Is Atheism a Humanist Value?

The New Oxonian

In a word, No.

There is nothing inherently “humanistic” about atheism, and some forms of militant atheism–the outwardly obnoxious, deliberately offensive kind now primarily associated with the Center for Inquiry and the minions of the new atheism–are unhumanistic.

I have been at work pari passu (meaning “when I feel like it,”) on a “Little Lexicon of Humanist Values.” It will never be the OED. It will never be Webster’s–maybe not even the Yellow Pages.

Instead it is a half-serious, occasionally flippant attempt to reflect on values that humanists might agree are important to the pursuit of a humanist worldview or life-stance. The definitions sometimes approach the famous discussion between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in chapter six of Through the Looking Glass, when Alice says to the Eggy creature (who has used the term “glory” in an unusual way),

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory”….’

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Cleopas the Atheist

The New Oxonian

The dilemma for thoughtful people who find much to commend in serious unbelief is brought about by unthoughtful and (often) unserious people. Even if their intentions are good (as in nice, not naughty) their tactics are terrible. I quote me:

My real quibble with redivivus atheism is that it has taken a sideshow approach to a subject that ought to be viewed and debated seriously. Atheism, as such, is an intellectual position, not a moral philosophy. But sideshow atheism is neither. Blasphemy Days, sloganeering, bus campaigns, unbaptisms, video challenges, cartoon contests — whatever motivates this activity (bonding, boredom, or the lust to be noticed?), it is not of a kind nor quality that does atheists any good. If instead of arguing their case, the atheist strategy for growth was to build the world’s most repulsive bogeyman, they have done a good job.

I am not even certain why…

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Transformative Views on Abortion and Marriage


I am tapping away at two “related” books—a history of the question of abortion (foeticide, in an older language) and infanticide in Jewish, pagan and Christian culture, and a short history of the “sacrament” of marriage in Christianity. I won’t do spoilers here. If you want the straight story, you will have to read the books.

But I think it is fair to say that writing books can be transformative, even if you don’t especially want to be transformed.

I have been a proponent of the “right to choose” since Roe v Wade became the law of the land, in conscience before that.

My mother as a college student remembered helping her room-mate slip out of St Louis to a “doctor” in East Saint Louis, then an Illinois slum of the city, to have her problem “taken care of.” The doctor, a black midwife, was a compassionate but undertrained woman who would not have been able to deal with any complications during or after the surgery; D & C procedures were not done, and often the abortion was simply induced with the patient left to deal with the after-effects.

Like a lot of women of her generation—Catholic women as it happens—she simply assumed that one day common sense would prevail and procedures like the one she facilitated would be done in proper hospitals under sanitary conditions. And like a lot of Catholic women (she remained a Catholic until her dying day) she felt the Church was simply irrelevant to the discussion of contraception and abortion, a brave position towards a Church that had chosen to take its moral stand on gynecological matters under the rubric “the gospel of life.”

Given this preface, even I am surprised at what I have come to think about the topic of abortion as it is now framed.

I do not like the term “abortion rights”—not because I am a man and will never have to choose, but because it is a cynical phrase hewn out of the conflict with equally sinister activists, the “right-to-life”-cadre–who hold that abortion is murder. Not only murder, but murder most foul because it preys on the innocent at the most vulnerable point in their existence.

I think positioning abortion as a right, similar in some sense to the right to free speech, or press and assembly was a flawed response to the invocation (and manipulation) of the Constitutional right to life, which (whatever else Jefferson or Locke may have meant by it) was clearly not envisaged to apply to inviable foetuses.

Writing Faith and Foeticide has convinced me that the discussion of personhood cannot be avoided, and that it is foolish to try to do so. Since ancient times the question of “viability” has been a topic of medical, domestic and theological discussions. That subject in turns hews closely to the questions of “identity” and perhaps more important in the ancient discussion the question of property.

The Jews asserted a parental interest in an unborn child only when quickening occurred, in the fifth or sixth month. For millennia—-long before the technology existed to explore embryonic development in the uterus—it was the voluntary movement of the foetus that established its personality, that is, its distinctive identity as a human being in utero. The property right of a father over an unborn child could only be asserted at this point, as a famous text (Exodus 21.22 ff.) illustrates. In Jewish, pagan and early Christian cultures the wife was the custodian, not the owner, of the property. The penalty for inducing an abortion (miscarriage) by accident or deliberate action was a fine paid to the father.

By the eighteenth century the assumptions of legal sholars like William Blackstone were formed in almost total ignorance of the ancient discussions, which made it possible to write nonsense like this:

Life… begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb. For if a woman is quick with child, and by a potion, or otherwise, killeth it in her womb; or if any one beat her, whereby the child dieth in her body, and she is delivered of a dead child; this, though not murder, was by the ancient law homicide or manslaughter. But at present it is not looked upon in quite so atrocious a light, though it remains a very heinous misdemeanor.

(Blackstone, William (1979) [1765]. “Amendment IX, Document 1”. Commentaries on the Laws of England 5. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 388.)

The ancient debate looks distant and even foolish to us. It was a form of reductivism that understood a child as having value in relation to a certain system that we have come to know as patriarchy. While abortion certainly existed, contraception was not very effective and could be dangerous to the woman. In general, only wealthy women could procure abortions—for unwanted children or to keep a jealous husband, father, or lover in the dark about an inconvenient pregnancy. None were safe; all were potentially fatal.

But the modern debate is just as reductivist: it begins with the (equally proprietary) axiom that the mother in some sense owns not only her body (a good Lockean principle) but what is in it, by chance or design. Given that assumption–that the mother has the power to sustain or extinguish this life– whether we choose to humanize it or not, the only relevant questions are essentially questions of hygiene and safety. In ancient times the discouragement to abortion was that women died, not just from botched surgery but from routine childbirth. This risk having been reduced substantially in the modern world, it becomes necessary to focus on the question of choice and rights, maintaining all the while that the rights that can be extended to the born child cannot be ascribed to the foetus. While the term “unborn” is considered by many pro-choice advocates as prejudicial to discussion, the fact is that intrauterine and post-uterine existence are not ontological statuses but physical realties: the object of this existence needs to be considered, which in the super-charged and historically vacuous climate of contemporary discussion is not possible. The premises are simple on either side: Either abortion is murder or it is not. If is is murder, its advocates are criminals. If it is not, then it is a permissible form of family planning or social hygiene. In choosing sides, the ethical reality of the foetus is exploited but the ontological status of the foetus is almost never considered in a mature and humanistic way.

So entrenched are views on the topic that any suggestion that the life of the foetus is human life immediately drowns the “personhood” question in a barrage of cases about rape and incest, though the majority of unwanted pregnancies (>5% in first trimester) are not the result of rape. The overwhelming majority of first trimester abortions are elective. This statistic in itself is meaningless, however, part from consideration of the ethical reality involved. The unasked question it seems to me is not whether abortion should be legal–of course it should be–but what is being done in the process.

Statistics, however, are routinely used by the most strident of the anti-abortion contingent to bring back the dark night of blanket illegality. And in the offing, the question of life and personhood is reduced to caricature. That, if you ask me, is a shame because it throws a sensitive question to the howling yahoos in American political life like meat to dogs.

The safer and more common abortion has become the more it has become proceduralized. By that I mean the condition of pregnancy has been reduced to the same status as the condition of having a curable disease. The pregnant woman on this analogy can be considered nothing but a person seeking relief from an illness, a frame so constructed as to include the nature of the condition that entails the choice. As there would be no debate for example about the “right” to seek relief from pain or the ravages of a degenerative disease, there should be no debate about the analogous right to seek relief from pregnancy.

The hygienic approach to abortion however raises a range of moral questions that were postulated as long ago as 1970 by George Huntston Williams lamenting the fact that the abortion debate was being resolved not on the basis of historical and humanistic reflection but as an expression of our increasing dependence on clinical solutions to all human problems—the conclusion Williams adds of a “cold and strangely harsh age.” “It is an anomaly of the development of the moral conscience of society at the very moment when we know the most about foetal life and we are, in our reverence for life, reviewing such formerly major instruments of society as capital punishment and war, that many in the name of humanity and humaneness would be disposed to let go centuries of ethical concern about prenatal life.”


Marriage Everyone?

Marriage was not a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church until the 12th century. The reason was that earlier canons required a sacrament to be a practice started (instituted) by Jesus Christ to impart grace” (“Sacramentum proprie dicitur quod ita signum est gratiae Dei, ei invisibilis gratiae forma, ut ipsius imaginem gerat et causa existat”: Peter Lombard IV Sententiae , d.I, n.2 )–and it is clear that millennia of married people had existed before Jesus.

More embarrassing still, while Jesus responded to some questions about marriage from his opponents, they were not questions about what he “founded” but about a practice already assumed to exist among Jews and gentiles. Indeed they were not even questions about marriage but about divorce (Mt 19.19ff, pars.)

One thing is clear: marriage in itself was not a remarkable thing. Love had nothing to do with it, and insofar as it was a significant social factor it was significant (especially in the upper reaches of society) because it established legitimacy and paternity. Its sole defining function was tied to procreation, legitimacy, and inheritance.

Over the centuries, the Church became more and more involved in the “consecration” of marriage, and more and more specific about the nature of the institution. It derived its divine sanction from two key passages, Genesis 2.23-4. And the pseudo-Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians (5:22-33) where marriage is understood to be symbolic of the bond between Christ and the Church, thus a symbol of salvation itself.

St Paul was downright disparaging about the institution, giving it no more than a pass in his dismissive comment that it “is better to marry than to burn with lust.” (1 Cor. 7.9)

In denying marriage was a sacrament, the Protestant reformers did not challenge its symbolism but its right to be regarded as an institution started by Jesus, maintained by the apostles, and controlled by the church. The early reformers knew very well that marriage became important to the church only because of the question of benefices due the bishops from the landed gentry—the nobility—and that the episcopacy needed to be involved in the question of legitimacy, heirs, and inheritance.

The Church took virtually no interest for another two centuries in marriage practices of ordinary folk, where common law practices provided the social context for a custom that was valued primarily (as also in its religious context) for being a guarantor of legitimate offspring. As Carter Lindbergh has written, Luther, as essentially a late medieval man rather than a renaissance one lived at a time when the Church sanctioned public brothels and approved of prostitution: marriage was not a thing to quell lust but to channel it into procreation. Luther’s basic thesis was that man and woman are God’s work and creatures; God created humankind so that there should be men and women (LW 45:17). Bodiliness and sexuality are God’s gifts which deserve thanks and responsible use. God knows what humankind needs: “It is not good that a person be alone.” (“The Estate of Marriage,” 1522; LW 45:13-49). But whatever else marriage is—-among other things, an institution out of which friendship can grow and even affection–as his own to Katherine von Bora illustrated– it was not a sacrament of the Church and conferred no special “grace” on the partners. It becomes in the language of the Book of Common Prayer a sacred ordinance, blessed by God for the specific purpose of sexual reproduction, the echo of God’s creation. It is not human. It is certainly not about romantic love and care.

One of the difficulties we face with the secularization of any discussion of a religious custom is the question of definition. The incremental importance attached to marriage, as most scholars know, followed the age of courtly romance when marriages involved traditions of ritual flirting, Platonic love, and finally the belief that romantic love and marriage could be conjoined only rarely and with family approval. Alliances between the parties were always taken into account, even among the lower orders of society. Marriage almost always involved some measure of political or financial advantage. The tale of Romeo and Juliet is grounded in a time where the hostility between two families prevented their marriage. The story of Lancelot and Guinevere in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur illustrates the price of crossing the line between flirtation, courtly romance, and adultery. Marriage is idealized in countless stories of ”true” (extra-marital) love and betrayal, but what changes fundamentally is the focus of marriage. It is often not a symbol of love but an impediment to love. The sacred union it comes to represent is not human: beyond its prosaic meaning as a symbol of legitimate succession through proving heirs, it is now a symbol of Christ’s “eternal” love for his bride the Church, which in fact is not a signal of love but of subordination and obedience.

What it is not is a symbol of passion or human affection. The high sacramental importance attached to marriage essentially suffocates love in favour of children.

My own view of the history of marriage is that its use over time does not make it a desirable model of “union” for same-sex couples. The historical purpose of marriage has not been to symbolize the love of partners or the equality of partners but the sexual role of partners in a union of biological opposites against the background of natural law. Natural law in turn is the self-determining view that a union which does not naturally residuate in offspring is sterile. In the medieval church, such a marriage could not be validated and if it had been, by accident, could be nullified.

The monopoly of heterosexual couples on this “higher”-than-contractual level is tied to referents that I think homosexual couples would have been better off shunning in favour of civil unions that granted all the rights and privileges under law that “married” couples enjoy: Inheritance, insurance benefits, domicile—the things that were, in fact, always integral to the idea of marriage as a contract. Whatever is superadded to the civil union—the idea of sacramental authenticity, romantic love, child-bearing, the family—has only served to retard and impede same-sex unions within a war of definitions. Same sex-unions should have been based on a rejection of traditional marriage, not the appropriation of the word based on the Ken and Barbie embodiment of the twentieth century.

As with the abortion debate, people have been forced into corners as “for” or “against” gay marriage, whereas, in fact, the ones who should have been redefining the union as a union of likeness have focused almost exclusively on expropriating symbolism that is stubbornly resistant to reinterpretation, the incorporation of same-sex symbolism on the premise that marriage is “really” all about love and the right of two people, whatever their sexual preference, to formalize that love.

When all is said and done, it is the metaphorical significance of marriage that matters, and it is no accident that the definition wars are occurring precisely at a time when religious definitions and metaphorical coherence are at the lowest point in history.

Why not gay marriage? is a question that can only become significant when a symbol has been eviscerated of its traditional power, as marriage itself was during the time of Jesus and Paul against the backdrop of apocalyptic thought. The belief that the world was ending was a clear disincentive to reproduction. Ironically, it is this context that explains why Jesus, called upon to answer questions on the topic, ends up responding to questions about divorce. Contracts without sacramental and metaphorical value are made to be broken. We are not at the same-sex marriage juncture of human history; we are at the end-of-marriage crossroads–not why not gay marriage, but why marriage of any kind?

Eden Gardens

The New Oxonian

The community was advertised as the best landscaped in south Florida.

Not only did the faux-Moroccan gate provide security from nonexistent intruders and drug-dealers, but every condo nestled in a tropical array of bougainvillea, hibiscus (coral pinks and striated reds), fiddleleaf figs, palmetto and assorted ferns.

Adam Feinstein loved the fact that the small yard was mown on a weekly basis by a Mexican boy named Donnie who spoke no English but smiled broadly and sang as he raked the shorn blades into neat piles.

Promptly at 4.45 on Thursdays, when the Feinstein lawn had been cut, Adam waited on the front patio with a large glass of iced tea for Donnie. The Association didn’t allow tipping, but a libation of iced tea or water was permitted. It made Adam feel that he had contributed something to the process.

The Association dealt with everything, trimmed everything, fixed everything (outside)…

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Sex, Salvation, and Violence in Radical Islam

The New Oxonian

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…

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Beheading Ishmael: Islamic Extremism and the Denial of History

The pathology of the religious movement called Islamic State (ISIS) is a flesh-wasting disease that erupts out of the attempts of conservative Islam to correct its recent record of failure.

Its iconic moment, September 11, 2001, is now more than a decade past. The leaders of al-Qaeda are aging, disorganized and easily upstaged by more robust and glamorous moments—beheadings, cultural brigandage, mass executions, rape, and Blitzkrieg raids on unsuspecting towns and villages. The Taliban have had a run of bad luck; franchise groups like Boko Haram or Al Shabab perform piratically, on the fringe, and at a distance. All of them are fueled by ignorance, demonic forms of enthusiasm, and a perverse idealism that appeals, strangely, to a world where the more ritualized forms of dualistic warfare have become unfashionable or relegated to science fiction. In a world that has become morally lazy and predictable, an evil cause that can exploit unpredictability easily wins.

The form of Islamism we are witnessing is dangerous, polymorphic and brimming with venom. But it is also a tail-eating serpent that will sooner or later ensure its own destruction. While the ancient trumpets of cosmic warfare are largely silent in the modern era, except, perhaps, in the anti-intellectual ditches of America’s Bible Belt and its suburb, Washington, D.C., it is thriving in the Muslim world: the trumpet will sound, the martyrs and the true believers will be living it up in the casinos and condos of Paradise, and unbelievers will be cast into a lake of bubbling fire, Jahannam with no chance of appeal. Choice is never more clear than the choice you are given in radical Islam.

The international media, with its usual preference for the dopishly simple, works on a scale of “fundamentalisms” rating them, like hurricanes, from moderate to ferocious. Thus, al-Qaeda is very bad, but ISIS is horrible; the Taliban are medieval, but Boko Haram is primal. There may some truth to seeing things this way, but the common use of the word “fundamentalism” to describe what is going on in radical Islam is not a good way to describe Islamism in general and this form of the disease in particular.

Islamic extremism is not a movement designed to wrest the Qur’an from liberal exegesis or the chains of dogma or speculative theology. The spectrum of Islamic doctrine runs from assured, self-satisfied and quiescent orthodoxy to aggressive, expansionist, violent ultra-orthodoxy. Moderation as in (“moderate Islam”) is not a virtue here; it is not even an option. Moderation is cowardice, capitulation, and the opposite of the complete spiritual and intellectual surrender the leaders of the movement believe Allah demands of his followers. The spectrum of opinion that exists in Judaism or Christianity—reform to Chasidic, Roman Catholic to protestant, or mainline protestant to Pentecostal-evangelical, has no parallel in Islamic practice or theology.

ISIS represents that form of ultra-orthodoxy that eschews nuance, sect, variations of opinion based on diligent reading (ijtihad) and demands, in the strict sense, submission (استسلاما) to the only principles it regards as fully Islamic. Its model for enforcing this regime is not the bookish culture that grew quickly out of Arabia and Persia after the eighth century but the roughly hundred- year period of bloody succession wars and expansion following the Prophet’s death in 632. The warriors of ISIS are not fighting a ground battle for ground alone; they are fighting the forces of evil in order to restore the dar-al-Islam to an imagined purity that existed in a faraway past—a once-upon-a-time at the Kaaba. It is at once exotic and nightmarish, romantic and repulsive, because it extends back to the time when people believed that blood could consecrate sand.

In a couple of pieces, notably “Just War and Jihad: Positioning the Question of Religious Violence,” I’ve tried to make the case that two things are wrong in Majorem islamica mundi that lead specifically to Islamic radicalism: A contempt for secular learning, especially of the nonscientific kind associated in the West with the liberal arts, and the Islamic doctrine of finality.

(1) Contempt for Humanistic Learning

The problem least commented on by political analysts of the ISIS phenomenon is the almost complete absence of a developed and competitive educational system in the Islamic world.

Islam at its organic, doctrinal center is rotting from the inside out. Not only does it lack the centralized authority that one finds in the world’s oldest government and bureaucracy, the Roman Catholic Curia, or, as in Judaism, a highly educated rabbinate, trained in liberal arts and critical thinking besides theology and biblical studies, but it also lacks a single ranked center of educational excellence or a seminary that would do justice to the study of Islamic history, theology and religion. This despite the fact that any city in the Muslim world will have dozens of madrasahs and colleges offering courses and degrees in the Islamic “sciences.”

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim students would not consider attending a university with a specific Islamic identity in their home countries, and the home countries for their part are in competition to create various American-style college programs (largely staffed by locals with a sprinkling of international instructors) in places as far flung as Sharjah, Afghanistan and northern Iraq. The flight of intelligence from the Muslim world is simply the most critical example of the global price ISIS and its cousins are inflicting on the Middle East.

To the extent “average” Muslims look back to better intellectual times, they must look back to the tenth century for an intellectual renaissance. But the pious (not only the radicals) regard their Golden Age (a western construct of the 19th century, never an Islamic phrase) as a period of laxity and heresy and subscribe instead to the “repository theory of knowledge”: On this view, all knowledge is either expressed, implied, or hidden in the Qur’an and merely discovered to be true through speculative and experimental inquiry.

This has an interesting double effect: on the one hand, it inhibits serious inquiry (If the truth—all truth—is in the sacred book, its experimental discovery is not a matter or urgency or effort but of divine will). On the other, it protects Islam from some of the absurdities of Christian fundamentalism, which sees the truth revealed in the Bible as supervenient and static and opposed to what conflicts with it in science—notably evolution or “creation.”

But the “repository theory” is a twentieth century strategy in Islamic apologetics. The free-thinking scholars of the Golden Age were at pains (just like the Christian monks in the West) to reconcile their speculative work with religious principles and texts. They did this in one of two ways, either by pronouncing philosophy interesting but useless in arriving at the higher order truths of religion (al-Ghazali) or by attempting to reconcile philosophy and religion as coordinate, non-contradictory ways to truth–roughly what Stephen Jay Gould termed “non-overlapping magisteria” (Ibn Rushd). The astronomers and surgeons of the Abbasid age were the first to make the separation of faith and knowledge axiomatic for scientific work. This of course led to conflict between the ulama, and the scholars, at a time when to be a scholar was significantly different from being a religious authority. “The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr,” a (false) hadith considered so dangerous it had a fatwah attached to its utterance, was a popular aphorism during the period of the Abbasids.

During the war between the religious elite and the philosophers of Islam, the eleventh century writer Omar Khayyam— more famous in his time as a scholar than a poet– had this to say:

Allah, perchance, the secret word might spell;
If Allah be, He keeps His secret well;
What He hath hidden, who shall hope to find?
Shall God His secret to a maggot tell?

The Koran! well, come put me to the test—
Lovely old book in hideous error drest—
Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
The unbeliever knows his Koran best. (Fitzgerald trans.)

An Isis-like movement, the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, did to Baghdad and parts of Iran (Khayyam was Persian) what the sack of Rome did to the Empire, and by the fifteenth century learning was also being snuffed out in Spain with the defeat of the Islamic kingdom of al-Andalus. While it is a common and execrable myth that Crusader culture was to blame for the disintegration of Muslim intellectual life, that suggestion is almost completely false and designed to disguise the fact that it was islamicized tribes under Chingiz Khan’s successors that demanded piety rather than intellectual attainment as the litmus tests for being Muslim.

The European knights whose stay in the Middle East was short, unhappy, and focused on the Mediterranean coast had almost nothing to do with it, colonialism even less.

Yet even in the period immediately following the Crusades, the eastern Invasions, and well into the Ottoman period Islam, as a faith, was not as programmatically hostile to humanistic studies as it is now, a phenomenon disguised but not contradicted by the commercial temples of modernity in Dubai and Abu Dabi. It is one of the ironies of radical Islamic existence that the technologies that spring from the culture it despises—trains, planes, cars, communication technology, visual media, advances in medical sciences—are greedily exploited, while the prerequisite western values of curiosity, free inquiry, and skepticism are discouraged or considered forbidden as specifically western and decadent.

This rationalized ambivalence has created a hole at the center of Islamic existence, felt chiefly among second and third generation Muslims living outside the traditional Islamic homelands in places like Manchester, Los Angeles or Paris.

Unsurprisingly the faith that arguably produced some of the first university like structures with al-Qarawiyyin and Al-Azhar in the tenth century, later on produced no Padua or Sorbonne, no Oxford or Cambridge, no Harvard or Georgetown, all of which were established by Christian monks or protestant divines. The effect of this is that in the West religion and education grew up in tandem if not always peaceably; the development of learning was a reciprocal process in which the unfettered “advancement of learning” (as Francis Bacon called it) was held up as the ideal. In the West, the Renaissance followed the dark ages, and the Reformation of religion closely followed (and was driven by) the Renaissance. In the Islamic world, the dark ages followed its renaissance making a reformation of religion all but impossible.

2. Finality and the Chasm Theory of History

The second and more formidable challenge, however, is the Islamic doctrine of perfection and “finality” (غائية) which is associated especially with its radical expression in Saudi-based Sunnism.

Scott Lucas in “The Arts of Hadith Compilation and Criticism: A Study of the Emergence of Sunnism in the Ninth Century” (University of Chicago, 2002) asserts that “most Muslim and non-Muslim scholars consider Sunnism to be the normative manifestation of Islam.” In effect, this means that many scholars as well as most Muslims regard Sunnism as the orthodox form of the religion–not a sect, but the exclusive form of the faith as practiced by the overwhelming majority of Muslims for the best part of its history.

The movement usually blamed for the revivalist fervor that has spawned the greatest radicalism in twentieth and early twenty first century Islam is Wahhabism, named after the eighteenth century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792) of Najd, though it has been superseded by Salafism as the fastest-growing Islamic movement in the world. Both trends, varying only in zealotry for an imagined, rigidly observant past, are anti-intellectual and condemn the use of speculative philosophy (kalam) in theology on the grounds it did not exist during the life of the prophet. Any alternative view of history may be regarded as heretical, not only Shiism but reformist and “moderating” trends within Sunnism as well.

The Salafis consist of overlapping groups of purists, activists and jihadists, but their basic goal is the establishment of sharia as the foundation of society: “It’s very simple,” according to Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, “We want sharia. Sharia in economy, in politics, in judiciary, in our borders and our foreign relations.” “Sharia” as used by the Salafist experts can mean a number of things but in the broad sense it entails a rejection of western values, rejects the accommodation of Islam to secular culture and modernity, and seeks a restoration of what their adepts perceive to be the ordinances, laws and punishments for apostasy practiced in the early ummah.

There is no interest in the history of sharia or of the thousands of cherry-picked quranic verses and hadith that comprise their catechism—only the fact that it is believed to be true. Radical Islam is text without context.

But the thesis that Sunnism or any of its revivalist offshoots is an orthodox “form” of Islam breaks under examination. The Sunnism that produced al-Wahhab in the 18th century and developed during the colonial period as a retrograde form of the religion is not the Sunnism that was trampled under by the Mongols in 1268 with the destruction of the Bayt al-Hikma (بيت الحكمة‎), the House of Wisdom. The history of the intellectual development of Islam from the time of Muhammad’s youngest uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, founder of the Abbasid dynasty, is virtually unknown to these later sunnis and purists, and to the extent they know it, they regard it as shameful.

Rejection of all that is not considered normative or mubah (permissible) is not just a theory among ISIS and its auxiliary jihadis; it is a program that requires finishing what many radicals regard as an uncompleted purification of the world by the Prophet and his companions, the Mubajirun. Their symbolic moment is the unquranic story of the cleansing of the Kaaba (the actual account comes in book 59 of Sahih Al-Bukhari) and several pivotal events before his death: the Battle of the Ditch, the massacre of the Qurayzah Jewish tribes, and the establishment of a kind of “proto-caliphate” in the three years before his death. For them, Islam is contestation and strife, not peace and tranquility. It does not build or need universities. It needs warriors.

The Finality Solution

In order to purify their history and justify their dominance of the largely sunni-areas they have conquered in Iran and Syria, the jihadists reject any suggestion that Islam has an obligation to follow practices that have gone soft over the centuries since the time of the Prophet: there is no compulsion to respect variant practices among believers and consequently no reason to respect unbelievers.

Ibrahim is a prophet because he believed in God and was a true Muslim. Jesus (Isa) is a prophet not because he is significant to Christians but because he is accorded the status in Islam. The same is true of the religious figures of the past, from Ibrahim onward. Christians and Jews are not believers but infidels who cannot be trusted and who violated the trust of Muhammad and rejected his prophethood: “O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.” (Qur’an 5:51).

Despite a certain ambivalence towards other religions in Islam generally, the wholesale convert-or-kill practices that have astonished the world are rooted in Islamic State’s interpretation of a wealth of verses (Q3.28, 3.118, 9.23., 53.29, 3.85. 7.44) that it regards as normative. Burning infidels in cages is halal. The slaughter of Yazidis in the hundreds and other religious minorities, especially sufis and Mandaens, is not only permissible but mandatory. The physical depredation of archaeological sites in Nimrud, or the Assyrian capital of Khorsabad, the Mosul Museum, the tomb of Yunas, Hatra, the great Mosque at Basra–acts of piety and in complete harmony with the will of God as mediated through the Prophet. As Cornell archaeologist Sturt Manning has said, with great understatement, “The terror group is destroying the evidence of the great history of Iraq; it has to, as this history attests to a rich alternative to its barbaric nihilism.” Simply put, ISIS believes that its violent iconoclasm is a religious act. Being killed in the doing of it is not punishment but martyrdom.

Islamic extremism rejects not only the idols of the pagans and other religions but history in general: history as really lived, as the unfolding of a story, as the confluence of beliefs, as a diversification of ideas, including ideas about God and humanity, has no meaning here. History, since it is not providential, works from analogy, discovers unoriginality more than originality, and seeks causes for outcomes, is a lie that must be untold by being buried and its proponents silenced. The ignorant contempt for all history by the extremists–what Manning sees as their “nihilism”– has left an enormous hole in the center of Islam: it is the absence of a critical tradition that would permit Islam to grow and develop organically while maintaining its core belief in the oneness of God and the status of the Prophet. It is not the satanic West that is obstructing this process. It is the failure of Islam as a whole to provide intellectual alternatives to the farcical but deadly cosmic warfare the jihadists think they are fighting, on their own terms.

The isolated grunts, groans, commiserations, and apologies offered (not always wholeheartedly) by imams and assorted non-authoritative “supreme Islamic councils” after each new outrage, each new spasm, are hardly a cure for what is deeply and consistently wrong in Islam.

Owning Isis: Collective Responsibility and Personal Guilt

The New Oxonian

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…

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Is “God” Invulnerable?

The New Oxonian

Paul Tillich died while I was still in high school. But the embers of his theological revolution–equivalent in theology to Bultmann’s in biblical studies–were still warm by the time I got to Harvard Divinity School, where he taught from 1955 to 1962. I read him assiduously, ran yellow highlighters dry illuminating “key” passages, and wrote the word “Yes!” in the margins more often than Molly Bloom gasps it in the last chapter of Ulysses.

It isn’t that I now regard Tillich as less profound  than I did three decades ago.  It’s that I now realize he was methadone for religion- recoverers. His key works–The Religious Situation, The Shaking of the Foundations, the multipart, unbearably dense Systematic Theology (especially disliked in Britain when it appeared), and Dynamics of Faith–reveal a soul committed to taking the sting out of what many theologians before Tillich called “the modern situation.”

The modern situation was basically…

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Moral Landscapes or Human Values?

The New Oxonian

The question is prompted by this week’s NYRB review of The Moral Landscape by H. Allen Orr, a Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester.

Although Orr took his PhD under the supervision of Dr Jerry Coyne, he is very much a freethinker when it comes to the uses and limitations of scientific know-how and know-what.  In a perfectly chivalrous way, he pronounces the three major premises of Harris’s attempt to bridge the gap from polemic to science unsuccessful.

I have always been skeptical that science, as a purely descriptive field, would help us to navigate the moral universe.  This feeling–and it’s no more than that, and thus has to be regarded as pure cotton–comes less from my training as a  theologian (there, I said it) than from earlier work in linguistics–what we used to call philology when trying to impress girls.  –It never did.

When language analysis moved away from the…

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