Beyond Evil to Good

Miguel de Unamuno, considering the road from masculine frailty to faith, observed in Tragic Sense of Life that all men desire two things:

  • To live forever.
  • To rule the world.

The obvious paradox in these impulses is that most of us (myself being a man) attempt to accomplish the second by beating the crap out of other men – which tends to advance the interruption of our seeking after the first.

Work-arounds abound, the most obvious being to have a gun at the ready whenever an altercation arises. The subtlest is the use of psychological conditioning to get others to do the beating up for us. In totalitarian states, that conditioning takes the form of propaganda against imagined enemies, but is often joined with control over basic necessities. In democratic cultures, the conditioning is typically tied to unattainable visions of sexual conquest. When progeny ensue, hypersensitivity to their vulnerability often becomes the lever used to encourage financial exploitation of others.

Obviously in these systems there will be losers – a great many losers. The power of the impulses identified by Unamuno then manifests in a terrible perversion, expressed by a friend who asserted that the world would “know about him.” He testified ominously:

“Yeah, when a man has nothing to lose, there’s nothing he won’t do. And when the world learns about me, it will be nothing like anything that it’s ever seen before.”

I tried to lighten the air, offering that I knew what he meant, and that my sons were sometimes worried that I was going to just walk off and disappear. When he asked “You mean go live on the streets?” I replied, “No, probably they’d find me out someplace like the Amazon in Ecuador helping the indigenous people deal with the mess that Texaco left behind.”

Ah, the contradictory consequences revealed by Unamuno’s observation!

Some men lose everything, and seek to rule the lives of others by ending them, thus finding immortality in notoriety. I have nothing, and so claim this little piece of the blogosphere, writing about everything for almost nobody, and imagine conquering a little part of the world with a sponge and a squeegee. Some men fear the immigrant, and extrapolate our future against Europe’s tragedies where the Muslim population is ten times proportionately larger than ours. Accepting King’s dictum that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I embrace Muslim America as an opportunity for Islamic scholarship to rediscover and reassert the original message of Mohammed (pbuh), and any acts of violence as a cross to be born in conquering fear.

Unamuno’s defense of Christian faith was that we “create this God of love and eternal life by believing in him.” I see that as heresy: we don’t create him; we rather allow his virtues to manifest in our lives. In doing so, we learn to love ourselves and accept love from others, thereby obtaining dominion over the only part of the world that really matters: ourselves. In focusing that strength to the service of loving others, we lessen the burden of their resistance to our survival, and so enter more deeply into their world.

And for those that cannot learn – either those that lash out in violence or those that consume the innocent? What do they become in the end? Not themselves any longer – they become a headline in a newspaper. The history implicit in the personal “why” is lost. They become simply a “what”: 18 in San Bernardino. 49 people dead in Orlando. 3000 dead on 9/11. 47 million during World War II. Their personal history is consumed by the violence they created.

But men like Buddha – who renounced violence to bring a system of self-control to his people – or Jesus – who died to expose the hypocrisy of the military-religious complex – their names are enshrined in the hearts of those they have liberated. They live on in us.

Terrorism: The Use of Pseudo-Sociology to Foment Cultural Hostility

One of the lynchpins of the Third Reich was the “science” of eugenics. The conflation of genetics and culture justified an organized assault on disadvantaged minorities that spread to those that spoke out against their annihilation.

I find it hard to escape this precedent in reading Kenneth Krause’s “Religion, Violence and Terrorism” (Skeptic Vol 20, No.1, pp 48-56). The primary defect of Krause’s analysis is to reason backwards from his conclusion, which is militantly anti-religious. This leads to pseudo-sociological analysis that ignores the historical context that inflames conflict between the Muslim world and the West. Moderating those passions is going to require analysis that is both better and more honest than Krause presents.

For example, on page 49, Krause advances David Eller’s theory of violence as a basis for an argument that religion contains all the characteristics that foment violence. However, Krause fails to notice that the characteristics of religion are generically characteristics that cause believers to “expand both the scope and scale of their activities.” In my reading of history, that has included much that must be upheld as good, such as caring for the disadvantaged and speaking out against injustice all over the world.

What matters, then, is what religious leaders actually teach their followers, and whether scripture provides a sound basis for exposing immoral teaching. In substantiating his opinions (pp. 50-52) regarding the uniquely perverse nature of the traditions of Abraham, Krause cherry-picks from the most objectionable passages, failing to recognize that the exhortations he decries, when implemented methodically, are reported in scripture to have resulted in the destruction of the community of believers. Applying the discipline of anthropology, honest treatment of the religious edicts of the Old Testament would also recognize numerous occasions on which God decried the extent to which he suffered from the perfidy of the religious and political elites. This should be taken, by the mature reader, as an indication that human political ambitions corrupted the practice of the religion, which obviously would best be implemented by subordinating scripture to political ends. This is known to have occurred in documented history – so how could we not expect it to have occurred when the elites had complete control of the holy word?

Finally, Krause avoids the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who overthrew the religious justification for violence and eviscerated all dualistic systems of judgment (not only “good and evil”, but all legal codes that purport to categorize us as “guilty” or “innocent”) with edicts that we are to treat every interaction with people as an opportunity to create strength in them. Jesus’s exhortations reiterate the wisdom of the judgment upon Cain: our Darwinian heritage makes moral conduct difficult. Rather than destroying those that fail, we should give them the opportunity to pass on the lessons they have learned.

In summary, Krause’s scriptural analysis of the traditions of Abraham suffers terminally from confirmation bias. He seeks out passages that support his thesis, and ignores all others. Worse, he advances his selections and interpretations as typical dogma, when in fact I have never heard these passages used as moral guidance in any American church, synagogue or mosque. At least in the developed world, the religious have moved on. So should Krause.

The remainder of the article presents survey data that substantiates the oppressive opinions of the populations of largely Muslim nations. The glaring defect of this study is its failure to consider other factors that might contribute to the attitudes expressed by the sampled population. For example, at the recent Skeptics Conference, Ian Morris noted that foraging societies tolerate violence to a far greater degree than do fossil-fuel cultures. Islam is the religion of the poor: many of the nations in the survey data lived at or near foraging levels until last century. That lifestyle was obliterated when a large number of these nations were granted enormous oil wealth, which has given their monarchical elites the means to propagate their social codes in an attempt to secure stability in the face of sophisticated social critiques brought back by youth educated in Western universities. We should not be surprised that these nations, granted sudden and enormous wealth, should use it to propagate their social standards. That includes, as happened during the Spanish Inquisition, support for religious “scholars” willing to corrupt scripture to justify violent oppression (Wahabbism, which foments the most virulent extremism, is a recent construction of the Saudi monarchy). I would argue that the failure to consider this and other social factors (such as the organized attempt by Western-educated elites to uproot Muslim culture in the 20th century) leaves readers of Krause’s article vulnerable to the classic misattribution of “correlation as causation.”

My disappointment is that this shoddy piece of analysis was published by an organization that claims to promote science.