christopher hitchens is a creep

It’s not that it wasn’t obvious from the title of his weirdly vindictive book God Is Not Great, itself a deliberate poke in the the eye to the world’s Muslims, who, of course, affirm that God is great every time they pray.

And sure, I read him. It’s entertaining, in a gruesome way, when he goes after popular icons like Mother Teresa. And I don’t mind keep an eye on his column just to know what an unrepentant Iraq war hawk thinks about things like attacking Iran, because it’s useful to know what arguments crazy people will soon be presenting you with.

But his column this week in Slate, titled “The taming and domestication of religious faith is one of the unceasing chores of civilization,” is an even more bilious stew of pomposity and historical blindness than his usual stuff. This column makes it more clear than ever that Hitchens, often wrongly lumped into the New Atheist camp with the genuinely areligious Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, is in fact nothing more than a bigot whose atheism seems driven largely by a desire to rationally justify his visceral loathing of certain religious groups.


Hitchens starts the article by asking, in light of recent discussions about the Park 51 center and American Islam in general, whether he supports the “free exercise of religion.”

The unsurprising answer: No. No he does not.

The reader may well hope that this is a rhetorical device, that Hitchens will say something like, “Of course, what I mean is that there are certain inherent constraints on religious practice that even a free society must adopt, just as there are certain inherent constraints even on free speech. ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater, and so on. But naturally outside of actual harm people are free to practice whatever they are called to and believe whatever they find convincing, because the free marketplace of ideas — both practical and metaphysical — is worth whatever number of wrong and foolish ideas it necessarily permits.”

Nothing like that is ever said.

Hitchens does sporadically find real harm done by actual religious beliefs, and he properly points out that, for example, we do not generally allow Christian Scientists to deny their children medical care. Hitchens notes that parents who do so “can be taken straight to court.” Fair enough — the standard is applied: real harm is met with legal limitations. But he then goes on to add, “Not only that, they can find themselves subject to general disapproval and condemnation.” Here I am no longer sure what his argument is. The very phrase “free exercise of religion” is a legal term, a slice of the First Amendment. What do “general disapproval and condemnation” have to do with anything?

We find out in another paragraph, this one dealing with the Mormons:

[I]n 1963, the Mormon church had not yet gotten around to recognizing black people as fully human or as eligible for full membership. (Its leadership subsequently underwent a “revelation” allowing a change on this point, but not until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.) This opportunism closely shadowed an earlier adjustment of Mormon dogma, abandoning its historic and violent attachment to polygamy. Without that doctrinal change, the state of Utah was firmly told that it could not be part of the Union…. Thus, to the extent that we view latter-day saints as acceptable, and agree to overlook their other quaint and weird beliefs, it is to the extent that we have decidedly limited them in the free exercise of their religion.

See, then, the line from Hitchens’ “disapproval and condemnation” to the legal restriction of religious liberties. Mormons are racists and practice polygamy; therefore we must use the power of the law to bend them to something Hitchens finds more acceptable. Of course, polygamy (at least, consensual polygamy) harms no one — the “violent attachment” Hitchens refers to was seen by Mormons as the vigorous defense of their liberties, and they were at least partly right. Mormons were victims of violence over the issue of polygamy at least as often as they were perpetrators. And if modern intellectuals (including, I assume, Hitchens) take the matter of gay marriage as a settled point of social equality, it’s hard for me to see how anyone can justify using legal force to exclude a faith community from the union because it advocates for alternative family arrangements.

Harm, then, is something of a floating target in Mr. Hitchens’ world. It can mean actual harm, or it can simply mean things he finds weird or discomfiting.


In the vein of actual harm: A professional titillator, Hitchens does not fail to bring up sexual crimes against children, because nothing wins an argument faster than averring that your side is against child abuse, and therefore the other side — those wacky “free exercise of religion” people — must be for it. A few ultra-radical Orthodox mohels use direct oral suction to stop the bleeding after circumcision. So barbaric! So icky! And they give the children herpes!!! (Or maybe they don’t. The New York Times article he links to is less certain.) Also, did you know that some Catholic priests engaged in pederasty?! Because Christopher Hitchens knows it. HE THINKS ABOUT IT ALL THE TIME.

Of course, clerical pedophilia is not an actual doctrine of Catholic Church, and foreskin-sucking is about as much a part of Judaism as snake-handling is of Christianity. There are some valid points buried in these paragraphs somewhere about the legitimate role the state can play in correcting institutional excess in faith communities. But mostly it seems Mr. Hitchens is interested in reminding you of THE TINY PENISES AND THE CRIMES AGAINST THEM. Because if you dare to stand against his program of sectarian cleansing and “taming,” you must be in favor of rabbinical cock-sucking.


Hitchens seems to live in a world separate from the actual mainstream of political debate: “We talk now as if it was ridiculous ever to suspect Roman Catholics of anything but the highest motives,” he writes, as though anyone has ever said any such thing. “[Y]et by the time John F. Kennedy was breaking the unspoken taboo on the election of a Catholic as president, the Vatican had just begun to consider making public atonement for centuries of Jew-hatred and a more recent sympathy for fascism.” It’s not at all clear what this sentence is supposed to mean, or whether the “centuries of Jew-hatred” somehow justify the social and legal oppression of Catholics for most of this country’s history by Protestants who were not, themselves, exactly Jew-boosters.

But all this is just the warm-up for talking about the religion that freaks Chris Hitchens out most of all: Islam. (Oogie-boogie!)

Some of its adherents follow or advocate the practice of plural marriage, forced marriage, female circumcision, compulsory veiling of women, and censorship of non-Muslim magazines and media. Islam’s teachings generally exhibit suspicion of the very idea of church-state separation. Other teachings, depending on context, can be held to exhibit a very strong dislike of other religions, as well as of heretical forms of Islam. Muslims in America, including members of the armed forces, have already been found willing to respond to orders issued by foreign terrorist organizations. Most disturbingly, no authority within the faith appears to have the power to rule decisively that such practices, or such teachings, or such actions, are definitely and utterly in conflict with the precepts of the religion itself.

Now, I happen to agree with Hitchens that many very disturbing concepts are floating around the idea pool of Islam. But to complain that there is no centralized Muslim authority seems to me to betray a fundamental distrust of democratic processes. If there can be many toxic and foolish ideas about, for example, what America ought to be (or the Netherlands or Uganda) without the idea of free political speech being cast into the sea, then surely we ought to be able to concede that there can exist in the world many terrible ideas about what Islam ought to be, without our pining for some sort of autocrat to banish the bad ideas and uplift the Hitchens-approved ones. Personally, I’m glad of the wild range of opinions within Islam, and I hope that the more we encourage the free exchange of ideas in American Islam, the more Muslims will feel they can embrace humanism and modernity without betraying their faith. (For an excellent example of how a centralized theological authority in Islam would actually work, please see Saudi Arabia or Iran.)

But Hitchens believes that Islam is more-or-less irredeemably murderous, and while he has found much of the debate surrounding the Park 51 center in Manhattan distasteful, he nonetheless fundamentally shares with the “Ground Zero mosque” protesters a belief in the collective culpability of all 1.4 billion Muslims for the crimes of a few dozen:

Reactions from even “moderate” Muslims to criticism are not uniformly reassuring. “Some of what people are saying in this mosque controversy is very similar to what German media was saying about Jews in the 1920s and 1930s,” Imam Abdullah Antepli, Muslim chaplain at Duke University, told the New York Times. Yes, we all recall the Jewish suicide bombers of that period, as we recall the Jewish yells for holy war, the Jewish demands for the veiling of women and the stoning of homosexuals, and the Jewish burning of newspapers that published cartoons they did not like.

This paragraph is sort of astonishing for a number of reasons — foremost because it implies that if the Holocaust had happened a few years later, when Zionist Jews in Palestine were absolutely carrying out terrorist attacks against British and Arab targets, that it would somehow have been justified. Anyway, depending on your definition, Mossad could be seen as carrying out state-sponsored terrorism even today. As for stoning, well, as recently as last year ultra-Orthodox, erm, activists were organizing stoning attacks against a bus line in Israel for the crime of not enforcing sex-segregation on their vehicles. That these Orthodox wingnuts are the fringe of the fringe is exactly the point. The number of Muslims engaged in purely religious terrorism, as opposed to politically motivated terrorism bound up in disputes over territory, is fantastically small.

(The longstanding dispute over Palestine is perhaps the clearest example of a dispute over territory that has over time become a “Muslim” cause. No less a figure than David Ben-Gurion admitted as early as 1936 that “The fear [among Palestinians] is… of losing homeland of the Arab people, which others want to turn it into the homeland of the Jewish people. There is a fundamental conflict. We and they want the same thing: We both want Palestine.” Palestinian terrorists have by no means all been Muslim — George Habash, who organized the Dawson’s Field hijackings, was a Christian — and, indeed, Israel initially supported Islamist Hamas as a counterweight to the secular PLO. Hitchens knows all of this perfectly well, of course, but it’s much more fun to paint Islam as a religion of suicide bombers than it is to acknowledge that terrorism is a tactic employed by practically everyone, everywhere.)


Hitchens glumly concedes at the end of his essay that “Globalization, no less than the promise of American liberty, mandates that the United States will have a Muslim population of some size.” But, he says, in order to be fully integrated into American society Muslims must “abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves.” This is very odd phrasing indeed. To ask every American citizen to forswear terrorism and violence against civilians is, I think, uncontroversial — but to insist that they give up their “presumptions”? Why? Should Straussian anti-tax libertarians, who believe as firmly as any caliphate-seeking Islamist that their views and methods ought to prevail worldwide, similarly be forced to conform to the dictates of Hitchens’ “civilization”? Should secular polyamorists, who presumably offend Hitchens’ moral sensibilities as much as Mormon polygamists, be forced to give up their ideas as well? What about Arthur Jensen, the social scientist whose work largely goes toward legitimizing racism?

As long as the answer to any of these questions lies in the power of eloquent speakers to influence opinion against ideas they find immoral or incorrect, so be it. But Hitchens seems suspicious of and displeased by the raucous marketplace of competing philosophies. His tendencies are authoritarian and distinctly monoculturalist, and his celebrated “idiosyncracies” read every day more and more like sheer prejudice and crankery.

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24 responses to “christopher hitchens is a creep

  1. While I do not agree with Hitchens a lot (I’m a Christian, for starters), I see his point in re Islam–the very tenets of that religion leaves a lot to be desired; too easy to misconstrue those if you’re of that bent. I speak from personal experience.
    However, I agree with you 80% 🙂

    F

    • Hey Fred,

      Thanks for stopping by! I understand what you’re saying, and it’s true: people construe Islam in a violent way, and it’s not that hard to do. On the other hand, our homegrown Christian terrorists have done their own fair amount of construing, too: see, for example, the recent murder of George Tiller. In general, I think religion can be like that old Bill Cosby routine about cocaine: “I said, ‘Well, what’s so great about cocaine?’ ‘Well, cocaine intensifies your personality.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?'” Good people get better with religion, but often bad people (of nearly all faiths, it seems to me) become worse with the conviction that God is on their side.

      But I think people — whether people of faith or people of no faith — become better and more “civilized” and more forgiving mainly by talking to a lot of people who aren’t like them. I think you have to develop empathy and perspective by putting yourself in contact with a lot of people whose views you don’t share. And I think we don’t help Muslims, as a group, do that by treating them like second-class citizens or by viewing them, as Hitchens so obviously does, with suspicion.

  2. So Hitchens, who becomes nauseous at the idea of an entire nation cow-towing to small angry mobs in oil rich countries, is a creep?

    You advocate what strategy: “talking to a lot of people who aren’t like them”.

    Religious tolerance towards islam constitutes allowing them to institute sharia law, or at least impose it on their communities. Consideration for their religious practices constitutes allowing civil rights violations to be perpetrated on our own soil. We must respect their right to be intolerant, bigoted, racist, murderously homophobic, and . . . well, if you don’t know what sharia law is, look it up.

    “But, he says, in order to be fully integrated into American society Muslims must “abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves.”” – They are not, for instance, allowed to riot like barbarians every time someone does something they don’t like. They are not allowed to control the discourse. They are not allowed to act like petulant children in a grocery store and expect anyone else to care.

    I’m sick of hearing this relativist rationalization nonsense. There really is a difference. Hitchens sees it, but most of America actually believes the pathetic islamic apologists.

    Your asking for the yoke, complimenting the farmer, and biting the stranger who attempts to remove the blinders.

    “I think you have to develop empathy and perspective by putting yourself in contact with a lot of people whose views you don’t share.” – Unless you have been indoctrinated, through fear and shame, to view every action of every foreigner as an impediment to the spread, and domination, of Islam.

    “But Hitchens seems suspicious of and displeased by the raucous marketplace of competing philosophies” – Only the totalitarian wet-dreams of oppressive religious ideologues, abuses of civil rights and liberty, and advocates for ‘nice’ speech over free speech.

    ———————–

    I hope your right, though. 🙂

    I see a truly reasoned response from you, and I wonder if I’m missing something. Nothing you have said is news, but I hope theres something I’m missing. Its part of the last remaining bit of hope I have for Islam. I am an extremely patient and reasonable person, which is what really pisses me off about this nonsense.

    I am looking for, but not finding, reasons to be tolerant. Got anything more convincing than “Hitchens is an a-hole, and the rest of the world sucks”? Possibly something remotely connected to Islam. . .

    Thanks,
    Lee

    • Religious tolerance towards islam constitutes allowing them to institute sharia law, or at least impose it on their communities. Consideration for their religious practices constitutes allowing civil rights violations to be perpetrated on our own soil. We must respect their right to be intolerant, bigoted, racist, murderously homophobic, and . . . well, if you don’t know what sharia law is, look it up.

      Lee, having spent a year studying Arabic with Arab Muslims as well as another year working with them in Iraq, not to mention many years of personal study, I think I actually have a pretty good grasp of at least the outlines of “sharia law” — enough to know that it’s not one uniform thing. As I noted in my post, Hitchens himself acknowledges that even within Sharia there is no singular legal authority within Islam who decides what is and isn’t Sharia, what is and isn’t Halal. Instead there are thousands of ‘ulema, the “learned,” all giving their own opinions, which are essentially as binding as the people (ummah) decide they are.

      Nor are all Muslims interested in implementing a system of religious law in this country. Many, indeed, are glad of the freedom to worship as they please in this country, and are enthusiastic supporters of the separation of church and state. You may not have seen, for example, my earlier post pointing out that Imam Abdul-Rauf of the Park 51 project is a Sufi. In some Sunni countries he could be killed just for that. There’s a guy who’s keenly interested in standing up for freedom of conscience. But Hitchens isn’t interested in the real, difficult dialogue that’s going on within this country and throughout the world, the dialogue in which actual Muslims try to decide what Islam is and how its historic system of law translates into the modern world, with its secular democracies. He prefers to see Islam through the lens bin Laden and Ahmedinejad have given him, because that fits better with his view of himself as The Only Sane Man, fighting the good fight to tame The Ugly Barbarians.

      Speaking of which, you’ve suggested that American Muslims are prone to “riot like barbarians” and “act like petulant children.” I’m unclear as to exactly when and where this happened. As far as I can tell the people “rioting like barbarians” are the anti-Islam bigots who, for example, recently harassed a black man on his way to a construction job because he happened to be wearing a skullcap. The people “acting like petulant children” are the ones who have been attempting to block the construction of masjids and Islamic centers all over this country for no better reason than that it hurts their feelings to see Muslims. Talk about advocating “‘nice’ speech over free speech.”

      Further, Islam is hardly unique in being dangerous when it holds the reins of the state. American Christian ministers who preach that homosexuality is a European vice being taught by gay recruiters found that out recently when their teachings became the basis for a law in Uganda that would give the death penalty to homosexuals. And I agree with Hitchens in this: religion should not be a part of how we make law in a secular democracy. But he has (and I’m sorry to say it seems you have, too) a particular passion for Islam, as though it were somehow uniquely malevolent in this way. It is not.

      Finally, it’s not anybody’s job to give you reasons to be tolerant. “Tolerance” is irrelevant. As George Washington wrote to the Jewish congregation in Rhode Island:

      The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

      Unless you can show that American Muslims are failing to demean themselves as good citizens — i.e., as I said in the post, causing some actual harm to someone — they are welcome here.

  3. “Nor are all Muslims interested in implementing a system of religious law in this country” – True enough, and true for christians as well. Sweeping statements like “all muslims” are easy to fashion in this manner. Perhaps, as you suggest, “Many, indeed, are glad of the freedom to worship as they please in this country, and are enthusiastic supporters of the separation of church and state”. Alternatively, perhaps many are merely glad that America is not a christian theocracy, as opposed to an islamic theocracy. It is not that they are glad the nation doesn’t institute a religion, they are glad its not a religion other than their own.

    “Speaking of which, you’ve suggested that American Muslims are prone to “riot like barbarians” and “act like petulant children.”” – I did not suggest that american muslims do this, I suggested that muslims around the world do this almost reflexively in response to criticism against islam. On this point, however, I would ask you what we would do if muslims were to riot here in response to some offense or other? Would you be suggesting we force desensitization? Or would you be doing as you are now, claiming that there is a subset of muslims within america, or elsewhere, who aren’t rioting? What, precisely, would be required for you to feel Islam is a sufficient threat as a driving ideology to speak about it as Christopher Hitchens does? I only wonder if maybe we are so focused on tolerance and free expression that the dangers facing those very concepts slip under the radar.

    “As far as I can tell the people “rioting like barbarians” are the anti-Islam bigots who, for example, recently harassed a black man on his way to a construction job because he happened to be wearing a skullcap.” – ‘Riot’ is a rather strong word for harassment. We could ponder, in this context, how many muslims have been killed, or even injured, in reprisal for . . . well, anything in america by americans “rioting like barbarians”. I imagine a thoughtful moment in reflection of the many who have died as a result of muslims riots would make your point relatively moot. Do I think harassment is OK? Absolutely not. Do I think it is less damaging than violent, homicidal mobs? Absolutely. That is the distinction.

    “Further, Islam is hardly unique in being dangerous when it holds the reins of the state” – Agreed, but a non-sequitor nonetheless. Common diversion from criticism of Islam is to point to everyone but muslims. It does you no work to point out how ridiculously divisive other religions are, you’re preaching to the choir.

    “Unless you can show that American Muslims are failing to demean themselves as good citizens — i.e., as I said in the post, causing some actual harm to someone — they are welcome here.” – Never said they weren’t. Its not the people, its the religion.

    Is it that hard to distinguish between Arabs and Islamists? If so, given the tenets of islam, why is this not considered a problem? Is there a limit to tolerance of diversity? If so, what is the limit? I am not suggesting persecution of muslims, or an end to diversity, or any other slippery-slope generalizations you have suggested. I am suggesting we stop pretending Islam is not a violent, divisive, intolerant ideology that is capitalizing on our civility to further the aims of the fundamentalists. They are murdering apostates, homosexuals, journalists, and anyone else who stands in their way, and they are WINNING the theological debate.

    “But Hitchens seems suspicious of and displeased by the raucous marketplace of competing philosophies” – Key word here is competition. They are not competing, or even qualifying, for a spot in the marketplace. Any group that demands respect must earn it.

    “The people “acting like petulant children” are the ones who have been attempting to block the construction of masjids and Islamic centers all over this country for no better reason than that it hurts their feelings to see Muslims.” – How about they open Mecca to non-muslims as a gesture of solidarity, instead of building a ‘mosque’ a stones throw from GZ? Is that really too much to ask?

    • Lee, I thought about debating you point-by-point. But then I decided not to bother. It’s clear that you’re not interested in learning anything or engaging in a real conversation. When you say things like “They are murdering apostates, homosexuals, journalists, and anyone else who stands in their way” and “How about they open Mecca to non-muslims as a gesture of solidarity, instead of building a ‘mosque’ a stones throw from GZ?” and “I suggested that muslims around the world do this almost reflexively in response to criticism against islam” you reveal yourself as someone perfectly comfortable lumping all 1.5 billion Muslims together in a murderous conspiracy. And this without producing a scrap of evidence in support.

      And your comment that “Its not the people, its the religion” reveals a complete (Hitchensian) unwillingness to grapple with the many different kinds and practices of Islam in the world, or to separate out the “religion” of the tiny minority who commit and encourage violence from that of the vast majority who just want to be left alone.

      I’ve heard enough. Go start your own blog. Further comments of yours will be deleted. Because the taming and domestication of bigoted commenters is one of the unceasing chores of civilization.

  4. I’m sorry you feel that way. You probably could have done without the insults, though. I made every attempt to be civil and open-minded while still presenting my thoughts.

    I might suggest you use an alternate method of transcription, maybe a diary, if your not interested in discussion. A less inflammatory title could help divert attention as well, especially if all you want is fan mail.

    Regards,

    Lee.

    • All right, Lee. Fair enough. Let’s try this again. I am willing to accept at face value your interest in discussion. I apologize for insulting you. In return, maybe you will agree that saying things like “I’m sick of hearing this relativist rationalization nonsense” in your very first comment could be taken as something less than civil, and that painting all of Islam as “a violent, divisive, intolerant ideology” is not a particularly good starting point if you are trying to come at this in an open-minded way.

      I’m more than willing to have a discussion with people I disagree with. As you point out, that’s why I write in public. But if we’re going to be civil, let’s be civil. Hitchens has made himself a public figure and will, I’m sure, weather my “inflammatory” remarks. But when you and I, private citizens, talk to each other, let’s make an effort to dial down the provocative phrasing. Because when you come in strong like that, man, I think you can reasonably expect people to hit back, hard. It’s no good acting as though someone hurt your feelings, when you were the one who came on like he had a chip on his shoulder and repeatedly referred to Muslims (collectively and without exception) in fairly villifying terms.

      It’s the latter thing that I think bothers me the most. I’m perfectly willing to have a discussion about specific Muslim ideologies, their teachings, and whether those teachings are compatible with a free secular society. I think it’s a discussion worth having. But in order to do that, I think you have to be willing to see “Islam” for what it is — a vast, multi-faceted phenomenon with many openly competing intellectual factions, encompassing billions of points of view. I think that means you have to take into account not only anti-Western demonstrators in Iran, for example, but also the “Green revolutionaries.” They are Muslims, too. You have to take into account Gamal Al-Banna as well as Osama Bin Laden; Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri as well as Ayatollah Khomeini.

      Consider this thoughtful, nuanced statement on the implications of stem cell research for Muslims from the Fiqh Council of North America. Its approach strikes me as a quite sensible attempt to balance respect for the potential life inherent in an embryo with the social good the comes from both in-vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research — really very subtle compared to the level of the debate in most of America.

      Or this long but interesting essay on human rights in Islamic teachings compared to the quite barbaric practices found in many predominantly Muslim societies. Of particular interest, I think, is the section on slavery, which argues that Muhammad intended to passively let the institution of slavery lapse by cutting off the major source of slaves after giving the economy enough time to adjust to the loss. (It reminds me of a certain largely secular group of eighteenth-century nation-builders….)

      Or consider the multitudes of Muslim voices that have spoken in condemnation of terrorism and, in particular, terrorist attacks on the United States. Contrast it with the common refrain that “moderate Muslims remain silent, or celebrate, when extremists use violence.”

      Or there are these lovely people, the Muslim Network for Baha’i Rights — Muslims standing up for the civil and human rights of people who emphatically claim that Muhammad was not the final prophet and the Qur’an not the final revelation. Their creed? “Religious freedom is not a privilege, it’s an inalienable human right…. Islam inspires us to fight for individual freedom regardless of any religious differences. We believe in tolerance, respect, unity, and understanding. Despite our differing beliefs, we consider Baha’is to be our brothers and sisters who deserve to practice their faith yet live peacefully with us.”

      Or there’s Shirin Ebadi, the complicated Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has campaigned for women’s rights in Iran at tremendous personal risk while at the same time rejecting the presumption of the West of any right to interfere in Iranian affairs.

      Are all these people just dissembling? Just putting on a good front in order to lull Americans into a false sense of security so they can then turn around and somehow impose theocracy in Iowa? It seems to me that thinking that way could take you down the same kind of nothing-is-what-it-appears rabbit hole that people who think President Obama is a Kenyan communist are living in.

      Anyway, if you’d like to discuss it more, I’m here. Just try to remember that my blog is like my house — just because I leave the door open and welcome visitors doesn’t mean that anything goes.

  5. I would like to tackle these in reverse order, Hitchens style. Before you gasp with justified frustration, however, I would like to concede some points on which I was wrong.

    First, and foremost, there is a large portion of muslims who are actively fighting the extremists. Due to my limited access to this information, for which I have only myself to blame, and now you to thank, I have unfairly characterized muslims in what could reasonably be called a bigoted way. For that, I apologize. Both to you, and to those many muslims who have been striving against extremis within their fold.

    I will also admit that there is sufficient room within the teachings of Islam, and indeed the writings of the prophet muhammad, on which to base a peaceful form of Islam. I was partially aware of this, but much of the literature you have kindly directed me to has elucidated this point more clearly. As a result, I now think calls for reform in the religion are diversions from the real issue of the source of militancy, namely what Chris Hedges has termed “scummy little dictatorships”.

    Also, I accept humbly that some of my comments were “not a particularly good starting point if you are trying to come at this in an open-minded way.” I am prone to bouts of passion, not always well directed.

    That said, I remain a staunch opponent of Islam. If you have an opportunity, I would suggest taking a look at some of the arguments Sam Harris has made in The End of Faith. While many of his more scathing points about islam now stand on less firm ground, I think the overall thesis of his book, that humanity must outgrow faith, is strengthened all the more with this realization. This quote, from a muslim scholar:

    In modern Islam, there is no religious hierarchy, no Vatican to excommunicate heretics. Islam is more akin to Judaism, where ultimate authority lies in scriptures.

    Fatwas were once issued primarily by recognized religious authorities of a country or Islamic university, said Shaykh Hamza in California, but “now, every Tom, Dick and Abdullah gives fatwa.”

    and here, from your final, brief post,

    No Islamic revival can be achieved without a direct return to the Holy Qur’an and a reexamination of the Sunna. It must be freed from interpretations which were put by ancestors who were influenced by the spirit of their age, the dominance of ignorance, the tyranny of rulers and the difficulties in research and study. This has affected the interpretations of the Qur’an, the rules of Fiqh (jurisprudence) and the arts of Hadith (traditions of the Prophet). This has instilled notions which are narrow and contrary to the spirit of Islam.

    (The latter post, by the way, was not as badly translated as I originally thought. It was, in my humble opinion, very well written and clear in it’s translation. This post alone opened my eyes considerably.)

    These quotes serve to shine light upon what I feel is the real problem with Islam, and with religion on general. To say Islam requires reform, or that it is a “violent, divisive, intolerant ideology” (quote from me) is really missing the point, and doing so in a naive way. Far too much time is spent on attempting to tease out the “true” meaning of Islam, or the “real” christians. These two concepts are illusions, constructed by men and women who are certain that some benevolent deity exists, and has written a book for us. Through the course of our trials in attempting to discern what this deity has put down, we have discovered every possible method of justifying our every desire. The books essentially take very human drives, magnify them, and root their justification outside reality. This separation of our moral and ethical impulses from reality on is the REAL problem with Islam. Belief that the creator of the universe has given us homework while we wait for the end of the world has been a massive diversion from the problems we should have been facing, and ultimately have begun facing, in a secular society. “this relativist rationalization nonsense” I was speaking about was referring to the idea that Islam is just as viable a way to come to morality as any other method, and this flies in the face of moral progress throughout our history, not to mention many other, far more benign religions. As I see it, WE worked our tails off at morality, then the religions “found” moral insight in their holy texts and claimed victory. Claiming that the books were right all along, when properly interpreted, is a concession all civilized people should be loath to make. Some methods of discovery really are better than others, and admitting this does not constitute bigotry.

    “Most disturbingly, no authority within the faith appears to have the power to rule decisively that such practices, or such teachings, or such actions, are definitely and utterly in conflict with the precepts of the religion itself.” – Here, I think Christopher Hitchens comes very close to saying what explained above, and it applies with equal felicity to Jews and Christians. Competing opinions on the illusion of absolute truth are like competing opinions about fairies, and have done more to obscure morality and derail society than any other bad ideas. There may very well have been an evolutionary advantage to religion, which could account for our emergence as the dominant species of hominid, but it is now tearing our societies apart.

    In it’s present form, Islam stands unique in the worlds religions as one most currently suited to justify extremism. The links you sent me can be matched, case for case, with links of other muslims spewing hate, intolerance, and violence. “now, every Tom, Dick and Abdullah gives fatwa.” (from above). There is obviously a problem with “unauthorized” fatwas, but the deeper issue here is adherence to fatwas.

    His closing comments, “There’s an excellent chance of a healthy pluralist outcome, but it’s very unlikely that this can happen unless, as with their predecessors on these shores, Muslims are compelled to abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves.” which you found so objectionable, did not indicate a conflict with what you have so vehemently opposed; neither in my rhetoric, nor, I think, in your original blog post. I have read many articles (all of those you provided, plus a few google searches), and while there are numerous calls for an end to violence, and solidarity, etc., very few are willing to accept criticism of the faith. Those are the “presumptions” Hitchens pointed out, and you clarified, when you said, “you’ve suggested that American Muslims are prone to “riot like barbarians”. Obviously, this is not happening in America, a distinction I did not make clearly in my original post, and one that I don’t think I originally intended to make, but which Hitchens DID make. I have, I hope adequately, provided my sincere apology and correction in the first and second paragraphs above. However, insisting that criticism of Islam is analogous to hate speech, or racism, or even bigotry, is incorrect, and efforts to inhibit such criticism constitutes a surrender of free speech. In this context, to ignore the muslims “rioting like barbarians” in other parts of the world in response to criticism, and resulting in things like the blasphemy laws in the UK, is to ignore a very real problem with Islam and its future relationship with the west.

    My point, however realigned, remains an honest and direct criticism of Islam. It is not special, it’s ideas are not special, and the remainder of the world does not have to adhere to the ideology. I am not a muslim, therefore I am free to criticize the faith without fear of reprisal.

    Well, at least I should be free to do this. Is Christopher Hitchens a creep for doing this? I don’t see how he could be.

    With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. – Steven Weinberg, quoted in The New York Times, April 20, 1999

    Thank you for the dialogue!

    • Hey Lee,

      I think I understand your point a little better now. And I think you’re right — too often religion, far from being a direct channel to objective wisdom from a benevolent deity, simply serves as a justification for narrowness, hatred, and the fulfillment of all-too-human desires. And I think religion is not unique in that — communism was a similarly perverse, unfalsifiable, and argument-stifling ideology that resulted in (or at least, was used to justify) the deaths of tens of millions in the twentieth century. Any time we surrender our judgment, our willingness to compare our beliefs to the facts in front of us in a sane way, we get, as Steven Weinberg mentioned, good people doing evil things.

      I also agree with you that humanity has had a long, difficult slog out of an often brutal and tribalistic past, that we’ve “worked our tails off at morality.” On the other hand, I think it would take a very peculiar reading of history to deny that religion has been a major player in that work, if for no other reason than that religion has created ever-widening circles of people considered to be in “the in group.” We have expanded our view of who has rights under the law, who is human, who has intrinsic value, out of our family or our tribe or our nation or our “race,” often, because of religious teachings — or at the very least, by using religious arguments.

      In the West, the authors of the New Testament really changed the face of religion. Judaism had been — and still is — a tribal religion, fundamentally linked to one genetic and cultural group. When St. Paul, in particular, insisted that the Messiah’s message was for the Gentiles, too, he really broke that link. It was a shrewd move in marketing terms — Christianity exploded all over the Middle East and Europe, while other, similar messianic cults faded away — but it also set a precedent for the development of human rights. Paul created a “big tent” in Christianity, and he consistently quashed arguments between Jews and Gentiles, vegetarians and non-vegetarians, the married and the chaste, insisting that all Christians were part of “the body of Christ.” And even non-Christians ought to be treated with love and respect, because they, too, were the Lord’s children. That was a bold conceptual shift in a time when human life was cheap and might generally outweighed right.

      And I think you can draw a direct line from Paul to the English and American abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries, many of whom were motivated by, and made arguments based on, a profound religious sense of brotherhood with black slaves. (And of course religion was a powerful force in helping American slaves maintain hope and a resistant spirit in the face of terrible oppression.)

      That’s not to say that the Christian world has always been a bastion of peace and harmony. But it is to say that human beings are innately tribal, innately obsessed with in-group/out-group categorization. Religion, at its best, has been a powerful force against that obsession, forcing us to widen our gaze and see all men as our brothers.

      I say this without in any way denying the flip side of that phenomenon — that religion itself becomes a powerful in-group, and that non-believers become a demonized out-group. I just want to point out that religion has often convinced people to see some good outside their narrow parochial interests, and it has strengthened that vision by appealing to a higher source of good. The fact that you and I don’t believe that that higher source is a real, anthropomorphic thing doesn’t make those appeals any less effective.

      To tie it back to Islam — I often think of Malcolm X, who was an areligious criminal before finding religion in jail. He believed for a time in an aggressive racialist version of Islam for a while before embracing a more inclusive vision of his faith as something that could actually heal racism. My point is not that Malcolm was a criminal because he wasn’t a believer. He was a criminal because he came up poor and black in a time when those things severely limited one’s options, and because sometimes people just choose crime to serve their interests. But it does seem to me that religion came to him at a pivotal time at his life and caused him to expand his interests to, first, his fellow black people, and eventually to all of humanity.

      So I feel, as a non-believer (or at least deep agnostic) myself, that I face a deep conundrum. Organized religion has repeatedly proven that it can inspire acts of brutal savagery, that it can be corrupted by money and power, that it can stonewall change and progress, and that it can suppress free expression even before it lays its hands on the power of the law. At the same time…. It’s easy for me, as a middle-class guy in an open, rich society, to get behind freedom and tolerance and all the rest. It doesn’t cost me anything. For other people, living in oppressive conditions, it’s a much harder deal. What motivates those people to stand up to dictatorship and corruption? Oftentimes it’s faith — and the deeply felt love and fellowship that come with it, things that abstract principle can’t really replicate.

      Sometimes, as in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, that ends up including some elements you and I and Hitchens find intolerable. But to my mind that’s all the more reason to extend an open hand to people who think that God favors intellectual openness, freedom of choice, and nondiscrimination. Because for those people, faith is an amplifying force in doing good in the world, and they in turn can influence their fellow believers to do good. I think if we don’t engage those people we isolate them. Which only makes the evil ones stronger, I think.

      Anyway, thanks for coming back. I’m sorry about the static earlier. I get “passionate,” too, and sometimes I get my back up too easily.

  6. “I was speaking about was referring to the idea that Islam is just as viable a way to come to morality as any other method, and this flies in the face of moral progress throughout our history, not to mention many other, far more benign religions.”

    You speak about ‘far more benign religions’ as if Islam can be treated as a coherent whole. How would you go about discerning this whole? Reading the holy books of the faith? I can tell you that the literal letter of these books matters very little to how Muslims in different social, economic, and political situations around the world actually act in practice, no matter how much or how little they might reference the qu’ran. One can’t even say that they intrinsically really have anything in common except the fact that they may call themselves Muslim. Stepping on to any university campus, for example, should be enough to rectify this view. So, you might be able to see how broadsides at ‘Islam’ are viewed as quite insulting in this respect. In fact, one of the more serious issues on my university campus is the problem of groups of ‘liberal’ Zionists and their allies constantly haranguing pro-Palestinian activists using racial slurs targeted at Arabs and Muslims that have, to be honest, become commonplace tropes these days. One might say that we shouldn’t bring politics in this discussion, but I think it’s pertinent, as it’s some of the most disgustingly racist discourse I’ve ever heard in my life.

    There are serious problems with speaking about ‘Islam’ as such, and not recognizing this is a serious barrier to understanding and engaging in rational discussion with all those Muslims who you would probably get along with absolutely fine had your head (well not you in particular, but many people certainly) not been filled with the idea that ‘Islam’ (whatever that even might mean) is somehow essentially evil and regressive.

    • You speak about ‘far more benign religions’ as if Islam can be treated as a coherent whole. How would you go about discerning this whole? Reading the holy books of the faith?

      Yes, follow the link provided. I think you can look at Islam as a coherent whole when taking all avenues of worship into account. It spawns loving, peaceful people, and hateful, violent people. The religion of Jainism is used as a sort of control group by Sam Harris in this quote from an interview:

      The principal tenet of Jainism is non-harming. Observant Jains will literally not harm a fly. Fundamentalist Jainism and fundamentalist Islam do not have the same consequences, neither logically nor behaviorally.

      and this one from The End of Faith:

      According to Zakaria, ‘if there is one great cause of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, it is the total failure of political institutions in the Arab world.’ Perhaps. But ‘the rise of Islamic fundamentalism’ is only a problem because the fundamentals of Islam are a problem. A rise of Jain fundamentalism would endanger no one. In fact, the uncontrollable spread of Jainism throughout the world would improve our situation immensely.

      Please don’t mistake this for proselytization for Jainism, they still believe many improbable, unjustifiable things. However, Martin Luther got his peaceful protest techniques from Ghandi, who got his doctrine of non-violence from the Jains. My “broadsides at ‘Islam'” amount to recognizing that not all religions are the same. I don’t feel Islam is exactly “evil and regressive”, I feel adherence to any religious edicts on the basis of supernatural rewards or punishments is a problem, and some edicts within some institutions are more of a problem than others.

      • thehandsomecamel

        According to Zakaria, ‘if there is one great cause of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, it is the total failure of political institutions in the Arab world.’ Perhaps. But ‘the rise of Islamic fundamentalism’ is only a problem because the fundamentals of Islam are a problem. A rise of Jain fundamentalism would endanger no one. In fact, the uncontrollable spread of Jainism throughout the world would improve our situation immensely.

        I think there’s a good argument to be made there, and I take your point; not all philosophical bases lead to the same conclusions.

        On the other hand, I think a couple of points need to be raised. The first is that the word “fundamentalism” is a bit misleading, because it implies that there is a “real” Islam (or Jainism) that the “fundamentalists” have somehow returned to — Harris’s “fundamentals of Islam.” But again, that’s letting Bin Laden set the terms of the debate, and that’s kind of my beef with Hitchens — I think he’s too willing to let the extremists tell him what the true Islam is. As Wright points out, the texts of all religions are rich enough (or self-contradictory enough, if you prefer) that you can find justification for many different ideas in them. Two questions then arise. First, is there one single religion, a “fundamental” faith from which many supposed believers have actually fallen away, or are there, as Reka suggests, many possible Islams, Jainisms, etc.? And if the former is true, who do we trust as experts to tell us what the real faith is? I think that’s a matter for some debate right now within Islam, and I think the debate is one most of us non-Muslims aren’t really following. Which I think complicates the whole question of how we should think about Islam.

        The other thing I wanted to say is that I think a fundamentalist Jainism does potentially have negative consequences. (Assuming Harris is right about Jainism. I don’t know a whole lot about it myself.) An unwillingness to use violence when it’s necessary is also problematic. King and Gandhi were successful primarily because they were fighting opponents who could be shamed in the court of public opinion. Nonviolent resistence is not a useful strategy when dealing with, say, the Soviet Union, and if Afghanistan had been full of Jains instead of Muslims it would have become another Soviet republic. This is why I think fundamentalisms or absolutisms in general are a bad idea; one needs to evaluate situations as they come, rather than trying to set policy in advance for every possible situation.

  7. This may be of interest as well: Robert Wright’s recent editorial in the New York Times.

    Wright is a journalist and science writer who studies, among other things, how human evolution affects the way we see the world. He points out that when people approach religion, they see the parts they like, and they minimize the parts they don’t.

    [It’s] something human: a tendency to latch onto evidence consistent with your worldview and ignore or downplay contrary evidence.

    This side of human nature is generally labeled a bad thing, and it’s true that it sponsors a lot of bigotry, strife and war. But it actually has its upside. It means that the regrettable parts of the Koran — the regrettable parts of any religious scripture — don’t have to matter.

    After all, the adherents of a given religion, like everyone else, focus on things that confirm their attitudes and ignore things that don’t. And they carry that tunnel vision into their own scripture; if there is hatred in their hearts, they’ll fasten onto the hateful parts of scripture, but if there’s not, they won’t. That’s why American Muslims of good will can describe Islam simply as a religion of love. They see the good parts of scripture, and either don’t see the bad or have ways of minimizing it.

    It’s worth a read. Wright suggests that good will and a peaceful approach from others actually encourages people to view their own scriptures and ideologies in a more peaceful light: he calls it a “virtuous circle.”

  8. If your a fan of Robert Wright, you may also enjoy his discussion of OIF with Christopher Hitchens, a 7 part affair available on YouTube still, I think. He is incredibly articulate, and his voice drips that dry humor you can see more freely expressed in his TED talk.

    They really get into it, but its quite informative.

  9. “On the other hand, I think a couple of points need to be raised. The first is that the word “fundamentalism” is a bit misleading, because it implies that there is a “real” Islam (or Jainism) that the “fundamentalists” have somehow returned to — Harris’s “fundamentals of Islam.”

    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say lol. I’m convinced that if Harris (or those of his ilk) were to speak with some of my Muslim friends, he first attempt to point out problems with ‘Islam’ and then try to explain to them that they’re, in fact, not ‘real’ Muslims at all, because if they were, then they would live by every word of the Qu’ran, particularly the violent bits (this setting aside the question of whether it would actually be possible to do this, given the contradictory nature of religious texts). This is why it doesn’t make any sense to speak about any faith as if it has some kind of essential properties which make it what it is. The idea that Sam Harris has some special insight into what Islam ‘really’ is no doubt came as a shock to many Muslims upon the disclosure of his revelation.

    As for the question you raise of an Afghanistan full of Jains – I tend to think that if this were the case, then (and this is really an absurd thought experiment given that social relations have historical roots in general lol, but I’ll run with it anyways) you would find some Jains re-interpreting their faith in ways that would allow of resistance. If we want to talk about a religion that most people view as harmless, then I think Buddhism is a good example, given it’s status as the ‘good one’ amongst many liberals (who sometimes are reluctant to even label it a religion). But, in fact, there are many Buddhist regimes, or regimes which mobilize a violent base of support through Buddhism, ranging from pogroms led by monks in Burma, to the Thai monarchy, to the Sri Lankan treatment of Tamils (not to mention the history of Japanese imperialism). The point is not to say that Buddhists are bad, but simply that there are really existing Buddhist fundamentalists, and that they can certainly be violent. When discussing this with many people, I find that their immediate reaction is to say something to the effect of “well, those regimes aren’t actually Buddhist!” – remarkably, the exact opposite way that many are prone to thinking about Islam.

    • Last post on this, I promise lol 🙂

      The idea that Sam Harris has some special insight into what Islam ‘really’ is no doubt came as a shock to many Muslims upon the disclosure of his revelation.

      I’m certain this would come as a shock to him as well. He has dismissed the idea of there being a ‘real’ interpretation as presupposing the supreme being who set down the texts. I agree with him on this point, and would challenge you to tell me what true islam is with 100% certainty, or perhaps tell me what it isn’t, with the same degree of certainty. You will, I hope, recognize just how tenuous your position would be on such a claim, and this recognition is all that my point requires.

      This is why it doesn’t make any sense to speak about any faith as if it has some kind of essential properties which make it what it is.

      No one knows what ‘true’ Islam is, but everyone can read the books (studies show “fundamentalists” can read too ;/ ). Islam has interpretations and Hadiths which can be read to justify civil rights violations, suicide bombing, and generally barbaric behavior. Jainism does not. Islam has been around for 1400 years, approximately, and has done significant damage to progress scientifically and morally among its adherents. Jainism has been around for about twice as long, and while a good argument could be made against the moral legitimacy of pacifism, the tenets of this faith do not cause the same behavioral results as Islam. The tenets of Jainism truly allow nothing but peaceful adherents, as can be seen by reading the texts, and as is evidenced by the history of the faith.

      Nonviolent resistence is not a useful strategy when dealing with, say, the Soviet Union, and if Afghanistan had been full of Jains instead of Muslims it would have become another Soviet republic.

      and

      As for the question you raise of an Afghanistan full of Jains – I tend to think that if this were the case, then … you would find some Jains re-interpreting their faith in ways that would allow of resistance.

      What if the Russians became Jains, eliminating the afghan’s need for “resistance”? What if Hitler had been a Jain instead of a Roman Catholic? Sam suggested that the uncontrollable spread of Jainism would improve our situation, not that Jainism among specific minority groups would help protect their autonomy.

      We can play the “social relations have historical roots” game, but it is a reductio ad absurdum as to which came first; tic tac toe for grown-ups.

      If we want to talk about a religion that most people view as harmless, then I think Buddhism is a good example, given it’s status as the ‘good one’ amongst many liberals

      I don’t know what liberals have to do with this (or why they are suddenly an authority on religion), or even why the collective misunderstandings of “most” people bear mentioning. Moving the conversation to Buddhism was, in my humble opinion, a deliberate attempt to create an argument I both did not make, and would not defend. While I think Buddhism and Islam are certainly different, Jainism offers a far more convincing control group as far as religions go.

      the word “fundamentalism” is a bit misleading, because it implies that there is a “real” Islam (or Jainism) that the “fundamentalists” have somehow returned to — Harris’s “fundamentals of Islam.”

      I will often say that the tenets of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism are problematic just as a frank appraisal of the texts. This statement requires that I perhaps unpack what Sam Harris explains in the End of Faith. It is not a problem, per se, that the OT recommends stoning adulterers, as this is a passage that can be interpreted through the lens of the NT in paul, or just ignored as contextual, or seen as allegorical. The problem is that people approach books containing passages like this with the mindset that the creator of the universe endorses a specific interpretation. Unfortunately, there is no truth-test with which the faithful can discern the incorrect interpretation from the correct one. Once you ponder this for a moment, visions of a moses-looking person, 5x the size of earth, wearing a striped referee’s shirt and raising a gun come to mind. BANG, and the human race dives into their holy books, furiously looking for the answer to a single question posed by God, now forgotten. Thousands of years later, we yammer on, fighting each other over who is right while God is off tending to another ant farm.

      Take God out of this picture completely, and you now witness a scene of perfect foolishness and self-conceit, the very conception of the world that any well-read atheist is forced to accept. We appear to be sharing the world with the billions of lunatics scrambling around with “magic” books in search of answers that never had a question. As a result, we sink trillions into our assumed anthropomorphic state of existence, praising ourselves and wasting precious time and resources, not to mention killing one another almost ceaselessly. Dispelling this illusion is enormously frustrating, especially with fundamentalists, because halfway through a reasoned conversation you suddenly feel like a “tennis player, in mid-serve, who notices that his opponent is no longer holding a racket.” (SH)

      I hope this clears up my position.

      Finally, @ our most gracious host:

      The regular media caricature of Iraqi society is not even a parody. It is very common indeed to find mixed and intermarried families, and these loyalties and allegiances outweigh anything that can be mustered by a Jordanian jailbird who has bet everything on trying to ignite a sectarian war. Second, it means in the not very long run that the so-called insurgency can be politically isolated and militarily defeated. It already operates within a minority of a minority and is largely directed by unpopular outsiders.(emphasis added)

      Christopher Hitchens – It’s Curtains for al-Qaida (2006)

      This could serve as evidence that perhaps his most recent slate article isn’t quite saying what you originally thought.

      • thehandsomecamel

        What if the Russians became Jains, eliminating the afghan’s need for “resistance”? What if Hitler had been a Jain instead of a Roman Catholic? Sam suggested that the uncontrollable spread of Jainism would improve our situation, not that Jainism among specific minority groups would help protect their autonomy.

        I think this is an interesting argument. It sort of suggests that Jainism is better for the world than atheism (the Soviets, after all, were officially atheist), even though it involves a lot of what I think you might consider superstitious beliefs. Interesting, and disturbing. What if truth doesn’t make us nicer people? What if it actually makes us imperialistic dicks? At the very least, it doesn’t prevent major dickery. Again, I’m not sure I buy Steven Weinberg’s proposition that it’s religion alone that makes good people do bad things. Hell, the Mongols killed 40 million, at least according to this guy’s estimate. (Many more than the Crusades.) They can’t all have been “bad” people. And they didn’t care about your religion one way or another — Mongols could be polytheist, Muslim, Christian, or nothing at all. And there’s no reason to think a modern, scientifically-educated people couldn’t be every bit as rapacious. Where does that leave us? I don’t know, but it seems premature for us to contemplate the end of faith, for sure.

        On the other hand, I did some research (by which I mean I looked it up on Wikipedia 😉 ), and it would appear that Jains permit violence in self-defense and in warfare — pretty much exactly what most readers would say the Muslim holy texts allow, and also more- or-less what secular international law allows, I think.

        I admit to knowing nothing about Jainism, but it seems that either the Jain texts allow for some wiggle room or Reka is correct that anybody, anywhere, with any set of texts will eventually use some sort of legalistic argument to allow for violence. (Heck, I could make the argument myself right now — to allow crime or a military invasion to go unchecked, says our smart Jain scholar, would result in greater harm to living things than taking up arms against such forces. Lesser of two evils, and so on.)

        Suppose, in any event, that we allow the thought experiment and posit that the whole world becomes devoutly, ascetically Jain tomorrow. They literally wouldn’t hurt a fly — not even in self-defense. Then another generation is brought up, and they’re all raised on Jainism, too. But one kid — exactly and only one, out of the 6 billion people on the planet — rediscovers violence. He could literally rule the world. It just takes one. And he doesn’t have to believe in God.

        And, of course, even if warfare were to disappear, Jains would be in trouble. How do we heal the sick? By murdering microbes and cancer cells. How do we feed the people? By laying waste to plants and animals and whole habitats that don’t serve our needs and raising up other ones in their place. It’s a cruel, zero-sum world at times. Jainism’s doctrine of non-harm, if taken to its logical extreme, has arguably less place in it than radical Islam. Certainly it serves human needs less well. But this is why most Jains aren’t absolutists.

        So… what are we left with? Here’s the nut, as I see it: People — even good, decent-hearted people — will kill each other, in vast numbers, whether religion is involved or not. Some religious or philosophical viewpoints probably are better at steering the conversation toward peace and away from violence than others. But since violence is a part of the human condition, all religions (and secular philosophies, as well) take account of it and try to channel it.

        Ultimately — and I am not the first person to make this argument — the war is not between faith and reason or between a “good” religion like Christianity and a “bad” religion like Islam. The things that make radical Salafism, Old Testament Judaism, and certain strains of violent Christianity so dangerous are inversions of the things that make Sufism, Reform Judaism, and Liberation/Process Theology so potentially useful to the world. Yet the latter come out of the same books as the former. I think the over-arching philosophy that connects those latter movements to each other and to the better brands of secular liberalism is one of self-criticism, humility, and flexibility. And to return to the original article that inspired this post (many eons ago), Hitchens seems to call for exactly that philosophical approach:

        What is needed from the supporters of this very confident faith [Islam] is more self-criticism and less self-pity and self-righteousness.

        But in the 2006 article you quote above, and every article I’ve read on the topic since, Hitchens has shown himself an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq war — a war started not by Muslims, but by “very confident” Christians and atheists like Hitchens himself. So while I agree with his words here — I agree that self-criticism is probably the over-arching philosophical position most conducive to peace — I feel he often does a lousy job of actually abiding by them and turning his powerful intellect on his own certainties.

        Anyway… whew. I think now I will bow out, too. Thanks to you both, Lee and Reka, for your comments. This has gotten very long, but has totally turned out to be worth it!

  10. Thanks for that reply. I suppose that’s a fair point about my bringing up Buddhism. Note that my main point was not exactly to speak about what ‘most people’ think about it. It was my mistake to couch what I said in these particular terms, but it was a subsidiary point I was then making anyways. My main point was that Buddhism is a religion with a seemingly non-violent and innocuous set of texts and teachings. And yet…

    My issue with these kinds of hypotheticals and thought experiments isn’t to say that they’re completely useless all the time, and it’s true they’re integral, but just that they often end up making very little sense and having very little correspondence to reality or history. To premise a thought experiment by assuming a Russia of Jains is to imagine an utterly different (and, really unimaginable) world historical assemblage of relations – who the hell really knows what such a world would look like or be like? And at this point you can really derive whatever conclusion you want ;S.

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