Gene Expression

True unbeliever

The Washington Post has a fun profile of Sam Harris. This part cracked me up:

“If the Koran were exactly the same,” he said, toward the end of the night, “and there were just one line added to it, and the line said, ‘If you see a red-haired woman on your lawn at sunset, kill her,’ I can tell you what kind of world we’d live in. We’d live in a world where red-haired women would be killed often. We’d live in a world where people like yourself” — and here Harris gestures to his opponent, Oliver McTernan — “would say, ‘That’s not the true Islam.’ Twenty women in Baghdad would have their heads cut off and someone would come forward and say, ‘This has nothing to do with Islam. Some of them were strawberry blond. Some of them were strangled.”

i-f13c95f0937de2ee751e42b21563fc76-sam_harris_200.jpgLater on religious scholars chide Harris for his simplistic reading of religion. The bloggers are Get Religion dismiss Harris’ arguments as shallow. If by “shallow” they mean that Harris takes religion at its word and interprets its own axioms in a straightforward and guileless manner, then shallow he is. Once I was talking to an evangelical Christian who was attempting to convince me of the power of prophecy in the New Testament. I pointed out that Jesus himself said, “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things [the wonders of the Second Coming] be fulfilled.” To this my friend responded, “Ah, but you see, generation means the Jewish people in this context! And the Jewish people remain, so of course Christ has not returned.” And there you have it, my understanding was “shallow” and superficial, a closer look at scripture and religious practice fleshes out the nuance and richness.

Of course, I don’t believe that. Like Harris I am a “shallow” thinker when it comes to religion on the most fundamental level. David Boxenhorn suggests that the problem for some atheists is that we lack the ability to perceive what others see so plainly. I tend to think this is the root of the issue, our psychological profiles aren’t modal, we don’t perceive the universe through the same God-tinted lens of most of humanity. When a believer points to a tree and notes its complexity and asserts that that manifestly is indication of God’s reality I simply laugh it off as absurd. And of course religionists themselves can laugh at the absurdity of other groups and their practices, but when it comes to their own Holy of Holies they see only the object which can sate their spiritual hunger. Roman Catholics speak with reverence of Transubstantiation, but unbelievers are revolted by the implication of cannibalism.

I don’t scoff at Harris, and I don’t scoff at Dawkins. There is an important role for those who point out the absurdity of religion. And yet there is also the reality that we unbelievers live in a world of 1 billion unrepentant cannibals, a world where 1 billion men and women draw the image of perfection around the deeds and words of a 7th century Arab merchant, warlord and prophet, a world where hundreds of millions see the face of the Godhead in this. This is our world, it is what it is.

Sophisticated (or sophistic?) believers sometimes analogize God with beauty. The problem with this analogy is that men and women do not kill for beauty, and they do not heap vitriol on others for different interpretations of beauty. Religion is not one thing, it is a complex of multiple things which fit together in such a way to synergistically unleash the greatness and evil of our species in a thousand directions. It is all things to all men at all times, it is become death, the shatterer of worlds.

Comments

  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    October 29, 2006

    If by “shallow” they mean that Harris takes religion at its word and interprets its own axioms in a straightforward and guileless manner, then shallow he is.

    Yes, yes yes! Very well said. It is always amusing that religionists think the charge of “shallowness” is an answer the incisive questions we infidels ask. It would be as if we asked a believer in fairies for evidence for their belief, and got dismissed on the grounds that we had not considered differing theories of fairy wingspan.

  2. #2 razib
    October 29, 2006

    and yet guile is the nature of the beast since it partook of the apple! i don’t think it is practical to demand that humans be nakedly guileness and view the world with the naive eyes of children who see no demons….

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    October 29, 2006

    i don’t think it is practical to demand that humans be nakedly guileness and view the world with the naive eyes of children who see no demons….

    Sounds sort of like religious moderates….

  4. #4 razib
    October 29, 2006

    i think the moderates see the demons alright, but they are constrained insofar as they won’t (can’t) let go the supernatural.

  5. #5 David Boxenhorn
    October 29, 2006

    For the record, I was referring solely to the perception of God, not to higher-level beliefs like transubstantiation.

  6. #6 David Boxenhorn
    October 29, 2006

    That is, I think higher-level beliefs can be shifted fairly easily. I don’t think it’s true of God-perception.

  7. #7 mjb
    October 29, 2006

    For whatever its worth….I think that supernaturalism is often not as irrational as it appears to a rationalist. To illustrate, suppose a person has an experience that seems to imply a supernatural explanation, for example, a vivid dream of a train wreck a few hours before one occurs in a sibling’s neighborhood. The first rational response would be to try to find a plausible natural explanation. Failing that, the person could either remain open to the possibility of a ‘supernatural’ explanation, or just assume that it must have an explanation within the context of known natural law even if what that is isn’t apparent.

    If the person chooses to assume there must be a mundane explanation, then I don’t see that this is much different from the apologetic contortions a theist goes through. If the person remains open to the possibility of there being some other realms or fantastic laws that are ‘supernatural’ in the sense of being outside of the physics we’re aware of, then I don’t think this conclusion is irrational, for that person.

    Now suppose, as is most often the case, apparently, that the experience doesn’t actually imply a supernatural explanation, but that the person who has it isn’t smart enough to see how that could be. Supernaturalism is still the most sensible perspective for that person to have.

    Relatively rational people tend to be uncomfortable with glaring contradictions in their thoughts, so they try to fit whatever data points are available to the best model that they can find. When a supernaturalist is throwing away outliers that don’t seem to fit their model, it looks ridiculous to a skeptic. But its not less rational than throwing away what appears to that person to that person to a preponderance of data on the other side.

  8. #8 The Ridger
    October 29, 2006

    All of these attacks on Harris and Dawkins for not being experts in theology crack me up. A lot of theologians remind me of the astronomers who kept adding more and more little circles to planetary orbits, trying to squared the observed motion of the planets with their need for everything to be a perfect circle… Eventually they wound up with an unwieldy mess of ‘perfect motion’ when it had become obvious they just needed to let go and accept ellipses. A lot of theology is accretions added to try and square the “word” with the world.

  9. #9 Nina P
    October 29, 2006

    David Boxenhorn suggests that the problem for some atheists is that we lack the ability to perceive what others see so plainly.
    I wonder if I’m missing whole parts of my brain sometimes. Not just regarding religion, but other human institutions regarded with a religion-like passion. I absolutely don’t “get” weddings, for example. Couples will walk through hell for a year to plan a wedding, they will go into debt, they will suffer terribly; clearly the big wedding itself provides some huge payoff, yet I personally can’t imagine what that is. When I’ve tried discussing this with true believers (in weddings) they get offended very quickly, and what I consider reasonable discussion rapidly becomes “out-of-bounds” to them. I was once called a “horrible person” for this, when I was genuinely just trying to understand. It seems that if you don’t already understand, you never will. Just like religion. So why don’t I understand? Was I born without a “wedding lobe”? And like any well-adjusted atheist, I’m not sure I want to understand, lest I become as irrational as those I don’t understand now. I would have more friends though.

  10. #10 Brandon
    October 29, 2006

    I always find it funny when atheists try to justify themselves this way. Look, the real divide here is between people, whether believers or nonbelievers, who read and think like fundamentalists, and people, whether believers or nonbelievers, who don’t; and in the first category, the divide is between people who read like fundamentalists because they don’t know any better (the guileless, if you will) and people who read like fundamentalists because it’s convenient for their argument (those with guile, I suppose). The problem with people like Harris is that they don’t seem, in fact, to “take religion at its word and interpret its own axioms in a straightforward and guileless manner”; rather, they don’t do the research required to ‘take religion at its word’ because they don’t usually bother to determine what religionists as a whole actually say, and when they do, they seem to cherry-pick the interpretations that most conveniently fit their argument. It’s possible that Harris reads Scripture like a fundamentalist just because he’s not intellectually sophisticated enough to read it in a more intelligent way; but it certainly seems like the reason he reads it that way is just that it makes his argument easier. That’s what we call guile. But in any case, the argument touches no one except those who read it as crudely as he does.

    Of course, the really bizarre assumption in the justification is that really fundamentalists are more rational and honest than moderates because the fundamentalist way of reading the text is the only rational and honest way to read. This is obviously false, since the fundamentalist way of reading is not rational, and except where ignorance excuses it, it is not honest, either. It’s the moderates of each religion who read their Scriptural texts rationally and honestly; and failure to read it up to their standards of reading (at least) is a failure of rationality and, except where ignorance excuses, a failure of intellectual honesty as well. This, incidentally, is why you have atheists like Terry Eagleton attacking the ‘New Atheism’; they think it’s an instance of an increasingly intellectually dishonest form of atheism, reading and thinking like fundamentalists whenever it suits the argument, with which they don’t want to be associated. It’s not a theist vs. atheist sort of issue; the opposition is between people, whether atheist or theist, who don’t take the trouble to apply advanced reading skills (either because they don’t have them or because doing so would force them to admit how limited their argument is) and people, whether atheist or theist, who do. (And, as you note, the same applies across religious boundaries. It’s just that the reasonable conclusion to draw is that religionists shouldn’t interpret other religious texts and claims in a fundamentalist way when they don’t interpret their own that way; not, as you seem to want to say, that they are exactly right to dismiss claims as absurd on the basis of their poor skills at interpretation.)

  11. #11 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 29, 2006

    The problem with people like Harris is that they don’t seem, in fact, to “take religion at its word and interpret its own axioms in a straightforward and guileless manner”; rather, they don’t do the research required to ‘take religion at its word’ because they don’t usually bother to determine what religionists as a whole actually say, and when they do, they seem to cherry-pick the interpretations that most conveniently fit their argument.

    It’s the moderates of each religion who read their Scriptural texts rationally and honestly; and failure to read it up to their standards of reading (at least) is a failure of rationality and, except where ignorance excuses, a failure of intellectual honesty as well.

    Codswallop. It is the moderates who are “cherrypicking.” Is it rational to believe that “generation” does not mean “generation”? Is it rational to give up 90% of a fairy tale, but hang on to the last 10%? If an atheist attacks the “God of the people”, he is accused of being unsophisticated. If he attacks the “God of the philospohers” he is accused of being irrelevant. No matter which of the billions of god-concepts he attacks, he is told that his attack is incomplete because there are billions more god-concepts; as though the proliferation of god-concepts is evidence in favor of a deity, not evidence against.

  12. #12 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 29, 2006

    Harris’ story about redheads reminds me of Yusuf Islam (nee Cat Stevens), and his failure to voice any objection to the fatwa on Salman Rushdie:

    On February 21, 1989 Yusuf Islam addressed students at Kingston University in London about his journey to Islam. He was asked to describe the controversy in the Muslim world and the fatwa promising Salman Rushdie’s execution. Islam claims to have only stated the legal consequences from the Qur’an and not actually have made any claims of support for the fatwa. Newspapers quickly denounced Yusuf Islam’s “support” for a possible assassination of Rushdie. Shortly afterwards he released a statement clarifying that he was not personally encouraging anybody towards vigilantism.
    .
    The New York Times reported on May 23, 1989 that Yusuf Islam was to be on a British television program the following week, and was quoted as saying:
    .
    [If Rushdie turned up at my doorstep looking for help,] I might ring somebody who might do more damage to him than he would like. I’d try to phone the Ayatollah Khomeini and tell him exactly where this man is. [6]
    .
    Islam’s most recent clarification of the issue is stated in a 2003 article on CatStevens.com wherein he says that he never stated support for the fatwa but was describing what he understood of Muslim law, and laying the controversy at the door of “journalistic malice”:
    .
    I was simply a new Muslim who had stated something which I considered quite plain and obvious and if you were to ask a Bible student you know what the Ten Commandments were you would expect him to repeat them honestly, you wouldn’t blame him for doing so; the Bible is full of similar headlines if you’re looking for them.[7]

  13. #13 razib
    October 29, 2006

    but it certainly seems like the reason he reads it that way is just that it makes his argument easier. That’s what we call guile. But in any case, the argument touches no one except those who read it as crudely as he does.

    and yet the way you frame it seems as if “no one” are trivial marginals. the reality is that 1/3 – 1/4 of americans “read” this way, and that the majority of sunni muslims read thsi way. harris knows very well that many (most) do not read this way, but his contention seems to be that this majority enables the genuinely dangerous minority.

    It’s not a theist vs. atheist sort of issue; the opposition is between people, whether atheist or theist, who don’t take the trouble to apply advanced reading skills

    scriptural interpretation presupposes religious truths a priori. certainly i agree that fundamenatlists are naive and often false readers, but that does not mean that i grant that more ‘modernist’ or sophisticated readings of religious texts are fundmentally any more valid just because they are literarily and historically informed. the critique toward the two forms of theism here differ: the fundamentalists are ignorant, while the non-fundamentalists will continuously “update” their reading based on the new evidence.

  14. #14 razib
    October 29, 2006

    btw brandon, you are conflating two separate objections by harris and dawkins in reference to their critics. harris is conflating religious with scriptural ‘literalism,’ dawkins is dismissing theology as a rational activity. the latter is not obviously fundamentally rooted in any scripture.

  15. #15 Macht
    October 29, 2006

    “the critique toward the two forms of theism here differ: the fundamentalists are ignorant, while the non-fundamentalists will continuously “update” their reading based on the new evidence.”

    I thought the critique (Harris’s) was that the fundamentalist’s take on religion is dangerous to the rest of society and the “moderate” was enabling their behavior by being in no position to critique them.

    I see nothing inherently wrong with being ignorant nor with continuously updating one’s beliefs based on new evidence.

  16. #16 razib
    October 29, 2006

    macht, you’re right. i was just highlighting the proximate phenomenon.

    p.s. though all should note that consciously put ‘literalist’ in quotations as i don’t accept the fundmentalist contention that they are literal readers either, simply less prone towards scaffolding assumptions

  17. #17 James Kabala
    October 29, 2006

    I agree that this is the most difficult verse in the whole Gospel. There have been many attempts to explain it, most recently, and perhaps most comprehensively, by N.T. Wright. If you are really interested in pursuing this topic (and you seem like the sort of intellectual omnivore who would be interested in finding out more about why people believe as they do even if you are not open to conversion yourself), his (extremely long, I’m sorry to say) books are the place to start.
    Even if I were not a Christian, I would be skeptical towards people who take a smug attitude toward religion such as to imply that all believers are stupid. After all, the literal interpretation of this verse would have become obsolete by A. D. 100 at the latest, yet Christianity continued to grow. Were all these people stupid? Were Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Chesterton, Lewis, etc. stupid? They may have been WRONG, but being condescending toward them will win you no converts. I don’t believe Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism, etc. are true, but I try not to be smug towards believers in them and the way they try to smooth over the problems with their belief systems.

  18. #18 James Kabala
    October 29, 2006

    Plus, Harris’s “red-haired woman” example actually undermines his point. The Koran, let alone the Bible, doesn’t contain anything as stupid as “If you see a red-haired woman on your lawn at sunset, kill her.” One might as well say, “If THE DESCENT OF MAN said blacks were more closely related to apes than whites, then those who have accused Darwin of racism would be right.” (I believe in evolution; I’m just using the name of a writer you revere as an example.) If your best method of proving a book wicked (a task a lot easier with the Koran than with the Gospels) is to add fantasy sentences about how it could have been even worse, you’re undermining your argument rather than helping it.

  19. #19 razib
    October 29, 2006

    i’ve read some of wright’s work before, i’ll check it out time permitting.

    I would be skeptical towards people who take a smug attitude toward religion such as to imply that all believers are stupid

    that’s a strawman, i don’t believe harris or dawkins (let alone myself) believe that all believers are stupid. the issue is not that believers are stupid, most humans are stupid, and though on average the non-believer is probably statistically significantly smarter than the believer at the present time there is an enormous intersection between the two sets (though you can find places like south korea where catholic christians are more educated than the non-religious).

    They may have been WRONG, but being condescending toward them will win you no converts. I don’t believe Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism, etc. are true, but I try not to be smug towards believers in them and the way they try to smooth over the problems with their belief systems.

    1) well, i don’t know if dawkins and harris genuinely wish to win ‘converts.’ i am suspicious that both, especially dawkins, are acting tactically.

    2) and they act tactically precisely beause people like you try and not be smug toward ludicrous belief systems for whatever reason. harris asserts that part of this is due to the fact that liberal tolerant people with supernatural belief systems simply have a difficulty applying critique without turning it upon themselves and so they do not. harris has connected this to tolerance of multiculturalism, and i think this is a valid point, some christian believers have attempted to make common cause with regressive muslims precisely because of the common theistic bond in the face of ‘amoral secularism.’ someone needs to call a spade a spade on occasion, and tolerant believers simply won’t do it. narrow minded fundamentalist bigots will, but obviously they lack society wide credibility because of their own hypocrisy on this issue. an atheist can speak contemptuously of islam without being accused of hypocrisy because an a priori rejection of supernaturalism already preconditions the rejection.

    Plus, Harris’s “red-haired woman” example actually undermines his point. The Koran, let alone the Bible, doesn’t contain anything as stupid as “If you see a red-haired woman on your lawn at sunset, kill her.”

    i think harris’ point was that islam specifically is strewn with shibboleths. consider this muslim family which rejects an autopsy being performed upon the murder victim because they don’t want a male seeing her naked dead body. in bangladesh if you urinate standing up in a stall (instead of squatting) men will scream at you that you are relieving yourself like satan (this has happened to me). why do muslim men grow beards? because muhammad grew a beard. why do muslims like green? because muhammad liked green. why do some religious muslims marry 12 year olds? because muhammad married aisha when she was very young. muhammad might or might not have done these things or believed these things, but he is used as a justification to patently ridiculous customs, traditions or mores.

    as for the bible, consider this:

    And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.

    now

    One might as well say, “If THE DESCENT OF MAN said blacks were more closely related to apes than whites, then those who have accused Darwin of racism would be right.”

    well, by today’s standards darwin, and most evolutionary biologists prior to 1945 were racists. i don’t deny that. the origin of species i a work of man, it is open to critique, as is its author. i do revere great scientists and their works, but they are human, not the supernatural ground of all being, an entity which transcends space and time. believers make extraordinary claims for belief and then bristle when those claims are subject to harsh critique. i don’t mind if you trash darwin or the origin of species because he is a man that the origin was a book, nothing more, nothing less. and yet believers commit great psychological capital into their holy books and conceptions of the deity. it is a fact of the universe we unbelievers have to live with, this hurt that emerges when we declare that the emperor has no clothes. certainly there are atheists who turn liberalism, anti-racism, feminism, communism, etc. into passionate cults which must be insulated from the glare of critique, but that i am not.

  20. #20 James Kabala
    October 29, 2006

    I see I need to clarify myself: I am perfectly willing to argue myself blue in the face pointing out impossibilities in Mormon “history” or wicked injunctions in the Koran, and have actually done so on some occasions, but I would find a “look at the dumb hick who came up with this desperate interpretation!” method of argument to be ineffective.
    And I did not mean to imply that you revered or worshipped Charles Darwin; I meant that any book could be made to have a sinister meaning if one added hypothetical sentences to it, and rather than randomly alluding to HAMLET or GREAT EXPECTATIONS or an already discredited book like THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, I picked a book I that thought would have been a formative influence on you. (But notice that my hypothetical conclusion was about Darwin, not a conclusion about what his admirers would do or think.)

    P.S. The lack of traditions – much less traditions binding on His disciples to follow – about Jesus’s favorite color or urination method is certainly not a proof of Christianity’s truth, but it is an argument for its superiority to Islam.

  21. #21 razib
    October 29, 2006

    but I would find a “look at the dumb hick who came up with this desperate interpretation!” method of argument to be ineffective.

    ineffective with who? yes, mormons won’t be convinced, but, for example if someone who wished to discredit mitt romney is a presidential candidate publicized some of the weirder aspects of mormonism they would probably be effective in eroding his support among ‘orthodox’ christians. similarly, pointing out the absurdities and primitivism of islam in many ways today is very convincing with a lot of secular people. if skeptics want to battle against ‘alternative medicine’ and the like evangelical christians might actually be allies because of their aversion to anything they perceive as ‘new agey.’ you aren’t going to necessarily convince your target audience of the absurdity of their own personal beliefs, but i see merit in at least raising consciousness of absurdity of other beliefs when they aren’t away of it. and later on you can even use some of the taking points against the people who initially mocked the Other (e.g., an evangelical christian friend laughed at the hindu concept of gods being incarnated into human bodies. they were disturbed when i turned this against them, but they had to step back and take a look at their own beliefs, or those of others).

    I meant that any book could be made to have a sinister meaning if one added hypothetical sentences to it, and rather than randomly alluding to HAMLET or GREAT EXPECTATIONS or an already discredited book like THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, I picked a book I that thought would have been a formative influence on you

    yes, but religious books are fundamentally different, they are imbued with deep ontological import. the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO is the only one on that list above that is analogous. men do not kill into the name of HAMLET or GREAT EXPECTATIONS.

  22. #22 Ruchira Paul
    October 30, 2006

    Very good, Razib. Agree with you whole heartedly. And with Mustafa Mond.

  23. #23 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 30, 2006

    Even if I were not a Christian, I would be skeptical towards people who take a smug attitude toward religion such as to imply that all believers are stupid. After all, the literal interpretation of this verse would have become obsolete by A. D. 100 at the latest, yet Christianity continued to grow. Were all these people stupid? Were Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Chesterton, Lewis, etc. stupid?

    I’m going to torch that strawman. No one in this thread has used the word stupid until you did.

  24. #24 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 30, 2006

    I see I need to clarify myself: I am perfectly willing to argue myself blue in the face pointing out impossibilities in Mormon “history” or wicked injunctions in the Koran, and have actually done so on some occasions, but I would find a “look at the dumb hick who came up with this desperate interpretation!” method of argument to be ineffective.

    That was the first use of dumb and the first use of hick in this thread. You seem to be making a habit of mischaracterizing your opponent’s arguments.

  25. #25 razib
    October 30, 2006

    mustafa, be nice :) james is a long time reader, we have our disagreemants. let’s move on from this thread….

    (i won’t close it in case someone has a drop dead insight!)

  26. #26 Joe
    October 31, 2006

    It’s the grammar of Islam, and other prosletyzing religions that’s so repellant. The more particular semantics are necessarily more shallow. Jews didn’t use the Bible to slaughter en masse and colonize internationally, but Christians did.

  27. #27 razib
    October 31, 2006

    Jews didn’t use the Bible to slaughter en masse and colonize internationally

    have you read the hebrew bible? :)

  28. #28 Pithlord
    October 31, 2006

    I always figured Joshua et al. exaggerated their accomplishments somewhat. Some band of Gentiles is always being ruthlessly annihlated, and then turning out to be a huge problem a generation later.

  29. #29 Joe
    October 31, 2006

    “have you read the hebrew bible? :)”

    I know you’re (half?) joking, but if it’s *in* the Bible, then the Bible couldn’t have been used to justify the kind of intertribal warfare that it describes while it was actually occurring (which I’m sure was fairly common in ancient times and therefore not indicative of something that could be called “Jewish” violence anyway).

    The fact that the Bible is indeed violent, but that Jews are not, only strengthens my point that criticisms of whole religions based on “cherry-picking” short passages is necessarily more “shallow” than more “holistic” critiques of a religion’s structure in historical context. In my mind, Islam looked at this way is even worse and one need not become a “Dawkins”.

  30. #30 Joe
    October 31, 2006

    There are 4 yucky qualities that make Islam and Christianity dangerous:

    Prosletyzing (Others outside my group should be like me)
    Dogmatism (My identity is defined by a particular [supernatural] belief)
    Emphasis on afterlife (This world is worse than the one after death)
    Supremacism (Believers of my religion should rule over non-believers)

    Judaism, and other belief systems with tribal origins, have none of these qualities.

  31. #31 razib
    October 31, 2006

    I know you’re (half?) joking, but if it’s *in* the Bible, then the Bible couldn’t have been used to justify the kind of intertribal warfare that it describes while it was actually occurring (

    macabbees and two jewish revolts.

  32. #32 Joe
    October 31, 2006

    Maccabis? The Greek Scriptures is not the Bible (Tanakh). Christianity uses Judaism and Jewish history in all sorts of weird ways to glorify itself. How is that the fault of Judaism?

    Or, what you’re more likely trying to say is that the Jewish revolt against Hellenistic colonial rule was fundamentally or dogmatically “religious” (i.e. supernatural) rather than cultural, tribal, or nationalist? Good luck. If you can disentangle Jewish culture and nationalism from religous learning and observance then you will have solved something Jews have been trying to do since at least the middle ages.

  33. #33 razib
    November 1, 2006

    joe, to make it short, i will simply offer that jewish quiescience is a product of their lack of power. when the jews were in power, e.g., the maccabbees, they were quite vicious in the interests of religious purity. as for the jewish revolts, without a religious motive they would not have occured. other groups who were just as put upon never revolted. in fact, the hellenistic jews probably did not take part in the revolt to the same extent that the pharisaec jews did. the jewish self-conception as a nation is conditioned upon the reality that after 300 jews were simply in no position to convert other peoples. they certainly did accept converts prior to that point, and even after this period as evidenced by the fact that christian statutes banned jewish ownership of christian slaves precisely because the latter often converted to the jewish religion to curry favor. and so on.

    in general i don’t disagree with the thrust of your brief, but i would probably modulate a bit and qualify that the nature of christianity and islam are contingent in part upon the historical arcs which have shaped them/

  34. #34 Joe
    November 1, 2006

    Razib, To make the meat of my reply even shorter, I’ll reverse what you open with: that Jewish lack of power is is a product of Judaism’s relative quiescience.

    Even when conversion was more popular, it was never “easy” (i.e. “I accept that X is my lord/prophet/savior”) because it’s not dogmatic and never “forced” (with the sword) as it was in Christianity or Islam because it’s not supremacist or supercessionist. Judaism, unlike C and I is just not built to obnoxiously spread. There will be internal struggles with fundamentalism within Judaism for some time, perhaps always, but these conflicts cannot (inherently) be exported globally in the same ways that they are in C and I. And the history of Judaism since C and I has unfortuantely, and ironically, been overly determined by the current balance of C-I power more than vice-versa of course.

  35. #35 Joe
    November 1, 2006

    “jewish quiescience is a product of their lack of power.”

    Is like saying:

    “apache quiescience is a product of their lack of power.”

    (Aside from Guns, Germs & Steel arguments) It’s like arguing that the Apache belief system and tribal cultural/political structure is as well suited for world domination as Christianity and Islam, as if to say that if Apaches had acheived such a level of power they would have been as ruthless and Christians and Muslims. Its a non sequitur.

  36. #36 razib
    November 1, 2006

    Even when conversion was more popular, it was never “easy” (i.e. “I accept that X is my lord/prophet/savior”) because it’s not dogmatic and never “forced” (with the sword) as it was in Christianity or Islam because it’s not supremacist or supercessionist.

    this is empirically false. please see The Woman Who Laughed at God, the maccabbees did force non-jews to convert to judaism within their kingdom. they killed hellenistic jews who wished to change the nature of the religion. to be clear: judaism as you understand it is a product of the 4th-8th centuries when it was a religion constrained by its more ‘successful’ offspring.

  37. #37 Joe
    November 1, 2006

    “judaism as you understand it is a product of the 4th-8th centuries when it was a religion constrained by its more ‘successful’ offspring.”

    As compared to the very brief, anomalous period where the ancient Macabbis forced some conversions (within the borders of a historically Jewish state-somewhat ambiguous in the context of the current argument) that characterizes your understanding of Judaism? I will retract the “never” from my above remark, however it doesn’t change very much in my opinion. A brief period where ancient Jewish ultranationalists in a Jewish state forced inhabitants of that state to become “full” citizens, however ugly by today’s standards, is not the same as a global campaign of prosletyzation with the sword. Jews killing “assimilated” Jews similarly is not the same as Christians and Muslims killing infidels. I’m not arguing that Judaism is perfect, but it is inherently different.

  38. #38 razib
    November 1, 2006

    A brief period where ancient Jewish ultranationalists in a Jewish state forced inhabitants of that state to become “full” citizens, however ugly by today’s standards, is not the same as a global campaign of prosletyzation with the sword. Jews killing “assimilated” Jews similarly is not the same as Christians and Muslims killing infidels. I’m not arguing that Judaism is perfect, but it is inherently different.

    no. and of course the maccabbees weren’t the only ones. atrocities were committed during the jewish rebellions as well. not just in judea, but in alexandria and other cities where many jews lived (jew on greek and greek on jew). in the 6th century the king of ethiopia invaded yemen specifically because a yemeni king who had converted to judaism was reputedly persecuting christians.

    of course the spread of christianity and islam are both more complex than you characterize them. there was coercion on various levels, but more generally it was probably elite transmission.

  39. #39 razib
    November 1, 2006

    to be clear, i don’t think there is anything inherent in any religion. islam, judaism, christianity, etc. are not platonic ideals, they’re a collection of summed up cognitive representations in a set of human beings in flux across time and space.

  40. #40 David Boxenhorn
    November 1, 2006

    Just to add a Jewish perspective here…

    Judaism sanctifies tradition, so from its point of view, it doesn’t matter whether the process of creating modern Judaism was historical or not.

    I will add, though, as Razib has pointed out before, that it’s really Christianity and Islam that are the innovators in making proselytization an explicit part of the religion.

  41. #41 Joe
    November 1, 2006

    Thanks for the argument razib. Most of the violence you allude or refer to is ancient and/or tribal in nature, and certainly not on the scale that characterizes periods of wide-spread Christian and Muslim expansion and colonialization. And since the rise of rabbinic Judaism (which *is* Judaism for all practical purposes) your characterization of Judaism as a belief system with an equal or profound potential for expansion and violence comparable to Christianity and Islam is disingenuous and I supspect motivated by a Dawkins-like need to level all religions as “stupid.” I hope I’m wrong about that. I obviously think you are wrong about many, many things. But that’s the point of arguing right?

    p.s.

    You know, concepts (e.g. “religions” or “cultures” or whatever) don’t have to be “Platonic ideals” to have inherent, core or fundamentally meaningful properties. “Summed up cognitive representations…in flux across time and space” really sounds like fuzzy po-mo, cultural relativist bullshit too. (I know you’re not a fan of that stuff, because no is anymore.) Are you talking about the fact that there’s something called cognitve science that has added to our understanding of the mind since Plato? I agree. But “summed up cognitive representations…in flux across time and space” is about as meaningless and vapid a summary of cognitive theories of mental representation that I can imagine and more importantly, it does not serve as valid criticism of my (or Plato’s!) ideas. It’s just another non-sequitur.

  42. #42 razib
    November 1, 2006

    joe,

    1) my point is that nothing in “inherent” in any religion. there maybe tendencies and biases, but to some extent i think a “po-mo” insight is correct in regards to higher religion in that it is all about social context and subjectivity. i don’t think there’s any “there, there.” jewish fundamentalist radicalism in israel, hindutva and sinhalese buddhist nationalism all exhibit the same tendencies that you attribute to islam or christianity. these are not typical of the religion, but to me they show that the tendency is latent within all religions, just as the inverse tendency of quietism is also likely latent (as it has been in judaism for most of its history, only bursting out periodically as in the messianism of sabbatai zvi or the right of a militant jewish fundamentalism among some israelis).

    2) if you survey the exchange i think one can assert that i have been introducing facts into the discussion, and you’ve held onto our general model no matter the reality of the facts. the point isn’t to convince you but to make clear to bystanders that the historical reality is way more complex than you depict it. i might have agreed with your assessment 6 years ago, but i’ve read a lot of books on the psychology and history of religion. i’ve even read many books on the history of religious conversions.

    3) i don’t think your evaluation or description of the various religons are helpful in that they are very coarse. i don’t think that the first order approximation you offer is really useful for anything except to describe how some religions were, and some religions are. it doesn’t give us a sense of how religions can and must change, and are changeable.

    4) as for summed up cognitive representations. the point is that i don’t think religious representations are necessary contingent. i don’t think they are rational systems that cohere…so it is not too difficult for religionists to reinterpret them constantly.

  43. #43 Joe
    November 1, 2006

    [asshole, if you're going to get into an argument with me, you better be fucking respectful -razib]