When Atheists and Secularists Quote Scripture
posted at 12:10 pm on September 18, 2006 by Bryan
I probably shouldn’t wade into this, but it does dovetail with something I’ve been pondering lately. Namely, that an essentially post-Christian West comes to the battle with Islamism, Islamofascism, caliphascism, or whatever you want to call the demon that animates al Qaeda and apparently millions of Muslims across the globe to hate the West and work toward our destruction, ill-equipped to understand and confront the foe. This inability to get into the enemy’s head and heart makes it harder for us to win. Yes, for all our weapons and the superiority of our forces versus theirs, we are ill-equipped to fight because we’re increasingly incapable of understanding what motivates them and therefore are less likely to find the means of removing that animator. Those who say the Islamists can’t defeat us militarily miss the point entirely, and those who throw out a quote from Leviticus to counter quotes from the Koran miss the point even more. And the point is this: If a holy writ holds sway in the life of an enemy, then that writ and its authority need to be understood on their own terms by us or we won’t formulate an adequate response to it.
The basis of the title of this post is that it’s consistently atheists and adamant secularists who understand the Islamist enemy the least, yet they’re also the quickest to slam or argue against anyone who does quote the Koran on its own terms to argue that it is animating violence. They are also the quickest to equate Christianity with the villain du jour, because Christianity is to them just one among many faiths that they may think they understand, but ultimately don’t. Here’s one example; here’s another. Follow the thread from that second link and you’ll see atheist Andrew Stuttaford missing the point that Andrew McCarthy is making, that point being that Islamists are animated to violence by their own beliefs as laid down in the Koran. And now I’m going to explain why he (and Bill over at INDC Journal) miss the point. I’m not doing this to be mean or snarky, but to illuminate one of the many difficulties we have when dealing with an enemy who’s ruthlessness is matched only by his religious zeal, a zeal that animates his ruthlessness and is based on his understanding of his faith’s holy writ. In making the following arguments I won’t pretend to be an actual theologian. Any misunderstandings in any of the following either result from having to condense technical arguments down to their essence or to my own imperfections. So here goes.
In the life of a religious believer, regardless of the sect, faith or creed, some writing or another or a set of writings hold some position of moral authority. The degree of authority held depends on several factors, including the degree of an individual’s belief and the position of a given writing with respect to other writings that the faith holds dear. Some writings hold more sway than others in any faith. That’s just a fact. And it’s one easily misunderstood by those who hold no faith at all, and therefore assume that all scriptures held sacred by a given faith hold equal weight.
For instance, secularists typically use parts of Leviticus, an Old Testament book, to argue that just because a scripture contains violent language or instruction is no reason in and of itself enough to assume that the faith based in part on that scripture will be violent. Fair enough, but that actually doesn’t tell us much because Christianity isn’t based on Leviticus per se. It tells us even less about Islam, for reasons I’ll get to later.
Leviticus forms part of what’s known as the Law (along with Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), and in the Christian way of thinking the civil and ceremonial components of the Law hold no command on our behavior today because the purpose of the Law was fulfilled in Christ. Christians are not bound by the legal commands of the Law, and we do eat pork and do lots of other things that the Law forbids, and likewise we don’t do many things the civil and ceremonial Law commands us to do. I don’t want to get too esoteric here for the non-believers to be able to follow me, but essentially, those parts of the Law are no longer authoritative over the behavior of the Christian believer. They have been abrogated by later acts and writings. That doesn’t mean those five books are without value; far from it. They’re incredibly valuable for many, many reasons. But the civil and ceremonial Law belongs to a set place and time and was abrogated by, among other things, Christ’s death and resurrection and Peter’s vision in Acts 10. The Law’s overall purpose–making humans presentable to a holy God–was fulfilled in Christ. I won’t pretend to speak for Jews as to the authority of Leviticus today, but I suspect they would say much the same thing: It’s an early part of scripture that has been abrogated by later scripture.
For a better and more authoritative view of the Law than mine, see the Westminster Confession. Good stuff. The 1689 Confession is another personal favorite, but non-Baptists may find things to quibble about there–Calvinism rears its difficult and divisive head. The point is, in the Law there are moral, civil and ceremonial commands, but through the work of Christ the latter two have been abrogated while the first remains in force. So Leviticus is no weapon useful for smiting a Christian, something secularists are ill-equipped to understand. They should look for violent language in the New Testament if they want to argue that Christianity promotes violence. They will look in vain if they do that, though. The most common misunderstanding of the New Testament is to read it as pacifist, not violent.
By contrast, the Islamic Suras quoted by Robert Spencer and others that promote violence by Muslims against non-Muslims come from the second half of the Koran. They have not been abrogated by later scripture, because there is no later scripture. Spencer’s argument is that if any Koranic verses have abrogated any others, then the weight has to be given to the later verses–and they’re the violent ones. But if you don’t understand the principle of abrogation or the fact that not all scriptures hold equal weight in any faith, and it’s clear those who don’t hold to any faith at all probably don’t since they keep quoting Old Testament civil Law to slam Christians, then you’re ill-equipped to make the distinctions that mark Leviticus less authoritative on behavior than the Gospels for the Christian, and earlier verses less authoritative than later ones for the Muslim. The position of the violent Suras in the Koran is both a fact and a problem, one Spencer attempts to engage on its own terms, and one secularists consistently misunderstand because they don’t understand how a given text relates to a given faith and to other texts within that faith.
That said, what are the chances of an Islamic Reformation sweeping the violent segments of Islam aside? That’s probably a subject that should be treated in a book instead of a blog post, but suffice it to say that in my opinion conditions and assumptions in Christianity which could foster Luther’s Reformation do not exist in Islam. In Luther’s day, Christianity in the West was centralized around the papacy and the Church’s doctrines were the only ones that existed and therefore made for one large, rather than many small, targets to attack. Islam is decentralized, its sectarian arguments largely focused on lineages instead of doctrine, and therefore is too diffuse for a Luther to attack and thereby reform it. And secondarily, reformations are attempts to better understand and therefore get closer to foundational doctrines. In Luther’s case, it was the church’s emphasis on works and deeds as earning salvation–which was not what the New Testament actually taught–that motivated him to revolt and reform. He was sparked to reform by actually reading the New Testament for himself rather than just accepting what the other priests and pope told him it said. He wanted to get closer to the New Testament’s teachings on grace through faith, not works alone, and his Reformation did that. Over time, Christianity became less sectarian and less violent, in part because of the passage of time but also in part because the concept of grace as understood by Paul and passed through Luther sunk in. That concept leaves no room for the true Christian to look at himself as better than anyone else, because he isn’t–he knows he has been saved not through any goodness of his own, but because God is gracious and merciful. It’s a concept that has taken centuries to sink in, and is in fact still working its way through the church. And the Christian church is less prone to violence now than it was a century ago, or two or three, in spite of what Rosie O’Donnell thinks. For what it’s worth, the concept of grace is not taught and does not exist in Islam. Islam is works- and ritual-based. The foundational assumptions of Christianity and Islam with respect to the personality of God not only don’t agree, they’re near polar opposites. Even a cursory understanding of the New Testament vice the Koran reveals that much. Because of this, a reformation in one should not be expected to produce the same results as a reformation in the other. You might as well expect an apple tree to produce bacon.
Additionally, an Islamic reformation would most likely be an attempt to get Muslims closer to the text and teachings of the Koran if the dynamics of religious reformation hold, and there’s no reason to believe that they wouldn’t. An Islamic reformation would be an attempt to take Muslims closer to the more authoritative teachings in the Koran, which based on position and logic would be the ones toward the end of the Koran unless there is some logical reason to believe otherwise.
I believe that we are living in the midst of an attempt to reform Islam, which has been going on since the 18th century. That Wahhabi reformation is in large part producing the war that we are fighting.
Update: Dean Esmay thinks this post is both “silly” and “pretentious.” This is what passes for argument in Dean’s World:
Bryan: I grew up Christian, and studied theology for many years. I’m a secularist now but you’re just being silly if you think I and other secularists don’t understand your cheap Sunday School homilies about some some scriptures abrogating others. You think you’re dispensing wisdom here? I understood simple concepts like that before I even made it through my Presbyterian Confirmation classes when I was 13. Yeesh.
Then why does Leviticus keep coming up in these discussions? Indeed, why do any Old Testament verses get thrown at Christians if all secularists understand abrogation? Maybe you understand it Dean, but it’s more than obvious that many don’t, and I’m addressing them. If you have an actual argument against what I wrote, let’s see it.
Waiting…. And waiting…. Alright, moving along.
Dean then goes on to the next cheap shot and grades this post (it rates an F, by the way) and trashes it. And then cherry-picks the Koran to make it sound more peaceful than it is. For instance, Dean says:
There is absolutely nothing anywhere in the Koran which says that it’s okay to kill civilians in the name of Jihad.
Have you ever actually read any of the Koran, Dean? If you haven’t, Sura 9 ought to be food for thought. Don’t cherry pick it–read the whole thing, as we like to say in the blogosphere. It’s all about killin’ and taxin’ without much distinction between civilians and non-civilians. True, it doesn’t explicitly mention “jihad,” but if that’s Dean’s out it’s an awfully Clintonian one. Dean makes another point regarding whether later Koranic writings supercede earlier ones. If you don’t think that’s the case, Dean, make an argument. Insisting that they don’t, from your perspective as an outsider, is not an argument. It’s an assertion, and it doesn’t fly.
Finally, Dean suggests that we make too much of Mohammed’s life as a warrior in assessing Islam and its tendency or not toward violence. That’s nonsense. Muslims set Mohammed on a pedestal and look to him as an inspiration for everything. That’s why they name their missiles “Khaibar“–to commemorate Mohammed’s victory over a Jewish settlement. That history may not be relevant to you, Dean, but it’s sure relevant to the Iranians who made those missiles and the Hezbollah (meaning: Party of Allah) terrorists who fired them at Jews living in Israel. They’re pinching Mohammed’s wars to justify their own, and they have a lot of support for doing that.
Dean once again grafts an American understanding of things onto the Middle East. To most Americans, history is just history. To most in the Middle East, history is fightin’ words. Don’t take my word for that, Dean, just peruse the offerings at MEMRI. Set aside a day or two–there’s quite a bit there. MEMRI doesn’t make any of that stuff up, and the folks they catch on tape aren’t making it up either. So what’s their source material? History and the Koran, that’s what. Well, according them anyway.
Finally, I don’t ignore the moderate Muslims of the world as Dean insists that I do. I’d love it if the entire Islamic world was full of them. But it’s not, or Abdul Rahman wouldn’t have had to move to Italy and a nun wouldn’t have been murdered in Somalia and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories wouldn’t dominate Islamic media. I have lauded Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I helped write the Vent about the courageous women of this war because I am always on the lookout for Muslim spokemen and women who can help us deal with the radicals. I just can’t find enough of them who are willing to take on the radicals, because they fear that the radicals will kill them. And that is at the heart of the problem. One link to one voice doesn’t change that, Dean. Find a thousand of them, and you’re still looking at a minority until they change that. As for the threat these ideas can pose to us here, look at the streets of London right now. Those people argue that the Koran justifies their call to kill the Pope because they misunderstood what he said as an insult to Islam, and they’re saying so right outside Westminster Abbey. Suppose a local priest were to confront them, how long do you think he’d last? In any case, take up your argument with them, not me, Dean. Those rioters saying the same thing across the Islamic world? They’re getting this “behead anyone who insults Islam” stuff from somewhere. Where, Dean? Where did they get that idea? Did they all magically invent it, on their own, simultaneously?
My point isn’t to take a whack at Dean per se. Well, ok, it is–don’t call me silly when I lay down a post like this that attempts to grasp with what is obviously a hideously violent problem that threatens our freedoms here with riots halfway around the world and serious threats to our people and freedoms everywhere. If you want to take on the ideas in this post, take them on–but leave the childish ad hominems aside and don’t think for a second that bland assertions will win. This subject is too important to be handled so flippantly.
This war is at its base an ideological one with religious roots, and there are too many Dean Esmay’s who are too self-assured in their secularism and too in love with the quick quip who just. don’t. get it. I hope they do, before it’s too late to matter.
Another Update: Bill at INDC Journal responds. My initial reaction: This is how you form an argument. Take notes, Dean.
My second initial reaction: My argument above is much more general than Bill seems to think, and from that flows his disagreement with it. We agree more than not, actually, and as long as he gets the point I’m making and stops tossing out Leviticus for evidence either against Christians or for Muslims vis a vis violence in religion we’ll be fine. If he trots that line out again, though, I’ll kindly bring out the abrogation principle and we’ll do this all over again. Maybe it’ll work at some point. The underlying thesis remains, secularists have a harder time getting at the motivator of violent jihadists and many Muslims who flip that switch than non-secularists. They prove that frequently.
And I don’t oppose the Pope’s strategy of engaging the Islamic world through dialogue. I wish him all the success in the world. I just don’t think it will work, and the irrational reaction to his proposal across the Islamic world is at least a hint that I’m right. It’s both a hint that that part of the world is too easily swayed by nonsensical, emotional reactions, and a hint that underneath those reactions is belief. If the imam hadn’t layed down a groundwork of violence against non-Muslims for decades, this particular call probably wouldn’t be as successful as it is. I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong and see the grand dialogue of civilizations drop the semtex veneer, though. But I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.
None of the above should be misread, by the way, as me thinking there aren’t Muslims who abhor violence or who won’t secularise or otherwise knock it off. Of course there are. It seems at times as though they all live here in the US, though, where we have yet to experience anything like the chilling demonstrations in London. The question is which Muslim has the upper hand, both in theology and in raw numbers. I’ve discussed this with at least one moderate Muslim, and what I heard did not comfort me.
One Last Update: Robert Spencer weighs in. Dean’s not gonna like it–Robert uses quotes and history and, you know, facts. Lots of them.