Tag Archives: Jesus

Religion is historically contingent

Earlier this month, the perennial debate about religion and atheism was stirred up again by the combustible combination of Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. And, while much ink has already been spilled dissecting the debate and its implications from nearly every conceivable angle, much of that coverage has been problematic, to say the least.

At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.

Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies.  Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, thedisbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden.

Further, while the violence of ISIS is put in terms of a “caliphate” and religious symbols, such strategic violence has been deployed in war for centuries. The political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas has written a rather comprehensive essay on the military tactics of ISIS and how they relate to other guerrilla fighters. He notes,

there is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space. Therefore, easy cultural interpretations should be challenged. Third, if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor … Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity.

Similarly, the best way to understand Osama bin Laden is not as a religious radical yearning for virgins in the afterlife, but rather as a political actor repelling what he sees as a colonial incursion. This is the preferred interpretation of Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who spent three years hunting Osama bin Laden. He writes in “Imperial Hubris,”

One of the greatest dangers for Americans in deciding how to confront the Islamist threat lies in continuing to believe — at the urging of senior U.S. leaders — that Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than for what we do. The Islamic world is not so offended by our democratic system of politics…

He argues that, “What the United States does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world, however, is infinitely more inflammatory.” So rather than seeing terrorism as the outgrowth of religion, it stems from, “the Muslim perception that the things they love are being intentionally destroyed by America that engenders Islamist hatred toward the United States …

This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.

As Karl Marx writes,

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

His colleague Friedrich Engels adds in a letter to Franz Mehring,

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.

While these ideas seem radical, there are important real-life examples of the ways in which changes in material structures shift cultural norms (or ideology). Take, for instance, birth control. The advent of birth control (a material change) has dramatically changed our political, cultural and legal superstructure. Women rapidly joined the workforce and elite educational institutions were almost entirely reshaped. As contraception has improved, social norms against sexual promiscuity have declined. Regardless of what religious people believe, their opposition to birth control was rooted in a simple, but now outdated, calculation: Premarital sex used to bear very large costs in the form of children and disease and these costs have been minimized. Jeremy Greenwood has demonstrated persuasively that the sexual revolution has been rooted in profound material changes, which have altered cultural norms.

These days, religions are already shifting to accommodate this sexual change, just as the church has accommodated to largely accept divorce, will sooner than later accommodate to accept gays, and will eventually accept other norms now considered odd. As population growth presses on economic and environmental constraints, stigmas about contraception and abortion will inevitably erode. And yet the religious texts will remain the same; they will simply be interpreted differently. This sounds extreme, but of course it is not. A brief glimpse at the history of theology shows that it has always been embedded and interpreted by a society under ideological blinders. Views on the trinity were decided by Constantine. The initial Sunni-Shiite divide was largely a political one, not a question of doctrine. This isn’t to degrade religion, but simply acknowledge the fact that it is understood by humans, with their attendant biases. As an example, Paul’s dictum, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is popular with both V.I. Lenin and Michele Bachmann. Religion is not simply something given from above, it is something believers wrestle and engage with.

In the U.S. we can see a rather sad example of the power of material conditions to create ideology and shape religious beliefs. The United States was built on the economic exploitation of slaves. To defend the practice of slavery, Europeans and Americans devised the ideology of race. Race does not exist biologically – the color of someone’s skin says nothing of their genetic makeup, intelligence, etc. Race had to be created, and religion and science provided the justification. Science spent decades trying to prove that blacks were inferior, using objective methods like brain size, skull shape and other pseudo-scientific ideas. As Paul Finkelman notes,

Lo and behold, [Louis Agassiz] discovers that white American males are the smartest people on earth, followed in gradation by the English, the French, and then other Europeans, and then other races, with blacks always on the bottom. Ah, curiously, some English scholars do the same thing. They discover Englishmen are actually smarter than Americans, followed by French and other Europeans. And guess what the French discover? That the French are really smarter than both.

The example of race is actually interesting because some Christians didn’t buy it. They believed that God had created humans on the same day; this was Louis Agassiz’s original position. It was the “objective” scientists who pored over skull fragments to prove that blacks were inferior. But many Christians also accepted the myth of race, and read these ideas into their Bibles. The “curse of Ham” was claimed as proof that racial hierarchy was acceptable and blacks were inferior. Judge Leon M. Bazile declared, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.”

However, the Bible can just as easily be used to critique slavery. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As David Brion Davis has shown, this curse has been used to justify oppression against Jews and the poor as well. He argues that these sentiments didn’t exist when the Bible was written, but were added in later. This is not to say science is evil, or that scientists are evil — any more than the Crusades prove that religion is evil. It is simply to say that humans qua humans will never think without being deeply ingrained in cultural circumstances. We’re simply too flawed.

When Maher criticized all Muslims, he paints with a broad brush manifold people, interpretations, cultures and sects. But what he is crudely attempting to say is that some religious beliefs are responsible for violence in the area of the world he is discussing. Might there be some other source of violence in the region and anger at the United States? Might colonization, imperial interventionism, deprivation, war, murder and widespread theft explain the chaos in the region? Might Sykes-Picot be of some remaining relevance? (Ironically, the “New Atheists” share with Christian conservatives their desire to use history as nothing but an ideological bludgeon.) The militant Islamic ideology, as we have seen, is not unique to the region; such tactics are commonly used by guerrilla groups fighting against overwhelming power. It’s as if Sam Harris and his cohort believe that were we to ignore religion, the Palestinians would be content to live under an occupying force. History suggests otherwise.

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same — ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

During the debate, Bill Maher claimed, “Islam at the moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” A more correct assessment is that the material circumstances in the Middle East, many of them the legacy of colonial repression and exploitation, are the motherlode of bad ideas. But it is Maher and Harris (and, of course, Hitchens) who support these very policies. Ultimately, the attack on Islam is a convenient dodge, a means to obfuscate the harm of past oppression under the guise of liberal pluralism. Religion will always exist and will reflect material circumstances; it is therefore best to support religious moderates, but also remove the despair and deprivation that allow violent ideologies to flourish.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

Jesus and the death penalty

I’ll take a break from procrastinating with video games to procrastinate with a quick blog post. On The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt writes,

We must be careful not to put words in Jesus’ mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the ancient rabbi. But the more I reflect on this issue, the more I agree with the majority of Americans. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that the executed first-century teacher would not support the death penalty or want his followers to.

Here’s a similarly formulated argument:

We must be careful not to words in Lincoln’s mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the great President. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that, given the circumstances of his death, he’d be in favor of gun control. 


This lead to the following Twitter-log:

We must not lazily ascribe positions to Jesus, @JonathanMerritt writes before lazily ascribing a position to Jesus. http://t.co/6hTZV2Skya

My point is simple: there’s been a lot of stuff written about Jesus and a lot of words attributed to him. No need to guess his position on this issue based on the circumstances of his death.

Merritt’s response to me is also odd. It’s basically, “Hey, I got published on The Atlantic, and they don’t publish bad arguments.” I wish I had known that was a reasonable defense when I was discussing my Atlantic pieces. The problem is that while The Atlantic has really solid politics, culture and business editors (the only ones I have worked with and can attest to) that can generally call out your bullshit, as far as I know, they don’t have a dedicated religious editor. That means noted sentimentalist Brandon Ambrisino can write things like this:

If Raushenbush is right [that being against gay marriage makes you anti-gay], then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay.

Leaving aside my normative problems with this statement, I thought most people knew that Jesus didn’t saying anything about homosexuality. But I digress.

Back to the Merritt piece. Merritt doesn’t make any attempt to distinguish between the historical Jesus or the Jesus of the gospels and Christianity. Assuming he means the latter, the answer is pretty unequivocal. But after citing a pretty definitive quote (“turn the other cheek”), we get a discussion of the famous adulterous woman passage. Given that most conservative scholars will tell you this is apocryphal, I have no idea why this is even mentioned, if we’re trying to get at what “Jesus” believed.

There’s some meandering including an odd digression about the Old Testament, we get to this sentence:

Many Christians strangely believe that Jesus wouldn’t support the death penalty even though they do.

But this is the key question, and one that Merritt dances around in his piece but never really digs into. Christians have to be part of a larger society. Earlier, Merritt notes that,

He was teaching that only a perfect being—only God—should have power over death and life.

With Jesus’s stark words and example, no wonder early Christians opposed military service and the government-sanctioned killing of anyone for at least 300 years.

Obviously, this is a nice idea, but as it happens, if a nation-state wants to continue to exist and make actually enforceable laws, it has to exert violence, often lethal violence. Whatever Christians believe about their private actions, we must also make decisions about the role of the state. That’s why a lot of Christians would never have an abortion, but believe it should be legal. So in the end, we’re left nowhere. We know Jesus’s teaching – that Christians should not be violent. We also know that the death penalty is an awful, horrible thing. But murder is too. We know that the state must use violence to protect its citizens. How much, to what extent and under what circumstances are questions that Jesus doesn’t really have much to say about. This is where the actual debate is happening. Merritt ignores this and says something about Mother Theresa.   I’ve limned some thoughts elsewhere that I think stand up.

I want to make three final points about the death penalty debate:

1) There’s an awful moralist sentimentalist strain in this argument that needs to go away. Stop talking about the value of human life, and its sanctity. We know. Human life is important, and should be valued. But most of us live in a world where are values come into conflict. There isn’t evidence for the proposition, but let’s imagine it’s true the death penalty deters crime. Well then you have to weigh the lives of potential victims with the life of the murder. Is one life more sacred? The problem with sentimentality is how easily it’s countered by more sentimentality.

2) Conor Friedersdorf argues that the state can never kill anyone ever. He drops a sentimentalist bomb:

I can imagine one objection: that the guillotine is barbaric. But to me, that’s a point in its favor. Let’s have no illusions about what we’re doing when the state carries out the killing of captive prisoners.

Were there people who thought the death penalty involved giving little boys and girls ponies? Remember what I said about sentimentality? I could do the same thing here.

Let’s have no illusions about what those criminals did when they raped, killed, etc. They are barbaric and deserve no mercy, etc.

Most people know what the death penalty is about, and treat it seriously. If there were a stronger deterrence argument and less of a racial bias, I’d have to rethink my argument. Modern society exists because of the threat of, or the use of violence. All society does. The goal is to make that violence selective, rational and toward a just end.

3) I don’t think most murders are rational, and I’m convinced that developments in neuroscience are going to continue to shatter our silly moralization. I’d prefer a system based on rehabilitation for those who can helped, deterrence for rational rule-breakers and incapacitatation for those who cannot be released into civilized society (retribution is a vulgarity). But as Conor notes,

locking a man away for decades with no hope of ever being released is arguably a more severe punishment than death.

I see no need for senseless human suffering, so the best solution is to offer death row inmates the right to choose suicide. There should be a waiting period of two years and those who choose suicide should be offered the best legal defense society can give them, but then they should be allowed to end their life. This seems to be the more humane justice system. It’s slightly ironic that under this system we would treat death row inmates more humanely than the elderly, but so be it.

Megyn Kelly gets Jesus really wrong, Pt. 2

Megyn Kelly said some pretty dumb stuff on Fox News about Jesus (dumb by Megyn Kelly’s low standard, not by Fox News’s geologic standards) yesterday. She claimed that he was “white” and that “just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change.” Which is ironic, because that sounds a lot like how Richard Cohen defended Clarence Thomas from sexual harassment accusations. But the factual inaccuracy of the comments (and the fact that Jesus’s skin color is now considered news) isn’t the problem. The problem is that this marks the latest iteration of a concerted campaign to turn the closest thing Roman-occupied Palestine had to Che Guevara into a banal, white, suburbanite.

This campaign was exposed earlier this year when Christians were astounded to find out that the Catholic Church is concerned about poverty. But anyone vaguely familiar with religion built around the man who said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” (Matthew 19:24) should be aware that Catholic teaching has always been skeptical of concentrated wealth and greed. In Rerum Novarm, Pope Leo XIII writes,

Justice, therefore, demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create-that being housed, clothed, and bodily fit, they may find their life less hard and more endurable.

G.K. Chesterton said, You will hear everlastingly, in all discussion about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is rich.”

And what of the story of Lazarus? Lazarus is a beggar who waits outside of a rich man’s house and begs for scraps. When both Lazarus and the rich man die, Lazarus ends up in heaven, while the rich man ends up in hell. When the rich man begs for water, Abraham says, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” (Luke 19:25) Yet when Republicans read the Bible (theology escapes them), they find only, Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thes. 3:10b) (I need not delve into a discussion of Pauline theology, but I would like to note that Lenin believed this verse to be the basis of a Communist society).

Christ was not particularly fond of the family, he kicked it with prostitutes and other unsavory cats, and was crucified as a revolutionary for undermining the priestly nobility. He said nothing about contraception, evolution, gay rights, climate change or nuclear weapons. Yet his followers have fought, in his name, against all of these things. Jesus, said “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” (Matthew 10:35 – 36) Now he is the reason Focus on the Family thinks you should make sure your daughters don’t have any sexytime before marriage.

It’s not just poverty. Christian thought on war, the environment, women and immigration have all been shaped by the conservative political agenda. As Cornel West said, “Christian fundamentalists want to get fundamental about everything but, ‘Love Thy Neighbor.’” Jesus fits very well the words of Eugene Debs, “I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Today, we find him discussed by the very ruling class he denounced around lamb suppers once a year. Whitewashing Jesus is the least of Fox News’s problems. Give me white Jesus over boring Jesus any day.