Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes


Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

by Neil Godfrey

platocreationhebrewbibleRussell Gmirkin in his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible draws attention to striking similarities between the Pentateuch (the first five books of the “Old Testament”) on the one hand and Plato’s last work, Laws, and features of the Athenian constitution on the other. Further, even the broader collection of writings that make up the Hebrew Bible — myth and history, psalms, wisdom sayings, moral and religious precepts, all presented with the aura of great antiquity — happen to conform to Plato’s recommendations for the sorts of literature that should form the national curriculum of an ideal state.

The idea that the Jewish scriptures owe their character and existence to the Hellenistic era, a time subsequent to Alexander’s conquests of the Near East, jars hard against traditional views of the origins of the Bible. Yet Gmirkin shows that many significant laws in the Pentateuch as well as the narrative style of their presentation are indeed closer to later Greek ideas than those found among Israel’s/Judea’s Syrian or Babylonian neighbours.

The key to this close linkage is the Great Library of Alexandria. Past studies exploring possible cultural contacts between the Greeks and Judeans prior to the Hellenistic era (that is, the period following Alexander the Great, from around 320 BCE) have generally shown that exchanges were primarily limited to trade and had minimal impact in the literary and philosophical sphere. On the other hand, we do know that Jews and Greek culture met in Alexandria. The history of the Athenian Constitution was available in the works of Aristotle there; Plato’s reflections on the ideal state and laws were also stored there. And the Hebrew Bible was said to have been translated into Greek there. Moreover, there is no external evidence for the existence of the Pentateuch prior to the Hellenistic era. In an earlier book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch, — see earlier Vridar posts — Gmirkin likewise argued that the Pentateuch was composed around 270 BCE and he introduces his new book as a sequel to Berossus and Genesis.

The main stimulus for Gmirkin’s new study is a desire to examine more closely some of the parallels presented by Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. (Again, see earlier Vridar posts on Argonauts.) According to the Acknowledgements in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible it was Thomas L. Thompson who suggested this study to Russell Gmirkin, and Gmirkin explains that his focus was on Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the parallels between Plato’s Laws and the Pentateuchal laws as the most persuasive section of his book.

While on the Acknowledgements, I have to refer to one other detail that struck me: read more »


Something Rotten in the Lands of Islam

by Neil Godfrey

The survey of Muslim religiosity was carried out in

  • Indonesia,
  • Pakistan,
  • Malaysia,
  • Iran,
  • Kazakhstan,
  • Egypt
  • and Turkey.

It included statements on the respondents’ image of Islam. The survey listed forty-four items that examined religious beliefs, ideas and convic­tions. These statements were generated by consulting some key sociological texts on Muslim societies by authors such as Fazlur Rahman, Ernest Gellner, William Montgomery Watt, Mohammad Arkoun and Fatima Mernissi. Respondents were asked to give one of the following six responses to each of the statements presented: strongly agree, agree, not sure, disagree, strongly disagree, or no answer. More than 6300 respondents were interviewed. (Hassan, Inside Muslim Minds, p. 48)

This is post #5 on Inside Muslim Minds by Riaz Hassan. We are seeking an understanding of the world. If you have nothing to learn about the Islamic world please don’t bother reading these posts since they will likely stir your hostility and tempt you into making unproductive comments.

We have looked at a historical interpretation of how much of the Muslim world became desensitized to cruel punishments and oppression of women and others. But what does the empirical evidence tell us? Here Hassan turns to a study explained in the side-box. Each question was subject to a score between 1 and 5, with “very strong” being indicated by 1 or 2.

Following are the 20 questions (out of a total of 44) that generated the highest mean scores.

Overall the results tell us that Muslims feel strongly about “the sanctity and inviolability” of their sacred texts. There is a strong belief overall that all that is required for a utopian society is a more sincere commitment to truths in those texts.

In other words, there is a large-scale rejection of modern understandings of the genetic and environmental influences upon human nature.

The evidence indicates very strong support for implementing ‘Islamic law’ in Muslim countries. (On “Islamic Law” see Most Muslims Support Sharia: Should We Panic?) Respondents strongly support strict enforcement of Islamic hudood laws pertaining to apostasy, theft and usury. The purpose of human freedom is seen not as a means of personal fulfilment and growth, but as a way of meeting obligations and duties laid down in the sacred texts. This makes such modern developments as democracy and personal liberty contrary to Islamic teachings. The strong support for strict enforcement of apos­tasy laws makes any rational and critical appraisals of Islamic texts and traditions unacceptable and subject to the hudd punishment of death. The strength of these attitudes could explain why hudood and blasphemy laws are supported, or at least tolerated, by a significant majority of Muslims. Strong support for modelling an ideal Muslim society along the lines of the society founded by the Prophet Muhammad and the first four Caliphs is consistent with the salafi views and teachings discussed earlier. (p. 54)

But notice: read more »

The Poisonous Cocktail of Salafism and Wahhabism

by Neil Godfrey

insidemuslimmindsContinuing from Muslim Nations and the Rise of Modern Barbarism . . . .

According to Abou El Fadl, characteristic features of salafabism (combination of salafism and wahhabism) include the following:

  • a profound alienation from institutions of power in the modern world and from Islamic heritage and tradition
  • a supremacist puritanism that compensates for feelings of defeat­ism, disempowerment and alienation
  • a belief in the self-sufficiency of Islamic doctrines and a sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-a-vis the ‘other’
  • the prevalence of patriarchal, misogynist and exclusionary orien­tations, and an abnormal obsession with the seductive power of women
  • the rejection of critical appraisals of Islamic traditions and Muslim discourses
  • the denial of universal moral values and rejection of the indeter­minacy of the modern world
  • use of Islamic texts as the supreme regulator of social life and society
  • literalist, anti-rational and anti-interpretive approaches to reli­gious texts.

(Hassan, Inside Muslim Minds, p. 46, my own formatting and bolding in all quotations)

There is little room for me to go beyond Hassan’s own outline of El Fadl’s account:

Salafabism has anchored itself in the security of Islamic texts. These texts are also exploited by a select class of readers to affirm their reactionary power. Unlike apologists who sought to prove Islam’s compatibility with Western institutions, salafabists define Islam as the antithesis of the West. They argue that colonialism ingrained in Muslims a lack of self-pride and feelings of inferiority.

For salafabists, there are only two paths in life: the path of God (the straight path) and the path of Satan (the crooked path): The straight path is anchored in divine law, which is to be obeyed and which is never to be argued with, diluted or denied through the application of humanistic or philosophical discourses. Salafabists argue that, by attempting to integrate and co-opt Western ideas such as feminism, democracy or human rights, Muslims have deviated from the straight to the crooked path. (pp. 46-47)

And it gets worse . . . . read more »

Muslim Nations and the Rise of Modern Barbarism

by Neil Godfrey

This post is the third in my notes from Inside Muslim Minds by Riaz Hassan.

The second response among Muslims to their experience of colonialism and its aftermath is salafism.

Response 2: Salafism



Whereas apologetics was a direct response to colonial rule, salafism emerged out of apologetics but in the post-colonial era. When independent nations experienced the failure of their ruling elites to bring about the reforms and better life — “jobs, economic development, welfare for citizens and equality of citizenship” — that they had promised.

Building on apologetic thought the salafists concluded that this failure was the consequence of using secular laws instead of the laws of God.


Al Afghani

Some of the founding ideologues of the salafist movement were Mohammad Abduh, al-Afghani, Muhammad Rashid Rida and (one that we have discussed on Vridar before) Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi.



Like the apologists these early salafists believed that the Islamic religion was entirely compatible with modernism. Recall that the apologists argued that modern western ideals like democracy, constitutional governments, socialism etc were all to be found in early Islam. What was required of modern Muslims was to interpret their sacred texts in the context and according to the needs of adapting to the modern world. Moreover, there was no single interpretation that could demand a monopoly on “the correct interpretation”.

Salafism as it originally developed maintained that, on all issues, Muslims ought to return to the original textual sources of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet and interpret them in the light of modern needs and demands without being slavishly bound by the interpretive precedents of earlier Muslim generations. In this respect, it was a distinctive intellectual project. Salafism advocated a kind of interpretive community in which anyone was qualified to return to the divine texts and interpret their messages. . . . [I]t was not hostile to competing Islamic juristic traditions, Sufism or mysticism. (p. 43)

Further, read more »


Islam and the Rise of Barbarism

by Neil Godfrey

insidemuslimmindsSuch violent, repulsive and publicly visible acts could be interpreted as  the by-product of social malignancies that have festered for a long time. Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl—an eminent Islamic jurist . . . . —provides a succinct description of how historical and social conditions interact to form a particular mentality . . . .

[W]hen we speak about the meaning of Islam today, we are really talking about the product of cumulative enterprises that have generated communities of interpreta­tion through a long span of history. (p. 37)

The shocking injustices and brutality in the Muslim world that we hear about far too often are not isolated acts of a few troubled psychopaths. They are systemic and carried out with considerable (though fortunately not always unanimous) popular support.

Such acts take place because of social dynamics that have desensitized and decon­structed a society’s sense of moral virtue and ethics. Theological constructs and social responses that tolerate the commission of acts of cruelty are the product of a long process of indoctrination and acculturation. Indoctrination facilitates their com­mission; acculturation mutes or mitigates the sense of outrage over the offensive behaviour. (p. 37)

Boiling the frog

Each act of barbarism becomes a historical precedent for further similar acts and for increasingly easier public acceptance. (As for indoctrination, we are also looking at how that works first hand.) Each act becomes another topic of community discussion; explanations and interpretations that emerge become part of the social group’s identity and moral foundations. Theological perspectives of these same events are meanwhile being transmitted through generations of families, communities and institutions. The point is that community interpretations and practices adapt, evolve, change emphases and focus over time and that’s true of most societies throughout history. So the question that arises is, What historical changes have been emerging in “recent” history in the Muslim world? And when we say “recent” we are reaching back to the eighteenth century when European powers made their first takeovers of large numbers of Muslim populations (e.g. India, Egypt).

Three responses to Western colonialism

To make sense of the incidents described, we need first to analyze three streams of Islamic consciousness that developed under the historical conditions faced by Muslim societies over the previous few centuries. Under the conditions of economic underdevelopment, technological backwardness and powerlessness prevailing today in the Muslim world, elements of these three streams have somehow fused to give rise to a new hybrid Islamic consciousness: salafabism . . . . (p. 38, my formatting and highlighting in all quotations)

As we saw in Jason Burke’s historical narrative Saudi Arabia used its windfall from rising oil prices in the 1970s to propagate its vicious brand of wahhabist Islam. In addition to wahhibism Fadl points his finger at two other strands of Islamic thought, the first being apologetics. Let’s take them in order.

Response 1: Apologetics

A common feature of most Muslim societies is a shared history of colonialism under European dominance. This sociopolitical experi­ence was accompanied by a culture of orientalism: an assumption of Western superiority combined with a condescending trivialization of Islamic cultural achievements. The onslaught of these processes led not only to loss of power by political and religious elites in the lands of Islam, but also to the devaluation and deprecation of Islamic beliefs and institutions. The dominant intellectual response of Muslims to this challenge from around the mid-eighteenth century came from the apologetics. (p. 39)

Conquered peoples typically find ways to resist their conquerors even if only by symbolic means. Recall the way some Jewish leaders responded to the conquest of Judea by the Greco-Romans who justifiably took great pride in their cultural achievements. “Plato is so wonderful?” some Jews (and subsequently some Christians) challenged. “Ha! Plato filched all of his ideas from Moses!”

Among the conquered and humiliated Muslims were those who responded in a similar way to their Western overlords. Anything of value that the Europeans had produced was thought by Muslim apologists to have owed its origins to Islamic science or philosophy or political ideas.

According to apologists, Islam

  • liberated women,
  • created democracy,
  • endorsed pluralism,
  • protected human rights
  • and introduced social welfare

long before these institutions ever existed in the West. One implication of this orientation was that, since Islam had invented most modern institutions, there was no incentive to engage in any further thinking or analysis, except on very marginal issues. (p. 40)

So it was that Western orientalists (those who looked down upon oriental culture, ways and beliefs with a certain contempt) found themselves mirrored by Muslim apologists who in turn looked down upon Westerners with the same disdain. That’s one time-honoured way of a defeated people holding on to their self-worth and dignity.

But that kind of response has a serious down-side: it ossifies one’s religion.

Religion is no longer an evolving and adapting system that is constantly being critically studied and subject to adaptation in the face of new circumstances. An idealized construct is created, and this is sanctified and set in stone as a foundational golden age. Anything that falls short of that ideal is the fault of the enemy. Trying to cope with the humiliation that came with European conquest and hegemony some Muslims found refuge in a conviction that their ancient texts, ways, beliefs had from the beginning of time been superior and well in advance of anything associated with their new rulers.

So for Muslim apologists the superiority of Islam became a mirror reaction to their European masters’ presumptions of superiority. As cultural arrogance made it impossible for Europeans to bend and adapt so the same arrogance of apologists made it impossible for them to analyse and adapt their own traditions and belief systems.

Apologists treated the Islamic tradition as if it had fossilized at the time of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Companions (the four Caliphs who succeeded Muhammad).

And if there is nothing to reflect upon except to bask in the superiority of one’s beliefs then anyone can become an authority. The true Muslim intellectuals are marginalized into irrelevancy. The door is open to anyone becoming “the voice” of “truth”. The solutions become easy. If the Muslim peoples are under the boot of the aliens, unable to match the Westerners in political and military might and so liberate themselves, it is because Muslims are not faithful and devout enough.

The way to liberation and self-respect, apologists believed, was to become more fervently dedicated to the myth of the old ways. And those old ways proved to have even preceded the best the West had to offer such as democracies and human rights.

Islamic apologists were ultimately motivated by nationalistic aspirations for political, social and cultural independence from the West.

Islam thus came to be seen as a kind of anti-colonialist resistance ideology capable of restoring Muslim pride and political power. Political liberation anchored itself in a religious orientation that was puritanical, supremacist and opportunistic. (p. 41)

That was one response. The other two I’ll cover in another post. We also need to examine the empirical evidence of how these different types of responses took hold in varying degrees in different regions of Muslim peoples and fused into an ugly ideology. We will see that those differences can be correlated with respective historical experiences with the West.



Understanding Muslims and Barbarism

by Neil Godfrey

insidemuslimminds My first post covering a little of what I learned about the Muslim religion (Sharia) and its global applications did not get off to a good start. I have already posted three times on Rahim’s Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from Within so this post is based on a key theme in the third of the works I found most useful in my attempt to understand the Muslim world, Riaz Hassan’s Inside Muslim Minds.

I won’t repeat the horrific news we have all heard about beheadings, stonings, amputations, honour killings though Hassan describes in some detail several of the more shocking cases of these in the pre-ISIS era, especially from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Worse, since the introduction of these laws that were supposedly intended to

protect honour, life and the fundamental rights of a citizen, as guaranteed under the constitution and to ensure peace and provide speedy justice through an independent non-discriminatory Islamic system of justice (p. 23)

the long term consequences have been the reverse. Instead of fewer accusations against blasphemy and sexual offences the numbers of incidents of these brought before the courts has only been avalanching:

In such a society as Pakistan, with its deeply embedded patriarchal beliefs and attitudes, the hudood laws in general and the law pertain­ing to zina (fornication and adultery) in particular have been widely and recklessly abused. In particular, they have become an instrument of oppression against women. . . .

The hudood laws and their successors have severely eroded and undermined the constitutional guarantees of life and liberty for all citi­zens. Instead of protecting ‘honour, life and the fundamental rights of a citizen’, these laws have become instruments of oppression.

The hudood laws, far from creating a just and equal society, have succeeded only in imprisoning half of the country’s population ‘in a web of barbaric laws and customs’.  (pp, 23, 27, 28)

Developments like these do disturb more enlightened Islamic scholars:

According to some Islamic scholars, the introduction of these laws represents an ugly blot on the divine purity of Islamic doctrine. In a carefully researched book, Dr Mohammad Tufail Hashmi, a well-known Pakistani Islamic scholar, argues that, in conferring supposed ‘divine’ status on the Islamic hudd laws as well as on sup­porting laws laid out in the Pakistan Penal Code, the hudood ordi­nances violate the sanctity of the divinely ordained laws of Islam. They also convey a flawed and unworthy image of Islam to the world. In Islamic juristic tradition, punishing an innocent is a greater and more serious sin than acquitting a guilty person. According to Hashmi, the enforcement of hudood laws in Pakistan is a perversion of Islamic law and is perpetuating a warped image of Islam. (p. 28)

And the Pakistan slide into this kind of barbarism is symptomatic of what has been happening in other Muslim countries, too. Pakistan is not alone.

Of course not all Muslims approve of these sorts of laws. But as Hassan points out,

the fact that a significant proportion of Muslims at least tolerates them indicates a troubling level of moral lethargy in the col­lective life of contemporary Islam. (p. 35)

But let’s be fair to Mr Hyde and not overlook the undoubted humanity of his other Dr Jekyll nature:

It is also important to emphasize that the examples described above coexist with a pervasive sense of common humanity, kindness and genuine concern for the well-being of others and the under­ privileged in Muslim societies. (p. 35)

Having spent some time getting to know a few Muslim countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey) I can certainly vouch for that side of the Muslims. Natural disasters, refugees, orphans, the poor — generosity among the ordinary Muslims wanting to alleviate suffering of those affected is often truly inspiring. Muslims I have known in Indonesia, even around the region of Solo that was until recently infamous as a hideout region for Islamic terrorists, really do have human souls, too.

Before beginning to analyze historically and empirically what accounts for the ugly side of so many Muslim countries Riaz Hassan raises the following question:

Do the laws and practices described at the beginning of this chap­ter negate not only the humanitarian traditions of Islam but also the essential message of the Qur’an, which enjoins believers to establish a viable social order on earth that will be just and ethically based? Only the most deluded or self-absorbed Muslims could remain unconcerned by the sheer quantity and ugliness of the incidents described earlier. The hudood and blasphemy laws of Pakistan, the seriously flawed judicial systems and the rampant oppression of women and the poor (who are the main victims of the hudood ordi­nances and other similar laws) cannot be attributed to an aberra­tional fanaticism considered marginal and unrepresentative. The evidence suggests instead a pattern of abusive practice. The Qur’an is full of warnings to Muslims that if they fail to establish justice and bear witness to truth, God owes them nothing and will replace them with other people who are more capable of honouring God by estab­lishing justice and human equality on earth. (p. 36, my own bolding)

What has led to this state of affairs?

People do not just wake up one day and decide to commit acts of terrorism, kill in the name of ‘honour’, or behead someone for possessing an amulet—in the name of Islam. They are not naturally inclined to sanction acts by religious establishments of the state that prevent young female students from escaping a school fire, or humiliate vic­tims of rape and injustice—in the name of Islam. Such acts take place because of social dynamics that have desensitized and deconstructed a society’s sense of moral virtue and ethics. (p. 37)

Hassan’s explanation draws most heavily upon the writings of Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl. I’ll try to do the account of Fadl and Hassan justice in the next post.


Khaled Abou El Fadl


Most Muslims Support Sharia: Should We Panic?

by Neil Godfrey

Most objections to my posts on terrorism seem to fall back on arguing how frightening or horrific the religion of Islam is. Because I don’t “blame Islam” for terrorism (I distinguish between Islam and the political ideology of Islamism that originated with Maududi and Qutb) some readers assume I am trying to “whitewash Islam”. Not so. I have frequently tried to point out that I have no time for any religion personally and acknowledge that much of the Islamic world in particular has a long way to go in terms of meeting modern standards enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the same time I reject absolutely the view that the Islamic religion is some sort of monolithic demon that has the power to possess and dehumanize anyone who succumbs to the teachings of the Quran.

whospeaksBefore I studied terrorism I tried to learn a little about Muslims and Islam. Apart from reading the Quran and engaging with local Muslims I sought out a more comprehensive understanding of Islam globally from a range of sources. The ones I found the most useful are in bold type (though the others are worthwhile, too):

  • Esposito, J. L. & Mogahed, D. (2007). Who speaks for Islam?: what a billion Muslims really think. New York, NY: Gallup Press.
  • Harris, S. (2015). Islam and the future of tolerance: a dialogue. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Hassan, R. (2008). Inside Muslim minds. Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press.
  • Negus, G. (2004). The world from Islam: a journey of discovery through the Muslim heartland. Pymble, N.S.W.: HarperCollins.
  • Rahim, L. Z. (2013). Muslim secular democracy: voices from within. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Saikal, A. (2003). Islam and the West: conflict or cooperation? New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

I want to post some of what I learned from the above. In this post I will limit myself to just one section from Esposito and Mogahed’s Who Speaks for Islam? This volume is the result of a Gallup research study between 2001 and 2007 interviewing tens of thousands of Muslims in hour-long, face-to-face interviews in more than 35 nations. The sample included young and old, educated and illiterate, female and male, urban and rural. The sample represented more than 90% of the world’s Muslims and at time of publication was “the largest, most comprehensive study of contemporary Muslims ever done”. Results are statistically valid within a +/- 3-point margin of error.

Should Majority Support for Sharia Make the West Panic?

We would be surprised if most Christians said they did not support the Sermon on the Mount and if most Jews claimed not to support the Ten Commandments. But Sharia?

Sharia has been equated with stoning of adulterers, chopping off limbs for theft, imprisonment or death in blasphemy and apostasy cases, and limits on the rights of women and minorities. The range of differing perceptions about Sharia surfaced in Iraq when Shia leaders, such as Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for an Islamic democracy, including Sharia as a basis of law in Iraq’s new constitution. (Esposito & Mogahed 2007, p. 49)

Then came the invasion of Iraq and the setting up of a committee to draft a new constitution. A Christian Iraqi member of that committee, Yonadam Kanna, warned that “making Sharia one of the main sources of law” would lead have dire consequences, especially for women.

Nevertheless, more than 1,000 Iraqi women rallied in support of Sharia in the southern city of Basra in August 2005 in response to another rally opposing Sharia in Baghdad a week earlier. (p. 50)

Many in the West confuse Sharia law with a theocracy or rule by religious clerics but the two are quite separate things. Citing Gallup Poll data Esposito and Mogahed explain:

Although in many quarters, Sharia has become the buzzword for religious rule, responses to the Gallup Poll indicate that wanting Sharia does not automatically translate into wanting theocracy. Significant majorities in many countries say religious leaders should play no direct role in drafting a country’s constitution, writing national legislation, drafting new laws, determining foreign policy and international relations, or deciding how women dress in public or what is televised or published in newspapers. Others who opt for a direct role tend to stipulate that religious leaders should only serve in an advisory capacity to government officials. (p. 50)

Women, equal rights and the data

In the West, Sharia often evokes an image of a restrictive society where women are oppressed and denied basic human rights. Indeed,women have suffered under government-imposed Sharia regulations in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Sudan, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. However, those who want Sharia often charge that these regulations are un-Islamic interpretations. Gallup Poll data show us that most respondents want women to have autonomy and equal rights. Majorities of respondents in most countries surveyed believe that women should have:

■ the same legal rights as men (85% in Iran; 90% range in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Lebanon; 77% in Pakistan; and 61% in Saudi Arabia). Surprisingly, Egypt (57%) and Jordan (57%), which are generally seen as more liberal, lag behind Iran, Indonesia, and other countries.

■ rights to vote: 80% in Indonesia, 89% in Iran, 67% in Pakistan, 90% in Bangladesh, 93% in Turkey, 56% in Saudi Arabia, and 76% in Jordan say women should be able to vote without any influence or interference from family members.

■ the right to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home. Malaysia, Mauritania, and Lebanon have the highest percentage (90%); Egypt (85%), Turkey (86%), and Morocco (82%) score in the 80% range, followed by Iran (79%), Bangladesh (75%), Saudi Arabia (69%), Pakistan (62%), and Jordan (61%).

■ the right to hold leadership positions at cabinet and national council levels. While majorities in the countries surveyed support this statement, respondents in Saudi Arabia (40%) and Egypt (50%) are the exceptions.

45 Carroll, J. (2005, February 25). Iraqi women eye Islamic law. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved September 14, 2007, from

While Sharia is commonly depicted as a rigid and oppressive legal system, Muslim women tend to have a more nuanced view of Sharia, viewing it as compatible with their aspirations for empowerment. For example, Jenan al-Ubaedy, one of the 90 women who sat on Iraq’s National Assembly in early 2005, told The Christian Science Monitor that she supported the implementation of Sharia. However, she said that as an assembly member, she would fight for women’s right for equal pay, paid maternity leave, and reduced hours for pregnant women. She said she also planned to encourage women to wear hijab and focus on strengthening their families. To Ubaedy, female empowerment is consistent with Islamic values.45 (pp. 50-52, bolded text is repeated in box quotes in the book)

What Do Muslims Mean when they say they Support Sharia?

read more »


Richard Carrier & Lena Einhorn’s Discuss Shift in Time

by Neil Godfrey

Followers of Richard Carrier’s blog will have known of Richard Carrier’s review earlier this month of A Shift in Time by Lena Einhorn:

Lena Einhorn on the Claudian Christ Theory

I am glad I did not mention it here at the time now because the page became more interesting in the following week with an exchange between Carrier and Einhorn. Lena Einhorn points out that she feels  her “hypothesis itself is largely left unexplored” in Carrier’s review.

Lena further draws attention to the apparent irony of her work gaining attention by those who favour the Christ Myth theory since her own argument is that Jesus did exist, only not in the time setting found in the gospels and not as the sort of person portrayed in them either. This raises the problematic question of what we mean by “Jesus” whenever the question of his historicity surfaces. We need to have some idea of how to recognize the person we are looking for and the only guides to help us are the canonical gospels, yet we know the gospels portray a theological construct and not a historical figure! It is inevitable, therefore, that most people who look for the historical Jesus do look for someone resembling the mythical Jesus of the gospel narratives. Lena Einhorn breaks this circularity by identifying reasons to believe that the core events and persons found in the gospels match those of a couple of decades later according to the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus.

Carrier stresses his own conviction that the evidence is best explained without any need to postulate a historical Jesus at all. Einhorn replies:

The problem in comparing a hypothesis such as mine (“Jesus existed, albeit in another time, and this is the evidence”) with one suggesting he never existed, is that the latter is built largely on Evidence of absence. What I do in my book is line up evidence for his presence in the 50s (and for the New Testament as a historical text of the Jewish rebellion, lying hidden underneath a literary/devotional/supernatural narrative). It would have been a somewhat knotty exercise for me to challenge Evidence of presence with Evidence of absence (“what I just showed you never existed”).

She adds further explanation:

No, the time shift theory is not built only on the numerous similarities between Jesus and the messianic leader Josephus calls “the Egyptian” (the large following, the prophecy of the tearing down of the walls of Jerusalem, the betrayal to the authorities, the violent reaction of the authorities, the pivotal events on the Mount of Olives, previous time spent in Egypt, and in the wilderness). It is built on a slew of additional parallels between the Gospels and Acts, on the one hand, and events Josephus places in the 40s and 50s CE:

*The activity of robbers, lestai

*Known crucifixions of Jews

*An insurrection (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19)

*A messianic leader gathering people on the Jordan river, who is subsequently decapitated by the authorities

*An attack on a man named Stephanos (Stephen) on a road outside Jerusalem

*Two co-reigning high priests

*A conflict or war between Galileans and Samaritans, limited in time

*Galileans on their way to Jerusalem for the festivals being stopped in a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56)

*A conflict between the Roman procurator and the Jewish king (Luke 23:12)

*A Jewish king with a prominent and influential wife (Matthew 27:19)

*A procurator slaughtering Galileans (Luke 13:1)

*A procurator and a Jewish king sharing jurisdiction over Galilee (Luke 23:6-7)

*Likely noms de guerre such as “the Zealot”, “Boanerges”, “Bariona”, or “Iscariot”

*The death of Theudas (Acts 5:36)

*A messianic leader who had previously spent time in Egypt, and in the wilderness, who prophesies about tearing down the walls of Jerusalem, and who is defeated by the authorities on the Mount of Olives

The 20s and 30s are – not only according to Tacitus, but also according to Josephus – a period when no robbers, no crucifixions, and no Jewish messianic leaders are reported. To name only a few discrepancies.

But most of it is there in the late 40s and 50s.

One of the illustrations Lena Einhorn posts in her reply to Richard Carrier:

Carrier subsequently responds to Einhorn’s argument that “the coincident character of the patterns” points to specific intent by the authors of the gospels. read more »


What Is a Prophet?

by Tim Widowfield
Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

In biblical studies, we continually read articles, posts, books, etc. in which authors use apparently ordinary words that on closer inspection turn out to be highly specific terms. And unfortunately, some authors will use these specific terms rather loosely, flitting between general and specific usage while blurring important distinctions.

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before when discussing “memory.” Are they talking about ordinary human recollection, or are they talking about memory theory? Are they referring to the psychology of memory or the physiology of memory, or are they talking about social memory? I often suspect memory dabblers of deliberate obfuscation, but I suppose we should err on the side of charity and presume they simply find it difficult to write in ordinary, declarative sentences.

Uncertain terms

On the other hand, some terms are so fundamental that it seems almost insulting to define them for readers. We presume everyone knows what the term “scripture” means. But should we? The same goes for terms that may have multiple meanings, depending on the context. I might assume that you will know what I mean by the surrounding contextual clues. But that could be a mistake on my part.

Recently, while reading Neil’s excellent series on messianism in the first century CE, I started thinking about the terms messiah and prophet. And I wondered how many people know exactly what those terms mean in their various contexts. Both of these terms carry a lot of baggage with them — not only in their popular meanings, but also in the way they’re used in modern Christian churches.

In this post, I’m only going to focus on the term prophet, but we could probably spend the rest of the year churning out posts on terminology that we often gloss over but shouldn’t. Authors have an obligation to make sure their readers understand how we’re using these terms, but often fall short. read more »


How Propaganda Subverted Democracy – the Beginning

by Neil Godfrey

Previous two posts: (1) Propaganda in Modern Democracies and (2) “America, the most propagandised of all nations”


It began with the emergence of modern democracy. Historians have labeled the few decades prior to World War 1 the Age of Progress (compare the Gilded Age in the US). Business interests boomed and so did working class power. Democracy was on the march in both the UK and US: in 1880 10 to 15% of the population had the vote; by 1920 that figure had advanced to 40 or 50% — although in reality it was more a slogging series of trench battles than a march.

The Fears

It is hard for us today to imagine that two hundred years ago people were arguing that land itself was by nature “the free gift of the Creator to all his creatures, and not the produce of human labour, like money, food, or any other perishable commodity, it can never be a legitimate subject of property.” (Bronterre, The Operative, vol. i., no. 4, p. 1, 1838, cited in Dickinson 1898, p. 145) Bronterre was not alone. Robert Owen was among other prominent voices for the same principle.

Those who owned the property and capital were by and large alarmed by these developments.

[T]o the working class the question of political reform had been from the beginning a question of property. It was misery that made them politicians. They were convinced that all their suffering was due to unjust laws, and that, therefore, the only remedy was the appropriation of political power by the sufferers. Society, as it was constituted, was an organised conspiracy to rob the working class; it was the order of society itself that needed to be reversed, and the means to that reversal was parliamentary reform. . . .

It appears, then, . . .  that the political agitation of the working class was inspired from the first by the keen sense of distress . . .

[A] silent revolution has taken place. By successive extensions of the franchise and redistribution of seats the principle of adult (or at least of manhood) suffrage has come to be so far recognised in fact that a further extension of it is generally felt to be merely the logical corollary of what has been already done. . . . 

But the mass of the people into whose hands, in the course of devolution, the government will fall, are daily becoming more and more aware of what they mean to do with their power. The working class is ranging itself against the owners of land and capital. The nation is dividing into two antagonistic sections, and it is to one of these sections, that which is numerically the larger, that must fall, according to the democratic theory of government, the absolute monopoly of power. It is in this situation that resides the political problem of the English democracy . . . . (Dickinson 1898, p. 131, 146, 153, 159)

How serious a problem was the extension of democracy?

Universal suffrage . . . would give, it is supposed, to the more numerous of the two classes . . . the unconditional and absolute control of the legislature; they would therefore be able to effect, without further difficulty or scruple, a fundamental change in the tenure of property.

Stated thus crudely and frankly, but not, as I believe, unfairly, this conception appears to me to be a reductio ad absurdum of the whole theory of democracy, so far as it is held in any absolute sense. It is not true, and it never has been and never will be true, that the majority have either the right or the power to do anything they choose, in defiance of the claims or the wishes of the minority; and if ever a serious attempt were to be made to carry out the policy of the Socialists, the only result would be the breakdown of government altogether. Government by the majority is a convenient means of conducting national affairs, where and in so far as there is a basis of general agreement deeper and more persistent than the variations of surface opinion; but as soon as a really fundamental point is touched, as soon as a primary instinct, whether of self-preservation or of justice, begins to be seriously and continuously outraged, the democratic convention gives way.

Fear of “the tyranny of the majority” does sound somewhat crass if those who have the most to lose for the sake of establishing a more equitable and fairer society for all speak about their own interests only. Attention is deflected to a more idealistic cause, one that makes the opponents of majority rule look like white knights  with nought but the interests of others at heart, like religious minorities. (Never mind the fact those opposed to full democracy at other times expressed horror that the advocates for extending the franchise would “destroy all reverence for religion” and roll back the power of the Church!)

No minority, for example, even in a compact modem State, either would or ought to submit to a decision of the majority to prohibit the exercise of their religion. Such a decision could only be carried into effect by force, subject to the contingency of armed rebellion; and orderly government would dissolve into veiled or open civil war. Similarly, and in spite of the optimism of Home Rulers, it is perfectly possible that in the case of a population as heterogeneous as that of Ireland, the attempt to introduce the system of government by the majority might really drive the minority to rebellion. (Dickinson 1898, p. 161f)

The minority with the wealth and industrial power had the means to fight. They also were acquiring the means to fight without necessarily always resorting to physical violence.

The Warnings

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So Luke did not know Matthew after all?

by Neil Godfrey

protomarktomarkSomething is needed to break the impasse between the two sides:

Side 1: Matthew and Luke used both Mark and Q.

Side 2: There was no Q: Matthew used Mark and Luke used both Matthew and Mark.

One of the arguments against #2 is that it is inconceivable that Luke would have so thoroughly revised and restructured Matthew (especially the nativity story and the Sermon on the Mount) if he were using Matthew. Opposed to this argument is the claim that such a revision is not inconceivable. I tended to favour the latter.

So on that point the two sides cannot be resolved.

As I continue to read Delbert Burkett’s Rethinking the Gospel Source: From Proto-Mark to Mark I am wondering if the scales can be tipped in favour or one side after all. And what tips the balance? Silence. Roaring silence.

Before continuing, though, I need to apologize to Delbert Burkett for leaving aside in this post the central thrust of his argument. His primary argument is that neither the Gospel of Matthew nor the Gospel of Luke was composed with any awareness of the Gospel of Mark. Rather, all three synoptic gospels were drawing upon other sources now lost.

But for now I’m only addressing the question that Luke knew and decided to change much in the Gospel of Matthew.

Here is a key element of Burkett’s point :

The Gospel of Matthew has recurring features of style that are completely or almost completely absent from . . . Luke. Entire themes and stylistic features that occur repeatedly in Matthew are lacking in [Luke]. What needs explaining, then, is not the omission of individual words and sentences, but the omission of entire themes and recurring features of Matthew’s style. Since the great majority of these are benign, i.e., not objectionable either grammatically or ideologically, they are difficult to explain as omissions by either Mark or Luke, more difficult to explain as omissions by both. They are easily explained, however, as a level of redaction in Matthew unknown to either Mark or Luke. Their absence from Mark and Luke indicates that neither gospel depended on Matthew. (p. 43)

Details follow.

Words recurring in Matthew but not found in parallel passages in Luke

The word “then”, τότε

Used by Matthew 90 times.

Luke parallels 40 of passages in Matthew using τότε but Luke only uses τότε 7 times in those. 33 times he has avoided using Matthew’s τότε.

Not that Luke had an aversion to the word because he uses it in other passages as well, 21 times in Acts and 8 times in places in his gospel that do not parallel Matthew.

“Come to”, “Approach”, προσέρχομαι

Matthew uses this word 52 times. Even though 27 of those passages in Matthew are paralleled in Luke, the word appears only 5 times in those 27 passages. But Luke is happy to use the word 5 times elsewhere in his gospel and 10 times in Acts.

Example read more »


“America, the most propagandised of all nations”

by Neil Godfrey
This post is a sequel to Propaganda in Modern Democracies

Man is essentially more rational than irrational when he has access to adequate knowledge. When issues are clearly understood, a generally sound judgment is in evidence. The tragic fact remains, however, that he still lives in a world which seldom allows him the full information he needs to display consistently rational behavior. . . . The American man in the street is, as Childs contends, the most propagandized person of any nation . . . (Meier 1950:162)

Nor do other nations that have come increasingly under the influence of the United States have room for complacency and future posts will look at instances where American propaganda techniques have become established in other countries.

Propaganda in a democracy has been most commonly channeled through commercial advertising and public relations.

In the United States over a very long time now these methods have been honed by incomparably more skill and research than in any other country. In the 1940s Drew Dudley, then chief of the Media Programming Division of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, not only observed with satisfaction that ‘advertising is peculiarly American’, but added on a note of (perhaps rather less well founded) pride that ‘Hitler … employ[ed] the technique of advertising during the pre-war and war years, frequently referring to America’s advertising in glowing and admiring terms in Mein Kampf, and later utilising advertising’s powerful repetitive force to the utmost’ (Dudley 1947:106, 108, cited in Carey 1997:14).

Traditional media deployed: film, radio, TV, even comic strips, and now, of course, our new communication technologies daily vying for our attention.

Recall Jacques Ellul’s definition from the previous post to keep in mind what is at work through these media:

Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.

There are certain characteristics of American society that has made it particularly fertile ground for the creation of durable emotional symbols charged with power to manipulate public attitudes.

goodevilOne of those characteristics is the historical predisposition of American society to fall in line with a dualistic or Manichean world-view.

This is a world-view dominated by the powerful symbols of the Satanic and the Sacred (darkness and light). A society or culture which is disposed to view the world in Manichean terms will be more vulnerable to control by propaganda. Conversely, a society where propaganda is extensively employed as a means of social control will tend to retain a Manichean world-view, a world-view dominated by symbols and visions of the Sacred and the Satanic. (Carey 1997:15)

Another quality is the pragmatic orientation of US society.

This is a preference for action over reflection. If the truth of a belief is to be sought in the consequences of acting on the belief, rather than through a preliminary examination of the grounds for holding it, there will be a tendency to act first and question later (if at all — for once a belief is acted upon the actor becomes involved in responsibility for the consequences and will be disposed to interpret the consequences so that they justify his belief and hence his action). If it is that American culture, compared with most others, values action above reflection, one may expect that condition to favour a Manichean world-view. For acknowledgement of ambiguity, that is, a non-Manichean world where agencies or events may comprise or express any complex amalgam of Good and Evil — demands continual reflection, continual questioning of premises. Reflection inhibits action, while a Manichean world-view facilitates action. On that account action and a Manichean world-view are likely to be more congenial to and to resonate with the cultural preference found in the United States. (Carey 1997:15)

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Propaganda in Modern Democracies

by Neil Godfrey
Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men's Attitudes

Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

It is a remarkable fact worthy of attention that modem propaganda should have begun in the democratic States. During World Was I we saw the combined use of the mass media for the first time; the application of publicity and advertising methods to political affairs, the search for the most effective psychological methods. But in those days German propaganda was mediocre: the French, English, and American democracies launched big propaganda. Similarly, the Leninist movement, undeniably democratic at the start, developed and perfected all propaganda methods. Contrary to some belief, the authoritarian regimes were not the first to resort to this type of action, though they eventually employed it beyond all limits. This statement should make us think about the relationship between democracy and propaganda. (Ellul 1973:232f)

Propaganda began in modern democratic states? Surely those of us who are so fortunate to live in open democracies are free to think for ourselves and make informed decisions for the greater good. We have a free press, publicly accountable education and the secret ballot. After all . . .

In 1942 Henry Wallace coined the phrase ‘the century of the common man’ to epitomize his belief that American (and world) society would come under the influence of the needs and aspirations of the great mass of ordinary people. He foresaw a society where education, science, technology, corporate power and natural resources would, to an unprecedented extent, be controlled and used in the service of large humane ends rather than in the service of individual power and class privilege (Blum 1973:635-40 cited in Carey 1997:11).

Comparable predictions have been made of the age of the internet.

“If you want to see propaganda in action look at North Korea,” we think. The idea that those of us living in free and open democratic societies are influenced by propaganda seems laughable by comparison.

There’s a catch, however. Crude propaganda is a very blunt instrument. It’s the sort of obvious propaganda we could see practiced by the Soviet leadership. It made little use of social science or psychology to shape its techniques and many of its intended targets could see right through it. People would in private roll their eyes or seek out foreign media instead. When the authoritarian system collapsed people no longer had to pretend to believe it. As I’ll discuss in future posts, sophisticated propaganda techniques that did make use of research in the social sciences and psychology began in the United States and they have proved far more effective. Expensive policing, spying and dictatorial intimidation and coercion are not needed. In place of a Goebbels-led Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda we have Public Relations and Human Relations departments. We have the ever-helpful Press Releases put out by corporations and government departments. Media Management has become a major part of political party and corporate business. Not that “information services” are themselves propaganda. There is more to it than that.

So let’s back up and understand what propaganda is.

Harold Lasswell

Harold Lasswell

A leading figure in the development of propaganda in the United States was Harold Lasswell. We’ll talk more about him later. For now, here is his definition:

Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols . . . Collective attitudes are amenable to many modes of alteration . . . But their arrangement and rearrangement occurs principally under the impetus of significant symbols; and the technique of using significant symbols for this purpose is propaganda. . . .

Literacy and the physical channels of communication have quickened the connection between those who rule and the ruled. Conventions have arisen which favor the ventilation of opinions and the taking of votes. Most of that which formerly could be done by violence and intimidation must now be done by argument and persuasion. Democracy has proclaimed the dictatorship of palaver, and the technique of dictating to the dictator is named propaganda.

(Lasswell 1927:627-631)

The public may believe it is the ultimate ruler (dictator) in a democracy but Laswell is saying that those in power, business, corporate and political, have the means to shape the public’s values, beliefs, actions by methods far more sophisticated than those used by Goebbels.

Lest the comparison with Goebbels sound overblown, note what Drew Dudley (1947: 107) wrote for the American Academy of Political and Social Science shortly after the war:

It is rather amazing that during all the war years of government advertising, virtually no one raised the cry, Propaganda! One might have expected to hear someone label the use of advertising techniques by government as “Hitlerism.” Actually, Hitler did employ the technique of advertising during the prewar and war years, frequently referring to America’s advertising in glowing and admiring terms in Mein Kampf, and later utilizing advertising’s powerful repetitive force to the utmost.

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Religion Explained: how to make a good religious concept

by Neil Godfrey

fsmLet’s try to understand what religious beliefs are. What makes a religious belief work, take hold, and are found across cultures and generations? In these posts I’m continuing to focus on Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer whose explanation is grounded in cognitive theory. That is, this is a cognitive explanation for religion.

Religious beliefs — gods, ghosts, virgin births, etc — are not randomly fabricated nonsense. (I included ghosts as an example of religious beliefs because I’m discussing religion in its most generic sense and not confining myself to mainstream Western religions.) Religious concepts actually follow certain rules or recipes. They have specific types of properties. The Flying Spaghetti Monster, on the contrary, is a concoction made to look like “randomly fabricated nonsense”; the ingredients that go into the making of real religious concepts could scarcely produce a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I cannot possibly explain in depth how this recipe works in a blog post. To get the details one ought to read the first two chapters of Boyer’s book. I will try to hit key highlights. (And of course the terms used in describing cognitive processes are necessarily metaphorical.)

There are two essential ingredients that go into making a viable religious concept, and they need to be mixed in the right proportions. Boyer discusses the experimental research behind it all but I won’t address any of that here.

Take the overall understanding of what we all have by the idea of “animal”. We have all constructed since infancy an common set of ideas of what being an “animal” means, such as:

  • animals grow and die
  • animals have typical shapes or body plans
  • animals need food to survive
  • animals reproduce “after their own kind” or species

In fact we have “minitheories” about what it means to be an animal. As soon as we understand something is an animal we immediately infer many things about it that we do not need to check or test each time: e.g. it consists of the same sorts of innards, digestive tract, nervous system, as any other animal; that it will have a symmetrical shape; that it eats to survive — either plants or other animals; that if it kills and eats other animals it does so because it gets hungry, and so forth.

If you never heard of an Invisible Rail but were told it was an animal creature of some sort, then you would instantly know all of the above about it before even knowing what sort of animal it was or what it looked like.

An animal category in our heads enables us to make sense of “natural concepts” and to make all sorts of inferences about their behaviour without ever being told such details again each time we learn about a new animal.

In other words, we have a whole range of expectations that come into play whenever we are told about a new animal. If you heard that an Invisible Rail laid eggs from which baby Invisible Rails hatched you would not be surprised. If in addition you learned that it had wings, you would know it is a bird, and you would assume it has a beak and feathers. All of this would be consistent with the sorts of details you would have expected to hear about a something belonging to the animal category of knowledge.

But if you hear that an Invisible Rail had the ability to suddenly materialize anywhere and anytime when a child was deeply distressed, that would be unexpected information. That ability would violate all that you know about the properties of physical bodies. It would not be something your understanding of animals allowed to happen.

In fact, you would almost certainly recall that unexpected detail about the Invisible Rail because it is so unusual, so unexpected. You would imagine the Invisible Rail is a very unusual sort of animal.

But at the same time everything else about the Invisible Rail — laying eggs, feathers, wings, beak — would be exactly as you expect.

A religious concept consists of these two things:

  1. it violates certain expectations from what we call “ontological categories”
  2. it preserves other expectations.

There are a few more rules surrounding these two details, but first let’s understand “ontological categories”. read more »