Robert Ingersoll: God and Man in Peoria

The New Oxonian

‘The public’ is a very strange animal, and although a good knowledge of human nature will generally lead a caterer of amusement to hit the people right, they are fickle and ofttimes perverse.” P. T. Barnum

Robert Green Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York, the son of a liberal Congregational (Presbyterian) father who had a knack of offending his godfearing parishioners with his unparishionable views.

Ingersoll’s father, when his son was nine years old, had succeeded in calling himself to the attention of the presbytery and landing himself and his family in Ohio, then in Wisconsin, and then in Illinois where he died with a cloudy charge of “unministerial conduct” hanging over his head. Such charges were not uncommon in the hypersensitive religious climate of the nineteenth century and the polity of  the Congregational protestant system encouraged them.

It’s hard to determine whether Ingersoll’s dismal view of Calvinist Christianity…

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Transactional Implications of the God-Concept in Islam


“‘Allah’ and its Discontents: Transactional Implications of the God Concept in Islam” is a three part article available at  In it the correlation between the historical development of Islamic doctrine, especially the doctrine of God, and behavioral patterns in islamic violence and radical Islam are scrutinized.


….The cause of religious violence therefore must be recognized as specifically intrinsic to Islam and not to the persecution of Islam, the defamation of Islam by its detractors and critics,[12] or grand designs against the faith of Muslims by the western powers. The inability of the extremists to decide who the enemy is or, for that matter, what the enemy wants from them is their greatest tactical and metaphysical liability. Even the Manichean dualism which used to define good and evil in the region fails to provide an explanation when Allah’s warriors start to execute their own mothers for the crowd.

This call for the violence in Islam to be called Islamic violence, or my claim that this violence is not peripheral to “authentic” Islam — thus not dismissible as “Unislamic” — but something that is inexplicable apart from Islam may seem unpeaceable or unhelpful. The injunction since the attacks of September 11, 2001 has been Do not blame the whole of Islam for the actions of a small minority.

But unless we prefer fantasy to fact, there is simply no getting around the fact that the reasons for themorbidity we see in Islam universally, but chiefly in Islamic extremism, is only comprehensible if we look for guidance to the morphology of what Islam teaches and practices. That means its theology must be scrutinized for clues as to why certain Muslims may be doing what they believe, not based on a misunderstanding of the mandates of their religion but on a faithful respect for core, if archaic, elements of Islamic theology.

As Graeme Wood has written in The Atlantic, “We are misled … by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.”[13] Yet it is simply impossible to provide a meaningful “secular” analysis or to offer political solutions to a crisis the roots of which are embedded in the religious ideology of a foreign time and place. If these doctrines are not understood for what they are, in their strict historical context, the West runs the risk of mis-explaining the crisis to itself, while its leaders offer vacuous reassurances that all religious people are (like modern liberal Christians?) men and women of good will, that Islam is a religion of peace, and that the jihadists fighting the battle are an unrepresentative minority who are doing a disservice to the core doctrines of the faith.

Here I will focus on two core elements: Islam’s radical emphasis on the immutability of a God whose apocalyptic judgement and wrath remain live and defining features, and Islam’s lack of any doctrine of corporate contrition or moral responsibility for the ummat al-Islamiyah as a whole….

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Killing History: The ISIS War on Civilization

From March 2015

The New Oxonian

Image result for nimrudOne of the key features of the book religions is iconoclasm—literally, idol smashing.  The ancient Hebrews developed a dislike for statues and images sometime in the first millennium BCE, and after occasionally reverting to worshiping them decided to prohibit them outright because their God “was a jealous god, above whom, there can be no others” (Exodus 20,4).

This was more wishful thinking than fact, since in military encounters with the many-godded nations that surrounded them Israel habitually lost to these other gods.

The Christians tried for a while to ignore their rich pagan legacy of temples and statues,  but finally succumbed to the temptation to make icons, name churches after saints, and produce thousands of images to encourage their veneration.

Image result for iconoclasm

Later, Christians in the East decided to clamp down on the practice, finding it more than a little like the idol-worship condemned in the Decalogue. And later still, during…

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How Christianity is the Perfect Religion

From 2009 as the stories then relevant will give away. And yet, and yet….

The New Oxonian

I confess to having a seasonal defective disorder about this—Christmas I mean.

I am frankly tired of news about religious extremists plotting world takeover from septic tunnels, watching deals between “good” Taliban and “pro-western” Pakistanis brokered and shredded within months by toothy politicians, depressed from smiling over my gin when MSNBC reports that a pilotless drone (no, a different entity from the United States Senate) has killed a “top level Al-Qaida leader.” (No, not bin Laden. Certainly not—but someone who knows someone who met him once. Maybe at a barber shop.)

Bored enough even to yawn at the last report of a horrific car, market, bus, mosque or school bombing somewhere in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Weary to the point of dizziness at the latest decisions to send in another doomed-from-the get-so cadre of troops to “finish what we started” [sic] in Afghanistan. Innocence betrayed by the allure of travel to…

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Secularism Isn’t Atheism

The New Oxonian

Jacques Berlinerblau’s recent HuffPost religion column touches on a theme that is near and dear to the heart of this blog: the difference between atheism and its false equivalents.

In the past months (and years) I’ve occasionally commented on the highjacking of the term ‘humanism’ by atheists in search of an upmarket brand name.

As most readers will know, its combination with the term ‘secular’ to make the brew even weaker and more tasteless (e.g., by the so-called “Council for Secular Humanism,” a limb of the uniquely misnamed “Center for Inquiry”) continues to appeal to shrinking numbers of full-blooded atheists.  Increasing numbers of atheists are happy to be known as atheists; and a few of those are just as pleased to be free of the moniker “secular humanism,” which  never meant anything anyway.

But on the pretext that words and definitions matter, neither secularism nor humanism are explicitly irreligious, anti-religion, or atheistic.

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The Big Idea:

The New Oxonian

by admin Posted on December 7, 2011

 A New Oxonian Repost from December 2011

hristopher Hitchens is, of all the atheists I admire, the one I admire the most. I want him to live forever. But as that is impossible–for any of us–it’s his voice I will miss the most.

He is a journalist, a polemicist, a bad boy. But he is also a keen observer. And, though he may hide it, a well-trained philosopher. All of the so-called “New Atheists,” except for Harris, whose star sets, were Oxonians. In a group so small, you have to admit, that is unusual–until you think “Shelley.” I would even say Wycliffe, but it would take too long to explain why.

Hitch’s atheism is almost an accoutrement of his personality. He has always reminded me of the cynicism of a young Malcolm Muggeridge who would have hated the old Muggeridge, when the old Malcolm got…

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Merry Christmas from China

The New Oxonian

by admin Posted on December 25, 2011

Mother and Child

AM in China this year.

I love China. Food, people, culture, history. Public toilets, not so much. When I was in America I loved “Chinese” food. Now I love Chinese food. There may be things to criticize about China, but on average, I think it’s one of the finest countries on earth. That is an opinion, not an assertion. Believe me, I know what counts against my opinion.

Once I thought that America was the best country on earth. Then I turned fifteen. Between John Kennedy and Barack Obama, forty five years if you’re counting, there isn’t much to brag about.

But America is no longer the finest country on earth.

That’s because Americans on average are becoming dumber and dumber. The political system has become the equivalent of a hamster’s treadmill: vote ‘em in on a whim, vote…

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The Sacrifice

The boy clung to his father’s cloak like mud.
For it was the feast, and Hajar was at work
Toiling over the pots and staying out
Of Sarai’s way. The embittered crone hated her
And hated too the boy, the apple
Of Abram’s eye, the son she couldn’t bear.
Hajar was young, and she was beautiful,
Most beautiful among the lambs, he said,
Most beautiful of those he chose to bed.

Rounding a thicket, Abram spied a ram–
‘Father’, said Ismail, ‘Our God is great’.
‘Great yes’, the father said, ‘but never sate–
This year he asks still more of us than rams.’
The old man touched Ismail’s hair and sighed.
‘For what is given, so much is required!’
But Ismail knew the old man’s moods and that
Sometimes he heard voices sounding in his ears,
And that this madness was upon him now.

‘Abba’, he said. ‘You hear the voice again?
It is Sarah’s voice–not God’s –who hates me more
Than Philistines, than Canaanites and snakes–
And curses me and shakes her knotty hand
And beats my mother when you cannot see.’

‘This time, said Abram again,’God requires much more.
Lie down my child, our sacrifice is near.’

The boy leant against a rock and found it soft.
He did not see his father draw the knife
From out its sheath or circle it towards heaven
(As the laws of sacrifice require). He slipped
A rope around the filial wrists
Another round his ankles, jerked them tight
And woke the boy. ‘Abba, by God, what will you do?’ he cried.

Abraham danced in circles, spanned
Ismail’s face with his ancient hand and sang
‘Our God is great, and God demands your blood.
O my son, O Ismail. my only dearest son,’
And brought the knife plumb leftward
Against the boy’s pale throat, from left
To right, one slice would do the trick:
Ismail dead (imagine) God satisfied at last,
And Sarah full of joy to get the news.

But then awakening from his deathly trance
Abram heard the voice as what it was:
Not God’s command but Sarah’s jealous plea
‘Kill him, kill Ismail, kill Hajar too–for me’.

Farewell Palmyra: On the Cruelty of Hypocrites and Thieves

One of the anomalies of ISIS is its cowardice in the face of success.

Wherever it came from and wherever it ends, there’s no doubt any longer than its claim to be the true Islam is bullocks.

One way of testing ISIS’s bravado is to look at its agenda. It doesn’t have one, except the acquisition of territory already islamicized and islamicized for a millennium. It is the agenda of a bully stealing candy from a child merely because it can and it wants it. It exists in the interstices of civil war (Syria) and a failed or failing state, Iraq. Its work had been done for it before it rolled into town with its ragtag militants blasting, beheading and raping their own people or executing in droves the members of sects traditionally protected by Islamic rulers: Chaldeans, Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and Mandaens, to name a few.

Their bravery consisted of preying on innocent and essentially passive Shi’a and moderate Sunni populations by insisting they weren’t pious enough, not orthodox, and therefore not fit to live. It is the kind of bravery we normally associate with street gangs who pick fights with gangs in the same neighborhood because the gangs across town are bigger and smarter.

The real index of ISIS cowardice however is opportunism. Once their ready supply of western heads had been exhausted, they turned to relics, antiquities, and cultural shrines:

Nimrud was a city in the Assyrian kingdom, which flourished between 900 and 612 BCE. Decimated.

Assyrian King Sargon II built a palace at Khorsabad between 717 and 706 B.C. Gone.

The museum and library in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, destroyed and looted, the books torched.

The tomb inside a Sunni mosque called the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus, revered by both Muslims, Jews and Chriustians as the Old Testament figure, Jonah, destroyed.

Hatra. sstablished by the successors of Alexander the Great and dating back to 300 B.C., and the capital of an early Arab kingdom. The city withstood the attacks of successive armies, including those of the Roman empire. Pillaged and leveled.

And now Palmyra, an ancient city that exists in reports dating back to the seceond millennium BCE. Palmyra was fragile and deserted, a living and quiet monument to its biblical, Seleucid and Islamic past.

Its rape and destruction can only be compared to a robber stopping long enough in his crime to sexually assault the grandmother upstairs who is physically unable to prevent him from stealing her silverware.

It has to be true that many Muslims see the work of ISIS as imponderable and weird. A larger number find it embarrassing and contemptible. Many do not care, and a further number probably think that the ISIS warriors are finishing what the Prophet started.

Except the prophet did not start this. His raids against cities and towns were, for the early believers, holy warfare against the people he and his closest followers regarded as uncivilized and pagan: the people of the dar al-H’arab. True, Islamic iconoclasm and the conversion of churches and basilicas, like Hagia Sophia, to mosques were part of the triumphalism of Islam during the caliphates. But it is also true that Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians (and other minorities) were granted dispensations for living peacably among the true believers.

It’s precisely this contempt for the concept of the moral duty of the true believers that ISIS warriors now exemplify. Pseudo-warriors of the pseudo-leader of a make-believe caliphate, pushing the false vision of an Islamic past that never existed onto the front pages. This is not holy war. It is not a defense of the right path or the true doctrine, or the sunnah of the Prophet.

The destruction of silent, ancient relics, the remnants of a past that predates Islam, is an attempt to suppress the claims of history against a religion that, in its extremist form, insists on living in a cruel, unholy and violent time-warp. To the extent that ISIS is the front line in this program resistance is not possible, or even sensible: Like Carthage of old, it must be destroyed.

Defining Fundamentalism

The New Oxonian

“To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a book. And you have to forget the book has a history.”

A New Oxonian Oldie

I’ve been puzzling about this recently: whether there is anything that Christian and Muslim fundamentalists have in common. I’ll leave the Jews and the Sikhs and Hindus to one side for a minute. Just because I want to.

First of all, you have to have a book to be a fundamentalist. It’s no good trying to say you take your religion seriously if you don’t have a page to point at or a verse to recite.

Theoretically, various gurus can exert the same sort of control that a book can exert over the mind of a true believer. But usually gurus begin by pointing at books as well.

That’s what both Jim Jones of People’s Temple, Inc., and David Koresh of Branch Davidian fame did. They…

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