~b and the curse of Matilda

Matilda told such dreadful lies
It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.
Her aunt, who from her earliest youth
Had held a strict regard for truth,
Attempted to believe Matilda.
The effort very nearly killed her!

Is it really more than twelve months since I set metaphorical foot in this space?

Over at The Aspirational Agnostic there have been some fairly serious allegations of Matilda-ing.  To read it as it happened, I suggest you head over to The Aspirational Agnostic – just try not to let your head explode as you take in the comments following TAA’s story.

The bit I’m interested in is how to create space in which dialogue can take place, rather than blind argument.  An allegation of Matilda-ing immediately shuts such a space down: lack of trust has many faces but none of them has open ears.

I’ve recently finished reading Islam and the future of tolerance: a dialogue, a fabulous conversation between the well-known and respected atheist Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim who was but is no longer an extremist.  The book offers many valid and useful criticisms of Islamic fundamentalism which turn out to be just as valid criticisms of certain expressions of Christianity.  However, the thing which strikes me most is the careful consideration of the suffix –ism.*  Nawaz and Harris specifically distinguish between Islam and Islamism.  The –ism is seen as an ideological insistence that all people must accept the dictates of Islam combined with the explicit understanding that the use of force is an acceptable means of achieving that end.

A different example of this kind of religious –ism is the culture which developed in Japan in the period leading up to the Second World War; there, Emperor worship combined with a skewed understanding of their samurai past led the Japanese to believe it was both acceptable and necessary to rule over the other nations of Asia.  Cue Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore, the Burma railroad, and the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  Where people insist that all others must conform to their ideology then there can be no discussion and no tolerance.

This dialogue between atheist Harris and Muslim Naawaz beautifully serves to illustrate tolerance at the same time providing a useful definition of in-tolerance. Neither the atheist nor the Muslim insists that the other has to relinquish their underlying beliefs before they can engage in discussion; neither assumes the right to impose on the other.  Neither of them is guilty of –ism.

Which drags me – albeit unwillingly – back to the vexed question of whether or not it’s possible to be a fundamentalist atheist.  (A topic argued heatedly elsewhere in this blog as well as over at The Aspirational Agnostic.)

Fundamentalist Christians insist that others must conform to their worldview; fundamentalist Muslims ditto.  What then do we call atheists who do the same?  How are people of faith – however misguided or unhelpful that faith might be – to interpret the actions of people without faith who absolutely insist that everyone else must agree one hundred percent with them?

If a Christian or a Muslim posted “this is what will happen when you choose to stop allowing me to comment truthfully on your site: I will introduce your deceit and dishonesty to a wider audience…” we would  dismiss it as an illustration of religious intolerance, of fundamental-ism.  However, these are the words of an atheist, a person who claims the voice of rationality but who is just as prone to irrationality as the rest of us.  And that’s because none of us is perfect, none of us escapes the human desire to beat our “enemies”, none of us is immune to faulty logic and prejudiced reasoning.  Regardless of our high ideals or the intellectual rigour we think we exercise, we’re all susceptible to –ism.

The funny/tragic part about the comments on TAA’s blog is that they embody the very quality they seek to criticise: blind prejudice.  The funny aspect is that her harshest critic, the one who most vehemently accuses her of telling porkies, ~b simply can’t allow space for TAA’s story to vary from his own; his atheist arguments simply must be accepted by all parties.  The voice of intellectual tolerance is in-tolerant.  The tragic part is that ~b has a useful contribution to make but his –ism means others turn him off (much as we turn off the shouting ads on TV) and miss his valid criticisms.

The tragic story of Matilda “who told such dreadful lies” takes an unexpected twist.  In Hillaire Belloc’s tale, Matilda is ignored with fatal consequences:
For every time she shouted “Fire!”
They only answered “Little Liar!”

However, in TAA’S tale,
Every time ~b shouts “big, fat liar!”
They only answer “I see no fire.”


*  Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter.  -Ism’s in my opinion are not good.  A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.   I quote John Lennon, ‘I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.’. Good point there.   After all, he was the walrus. 

Ferris Bueller

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