When two worlds collide

Sep 28

I’m writing this because I haven’t seen anyone else write it yet, which is troubling me. I’m sure someone must have (and there have certainly been many someones in history who have said the same thing), and I just haven’t come across it yet, but what I have seen kicking around the interwebs lately are lots of one-dimensional arguments written by apparently very intelligent people, which garner what I find to be disturbing support.

The last piece to get my back up was this article, written by a professor of ecology and evolution. I’m not familiar with the author’s work beyond this article, and as such I acknowledge that I’m tackling a narrow shard of the man’s thought. But it gives me a good starting point to tease out what’s troubling me about a lot of the current commentary on the “Middle East situation”.

This guy’s primary concern seems to be to attack the idea that ISIS doesn’t represent the “true” Islam, and he does so on (amongst other things) the basis of a weight of numbers regarding Koran verses which are invocations to violence. This line of reasoning begins with this paragraph:

First, the truest religion could be that which sticks the closest to scripture. In that case the “truest” Christianity and Judaism would be literalist and fundamentalist. They would adhere to the creationism set out in Genesis, as well as to the immoral behaviors sanctioned by God in the Old Testament. These include killing those children who curse their parents, as well as adulterers and those who work on the Sabbath.

At face value, this is a facile argument not worthy of what I would presume to be the man’s intellect and education. Taking just the last example – killing those who work on the Sabbath – following this line of argument we’d have to conclude that Jesus was neither a true Jew nor a true Christian, because he argued for a non-literal view of scripture: after walking through the fields with his disciples on the Sabbath, ‘harvesting’ food to eat, and being confronted by religious leaders for ‘working’ on the Sabbath, he referred them to an Old Testament example of King David ‘breaking’ the Sabbath to put human need first, and then stated that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (or, in a more recent translation: “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.”) (Mark 2:23-7)

The fact that this passage is in itself also the source of much debate only goes further to show that religious tradition is not a black-and-white affair. Christian scriptures themselves are riddled with debate; much of Paul’s writings are letters to different churches seeking to ‘correct’ what he perceived to be their doctrinal waverings. On one occasion he even writes about having to rebuke Peter – the disciple that Catholics claim as the first Pope – on a matter of doctrine (“But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly wrong.” – Galatians 2:11). In other words, the Holy Scriptures are themselves a record of the debates about what “true” doctrine is.

To propose, then, a framework in which “the ‘truest’ Christianity and Judaism would be literalist and fundamentalist”, is blindly reductionist, ignoring centuries of nuanced debate and tradition, and indeed the very nature and content of the Scriptures themselves (which sometimes defy a literal interpretation: “…for whoever is not against us is for us” – Mark 9:40 – vs. “He who is not with me is against me” – Matthew 12:30).

Similarly, the Hebrew faith – from which Christianity sprang – despite the dictates of its laws, is rich in philosophical debate, including debate about those laws. Indeed, from an historico-philosophic reading of the Old Testament, one can trace the evolution of a changing religious and world-view of the Jewish people.

In short, to suggest that a “true” religion would be one that takes a literal reading of scripture is a bit like suggesting a symphony is best experienced in its truest form by reading the original score – studying the dots on the page as written. I’m not entirely happy with that analogy but it’s expressing something of what I think this reductionist argument misses.

The author, of course, is just working with what he has to deal with – the assertion that ISIS doesn’t represent the true Islamic religion. But his ultimate contention – that there isn’t any such thing as a true religion – is a position that I think would be better served by pointing out (as I have above) that religion has always involved debate about truth, to the point that a literalist reading is not even possible, rather than building a hay bale (=reductionist straw man – straw man with no arms or legs – otherwise known as a bale of hay) in the guise of a logical argument.

Similarly, the contention that “In the end, there is no ‘true’ religion in the factual sense, for there is no good evidence supporting their claims to truth” is about as useful as a poke in the eye when it comes to debating with a believer – factual truth is relative at best; at the time Romans were worshipping Mars, there was no good evidence known for the existence of the planet we named after him.

The facet of the current debate about ‘the Middle East’ that I think is most overlooked receives only one sentence in this piece: “Morality itself is neither objectively true nor false, but at bottom rests on subjective preferences”. Despite the relatively redundant notion of objectivity, this sentence should have been the starting point for the piece, and would, I think, have served his purposes far better if he’d teased that out in detail rather than launching into an argument that appears to betray a limited knowledge of the philosophical nature of faith he tries to reduce. On a careful reading I don’t think I actually disagree with the author’s thesis at all, but the way he’s constructed it leaves the subjective nature of morality as more of a subtext.

So teasing out this idea is what I’m going to attempt. The arbitrariness of morality is something that is nearly always missed in popular pieces, and my suspicion is that this is simply because the moral high ground is what most social debates appeal to. This is especially true of mainstream media in Australia – you can’t shape opinion of the masses if you’re simultaneously questioning the very notion of the moral truth to which your exhortations are appealing.

Take the speech of Acting Prime Minister Warren Truss:

I urge the Australian public to remember that violence against anyone based on their religion or their beliefs or race is never acceptable; to turn on each other on the basis of religion or race would just give in to the terrorism groups and what they want.

He seems to have forgotten to add a caveat to explain his government’s actual policy: “…unless the beliefs are those of ISIS, in which case it’s not only acceptable but actually a moral requisite to use violence, and in a pre-mediated, and highly concerted way, perhaps invoking total war”.

The hypocrisy here is mind boggling, but justified by all kinds of moral arguments. If we (like Western leaders) completely ignore the genocides that have occurred in “non-strategic” areas of, for example, Africa in recent times, and pretend for the sake of an uncluttered argument that our contrasting involvement in the Middle East is about our moral obligations, we get closer to what interests me about the debates.

So let’s pretend we’re taking on ISIS for humanitarian reasons. What exactly does that mean? Is it that basic human rights are being violated? What are these basic “human rights”? They tend to be invoked like some sacred text, but a cursory review of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is quite a laugh; it’s obviously heavily slanted toward the Western experience, enshrining such requirements as full consent to marriage, ability to enter a trade union, and protection of material interests resulting from authored scientific productions. One might well wonder when the inalienable right to a flat screen television and beer cooler will be added to these articles. Other “rights” appear to be absurd in the light of our current knowledge of ecology: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…” Compare that to estimates that have the Earth’s carrying capacity for our species already exceeded, and one is forced to wonder what relevance such “rights” can have, let alone how they can possibly be “inalienable”.

And all that is because, quite obviously, we just made up human rights as an idea that we ‘collectively’ (with exceptions of course) decided would make for a better world. But we don’t even know what “better” means. More ‘functional’? Less violent? But for whom, and by what measure? The articles of the declaration are specifically egalitarian, but under that view we really do have to ask why African genocide goes unopposed. Similarly, even within Western countries, inequality is on the increase.

We’re clearly not very good at meeting our own ideals. That in itself shouldn’t be surprising – Abramic religions, for example, have been teaching that for millennia. Nor, obviously, are the questions I’m tossing around new – there’s a very long history of philosophical debate and discussion about ‘rights’. What troubles me is that these debates don’t seem to be seen outside university ethics courses. The articles that do the rounds seem to be about whose view is correct and never about the difficult truth that clashes of ideals are inevitable, and that starting off from a position of morality is in itself fraught with difficulty (since one’s morality is ultimately an invention). On some level it seems to me that we’d be better off admitting that our ideals are just that, and have limited application only in certain limited circumstances, but ultimately self-preservation is the name of the game when two worlds collide. Anything else appears to me to be an artifice.

I’m not suggesting that we could never move beyond this, but I don’t think we will while we fail to acknowledge that we’re a species scrabbling over limited resources in an effort to improve our lot. If we’re going to blow the crap out of another country, let’s not pretend it’s because we’re morally superior somehow.

Join the dots? Tony Abbott Sept 19th: “There are, I regret to say, networks of people here in this country who, despite living here, despite enjoying the Australian way of life, they would do us harm.” Sept 25th: “Muslims are evil and have no respect for our ways”.

In regard to ISIS specifically, the concept (or at least the concept that’s been conveyed to me by the media) scares the crap out of me. But I can’t bear seeing Islam demonised on this or any other basis – at least not until the person promoting their view has articulated a reasonable basis from which they’re able to support the notion that their morality is somehow superior. The not-so-subtle poison that dribbles from our politicians’ and commentators’ mouths isn’t coming from a font of goodness. Similarly, I’m not convinced that there’s anything about Islam that makes it more inherently violent than any other religion, or any other non-religious political force (but I’m open to persuasion). And even if there is, is that not a good thing, by the standards of those taking a ‘hawkish’ approach to this situation? I mean, if the morally correct response for us here is to go in to a region we know virtually nothing about and kill for what we believe is the right thing to do, well, ISIS are already doing that, and they know more about what’s going down over there than we do. This is the quandry, for me – if we believe our (invented) morality is better than their (invented) morality, we have a long way to go before we’ve demonstrated that superiority, I feel. (As an aside, something I’ve not seen any comment about in the latest round of Islamaphobia is the present phenomenon of encouraged “inbreeding” – a much easier target than ancient scriptures I’d have thought, and something I first learnt of via a Lebanese community in my teens: the eldest son has first option on marrying his first cousin).

The practical ramifications of the beat up is another matter – with ASIO getting new powers we can fully expect to see the boundaries pushed into a surveillance state. I’ve been inclined to feel intellectually horrified at these developments while naïvely thinking it may not have much real effect on the ground, probably because I’ve lived in relatively sterile political times. I heard two separate stories yesterday from guys who were stopped by police in the late 1960s and mid 1970s in a main street (apparently just because they looked hippie-ish) and questioned – one of whom was made to drop his pants on a main thoroughfare while detectives performed a drug search. I guess we – or at least those muslimy-lookin’ people – should expect more of that now.