Category Archives: Religion


2016-02-20

On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare

by Neil Godfrey
quote_begin By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

— Sylvia Plath, quoted by Charles Camerson in So: How Does It Feel at World’s End?, an exploration into the eschatological lure of ISIS.
quote_end

Charles Cameron is blogging about a book of his that is hopefully will be published soon: Jihad and the Passion of ISIS: Making Sense of Religious Violence. The first of these blog posts is On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 1: its sheer intensity.

Cameron builds on a number of works that I have posted about here on Vridar, so I am looking forward to his own contribution. He writes:

We now have, I believe, a strong understanding of the Islamic State and its origins in such books as Stern & Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror, Jason Burke, The New Threat, Joby Warrick, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, and Weiss & Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Delving directly into the key issue that interests me personally, the eschatology of the Islamic State, we have Will McCants‘ definitive The ISIS Apocalypse. My own contribution will hopefully supplement these riches, and McCants’ book in particular, with a comparative overview of religious violence across continents and centuries, and a particular focus on the passions engendered in both religious and secular movements when the definitive transformation of the world seems close at hand.

What follows is the first section of a four-part exploration of the horrors of apocalyptic war.

Cameron draws upon a dramatically colourful Winston Churchill account to convey the power of the Mahdi on the imaginations of followers in his day.

In his second post On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 2: to spark a messianic fire he encapsulates the sense of apoclyptic fervour in a passage from another book on my “to-read list”, Richard Landes’  Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience:

For people who have entered apocalyptic time, everything quickens, enlivens, coheres. They become semiotically aroused — everything has meaning, patterns. The smallest incident can have immense importance and open the way to an entirely new vision of the world, one in which forces unseen by other mortals operate. If the warrior lives with death at his shoulder, then apocalyptic warriors live with cosmic salvation before them, just beyond their grasp.

I’m looking forward to the remainder of Charles Cameron’s series.

enddays

 

 


2016-01-30

Plato’s Thought World and the Bible

by Neil Godfrey
Updated 5 hours after original posting. New section beginning with Monthly Religious Festivals added. 

Previous in this series:

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)
  4. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization (2015-08-13)
  5. Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal (2015-08-24)
  6. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal States (2015-09-21)

The ideal state can only begin with the second generation

First generation to receive the laws has to die off before the state can be established on a secure footing:

Plato’s Laws, Book 6:

Laws 752 b-c Deuteronomy 1:34-39
Athenian. Let us remember what a courageously mad and daring creation this our city is.

Cleinias (of Crete). What had you in your mind when you said that?

Athenian. I had in my mind the free and easy manner in which we are ordaining that the inexperienced colonists shall receive our laws. Now a man need not be very wise, Cleinias, in order to see that no one can easily receive laws at their first imposition. But if we could anyhow wait until those who have been imbued with them from childhood, and have been nurtured in them, and become habituated to them, . . .  if this could be accomplished . . . -then, I think that there would be very little danger, at the end of the time, of a state thus trained not being permanent.

34 “And the Lord heard your words and was angered, and he swore, 35 ‘Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, 36 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!’37 Even with me the Lord was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there. 38 Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. 39 And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.

.

Twelve commanders, governors. . .

read more »


2016-01-28

Exodus as a Fairy Tale

by Neil Godfrey
800px-David_Roberts-IsraelitesLeavingEgypt_1828

David Roberts-IsraelitesLeavingEgypt 1828.jpg

Dr. Hector Avalos has posted at Debunking Christianity his thoughts on the documentary film, Patterns of Evidence: Exodus produced by Timothy Mahoney, and reasons to discount the historicity of the Exodus. Film trailer.

I posted various views of the origins of the Exodus story in a number of posts now.

So speaking of Exodus, hHere I want to continue on from a 2014 post, Transvalued Folktales & Classifying the Bible’s Narratives, and see how a contemporary specialist in Exodus identifies the signs of folklore or fairy tale in this biblical narrative.

William H.C. Propp sees in the Exodus tale the same nuggets that go into the making of folktales or fairy tales and that were set out by another Propp (no relation), Vladimir Propp in 1968, The Morphology of the Folk Tale. For an outline of these structural elements see the Wikipedia article on Vladimir Propp. William Propp’s argument is found in his commentary, Exodus 1-18: a new translation with introduction and commentary, pp. 32 to 34

William Propp begins by acknowledging that Exodus is far more complex than the ordinary folktale. For a start Exodus has not one but three heroes: God, Moses and Israel. Other tale types intrude as well. Nonetheless, “the overall sequence of events follows [Vladimir] Propp closely.”  read more »


2016-01-27

Who Joins Cults — and How and Why?

by Neil Godfrey
We must remember an old adage: no one joins a “dangerous cult” or a “terrorist cell.” Converts invariably see the act of joining in positive terms, as beneficial for both themselves, their society, and the cosmos (literally), and the process is far more gradual than it appears. — (Dawson 2010, p. 7)
Lorne Dawson, whose article is the basis of this post.

I am drawing heavily on a 2010 article by Lorne L. Dawson, “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue“, published in Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:1-21, 2010, for this post. The research findings point to other factors associated with those who do join religious cults (and Dawson suggests it might be worthwhile examining to see if they are also applicable to those who join terrorist groups.)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Christian sects like the Mormons, Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses were known to draw most of their followers from poor or underprivileged sectors of society. So it was easy to explain their attraction as offering converts a reversal of their fortunes: from being nobodies to being “the elect”. In the apocalyptic scenarios they all preached, those who were the least in this world would become the first in the next. The meek were to inherit the earth. The rich and powerful of this world would be brought down and the poor exalted.

(Similarly with Palestinian terrorist groups: the most obvious explanation appeared for many to be that they preferred a rich symbolic life, a reward of honour in the memory of their people, to continuing to be subject to extreme economic hardships and political and personal humiliation.)

The above explanation for why Christian cults exercised such a strong pull on the “lower classes” was overturned in the 1960s and 70s with the emergence of a plethora of New Religious Movements (NRMs) — or cults — that attracted youth from well-to-do families, highly educated, with excellent career prospects, and generally of secular upbringings. Even established Christian cults like the Mormons were also found to be becoming increasingly populated by members belonging to the higher socio-economic rungs of society.

So what was going on?

New theories of “relative deprivation” emerged in the literature. Perhaps people were attracted not because of the objective fact of their lower economic and social status, but because they perceived that they were disadvantaged in some way, whatever their real status. And maybe the perceived lack was not only economic, but also moral, social opportunities, psychological . . . .

The idea of relative deprivation seems very plausible; in many ways it conforms to our personal experience. But in the end it allows for too much interpretive flexibility. Almost any action could be explained by reference to some hypothesized sense of lack of respect, inadequate love, or ethical frustration. The theory explains everything and yet nothing because it cannot discriminate effectively between those who think this way and those who choose to act on their perception in some radical way, especially becoming violent. (Dawson 2010, p. 5)

Compare those joining new cults in the 60s and 70s with the 9/11 hijackers. The latter were also from well-adjusted middle class families. They were not oppressed or impoverished in any conventional sense. They had not been particularly religious. They had good opportunities to do well in careers in many countries.

An NYPD report Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat concluded that most individuals who had been involved in terrorist plots had had quite unremarkable backgrounds, no criminal history, ordinary jobs and lived ordinary lives. They were fluent in English, were Western educated and familiar with the Western lifestyle. They had opportunities to do well in both their countries of origin and in the USA.

There is no clear profile of a potential terrorist and they are, like those who come to join religious cults, largely indistinguishable from anyone else.

“Converts to NRMs are more likely to have fewer and weaker social ties.”

Since cults are in conflict in significant ways with society, it stands to reason that they are more likely to draw their recruits from those who have “fewer social attachments” and consequently “lower stakes in conformity”.

This datum explains why it is so often the young (and students) who are attracted. “They can afford to experiment with alternative ways of living.”

“Converts also tend to have fewer and weaker ideological alignments”

As I have noted in recent posts, research shows that people with strong attachments to their mainstream faith (whether Christianity or Islam) are not likely to join cults or terror cells. It is the “unchurched”, those with weak, non-existent or troubled religious backgrounds, or the rootless “seekers”, who are the more likely to join cults.

But there is a balance. Complete loners or those with no interest at all in spiritual and religious questions are not likely to join.

That’s the “who”. What about the “how”? read more »


2016-01-26

NazarethGate

by Neil Godfrey

NazGate_coverUntil some major new finds turn up at new digs I am convinced that there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of Nazareth at the time of Jesus. I have been slowly reading the first six chapters of René Salm’s new book, NazarethGate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus, stopping to consult wherever I can his footnotes, his citations of various archaeologists’ works, and at this point I have found his argument to be both

  • decisive with respect to the non-existence of Nazareth until well into the latter half of the first century CE
  • and absolutely devastating in his analysis of archaeologist Ken Dark’s published efforts to prove the presence of early first century domestic dwellings there.

Many people understandably find the minutiae of archaeological reports and debates to be tedious. They are not light reading, especially for anyone new to a particular study. Sensibly they are willing to defer to the specialists in the field. I am by no means a specialist but I can still read the literature — it is not as complex as advanced mathematics or quantum physics — and follow exchanges of views among archaeologists and readers of their reports. Reasonably intelligent lay readers are able to distinguish between those claims made with the support of clear evidence and others made on the basis of more speculative reconstructions. With some extra effort those same readers can also identify where a scholar has misunderstood or misused the works of others. Nor after a little immersion is it very difficult to detect tell-tale signs of ideological bias. (I elaborated on this point in Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?)

I would love to see serious engagement with the detailed arguments in Salm’s book. I would love to see how specific questions and data are addressed. Maybe Salm’s conclusions can be overturned after all, or at least modified. We won’t know until we see further reports, discussions and responses.

Unfortunately it appears so far that scholars (and others) who ardently oppose the very idea that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus, and who loathe the mere mention of Salm’s books, are not very different from that handful of scholars (Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, James McGrath) who have attempted to publicly refute the writings of Jesus mythicists. Their reviews of Salm’s first book (The Myth of Nazareth) leave the knowledgeable reader with the strong suspicion that they read no more than a few snippets of the book and those with ideological hostility. The main arguments are ignored.

Though I acknowledged that the field of archaeology is complex enough for most people to defer to the specialists, some lay critics of Salm tend to rely upon authorities indiscriminately for the purpose of hectoring and belittling a lay scholar who has genuinely mastered the published literature in this particular niche topic. I would love to see people like Tim O’Neill engage seriously with both Salm’s arguments and his critiques of Dark’s published work.

René Salm’s method

Salm does not attempt to hide his outsider status. His account of how he undertook his study of the archaeology of Nazareth reminded me of some of my own experiences in embarking on serious biblical studies. Both of us found the now defunct online discussion group where scholars and lay persons met, CrossTalk, an informative starting point. Salm writes:

From the start I left no stone unturned, did not hurry, skip any steps, nor overlook even minor reports. Lacking a relevant Ph.D. I knew that thoroughness would be my only credential — one that would have to be earned. 

I began with the most accessible secondary material: encyclopedia articles and entries in secondary reference works. Scouring the footnotes and references, I slowly accumulated the obvious primary sources. Among these, the largest was B. Bagatti’s long tome Excavations in Nazareth (vol 1, 1969). . .  This book was the first (and often only) resource used by scholars who ventured to write about Nazareth’s archeology. . . 

[Salm then describes his heavy use of the University of Oregon library and special help of a librarian who was able to procure for him “obscure books and hard-to-find articles”.] He validated my status as a resident scholar so that the University of Oregon’s critical interlibrary loan facilities would be made available to me as if I were a member of the faculty. 

Accumulating the necessary research material also required trips to major libraries in Seattle and San Francisco. . . 

Collecting the requisite material was of course only the first step. Each account, description, or excavation report had to be examined in a particularly careful way. It was not good enough simply to read the report, or even to collate all of its itemized artifacts in columns by type, date, and so on — things I learned to do quite early on. Incidentally, such collation could be quite revealing. For example, on one page Bagatti dates a certain pottery shard to the Roman period and on another page to the Iron Age. Such errors are quickly detected through careful and complete bookkeeping

All this was tedious, but the problem which required the most time, by far, was that each and every claim had to be tested. For example, in one place Bagatti claims that a fragment of pottery is “Hellenistic” — but the parallels he gives, when checked, date to the Iron Age. In another place, his alleged “Hellenistic” parallels actually date to Roman times. Richmond, too, in 1931 claimed that six oil lamps found in a Nazareth tomb were “Hellenistic.” Subsequent redating by specialists . . . shows, however, that all the lamps in question are Roman. 

There was also the problem of mislabeling. I learned that one scholar (J. Strange) termed the kokh type of tomb “Herodian” . . . . However, the important work of H.-P. Kuhnen shows that kokh tombs were not hewn in the Galilee before c. 50 CE. (They continued in use to c. 500 CE.) Thus, the term “Herodian” for these tombs is clearly erroneous and very misleading. . . . 

In the above and other ways it soon became clear to me that serious flaws characterize the primary reports, not to mention the secondary reference articles based on them. . . . 

Though I could read, tabulate, compare, and analyze the reports which came under my gaze, I could not venture any opinion myself, for I am certainly not a professional archeologist nor have I excavated in Nazareth. As a result, any opinion which I produced that disagreed with Bagatti, Strange, Richmond, etc., was necessarily the verifiable opinion of a leading specialist in the relevant field or subfield. This gave my writing ‘teeth,’ but it also required an enormous amount of time. In the process I could not help but become somewhat educated in Galilean archeology. That education extended to language classes at the university which afforded me the ability to also read excavation reports in Hebrew. . . . (NazarethGate, pp. 15-17, emphasis added)

Kokh Tomb

Kokh Tomb

Different from the earlier book

Salm’s second book, NazarethGate, is quite different from his first. The new work includes chapters that are (sometimes) edited versions of articles written and published since the first book. Some of these chapters are largely polemical (anti-Christian or anti-religion) in tone and written for militant atheist publications. The significance of the absence of Nazareth for the Jesus mythicist debate reverberates through a number of these chapters. If Nazareth did not exist, then clearly “Jesus of Nazareth” could not have existed either. I must point out that there is more nuance in the discussion than that: Salm is well aware of the arguments that some other “Jesus” figure lies behind the gospels and he is also very cognizant of the debates over the original derivation of “Nazareth” as an epithet or its cognates as the name of a sect, including the possibility of pre-Christian origins.

Frank Zindler writes the Foreword. He lists nineteen reasons to think that Nazareth did not exist in the early half of the first century, many of them having been extant prior to archaeological digs. This section nicely segues into Salm’s opening chapter (the Introduction) in which he adds further such reasons and addresses some of the complexities involved in understanding the meaning of “of Nazareth” and “the Nazarenes” etc in the Gospels.

What I was most keen to read in the new book were Salm’s responses to Ken Dark’s views. read more »


2016-01-25

Crucifixion Portrayed Before the Very Eyes of Galatians

by Neil Godfrey

Surely you have taken leave of your senses, you men of Galatia! Who has cast this spell over you, before whose very eyes Jesus Christ has been exposed to view as nailed on a cross? — Galatians 3:1, Cassirer’s translation.

Recent comments on Vridar prompted me to recheck what we know about this odd-sounding verse. Here I’ll quote the ancient sources that provide an explanatory context but I’ll also go one step further and (in debt to Thomas Brodie) look at a plausible inspiration for this expression and how it relates to the Gospel of Mark’s Passion Narrative. When we put this together and embrace the possibility of the Gospel’s debt to Paul’s letters then an interesting relationship between the two emerges over this very verse — of the Galatians apparently seeing Jesus Christ crucified before their very eyes.

But let’s begin with how Jesus was crucified “before their eyes”.

Hans Dieter Betz explains:

One of the goals of the ancient orator was to deliver his speech so vividly and impressively that his listeners imagined the matter to have happened right before their eyes. (Galatians, p. 131)

The evidence for this claim?

Aristotle

aristotle-rhetoricAristotle for one, Rhetoric, 3.11. I quote the passage at some length because Aristotle includes in his discussion a particular feature that we find in abundance throughout the Gospel of Mark — puns and other forms of wordplay .

It has already been mentioned that liveliness is got by using the proportional type of metaphor and being making (ie. making your hearers see things). We have still to explain what we mean by their ‘seeing things’, and what must be done to effect this. By ‘making them see things’ I mean using expressions that represent things as in a state of activity. Thus, to say that a good man is ‘four-square’ is certainly a metaphor; both the good man and the square are perfect; but the metaphor does not suggest activity. On the other hand, in the expression ‘with his vigour in full bloom’ there is a notion of activity; and so in ‘But you must roam as free as a sacred victim’; and in

“Thereas up sprang the Hellenes to their feet, “

where ‘up sprang’ gives us activity as well as metaphor, for it at once suggests swiftness. So with Homer’s common practice of giving metaphorical life to lifeless things: all such passages are distinguished by the effect of activity they convey. Thus,

“Downward anon to the valley rebounded the boulder remorseless; and “

“The (bitter) arrow flew; “

and

“Flying on eagerly; and “

Stuck in the earth, still panting to feed on the flesh of the heroes; and

“And the point of the spear in its fury drove

“full through his breastbone. “

In all these examples the things have the effect of being active because they are made into living beings; shameless behaviour and fury and so on are all forms of activity. And the poet has attached these ideas to the things by means of proportional metaphors: as the stone is to Sisyphus, so is the shameless man to his victim. In his famous similes, too, he treats inanimate things in the same way:

“Curving and crested with white, host following

“host without ceasing. “

Here he represents everything as moving and living; and activity is movement.

Metaphors must be drawn, as has been said already, from things that are related to the original thing, and yet not obviously so related-just as in philosophy also an acute mind will perceive resemblances even in things far apart. Thus Archytas said that an arbitrator and an altar were the same, since the injured fly to both for refuge. Or you might say that an anchor and an overhead hook were the same, since both are in a way the same, only the one secures things from below and the other from above. And to speak of states as ‘levelled’ is to identify two widely different things, the equality of a physical surface and the equality of political powers.

Liveliness is specially conveyed by metaphor, and by the further power of surprising the hearer; because the hearer expected something different, his acquisition of the new idea impresses him all the more. His mind seems to say, ‘Yes, to be sure; I never thought of that’. The liveliness of epigrammatic remarks is due to the meaning not being just what the words say: as in the saying of Stesichorus that ‘the cicalas will chirp to themselves on the ground’. Well-constructed riddles are attractive for the same reason; a new idea is conveyed, and there is metaphorical expression. So with the ‘novelties’ of Theodorus. In these the thought is startling, and, as Theodorus puts it, does not fit in with the ideas you already have. They are like the burlesque words that one finds in the comic writers. The effect is produced even by jokes depending upon changes of the letters of a word; this too is a surprise. You find this in verse as well as in prose. The word which comes is not what the hearer imagined: thus

“Onward he came, and his feet were shod with his-chilblains, “

where one imagined the word would be ‘sandals’. But the point should be clear the moment the words are uttered. . . .  This is also true of such lively remarks as the one to the effect that to the Athenians their empire (arche) of the sea was not the beginning (arche) of their troubles, since they gained by it. Or the opposite one of Isocrates, that their empire (arche) was the beginning (arche) of their troubles. Either way, the speaker says something unexpected, the soundness of which is thereupon recognized. There would be nothing clever in saying ’empire is empire’. Isocrates means more than that, and uses the word with a new meaning. So too with the former saying, which denies that arche in one sense was arche in another sense. . . .

. . . . The more a saying has these qualities, the livelier it appears: if, for instance, its wording is metaphorical, metaphorical in the right way, antithetical, and balanced, and at the same time it gives an idea of activity.

Successful similes also, as has been said above, are in a sense metaphors, since they always involve two relations like the proportional metaphor. . . .

Cicero

Maccari-Cicero

Then there is Cicero’s On the Orator (De Oratore), 3.40

Here almost every thing is expressed in words metaphorically adapted from something similar, that the description may be heightened. . . .

but, even in the greatest abundance of proper words, men are much more charmed with such as are uncommon, if they are used metaphorically with judgment. This happens, I imagine, either because it is some manifestation of wit to jump over such expressions as lie before you, and catch at others from a greater distance ; or be cause he who listens is led another way in thought, and yet does not wander from the subject, which is a very great pleasure ; or because a subject, and entire comparison, is dispatched in a single word ; or because every metaphor that is adopted with judgment, is directed immediately to our senses, and principally to the sense of sight, which is the keenest of them all. For such expressions as the odor of urbanity, the softness of humanity, the murmur of the sea, and sweetness of
language, are derived from the other senses ; but those which relate to the sight are much more striking, for they place almost in the eye of the mind such objects as we can not see and discern by the natural eyes.

read more »


2016-01-17

How Minds Are Opened to Extremist Views

by Neil Godfrey

radicalIslamRisingWhy do people join religious cults and extremist groups? What turns some people into “mindless fanatics”?

In the previous post we were introduced to Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (2005) that explores the reasons people in Britain joined the now banned extremist group, Al-Muhajiroun. As I read his work I was struck by the overlaps with the experiences of many who join religious cults, including my own experience with the Worldwide Church of God.

At the time of writing the above news came through of a swathe of terrorist attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia. Having visited Indonesia fairly regularly over the past seven years, including the city of Solo that is regularly associated with concentrations of jihadist extremists, I have no problem agreeing with those specialist commentators who point out that most Indonesians have no time for Islamist extremism and violence. (Keep in mind that though Indonesia contains the world’s largest Muslim population it is the world’s third largest democracy.) But that’s no defence against the tiny handful who are drawn to terrorist organisations. So why are a tiny few drawn to what most people deplore?

Here is the question Wiktorowicz asks:

So why participate in the [extremist] movement? On the surface, the choice seems irrational: the risks are high and the guarantee of spiritual salvation is intangible and nonverifiable (i.e., there is no way to know whether those who follow al-Muhajiroun’s interpretation and die actually make it to Paradise). And there are plenty of less risky alternatives that guarantee the same spiritual outcome. This includes a plethora of less risky Islamic fundamentalist groups that share many of al-Muhajiroun’s ideological precepts. Is participation in the movement, then, the choice of the irrational?

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 206). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Wiktorowicz’s answers are covered in chapters under the headings of

  • Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking
  • Credibility and Sacred Authority
  • Culturing and Commitment

Breaking those headings down a little . . . .

  • “Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking” addresses a range of factors that act as wedges to open people’s minds to radical alternatives to their world views. Most people say “What? Get real!” Why do a few say “Mmm… Interesting…. Let me think a moment”?
    • Most of those who go this far come to their senses and quickly realize that the message they are confronting is bizarre or “wrong” after all. Only a few of the few take the next step and embark on a journey of “religious seeking” or other form of follow-up.
  • “Credibility and Sacred Authority” digs a little deeper and explores why some alternative world views are more enticing than others.
    • What extent of knowledge is demonstrated by the radically new source? How does the “character” of the new source stack up against alternatives? How does personality tilt the scales? What of the public persona of a key channeller of the new ideas?
  • “Culturing and Commitment” looks at why certain individuals go the final step and commit to dangerous or “fanatical” groups.

Of the few persons who take an interest in what most regard as “fanatical ideas” even fewer actually take the leap from intellectual agreement to jumping in knowing the sacrifice they are making and the world they are leaving behind. That final step is of particular interest but first things first. Why do a few of us become sincerely interested in the radical fringe ideas in the first place?

I won’t address all of those in this post. Let’s focus on some of the wedges that prise “cognitive openings” for now. read more »


2016-01-13

Islamic Radicals and Christian Cults: Cut from the Same Cloth

by Neil Godfrey

radicalIslamRising
Dr. Quintan Wiktorowicz works with CEOs and senior leaders to leverage high impact outreach and engagement, partnerships, and innovation to create opportunities and manage risk. He is an internationally recognized author and expert on national security engagement and counter-terrorism and served in two senior positions at the White House, where he led efforts to advance national security partnerships and innovation at home and abroad. Prior to joining the White House, Dr. Wiktorowicz developed ground breaking counter-radicalization initiatives for the Intelligence Community and the Department of State. Before his government service, he was a social movement theorist and one of America’s leading academics on the Muslim World.
Extract from The Huffington Post biography

Over my end of year break as I was catching up with Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West(2005) I was somewhat amazed at the extent to which my own personal experiences as a member of a Christian cult many years ago overlapped with what I was reading about the factors that lead people into extremist Islamic movements.

Wiktorowicz’s case study was the British based and now banned Al-Muhajiroun (= “The Emigrants”). My own experience was with the Worldwide Church of God and has since been further informed through a wide reading about other religious cults, the comparable experiences of others and some of the research into why people join them, why they remain and why they leave.

Similarity #1

On page 47 Wiktoriwicz has a section headed REQUIREMENTS FOR THE COMMITTED ACTIVIST. It begins (with my own bolding):

Al-Muhajiroun activists participate in a dizzying array of required weekly activities, and the tempo of activism is fast-paced, demanding, and relentless. Activists commit to an assortment of lessons, public outreach programs, protests, and countless movement-sponsored events, all of which consume tremendous amounts of time, energy, and resources. They center their lives around the movement and in the process frequently sacrifice work, friends, family, and leisure time. To put it simply, al-Muhajiroun participation is an intense experience.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 47). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Oh yes! That is very much a mirror of what one finds among religious cults. Mid-week evening Bible Study meetings (the family, children included, generally expected to attend); all day sabbath services and related activities; day of preparations work to be sure everything is in place for the sabbath “rest”; daily minimum of half hour prayer and half hour personal bible study — but with the constant message that the servant who does only the minimum expected is an “unprofitable servant” destined to be “cast out” in the final judgment; active participation in other social events and promoting of “the work” — e.g. letter box drops, maintaining stalls, local fund-raising; volunteering to work at youth camps; setting aside (in Australia) two tenths of one’s gross income for donations to “the work” and compulsory holy day festival attendance in addition to “voluntary offerings”, and twice in seven years setting aside a third tenth of one’s gross income ostensibly for “the poor”. Two magazines and a lengthy co-worker letter were produced monthly and were required reading. Other self-improvement activities were constantly promulgated: a regular speaking club for men; fitness and diet schedules; dress codes; correct habits of speech; the requirement to keep up to date with current news.

The Church or “Work” is one’s whole life. Birthdays, Christmas holidays, Easter, — these were all shunned as “pagan” so one necessarily withdrew from family and former friends. If sabbath and holy day festivals clashed with job requirements then so much the worse for the job.

The details of what keeps members busy and committed varies from cult to cult, but the effect is the same. Such a routine functions to immerse the member in the thought-world of the organisation. There is no time for serious, independent reflection.

Religious training lies at the core of activism: committed activists must master religious doctrine and movement ideology so that they can effectively promote al-Muhajiroun’s ideological vision of an Islamic state and society. To ensure that they are intellectually equipped with “proper” (i.e., movement) religious beliefs, formal members are required to attend a two-hour study session held by the local halaqah (circle) every week. Attendance is mandatory, unless the individual cannot make it because of travel constraints, a sick family member, or an emergency. In each country where al-Muhajiroun is active, the country leader may excuse absences for additional reasons deemed acceptable under Islamic law.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 47). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Reminds me of our mandatory two-hour weekly Bible Study sessions. Members who regularly absented themselves from weekly Sabbath services and also failed to have a good reason for skipping mid-weekly Bible Studies were noted (a few trusted members were assigned the surreptitious maintenance of attendance sheets) — and paid a visit by the ministry. read more »


2015-12-30

Putting in a Good Word for God

by Neil Godfrey
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No railway lines in West Bank and Gaza so trucks replaced trolleys in the narratives.

Speaking of the Devil or his doppelgänger, God, in my slightly flippant recent “trolley dilemma” post, what should appear in the serious social science research literature but that very trolley problem applied to Palestinian Muslims and Allah.

God usually gets a bad rap among us atheists but fair’s fair so when the research tips in favour of the Ineffable One integrity demands we duly acknowledge it.

Our findings cast doubt on the notion that there is something special about religious faith, including Islamic belief, that invariably favors promotion of violent intergroup conflict.

PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) has published Thinking from God’s perspective decreases biased valuation of the life of a nonbeliever by researchers Jeremy Ginges, Hammad Sheikh, Scott Atran and Nichole Argo. (The supporting data is also published as a supplement.)

Here is the article’s own statement of its significance (as usual, all bolding and formatting in quotations are my own):

Significance

Religious belief is often seen as a key cause of human conflict because it is said to promote preferential treatment of adherents and to harden group boundaries. Here, we examined a critical aspect of this link in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, a multigenerational violent conflict with significant religious aspects.

We find that although Muslim Palestinian participants valued Palestinian over Jewish Israeli lives when making difficult moral choices, they believed that Allah preferred them to make moral decisions that valued the lives of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis more equally.

Beliefs about God may promote more equal valuation of human life regardless of religious identity, encouraging application of universal moral rules to believers and nonbelievers alike.

Gulp! How can that be? Before I discuss details of the article, here’s the overview:

Abstract

Religious belief is often thought to motivate violence because it is said to promote norms that encourage tribalism and the devaluing of the lives of nonbelievers. If true, this should be visible in the multigenerational violent conflict between Palestinians and Israelis which is marked by a religious divide.

We conducted experiments with a representative sample of Muslim Palestinian youth (n = 555), examining whether thinking from the perspective of Allah (God), who is the ultimate arbitrator of religious belief, changes the relative value of Jewish Israelis’ lives (compared with Palestinian lives).

Participants were presented with variants of the classic “trolley dilemma,” in the form of stories where a man can be killed to save the lives of five children who were either Jewish Israeli or Palestinian. They responded from their own perspective and from the perspective of Allah.

We find that whereas a large proportion of participants were more likely to endorse saving Palestinian children than saving Jewish Israeli children, this proportion decreased when thinking from the perspective of Allah. This finding raises the possibility that beliefs about God can mitigate bias against other groups and reduce barriers to peace.

Ouch! Possible that religion can be a force for peace? Well, “religion” is a loaded term. That’s not quite what the study is addressing. So here are some details. . . .

read more »


2015-12-21

Fearing to Understand Terrorism and ISIS

by Neil Godfrey

Several excellent articles have appeared recently on the nature of ISIS and terrorism, and some appalling ones have also been published. I normally prefer to share what I understand the experts themselves to be saying, but here I’m stepping back a minute to pause. Some (it sometimes seems like most) readers do not want to hear the experts, or they read into their words almost the very opposite of what they are attempting to convey. Discussions too often (not always but certainly very often) degenerate into exchanges where one or both sides are merely scanning for keywords from which to leap into their own polemic.

Jerry Coyne not so long ago wanted his readers to enjoy an article by Nick Cohen because, Coyne pointed out, Nick Cohen may be seen as an heir to George Orwell for his intellectual insights and honesty! So I read the article and had to rub my eyes into the third paragraph to grasp that Cohen set out with a complete distortion of John Kerry’s remarks about the factors underlying terrorism.

Cohen’s conclusion underscored his ability to see black where he had read white:

Every step you take explaining radical Islam away is apparently rational and liberal. Each takes you further from rationalism and liberalism. In your determination to see the other side’s point of view and to avoid making it “really angry about this or that”, you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries. As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable, you become a propagandist for the men you once opposed.

“Explaining radical Islam away”?

“In your determination to see the other side’s point of view . . . you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries.”??

“As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable”???

Who on earth does all of these things?

I once studied the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Germany and Italy in the 20s and 30s, and also the rise and history of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in Britain. Never once did it cross my mind that understanding how a host of international policies, economic and social turmoil, the particular psychologies of key individuals and social psychology more generally, and the history of specific ideas, — never once did it cross my mind that acquiring such an understanding, of coming to see the point of view of those who followed Hitler, Mussolini (and Mosley) so well, was an act of “explaining fascism away” or “seeking excuses for the inexcusable”.  read more »


2015-12-17

The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians

by Neil Godfrey

Abstract of a recently published article by Princeton University Professor of Classics, Brent D. Shaw:

A conventional certainty is that the first state-driven persecution of Christians happened in the reign of Nero and that it involved the deaths of Peter and Paul, and the mass execution of Christians in the aftermath of the great fire of July 64 C.E. The argument here contests all of these facts, especially the general execution personally ordered by Nero. The only source for this event is a brief passage in the historian Tacitus. Although the passage is probably genuine Tacitus, it reflects ideas and connections prevalent at the time the historian was writing and not the realities of the 60s. 

Brent D. Shaw (2015). The Myth of the Neronian Persecution. Journal of Roman Studies, 105, pp 73-100 doi:10.1017/S0075435815000982

I will attempt to outline some of the points I found of particular interest in his article.

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The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki. According to Tacitus, Nero targeted Christians as those responsible for the fire.

Shaw argues that the famous story of Nero burning and in other ways torturing Christians as punishment for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. never happened. (As usual, bolded font and formatting are my own.)

Nero’s spectacular executions of large numbers of Christians in the aftermath of the fire that raged through the city of Rome in July of 64 is commonly regarded as a foundational event in the history of Christian martyrdom. They were the first executions of Christians performed at the behest of the Roman state. In almost every history of the early Christian Church, the event is marked as a dramatic turning point in the relations between Christians and the imperial government.

Given the surprisingly widespread acceptance of the great significance of this axial event in Christian history, the thinness of the evidence on all aspects of it is quite striking. The paucity and weakness of the data, however, have not prevented acceptance of the historicity of this ‘first persecution’ as an undisputed fact. Indeed, the degree of certainty in the Neronian persecution stands in almost inverse proportion to the quality and quantity of the data. Those who have expressed even modest scepticism about the historicity of the one explicit passage in the historian Tacitus that attests to the executions have been voces clamantium in deserto.

The simple argument of this essay, deliberately framed as a provocative hypothesis, is that this event never happened and that there are compelling reasons to doubt that it should have any place either in the history of Christian martyrdom or in the history of the early Church.

To begin with, there is no evidence that Christians were crucified as a penalty for their faith. The key reference here is Barnes, T. D. 2010: Early Christian Hagiography and Roman History, Tübingen. So much for the late legend of Peter being crucified, let alone crucified upside down. The late tales of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul appear to have been expressions of what second century Christians wanted to believe. In the Gospel of John there was a prophecy that Peter would meet an undesirable fate and it seemed appropriate that he should die by crucifixion as had Jesus. For all we know from the available evidence Peter died in the 50s, in Jerusalem, peacefully in his sleep. Paul, according to Acts, was in trouble not for being a Christian but for being a disturber of the peace.
read more »


2015-12-08

So why did militants turn to attack the West? — The Saudi Arabia driver

by Neil Godfrey

This post follows on from The Origins of Islamic Militancy. This time I change pace and copy a small section from pages 92 to 94 of Jason Burke’s book, The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy (2015). I have a lot of time for Burke’s books on this topic. He is one of the few to get out into the field, sometimes at risk to his own life, to talk with terrorists and their associates. Formatting and bolding are mine.

So why did militants turn to attack the West? One important reason is to be found in Saudi Arabia.

Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud

Abdulaziz ibn Saud

As a state, Saudi Arabia owed its foundation to the alliance of the battle-hardened latter-day followers of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who had preached an austere, puritanical interpretation of Islam in the Arabian peninsula since the late eighteenth century, and an ambitious, capable tribal leader called Abdulaziz ibn Saud.

In 1979 came three events that shook the Saudi monarchy:

  • the seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca by a group of local extremists,
  • the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets
  • and the Iranian revolution. 

Each involved a different enemy — violent local militants who branded their rulers apostates, atheist Communists and Shia Islamists — but each revealed a new and potentially deadly threat to the reign of the house of Saud.

One response of the kingdom’s rulers was to use a substantial amount of the vast wealth generated by their oil revenues to expand the proselytisation of the Wahhabi creed, one of the most rigorous, intolerant and conservative existing in Islam, throughout the Sunni Muslim world. This had been a policy for some time but now the effort was massively expanded in an updated though much more far-reaching version of the original strategy that had brought them to power sixty years before. The aim was to reinforce their own religious credentials at home while increasing their influence overseas, allowing them to reassert their claim to both religious and political leadership in the Islamic world.

Over the ensuing decades,

  • tens of thousands of religious schools, mosques, Islamic universities and religious centres were built worldwide. 
  • Hundreds of thousands of scholarships to Saudi universities were offered and stipends paid to preachers.
  • Tens of millions of copies of holy texts and, more importantly, deeply conservative interpretations of them, were published and distributed.

This strategic choice was to have a huge impact on the Muslim world, fundamentally altering faith, observance and religious identity for hundreds of millions of people. It also contributed, as intended, to a shift of cultural influence from Egypt, once the unchallenged intellectual centre of the Arab world, to Saudi Arabia, its religious centre.
read more »


2015-11-15

Debating Islam, Islamism and Human Rights

by Neil Godfrey

It seems that I for a while I have been sheltered from some of the debates over Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia as they have taken shape in Great Britain in particular. I’m trying to catch up now.

In particular I have not up till now really understood why those on “the Left” have been accused of supporting terrorists or others who would deny human rights to Muslims.

I think it’s becoming clearer to me now. Here’s how I understand what’s what — and if you think I still haven’t got it right then feel free to help out.

Islam This is the term we use for the religion of Muslims. All Muslims of all sects. It’s a religion. That’s all. There’s no one “true” set of beliefs and practices for Islam anymore than we have the same for Christianity. I’m an atheist but I’m not an “anti-theist”. I don’t see anything inherently wrong or bad in any religion in the abstract. I don’t like religion personally, but then again I don’t like mosquitoes, spiders, cockroaches, sandflies either. That doesn’t mean I sign up to join a program to exterminate all mosquitoes, spiders, cockroaches, sandflies from the planet — the consequences would be unpredictable.

Islamic This is the adjectival form of Islam, as Christian is to Christianity.

Islamism This refers to the ideology or political goal that a society should be subject to Islamic laws. It’s counterpart in Christianity would be political movements attempting to ban things that are deemed immoral by the Church. Many Islamists seek to achieve Islamic rule through democratic means, or if not outright rule, at least a place in government from where they can influence legislation. Other Islamists believe in violent means. These are the jihadi extremists.

Islamophobia This generally refers to any blanket hostility towards all Muslims (Islam). Islamophobes find all visible Islamic symbols and practices offensive in a Western society and associate all Muslims in some way with the criminal acts of violent Islamist extremists. Islamophobes consider the religion of Islam itself as an evil or antisocial presence. Islamophobia is the conflation of Islam, Islamism and Islamic practices and Islamist violence as an evil or hostile force.

The Debate Some of us have stressed most the need for stamping out intolerance and protecting religious freedoms. This is a good thing. read more »


2015-11-12

How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?

by Neil Godfrey
Martin Hengel

Martin Hengel (1926-2009)

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant has been co-opted by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus Christ but how did pre-Christian Jews understand this figure? My last post in a series examining Martin Hengel’s scholarly work on this question was From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel). Here is the long overdue follow up post. So far we have

  • surveyed the evidence Hengel finds for how the authors of the books of Zechariah and Ben Sirach/Sira interpreted the Suffering Servant we read about in Isaiah 53;
  • noted related developments in the period of the Maccabean martyrs (around 165/164 BCE) when the book of Daniel appears to have been written.

Though we sometimes read dogmatic assertions by scholars who don’t keep themselves up to date across their field of research to the effect that no pre-Christian era Jew could ever have thought that the Messiah was destined to suffer and be killed, Martin Hengel has no qualms arguing on the basis of early Jewish writings that pre-Christian Jews really do appear to have done just that. And why not? How better to make sense of a persecuted and often martyred community? We must keep in mind that there was no fixed idea of any other kind of Messiah (“anointed one”, “Christ”) in this period.

Yet we must remember that in the second century B.C.E., we do not yet possess any fixed Jewish doctrine of the Messiah – there basically never was one – but must rather deal with various ideas of anointing and the Anointed One. In Qumran, not only the Davidic Messiah but also the eschatological high priest and the prophets are considered “anointed ones.”

— Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p103. (Bailey is responsible for translating Hengel’s essay into English and updating it in consultation with the author.)

Hengel warns us not to expect an author to introduce the new ideas or interpretations emerging in the Maccabean period with an unambiguous supporting citation to an earlier text.

Because the ideas introduced are new, they are at first only cautiously hinted at. Isaiah 53, as a unique text in the Old Testament, may have helped this development along, though at first the collective understanding [i.e. that the Suffering Servant represented Israel] stood in the foreground, and only certain aspects of the whole text exerted an influence. It also needs to be remembered, as already said, that the pre-Christian Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha contain almost no literal scriptural citations. We can therefore conduct only a very cautious search for traces. (p. 96)

So the argument is suggestive rather than conclusive. We might further consider the interpretative power of the argument: Does it explain the emergence of earliest Christian interpretations more directly than a radical revision of Jewish thought being sparked by a belief in a crucified leader’s resurrection from the dead?

Let’s get started. read more »