Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

All religious faith, after all, depends on magical thinking

An Interview with Robert Spencer [Book Review] Christianity Good, Islam Bad? August 21, 2007 1:00 AM Is Robert Spencer’s new book Religion of Peace?—Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t just another addition to the “burgeoning literature of Islamophobia”? That’s the opinion of John Derbyshire, who contends that Spencer’s own Christianity is to blame for the book being “a bit infantile.” Asks Derbyshire: “If Christianity is a religion of peace, while Islam is irredeemably militant, what on earth does Spencer think is likely to be the outcome of a conflict between the two?” (Robert Spencer has notified PJM that he will write a response to Derbyshire’s review.) By John Derbyshire
A friend of mine who had a thoroughly Roman Catholic education at the hands of the Christian Brothers tells me that the religious component of that education consisted largely of memorizing arguments with which to confound atheists, agnostics, and Protestants.
Robert Spencer is not, strictly speaking, a Roman Catholic, though I believe his church is in communion with Rome. His writings, though, are very much in the spirit of those Brothers. Anyone who writes much is driven by some daemon or other. What drives Spencer is plainly the determination to tell the world how true, wise, just and fruitful altogether has been western Christianity, most especially in its pre-Reformation styles, and how vile, intolerant, cruel, and inhuman is Islam.
Spencer is exceptionally well equipped to do both things. He possesses deep knowledge of early Christianity—has a Master’s degree in this area, according to Wikipedia. His own Church is Syriac, and so I presume uses an Arabic liturgy, leading to the further presumption that Spencer is a fluent reader of Arabic. He has been poring over Islamic texts for decades, and can quote chapter and verse from the Koran (which he annoyingly spells “Qu’ran,” as if any western reader has a clue what to do with that “Q” and that apostrophe), the Sira (authorized biography of Muhammed), the Hadith (oral traditions about Muhammed), and the works of medieval Islamic scholars.
In Religion of Peace? Spencer uses all that scholarship to three ends.
  • First, he counters those who say that the more rambunctious kinds of American Christians are no better than, or may even be worse than, Muslim jihadists.
  • Second, he discourses on the theme that Islam is inherently militant and intolerant—that this is not a mere matter of interpretation—while no such thing is true of Christianity.
  • Third, he wants to tell us that modernity—science and political progress—had its origins in Christianity, while the stasis and stagnation of the Islamic world is similarly templated in the doctrines of Islam.

Man is noble, and worthy, not because he is a slave, but because he is free. That is what distinguishes the Judeo-Christian view from the Islamic view of mankind. Sheikh Muhammad Saleh al-Munajjid [a radical Saudi cleric] would say that mankind has value because human beings are the slaves of Allah. Jews and Christians, and even the secularists rooted in the Judeo-Christian culture, would say that mankind has value because human beings are free.
That is the difference. And that makes all the difference. (pp.206-7)
For my taste, Spencer spends altogether too much time on the first of those ends. The “equivalence” school of thought, the one that says that there isn’t anything to choose between Christianity and Islam in the way of militancy or obscurantism, is certainly real, but is it actually that important? Spencer thinks so: “This [equivalence] is the prevailing malady of the West in our time. It is why this book had to be written.” (p. 11)
I understand that this bogus equivalence must be very vexing to a committed Christian, but Spencer seems not to understand how wacky all religions seem to the irreligious. All religious faith, after all, depends on magical thinking. To people who eschew such thinking—people who prefer to ground their beliefs in the strict rules of evidence used in modern law and science—Mohammed’s flying through the air to Jerusalem on a white steed is no more preposterous than the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; and so, God’s instructions to us through Mohammed are no more or less likely to make us better or worse than his instructions through Christ.
That does not preclude the possibility—which I think is an obvious fact—that in the present state of the world, Islam contains a far higher proportion of crazy troublemakers that does Christianity. It is, though, the ultimate basis of the “equivalence” school, and one that a believer like Spencer cannot admit, nor even, in all probability, grasp.
Similarly with the apologetics that fill another large portion of this book. It is a handy thing, I guess, for argumentative Catholics to have, in the spirit of those Brothers, defenses of the Church in things like the Crusades and the Galileo business, all packaged neatly together with refutations of popular notions about medieval Islamic scholars having invented algebra and heliocentric astronomy.
However, a person whose leisure-reading tastes don’t run to this sort of apologetics, and who is plowing through Spencer’s book only from duty, or idle curiosity, or as a courtesy or professional chore, is bound to wonder whether an equally learned Islamic scholar, bent on making the opposite case, might not produce equally persuasive points, to be then rebutted by Spencer, who would be re-rebutted by the Islamist… To adapt an old doggerel:
Islamist fleas have Christian fleas Upon their backs to bite ’em. And Christian fleas have Muslim fleas, And so ad infinitum.
It’s all a bit tedious, unless you are the kind of person to whom it isn’t. After a hundred pages or so of this book, in fact, I began to feel—in spite of Spencer’s scholarship, which I do not doubt, and his expository skills, which are very fluent, and his brief against Islam, which I found persuasive—that there was something a bit infantile behind it all. To an irreligious person, it all looks a bit like a game of theological mumblety-peg: “My Yahweh can whup your Allah, nyah nyah!”
That same irreligious person, reading Spencer’s book, will likewise be startled by the author’s assertion that medieval and early-modern Roman Catholicism breathes the very spirit of rationality, and was the seed-bed from which modern science grew. To us pagans, it looks rather as though science only really got going when the power of faith had ebbed from its late-medieval high point; and then, it got going mainly in those north European nations that had embraced Protestantism after the Reformation.
Spencer will have none of that. “The Bible,” he tells us, “assumes that God’s laws of creation are natural laws, a stable and unchanging reality—a sine qua non of scientific investigation.” (p. 156) Hmm. Which part of the Bible assumes that? Joshua 10:13, perhaps, where Joshua commands the sun and moon to stand still? Or Matthew 17:21, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes? Or Acts 1:9, in which Jesus is taken up into the sky by a cloud? Some other part, perhaps.
This particular theme—that we should thank the Roman Catholic church for having midwifed the birth of science—is now common in Catholic apologetics. What seems to have happened is the slow realization, by Catholic intellectuals, of the appalling bad-publicity fallout from the Galileo affair (whatever the actual facts of that affair), leading to a determination never to be on the wrong side of any major scientific issue, ever again. Hence all the pronouncements from the hierarchy that biological evolution is a really spiffy theory, containing nothing that might offend believers… qualified with murmured insistences that, you know, God must have had something to do with it.
No doubt this is all very reassuring to the faithful. To non-Catholics, however, it is rather transparent, and at odds with the magical elements of the faith. And even if it were true that the church midwifed science, is it not the case that, following delivery of the newborn, the midwife’s services are no longer required?
Spencer’s more general assumption that our civilization is a child of Christianity can likewise be fairly doubted. Does religion in fact explain anything about history? It is of course impossible to know how different the world would have been if Jesus of Nazareth, or Mohammed, had died in the cradle; but the suspicion lurks that it might not have been very different. Would the Arabs have come surging out of their desert oases in the seventh century without the Prophet and his faith to inspire them? Would Frankish knights have taken ship to recover the Holy Land, if they had not considered it Holy, only a lost province of the Roman Empire? Would white Europeans have developed science and consensual democracy if they had been only white Europeans, not also Christians?
All that we know for sure about history and its great tides is that people here behaved like this, while people there behaved like that. Why? What were the determinants? “Modes of production,” thought Marx: geography, says Jared Diamond; it is even being whispered that (gasp!) biology might have had something to do with it. There are theories a-plenty, but this is a zone in which we truly understand very little. Robert Spencer, who is obsessively interested in the minutiae of religious doctrine, naturally assumes that religion is a, if not the, principal determinant of historical events. I see no reason for irreligious people to follow him all the way on this, though personally I’d guess that things would be somewhat other than they are if nobody had ever heard of that white steed or that Immaculate Conception.
* * * * *
Whatever the facts of that, it can hardly be disputed that we have got into the mess we are in with Islam today not so much because of the letter of Islamic theology, or the failure of enough of us to knuckle down to our citizenly duty and read the Koran (personally, I would rather undergo radical dentistry), as because we have executed policies of staggering idiocy.
There are now tens of millions of Muslims living in Christian nations; and this is the case because our nations allowed the tens of millions to enter. We need not have done so. Wise men as long as forty years ago were sounding the alarm about the gross folly of opening our territories to such numbers of strangers with whom we had nothing in common. If Islamia has sunk into the grip of a poisonous ideology—the ideology of jihadism—the Christian West (Spencer actually says “Judeo-Christian,” but that is just a lagniappe) has been seized by an even more destructive ideology: globalization.
The second ideology has in fact been the great enabler of the first. And, very uncomfortably for a Christian apologist like Robert Spencer (so uncomfortably he has not confronted it in this book, nor in any of the other writings of his I have perused; nor have I ever seen it mentioned in the rest of the burgeoning literature of Islamophobia), a great enabler of globalization has been the Christian tradition. If all men are brothers, heathens only a little less enlightened than Christians, they why should not a Pakistani, or a Somali, or for that matter a Mexican, come to live in the U.S.A.? Why should not ten million of each do so? Would it not in fact be un-Christian to refuse entry to those tens of millions? It beggars belief that anyone should hold such a civilizationally-suicidal view, but many Christians do—the current President of the United States, for example.
That leads more or less directly to this book’s most surprising omission: a failure to prescribe. If things are as Robert Spencer says they are, what is to be done? He offers nothing but a vague, half-hearted statement about the need for an “alliance” between “Hindus, Buddhists, secular Muslims [huh?—the previous 206 pages have left the rather strong impression that the only secular Muslim is a dead Muslim], and atheists.” (p. 207) What should we of the West do if such an alliance fails to appear? Or if, having appeared, it dissolves in squabbling, as it surely would? What shall we do to be saved?
It is true that the author is under no obligation to give detailed political prescriptions. He can fairly say: “I am a diagnostician. I have made a close study of Islamic texts. This is what I have found. These are the implications, so far as the behavior we can expect from Muslims is concerned. It is not for me, a retired and uncourtly scholar, to prescribe social policies.” That is a tenable point of view.
The degree of restraint it implies, though, is wellnigh superhuman. Most of us, if we knew as much as Robert Spencer does about the problem, would feel the urge, perhaps even the moral imperative, to suggest a solution.
Possibly the author takes the division-of-labor view I have just mentioned—“Not my job!” Possibly he has laid out a program in one of his other books (none of which I have read) and feels no need to repeat himself. Or perhaps he thinks that the solution that obviously follows from all his painstaking exegeses is so radical that if he were to state it clearly, he would be cast out from the sphere of “acceptable” commentary into the outer darkness of fringe politics and “hate groups”—a term which nowadays seems to embrace anyone who speaks unwelcome truths out loud.
If the last, that is a pity, for what Robert Spencer leaves unsaid needs saying.
If what he has told us is true—and so far as the present state if Islam is concerned, I think it is—then the West should proscribe Islam, and the sooner the better. We should not allow Muslims into our countries, other than for necessary diplomatic or scholarly purposes. We should revoke the visas and permits of resident aliens who are Muslims, and ensure their departure. We should offer to purchase the citizenship of Muslim citizens, and bribe them to leave. Those who will not leave should be carefully watched by the police, and subjected to social disabilities—they should not, for example, be admitted to the armed forces, or allowed to proselytize in prisons. (Take a religion addled with violence and infused with a hatred of our society, and teach it in prisons to the most violent and antisocial of our people? Have we gone stark raving mad?) Mosques and madrassahs should be closed, or at the least punitively taxed.
For the U.S.A. there would be some constitutional niceties to be sorted out, but I am not speaking of any grave injustices here, still less of any cruelty or harm, which no civilized person wishes to a fellow human being who has done nothing wrong. Millions of harmless, peaceful Muslims will of course be inconvenienced, but life comes with no guarantee of uninterrupted convenience, and moving from one country to another is not especially arduous—I have done it myself several times. Nothing in such a program of “separationism” is immoral or improper, unless the first word in the phrase “sovereign nation” has lost all meaning.
But there, of course, is the rub. There, too, perhaps, is the real reason why Robert Spencer does not follow his analysis with the separationist prescription it so clearly implies: the reason being, that there is no chance whatsoever of such a prescription being applied in any western nation.
For if there is a sickness in the soul of Islam, there is a corresponding sickness in the soul of the West. As the darkness, cruelty, and obscurantism of jihadist Islam, described in such detail in this book, descend on our lands, our souls rise joyfully to greet them.
Hospital staff in the Lothians [a region of Scotland] have been told not to eat at their desks to avoid offending Muslim colleagues during Ramadan. [The National Health Service in] Lothians has advised doctors and other health workers not to have working lunches during the 30-day fast, which begins next month. The health service’s Equality and Diversity Officer sent an e-mail to all senior managers, giving guidance on religious tolerance. This includes ensuring Muslim staff are given breaks to pray, and time off to celebrate Eid at the end of Ramadan. It is understood they also advised hospital managers to move food trolleys away from areas where Muslims work.
It may even be that Robert Spencer suspects, at some level, that this sickness in the Western soul has its roots in Christianity, just like—according to him—every other aspect of our civilization.
A proposal by a Roman Catholic bishop in the Netherlands that people of all faiths refer to God as “Allah” is not sitting well with the Catholic community. Tiny Muskens, an outgoing bishop who is retiring in a few weeks from the southern diocese of Breda, said God doesn’t care what he is called. “Allah is a very beautiful word for God. Shouldn’t we all say that from now on we will name God Allah? … What does God care what we call him? It is our problem,” Muskens told Dutch television.
Perhaps the humane forbearance of the Prince of Peace, and the moral universalism that His teachings imply, bear the seeds of self-destruction. Those seeds were slow to germinate in the long centuries when great mass migrations of people into well-settled lands could only be military affairs. However, the globalization movement of the past fifty years has allowed millions of souls to move and settle peaceably into the old Christian lands; and our old ideals, with whatever contribution—major and critical, according to Spencer—from their Christian component, have urged us to welcome the settlers, and have called fierce obloquy on anyone who complains.
Spencer can’t have it both ways. If “even the secularists” are “rooted in the Judeo-Christian culture,” then so are their impulses to hate that culture and yield to its enemies. So what does he expect? Indeed, the secularists, with all their Christophobia, are a better bet for standing and fighting against jihadism than Christians are. If there were a proposal to impose Sharia law in your town, who would you rather see riding to your aid: Christopher Hitchens, or Bishop Muskens?
One cannot help noticing that in Japan, where Christians form less than one percent of the population, and Christian traditions are not a significant component of the national culture, Islam is neither a problem nor a threat, simply because Japan does not let Muslims—nor any other foreigners—settle in great numbers. The Japanese don’t give a fig for the universal brotherhood of man, and still cherish their national sovereignty. We no longer care much about our sovereignty, so long as our bellies are full and we have gadgets and clowns to amuse us; and our bishops, not to mention our Christian President and the globalist elites who surround him, tell us that doubts about the wisdom of mass Third World immigration are unkind, if not actually “hateful” (not to mention damaging to their stock portfolios).
It is not so much secularism that is the problem as Christianity and its legacy. If, as the subtitle of his book declares, Christianity is a religion of peace, while Islam is irredeemably militant, what on earth does Spencer think is likely to be the outcome of a conflict between the two? If—to put faces on the abstractions—Roger Cardinal Mahoney and his parishioners were to engage in a waste-lot rumble with Abu Ayyub al-Masri and his parishioners, on which party would Robert Spencer put his money?
A sensibly exclusionist, separationist policy like Japan’s is therefore not available to us, because of our principles—those principles Spencer tells us are rooted in Christian thinking, those principles that send our author into such raptures of cultural superiority. Well, well: Christianity got its start as a religion of slaves. Perhaps it is fated to end the same way.
British-born John Derbyshire is the author most recently of Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra. His Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream: A Novel was a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year. ———Return to Pajamas Media homepage

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