20 August 2015

The Sermon on the Mount - A Brief Review

Posted by at 10:06 AM
Facebook is very often used as a personal soapbox. I am alternately fascinated and perplexed by the psychological projections that social media ultimatums reveal in people. 
"If you believe or subscribe to [idea X], then please delete me."
Idea X can be any number of things that a person might find offensive or disagreeable. It could be some perceived racism. It could be a perceived blasphemy. It could be some particular stance on abortion. It could be a political viewpoint. Whatever the sore spot, such an ultimatum essentially says: "If we disagree on this all-important idea, then you are not worthy of my attention or of my love. You are beneath me." This is silly, of course. Such an expression is really just a projection of our egos onto our social interactions. They are inadvertently just funny if anything, and they can usually be dismissed as the selfish primping of our inner Narcissus. Now and then, though, we encounter one of these ultimatums, and instead of ignoring it, the expression sets us on a train of thought, bringing us to some hitherto unthought-of reflection or insight.

This was the case when an acquaintance of mine recently posted:
"If you are against Christianity, read the sermon on the mount (Mathew 5-7). This sums up what Jesus stood for nicely. If you are against that then we shouldn't be friends.

Now if I can only get the Christians to read and adhere to those teachings."
Upon reading it, my initial question was, What would constitute being "against" Christianity?

I mean, a religion can be seen as adversarial by a person only inasmuch as its proponents try to limit or trespass on the liberties of fellow citizens for the benefit of the religion. Until someone crosses that line, most people don't even care what others believe. Why should they?

But say someone were to approach me with the "good news" that God once (fourteen hundred years ago) spoke through an angel to a man in a desert cave and commanded him to recite poetry, ... poetry which is to be considered a socio-spiritual mandate for all mankind (divine and unalterable) for ever after.

... after some consideration of the probabilities, the contingencies, and the implications of this proposition ... let's say that my response is, "Bah, humbug."
Does this mean that I am "against" Islam?

Would a simple rejection of a religion be sufficient to qualify one as a bigot? Of course not. One would have to actively campaign for the subjugation (or the vilification) of that religion, in either word or deed, to qualify, I think. Luckily, this kind of activist religious bigotry is rare, at least in this country, and so most of the time people just go about their daily business without having to even think about it. Most people who reject religion are just too busy with lives, with mates, children, jobs, dreams, aspirations, etc., to spend any time actively "againsting" on some particular sect.

That said, I reject Christianity, but it is not because of any antagonism on my part, but simply because I find it to be obsolete, irrelevant (at least in its traditional, devotional sense). Nevertheless, since the Sermon on the Mount was offered up as axiomatically self-evident and true, it occurred to me that I had never given much thought to the precise content of that famous biblical passage, and so I decided to take seriously the invitation from that Facebook post. I went ahead and read G°Matt (ch 5–7) critically, just to see whether I agree or disagree with any of it, just to satisfy my own curiosity, ruminating on each verse as I went. It's something I had never really asked myself this directly before.
Do I agree or disagree with the Sermon on the Mount?  

GºMatthew Chapter 5

(verses 1–2) - These verses frame the scene ... N N
"And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,"

(verse 3) -
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Already, from the git-go, there is ambiguity at hand. What does it mean to be poor "in spirit"? Why did the author of G°Matt feel the need to change G°Mark's unambiguous "poor"? Everyone knows what "poor" means. It's an interesting substitute phrase. While we're at it, why did he similarly change G°Mark's "Kingdom of God" to "kingdom of heaven"? Though I know that valid self-consistent responses are possible within the Christian paradigm, I ask these questions not so much to elicit a response, but only to point out that this verse involves concepts and symbols and theological formulations that are quite nuanced and that need to be unpacked and teased out, and are as such actually far from the self-evident axioms they have been suggested to be by my friend's post. Having said that, inasmuch as this verse has to do with a future reward after death, I have no reason to think the statement is true. X

(verse 4)
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
I'm down with this verse as a simple expression of compassion and empathy and sympathy, for I think they are good things. But viewed as a reference to some future reward for the downtrodden in the after-world, I see no reason to think this an accurate statement either. X

(verse 5)
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
The meek have never inherited anything and that is not likely to change. (Note here that I am not suggesting that one not be meek in conduct, but that one should not expect a reward later. In fact, I think that humility and sobriety in this life are arguably their own rewards.) X

(verse 6)
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
Like verse 3, this one has been abstracted from the original version (G°Mark), which talked of hunger as hunger. Everybody knows what hunger is. Why has the author of G°Matt changed it to "hunger for righteousness"? It's a tangential, rhetorical question, but one I find fascinating: Why is the author of G°Matt so bent on ambiguating poverty and hunger, on turning these urgencies into metaphors for something else, almost trivializing them? At the very least, this verse is not as self-evidently "true" as my friend suggests. X

(verses 7–11)
"Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake."
These are pretty much the same promises of reward in a coming after world, reward for having to live such a nasty, brutish, and short life in this one. I would like to note, though, that removed from their afterlife context, framed instead as self contained metaphors, verses 7–9 are actually nicely poetic koans. And so I'll give some kudos to Jesus on this pericope.
I'd be down with all three in that case. X X Y Y Y

(verse 12)
"Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
This verse turns out to be more problematic than one at a first glance might think. It reflects the "O Jerusalem!" admonition. That the Jews had killed all their prophets is a charge that is accepted here at face value and is reinforced by Paul in 1Thess 2 and repeated by G°Matt later in chapter 23 and by G°Luke 13. The problem, though, is that when you go look in the Old Testament for a corroboration of this charge, the only instance we can find of anything like this having occurred is in the case of Urijah, a small-time Jeremiah parrot, who was tracked down, dragged back, and killed by King Jehoiakim (Jere. 26:20-23). Even in this case, the killing was the deed of one Jew and his flunkies. It was not a collective act of society in the sense implied by the "O Jerusalem" theme. Therefore I think that this verse likely reflects an early second century provenance, a time by which "the Jews always kill their own prophets" has become a party line, a talking point for the gestating Christian community. The author of G°Matt makes Jesus say things that are simply wrong about the fate of the prophets. Why?
And why would being proud of this lie be a good thing? X

Thus conclude what are generally known as the Beatitudes, a series of promises (from Jesus to his hearers) that in spite of the pain and suffering that they have to undergo in this life, a blessing is guaranteed to them along with an afterlife in which they will rejoice.
Isn't that nice.
I'm all for it.
I just don't think it likely.I have no reason to.

The sermon continues.

(verse 13)
"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot."
This is a particularly cryptic saying. The ancients used halite (NaCl=sodium chloride=salt), even back then. I'm not sure, but I think the "saltiness" is a metaphor for a thing's essence(?). Otherwise, I don't really know what it means for salt to lose its saltiness. Spices can lose potency with time, but salt is just a mineral that sits there for millions of years before it is harvested (sea salt is the same mineral but harvested differently). Trust me, salt's saltiness ain't going anywhere. A tricky passage, count this verse with those others which belie the notion that the truths within the Sermon are somehow self-evident. X

(verses 14–16)
"Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."
These three verses I'm totally down with. Removed from their theological context, I think this is generally good advice to give aspirants in any quest. Y Y Y

(verses 17–20)
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."
Bracketing for the moment that this is an exposition of fulfillment theology, which I have always found abhorrent and insulting, this is saying, explicitly, that Torah is still to be followed to the letter. I'm not particularly interested in becoming Christian, but then I'm not really interested in becoming Jewish either, so, in the end, any exhortation to adhere to Torah doesn't really apply or appeal to me. N N X X

(verses 21–26)
"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing."
These verses regarding one's attitude toward murder and toward violence and toward rancor and grudges are generally good advice, I'd say (references to an afterlife notwithstanding), but the hellfire imagery kinda defeats the beauty underneath. Y Y N N N

(verses 27–30)
"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell."
These verses regarding adultery and "thoughtcrime" are a bit harsh in my opinion. While I would agree that it is certainly a good idea to control one's libido, I disagree with the notion that to have prurient thoughts at all is somehow tantamount to having sinned. I don't think it's a realistic demand on one's biological makeup (or at all helpful, for that matter) to condemn oneself for one's natural urges. In fact I think it's pericopes like this (cf. G°Mark 9:45) that would eventually drive some early church luminaries like Origen to do crazy things like castrate themselves in the name of piety and purity. X X X

(verses 31–32)
"It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."
Do I agree with this? I think people are free to marry and/or divorce if they choose to for whatever reason they want to, so I guess I don't agree with Jesus. X

(verses 33–37)
"Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."
I don't have any fundamental objection to oaths. I have no idea why the character of Jesus here thinks they are so bad. I can deduce that he thinks them idolatrous, but that needs some further unpacking. We can thus place this pericope with the others that belie the sermon's "self-evident" claim. N X

(verses 38–42)
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away."
Eye for an eye. While I don't particularly care to defend "eye for an eye" justice, to go as far as saying that one should submit oneself to further abuse from an aggressor is lunacy, in my opinion. I will add, however, that I like the simple altruism of verse 42. X X X Y

(verses 43–48)
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."
Love for enemies? I'm happy to love my enemy, but not if he is shooting at me. This pericope, while actually trying make what could be a valid point, fails to make a crucial distinction. Let's say that your brother needs a kidney transplant. Most people would gladly donate their kidney to a family member, I think. That's an easy decision to make. It's making that decision to donate it to a stranger that would be a better test of one's altruism. But why does the author have to conflate "neighbor" with "enemy" here? This conflation seems mean-spirited to me. In a sense, I am in agreement with Jesus, but as a general mandate to love one's "enemy" ... I will say that this pericope's phrasing is less than endearing. X Y

Chapter 6

The sermon continues ...
(verses 1–4)
"Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Giving to the needy. I'm totally down with this part. Even better, not being an ostentatious asshole when we give to the needy. Y Y Y

(verses 5–15)
"‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. ‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
 Hmm. I have no use for prayer in the conventional Christian intercessory sense, but if I take the word to mean "introspective meditation" (or something along that line), then I'm cool with his exhortation to do it in private ... not in a showy self-serving way.
 Forgiving people their trespasses.
Some times it's harder than others (this is why forgiveness is so valuable—because it is so hard), but I generally think that forgiveness is a good spiritual practice. I'm totally down with that, theological affectations aside. Y Y X

(verses 16–18)
"‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
I can see a use for fasting as a spiritual exercise. Again, I'm totally down with Jesus' warning against ostentatiousness in our behavior. Y Y N

(verses 19–24)
"‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
Treasures ... Yeah, I more or less agree with these sentiments, theological concerns aside. In fact, I find this pericope to be particularly lovely in its imagery. Y Y Y N

(verses 25–34)
"‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today."
Don't Worry; Be Happy ...
Sorry, but this, along with his exhortation to turn the other cheek and love your enemy, is one of the places where I strongly disagree with the Jesus. I think that Jesus' exhortation against prudence is unwise and impractical. Waiting for a god to take care of everything is not a very good idea. X X X

Chapter 7

The sermon continues ...
(verses 1–6)
"‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye. ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you."
Judging others.
 Hmm ... I don't think that we can avoid "judging" people places and things according to our critical faculties. Such rationalizations are how we navigate our interactions with our world. The general idea that we should be compassionate and empathetic in our judgments, though, is something I can get behind. However, the extreme exclusivism of verse 6, the dismissal of opponents as "swine" (a pejorative metaphor is a problem, not a solution, if you ask me. Think about it ... Is this not the very kind of judgement that is being discouraged?  X Y X

(verses 7–12)
"‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets."
Ask and ye shall receive ...
 Yeah, when I remove its theological overtones, this seems to speak of ambition and a proactive outlook. As such, it doesn't bug me. The golden rule is certainly one of the good ideas. A good general attitude toward life. Y Y

(verses 13–14)
"Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it."
Narrow and wide gates ... Another cryptic passage to add to the pile of "not-so- self-evident" material. I think this is saying that though it is harder to do, living a decent life is preferable to blindly running with the herd. I find this sentiment ironic in a Christian historic context. Regardless, I more or less agree. Y

(verses 15–20)
"‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits."
True and false prophets ... Verse 20 is absolutely brilliant and true as far as I'm concerned. ... It goes for any enterprise in life, in fact (prophethood notwithstanding). Y N

(verses 21–23)
"Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” "
True and false disciples ... This reflects the sectarian divisions at the time of composition. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to agree or disagree with here. N

(verses 24–29)
"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’ Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. "
The wise and foolish builders ... A cryptic guarantee that what he has just said is true. Verse 28 tells us that the crowds were "amazed" at his teaching. I don't think I would have been amazed. I would have stuck around for the Q & A.  N N N

Okay, so there it is, the Sermon on the Mount broken down into 65 individual literary components that I can vote pro or con or as irrelevant.

So what's my tally?

Pro (Y) = 35.4%

Con (X) = 41.5%

Not Appicable (N) = 23.1%

I can kinda dig three Beatitudes, five other pericopes, and there is a smattering of partial agreements here and there. I'm indifferent to a few pericopes as irrelevant and/or inapplicable. I think that at least one pericope is a historically indefensible polemical anachronism, and that two pericopes are hyper-ascetic, and were very likely the direct inspiration for some very wacky (Encratites, Montanists etc.) sects sprouting up early on.

I outright directly disagree with what Jesus says on about three of these pericopes.

So ... am I against Christianity?


That said, I find a certain symmetry to the fact that my friend focused on the sermon in G°Matt as the litmus test, for this gospel uses the word "against" in a sense similar to the post that prompted this train of thought which now finally is coming to a stop. Referring to G°Matt 12:30 will be a good place to once again bring up and highlight the author's detectable habit of redacting G°Mark.
"He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters."
This is the exclusivist, divisive version that the author of G°Matt preferred, one which reverses and essentially negates G°Mark's original optimistic (un-paranoid) take on that saying (9:40):
"For he that is not against us is for us."
G°Mark's original version is the more beautiful of the two, in my opinion. Moreover, I propose that G°Matt's version is fundamentally mean-spirited and pessimistic (by design!). It is not very useful as a "rule" for good living, I think.
Though I may be 35% in agreement with the Sermon on the Mount, I reject this latter exclusivist way of thinking categorically.



02 April 2015

Richard Carrier coming to Phoenix ...

Posted by at 1:38 AM

Dr. Carrier will be discussing his new book On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.

Arizona State University,
Schwada Building - ASU Tempe Campus
Northwest corner of intersection of Orange St & McAllister Ave
Tempe, AZ

This Friday, April 3, 2015 at 7:00 PM

25 March 2015

On Islam (pt. 2 — My Own Private Jahiliyyah)

Posted by at 5:05 PM

Whoever was not familiar with Islam's foundational story in August of 2001, was almost certainly familiar with it by October.

The gist of the story:

In the year 610 C.E., at the age of forty, an Arabian caravan merchant named Mohammed ostensibly received a revelation from what he described as the one and only god, whom he called Allah, through the angel Gabriel (this is the same character that announces the coming of the baby Jesus to the virgin Mary in the Christian Gospel of Luke, which had by that time been in circulation for four centuries and change). Gabriel reportedly overwhelmed Mohammed in a cave, commanding the man to recite verses of poetry. Mohammed obeyed and his recitations were then memorized and recorded by his companions over the course of some years, resulting in the book we now know as the Qur'an. 

In the previous post in this what I thought would be a series, I put forth a simple ontological rejection of god(s). The absence of evidence  concerning the supernatural restrains me (and everyone else in the world) from making any positive claims regarding the "meaning" of the cosmos or regarding ultimate reality. In fact it makes those who do make such cosmic claims particularly insufferable to me. I'm embarrassed for such people (Google Fremdschämen). Even in my crude childhood ruminations, my spidey-sense would tingle around people who were so audacious as to speak for God.  It blows my mind that there are so many who think they know what "god" thinks or wants. To me, even in my not-yet-fully-congealed twelve-year-old mind, this felt like high hubris. Public personae run amok. At the heart of the problem is that even if one could unambiguously define a god (an impossibly tricky problem in itself), ... what criteria would one then use to gain access to a god's mind? How do we ascertain its will? If God is metaphorically something that transcends everything, how would I be able to assess someone's claim to know what it wants? How could I learn what, if any, propitiation it requires? 

There will be those, no doubt, who have a ready answer to these questions, of course: "scripture" (i.e., revelation and prophesy). But in that case, two problems present themselves immediately.

First, the concepts of prophesy and special revelation are esoteric by definition. They presuppose that a special instruction has been given by a supposedly "omniscient" god only to a very specific individual (or a group), who then disseminates these wisdoms on down to the people below by enacting exclusivist, inviolable rules for any would-be initiates to use as a liturgical guide to "right opinion" (ortho-doxy). Revelation was only for a select elite. Gods are very picky when it comes to the messengers they will entrust their proclamations to. Two prophets per millenium is just about the average allotment when it comes to prophets, I reckon. A trickle. A drip.  There have been billions and billions of people to choose from in time, yet precious few are ever worthy.  The gods just sit and wait and wait and wait and wait for just the right man to come along.  — "Well, what's wrong with that? God can talk to whoever he wants to." —"God's mysterious ways" are always available as an escape-hatch , catch-all palliative.  It seems a fair-enough notion at first yawn, but on reflection, and on a very fundamental level, the very esotericness to me of any given evangelizing theology serves to render that theology untenable, to render it non sequitur. Put another way, if a god really wanted to make an announcement that was for some reason important enough for the whole world to know about, a mandate reflecting its mind and will, why take an esoteric route? Wouldn't that be counter-productive? If the ultimate purpose of revelation is communication and proliferation of information, cryptic whisperings in the ears of prophets at the rate of one per quincentennial is probably not a very efficient way to go about it. In fact, it is exactly the wrong way. This is a simple truth that is too often overlooked by many religionists, namely, that a god's reliance on elite prophets to get a message across to "all the people" only reveals a god's deficiencies as a communicator. Librettist Tim Rice expressed something like this tacit implication in the closing song of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (sung by the resurrected Judas):
"If you'd come today you could have reached a whole nation
Israel [sic] in 4 B.C. had no mass communication ... "

To offer a "God's ways are mysterious" answer for this esotericism problem at this juncture would only be a feeble escape-hatch maneuver, an evasion, else we be forced to admit that sometimes the gods do not seem to follow the path of least resistance. It may make no sense, yes, but sometimes the shortest distance between two points is a convoluted manifold zigzagging maze instead of a straight line for god. Why make things so complicated? Couldn't gods, being "omnipotent" and "omnipresent" and all, just express themselves clearly and at will? Despite devout claims to perfection in all things, gods seem to be vague and inefficient communicators. Why is that? Could it be that sometimes gods like to do things in really cumbersome ways just to test us (read: "to mess with us")? A god could just be capricious if it wanted to be, I suppose, perhaps, but isn't it strange that a reliably consistent principle that is always at work in the rest of the world, that of parsimony, is somehow always suspended where communication between a god and humans is concerned? Why would a god prefer to beat around a burning bush rather than take a more direct approach such as talking to the people waiting at the foot of the mountain himself? No, the prophet must ascend alone. Hang tight; he'll be right back with the divine goodies. Wink, wink. Are gods really so shy and fastidious? Or maybe it's like in that movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where (G)od's glory is so majestic and so powerful that peoples's heads will explode for merely beholding it. Is that it? (I doubt it.) Since I was a kid I have found all esoteric claims regarding ultimate reality as suspect, from the moment they are voiced. Nothing I have learned since has shown me any different. A simple hermeneutic of suspicion is the best starting point where big weird claims are involved, my experience tells me. 

The second problem is somewhat graver in that it reveals a glaring lapse in the logic of the proposition itself. In short, it is nonsensical to attribute written mandates to divinities that one has yet to adequately define. Logically backward, it's the proverbial cart before the horse. To stress this point I should here rephrase and highlight the topic sentence of the previous post: Because I have no warrant to believe in gods, I simply don't. There are special (I'm told) books that purport to speak for some conception of one or another of these gods. Although these books are endlessly fascinating from many different perspectives, my approach to such a text is unaffected by its 'special' or  'holy' status. I cannot justify upholding the sanctity of any text, and so I simply don't do so.  Easy peasy. The idea never even enters my mind. There's no apprehension or shame about it. No anxiety. No tabú. Since I don't believe in gods, these books have no stigma attached to them at all. They are just books. They are ancient artifacts which merit as much interest and study and reverence as other similarly ancient books, say, The Epic of Gilgamesh, or The Odyssey, and no more. Every text, even a "holy" one, is a human relic that originates in a specific time and place and culture. A holy book tends to contain the dreams, fears, and aspirations of the people who composed it. In view within its verses are glimpses of the lives these people lived, the axes they ground, the heroes they exalted, the foes they reviled, the archetypes they molded and cast and recast (and recast again and again in some cases) ... all of which are linked to a very specific socio-religio-historical Zeitgeist. A holy book is the mythological record of one tribe's ongoing struggle with its concepts of the divine, the numinous, the mysterious. This may not be a trivial thing, but neither is a text to be venerated simply because of its privileged status in a particular liturgical tradition or cultural hierarchy.  This goes for the Tanach, it goes for the New Testament, and it goes for the Qur'an as well. 

Bang! — Into the Fray

Although I've been fascinated by Christian origins in particular—and by history in general —for over two decades now, my interest in Islam didn't really begin until after 9/11. Before then, I knew a few muslims, but I rarely gave it any thought. For me, before 2001, Islam didn't really register as anything but an exotic "other" world religion. I had no opinion to offer; it just never interested me much. In the aftermath of the events in New York City, Arlington, and Shanksville in 2001, however, like everyone else in this country, I was made aware of (and confused by) all the rhetoric that was being bounced around the airwaves and in print regarding the role that religion played in the atrocities of that fateful day. Islam was all of a sudden the talk of the town, whatever town you happened to be in. The $64,000 question was: What part did Islamic faith play in the attacks? To answer it, the hijackers each left behind some video footage of their last will and testament which leaves little room for guesswork. In these they recite their last witness to the camera on the eve of their imminent glory, religious fervor radiating from their every sentence, so it's really a no brainer. "Jihad" (this concept of "struggle" is very important for Islam and will be dealt with in more detail as I proceed) was undoubtedly the reason they did it. They said so. Repeatedly. Every other phrase out of their mouths was a Qur'anic citation. But despite even such overt testimonials to the devotional nature of the holy war that these boys saw themselves fighting in, there were still those who insisted that Islam is "a religion of peace," that religion was only peripheral to the situation, that the nineteen were compelled to do what they did by political reasons rather than religious ones.

I could of course, like everyone else, speculate plenty of political motives, ones involving retribution for the sins of U.S. foreign policy viz the Middle East, for instance. During those early aftermath days, in fact, I remember being prone to say things like: "it would not have happened but for our lopsided support of Israel." I remember paraphrasing Malcolm X's "the chickens are coming home to roost" a couple of times in reference to my speculations. After all, the videos do mention the boys' solidarity with the Palestinian cause against Israel, and their condemning the presence of Westerners in what is traditional Arab/caliphate sacred land. There is plenty of elbow room there for at least some minimum of geopolitical vengeance to come into play. Religion happens within a context of cultural background, after all. No saint is an island. But to deny that it was a religious impulse, specifically, at the root of the crimes of 9/11, is to take leave of reality, I think. Religion was their point of departure. The terrorists videoed testaments don't evince much by way of "power-to-the-people" rhetoric. Their concerns were not the plight of the world's poor, as far as I can see. These guys weren't voicing any of the revolutionary angst about post-colonialist exploitation that one would expect from a self-styled leftist vanguard. This was not about social justice. This was not a "power to the people" impulse at all. This was about divine justice. It was all "power to Allah" rhetoric. It was a clear, direct, defiant, ostentatious, and overtly religious challenge to infidels (the West). There's no escaping this fact as I see it. One can of course argue that the hijacker's particular version of Islam was an aberration, that it is far from normative, that their interpretation is just an egregious anomaly, just an outlier sample in an otherwise serene curve, but even then one cannot deny that the destruction these boys caused that day was first and foremost an expression of their religious devotion. One cannot gloss that over. It is how these boys saw themselves and it is how they intended for the world to see them. They went out of their way to make videos so that there would be no doubt about it. No honest discussion can proceed without acknowledging this. This was a religious act.

9/11 terrorist's video testimonial
Because the evidence for it is so overwhelming, one clever circumlocution I've seen employed to trivialize this intrinsic religiosity is an equivocation, a conflation of the impression that most mainstream North Américan Christians have of the notorious Westboro Baptists (who are unanimously regarded as loony), on the one hand, with the way we should view the suicide hijackers' fanaticism, on the other— i.e. the implication here being that we should see their idiosyncratic theology and barbarism as those of a lunatic fringe that no one in the Muslim world really takes seriously.  In other words, we are urged to think that workaday Muslims view the ideas of these radical terrorist extremists in the same light as Christians view those of the Westboro Baptists. But is this true? Are these two hateful groups really analogous?  Are they equally 'hateful'? I dare say not. Don't get me wrong; I think that Fred Phelps was a real fucktard (a word I don't wield lightly); make no mistake about that. But in the final analysis, where the rubber meets the road, Phelps and his activist church were/are as harmless as sheep. They may be hateful to the core, but they don't go around shooting gay people. There's a limit to their ire; they only get as far as publicly speaking their ugly and stupid and spiteful words, but no further. They stay well within the bounds of the law. 'Being infuriatingly annoying and rude' is the worst crime that one could charge the Phelps gang with. Can we then really compare them to suicide bombers? Is that fair? There's something just a little more serious about terrorism than just standing on street corners holding up placards ranting about sodomites or whatever else Leviticus finds abominable. More than annoying and impotent words, these folks bring sticks and stones, and they're hell-bent on breaking bones. No. Only a stupid and facile Facebook meme mentality could dare to compare the posturing exhibitionism of the Westboro Baptists to the murderous acts of armed and dangerous fanatics like Al Qaeda or ISIL. It's just ludicrous.  It's not enough to be just crazy or wrong or rude. Some people are crazy and rude and they are really dangerous to boot. A bonus, let's say. It's important to not lose sight of this distinction. Were it not for the stridency of their protests, were it not for the offensiveness of protesting at veterans' funerals, the Westboro hate-mongers would be as innocuous (and as ignored in the press) as the little old Catholic ladies protesting outside the venue the last time I saw a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar at Gammage Auditorium. The Phelps are worse for all their mean-spiritedness, of course, but they have as much chance of affecting any kind of change as those old ladies do, in the end. People around the world don't rally behind the Phelps in any way. Even die-hard homophobes would wince at the thought of behaving this way at a memorial for a fallen soldier. The same could not be said of the terrorist groups in question, though. They do have real followings, and they would use any means at their disposal to achieve their aims. This is not polemical ranting on my part; radical islamists have said as much; it is what they openly and relentlessly repeat at every foto-op

It's a silly analogy. The Phelps, by comparison, have a threadbare following of maybe a few dozen people, mostly family members and their friends. If we take the whole of Christendom and measure their influence, roughly .000037% (that is, almost 4 hundred-thousandths of one percent) of Christians would support their weird theology and or conduct. This is a negligible fraction. A blip. For all intents and purposes, it is zero percent. By contrast, how extensive is Islamism relative to a more "normative" moderate Islam? Luckily, we actually have some statistical data on this. There have been polls conducted, the most famous of which is the Pew poll that Sam Harris notoriously featured in his book The End of Faith, which seem to show that in traditionally Muslim countries a significant number of people believe that it is sometimes appropriate to  resort to violence on non-combatants in defense of one's religion.  As few as 13% and as many as 28% of the populations of many nations condone violence of some kind, be it toward blasphemers or to more pedestrian things like cartoon depictions of Mohammed.  13% –28% is not zero percent.  It's a significant fraction. Worldwide, this could potentially mean that there are between 220 and 476 million people who potentially approve of violence in the name of religion. This is roughly the current population of the United States of America. Mind you, this is based on polling in relatively moderate Muslim nations. The percentage in countries that did not participate in the polls (who are known to be more extreme in their implementations of Shariah than the participating nations), are almost certainly higher. 

But let's grant for the sake of argument that it is only a very small fraction of the global Muslim population that is so Jihad-minded. Even it this were the case, its minority status would not be a good reason to dismiss them as inconsequential. History shows again and again that the black swans of any given era are under the control of just a few aggressive individuals. It is those few alphas who can muster and exert the force required to wrest control from 'the many' that eventually wind up doing so. Numbers are almost irrelevant once a bloodbath is in motion. All it takes is one guy with a mission. 

Sure, "most" Muslims are peaceful individuals who just want to live their lives, who want to pray their five times a day, who want to play with their kids on weekends. "Most" Germans under the Third Reich were likewise peaceful individuals who just wanted to live and let live. The Japanese people in Nagasaki were peacefully living their lives while NanKing was being raped. In most cases of imperial delusion, the peaceful majority proves to be irrelevant to the respective courses that the history of a nation takes. All it takes is one bold asshole or two to drive the political agendas of their time and place. It's a sad truth about humans that they yearn to conquer the world. It's another sad truth about humans how easy they are to herd.

An indelible detail about 9/11 remains in my mind's eye. Watching what they thought was Goliath taking a fall, all the vicarious little Davids of the world suddenly overflowed with delight.Throngs of people, both young and old, festively cheering and dancing in the streets, gleeful in their hatred, the images being broadcast on television news were images of people that I could not for the life of me understand. That it could be seen as a cause for joy, that it resonated with so many people, so many in fact that they spilled out onto the streets to express their rapt approval, was a moment of epiphany for me. This calling for a violent revolution is no anomaly. For the first time, some idea of just how significant a portion of the world feels about the West entered my consciousness, not in some abstract academic inductive sense, but in the very real experience of watching people react so viscerally and so approvingly to what for me was a heinous crime. For a way higher number of people than I was comfortable with realizing, 9/11 was a joyous occasion.  A celebration.  This was no anomaly.  These images showed me a seething pervasive undercurrent. That the people engaged in this violence is a minority voice becomes irrelevant in light of the fact that it is precisely this small fraction that is armed and committed to the use of violence. All it takes is one asshole with a bomb.

The use of violence is the key here. 

Discovering just how deep a commitment and a primacy are bestowed on Islam by its adherents, so deep that people could even forego sense and sensibility to uphold it, was cathartic for me.  Like many others during that time, I resolved to learn about this religio-political phenomenon. When I searched for moderate voices within Islam, however, they weren't quite forthcoming. There was a silence there (it's finally better now,  a decade on, but not much) that piqued my interest.   It was the silence of people who would rather not get involved. I get why ... at least now I do, but I didn't then. Either way, this silence began to feel effectively like the silence of complicit inaction.  With so few moderates speaking, I would have to educate myself, I guess.

What religious ideas would compel people to behave in such a sociopathic manner in their name?  What would compel people to prioritize their religious commitments even above their concern for human well-being?

This became the focus of my study on Islam.

For now ...
Other posts in this series:
Pt. 1 — Pt. 2 — Pt. 3 — Pt. 4



1 - for this calculation I'm postulating around 1000 members for the Westboro Baptists. I am admittedly pulling these numbers out of the air just to make a rough percentage estimate, I don't know exactly how many there are, in fact, but I think it's reasonable educated guesses, in fact it is generous, and any margin or error in either direction would not change the tiny percentage much, given the size of the greater population that these radicals are on the fringe of.
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