Blog Archives

The Academic Tyranny

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.

The Problem with Islam

It is suggested that Muslims and Atheists are the in the same boat. We’re both distrusted minorities in America. So it makes perfect sense that we hold hands and sing together.

I find this to be a very nice trick not particular to Islam but true of religion in general. When it is weak and marginalized, it wants acceptance and pity from everyone else. But in places where it does have real power, it betrays and insults the very humanism that they claim to share with us.

You don’t have to look further than the fact that Muslims too have a poor grasp of scientific reality in their denial of evolution. Statistics like these tell you almost everything you need to know about people who claim to understand divine truth: they don’t have a clue.

We are also sick and tired of the fact that whenever we point out gross violations of human rights perpetrated by Islamists, we are often asked to change the topic to Israeli violations. As much as we want to help with the humanitarian crisis in Palestine, it is inexcusable how the theocratic actions of Gaza’s Islamist rulers are conveniently overlooked.

All of this stems from and results from a group of human beings who don’t just believe in God, but who also think they know and understand the Final Revelation of God, who believe that the angel Gabriel literally communicated through an illiterate man the words of the Koran.

The specific problem with Islam is that a) Muslims are not secular enough b) there aren’t enough people leaving the religion. The latter is true for religion in general, and the former comes from the fact that there aren’t enough people willing to metaphorize and interpret away things that should be outrageous to them.

As much as I dislike religious “intellectuals” who come to us with a smiling face and an intellectually-dishonest, watered-down view of their religion, I view it as a bittersweet sort of secular progress: a testament to the fact that religion has had to give up so much in the light of science, reason, and common sense. I would very much welcome the secularization of Islam, and I believe it is happening in many circles in the Muslim world, especially amongst young people.

And we must address the shameful treatment of apostates, not just in Islamic countries but also in secular ones. It’s utterly unacceptable for a group of people to want to be treated with dignity and respect when the fact is that they don’t allow for that same level of respect in their own communities. You don’t have to look any farther than America to hear about young adults and teenagers wanting to “come out” as atheists, but are unable to do so because they would lose the entire community they grew up in.

The good news is that you can always sense a high level of embarrassment from Muslims about the Islamic penalty for apostasy, which is somewhat inspiring.

Freedom of A Secularist

Today I attended a presentation named “Freedom of a Christian” featuring Marilynne Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and liberal Christian apologist.

Actually to call her an apologist for her religion is a bit insulting. Yes, she says the same things most liberal apologists repeat over and over again, namely that people have been imperfect and that religion has given people a lot to be hostile about. And of course, it is quite hard to see through her layers and layers of metaphor, especially when we consider that she teaches the Bible as literature at a secular university and has to admit to her students that she “comes from a very certain cultural lens”.

Yet, in the middle of all this trite regurgitation of stock apologia comes a very profound thesis that is worth examining. Her project, it seems to me, is quite the opposite of what I see from the growing secular movement, for while we are generally concerned with bringing down idols that humans have erected, Robinson, on the other hand, wants to resurrect figures of the historical past, and defend and rebuild their reputations.

At stake is John Calvin and his influence on early New England (Puritan) culture, for which she argues that modernity has closed the door on this period and buried it under a cartoonish version of Puritanism that involves witch-burning and theocratic shackles. Robinson argues that it is exactly because of the law of Moses (who is apparently also misunderstood) that New Englanders were able to enact humane laws, or at least more humane than the fashionable ones in Europe.

These humane laws include the restriction that you could not hit anyone physically more than 40 times (which is humane when compared to many crueler standards in England). More importantly, she argues, Mosaic law very severely curtailed the number of crimes punishable by death, for which there were hundreds in Europe. Of course, she had to admit that this was not perfect, that things like blasphemy were still punishable by death.

I have absolutely no response to the argument that New England might have been a bastion of tolerance compared to its European counterparts, especially since I have very limited expertise in this area of history and since I’m quite positive that her knowledge about this greatly exceeds mine. What I will not accept, however, is the implication here that the roots of tolerance actually came from a divine source, directly inspired by the word of God.

What Robinson wants us to believe, in other words, is that a perfect supernatural being spoke directly to Moses, who in turn codified holy law into the Bible that included the death penalty for people who thought and spoke differently. Why Christian Europe even became theocratic is not at all mentioned, but apparently it might have all happened so that some settlers on the other end of the globe could erect a more ideal version of Christian society and implement a reinterpreted Mosaic law. And that’s supposed to be a great leap of human progress.

I didn’t have to hear her continuing talking about how there probably were witches burned in the South (making Salem “not-so-bad” after all) to realize that she doesn’t notice the collapsing logic of her own argument. The problem I have with ideas of progress like this is that seemingly progressive religious ideas are doomed to fail. Muslims will readily point to quotes in the Koran where women have some rights, but taken a whole, the supposed final revelation from the prophet Muhammed draws out a clear spectrum for the rights of women. , No matter how we try to interpret away passages we don’t like, nowhere in this spectrum lies the possibility of a full and equal role for women in society and in the family.

Nowhere in Biblical law, in Biblical inspiration, in Christian versions of freedom and tolerance will we see a full acceptance of things like nonbelief and homosexuality, for it is difficult enough for Christians to even catch up with the normal, secular sphere in the embrace of ideas like evolutionary change.

But I did enjoy the presentation, mostly because it wasn’t all nebulous liberal-Christian mush and offered a clear thesis that I could write about.

The inspiration of the day comes from an article by Paula Kirby from The Washington Post.

And yet we are invited to credit religion as the source of true freedom? It is a laughable claim, a disgraceful claim, a claim that makes a mockery of language as well as of truth and of human dignity. As such it is on a par with other religious claims, such as those that define perfect forgiveness as something dependent on the barbaric sacrifice-by-crucifixion of an innocent man, perfect justice as consisting in the innocent being tortured to death so the guilty can be let off scot-free, and perfect love as something that would damn us to hell for all eternity if we refuse to accept such grotesque monstrosities as evidence of a perfect and loving god.

True freedom requires us to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of religion as well as from the tyranny of brutal earthly regimes. True freedom involves the freedom to think, to explore, to grow; the freedom to pursue knowledge and learning, wherever they lead; the freedom to be different, not to conform; freedom from bigotry; freedom from ignorance; freedom to love and to express that love as we choose; freedom to be ourselves, to accept ourselves, warts and all, and to accept others on the same terms; freedom to choose our own meaning and purpose in life, and to make our own decisions on the basis of those free choices; freedom to make mistakes; freedom to change our mind; freedom from fear, especially from phoney fears invented by those whose only aim is to control us in word, thought and deed.

That, my friends, is the freedom of a secularist.

How to tell if you aren’t serious about your religion

1. You cannot make a coherent, intelligible argument for your beliefs.

2. You don’t even attempt to do (1).

3. You are willing to let any part of your holy book become “metaphor” if that part looks morally upsetting.

4. You are willing to let any part of your holy book become “metaphor” if scientific discoveries contradict it.

5. You believe all that matters in your religion is charity and good works.

6. You think multiple religions can be true.

7. You don’t really believe in the miracles of your religion.

8. You don’t really believe in the afterlife (and how your religion says you can get there).

9. You mainly stay in your religion to reap the benefits of community and the feeling that there is something greater than you.

10. You have serious doubts about what you’ve been told by a religious leader (rabbi, priest, etc.)

11. You prioritize things in your life as if your religion isn’t true.