Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Delusions Take Two: Why religion is Not the Root of All Evil

by Tika

Answering a friend's comment on a previous post:

"... Religion isn't all bad - and Dawkins does I think admit that."

By this book I do believe that Dawkins think that religion is all bad. He states in the chapter "What's wrong with religion":

"Fundamentalism religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, 'sensible' religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue".

In the last chapter, he argues that if we put rationality and science in place of belief in God and religion, we can make the world a better place. For simple people, he packages this new technology as "atheism". I'm for solving problems, especially if they involve human lives. So this should be good, right? But has rationality and science been really that good? Will it actually work, or will it just end up the same or even worse?

This is where I think Dawkins starts to let his guard down and suffers from a spontaneous attack of tunnel vision. Scientists can start to suffer from this when they begin to believe that they have arrived at a "final answer".

First, how do you make everyone become atheists? There is no simple way. Communists, socialists, environmentalists, religious people have done this before, force people to do and think as they do, many times. They were only able to come up with the technology of violence/persecution to get people to "follow".

The problem with religion (also communism, socialism, etc.) is not so much because of its 'dogma' or of some 'unquestioning faith', but more because of some claim that their way of life is the best for everyone else. Arguing that atheism is the best for everyone is not much different from arguing that Islam is the best religion and everyone should believe in Allah or be killed. Though Dawkins argues that he does not know of any atheist who would venture to act in such a lethal way. Well, perhaps because modern atheism is very new and unpopulated. Plus, most atheists now just don't think to make everyone atheists. But times are changing.

Yes, science probably has not done much to make people more belligerent. Though, you know, suicide bombers won't even exist without the aid of science. The Nobel Prize is based on the science of explosives. Who even invented the nuclear bomb? Should we put to jail all the physicists because they are making "the world safe for" the innovation of better bombs?

As for rationalism, I do not have to argue much since it has been used to foster 'evil' several times in recent history. Note World War II, The Vietnam War and the War on Terror (the two last ones is based on the 'rational' idea of democracy and civil liberties. Bush has made this quite clear.).

Dawkins has not been fair at all in his book when he describes the Koran as justifying more bad than good:

"... Islamic scholars, in order to cope with the many contradictions that they found in the Qur'an, developed the principle of abrogation, whereby later texts trump earlier ones. Unfortunately, the peaceable passages in the Qur'an are mostly early, dating from Muhammad's time in Mecca. The more belligerent verses tend to date from the later, after his flight to Medina".

Here I say he becomes more of a judgmental cynic than a scientist by neglecting the extensive scholarly literature on the history behind Islam and the Qur'an. I hesitate to use the word 'racist' for Dawkins. But he is treading on thin soil.

First, none of the earlier Meccan passages of the Qur'an, that became the core foundation of the Islamic faith, was ever 'contradictory' or replaced by more belligerent ones. Most of these passages where short and highly poetic verses and dealt with individual spiritual enlightenment without society. The 'belligerent' passages came in parallel to the social upheaval following those initial passages of revelation. The wars between separate religious, political and tribal Arab factions started following the migration of Muslims to Medina. In addition to passages regulating acts during wartime, the population of Muslims under Muhammad grew immensely. Hence, most of the passages in this era dealt more with Islam within a social context and is the starting point of the actual practice of the Islamic faith into the communal act of religion.

Even with these later passages, there was never any thought of contradiction in them amongst the Muslim scholars. They all agree that they came through revelation from God to Muhammad in response to changes in Muhammad's society. Hence it is natural to have one passage coming prior to a certain event be 'edited' by a passage coming after the event which gave light to new data. What is contradictory is the interpretation of these passages by Muslims of different views, such as Bin Laden and myself.

So in response of another statement by the friend:

"... in my mind there is incredibly little dialogue in organized religion. Monologues rule ..."

I can only refer to my own religion to answer this.

If you read about the history and 'evolution' of Islam as a religion and a political empire, you will see that there was constant dialog between Muslims having different ideas about what is considered the 'truth' and the 'best' for their society. When the Prophet Muhammad died, there was confusion among the Muslims as to who was to replace Muhammad as leader in guiding them to the 'the right path'. They had a group of most respected men convening on this issue and through critical discussion and consideration of those to be led, they finally elected someone without resorting to violence.

Sure, generations after (I believe 3 generations of rulers) the population of Muslims became very large and encompassed a vast geographical landscape, and it was hard to consolidate different opinions since they had no more advanced technology to deal with it. Islam, which fostered egalitarian ideals, was something very new and unpredictably, perhaps due to its egalitarian ideals, became a great technology to mobilize large groups of people when compared to other ideas already developing around the time of Muhammad's revelations. But the larger it gets, the more problems it encountered. How is egalitarianism to be fostered when there were just so many people with such different historical, cultural, political background and ideas? So there were very bloody wars. Most were perpetuated because of political issues, less so of religious dogma. Religious dogma was used though to mobilize groups of people very efficiently in different ways using different flags of the many different Muslim ideas. Doesn't this sound very familiar lately?

Dawkins makes another disservice unto himself when he talks about the burka as a symbol of women oppression in Islam. He neglects the history that pre-Islamic women wore the cloth over the head as a symbol of honor and class. Only women who were masters of the house and who did not work in the fields wore these 'hijabs'. The hijab was not a common practice in Meccan woman at the time. Muhammad's wives co-opted this practice as a way to symbolize this honored status following migration to Medina and more repeated encounters with these women of the hijab cultures during the explosive growth of Islam. Naturally, a lot of Muslim women '"choose" to wear the burka because they want to emulate Muhammad's wives elevated status in society. You see here how this historical narrative changes the meaning of the burka from most western ideas of it?

He totally neglects discussion of Islam as embraced by the largest Muslim populated country in the world: Indonesia. He totally neglects the positive effect of religion in any society as something just 'delusional' and can easily be replaced with rationalism and science. Indonesia is one of the most successful Democratic Nation of the developing world. Women are not required to wear the Middle Eastern hijab according to Indonesian law, but a lot of women choose to do this in "modern" cities such as Jakarta, not in smaller more conservative older Islamic societies such as my father's birthplace. A lot of women in a handful Indonesian cities are advocating the requirement of the hijab in their local law through democratic means. Literacy in primitive illiterate Indonesian societies was promoted through the spread of Islam and the recitation of the Qur'an. And still through modern times, Indonesian Muslims regard Islam as the medium of enlightenment and most Indonesian Muslims are driven through this faith to pursue science around the word. The saying goes: "look for knowledge even to China" as a metaphor for the promotion of critical scholarly discourse amongst Muslims. Islam was never spread through the sword in Indonesia. It became a part of the way of life for many Indonesian societies because it was able to assimilate into the local culture and mythology in a peaceful manner.

First, Dawkins defines Islam based on the idea that it grew without a complex history of its own and then draws a preconceived notion of Islam based on his own ideas of religion through his own religious upbringing. Islam definitely is not the Christianity of Dawkins's childhood and it has its own complex history depending where and when you are defining 'Islam'. That is why I feel it irresponsible on his part to talk about religion in such a generalized way: labeling a person as either atheists or not, and then synthesize from this sterilized data an evolutionary narrative and scientific logic behind religion and faith to come up with such a simplistic conclusion of human society. It is very irresponsible on his part as an evolutionary biologist to neglect the value of local diversity of human populations in order to define a more robust understanding of the workings of nature.

Well, I can go on and on, but most of Islam history (not Indonesian though) comes from my recent reading of the book "No God but God" by Islamic history scholar Reza Aslan. Other stuff is just based on my own background as an Indonesian Muslim and from my understanding of science.

So what I think is flawed in Dawkins's thesis is the idea that faith in God exists without an underlying social and historical construct. Because of this, he truly believes that human society will be better of without God. But in reality, it is absurd to think that science and rationalism is immune from this underlying social construct that might shift such 'good natured' ideas into something 'evil'. Islam is a 'good natured' idea, but some people made it into something evil, not so much because they are evil people and that Islamic teachings are mostly 'bad', but because Muslims were critical enough and varied enough in history and local social structure to have differing points of view. Unfortunately, in various cases, Muslims are not able to resolve such conflicting differences of opinions without violence.

Dawkins would snicker at this attempt, but when he said that:

"... the Koran is like a pick-and-mix selection. If you want peace, you can find peaceable verses. If you want war, you can find bellicose verses",

my mind wanders to the days when Darwinian evolution was used by a belligerent man to move masses of people to exterminate and massacre the unwanted. Because of this mess, evolutionists have to step down time and again: no, this is not what "real" evolutionary science is. Well, we Muslims are fighting the same problem with people who try to use Islam as their flag to foster violence and 'evil'. Who's to say that science and rationalism is and will be immune to the vagrancies of human society?
"Moderate Muslims" are not mute as Dawkins imagine. We are fighting this battle everyday of our lives.

I'm not trying to disavow rationality and science. I choose to study science because I do believe that it can solve many problems. And many Muslims that I know are driven to do science because of their Muslim Identity. But to use it in a way that neglects human ideas as a product of its society and history is just naive. And to be doing this when you are a scientist is just irresponsible.

16 comments:

johnorford said...

Well argued post! - obviously I have some points which I'll jot down here later :)

johnorford said...

"how the generation of variations contribute to the complexity of life"

In the preface: "Religion is not the root of /all/ evil".

"Arguing that atheism is the best for everyone is not much different from arguing that Islam is the best religion and everyone should believe in Allah or be killed."

I think that is going a bit too far, evangelising atheism is no different from my Muslim friends evangelising. I am interested in hearing their view on the world and life.

"As for rationalism, I do not have to argue much since it has been used to foster 'evil' several times in recent history."

Mere dogma dressed up as "rationalism" (what a dumb ism in any case!) -- similar to polygyny apologists dressing up their religious views as some kind of social "rationalism"...

"Hence it is natural to have one passage coming prior to a certain event be 'edited' by a passage coming after the event which gave light to new data."

We've had a lot of data since then, why oh why no updates?? ;)

"Naturally, a lot of Muslim women '"choose" to wear the burka because they want to emulate Muhammad's wives elevated status in society."

My q is: why can't they unchoose without shame? What if they realise they made a mistake? (as i suspect happened with a Palestinian pal of mine...).

"I hesitate to use the word 'racist' for Dawkins. But he is treading on thin soil."

Sometimes i don't like his tone either, but islam doesn't denote race, and in fairness he doesn't go easy of christianity either!

"Islam was never spread through the sword in Indonesia."

A sweeping statement, which is probably untrue. Peasants usually took the religion of the Sultan / Raja, and Sultans often used religion as a good excuse (the best?) to attack Rajas. It has little to do with religion, more realpolitik, but it helped it spread.

"my mind wanders to the days when Darwinian evolution was used by a belligerent man to move masses of people to exterminate and massacre the unwanted."

i agree. but perhaps if the masses of ppl were brought up as independent, rigorous thinkers it wouldn't have happened (somethine that /didn't/ happen in Germany back then).

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the terms atheist, muslim, christian etc. are not important to me - the term human is - and i wish humans (or conscious beings) were more important in this world.

i don't think atheism is "better", in many ways it is not, but i think many ppl who happen to be atheists make valid critiques on religion in society (i even suspect many faithful would agree with their points!).

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take care friend - i have to link this blog from mine!! :):)

johnorford said...

the first quote should be : "I do believe that Dawkins think that religion is all bad."

Tika said...
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Tika said...

Tika:"Islam was never spread through the sword in Indonesia."

John:"A sweeping statement, which is probably untrue. Peasants usually took the religion of the Sultan / Raja, and Sultans often used religion as a good excuse (the best?) to attack Rajas. It has little to do with religion, more realpolitik, but it helped it spread."

This might be another long essay ;). I have to borrow the book that I was reading before on this topic of Islam in Indonesia just to correct some of my claims here if need be.

When I say it was never spread through the sword, I mean that it was never spread as part of a conquest for a centralized Islamic state. In Sumatra, Islam was initally spread through the conversion of the Kings to Islam and of course, everyone else in his kingdom had to follow what he did because he said so.
In Java (jawa), Islam was initially spread through individuals through encounters with Islamic missionaries (the famous Wali songo = "nine wise men") through trade.

Interestingly, Islam in Java has a rather different 'flavor' than Islam in Sumatra. In Sumatara, Islam was embraced as new rational/philosophy while in Java, Islam was embraced into an already deep root of Javanesse mysticism/beliefs in the supernatural.

It makes sense though, even in Java and Sumatra, that Islam quickly propagaged because it gave the Sumatran and Javanese Kings and traders extended access to the Islamic trade network. So I say it is more of an economic reason than political since there was no real change in the social/govermental structure of the Indonesian kingdoms with the embrace of Islam.

The massive spread of Islam has never been about the faith/religion itself (I don't think it ever was for any religion) :).

johnorford said...

i have heard about difference in islam in ri - something i should definitely read up more on!!

keep the "long" essays coming! ;)

johnorford said...

...i meant to say, i've read a little about the varieties of islam in ri...

Yasinta said...
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Tika said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tika said...
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Tika said...

Sorry everyone. But for the purpose of consistency and to avoid confusion, I have deleted comments in language other than English. This includes my own comments. For Yasinta, you may email me (tkmaia@yahoo.com) personally if you want to see my reply to your comment in Indonesian. Sorry about this.

Tika said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tika said...

"My q is: why can't they unchoose without shame? What if they realise they made a mistake? (as i suspect happened with a Palestinian pal of mine...)."

Well, in Jakarta at least, it has been very trendy lately to wear and un-wear the hijab, or "jilbab" as we call it, amongst celebrities. It is a source of debate but not so much because of shame (women who remove the jiljab have very strong arguments why they choose to do it and they are not submissive about it). People wear the jilbab as a symbol of the next step towards piety as opposed to it being a requirement. This is at least what I was brought up to think. It has nothing to do with sexism either.

When I was little, only women who already went through the hajj ("naik haji") come home wearing the permanent head covering. Opinions on the Jilbab is more complicated nowadays, which I think is good (we need more opinions to avoid "Islamic fundamentalism" in Indonesia. I hate the term "fundamentalism" by the way, it is misleading).

Incidentally, I find in Jakarta people who wear the Jilbab appear to be more opiniated about womens rights than cosmopolitan dressed women (who are more concerned about socializing and dressing up exactly like each other, but in 'trendy way', than dealing with complicated issues :).). Of course, this is just a personal observation :D.

Jennie said...

Tika, I'm halfway through the book, so please pardon my short response here. Here is an anecdote:

"A third year med student sat next to a priest in a bus. He talked and talked confidently about being a scientist that must be free from any religion. The priest listened to his argument with a sad face, but he needed to get off the bus because it was his stop.

He said to the med student, 'Son, why don't we continue this conversation some other time? Give me a call, will you?' The sad priest handed over his card. When the med student responded with a winning smile. After reading the card, however, he felt so ashamed.

The card said: Louis Pasteur."

I am not a religious person and have come to terms to my own spirituality that I'm not a Catholic anymore. But what am I? Am I an antheist? I don't think so, because I believe in The Divine Power, still. I simply don't wear my Catholic school girl outfit anymore. The heart is the same.

Dawkins has oversimplified many things. (Comments on this is to be continued as I'm reading the following chapters. Really interesting.)

Anyhoo, I like his writing style (or the editors', perhaps it has been heavily edited for commercial purposes). Contemporary, which can be pretty dangerous because it's easy to chew by those who might not have been able to chew the content of the book.

Best,

Jennie S. Bev
http://www.jenniesbev.com

Tika said...

Tika: "I hesitate to use the word 'racist' for Dawkins. But he is treading on thin soil."

John: "Sometimes i don't like his tone either, but islam doesn't denote race, and in fairness he doesn't go easy of christianity either!"

By saying 'racism' I mean the concept of biased generalizations of a particular group of individuals. In this case, Dawkins is treading the line of being racist, not to just muslims, but to people of religion in general. His biased opinions on muslims is just one example of this.

Tika said...

Jennie:
"I am not a religious person and have come to terms to my own spirituality that I'm not a Catholic anymore. But what am I? Am I an antheist? I don't think so, because I believe in The Divine Power, still. I simply don't wear my Catholic school girl outfit anymore. The heart is the same."

According to Dawkins, you maybe a theist and probably still delusional.

Jennie:
"Anyhoo, I like his writing style"

He is really a great writer. You can tell a writer is great if you can actually imagine the writer's facial expressions from the writing, as if the words that he strings together just appeared before you while you read them. Perfectly.