God is Dead, Alleluia, Alleluia

Easter is the most important holiday in the Christian calendar. Today that seems odd and perhaps even unfamiliar to many Christians since in commercial terms it is a total failure. When I was a kid, some people sent Easter cards, but now that people don’t even send Christmas cards anymore—at least not many—Easter has been reduced to what it was in the beginning, a religious celebration.

Christianity began with Easter, or rather with belief in the resurrection: that’s why it is so central. The whole liturgical calendar vibrates to a forty-day preparation called Lent and a fifty day post-Easter period called Eastertide between Easter Sunday and the feast of Pentecost–which nobody pays much attention to outside the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

But start it did, with the news that Jesus rose from the dead, overcoming his human enemies on the one hand—conspiratorial Jews and corrupt Romans—and on the other (at a theological stretch) the powers of sin and darkness that brought death into the world and ensured the devil’s grip on humanity.

The gospels don’t say or promise any of this; the demi-apostle Paul does. But then, without Paul’s first century Easter Sale (Big Savings?) Christianity would have died out in a generation.

For about 1700 years, more or less, most Christians believed that Jesus rose physically from the dead–and so would they. More specifically, they would have learned to say that because Jesus rose from the dead, so could they (1 Cor. 15.13).

But by the eighteenth century, a number of theologians began to follow the lead of certain German philosophers and decided that it probably didn’t happen. There were three reasons. The invariability of nature’s laws, used to prove God, can’t be selectively overridden to prove doctrine (Spinoza), and more pragmatically, no one has ever seen a resurrection (Hume), and finally, the texts themselves seemed sketchy, contradictory, even legendary (Semler). Science, archaeology, and literary studies did their bit to fill in the information needed to show how the world did come about; that it was much older than the Bible made it; that many of the stories thought to be revealed were crude, analogous to other stories, and full of impossibilities and contradictions; that the worldview of scripture was a picture of its distant time and was destined to get more and more implausible as time marched on, as it has.

In the end, Christian theology was left not so much with an empty tomb but an empty story and millions of believers who clung to literal acceptance of the original Easter faith, and a hope for their own immortality. It was left as well with thousands of under-educated priests and pastors who believed it right along with them or kept very quiet if they didn’t. During the same period, an educated elite (including a church and theological elite) became increasingly skeptical that the Bible was anything but a tissue of myth and bad history. This elite focused especially on two ‘pivotal’ myths: the story of creation and the story of the resurrection—thematic bookends that, if discredited would eo ipso discredit everything in between—or most of it.

The response of Christian theology (whose theology? which theology?) was confused. It ranged from joyous to cautious to reactionary. In Tuebingen. Marburg and Heidelberg students laughed when their professors read the resurrection stories to them in jeering falsettos.

Deconstruction began then. In the British universities junior lecturers, in contact with Continental theology, politely accepted the German verdict and then reverently accepted their Church’s official rejection of it (F.D.A. Major, at Oxford, could still be tried for heresy for denying the bodily resurrection in the twentieth century); in New England, the Transcendentalists and Unitarians at Harvard went further by asking for the doctrine of the church to be rewritten along pantheistic lines, while in the conservative sectors of the former southern colonies and in bleak Scotland back on the Isles, a new form of apologetics (which by 1911 would be known as ‘fundamentalism’) was fashioned to reject the newfangled nonsense and get back to Scripture truth.

The fruit of this confusion gave us liberal theology, mainstream Christianity, and extreme protestant pieties of various shades and intensities. Liberal theology gave us a resurrection that never happened but a resurrection story that does—somehow—mean just the same thing. Mainstream Christianity gave us the laissez faire option of believing what we want to believe, only not too loudly, and with the approval of conscience. And the evangelicals gave us the defensive wars against science and reason that, unfortunately, infect our public discourse, ethical decisions, and educational planning to this day—largely if not exclusively in the United States. The last of these fruits should be sufficient proof of the danger of believing something that should no longer be believed in a literal way, since if it is true that good boys go to heaven, and heaven is our home, what is the point of peace on earth, learning science, or taking care of the planet?

In this din, scholarship can scarcely matter. The human being is a hopeful believing animal—something St Paul knew in the 1st century and P. T. Barnum in the nineteenth, and every snake-oil-selling evangelist of the twentieth. Christianity as a middlin Pilgrim has traveled the road from literalism to myth to a post-Christian world in which myth no longer has the power to transfix and transform. Science, whatever else it is, is radically anti-mythical in its processes, though it sometimes speaks as though knowledge and discovery have something like the power—the fascination–that myth once exercised towards the human imagination and human will. But whatever else science knows it knows that nature abhors a resurrection.

For most people choosing a favourite religious holiday is a simple business now. Christmas—even if the circumstances of Jesus conception are tied up in mythology—a sky god impregnating an earth virgin—the actual birth and most of the life of Jesus doesn’t require imagination, or doesn’t require an excursion into the ‘supernatural’ as atheists like to call the imagination. It is impossible to celebrate the virginal conception of Jesus, and no feast day is given to it (nota bene: the Immaculate Conception celebrates Mary’s conception). But it is not hard to commemorate with love and feeling the birth of poor child, cut off from family by rumours and gossip, endangered by the jealousy of rich men, who has to be born in a shabby animal crèche and laid in a feeding trough. Even if it didn’t happen that way—or at all—it is a good story.

The Easter story, on the contrary, is drenched in human tears, wrapped in deceit and formulated without passion and conviction. It does not seem to be believed even by its writers. It is a story spread by peasants and told to salve the disappointment of a messianic cult that believed their day had come when it hadn’t. By the time it gets written into the gospels, all that remains is that the tellers of the tale were women, mainly, and that for some reason (as they told it) Jesus did not choose to appear to many people except his followers and a couple of paradigmatic doubters (Luke 24.13f). By the time Paul re-writes it, it five hundred people ‘at one time’, and even (later) Paul himself see the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15.6-7).

The canonical life of the miraculously-appearing post-Resurrection Jesus ends with that story, just as it begins with the empty tomb, and might have ended there except for the literary designs of the gospel writers and their later editors.

Wrapped in deceit? Well, maybe that is saying too much. People who spread rumours may not wish to deceive anyone. They are just repeating what they heard. The notion that the spread of the resurrection story is an example of mass hysteria is a tired but well-established genre in rationalist gospel criticism. But it probably isn’t a good example. It is merely a literary outcropping of human nature: our desire to impress and entertain and console sometimes trumps our need to refrain from exaggeration. But the conflicting details and inconsistencies of the gospel accounts are most easily explained as individual writers trying to bring unruly traditions (stories) under control without being able to consult a master template. There probably never was one. Just the women.

Once Paul began to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus as a play in two acts, the second being a caravan to heaven for all that believeth, it was impossible to recreate the circumstances under which the resurrection story came about. The original conditions had disappeared and even Paul seems ignorant of or deliberately silent about them. The new situation is that people were flocking to Christianity because it had become a salvation drama—a cult of believers–based loosely on a rumor of poorly remembered details from (perhaps) twenty years before. Paul does not waste time repeating those rumours. He has his own details.

The resurrection story is not a good story. It is an afterthought, an appendix; in dramatic terms, an anticlimax. Even as a kid I always preferred Good Friday in Holy Week, because I understood that this is something that happens to us all. Good Friday is solemn; Easter seemed contrived. Besides, whatever its sources and analogues, the Passion is a powerfully written tale. The Easter Story is vacant of emotion and conviction as it is told in the Gospels. An empty tomb; some frightened women; an appearance here, there, now you see him, now you don’t. It is better in symbolic and liturgical form; but as a narrative it simply reflects the defensive and apologetic reasons for its composition. But not the story of the Passion: Good Friday is a superb story.

I do not think Easter symbolizes anything: not new hope, new beginnings, the importance of starting over—none of that. In fact, in almost all historical religions, that is what the New Year celebration is all about, a holiday that Christianity more or less unsuccessfully tried to relocate to Pentecost.

Easter without belief in a resurrection, as Paul importantly wagers, is nothing: it is a vain, futile and useless holiday. For those people who still celebrate it, hide eggs, go to Church, buy new clothes (does anyone?) and eat ham (as my family always did), I wish you nothing but the best.

But the ancient proclamation, Resurrexit, Resurrexit sicut dixit ALLELUIA, belongs to another century, not even the last one, and not to ours.


Having written the body of this little essay, it occurred to me that I should say something about the trend in atheist and conservative Christian circles to debate “the resurrection of Jesus” in public.

Almost everyone with any reputation in this area has had a try. Even I have had more than my share of invitations to speak “against” the resurrection, and I have always refused to do it. Why? There are three reasons:

First, because the discussion is over and has been over for many Christians for two generations or longer. Debating the resurrection of Jesus is neither a debate about history nor about the Bible. It is an intellectual sideshow on the fringes of knowledge that tries to answer questions that no serious scholars are asking any longer.

Second, such debates normally (having forced myself to stay awake through several, both live and on video) are displays of ignorance butting its head against ignorance—skeptics who have just learned that the resurrection tales are inconsistent, against apologists who say the inconsistencies can be explained. Assuming our cognitive domain has limited capacity there is no room in it for that.

And finally this: what I have argued here is that the story of Easter is no longer of any importance. But that does not mean is has never been without importance. Lots of stories in human history have come and gone; we happen to be living through the passing of one. It will die by attrition not by debate. It ceases to hold our imagination—no one will fire a bullet to kill it with a perfect, fallacy free argument. I am for letting history take its life and extract its meaning because history knows how to kill things. Otherwise, like Orwell firing aimlessly at the elephant with the wrong weapon, we simply become part of a sickening spectacle that increases the mammoth’s agonizing suffering as it dies.


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


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.


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.


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.


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”

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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