Greece Trip – Metochi

Thanks to my work on nonreligion and atheism, I was invited to participate in a week-long colloquium (May 13th through May 20th) in Greece by LeRon Shults in which I would serve as a “subject matter expert” helping LeRon and his team develop computer models to better predict who joins atheist organizations. You can learn more about LeRon and the project here. There were about 16 people who attended in total, with about half of them being subject matter experts like myself. We spent about 6 hours each day developing the models and thinking very carefully about the many factors that contribute to changes in atheist identity and affiliation.

The colloquium took place in what was formerly a monastery on the island of Lesvos called Metochi. Metochi is actually an annex to a larger monastery called Limonos. The larger monastery is connected to Metochi via a 1.5 km hiking trail through the surrounding hills (see below for more details). Metochi has, in recent years, been taken over to some degree by Agder University in Norway (where LeRon works). Agder University updated the former monastery, modernized it, cleaned it up, and now largely runs it as a quasi-owned university extension site. Metochi still has other guests (no monks), but many of the people who visit Metochi are affiliated with Agder University. Here’s a photosphere of Metochi’s courtyard:

We would typically spend about 4 hours working on the project in the morning, have lunch, then take a break in the afternoon to either relax or go explore (the same time many of the people on Lesvos where taking a nap). Since I prefer exploring over relaxing, I typically used the afternoon break to go hiking or do something else active. Here’s a rundown of what I did while I was there.

May 14th

This was the first free time I had and I was itching to go for a hike.  Living in Florida, there are no hills or mountains to climb. Being nestled in among some hills, I really wanted to get out and climb something. One of the other subject matter experts and I hiked to the Limonos monastery, walked around there a bit, then came back. Here’s a photo of the monastery from the trail:

Limonos monastery from trail to/from Metochi

And here’s the route from Metochi to Limonos and back:

May 15th

LeRon arranged to have a local bike shop owner come out and rent us bikes. There are a couple of towns that are pretty close, including Kalloni, Dafia, and Skala Kallonis. One of Skala’s claims to fame is that it was a temporary home of Aristotle where he studied biology. I biked to Skala with a few other people, walked along the beach, then sat and chatted with one of the subject matter experts I know fairly well.

Here I am at Aristotle’s beach (it’s not actually called that, but there is a statue of him about 50 meters from here):

me at Skala Kalloni beach

Here’s the route:

May 16th

The day I arrived I noticed that there was a hiking loop that could take someone to all the monasteries linked to Limonos. I saw the information on a board right in front of Metochi.

Information board on the Limonos loop hike in front of Metochi
This is a close-up of the loop itself.

The board indicated the loop was 9 kilometers and suggested it would take hikers about 3 hours. Since my afternoon break was just 3 hours, I figured I’d have to do the hike faster than that – ideally 2 hours, but 2 1/2 would still work. I managed to do the whole thing in 1 hour and 46 minutes (skipping a few extensions of the hike along the way). My route was 5.52 miles (or 8.88 kilometres), which is pretty much the route they laid out. The hike is pretty good. There is some elevation gain (533 feet) and there are parts that are really beautiful. The route from Metochi to Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis through Dafia is actually not that great. It’s really just a hike on dirt roads and then through a town. However, the route from Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis to Limonos in particular and then to Metochi is quite lovely. I’d recommend just hiking from Metochi to Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis and back.

Here are some photos of the route:

The route is fairly well-marked by these red diamonds. There were a few spots where the distance between the diamonds was pretty far and I wasn’t sure I was going the right way but I managed to stay on course for the most part.
I’d recommend hiking down to this point if you only do the northern half of the loop as it offers really impressive views of Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis, but this is as far as I would go. Just past this you’ll be walking past the garbage dump of Dafia which is much less impressive.
Most of the route from Limonos to Mirsiniotissis is actually a beautiful rock trail like this. It’s gorgeous!
This is a shot looking at Skala bay from above Metochi (after leaving Limonos). You’re just leaving the olive groves at this point.

Here’s my route:

And here are some of the stats from my hike so you have a better sense of the elevation gain and my speed compared to your own:

I was moving pretty fast as I had to get back to my seminar.

 

May 17th

This day was a scheduled off day. LeRon arranged for a bus to take us to Petra which is a bit of a tourist town on the coast where we got to do a little shopping, have lunch, and walk around for a bit. I walked around with another subject matter expert and even visited the chapel that stands on top of a massive rock in the middle of town. You can see the top of the chapel in this photo:

The Panagia Glykofilloussa in Petra

Here’s a photosphere from inside the chapel:

Petra is a cute little town with small, winding streets and nice places to shop.

After Petra, we went to the Lifejacket Graveyard (informal name) where thousands of life jackets from refugees have been dumped on the island of Lesvos. The original aim of putting them there was to keep them out of sight. However, as the life jackets piled up, they became an impromptu monument to the thousands of refugees – both those who survived and those who did not. It’s a very somber experience to visit.

One of the tougher aspects of visiting the graveyard is when you see kids lifejackets, like this:

One of the many kids life jackets at the Lifejacket Graveyard.

 

Here’s a photosphere of the Lifejacket Graveyard:

After the Life Jacket Graveyard, we went to the castle in Molyvos. We arrived just a few minutes before the castle closed but I managed to run through most of it. Here’s a shot of the castle near the entrance:

Molyvos Castle

And here’s a photosphere from near the top of the castle:

From there, we walked down into Molyvos. I ran into one of the subject matter experts after leaving the castle and he and I wandered through Molyvos before finding a bar on the beach and ordering a few drinks. We chatted for a couple of hours before heading up to the restaurant where we had dinner reservations. The restaurant had a stunning view and the food was amazing!

The sunset from our restaurant in Molyvos.

May 18th

Metochi is surrounded by hills that are covered with large boulders. Seeing those large boulders and hills day after day but not finding any hiking trails to climb the hills, I finally decided that I was going to go off-trail and see if I could climb one of the hills. That was a terrible idea. Despite donning some of my hiking pants, my gloves I brought for hiking Mount Olympus, and all my other gear, I still had exposed arms and my neck and face were exposed. The hike started with me wading through thick underbrush. Two minutes in and I was covered with burrs, had encountered multiple thistles, and I had lost a fight with a stinging nettle bush. Ten minutes later, my arms were covered with red bumps where one of the plants I had encountered had started an allergic reaction. I made it halfway up the hill, fighting my way through thorns, thickets, spider webs, and a variety of other plants, each of which really wanted to cause me serious pain. By 20 minutes in, I gave up. I’m not one for quitting, but it was the smart choice this time. I still had to work my way off the hill and down to a trail, which meant wading through some more vicious plants (seriously, everything had thorns). A scant 45 minutes after I started, I returned to Metochi covered in burrs with dozens of bumps on my arms. Hiking off trail in Lesvos is a bad idea.

May 19th

On the last day in Metochi, I hopped back on my bike and rode with a few other individuals down to Skala again. This time, I wore my bathing suit and spent a good hour and a half wading and swimming in the bay with another subject matter expert as we discussed various research projects. We got some lemonade at a cafe on the beach afterward, then rode our bikes back to Metochi.

Waiting for our drinks at a beach bar in Skala Kalloni.

Some concluding thoughts on Metochi

I really didn’t know what to expect when I was told we’d be holding the colloquium in a refurbished monastery. I was thinking I’d end up with a small cell (6 feet by 6 feet) with a tiny bed. It turns out my room was fairly spacious. It did have three beds in it (a single and then a bunk bed), a small desk, and a closet for clothes. With the room to myself, it was spacious. It also had a nice window overlooking the hiking trail. Bathrooms were shared (there were four on my floor) as were showers (there were four of those as well, but I often used the outside showers, which was refreshing in its own way). The room and facilities were kept clean but they did occasionally smell. The restrooms and showers were cleaned every day, but the plumbing is still a little wonky. We lost water there once (and power a couple of times). Throwing toilet paper into a trash can instead of the toilet took getting used to, but when in Greece…

The rest of the facilities at Metochi were also good. We used a couple of other rooms for our workshops and seminars. There was a large seminar room that could accommodate 40 or 50 people with two projectors and screens. The room I spent the most time in was just off that room and could hold about 8 people. It had a TV for projecting someone’s computer. There were other rooms for meetings but I never went into those.

The food was pretty good. All the food was served in the dining area, which was very unique. It was like a cave with a curved ceiling and walls. We ate in there the first night but the rest of the meals we got our food there but ate outside on the picnic tables. We had the same salad for lunch and dinner every day (cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, and some oil and herbs) and breakfast was typically the same as well, but the main dishes were varied for lunch and dinner. I enjoyed the food.

The one thing I didn’t love was the bugs. Obviously, being in the middle of nowhere, you’re going to be closer to nature. But I have never seen so many moths in my life. Every bathroom had like 10 moths in it at any one time. I’m sure I inadvertently killed dozens of them just by showering, closing doors, etc. They were everywhere. There were also lots of flies whenever we would eat outside. Every meal I spent a good amount of time swatting flies off my food. A fly every now and then would have been fine – that’s life. But this was a lot more than that. There were other critters, but the moths and the flies were the annoying ones.

Ending on more positive notes… I took a black light a colleague lent me and went out scorpion hunting a couple of nights. In the rocks right outside the front of Metochi I found a scorpion both nights I looked. Scorpions are there, they just hide well during the day. I also found an injured one right in front of some of the rooms (someone must have stepped on it unknowingly as it tried to climb into someone’s room after the sun had gone down). In short, there are scorpions. Check your shoes before you put them on.

I loved how there were chairs and tables all over the place at Metochi. I learned a really valuable lesson going there. Being isolated like that – with no TVs or other distractions – made for a lot of time to contemplate. I think I now understand why they called it the “contemplative life” for monks and nuns. Removing all the regular distractions (we still had internet, but we were encouraged to just get together and chat) gave us a lot of time to think. Of course, thinking too much can be a little scary at times. But I found the experience beneficial. In my busy day-to-day life, finding time to just sit and think is rare. I should do that more often.

Disingenuous Christian Proselytizing

I get a lot of emails. I try to answer all of my emails but am increasingly realizing that some of it may not be worthy of a response. For instance, a few days ago I received an email from someone claiming to have listened to a podcast I did. Here’s what he wrote:

Hi Ryan

I hope I’m not taking too much of a liberty by contacting you on this address.

I just watched your excellent four years old interview with TheThinkingAtheist which explains why a lot of people (including me) hate religion.

However, it prompts me to ask you whether or not you believe that Jesus lived two thousand years ago as described in the New Testament scriptures?

Best regards

Chris Needs

I’m not above a little praise. This individual said that my interview was excellent. Since the question seemed reasonable, I responded:

Hi Chris,

Glad you enjoyed the interview.

I tend to rely on experts whenever and wherever I can. On this issue, I side with Bart Ehrman, a Biblical Studies scholar, who has far more knowledge than I do on the topic. He suggests that there was a Jewish reformer named Jesus who lived during the 1st century C.E. who had a following. He didn’t do most of what is claimed in the New Testament and died a failed messiah. But there is sufficient extra-biblical evidence to suggest he lived; it is likely true that he did. The book I would recommend on this topic is: Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman presents the evidence and arguments for this topic in a clear and readable way. So, the short answer is, yes, I believe there was a Jewish reformer named Jesus roughly 2,000 years ago. Was he a savior god or messiah? No. Just a failed revolutionary who was killed by the Romans.

Best,

Ryan

I was trying to be helpful and sincere. Then I got this email:

Hi Ryan

I so appreciated your quick response that I’m feeling guilty about taking so long with mine.

I’ve been carrying such a burden for you and I’ve been asking for ways to reconnect you spiritually.

Please watch this video [NOTE: I’m not providing the link, but it’s to a Christian evangelism video] and the second one in the series; let me know if you need the link.

Blessings Ryan

I look forward to meeting you one day

Chris Needs

I didn’t respond. This same individual sent another email with a link to the second video the next day.

I’m sure, at some level, Chris Needs believes he is doing the right thing. He thinks he is helping a “lost soul” come back to Jesus. But he used deception to begin the conversation. This is dishonest and disingenuous. Chris is not winning me back to Jesus by deceiving me. What he’s doing is showing me that he believes it is okay to be deceptive and dishonest in the pursuit of what he believes is a higher purpose – winning souls for Jesus. What he has actually accomplished is illustrated that he, like many other religious people, is willing to sacrifice morality for ideology.

(NOTE: His email is: chrisjneeds@gmail.com. If he emails you, be prepared for evangelism.)

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant

On December 17th, Debi and I (along with two friends) went to the American Stage Theatre Company’s presentation of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant. As someone who studies religion for his job, is fascinated by religion, and lives near Clearwater, FL, one of the centers of Scientology, I had high hopes.  Those hopes probably worked against this production.  Maybe it was the specific Company, maybe it was the content, but I was disappointed.  The show isn’t really clear in what it is trying to say, though it hits on some of Scientology’s more obscure teachings (e.g., Thetans and e-meters).  The focus is on L. Ron Hubbard, but it almost seems sympathetic to him at times, especially considering how odd he really was.  And since the show is supposed to be satirical, it seemed to me like it could have been much more so without being offensive, increasing laughs in the process.  Instead, the humor is mild and rare; the satire is light; and the singing was so-so.  I wasn’t impressed and neither were those who went with me.  Thanks to Groupon, we went for half price, which is good as I would have felt really bad had I paid full price for this production.

cat problem and innate morality

Our neighbors to the east of us recently moved out (they were renting).  In the last couple of months before they moved out, we think they adopted a young cat.  They may not have and the cat may have just showed up recently, but it seemed to spend a lot of time in their yard, so we think it was their cat.  Anyway, them adopting a cat would not, in itself, be a problem except they neglected the cat.  It was left outside all the time and often wandered into our yard.  And when they moved, they didn’t take the cat with them.  Searching for food and companionship, the cat came over to our house.  Now, if you know Debi and I, you’ll know that is a problem.  We don’t hate other animals, but we’re also not fans of having animals as pets.  It’s just not our thing.  So, while I felt sorry for the cat, I wasn’t about to adopt it.  And since the ownership status of the cat was in question, the first day or so of the cat trying to sneak into our house simply annoyed me but didn’t spur me into action to try to find it a home.

However, this kind of came to a head one evening when I was watching Toren and Debi was out of town.  Toren and I were walking around the yard looking at some work we had done on the house (we just got new windows).  The cat, probably hungry and certainly longing for attention, kept trying to brush up against my legs.  I fully recognize my brutishness here, but, as I said, I’m not a pet person.  The first couple of times the cat brushed up against my leg, aside from it scaring Toren who was originally walking with me, it didn’t bother me.  But the cat got aggressive and was pushing through my legs.  On one of these attempts to brush my leg I think I stepped on one of the cats paws and, in obvious self-defense, the cat clawed my leg (I was wearing my work clothes, which means I had on thin dress socks that had no chance against the cats claws).  Now, rather than being sympathetic but mostly indifferent to the cat’s plight, I was annoyed.  I was carrying Toren and didn’t want to drop him but also didn’t want to step on the cat again and didn’t want to get scratched.  What to do?  Using my foot, I tried to push the cat away.  The cat would have none of it.  It came right back (like this cat).

I got a little more aggressive, which escalated the cat’s response, and it clawed me again.  Now I was getting angry.  I pushed the cat away with my foot a bit more fervently:

it wasn't quite this fervently, but it was fervently

It was at this point that something interesting happened: Toren started to cry.  Toren wasn’t hurt in any of this and he had no specific reason to cry from pain or anything else.  The cat hadn’t clawed him.  Why was he crying, then?  My best guess is that he felt sympathy for the cat and found my efforts to push the cat away with my foot disturbing.  My lack of sympathy for a distraught cat upset my 17 month old toddler!  Now, anyone who has had a child will know that kids at 17 months are not likely to have had advanced training in ethics or even had an intelligible conversation about the morality of human relations with other animals.  We have started teaching Toren what things are right and wrong in our house (e.g., don’t throw your cheerios; don’t play with the DVD player, etc.), but this situation was completely novel.  Toren had never been exposed to interactions between humans and cats.  He has been around a few dogs, but not many, and he had certainly never seen anyone “fervently” push a cat away with his foot.  Thus, in a completely novel situation, Toren determined that something immoral was happening and it bothered him so much he started to cry.  Fascinating!

What this means, then, is that, assuming my interpretation of this incident is correct, my 17 month old son has an innate sense of morality and found my behavior in this situation disturbing.  There is empirical evidence that this is the case (see here).  I had read about this, but never observed it in action.  Thus, this was a fascinating incident for me to observe.  This also supports the idea that morality is, at least in some people, biologically programmed.  Most humans (the exceptions being sociopaths) have at least a basic, innate sense of morality; it does not have to come from religion or philosophy!

For those interested, I eventually extricated myself from the cat and its claws, fought my way into our house (the cat tried to get in), and called animal control.  It was after hours and no one answered.  I was going to call again the next day they were open, but the cat disappeared and has not returned.

nice story about my brother Mark

I was chatting with my Mom over IM the other day when she told me a story about my brother Mark (well, sort of).  A little background is required.  After the funeral and the internment ceremony, there was a reception at my parents church (which is right next to the cemetery).  At the reception there were blue, helium-filled balloons.  Those who went to the reception were asked to write a message to Mark on a 3×5 card and staple it to the strings attached to the balloons.  At the end of the reception they were going to let them go.  We actually missed this part of the reception as Toren came down with a fever during the reception, so we left early and took him to a clinic in Ogden.  Anyway, the balloon release took place as planned, leading up to this story:

Eugenie: You know how we let the balloons go?

Ryan: Yeah.

Eugenie: Well, the next Sunday after church – that was 4 days later – Kristen (one of Mark’s sisters-in-law) looked up on the hill where his grave is.  There was one blue balloon hovering over his grave.

The nice thing about this story is that a it’s a touching story regardless of your worldview.

On TV again – as an expert on “heaven”

I received an email from the director of PR at my university last week looking for an expert on religion to comment on a news story the local Fox affiliate was running about heaven and different conceptions of heaven.  While a religious studies scholar might have been a better option, I figured I know enough about different religions’ conceptions of heaven to comment intelligently about the subject, so I agreed to go on the air for the interview.  It aired last night.

RE: Joys of Muslim Women – more debunking

Another relative (not my uncle this time), sent me the email below, but (I think smartly) asked me if it was accurate.  My response follows the email:

This was written by a woman born in Egypt as a Muslim.

This is not heresay, and it will scare the life out of you. Make sure you read the paragraph (in red) towards the end.

Joys of Muslim Women
by Nonie Darwish

In the Muslim faith a Muslim man can marry a child as young as 1 year old and have sexual intimacy with this child. Consummating the marriage by 9. The dowry is given to the family in exchange for the woman (who becomes his slave) and for the purchase of the private parts of the woman, to use her as a toy.

Even though a woman is abused she can not obtain a divorce. To prove rape, the woman must have (4) male witnesses. Often after a woman has been raped, she is returned to her family and the family must return the dowry. The family has the right to execute her (an honor killing) to restore the honor of the family. Husbands can beat their wives ‘at will’ and he does not have to say why he has beaten her.

The husband is permitted to have (4 wives) and a temporary wife for an hour (prostitute) at his discretion.

The Shariah Muslim law controls the private as well as the public life of the woman.

In the West World ( America ) Muslim men are starting to demand Shariah Law so the wife can not obtain a divorce and he can have full and complete control of her. It is amazing and alarming how many of our sisters and daughters attending American Universities are now marrying Muslim men and submitting themselves and their children unsuspectingly to the Shariah law.

By passing this on, enlightened American women may avoid becoming a slave under Shariah Law.

Ripping the West in Two.
Author and lecturer Nonie Darwish says the goal of radical Islamists is to impose Shariah law on the world, ripping Western law and liberty in two.

She recently authored the book, Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law.

Darwish was born in Cairo and spent her childhood in Egypt and Gaza before immigrating to America in 1978, when she was eight years old. Her father died while leading covert attacks on Israel . He was a high-ranking Egyptian military officer stationed with his family in Gaza .

When he died, he was considered a “shahid,” a martyr for jihad. His posthumous status earned Nonie and her family an elevated position in Muslim society.

But Darwish developed a skeptical eye at an early age. She questioned her own Muslim culture and upbringing.. She converted to Christianity after hearing a Christian preacher on television.

In her latest book, Darwish warns about creeping sharia law – what it is, what it means, and how it is manifested in Islamic countries.

For the West, she says radical Islamists are working to impose sharia on the world. If that happens, Western civilization will be destroyed. Westerners generally assume all religions encourage a respect for the dignity of each individual. Islamic law (Sharia) teaches that non-Muslims should be subjugated or killed in this world.

Peace and prosperity for one’s children is not as important as assuring that Islamic law rules everywhere in the Middle East and eventually in the world.

While Westerners tend to think that all religions encourage some form of the golden rule, Sharia teaches two systems of ethics – one for Muslims and another for non-Muslims. Building on tribal practices of the seventh century, Sharia encourages the side of humanity that wants to take from and subjugate others.

While Westerners tend to think in terms of religious people developing a personal understanding of and relationship with God, Sharia advocates executing people who ask difficult questions that could be interpreted as criticism.

It’s hard to imagine, that in this day and age, Islamic scholars agree that those who criticize Islam or choose to stop being Muslim should be executed. Sadly, while talk of an Islamic reformation is common and even assumed by many in the West, such murmurings in the Middle East are silenced through intimidation.

While Westerners are accustomed to an increase in religious tolerance over time, Darwish explains how petro dollars are being used to grow an extremely intolerant form of political Islam in her native Egypt and elsewhere.

(In twenty years there will be enough Muslim voters in the U.S. to elect the President by themselves! Rest assured they will do so… You can look at how they have taken over several towns in the USA .. Dearborn Mich. is one… and there are others…)

I think everyone in the U.S. should be required to read this, but with the ACLU, there is no way this will be widely publicized, unless each of us sends it on!

It is too bad that so many are disillusioned with life and Christianity to accept Muslims as peaceful.. some may be but they have an army that is willing to shed blood in the name of Islam.. the peaceful support the warriors with their finances and own kind of patriotism to their religion. While America is getting rid of Christianity from all public sites and erasing God from the lives of children the Muslims are planning a great jihad on America ..

This is your chance to make a difference…! Pass it on to your email list or at least those you think will listen..

Some of those I’m sending it to WILL NOT! Put your head back under the covers so you can’t see the boogie man!

My response:

Thanks for contacting me.  You’re right that I have some insight into these types of things as I study religion as my job.  So, I’ll do my best to address the claims in the email.
Oh, and keep in mind where I’m coming from as I address the points in the email…  I’m not sure how much you know about my current religious views, but the short version is I’m not religious.  I only mention that so you know that I’m not trying to defend Islam, but rather be as fair as possible.  Because I am not religious, I don’t feel like I have to defend any religion and can be equally critical of all religions.  So, that’s the approach I’ll take here.
First off, a number of websites are claiming that Nonie Darwish is not the author of the email (see here and here).  Despite not having written the email, Darwish has suggested that she thinks a lot of what it says is accurate (according to one of the previously mentioned websites).  I’m going to take issue with her on that.  But I think it is worth noting that Darwish is a former Muslim turned Christian who appears to make her living criticizing Islam (per her Wikipedia page).  She has also embraced (and been embraced by) the far right in the political sphere in the U.S.  The above suggests to me that she may not be the most reliable source of information on Islam.

So, let’s examine the claims one by one.

This was written by a woman born in Egypt as a Muslim.

Well, this seems to be referring to Nonie Darwish.  But Nonie denies it.  So, the email is off to a bad start as it begins with an outright lie.

This is not heresay, and it will scare the life out of you.

If someone has to tell you that what they are saying is not “heresay” (which is misspelled, another bad sign; it should read “hearsay”), I’m inclined to believe that it is precisely hearsay.  People with accurate information provide sources for their readers, so they can verify their information.  This email does not.  So, we’re starting out with an outright lie and someone trying to set people up to believe what the email says.

In the Muslim faith a Muslim man can marry a child as young as 1 year old and  have sexual intimacy with this child. Consummating the marriage by 9. The dowry is given to the family in exchange for the woman (who becomes his  slave) and for the purchase of the private parts of the woman, to use her as a  toy.

This is really the first “fact claim” made in the email and it’s not really accurate.  First off, if you take the Quran as the foundation of Islam, which most Muslims would, the Quran says virtually nothing about age at first marriage.  Critics of Islam would be certain to jump on any verse in the Quran that says girls can be married as young as 1 and men can have sexual intimacy with that child.  Such a statement in the Quran would be condemned by, well, everyone except the most extreme pedophiles.  So, doing some quick searching, I found some articles online written by critics who have found what the Quran says about age at first marriage (see here).  Basically, one verse (4:6) suggests that the youngest age for a girl to be married is at puberty, which, of course, is not a specific age as girls go through puberty at different ages (from about 9-15, for most girls, give or take a few years).  So, the initial claim that Islam says men can marry a child as young as 1 and be sexually intimate with that child is simply untrue.

I can, however, imagine one slight variation of this idea having some truth.  In cultures where arranged marriages are common, it is possible that a young girl, as young as 1 or even younger, could be promised to an older man.  But I have never seen any evidence to suggest that girls promised to older men are married to them until they are substantially older, and certainly it is not common or even accepted practice for older men to have sex with 1 year old children in Islam or in any predominantly Muslim country.

This statement then confounds the original claim (marriage and sex at 1) with the next claim, saying that the marriage can be “consummated” by age 9.  Basically, the second phrase (it’s not a complete sentence) contradicts the first (the email is poorly written).  What’s interesting about this second claim is that there is some evidence that Mohammad, the founder of Islam, married a girl at age 6 and consummated the marriage at age 9 (see here).  If this is true (and it seems likely that it is), then Mohammad may have acted in contradiction to the very scripture he claimed to reveal by marrying a pre-pubescent girl.  The morality of that, especially given the time period and culture, is certainly open to debate.  But as far as the email goes, there is no mention of the connection to Mohammad.  So, basically, what you have is the author of the email making an almost completely unfounded claim (marriage and sex at 1) that is then coupled with the alleged age of consummation of marriage by Mohammad with one of his wives, Aisha.  Whoever wrote this is either very ignorant or intentionally confusing.

The next part of the above quote claims that the woman is “purchased,” specifically her “private parts,” and that she is to be used as a toy by men.  This, too, is simply far too misleading to be of merit.  Islam has no monopoly on mistreating women and, in fact, was arguably well ahead of its time in giving women legal status, which was far more progressive than medieval Europe (deeply entrenched in Christianity at that time).  Even so, women in many religious traditions have been seen as little more than property.  In fact, this idea is enshrined in the 10 Commandments: Exodus 20:17 “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”  The last part of this verse makes it quite clear that women are seen as being the property of their husband.  In short, treating women as property – originally as her father’s, then as her husband’s (which is why she adopts his name in the Western World, because men put their name on their property) – was a widespread cultural practice prior to the 1600s (you can see the status of women in the Bible here and here).  As I noted, Islam was actually progressive on this issue, as is outlined here.   Are women depicted as “toys” or “playthings” for their husbands in the Quran?  Not really.  And, trust me, I’m no fan of the treatment of women in the Quran, where they are clearly illustrated to be less than a man (seehere).  So, if I could find a verse that said that women were “toys” for men, I’d certainly point it out.  The Quran does say that men can have sex with their wives pretty much whenever they want (see here), but it doesn’t go so far as to say that women are “toys” or “playthings” or sex slaves (though some might consider that implied).  Overall, then, are women in Islam sold as property to their husbands to be toys?  No.  That’s simply not true, generally.  Are women sometimes and in some places treated as “property” in predominantly Muslim societies?  Yes.  But this also happens in Buddhist, Christian, and even Mormon societies.  That doesn’t justify it – it’s wrong wherever it occurs.  But it does suggest that this is not something unique to Islam.

Next claim:

Even though a woman is abused she can not obtain a divorce.

This is not true.  Not only does the Quran not say that women cannot divorce, it actually says they can.  Yes, it is harder for a woman to get a divorce than for a man to get a divorce, and this varies by culture/nation, but women in Islam can divorce.  See here and here.

To prove rape, the woman must have (4) male witnesses.

Wrong again, see here.  While there are instances when women have been punished for having been raped (though, in all fairness, in the case I’m thinking about from Saudi Arabia, the punishment was supposedly from her being alone in a car with a male, not for being raped), mostly Muslims oppose this.  The author of this email is confusing adultery with rape; see here.

Often after a woman has been raped, she is returned to her family and the family  must return the dowry.  The family has the right to execute her (an honor  killing) to restore the honor of the family. Husbands can beat their wives ‘at  will’ and he does not have to say why he has beaten her.

Once again, the author is confusing different elements of Islam and Arabic culture.  Rarely after a woman is raped is she killed by her family over family honor, but it has happened (see here).  However, as the example I just cited makes clear, the family members involved in that honor killing were sentenced to life in prison for killing their raped daughter.  Honor killings do occur (see here).  Of course I don’t think they are ever justified, but rarely do they occur over rape.  Usually they occur when a woman has “shamed” the family by leaving an arranged marriage or had sex outside of marriage (again, I’m not justifying honor killings, just clarifying; in my opinion they are always wrong).  So, the above claim is again misleading, even in how it is worded.  If you look at it carefully, it basically suggests that a woman is (1) married, thus the dowry, then (2) is raped, then (3) is returned to her family, and (4) her family has the right to murder her.  Unless the intent of the author of the email was to suggest that married women in Islam are just raped by their husbands (some, I’m sure, are, but most are not), then this doesn’t make sense.  If a married woman in Islam was raped (and it was not in conjunction with her breaking any other customs or laws), there would be no punishment for the woman at all (in almost all cases; again, I can’t say in all cases as that isn’t known).  So, the claim makes no sense.

As for husbands being allowed to beat their wives… Well, yes, this is suggested in at least one verse in the Quran (4:34), as a last resort to getting women to submit to their husbands.  It’s abhorrent and immoral.  Of course, submission of women to men is also demanded in the Bible (Ephesians 5:22-24), but it does not explicitly say that beating is allowed.  Either way, wives submitting to husbands and abuse are terrible.  This is probably the closest to accurate statement in the email so far.

The husband is permitted to have (4 wives) and a temporary wife for an hour  (prostitute) at his discretion.

The Quran allows polygamy – up to 4 wives.  This is accurate.  Prostitution is not prohibited in Islam and “enjoyment marriages” (basically prostitution) have and do take place in predominantly Muslim cultures and are justified by Shariah Law (seehere).  I’m not going to debate the morality of prostitution in this response, but I will note that both polygamy and prostitution are pretty common in the Bible as well and their positions in the Bible, morally, are quite ambiguous.

The Shariah Muslim law controls the private as well as the public life of the woman.

Shariah is very complicated in Islam, as not all Muslims agree what is included as part of Shariah (see here). Some include just the Quran, others include additional teachings and interpretations.  If you include just the Quran, the above statement is probably not true.  The Quran does not explicitly detail things like Muslim veiling practices.  If you take a broader interpretation of Shariah and include the other teachings, this statement may be true.  So, again, this is a misleading and confusing statement.

In the West World ( America ) Muslim men are starting to demand Shariah Law so  the wife can not obtain a divorce and he can have full and complete control of  her.  It is amazing and alarming how many of our sisters and daughters attending  American Universities are now marrying Muslim men and submitting themselves and their children unsuspectingly to the Shariah law.

“West World”?  Ughh!  Whoever wrote this doesn’t know how to write!  Anyway, this claim is much looser and therefore much more difficult to address.  Basically, you can find one or two instances of people trying to advocate Sharia in the West and say this claim is true (and such examples exist; see here).  But how widespread is it?  My sense, and I don’t have hard numbers on this, is that this represents a minority of Muslims in the West.  As far as the motivations for instituting Shariah, which are implied in this (primarily female submission and oppression), my sense is that advocacy of Shariah is not strictly to control women and children but for many because they believe it is required to live their religion.

By passing this on, enlightened American women may avoid becoming a slave under  Shariah Law.

This interjection breaks the flow of the rant, but is also erroneous.  Women are not slaves in Islam.  Are they required to submit to their husbands?  Yes, technically.  But for many Muslim women, that “requirement” is not closely followed, just as many Christian women don’t “submit” to their husbands.  Some might consider submission to be the equivalent of slavery, but I wouldn’t go quite that far.  I don’t like the idea of “submission” and think it is immoral, but it is not slavery (not far removed from it, but not, technically, the same thing).

Author and lecturer Nonie Darwish says the goal of radical Islamists is to  impose Shariah law on the world, ripping Western law and liberty in two.

Nonie Darwish may or may not have said this.  I don’t know.  I haven’t read her books.  But it sounds like a reasonable statement – radical Muslims do want to make the entire world Muslim.  That is true.  But they also make up a very small percentage of Muslims – maybe 5% to 10% of Muslims are truly radical in their views.

The next parts of the email are basically taken from Nonie Darwish’s wikipedia page, so I’m going to skip them.  I’ll start again here:

For the West, she says radical Islamists are working to impose sharia on the  world. If that happens, Western civilization will be destroyed. Westerners  generally assume all religions encourage a respect for the dignity of each  individual.  Islamic law (Sharia) teaches that non-Muslims should be subjugated  or killed in this world.

I already addressed the first sentence.  Yes, some radical Muslims want that.  And, yes, if that occurred the world would be radically different – by definition.  But it isn’t going to happen.  Radical Muslims are a minority of Muslims and they aren’t growing in any dramatic way.

The second part of the above quote is actually more interesting to me.  The claim is made that Westerners advocate dignity of the individual.  That’s certainly true of secular humanists, but much less of most religions.  The Old Testament (and parts of the New Testament) is full of god telling his chosen people to kill others; genocide is pretty common in the Old Testament.  That runs counter to autonomy.  Yes, Western culture does generally advocate individualism, that’s true.  But that is largely through secular development, not because of religion.

Does the Quran advocate killing or subjugating non-Muslims?  Technically, only if they attack Muslims (though the Quran goes a bit further with the non-religious, suggesting that maybe it’s okay to kill them).  Shariah may go further than that and suggest that all non-Muslims must die, but that is certainly not the view of most Muslims.

Peace and prosperity for one’s children is not as important as assuring that Islamic law rules everywhere in the Middle East and eventually in the world.

This may be true for the radicals, but it is not true for most Muslims.  Of course, radical Christians want a theocracy as well (see here), but most Christians don’t.  This is basically just the worldview of radical religionists everywhere.

While Westerners tend to think that all religions encourage some form of the  golden rule, Sharia teaches two systems of ethics – one for Muslims and another  for non-Muslims. Building on tribal practices of the seventh century, Sharia  encourages the side of humanity that wants to take from and subjugate others.

Despite my criticisms of Islam, I don’t find the above compelling.  Does the Quran talk about different systems of ethics for Muslims and non-Muslims?  Yes.  But like many religions, it holds Muslims to a higher standard of charity and goodwill to others than it holds non-Muslims.  Claiming that the goal of Islam is to subjugate others I believe is simply untrue.  Would Muslims say that they want to convert everyone to Islam?  Sure.  But so do most Christians (i.e., Catholics, Mormons, etc.) and many other religionists and even most secularists.  That’s very different from subjugating others.

While Westerners tend to think in terms of religious people developing a  personal understanding of and relationship with God, Sharia advocates executing  people who ask difficult questions that could be interpreted as criticism. It’s hard to imagine, that in this day and age, Islamic scholars agree that  those who criticize Islam or choose to stop being Muslim should be executed.  Sadly, while talk of an Islamic reformation is common and even assumed by many  in the West, such murmurings in the Middle East are silenced through  intimidation.

We finally get to the section where the author’s biases are made clear.  The author of this email is a Christian, and likely an evangelical Christian (given the emphasis on a personal relationship with god).  The Quran does not say execute people who ask questions and, in fact, it does not say to execute people who leave Islam.  Sharia law does call for executing people who leave Islam, but many Muslims don’t agree with Sharia law on that point.  And it’s not like the status of Christian apostates is much better.  Many apostates from Christianity have been killed over the years.  That’s unlikely to happen today, particularly in the U.S., but they are still demonized and not treated very well.  So, I’d say the author is being duplicitous here – claiming Christianity is better than Islam and kinder to its apostates.  Neither claim rings true to me.

While Westerners are accustomed to an increase in religious tolerance over time,  Darwish explains how petro dollars are being used to grow an extremely  intolerant form of political Islam in her native Egypt and elsewhere.

Darwish may claim this.  Again, I don’t know.  But whether the goal of petroleum dollars is to grow extremist Islam or not I think is highly questionable.  My sense is that in some countries oil money is used to enrich the leaders of the countries.  In others, some of the money may be funneled to religious extremists.  But this makes it seem as though oil money is channeled directly to fundamentalists.  I don’t think that is accurate.

(In twenty years there will be enough Muslim voters in the  U.S. to elect the  President by themselves! Rest assured they will do so… You can look at how  they have taken over several towns in the USA .. Dearborn Mich. is one… and  there are others…)

As a sociologist who studies trends in religious affiliation for his job and has published on this, I can pretty confidently say that this claim is complete and utter garbage.  Most of my commentary on the previous content of the email is really that of a fairly well-educated expert on religion, but not on Islam.  But this particular claim is literally what I study – religious growth and decline.  Islam is barely growing in the U.S., and it is doing so primarily through immigration, not conversion.  Also, most of the Muslims who move to the U.S. pretty quickly assimilate and are much less extreme in their views than are the radicals in other parts of the world.  While a few religions in the U.S. are growing in absolute numbers (e.g., Catholicism), most are shrinking as a percentage of the population as the non-religious continue to grow.  I have argued in my research that the growth of the non-religious is likely to continue.  If any group will be in a position to elect a president in 20 years in the U.S., it will be the non-religious, not Muslims.

I think everyone in the U.S. should be required to read this, but with the ACLU,  there is no way this will be widely publicized, unless each of us sends it on!

This is a tell-tale sign of a poorly written, crappy chain email.  Not only does it baselessly rail against the ACLU, which would actually protect the author’s right to write this, but it asks that you send it on.  That’s a good indication that the author of this email is a right-wing conservative Christian who hates the ACLU and feels threatened by immigration and people not like him/her.

It is too bad that so many are disillusioned with life and Christianity to  accept Muslims as peaceful.. some may be but they have an army that is willing  to shed blood in the name of Islam.. the peaceful support the warriors with  their finances and own kind of patriotism to their religion. While America is  getting rid of Christianity from all public sites and erasing God from the lives  of children the Muslims are planning a great jihad on America ..

Most Muslims are peaceful.  If that were not the case, we would have far more wars than we currently do as Muslims make up 1/6 of the world’s population.  So, the author has his/her numbers wrong.  As for their being “an army” willing to shed blood… Sure, there are some willing to do that (e.g., Al Qaeda, Hamas, etc.).  But there are also Christians willing to do that, as the terrorist actions of Christians in the U.S. and abroad illustrate (most recently with the killing of Dr. Tiller in Kansas, which was a terrorist act on American soil perpetrated by a Christian on a Christian).  This doesn’t make me say that most Christians are violent or part of an army out to kill Muslims or the non-religious.  Likewise, most Muslims are peace loving and are not supportive of terrorism.

This is your chance to make a difference…! Pass it on to your email list or at  least those you think will listen..  Some of those I’m sending it to WILL NOT!  Put your head back under the covers so you can’t see the boogie man!

Once again, this is a tell-tale sign of a poorly written, unreferenced, unsourced chain letter.  Passing these along makes people more prejudiced by encouraging them to believe things that are simply not true.  Maybe 20% of the content of this email is kind of accurate.  The rest is either completely untrue, half-truths, or misleading.  The real boogie man is the person who wrote this.

Do keep in mind as I said at the outset, I’m no fan of religion, including Islam.  If you want to criticize religion, there is plenty to criticize without telling lies.  Islam, like most other religions, has a number of problems, including the mistreatment of women, scientific inaccuracies, and a reliance on outdated moral teachings from the 7th Century.  Those are all points worthy of criticism.  This email falls very flat in trying to criticize Islam and reveals more about the ignorance and biases of the author than it does about Islam.

I hope this helps.  And feel free to contact me about things like this in the future.

Best,

Ryan

my best publication yet!

I don’t typically mention my publications on this blog, but this is one about which I am particularly proud.  I think it is a significant contribution not only to the study of Mormonism but also to theory in the Sociology of Religion as well.  I’m also proud of it because of the amount of time that went into it.  I’m guessing that this article took me close to 1,000 hours to produce (that’s about 41 days).  It started as a class project in graduate school, probably around 2003 or 2004.  It then turned into a series of conference presentations, was submitted to three different journals, all of which rejected it but provided useful feedback.  Eventually I decided that the article needed to aim larger than just Mormons, so I included Adventists and Witnesses and invited Ron Lawson to help me (he’s an expert on Adventists and Witnesses).  Anyway, here’s a link to the article:

The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists

If you’re really geeky and want to read the article but don’t have access to the journal via a university subscription, let me know and I can send you a copy of the article.

I made Glenn Beck mad!

He’s ranting about this report, of which I am a co-author. I consider this a shining achievement and derive almost as much satisfaction from watching Glenn Beck’s hysterics over our survey as I did when I learned I was going to publish my first article.

My only regret: I didn’t make him cry!