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On the evening of August 14th, 2006 a pair of Fox News journalists, Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig were seized by Islamic militants while on assignment in Gaza City. Nothing was heard of them for nine days until a group calling themselves the Holy Jihad Brigades took credit for the kidnappings. They issued an ultimatum, demanding the release of Muslims prisoners from American jails within a 72 hour time frame. Their demands were not met.
But then a few days later the journalists were allowed to go free... but not before they’d been forced into converting to Islam at gunpoint, and had each videotaped a statement denouncing U.S. and Israeli foreign policy.
The war raged on.
A couple of kidnapped journalists is nothing new (certainly not three years after the fact) and aside from the happy ending this particular case wouldn’t worth mentioning if not for a unique twist that occurred after they returned home. A fellow Fox News contributor, Sandy Rios, openly criticized the two men; she said that no true Christian would convert – falsely or otherwise – merely because they were threatened with death. As she later explained to Bill Maher:*
My point was that Christians – I don’t know what their faith is – but I’m talking about Christians who responded to the story and said that they would have done the same thing...
Christ followers can’t do that. We don’t have that freedom. We have to profess Christ no matter what... Christianity is, by its very nature, radical. It is not normal or natural to lay down your life for a friend. It is not natural or normal to say ‘I will not deny my faith even if you do cut my head off.'
I agree with her, and admire her courage for sticking with her convictions. If you buy into Christianity’s metaphysical claims, then bearing false witness to your faith ought be considered a serious crime; not only does it show a pathological attachment to life (when eternal bliss lies just around the corner) furthermore, it completely ignores the core premises of Christianity, as well as the death of its founder. This very question split the early Church: whether or not those who'd become apostates [had renounced Christ] due to persecution at the hands of the Romans could ever be forgiven. There were some who said it should be forgivable (after the proper penance, of course), but no one argued that it ought be condoned.
I’d wager that the guys in Guantanamo take the question just as seriously. Not every religion has seen it that way, however.
* * *
In 1492 the joint Spanish monarchs, Isabella I and Ferdinand II, issued the Alhambra Decree upon completing the reconquista of Spanish land from the Moors. They gave the local Jewish population three options: leave the kingdom, convert to Christianity, or face death. While the majority left for Portugal, a significant number stayed behind and paid lip service to Christianity while continuing to practice Judaism in secret.
This was hardly the first time something like this had happened in Europe, and given Judaism’s tendencies towards isolationism, as well as their lack of evangelical tradition, it should come as no surprise that they didn’t give two figs about lying to Christians. The Rabbinical body even has separate terms for meshumadim (those who’d convert voluntarily) and the anusim (those who’d converted under duress). The latter wasn’t encouraged – at least, not by most Rabbis – but nonetheless it was accepted.
Now for the question that all of this was leading up to: what ought an Atheist to do in this situation?
* * *
In March of 2007 Iran took 15 British servicemen hostage, alleging that their ship crossed into Iranian waters. They were eventually returned safely to Britain, but for some time they were paraded around on Iranian television, denouncing the country they’d sworn to protect. Quite frankly, this was cowardice.
These were sailors and soldiers in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. That they had they sworn an Oath of fealty to the Queen is the least of the reasons they should have kept silent. Far beyond that, they trusted sufficiently in the rightness of British foreign policy that they were willing to take another human’s life. Let me repeat that: they so strongly believed int he rightness (or at least the 'Less Wrongness') of British foreign policy that they were ready to kill for it. I am not suggesting that there is something inherently immoral about serving in the military; I spent six years there myself, and my paperwork’s still up to date for when the Chinese land on the West Coast. What I am saying is that if you’re willing to kill for a cause you’d better be willing to die for it, too. Otherwise...
Now admittedly I don’t know the whole situation. Maybe the Iranians were threatening to murder a dozen children if these servicemen didn’t read the scripts they were given. There may have been some other extenuating circumstances. But having a good reason to act like a coward – even a really good reason – does not transform cowardice into heroism. It only transforms cowardice into adequacy. It might be necessary to violate your morals at times, but it is not something to be proud of. And yet, despite that...
You know what? The Last Psychiatrist said it much better than I ever will; these are his words on the topic:
I'm sure those soldiers were thinking, "look, I know who I am, I know I'm not a coward, I'm not helping the Iranians, but I have to do whatever is necessary to get out of this mess." What they are saying is that they can declare who they are, and what they do has no impact on it. "I am a hero, regardless of how I act." That's the narcissist fallacy...
But here's the thing: when they returned home to Britain, they were heralded as heroes by other people. Including the British government. Based on what? They didn't actually do anything; heroism isn't simply living through a bad experience. Well, of course: based on the fact that they are heroes who had to pretend to be something else.
That's the narcissist's tautology: you are what you say you are because you said you are. What makes it an example of our collective narcissism is that we agree-- we want it to be true that they, and we, can declare an identity.
Screw narcissism. How you act is who you are.
Maybe these men traded their integrity for a bloody good reason; let’s grant that for sake of argument, because the quality of their moral fibre is irrelevant. Regardless of what they traded it for, they still traded it; whatever they got came at a price.
How many Utilons is worth to lie to a bunch of savages? The Spanish Jews decided ‘not very many,’ and they prospered for a time. But they only had a short-term advantage; the idea of lying during a baptism was inconceivable to the Christian populace back then. It didn’t take long for them to catch on, however, and by that time the Spanish Inquisition was hitting its stride...
Modern day Muslims fundamentalists, on the other hand – whether or not they know how to use toilet paper – are not stupid. They know perfectly well that these confessions are forced; I’d even say that there’s a good chance they’re familiar with the Koran’s prohibition against forced conversions, and the fact that these aren’t *really* conversions is their legalistic loophole (they’re generally not that concerned about converting us, anyways; they just want non-Muslims to be second class citizens under a Caliphate, is all - I've even heard anecdotes that Egyptians are more offended by evolution than Atheism). Quite frankly, they’re winning more than enough converts in our prisons and our ghettos; they don’t need a couple more journalists.
So what is the point of it? Quite simply, it’s the point of all terrorism (and all war, for that matter): they’re framing the conversation, creating a perception which becomes reality, winning the war before entering the battlefield. It’s theatre. The point is to demoralize; to expose the West as hypocritical and cowardly; to drive us into panics, sway our elections, to make us fearful. They’re doing it to show us that terrorism works. And so far it's working pretty well.
The British servicemen surrendered peacefully to the Iranians out of fear of causing a national incident – as if capturing and detaining another country’s military forces isn’t already a national incident.
That is the long-term price of selling your integrity.
* * *
Few, if any, of the members of Less Wrong are here for the sake of expediency. We say that Rationalists should Win – and of course they should! – but if all we cared about was winning (in the short term, proximate sense) then we’d be reading Pick-Up-Artist books [exclusively - this article was written before the recent debate], schmoozing the corporate latter, or pumping opiates into our veins. The reason we dedicate so much time to this site is because we hold up the values of Truth, Knowledge, and Humanity as part of a higher purpose. The only way for humanity to Win in the long term is if everybody is trained in the mental martial arts. We train our minds, not to save ourselves, but to save the world. We all assert these values implicitly in our writing, but writing isn’t enough; when the rubber hits the road, if we can’t walk the talk, then we might as well have plugged in to the heroin drip. The ideals we spoke of will be nothing but empty words from empty men.
Penguins will crowd together at the edge of the iceberg, pushing and shoving, until one of them falls in. After a few moments, if a killer whale hasn’t eaten the unlucky test subject, then the rest will jump in, knowing it’s safe. Our species doesn’t work like that; our species needs Heroes. Everyone here has already taken on the mantle of heroism, dedicating a significant portion of our time to trying to improve the world situation. It's easy to be noble when the sun is shining and the weather is warm. When winter comes that’s when we’ll really see what we’re really made of.
A single choice, a rationalization born out of cowardice, can undermine all that we are, and all that we stand for
So what should an Atheist - more than just a nihilist - do when the terrorist has a gun to his head?
This one would tell them to pull the trigger.
No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise. ~Rorchach
There... are... four... lights! ~Capt. Jean-Luc Picard
*Minor syntactical edits; spoken and written English are different mediums.
[If anyone can suggest appropriate tags for this article I'd be much obliged]