Friday, June 29, 2007

the misery of Judaism

the usual gloss on yahweh's species-wide mass slaughter

I'll return to the religious orthodoxy issue in my next post, I hope, but I'm still going to harp on religion - this time Judaism - because it just gets my goat.
As mentioned recently, I picked up a few cheapie texts on religious matters at a fair a couple of weeks ago. They're old, but of course not out of date because , as we know, religious truths and values are timeless. One of these texts was Judaism, by Isidore Epstein [d 1962], first published by Pelican in 1959.
It's interesting that, as you get older, you read more critically, more selectively, and generally with different motives. For example I read the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo, or most of them, decades ago when I was simply keen to absorb as much information/knowledge as I could. My reasoning was - hey Christianity's been a big factor in the development of western thought, I really need to have a look at it, and I hear Augustine was one of the big shapers of early Christian doctrine, so I'll tuck into some of his writings. And on reading it I thought, hey this is an intelligent guy, pity about the Christian dogma and all, but I can forgive him that, just a product of his time, if he'd been around today he'd have applied his smarts to very different material...
But now, while I still have plenty of traces of that perspective, I've eaten more of the fruit of knowledge, and I see Augustine within a rather different, more historical context. I recognise more the effect of ideas on real people and real action in the world, and I see Augustine as a far less innocent figure than I did in my own more innocent youth. I'm rather less prepared to allow writers or thinkers to get away with their claims.
Bearing this in mind, I want to consider the first, brief chapter of Epstein's Judaism.
The book starts as straight history, describing the collapse of the great Sumerian civilisation with the destruction of the city of Ur by the Elamites and Amorites. However, it quickly switches to the figure of Terah, an Aramean fugitive from Ur, described in the Hebrew Bible as the father of Abraham. In other words, it moves from history to myth and legend without any signposting. This is bad scholarship, to put it mildly. Terah is only known from the Hebrew Bible, and other related semitic texts such as the Midrash and the Zohar, and no serious historian would infer the real existence of such a person from such clearly propagandist writings. Epstein doesn't bother to raise the issue of the veracity of these texts, but goes on blithely to tell us about the difference between Terah and his son Abraham.
Terah, sharing the normal religion of his time, was a polytheist; Abraham a monotheist. Terah worshipped a congeries of idols which in all probability included the moon-god, Sin, the chief deity at both Ur and Haran; Abram broke with idolatry and turned to the service of the one and only God whom he recognised as the Creator of heaven and earth.
Epstein may only be distinguishing Abraham's religion from idolatry in that Judaism doesn't allow the making of graven images to its god, while not suggesting that Abraham's god is any more true than the unfortunately-named Sin, or any other deity, but such a reading is surely overly benign, and in any case Epstein dispels any doubt about how we are intended to read this passage when he claims that Abram recognises, rather than simply believes in, this supposed Creator. This dishonest blending of history, mythology and outright propaganda is profoundly disappointing.
Epstein next goes on to argue, very cursorily, that Abraham's monotheistic belief was profoundly different from all previous monotheistic belief systems.
Unlike the deities of other religions, as for example the Sumerian high-god Anu and the Babylonian universal-god Shamash, Abram's God was not a Nature god - a sky- or sun-god - subservient to Nature; nor was he a territorial god restricted to a particular locality or country. As the Creator of heaven and earth and all that is therein, the God of Abram was independent of Nature and of any geographical limitations. Furthermore, unlike other deities, Abram's God was essentially an ethical God to whom the doing of justice and righteousness was of supreme concern.
This claim about the originality of the Judaic god [the capitalisations are Epstein's of course] doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. I'm not an expert on world religions, nor does contemplation of the endless array of historical gods greatly excite me, but it seems to me that the Ancient Greek gods weren't territorial either. They weren't subject to nature or to geographical limitations. Nor was the Judaic god the first touted creator of the heavens, earth, universe or whatever, not by a long shot. Just google 'creator god' and you'll find 77 pages in Wikipedia, with dozens of names of gods. The Judaic god is part of a long [and no doubt continuing] tradition and many of his often contradictory traits and doings have been linked to those of earlier gods in earlier religions.
The most outrageous claim, though, is made in Epstein's last sentence quoted above. First, the claim that other gods weren't primarily concerned with justice is false: the Babylonian god Utu, or Shamash, was a god of justice, and a lawgiver, and there were doubtless many others. Indeed, as Pascal Boyer and other anthropologists have shown, all religions have
gods and ancestors who are primarily concerned with the rights and wrongs of daily human activities. The framing and surveillance of what we now call ethical behaviour has always been an essential part of the purpose of deities. Second, and more importantly, it's difficult to reconcile the Judaic god's concern with justice and righteousness with what the Old Testament reveals about his own behaviour. For in that series of texts it's revealed in black on white that he's a serial mass-murderer [the flood being the first of many instances] and a promoter and practitioner of genocide. So much for the ethical monotheism that Judaism supposedly introduces into the world.
No doubt, if any religious type ever reads this post, I'll be accused of extremism, but that would be shooting the messenger, surely. The extremism is in the Old Testament itself, though it probably wouldn't have been considered so at the time. We've made quite a deal of moral progress since those texts were written. The difficulty for the followers of the Judaic and Christian religions is that they're stuck with this moral monstrosity of a god. That's to say, they've taken a brutal, tribal god, more jealous than ethical, a god for whom wickedness consists almost solely in worshipping other gods, as their fount of eternal human values. To me, it's like invoking the love, protection and moral authority of a Joe Stalin. I'm prepared, albeit reluctantly, to accept people's belief in and even worship of such a being [though promoting him is surely going too far], but I do feel that in so doing they've disqualified themselves from partaking in modern moral discourse. They've cast themselves beyond the pale.


Thursday, June 28, 2007


As the treasurer of a small but proud housing co-op, one that is thriving under new financial arrangements with our government funding body, I've actually been having sleepless nights imagining our future and the possible complete solarisation of all our houses - some 21 by the end of next financial year - over the next five years or so. Others in the co-op are equally excited, but I have to admit that I for one have only a vague idea what solarisation means. There's a part of me that treats it as an all-transforming magic; no more aircons, no more electric lights, no more heaters, no more anything electrical - we have solar.
So now I'm going to educate myself as to how domestic solar energy works, how much it's likely to cost and how it will benefit the co-op.
First, as this site informs us, there are two types of solar panel currently on the market, which use quite different technologies. They are the solar water heating panels, used simply to heat water, and the solar electric or photovoltaic panels which transform solar radiation directly into energy. It's the latter, of course, that this post is concerned with.
This Australian site provides a comprehensive guide to photovoltaic ''modules'', their types, their siting and installation and their output, but is silent on costs. Further, it says that ''with a few solar modules, the homeowner can capture some of [the sun's] abundant energy''. A few? Just how many are needed to power a house such as mine twenty four hours a day?
Clearly this will depend not only on the number of solar modules but their type. There are two main types currently on the market, crystalline silicon and amorphous silicon thin film. The latter technology is likely to lead to lower cost modules in future, and is a more flexible technology in general, though thin film modules are currently less efficient than crystalline silicon modules. With the further development of thin film modules, greater integration into building materials is expected.
Another factor is, of course, sunlight in your area. Adelaide gets more hours of sunlight per day, on average, than Sydney, and more still than Melbourne, but Perth gets more than any of the other capitals. Panels ideally should face north, and having enough north-facing roof-space on our dwellings could be an issue.
Another major factor is consumer usage, which varies considerably between households. Energy conservation still needs to be promoted throughout the co-op, regardless of solarisation.
It’s quite difficult to get clear information on cost, but I did read somewhere of an array of panels at a cost of $18,000 reducing electricity costs by about a third – or maybe it was two thirds. In any case, this sort of return may not be worth the cost to our co-op, especially as federal government rebates of up to $8000 per installation are not currently available to us, under the rationale that, as a taxpayer-subsidised organisation, we shouldn’t be eligible for further subsidies.

This is an issue we could lobby government on. There’s also an organisation called Solar Sales, based in WA, which provides consultancy for PV module installation, and helps in accessing government grants and rebates.

So, that's a start, but we have a long long way to go in terms of solarisation of our properties. It will probably be impossible, for example, to equally spread the savings among co-op households, as some homes would be able to accommodate more panels than others. It may be, though, that we could do two modules per home, to spread the load more evenly, and then add panels as we become more financial - but this would perhaps unnecessarily increase installation costs. Clearly we'd need advice tailored to our particular homes.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

eighty years on

Was sent a copy of Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian recently, and noting that it's now the eightieth anniversary of that little pot-stirrer, I thought I might write a few words on how or if it stands up today.
I first read this essay many many years ago, but it's much more interesting to read today, in the light of recent publications [but check out A C Grayling's comment here], and in the light of the putative war on terror, etc.
As you can easily tell from reading it, Why I am not a Christian started life as a speech [to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at the Battersea Town Hall]. It has, inter alia, topical and humorous references to the PM of the day, the conservative Stanley Baldwin [at the same time, we had our own identikit conservative PM, Stanley Bruce, just to preserve our links with the mother country]. For this reason it has a summary quality. However, most of the arguments put forward for the existence of god[s] don't need much expansion, and I'm only marginally concerned with Russell's treatment of them here.
Modern secularists would cast their net more widely than Christianity, of course, which would bring attendant problems [how dare you speak against Islam, Hinduism, etc, of which you know nothing is the usual refrain], and even in the Christian field, latter-day secularists like Dawkins are condemned for their ignorance of theology, a topic which will never have an end in sight [note again Grayling's comment above], and which is of precious little interest to the vast majority of believers. Russell also largely ignores theology, preferring to go straight to the heart of the matter, for Christians; the existence of god, the value of Jesus. He looks at the best-known arguments for the existence of god, starting with the oldest and strongest, including the first cause argument [must be a first cause, so must be god - which of course doesn't follow at all, even if the first premise was granted], the natural law argument [natural law is divine law - an argument from the time when Newton's laws were held to be universal and absolute], the argument from design [never heard of it], a moral argument put forward by Kant [not clearly dealt with by Russell - obviously he doesn't take it seriously], and another argument based on moral injustice [there must be a god, with all the attendant paraphernalia of the afterlife, to remedy the injustices of this world in the next world, or the one after that, or the one after that... this is actually a great argument against those silly evolutionists who point out that if evolution was the product of a divine designer, he must be a peculiarly cruel designer, given all the suffering and wastage of life entailed by the evolutionary struggle. The answer is surely that every one of those suffering beings will be redeemed in the next life, or the next... It requires a leap of the imagination as well as a leap of faith to comprehend god].
Russell is good-humoured in his treatment of these arguments, never descending into the heaviness that so often mars this kind of debate. Everything is given the respect it deserves, to my mind.
Russell next deals with the character of Jesus, again with characteristic lightness and irony. He delights in pointing out how many of Jesus's idealistic maxims are ignored by latter day Christians. He's also amusing on the embarrassing problem of Jesus's predictions about his imminent second coming, and his scare-tactic of invoking hellfire against those who refused to follow him.
It's Russell's comparison of Jesus with Socrates that I find most gratifying. It's a comparison that begs to be made and I've made it myself, at some length, in the past. Russell, the soul of wit, is much more brief, merely alluding to Socrates' benign behaviour towards his adversaries, generally in the dialogues and at the end of his life, when he fell foul of them. This in contrast to Jesus, whose style he deliciously mocks. It's worth quoting at some length:

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell." That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about Hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: "Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come." That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.

Then Christ says, "The Son of Man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth"; and He goes on about the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It comes in one verse after another, and it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often.
After disposing of Jesus, Russell turns to the psychological reasons for belief, and here his views can be applied to religion more generally. These are the sorts of arguments that Boyer seeks to flesh out [while ostensibly repudiating them] in Religion Explained. Russell doesn't go into too much detail, and his conclusions can be summed up in two words - comfort and fear. Comfort in the big brother or father figure, and fear of the unknown and of death.
While these are clearly powerful motives for belief in the supernatural, I think that an exploration of supernatural-type belief systems such as numerology or astrology, which clearly don't [and aren't intended to] provide us with paternal companionship or an escape from our mortality, might be of help here. Astrology in particular is popular [especially among women] because it's personal. It supposedly helps us to know why we are like what we are, whereas science deals in abstract and general principles which we might have difficulty applying directly to ourselves. Horoscopes tell us what might happen to us tomorrow, who we might meet, how our mood might be. Like religion, we can take what we need from astrology to comfort and guide us. Some people obviously need such supernatural, highly personalised comforts and guides. Why? Is it ultimately good for them? Should the rest of us seek to disabuse them? Isn't it all basically harmless? Perhaps so, in the case of astrology. Religion is, of course, another matter.
The last words should go to Russell - bearing in mind, though, that we have other, perhaps scarier religions to contend with in the more globalised world of the 21st century:
I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

militant atheist Dawkins defended

I'm still obsessing over the anti-intellectual and other horrors of religion, having bought a handful of books at a second-hand stall while serving at a CD and record fair over the long weekend. Such titles as A History of Religions, The History of Judaism and The Speculative Philosophers [including an essay by Augustine on the immortality of the soul, taken from his City of God], give an idea of where my queer head's at these days. I've also just bought a copy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's The Caged Virgin. But the book I'm most into currently [apart from a biography of John Curtin] is a potboiler from the authors of Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, entitled The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, first published in the early nineties. It promises to expose the orthodoxy's massive efforts to suppress material which might threaten its control - all very relevant of course to my reflections on orthodoxy, so I've a neat excuse for reading it.
So I'm particularly alert to commentary critical of the brave sprinkling of voices speaking up for evidence against faith.
Not surprisingly, Dawkins cops a lot of this, and the other day someone derided his Root of all evil? program for describing religious people as 'stupid' and presenting a subjective view.
A reference was made, I think, to the scene in which he is watching some sort of religious pilgrimage, with a look of grim amazement. It was at this point, apparently, that he was supposed to have said that all these people were stupid. Of course, Dawkins said no such thing, that is not his approach, but maybe my companion inferred that he thought these people stupid, from Dawkins's much more polite but no doubt uncompromising remarks. Unfortunately I don't have a transcript of the program, but I know Dawkins's style well enough.
Anyway, this moment in the program was one I identified with strongly. My reaction when I see crowds of candle-kindling Christians, or breast-thumping Moslems, is always much the same, a visceral reaction of heart-heaviness, frustration and despond. Religion is an insult to human dignity, Dawkins proclaims. It certainly makes me feel insulted. And Dawkins's humane anger is far from new - eighty years ago in his essay Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell wrote that the whole conception of God 'is a conception quite unworthy of free men'. At a time when Islam was a very distant concern for British intellectuals, he also wrote 'I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.'
Russell, like Dawkins, looked largely to science to carry us clear of the religious morass. A forlorn hope, it would seem, especially after watching Root of all evil? It's demoralising enough to watch Dawkins hounded out of some sickeningly rich primitivist Christian's compound for daring to dispute the idea that our Earth is less than 10,000 years old, it's even more demoralising to consider that to most Islamic preachermen, talk about the age of the planet, or of evolution, would simply be gibberish.
There's such a lot at stake in this matter. For that reason, I find it unconscionable that Dawkins should be singled out for criticism as some sort of bigot, or 'preacher', or militant. Why should we stand idly by when politically powerful primitivists spruik messages of blatant ignorance and fear? Why should the likes of Dawkins, Grayling, Sam Harris and other relatively mild-mannered non-believers be pilloried for standing up to be counted in needful times such as this? Why aren't more people aghast at the ignorance, intolerance and manipulation that lies at the heart of all the 'great' world religions?

I read with amusement, at Pharyngula I think, that any atheist who writes a book or even an article defending atheism is called militant these days. To be added to Flaubert's Dictionnaire des
idées reçues.


Friday, June 08, 2007

mgm - more than just a dead movie studio

mutilation of malodorous mucilaginous male membrane

On the subject of female genital mutilation or female circumcision, and its male no-comparison-according-to-some counterpart, which I briefly alluded to in my women under Islam post, here's a fascinating take from a Moslem woman. Even more interesting is the commentary, especially pertaining to male circumcision/mutilation [mgm], how much of it is cultural, how much medical. Though just about all the commentary is informative.
After this wealth of information, I feel the jury's still out on whether fgm is a cultural or religious practice. Clearly it predates Islam, but that hardly proves that it was a purely cultural practice. As if there ever was a culture entirely separate from religion or vice versa. As to whether Islam has discouraged or encouraged the practice, there are commentators who argue vehemently for each side. So who can you believe? The main thing is to denounce and eliminate the practice, and there are encouraging signs that more and more states are getting on board.
I've never been circumcised/mutilated myself, and naturally I've wondered if my life would've been different...


Reflections on orthodoxy 2

wear the same hat, and half the battle's over

As I’ve written, the guild mentality was a product of literacy. Though literacy was first confined largely to practical documentation, its spread to the development of abstract texts had a huge impact on religion in those regions in which the spread occurred. Literacy being confined to a small elite, it follows that its use in religious contexts would’ve been jealously guarded by the religious elements of that elite. These elements, Boyer claims, naturally began to claim the status of specialists, forming guild-like associations to maintain control over rituals, festivities and moral prescriptions and prohibitions. Guilds are formed to standardize goods and services, usually for mercantile reasons, to protect themselves against rogue trading. Not too difficult to see where this is going in terms of religion, in which the ‘rogue traders’ are the dealers in the ‘falsely’ supernatural’. Heretics, in other words. Once a strictly defined orthodoxy is established for the religious guild, heresy also can be more precisely defined, and punishments standardized.

Boyer notes that there is one significant difference between religious associations and guilds of craftspeople or other specialists, and that is that the religious specialist is in a much more vulnerable position than, say, the physician. Not everyone can develop the skill or expertise to become a physician. It requires years of study or training. However, to be an expert in the spiritual realm is a bit different, especially as the spiritual realm is by its nature vague and difficult to circumscribe and codify. In a sense, priests, shamans and the like are competing in a market to provide spiritual comfort. One marketing strategy is to manufacture a branded product, like Coca-Cola or the Catholic Church, more or less the same world-wide, with slight alterations of colour and flavour here and there to suit regional tastes. The major difference, of course, between Catholicism and Coke is that, although Coca-Cola perhaps sincerely believes its drink to be superior to others, it doesn’t seriously believe that every other drink is a form of poison.

One of the ways that a literate religious guild will try to debar forms of spiritual enlightenment other than those processed by the guild is though the sacred text. A sacred text can be promoted as ‘the first and final word of god’ and can be used to integrate various rites and practices into a [superficially] coherent belief system. The greater storage and retrieval systems of literate societies can also make religious ritual more complicated and thus apparently authentic, a bit like being blinded by science.

All this isn’t to say that the more abstract, general and codified religious observances that go with the literacy which emerges from complex societies simply supersede localized religious praxis. The picture is always more complex; old faiths and their attached rituals die hard, and are often incorporated into new faiths, creating hybrids and distortions, much to the annoyance of the purveyors of orthodoxy. The problem is one of relevance. The adoption of Christianity might be politic for various reasons but local spirits and ancestors are more familiar, reliable and relevant in regions connected by local and ancestral ties.

There also appears to be an oscillation between different modes of religious acquisition and practice, which meet different needs. The anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse has distinguished between the imagistic mode and the doctrinal mode, with the former being high on drama and impact, with incoherent elements which often serve only to heighten the attention. Institutionalised religions naturally tend to promote doctrinal modes and to discourage too much of the imagistic, but such containment is never entirely successful, as the purveyors of orthodox doctrine have to deal not with objects to be programmed, but people with vivid imaginations and a need to express their faith in their own way.

The frustration of the purveyors of orthodoxy is perhaps understandable, but why must they go to such lengths to keep people in line, and why the need to maintain the faith against infidels, to such a murderous degree? I’ll look at Boyer’s take on that next time.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

women under islam

Iranian soccer players - freedom, constraint, change

Even writing this title makes me quake, perhaps especially after spending much of today reading here, here and here, with all the various links and comments. Still, I’ll have a go at summarizing my emotional and intellectual response, while acknowledging that people like Kim at LP and tigtog from hoyden about town are much more up on the issues and background.

As an avowed secularist, I’m naturally very much in agreement with Ayaan Hirsi Ali about the horrors of Islam viz-a-viz women [and men for that matter – I read recently that Islam means submission, which doesn’t seem to give too much room for development]. I was also interested in what this Somalian infidel had to say about responses to her message in the west in recent times. She found that she was getting a much more positive response from the political right, because the left were too concerned about harmony and multiculturalism and were uncomfortable about her message that, basically, Islam should be thrown out lock stock and barrel as an inferior tribal religion completely incompatible with democracy, progress and all the rest of it.

My immediate reaction to this was again sympathetic. I’ve crossed swords with a couple of people of the left who’ve argued that female circumcision [they baulked at the term female genital mutilation] was a matter for the particular culture or religion involved [we never did get round to determining whether it was a cultural or religious practice, though I might explore that later], and who are we to interfere or to invoke the specifically western concept of universal human rights. In fact the response to this sort of thing is complex. Perhaps my squeamishness or disgust is some kind of western construction, but the fact that these sorts of practices are carried out on children not in a position to give informed consent is a worry and a flagrant abuse of the rights of the child. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1959, and a Convention on the Rights of the Child, dealt, inter alia, with concerns about child female circumcision. Some 140 nations are signatories to it. Article 24. 3 of this Convention states that States Parties shall take all appropriate and effective measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children. Of course it can be argued that, if done under adequate supervision by a qualified medico, female circumcision might be just as little injurious to physical health as male circumcision, which leaves the issue of emotional health with all its attendant subjectivities.

This leads us directly to the big issues. Clearly there are some women who experience no great problem about submitting themselves to circumcision, or feel no sense of betrayal about having it done to them as children, just as they feel comfortable wearing the hijab and submitting to what western women would see as a highly circumscribed role in their society. Writers like Michel Onfray and critics like Ayaan Hirsi Ali would see this as evidence of the inferiority of those religion-based societies. I seem to recall the latter pointing out in an article that, in fact, most Islam-infected societies have been little touched by the scientific and political enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, which led to the erosion of religio-political power, the erosion of the divine right of rulers [except of course within the Catholic Church], the separation of church and state, universal secular education, and the advent of democracy. The churches and the believers among us have reacted to these changes in one of two ways, broadly represented in the Richard Dawkins documentary Root of all evil? They’ve retreated into a primitivist denial of science and secular morality, or they’ve sought an often uneasy accommodation with it, seeking to update their religion, which necessitates rejecting or quietly ignoring large slabs of biblical writing, in the light of scientific developments.

It’s not too surprising that in the west, scientists like Dawkins have been keen to press home their advantage, by not only exposing the absurdities of the primitivists, but challenging the accommodationists over their inconsistencies and the conveniently ‘progressive’ nature of their version of religion and the deity.

It’s important to note that, in launching his challenge, Dawkins has focused very little on politics. He would no doubt see the issue as a battle over what is true, with politics being essentially irrelevant to the outcome. Less scientifically-minded thinkers like Onfray, on the other hand, are much more concerned with the nexus of religion and politics, arguing forcefully that the three great monotheisms have achieved their positions of influence largely through the infiltration of the political system. A politicized religion is able to take advantage of the state apparatus to police and punish those who transgress religious morality and religious law. Such a religion can quite quickly become ‘naturalised’ as a political and social reality in a population rendered docile by traditionalist values and assumptions, with no real outlets for dissent and challenge.

All this by way of background to the debate I’ve been reading about over the past few days. Apparently Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been welcomed in places like America by the political right, whereas the left has treated her uncompromising message far more warily. Along similar lines, Oz journalists Pamela Bone and Janet Albrechtsen appear to have annoyed feminists of the left by taking what they see as the high moral ground in claiming western society to be superior and, in Albrechtensen’s case, castigating western feminists and Moslem women themselves for not doing enough to try to change the situation for women under Islam.

Clearly this is a hot topic. A post by Kim at Larvatus Prodeo, criticizing Bone, drew more than 300 comments, many of them informative, but many of them overheated and aggressive, on both sides. Although there are a multitude of positions in the debate, basically the argument from the left is that taking a hard line on the inferior status of women under Islam, and a hard line on the inferiority of Islam in general, both plays into the hands of cultural imperialist, clash-of-civilisation types, and alienates Moslem women, who are hardly going to toss off their hijabs and chuck out their domineering husbands on the say-so of a Somalian intellectual or an Australian pen-pusher.

These are surely valid points. Many of the most crusading interventionist types, from liberal interventionists like Tony Blair to some of the more brutish holy warriors of the Bush administration, have a more or less hidden Christian agenda or raison d’être, and that worries me, as I happen to believe that Christianity has no more evidence to support it than Islam – their supernatural underpinnings being essentially the same. What’s more, attempts to impose enlightenment products such as the separation of state and religion, secular education and democracy, from without or above, are not likely to be successful, as history shows. At least not in the short term.

Having said this, I can’t agree with claims that Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s message is one of simplistic rhetoric. As far as I know, she’s not pushing any kind of intervention to liberate Islamic women, the vast majority of whom would not welcome such interference. That would be a simplistic and counter-productive approach. I take her message to be not dissimilar to that of Michel Onfray, that Islam, like Christianity from the time of Augustine through to the Reformation, has been a dark, debilitating force, anti-intellectual, authoritarian and ultimately fascist in orientation. I think there is a pile of evidence to support this view. Christianity, moreover, has only moved in a more ‘loving’ direction since being debarred from political power [though of course Augustine and others always liked to employ the rhetoric of love while advocating the elimination of heretics].

Where this uncompromising position leaves us in terms of dialogue with Islamic theocracies is a difficult question, but I think the best solution is a pragmatic one. I certainly don’t think interventionism will work, though I’m not an anti-interventionist absolutist. The appeal needs to be made to what is universal in human nature. Innumerable studies, many of them gathered together in Steven Pinker’s work The Blank Slate, have pointed to the inescapable conclusion that there is a universal human nature, beyond all cultural differences. The UN has obviously tried to draw upon that nature in drawing up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many have dismissed this attempt as a purely western concoction. I think this is simplistic, but if it can be shown that this is so, then maybe we can replace or refine these rights to make them more universally reflective, and more scientifically based. Of course there are those who claim that science itself is a western construction, at which point I must throw up my hands.

Returning to pragmatism, let me give a personal example. I teach English to a group of women, most of them Moslem. I’ve been teaching this class for about twelve months now, and religion has never been mentioned. I haven’t gone to any extreme lengths to avoid the subject, though I certainly have no plans to bring the topic up for discussion. It’s a matter of accentuating the positives, finding common ground, and there’s plenty of it. Playing my part in the Howard government’s push to assimilate migrants into our Great Oz culture, I incorporate quite a bit of Australian history and Australian politics [non-partisan of course] into my classes, and the students display a lively interest. The point being that they show the same inquisitiveness and interest as I imagine non-Moslems would. Presumably none of these women [mainly from the disputed territory of Eastern Turkestan, but some from Afghanistan and Indonesia] are extremists, though most wear hijabs. At least one of them has been quite outspoken against the Howard government and the Iraq war, and on one occasion I was pressured – very gently – by her, to reveal my attitude toward this government. I could see that my brief response met with a general, amused satisfaction.

What I’m trying to say is, there are ways in which people of different cultural backgrounds can influence each other without being antagonistic, and without compromising their own views. If I was pressured by any of these women to give my views on religion [an unlikely event], I’d have no difficulty in saying that I’m not a believer, but I wouldn’t go much further. I’d try to avoid saying anything offensive, as it would serve no useful purpose. Better to show than to tell, to show that, as a non-believer, you can lead a full and useful and stimulating life, and the world won’t come tumbling down. It’s a very slow, piecemeal approach, but there’s no better one, and the mess of Iraq today shows how badly the attempt to impose western ‘freedoms’ on another culture can go wrong.

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