Sunday, August 14, 2005

Good Religion, Bad Religion: What's really at the Core?

Over at Sushant Sareen (kind of) hits the nail on the head:
. . . it is critical that no justification is provided to terrorism by talking of 'root causes'. The war against Islamic terrorism has to be really fought within Islamic societies if a 'clash of civilisations' is to beavoided. (Sareen)
He's right that it will ultimately take a cultural revolution from within to rein in radical Islam. How he comes to this conclusion, though, could prevent this from happening because it still sets secular ideology as superior to religion--something that has broadly offendend religious people throughout the world--and needless to say has fueled a big part of radical Islam. Sareen writes:
Until the separation of the Church from the State, Christianity was hardly a religion of peace -- remember the inquisitions and the desire to 'harvest the souls of heathens and pagans' by whatever means necessary. However, today, Christians, if not their Church and priests, are far more tolerant of other religions and cultures.

Hinduism too has its share of institutionalised hatred. It is hardly important whether the obnoxious caste system has religious sanction or not. What is important is that many practising Hindus still discriminate against the so-called lower castes. But caste discrimination, while it still exists, is no longer the ruling paradigm of Hindu religion. Whether this is the result of a political churning taking place in the country or the result of 'enlightenment' is hardly an issue. (Sareen)
Evolution seems to be the underlying concept in this analysis. His point seems to be that religions evolve to a higher, more civilized standard of human rights. They start out violent and then over time "grow up." I think that is not necessarily the case with all religions. For example, the early Christians displayed some of the most tolerant behavior in the history of man. In chapter 2 of The Martyrs of Palestine, by Eusebius, there is the story of Romanus, who was siezed at Antioch:
When the judge had informed him that he was to die by flames, with a cheerful countenance and a most ardent mind he received the sentence and was led away. He was then tied to the stake, and when the wood was heaped up about him, and they were kindling the pile, only waiting the word from the expected emperor, he exclaimed, "where then is the fire?" Saying this he was summoned again before the emperor, to be subjected to new tortures, and tehrefore had his tongue cut out, which he bore with the greatest of fortitude, as he proved his actions to all, showing also that the power of God is always present to the aid of those who are obliged to bear any hardship for the sake of religion, to lighten their labours, and to strengthen their ardor. (qtd. in Stark 165)
It appears that tolerance defined the earliest Christians. Similarly the degraded caste system Sareen refers to appears to be a later development within Hinduism. In the Bhagavata Purana, the sons of Rshabadeva, an incarnation of Vishnu but a kshatriya (warrior caste) nonetheless, gave birth to sons who became brahmanas (priestly caste):
In addition to these nineteen sons mentioned above, there were eighty-one younger ones, all born of Rshabhadeva and Jayanti. According to the order of their father, they became well cultured, well behaved, very pure in their activities and expert in Vedic knowledge and the performance of Vedic rituals. Thus they all became perfectly qualified brahmanas. (Prabhupada 5.4.13 trans.)
Then there is the history of Vishvamitra Muni, who was formerly a kshatriya but who later by penance became a brahmana. Vasudeva, the father of Krishna, was a kshatriya and the brother of Maharaja Nanda, who was a vaishya, a lower caste. Their exchanges as retold within the Bhagavat Purana are intimate and full of love. And finally, in the Chandogya Upanishad there is this exchange between Gautama Rishi and Jabala Satyakama, the son of a prostitute who wanted to become a brahmana:
Once, Satyakama, the son of Jabala, asked his mother, 'I want to live as a brahmacari. Which dynasty (gotra) do I belong to?' Jabala answered, 'My son, I do not know which dynasty you belong to; in my youth I served as a midservant in various places and at that time begot you as my son. Therefore I don't know which gotra you belong to. My name is Jabala and your name is Satyakama. Therefore you should say that your name is Satyakama Jabala.' Thereafter Satyakama Jabala approached Haridrumata Gautama and said, 'I wish to live with you as a brahmacari.' Gautama replied, 'O gentle one, which dynasty do you belong to?' Satyakama replied, ' I do not know which dynasty I belong to. I askd my mother and she said, 'I begot you as my son when I was wandering in my youth as a maidservant. Therefore I do not know which dynasty you belong to. My name is Jabala and your name is Satyakama. So I am called Satyakama Jabala.'Gautama then said to him, 'My dear son, no one other than a brahmana can speak such truth that you have spoken. Therefore you are a brahmana, and I accept you. O gentle one, go and bring wood for sacrifice.' Jabala replied, 'I am going right now to bring wood.' Gautama said, 'Never divert from the truth.' (Gosai)
In the case of Christianity and the virtue of tolerance, and in Hinduism with the idea that social status is based not on birth but on merit, both religions appear to possess these idea from the begining.

But Sareen articulates a popular idea, that religion is almost infinitely maleable.
Thus, for every Quranic verse that preaches love, brotherhood and equality of man, there is another verse that preaches the opposite. Therefore, to say that 'suicide bombing' is an Un-Islamic act is simply a matter of how someone interprets and understands the religion. (Sareen)
From this the solution seems obvious: all you have to do is get all the Muslims to emphasize all the good verses and avoid the bad ones, or interpret them into oblivion, and everyone will be happy. Not so. Syncretism is useful in understanding religions only to a limited point.

Religions still have an historical beginning, and although they appear to evolve over time, they still have core precepts which shape their entire existence. Christian tolerance and the merit-based society within Hinduism were ideas that did not gradually evolve. They were there from the beginning, even if later there were periods where the original idea seemed to be covered and later recovered. This is important because it means that religions start out with specific ideas, and if those ideas are good they may be revived and retain their scriptural and traditional authenticity. But if a religion starts out with some bad precepts, then, reinterpreting scripture to make them good may in the process invalidate the religion's authenticity. Revisionism, especially through formalist criticism (Wenz), has significantly weakened the authority of Christianity in the West, not improved it nor strengthened it.

The idea that religions are what you make of them, that they can mean anything you want them to, hides religion's core precepts--in effect sheltering them from critical analysis. Because of this idea, our secular friends-in-arms, who more or less are in charge of the world-order, could never perform an analysis which might lead them to conclude that Islam might just have to go. On the other hand, after a careful analysis, the core precepts of Islam may prove to be compatible with the rest of the civilized world.

But the idea that we can know something for sure, particularly about religion, is perhaps a frightening prospect. If we set ourselves up as being in possession of the objective truth, then we also set ourselves up to be potential tyrants. Not only Islam, but Christianity, Hinduism, and any other religion might become fair game for those who think they possess the truth--secularism, too. But we can't fight for what we are unsure of, so unsurity, particularly of values, is perhaps the soft underbelly of secularist world-order. Victory over a determined enemy requires that the victor to have been similarly determined, and those most likely to possess that determination will be those who accept there is an objective truth and that it can be known, even if somewhat. These are your religious people.

Just as the defeat of the Soviet Union was made possible by the alliance of America and the Catholic Church, an alliance of the secular and the sacred, defeating radical Islam will likely require a similar alliance--perhaps something grander than the alliance that defeated the Soviet Union.

Works Cited

Gosai "Brahmana Vaisnava Ontology." 13 Aug 2005. <>
Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta. Srimad-Bhagavatam. 4 Jul 2004. Bhaktivedanta VedaBase Network. 12 August 2005. <>
Sareen, Sushant. "The war against radical Islam." 5 Aug 2005. 13 Aug 2005. <>
Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Wenz, Bob. "'Truth' on Two Hills." 9 Jul 2005. Christianity Today (Online). 13 Aug 2005. <>


Blogger wildiris said...

I linked here from Gates of Vienna. I'm going to bookmark your site and visit it regularly.
Here is some comments I made on Belmont Club last year, that I think are very apprpriate to this post.

...As to the question of the possible viability of a “secular” democracy, my answer would be a categorical, No! And the place to start to understand why this is true is to look at a historical comparison of Christianity with Islam.

For the sake of brevity of this posting, I will make some broad generalizations. These should not dismiss these as flaws in an argument but rather as invitations to investigate and think about these issues further. Also, I do not know what your reading audience’s opinions on Christianity might be, but for the sake of argument, assume for the moment that Jesus was a true historical figure and that the first four books of the New Testament (the only four books written as first hand narratives of the life, actions and words of Jesus) are the best representation, we have today, of what the Christian faith was in its original form.

At the time of the historical Jesus, the Jewish people were looking for a Messiah who would be both a political and/or military leader as well as a religious and spiritual leader. To counter these expectations, Jesus on many occasions made it clear to his followers that his was a “kingdom of heaven, not of earth”. As a result, contained in the very beginnings of Christianity is a prototype notion of the “separation of church and state”.

The first Christian communities were made up of individuals, who had separated themselves from society, lived together communally and tried to live more spiritually directed lives. For the first few centuries of Christianity, these early communities were treated by their surrounding societies in a variety of ways, from acceptance to tolerance to violent persecution. But a no point did the early Christians have any political power or receive anything resembling state support or recognition.

Despite this handicap, by the third century AD, Christianity as a religion had spread from England, across the Roman Empire, across North Africa, across Asia Minor and to the western shores of India. It spread, not at the point of a sword, carried by some advancing Christian army, but by word of mouth, carried by individuals and missionaries. And it was able to spread this way because it was a religion that filled a spiritual need that many individuals felt and a need that was not being satisfied by any of the various institutionalized pagan religions, by Mithraism or the Greek mystery cults of that time.

It was not until the time of emperor Constantine, about 300 AD, did Christianity final receive state recognition and support and begin its evolution into the political/secular institution we know today as the Roman Catholic Church. This evolution occurring, more by default than design, the early Christian church being the only stable institution of that time available to fill the power vacuum left by the final slow collapse of the old Roman Empire that occurred during the fifth century AD.

This growth and evolution of the Christian religion, in its first few centuries of existence stands in stark contrast to that of the Muslim religion in the comparable time frame of its early years!

A favorite criticism of Christianity is to point to the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition and claim that these events are somehow proof that Christianity is by nature “just another violent religion”. This is both an intellectually shallow and dishonest assessment, since this criticism ignores that fact that these institutionalized excesses did not occur until a full 1000 years into the history of the Christian religion.

The protestant reformation, as characterized by Martin Luther, was a transformation of western society that happened on several different levels. On an earthly plane the reformation was the rejection of the political and secular authority of the Catholic Church in Rome over the affairs of the various kingdoms of northern and western Europe. On a spiritual plane it was, 1)…a rejection of a religious view that emphasized the spiritual centrality and necessity of the Catholic Church with regards to one’s relationship with God, and 2)… a re-awakening of a religious view that emphasized a personal, “one on one”, individual relationship with God. This shift being enabled by the recently invented printing press, the internet of its time, and people’s ability to once again read and hear the teachings of Jesus printed and spoken in their own language.

It seems that a common misconception about the Protestant Reformation is that it represented a transformation of the Christian religion into something new and different. But a tiger cannot change its stripes and a religion cannot transform into something that it is not. The Reformation was actually an attempt, by Christians of that time, to return their religion to what it was in its beginning years.

A point that cannot be stressed enough, is that the only reason the Christian religion could experience the process of change we now call the Protestant Reformation, was because it already contained, in its core, a prototype notion of “a separation of church and state”.

A second observation about Protestant Christianity is that along with its emphasis on one’s personal relationship with God also comes the additional requirements, “burdens”, of personal responsibility and personal accountability to God. As a result, societies with a Protestant Christian cultural/religious heritage tend to be self-regulated at an individual level, with strong traditions of giving to charities and voluntarism.

And as a further footnote, the only reason that we in the United States today can talk about the concept of “separation of church and state” is because of our Protestant Christian cultural/religious heritage. A constitutional democracy is a plant that only grows and flourishes in a few select cultural “soils” and one of those “soils” being the cultural heritage of the Protestant Christians. A tragic irony we witness today is the fundamental inability for groups like the ACLU to comprehend this historic fact.

It is interesting to note that along with Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism also share this property of separability of “church” and state. So it is no coincidence that the most successful democracies in the eastern world occur in countries like Japan and India, while the least successful democracies in the western world occur in countries whose cultural heritage goes back to pre-reformation Catholicism or to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Contrast the history of the Christian religion with that of Islam’s. Islam from its very beginnings was a religion of the political and secular. Islam contains nothing in its beginnings equivalent to the kind of “separation of church and state” that you find in Christianity. It is therefore, fundamentally impossible for Islam to experience a “protestant” style reformation.

Again, Islam being a religion of the state required the action of state agents, i.e. its armies (jihads), to spread itself. And because of its political/secular nature, followers of Islam cannot be disengaged from the political/secular world around them.

By contrast, the personal/spiritual aspect of the Christian faith allows it to be self-sustaining in the absence of outside reinforcement, i.e. state support. Thus Christians can, if they so desire, take a passive worldview toward the political events surrounding them, a point of view no devout Moslem can sustain.

There are many people who refer to Islam as a “religion of peace”. This is a completely irrelevant characterization. The only proper question to ask is “can Islam, as a religion, co-exist with modern western constitutional democracy?” And the answer is again a categorical, No!

It is worth noting that there is another religion that also shares Islam’s inability to separate the political/secular from the spiritual/philosophical and its name is Marxism. And it is this inability to “separate” that leads to the inevitable comparison of Islam to Fascism.

The Reformation, as I have come to understand it, was not just a religious event, but a cultural/political tranformation of western European society that took several generations to work through. The important point, for the purpose of discussions here, is that the early Protestant Christians, by trying to return Christianity to its roots, brought back into being, a form of Christianity that was not only tolerant but fully supportive of the new political/social/cultural changes that were occurring across western European societies at that time.

Once I started to think about the Reformation in this manner, it became clear that, unlke Christianity, Islam has no "there" there to go back to. In fact, just the opposite would be true, Islam by returning to its roots could only turn into an even more intolerant and hostile force against modern western cultural ways; which apparently is what is actually happening these days.

7:12 AM, August 14, 2005  

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