The Violence of Faith, Part 2: Karen Armstrong & Sam Harris



 

In a previous installment, I asked the obvious questions about the intangible, heinous, and inexorable social power of the Islamic State:

Is this power derived from religious faith? If so, is it only Islam we should fear, or is this just one more iteration of the violence endemic to all classic monotheism?

I ventured the suggestion that George Packer has, the last week, brought us close to the beginning of an answer: the Islamic State’s indiscriminate massacre and torture are acts of purification, and the Jordanian pilot’s slow death by fire the ultimate sacrifice. The blood and dread serves to excite, unite, and grow the new community.

But before traveling further down this explanatory path, I want to back up for some context setting and take a look at what is, or at least should be, the larger debate.

There is no better place to start than new atheist and cognitive neuroscientist Sam Harris, who has more than anyone helped galvanize the post 9/11 American imagination. In his best-selling End of Faith (2004) Harris announces that Americans should fear “the fall of civilization” given the new close proximity of religious fanatics to weapons of mass destruction. Religion – more exactly, religious faith – “has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years” and the “most prolific source of violence in our history” (26-27). “The problem is with Islam itself.” The reason Osama bin Laden intended to kill innocent men, women, and children is obvious.” Bin Laden believes “in the literal truth of the Koran.”

Some of Harris’ arguments are quite persuasive. Consider this one:

Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible, as does the spectacle of the public jubilation that invariably follows their deaths; insert these peculiar beliefs, and one can only marvel that suicide bombing is not more widespread (33).

Harris also points to results from a 2002 global survey of over 38,000 Muslims. The survey revealed a shocking acceptance of suicide bombing and violence against civilian targets: 82% of Muslims in Lebanon endorsed suicide bombing and violence against civilian targets, 73% in Ivory Coast, 66% in Nigeria, 65% in Jordan. A number of countries not included in the survey would have shown percentages higher than Lebanon’s 82%.

Holy War. An innocent, secular America caught in the cross hairs of the latest man of fanatical irrational faith, speaking on behalf of the Almighty. Or maybe not. In her newly released Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong tracks the interplay of religion and violence from the dawn of civilization up to today’s global jihad. For much of our history, Armstrong argues, all violence was sacred. We devised rituals to cope with our need to destroy beautiful and awe-inspiring animals when we roamed the wilderness freely in the dangerous hunt for food. Just so, the ruling elite of the new agrarian civilizations devised stories about their special mingling with gods – in need of some way to make intelligible the inescapable ‘structural violence’ in their communities, specifically, their control and exploitation of most the human population (land-working peasants). If the economics of civilization has always been intrinsically violent and religion intrinsically political, then religion has always been ‘implicated’ in violence, but never its ‘sole cause.’ If we really want to understand the causes of the insidious violence in the Middle East, we cannot continue to make a scape goat out of religion.

When Salon recently asked Armstrong about Sam Harris’s (and Bill Maher’s) opinion that there is “something inherently violent about Islam,” Armstrong responded this way:

It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe. . . . Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university. . . . [John Locke] said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time. That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.

To the new atheist complaint over the ‘irrationality’ of religion, Armstrong reminds us that we will always have ‘myth,’ since that is what we are.

I am inclined to think that both of these polarizing stances carries an important truth. But I am more certain about an ironic similarity between Harris and Armstrong, one that has so far gone unnoticed. It is where they agree, perhaps inadvertently, that they are each deeply flawed.

More to come soon.

 

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

The Violence of Faith, Part 1: The Islamic State



Making use of hidden cell phones, the Islamic State’s sex slaves have made contact with the outside world. There are thousands of them – young Muslim women, some just over 12 years old, snatched from the lifeless arms of their butchered mothers. The brutality and disorientation they continue to suffer – between beatings and rape they hear sermons on why God does this to vile unbelievers – requires removal of all means of suicide. Stealing a moment for a private call, one of the women begs for the merciful bombs of American fighter jets. She does not want to hear that beautiful rumble from high to see her captors punished or that she may once again be free. She begs for the bombs simply so that she and the other women may die. Envious of the 41 women she knew who were successful at suicide, she pleaded, “Please call the plane, we want them [to] kill us, we want to kill ourselves.”

After spending time with refuges Angelina Jolie asks, “What do you say to the 13-year-old girl who describes the warehouses where she and the others lived and would be pulled out, three at a time, to be raped by the men? When her brother found out, he killed himself.”

Even after months of now a billion dollar air campaign by the U.S. military has had little impact on the Islamic State’s control over its people and it ability to recruit and grow. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, has sought unconventional sources of expertise in trying to understand the Islamic State’s social power. “We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it.” Confidential minutes of phone conferences reveal that the three dozen experts consulted cannot agree on “whether [the Islamic State’s] main objective is ideological or territorial.” In response, General Nagata said he wanted “one hell of a debate.” After six weeks of debate, he explained that he still did “not understand the intangible power of [the Islamic State].” (See Eric Schmitt’s report here.)

Is the intangible power of the Islamic State the power of faith? Is this religious violence we are dealing with? If so, is the culprit Islam, or is this just one more iteration of a violence intrinsic to all monotheism? Is simply ‘religion’ the problem? I think George Packer is getting close to the beginning of an answer. In the New Yorker yesterday:

There’s an undeniable attraction in this horror for a number of young people . . . who want to leave behind the comfort and safety of normal life for the exaltation of the caliphate. The level of its violence hasn’t discouraged new recruits—the numbers keep growing, because extreme violence is part of what makes ISIS so compelling.

Even closer still is Packer’s elaboration today, while interviewed on NPR (I do not yet see any transcript): The Islamic State burned to death Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh as a sacrifice to unite and excite the group. This was an act of total purification.

 

*photo from here

 

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

Vision Forum’s Doug Phillips



More than one person has approached me about Doug Wilson’s commentary on the scandal surrounding Vision Forum’s Doug Phillips.  I had no desire to visit Wilson’s blog, but I was curious enough about the scandal to google ‘Doug Phillips.’  At the very top of the search results was a precarious blogger I knew from years ago.  Second on the list was a recent Huffington Post series.  A little further down, I found a hard-hitting, albeit tardy, article from the evangelical World Magazine.

This is what Wilson is talking about?’ I thought to myself.

So I read Wilson’s blog too.  I was not disappointed.

After briefly acknowledging Phillips’ misconduct with three words, “tragic, sad, and humbling,” Wilson goes on at some length praising Phillips for the way he resigned from Vision Forum Ministries.  More than a few words are also spent castigating Phillips’ public critics.  God’s thoughts about them are obvious: “the enemies of the Lord can be readily identified.”

Because of my investigative endeavors while on my way out of Wilson’s inner ring (2005), I do not find this response surprising, or even curious.  Yet, there is something about this new scandal, which is now partially constituted by Wilson’s chosen response to it, that finds important intersection with some of my current writing – ‘the book’ in particular.

My interest regards foremost the extent of incoherence in the person and work of Doug Phillips.  Phillips was not your average down-the-street preacher.  He was passionate about a highly specific cultural vision of chastity and marital fidelity, and this vision defined his core identity, both public and private.  Further, his recently exposed naughtiness was not a ‘two ships passing in the night’ affair.  The relevant rendezvous, many not explicitly sexual, spanned over a decade, often in the broad light of a Sabbath day.  Please see Julie Ingersoll’s reporting at the Huffington Post for an introduction to Phillips’ alleged long-term oppression of the young lady that here concerns us.  I would also recommend this site as a credible and comprehensive reference.   What I want to better understand – I think I have made some progress already – is why it is so common for religious leaders to brazenly disregard precisely that good they passionately identify with.

Some of you might not be aware of my unique qualifications for speaking to this scandal.  I was the one who was best poised to help ‘take down’ Doug Phillips back in 2006, but after an analysis of the evidence put forward, I decided to instead defend him.  I eventually teamed with one of Phillips’ friends in the efforts to do so.  This decision came at a personal cost.  The aforementioned ‘precarious blogger I knew from years ago’ was the anonymous source of the evidence I refused to endorse.  This blogger might be harmless enough, but she was then writing anonymously for Ministry Watchman, which was linked to a racist movement known as ‘kinism.’ It was to all appearances a kinist internet war that was launched against me in retaliation, a war that still lingers today.

The Huffington Post implies that the deviant relationship Phillips fostered was a partial result of his extreme patriarchalism.  The young woman was under Phillips’ authority in his small church from the time she was fifteen, for example – a fact that Texas law, in its wisdom, is well poised to address.  Wilson offers the counter-argument: the immorality was, rather, in spite of Phillips’ professed patriarchalism, and the feminist in this debate is caught in a contradiction: the woman should be treated as a responsible, independent adult while also defended as a dependent girl, incapable of simply packing her bags and leaving as soon as Phillips’ intentions became clear.

Such a simplistic construal of ‘freewill’ can be very useful for those enjoying social power.  Part of the evil lurking behind this particular argument is that Wilson knows very well the reach of his own social power and the difficulty or even impossibility of someone simply ‘leaving’ relationships and institutions that have come to form a core part of their identity.  Three men who had been close to Phillips for years perhaps revealed a bit more truth than intended when they expressed their dismay over the role that authority played in the aberrant relationship:  “ . . . church leaders have a weighty obligation regarding the power they hold over congregants in their care.” [World Magazine, my emphasis]

Focusing on individual psychology, independent of social situation, does nothing to help Wilson’s argument.  All heightening of Phillips’ advances would have likely been extreme violations of social expectation and trust and therefore, I would argue, should be seen as at least mild forms of rape.   Please consider then the following confession of Halee Gray Scott, raped at age 21 by her church’s youth pastor:

Why did I let him in? Why did I not fight harder? Why did I just lay there, crying like that? Guilt fell on me like a bucket of hot ash. I wouldn’t know until years later the neurobiology of the assault response [see link in article] or tonic immobility [see link in article].  (From Christianity Today’s How I Beat Back the Darkness after Rape)

Wilson’s eldest daughter might not disagree that Phillips is responsible for something like rape.  The entire thing, for example, “grosses [her] out.”    But for her, the call to action is to think more deeply about how she can train her daughters to be the kind of women that can stand up to bad men. (Thankfully, this issue has more recently motivated her to try to empathize with abused women – an encouraging thing to hear from such an arrogance-drenched community.)

Back to the central point: Wilson, not at all happy about folks calling Phillips’ object of domination a ‘victim,’ thinks we ought to be wondering, instead, why this young woman and the entire family “wasn’t gassing up the car the next morning [after first obvious advance?] to head down the road to find a place where the spiritual leader wasn’t a toad” ( from this post).  Again, the real trouble here is that Wilson knows why.

He did seem to slip at one point, when arguing that the ‘right kind’ of patriarchalism would have offered this young woman “insistance” that she “be moved to safety” (This point is made here) Yet, the only real victim, according to Wilson, is Phillips’ wife, even though she has taken up the same arrogant defense as her husband – as testified to by five of Phillips prior associates and friends, according to World.

What motivates Wilson to comment in this way? One motive seems undeniable to me: One of Wilson’s main competitors has just gone, quite literally, out of business.  This rhetorical strategy is sure to provide some profitable market penetration.

I think it was early 2005 when one of my fellow ministerial students offered pastor Wilson the following question:  “I saw that World Magazine did comment about the local controversy.  Did they contact you about this?”  Wilson said that he called the editor to explain that World was “missing the real story here in Moscow”.  But this did not help.  As Wilson explained, there is a growing void in evangelical leadership.  All the old stand-ins are near retirement—John Macarthur, RC Sproul, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson.  “World would like to fill that void and sees me as a competitor.”

That is all I have for now.  Another topic that I think should be discussed, in relation to everything above, is the prevalence of covering up the sexual abuse of children within conservative communities.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon

Book Update



I am still writing my book.  I have been writing it for about five years. If you have no idea what book I refer to, this post might not be intended for you.  This is a friendly update for those who periodically check in.

The five classes I now teach (Philosophy and Humanities) have permitted me a day each week to continue the book steadily, although this might change with my firmer commitment to philosophy and cognitive science research.  I hope to have at least a rough-draft proposal by July 2012.  I do not, by the way, begin addressing The Kirk until Chapter 7.

The book has taken on different forms and sizes and purposes—in my imagination, in my notes and outlines, in the actual drafts spanning a number of genres. Last summer, after wrapping up some research on cognitive neuroscience, metaphor, and philosophy of freewill, I had some time to work on the book at Steamboat Springs’ public library, which provided me a more than sufficient setting of geography and architectural space – river rolling down from the last bit of melting snow, just outside the library window . . .   We also made it back to Moscow, Idaho for the first time (May/June) and our five weeks there was important. I enjoyed daily liturgical progressions through University of Idaho’s beautiful campus (running into The Beast on one occasion – ‘good to see you’, etc.).  I spent some time in Evan Wilson’s library, of course (and in the home of some Kirkers), and I regularly walked to Bucers for some note-taking time as the northern winter came to an unusually slow halt.

 

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • StumbleUpon