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Atheists in Bangladesh May Not be Totally Doomed
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By now you are aware that another blogger who happened to be an atheist was killed. The modus operandi is pretty familiar. It looks like there are now “hits” going up against these individuals as a way for Islamic radicals to target an easy to scapegoat minority in Bangladesh. Atheists are now caught in a crossfire between religious nationalists and secularists, a divide which goes back to the Pakistan days. How vulnerable are the atheists? Well:

“The culture of impunity that has spread over the last few years clearly has very damning results,” Arifur Rahman told IHEU after Washiqur Rahman was killed. “… The word ‘Nastik’ (atheist) has been vilified in Bangladesh (and the rest of the Muslim world); they are seen as sub-human, it is OK to kill them.”

All cultures are not the same. In most of the Islamic world sufferance would be enough for many minorities. While craven Leftists wring their hands over insults to Islamic minorities in their midst, Islamic civilization is wrecking havoc upon the liberties of millions. That being said, there is a continuum. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, and Azerbaijan are not interchangeable. There are some analogies being made to Pakistan right now (like being analogized to Mississippi in the United States this is never good). That’s apposite at this particular moment because 45 Ismaili Muslims have been gunned down in Karachi. It strikes me that Pakistani sectarianism is now proceeding down a Bonhoefferian Niemöllerian gangplank, first dehumanizing non-Muslims, and then progressively narrowing the set acceptable. The nation is on the way to being a literal circular firing squad.

Bangladesh is a different case. I won’t rehash it. I will point out though that when I posted about my own identity, as an atheist of Bangladeshi origin, that when put that on reddit the response by one individual was “Who cares”? Obviously there are many things in Bangladesh that warrant attention, but, targeted killing of a reviled minority is apparently not worth notice by some. Fair enough, I suppose.

But I’m not here to emote and reflect. Rather, what does the data say? The World Values Survey has data from Bangaldesh for 1999 to 2004. One of the questions asks: Politicians who don’t believe in God unfit for public office. It seems a rough gauge for attitudes toward atheists. The results are below.

Atheist_htm_4ce6039

As you can see Bangladesh is roughly in the middle of the list. Observe the contrast with Pakistan. Hostility toward atheism is the majority position in all likelihood, but protests of people in the face of Islamist terror, as well as the persistence of atheists in Bangladeshi culture, indicates that there is a sufficient groundswell of liberal religious civil society that there’s a shot. In contrast in Pakistan you have a society which is now at total conformity when it comes to toleration for free thought.

Raw data:

Question: “Politicians who don´t believe in God unfit for public office”

Country Agree strongly Agree Neither agree or disagree Disagree Strongly disagree No answer Don’t know
Sweden 1.7 2.3 11.4 36.8 47.3 0 0.4
Spain 1.8 8.7 17 40.2 23.7 0 8.7
South Korea 2.6 6.7 27.3 37.5 15.4 0 10.5
Vietnam 4.5 11.9 16.9 47.4 5.8 0 13.5
Bosnia 5.1 10 30.2 25.5 22.2 0 7
Serbia 8.7 16.2 14 34.7 17.2 0 9.2
Canada 6.6 12 21.8 35.9 21.2 0 2.5
India 14.5 18.2 11.3 26.6 8.1 0 21.3
Chile 14 18.3 10 20.6 31.4 0 5.6
Japan 2.2 5.4 49.6 25.5 14.9 0 2.5
Mexico 14.9 21.5 9.2 27.3 16.2 0 10.9
Macedonia 17.7 14.7 16.8 27.5 16.6 0 6.8
Argentina 13.7 20.5 17 31.1 12.3 0 5.4
Kyrgyzstan 10.5 25 19.1 35.2 9.6 0 0.6
Moldova 11.7 28.9 21 24.1 5 0 9.2
Albania 16.1 24.8 24.7 19.2 7.2 0 8
United States 17.6 20.3 25.8 27.1 8.4 0 0.8
Zimbabwe 14.9 36.4 8.3 31.8 3.6 0 5.1
South Africa 22.9 24.6 19 19.9 7.1 0 6.5
Turkey 28.7 28.2 11.5 16.9 9.1 0.1 5.6
Venezuela 35.5 15.8 15.1 18.8 12.7 0 2.2
Uganda 25.2 36.2 14.3 17 4.3 0 3
Bangladesh 30.2 37 5.2 20 2.3 0 5.3
Puerto Rico 36.5 26.9 11.7 19.3 3.6 0.4 1.5
Tanzania 53.4 11.2 11 13.9 8.1 1 1.4
Philippines 26.8 44.4 14.7 11.9 1.9 0 0.2
Algeria 51.7 20.7 8 8.7 3.3 0 7.6
Jordan 66.6 11.1 2.1 6.8 9.3 0 4.1
Iraq 66.1 15.1 0 5.5 6.9 2.2 4.2
Nigeria 56.8 24.2 7.6 6.8 3.6 0 1
Indonesia 59.4 27.9 1.9 7.2 2 0 1.6
Morocco 72.4 14.2 2.7 4.3 1.2 0 5.1
Egypt 70.1 17.6 2.4 4.9 4.9 0 0
Pakistan 82.4 12.5 4 0.9 0.2 0 0
 
• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: Bangladesh, Religion 
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  1. “While craven Leftists wring their hands over insults to Islamic minorities in their midst, Islamic civilization is wrecking havoc upon the liberties of millions.”
    Good point. I could see Bill Maher trolling his audience with this example – not that it’ll change anyone’s mind.
    Tangential point: I always try to pinpoint the MO for this egalitarian crowd (my entire family:) Perhaps it’s whipping a dead horse but I really think it’s that they’re exceedingly nice. No matter how directly I discuss topics like this with them it’s like pulling teeth. It literally as if they feel like they’ll die if they EVER admit that not all people and cultures are equal (or if they cast a negative light on another culture or people that they sense is “beneath” them.)
    Seems so British. The progressive debate strategy reminds me of people in these Scientology recruitment videos:

    they’ll talk a lot but they’re not *really* saying anything.

    • Replies: @Andrew
    Yes I have the same problems with family friends even colleagues. I have learnt to avoid arguments about culture or free speech. Instead I try to emphasize that when you travel in the Islamic world you meet people exactly like them (educated, liberal, open minded etc), who want the freedoms that they take for granted, to criticize religion, to be an atheist or to argue for women's equality.
  2. The biggest problem with the survey data is that it doesn’t measure the appropriate remedy. It is one thing not to want to vote for an atheist or to disqualify an atheist from running. It is another to think that death to an atheist not running from office is O.K., which a significant proportion of people in Bangladesh and quite a few other countries in question do.

    The other problem is that it takes nearly unanimous public belief in the legitimacy of a law, even if that belief is very tepid, for a law to be viable for law enforcement to impose consistently. Even 10-15% of the population that refuses to honor the legitimacy of a law or to cooperate in enforcing it, is more than enough to render the law virtually irrelevant. This is also what makes enforcement of laws against vice, honor killing and domestic violence often very difficult to enforce even when majorities believe that these laws are legitimate.

    • Replies: @Drapetomaniac
    "that it takes nearly unanimous public belief in the legitimacy of a law"

    Belief in government, the idiot twin of that other great belief system: religion. They generally have to reflect the values of the followers and the values have to be selected for promoting the survival of those followers. Otherwise they are dead enders.

    Fortunately, forced belief in a religion is waning, but unfortunately, adherence to government belief systems is still enforced at the point of a gun. I hope the ability to opt out of government doesn't take as long as it did for religion.
  3. On the “interpersonal trust” question in the World Values Survey:

    Most Trusty

    Norway: 148
    United States: 78
    Pakistan: 65
    Bangladesh: 47
    Trinidad & Tobago: 7

    Most Careful

    I am a bit surprised that Pakistan, an acronym, scores higher than Bangladesh, but I wonder if most Pakistanis have bought into the religious identity of the state, while not necessarily intermingling frequently w/ people of different backgrounds. Bangladesh seems to be failing on some level for necessary social cohesion.

    • Replies: @whahae
    Having India as an archenemy that can always be blamed for problems probably helps cohesion in Pakistan.
  4. @Robert Ford
    "While craven Leftists wring their hands over insults to Islamic minorities in their midst, Islamic civilization is wrecking havoc upon the liberties of millions."
    Good point. I could see Bill Maher trolling his audience with this example - not that it'll change anyone's mind.
    Tangential point: I always try to pinpoint the MO for this egalitarian crowd (my entire family:) Perhaps it's whipping a dead horse but I really think it's that they're exceedingly nice. No matter how directly I discuss topics like this with them it's like pulling teeth. It literally as if they feel like they'll die if they EVER admit that not all people and cultures are equal (or if they cast a negative light on another culture or people that they sense is "beneath" them.)
    Seems so British. The progressive debate strategy reminds me of people in these Scientology recruitment videos:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LF1tPlgctss
    they'll talk a lot but they're not *really* saying anything.

    Yes I have the same problems with family friends even colleagues. I have learnt to avoid arguments about culture or free speech. Instead I try to emphasize that when you travel in the Islamic world you meet people exactly like them (educated, liberal, open minded etc), who want the freedoms that they take for granted, to criticize religion, to be an atheist or to argue for women’s equality.

  5. I am surprised to see that Mexico is more comfortable with atheists politicians than the USA is

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    well, mexico has a long history of anti-clericalism. church and state have come to accommodation only slowly since the mexican revolution period.
  6. @T. Greer
    I am surprised to see that Mexico is more comfortable with atheists politicians than the USA is

    well, mexico has a long history of anti-clericalism. church and state have come to accommodation only slowly since the mexican revolution period.

  7. I think one of the problems for atheists is that religious conservatives tend to assume we’re all left-wing activists. However, there are plenty of atheists who are relatively right-wing or conservative on many issues. For example, I’m an atheist, moderate nationalist, and immigration restrictionist and I’m opposed to some aspects of feminism and gay rights. For example, I disagree with gay marriage and I believe that when a man and a woman with equal skills/qualifications apply for a full-time job, the man should get hiring preference.

    The main difference between me and a non-atheist who bases their politics on religion, is I base my politics on principles of moderation and not wanting to unduly anger the majority, and I take of account of findings about human behaviour from scientific studies. However, on the whole, I don’t think my social views are all that different from most of the world’s religious moderates.

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    it's complicated. within western societies atheism seems invariably correlated with social liberalism. OTOH, japan and east asia more generally have a lot more atheism as part of the demographic profile, but they are socially conservative on the whole. but even in places like the USA a substantial minority of atheists/agnostics lean to the right, and definitely libertarian (depending on survey/definition 20-40 percent).
  8. The term “Bonhoefferian gangplank” is erroneous as the quotation you allude to doesn’t really stem from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but from Martin Niemoeller. There is no reason to assume that Bonhoeffer ever used this quotation.

  9. @unpc downunder
    I think one of the problems for atheists is that religious conservatives tend to assume we're all left-wing activists. However, there are plenty of atheists who are relatively right-wing or conservative on many issues. For example, I'm an atheist, moderate nationalist, and immigration restrictionist and I'm opposed to some aspects of feminism and gay rights. For example, I disagree with gay marriage and I believe that when a man and a woman with equal skills/qualifications apply for a full-time job, the man should get hiring preference.

    The main difference between me and a non-atheist who bases their politics on religion, is I base my politics on principles of moderation and not wanting to unduly anger the majority, and I take of account of findings about human behaviour from scientific studies. However, on the whole, I don't think my social views are all that different from most of the world's religious moderates.

    it’s complicated. within western societies atheism seems invariably correlated with social liberalism. OTOH, japan and east asia more generally have a lot more atheism as part of the demographic profile, but they are socially conservative on the whole. but even in places like the USA a substantial minority of atheists/agnostics lean to the right, and definitely libertarian (depending on survey/definition 20-40 percent).

    • Replies: @unpc downunder
    In my experience of living in English-Commonwealth countries (Australia, NZ, UK, Canada) I would tend to agree that a significant of English-speaking atheists tends to be libertarian - relatively right wing on economic issues and more left wing on social issues.

    In Continental Europe, the percentage of atheists who are socially conservative is probably a bit higher, particularly in countries like Austria and Switzerland which tend to be relatively conservative on some social issues such as immigration.

    Judging from that chart above, I could probably have a sensible discussion on social issues with an average Indian or South American, but I would probably be best keeping my mouth shut in most Muslim countries.
  10. @PD Shaw
    On the "interpersonal trust" question in the World Values Survey:

    Most Trusty

    Norway: 148
    United States: 78
    Pakistan: 65
    Bangladesh: 47
    Trinidad & Tobago: 7

    Most Careful

    I am a bit surprised that Pakistan, an acronym, scores higher than Bangladesh, but I wonder if most Pakistanis have bought into the religious identity of the state, while not necessarily intermingling frequently w/ people of different backgrounds. Bangladesh seems to be failing on some level for necessary social cohesion.

    Having India as an archenemy that can always be blamed for problems probably helps cohesion in Pakistan.

  11. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    India’s position near the likes of Sweden shows that ubiquity of religious symbols in public places doesn’t necessarily pair with religious intolerance.

    Also shows that a country doesn’t have to achieve a high level of economic development before it can shed benighted attitudes. Of course, we’re grading on a curve here, the bar is pretty low.

  12. @ohwilleke
    The biggest problem with the survey data is that it doesn't measure the appropriate remedy. It is one thing not to want to vote for an atheist or to disqualify an atheist from running. It is another to think that death to an atheist not running from office is O.K., which a significant proportion of people in Bangladesh and quite a few other countries in question do.

    The other problem is that it takes nearly unanimous public belief in the legitimacy of a law, even if that belief is very tepid, for a law to be viable for law enforcement to impose consistently. Even 10-15% of the population that refuses to honor the legitimacy of a law or to cooperate in enforcing it, is more than enough to render the law virtually irrelevant. This is also what makes enforcement of laws against vice, honor killing and domestic violence often very difficult to enforce even when majorities believe that these laws are legitimate.

    “that it takes nearly unanimous public belief in the legitimacy of a law”

    Belief in government, the idiot twin of that other great belief system: religion. They generally have to reflect the values of the followers and the values have to be selected for promoting the survival of those followers. Otherwise they are dead enders.

    Fortunately, forced belief in a religion is waning, but unfortunately, adherence to government belief systems is still enforced at the point of a gun. I hope the ability to opt out of government doesn’t take as long as it did for religion.

    • Replies: @ohwilleke
    "I hope the ability to opt out of government doesn’t take as long as it did for religion."

    Did you miss the bit about how a lack of uniform belief in the legitimacy of the law is the main thing separating us from prejudice fueled murders like the killings of atheists in Bangladesh?

    One of the ironies of libertarianism is that a system where people are free to make their own choices actually requires a state and a commitment to rule of law that is stronger in many respects than one that does not.

    Weak states and lack of respect for rule of law lead to anarchy, warlords, and subjugation of the individual to their extended family clan. People who live in the cultures of honor that emerge when rule of law is weak have little respect for personal autonomy.
  13. This is quite encouraging. I knew Bangladesh was more moderate than Pakistan, but I would still have imagined it would be closer to it on that spectrum than to Turkey.

    Country subreddits tend to be vastly more socially liberal than the general population. Case in point: The Greens would have won almost a third of the votes in /r/UnitedKingdom (under a proportional voting system). Erdogan would long since been out if Turkey were to limit voting to /r/Turkey members. So the reactions to you on /r/Bangladesh probably don’t say much.

    Incidentally, I do hope you write more about Bangladesh in the future. It is probably the major world country that I and many other people know least about per capita.

  14. “I will point out though that when I posted about my own identity, as an atheist of Bangladeshi origin, that when put that on reddit the response by one individual was “Who cares”? Obviously there are many things in Bangladesh that warrant attention, but, targeted killing of a reviled minority is apparently not worth notice by some. Fair enough, I suppose.”

    http://www.tradingeconomics.com/bangladesh/crude-oil-production
    Bangladesh Crude Oil Production: 4 BBL/D/1K
    Iraq Crude Oil Production: 3775 BBL/D/1K

  15. @Drapetomaniac
    "that it takes nearly unanimous public belief in the legitimacy of a law"

    Belief in government, the idiot twin of that other great belief system: religion. They generally have to reflect the values of the followers and the values have to be selected for promoting the survival of those followers. Otherwise they are dead enders.

    Fortunately, forced belief in a religion is waning, but unfortunately, adherence to government belief systems is still enforced at the point of a gun. I hope the ability to opt out of government doesn't take as long as it did for religion.

    “I hope the ability to opt out of government doesn’t take as long as it did for religion.”

    Did you miss the bit about how a lack of uniform belief in the legitimacy of the law is the main thing separating us from prejudice fueled murders like the killings of atheists in Bangladesh?

    One of the ironies of libertarianism is that a system where people are free to make their own choices actually requires a state and a commitment to rule of law that is stronger in many respects than one that does not.

    Weak states and lack of respect for rule of law lead to anarchy, warlords, and subjugation of the individual to their extended family clan. People who live in the cultures of honor that emerge when rule of law is weak have little respect for personal autonomy.

  16. @Razib Khan
    it's complicated. within western societies atheism seems invariably correlated with social liberalism. OTOH, japan and east asia more generally have a lot more atheism as part of the demographic profile, but they are socially conservative on the whole. but even in places like the USA a substantial minority of atheists/agnostics lean to the right, and definitely libertarian (depending on survey/definition 20-40 percent).

    In my experience of living in English-Commonwealth countries (Australia, NZ, UK, Canada) I would tend to agree that a significant of English-speaking atheists tends to be libertarian – relatively right wing on economic issues and more left wing on social issues.

    In Continental Europe, the percentage of atheists who are socially conservative is probably a bit higher, particularly in countries like Austria and Switzerland which tend to be relatively conservative on some social issues such as immigration.

    Judging from that chart above, I could probably have a sensible discussion on social issues with an average Indian or South American, but I would probably be best keeping my mouth shut in most Muslim countries.

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