Who Lost Iraq?
posted on 11.30.2006 at 10:41 PM
Here's a perspective on the Iraq disaster from Richard A. Shweder, writing in the New York Times:
In Iraq, the "West is best" default (and its discourse about universal human rights) has provided a foundation for chaos.
By "West is best" here we are supposed to read "Enlightenment," whose alleged failings mean a lot to Mr. Shweder. So the point is that the war in Iraq represents a failure of secularism. This despite the fact that the war was launched by an intensely religious American president who admitted to consulting his heavenly "Father" on the matter and to basing his foreign policy on his religious beliefs. This despite the fact that support for the war came overwhelming from the religious right. This despite the fact that much of the indigenous bloodshed in the country can now be traced to a more than thirteen-hundred-year-old religious dispute having to do with the ousting of Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali, as caliph.
And, certainly, neither the Bush administration, which started the war, nor the Shia and Sunni fighters who help continue it, are known for their weakness for the "discourse about universal human rights."
Europe and Religion
posted on 10.11.2006 at 10:39 PM
A few points inspired by a New York Times article on growing frustration with Muslim immigrants in Europe:
** In Europe it is the right that is least tolerant of this new religious orthodoxy, at least this new Islamic religious orthodoxy, as became clear during the dispute over the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, as has become clear with the recent comment of the pope. (This is all rather perplexing to American secularists who have much less difficulty locating the enemy on the political spectrum.)
** The great paradox here, of course, is that it is precisely the secular values of pluralism and tolerance in Europe that are allowing for the growth of intolerant, even violently intolerant, religious orthodoxies. This is a problem that seems, for the moment, not to have a comfortable solution. Some, like Salman Rushdie, argue against tolerating intolerance. Lurking here is the potentially uncomfortable solution of actually taking on these religions and their potentially murderous absurdities (a task perhaps better executed by a Rushdie than by someone named Benedict XVI).
** In the midst of a dispiriting article it is cheering to read the Times characterizing Europe as "a continent that has largely abandoned" religion.
Reason and Religion
posted on 09.22.2006 at 9:53 PM
Millions of Americans think the pope asked exactly the right questions: Does the Muslim God accord with the categories of reason? Are Muslims trying to spread their religion with the sword?
We've already dealt with what Catana (in a comment) called His Holiness' pot-calling-the-kettle problem when it comes to the use of swords. But Brooks' line about "reason" seems at least as hypocritical. His assumption would seem to be that the Jewish or Christian Gods do -- or "millions of Americans think they do -- "accord with the categories of reason"?
Where to begin? With Paul perhaps, that greatest apostle of Christianity, who wrote: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." Or, perhaps, with Justinian, the emperor who completed the (often forced) conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and in 529 closed the Academy founded by Plato, which had operated in Athens for 900 years. It took about 900 more years before Western reason could begin digging out from under Christian "faith."
Or, perhaps, we could begin with the Hebrew Bible. This is from one of the Proverbs:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding...
Or with the words of God Himself from Isaiah, which mate, neatly, reason and the sword:
"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;
but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Is this what we mean by reasoning? It seems Mafia reasoning.
Is a universe created in six days is "in accord with reason"? How about a virgin birth?
Cartoons of the Jews
posted on 08.25.2006 at 12:12 PM
Some months ago, during the contretemps over the Danish cartoons offensive to Muslims, I wrote:
We can imagine, as some Muslims have asked us to do, the outrage that would greet satiric cartoons featuring Jesus or, were the point sufficiently nasty, Moses. How about a satiric drawing of an atheist? What would it show? (A man lost in a microscope oblivious to the wonder of all that goes on around him?)
Found a couple of those "cartoons of the atheist," which predictably failed to shock. The more shocking attempt at tit for tat, which I failed to anticipate, has nothing to do with Moses or Jesus but with anti-Semitic stereotypes and the Holocaust. A collection of such images is currently on display, according to the New York Times, in a gallery in Tehran, under the title: "Holocaust International Cartoon Contest."
One features: "a drawing of a Jew with a very large nose, a nose so large it obscures his entire head. Across his chest is the word Holocaust." Others seem to have a clear political motivation: comparing Israeli behavior with Nazi behavior, or implying that the Holocaust has been used as an excuse for such behavior.
Most Western writing about the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed, emphasized the conflict between free expression and protecting sensitivities. Will positions remain the same when the subject is these Iranian cartoons?
My point on the reaction to the Danish cartoons was to note "the intolerance and fear that seem to lurk at the bottom of most religion":
There is still something essentially immoderate about them. There is still something powerfully illiberal about any system of thought that insists that rules of behavior -- the Prophet cannot be depicted, the Son must be seen as divine, meat and milk cannot be eaten together -- have been imposed by an infallible supernatural intelligence and that insists that our eternal (eternal!) happiness depends on our ability to follow those rules....Monotheism does not blend easily or smoothly into liberalism.
But (non-political) aspects of this new exhibit seem to offend not on religious grounds but because of cultural and historical sensitivities. Was I being unfair in underplaying such sensitivities, in an effort to make a point about religion, in Islamic reaction to the Danish cartoons?
"World War IV"
posted on 08.08.2006 at 9:56 AM
Now it's with Iran. And, of course, we're already losing:
Their war aims have never been secret. They have been shouting them out on the world stage to a billion listening Muslims, ever since they handed us the first of many humiliating defeats in 1979. These Persian mullahs and their followers aim to restore Islamic supremacy in the 21st century by leading all Muslims everywhere to victory in a great global jihad against America, Israel, and what is left of the free world.
Picking outlandish comments off the Web -- this is Barbara Lerner in the National Review Online -- is, of course, too easy. Do it enough and you can end up as paranoid as they are. And Ms. Lerner's solution to the Iran problem can indeed leave you spooked:
We should light up the skies with our own surprise: a massive aerial bombardment that wipes out most of Iran's nuclear facilities, and decimates the ranks of its mullahs as well as those of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij forces that keep them in power, defeating these monsters and decimating their fan base by shattering their image of invincibility.
Sure. But what might concern us here is the extent to which -- after Iraq, not to mention after the Enlightenment -- the blood-thirsty rhetoric of religious warfare -- against "monsters" -- continues to dominate some strains of American political discourse (and lurk behind others).
Religion and Soldiers in Iraq
posted on 05.29.2006 at 11:21 PM
For those who cling to the belief that when faced with life at its most intense atheists inevitably will waver, here's the Iraq veteran and American military chaplain Major John Morris, interviewed on the public radio program, Speaking of Faith (thanks to Robert Schwartz):
"It's not true. There are atheists in foxholes."
Indeed, war, as the thoughtful Major Morris acknowledges, can intensify disbelief::
What I saw in Iraq....on the battlefield: a third of the soldiers were men and women of faith, growing in their faith or coming to a new understanding of their faith; a third of the soldiers were indifferent or fatalistic...; the other third were either indifferent or jettisoning their faith..
War does what life can do, only faster:
Many would say to me very bluntly, "I've lost my faith. I saw my buddy get blown away," or "I was involved in a firefight that killed innocent people. And if there's a good God, he would not have let that happen, so I do not want to believe anymore."
This is, of course, the classic "problem of evil" -- one of the more compelling arguments against the existence of God. Major Morris attributes another related argument to some of the soldiers in the irreligious third -- the often unavoidable apprehension that "the center cannot hold":
...War is chaos. You can do everything right and still die.... That chaos seems to...harden people into saying, "I can't think about transcendent things. Nobody's in control. ...Whatever is, is. And whatever will be, will be. ...So don't bother me with anything transcendent or eternal."
And this particular war -- unlike the two World Wars or Korea or Vietnam -- adds one more reason to reject religion, as Major Morris reports:
Now the thing that really throws a wrench into all of this is being shot at by people who were praying a few minutes earlier in a sacred place... That really hardens people to say, "I don't know what kind of God you all are talking about, but I don't want to have anything to do with any kind of God that uses the sacred to condone this. So I don't want to deal with any of you people who have anything to do with religion, cause you guys are causing the wars of the world."
The Defanging of Religion
posted on 03.24.2006 at 9:32 AM
Religions, in recent centuries, are being housebroken (though sometimes it seems like trying to domesticate a wolf). They're being taught that it's not polite to burn "heretics," not neighborly to go to war with "infidels." Of course, as is the case with all such world-historical movements, some areas, some sects, have been slower than others to accept the new order. Some believers still have difficulty grasping why those who scorn the One True God must be tolerated. These laggards have been making a lot of our news lately. The latest example is the case of poor Abdul Rahman, who converted from Islam to Christianity in that new beacon of democracy, Afghanistan (our part of Afghanistan), and is now on trial for his life.
Rushdie on the Cartoons
posted on 03.01.2006 at 10:54 PM
From a statement signed by Salman Rushdie, Bernard-Henri Levy and others on the Danish cartoons (brought to my attention by Ben Vershbow):
"We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all."
Not so much a call for toleration (as we've been hearing) but a call for "resistance" and secularism.
"We reject « cultural relativism », which consists in accepting that men and women of Muslim culture should be deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secular values in the name of respect for cultures and traditions."
Is something stirring?
The Greatness of God
posted on 03.01.2006 at 9:17 AM
From a New York Times article on bombings in Iraq:
"On Tuesday, blast after blast rocked the capital. After one car bomb exploded at noon in a Shiite district of downtown Baghdad, firefighters and witnesses struggled to pry two blackened bodies from a charred sedan. The wailing crowd lifted the bodies out, shouted, "God is great!" and marched down the street bearing the bodies aloft."
So God is great when innocent people are killed. And God is also great, presumably when people avoid being killed. Can't lose. How does this work?
posted on 02.17.2006 at 10:18 AM
In his interesting opinion piece on the Danish cartoons, Robert Wright includes this observation:
"Most Americans tread lightly in discussing ethnicity and religion, and we do it so habitually that it's nearly unconscious."
Certainly, this is true. Wright thinks it's good -- a sign of civil "self-restraint." But, when it comes to religion, isn't this reticence -- this reluctance to discuss and debate -- why so many odd, seemingly un-thought-through notions survive? Isn't it why religious (or anti-religious?) beliefs sometimes seem to lurk in dark corners of otherwise well-lit minds?
Cartoons of the Atheist
posted on 02.11.2006 at 7:47 PM
We can imagine, as some Muslims have asked us to do, the outrage that would greet satiric cartoons featuring Jesus or, were the point sufficiently nasty, Moses.
How about a satiric drawing of an atheist? What would it show? (A man lost in a microscope oblivious to the wonder of all that goes on around him?)
Wait, by the grace of Google, I found one (our artist is Jack Hamm):
I suspect that this image would not be sufficient to rouse the residents of the Left Bank or the Upper West Side to burn flags or embassies. Would it be possible to come up with a cartoon that would seriously offend atheists? Are they above (below?) this sort of thing? Is this because for the atheist "nothing is sacred"?
Doesn't a feeling for the "sacred" increase the inclination to take offense? Would this not be a response to the assertion by Madeleine Bunting, in the Guardian, that, in essence, religion is merely one of many "collective identities" societies can use as an excuse for violence?
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part VI
posted on 02.09.2006 at 8:17 PM
I'm not sure how I myself would answer the question raised in the previous post. This seems one of those occasions when I've been writing to learn what I think.
Of course nonbelievers will be quick to line up with those who champion free expression, diversity of opinion and "peace, love and understanding." That has seemed almost too obvious to require much saying.
But I read myself as having been writing about the intolerance and fear that seem to lurk at the bottom of most religion. The nonbeliever's contribution may be to remind that even though you can teach most religions proper table manners and sit comfortably with them over tea, there is still something essentially immoderate about them. There is still something powerfully illiberal about any system of thought that insists that rules of behavior -- the Prophet cannot be depicted, the Son must be seen as divine, meat and milk cannot be eaten together -- have been imposed by an infallible supernatural intelligence and that insists that our eternal (eternal!) happiness depends on our ability to follow those rules.
I think I want to say that this incident -- along with what has been going on in the red states lately -- should remind us that monotheism does not blend easily or smoothly into liberalism.
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part IV
posted on 02.07.2006 at 11:50 AM
In an opinion piece in the Times of London the atheist (Why aren't there more pieces by atheists in the Times that lands on my doorstep each morning?) Matthew Parris also sees deep and irreconcilable differences surfacing in the current battle over those Danish cartoons:
"Let us not duck what that "I do not believe" really means. It means I do not believe that there is one God, Allah, or that Muhammad is His Prophet. It means I do not believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, or that no man cometh to the Father except by Him. I do not believe that the Jews are God's Chosen People, or subject to any duties different from the rest of us. It means I do not believe any living creature will be reincarnated in another life.
"In my opinion these views are profoundly mistaken, and those who subscribe to them are under a serious misapprehension on a most important matter. Not only are their views not true for me: they are not true for them. They are not true for anyone. They are wrong.
"Cutting through the babble of well-meaning souls who like to speak of the "community" of belief among "people of faith", this must also be what the Muslim is saying to the Christian, Jew or Hindu; or what the Christian must be saying to the Jew, Hindu or Muslim. These faiths make demands and assert truths that are not compatible with the demands and truths of other faiths. To assert one must be to deny the others."
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part III
posted on 02.07.2006 at 11:42 AM
While all right-thinking folk want the violence that has broken out in response to the satiric drawings of Mohammad to end, this awful incident does at least have the virtue of reminding us that this is a world that is sharply divided -- between humanistic, tolerant pluralists and true believers in one or another faith.
The views of Danish newspaper editors and devout Muslims may indeed be incompatible. No religious testament with which I am familiar tempers its "Thou shall not"s with an "unless it is an expression of some individual's right to free expression." And no self-respecting child of the Enlightenment is eager to hand mullahs, priests or rabbis significant control over what they do, say or print.
Orthodox Muslims are correct in suspecting that some Western intellectuals find their beliefs (like most orthodox beliefs) rather silly. Western intellectuals are correct in suspecting that some orthodox Muslims (like orthodox members of other faiths) think they are damned or damnable. And orthodox Muslims and Western intellectuals increasingly find themselves occupying the same neighborhoods, using the same media.
These are not friendly differences. These are not worldviews that can easily share a smaller and smaller world.
Yes, end the violence. Yes, let's all try to be sensitive and understanding. But it is also worth remembering that a crucial struggle is going on in the world today: between devout faith and freethinking. This struggle is inevitably going to cause some pain.
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part II
posted on 02.07.2006 at 1:08 AM
Many respond to the struggle between religion and atheism by hastening toward some sort of middle ground. Some retreat to a lazy, hazy deist god of the sort first proposed by the Greek thinker Xenophanes in the sixth century BCE. Some prefer a gentle agnosticism.
The ugly and upsetting riots against the publication of those cartoons satirizing Mohammad demonstrate the difficulty of securing that middle ground. Muslims believe their Prophet should not even be depicted. Western intellectuals believe in the freedom to print what you want, to satirize what you want. Where is the reasonable, non-doctrinaire position that might bridge these beliefs?
Atheists tend not to burn things. Does that make them moderate?
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part I
posted on 02.06.2006 at 10:37 PM
As the flames were lit around him in 1553, Michael Servetus, a scientist and renegade religious thinker, is said to have cried, "O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!" According to one observer, had he instead phrased it, "Jesus, the Eternal Son, have pity on me!" the flames might have been extinguished. For Servetus was being burned at the stake in Calvin's Geneva precisely because he refused to affirm the divinity of Jesus.
Believers have long taken affronts to their religion, even seemingly minor affronts, rather seriously.