Sep 29, 2014

Karen Armstrong on 'The Myth of Religious Violence'

It's not every day you see an article decry colonialism while praising western leaders for their pronouncements on the true nature of Islam.  Take a moment to savor that contradiction before moving on.  I find it instructive.  We aren't really objecting to westerners telling other people what their religion 'really' is, we're just using that objection as a cover to put forward our own preferred definition.

For myself, during my years as a liberal Christian, what I was mainly clinging to were the fuzzy godfeels--not the vomit-inducing praise-and-worship 'feel the spirit!', but other ideas, such as justice, correction for the evils of this world, and an elision of my own mortality.  To maintain these fuzzy godfeels, I had to distance myself from this extremist elements--my personal pleasure in religion is greatly diminished by coming at that price!--usually by denying that the evils of religion were both necessary and endemic.  This was true in the epistemological sense, as well: if the methodologies of faith and revelation could lead to such horrors and not just to my happy place, then I had built my house upon the sands.

A further bit of personal history: I know Baptist pastors who have been brutally savaged by mobs led by Orthodox priests screaming about the one true religion.  Those priests seemed to think it was about religion.  And the mob seemed to think it was about religion.  And the victims seemed to think it was about religion.  And I, simpleminded, colonial atheist that I am, look at that and go, 'Huh!  Maybe this was about religion!'

Enter Karen Armstrong to set everybody straight.

I guess I could fisk the rest of it--"it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics."  To paraphrase CS Lewis on toothache, ten minutes of Southern Baptist preaching will cure of you of all that romantic claptrap.  "The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive."  Not since ol' Ronnie Raygun claimed Russian had no word for freedom has a stupider claim been made about the contents of foreign languages.  Or perhaps you'd like to claim Bulgaria, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, as Western?  Thus sending everything you've said about 'western' religion tumbling into incoherence?  There are even a few valid points, like 'secular is not automatically good', or 'religion properly understood is a totalizing ideology that seeks to dominate every aspect of personal and public life', but these are ultimately incidental.

Karen Armstrong drives me batty, because she refuses to engage either with the strong forms of her stated opponents' arguments, or with the actual words of actual religious people by which they themselves describe their beliefs and motivations, and because she refuses to say what she really thinks, or why.  What's the topic sentence of this essay?  What thesis is she defending--or attacking?  I have literally hurt my brain thinking about this, and the best I can do is "the most caricatured and overstated version of the link between religion and violence is overstated."  The second-best--"secularization won't necessarily fix the problems of the Middle East"--is also a no-brainer, but completely belies the serious article promised by that fine-sounding title.  Also conspicuously absent is a cogent definition of a 'secular' or any proposed alternative.  Sure there are problems with secularism--yeah, we know that secular governments are themselves often repressive, and we know religions violently oppose changes to the social order, a point which seems out of place in an article entitled 'The Myth of Religious Violence'--but there's nothing better.  Having been a religious minority in a non-secular country, I can say with some authority that decrying secularism as I understand the term positively reeks of privilege.  Let her spend some time as a Druze in Palestine, or an evangelical in Bulgaria, and then we'll have a nice long chat about the desirability of secular government and the true nature of religion.

I understand why Obama and Cameron (and Bush and Blair before them) have to say the things they have to say, but I keep waiting for the moderates to seriously take on the serious versions of the religious violence argument, to wit, that beliefs influence action and that beliefs such as: 1) God gave me ALL the land; 2) martyrdom = VIRGINS; 3) infidel-killing is part of god's plan; and 4) heretical ideas and sinful actions will bring about an infinite bad, so nearly any finite bad is justified--even merciful!--in stamping them out--will tend to promote violence, curtail freedom, and stunt negotiations and compromise.  I wait in vain.

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