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Neither Right Nor Wrong

Entry 1682, on 2014-10-11 at 15:02:48 (Rating 4, Religion)

I recently commented on a Facebook post which someone had made which featured Reza Aslan, the (moderately) well-known writer and scholar of religion. If you follow this blog you will know that I am no great supporter of religion and find Islam particularly obnoxious. But I am also most enthusiastic about knowing what is true, especially when that truth contradicts commonly held beliefs, even my own.

So after watching a short video of Aslan making a very reasoned case in support of Islam I commented that I would be more careful about my criticism of that religion in future. And I still think that was a fair response, but maybe not as fair as I had first supposed.

Why? Because not everything he said was strictly true, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that it was true, but true in a misleading way. The video was from an American TV program where Aslan defended Islam against the attacks of TV personality Bill Maher. If he was there for that sole purpose then he was brilliant. But if he was there to expose the truth then maybe not so much.

For example, on the subject of female genital mutilation, he pointed out that this practice (which any reasonable person should find horrendous no matter what the motivation for it is) is not primarily a Muslim problem because it occurs in many areas of Central Africa where the main religion is Christianity. He said "Eritrea has almost 90 percent female genital mutilation. It's a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75 percent female genital mutilation. It's a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue."

He's right. But a map he himself tweeted shows a slightly different story. The countries with the highest rate of FGM are shown in red and almost every one (if my research is correct) in this category is primarily Muslim. So clearly being a Muslim is neither necessary nor sufficient to be a supporter of FGM but it sure helps! Of course, many of the American critics of Islam would scramble to find an excuse for it in Christian countries but I would simply say: you're right, it's not a Muslim problem (although that is a mitigating factor) but it is a religion problem.

It's a problem when people resort to superstition instead of thinking for themselves. It's a problem when people simply follow what is written in an old book or what some religious leader tells them instead of actually questioning whether it makes any sense. It's a problem when people believe out-dated, misogynistic ideas instead of taking modern social trends and scientific findings into account.

So Islam is the problem. And so is Christianity. And so is every other religion, whether it supports FGM or not, because it's the mindset that is the problem. If it wasn't mutilating young girls it would be failing to stop infectious diseases like AIDS, or it would be stopping young people from learning the great truths that science has uncovered in the century or two but that some religions have failed to accept.

But I still think we should all be more cautious about criticising Islam anyway because facts like: FGM being common in some Christian countries, Islamic states having female leaders where the US has never had one, Buddhist monks being guilty of slaughtering innocent people, the barbaric practice of the death penalty being used (very badly) in the US, and the majority of Muslims being peaceful, are all true.

So Aslan is both right and wrong, and he's neither right nor wrong. But that shouldn't be a surprise if we consider two quotes from his Wikipedia page...

His religion is described as "Islam, formerly Evangelical Christianity". Wow, really? He was so convinced that Christianity was true that he was a fundy yet then figured he was wrong and converted to Islam? Maybe he's wrong about that too!

And his professional position is "Reza Aslan ... is an Iranian-American writer, scholar of religious studies and a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. He is a member of American Academy of Religion." A professor of creative writing? Yes, I can believe that!


Comment 1 (4152) by richard on 2014-10-15 at 13:37:30: (view recent only)

Another thought provoking article Owen. I applaud your stated goal of getting to the truth. I am sure you are aware that any practice (good or bad) that may or may not go on in a country with a (somewhat arbitrary) 'Christian' or 'Islam' label must not automatically lead to the conclusion that the practice is endorsed by that religion. As always, the important point is that regardless of what 'people' may choose to do, it is the original texts (Bible/Quran) which determine whether any real 'blame' can be laid at the religion.

WRT to FGM, I am not aware of even the slightest suggestion of endorsement (let alone requirement) for FGM within Christianity's only authoritative text - on the contrary there is plenty of grounds within the Bible to denounce it in any and every form (even the 'so called' mildest forms).

This article from Science Direct suggests this too:

I am even less educated on it's status in the Quran (for Islam), but found the following article very interesting, and have no reason to doubt what it suggests - that Islam doesn't actually endorse it either.


To be totally fair to Islam (and Christianity), I think the following paragraph from the above article, is extremely relevant:

"If the Islamic law does not mandate female genital mutilation and tolerates only the most mild form of circumcision (and that only if it produces no adverse effects in the child), then how does it come about that so many people from certain countries with large Muslim populations insist that savage acts which exceed these limits are not only permitted, but required by Islamic law? The answer becomes obvious when one realizes that Christians from many of these countries also insist that the tradition is mandated by their religion as well. People often confuse traditions rooted in local culture with religious requirements".


Comment 2 (4153) by OJB on 2014-10-16 at 07:59:58:

Yes, I wasn't suggesting these practices are necessarily specifically mandated or even encouraged by religious texts, but that they were at least partly a religious practice which might have evolved over time. Also, people who have a predisposition to acting based on a superstitious worldview are unlikely to question why these primitive practices exist. In this instance it's more the religious mindset I question rather than anything more specific.


Comment 3 (4154) by richard on 2014-10-16 at 09:43:19:

Fair enough re clarifying the main point. I totally agree that an unquestioning mindset can lead to real problems, no matter what the particular world view, but would offer the same general point as I did above wrt Christianity at least, in that when going back to original texts for 'authoritative direction' on the topic, it actively discourages blind unquestioning allegiance. Rather it encourages its people to question everything suggested by church leaders - by comparing back to original texts, precisely in anticipation of the very problem you raise. e.g. Acts 17:11. Unfortunately too many in Christian churches have ignored that very mandate at great cost. So, you are quite right, the bulk of the problem lies with people with a superstitious pre-disposition. Cheers.


Comment 4 (4155) by OJB on 2014-10-16 at 12:43:12:

I think it's fairly hard to make a good case suggesting that any religion really encourages questioning of traditional views even if you can find the odd verse in the relevant religious text which might be interpreted that way.

After all, one of the most fundamental qualities of Christianty is faith and that is the exact opposite of questioning firmly held beliefs. I know you have disagreed with that point in the past but ask the vast majority of religious people why they believe what they do and they'll say "because it says so in the Bible". There is almost never any questioning of whether the belief is true or even has any merit.


Comment 5 (4156) by richard on 2014-10-16 at 14:12:28:

Hmmm really? Can I ask how else you suggest that particular verse can (legitimately) be interpreted?! I provided only one reference because that one should be enough to convince any reasonable examiner that the simple enough notion that checking some individuals words and ideas against the religions 'authoritative' source texts is considered 'more noble' than blind unquestioning allegiance within the earliest NT christian church. Even more so, when the particular persons words and ideas it was noble to check was one of the most influential church leaders at the time. Can I suggest it's hard to make ANY case stick for you if you are going to take such an over-skeptical interpretive stance on what I think is really pretty plain and unequivocal language - in this particular case of course. :)

Thanks for remembering that distinction I make re 'christian' faith. This objection you add now is a more general one than I was responding to, which was simply about blindly following a custom/tradition (or errant leadership) and subsequently blaming the religion itself, when in fact the religion doesn't endorse a behaviour when examined. Of course I agree that the matter of whether the religions authoritative text has any 'genuine authority' in the world (as far as it is actually 'true' - i.e. it describes 'reality' (as we currently understand it, and as required for the purpose it was written of course), well that it another question and the age old debate. Cheers.


Comment 6 (4157) by OJB on 2014-10-17 at 10:13:44:

Not sure what it means and I really don't care. My point was that by carefully selecting what you read the Bible can support anything. After all churches like Westboro Baptist claim to be following it. The so-called authoritative texts are so difficult to interpret and so contradictory that even if they did contain anything of any merit that message could easily be distorted by religious leaders (and if you look at the real world this clearly happens).

I know you make a distinction and have even invented a term "Christian faith" but I disagree and would say that it's just like any other faith. Every religion thinks they're the only one to have discovered the truth. They can't all be right, but they can all be wrong (sorry to have to re-use that but it's one of my favourites).


Comment 7 (4158) by richard on 2014-10-17 at 17:26:08:

Well, while I agree that there are indeed cases where disagreement may occur on particulars, this is no surprise really. Anyone CAN distort ANY historical textual information - it's happening with historical documents like the Treaty of Waitangi, or the American Declaration of Independance. I disagree though that any of their 'primary messages' are 'so difficult to 'interpret'. Religious texts are of course (by their very nature) subject to alot more 'motivation for illegitimate distortion' attempts, than other less significant historical texts.

Not meaning to invent a term. :) It's perfectly legitimate to: a) restrict a definition to a specific subset of conversation (like examining 'Apple product loyalty' specifically as opposed to just 'product loyalty', OR b) compare two different examples of 'similar' things, to make fair distinctions (if it exists), like comparing the difference between Mac 'loyalty' and PC 'loyalty'. Hmm - now that would be an interesting discussion?!

I was using a) to speak specifically about 'faith' as it is described in the christian texts, and even then ONLY in the context of the current topic - whether the religion expects blind allegiance or 'reasoned' allegiance. Whatever you may think of the actual 'evidence' provided in the christian text, that is simply not relevant to this particular claim (as I had already mentioned in fact). WRT this topic though I think it is simply impossible to deny that all the way through both OT and NT, the pattern is NOT a call for 'blind acceptance', but rather a pattern that goes more like: "Here is evidence to show you that you can and should believe".

Finally - no need to apologize using that favourite phrase - I agree with it 100%! :) The obvious response is to remind you of the logic truth that means this has absolutely no bearing at all on whether any one of them IS true or not. It simply does not 'make' them all wrong.


Comment 8 (4159) by OJB on 2014-10-17 at 22:52:15:

Well clearly even the most basic messages are routinely misunderstood (maybe deliberately) if you look at the actual real world. For example you might claim that a basic message of Christianity is love and tolerance yet many people claim to base completely contrary beliefs on religious teaching. Need I mention Westboro Baptist again?

I don't think there's any fundamental difference between Mac and PC loyalty although I would say there is a quantitative difference because Apple products deserve far more loyalty than (for example) Dell. Your claim seems to be that there is a more fundamental, qualitative difference between Christian faith and "plain old vanilla" faith. I don't think so.

I sort of see what you mean. If you believe the Bible stories you would naturally accept Christianity because it would just make sense. But what does require blind faith is believing those stories! You have just pushed the requirement for faith back by one step.


Comment 9 (4160) by richard on 2014-10-20 at 12:15:26:

Agree with the analysis of what people do in the world - so what? The real question is then given some good honest diligent textual study unbiased by personal motivations - are you seriously suggesting that it's not possible to discern the intended meanings in the biblical texts? After all, even in the Westboro example, you seem to have come to a perfectly rational decision that they are wrong in their interpretation of how they are to conduct themselves - (and I agree with you btw). I assume you are basing that on your own biblical study - and I mean that completely sincerely and charitably - not suggesting any lack of knowledge or authority to come a a conclusion on that basis at all!

My point is - in your very example, you make my case that the right answer CAN be found, and I agree with you on that entirely, while also acknowledging that for some insignificant things - it may be harder. Again - that's the case for any other historical document.

Again in your second paragraph, by simply referring to Mac and PC loyalty, you confirm my point that it's reasonable to make the distinction for discussion purposes - thank you for that and the analysis, which I agree with too :) RE faith though - you are arbitrarily using the term 'plain old vanilla' faith simply as a synonym for 'blind faith'. In that respect - yes I am making that distinction (more than meaning to compare faith across other religions - less qualified or motivated to comment on that.

RE your last claim, while I do understand the link you are making between my definition of faith above and what you refer to as 'bible stories', I had already said the same thing (in C5) that this is another debate entirely (i.e. off topic in this particular thread). Suffice to say that there is a huge amount of analysis done on that topic over many hundreds of years that means whatever christian faith might be, it does not have to be of the blind variety.


Comment 10 (4161) by OJB on 2014-10-21 at 17:10:42:

Yes, that's exactly what I'm suggesting. There is no single "true meaning" in the text because the "text" is actually a collection of many texts which represent many different narratives written by many different people (mostly completely unknown) with many different agendas. By quoting text A instead of B a completely different meaning can be found.

Plus there is the problem of interpretation. Many people assume there is a deeper meaning there but often there isn't, it's just a myth and has no more meaning than any other (that is it might have a message but that is not based on any deeper knowledge than anyone other message in any other myth).

Also the Bible is *not* primarily an historical document. I agree there are real events and real people mentioned but there are many events we know didn't happen, places we are fairly sure didn't exist, people which are never mentioned elsewhere, and outright fabrications.

In regard to faith: if it isn't blind then it isn't faith. Maybe you should use a different word to describe your "Christian faith" so I will have a better idea what you are trying to say.


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