Thursday, March 6, 2008

Shifty Theology: Some Thoughts on the Courtier's Reply

During his recent guest appearance on the Reasonable Doubts podcast, scientist and science writer Taner Edis challenged listeners to avoid reducing Islam to a monolith. Just as there is no such thing as a "Christian view" of international relations, electoral politics, or church-state interaction, so there is no "Islamic view." Such sweeping attributions neglect the considerable diversity within these worldwide faith communities.

Edis made this point while criticizing the "poor scholarship" of Sam Harris's The End of Faith, substantial passages of which quote the Koran as a means of demonstrating the dangers of Islam.

To illustrate, Edis mentions a sect of Islam that has a very large following in Turkey (and beyond), one that he compares with the Quaker sect of Christianity: tolerant, non-violent, well-meaning, community-oriented, boringly moderate. The Islam these Muslims embrace has nothing to do with the nasty passages Sam Harris focuses on.

I understand the point, but I insist on reversing the demand. Those who believe in the divine provenance or inspiration of the Koran, but who reject portions of it, own the burden of stating the passages they disavow, and better yet, their grounds for disavowing them. Christians, Jews, and other followers of "revealed truths" owe the same vis-a-vis their holy "revelations."

I don't know what it means to say an all-knowing god wrote a book by which to guide human conduct, but that some parts of it should be ignored. In light of the passages I know to be in the best-known holy books, such a belief system seems to leave a loaded gun on the table, and reserves the right to pick it up at any time.

Those familiar with these controversies will catch an unmistakable whiff of the Courtier's Reply, the claim that assessing the existence of god or the social consequences of revealed religion must proceed from a deep understanding of theology in all its shimmering diversity. But this, to me, just seems like an invitation to equivocation and feckless hair-splitting.

And I believe Taner Edis himself -- a worthy critic of Islam, let me be clear about that -- ultimately agrees with me and Sam Harris based on writings like this, which pointedly does not dwell overmuch on the theological finery, nor wring hands over the many Muslims it surely does unfairly sweep into its generalizations. All that to its credit.

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