Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Muslim Mind Prison

Anyone who’s ever debated with a Pakistani will understand my frustration: it’s like arguing with somebody who doesn’t live in reality.  But it’s not just Pakistan, Muslims all around the world seem to live in a mind prison that contributes to their inability to use reason, think critically, or tolerate non-Muslims.  While not exhaustive by any means, here are some of the ways Muslims end up in this Islamic thought prison:

Muslims Can’t Read

It sounds blunt, but it’s the honest truth: half of all Muslims are illiterate, particularly women.  Not that it matters so much, because most Muslims don’t speak Arabic anyway, which is the only way most of them even learn any of the Qur’an.  Even among those that can read, however, they’re likely to only read one book in their lives (hint: it’s not anything by the Dalai Lama); it’s a well-known fact that the Arab world has translated fewer books in all of history than Spain translated every year.  The point of Muslim illiteracy could be seen as either a blessing or a curse, however, because while a mass of illiterate fanatics is no good, the educated Muslims are the biggest problem.  The majority of terrorists have been well-educated, college graduates, and the imam’s who speak Arabic are more likely to be radical.  Contrary to the popular myth that poverty breeds extremism and education could change the Muslim world, it would almost seem preferable to keep them in ignorance.

Muslims Don’t Know any Non-Muslims

Apologists always like to point out how most of the Muslims in the world aren’t terrorists.  Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration that the majority of Muslims have no reason to be terrorists.  880 million Muslims, or roughly more than half of all Muslims in the world, live in countries that are 90-100% Muslim (not even counting Indonesia’s 200 Million Muslims since they have a “diverse” population of 88% Muslim).  While there’s still no shortage of persecuting minority sects, whether they be Sunni, Shi’a, or the universally reviled peace-loving Ahmadiyya, the majority of Muslims will probably never even see a non-Muslim in their lifetime.  Muslims don’t really know tolerance because they don’t really have to, and the lack of conflict is simply the lack of anybody to persecute.

Muslims Only Know What the Qur’an Says about Other Religions

Going hand in hand with their illiteracy and isolation, Muslims usually only get their information about adherents of other religions from the Qur’an, which is often less-than-flattering and more often incorrect.  Aside from blatant errors like saying Miriam the sister of Moses is Mary the mother of Jesus, that Mary is part of the Trinity (Qur’an 5:116, 4:171), or that the Jews consider Ezra the Son of God, the Qur’an gives a distorted, judgmental view of all other religions, and ignorant Muslims who don’t know any better (how can you when you can’t even buy a Bible in Saudi Arabia?) base their prejudices and hatred on this text that they believe to be infallible simply because they’ve never evaluated its claims.

Islam Encourages Group Think

Even if Muslims wanted to know what other religions actually teach, most of them wouldn’t want to have their views challenged or corrected.  It’s not necessarily out of fear that the Qur’an might be wrong, but simply the peer pressure of agreeing with the herd in every way.  Islam is so totalitarian that Muslims fear being in the dissenting side of any argument, communities try to share all ideas and beliefs in common, not just religious ones.  This is why the Muslim stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict is so universal.  Disagreeing in any way from the prevailing orthodoxy or political opinion makes one an outsider, which compromises one’s trust in the eyes of the community.  The biggest problem with this is that the peer pressure almost always trends radical, and never the other way around.  Entire countries can become extremists overnight in the Arab Spring, and the only way to remain an insider is to join in the passion and violence of the extremists.

Muslims Value Religious Obligation over Morality

A week ago, a Muslim nurse in the UK let his patient die while he prayed in the other room.  It seems no matter how bigoted, oppressive, or intolerant the theocracy in Saudi Arabia becomes, Muslims will never be willing to boycott their obligatory pilgrimage to make a point.  It’s a surprising fact to people in the West, but Islam isn’t about doing the right thing, which is why Muslims so rarely do it.  Given the choice between doing the right thing and doing the Islamic thing, Muslims will always choose the latter (which is often the wrong thing).  Thomas Jefferson showed that one can appreciate the moral teachings of Christ even if one rejected the miracles and religious aspect.  Trying to compile a “Jefferson Qur’an”, on the other hand, would not produce a book anywhere nearly as large or as moral.  When you distill it down to the basic teachings, Islam is a self-centered religion focused primarily on the believer performing religious obligations for their own salvation.  Islam knows nothing about self-less sacrifice or the virtues that make Christianity so universal.  The saddest thing is, most Muslims have no idea how morally deficient the religion of Muhammad actually is, because they’ve never compared any other religion to it.  Islam hasn’t made most of its followers terrorists, but has produced a disturbing number of terrible people.

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Review of the Buddhist Nikayas

Pali Canon

the Theravada canon is so vast, it will probably never be fully translated into English

Recently I completed the three Nikayas of the Buddhist Pali Canon that have been translated into English, the Digha, Majjhima, and Samyutta Nikayas, or the Long, Middle-length, and Connected discourses of the Buddha.  This was no easy feat, considering it represents a combined 4,152 pages (the 2nd shelf in the diagram), and Buddhist literature is not exactly “light” reading (footnotes are essential to understand many of the words that are not translatable).  Even with those staggering page counts, the translators have been merciful and streamlined them by skipping over repetitive sections (of which there are a lot) in the same sutta with ellipsis, or referring to the same content in another sutta, so there’s really no telling just how big the volumes would actually be if they weren’t this condensed.

Reviewing such a vast body of literature for specific content is all but impossible, but general criticisms will suffice.  Ironically, the Pali Canon is considered authoritative and sacred in that they were passed down by monks who studied under the Buddha and finally collected in writing about 400 years later, but they’re not considered “scripture” in the inspired or revealed sense that other religions use to refer to their sacred texts.  Consequently, most Buddhists in the West have read few if any of their religion’s scriptures, practicing Buddhism as a process from the basic teachings of the Noble Eight-fold Path.  I won’t be as harsh to criticize the Pali Canon as I would the scriptures of another religion, simply because they don’t purport any supernatural origins.  In short, they are merely literature, and that is all I will criticize them for being.

One of the biggest problems with the life of the Buddha is that Gautama lived for 80 years, so there is a lot to recount. Unfortunately, the Pali Canon does little to construct a coherent life of the Buddha, with the only two noticeable life events being his Enlightenment and his Parinirvana (death).  Virtually everything else uses a formulaic structure in which either a householder, rival sect leader, or monk confronts the Buddha with a question or challenge, the Buddha responds with an often-times lengthy discourse, and the individual converts or the monk rejoices at his teaching.  There are some departures from this strucure, like Buddha describing a past life or suttas telling stories about monks overcoming temptation without any interaction with the Buddha (even telling the exact same story verbatim except with the names of the monks changed), but for the most part, narrative is just a framing device to bookend a discourse.  Those who find the Gospels to be repetitive and out-of-order would be completely bored with the Nikayas, but perhaps that comparison is unfair: Jesus had a much shorter and much more eventful ministry.

The redactors really could have condensed the books considerably, but of course, their length is indicative of oral tradition.  The endless repetition obviously was designed to aid in memorization, but even then, there is very little substance.  Over and over, the Buddha expounds on what the dharma is and what it is not, when just a few of these suttas would have sufficed.  In thousands of pages, there doesn’t seem to be as much original content as there is in a few hundred pages of the Gospels.  A supposed stand-out passage like the Fire Sermon, compared in importance to the Sermon on the Mount, is simply an effort to convert  a fire worshipping sect.  Overall, the teachings seem very sparse on morality and more heavily focused on proselytizing or defining Buddha’s rigid orthodoxy.  Gems like the Golden Rule are aberrations in Buddha’s general morality, with no specifics outside of right speech, right action, and right livelihood.  The Pali Canon is even unclear on vegetarianism, resulting in endless debates through the centuries over whether the Buddha himself ate meat.

One thing that becomes apparent as you read is that Buddhism could have only been born in the India of its day.  Not simply because of the Hindu foundation that accepted reincarnation and other tenets, but because primitive India had a prevalent culture of ascetics and monks that the communities supported with alms.  Gautama probably couldn’t have found the support to feed himself and his students anywhere else in the world; one could hardly imagine thousands of monks collecting daily alms in Jerusalem, because the infrastructure wasn’t there already.  Jesus, of course, had to find more creative ways to nourish his followers.  In fact, one of the reasons that I think makes Mormonism successful is that you really could see Jesus starting a ministry anyplace in the world.

Overall, reading the Nikayas was a tedious exercise that I wouldn’t recommend except to the most dedicated student of Buddhism.  It’s clearly ancient literature and its age shows.  I don’t feel I really learned much about the Buddha, his followers, or antagonists.  While I generally dislike anthologies, I would recommend one over the complete Nikayas to get a more concise picture of the teachings, or a contemporary biography of the Buddha to get a better picture of the life of the Buddha.

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When Fundamentalism Isn’t Really Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the American lexicon.  Its negative connotation conjures images of religious radicals, extremists, and anti-intellectuals..  Critics of Fundamentalism like Karen Armstrong, Bruce Bawer, and John Shelby Spong often develop their own criteria to define the ideology, which usually has less to do with fundamentalist beliefs and more to do with their positions on science, abortion, and sex.  Ironically, some people consider themselves not to be fundamentalists simply because they take relaxed stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage, when theologically they are still very much fundamentalist in their beliefs.  An unusual phenomenon is that Christian fundamentalists may become skeptics after being unable to reconcile an unreasonable Biblical literalism, essentially retaining fundamentalist interpretive methods even as nonbelievers.  More recently, the term has been extended to people of other religions in addition to Christianity, as if it were an all-encompassing ideology that could be applied in equal measure to any belief system.  This, however, is a misnomer that only creates further confusion about the definition of a fundamentalist.

The first problem with calling members of other religions “fundamentalists” is that fundamentalism is a term specifically coined to refer to Christians who subscribed to the “Five Fundamentals” (Biblical inerrancy, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the reality of miracles), a theological package which is exclusively Christian.  The second problem is that Fundamentalism was a reactionary ideology to the emerging Modernist and liberal schools of the 19th century.  Other religions that have acquired a label of “fundamentalist” by some adherents have not even yet had such an encounter with Modernism.  For instance, Islam has no comparable school of textual criticism of the Qur’an as there exists for the Bible, while their beliefs about revelation differ tremendously from the Christian concept of inspiration, its closest comparison is  to Biblical inerrancy.  There is no organized body in Islam that dares to question the virgin birth, and while the atonement and resurrection of Christ are rejected by the Qur’an, these beliefs are absolutely held in common by all Muslims.  In other words, if we were going to apply the same definition to Islam, we would be forced to conclude that all Muslims are fundamentalists, not just the Ayatollah or Al Qaeda.

Similarly, Mormonism includes a splinter sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the line of demarcation between them and mainline Mormons is the continuation of beliefs from the time of Brigham Young, namely polygamy.  Like Islam, Mormonism has a long history of rejecting textual criticism and non-literal interpretations of the Book of Mormon and other later scriptures (although, ironically they employ peculiar, unscholarly criticism of the Bible).  Proponents of theories suggesting the Book of Mormon is inspired folklore, for instance, have resulted in reprimanding and disciplinary action.  In essence, all Mormons subscribe to a fundamentalist worldview, whether they see it that way or not.  Like some Christians, they may even entertain evolutionary theory as possibly compatible with their scriptural beliefs, but they still do so on fundamentalist terms (it may shock many of today’s Christians to discover that the essays in “The Fundamentals” did not actually denounce biological evolution).  I would go so far as to say Mormons and Muslims could not possibly relate to a non-fundamentalist worldview and still believe in their religion, because textual criticism would naturally unravel it.

It’s clear that not all Fundamentalism is created equal.  While generally a best practice is not to refer to any group as fundamentalist unless they take that title for themselves, even among those who make that claim it is evident that their reasons for calling themselves such, like fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Mormons, are completely dissimilar.  Ironically, when apologists try to defend a religion like Islam from criticism about jihad or human rights violations, suggesting that fundamentalism is the problem, not the religion itself, they would technically be categorically denouncing their entire religion anyway if they honestly applied the term the same as they do to Christianity.

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