A Thought Experiment

I have a thought experiment! Take a look at these sentences.

A: “I’m a libertarian. I believe in free market. I think free market only happens when everybody is taxed at least 90%, and the government owns everything and there is no private sector. That’s what Ayn Rand really meant.”

B: “I’m a Marxist. I believe that the correct interpretation of Socialism is to make sure workers have no right and that profit is more important. Like what happens in China. That’s what Karl Marx really meant.”

C: “I’m a feminist, but I believe work place equality is wrong and women should remain at home and only raise children. That’s what Mary Wollstonecraft really meant.”

D: “I’m a Muslim. I think Islam is a religion of peace and jihad is actually peaceful struggle, and that men and women are equal in the Quran. That’s what the Prophet Mohammad really meant.”

I don’t like to assume things about people, but I still think it’s a safe bet that people who easily agree and defend D, would laugh and call A, B, and C bullshit. Of course, it’s understandable that more people say D, because the attachment to religion is much emotionally stronger and intertwined with people’s identities, while about politics we feel much safer to move from one political position to another. Although, you’d be wrong to assume A, B, and C were never uttered. Some people, when faced with the accusation of sexism, jump to find a “feminist” justification for their sexist remarks, and in some countries capitalism and socialism have become so hegemonic that everyone tries to define themselves under their umbrellas.

I think people are contradictory when they come to religion, sometimes even strong atheists. Ultimately, religion is another ideology, like all of them it makes factual claims about how world and history works and from them extrapolates value claims about how it should work.

But we need to show people that they are not consistent with what they claim they are, because accuracy matters, and because if people are attached to ideologies for emotional rather than rational reasons, it’s our duty to undermine those emotional reasons for the sake of clarity and rationality. It might be hard or unfair to them on a purely personal level, but I think the cultural atmosphere that we skeptics need to create is one that encourages people to let go of their emotions and personal identities and look at ideologies with the eyes of a rational impersonal observer.

If you think that everyone is free to define everything personally, I strongly disagree. These ideologies all have rich traditions and international connotations, there are scholars in many fields from political science to literature who study them, and they are not your mother’s inheritance. If you claim to be part of a tradition, then you need to understand that tradition. You are very free to add to the discourse, but you are not free to reset the discourse. You are free to start a new ideology or a new political movement, you are not free to pervert the old ones.

But, I am being too generous to think that Islamophiles are actually this consistent – they’re not. They usually limit this courtesy only to de-facto atheists who are pretending to themselves that they are Muslims, out of cowardice to break away from the hegemonic discourse and join the members of marginalized classes like atheists. And they do that for their own motives, but ultimately they give special privilege to religion, and judge it differently from other ideologies.

And that’s exactly the problem with religion, that it is treated differently.

What do you think?

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t like to assume things about people, but I still think it’s a safe bet that people who easily agree and defend D, would laugh and call A, B, and C bullshit.

    Speaking for myself, I would call A, B and C bullshit based on my own decent working knowledge of libertarianism, Marxism and feminism. However, I hesitate to call D bullshit because I’ve heard at least a few people, whose knowledge of the Koran seems to be better than mine, quoting Koran verses to defend positions very much like D. Also, I can defend the “moderate Christian” version of D based on my own knowledge of the Bible; so I’m inclined to think there is something similar at work in Islam: each religion has a Holy Text, and its followers seem to be able to find something in their Holy Text to support just about any position they want to take.

    • Kaveh Mousavi says

      I still think you’re giving a special privilege to religion. I’m sure there are sentences in Marx and some feminist thinkers that can be taken out of context and to pretend they mean the opposite, or some outright contradictions. Contradictions are in ALL ideologies. Only in religion they esxcuse perverting the original message.

      • says

        First, how, exactly, am I giving any “special privilege” to any religion? My arguments are based on what I’ve seen/heard/read from the various ideologies you cite. I may be wrong, but I’m not giving anyone any “special privilege.”

        Second, I think you’re kind of begging the question when you seem to automatically assume that a Bible or Koran quote that contradicts your assertions is “out of context.” Because (WRT the Bible at least) there’s plenty of decent moderate ideas that aren’t “out of context” at all; and Jewish and Christian extremists have clearly taken their favorite Bible quotes WAAAY out of their context, to support policies that clearly contradict both the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus.

        • Kaveh Mousavi says

          You mean like contradictions between Jesus’s remarks about poverty and the way some Christian fundamentalists are for helping the rich? In that case you’re right, the contradiction is on the part of the fundies. Or, there’s nothing in Quran or hadith to support FGM, the moderates are right about these issues.

          But ultimately, a peaceful, loving, and tolerant reading of both Bible and Quran is a false reading, and an out of context reading, and wishful reading, and you would never allow such a reading to any other ideology, you’d call it out, but you accept it because of the privilege you give to religion.

  2. pinkey says

    Saying that “it’s in the book so that’s how it is” would also mean you’d agree with people who say that Christianity today is all about stoning people to death for small infractions. Yeah, it’s in the book, and I can show you countless passages about stoning, but that’s not how it’s implemented in real practicing believers today (at least not the vast, vast majority.) Regardless of what is written in the islamic book, (which probably has some nice passages as well as monstrous contradictory ones), the reality is women are not treated equally and the religion is not about peace–unless you have a very unusual definition of equality and peace.

    • Kaveh Mousavi says

      I never said it’s simply “about the book”. You can say that Christianity has changed during time and has become a different consensus and ideology, the same way that Marxism evolved, and changed from Marx’s version to many different versions, like Lenin’s and Trotsky’s and etc.

  3. doublereed says

    Haha, I like this post very much.

    I’ve only encountered one Muslim Feminist, as I don’t have much experience with Muslims at all. I was rather taken aback for how she insisted Islam was fundamentally Feminist. I basically said that we should agree to disagree and focus on the Feminism part rather than the religion part. I’m far more comfortable trouncing Christians and Jews who pretend that the religion is Feminist, but it’s more that I can navigate the conversation better.

  4. says

    Saying that “it’s in the book so that’s how it is” would also mean you’d agree with people who say that Christianity today is all about stoning people to death for small infractions.

    No, it wouldn’t. Even if you get all your rules from a book, you still have to use your own judgement (or the judgement of some other on-site authority) to decide how to apply those rules in each given situation; and you’d still have to determine which parts of the book are more important or relevant than others in a given situation.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    When I read this post, I had some thoughts about how it applied to Christianity. But then I said to myself, “Self, this is a post about the Koran, which you have not read and Kaveh has, not about the Bibble. So you would do well to shut up and listen.”

    But then I wondered whether Kaveh has read the Bibble or not. If he has, I think a comparison of the two books from his perspective would make for a fascinating post. Clearly there’s lots of contradictory stuff, even just in the Gospels. Is the Koran equally self-contradictory, or is it just uniformly awful? If it is self-contradictory, what are the good bits like?

    • Kaveh Mousavi says

      Kaveh has read the Bible, and feels that what he claims about the Quran is right about the Bible too, albeit in a much more complicated way. Kaveh thinks there’s similar contradictions in every book ever written, that we give so much value to the contradictions in the scriptures is only a sign of our complacency towards religions. Kaveh thinks ultimately none of those books can be honestly read in a tolerant fashion. They’re morally abhorrent books.

      I will give a more in-depth reply to contradictions in Quran later in the future.

  6. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    And that’s exactly the problem with religion, that it is treated differently.
    What do you think?

    I think you are spot on. (100% correct here.)

  7. says

    I think that you could probably make a holy book with no text at all but just pictures of ink blots or tea leaves. People just see whatever they want to see anyway.
    The proof that god is imaginary is in the fact that god obeys the emotional needs of the person imagining him. It has so much more rhetorical force to say that god demands something than to say I demand something.

  8. abear says

    Both religions have contradictory themes running through them, however the context of when these are placed reveals something else.
    Jesus preached peace and obedience to (the Roman) authority during his “earthly ministry”. When He gets to heaven the prince of peace is throwing people into eternal hellfire and coming back for a final giant war that slaughters everyone except for the obedient Christians.
    Mohammad was all about peace in the early days of his preaching in Mecca. When he moved to Medina and gained political power peaceful Islam went out the window and Mo became even more violent and ruthless than his contemporaries. Many religious authorities in Islam hold that later proclamations made during the life of Mo abrogate the earlier ones, hence the violent, militaristic ones are the ones to be followed and the peaceful ones are irrelevant.

  9. jesse says

    I think the problem here is that religion, like any other ideology, can’t be pinned down to just one text. After all, the Bible was itself a sort of pampliset of texts, it’s no surprise that it would be self-contradictory as often as not.

    The Qu’ran is a bi more cohesive, but as I understand it not much more. Muhammed was clearly familiar with Christianity — a case could be made that he was part of some branch of it now lost — as well as the older religions in the area. It is far from clear I think how much of the Qu’ran is by a single author, but please correct me if I am wrong.

    That says to me that saying who is a real Muslim or not is just as problematic as who is “real” Marxist. Even more so, because religions are often bound up with local cultural practice. That is, per one of your earlier posts, a fundamentalist Christian in Ethiopia and one in Alabama are reading the same book. But they are going to express that fundamentalism in wildly differing ways and I doubt very much they’d agree on anything, even if they both subscribed to a literal textual reading.

    Islam doesn’t seem to have quite the proliferation of sects that Christianity has. But it has a lot, and every single one — I am speaking of the fundamentalists — would tell you they are reading the text literally and correctly. Yet we have Shiite and Sunni in that camp and they don’t agree. And Sufis would differ yet again. Alawites yet again. And the Islam as practiced in Southeast Asia yet again. I stress that ALL could read a literal text and get different answers, because unlike many more modern political philosophies, most ancient religious texts aren’t terribly clear (Marx in particular made a real effort to be clear about what he meant, even if the way to implement his writings wasn’t because the world is a messy place).

    So how would you square that?

    By the way what do you men by “Islamphile?” — there’s lots of people in the West who claim to understand Islam but generally end up being jut as Orientalist as a 19th century Brit. Some don’t fall into that trap, and I’d say generally the effort — at least among many more liberal folk- is to make sure that you don’t simply assume that everything in your own culture or tradition is self-evidently wonderful. Because that did not work out so well for marginalized peoples, see colonialism as exhibit A.

  10. says

    My first thought was that, as a feminist who has been speaking out about women’s rights for a while now, “C” is not totally unheard of, people will present and defend some version of that argument pretty regularly.

    My second thought is that libertarianism, communism, and feminism are all far more coherent and consistent than Islam is. So it’s much simpler to perceive the falsity of A, B, and C, than it is to perceive the falsity of D. And that’s one of the ways religion receives special treatment: putting Islam on a par with a deliberately pieced together, coherent philosophy is elevating it beyond its station.

    • Kaveh Mousavi says

      I know, but my point is that we don’t need ALL people who identify as feminist to believe in something in order to safely say “the effect of feminism is XXX on human society”. That’s why I personally identify as feminist, because I think feminism is a very important force for the good and advancement of liberty, although totalitarian feminists exist as well.

      I think in your second point we are in agreement, albeit from a different angel. I think you judge all ideologies by the same standard, and as a result Islam falls apart, which is what I ask for. What I criticize here is people who treat these contradictions as a kind of magical door to not answering, and they use it as an advantage and not disadvantage.

  11. Jacob Schmidt says

    I don’t like to assume things about people, but I still think it’s a safe bet that people who easily agree and defend D, would laugh and call A, B, and C bullshit. Of course, it’s understandable that more people say D, because the attachment to religion is much emotionally stronger and intertwined with people’s identities, while about politics we feel much safer to move from one political position to another. Although, you’d be wrong to assume A, B, and C were never uttered. Some people, when faced with the accusation of sexism, jump to find a “feminist” justification for their sexist remarks, and in some countries capitalism and socialism have become so hegemonic that everyone tries to define themselves under their umbrellas.

    Here’s my thing: the people with whom I usually engage about Islam are usually as ignorant of it as I am. I have some experience with libertarianism; with feminism; with (less than the first two) marxism; but my knowledge of the Koran is minimal. I can’t, based on my own knowledge, dismiss D out of hand. That I tentatively accept D as plausible does not mean I hold any attachment to religion. I am happy to believe that a religious text is blood thirsty and violent; several are.

  12. Clockblocker says

    But, I am being too generous to think that Islamophiles are actually this consistent – they’re not. They usually limit this courtesy only to de-facto atheists who are pretending to themselves that they are Muslims, out of cowardice to break away from the hegemonic discourse and join the members of marginalized classes like atheists.

    I wish I could agree with this statement. In practice, however, I find that many non-Muslim Islamophles also happen to be extreme cultural relativists, motivated by postmodernism or orientalism or “white guilt” or what have you. I have had more than one self-identified “feminist” look me right in the eyes and tell me with a straight face that, if throwing acid in the face of reluctant brides was part of someone’s “Sacred Culture”, I had no right to criticize it. None of them had ever been near the Middle East, and all of them proceeded to go right back to arguing that this sort of thing never happened anyway, so it was a moot point.

  13. atheist says

    I kinda think they’re all bullshit. I also don’t think it is necessary to argue Islam is a “religion of peace”, I think one can get by just fine arguing that it is a religion (something its most vehement haters deny) and that like almost every other religion it contains multitudes of rules, themes, and contradictions almost as wide and strange as the human experience. Like any religion it can be used to promote war or peace or neither.

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