David Thompson
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November 15, 2007

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georges

The two "offences" most likely to be followed by violent disturbance are 1. Any "disrespect" shown the Koran 2. Any "disrespect" shown to Muhammad.

I found the Guantanamo "Koran abuse" issue totally surreal. Torture people if you must, but don't soil the holy Koran. What strange priorities.

I think that, lurking behind this indignation, is a fear that they're standing on shaky ground. For instance, Islam claims that the Koran is a perfectly preserved verbatim transcription of a speech act - in Arabic - by God. This is massively more than Jews and Christians claim for the Old and New Testaments. You only have to ask a few obvious questions to realize it's impossible this claim is correct. For instance:

Why, in the early 7th century, would God choose Arabic to communicate with humanity? At the time Greek and Chinese were far more widely spoken and understood. Both had highly evolved and codified written forms and literary scholarship. But Arabic didn't acquire a definitive written form until 786. How can this once-and-for-all divine speech act have been accurately transmitted as claimed, given that the illiterate transmitter died in 632 and the written language of transmission was in general flux for another 150 years after that.

Why would a deity, urgently needing to communicate his plans for humanity, arrange his thoughts in the arbitrary way presented in the Koran? If he wished to be properly understood he would surely have presented his thoughts in the form of a cumulative logical argument - as the great philosophers from Plato to Wittgenstein have done - or at least in chronological order. Instead we have an arbitrary non-semantic ordering by verse length. This ordering cannot be the work of God, and must be the work of men. It hinders human understanding of God's wishes, because the Koranic God frequently contradicts himself from verse to verse. Muslim scholars explain the resulting muddle by the doctrine of Abrogation: God, being God, is allowed to change his mind as often as he likes; whatever he said most recently therefore represents his final opinion, abrogating whatever he said previously. This means that the mind of God can only be understood chronologically. So why does the Koran present God's words not in the order he spoke them?

The doctrine of Abrogation is actually far weirder than that. God is only allowed to change his mind between the years 610 and 632, but not after that date. Although it makes no logical sense it is Islamic heresy to even consider the possibility that God may have changed mind about anything since the year 632, when Muhammad died. Why? Because if God has changed his mind about anything since that date the Koran will no longer be God's final instructions to humanity. A Muslim is required to believe that, for the first 13 billion years of the universe's existence, God had fixed opinions about everything. Then, between 610 and 632, while addressing humanity through Muhammad, he kept changing his mind, largely according to what suited Muhammad's temporary needs. But by 632 God reached his final opinion about everything. How plausible is that?

Moving on to the second area of "offence" - Muhammad. I think you've already said plenty on this, David. I'll put it this way. I know many non-Christians who think Jesus was not the son of God, and that he didn't revive, zombie-like, after three days of putrefaction. Still they find him an inspiring, peaceful figure, like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or the Dalai Lama. The bottom line is, the body-count directly resulting from Jesus's own immediate actions was one death - his own. With Muhammad we're talking hundreds, maybe thousands of people either personally murdered by Muhammad, or killed on his direct orders. No non-Muslim, unless they're Karen Armstrong, can find Muhammad an inspiring peace-loving figure.

David

Georges,

As you suggest, even setting aside the usual basic objections one might raise regarding theological systems, Islam is, I think, uniquely objectionable in logical, moral and epistemic terms. The degree to which unflattering historical evidence must be suppressed, distorted and denied in order to support the basic premise is quite extraordinary. And it seems very likely that the required denial and intellectual contortion is very much related to the censorious and intolerant tenor of orthodox Islamic adherence. There’s an inescapable dissonance between what is believed and what is known. And if one picks at it, even slightly, it’s very likely to fall apart.

georges

Well, the Old Testament certainly includes lots of violence, much of it done by God, or by humans with His approval. Numbers 31 shows Moses as a war criminal:

"And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? ... Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves."

God Is Love.

I suppose the problem is, Moses, Abraham, Elijah, whoever, none of these iron age Jewish leaders is revered in Judaism in the totalizing way Muhammad is in Islam.

David

Georges,

“None of these Iron Age Jewish leaders is revered in Judaism in the totalizing way Muhammad is in Islam.”

Well, the centrality of Muhammad and his dubious example is indeed the tricky thing. Is it possible to subtract Muhammad from Islam?

If the most reliable Islamic accounts of Muhammad’s life and rule are read in a remotely critical way, the notion of Muhammad as some exemplary figure possessed of numinous insight becomes absurd, even grotesque. By today’s standards, Muhammad seems for the most part a pretty appalling figure; an erratic, sadistic narcissist. It’s hard to see how believers reconcile the idea of an exemplary Muhammad with accounts of his vanity, his murderous inclinations and his purported death bed call for the genocidal “cleansing” of the entire Arab peninsula.

Of course, there are endless degrees of religious affiliation and many adherents are adherents only notionally, or selectively, or are somewhat vague about what it is they actually do believe. If a person thinks the universe may have some ultimate, agreeable, reason to exist, that’s not necessarily something to dismiss out of hand, philosophically speaking. But if a person insists that Muhammad, as depicted in the Qur’an and Sunnah, was imparted with detailed knowledge on the subject from a temperamental deity named Allah, then credulity is strained.

And if Muhammad is thought to be the last prophet of Allah and al-insan al-kamil - an eternal yardstick of virtue - then that person is credulous, ignorant or dishonest, or just a certain kind of stupid. In itself, this might not be a great concern. But the more unsound a theology is, structurally and philosophically, the more suppression and inhibition will probably be required to maintain its edifice, especially if that theology is uniquely political in its claims and ambitions.

georges

As always, this is the part where I say "What are we going to do about it?"

The UK has a large Muslim community, and I want to live in peace with my fellow citizens. Any attempt at intimidation of novelists, cartoonists etc should be vigorously resisted. And on the other side, Muslim girls who write bad poetry in favour of jihad should not be incarcerated for it either.

More generally, I see no alternative but to secularize completely the British state. Religious affiliation should be confined to the private sphere. People should learn about Christianity in history because it's part of "our island story". The Tudors, the Gunpowder Plot, the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution won't make sense if you don't understand something of the religious background. And your understanding of English Literature will be impoverished if you know nothing of the King James bible. But "faith schools" are now an absurd direction for British education to take. If we permit C of E schools we will, logically, have to permit Muslim madrasahs. We cannot have Christian blasphemy laws either...

David

Georges,

“This is the part where I say ‘What are we going to do about it?’”

This is the part where I point out that while I do indeed have a box marked Ingenious Solutions to Everyday Ills, I generally charge for a peek inside. And no cheques.

irwin daisy

Another completely illogical Islamic precept is the idea that converts are actually reverts. This is based on their belief that everybody is born Muslim and is seduced away from 'the one true path' through their parents, education, culture, religion, etc.

The problem of course, based on this twisted concept, is what is a revert then, prior to conversion?

The pre-converted revert must be an apostate.

And, as we all know, the Islamic penalty for apostacy is death.

Islam not only attempts to undermine and displace Judaism and Christianity, by ridiculously claiming itself to be the original and therefore superior religion. It attempts to undermine rational thought. It is a hyper-paranoid ideology, where its adherents fear even the slightest rational inquiry will force it to unravel. That's why Islamic countries are attempting to get the UN to ban criticism of Islam as a hate crime.

Georges,

Violence in the OT was specific to a time and place, unlike Islam, where the commands and rewards for violence are perpetual, until "there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet."

Lori

Long winded attempts to rationalize the irrationality of Islam are a waste of breath. They convince only the already convinced.

If you have ever witnessed an exchange of opinions on an Islamic forum (try Ummah.com) you will quickly realize that observant Muslims are utterly irrational and incapable of logical analysis of their central tenets. They may be perfectly nice people in other ways, but discussions with them on issues of faith are utterly fruitless. Indeed, they only make things worse.

This type of analysis (a la Stephen Edwards) does usefully serve as a nice way for non-muslims to vent against this mass insanity that appears to once again have raised its ugly head when we thought we were mostly done with religion-driven hate and war.

Vitruvius

"The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors."
-- John Stuart Mill

georges

To make it worse, the usual religious silliness has now added a few PoMo swear words. Argue straightforwardly over the meaning of religious texts and you're liable to hear a lot of guff about Orientalism and "the other".

Horace Dunn

Georges said: “I think that, lurking behind this indignation, is a fear that they're standing on shaky ground.”

I think this is the key. These days we’ve started to use the words “faith” and “religion” as synonyms, probably because the chattering classes think that “faith community” sounds cosier than “religious adherents”. But faith and religion are quite distinct things. Religious adherents spend their lives wrestling with faith (or, at least, they should do). That’s the point of it. Faith is a leap into the dark. Negating your logical, rational impulses is the necessary, the essential, act of humility and submission, of – if you will – trust.

Of course, most regulars on this blog, and, indeed, our valued and respected host, would bridle at the notion of negating rational impulses. Well, fair enough; but can we set these objections aside for the moment since, as we know, an appreciable proportion of our fellow human beings are religious? That is, after all, why we’re having this discussion.

I said “wrestling with faith”. That is the point of course. It’s easy to be nominally religious – to be born that way, to go to church from time to time. To have faith is a much more difficult thing, precisely because it flies in the face of reason.

But this is my point. All of our experience tells us Jesus could not have risen zombie-like, as Georges put it, from the dead. That sort of thing just does not happen. It’s hard, therefore, to have faith. But that hardness is a necessary element of faith. If it were logically, scientifically proven that Jesus was born of a virgin mother and rose from the dead after three days (in a warm part of the world) then believing in Jesus would just be like putting milk in the fridge and knowing that it would still be drinkable in three days time.

My contention, therefore, is that people of faith should not only accept challenges to their world-view, but they should positively relish them. An untested faith, surely, is not worth holding.

That is why I view the people who committed acts of violence in response to the Danish cartoons as dogmatists and lunatics and not as people of faith.

David

Horace,

“All of our experience tells us Jesus could not have risen zombie-like, as Georges put it, from the dead. That sort of thing just does not happen. It’s hard, therefore, to have faith.”

Setting aside the George Romero imagery, there are more prosaic reasons to view the story of Jesus with scepticism. The Biblical accounts of Jesus are clearly an amalgam of much older, pre-Christian myths and stories, and often strikingly so. A number of pre-Christian deities, such as Attis and the Persian Sun god Mithras, were also thought to have been born during winter, often of virgin mothers; these deities died and were allegedly reborn or resurrected. Mithras, known also as “the light of the world”, was supposedly born with shepherds in attendance. Attis was known as “the lamb of God” and his crucifixion and resurrection were celebrated annually with communions of bread and wine. Predating Attis is the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, whose other names included the word “easter”. Even Christianity’s iconic trademark, the cross, was a symbol of Ishtar’s consort Tammuz (and numerous other deities) centuries before it became associated with Jesus.

Another pre-Christian deity in human form, Dionysus, was also reported to be born of a virgin mother – and in a stable, no less. Dionysus allegedly travelled with an entourage, performing various miracles - among them, turning water into wine. Accused of blasphemy by the religious authorities, Dionysus was tried and executed, before allegedly rising from the grave three days later. All of which predates Jesus’ passion story by centuries.

The ‘Madonna and child’ – an icon usually thought of as uniquely Christian - can be traced back to the Egyptian cult of Isis and Horus, which, again, predates Christianity by over 1000 years. Likewise, the story of Noah and the flood echoes the fictional flood depicted in the Sumerian novel, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which predates Christianity by some 2000 years. (In Gilgamesh, the gods destroy the ancient Mesopotamian city of Shuruppah in a great flood. But Utnapishtim survives the flood, along with his family and a sampling of animals, by building a great ship. In recognition of his ingenuity, the repentant gods bestow Utnapishtim with immortality.) In terms of its key stories, Christianity is clearly part of a continuum of cults and ‘mystery faiths’ – an embellished composite retelling of much earlier myths and traditions.

Now, so far as I can see, the above doesn’t necessarily have repercussions for a person’s feelings of the numinous, or for an ill-defined belief that the universe has some kind of agreeable cause, purpose or creator. It does, however, have pretty obvious implications for those who imagine that the existence of a benign creator hinges on, and bears some historical relation to, the stories in the Bible. They are, it seems, just stories, and very old stories.

Horace Dunn

Thanks David

I'm impressed, you erudite devil.

But I think you just emphasised the point I was trying to make. Faith of its very nature and essence is illogical, otherwise there's no point to it. That's why I say that the truly faithful should relish broadsides such as yours (rather than try to use the law to suppress them). Randy Newman says it better than I could (or most people could). "The Lord said ... you musy be crazy to put your faith in me. That's why I love mankind." Take it away Rand...

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_TFNPgzoIg0

David

Horace,

“You erudite devil.”

I guess that would be a result of my “rational impulses” - or God-given curiosity, depending on how you want to look at it.

“I think you just emphasised the point I was trying to make.”

Well, as I hope I made clear, there’s an important distinction to make. If, despite the above, a person maintains that the Bible is an original, non-fictional account of actual paranormal events, I’m not likely to take them terribly seriously. If, on the other hand, a person claims some sense of a numinous aspect to reality – one that is not readily expressible in rational or quantitative terms – then, whether or not I grasp what is allegedly being perceived, I can’t dismiss the claim in quite the same way.

Horace Dunn

David

"If, on the other hand, a person claims some sense of a numinous aspect to reality – one that is not readily expressible in rational or quantitative terms – then, whether or not I grasp what is allegedly being perceived, I can’t dismiss the claim in quite the same way."

I think you had made that clear. Numerous times. That's why we're here. I wish Randy Newman had written a song about this...

georges

Re Randy Newman's superb song...

The most important line in the entire lyric is, surely, "you really need me" - I mention it because John Martyn covered the song and missed it out. It seems many people really need him. Like Job, God allows all manner of misfortune to fall on them. It isn't that their faith is strong. Rather they feel too weak to face life without his consoling illusion. That's how I read the story of Job.

Pascal said:
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him, the universe knows nothing of this.

I think this is probably true, though I might prefer it was not.

David

I’m more enamoured of the Ink Spots. Not quite noble or divine, but the unhinged falsetto does it for me.

http://fp.ignatz.plus.com/porkchops.mp3

“Candy yams… in the bag!”

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