Monday, August 30, 2010

On that "ground zero mosque"

It's all over the news that some people want to build a mosque at ground zero in New York.  As other commentators have said, calling it the "Ground Zero mosque issue" is ironic, since it is not a mosque (it is a community center), it is not at Ground Zero (it is several blocks away), and it is not an issue.

Unfortunately, CFI went and made a press release placing themselves on the wrong side of the issue.  That is, the side that thinks it's an issue.
CFI also holds that the focus of the protests is too narrow; it would be inappropriate to build any new house of worship in the area immediately around Ground Zero, not just mosques. “The 9/11 attacks were an example of faith-based terrorism, and any institution that privileges faith above reason is an affront to those who were killed and injured in those attacks,” observes Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of CFI.
It's almost like CFI is making a reductio ad absurdum argument.  If we oppose the mosque, we must also oppose all houses of worship in the area.  But instead of questioning their original premise, CFI decides they'd rather accept the absurd.

Orac of Respectful Insolence was also very unhappy with the press release, to the point that he was considering withdrawing his support of CFI.  As for me, I have never been particularly happy with CFI, but I still find this disappointing.  I've always been annoyed that CSI, a notable skeptical organization, is affiliated with CFI, a perpetually disappointing atheist organization.

Apparently, CFI got a lot of complaints from supporters, so they issued a clarification.  But CFI doesn't really retract anything, it just emphasizes that they support the legal right to build the community center.  Supporting the legal right to build a community center is just the bare minimum necessary to not be a flaming bigot.  But I have higher standards than that.

Honestly, even if it were a mosque, and if it were right across the street from the former location of the World Trade Center, I would not care.

I think people are assigning too much meaning to the location.  I'm reminded of the story of the serial killer's sweater.*  If you show people a sweater, and say that it used to belong to a serial killer, but has since been cleaned, people hesitate to wear it.  It's because people assign meaning to the sweater and its history.  Likewise, they assign positive meaning to family heirlooms and a whole mix of meanings to places like Ground Zero.

*I think I heard this story from psychologist Bruce Hood.  So I looked him up, and I saw on his blog he is talking about Ground Zero as a sacred site.

Sometimes, this superstition is okay, because it doesn't hurt anyone.  We could even use it to our advantage, for example by placing a memorial at Ground Zero.  The whole point of a memorial is to create a particular experience; knowing that it's located where the World Trade Center used to be can enhance that experience.  So what's the harm?

The harm is that people forget that it is superstition, and it messes up their priorities.  What's more important: the superstitious belief that Ground Zero and the surrounding privately owned land is somehow sacred, or letting people build religious community centers without having to cause a national dispute?

Mind you, CFI claims that they don't support the building of any houses of worship whatsoever.  But they're not thinking out the issue seriously enough.  Much bigger mosques, churches, and synagogues are built all the time, and they don't make a huge issue out of each one.  Nor should they.  Even if I agree that organized religion causes some problems in the world, I'm not convinced that any of these problems are solved by stopping people from building places where they can gather.

If you discourage Muslims from building mosques, you're not doing anything to persuade them that Islam is wrong, you're just oppressing them.

Let's just explicitly add two and two together.  There is a superstitious belief here, and there is oppression.  That makes it superstitiously motivated oppression.  As a skeptic, there are few things I oppose as strongly.