Sects and Violence

I want to talk today about what "Islam" means. I am not a muslim and I am a complete outsider. I see danger in some ideas associated with Islam and beauty in some of the ideas. I see people saying Islam is peace. And I see mobs and violence associated with it. And so I think it's long overdue to ask whether we are all referring to the same thing when we refer to "Islam".

From what I can see, Islam means peace to most Muslims I know. And to some Muslims, it means violence visited upon other people for various different reasons: some political, some moral, always opportunistic, and always justified by some grandiose vision (a story). And the latter part is a bit sticky since the spectacle and tragedy creates a more vivid impression in the mind than the many Muslim neighbors we know and work with.

Let's Talk About Sects, Baby

Let me tell you about a trick of the human mind. It is a tendency for non-Muslims to think about Islam as one enormous monolith with complete homogeneity of belief and action. But Muslims are 1.6 Billion+ in number. And the idea of one great Islam doesn't withstand scrutiny.

Every religious or philosophical movement has within it a manifold of sects. People just can't seem to agree on things. Take any belief system and you can break it down to subgroups based on the disagreements.

To provide specific examples, I have collected here an accounting of the major religions I could think of and their sub-sects scraped from Wikipedia:

  • Chrisitanity: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical,...
  • Judaism: Rabinnic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Humanistic,...
  • Hinduism: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Smartism,...
  • Buddhism: Therevada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen,...

And as for Islam? Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Salafi, Wahhabi,...

There are no incidents of complete uniform belief within any belief system. Humans are messy, sloppy creatures subject to entropy. Our brains are meat-machines driven by huge variations in chemistry. Fuzzy logic? check. Non-logical leaps? check. Context-dropping? check. Mistakes of thinking? check. Hormone-driven teenagers? check.

You know why clear thinking is beautiful when you hear it? Because it is rare. Reason is slow and requires discipline and it is always impressive to hear an idea that is simple and clear and true.

Aside: Beware of Mob Think

There is a sort of situation worth mentioning where uniformity does arise... where an idea can become so loud that it drowns out other ideas. When human beings are in a mob driven by fear and anger whipped into a frenzy, we have shown ourselves to be capable of frighteningly uniform non-thinking. The Rwandan genocide comes to mind. Nazi Germany comes to mind.

People are capable of their ugliest actions when they blindly react rather than stepping back and thinking about things rationally, and acting accordingly. And, in the case of Rwanda and Nazi Germany, both resulted in the creation of cultures that slaughtered unimaginable numbers.

Labels Fail Us

Back to the main point. The labels: Islam. Muslim.

There is a visual that Sam Harris mentioned in his chat with Neil Tyson about what a Christian imagines when they find out that a person can be painted with the term "Atheist":

they think they know a lot about you based on your admission that you are an atheist... It's almost like you're in a debate with someone and they draw the police crime scene outline of a dead body on the sidewalk and you just walk up and lie down in it... that you just conform perfectly to their expectations of how clueless you must be of their context.

Don't we do this with "Islam"... just a little? We imagine Islam as one thing. We imagine Muslims as one people who conform perfectly to some expectation.

The labels fail Muslims and the labels fail non-Muslims alike. The labels expose non-Muslims to the mistake of thinking in "Us vs. Them" terms with Muslims as the other. And the labels expose Muslims to taking a defensive posture where "We are under attack" by an unjust world who will not accept them. The labels expose Muslims to having their fear and frustrations manipulated.

But these are just stories and they are divisive ones. These are the ones that deliver us into the hands of Neo-fascists. And we don't want those hands anywhere near us so it's time to abandon these stories, which divide us.


Beyond Us Vs. Them

We need some new narratives to give us hope and something to strive for.

Instead of Us vs. Them... What if we just thought of this whole mess as a bunch of people with a bunch of mixed-up ideas and some of them are poison?

Rather than considering Islam as one set of ideas interpretable only one way, we can remember that ideas are subject to fashion trends. They are subject to trending upward or downward at any given point in time.

Here are ideas I would love to see trend upward:

  • Non-Muslims reflect and realize that Muslims are our neighbors and friends and co-workers. Most of them want to live their lives and raise their families. We act accordingly. We love our neighbors.
  • The world notices that Muslims have their versions of Goebbels and Hitler. And the world will need to put these tyrants down in exactly the same way: total war ending in unconditional surrender. This is the only way to defeat evil that has decided to wage war: Force met with overwhelming force.
  • Muslims embrace freedom of speech and dissent by all, especially other Muslims, and Non-Muslims unilaterally choose to stop disrespecting Muhammad because it's nearly always a gimmicky cheap shot that is not doing anybody any good.
  • Muslims come out in support of liberal values. We will support and encourage these people because they have right on their side. Further, we work to encourage the conservatives among Muslims to respect the rights of all human beings alike (male, female, gay, straight), just as we do with non-Muslim conservatives. Live and let live becomes the universal norm.
  • "Islam means peace" becomes a statement of intention... a movement and a mantra owned by Muslims: they are defiant, vocal, and visible movement of the majority.
  • Secularism: All people of all religions work to keep their religions separate from the state. There are no state religions. Just respect and protection of rights for all beliefs and creeds.

The only way we can do this is to see the bigger "Us". We, as humans, need to see Universal principles describing fundamental rights. In other words: the conditions under which we are able to live with one another.

We don't need to be innovators who must define fundamental rights for the first time. We have the shoulders of giants to stand on. But as I said, ideas are subject to fashion and we do have to keep these ideas trending upward. It's constant upkeep... yes. There is no magic bullet to make humans respect rights for all time.

But it's good work if you can get it. And as always... Discipline Equals Freedom.

Neil Tyson on Not Fighting in the Trenches on Sam Harris Podcast


I try to take the high road. I'm not interested in fighting in the trenches.

My notes from a fascinating chat between Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Sam Harris. I was struck with Tyson's extreme discipline for focusing on his fundamentals of education and finding playful ways to talk about science in the context of things people already care about (pop culture).

He's a man who has decided what he wants his contribution to be and seems really skilled at avoiding the rest of the BS. Following are notes that I took from a second listen to the podcast.


  • Tyson: People care about science when it is playfully folded into things they already care about
  • Harris: The boundary between communicating science to the public and doing science in the act of thinking out loud about data is very thin, if it exists at all


  • Scientific discoveries become public interest. Examples: "Big Bang", "Black Hole" - official terms that are strings of single syllable words to describe complex phenomena that become part of the lexicon. Fun for the public to follow. The idea is graspable because the words don't get in the way.
  • I was struck with how Tyson cuts through the bull and avoids controversy. "Call a climate expert. Don't call me.". I don't occupy any platform.
  • Skeptic vs. Denier defined: Skeptic: doubts claim and convinced by evidence. Denier: doubts claim and doubts evidence.
  • You don't see me debating people. I'd rather just educate them in the first place so that the debate isn't even necessary.

Tyson: Platforms and Training the Electorate

  • Tyson's fundamental position: There are objective truths out there that you ought to know about and I as an educator have a duty to alert you to those objective truths. What you do politically in the face of those truths is your business.
  • Defines someone with a "platform" as: trying to get people to see the world that they do. Including politically.
  • I never say anything against a politician. Why? Because they have electorates that support them.
  • My target is the population that are following statements that are objectively false. I see it as my duty to train the electorate how think about this information and once they are trained they can do what they want.
  • As an educator, it is a task to educate people so that they can judge what is true and what is not.
  • Harris: You're preserving your effectiveness as a communicator and educator. (Tyson: yes, that's an accurate statement)

Tyson on Religion/Politics

  • Your religion is a belief system and does not cue off of objective truths. Otherwise we would call it science. It's your right to hold religious beliefs.
  • However... Governmental Decision... Laws need to be secular in a country that preserves religious freedom.

Harris: Problem with Atheism

  • Atheism defines itself in opposition: We don't call ourselves "non-astrologers". And if it became ascendant, we would talk about reason, evidence, common sense, and science to neutralize those claims without ever defining ourselves in opposition to astrology
  • Atheism as a term has no philosophical content

Tyson on Label Atheist

  • I don't do anything to dodge the term
  • if you require that I give myself a label... closest is "agnostic".
  • would rather have no label at all
  • label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about someone than you actually know and therefore don't have to engage them in conversation.
  • Oh you're an atheist? And bam, in comes a whole portfolio of expectations on what you will say, what your behaviors and attitudes are...
  • dictionary definition is irrelevant... dictionary does not define words, but rather describes them as they have come into meaning
  • there is conduct that [outspoken atheists] exhibit that I do not... this captures the sense of what atheist is defined by those most visible
  • interesting: "Goodbye" an historical abbreviation of "God be with you.".
  • Uses AD/BC vs. CE/BCE.
  • Until he no longer hears, "I thought you were an atheist"... no labels.

  • Harris interjects with this insightful and humorous assessment: Atheist given meaning mostly in circles of religious dogmatists... they think they know a lot about you based on your admission that you are an atheist... It's almost like you're in a debate with someone and they draw the police crime scene outline of a dead body on the sidewalk and you just walk up and lie down in it... that you just conform perfectly to their expectations of how clueless you must be of their context.


Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) | Twitter

What... Me? Atheist?

I am an atheist. But I didn't always refer to myself this way. And even today, in order to do it, I have to define the word differently than the way most people use it. I define it as "not being a theist".

This entire post is my tear down of belief and non belief. Primarily I look at practice. Do I live my life as if there is an all-powerful super being whose words are transmitted through revelation to certain fallable humans during the Iron Age (or even before)?

There was a solid point in my life after I graduated from college and I was becoming my own man. I took a hard look at my own practices and I had to admit that I really didn't act like I believed in any God. I didn't go to church. I didn't pray.

And I had a special challenge, much as anyone does, to figure out what I was going to say about what I believe when family members ask why I'm not going to church or why I can't be someone's godparent in any kind of traditional sense because I would find it deeply unethical to raise a child in Catholicism.

Some might say that talking about it can be avoided. Because it's best to avoid talking about religion, money, and politics altogether... these are dangerous topics that will threaten any relationship.

But I think that core human values are enjoyable to contemplate and are worthy of discussion. I love ethics. Talking about ideas and values with other people helps me to feel a student of the world... and, to feel like a steward of my own life. Like I really own it and it is mine to craft according to my own vision.

And so, we begin where I started. I reverse-engineer the question of "what do I believe" by looking at what I do and inferring. I think there are four broad places a person can land and I define that in the next section.

Stages of Religious/Secular Practice

This scale of measurement asks two questions... - Does the person claim they believe in God? - Does the person act in accordance with religious or secular principles (or both)

By secular principles, I refer to any principle not derived from religion. Secular principles are defined here specifically to exclude any knowledge from religious sources that cannot be validated by reason. If some idea is merely transmitted by religion but can be validated by reason, I consider this to be secular.

Please observe also that there are many secular notions that are fallacious ideas that seem like they are reasonable but include an inappropriate switch of context or a comparison of unlike kind which leads to a contradiction. That a notion has arrived from a non-religious source does not make it automatically more likely to be true or valid. The measure of truth as always is whether a principle is in accord with observable fact, which can only be established by a process of reason.

  1. Believer with consistent practice of religious values
  2. Believer with a mixed practice of religious and secular values
  3. Non Believer with a mixed practice of religious and secular values
  4. Non Believer with consistent practice of secular values

The top half, I label as "Theist". The bottom half I label as "Non Theist". Interestingly, Athiest should mean the same thing as "Non Theist" but because of its usage in the USA, it carries some additional meaning when you factor for how vocal they are in categorically denying the existence of any possible supernatural being or revelation.

Misunderstanding the nature of a claim of existence, they claim the non-existence... which can never be proven as proof rests upon and is implied by existence, a fundamental precondition to go from the evidence of one's senses to a syllogism.

"So hey... there's this all-powerful superbeing in another realty that wants you to obey it according to some bloke named Muhammad... are you in or out?"

This is a claim of existence. And as with any such claim, it is not incumbent on the person evaluating it to disprove it. We don't have to furnish prove that Allah doesn't exist or that the text is wrong. The burden of proof falls on the person that makes a claim of existence. Either the evidence is strong enough to support the claim, ruling out other possibilities, or it is not.

Stages of Affinity/Antagonism toward Religion/Secularism/Knowing

This scale of measurement asks more than two questions... - Does the person believe in a religion? - ...further Does the person believe that knowledge of any kind is possible? - Does the person try to argue/persuade others about to challenge their beliefs or expound the reasons for the validity of their own?

This is an interesting way to measure things because people tend to equate the degree and depth of a person's belief with whether they would get on a soap box and scream it out to the world. I don't think this is true... but it is a perception that exists in the world.

It's also a useful taxonomy particularly to new Non Theists since there is generally a problem which I call "classic over-correction". People who have switched recently from half-hearted Theist to Non Theist often act out in unexpected and repellant ways. Often this is just temporary.

I can name three flavors of non believer when measured based on whether and how they argue with others. They are:
- Those who categorically deny the existence of a god - Those who reject claims of the existence of God (and revelation) based on insufficient grounds - Those who think knowledge of any kind is impossible

Most people label the first category as Atheist, but I label it as "Caricature Atheist"; the second, Rational Atheist, and the third has no clear label so I have labeled it "cynical skeptic". The Caricature Atheist and the Cynical Skeptic tend to be the loudest and most embarrassing of the Non Theists.

I present to you this spectrum involving more than two axes:

  1. (One True Faith) Believer and Vocal... Open judgment for anyone who believes other than own religion
  2. (Many Religions, All True somehow) Believer and Vocal... Judgment only for people who have no faith... Any religion is better than no religion
  3. Believer and Vocal
  4. Believer and Non Vocal
  5. Non Believer and Non Vocal
  6. Non Believer and Vocal about skepticism
  7. (Caricature Atheist) Non Believer and Vocal... Open judgment for anyone who doesn't deny any possible existence of any supernatural being
  8. (Cynical Skeptic) Non Believer and Vocal... Open judgment for anyone who claims they can know anything about anything

These really deserve a 3D space but as I am dealing with the written page, I'll have to sketch something up in the future.


Looking at the three types of Non Believer I identified above. One might argue that there is a fourth which exists somewhere between the Rational Atheist and the Cynical Skeptic.

Measured by practice, the Agnostic is very similar to the Rational Atheist. However, an agnostic attempts to side-step the question of whether they accept or reject the claims of the existence of a God and the truth of revelation.

As such, the Agnostic straddles the position between Rational Atheist and Cynical Skeptic claiming that no one can know whether God exists or not. (Incidentally, this is also true about knowledge of anything non-existent... e.g. the existence of Ducks on Mars.). When confronted with a claim that must be evaluated consciously, the Agnostic chooses non-consciousness and non-acknowedgement.

The Agnostic turns out to be a mild sort of coward that prefers to remain in the closet than to take a position that others might judge.

It takes a measure of courage to recognize that your actions say that you don't believe in the claims of the existence of God. It takes a measure of courage to break ranks with your family and friends. In some societies, apostasy may mean ostracism or physical harm.

Even though we are in a country which has a separation of church and state, the vestiges of more than 10 centuries of terror remain in the psyche a people long after the threat of terror has ceased.

It is my position that the more courageous position is that of the Rational Atheist... who has consciously weighed the evidence and finds no grounds upon which to organize her life around the existence and words of an all powerful super-being. I don't think taking an Agnostic position helps a person to feel like an owner of their selves and their lives. I think it is a way of saying that other people are more important than your beliefs or the truth.

How much better to have some integrity about what you really believe and let the chips fall where they may?

For the Future

I've talked a lot about my ideas on how I identify different substrata of religious belief in reference to practice and in reference to vocal affinity/antagonism.

I haven't talked a lot about options for ethical systems but I think I might like to do that in a future post. People often try to substitute Society in the place of God and I think that is a mistake as well. (Just imagine trying to do so in Nazy Germany or the Europe of the middle ages). Destructive ideas can go into currency.

So there is a lot to talk about in a future post.

If you found this interesting or that there's something that you disagree with and you have ideas on how you would structure and identify things, drop me a line either in the comments below or reach out to me on Twitter @francisluong.

See you next time.

The Words of Clements Vonnegut to His Would-Be Mourners

Clemens Vonnegut was the great-grandfather of the author, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. They were both German Freethinker Atheists.

In Palm Sunday, in the section of essays on religion Vonnegut the junior shares a copy of the text that was read aloud at his great-grandfather’s funeral, written by Clemens himself some 32 years before.

His words to his mourners were these:

“Friends or Opponents: To all of you who stand here to deliver my body to the earth:

"To you, my next of kin:

"Do not mourn! I have now arrived at the end of the course of life, as you will eventually arrive at yours. I am at rest and nothing will ever disturb my deep slumber.

"I am disturbed by no worries, no grief, no fears, no wishes, no passions, no pains, no reproaches from others. All is infinitely well with me.

"I departed from life with loving, affectionate feelings for all mankind; and I admonish you: Be aware of this truth that the people on this earth could be joyous, if only they would live rationally and if they would contribute mutually to each others’ welfare.

"This world is not a vale of sorrows if you will recognize discriminatingly what is truly excellent in it; and if you will avail yourself of it for mutual happiness and well-being. Therefore, let us explain as often as possible, and particularly at the departure from life, that we base our faith on firm foundations, on Truth for putting into action our ideas which do not depend on fables and ideas which Science has long ago proven to be false.

"We also with Knowledge, Goodness, Sympathy, Mercy, Wisdom, Justice, and Truthfulness. We also strive for and venerate all those attributes from which the fantasy of man has created a God. We also strive for the virtues of Temperance, Industriousness, Friendship, and Peace. We believe in pure ideas based on Truth and Justice.

"Therefore, however, we do not believe, cannot believe, that a Thinking Being existed for millions and millions of years, and eventually and finally out of nothing–through a Word–created this world, or rather this earth with its Firmament, its Sun and Moon and the Stars.

"We cannot believe that this Being formed a human being from clay and Breathed into it an Immortal Soul and then allowed this human being to procreate millions, and then delivered them all into unspeakable misery, wretchedness and pain for all eternity. Nor can we believe that the descendants of one or two human beings will inevitably become sinners; nor do we believe that through the criminal executions of an Innocent One may we be redeemed.”

Have mercy! I love the audacity of the last two paragraphs.


Photo Credit: Sue Hasker

tags: #Vonnegut #Atheism

Casualties of the 2008 Deleveraging: One Long Friendship

Around 2009 or so, America had gone to shit. The housing bubble had just bust and people were losing their jobs and unable to pay for homes and unable to get loans to pay off their other loans like they had been doing the last few years. It was a mess!

I was a mess!

I had just read two profound works by Ayn Rand that were in the midst of reshaping my view about the world and about my place in it. Before reading these works, I was more or less a well-meaning liberal who hated everything that George W. Bush stands for. I didn’t much believe in God (I still don’t), and I more or less had a victim mindset.

After reading the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, my perspective shifted drastically. I become a well-meaning libertarian-ish who hated everything that George W. Bush and Barack Obama stands for. I still don’t believe in God but I moved from calling myself agnostic to calling myself an Atheist (though it wouldn’t be until later that I came up with the concept of the Engineer Atheist). I was trying to abandon the victim mindset and take control of my destiny.

Well… a lot of bad shit happens when you’re trying to make big changes in your life. I was struggling with questions on what I was doing and why. I left my wife. And I alienated one of my best friends, whom had become a long-distance relation at this point.

Love Lost… and for what?

I’ll be honest… when I think about what went down it’s so fucking stupid and pointless. Neither of us will care on our deathbeds whether or not the Tea Party is good or bad for this country. Neither of us will care much whether or not people were really racist and resisted everything Barack Obama did because he had a funny name and a dark complexion.

Wouldn’t life be better if we just traded notes on the things that mattered the most and ignored what we would discard in an instant if we knew that we only had a few weeks to live?

I didn’t know then as I do now that Facebook does not facilitate discussion. And we used Facebook as one of our means to keep in touch. There is a reason they only provide a LIKE button. Facebook is the land of CONFIRMATION BIAS.

Around that same time, I lost my friend, Dave Meyer, to our petty squabbles about news that I no longer watch or consider important. But I have been moved to reach out to him and I believe in what I am doing. The letter I am sharing this morning was written by me… and it was brewing within me all weekend and I think it is right and good. I am proud of myself for writing it. Enjoy!

Letter to Dave Meyer by Francis Luong, 2015-03-03

Dear Dave,

I have fallen in love with a new album. On the surface of things, it will seem conventional: Try! by the John Mayer Trio. I think it is from 2005 or so. The album is a live album feature a drummer named Steve Jordan and a Bassist named Pino Palladino. I suspect you are already familiar with the latter.

It’s been a long time since I have listened to a set of songs as an album, and probably even longer since they have moved me to dream of what it would be like to have assembled a tight group for touring and songwriting and recording. But that’s what this album has done for me. And, not so strangely, this has made me think to reach out to you because yours is the first name pops to mind when I think of who I would want to gush to when I am in love with music. Please consider this a compliment.

I miss our friendship. I miss your take on life. I’m pretty sure I was intolerable and judgmental about the time we stopped corresponding. I suspect you would find my tone to be quite different nowadays. If you would care to catch up with an old friend, I want to say to you that I am here. I am ready.


Francis Luong (Franco)

Photo/Image Credit

The Engineer Atheist

There is a joke I have about engineers: The pessimist views the glass as half empty. The optimist views the glass as half full. And the Engineer views the glass as containing half the volume in liquid of it’s total capacity.

I am neither an agnostic atheist or a gnostic atheist as Pablo Stanley’s cartoon breaks it down.

I am the Engineer Atheist: I do not have sufficient evidence to believe in God, nor do I behave in any way as if God exists. And I believe that no one may claim existence of anything without providing concrete evidence ruling out all other possibilities. Though they can certainly speculate and hypothesize all they want. And they can go on their hunches all they want.

Agnosticism is, in my opinion, an ineffective paradigm for viewing theism. Rather than putting the onus of proof on the people claiming existence, it puts the onus on proof on those denying existence. But I really just don’t need to furnish proof if I opine that I THINK UNDERPANTS GNOMES DON’T EXIST AND ARE NOT, IN FACT, STEALING MY UNDERWEAR AT NIGHT.

Here’s a better paradigm: A person either behaves as if they believe in God or not. And a person behaves according to their stated morals or not. Really, I’m more interested in the second of these two axes, though the first often informs the second as we have been debating about Islam.

Claims are only one aspect of a person’s behavior. And though they sometimes get that person attention because they are obnoxious or outrageous, it’s often a lot of hot air. You need to look at a persons actions to understand what they truly believe about the world and the nature of existence. Though I argue that you really don’t even need to know that if they’re assholes or they kill people.

Look… here’s why we care whether or not someone believes in God or doesn’t. Beliefs make us powerful or poisonous. They shape everything about who we are and what we can and cannot permit ourselves to do. And when we see someone acting in a completely incomprehensible way, we want to fix that problem at what we perceive to be the roots.

I’ll take up the challenges of fighting bad ideas some other time. It’s a big topic.

Photo Credit: John T. Spencer