Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes


The Origins of Islamic Militancy

by Neil Godfrey

newthreatBased on my reading of the first chapter of The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy by Jason Burke. . . .


The earlier generation of terrorists before “Islamic terrorism”

The turning point was in October, 1981, argues Jason Burke. Prior to the 1980s the most well-known terrorists were Leila Khaled and Carlos the Jackal. Religious agendas were very rarely found in the mix of ethnic, nationalist, separatist and secular revolutionary agendas.

The terrorist act that changed all this was the assassination of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in Cairo in October 1981. Sadat’s killers were very different from most of the terrorists of the decade before. (p. 24)

An ideological movement had taken root in the broader Muslim world — “a generalised rediscovery of religious observance and identity, coupled with a distrust of Western powers and culture.”

The historical matrix

History is necessary to enable us to understand. Burke points to the century between 1830 and 1930. These years saw the Russians, the Han Chinese and especially the Europeans invade and subjugate the Muslim regions from Morocco to Java, from the central Asian steppes to sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost all the invasions provoked a violent reaction among many local people. Resistance took many forms but, naturally enough in a deeply devout age, religion played a central role. Islam provided a rallying point for local communities more used to internecine struggle than campaigns against external enemies. (p. 25)

European armies and their local auxiliaries fought rebels whose motivations ranged widely but who all shared

a profound belief that they were acting in defence not only of their livelihoods, traditions and homes but of their faith. 

The superior technology of the foreign powers guaranteed the defeat of the rebels but these defeats were interpreted by the devout as evidence that they had neglected to please God and lost his favour.

Though by the twentieth century most movements had withered away a few remained active: British India’s North-West Frontier, Italian Libya, Palestine. The Afghans were not ruled by foreigners but in the 1920s they did throw out their king who had attempted to introduce foreign ways into his country.

Others chose withdrawal to open revolt, and to isolate themselves from the corrupting influences of alien cultures: e.g. the Deobandi school of India.

Some, however, fully embraced Western ideas in a spirit of rivalry. They sought to out-do their invaders: e.g. the University of Aligarh.

ed-husainEd Husain (author of The Islamist and previously posted about here) recalled as a boy growing up in a mainstream Muslim household when and the context in which he first heard the name Maududi:

“I liked Grandpa. Most of all, I used to delight in watching him slowly tie his turban, wrapping his head with a long piece of cloth, as befitted a humble Muslim, though he also seemed like a Mogul monarch. (Muslim scholars and kings both wore the turban in veneration of the Prophet Mohammed.) Whenever Grandpa visited Britain to teach Muslims about spirituality, my father accompanied him to as many places as he was able. My father believed that spiritual seekers did not gain knowledge from books alone, but learnt from what he called suhbah, or companionship. True mastery of spirituality required being at the service, or at least in the presence, of a noble guide. Grandpa was one such guide. . . .

“He often read aloud in Urdu, and explained his points in intricate Bengali, engaging the minds of others while I looked on bewildered. As they compared notes on abstract subjects in impenetrable languages, I buried myself in Inspector Morse or a Judy Blume. I heard names such as ‘Mawdudi’ being severely criticized, an organization named Jamat-e-Islami being refuted and invalidated on theological grounds. All of it was beyond me.” (The Islamist, p. 10, my bolding)


Abul Ala Maududi

What interests us, however, are those who took the middle road. The first was the work of Abd Ala’a Maududi [Abul Ala Maududi/Maudoodi/Mawdudi]:

In India, a political organisation called Jamaat Islami was founded in 1926. It sought religious and cultural renewal through non-violent social activism to mobilise the subcontinent’s Muslims to gain power. This approach involved embracing Western technology and selectively borrowing from Western political ideologies, while rejecting anything seen as inappropriate or immoral. (p. 26)

Hassan al-Banna

Hassan al-Banna

In Egypt, 1928, Hassan al-Banna founded a very similar group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Like the South Asian Jamaat Islami, it combined a conservative, religious social vision with a contemporary political one. For its followers, the state was to be appropriated, not dismantled, in order to create a perfect Islamic society. This approach was later dubbed Islamism

There were others across the Muslim world who rejected the compromise and non-violence of Jamaat Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood as the means to achieving their common goals.

By the early 1960s European powers had for most part withdrawn from the Muslim world leaving behind new regimes that had adopted Western ways and ideas: witness the new states founded in varying degrees of secularism and socialism. And of course there was Israel:

The establishment of the state of Israel, now recognized by the international community after a bloody war and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from lands they had worked or owned for generations, acted as a new focus for diverse grievances among Arab and Muslim communities. Anti-Semitism had long existed in the Islamic world but, fused with anti-Zionism, gained a new and poisonous intensity. Defeat in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 deepened a sense of hurt, loss and humiliation. (p. 27)

Something more important was happening within the newly independent nations themselves: “immense demographic change”.

  • Population explosions
  • Urban population mushroomed and rural populations relatively declined
  • Urban areas of poverty and unhealthy conditions proliferated — inadequate electricity, sanitation, education, health services, policing
  • Food in short supply and expensive
  • Previous decades had produced many university graduates whose future expectations were now dashed
  • Traditional communities were being shattered: new shanty towns and apartment blocks meant that extended families were broken up, village communities were vanishing, traditional leaders lost their authority
    • For the older people there was loss. For those young enough not to know anything of the former rural life, there was disorientation.
Cairo slums

Cairo slums

Egypt’s President Sadat represented to many the worst of these changes. Sadat was opening up Egypt to the new capitalism and foreign investment that accelerated the extremes of the rich-poor divide. Middle incomes declined dramatically.

Worse still, a growing economic gap between rich and poor was accompanied by a growing cultural gap. During the riots in Cairo in 1977, favourite targets for arson and vandalism were nightclubs — of which more than three hundred opened during the decade — and luxury US made cars — of which imports had gone up fourteen times. Both were symbols of the lifestyle of an elite that was enjoying greater connection with the rest of the world, and particularly the West, but which was increasingly detached from the majority of Egyptian population. By the end of the decade, more than 30 percent of prime-time television programming was from the US, with episodes of Dallas repeated ad infinitum. Inequality was combined with a sense of cultural invasion. It was an explosive mix. (p. 28 – my bolding in all quotations)

Amidst those swayed by Western influence nationalist and socialist commitments were those who turned to their religion in various ways, some withdrawing into mysticism, for example, others looking for wider change. Islamism was spreading through the universities and professional bodies.

Islamism promised to re-establish confidence and pride and to provide a solution to the many pressing challenges now faced by tens of millions of people. (p. 28)

Jason Burke identifies this moment for the birth of the militant Islam so prominent today: read more »


Jesus Did Not Exist — A New Contribution

by Neil Godfrey

latasterI am finding Raphael Latater’s book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists, a most invigorating and fresh approach to the topic. Caveat: I am taking it slowly and so far have not even completed the first chapter. I have read Richard Carrier’s introductory remarks and Raphael Lataster’s own background introduction and am only about half way through the first chapter. Along the way I’m stopping to study and follow up most of the footnotes, too. But if what lies ahead is as insightful and thorough as what I have read so far then I can see this book being the last word on the flawed attempts of Casey, Ehrman, McGrath and others who have attempted to shriek their conviction that “Yes, Virginia, there really was a Historical Jesus and anyone who doubts that is a very bad person who should be shunned.”

Interestingly, Lataster points out that the only serious attempts by scholars to publish arguments for the historical existence of Jesus — those by Erhman, Casey and McGrath — have done outside the scholarly peer-review process. On the other hand, the two serious attempts by scholars to publish reasons to doubt the historicity of Jesus — Richard Carrier and Raphael Lataster — have gone through the scholarly peer-review process.

The irony of that little datum is not lost on anyone who is aware of the complaints of “historicist scholars” (those arguing for the historicity of Jesus and against the mythicist hypothesis) that mythicism does not subject itself to scholarly peer-review.

Who is Raphael Lataster?

He may be among the first to have a thesis sympathetic to Jesus Mythicism approved by a world-class university.  —  Raphael Lataster’s New Book on Jesus Mythicism 

read more »


Carrier on McGrath’s responses to Carrier

by Neil Godfrey

A handy collation of Richard Carrier’s responses to James’ McGrath’s less-than-professional attacks on Carrier’s work is found in the Introduction to Raphael Lataster’s book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists:

What academic disease does this signify?

[5] See Richard Carrier, “McGrath on the Amazing Infallible Ehrman” (25 March 2012); “McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy” (5 March 2015); “McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype” (6 March 2015). Possibly that series will continue.

[6] His false claims about the content of my book are documented in Richard Carrier, “In Which James McGrath Reveals That He Is a Fundamentalist Who Has Never Read Any Contemporary Scholarship in His Field” (11 September 2015). He did the same thing in his faulty review of Proving History. See: Richard Carrier, “McGrath on Proving History” (10 September 2012). McGrath has done this so routinely now that I have had to conclude he is deliberately lying. For he cannot possibly be that incompetent.

[7] For all of these, see Richard Carrier, “Okay, So What about the Historicity of Spartacus?” (5 July 2015).

McGrath has only published responses to historicity on his personal blog (Exploring Our Matrix), and in an online trade publication (Bible & Interpretation) that is also not peer reviewed. In these open venues he has made such embarrassingly false claims about the ancient world in defense of the historicity of Jesus as to deeply call into question the competence of his opinion in the matter.[5] And he all too often makes wildly false claims about the arguments in my book, rather than addressing what it actually says.[6]

McGrath evinced this behavior even before reading my book. For example, he argued confidently that no Christians would erect inscriptions promoting their gospel because only government officials erected inscriptions. That this is wildly not true is bad enough, and that he wouldn’t know it’s untrue is worse, but that he was so arrogant in his ignorance that he never even thought to check and make sure before resting his argument on it, is worst of all. And indicative of the problem. Historians who would defend the historicity of Jesus aren’t doing their jobs as historians. And all too often, they literally don’t know what they are talking about. This is commonly observed in the frequency with which historicists claim the evidence for Jesus is as good as we have for Socrates, Alexander the Great, Spartacus, and Julius and Tiberius Caesar. That they would be so ignorant as to think that was true is shocking.[7] But more shocking is that they didn’t even check before asserting it. What academic disease does this signify?

The example of inscriptions illustrates the other problem as well. McGrath falsely implied that I endorse the lack of early inscriptions as an argument for the non-existence of Jesus. In fact I have publicly rejected that argument and explained why it doesn’t work (there are many reasons Christians would fail to erect such inscriptions even if Jesus did exist; just not the reason McGrath gave). McGrath routinely makes false claims like this about what I or my book argue. Many far more galling than this. Such as claiming my book relies on conspiracy theories, when in fact my book repeatedly denounces them. Or claiming I don’t adduce any allegorical meanings to explain Gospel pericopes but just assert they must have them, and using that as an argument against the merits of my book, when in fact I devote almost an entire chapter of the book to doing that, in fact not just adducing such meanings, but in many cases arguing for them, and citing peer reviewed scholarship that does the same – none of which facts McGrath informs his readers of. Or claiming I didn’t make an argument for a conclusion but just asserted it in the book (such as that a given miracle story is not likely to be true, or that a given word can too easily have come from a targum to be certain it came from a source about Jesus), when in fact, in every case, the book contains an extensive argument for that conclusion. An argument he fails to tell his readers about (and thus certainly offers no rebuttal to).

It should be a fundamental requirement of competent and honest scholarship to correctly represent the arguments of anyone you disagree with, and rebut their actual arguments, not arguments they never made, or conveniently distorted variants of arguments they did make, or to falsely claim they didn’t make any arguments to rebut. It is a disgrace for a scholar to use falsehood like this. Worse even to do so as arguments against a book they are reviewing. Yet these aren’t the only instances. McGrath does this a lot. Why? If historicity is so evidenced as to be certain, why do arguments against it have to be misrepresented to rebut them? Is it because the actual arguments can’t be rebutted? So fake arguments have to be contrived to knock down instead? That does not make it sound like historicity is so certain to me.

Lataster, Raphael (2015-11-12). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (Kindle Locations 114-147). Kindle Edition.



“Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists” by Raphael Lataster w/ Richard Carrier

by Neil Godfrey

doubtBy Richard Carrier in his Introduction to a new book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists:

In early 2014 I published On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. It passed professional peer review. It was published by a major, well-respected academic press that specialized in Biblical Studies, Sheffield-Phoenix, the publishing arm of the University of Sheffield. And it is the first book of such tested merit to argue that Jesus probably did not exist. It argues instead that Jesus began life as a revelatory archangel, and was transferred to human history decades later through the writing of myths for educational, missionary, and propagandistic purposes. This would have proceeded, in both cause and procedure, much like the invention of the life and teachings and miracles of Moses, whom the mainstream Academy now concedes probably did not exist.

Now late in 2015, the book you hold in your hand, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists by Raphael Lataster, contains the first thorough and expert treatment of my argument in print. In fact his chapter summarizing my book is the best brief summary I have read anywhere. . . . 
read more »


Expulsion of the Palestinians: Caution and Discretion during the War Years

by Neil Godfrey

Nur-MasalhaContinuing the series from Nur Masalha’s Expulsion of the Palestinians. . . .

One bible myth stands out today as bearing a major responsibility for modern wars, ethnic cleansing, and ongoing bloodshed. That myth is that a modern race has a right to the land of Palestine by virtue of a history found in the Bible.

This series of posts has not examined that biblical myth itself (nor wider public receptions and political influence of the myth) but it has been exposing another myth that has ridden on the back of the first, the myth that the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is ultimately the result of Palestinians failing to respect the right and necessity of the Jewish people to settle in peace alongside them. This secondary myth is actually a recasting of the biblical myth of the hostile Canaanites proving to be the ungodly thorn in the side of the people to whom God had given the land. The new settlers, the myth relates, are for most part innocently seeking only a safe refuge in their historic homeland but have been met with unjustified hostility by the existing inhabitants. The impetus for the new settlement came with the revelation that an attempt had been made to wipe out the entire Jewish people in Europe and the survivors and their descendants only wanted a small piece of historical real-estate alongside a hospitable fellow-semitic race.

To support this additional myth another must be sustained: that one race is responding in bad or immature character (as we would expect of biblical Canaanites) while the other is fundamentally decent and caring (as we would expect….). And many of our news sources filter the story through these mythical constructs.

That is all part of the secondary myth.

The reality, as these posts have been demonstrating on the basis of Israeli records, is otherwise.

The modern state of Israel was founded upon an ideology, a belief, an expectation among its key leadership that the Palestinian Arab population would have to be expelled from their long-held homes and lands. This belief among Zionism’s founding fathers that the state of Israel would require the removal of the bulk of Arabs from Palestine preceded World War 2, preceded the Holocaust, and made possible the forcible expulsion of thousands of Palestinians at Israel’s founding in 1948. The difference that the Holocaust made to the argument for Israel’s founding was that it facilitated international support for the new Jewish state. Popular sympathy for the horrors suffered by the Jews in Europe blinded many to the injustices being foisted upon the traditional inhabitants of Palestine.

There are many other secondary myths that serve to support the above myths. Among these are myths about the events that precipitated the flight of many Palestinians in 1948 and the respective views and actions of the governments involved in that war and subsequent wars. I will address these, too, and again on the basis of Israel’s archives, and in particular through the works of Jewish historians sympathetic to Israel.

In May this year Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely addressed foreign ministry staff in Jerusalem and 106 Israeli missions overseas by video link, and declared:

This entire land is ours. All of it, from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River, and we are not here to apologise for this. . . . 

She afterwards added:

We expect as a matter of principle the international community to recognise Israel’s right to build homes for Jews in their homeland everywhere.

The Telegraph‘s correspondent Brian Tait noted that her speech was

laced . . . with biblical commentaries in which God promised the land of Israel to the Jews. 

Hotovely, as we have seen, merely expressed what has been the conventional thinking and beliefs of most of Israel’s founding fathers from the very beginnings of the nation. As we have also seen, the same figures have found it more politic at times to not be so open with Western media about such sentiments.

The situation so far

The previous post brought us up to August 1938 with the British government finally deciding not to support immediate hopes of Zionists for a Jewish state in a partitioned Palestine.


  • It was clear to the British government from the Arab reaction that the recommended population transfers for even a two-state solution could not be carried out without violence and injustice to the livelihoods and deeply rooted feelings of the local population;
  • Without a state of any kind the Zionists understood that there was no way to effect a transfer of Palestinians at all.

The British therefore:

  • Decided it was time to slow the pace of their support for a Jewish state until they took time to consider seriously the Arab grievances;
  • Called for a general conference on Palestine to consist of Arab, Palestinian and Zionist representatives — due to be held in London in February-March 1939.

The Zionist leaders therefore:

  • Continued to press the British government for more liberal Jewish immigration into Palestine;
  • Continued to lobby for more freedom to to purchase land from Arab landowners;
  • Judged it prudent to avoid embarrassing the British government with further public calls for the transfer of the indigenous Arab population.

It was clear that the British were not going to risk antagonizing the Arabs at a time when the clouds of war were rising.

The Jewish Agency therefore turned its attention towards that other promising power and potential supporter, the United States.

Ben Gurion’s memorandum

read more »


Love, Relationships and Terrorism

by Neil Godfrey

frictionPrevious posts in this series looking at Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko:

A number of critics who are more interested in attacking religion, especially Islam, than in making the effort to understand what scholarly research has uncovered about why individuals become terrorists have often missed a critical reason for radicalization. This reason seems too simple and some have scoffed at the idea as if it is some left-wing loony nonsense — such as anthropologist Scott Atran’s claim that street soccer networks can enable us to predict who is at risk of extremism. It is a fact, however, that some of us over time do get mixed up in things neither we nor any of our acquaintances would ever have suspected. And it’s not because we convert to some fanatical religious idea.



McCauley and Moskalenko introduce us to Sophia (Sonia) Perovskaya, a Russian girl born into nobility and who was attracted to idealistic student movements seeking to improve the lot of the peasantry. Her ideals forbade her from crossing the line of violence.

Like many others who ventured “into the people,” Sonia did not have much success in mobilizing the peasants. Instead, it appears from her letters at the time that she became more and more involved in the mission of making peasants’ lives better, having seen the horrible conditions in which they lived.

Failure to politicize the peasants led a fellow revolutionary, Andrei Zhelyabov (we met him in the first post of this series), to persuade a few that violence was the only answer. The peasants were too besotted with the Czar; kill the Czar and they would be forced to engage in actions for a better society. Sophia’s response was absolute refusal:

“revolutionaries must not consider themselves above the laws of humanity. Our exceptional position should not cloud our heads. First and foremost we are humans.”

read more »


Another study of ISIS

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 8.01.17 pmAbout a week ago I wrote a few notes on my reading of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. I followed that with Jessica Stern’s and J.M. Berger’s ISIS: The State of Terror. It’s a great companion to former work; don’t hold off thinking it might be redundant if you’ve already read the former.

One small detail but a most valuable asset is an appendix by a Brown University doctoral student, Megan K. McBride, providing one of the most readable and informative outlines of the history and nature of Islam and where the various movements that culminated in ISIS fit in to that overview. My first reaction to reading it was to want to contact the author and seek permission to post it in Vridar.

A principal difference from the Weiss and Hassan study is that Stern and Berger explore in much greater depth the way ISIS is really such a modern phenomenon with the strategic ways it has exploited modern communication technologies, especially social media. I first heard the expression “barbarism empowered by modern technology” as a graduate student to refer to the Nazi machine of World War 2. ISIS is reverting to the most primitive forms of barbarism but empowering that barbaric message through modern communications technology. Beheadings have been historically employed as a “mercifully” swift means of execution; not for ISIS where some deliberately seek out blunt knives to do the job. The object is to strike fear, of course, as well as demonstrate to idealistic potential recruits just how serious they are. Bizarrely bloodthirsty messages are somehow mixed with video shots of an ideal visionary society, a caliphate where children are happy (even if playing with decapitated heads on corpse-lined streets) and the true ways of Allah ensure a purified “utopia”. Gone are the defeatist messages of the old terrorists like Al Qaeda with their expectations of being overwhelmed by godless forces and hopes for a future paradise. The heavenly kingdom is here now; the jihadists are strong and terrifying in their strength. That is their message and that is what makes them different from other terrorist groups. read more »


Peter as Apostate Apostle in the Gospel of Matthew?

by Neil Godfrey

Peter2Robert Gundry in a newly published book, Peter: False Disciple and Apostate according to Saint Matthew, describes himself as “a conservative evangelical Christian” with an interest in “the understanding that makes best sense of Matthew’s text when it comes to Peter.” His argument is that

Matthew portrays Peter as a false disciple of Jesus, a disciple who went so far as to apostatize; that Matthew does so to warn Christians against the loss of salvation through falsity-exposing apostasy; that this warning fits the Matthean theme of apostasy-inducing persecution; and that the danger of apostasy fits the further Matthean theme of the ongoing presence of false disciples in the church . . . till the end. 

That’s quite a daring proposal for most of us who have long viewed the Gospel of Matthew as the one gospel that does more than any other to exalt the role of Peter in the foundational history of the Church. Some of us have wondered if the Gospel of Mark was meant to be having a dig at the disciples for their faithlessness, and some have seen the Gospel of John as subtly suggesting that Peter’s spiritual qualities were somewhat inferior to those of “the Beloved Disciple”. But the Gospel of Matthew (henceforth “Matthew”) is famous for Jesus pronouncing that he was giving Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and “upon this rock I will build my church”.

So any suggestion that Matthew viewed Peter as an apostate is going to have some explaining to do.

First question: if Matthew thought Peter was a false apostle then why didn’t he say so directly? read more »


ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan

by Neil Godfrey

ISIS-Inside-the-Army-of-TerrorThere was a time I needed to read Marx and Mao to orient myself to the essential thought of the ideologies challenging the West. Never did I imagine that in my lifetime those works would be gathering dust and I’d be seeking out the likes of al-Maqdisi’s Democracy a Religion and Naji’s The Management of Savagery (and more recently, al-Suri’s – original name Nasur – Call for a Global Islamic Resistance)  to get a handle on contemporary threats.

Not long ago I devoured a cluster of works on Islam and terrorism and posted on snippets of that reading; the last few weeks I’ve been trying to catch up with Islamism (as distinct from Islam the religion and even “terrorism” per se — though there are obvious overlaps, of course). So most recently I’ve read Islam and the Future of Tolerance: a dialogue (by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz), Maajid Nawaz’s experience as a leader in a group with a long-term strategy of establishing Islamist regimes, Radical: my journey from Islamist extremism to a democratic awakening, Ed Husain’s The Islamist : why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left, and Isis: inside the army of terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. (Still on my to-read list are three other very recent works on ISIS — by Stern & Berger, Cockburn and Burke.

I recommend Radical and The Islamist to anyone who thinks all Muslims are by the nature of their religion somewhat medieval in their values. Nawaz’s upbringing was not particularly religious but Hasain’s certainly was. Reading the lives of these two, especially that of Ed Husain, is an eye-opener to the stark difference between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism.

ISIS: inside the army of terror is a depressing yet informative study of the group’s origins, its brutal nature and strikingly sudden emergence. Michael Weiss (Twitter) and Hassan Hassan (Facebook Community) interviewed many persons closely associated with terrorist organisations and others among the military and political establishments that have been directly involved with events connected to the rise of Islamic State.

The roots of ISIS appear to go right back to Saddam Hussein’s preparations for an American led invasion of his country. Well before the occupation he had prepared safe-houses, secret arms storages and underground economic machinations that would help sustain their secret networks and ongoing armed struggle against the occupiers. Much of Iraq’s army melted into this underground network after March-April 2003 and became the backbone of the various resistance and terrorist movements that followed. read more »


Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz in Discordant Dialogue

by Neil Godfrey

harris-nawazTowards the end of the discussion between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz in Islam and the Future of Tolerance Nawaz says to Harris:

I appreciate your recognition that your wording has often contributed to this “clash of civilizations” narrative. . . . [W]e are duty bound to try and minimize it [i.e. the tendency of many people to hear only what they expect to hear from a given speaker] through careful wording, so thank you. (pp. 115-116, my own bolding in all quotations)

It appears that Maajid Nawaz has just heard Sam Harris admit that he has carelessly fanned the popular myth of the “clash of civilizations” scenario, the popular view that Islam and the West are incompatible and conflict is inevitable when they meet. Unfortunately it seems to me on reading this dialogue that Nawaz himself has at times tended to hear “only what he expected to hear” from Harris in his sincere efforts to establish a constructive dialogue.

But first, note that Harris truly did admit that sometimes he had contributed to that unhelpful “clash of civilizations” narrative:

Another thing I think we should discuss is the tension between honestly confronting the problems of conservative Islam, Islamism, and jihadism and feeding the narrative that “the West is at war with Islam.” I admit that I have often contributed to this narrative myself, and rather explicitly. (p 113)

Perhaps Harris is recollecting what he wrote in The End of Faith on pages 109


We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been “hijacked” by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. . .



and 130:


Samuel Huntington has famously described the conflict between Islam and the West as a “clash of civilizations.” Huntington observed that wherever Muslims and non-Muslims share a border, armed conflict tends to arise. Finding a felicitous phrase for an infelicitous fact, he declared that “Islam has bloody borders.” . . . .

One need only read the Koran to know, with something approaching mathematical certainty, that all truly devout Muslims will be “convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power,” just as Huntington alleges. And this is all that his thesis requires.


That is an unambiguous assertion that (1) we are at war with effectively the entire Muslim world and (2) bloodshed is (with near mathematical certainty) the inevitable consequence when our Western culture meets a Muslim culture.

But no, that’s not what Sam Harris says he meant when he is talking with Maajid Nawaz — and that raises the question of whether Maajid, with the very best of intentions, was too eager to stop hearing after he heard what he wanted to hear. Here is how Harris followed his remarks in Islam and the Future of Tolerance: read more »


Whence Monogamy?

by Neil Godfrey

This post offers some explanation for the monogamous societies as a “footnote” to my previous post on the statistical benefits of monogamy for men. Robert Wright (The Moral Animal) points out that most societies have not been strictly monogamous, so it’s not as though we’ve evolved to be monogamous by nature:

A huge majority — 980 of the 1,154 past or present societies for which anthropologists have data — have permitted a man to have more than one wife. And that number includes most of the world’s hunter-gatherer societies, societies that are the closest thing we have to a living example of the context of human evolution. (p. 90)

It’s been a mixed bag:

Actually, there is a sense in which polygynous marriage has not been the historical norm. For 43 percent of the 980 polygynous cultures, polygyny is classified as “occasional.” And even where it is “common,” multiple wives are generally reserved for a relatively few men who can afford them or qualify for them via formal rank. For eons and eons, most marriages have been monogamous, even though most societies haven’t been.

Still, the anthropological record suggests that polygyny is natural in the sense that men given the opportunity to have more than one wife are strongly inclined to seize it. (p. 91)

read more »


Another Biblical Scholar Explains His Interest in Historical Jesus Studies

by Neil Godfrey
James D. G.JimmyDunn FBA (born 21 October 1939) is a British New Testament scholar who was for many years the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham, now Emeritus Lightfoot Professor. He has worked broadly within the Protestant tradition. — Wikipedia (12th October 2015)

Other scholars in this series: Dale AllisonRichard BauckhamScot McKnight. To appreciate the coverage of Dunn’s works see a selected list in Wikipedia.

James D.G. Dunn’s view of the historical Jesus was one of five sought for an exchange of views in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy. The others were Robert M. Price, John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson and Darrel L. Bock. Dunn’s earliest forays into the historical Jesus were in response to a controversial 1984 London Weekend Television series Jesus: The Evidence in which doubts were raised against the traditional Christian narrative and even the existence of Jesus. The idea that controversial views should be aired publicly without being simultaneously framed in the condemnation and scorn they find among conventional Christian scholars was too much for Dunn and other critics. Dunn himself reveals his own poor view of the intelligence of the general public in an overwhelmingly Christian nation led by mainstream clergy when he wrote in his preface to his response to the program, The Evidence for Jesus (1985)

From what they saw and heard, viewers who lacked training in biblical studies or theology were unable to distinguish be­tween the weightier and the less weighty opinions. They were given too little advice as to whether what was projected was accepted by the majority of scholars in this field or only by a lone voice resisting the larger consensus. Of course, scholarship does not and should not pro­ceed by majority vote! One scholar in a hundred may be right, and the remaining ninety-nine wrong. But when lay people are being exposed to the claims of scholarship, they at least have a right to know how well these claims have been received by other scholars.

evidenceIn fact there was ample follow up to the original TV program to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about where mainstream biblical scholars stood. As another scholar, Howard Clark Kee, explains in his Foreword to Dunn’s book,

British television offered a follow-up series in an attempt to give more moderate biblical scholars a chance to present their side of the case and to respond to the radicals. As a result the controversy was, if anything, extended and enlarged. Coming in conjunction with the heated debate that arose when a theologian with controversial views on the virgin birth and resurrection was consecrated a Bishop of the Church of England, thoughtful people—in and out of the churches— raised serious questions: Is the traditional faith of the church obsolete? Is the church not being honest with the public? Have such recent discoveries as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic library in Egypt discredited the Gospel picture of Jesus as we have known it? Is the evidence not being candidly presented and discussed?

In other words, the public was well and truly aware that most scholars did not accept views that radically questioned Christian origins. But what was under threat was public confidence in the intellectual integrity of the bulk of those theologians. Damage control was called for and James Dunn stepped in to do his part to bolster the confidence of the devout.

Fortunately, there were scholarly and churchly leaders across Great Britain who raised serious and responsible challenges to these radical conclusions. Among the latter was James D. G. Dunn, Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham in northern England, an active churchman and a prolific writer. Professor Dunn is personally interested in the daily life and faith aspects of Christianity as well as in its intellectual dimensions. It was appropriate, therefore, that the Durham Council of Churches should ask him to give a series of lectures to an interchurch audience on the same topic, “Jesus: The Evidence” . . . . (Kee, writing in the Foreword about the origin of the book)

Or in Dunn’s own words:

One of the attractive features of Durham was an active Council of Churches, which Meta and I helped to revive . . . as Churches Together in Durham. Initial involvement was a sequence of lectures in response to a London Weekend Television series entitled Jesus: the Evidence (1984), a series which had proved to be very unbalanced.  The puzzlement and distress caused by the series prompted me to offer a four-lecture response, better rooted in the New Testament evidence and more truly reflected of the range of scholarly opinion. These were published as as The Evidence for Jesus. . . .  

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.   —  (my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

So Dunn assures readers from reading the gospel narratives themselves that beneath the theological elaboration is indeed “historically reliable” and genuine “historical information” that “clearly” derived from oral traditions going back to the earliest eyewitnesses of Jesus himself. Even the evidence for the resurrection, the “fact” of the empty tomb and the transformation of the disciples after claiming to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus, must leave any well meaning jury with the conclusion that the gospel stories are “attempts to say something which goes beyond human description” and that “there must have been powerful and compelling factors which resulted in the first Christian confession, ‘ God has raised Jesus from the dead’!” (p. 76) read more »


Monogamy is not so bad (at least for men) after all

by Neil Godfrey

robertwrightAnother work I’m finally catching up with is Robert Wright’s Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (1994). We all know the usual narrative about men being shaped by their genes to want to reproduce with everything in sight while women are always on the shrewd lookout for the best candidate to protect and provide for her children.

To cut to the chase and speaking in broad evolutionary/social psychological terms, Wright raises an interesting question (at least for me who is shamefully twenty years late in reading his book!):

[W]hereas a polygynous society is often depicted as something men would love and women would hate, there is really no natural consensus on the matter within either sex. Obviously, women who are married to a poor man and would rather have half of a rich one aren’t well served by the institution of monogamy. And, obviously, the poor husband they would gladly desert wouldn’t be well served by polygyny. (p. 96, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Wright adds that the males who are advantaged by monogamy are not only those at the bottom of the income scale.

Consider a crude and offensive but analytically useful model of the marital marketplace. One thousand men and one thousand women are ranked in terms of their desirability as mates. Okay, okay: there isn’t, in real life, full agreement on such things. But there are clear patterns. Few women would prefer an unemployed and rudderless man to an ambitious and successful one, all other things being even roughly equal; and few men would choose an obese, unattractive, and dull woman over a shapely, beautiful, sharp one. For the sake of intellectual progress, let’s simplemindedly collapse these and other aspects of attraction into a single dimension.

Suppose these 2,000 people live in a monogamous society and each woman is engaged to marry the man who shares her ranking. She’d like to marry a higher-ranking man, but they’re all taken by competitors who outrank her. The men too would like to marry up, but for the same reason can’t.

Now, before any of these engaged couples gets married, let’s legalize polygyny and magically banish its stigma. read more »


Another Biblical Scholar (Richard Bauckham) on Historical Jesus Studies

by Neil Godfrey
Richard J. Bauckham, FBA, FRSE (born 22 September 1946) is an English scholar in theology, historical theology and New Testament studies, specialising in New Testament Christology and the Gospel of John. He is a senior scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. — Wikipedia (4th Oct 2015).


Richard Bauckham is probably best known to the wider public for his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony in which he argues that the gospel narratives about Jesus were derived from reports of eyewitnesses. Is it reasonable to ask if Bauckham’s thesis was the product of disinterested historical inquiry?

Anyone who has read the first chapter of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses will know that my overall concern in the book was to help Christians recover the confidence that the Jesus they find in the Gospels (rather than in some dubiously reconstructed history behind the Gospels) is the real Jesus. 

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 27). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Does this entitle us to be suspicious that the arguments might have been tendentious?

I did not think this prejudiced the purely historical argument that followed because I am accustomed to making sure that my historical arguments stand up as historical arguments.

I have covered in depth what his “historical arguments” look like in a detailed series of chapter by chapter posts now available in the archives. One of the more bizarre of Bauckham’s “historical arguments” is to compare the gospel narratives of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus with testimony of another “unique” event, the Holocaust of the 1940s. To approach the testimony of survivors/eyewitnesses with a hermeneutic of “radical suspicion” is “epistemological suicide”. Normative approaches of critical analysis of the evidence, of testing the evidence, are set aside in preference for a choice between either believing or rejecting the testimony, for either cynically rejecting the “astonishing testimony” of something unspeakably unique or charitably trusting the words of a privileged eyewitness report. Ad hoc rationalisations dominate: if passages such as the crucifixion narratives are replete with biblical (Old Testament) allusions it is because the eyewitnesses were overawed by their memories of the events; yet if passages such as the resurrection narratives contain no biblical allusions it is because the eyewitnesses were even more overawed by their memories of something that “defied reality”.

What about Bauckham’s personal faith interest? Does that shape his work in any way?

Maybe (but how could I ever know?) I would still love God if I came to the conclusion that there was no shred of real history in the New Testament. But, to say the least, I would find it more difficult to believe in God if I did not believe that God became incarnate as the man Jesus, who died and rose bodily from death and is alive eternally with God. (Here I differ profoundly from people who find it easier to believe in God than in the incarnation and the resurrection.) This gives my love of God an indispensable stake in the historical credibility of the Gospels. For as long as I have thought about it, it has always been clear to me that, for Christian faith to be true, the Jesus Christians find in the Gospels must be the real Jesus . . . 

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 24). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Does this mean that Bauckham invariably knows that he expects to find his faith confirmed in all of his studies? He does at least permit himself to change his mind on a number of issues so no-one can say he does not courageously follow wherever the evidence leads . . . Coincidentally the three changes of mind that he admits to having arisen out of his studies have all been in the direction of establishing the “truth” of a more conservative and traditional view of his faith: read more »