Friday, February 27, 2009

Belief and the text

Different religions have very different attitudes to Scripture: what it is and what its authority is. These differences have consequences.

Within Christianity there are two quite different attitudes to the authority of Scripture. One is that the Church (understood at the community of believers) creates Scripture. That is, Scripture is the particularly authoritative texts showing the interaction between inspired members of the Chosen People and God. Since the whole of Creation is God’s work—and Scripture is humanly mediated—then, in any contradiction between the facts of Creation and Scripture, the facts win.

This is essentially the Catholic/Orthodox view, most famously set out by St Augustine in his On Christian Doctrine. Conservative, Reform and Progressive Judaism take similar views.

Where the Jews understood the Chosen People to be them (and conversion, though possible, is very difficult), the Christian view is that anyone who accepts Jesus becomes one of the Chosen People since the life and death of Jesus constitute a New Covenant with God. Evangelicals talk of being “born again” (into the community of Christ) because they see the need to make a deliberate decision to adhere to this New Covenant, but this is a particular variation on a basic Christian belief.

The second view is that Scripture creates the Church. The authority of the texts is absolute and final. This is the view of various Protestant denominations and of rabbinical-cum-Orthodox Judaism. At its most complete form, it takes Scripture to be inerrant (never false or contradictory within itself or to the facts of the Created world) and infallible (never misleading on matters of faith).
It is fairly obvious which view will find science and its discoveries to be more problematic, if there is any conflict with Scripture. It is hard to find any religion that is more doctrinally open to the study of the natural world than Catholicism, given this willingness to give provable facts about the natural world precedence. (Given wildly disproportionate Jewish success in science, Judaism is an obvious nominee—even though many prominent Jewish scientists, such as Nobel laureates, have not been particularly religious—on the grounds that the presumptions of Jewish culture are derived from Judaism: though one can reasonably argue the disproportionate Jewish success in science is more a matter of selection processes in the Jewish community(pdf) interacting with the surrounding civilisation.)

The institutional structures of Catholicism have been a somewhat different matter, however. In post-Reformation Europe, printers and printing tended to move from Catholic Europe to Protestant Europe since the regulation of what printers printed tended to be much less intrusive than in Catholic Europe with its Index of Forbidden Books. (Indeed, Protestant printers would use the Index as a PR device: "banned in Catholic Europe" was a selling point; something which ironically had a somewhat libertine and heterodox effect on what was published in Protestant Europe.) Especially after the 1616 edict against the Copernican system and the 1633 edict against Galileo, there was a distinct chilling effect on scientific endeavour in Catholic Europe. Descartes, for example, stopped work on his cosmological system when he heard of the verdict against Galileo. It was much easier to get scientific journals and books published in Protestant Europe. Moreover, the Protestant notion of the value of lay knowledge of Scripture encouraged mass literacy. The notion of the paterfamilias being responsible for the religious instruction of family and employees encouraged a (albeit masculine) notion of self-government while giving a sense of dignity and self-worth to the Godly tradesman or man of business.

Doctrinally, Gallileo’s problem was not that he insisted on the truth of his discoveries, it is that he demanded Scripture be set aside in advance of sufficient evidence—he could not explain why, if the Earth goes around the Sun, the stars do not appear to move. (The answer—they do, but they are so unimaginably far away we cannot see them do so without quite advanced instruments—not yet being established and accepted.) To say that in any conflict between the facts of how the Created universe is and Scripture, the facts about the world win does not mean doing so capriciously. It was that the Church had the power to enforce its theological strictures according to the concerns of priests (who are typically much concerned about preserving their authority and their role as gatekeepers between the Godly "Us" and the Ungodly "Them") that led to the deadening effect.

But, even in the most literalist of Protestant Churches, Scripture is still humanely mediated. It is the work of divinely inspired people, but people nevertheless.

Sunni Islam, on the other hand, takes the Scripture-creates-the-community-of-believers view to the nth degree. The Qur’an is the direct, eternal, word of God. It is, in fact, outside the rest of Creation and has authority over it. That it has a single, original language (Arabic) providing a definitive version (unlike the polyglot Scriptures of Christianity) probably increases the effect.

The Caliph al-Ma’mun attempted to have it accepted that the Qur’an was a created object subject to re-interpretation (by him, naturally, as the Commander of the Faithful). Shia Islam, with its concept of the absolutely authoritative Iman, takes a somewhat similar view. Al-Ma’mun was using Mu'tazili thought to support his claim. He also used a somewhat Stalin-like approach to theological dispute (i.e. kill the people who disagree and thereby win the argument).

The contrary view—that the Qur’an was outside Creation—supported the authority of the community of Muslim scholars, the ulema, as the interpreters of the absolutely authoritative text. They had the numbers, so to speak, and won the argument.

So, in Sunni Islam, the hadith function more like Christian or Jewish Scripture. Divinely inspired but humanly mediated.

Consider the implication for science of establishing a text as absolutely authoritative. Creationism has a similar appeal in Islam as it does among evangelical Protestants, though—since in each case Creationism is based on the primacy of scriptural revelation—how Creationism manifests varies according to the details of the Scriptures deemed to be absolutely authoritative.

For and against Aristotle
One of the ironies of history is that Islam was crucial in transmitting Greek philosophy—particularly the work of Aristotle—to Latin Christendom, but Aristotle was far more influential in Latin Christendom than in Islam.

In the words of noted scholar Adelard of Bath (c.1080-c.1152):
I do not detract from the power of God, for all that exists does so from him and by means of His power. However, this is not to say that nature itself is chaotic, irrational, or made up of discrete elements. Therefore it is possible for men to achieve an understanding of this rational order inherent in nature, an understanding as complete as the extent to which human knowledge progresses.

Compare this very natural law view of the universe with the words of Adelard’s Islamic contemporary Muslim theologian Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1058-1111), perhaps the most important figure in Islam after the Prophet, in his deeply influential The Incoherence of the Philosophers:
… our opponent claims that the agent of the burning is the fire exclusively; this is a natural, not a voluntary agent, and cannot abstain from what is in its nature when it is brought into contact with a receptive substratum. This we deny, saying: The agent of the burning is God, through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnexion of its parts, and it is God who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without intermediation. For fire is a dead body which has no action, and what is the proof that it is the agent? Indeed, the philosophers have no other proof than the observation of the occurrence of the burning, when there is contact with fire, but observation proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and, in reality, there is no other cause but God.

Not a conception of causality, the structure of the universe or the capacity for human knowledge that has been favourable to the development of science. (Philosophers might note the appearance of David Hume’s argument on causation centuries before Hume.)

The Aristotelianism of the Islamic thinker Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd al-Qurtubi (‘Averroes’, 1126-1198) was far more influential in Latin Christendom, where it was resonant, than in Islam, where it was not. In Christendom, God as rational Creator of a structured universe (and so not an arbitrary tyrant) fitted in with deep institutional and cultural traditions: in Islam, al-Ghazali’s notion that to put any hint of any bounds on Allah impugned His honour and authority fitted in with the notions of honour and authority dominant among the honour-driven pastoralist tribalism and river-valley autocracies (themselves a product of prior pastoralist conquest) that, between them, dominated the Middle East.

It is worth nothing that, while Jews (at 14 million people 0.02% of the world’s population) have won 32% of Nobel Prizes (9 Peace, 44 Medicine, 16 Chemistry, 10 Literature, 51 Physics, 13 Economics for a total of 143), Muslims (at over 1 billion people about 20% of the world’s population) have won precisely 6 Nobel prizes (2 Peace, 1 Medicine, 1 Physics, 1 Chemistry, 1 Literature: people of Lebanese Christian background have also won 1 Medicine and 1 Chemistry Nobel prize).

While there is a range of reasons for this startling Muslim under-achievement, religious factors are clearly part of the explanation. If one has possession of the absolutely authoritative text and that belief is the basis of one’s religion and sense of identity (as it is particularly for Arabs, as the original people of the Prophet) then that discourages intellectual curiosity in general. As Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy has observed:
With the exceptions of Iran and Turkey, translation rates are small. According to a 2002 United Nations report written by Arab intellectuals and released in Cairo, Egypt, "The entire Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates." The report adds that in the 1000 years since the reign of the caliph Maa'moun, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in just one year.

A naturally territorial religion
In the modern world, if Muslims cut off from more traditional Islam seek refuge in an Islamic identity, then that identity comes from an absolutely authoritative text. One, moreover, which is not the easiest thing to interpret. In the words of one professor of religion:
The Koran is a notoriously difficult text to understand in some ways. For one thing, it lacks almost any sense of context: Verses are addressed to mysterious Yous and Theys from an equally mysterious We. Moreover, the subject of the verses follow no discernible pattern, moving from questions of jurisprudence to theological and mythological concerns and back again, sometimes without any apparent pattern. For this reason, the Quran has inspired an extensive body of exegetical texts that purport to explain the original meaning of the text. Nevertheless, untangling the original meaning, or creating a distinct context in which to interpret the verses, is a nightmarish problem.

Islam does, however, have a logic. Islam is Submission to God, God is conceived as a sovereign, territorial legislator, so any good Muslim should spread Submission to God. Within him or herself, within his or her community, around the world. It is a very easy series of steps to jihadi ideology.

Christianity and Diaspora Judaism ultimately have an accidentalist view of political authority. They are religions of moral order (in the first case) and of moral and community order (in the second) that can accommodate to almost any political authority. This was the original Christian view—founded and spreading in the very ordered, law-bound Roman Empire, it was a religion of moral order since the Romans took care of social order. Rabbinical Judaism was forced to become a religion of moral and community order since Jews were never going to be a majority. Ismaili Islam has evolved in the same way for the same reason. Buddhism, as a religion of personal enlightenment, is very like Christianity in its political accidentalism. Christianity and Buddhism patently can both be the politicised ideologies and sources of political legitimacy. But such is part of the range of political authorities they can accommodate to, it is not inherent in either religion. Zionism being a secular ideology, Israel is a Jewish state rather than a Judaic state, however much political pressure from religious Jews have affected aspects of law and policy.

Islam, particularly Sunni Islam, is not in that position. If the Qur’an is the eternal, uncreated Word of God that sits outside and over Creation, it certainly has authority over what a bunch of infidels vote on. Particularly given it supports a legal, moral and social order that requires partial submitters (the People of the Book) to submit to the greater authority of full submitters (Muslims) and those who are not even partial submitters to do full submission or die. Indeed, it was a debated theological question whether Muslims should even continue to reside in a land that was not under Muslim rule.

It would be nice if all we in the West wanted from Muslim immigrants was for them to be good Muslims. Our difficulty is deeper: we want them to be compromising Muslims. Or, at least, discount the “Medinan” suras in favour of the “Meccan” ones thereby reversing the standard Islamic exegesis of later suras taking precedence over earlier ones.

The logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers (who have other considerations which can rise and fall in importance), but difficulties are much more likely when the underlying logic of belief is so unhelpful. So that relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in a society might depend significantly on what proportion of the society is Muslim is hardly implausible. Not merely because a larger Muslim population means even a small proportion attracted by the territorial logic of Islam becomes larger in number but—a compounding factor—the goal of territorial Islam becomes progressively more plausible. And it is particularly a bad idea to, in the name of “multiculturalism”, encourage Muslims in the West to identity themselves as Muslims as a social-political identity as this both elevates the authority of the text and decouples them from broader cultural identities.

A recent poll of British Muslims found that Muslims aged 16-24 tended to be more religious, and less likely to conform to more general patterns of British belief, than those over 55. The latter typically know why they came to the West and Britain in the first place. The former are more likely seek a distinguishing identity as Muslims, and look to the authoritative texts of Islam for that identity.

In its first 1,000 years of history, Islam aggressed against every culture it came up against according to fairly standard raid-attack-occupy patterns. That was not accidental and was most certainly not in contradiction to its founding texts. It stopped (to the extent it has: it is fair to say there is still within Islam something of a getting along with the neighbours problem) because Islam-the-civilisation came up against better predators. We may not be bound by that history, but it is utterly foolish to deny its reality.

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