Five Good Things about Atheism

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

It seems I cannot win.

When I chart the vague, occasional and ambiguous virtues of religion (mainly historical) I am accused of being intellectually soft. When I tell atheists they run the risk of turning their social solidarity into tent revivals or support groups I risk expulsion from the ranks of the Unbaptized and Wannabe Unbaptized.

It is a terrible position to be in, I can tell you, and I have no one to blame but myself.

To make amends and win back my disillusioned readers I am devoting this blog to the good things about atheism.

As far as I can tell, there are five:

1. Atheism is probably right: there is almost certainly no God. At least not the kind of pluriform god described by the world’s religions. If there were, we would know it in the way we know other things, like potholes and…

View original 2,103 more words

Three Fewer Things to Say About Atheism

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

Mao and Stalin were atheists. This proves that atheists are not socially tolerant. I can probably think of a hundred names to add to the list to build a case. But it would be the wrong case because, surely, it was communism that supplied the evangelical intolerance of the social and economic movements we associate with Stalinism and Maoism. Atheism is simply a component of a larger picture. (As I mentioned to the reader who lodged the objection, this is a good example of the fallacy of division.)

Beyond this, we can’t deny that the ideologues of the communist movement understood atheism as a formative mind-set: Marx (and Engels) began as left-Hegelians, along with a half dozen theologians ranging from Strauss to the early myth-theorist Bruno Bauer. Their atheism flowed from a material view of the world and a rejection of the superstition that could be used to keep the…

View original 1,171 more words

Religion and Moral Intelligence

“The gods must die so that humanity might live.” (The Buddha)

The naturalist philosopher Paul Kurtz has written that a modern ethical system cannot begin with the acceptance of the rule ethics of the ancient religious systems of the world. Not only people who regard themselves as “secular” accept this principle. Many people who regard themselves as religious believe it as well.

The laws and commandments of the world’s religions, and especially the monotheistic traditions, are of immense historical importance in helping us to understand the slow progression of ethical thought from simple assent to critical examination over the greater part of three millennia, corresponding to the transition between relatively simple ancient societies to complex ones.

The same period witnessed the growth of philosophy, literacy, new forms of self-expression, changing attitudes toward prosperity and government, and above all, in the last two hundred years, the rapid growth of science and technology as a new paradigm for understanding the world and our place in it. To assume that the rules that held together ancient desert and agricultural groups are adequate to address the dilemmas and problems of the last two millennia is an assumption that critical examination does not support. The book religions taken as diagrams for modern life are irrelevant, regressive and inadequate. In the case of some, the religious practices are more than irrelevant: They are dangerous and inhumane. They are incompatible with common sense and moral intelligence.

Yet, we are in history as a fish is in water. The early search of homo quaerens—man the seeker—for meaning was largely a religious quest. The sources or ground of value was projected to be beyond the individual, beyond the village and social unit, often beyond rational discussion. Belief in the gods or god was an efficient way of answering questions for which our ancestors had no ready answers nor the means to develop any.

Today however, because we know much more about how values evolved over a long period of time, we realize that the ultimate source and responsibility for the creation of moral values is not a hierarchy of priests and kings, or myths shrouded with the authority of a distant past, but us—-homo fabricans, man the maker and inventor.

We are the ones who create the sources of strength and the basis for understanding our world. As many scholars have said, the gods are not simply symbols of fear and superstition, but projections of our strength and power, and our Promethean effort to understand. At the same time, in a strictly literal sense, these gods do not exist and have never existed. To the extent that people continue to believe that there are sources and standards of authority beyond humanity, that belief has to be accounted irrational. Individual religions become dangerous and irrational precisely to the extent they maintain that morality is not created but revealed or dictated by unseen powers.

At the same time, there is no good reason to study the past, including the religious past of our species, simply for the purpose of ridicule. The closest analogy would be to replace the heirloom photographs in our family album with cartoons of our grandparents and scorn for their customs and attitudes—or blaming the stars and planets in the night sky for not having developed more innovative orbits over the 14 billion years of their history. We cannot be guilty of what we once believed or what we did not know three thousand years ago, or five hundred years ago. Yet we are guilty if we continue to believe it today. As rational creatures, we have a moral responsibility not to believe it, and a moral responsibility to embrace the description of the world that science provides and every day makes more clear to us. It is intellectually important to know our religious past. It is intellectually irresponsible and absurd to let the world-view and life-stances of our ancient predecessors determine the way in which we should lead our lives, make decisions, or form political communities.

It is not true to say that religion has nothing to teach us. It is true that the dogmatic acceptance of outdated belief systems has nothing to offer us by way of critical reflection on who we are and how our values are created. The scientific study of religion is an essential component in tracing the development of our social and moral intelligence; it can help us to chart the way forward by reminding us of where we have been.

Religion is a primary index in the development of our moral intelligence. It is difficult to imagine any journey worth making that does not involve a backward glance—first because we are not infinite; we are steps in a very long process, always in danger of losing our bearings and always tempted—just like our ancestors—by presentism: the belief that things will be in the future as they are now. But history tells us how wrong that attitude is, and that challenges ahead may require us to find better answers to questions we thought we had answered long ago. Second, because the answers to the moral challenges of our time, to be authentic, require the touchstones of history. Our human ancestors were not asking significantly different questions, but they were answering them in a significantly different way—attributing them to unseen authority, other wills, or to the certainty of “tradition.” A part of our enlightenment as a species has been the discovery that the simple repetition of a traditional answer is often the repetition of error. Yet that is what religion once required of us.

For these reasons morally responsible women and men will eschew ancestor worship, supernatural thinking and dogmatism as dangers en route. But they will build a future with the souvenirs of the religious past as part of this moral intelligence. The poet and critic, who is best known for his work in fantasy, C.S. Lewis reached into Buddhism when he wrote, “The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination.” (Allegory of Love, p. 82). The formulation in Buddhism is more severe: “The gods must die so that humanity might live.”

That is where we are, and the moral consequences of this awakening are human, ponderous, and global.

Illiterate Islam

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

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…

View original 2,597 more words

Charlie and Ahmed

A friend writes in response to my last post on the topic of radical Islam that her Muslim friends and neighbours in Oxford are nothing like the Islamists she sees on TV. They are peaceful, law-abiding and upright citizens of the Realm.

Of course that is true. Mrs Saleem is a lovely woman and her son, Ahmed, a bright eyed and promising boy who enters middle school next year. What could be more obvious than that to lump her together with the most toxic examples of the faith she professes is a malignant thing to do.

We have been pounded in recent days to remember that our fight is not with Islam but with terrorism in the broad sense. That is also true–but to a lesser extent, and I will expect to be pounded for saying it–again.

After 9-11 (while members of the bin Laden family scuttled home from California to KSA) a number of pundits remarked that a war on “terror” or “terrorism” is nonsensical. George Soros called the phrase a “false metaphor.” Linguist George Lakoff argued that there cannot literally be a war on terror, since terror is an abstract noun. “Terror cannot be destroyed by weapons or signing a peace treaty. A war on terror has no end.”

Yet it seemed preferable to fight what could never be won than to taunt the dogs of war and agitate 1.6 billion Muslims, some of whom were dancing jigs on 9-11, with the possibility that the clash of civilizations was now officially underway.

Unfortunately, the war against “terror” or “radical Islam” (which the radicals will call simply “the true faith” الإسلام الحقيقي) or al-Qaida and its “affiliates,” and trainee decapitators worldwide, is not possible to conceptualize without Islam. That is the real point.

And that is the real problem. The violence we see in the Middle East, in Pakistan, in northern Africa, in Malaysia and Indonesia in not disincarnate or unattributable. Without the textual, educational and social context of Islam in those parts of the world-—but perhaps in export form now also in parts of Europe—the current situation is unimaginable.

It is not a question of whether your Pakistani neighbor pays the milkman or likes a good chaw by the garden fence when she’s taking her clothes in. The problem with quantifying anything is that it can cut you on the back-swing: If statistically it could be shown that 75% of Muslims were supporters of violent jihad or Islamic State, would that make the problem more or less Islamic? Would it make the agenda of the jihadists more or less deplorable? To acknowledge the connection between Islam and violence is not the same as saying all Muslims are violent, or that Islam is inherently a violent religion. But accepting the connection, it seems to me, is the first step in putting the bait’ Ullah–the house of God–back in order.

Religion is a system of beliefs, practices, and ethics that develops within particular historical contexts. The fact that we all live co-incidentally in 2015 does not mean that those beliefs, practices, and ethics are the same. It does not mean that we share all aspects of belief or the same history or that beliefs have developed on parallel lines. They haven’t. Islam seems to know this better than liberal Christianity and secularized Judaism.

Religion helps to shape culture, but culture shapes religion in dynamic ways that are still not fully understood. There are organic connections and similarities between Judaism and Christianity, and between those faiths and Islam. But the cultural forces which have shaped these religions were markedly different, and the outcomes of their individual histories and interaction over time has also led to different results. It has made them more different than alike. How strongly you believe in God, or else how much of the history of the gods you know, will shape your response to the statement “We all believe in the same God.” But for someone like me, whose job it is to study religion in social context, the statement is false.

It is one of the nostrums of our time to say that all religions are alike. This belief–which is absurd and even ignorant—is positive for the three Abrahamic faiths if what we are saying is that they teach the same lovely truth about God and human conduct. In the mouths of skeptics and atheists on the other hand, as witness the work of the “new atheists,” it means it is a waste of time trying to distinguish the good and the bad in religion because, fundamentally, all religion is bad–or to use Christopher Hitchens’s phrase, poisonous.

I am a skeptic of long standing about “interfaith dialogue” because it relies too much on the first position (religions are just different paths to same shining truth) and almost totally ignores the second (religions mess you up).

Interfaith dialogue–which gives us the principle that our fight is with terror not with a religion—is the product of the self-help, everything is beautiful-era in which history and hard reality were tossed out the window leaving only the heady aroma of incense and flowers behind.

But if religious extremism has taught us anything, it has taught us that everything is not beautiful–that some people’s image of God is not just deficient but repugnant, and that most of the people who have this image and act on it are Muslims. That aroma you smell? It’s Aleppo and a girls’ school in the Sindh, burning, the sizzling remains of a suicide bomber who has just chanted Allahu akbar! That is the world we live in and these are the images that suffuse our view.

Christians don’t own the image of a God of love, mercy, justice and peace. There is no reason that cannot be a description of Allah–indeed, Mrs Saleem probably thinks it is. She has memorized all of the 99 beautiful names of God and can recite them on cue. But what needs to happen is that the god who seems to be passing for God, the god who commands people to kill fellow believers and murder children in their desks–that god must be denounced as a demon. Only within Islam can this transformation take place. It cannot be imposed through battles: there is no religious outcome to a battle.

That your neighbor is a law-abiding woman, a generous woman–a good mother and a good cook, and that all of her friends are like her–is a noble thing. But that she belongs to a religion that has a problematical position towards western democratic ideals such as free speech, freedom of choice to marry, the right of women to seek and obtain education, or travel freely without permission–is also undeniable.

For the last three hundred years revolutions have been fought in the West to ensure the separation of church and state, the supremacy of law over passion, and the basic freedoms of the individual-—both men and women. By and large, the Church and the synagogue have followed along with this secular interpretation of our social existence In significant ways, they brought it about. But it is much harder for Islam to follow along happily, because it has not yet navigated the waters of secularization and sees its death at the end of the process.

Let me return to my original assertion: The fact that we all happen to occupy the same space in 2015 does not means that our values are the same. It’s well known by now that the children of immigrants tend to remember what their parents tried to forget, or ignore.

Thousands of Muslims who came to Europe for a better economic future, or to escape political chaos in their own country, found a culture that was hostile, condescending, or indifferent. That is why hundreds of younger Muslims are returning to the Islamic “state” to fight for the freedom they have come to believe has been stolen from them. After all, didn’t the West steal their homeland? Put its filthy boots on the ground all over the holy places? Create false hopes in the minds of their fathers, and then fail to deliver on the promise of jobs and the pursuit of happiness? Impose their language, values, technology, sexual habits–like so much opium–and then expect them to live without it? They find it difficult to feel patriotic about a country in which they seem doomed to perpetual negritude and second class status. Not all feel this way, but many do and some of the ones who do are simply too polite to say they do.

The West does not understand them. But is equally true to say that except for the jeans they wear, the rap they rap, and the iPhones they carry, they do not really understand the West. Islam as it taught and practiced is a pervasive source of that misunderstanding.

It is not some sort of intrinsic desire to kill that makes them violent. It is a sort of pornographic idealism, supported by the worst possible reading of an ancient book, interpreted by the worst possible religious experts—many of them in their twenties and lacking any sort of educational qualifications to teach or preach fiqh.

We do Islam no favour by not asking it to take its share of the blame. We do it a distinct disservice by spreading the veil of the sacred, the untouchable, around it-closeting it off from critique, satire and serious discussion through the imposition of blasphemy and anti-defamation laws.

When Muhammad marched into Makkah with his band of believers the Kaaba was used as a shrine for pagan idols, especially al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat, known together as al-Gharaniq (Daughters of God), and Hubal, a marriage god. He destroyed the idols in the sight of the crowds and rededicated it to Allah, since according to tradition it has been created in the time of Abraham and Ismail.

What Islam desperately needs is the radical energy to cleanse itself again. And that will take sufficient numbers of Muslims who are willing to see the men of violence as apostates and idol-worshipers, and dedicate themselves to wisdom and restraint.

Otherwise, Ahmed will find himself at eighteen dead on a foreign battlefield and not at Cambridge preparing to be a surgeon.

Owning Isis: Collective Responsibility and Personal Guilt

Let’s begin with a simple question: Who killed Jesus?

(a) The Jews
(b) The Romans
(c) Pontius Pilate
(d) You

That’s right, the correct answer is “d”–you did, at least if you are a Christian. If you aren’t, then a, b, or c will do nicely.

Christian theology is based on the belief that Jesus came to take away the sins of the world. Sin (your sins, mate) put him on the cross. Despite the gory and rather explicit detail of the gospels about the crucifixion being the result of a trial and a queer combination of Roman law and mob justice, the Church has always taught that it was your sins, ultimately, that nailed him to the tree. Otherwise his life and death would have no meaning. At least no religious meaning.

Where does such an idea come from? The answer is, from the Jews, or rather from an ancient opinion that the sins of a single (corrupt) person corrupts a whole nation and can even be inherited for seven generations down the line. This is especially ugly when the crime is murder, or incest, or a variety of lesser transmissible offenses against the law, including blasphemy against God (usually not spoken but worshiping idols) and apostasy (מְשֻׁבָה).

The Christians got and then modeled their idea of original sin on the Jewish idea of transmissible contamination and collective guilt. Paul uses it is his letters, especially in Romans 5. But they solved the problem (which was cyclical within Jewish theology) by declaring the the death of Jesus was “once for all” and that baptism, which is essentially a kind of mystical, watery dying and rising again with Jesus, wipes away the stain of sin. No more use for goats and bloody sacrifices therefore. The Eucharist is much tidier and leads to a better result.

The belief in collective guilt and corporate forgiveness derives from the belief in collective responsibility: sin does not exist by itself but within social structures–communities. It is a state of being, and does not just refer to deeds done but thoughts thought and deeds left undone. This belief is where the idea of original sin (later) comes from. it is not what the individual does by himself (what the Church would call “actual sin) but what the individual is by virtue of being a son or daughter of Adam.

Fast forward from medieval discussions: Beginning in the 1990’s the Catholic church was rocked by the so-called pedophile priest scandal. Of course, it wasn’t a scandal at all. It was criminal activity aided and abetted in many cases by lax or indifferent bishops who felt that their primary responsibility was to their priests and not to the people. The “laity” were reminded persistently, as the stories spread, that the Church remained holy despite a few rotten apples. When it became clear that there were more than ten rotten apples in the ecclesiastical barrel, (3000 civil lawsuits in the United States alone) and that the problem was global not just American, the Church was unable to use the “holiness” argument to much effect.

That is because the Church knew that its defense against sin had to begin with the confession of sin, or to use Paul’s much-parodied line, “We are all sinners…all fall short–every one.” There had been occasions in the history of Catholicism (and other religions) where the “we are all pure–except them”-argument worked, but in the case of the priest scandal it did not work at all. Innocent children had been violated, some children as young as three raped. It crippled the argument further that these acts had not been committed by random Catholics or lay Catholic school teachers but by ordained men under vows to the Church (and to God) to represent Jesus Christ amongst the people.

In general, the Church was wise not to use the term “Unchristian” and “Un-Catholic” to excuse the behavior of its priests. At a civil-law level–where most of the action took place–it didn’t mollify the abused or the violated to know that they might be eligible for damages paid out by the diocese. What seemed to do the most good was when the Church, in the person of popes Benedict and Francis, acknowledged in classical mode the collective responsibility and guilt of the Church, and apologized to victims. Part of this acknowledgement moreover was to confess that it was specifically an environment within the church, its seminaries and parishes–even its theory of the priesthood–that had facilitated abuse. This papal penance effectively acknowledged that even though the abusers were a fraction of a fraction of priests, the problem needed to be owned and acknowledged as a Roman Catholic problem.

Flash forward again, this time to the last week in radical Islam

2015.01.08 (Baghdad, Iraq) – A Sunni suicide bomber wades into a Shiite mosque and slaughters at least eight worshipers.
2015.01.07 (Zhari, Afghanistan) – Taliban bombers kill two children gathering firewood.
2015.01.07 (Baghlan, Afghanistan) – Six road workers are machine-gunned point-blank by extremist gunmen.
2015.01.07 (Sanaa, Yemen) – A al-Qaeda suicide bus bomber scatters body parts and snuffs out thirty-seven lives at a college.
2015.01.06 (Nazimabad, Pakistan) – Two Shiite brothers are murdered in their shop by Sipah-e-Sahaba.
2015.01.06 (al-Jubba, Iraq) – A suicide attack on a mosque and the ensuing clash leave two dozen dead.

–And most famously, two trained gunmen enter the offices of the renowned French satire magazine Charlie Hebdou and kill twelve people, including all senior cartoonists, in an attempt to avenge insult to the Prophet Muhammad.

As Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes in today’s Wall Street Journal, “This was not an attack by a mentally deranged, lone-wolf gunman. This was not an “un-Islamic” attack by a bunch of thugs–the perpetrators could be heard shouting that they were avenging the Prophet Muhammad. Nor was it spontaneous. It was planned to inflict maximum damage, during a staff meeting, with automatic weapons and a getaway plan. It was designed to sow terror, and in that it has worked.”

Islam, as I’ve argued here before, was never able to produce a coherent theological or “orthodox” tradition apart from its simple belief in the arkān al-Islām –the pillars of Islam. It did try, and once upon a time, in the storied Golden Age of Islam prior to the thirteenth century there were philosophers who offered a ray of light. Later on however that light was snuffed out by the likes of the imam Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī who taught (contra the much more learned Ibn Rushd) that philosophy and Islam had nothing to do with one another, and to the extent they did, the philosophers were heretics. The rigidity of that teaching deprived Islam of a Renaissance, a Reformation and an Enlightenment. Worse, it created a disconnect between Islam and modernity that still plagues a religion that–in some of its most visible manifestations–belongs to another time and place.

It also created an anomaly. In Islam there is a clear concept of believers and unbelievers, and a doctrine of a world community of believers whose job it is to spread the message of the religion of peace, by force if necessary. But just as there is no unifying theological tradition apart from rote-learned piety, prayers, and basic moral conventions, so there is no real notion of collective responsibility.

We see this now in the refusal of Islam to own ISIS, or religious extremism more broadly, as the Catholic Church had owned its crimes against the innocent. We see it in the cloying repetition of the word “Unislamic” as the ultimate–it seems sometimes the only–term of reprobation for the actions of radical Islamic killers, rapists, and torturers. The anomaly is that while Islam possesses the doctrine of a community of believers (أمة) which looks temptingly like the western belief in a global Christianity (“catholic” only means universal), the premises that undergird this thinking are drastically different, even conflictual.

Lacking a belief in collective sin and original sin, Islam is wedded to the belief that sin is an act that a righteous God will punish at judgement. Sin is not a state of being. It is individual, and can only be forgiven individually. On the one hand, there is a hierarchy of sin– idolatry, witchcraft, accusing chaste women of promiscuity, stealing from an orphan–but these actions do not approach the scholastic depth that medieval Christianity would provide for its description of sin and virtue. Islam has a long list of sins, but not a strong sense of sinning.

Partly this means that every sinner, to the extent he has a committed an offense against God, cannot be said to represent Islam. But practically this means as well that even when it is clear that there is a social, communal, and sizable problem within the faith–such as that now represented by the violence of Islamic radicals–a larger part of the ummah can simply disown it.

There is also this point, which may seem like theological nitpicking, but it a real question in Islamic teaching: Who is to say–who is to judge but God–whether actions that seem violent to the unbelievers and even to some Muslims are actually sin? The acquiescence of many Muslims in certain jihadist activities and their reluctance to speak out clearly comes from this “weak” sense of sin, that is trumped theologically by the belief that nothing happens–not even violence–contrary to the will of Allah.

Sex, Salvation, and Violence in Radical Islam

A friend wrote to correct me recently, after I posted my theological reading of the current crisis in Islam, caused by a growing number of groups committed to the use of violence to pursue their religious (and political) goals.

My reading is fairly simple: It is that “mainstream” Muslims delude themselves in trying to make the crisis “Unislamic” when all of its markers–proof-texts, idioms, images and models–are drawn from a selective reading of Islamic history and tradition. Unfortunately, Islam lacks a central authority structure that would permit it to define what is “orthodoxy” and what isn’t. Its إمامة‎ (imāmah) is a barnyard of bleating goats each claiming some splinter of tradition to lend authority to a religious opinion. It (if it deserves to be called a coherent it) possesses neither wisdom nor theological acuity nor imagination.

Usually the discussion of religious experts is no more than text-quoting without context–a theological slanging match between factions–as if the whole prior tradition of Islam, which once rivaled the Hellenistic rabbinical schools for philosophic depth, came to an end around the same time Europe was waking from its long medieval slumber. Islam at the teaching and preaching level is now virtually illiterate. Its imams are at the service of popular opinion, of all stripes, from the Yemen to Santa Barbara, and service opinion like mechanics service cars. If all politics is local, then Islam is all politics.

It is one of the deficiencies of Islam that there is no tradition of outing stupidity and charlatanism amongst the clergy–no Elmer Gantry, no Chaucerian Pardoner, no Rabbi Copperfield–or Tuckman. To be honest, this is rather surprising. Fictional clergy in Western literature have traditionally been used to mark the gap between the virtues and values enshrined in a religion at its best, and the shortcomings of human nature as they represent it.

Islam thus lacks the “teaching authority” (magisterium) of an ancient hierarchy like the Catholic church, which can point to a longstanding tradition of development and accommodation of its religious views. Islam lacks as well the theological and hermeneutical sophistication of the liberal Protestant and Jewish traditions, which do for those faiths what hierarchy does for Catholicism. Simply put, Islam is a horticultural mess and it is within such untended gardens that confusion and violence grow like weeds.

But to keep track of my main point: Islamic violence must be called Islamic. To say that Islam owns it, produced it, and has to solve it is not saying that all Muslims agree with the tactics of ISIL, contract killers in Paris, or child killers in Pakistan. Most people–Muslim and non-Muslim alike–are torn between horror at the grotesque images they see of severed heads being held aloft “in the name of God, the compassionate,” and total confusion at what long-term goal Muslim-on-Muslim violence is supposed to achieve. We are looking at real blood, real guns, real heads. But we are also looking at men and groups who, once they have exhausted their video clip seem to have all the strategic savvy of Gaston and Pierre or the Keystone Cops.

To say that Islamic violence is specifically Islamic is to say that there is no convincing social analysis possible without first acknowledging that these things are not imported from the West, are not responses to deliberate strikes against Islam, and are not really analogous to modern outbreaks of violence in Judaism or Christianity. The proof of that (as I said in a previous post) is that Christians don’t kill Christian children and Jews do not blow up Jewish schools. No one is denying a general pattern of religious violence since the beginning of religion, which is tantamount to saying, from the beginning of our species or its predecessors.

Religion begins in violence. Its archetypes and myths are saturated in blood–the predations of Ishtar, the cannibalism of the Greek Titans, the binding of Isaac, the crucifixion of Jesus. Its holy books are full of violence.

Islam is no exception. It is the rule. It’s important to say however that no religion but Islam seems suicidally bent on making violence a permanent part of its contemporary world-view and operations manual. There seems to be no doubt that, at least as represented by its most visible adepts, Islam is the religion which brings us into closest contact with the religion of our vicious tribal past. Religions may begin in violence. But they usually do not survive through violence.

Tracking it Down?

But I started by talking about my friend’s contention that we can pinpoint within Islam the source of the trouble, and for that reason we should be careful not to tar Islam in general with the sins of the few. I agree with most of what she says, but I feel that the risk in pinpointing is to trivialize the scale of the problem, to ignore the peripheral sympathy for extremism within the Muslim community, and to force the finger to point elsewhere for the ultimate causes of what we see happening around us today.

The pinpointing argument is that terrorism is chiefly (she says 90%) from the Salafi school of thought, which originates in the West-friendly (or dollar friendly) Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but spreads out along a vast Sunni-Islam network. Salafism is complex: the simplest thing one can say about it is that it grew up as a sectarian movement in the nineteenth century to oppose certain core European ideas, such as democracy, secularism, and other political and religious trends that were seen as dangerous to the ideals and beliefs of Muslims.

There are Salafist “Purists” who focus on non-violent da’wah, education, others who define education as being, essentially fiq and Quranic instruction, others who support authoritarian regimes (Madkhalists), and others who believe that in order to defend core doctrines such as God’s oneness (tawhid) and reject shirk, taqlid, ijtihad, and bid’ah (the vices sins, and errors), endless jihad is the only way to serve Allah on earth. Others within this loose confederation (which becomes looser) simply want to exterminate the Shīʿah.

The difficulty with pinpointing is that even if it were possible to trace all extremist Muslim ideology to the sands of Arabia and one anti-colonial movement that has grown with cancerous ferocity in our day, we still would not have described the present situation.

The fact is, there are literally thousands of young Muslims in Central Asia, in Turkey, and living as second generation citizens in Britain and France and Germany who are simply attracted by the rigidity, simplicity and purity of the Salafa tradition or its kindred ideologies. It speaks to the young and satisfies the old–which is always the case with war and battle. It requires energy and action. It creates a Manichean division of the world into good and evil spheres, the things God wants and the things (and people) God hates.

It is too simple to assume that Salafism by itself explains the pathology of violence in Islam today.

Jannah (Paradise) and its Discontents

Violence is a seductive and effective solution to both personal and social stress. It has been since the time of Cain.

Cain (קַיִן), you’ll recall, is a violent man. His murder of his brother is a simple solution to a problem that Freud would later describe as a particular kind of stress, sibling rivalry. For Judaism, Christianity and Islam the story of Cain is the story of the first murder. But even at this basic level, it is intended to show that virtue does not long endure in the world: Adam failed. His first-born son failed. Almost everyone after him fails as well. What is truly remarkable about the Hebrew Bible is how few heroes, in the classical mode, there are in it. That is why it’s easy to remember their names. And even those who are put forward as patriarchs are not spotless exemplars of human conduct. Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, David, Solomon–whatever else we know about them–are morally ambiguous in Hebrew. But not in Islam. Islam possesses the names, but seldom the story, the rounded character, or the critique. We can agree on Cain because history makes him not only the first killer but also the first penitent and a symbol of a long line of men who would reject the commandments of god and his prophets “slaying prophets, messengers as well as the righteous people.” (Q5.31-32)

For Sigmund Freud, the tale of Cain and Abel is half a story, the unwritten part of which involves the killing of Adam himself (or an equivalent primeval father) out of sheer sexual frustration and the desire to become emancipated males with rights over the daughters of the moon. Sex and violence are hence joined in our earliest history. There ensues, in the tale Freud analyzes, thousands of years of rivalry, bitterness, jealousy and “mayhem” “until the whole world runs with blood,” and God, in order to save humankind, destroys most of it. Freud saw more clearly than almost anyone in his day that religion is the sublimation of violence through myth, ritual, and morality. But at heart, it is still fundamentally a perduring neurosis, a delusion.

By reducing action and history to story and ritual we substitute what is most primal and hence most violent and passionately real in us: our desire for pleasure and our suppression of both physical and existential pain. Christianity, for example, teaches that the violent death of Jesus was brought about by the sins of the world, and that in some sense God required the death of his own son as a substitute for the death of every sinner. The Christian teaching about the body and blood of Christ is based on that story, and Christians, in many denominations, reenact it once a week in their Eucharist–an unbloody celebration of a bodily passion and death using symbols of life in place of death.

But for Freud and many psychologists since his time, what is essential is the substitution of the unbloody for the bloody. And even this substitution has a prototype in God’s demanding a ram rather than Isaac as a sacrifice. For almost anyone with an ounce of psychology, it is impossible to read Genesis without some awareness that it is the primitive story of how humankind learned to sublimate violence out of fear of its consequences, symbolized most poignantly as the wrath of God. God could do more damage than we ever could. Fear him, fear the terror of what he might do if he wanted to.

It has been a long time since scholars thought that books like Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism could be applied uncritically to religious phenomena. No doubt Freud privately worried about it himself, because when it comes to religion Freud is at his most speculative, sometimes his most unsteady. When Freud’s explanations were invoked, (all too often in the years after the Second World War) they were used as nostrums to explain everything from Hitler to the death camps.

But it would be useful to know what Freud would say about a religion that he scarcely mentions in his major writings.”The founding of the Mohammedan religion seems to me to be an abbreviated repetition of the Jewish one,” he wrote, “but Islam lacks the profundity which in the Jewish religion resulted from the murder of its founder.” This willful arrogance toward Islam, which is repaid in Islam’s ignorance of Freud, is a shame because I think Freud, had he bothered, would have pointed to Islam as partial corroboration of one of his key points about the role of violence, death and sexual desire in religion.


Among other things, Islam requires the sublimation of sexual desire in exchange for future happiness and fulfillment. In a minor way, it is repeated in every traditional Muslim marriage process: the bride and groom meet (or their marriage is arranged), then stay apart, in blissful anticipation of a touch of paradise on their wedding night. For unmarried males not even this glimpse of eternal happiness is possible.

The idea of Paradise (جنّة‎ Jannah) itself is predicated not on mere images of virgins and young male ocupantes, but on the belief that the Arab luxury of the sultan’s tent will be extended to all alike, and for all eternity, but particularly to the men, if they manage to pass the tests of Judgment. There will be no shame in sexuality. Every desire will be fulfilled. Everyone will be 33 years old, except for the bespoke virgins, who will be younger and the “immortal youths” who will serve the guests at a perpetual banquet table, bejeweled, drinking out of golden goblets and sweating perfume.

It is nothing new to say that the Islamic Jannah is essentially an erotic fantasy, a pleasure feast for males. What is not so obvious is that violence in the real world of sexual frustration and disappointment is a natural response to pleasure deferred.

“Islam” David Yeagley wrote just over a year ago “is Freudian libido unleashed.” He may be right.

In radical Islam, undirected sexual energy is being expressed in gruesome ways: in child rape, in the killing of children, the beheading of foreigners, mass conversions and forced marriages. In normal cultural context, libido can be expressed directly (sexually) but often in sublimated ways–in art, music, business, comedy, athletics–what Freud calls (often) “substitutionary satisfaction.”

But in Islam, sublimation is removed. When this happens, what analysts of Freud’s day called “mayhem” occurs: incest, cannibalism, random murder, rape. The taboos that society had erected for its own preservation. These protections are periodically threatened by war, of course, as Freud knew. But society persuades itself that war is not murder and through this mechanism the erotic and libidinous aspects of war are further removed form consciousness.

In the sort of religious extremism we are now seeing, “civilized inhibition” has been removed from the picture. Young, literal-minded paradise-hungry men are desublimating violence: the beheading of an infidel, the killing of unbelievers, Muslims or their surrogates, is a ticket to the gates of the blessed. Bodily dismemberment—-decapitation, the chopping off of body parts, the compulsive delight in blowing a human body to pieces–are not acts of terror but pornographic-religious acts with specific libidinous effect.

In some cases, as with Boko Haraam in Nigeria (but also increasingly in Iraq and Syria) the de-sublimation is directly sexual: the rape of teenage girls, and in the backwater of Pakistan, the beating or disfigurement of women and the torching of girls’ schools–all designed to preserve the male fantasy of an opulent, guilt-free Paradise.

This pathology does more to explain what is going on than lack of education, poverty, political ideology and (even) religious doctrine. The Islamic radicals want now what they can’t wait to have: Dying is a small price to pay for glory as it exists in Jannah. Young (on average about the age of all the citizens of Paradise), sexually starved, and true believers in the promise of a hereafter in which all their desires will be satisfied, the jihadists (wherever they come from, whatever the source of their belief) do not see violence and death as we do. For them it is a sacrament. For others, perhaps, it is the reinstatement of real blood and flesh for the tokens of bread and wine.

Theology and Falsification: The Hijacking of Antony Flew

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

Antony Flew died on April 8, 2010 after a career that earned him the reputation of being one of the most acute critics of theology and theological discourse in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition.

The excerpt here, from “Theology and Falsification” (1950) represents Flew’s attempt to examine the statement “God loves us,” against the background of Christian theodicy–the belief that the goodness of God can be reconciled with the seeming contradiction that there is natural and moral evil in the world he created.  With his later essay, “The Presumption of Atheism” (1984) it is one of the most popular contributions to the philosophy of religion ever written.

Courted at the end of his life by a variety of evangelical Christian groups, and in declining health after 2003, Flew is sometimes represented as a “convert” to Christianity, specifically deistic theism, who came finally to accept the “complexity” arguments associated with the “intelligent design” proponents.  The history of this…

View original 1,661 more words

Shakespeare the Swedenborgian

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

AFTER an exhaustive study of approximately five days I’ve concluded that there is ample evidence to prove that William Shakespeare was a Swedenborgian.

According to Wikipedia, the standard of excellence for studies like this, “Emmanuel Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian.”  He has been termed a Christian mystic by some sources, including the fusty old Encyclopedia Britannica online version and the Encyclopedia of Religion  (1987), which starts its article with the description that he was a “Swedish scientist and mystic.”  Swedenborg termed himself  “Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” in True Christian Religion, one of his published works. Perhaps he thought he was St Paul.  It annoys some people that he lived smack in the middle of the Enlightenment.  But there you go.

Anyway, he was an extremely accomplished guy and had many radical ideas, such as the idea that the last judgement had already happened (or was happening) and that the Bible should…

View original 1,031 more words