Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything header image 2

On “Richard Dawkins is a Fundamentalist” and “Shofar is a Cult”

June 9th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 22 Comments

There has been much debate about whether or not Shofar is a cult. I prefer not to take part in such debates, being someone that doesn’t care much for labels. I’m too fluid in my definitions. And besides, those already debating this point are providing more than enough entertainment for the observer. 😉 (And more than enough food for thought for those more directly concerned or involved.)

So how does a label-agnostic approach such claims then?

  1. You are addicted to computer games.
  2. Atheism is a religion.
  3. Richard Dawkins is a fundamentalist.
  4. Shofar is a cult.

You are addicted to computer games

I’m borrowing the first example from a friend, whose mother was concerned about his World of Warcraft “addiction”. Apparently the debate then centred around what an addiction is, and whether his behaviour with regards to World of Warcraft is formally an addiction or not. My label/word-agnostic approach to the statement is to rather dig into what his mother meant when she used that particular label to describe his behaviour. What is it that his mother is referring to, when she makes that assertion? Is her concern a valid one, irrespective of whether she’s using the “supposedly correct” definition of “addiction”? Or, in other words, in what ways could he be said to be addicted?

Atheism is a religion

I had planned to blog about this specific claim. However, considering adherents of our local pentecostal church claims they’re not religious, that religion kills — claiming that their “relationship” is something different from “religion” — I decided the local definition of “religion” is anyway too enigmatic for such a discussion to be of much use. Locally, that is, and that’s one aspect of my blog’s focus. So some pentecostals claim they’re not religious, while some religious people call atheism “a religion”, thereby indicating yet another definition of “religion”, in my opinion. So does it matter? When does it matter?

Here’s the crux, pointed out succinctly by Steve’s comment on my old “Is Atheism a Religion?” post:

Calling atheism a religion means nothing unless the people doing this “name-calling” use this “fact” to draw conclusions.

Thus the relevant definition of religion for this question actually depends on these people who typically claim atheism is a religion – what do they mean by religion?

Discussing the question for other definitions of religion is not likely to be very fruitful…

I had one particular example I wanted to use in a follow-up to that post, it was this: an example where a court ruled that atheism was a “religion”. This is a great illustration of how important the context is, because this ruling was in fact in favour of the atheist involved: see Court rules atheism a religion. (For those too lazy to follow links: too bad. I can recommend learning web-surfing techniques like opening links in new tabs — middle click does the trick in Firefox, but not everyone uses a three-button mouse and Firefox: try shift-click and ctrl-click.) So for that particular context, for that particular purpose, atheism is indeed a religion. Context.

Richard Dawkins is a fundamentalist

I’m guilty of having done this kind of name-calling. And I realise that it is very dependent upon the definition, and I have repented, and don’t do this (as often) anymore. 😉 The definition the “New Atheist” movement typically uses, deals with how prepared you are to change your viewpoints, when given convincing, empirical, verifiable evidence. By their definition, they are not fundamentalists.

Rather the question then, in what ways could they be considered fundamentalistic? Empirical fundamentalism? Reality fundamentalists? — You know, they’re fundamentalistic about having their world-view being based on “reality”… A George W. Bush aide famously used “reality-based community” in a pejorative sense (from a New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskin, pilfering references from Wikipedia):

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

I think someone’s been too busy watching things like “What the Bleep Do We Know?” or reading books like “The Secret”.

So what exactly is it that earns the “New Atheist movement” the label “fundamentalist”, fairly or unfairly? What is it that people mean by that, what is it that they’re pointing to and upset about? I think it is probably mostly the way they present themselves. Passionately and with confidence, maybe… and upsetting to people that disagree. As such, I suspect this version of the “fundamentalism” word has much to do with tolerance or intolerance for diverse viewpoints (irrespective of whether it is justified or not), and the perceived attitude of “I’m right and you’re wrong”. A perceived lack of humility. A perceived air of superiority… Something like that.

I suspect people want a more “neutral” approach, something that doesn’t come across as condescending of their beliefs, more sensitive to their sources of meaning in life. The next post considers this particular point with regards to how I’d like to handle differences of opinion on this blog. (That post inspired me to write and publish this one first.)

Shofar is a cult

This is another assertion I don’t care that much about. It doesn’t really make any difference to me whether Shofar is a cult or not. To some it might. Hypothesize for example the existence of an “anti-cult task force”: if their mission statement is to dismantle cults, they’d first need to decide whether an institution in question is a cult or not.

But I’m not part of that kind of task force. And I’m label-agnostic. Like I said, I couldn’t care less whether Shofar is formally a cult or not. Frame humanity in a particular frame, and we can claim “humanity is a cult”. (Yes, frivolous, I’m just sharing how I feel.) What difference could it possibly make if some people conclude “yes, Shofar is a cult”, or others conclude “no, it isn’t”? Is there any real value in this semantic debate?

Why I’m Wrong

Maybe everyone involved couldn’t really care less about formal definitions… maybe it is like the typical stale-mate debate on whether God exists or not. That debate never reaches a conclusion, it ends in a stand-off. However, what should not be overlooked, is the value of the arguments that are exchanged in the process of debating the label. The very debate of the matter ends up answering the question in what ways might Shofar be considered a cult?, irrespective of any eventual conclusion. The assertion has value in sparking discussion wherein people’s opinions and perspectives of Shofar can be shared, and the curious can observe to gain some insight.


If you are interested in the discussion/debate around the “Shofar is a cult” assertion, the most vocal prosecutor is most likely Al Lovejoy. On this blog, the prosecution has stated his case at comment 17 of the post “Shofar Marketing, or Turning a New Page?”. The defence then typically questions the prosecution’s motives and character, and it turns into a fist fight. Metaphorically speaking. The defence falls back to skepticism of the prosecution’s claims and motives, exhibiting and spreading distrust of the prosecution, not particularly concerned about the arguments. Technically, that’s an ad-hominem attack, isn’t it?

But this is no court case. There is no defence. The defence doesn’t want to play by the prosecution’s rules. Presenting a defence would be acknowledging that there is something to defend, thereby granting the prosecution’s arguments too much attention. So they avoid that debate, or play by different rules. With no defence, there is no court case, and with no court case, there can be no conviction. Strategically, often the best way to not risk loosing, is to not play in the first place. It makes very much sense.

Categories: Shofar · Worldviews
Tags: · ·

22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Jun 9, 2008 at 2:57 am

    Yes yes, it is absurd to claim “humanity is a cult”. I realise that now, after actually having given it some thought with reference to the “cult” definition Al used. I’m not sure what I was thinking really: it’s an old thought I’ve been carrying around for a while. I should have given it a critical re-evaluation. Oh well.

  • 2 Pieter // Jun 9, 2008 at 10:35 am

    I think the word “cult” can be a useful as a quantifier for forms of human tribing that should be avoided.

    Family connections severed, mind control techniques, the eventual material and psychological detriment of the average member.

    Once we’ve adjusted a few weights of the equation we’ll find our answer, and then we can send in the anti-cult squads.

  • 3 Samuel Skinner // Jun 10, 2008 at 6:22 am

    The supreme court also ruled that slavery was legal. I take what they say with a grain of salt.

    As for the ruling, that was because do to the enormous standing of religion in our culture, they had to find a label that puts in on equal footing. Of course, the currect answer is that theism shouldn’t be so special, but they wouldn’t say that…

  • 4 Hugo // Jun 10, 2008 at 10:26 am

    Samuel, I’m having trouble figuring out what exactly you are referring to, in terms of “the ruling”.

    Another thing I’ve been wondering recently, is what percentage of the average man in the streets, and what percentage of the people reading this blog, have not yet heard of Richard Dawkins. Just because it is a famous name in certain circles, doesn’t mean it isn’t unknown by 95% of everyone else. *ponder*

  • 5 So What is a Fundamentalist? // Jun 12, 2008 at 11:08 am

    […] is the post that I was busy writing when I decided I need to first write On “Richard Dawkins is a Fundamentalist” and “Shofar is a Cult”. That post was mostly about label agnosticism and how I care about what people mean by the labels […]

  • 6 gerhard // Jun 29, 2008 at 3:12 am

    Another thing I’ve been wondering recently, is what percentage of the average man in the streets, and what percentage of the people reading this blog, have not yet heard of Richard Dawkins. Just because it is a famous name in certain circles, doesn’t mean it isn’t unknown by 95% of everyone else. *ponder*

    i think he’s had fair coverage in places of worship 🙂 many of the big publications have pretty much hailed him a hero or had some coverage of the new atheism thing. he’s kinda messin with the common man.. so it’s easy entertainment for water cooler talk and universal enough to be talked about cross culturally. I was more surprised at how known hitchens is 😛 he has been an public antagonist and truth seeker since before his gandi stuff and had his razor sharp directness compared to and praised by hunter s. thompson.

  • 7 Hugo // Jun 29, 2008 at 9:30 am

    i think he’s had fair coverage in places of worship

    I think you would be surprised how few people at Stellenbosch Gemeente have heard of the guy. He may have coverage at fundies’ congregations, where they directly deal with their “enemies”, but moderates…?

    Maybe we should place bets, then take a survey. That would be interesting. 😉 But I won’t do that, it isn’t important. This thought was not about numbers, but about the realisation that I can’t just refer to people and think everyone knows what I’m talking about.

  • 8 gerhard // Jun 30, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    ehm , i know he was talked about @ st micheals in town and next door at the mosque they had posters about this ‘new atheism’ with quotes from books. i agree tho i very much doubt majority of people know about him. esp considering the whole different strokes for different folks bit, like do u know of frank luntz?

    i think the majority of people call ‘reading’ the latest edition of heat mag. i swear i’ve been called a ‘reader’ in the bill hicks – waffel house sense 😛 it just wasnt a waffel house and not rednecks but a group of well dressed family types.
    i’ve also heard a guy call another guy (who was stranger) ‘faggot’ for having a non fiction book with him. another thing thats generally not a good thing to do is talk about ‘religion’ as a non-theist in public , beware rastas, they get violent. (people of peace my ass)
    point is generally people in the ‘real world’ are more interested in sex in the city and cars, and react violently to everything else 🙂

  • 9 Jan // Jul 8, 2008 at 2:18 am

    Hi Hugo, I skimmed over your post and here’s some comment on it. I think definitions give us important reference points from which to take action that brings about progress. Without a reference point society will become stagnant with uncertainty and it’s progress will be crippled. Saying that an organisation is a cult is not something that should be done without a thorough undertanding of what a cult is and…

  • 10 Jan // Jul 8, 2008 at 2:28 am

    …and careful objective research into whether a group matches up with what is defined as a cult. People can make all sorts of careless accusations without thinking. Motivated by anger, malice, resentment, jealousy, superstition or a host of other similarly destructive feelings they can say things they don’t really mean or haven’t put any real thought into. Things they may well regret saying later. What one needs to do is use one’s discernment…

  • 11 Jan // Jul 8, 2008 at 2:37 am

    …to distinguish between people who are saying things out of malice or callousness from people who have really thought about what they are saying, and are saying it out of clear undertanding and genuine concern. Here is an example, I have said Shofar is a cult. I’ve done a lot of research, spoken to a lot of people and reached a carefully considered conclusion. (cont)…

  • 12 Jan // Jul 8, 2008 at 2:46 am

    By contrast I have been called a “work of darkness” in a raging huff by Lucille May, one of the founders of Shofar. She obviously hasn’t put a lot of thought into that and merely lashed out at me in malice while attempting to intimidate me into submitting to such nonsense in mortal terror. Now while Lucille is able to psychologically bash a vulnerable defenseless first year into adhering to such slander, it has not worked against me. (cont)…

  • 13 Hugo // Jul 8, 2008 at 2:48 am

    Jan, why many comments, rather than one?

  • 14 Jan // Jul 8, 2008 at 2:55 am

    In fact I have become wise to what is really going on and have recognized it as a form of slavery based on the systematic imposition of religious fundamentalism. Having understood that I have now taken action to prosecute the founders of Shofar for slavery under international law. So you see definitions are very important and you should care about them. A lot of people can get hurt if there is no measurement of what is being done to them.

  • 15 Jan // Jul 8, 2008 at 3:04 am

    Definitions provide a critical tool to make that measurement. Another thought is this: you obviously haven’t lost a friend or loved one to Shofar. I’ve heard repeated accounts of that happening and it has in fact happened to me too. If the activities of Shofar had affected you personally I’m sure you’d be more interested in getting to the bottom of what’s going on there. (A: Because i can only write 450 characters at a time with my mobile.)

  • 16 Hugo // Jul 8, 2008 at 3:08 am

    Did you know that Alcoholics Anonymous can be described as a cult? 😉 And I’m not sure everyone will agree with your definition of slavery…

    Either way, the point of my post/stance: my contribution is irrespective of what label is used. The label makes no difference to me and to what I have to contribute to the discussion.

    In your case, sure, you’re trying to take them to court, so labels do matter. That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame you’re playing though. I’ve read your email (the one you sent to “everyone”). Good luck with that. I’m sure you’re well aware of the general impression with regards to your emotional involvement in the matter, so there really isn’t much I need to add.

  • 17 Jan // Jul 8, 2008 at 3:10 am

    Anyway, I’m not condemning you. It’s just human nature not to be particulary interested in something until it affects you personally (remember how long Al Gore had to struggle to awaken the world to global warming). I encourage everyone to do their own research on whether Shofar is a cult. I’m confident that if they do their research objectively and thoroughly they will undoubtedly reach the same conclusion I have.

  • 18 Hugo // Jul 8, 2008 at 3:14 am

    Another thought is this: you obviously haven’t lost a friend or loved one to Shofar.

    You obviously don’t know much about me or my blog. Based on a “skim read” of one post, you’re making assumptions and jumping to conclusions that are woefully uninformed. Please go lightly on the word “obvious”.

  • 19 Jan // Jul 8, 2008 at 3:22 am

    I didn’t know about the AA theory, but I’ve even heard of people claiming the Marines are a cult. However, all that does is draw more attention to the need for prosper definitions. Otherwise we’ll get people claiming all sorts of crazy things and we won’t get anywhere as a society. How about this for slavery… did you know the UN sees it as one of the effects of apartheid, who’d have guessed that but it makes horribly perfect sense.

  • 20 Hugo // Jul 8, 2008 at 3:31 am

    An in-depth analysis of AA with regards to 100 aspects of cults can be found here:

    With the kind of thoroughness that person went to, if you think AA is not a cult, neither is Shofar… and if you think AA will not be prosecuted, what makes you think Shofar will be, under the “cult” label?

    Which is why I say I don’t particularly care about the label. I care about damaging doctrines and practises, whether they occur in a cult or outside of it. And I care about the suppression of critical thinking and science.

    And I care about the fact that I’m such a procrastinator that I’m not in bed yet. Grrr… ok, few hours sleep for me tonight, I’m getting up early: an attempt to forcibly shift my day forward. May I be too tired to continue delaying sleep at 11pm tomorrow.

  • 21 Jan // Jul 8, 2008 at 3:31 am

    Ok Hugo, I didn’t know you’d been affected personally by Shofar’s activities.

    I didn’t know there was a ‘general feeling’ about my personal interest in getting Shofar sorted out. However, I am certainly aware of a populits prejudice against white men in SA (arising out of a blinded revenge for apartheid) that has made it extremely difficult to provide my beloved Shofar victim with the counselling she needs to get back in control of her own mind.

  • 22 Jan // Jul 8, 2008 at 3:34 am

    Well good night Hugo, and may all your mornings be early. Sleep well.

Leave a Comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>