VOTER ACCESS, PASSPORTS, AND WORLD KNOWLEDGE

Last week, in defense of voter access, President Obama mentioned that 60% of Americans don’t have passports. He said this to underscore the need to allow citizens to vote without the need to produce an extraordinary form of identification, normally only bestowed on those who travel abroad.

His next statement was a cheap shot: Some people, he said, don’t have passports because they can’t afford to travel overseas, and they can’t use those for ID. Just because someone doesn’t travel overseas, he said, isn’t a reason for them not to vote in their own country. Something like that.

I get it: He was addressing the American Action Committee which is filled with people who probably don’t do much foreign travel. But a lot of us who travel and in fact live overseas vote for Mr Obama because we think, or thought, he got it.

This is world of global interdependence. That doesn’t mean cooperation; it means suspicion and danger. It is a world where 75% of American high school students can’t point to Afghanistan on a map and aren’t sure whether Alaska is attached to North America or is an island. A world where America expects to be acknowledged as the super-leader of a world its inhabitants know less and less about. A world where 63,000,000 American citizens speak Spanish as their first language, but where its dwindling white majority want to deny access to “foreigners’ (sorry, aliens) from neighboring countries because they come from the wrong places—and know that if they try to come legally, they will be refused. That they are coming back to land that belonged to their ancestors before the European settlers and their descendants drove them away is not to be mentioned.

Before Mr Obama takes cheap shots at passport holders as an example of the elite, he should remember what Europeans, Asians and people in the Middle East think of America. It is true that for a very brief period after 1945 America was the most popular (and prosperous) country in the world. A reluctant entrant into the war, it emerged a victor and proceeded with the advice of its paranoid European allies to divide the world into spheres of influence. Those ‘spheres’ have shifted over the last 65 years: a soviet empire has tumbled, but wants to be big again. An impoverished China had emerged from the rubble of the war and its revolution to become the biggest shopping and trading nation on earth and will soon outclass the US economically. War torn Europe is now a credible alliance of squabbling partners, not likely to erupt in war anytime soon. The Islamic world has moved beyond the post-colonial mandates that once kept it relatively quiet into a loud and preposterous mob ruled by princes who behead and call it law and wild men who behead while America calls it terrorism. Then there is Africa. And, of course, South America.

In this messy world, America is not the worst of the players by any means. In its clumsy (but what they see as their quiet and methodical way based on ‘5000 years of glorious civilization’) China waits for its moment to be the world’s largest economy and builds up its military and export product base to pull even, and then ahead of the United States. It thinks its currency has the potential to be the world currency. Stalwarts are sure that the Chinese language will one day replace English as a global language. It applauds Russia’s tough stance on Crimea because it would like to take tough stance on the disputed islands against Japan and towards Taiwan. It does this with messianic fervor, ignoring even the respiratory health of its citizens to create a new vision of Magnificent China. Most Chinese believe in it, young and old. I cannot imagine, for example, the Tiananmen protests of 1989 happening in 2014, even though in many ways restrictions on individual freedoms and rights have tightened considerably since then.

It’s a world that finds it ridiculously easy to see America in the frames its free press makes possible: overweight, obsessed with visible success, glitz, and money, politically crippled and owned by corporate interests at the wealthiest levels, obsessed by guns and Bibles (as once a certain Barack Obama bravely intoned and was walloped for saying) at the other end of the scale.

That America, which still leads the world by a dazzling margin in producing the best scholarship, medical research, technical innovation, Nobel prize winners, popular music, and drama and film, is a source of constant fascination for the rest of the world. Because—as everyone knows—the End of America has been a popular apocalyptic genre in world polemic since the French invented it in the nineteenth century. It used to be, in Europe anyway, a requirement for being a card carrying intellectual. America used to be just the dead horse that wouldn’t lie down. Now it is the dead horse that everyone wishes would lie down.

But all of this is symptomatic. What is causal is a generation (and I don’t mean kids under 25) that really doesn’t give a fuck about the rest of the world. Their isolation is not that of their great grandparents who could remind their sons to stay out of European wars because they had come from Europe and they didn’t want to get dirty there again. German-American mothers who didn’t want their boys sent to the Front in 1916. Jewish-American fathers who didn’t want their sons to go to France in 1943. American isolation was based on the idea of a self-sufficient continent that wanted tranquility because its social memory had been shaped by the memory of social injustice and war in the old world, not realizing that those memories, like demons, would also haunt the destiny of the new. Unlike China, prosperity and success happened to America because of circumstance and an unusual number of inventive and ambitious young men. There was no five year plan to keep the GDP at 10 percent.

No, this new isolation is the isolation of the self-satisfied. It’s a world where people can forget about geography, languages (they already speak the right one), ideas, beliefs, and other people’s values. They can get what they want online at Amazon, or at Walmart, or eBay—whatever. They don’t need to leave home except, perhaps, for a new job in a new place where the perks will be better and the shopping will be at least as good. They don’t see healthcare as an issue because they’ve got theirs. They don’t see guns as an issue because they either don’t need one or they have one, but just one, and they have a permit for it. Those massacres? Crazy people, and me and my friends are not crazy. Travel? Expensive. Need a new car. Maybe a new house.

And then there are those who may not feel that way at all: who would love to travel but can’t make their mortgage payment, are trying to buy four news tires for the car, and can’t afford to send their kid to college or buy health insurance. I feel sorriest for them because they wake up every day and go to their jobs, try to be brave, pretend that they have a voice, that voting matters, that things will get better if they just hang on. Barack Obama’s primary appeal in 2008 was to this enormous sub-middle class struggling to avoid poverty and keep their chins up.

It is no wonder that in a country whose inhabitants seem to be obsessed with electronic toys, bacon and their front lawn, the rest of the world sort of disappears—unless it happens to be a case of Americans being kidnapped in the hinterland of Afghanistan or plunging to the depths of the ocean in a plane off the coast of Australia. Naively, America has always wanted the world to love it for services rendered—in the same way a high school football star expects his home town crowd to love him for a surprise touchdown he scored twenty years back and ignore the drug dealing he pursued later in life. Americas’s problem is that expects—no, thinks it has a right to expect—the world to be ever grateful for its vigilance in the name of freedom and democracy. But in the real world, place names like Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have come to symbolize something else—something sinister in the rest-of-the world’s imagination. No amount of spin will change it. No amount of revision will turn those wars into blows for freedom and democracy. America has not prepared itself to live in a world where it has begun to seem old and Europe and China, and now even Russia, seem to be new.

It is still playing the Cold War drama as the only player on stage; but the rest of the cast has moved on to new roles, a new playscript.

It does amaze me how bad America is at controlling its image compared to (again) China, which has entered a capitalist paradise and still manages to pay tribute to the Leader who killed and displaced thousands on thousands of Chinese, eviscerated its university system, and destroyed almost one half its cultural patrimony in his own Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward in the 1970’s. I say this knowing that many Chinese do not even know this happened, and many who know about it think it is a lie concocted in the West.

America can be proud that the criticisms I have collected here are sins that are well known because freedom of speech, press and inquiry tell us these things happened.

And yet they happened. In my own opinion, George W. Bush should have been impeached because they happened, Dick Cheney should have been arrested and sent to the Hague because they happened. They did not happen like Viet Nam happened, on the back of a slippery slope of involvement caused by French abandonment of Indochina. They happened because elected officials lied to get the country into a war that has lasted a decade–wars in countries that high schoolers can’t identify on a map. And while the most impotent parliament on earth, the United States Congress, tries to find out what ‘went wrong’ at the American consulate in Benghazi, no one officially is asking, What went wrong in Iraq? 4,486 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2012, that’s what went wrong; 174,000 civilians. The President of the United States, if you recall, imposed a press blackout on filming coffins being loaded onto planes. And an anesthetized American people watched Desperate Housewives and Survivor for a decade while this was happening. That is what went wrong.

Which brings me back to world knowledge.

A passport a physical thing, but at a very small level it might betoken curiosity about this big, bad complicated, dangerous world. Used well, it’s a ticket to a kind of education you can never get in a classroom. It’s certainly no disgrace not to have one if you can’t afford to travel. But it is pandering to say that people who have one have a jaded view of America, caused by our addiction to vacations on the Cote d’Or and Monaco. Never been there. My view of America, on the other hand, is a much clearer vision than the vision of someone who never sees it from the outside and mistakes the view inside the bowl for the whole of reality.

Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, reared in Indonesia and the son of a Kenyan father and an anthropologist mother is the last person I would have expected to be disingenuous about the need to know the world, the world that once liked him more than any US president since JFK and wished him well.

The Non-Elite: A Brief Meditation on the Nature of Atheist Humanism

ERASMUS

What concerns me most about the misapplication of the word ‘humanist’ to full frontal atheists is that most such humanists are not humanists at all. Not in any meaningful sense. To be solipsistic about it, if they were they would not be full frontal atheists.

By dint of past associations, I have a great many ‘friends’ (as Facebook misuses the term) who would call themselves new or raw or ‘out’ atheists—-Dawkinsites in short.

In a pinch they will say they like books (who doesn’t?), art (sort of), and music (some). But I always have the impression that you can’t press them too closely on what books, music or art they like. It probably isn’t Bach, Chagall, or Proust. It certainly isn’t the Bible—-in any translation, or any context.

And that is the problem. The loudest God-deniers-—not all but the loudest-—seem to lack cultural context. They are metaphor poor literalists who (to be generous) see culture as a succession of is and isn’t trues, a long Advent Season awaiting the birth of Darwin.

It is easy for them to detest religion because they see religion as a truth claim and not against the tapestry of human cultural, political and artistic evolution. They worship Darwin because they think he got things straight–about our creatureliness anyway. They like Galileo because he told the Church the truth, and more recently they have heroized the intellectual trainwreck Giordano Bruno because he told the church to stuff it, even though it is not at all clear what it was he wanted it to stuff.

The fundamental atheist error is that they see culture as something external to human experience, not something that forms the intellectual environment, the diet, that defines our lives and nourishes our existence. They see biological evolution in about the right way, but man once evolved as a static thing that becomes mysteriously enslaved to cultural forces over which unpeopled churches and despotic governments assumed control until he freed himself in an eighteenth century epiphany of secularism, skepticism and science. They believe in a salvation myth more extreme and incredible than anything we find in the New Testament, one that flies high above the ground of history and fact.

It’s easy therefore for atheists to dismiss critics like me as elitist. We like Shakespeare (who is old) because we think he is always new. We think the past warns us prophetically against worshiping the future, trusting innovation, presuming that all problems and questions will be resolved by science. Some will, some won’t, as anyone who reads a little Sophocles is bound to discover. Of course, to those who don’t read history (or Shakespeare) the world is always new, including problems of statecraft and morality that were being discussed three thousand years ago.

Yet the atheists complain ad nauseam about the educational deficiencies of the crazy, fundamentalist religionists–the ones who also don’t read Shakespeare, or listen to Bach, or read poetry, or go to museums. The whole quarrel can be boiled down to a war between two non-elites who in their separate ways are anti-intellectual, anti-‘culture’, and regard most of the aesthetic development of human society with suspicion or a kind of contempt that comes from unfamiliarity.

To say that one side is pro-religion, the other anti-religion is the cipher for understanding the immensely boring distinction between the two sides. But in their basic instincts, the extreme literalism with which they approach questions of value and meaning, their naive Calvinist empiricism (that one side would recoil to hear called Calvinist, if they know who Calvin is) they are the same.

The one side claims to be naturalist; but the other is not ‘supernaturalist’ but supernatural naturalists. Both sides have become infatuated with the evidence of eyes and sense, and texts and faith. Neither is much interested in looking at how these minimal coefficients of human inquiry became dominant. The entire sideshow has become a slanging match between people who ‘believe’ the Bible and people who stick posters on Facebook blasting their sworn enemy, the God of the Bible and Buddy Christ. This cultural pornography, this less than puerile game is not humanism. It is not even intelligent atheism.

It would be a shame if the current anti-intellectualism of the atheist movement and organized humanism became the equivalent on college campuses of the Campus Crusade for Christ. I complained several years ago that this was already a trend, and that it threatened to produce a generation of learners who would be as resistant to the culture of the humanities as evangelical students were in the eighties and nineties when I started my teaching career.

But the non-elitism of the fundies is now only one form of nonelitism for sale in the university. It has been joined long since by the non-elitism of postmodernism and deconstruction, which at a stretch means that holding a book appreciatively in your hands is as good as reading it and erases distinctions of judgment as mere impressions; and the non elitism of popular science which drives the nail through the heart of the humanities by claiming the arts and humanities are hobbies that do not communicate real knowledge. What was called ‘scientism’ in the 1950′s can only be called stupidity in the twenty first century, yet there are plenty of university faculty members who see the world in just this way.

Let true humanism reclaim its elitist position in relation to these absurd heresies. Let it be what it always has been to the question of God: indecisive. Let it be what it was for four millennia: the itch to write, the need to think, the power to move (and be moved) by art, the joy of music, the skill of argumentation, and the power to enrich the world by human effort and design. Ah, and our record and knowledge of these things: history.

I am pretty sure that an atheism—even an atheism hidden behind the word ‘humanist’–has little to say about that agenda.

Harrisy

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

H ere was the Publishers Weekly review of Sam Harris’s 2005 book, The End of Faith :

In this sometimes simplistic and misguided book, Harris calls for the end of religious faith in the modern world. Not only does such faith lack a rational base, he argues, but even the urge for religious toleration allows a too-easy acceptance of the motives of religious fundamentalists. Religious faith, according to Harris, requires its adherents to cling irrationally to mythic stories of ideal paradisiacal worlds (heaven and hell) that provide alternatives to their own everyday worlds. Moreover, innumerable acts of violence, he argues, can be attributed to a religious faith that clings uncritically to one set of dogmas or another. Very simply, religion is a form of terrorism for Harris. Predictably, he argues that a rational and scientific view—one that relies on the power of empirical evidence to support knowledge and understanding—should replace…

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Illiterate Islam

Mullah Omar

Three of the last four popes have been university professors, including the current one who was professor of philosophical and theological studies at the University of San Miguel in Argentina before rising in the hierarchy. Some popes, like Benedict XVI, Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul II are known primarily as intellectuals with dazzling linguistic skills. Charisma—as Benedict and Paul VI proved–is not mandatory. Occasionally, one is elected—like Pope John XXIII—who rises in the ranks primarily as a “pastor” or administrator. But the history of the modern papacy is the history of smart guys who get to wear white elected to office by other smart guys who wear red.

Even if you disagree with their theology (and who doesn’t?) it is hard to fault their training and intelligence. While the ‘new atheism’ has repeatedly proved its historical dumbness in relation to the preservation of culture and book learning, it would be an understatement to say that the Catholic Church has done its share of the heavy lifting.

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The term ‘rabbi’ has been a mark of distinction since antiquity. Loosely, it means “master” or “teacher” and connotes competence in logic, linguistics, history, and interpretation. (One of the reasons Jesus seems to have caused offense in a synagogue when he presumed to interpret a verse of scripture is that he lacked formal education). Look at the course of study in most Jewish seminaries today and you will see that nothing has been lost of this love of learning. And as with most Christian theological schools, you have to have at least an undergraduate degree (or more) to be admitted to the course in the first place. There is no official hierarchy in Judaism, so there is no equivalent to the pope, but ‘chief rabbis’ tend to be respected teachers and scholars, whether they are occupying positions in Rome, London, Jerusalem, or Montreal (astoundingly, New York, with half the world’s Jews, doesn’t have one).

If anyone doubts Jewish commitment to education, just count the Nobel prizes won by Jews. Astonishing, if you compare the 15 million Jews worldwide to the 2.08 billion Muslims in the world. Just for information, in its long history, 10 Muslims have won the prize, six for peace. Jews have won 20% of the total number of prizes ever awarded, although Jews comprise less than 0.2% of the world’s population. Overall, Jews have won a total of 41% of all the Nobel Prizes in economics, 28% of medicine, 26% of Physics, 19% of Chemistry, 13% of Literature and 9% of all peace awards. Maybe that is what God meant by chosen people.

Which brings me to the unpleasant thesis sentence of this little screed. Islam is illiterate. Its teachers are illiterate. Its educational system, to the extent it calls itself Islamic, is impoverished. Not particularly in its faithful, who have constructed some good (if not prestigious or world-ranked) universities and produced some excellent scholars and a vast array of professionals in the last century—mainly by availing themselves of western education and training.

But at its core–in its clergy. It is clear to almost anyone who looks at the imams and mullahs of Islam that the only comparison between Islam and the West relative to theology would have to be made between the worst graduates of fundamentalist Bible colleges in America and the best graduates of Islamic seminaries–anywhere.

What is truly remarkable, if we strip bare the reality behind these facts, is that undeniably intelligent people around the globe tolerate a situation where they can respect and obey the religious dicta of men (all men) whose religious training is roughly equivalent to (but probably not as broad as) someone with a two year degree from a junior college in Mississippi. It is impossible to think of an apt analogy without referring to slavery.

For people like me–who know the past and present of Islam pretty well–the only reasonable question is, Where is your revolution, your Reformation? Your wars are everywhere, Death is everywhere. But where is change?

True, of course, there are exceptions; but the education of Islamic clerics is a one-book-and-its-friends curriculum. It is a one-language course of study that is unfriendly to philosophy, secularism, the West, the liberal arts– especially serious historical study–most science, and worst of all the two hundred year period–sometimes called the “Islamic Enlightenment”–when Islam actually forged ahead of the West (albeit with the help of a lot of Arab-Jewish teachers like Maimonides) in learning. The West and the Crusades didn’t torch and destroy this culture—they appropriated it, expanded and developed it. Modern Islamic teachers barely refer to it. Many have not heard of it.

Everything these clerics oppose—from freedom of conscience to freedom of marriage to educational equality for women–is rooted in a civilization that a now dead Islamic civilization tried to bury in the eleventh century. Wars, caliphs, ambition, and eventually desuetude combined to defeat it.

This stunning decline in clerical literacy has reached a crisis point in some countries like Kyrgyzstan where the number of trained mosque minders is steadily decreasing, and a few serious scholars now worry that misinterpretations of Islam could lead to an increase in the number of religious radicals. Yet when pressed to explain what this crisis might mean in real terms, tropes replace reasons.

The religious councils crack their knuckles over “false” or “mistaken” interpretations of Islam that drive Islamic radicalism, but the finger is always pointed–the trouble always comes–from the mosque next door, the imam down the road.

“How can we convey the true meaning of Islam?” asks Kadyr Malikov, head of the independent research centre, Religion, Law and Politics, “when some distortions of the Qur’an are intentional… When they cannot recruit people, they mislead them,” he says of extremist groups. And Manas Kurmanbayev, a member of a Muslim initiative group adds that uneducated imams frequently fall under the influence of radical groups. They become, in effect, chaplains to extremist armies.

But what is happening in Kyrgykstan is happening and has been happening throughout the Muslim world and to a degree, in export form, in the West where it often takes root in indigenous cells of anti-Americanism to produce a bitter sub-culture.

The illitericisation of Islam among the imams in favour of simple (Persian?) black and white dualisms (good and evil, Muslim/infidel) is an appealing worldview to young, restless, uneducated men who need to be right about and feel validated by something It corresponds to more immediate and material dualisms, like rich and poor. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and much of North Africa—including, increasingly, countries like Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia–depend on the ignorance of the faithful to provide the religious bond among tribes, and the agency of the illiterate, authoritative imam to fuel their prejudices.

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There is no need for an al Qaeda to ensure the dominance of this model of Islam. It thrives on intellectual laziness, poverty, lack of opportunity, and a sense of being cut off from a world it suspects of being dark and satanic.

The momentary horror of 9-11 was not that people were killed, but that for one day these two non-conversant worlds were brought together in a way that is unlikely to happen ever again. How many illiterate imams danced that day? –Passenger airliners turned into the stones that pilgrims would throw during the amī aj-jamarāt (رمي الجمرات) of the Hajj, an emotional climax so frenzied that until recently hundreds died each year in the effort to fling a rock at a stone believed to be a petrified demon. It seemed so modern, but its horror was the visitation of medieval ideals on modernity, the past punishing the present.

I was looking back over my files a few days ago and came across a 2010 piece by Sumbul Ali-Karamali called “Muslim Cleric Loses His Head.” Superficially she was defending the right of outspoken Dutch politician Geert Wilders to say that the Quran is “hate speech” and to deplore a Muslim cleric for demanding his beheading: “How could any thinking individual not wholeheartedly condemn such a vile statement? The vast majority of us Muslims around the world see news headings like this one and groan,” she writes.

But like a lot of super-friendly American Muslim women and “moms” (law degree from UC Davis, English from Stanford) she seems to be only interested, like the title of her blog, in “the Muslim next door.”

Karamali also holds a certificate in “Islamic law” from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London—hardly a venue where she is likely to encounter the male-only candidates for imam-ships that populate the seminaries of the real Islamic world, outside California and the UK. That is why she permits herself analogies like these:

“Last week, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel [sic] and spiritual head of the Shas Party, a member of the governing coalition, repeated his 2001 call for the annihilation of Arabs, saying, ‘It is forbidden to be merciful to them.’ Pastor Steve Anderson of a church in Arizona says he prays for the death of Obama and calls for death to homosexuals. The problem with the Muslim clerics is that they get so much press. How can non-Muslims be faulted for thinking that Islam is a violent religion when vicious and Un-Islamic statements like this cleric’s are the ones that make the news?”

To parse what is pretty self-evidently a sob, how dare an imam sound like a Jewish and Christian fundamentalist and a loud mouthed Dutch politician who wants to see ‘Arabs’ killed and the Quran banned as hate speech?

But that, to be blunt, is the biggest red herring ever to swim in a shallow shoal. The Netherlands is not on record as being illiberal. Dutch Conservative politicians do not blow themselves up to kill Social Democrats they disagree with.

Ovaida Yosef, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem, convinced precisely no Jews to kill even a single Arab while Muslims in the region were killing each other like carnival ducks; and Pastor Steve Anderson, like Pastor Terry Jones and other evangelical want-wits persuaded precisely no one to do anything to anyone in the name of their eccentric views of Christianity. Are we really meant to see these cases as apposite?

The problem with Islam is not that ‘Un-Islamic’ statements by clerics ‘get too much news’, but that Islam can do nothing to control the incessant spew of utter hatred that comes from the lips of religious ‘experts’, a situation which is made more hopeless by the ability of intellectually deficient and sexually frustrated men to hide behind the assured authority of the book they claim to represent. That is the problem with Islam.

Part of the mythology of the post 9-11 world is the belief that scores of Muslims have been killed by vengeful Christians and Jews who have embarked on a new crusade against their religion. The fact is, scores of Muslims have been killed by other Muslims for no reason at all. Various underestimates, in fact, suggest that Al Qaeda has succeeded in killing 8-times more Muslims than non-Muslims, and this does not take into account the untargeted victims of Islamic violence in Pakistan and other hot zones of the Islamic world where the primary victims of Islamic violence are Muslims.

The West, especially America, has behaved with the exemplary tolerance that has characterized its best moments in history.

But that is a dull story; the interesting one is the one that isn’t true. Muslims die by thousands because the West hates them and tries to suppress the Prophet’s truth.

Frankly I have ceased to care what devout Muslims mean by Un-Islamic. The phrase no longer means anything at all. It is absurd beyond absurdity. In many Islamic countries, the imams and mullahs use it when they talk about the education of women; liberal Muslims use it when they disagree with extremists, American and European Muslims when they are trying to establish their liberal ‘democratic’ credentials over and against the patterns of the Islamic world. “Un-Islamic” means what the last charismatic preacher says it means, what the imam with a sixth grade education tells you it means, what a professor at SOAS tells you it means when he tries to discredit the imam with a sixth grade education. Nothing.

Most people seem certain that they know what and where the core of Islam, the true religion is, but no one can point to it. Traditionally, in such disputes (as in Christian fundamentalism or Jewish), the pointing will move further to the right, further toward an indistinct depositum fidei that is regarded as close to the glory days of a religion. This pristinism is inherent in all the book religions, but especially in the monolatry of Islam, which regards all other book religions as perversions of its straight path.

This same attitude permits some adherents to describe all others as heretics with little or no conception of what “heresy” might mean. Except the trend is rightward, as one has come to expect of monolatry. What is old is good; what is old is right. And the old is identified not with interpretation but with the social and religious conditions of the Prophet’s own lifetime–conditions which are sometime still visible in the lifestyles of people in North Africa and the Middle East.

Unfortunately, in the case of Islam–a backward patchwork of prior regional religions from its inception–it takes us back to desert tribes, all-male covens, a God the Jews and Christians had already forsaken as a brute, and an attitude toward women that can only be described as pre-classical.

Rather like Euthyphro being asked to define piety, the average Muslim simply refers happily to the will of God and walks away from any serious discussion of a faith he assumes to be abundantly clear. Nowhere else on earth do the civil phrases and greetings– al-Humdulillah (God be praised) and Insh’allah (God willing)–betray so sadly the mindset of a culture that refuses to think for itself but instead entrusts itself to the religious pronouncements of bearded nabobs who pretend to know with the certainty of a medieval Franciscan the will of God.

Islam needs to stop deceiving itself that rabid rabbis and crazy Christians can be put forward as the moral equivalent (let alone some sort of weird justification) for the constant stream of bloodshed that covers the earth in the Islamic world, Muslim to Muslim. To be direct, the Jewish and Christian outliers are statistically insignificant. But the swelling numbers of illiterate and extreme Muslim clergy is typical. A simple fact check tells the whole story: According to the NCTC, between 82% and 97% of deaths owing to religious violence in 2011–the last year for which secure statistics were available-were Muslims killing Muslims.

It is a comment on the religion of the West that provocateurs like Steven Anderson, Fred Phelps, and Terry Jones are regarded as perversions not of a “true Christianity” but even by secular standards of simple human decency. What they have in common is stupidity and hate—an educational background that left them untouched by the civilizing and critical thought processes that characterize the education of rabbis and priests and most mainstream clergy, whether Unitarian or Baptist.

Surely the comparisons the Islamic world wishes for its clerics is not between a circus sideshow and their religious mainstream; but it is almost undeniable that outside Europe and North America, the Islamic clerisy is inhabited by clowns.

It is time for the apologists of Islam to stop playing the comparison game and acknowledge the root cause of the problem. It is not the humiliation of Islam by the West that is the root of this problem but the depressing condition of Islamic education, at both seminary and university level, that spells tragedy. The root cause of future ‘terrorism’ will be the happy conjunction of young men who don’t think and religious experts who prefer them not to, because, of course, they never learned themselves.

The educational standard of the Islamic world in general is a scandal, a joke, a laboratory culture for unhappy young men and compliant young women who would prefer to blame the rest of the world for problems they cannot solve because the self-referential myopia of their religion is not designed to solve them. The illiteracy problem in Islam is first Islam itself, not the West, not infidelity, modernity or secularism, and second those who defend its cure as Unislamic. It is not a good place. It is Scylla and Charybdis.

Being Humanist: The Atheist “Disqualification”

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

Over the past few years I have been harping on the idea that movement humanism (for historical reasons) hijacked a perfectly good word, picked its pocket and left it for dead.

I’ve been thinking more about the subject recently.  Every time I return to it I am accused by at least one well-wisher of wanting to hie back to the renaissance, when ceilings were floral, swimming in cherubs,  and the living was easy.  That is, if you were a pope or a prince. Even the use of a word like “hie” tells you a lot about me.

But–and you can breathe easy–this isn’t about history, or the Medici or even Pico della Mirandolla.  Though I do like a little Pico with my daily crossword. This is really about why it’s time for humanists to kick atheists out of their house.  They’ve had squatters’ rights for fifty years and the place…

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The Epistle to the Epicureans

A Letter to Atheists
(c) 2014 R. Joseph Hoffmann

Dear Atheists:

Ok, you don’t believe in God. I say, Cheers. You are acknowledging (not discovering) something that is the product of a millennium, give or take a century, of thought.

We call that a hard-won conclusion. The bad news for you is that you don’t own the conclusion, and you didn’t build the road that got us from the year 1214 to 2014. And for many of you, the road you think got is here was a magical road, a fairy bridge from ancient Greece to Darwin.

In June, 1214, the University of Oxford received its Charter from Pope Innocent III. But even though that’s a purely symbolic date and event, it marks the beginning in the West of a formal intellectual process that goes back to antiquity and, over time, produced the modes of analysis and styles of argumentation that led to a rejection of the epistemological status of faith as a mode of knowing, superior to reason, and of metaphysics as a way of description superior to natural philosophy.

Bacon

That is a short way of saying that atheists didn’t “discover” that God doesn’t exist. It is a conclusion forced on the human mind by the growth and development of knowledge, and the growth and development of knowledge has a long history prior to the growth and development of science as we have come (maybe unfortunately) to associate that term with chemistry, physics, biology and their spawn.

It took the beginnings of the historical sciences of archaeology, linguistics, and anthropology to reach this conclusion. Its effects were being felt in university faculties long before Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859.

Atheists are blinded by two conceptual errors. First your belief that Religion is a bogeymen, the source of all the world’s problems–social, political and moral. Second, your belief that history like religion is a matter of opinion.

It’s the second error that entitles you to the first–your conviction that science is science and everything else is opinion.

But let’s be clear about how seriously flawed this pattern in your thinking is.

It’s your kind of thinking about history that permits a fundamentalist Christian to ignore the archaeological record in exchange for a totally bogus one drawn from revealed “truth” and scripture. An atheist who believes in an unwritten alternative history is no different. If you believe that humanity had reached a zenith of enlightenment in classical Greece, a golden age of opportunity that was suppressed by a big bad wolf of a Church that led everyone down the alley of “supernatural theism” [sic] into the dark ages, until Hume and Darwin ransomed the world from Darkness, you are guilty of ignoring things called facts, which is inexcusable coming from people who purport to love facts and hate superstition. It’s a salvation myth that rivals in pure absurdity anything recorded in the New Testament.

That right: I am saying that atheists who believe in a Golden Age of atheism are just as bad as young earth creationists. It’s a myth, a hoax. It only exists in your head.

Atheism evolved. We can trace it, chart it, pinpoint it, learn it. But what we are tracing is not the full-blown idea that God does not exist as some kind of intellectual treasure buried in the caverns of Rome. We are talking about a process that at time doesn’t look like atheism at all, and includes names that—if you knew them—you might be far more likely to associate with your bugaboo, religion.

You can’t frame the question, Did religion give us science, if by science you mean the modern sciences. Religion was way too old a mother for that kind of birth.

But if science wasn’t like the birth of Isaac to Sarah, it can’t have been a virgin birth either. Ideas, methods and processes don’t just erupt spontaneously. The fact that your standard model of the origin of the universe is a virgin birth causes its own epistemological conundrums that no amount of dark matter is likely to resolve. Fortunately, religion will be standing by in the next century to help you sort it out.

But what “religion”, or more specifically theology and philosophy, did give birth to along the way were the bits and pieces that led the way to scientific thinking and scientific results. Religion gave us an apparatus for critical thinking, though, along with it,  gave us certainty that the intellectual quest it encouraged would end up being reconcilable with the “truths” of faith–and that didn’t turn out to be the case.

Those bits and pieces, however, were indispensable: alphabetic writing, descriptive narrative, discursive method, observation and experimentation, the systematic quadrants of theology that preserved logic, scholarship and the copyist tradition, respect for knowledge and learning, universities, disciplinary study, translation, philology (the study of languages and their relationships), early anthropology, natural history and archaeology. Religion gave us universities. It preserved the whole corpus of knowledge that until the nineteenth century we called, simply, “learning.”

Through its direct questions about the nature of authority in the Reformation and Renaissance, it gave us systems of government. It gave us tolerance, charity, schools, hospitals and secularism. Please be clear: science did not give us these things; secularism didn’t make these things possible. Religion gave us the conditions through which science and secularism came about.

No, I won’t mention that Copernicus was a monk; so was the “father” of early genetics, Gregor Mendel. Just to make things really embarrassing for you, the Franciscan Oxford scholar Roger Bacon (working at the height of your “dark ages” in the 13th century), was the first to call for the use of the scientific method based on experimentation. His work on optics, especially the use of magnification, was groundbreaking and can be compared only to the scientific work of da Vinci two centuries later, or Newton, or still later Max Planck. But So what, you will say. All of this is history and our history begins with Darwin. Everything before that is porridge.

George Lemaitre

Modern cosmology has a father too, the Belgian priest George Lemaitre, who with Hubble and Eddington, in a paper written in 1927 (and unnoticed until Eddington called attention to it) convinced the majority of astronomers that the universe was indeed expanding. This revolutionized the study of cosmology. A year later, Lemaître explored the logical consequences of an expanding universe and boldly proposed that it must have originated at a finite point in time. He wrote “As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”

The regnant pope at the time, Pius XII, far from sending the Swiss Guard to arrest him (but perhaps a little fuzzy on the details of Lemaitre’s findings) called it a “validation of Catholic theology.” But of course it wasn’t: what could it mean for a God to be hidden and disconnected from the very process that was thought by believers to express his being–the act of creation.

Atheists prefer to wheel rather quickly past Lemaitre as some kind of anomaly and talk (rightly) about Penzias, Wilson and Gamow; but alas we are stuck with him. Or at least real historians are stuck with him. Atheist revisionists must do as they want. What they seem to want is a fake history concocted from the myth of an ancient world populated by naturalist thinkers who never existed, replaced by a Church obsessed with suppressing atheists who never wrote, until somehow, miraculously, modern science struggled out of a womb that never bore it.

But the real leap of faith for the atheist minim is your use of a contrived dissimilarity principle that compares where science is now (or at least where it has been since the 19th century) and where religion was 3000 years ago. Apples and fossilized oranges.

It is a little like what the Christian fundamentalist does when he asks a God-fearing congregation to compare a lab rat and a fifth grader. You can argue until you are blue in the face that we share 98% of our DNA with the rat; but “common sense” and eyesight will win out over the complexities of microbiology when the assembly adjourns to return a verdict. You can say, How, utterly stupid, how irrational: don’t these yokels know anything about how science works? (The answer is: Not much.)

But comparing religion and science in historical terms requires just the same degree of perception, subtlety and  specialist knowledge as a comparison of rats and fifth graders. When you ask your adherents to compare the conclusions of religion to the results of science, you are simply appealing to the yokels, using the same fallacy—false analogy—to score a point. In fact, it is not at all clear that religion and science have different subject matters or that they will come to different conclusions in their quests for truth. Atheism and theism are faith positions, not methods. Science and theology are methods, not faith positions. The subject matter of theology and science is the describe the ultimate nature of reality. Both need to be prepared to accept the consequences of the inquiry without confusing ends and means.

When atheists compare the findings and knowledge acquired by modern science to poetic stories, tall tales and religious explanations in a book that itself evolved—in both literary and conceptual ways—over a thousand year period, you are behaving like Pentecostals. Religion did not stop in 1750 BCE or 124 CE. As with the diversification of animal species, ideas have histories and morphologies too, and you need to allow for both progress and regress among the religions of the world.

Nothing is more clear than that religion exhibits both “strands” and nothing is more clear than that atheists habitually fail to recognize this feature of religion, its dynamism and adaptability. The death of God has been proclaimed for more than two centuries, but like Freud’s primordial father (and for just the same reason) he won’t go away.

But your need to pack all the bad things about religion into one box lands you square in the swamp of hasty generalization: All religions are poison and poison is bad for you.  The role religion has played in molding civilization, law, art, literature, music, philosophy and (indeed), science?  No, it must have been something else–Dark Matter? Those atheists you postulate hiding in the catacombs?

When religious authorities have sometimes been backward, conservative, hateful and cruel towards the quest they initiated (this is where you get to mention Galileo and your new poster boy, the irrepressible neo-gnostic Giordano Bruno) it isn’t because the Church hated knowledge. The Church was in love with knowledge–so much in love it didn’t want to share it or let it go.  The fact is, science was a better lover, and the Church behaved like the jilted suitor it was: replaced by a younger, stronger and more convincing performer.  It’s a very old story.

Wisdom (Sophia) abiove all else: Early Christian depiction

A contempt for fundamentalism, for the crudity of ancient rituals and law as it is depicted in the world’s religious books; disgust at the stupidity of some religious leaders and politicos; remorse that too many Christians and Muslims believe preposterous things–on a range of social and ethical issues; despair that certain kinds of religious teaching and practice can encourage superstition, violence, and mental illness. It is possible to hate all of these effects, as I do, and still appreciate the possibilities of religion and respect what William James called the “will to believe.”

What isn’t in your jumbled profession of unbelief and your courtship of science as a frame of reference, however,  is a sense of history, including the history of unbelief. 

Atheism is not the end point in a rational discussion of God’s existence. New atheism in particular has shed almost nothing but heat on the subject and has systematically ignored the rich history of the debate since the Middle Ages. You know what Richard Dawkins says about God, but not what J L Mackie says, or Alvin Plantinga or Jurgen Habermas. Modern atheism cannot be taken seriously for the stunning reason that it has not grappled seriously with the question of God.

Your lesser lights and cheerleaders pretend to write history as though religion somehow lost civilization down a sewer on the way home from the bakery, or suppressed it before the might of the armies of Unreason, as a kind of premeditated conspiracy orchestrated by the Church to keep God on top and people dumb. –A kind of Marvel Comics view of the history of our species, written by people who can talk relative sense about how our species evolved but pure dribble about how it progressed intellectually.

[Next: The Inventions of Atheism]

Darkness, Doubt, and Dante

rjosephhoffmann:

From 2010

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

Augustine: Having seen the light...

What do Augustine, Thomas de Quincey, Leo Tolstoy, and John Henry Newman (now Blessed) have in common? That’s right: confessions. Relatively speaking, Tolstoy might have chosen to blog about his plight rather than write through it in longhand, de Quincey would have done well on Salon.com, and Newman called his confession an apologia because he had been put in a defensive mode. But they all wrote about their spiritual troubles and how they solved them. To quote de Quincey in a somber moment:

“Christianity is that religion which most of all settles what is perilous in scepticism; and yet, also, it is that which most of all unsettles whatever may invite man’s intellectual activity. It is the sole religion which can give any deep anchorage for man’s hopes; and yet, also, in mysterious self-antagonism, it is the sole religion which opens a pathless ocean to man’s useful and blameless…

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A Free Man’s Worship

rjosephhoffmann:

Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” is one of the most eloquent statements of atheism ever written. The question of God is an exquisite problem, intricate as a harp. Only people who know how to use the strings should go near it. The bludgeonite New Atheists go at it with scissors and hammers, thinking that if you destroy the harp you destroy the problem. Russell knew better. In an essay full of humanity and important ideas, he coaxes you into admiring the rationality of his position–a symphony of sense.

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

by admin Posted on December 29, 2011

Happy New Year!

Religious folk have the advantage of hearing their sacred texts read out, as in a story, during a liturgical year. Unbelievers and humanists have no such advantage, because we believe that no story is so sacred that it demands endless repetition.

Bertrand Russell’s life as a philosopher, logician-mathematician and social reformer can be summarized in one biographical detail: In 1894 he married the American Quaker Alys Pearsall Smith, one of a generation of wealthy buccaneers who propped up British aristocracy through “economic” marriages from Kensington to Blenheim. ”Their marriage began to fall apart,” says Wallenchinsky matter of factly, “in 1901 when it occurred to Russell, while he was cycling, that he no longer loved her.” What could be simpler?

A few texts of the atheist tradition deserve to be enshrined in memory if not in a tabernacle. As we approach…

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Measuring the Truth of the Book

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

koran_new

All religions make truth claims. These may be specific, as in the form of particular doctrines—heaven, hell, the trinity, the virginity of Mary—or more general: the finality of the Prophet, the exclusive role of the Church as a means of grace and salvation, the belief in the divine election of the Jews.

What is not so widely acknowledged is that these claims of truth are supported by a set of rationales, or to use Van Harvey’s famous term, “warrants” that provide security and confidence to adherents of the religious tradition.

The warrants are seldom available in the sacred writings and doctrines explicitly, but they are often observable in teaching, interpretation and conduct. The three book religions, which often have been referred to as “Abrahamic” actually have quite different warrants for their truth claims.

Warrants in religion are a kind of pseudo-empiricism—a quantification of truth value. Like empirical tests, warrants are…

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The Death of the Gentleman Scholar

rjosephhoffmann:

Its annual outing…like Hallmark special of yore

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

The Death of the Gentleman Scholar
by ADMIN posted on OCTOBER 22, 2011
“Wisdom crieth aloud in the street; she uttereth her voice in the highways” Proverbs 1,22

Recent events have made me remember that one of the reasons I dropped out of law school was that lawyers seemed just like businessmen to me. They told the same jokes, drank the same beer and ogled the same girls while they sat smoking the same cigarettes (when you could smoke cigarettes on a university campus, a hundred years ago) between classes. I had chosen “the law” (notice the phrase) because I’d seen A Man for All Seasons twenty times and thought if it ever came to it I would willingly die for justice, which had become in my head a worthy substitute for God. I’d left him behind at the end of my freshman year and there was an intellectual and…

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