Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms on the First Sunday of Lent

This is why you never argue with fools (something I need to learn over and over again, especially when "some one on the internet is wrong!"):

This is not a fatal flaw in the book, but speaks to its contested place as at once an academic survey as well as an intervention in an ongoing but oversimplified and disheartening “debate.” Armstrong wants to examine, in all its complexity, the relationship of religion and violence, and often does so with great success and insight. She also wants to exonerate “religion,” but that tends to muddy the waters of the first, and more important, goal of this book.
That is the concluding paragraph of a brief review of Karen Armstrong's new book, at Religion Dispatches.   It's a good review, I commend it to your reading.  The "debate" is the one raging among on-line atheists and neo-atheists like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher about whether or not religion is the source of all evil in the world.  It is a pitifully uninformed debate carried out by people proud of their ignorance of the subject (Dawkins) or simply trying to get attention for their cable TV show (Maher).  This is typical of the debate, and if it sounds almost exactly like Rush Limbaugh excusing his racism or his disdain for "liberals," that's because the form of argument is exactly the same:

“Can’t we at least say there are a number of factors that are involved and the religion is certainly one of them? (Obama) presented this idea that, well, it’s poverty and education. It is poverty and education also — but why are they impoverished and uneducated? It’s mostly because of the religion.”
Religion is one of the problems; religion is mostly the problem.  And if you say Maher said religion is the main problem, or THE problem, his supporters will deny with their last breath that he said anything so blinkered and ignorant.  But religion is certainly a problem; in fact, it's mostly the problem.

Along with despotic governments, irresponsible Western leadership since at least the 19th century, and a rapidly changing world which has thrown everybody into what Alvin Toffler rather charmingly, now, called "future shock."

But mostly, the problem is religion:  because a comedian said so.

There is a relationship between violence and religion, and it does not good to ignore it.  I understand the Bhagavad Gita is presented as a vision that comes in the midst of an epic battle.  The Hebrew and Christian scriptures include many descriptions of violence, both real and imaginary, between Genesis and the Apocalypse to John. And the Koran admits violence as well as peace.  Quelle surprise?  Is human history bereft of violence where religious practices do not exist?  And where, pray tell, is that?

But to even ask that question is to engage in the debate; and I don't want to do that.  It is a pointless debate, going nowhere and meant to go nowhere; because it isn't a debate.  It is an accusation, an insult hurled out in hopes of getting a response to prove, "A-HA!  You see!  They ARE violent!  See how violently they respond?!"

Which was, of course, precisely why Dr. King trained his followers in non-violence.  Funny nobody ever brings up the Civil Rights movement in this context, or the liberation of India by Gandhi.  Dr. King's pastorate is ignored, and we are all told what Gandhi accomplished was only because the British were not Stalin.  Both dismissals are racists and hegemonic in their nature:  no one observes that the Russians are not the Indians (who suffered a great deal for their liberation, and who knows might have suffered more?  They proved no government can govern those who will not cooperate.), because the latter are not deemed European.  And any acknowledgment of the church and the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) in the Civil Rights movement is usually allowed only if you emphasize the community structure the black churches provided to the movement; the spirituality that undergirded that community cannot be acknowledged at all.

Gandhi's fight was spiritual; as was King's.  In the modern world especially, we can only understand the spiritual as the miraculous ("Heaven is real!"), and the miraculous we dismiss out of hand.  But that makes us weaker and simpler than the "medieval" peasants we deems ourselves so superior to.  The problem, for the world, with spiritual movements, is that they rest on humility, and the awesome power of powerlessness:  the one power that truly succeeds in this world.

Which is why the world knows it not; and doesn't want to.


  1. I think you make an important point. Most of the "new atheists," if not protestants, grew up in protestant cultures, and so, when they want to evaluate a religion, they look at its scripture, and feel themselves as capable of interpreting it as any adherent.

    You rightly point out that perhaps the greatest apostle of non-violence of the twentieth century took as his touchstone a text which is, taken literally, a divine command to slay friends, relatives and teachers.

    I have lately been doing some small amount of reading in Islam and have come to understand how the radically the Wahhabist movement, from the eighteenth century, began to undermine the standard Islamic approach to reading the Qur'an. By and large Islam has developed schools of law and theology, and institutions to qualify those whose calling is to interpret the Qur'an. Learning the Qur'an directly has always been an Islamic value. But Muhammed Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab was perhaps the most successful in challenging those mediating institutions, and insisting that the Qur'an could easily be understood by any true Muslim. It is perhaps not coincidental that he thereby denied that the Shi'ites, and the vast majority of Sunnis, were in fact no "true Muslims," and that his theology went hand in hand with the rise of the house of Sa'ud in Arabia.

    (It's also the reason I wince when I read Isis characterized as "medieval"--its theology is, in fact, thoroughly modern.)

    At the risk of self-promotion, there is a little more about this here:

    We see the same sort of thing in the Christian treatment of the scriptures. It is conventional to express horror at the book of Joshua, for example, but I have a volume of sermons by Origen on Joshua where the entire book is expounded allegorically (not unlike Gandhi's take on the Bagavad Gita). Origen doesn't doubt the historicity of the text, but its meaning rests in baptism and the individual conquest of sin, not a political struggle.

    To read any religious text, in the absence of the religious tradition in which it has authority, is to entirely misread the religion. But perhaps accuracy is not the point.

  2. Well, the first assault of new atheism is to deny context, and insist instead that context is unitary, and only what the new atheists think valid, is indeed, valid.

    This tosses out not just religion but most of philosophy (including philosophy of religion, where the questions of God's existence truly reside), as well as anything else the particular new atheist doesn't know anything about: sociology, psychology, anthropology, biology, etc., etc.

    And then it's off to the races, and how you even engage people that ignorant is problematic.

    Your insight on Wahabism (sp?) is very helpful to me. Every day I encounter some comment which cherry picks what is allegedly a passage from the Koran to "prove" Islam preaches first and foremost violence and jihad (i.e., the slaughter of non-Muslims). Is it even a valid quote? And what of context? Such questions cannot be asked, and are shouted down if you do so.

    I learned in seminary how very important tradition is in reading scripture. I became almost Catholic from it, so much did it turn me from my rigid Protestantism. Then again, that Protestantism itself was a recent development: the early Congregationalist churches sat the elders before the pastor on Sunday morning, so they could critique and control his interpretation of scripture.

    It is always a matter of the interpretation of the community, never of the individual. As you say (better than I ever have), do remove that simple fact is to misunderstand all.

    But, as you also say, that's probably the point.....

  3. Weird that the Qur'an has the same prohibition against murder as Jewish moral law:

    It's almost like religion ain't simple as some folks on Salon make it out to be. And do these people look at Shakespeare in a vacuum, or try to understand his historical context? Or the Framers' or Marx's, for that matter?

    Oy vey.

  4. To paraphrase Hillel, "If I don't read the Scriptures myself, who will? But if I read the Scriptures ONLY for myself, what am I?"

    The Southern Baptists came up w/ "soul compentency": "This view emphasizes that each person (soul) is individually and personally accountable to God and "competent" to relate to God without mediation through other humans or human institutions."

    So Preachermen Dawkins or Maher think themselves perfectly able (and oh-so-willing!) to pick up (principally anti-theist selected texts of) the Bible, and tell us What It Obviously Means.

    But then, y'know, Rick: the former RC practice of burning your Wycliffe or Tyndale, for making Scripture available, even to the incompentant Dawkins and Mahers among us. Can't go there either.

    So it's back to Hillel's Paradox. Or what Madeline L'Engle said about the tesseract: "We travel together, but we travel alone."

    Me? I'm "compentent" enough ONLY to know my incompetancy . . . but also sniff out the even LESS compentent (ALL the wannabe magesteriums!), and avoid 'em. ;-/