Sunday, May 17, 2009

Plus Ca Change -- God's Law, God's Followers

I wonder if anyone will answer Ophelia Benson's questions? The questions arose in a dispute with Brandon at Siris and concern, broadly, the ways and extent to which Islam-as-creed is distinct from Muslims-as-people.

I have touched on this question myself many times, and in the spirit of not reinventing the wheel (or the butterfly), I've reproduced something I wrote a year ago that's of direct relevance to the matters at hand. I've edited it ever so slightly:

There is violence and intolerance aplenty in the world's leading holy books: see here a quiz and its answers comparing the viciousness of the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Koran; here's more violence in the Koran; and still more violence in the Koran.

All well and good, but again and again, the point is made that no meaningful conclusions about a person's beliefs follow from the person's choice of holy books. Castigating Sam Harris for his most recent castigation of Islamic dogma, Tristero makes the point:

[W]hile it is certainly possible to read the texts of Islam (at least, the translated texts) as supporting a political program and the use of violence to gain power, it is not a necessary reading any more than a reading of the Hebrew Bible necessarily supports the violent suppression of objections to Israeli settlements.
And then broadens the point:
[T]here is no such thing as "Islam" but Islams - plural. To lump all Islams together and condemn the aggregate as inherently violent is not merely silly, but bizarre.
Presumably, Tristero would not want to condemn the aggregate as illiberal either. Granted, there are violent and non-violent, illiberal and liberal people who self-label as devout Muslims, just as there are child-rapist-shielding and non-child-rapist-shielding people who self-label as devout Christians, and it's worthwhile to draw the distinctions among them.

To that end, exactly how do we draw the distinctions? I want to understand the non-literalists. Apparently a person can be a devout Muslim while blithely ignoring substantial swaths of the Koran. What is the Koran to such a person? Did god dictate it to Mohammed? If so, doesn't it have to be humbly accepted as the teaching of a much greater intelligence? If not, isn't it just another book? If it's somewhere between -- in part just another book, in part the words of god himself -- how do we know which is which? On whose authority? According to what interpretive scheme? If it's a matter of deducing the "correct" passages from their agreement with an overarching, fundamental essence of the faith -- peace, submission, love, charity, service, truth, what have you -- who decides the essence of the faith? Who defines these loaded terms? Doesn't this stance just beg the same basic questions?

I really don't get it. I have the same questions about the forms of Judaism and Christianity that wish away substantial portions of god's supposed revelation.

Stripping away the platitudes and euphemisms, the forms of Abrahamic monotheism that sweep away the embarrassments and evils of the really-existing holy books amount to special pleading. They sound like groundless assertions that a set of piety-encrusted wishes, hopes, and aspirations are true -- true as in authenticated by a god, notwithstanding what the god actually left in the way of concrete revelation.

This is good enough? This merits respect?

We continue to await a better account of non-literalist belief.

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