Saturday, April 11, 2015

Can Faith Be “Reformed”?

Long ago, before my teens – I forget my precise age – I experienced a moral epiphany. Looking across the valley from my bedroom window at home I could see the thin finger of the 1,000-foot radio/television broadcasting mast secured to the earth from wind and storm by four even longer guy cables. I loved looking at that tower. I marveled at the skill and tenacity of the men who had erected it.

I did not credit God with its existence.

I was attending a Catholic parochial school at the time. God was everywhere there; in the crucifixes in the classrooms, in the habits of the nuns, and, indeed, the school was located for a time in the basement of the long, black stone edifice of the Nativity Church. At home, God was partially present in a few crucifixes, in the faith of my foster parents and grandparents, and in their strict observance of Catholic holidays, saying grace at supper, and not eating meat on Fridays. Among other things.

In the parish church, God was present in the rituals – in the genuflecting before the altar, in the kneeling and rising during the Stations of the Cross, in Holy Communion, in the sermons, the answering chants of the congregation on cue from a priest saying mass, and in other rituals. Proof of God lay in utterances and actions, not in evidence.

There were the “miracles” to account for. Christ rising from the dead. Our Lady of Fatima, miraculous escapes from fatal accidents, and so on. Moses parting the Red Sea. The Shroud of Turin. And dozens of other apocryphal tales, assertions, or “proofs” of God’s existence. It was all traditional hearsay passed on over centuries and inscribed and embedded in all the Scriptures and documents and literature of the Catholic Church (and in other Christian faiths), and in men’s minds as indelible proof.

But, I asked myself as I looked out the window at the broadcasting mast, did any of that constitute proof of God’s existence other than the assertions of others, whether made by my parents, by the priests, by the nuns, that he existed and was responsible for the existence of the universe and was the supreme warden of my own existence? I knew the mast existed; I didn’t need anyone to tell me that.

No one – not the parish priest who tried to dissuade me from my atheism, not the nuns, not my parents, not all the books on theology I had ever read – could convince me that God existed. All they could produce as evidence was their say-so. People believed in God, or in some form of deity, for millennia before recorded history. So, it must be true.

And, of course, there were the obvious contradictions in doctrine, the most egregious among them in my mind being the one that while God bestowed on men the free will to choose their salvation or their fate, to know the difference between right and wrong, to choose between good and evil, God knew everything and knew what you would do millennia before you were born. He knew a priori whether you would be naughty or nice, and he knew this about everyone who existed now or ever existed, going back thousands of years into the past and into the future. 

That made no sense to me. It smacked of a rigged poker game run by a Supreme Card Sharp. I didn’t think of it in those terms at that age, but you catch the flavor of my predicament. The doubts in my mind then would, over the years, become a deep-rooted contempt for the ruse and pity for anyone who believed in it, fell for it, and accepted it as an iron-clad verity never to be questioned.

I would also eventually realize that God’s attributes of omnipotence and omniscience were mutually contradictory. If he knew everything that was going to happen, did he also know that he would change his mind and not make things happen? Could he undo actions he had taken in the past?  Did he schedule his changes in mind and stick to the schedule – “I’ll spare Indonesia of earthquakes in 2004 and the resulting tsunami that will surely take thousands of lives….Well, maybe not….” – or was he the plaything of his own unpredictable whims, which certainly wouldn’t classify him as omniscient.

Everything about God and religion – regardless of the creed or the attributes of a particular God – rested on faith, on the acceptance of the existence of a being or deity without evidence, of a being who existed and to whom one was answerable. My lifelong approach to the assertion was: Show me the money.

No one was ever able to show me the money. The pockets and wallets of the popes, clergy, preachers of every known faith, the nuns, and my parents, were empty.  If God granted me the capacity to judge things and men by instilling in me a reliance on the evidence of my senses, why did he then say that the evidence of my senses wasn’t good enough to believe in his existence? That the evidence of my senses should not come into play when considering his existence? That my “God-given” reason wasn’t applicable to this question? And that reason was impotent to grasp his existence? One just had to accept him on faith, and never question his actions, even if they were brutal and sadistic and utterly whimsical.

One had to have faith, and to have faith in the power of faith.

And what is faith? Wikipedia gets it right for once, cadging from the Unabridged Random House Dictionary. Its definition differs little from other dictionary definitions of faith.

Faith is defined as belief, confidence or trust in a person, object, religion, idea or view despite the absence of proof. Faith does not involve the abandonment of reason, but acknowledges more or less consciously the fact that a proof is not possible in a given context. 

The preceding is in the way of an overture to a critique of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s lucid and comprehensive March 20th Wall Street Journal article, “Why Islam Needs a Reformation.”

My answer to that would be: A “reformation” of Islam would entail not only the excision from the Koran and other Islamic documents of all the violent verses and imperatives that justify murderous jihad, but necessarily  require a repudiation of faith as such, as well, regardless of character of the faith.

The Reformation of the Christian Church was largely the banishment of religion from politics. It took centuries to accomplish with religious wars and brutal persecutions of one Christian sect by another. It took time for men to realize that the imposition of one set of religious tenets on others could result in little else but strife and bloodshed, and if any kind of stable civil society was to be created and sustained, religion would have to surrender its power of political force. It was not a universal repudiation of Christian faith, but a boxing in and establishing of boundaries it could not cross. Faith itself remained untouched.

Aiding in the “taming” of the Christian faith were the fire-and-brimstone Old Testament with its vengeful and bloody-minded Jehovah, and the largely pacific New Testament of Christ. Christianity opted to adhere to the ethics of the New Testament. It made possible stable, civil societies not rived by religious wars.

However, there is no Old Koran and no New Koran. Islam is of one piece. There are divisions between various sects of Islam – e.g., the Sunnis vs. the Shi’ites – over doctrinal differences, but there are no multiple fundamental interpretations of Islam, no sea changes as one turns the page on how to practice the faith or how to view Allah and Mohammed. If Mohammed said that’s what Allah demands, that’s it. Kill the Jews hiding behind trees. Let your right hand possess any woman that strikes your fancy. Tax the Christians and Jews or kill them if they don’t convert.  Invade the lands of the infidels and pagans and establish iron rule.

Hirsi Ali divides believers in Islam into two distinct camps:  believers in the Meccan “peaceful” Koranic verses that were superseded by the “violent” ones that came out of Medina, but the rule according to mullahs and imams is that the new verses overrule the older ones. Watch this nonpareil video about the Koranic verses.

Hirsi Ali writes:

It is not just al Qaeda and Islamic State that show the violent face of Islamic faith and practice. It is Pakistan, where any statement critical of the Prophet or Islam is labeled as blasphemy and punishable by death. It is Saudi Arabia, where churches and synagogues are outlawed and where beheadings are a legitimate form of punishment. It is Iran, where stoning is an acceptable punishment and homosexuals are hanged for their “crime.”

As I see it, the fundamental problem is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts. It simply will not do for Muslims to claim [as do Western apologists] that their religion has been “hijacked” by extremists. The killers of Islamic State and Nigeria’s Boko Haram cite the same religious texts that every other Muslim in the world considers sacrosanct. (Brackets mine)

Instead of letting Islam off the hook with bland clichés about the religion of peace, we in the West need to challenge and debate the very substance of Islamic thought and practice. We need to hold Islam accountable for the acts of its most violent adherents and to demand that it reform or disavow the key beliefs that are used to justify those acts.

Hirsi Ali names in her Wall Street Journal article the five elements in Islam that must go, that must be stripped of their belligerent potency, the elements responsible for the interminable mayhem and the War on the West Islam declared centuries ago These must be banned or shredded before Islam can become “pacified” as Christianity and Judaism have been. Square bracketed comments are mine.

1. Muhammad’s semi-divine status, along with the literalist reading of the Quran. Muhammad should not be seen as infallible, let alone as a source of divine writ. He should be seen as a historical figure who united the Arab tribes in a pre-modern context that cannot be replicated in the 21st century.

[This is contingent on whether or not Mohammad actually existed. See Robert Spencer’s exceptionally informative and educational book, Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins.] Once you’ve read this work, you can’t help but doubt that the whole story of Mohammad has been a gross, cruel, and tragic farrago.]

And although Islam maintains that the Quran is the literal word of Allah, it is, in historical reality, a book that was shaped by human hands. Large parts of the Quran simply reflect the tribal values of the 7th-century Arabian context from which it emerged. The Quran’s eternal spiritual values must be separated from the cultural accidents of the place and time of its birth.

[There are several books and Websites that discuss the fact that the Koran was the work of many scribes and Islamic theologians centuries after Mohammad’s death. Here is one of the more exhaustive ones, at Myth No. 1.  The Koran that excites ISIS and Al Qaeda and that has come to harass us today is the result of fourteen centuries of editorial emendations.]

2. The supremacy of life after death. 

The appeal of martyrdom will fade only when Muslims assign a greater value to the rewards of this life than to those promised in the hereafter.

[Of course, “martyrdom” in this context does not mean dying alone of a self-inflicted wound in order to get to Paradise sooner, or taking actions that would not also take the lives of others because they were Jews or infidels. It means specifically jihad, or waging war against the Jews and infidels, and taking their lives as well as one’s own, or perishing somehow in the “struggle” against Dar al-Harb, or the ”Muslim enemy land.” This could entail using suicide vests, driving bombs into buildings or crowds, or flying hijacked planes into buildings.]

3. Shariah, the vast body of religious legislation.

Muslims should learn to put the dynamic, evolving laws made by human beings above those aspects of Shariah that are violent, intolerant or anachronistic.

[Unfortunately, according to Mohammad, Allah says all man-made law is filth. That’s a non-negotiable “truth” in Islam. Sharia Law is a primitive, non-conceptual, anti-intellectual code of law, “justice,” and correct behavior which should not be accorded recognition or respect by the West. It is probably more primitive than that of the Xatanawa in Brazil. It is a tribalist, patriarchal code that favors men over women and children and is in direct conflict with Western principles of individual liberty and freedom. Just because there are compendia of Shariah law doesn’t make it any more valid. They may as well be several bushels of Confederate currency. Further, Muslim advocacy groups in the West have been waging a “stealth jihad” campaign to impose Shariah on non-Muslims, as well.]

4. The right of individual Muslims to enforce Islamic law.

There is no room in the modern world for religious police, vigilantes and politically empowered clerics.

[This also means outlawing the “honor killing” of men and women who leave Islam or who choose non-Islamic, Western values, murdering Muslims who develop personal relationships with non-Muslims, corralling and prosecuting Muslim rape gangs that prey on non-Muslim women and girls in the West, and demanding that employers provide Muslim employees with the means to practice their religion on the job. By “religious police and vigilantes,” Hirsi Ali means the phenomena of gangs of Muslims “patrolling” neighborhoods in Western cities to prevent drinking, smoking, or the wearing of non-halal clothing (such as miniskirts or other revealing or provocative apparel). Further, it means that Islamic clerics could not decree death fatāwā on any individuals deemed in violation or transgression of Shariah law.]

5. The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.

Islam must become a true religion of peace, which means rejecting the imposition of religion by the sword.

Good luck with that. There are thousands of Muslims who love wielding the sword.

Hirsi Ali adds:

Any serious discussion of Islam must begin with its core creed, which is based on the Quran (the words said to have been revealed by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad) and the hadith (the accompanying works that detail Muhammad’s life and words). Despite some sectarian differences, this creed unites all Muslims. All, without exception, know by heart these words: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is His messenger.” This is the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith.

The Shahada might seem to be a declaration of belief no different from any other. But the reality is that the Shahada is both a religious and a political symbol. (Italics mine)

But, then, what would be left of Islam that would still be Islam? I’ve said this many times before on this subject: Nothing that could be called Islam. It would be closer to the religious beliefs of the Amish.

The nihilistic nature of Islam – its worship of death and treatment of life as a mere transient state that precedes an eternal “life” in a “Paradise” where all inhibitions and taboos are lifted – inculcates in those born in Islam something akin to what In classical Freudian psychoanalytic analysis is the death drive or the drive towards death, self-destruction and the return to the “inorganic.” Or in a Muslim’s case, temporal nonexistence in exchange for some ethereal existence in a dreamed-of pleasure palace in the heavens…somewhere. Most Muslims, as Hirsi Ali notes, don’t work consciously to bring about their or others’ deaths, but are passive participants in what can only be regarded as a death cult.

As for the numerous Western converts to Islam, there must be something of the predatory zombie already in their character makeup that draws them to Islam.

Islamic reformers, however, are not going to stop having faith in the truth of what they believe in, even should they brave death fatāwā declared on them by imams and mullahs and by rogue “states” like ISIS, and successfully emasculate Islam and convince all Muslims to follow suit.

Faith is the problem that weighs down the reformation of any religion and its diminution as a moral force governing the affairs and relationships of men. It is the anti-mind and anti-reason power and pull of faith that can account for the incalculable misery, deaths, and destruction in human history. Faith is addictive; it has pull and appeal because it doesn’t require proofs; one can just believe in the unproven and not be bothered with grasping or formulating a reason-based morality by which to live on earth and not in some fantasy realm.

Hirsi Ali ends her article with:

Let me make two things clear. I do not seek to inspire another war on terror or extremism—violence in the name of Islam cannot be ended by military means alone. Nor am I any sort of “Islamophobe.” At various times, I myself have been all three kinds of Muslim: a fundamentalist, a cocooned believer and a dissident. My journey has gone from Mecca to Medina to Manhattan.

For me, there seemed no way to reconcile my faith with the freedoms I came to the West to embrace. I left the faith, despite the threat of the death penalty prescribed by Shariah for apostates. Future generations of Muslims deserve better, safer options. Muslims should be able to welcome modernity, not be forced to wall themselves off, or live in a state of cognitive dissonance, or lash out in violent rejection.

Hirsi Ali grants Islam a modicum of respect, as a system that contains the germ of reformation into a benign, non-aggressive mode of living.  For all that she had endured in her life as a Muslim and as an ex-Muslim, she certainly shouldn’t respect it. I don’t respect it. From my first readings about Islam, I recognized it as totalitarian in means and ends, whether or not most Muslims are “peaceful and law-abiding” and not driven to slaughtering people in Mohammad’s or Allah’s name. Like Christians and Jews, they have simply compartmentalized either the requirements of living in the modern world, or the creed itself.

There is nothing redeemable in Islam, nothing salvageable, nothing worth reclaiming from those who allegedly “hijacked” Islam.   

Only a philosophical revolution will disestablish faith as a mode of living and “reform” it into the dustbin of history.

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