I used to make the argument that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Islam because we know that many Muslims will instantly resort to acting like savages when a piece or art or cartoon offends them. After all, we don’t see Hindus burning embassies and organizing by the millions to shut down newspapers in democratic countries. We don’t see Jews blowing others up in response to Holocaust denial. We don’t see Christians acting crazy in response to artwork like “Piss Christ,” do we?
Well, as I read the Guardian online today, I found out I was wrong.
On Saturday, around 1,000 Christian protesters marched through Avignon to the gallery. The protest group included a regional councillor for the extreme-right Front National, which recently scored well in the Vaucluse area in local elections. The gallery immediately stepped up security, putting plexiglass in front of the photograph and assigning two gallery guards to stand in front of it.
But on Palm Sunday morning, four people in sunglasses aged between 18 and 25 entered the exhibition just after it opened at 11am. One took a hammer out of his sock and threatened the guards with it. A guard grabbed another man around the waist but within seconds the group managed to take a hammer to the plexiglass screen and slash the photograph with another sharp object, thought to be a screwdriver or ice-pick. They also smashed another work, which showed the hands of a meditating nun.
What a shame. Apparently, we can never count on religious people to keep their feelings under control. We must always be prepared for a kind of reaction that stems from the fact that these people think they know some amazing details about the supernatural. We must realize that any criticism of their power to do so could lead them to harm us.
Secular society is quick to condemn the actions of these fundamentalist Christians, but it must hold all religions to the same standard. If it is unacceptable for Christians to act this way in response to blasphemy, it is unacceptable for any religious group to riot, to destroy property, or to harm human life–no matter how their religious figures are depicted.
Having been a student of almost three years at the University of Chicago, a place known for its commitment to living the “life of the mind” and its receptiveness to rigorous, intellectual debate, I never would have thought that I would be criticizing the very “business” of the people who make up such a community.
I’m writing this for two reasons. One is because I was especially intrigued by Hawking’s claim that the philosophy of science is dead. Hawking’s argument is that philosophers have not caught up with the latest advances in science. I think his argument, which may be true, is nonetheless a very bad reason for why we should regard the philosophy of science to be irrelevant. However, I think his claim may have some truth to it.
Note that this is coming from a big fan of the philosophy of science. My favorite writers on this topic include people like Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Francis Bacon, Thomas Kuhn, and of course, David Hume. Many problems—important ones in philosophy—are still in the air, and I doubt they will ever be conclusively solved. After all, it was C.D. Broad who noted that induction, the basis for all scientific inquiry, remains “the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy.”
Yet, science as we know it today is largely separate from philosophical circles. Scientists in general are not involved in ceaseless debates over predictive models and Bayesian inference. They work overtime not in philosophy discussion groups but on labs and journals, and they follow the most practical standard: do the theories work, and are the results consistent? That’s it. It matters not if we can’t prove the existence of cause and effect in the philosophy department. Science will continue, and it will keep working.
The separation between the philosophy of science and science itself is a healthy one, and it resists the academic tyranny of well-meaning thinkers of philosophy. These are people who often clog the practical, real-world side of things. Even the venerated Karl Popper, for example, had to ruin it for everyone else by arguing that Darwinian evolution was on the level of psychoanalysis, a sort of untestable, wishy-washy pseudoscientific paradigm. Note he wasn’t arguing from the point of view of a scientist (looking at the evidence); instead, he was arguing from the standpoint of somebody who wanted to solve problems of epistemology. Fortunately, he retracted his criticism later on.
The second reason I’m writing this is that there’s a real academic tyranny going on, and that’s in the field of religious studies. It goes something like this:
4 Claims of the Academic Tyrant:
1. Academia, and western academia in particular, is one of the best and most enlightened places to understand religion and religious texts.
2. You most likely don’t have an informed opinion of religion without participating in the academic activities of the circle above.
3. Religion is often practiced in an unenlightened, fundamentalist, and narrow-minded way by those who are outside academia.
4. The existence of disagreements within academia should stop all others from reaching any practical conclusions about religion.
Let’s take a trite example. There are many people who warn me to not even talk about this, at least not in a way that paints Christianity in any broad brush.
I would argue that in all practical circumstances, the idea that God commands Abraham to kill his son Isaac makes God an cruel murderer. It directly implies that Christianity, as represented by this god, is a immoral religion that celebrates credulity and the willingness to kill your own child to show your love for God. It’s a call, in other words, to religious insanity and violence.
Not so fast, says the academic tyrant. After all, there are disagreements about how to interpret this, aren’t there? Have you read the latest opinion from [fill-in-the-blank] theology school? Have you read the latest philosophy? How about older writers like Kierkegaard, who argued that there’s a vast difference between the transcendental morality of the Bible and worldly morality that we judge God by? What about people who don’t take this literally, people who just think it is a nice metaphor for the intensity of love and faith for God? And what about all the other love and peace stories from Jesus?
Oh, and there’s more. We must read all the other theologians, people who are all incidentally part of the same westernized, liberalized academic circle before we should even mutter anything about Christianity. We just shouldn’t say anything. Really.
I hope you are getting the picture. There’s a very large disconnect between people in academia and religious people in the real world. There’s a lot of hypocrisy, confusion, and misunderstanding too:
A. Religion is supposed to be an individualized conception of lived experience and religious texts, but academics often see religion only through the lens of peer-reviewed debate and critical textual analysis. They don’t acknowledge the possibility that people can get real and valid conclusions by reading it outside of the academic environment.
B. Religious texts, as you may know already, are self-contradictory and inconsistent sources of information. Yet, academics are often confused by this when they assume that there must be differing valid opinions about interpretations. They think these differing opinions come from differences in people, not from the contradicting, man-made nature of the books themselves.
C. Academics rashly insist that fundamentalism is not a valid way of understanding religions and texts. They assert this, saying that there should be context, but they provide no context of their own. They think the Koran is a historical document, for example, just like any other. They read it in their academic sort of way, ignoring the fact that, as Ibn Warraq notes, “the Koran remains the infallible word of God, the immediate word of God sent down, through the intermediary of a ‘spirit’ or ‘holy spirit’ or Gabriel, to Muhammad in perfect pure Arabic; and everything contained therein is eternal and uncreated.” Academic tyrants, in other words, want to bind the hands of people who want to criticize Islam on its own terms.
I really want to ask my fellow readers: what kind of world do most people live in? A world dominated by liberalized theology schools and enlightened philosophical circles, or a world of real darkness and superstition? There are people who willingly look at religion through a glass darkly and can’t really understand why there are so many fundamentalists, why so much is wrong with the world precisely because of religion.
I think we need to step back a little and open our eyes, not as westernized academics but as human beings.
We are all shocked and saddened by the death of David Kato, a marked gay rights activist in Uganda who bravely fought for change in a country where homosexuality is officially illegal. Lately, there have been many questions about the influence of U.S. evangelicals like Rick Warren and Scott Lively in Uganda, all of whom have had deep and long friendships with prominent local religious leaders and government officials.
What we absolutely don’t need now is more religious rationalization and apology for the explosion of ignorance and hate in arguably the most Christian country in Africa. As I’ve written about before, religious moral arguments aren’t arguments because they have often have nothing to do with the reality of the objective world. Turning to the Bible or any other religious text for guidance on moral issues at a time like this is as useless as Sarah Palin’s foreign policy advice.
In fact, I don’t actually think that someone like Scott Lively, who actually organized a conference in Uganda to oppose homosexuality, added that much fuel to an already burning fire. What I want to point out, however, is irony of his position: Lively might have thought he was washing the people of Uganda with the blood of Jesus, but who thought that he might soon do it with the blood of actual people?
You see, the only source of inspiration I can find in this mess is never covered in the media and always ignored by the religious. I’m talking about the secular community of Uganda, which is a very real thing, and a thing that shouldn’t be ignored. After all we’ve seen on the news, shouldn’t we at least listen to what they have to say?
As a tribute to the community and as something to remember Kato by, I’ll post some of the official core beliefs and goals found on the website of the Uganda Humanist Association.
We believe in human rights for all people including the despised minorities.
We believe in the right of human beings to make individual choices as they determine the course of their lives.
To oppose religious, racial and ethnic fanaticism and fundamentalism.
To educate people about humanism as a free, rational, humane, skeptical/scientific, liberal and democratic life stance and approach to human life challenges.
To carry out projects that promote social welfare and environmental concern.
To building a non- superstitious, rational and scientifically minded society in Uganda.
To promoting unity and tolerance among people.
To instil a culture of human rights concern and activism.
To build confidence in our fellow Ugandans to live the one life they have, purposely and with dignity.
If every Ugandan could hear these simple words, I’m sure they’ll be more beautiful than anything they’ve heard from their pastors lately. That’ll be the inspirational material for the day.
Let us remember that we can always rebuild and change societies. One person. One idea. One day at a time.