Archive for Religion

Malice or madness

Posted in Religion, Society with tags , , , on June 6, 2011 by shirhashirim

Never assume a conspiracy where mere stupidity suffices, it is said, but what if there’s method in our madness?

A pretty nineteen year old Ukrainian girl is found dead in the woods near her home town, her head smashed with a stone. She came seventh in a recent local beauty pageant. So what gets into the newspaper?

This: three Muslim men stoned the Muslim girl under sharia law for not abiding Islamic rules, complete with quotes from one of the alleged perpetrators. What turns out to be true?

This: the girl is Russian (i.e. of Orthodox descent) and only one man, of mixed Russian/Tatar descent (i.e. half Orthodox, half Muslim) is a suspect of the murder. The guy is a teenager who’d apparently been infatuated with the poor girl and reportedly has a psychiatric history. The main European newspaper that first published the story has retracted it, sort of.

How the sharia-angle got in there, nobody knows. And just maybe there actually is a sharia-angle (after all: after one screwup, why not another one?). But that’s not the point. The point is that when a sharia-angle seems remotely possible, that is the story that’s being published.

And that is the story that we will keep reading everywhere long after the myth-busters have done their good but ultimately fruitless work. Western media are neither mad nor malicious I believe, but it does look frighteningly like something in between.


Thank God!

Posted in Religion, Society with tags , , on May 29, 2011 by shirhashirim

The Oregon Senate has passed a bill, or is in the process of doing so, that solves a problem I blogged about earlier.

It’s bill 2721, which will make it possible for the state to prosecute parents who’ve deprived their children from medical treatment in favour of prayer, and whose children have died as a result of that.

In my country there is a law that makes it possible to temporarily relieve parents of their parental rights. It’s specifically used for the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses who will generally refuse a life-saving blood transfusion to rhesus-babies.

I don’t know if there’s anything like that in Oregon, but if not, this is a good alternative. I’m not too sure if mad people should be treated as criminals, but still, it’s something to be applauded.

Angry at the pope

Posted in Religion with tags , on May 3, 2011 by shirhashirim

I read the speech that in September 2006 caused world-wide indignation among Muslims. Pope Benedict XVI, while on a visit to the university of Regensburg in Germany, had the audacity to quote a Mediaeval Byzantine emperor saying:

Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

The pope clearly, and twice, indicated he thought these words ‘unacceptably brusque’, and ‘forceful’, even before quoting the emperor, so there could be no doubt about the pope’s own position on this issue: he did not agree with the quoted emperor. The rest of his speech did not at all elaborate on the emperor’s statement, but on the footnote that the editor of the Mediaeval text had put in it as a comment on the emperors line of thoughts. Still, quite a few Muslims took offence.

I don’t think this was just a case of misunderstanding or poor comprehension on the part of some Muslims. There’s a deeper reason they were offended by the pope. Not because he insulted Islam. He clearly didn’t, and even for the bad listener he made it absolutely clear this was not his intention.

The reason is the pope’s position on the question of whether God is a reasonable being and his views on interreligious dialogue. It was the very core of his speech. The emperor’s insult was only what led him to think what he was talking about in Regensburg: can we have a reasonable interreligious discourse among humans when we operate on the presumption that God is not reasonable? Can we live together at all, adhering to differing faiths, in peace, as long as anyone believes God is not reasonable?

The answer is: we cannot. And the pope put his finger exactly where it itches, because in Islam, God is not necessarily reasonable and just. He is above all sovereign and independent and not bound to anything. This means God may not be bound to reason and justice. Quite the opposite: justice might simply be whatever God wants. It was this observation that the pope found in the footnote, and that got him thinking. The footnote quoted ibn Hazm who went as far as to claim that God was not even bound to His own word, an extreme case of voluntarism, especially for a Muslim, as the Qur’an is believed by them to be His Word.

When you read the speech, the pope’s point is made obliquely. His direct point is that our modern western idea of ‘reason’ has become so narrowed down to ‘hard science’ that we are excluding theology, philosophy and large parts of the scholarly traditions of the world, notably from deeply religious parts, from the realm of scholarship. The west in this way makes a dialogue with other cultures impossible. Implicitly he seems to blame the west for frustrating intercultural dialogue with the Islamic world. In a sense he’s on the side of the Muslims.

But at the same time he emphasises that acting contrary to reason contradicts the essence of God, and he concludes that we should invite other cultures to a dialogue based on that broad idea of ‘reason’. But this means there are always two sources of knowledge about God: revelation and reason. For Muslims this cannot mean anything else but the possibility of questioning your faith. Even God Himself can become the object of questions, even arguments. Ever since Genesis 18:22, Judaism and Christianity have had a long tradition of arguing with God, but for a lot of Muslims this is still uncharted territory.

There is an exception to be made. Above I talked about ‘Islam’, where I should have said ‘Sunni Islam’. In Shia Islam, God is considered just and reasonable. I think nobody has ever told the pope that he’s Shi’ite…

Inclined to no good

Posted in Religion, Society with tags , on March 2, 2011 by shirhashirim

Question no 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism states that man is wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness. As a good Catholic boy I have to disagree, especially with the latter part.

The other day I overheard the conversation of two young men in the tram that nicely illustrated the opposite of what the Reformation has brought us. One of the youngsters had had his share of dealing with the police and the judiciary system. He’d been to court and even been to jail for robbing and public violence. He’d learned his lesson and was adamant that he would lead a better life.

But what struck me most was the way he recollected his recent criminal past. Even though he realised it was criminal, it was still a collection of things that could not be considered ‘evil’. He was satisfied for example by the fact that he had never robbed ‘normal people’, but only drug dealers. He was proud that he had never used the two knuckle dusters he used to be carrying. And foremost: he was proud of the fact that the violence he did use was to protect those he considered his friends.

It was St. Augustine who said that evil did not exist of itself, but was simply a shortage of good. This young man had not realised that he was evil, he’d realised he could be good just by being a better person.


Posted in Religion, Society, The odd post with tags , , on February 9, 2011 by shirhashirim

I know a young Catholic priest whose sister regularly has to answer the question why her brother still works for ‘that institute’. It is the direct result of all the child abuse scandals in the Catholic church.

Since 2008 greedy banks issuing fishy mortgages have thrown the economy in a worldwide crisis that has affected millions of people. A friend of mine who works at a bank, department of selling mortgages, has never been asked a comparable question.

Tequilla Trap

Posted in Religion, Science, Society, World politics with tags , , , , , , on November 16, 2010 by shirhashirim

More and more people in the public realm are voicing the opinion that Islam is not a religion, but a political ideology. Some add: like communism or fascism. A Dutch politician has even dared to compare the Qur’an to Mein Kampf. Islam, as a political ideology, is alleged to strive for world domination, nothing less.

The nasty thing is: this is correct. You cannot disprove the idea that Islam is a political ideology. Not because Islam is more of a political ideology than any other religion, but because everything is political. Neither can you disprove the idea that Islam wants to take over the whole world, because every world religion either wants to or would at least prefer to convert the whole world.

A number of critics of Islam has added an idea to all this that has become increasingly popular. It is not only working in the political realm. Politicians have found support for it with scholars of Islam: in order to attain their political goals, Muslims may lie and cheat. It is a concept known in Islam as taqiyya, usually translated as ‘dissimulation’. The Dutch politician I mentioned has alleged this too in court, while on trial for his comparison of the Qur’an to Mein Kampf, among others.

Somehow this idea has so far only been unmasked as factually incorrect. Taqiyya is a concept from Shia Islam. Shiites are a minority of about 10% among all Muslims. They have not, and are not, always treated as equals by their Sunni coreligionists. In Shia Islam the concept of taqiyya was developed for those Shiites that had reason to fear for their lives if they would continue practicing their religion as Shiites among Sunnis. In cases of mortal danger Shiites are allowed to act like Sunnis. For the Calvinists among us: yes they are allowed to lie and cheat to save their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Naturally, taqiyya is loathed by Sunnis and Shiites are regularly criticised by Sunni clerics for being liars and cheats. They have an easy target, because it can be proven from their own writings. For ease, the critics forget that it is an institution that is intended at escaping death from persecutors, not an instrument to promote Shia Islam.

The theological-moral concept taqiyya plays no role in Sunni Islam, for the simple reason that Sunni’s have always been in the majority. However, Arabic being the language that it is, the word taqiyya is sometimes used in Sunni writings concerning a Muslim’s behaviour in war. It may come as no surprise that cheating is allowed in wartime. It has always been everywhere.

Unfortunately the western world has -through Christianity- become thoroughly unacquainted with halakhic religions, where even the simplest moral questions can become the object of lengthy theological debates. Like the question: may a Muslim general use deceit as a weapon?

The fact that it is easy to find writings on the allowed use of deceit in war by Muslims has nothing to do with Muslims being especially deceitful (they are not more that others) it’s just because Islam is a halakhic religion.

But combine the original concept of taqiyya with the (perfectly sensible) idea that deceit is a weapon in war, with the Islamic concept op the realm of Islam (dar al-islam) vs. the realm of war (dar al-harb) and with some qur’anic quotes about the early wars between the Muslims and their opponents (referred to as ‘unbelievers’) and it is easy to write a scholarly-looking piece that seems to prove taqiyya refers to a worldwide Muslim conspiracy to take over the world by deceit. It is in fact just one fallacy: a syllogism of the fourth term.

But besides being factually incorrect it is also nonsensical. That is an aspect of this idea that so far nobody has ever payed attention to. This is because it requires a lot of explanation and because it is thoroughly counter-intuitive.

It starts with Karl Raimund Popper who invented the first major shift in thinking about science since the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment taught us to look at nature and the world as it is in order to attain scientific knowledge about it. If we wanted to know what colour bears were, the only thing we needed to do is look at many bears and determine their colour. Every single new brown bear added credibility to our theory that all bears are brown.

Popper invented the idea that in order to prove us wrong, we only needed one white bear. No matter how many brown bears there were: one white bear would be enough. Instead, Popper proposed that the theory ‘all bears are brown’ did not gain credibility by finding more brown bears, but by the amount of attempts that failed at finding a differently coloured bear. Scientists, in other words, should aim at falsifying theories.

There are two beautiful advantages to this approach. The first is that you can try to falsify a theory in a methodical way. You can go look around for non-brown bears in the same way you’ve so far counted the brown ones, but that will not get you much further unless you are lucky. Instead you can refine your search. You might for example come up with the idea that a lot of mammals on the North Pole are white, for obvious reasons. You might then surmise that if there are bears up there, there’s a fair chance they will be white. This will make your search less random and much more aimed.

The second advantage is even bigger: theories need to be falsifiable. The theory ‘all bears are brown’ can be proven wrong as soon as a non-brown bear is found. This means that there is a specific set of theories that scientifically mean nothing: theories that cannot be falsified. This is not the same as a theory that has been proven right, although the general public tends to see it that way.

A good example of a scientifically nonsensical theory is one of the creationist views of the universe: it was created 6000 years ago, and anything that points to the contrary (fossils, isotope dating) was created with it. Any chance at falsifying this theory founders on the fact that every single counter-argument is already explained by the theory itself. Contrary to popular opinion, science cannot disprove this theory. Nor can it disprove the theory that the universe was created six minutes ago, and everything that points to the contrary with it.

This does not mean that the universe was created 6000 years ago, nor does it mean it was six minutes ago. The two theories are just scientifically nonsensical: they can neither be proven nor disproven, because they’ve been formulated wrong. They should be falsifiable.

The same goes for the theory that Islam is out to attain world domination: anything that might prove the contrary is the result of taqiyya, deceit that is part of the ideology that wants to take over the world. Any Muslim that gets caught up in a discussion about this idea is caught in a trap he cannot reason his way out of, unless he knows his Popper. And even then he’s not in the safe zone: because even if the idea is nonsensical, it might still be true, just like it might still be true that the universe was created six minutes ago.

Unfortunately, the people who divulge these theories are usually not the ones who have read up on theory of science, let alone Popper. They have worse things to do.

I have a dream

Posted in Bible, Religion, Society with tags , , , on September 30, 2010 by shirhashirim

It’s one of those things I’ve always wanted to link to: the full ‘I have a dream’ speech by Martin Luther King.

It’s got everything: the guy’s talking bible, it’s got psalms, it’s rhetoric by different standards. Every time I watch it, I enjoy…