireland as asylum seekers and now their children are becoming adults, taking over university societies, brainwashing other students. These “indigenous” extremists are being bolstered by students from the Middle East”. The same Imam called Ireland a safe haven for Al-Qaeda.

A version of Islam that is more open to criticism will be more open to ideas of equality. While this is unlikely to happen in the near future it will only come about when both Muslims and non-Muslims alike feel free to criticise and satirise every aspect of the religion in the same manner as we do to Christianity. In short if we want to see reform in the Islamic world we need a war of words not weapons.

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