2015-07-25

The Risks of Understanding and Explaining Evil

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by Neil Godfrey

Terrorism is evil. Murder is evil. Torture is evil. Hate crimes are evil. War is evil. Attempt to seriously understand why they happen, however, and one risks being accused of supporting evil.

On this blog I have attempted to share some insights of scholarly research into terrorism and the background to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have in consequence mistakenly been thought to be justifying terrorism, of being an apologist for Islam, of anti-semitism and of hatred towards Israel. All of those things are completely untrue but the accusations persist because some readers view my explanations as taking the evil-doer’s side.

Steven Pinker (Wikipedia)
Steven Pinker (Wikipedia)

Why does this happen? Steven Pinker offers a cogent explanation in The Better Angel of Our Nature:

Baumeister notes that in the attempt to understand harm-doing, the viewpoint of the scientist or scholar overlaps with the viewpoint of the perpetrator.

Both take a detached, amoral stance toward the harmful act. Both are contextualizers, always attentive to the complexities of the situation and how they contributed to the causation of the harm. And both believe that the harm is ultimately explicable.

The viewpoint of the moralist, in contrast, is the viewpoint of the victim. The harm is treated with reverence and awe. It continues to evoke sadness and anger long after it was perpetrated. And for all the feeble ratiocination we mortals throw at it, it remains a cosmic mystery, a manifestation of the irreducible and inexplicable existence of evil in the universe. Many chroniclers of the Holocaust consider it immoral even to try to explain it.

Pinker, Steven (2011-10-06). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (pp. 495-496). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

The Myth of Pure Evil

Baumeister, with psychological spectacles still affixed, calls this the myth of pure evil. The mindset that we adopt when we don moral spectacles is the mindset of the victim. Evil is the intentional and gratuitous infliction of harm for its own sake, perpetrated by a villain who is malevolent to the bone, inflicted on a victim who is innocent and good. The reason that this is a myth (when seen through psychological spectacles) is that evil in fact is perpetrated by people who are mostly ordinary, and who respond to their circumstances, including provocations by the victim, in ways they feel are reasonable and just.

The myth of pure evil gives rise to an archetype that is common in religions, horror movies, children’s literature, nationalist mythologies, and sensationalist news coverage. In many religions evil is personified as the Devil—Hades, Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Mephistopheles—or as the antithesis to a benevolent God in a bilateral Manichean struggle. In popular fiction evil takes the form of the slasher, the serial killer, the bogeyman, the ogre, the Joker, the James Bond villain, or depending on the cinematic decade, the Nazi officer, Soviet spy, Italian gangster, Arab terrorist, inner-city predator, Mexican druglord, galactic emperor, or corporate executive. The evildoer may enjoy money and power, but these motives are vague and ill formed; what he really craves is the infliction of chaos and suffering on innocent victims. The evildoer is an adversary—the enemy of good—and the evildoer is often foreign. Hollywood villains, even if they are stateless, speak with a generic foreign accent.

The myth of pure evil bedevils our attempt to understand real evil. Because the standpoint of the scientist resembles the standpoint of the perpetrator, while the standpoint of the moralizer resembles the standpoint of the victim, the scientist is bound to be seen as “making excuses” or “blaming the victim,” or as trying to vindicate the amoral doctrine that “to understand all is to forgive all.” (Recall Lewis Richardson’s reply that to condemn much is to understand little.)

The accusation of relativizing evil is particularly likely when the motive the analyst imputes to the perpetrator appears to be venial, like jealousy, status, or retaliation, rather than grandiose, like the persistence of suffering in the world or the perpetuation of race, class, or gender oppression. It is also likely when the analyst ascribes the motive to every human being rather than to a few psychopaths or to the agents of a malignant political system (hence the popularity of the doctrine of the Noble Savage). The scholar Hannah Arendt, in her writings on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for his role in organizing the logistics of the Holocaust, coined the expression “the banality of evil” to capture what she saw as the ordinariness of the man and the ordinariness of his motives. Whether or not she was right about Eichmann (and historians have shown that he was more of an ideological anti-Semite than Arendt allowed), she was prescient in deconstructing the myth of pure evil. As we shall see, four decades of research in social psychology—some of it inspired by Arendt herself—have underscored the banality of most of the motives that lead to harmful consequences.

Pinker, Steven (2011-10-06). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (pp. 496-497). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

 

I’d love to make this point to Jerry Coyne and his followers and to elicit a response from them but to date he has denied me the opportunity to respond on his blog.

 

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36 thoughts on “The Risks of Understanding and Explaining Evil”

  1. I’d love to make this point to Jerry Coyne and his followers and to elicit a response from them but to date he has denied me the opportunity to respond on his blog.

    I’m a follower of Jerry Coyne, so here is a response from at least one of them.

    As I see it, the accusation is not that you’re soft on terrorism, the accusation is that you’re being blatantly unfair to “New Atheists”, accusing them of lots of things that are untrue.

    Specifically, you say of people like Coyne and Dawkins that they “clearly express support for State Power and justifications for wars of aggression”, which is roughly the opposite of my reading of them. Perhaps you could produce quotes of them saying such things, or withdraw the accusation?

    1. So you will bend over to deflect all attention from the failure to recognize seriously researched scholarly analysis of Islamic terror and other contemporary issues connected with Islam in order to justify your ignorance.

      1. Well no. I don’t think the other accusations are fair either, but they’re rather vague. “Failing to recognise” scholarship is a vague accusation. Which scholarship, and can you quote the writings of the New Atheists that you’re complaining about?

        Your posts on Biblical studies are generally full of detailed quotes and citations. Your complaints about New Atheists are not, and are thus hard to reply to. Here you write a post that seems to be aimed at Coyne, and yet you never quote Coyne once nor explain what you’re objecting to.

        There are a vast number of complaints (I’m talking generally, not from you in particular) that amount to “religion is good; anything bad cannot be religion; it something bad appears to be religion then that’s only a superficial appearance, and the real reason must be something else; therefore anyone blaming religion for anything must be wrong and ignorant; it is uncouth and uneducated to attack religion, because religion is good”.

        1. I don’t understand how you can conclude that I have ever argued that any bad coming from religion must be superficial and that there must be other factors involved. I can’t understand how you can conclude that from anything I have written (though you say you speaking generally, I know). And I certainly don’t see how that charge relates in any way with point of the post that I quote from Pinker.

          Of course there is much evil from religion per se and I have posted on that in the past both here and in other forums often enough (or maybe not often enough). I know well the damage religion can do.

          But the question of Islam that I address is something else and I think people like Harris, Coyne, Dawkins fail to understand the real nature of religion as a social construct and the motivations to violence that we are observing today. They fall into the “myth of pure evil” trap that Baumeister speaks about.

          1. That comment including: “if something bad appears to be religion then that’s only a superficial appearance, and the real reason must be something else” was of course a caricature and was not about you, but was about a wider trend to try to minimise any religious motivations for violent acts by re-interpreting them as political (while never re-interpreting anything political as having underlying religious motivations).

            If everyone were to agree that a lot of terrorism has both religious and political motivations, then we could constructively proceed from there, but there is a faction (and again, I don’t necessarily mean you) that wants to re-interpret away any role for religion, either by saying it is political or by simply declaring that extremist religion is “not religion”. Hence the pretence, for example, that Islamic State is not Islamic.

            Do Harris, Coyne, Dawkins *really* fail to see that religion is a social construct? I’d have thought that they see that in spades! The idea that religion is a human construct, resulting from human foibles and desires, with God being created by humans in Man’s image, is surely the central point of “New Atheism”, rejecting any divine origin.

            As for it being “pure evil” in some sort of essentialist way, well that’s effectively accusing them of believing in the Devil, which is about as far from their actual views as possible!

            Overall, I think you are totally misreading Coyne and Dawkins. Dawkins, for example, has always been opposed to the military interventions in Iraq etc, back to the Blair era. He votes centre-left politically and reads centre-left papers (any being centre-left in British terms is much further left in US terms).

            It’s also erroneous to lump together Hitchens, Harris, Coyne, Dawkins, Dennett on *this* sort of issue. Actually their views are very disparate on such things. Hitchens did indeed advocate military interventionism; I’ve never seen Coyne or Dawkins do that.

            To repeat, it would be helpful if, when criticising the New Atheists, you were to document quotes about what you’re criticising — as you indeed do, par excellence, in your Biblical studies posts.

            1. By “essentialism” I was pointing to the idea that “religion” in general and Islam in particular in this instance has an “essence” that somehow drives people — as if it were an entity that has its own essential character such as evil or goodness within itself. That’s the scholarly use of the term as I understand it and as you know I’m all for a scholarly understanding of religion and Islam– and Christianity for that matter.

              The “myth of pure evil” is another scholarly depiction (Baumeister) that is used to describe phenomena, such as a religion or a group of people, to whom we attribute responsibility for evil actions. Again — this attributes evil to abstract entities that have no real existence in themselves or even to real groups as if they embody evil and that is all the explanation we need for their actions.

              My complaint about Jerry is that he lacks a scholarly approach to these issues and his reaction to my mind only confirms that I am right to make that claim.

              Your comment still seems to me to be treating religion as some sort of entity with its own essence yet the scholarly construct view — e.g. Durkheim who I have discussed in this connection — interprets what is happening as the beliefs, pressures, motivations, of particular groups — not generic groups — but only those groups actually directly associated with the evil acts.

              They study the groups responsible for their attitudes, histories, beliefs, claims, hopes, and motivations. Religion is not an “essence” to be dissected any more than is Politics. It is the people, the actors, who are to be understood since they are the ones who have real essences and existences.

              The political and religious expressions are just the people’s words and acts. The people themselves are the ones with the motives and responsibilities and are the subjects of the study. If we study religion or politics we study how they are created by specific groups and that’s where we see there is no more any single Islam or Democracy than there is a single Christianity.

              Scholarly research has been overwhelming in its conclusion — as far as I am aware — that what we call Islamic violence is the product not of any single “essential entity” like religion but of a number of social and personal forces. The one constant — according to the words of terrorists themselves — has been political motivation. Religion does often (but by no means always) play a part towards recruiting for these political goals but so also do personal psychological factors.

              Scholars are not interested in knee-jerk blaming of any single people or idea but in understanding people and the way certain ideas are played out with specific groups and why.

              To really understand we need to talk with and understand the perpetrators of violence. We don’t do that by taking the victim’s viewpoint and beginning with the blame game. That’s for justice and law enforcement bodies.

              Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists have contributed much to our understanding of terrorism. My wish is for Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to use their influence as scholars to promote that scholarly understanding instead of fanning political ignorance of these findings.

              1. There again you are accusing New Atheists of regarding religion as the sole important factor, and of ignoring all other political and social factors.

                I don’t think that’s fair. Religions are, of course, complex bundles of traits, but it is still useful and valid to use a word such as “Islam” to refer to common themes in ideologies.

                If we were discussing “Marxist communism” or “national socialism” or other ideologies, everyone would accept that, even though such labels are simplifications, those ideologies were influential in motivating people and in influencing consequent events.

                But, when it comes to religion, and specifically Islam, people try to find reasons to avoid attaching any blame.

                The truth is that ideologies *are* to blame, *and* other political and social factors are important.

              2. I don’t understand where you are coming from, sorry. I seem to be only replying in ways that confuse or obfuscate the issue as far as you are concerned. I am wondering if it might help me understand where you are coming from better if you outline in your own words what you believe my argument to be — or more importantly, what you believe to be the argument of Pinker in the quotes I have posted above.

              3. Hi Neil,

                “… if you outline in your own words what you believe my argument to be …”

                I don’t know what your actual *argument* is, that’s the point!

                As I see it, all you’re doing is denigrating the “New Atheists”, accusing them of ignorance, of ignoring scholarship, of misunderstanding religion, of being right wing neo-cons, of supporting state control, and of supporting aggressive wars.

                That *seems* to be along the same lines as the very common attitude of “those guys disrespect religion, therefore we must denigrate them in any way possible”.

                90% of anti-New Atheist commentary is along those lines, rather than having substance.

                But, if you do have a substantive critique, I’d be interested to read it, starting from you quoting what they’ve actually said — and recognising that Hitchens, Dawkins, Coyne, Harris, Dennett are not all the same person, and actually think very differently on many things — and then producing a fair-minded response to what they’ve actually said.

                For starters, none of them have ever said that religion is the *only* factor motivating people, and that political and socio-economic concerns are always irrelevant.

                Similarly, none of them have ever said that religion never provides any social framework that people find valuable.

                Specifically on the Pinker quotes above. Yes, they all seem very sensible. Now, which part of that is opposed to anything Coyne or anyone else have said?

                You seem to think it is a rebuttal to something Coyne has said. Can you quote that thing, and say why you think it is a rebuttal?

              4. Thanks for this. Okay, my argument is exactly the one I have posted here from Pinker’s book. I argue that the New Atheists do not take the scholarly approach to understanding either Islam or terrorism. That is the problem.

                Everything I have attempted to argue has been in some sense an elaboration of some aspect of Pinker’s point in the post above. And I have been accused of justifying evil as a consequence — just as Pinker himself says one might expect if one takes a scholarly approach to understanding such things.

                Scholars who do their professional job of researching terrorism to understand it have also been accused of justifying or excusing terrorism.

                None of this is helpful. It is a war between popular ignorance and informed understanding. The inevitable outcome of this can only be popular policies that are misguided and harmful.

              5. Hi Neil,

                I agree with everything in the quotes from Pinker. It all seems very sensible.

                I don’t see where any of it conflicts with anything that Coyne has said.

                If you were interested in expounding on any such conflict I’d be interested to read it.

              6. Can you point to any post in which Jerry Coyne has attempted to explain terrorism or Islamic issues from the perspective of scholarly research findings and/or where he has addressed scholarly research he disagrees with in a scholarly manner?

                Can you point to any post of his in which he does not take what Pinker/Baumeister describe as the victim’s point of view where the violence is portrayed as evilly motivated and where the explanation for violence is itself equated with evil?

                Can you find any post of Jerry’s in which he addresses scholarly research without accusing its authors of being justifiers of violence or making excuses for evil or violence?

                Or more simply, can you point me to any of Jerry’s posts in which we can find a scholarly approach to Islam and/or terrorism that accords with the description set out by Pinker? — Or can you find any post by Jerry that avoids the trap of the “victim point of view” described by Pinker?

              7. Well no, I can’t point to blog posts by Coyne on most of those things. But then there are a heck of a lot of things that he has never posted about.

                It’s not really fair to criticise a blogger for things he hasn’t discussed, or to complain that you’d like him to discuss topics that he hasn’t — it’s only fair to criticise those posts that he has actually written for what he has actually said.

              8. But this to me is the whole point. My post here is explaining the difference between an approach to issues such as Islamic terrorism that is scholarly and an approach that is opposed to the scholarly approach and in fact is an emotive reaction based on a failure to understand the whole situation.

                Jerry has always (as far as I am aware) discussed such issues from the perspective of the victim and never from the viewpoint of the scholar. That means, according to the post here, he has been posting from the perspective of ignorance of the full picture. It also explains why he accuses those who do attempt a scholarly approach of making excuses for the evil of Islamic terrorism or for the wrongs of Islam more generally.

                I was thinking of taking some of Jerry’s comments, as well as some by Harris and by Dawkins, and demonstrating point by point where they reject the scholarly approach to understanding Islamic issues and instead promote what Baumeister calls “the myth of pure evil” within Islam.

                It will not persuade Jerry, of course, but it may help influence views of a few onlookers to the discussion.

                I have begun to analyse one post so far. I show that Jerry uncritically embraces a naive reading of a news media report (aren’t we always warned against believing what we hear in the news? but not so when it comes to something negative about Islam, apparently) and repeats its headline as if it were a fact. In actual fact, when one reads the original article with care one sees that the headline is contradicted by the details of the report and Jerry’s accusation collapses. But he ignores this little detail and then even though the news report says that this particular incident is unique, a first, for a Muslim country, Jerry tells readers it is in fact “typical” of Muslim countries. So just on this first post I collect from Jerry I find a most uncritical and unscholarly piece of ignorant bigotry being expressed.

                When I collect a few and analyse them in this sort of depth I may post them.

                By the way, another little psychological detail I have come across in Pinker’s book: he explains the psychological underpinnings (or rather their neurological underpinnings — showing the particular brain areas affected) when people are outraged at being questioned or having their views criticized. It appears that we can understand here why someone who attains great credit in one field takes for granted that he has a sense of entitlement to have his views respected in other areas even though he is not qualified in those other areas. This false sense of entitlement may lie behind scholars who are greatly offended when they are criticized for their views in areas where they have not specialized.

        2. I take your point about failing to cite specific supports for some of my claims about the New Atheists in general and Coyne in particular. I will make more of an effort to do so in future.

          Meantime, I would be interested to know what scholarship Coyne has used to support his views on Islam generally. (He did link to three apparently hostile reviews of Pape — one of those links is broken, though, and Coyne in personal emails has ordered me to stop communicating with him entirely so I can’t ask him to correct this — and when I myself did a search of the scholarly database for reviews on Pape’s book it immediately became apparent that he must have searched high and low in order to find three hostile review amidst the scores of positive ones.)

  2. I never dared commenting on Coyne’s blog, but i read it and occasionally listen to Harris’s podcasts. It probably won’t do any good, but i’ll give my useless opinion here.

    First of all I see a double standard: for example everything you wrote here applies to critics of Harris in relation to Clinton and the bombing of the sudanese pharmaceutical plant, he tries to explain in objective terms what happened, to contextualize the event, to explain the harm, but for Chomsky (who is in the same camp as Myles) Clinton (Clinton!) is just pure evil. The same goes for pretty much every screwed up american foreign interventions, real or imagined ones as well. And yet Harris doesn’t even try to defend them as morally “good” in the same mythical way explained by Baumeister, in fact he didn’t even support the Iraq invasion, and is still blamed for justifying it in some way, because of imagined “strong associations” with right wing neocons or the like. The same with torture: in a “detached, amoral stance toward the harmful act”, he provides an extremely specific and unlikely example where even the (non) use of torture is not such a clear cut moral decision, but a decade later he is still a supporter of evil in the mind of his critics, regardless of his actual opinion on waterboarding or Guantanamo.

    It is really hard to see Harris mindlessly condoning the actual atrocities supported by american foreign policy when he just put out an interview with Joshua Oppenheimer on the indonesian genocide, literally financed by the United States for anti-communism purposes. I wasn’t even aware of such a direct link, one would expect a right wing neocon to skip over such controversies, but he doesn’t because he is not a right wing neocon, nor is he associated with them. I suppose it goes like this: neocons are evil, neocons supported Iraq invasion, Hitchens agreed with neocons on that single point therefore he is evil, Harris agreed with Hitchens on many other points except the Iraq invasion, therefore he is evil too. On this issue the simplistic black and white thinking is a failure of Harris critics, not his.

    It is similarly really hard to see him single out islam and give a pass on cristianity when he interviews a former member of Westboro Baptist Church, or when he brings on the Heaven’s Gate cult, and how their beliefs inform their actions (they are not simple literalists). As naive as it may sound that is his main interest, and that’s the same standard he uses with islam: religions are as dangerous as their adherents are, if the vast majority of muslims would interpret their texts as quackers do with the bible things would be substantially improved, but sadly out of over a billion muslims a sizeable minority (if not the majority depending on where we draw the line) act in a way similar to the Westboro Baptist Church. Sufism may be pretty good, but wahabism is in most respects a human rights disaster. Looking at 1960 pictures of women in Egypt and Afghanistan and looking at them now is really hearthbreaking: things have gone for the worse, surely with the contribution of the cold war, but there is no american foreign interest on having muslim women more subjugated, covered, disenfranchised: that is a human rights abuse self imposed (or saudi imposed) for exquisitely religious reasons. If some scholars claims otherwise i would be cautious of them being more interested in defending islam or blaming american imperialism in the same way biblical scholars often fails to separate their personal beliefs from their academic activity, and we know that happens all the time.

    To make the matter worse islamic sacred texts instead of improving with time (the gospels are a big improvement on Leviticus) actually get worse, and they explicitly condone killing for religious reasons. But this is not the base of the claim, it is an important contributing factor due to how history played out, otherwise it would be just a useless top ten by morality of books nobody ever reads. I remember a scene from Mr. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, when the lovely sufi character played by the late Omar Sharif claims to know what is in his Koran, but it turns out he never read it; things are not always that easy. Saying that islam is right now the most dangerous religion is not necessarily an act of cultural imperialism, anymore than claiming that christianity has an overall negative impact on society: it is simply a measurement of the amount of harm perpetrated in total or per capita by the followers or a certain religion, an act of fairness whenever confronted by a christian shouting “dare say that to a muslim!”. And such a “measurement”, as subjective as it may turn out, can still be done and be useful, despite all the misinterpretations and distortions critics engage on: aren’t we all consequentialists? After all Pinker did a very similar thing in historical context and in a scholarly way.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      You say that Chomsky sees the Clinton bombing of the al-Shifa Sudanese pharmaceutical plant as “pure evil” but he does not do that, at least not in the sense that we generally understand the nature of evil. He in fact sees no “evil intention” to cause any human deaths at all in the decision to bomb that factory. The attempt to frame the discussion with terms like “evil” comes from Harris. It is Harris who is falling into Baumeister’s “myth of pure evil” trap.

      Chomsky’s point is that the human casualties that resulted were no more planned or registered than the ants we tread underfoot each day. At least a wilful murderer acknowledges his “victim is human”.

      I’d like to get away from any discussion about what is labelled the “political Right”. If I recall correctly I introduced this term to the discussion when I threw in Jerry Coyne’s name to the mix of New Atheists whom Robert Myles identifies with the “political Right” — and even then I put “Right” in quotation marks.

      I regret using the term now in the way I did because it obscures what I think the discussion should address — unscholarly and more generally poorly informed discussion about Islam and terrorism and the way we treat others (including at the level of State power).

      1. Disagreements notwithstanding, thanks for your reply, for the hospitality and for spacing my paragraphs. I’m sorry it reads like a pro-Harris rant, it just felt a little personal because by that same standard i think i would be labeled a right winger too, and i’d object to that.

  3. It’s kind of ironic that Coyne doesn’t believe in free will, yet his interpretation of the motives of Islamic terrorists assumes free will.

    When it comes to crime, he seems to be on board with the idea that genes and environment play a massive role in determining why a person becomes a criminal and their vocalized reason for their action is only the tip of the iceberg. But when it comes to Islamic terrorism, he does the opposite; claiming that what the terrorists themselves say is all the evidence we need to understand why it happened.

    It’s a pretty embarrassing blind spot.

    1. There is no inconsistency there. Coyne’s opinion would be that:

      (1) The Islamists are (largely) motivated by their religious ideology.
      (2) Their religious ideology is the determined product of their history, not a “libertarian free-will” decision.

    2. I was disappointed — but no longer surprised — to receive a personal email from Jerry Coyne saying I had no right to post my views on his blog even in response comments where his readers would see them, since I had my own blog and could post my views here. He was most offended that I “accused” him of not being scholarly in his approach to Islam. He is welcome to reply to anything he feels is a misstatement of his views here but of course if he did that he would have to allow me to post on his blog.

      He does not present himself as one who has the first inkling of what scholarly debate implies when it comes to Islam. He certainly has never read Pape or any of the scholarly works of names I have sent him or he could never have said our views ignore what the terrorists themselves say.

      (Jerry — you have forbidden me to post your email publicly so if I have misrepresented you with the above do feel free to notify me and I will retract.)

      1. I think Neil is being consistent in discussing and analysing the relevant scholarship. This is the same he has done for Biblical Studies.

        Let me state here that I rate Neil, Tim and Jerry highly in their intellectual approach to issues and have learned much. What I cannot understand is Jerry’s dismissive attitude with regards to the present issue when it comes to the findings of scholars with regards to Islam and violence. Neil has never (as far as can be seen) rude, offensive nor dishonest and so should not merit this censorial like behaviour, least of all from someone such as Pof. Coyne.

  4. It is possible to identify the elements in the religions of Judaism, Christianity AND Islam responsible for Middle Eastern conflict from 1947 to the present, and more dangerously into the future. It is also fair to say that the Qur’an is much more violent than the Gospels.

    1. Firstly, define what is meant, exactly, by “Middle Eastern conflict”.

      Secondly, let’s not pre-judge any particular conflict by an a proiri assumption that “elements in relgions” are “responsible” for the conflict.

      Clarify, also, what we mean by “elements in religions” and “responsible”.

      There is much murkiness and a welter of assumptions underlying these words and phrases.

      (As for the Qur’an being “more violent” than the Gospels I have to confess I have never been attacked, assaulted, flushed down a toilet, torn apart or burned by either a copy a Qur’an or a Bible — although I have heard of people drowning in toilets and burning Qur’ans and Bibles.)

      There is a wealth of scholarship on reasons for violence by people affiliated with Islam, Judaism and Christianity in Middle Eastern countries. It is not a bad idea to study what their research has uncovered.

        1. And what would you advise me to do to facilitate that day?

          I did not know I was in a war, by the way. I did not “attack” Coyne. I even emailed him an apology for any misunderstanding that may have arisen and made it clear he was welcome to correct any errors he saw on my part on Vridar and I encouraged him to make public my email to him. But for now I see no common cause between us at all with respect to broader community understanding and education on matters relating to Islam and terrorism.

          I really like Coyne’s work on public education concerning evolution (and have told him so more than once) and have very positively posted on his works here.

          So what would you recommend I do to further the chances of reconciliation?

            1. I will have to disappoint you, then, as I am sure Jerry Coyne will also disappoint you. Christian origins is just a hobby. (At most it would be nice to think that others thinking through their faith will find something of use in it.) It has no importance by comparison. Sometimes I regret the lack of balance in posts.

      1. I regret using the word “responsible” and should have said “contributed towards”, and for not adding the plural “s” to the word “conflict”.

        The are many conflicts in the Middle East, but the major one I have in mind is the on-going major conflict, which has to be broadly “defined” in the space available here, between Zionists and Islamists; I do not “take sides” with either, but the evidence, sadly, is increasingly abundant. I also favor precision of terms and accurate documentation of facts, just like you, and particularly appreciate your contributions on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. You may recall my comment on sorting out the truth from propaganda.

        I have no sympathy with the destruction of copies of the Bible or the Qur’an; I prefer people to read both with care. You may not have been hit with a book, but many people have lost life and limb inside the “House of Peace” for sectarian or “religious” reasons, and from the bombing of their homes by the US-Israel “alliance”. Neither of us have experienced being hit by explosives at a wedding feast or in a bus, or being killed for adultery or homosexuality.

        I agree with your last paragraph and, if required, will list all the books on my shelves on this subject, from diverse viewpoints, though the material is never-ending. I live and learn.

        Various territorial “solutions” to the Jewish/Antisemitism “Problem” eventually ended up with the fatal choice of the land around Jerusalem, minimally corresponding to the areas of Judea, Samaria and Galilee known in “the Bible”. This was a “religious” choice, even though non-observant Jews supported it and live loyally in Israel today. Re-read e.g. Isaiah ch.60.

        The Qur’an is not a pacifist handbook, and neither was Allah or Muhammad. Re-read e.g. Suras 2.191-4,216; 4.95; 8.12-16,39; 9.5,29,73,123.

        Here endeth the lesson, I trust not too murky, ignorant or prejudiced.

        1. We can say the same about the Bible. My point was that what counts is the interpretation and the evaluation of texts in the minds of believers. That’s what makes a book “violent” or “pacifist”. Most Muslims today and throughout history have not been persuaded by the passages latched on to by extremists — just as those who murder and keep slaves in the name of Christ today are very, very few. History ebbs and flows.

          http://vridar.org/2015/07/19/de-radicalising-muhammad/

          Why not take the representative symbol of each religion as the a priori indicator of its character? Christianity is represented by the symbol of war, the sword, pointing downward to the sign of crucifixion. Islam is represented by the crescent moon, in more way than one a cultural icon of the feminine, the woman. If Islam means “peace” then we arguably have the cultural gateways through which to interpret the holy books through the spiritual and peaceful feminine side of our nature — which is just how the texts of Islam have been interpreted by the majority of Muslims throughout history. The anomaly that needs explaining is why now all of a sudden we face what we do in the world from Islamic extremists. Pointing to a few ragged tailed Barbary Pirates in a past generation, as some do, isn’t going to do away with the need to explain this question.

          1. I don’t know where to begin in response, or whether to attempt to do so in any detail. As I am not a Jew, or a Christian, or a “Judeo-Christian”, or someone who believes “there is only one God Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet (PBUH)”, I feel no obligation to defend or attack the texts, or their various interpretations, or history, or community practices, of these religions from any partisan viewpoint. It is possible to integrate your views on the sociological aspects of “religious” militancy into a picture that also shows intense “faith” conviction as a factor in undesirably “radical” actions.

            The tenor of the Gospels and that of the Qur’an themselves are quite different. Do I need to spell this out, verse by verse?

            The early Arab conquests and the imposition of dhimmitude upon subject peoples are undeniable, and the issues of warfare or slavery have been much greater in time and space than the transient misbehavior of “a few” Barbary Pirates. Consider, for example, the Islamic invasion of Hindu lands

            Yes, history ebbs and flows.

            The Christian symbol of the Crucifix, whether bearing the body of the victim of violence, or clear as a sign of his resurrection, is not intrinsically aggressive, at least no more than the Sword motif often inscribed into the initial letter of the Shahadah. Islam means “peace” in the sense of total “submission” to Allah who knows best for all mankind.

            Textual interpretation in the Ummah has been chiefly in the hands of clerical schools. Most Muslims, like most other people, just want to get on with their lives without molestation, and are content simply to observe the Pillars. But it is at best an exaggeration to say that the majority of them have interpreted the Qur’an and Hadith, and sharia regulations, in terms of the “feminine side of our nature”. The Crescent is historically a symbol of Ottoman imperialism and more recently of Islamic regimes.

            Your interpretation is very sweet, and I wish you every success in persuading the Muslim millions so to accept it.

            1. I don’t have to persuade millions of Muslims that their religion is one of peace. Millions already believe it. A Westerner’s literary analysis and comparisons of texts (as opposed to a sociological/anthropological study of the people of the faith) makes no difference. Religion is not in the letter but in the spirit, in the interpretation, in the beliefs and practices, in the social communities. You don’t learn what people believe and practice by studying the texts but by studying the devotees and hearing what they say about things, texts included.

              1. My joke referred to the pictorial representation of the moon (anciently symbolic of pagan goddesses) as symbol of peace, rather an historically late reference to Muhammad miraculously splitting the moon and/or this event at the Day of Judgement, when non-Muslims will be destroyed.

                “Texts”, O Derrida, should indeed be judged not only by content and authorial intention, but by their effects upon and use or abuse by readers. The opinions of westerners, other than Arabists who have a close familiarity with Islamic history, customs and fatwas, are indeed unimportant, if not fatuous or even dangerous in their occidental optimism, compared to the numerous pronouncements and practices of Muslim communities and their religious advisers.

                As Sheik Muhammad Saalih al-Munajid, for example, explains, the Verse of the Sword and similar suras in the Qur’an abrogate that saying there is no compulsion to become a Muslim.

            2. Indeed, in the last half century or so, Christian nations, such as the US, have seldom attacked or intervened in other nations.

              Muslim countries, on the other hand, have persistently invaded and attacked ‘Western’ states.

  5. Is not “evil” but an intelligent energy that occupies the space, the plasma of all that actuates to mental decisions in the framework of “free will” – to decide upon a dynamic by degrees that results in experience that is part of all the experiences of humans in a 3D world, that are “there” for the education of beings along the axis of existence within the percieved cosmos?

    Religion(s) are a fabrication from an essence that exists to those that would experience it relative to their consciousness at the time…(accepting that it is also an effective manipulation of masses and their ignorance, fers etc)…results are those that tend to predominate at the lineal point and cause the degrees of “damage” (since we live in an historically violent and enslaved world)…association of religion with extensions of its fundament and social structure in a semi chaotic “expression” of extremism…ergo the evil.

    Whilst others “decide” (from the position of free will) a more peaceful process they never-the-less contribute by circumstantial aquiesence to the radical evolutive process by which those in evil advance their experience and thus politic with irrational views of dominance…etc…etc.

    Most interesting procession of comments and item….glad I was brought along the branch to the stem, etc.

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