Posts Tagged ‘religion’

In 1884 J.W. Burgon says about the radical idea that women should be admited to universities:

Will none of you have the generosity of the candour to tell [Woman] what a very disagreeable creature, in Man’s account, she will inevitably become? If she is to compete successfully with men for ‘honours’, you must needs put the classic writers of antiquity unreservedly in her hands – in order words, must introduce her to the obscenities of Greek and Roman literature. Can you seriously intend it? … I take leave of the subject with a short Allocution addressed to the other sex … Inferior to us God made you: and our inferiors to the end of time you will remain.”

(Quoted in Manguel, A History of Reading, after Jan Morris, ed., The Oxford Book of Oxford)

126 years later, if there’s one thing I can vouch for, it’s that I have become the disagreeable creature — so disagreeable in fact that she demands to be called “human”, not “creature” — Burgon seemed to be so afraid of; and also, it was not Suetonius’ fault.

Not even Cicero’s, or Caesar’s.

I’ll take the whole responsibility for that. Disagreeably. Hah.


Fundamentalists from religions that place an emphasis on the correct interpretation of a revelation in the form of a holy text tend to claim not only that their interpretation is the only correct one – but that their interpretation is the correct one because it’s literal, doesn’t involve any metaphorical readings and sophistry(1).

Very often those claims of literalism are taken at face value in the discourse about religion, usually not by scholars, by but activists, journalists and atheist bloggers.

This uncritical reception of facts provided by parties who are by no means objective, neutral participants in the discourse about religion – namely, the fundamentalists themselves – constitutes a deeply flawed approach to understanding the phenomenon of fundamentalism, and to fighting it.

1) Fudamentalists are selecting the parts of their holy texts they want to interpret “literally”; those parts usually support their anti-modern, absolutist, Manicheist, xenophobic stance. Have you ever heard of a Christian fundamentalist sect that chose to interpret Matthew 22, 37 literally?:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

There is no such fundamentalist sect. Quite the opposite, the fundamentalist sects will engage in all sorts of spurious sophistry to metaphorically explain this bit of the Bible away so that it doesn’t seem to be in contradiction with their plans of eliminating sexual minorities and subjugating women.

2) Fudamentalists’ literal interpretations are completely decontextualised and in fact false

Let’s consider the common stance of various fundamentalist Christian sects on homosexuality, namely that it is a sin, and that the Bible explicitly states that it is so. However, the Bible cannot possibly explicitly state anything at all about homosexuality, because it has no word for homosexuality in any of its many books. Even if there are some words that might or might not refer to homosexuality in the New Testament, there are describing a completely different phenomenon than the one we understand as “homosexuality” today. What the Bible says about homosexuality is:

(Leviticus 18:22) “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.”

What it means in more modern terms is more or less this:

Two men having an anal intercourse is a bad thing, because if a man is penetrated by a penis that makes him a woman. A man becoming a woman, who is less of a human than a man, is a bad thing and a violation of a natural order. The natural order of things was established by God – therefore, anal intercourse between two men is an act of disobedience against God, and a sin.

Because women are unimportant, women having sex with each other are never mentioned. This isn’t because when the Bible says “man” it means “human”. Any such claims are ridiculous: in antiquity “man” meant “a non-foreigner who is male and who is not a slave”.

As in the example I provided, the process of constructing a typical “literal” fundamentalist interpretation looks more or less like that:

A. Picking the parts of modern ideology fundamentalists disagree with and want to fight against; this will be the things that they consider to be the biggest threat to the traditional, idealised way of life.

B. Re-defining them in modern terms and decontextualisation: they’re taking a stance against modernity not by ignoring or rejecting it but by actively opposing it; this paradoxically makes it necessary that modern terminology and vocabulary be included, at least as a point of reference.

C. Making a list of the things selected in B; this will be the list of fundamentals, the things that are especially important and interpreted “literally”, according to the members of the fundamentalist religion. As mentioned above, parts of the holy text that could be considered a threat to the literal interpretation of the fundamentals will be interpreted metaphorically, often with the help of seemingly sophisticated theology, which however will in the end be only the tool in the hands of a above-all anti-modern movement.

It’s extremely irritating to see atheist activists and sceptics being deceived by the claims fundamentalists make about their interpretations being literal. It’s quite certain that many of them sincerely believe that this is the case, this however, is not a sufficient reason to take them at face value; in fact, any sort of self-report, or claim about ideology someone is invested in should undergo a thorough scrutiny.

ETA: fixed typos ^^;;;;;;;;;;;

(1) Obviously, I will be only writing about the fundamentalisms that have holy text that are considered to be the word of the relevant god, and important because of it. However, it should be clear that not for all fundamentalisms, just for religions, the existence of such a holy text is necessary: a good example would be the Buddhist fundamentalism in Sri Lanka, or various Hindu fundamentalisms (this of course doesn’t mean they’re not using any texts at all, only that those texts are not considered to be the word of god(s) and consequently their interpretation and analysis is not accorded such a great importance as in the case of, for instance, Christianity or Islam).

A couple of days ago, I saw Dan’s post of a Ayaan Hirsi Ali video, in which she was explaining that the willingness of fundamentalists to kill people cannot be only blamed on their destitute situation (for two reasons: 1. not all of the fundamentalists who become terrorists are poor, 2. not all poor people become terrorists).

My immediate reaction was that of scoffing ‘well of course she’s right’, but actually I was  being overly dismissive again. Because that bad economic situation contributes to radicalization of many people’s political or religious beliefs is an intuition many people have, and one I would have had not so long ago.

(Fun fact: I feel I cannot any longer deny that I’m a learning machine. I tend to forget things like:

– paperwork,

– wallet,

– where I left the keys,

but I usually remember things like:

– when firefighting was nationalised in the UK (1865)

– where the wife of Salomon Maimon finally caught up with him, after he, to all intents and purposes, abandoned her with a child (Breslau)

– why a word with short vowels receives plene writing in Akkadian poetry sometimes (because it’s the accented part of a question).

I have a great memory, but my priorities are wrong, all wrong.

Another thing is: after learning a new thing I tend to immediately forget that there was a time I didn’t know it. A “new” information only stays “new” for a couple of hours or so.  Which is why everything always seems obvious-old-news all the time to me. Whence the dismissiveness.)


The intuition that “poverty causes people to become terrorists” is a bit true in that poverty may indeed spur a poor Pakistani political science graduate to join a fundamentalist organisation like Jamaat-e-Islami (it is now a more respectable political party) in hopes that it will lead to a creation of a just Islamic state, in which he or she would no longer be poor. The problem is that he or she has to believe in the just Islamic state and its power to make all wrongs right in the first place.

It is the quite obvious that poverty is not what causes fundamentalist movements to form. What happens instead is the following:

A  religion that was heretofore taken for granted is confronted with another (foreign, new, reformed) religion. As a result, the religion that to its believers appeared simply obvious and natural becomes the object of intense reflection  and deliberation, and is for the first time questioned. Eventually, the religion that was before natural and obvious, is defined, standardised and juxtaposed with the new or other or foreign religion.

This is in fact not just a religious phenomenon, it’s perfectly observable in culture and language (standardisation, anyone?). This is in fact  how people adapt to modernity or westernization.

Of course, many different concepts and definitions arise as the result of the reflection and deliberation process. Unless there is such a dominant power involved that could easily impose its own definitions, multiple definitions are allowed to exist. Some of them turn out to be fundamentalism.

If the new, or foreign, or other religion becomes, to put it succinctly, the evil twin of the newly-developed-old religion, we get fundamentalism.

A close observation of numerous movements allowed to create a definition of fundamentalism as having the following characteristics:

1. Moral absolutism

2. Manichaeism, understood as the belief that there is a continuous struggle of good and evil

3. Nativism (not always, propagated for instance in Sri Lanka, the belief that only a Buddhist Sinhalese is the real Sinhalese)

4. The sort of millenarism that presupposes that the believers will actively seek the overthrowing of the existing order, being fundamentally opposed to it (see moral absolutism). If a secular state can be  tolerated, we will only have a conservative, not fundamentalist movement. Often, the overthrowing of existing order is seen by fundamentalists as a restoration of mythical golden age.

5.  Claims of being the only true, pure version of a religion, other, more liberal versions being “tainted” by modernity, the Western influence, etc

6. But above all, the Enemy.  An  Enemy is something without which no fundamentalist movement can exist, because the enemy defines the fundamentalist movement and its goals by being everything it negates, despises and seeks to destroy. It’s the modernity, the secular society that tolerates multiple truths (see 1). Because the Enemy represents the absolute evil (1 and 2), it is all right to dehumanize the members enemy groups.  Fundamentalists from religions as traditionally pacifist as Buddhism advocate violence against their opponents (like Phra Kitthivuddho from Thailand, who argued that killing communists does not violate the Buddhist prohibition against killing sentient beings, because the communists are less than human).

The enemy must be eliminated; waiting for the respective higher power to mete out divine punishment and restore justice is not enough. A fundamentalists must actively strive to establish the divine order on earth.

Most fundamentalist movements appear in times of rapid societal change. This is not a coincidence: fundamentalism cannot exist without the Other.

I might write some more about different fundamentalisms in a couple of countries, later, if I have the time.

But I wouldn’t be very optimistic :<


(While I didn’t use any specific book while writing this post, I should mention that I’ve been reading a lot of stuff from the Fundamentalism Project, which you can find here, though I mostly focused on Fundamentalism Observed (while a bit obsolete, it is nonetheless a valuable resource). One of the first people who noticed the extent of puzzling similarities between various fundamentalisms is Martin Riesebrodt, especially in his book “Fundamentalismus als patriarchalische Protestbewegung. Amerikanische Protestanten (1910-1928) und iranische Schiiten (1961-1979) im Vergleich” aka Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran).

This is very easy.

A recipe, of you please:

1 homo sapiens

1 holy book

0.5 brain

What you do is:

First, you read a holy book, one that says “because of some issues regarding gender roles in our society, anal sex in which a man is penetrated by the other party (parties) is wrong”, and then conclude that “therefore, gay sex is wrong”, which you swiftly re-parse into “gay people are sinners”. You then proceed to empirically verify this hypothesis, and find it false. Gay people are not only not evil, as you expected them to be, but they are remarkably not altogether dissimilar to yourself(1). They have families, relationships, and sometimes even buy their books in the same online bookstore as you do. You may even realize that they like the same films you do. They might even drink the same brand of coffee as you do, provided you’re an insufferable coffee snob(2).


You then proceed, by a strange stroke of luck that mostly can be explained by somebody’s internalised homophobia, to become friends with some of the gay people who are morally inferior to you by default because of the fact of them engaging in  sexual intercourse that may involve a position explicitly forbidden in a very old book you once read(3). They are fun, and you like to hang round with them. They also suffer from internalised homophobia, so they have nothing against hanging round with a morally and intellectually bankrupt hypocritical bigot.

Anyway, will it lead you to revising your initial hypothesis? Not in the slightest bit.

You continue being the same bigot you were to start with, now with the added cognitive dissonance, and bonus self-recriminations of “why am I not disgusted by gay people, oh noez!”, and “am I being permissive???”.

This is how religion oppresses religious people, guys. They may realise there’s nothing wrong, empirically, with being gay, and yet! Old book says it’s wrong, therefore it is.

(via Dispatches from Culture Wars)

ETA: typos.

(1) Apart from, on the average, being less bigoted than you.

(2) I am!

(3) That is, if you read it at all.

1. Via a Camels with Hammers commenter:

John’s Scalzi’s trip to the Creation Pseumuseum + photos. The post includes delightful scatological imagery, such as this:

The guy who built the temple, satisfied that it truly represents his beloved load of horseshit in the best possible light, then opens the temple to the public, to attract not only the already-established horseshit enthusiasts, but possibly to entice new people to come and gaze on the horseshit, and to, well, who knows, admire its moundyness, or the way it piles just so, to nod in appreciation of the rationalizations for its excellence or to clap in delight and take pictures when an escaping swell of methane causes the load of horseshit to sigh a moist and pungent sigh.

Yes, please. I might have to pick up his books one day, after all.

Also, creationist commenters and their typically overblown dramatics:

274. John Scalzi on 13 Nov 2007 at 9:43 pm

“Re: the Ark and Dinosaurs isn’t big a deal when you realize that the DInosaurs didn’t have to be full grown to be on the Ark.”

I’m sorry, I’m getting the giggles again, here.

275. Joe on 13 Nov 2007 at 9:54 pm
John, to think, my mom told me I wasn’t funny. I guess she was wrong. Put a gun to my head and tell me to renounced Christianity or you’d shoot me…Pull the trigger because I am not doing that. It isn’t because I am me, I don’t like being shot at, it’s because I fear God, not man.

Heh heh. The evil Scalzi, shooting poor persecuted creationists in the head again. Which makes a little sense, after all, since it’s not like they use them all that much anyway. I bet he also had Christian-baby-porridge for breakfast!

(Commenter number 300 also claims that Scalzi is so mean, because he’s just like Ann Coulter, heh heh. Heh heh!)

(A few comments down, Joe also proudly announces that he 1) never met Pascal, 2) gambling’s not for him. I’d think TROLL TROLL TROLL, only Poe’s law)

Also, I’d like to maybe repeatedly emphasise that there are 101 photos. With captions. Go, now!

2. A truly bizarre article about the oppression of women in fundamentalist regimes. On the one hand, it raises several important points, on the other:

The use of women’s naked bodies to market commercial products in the West is merely another application of the idea that women are commodities. Anyone who visits the redlight district in Amsterdam can see for himself how wretched prostitutes, completely naked, are lined up behind glass windows so that passers-by can inspect their charms before agreeing on the price. Isn’t that a modern-day slave market, where women’s bodies are on sale to anyone willing to pay?

Yeah, right. Because being oppressed by men with political and religious power is just like deciding to be a sex-worker.

I’m not saying everything is legal and perfect in the blessed land of socialism and sexual permissiveness, and that there’s no human trafficking and that sort of stuff. It’s just that apples and oranges, dude.

What’s also quite disturbing is how women/feminists/activists who are supposedly against the sex industry and pornography for the sake of the women always end up blaming the sex-workers anyway, and not maybe suggesting the logical solution, which would be “so let’s convince people that paying for sex is uncool or something“. Because, seriously, demand and supply, dudes!

3. My Randroid special this week: how the Market (blessed be His name) works when nobody’s looking.

4. Twitter novel. The Japanese, of course, have been there first.

5. WTF is wrong with this dictionary? It should come with trigger warnings D:

6. Concordat Watch‘s got stuff on the creepiest of concordats out there. Like the one in Dominican Republic:

Back in 1954 the dictator, Trujillo, concluded a concordat with the Vatican which is still in force. On 11 July 2006 representatives of the Dominican Republic’s more than 1,600 Protestant churches filed an appeal against this concordat with the Dominican Supreme Court (SCJ). They claimed that it is unconstitutional. However, over two years later on 22 October 2008 the Supreme Court upheld the concordat. In its ruling it states that although the State assumes the obligation to teach the Catholic religion and moral education in elementary and secondary public schools, in no way prohibits that education by another religion in their establishments, nor has evidence been contributed that demonstrates that this has been prevented by virtue of what is agreed to in the Concordat.

No to mention the outrageous one in Cote d’Ivoire.

7. I’m reading MerodachBaladan‘s kudurru! Posts about Assyrian/Biblical propaganda coming soon, yay!

8. ALSO, I CAN HAS A LEXICAL LIST ZOMD. (They look like that, but mine is smaller and much harder on the eyes. Ow!)

A tourist witnessed a nun beating up a disabled child. He did what any decent person would do, which is to film everything and run to the nearest TV station*.

Here’s the video in which you can see the nun (first 30 seconds or so is the tourist talking about what he saw) beating up a kid.

Now, what happened after the nuns were confronted by angry journalists?

They said it was self-defense on the part of the nun (yeah, I’m not making this up), and she got some vacation. End of story. The local authorities also ignored all the complaints.


* This is completely unironic.

(Inspired by this post over at Camels With Hammers <3)

Many years ago, Alan Sokal epically owned stupid pomos* by submitting a ridiculous parody article* to their prized journal, Social Text. The article was titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. Its most characteristic features was that it was stupid, ridiculous and also completely idiotic as long as taken seriously.

When it was finally revealed that the article was a parody of pomo “thought”, all hell broke loose in the pomo virtual reality, and Sokal was  criticised by the numerous disgruntled pomos, who were, naturally, wounded to the core***.

Among the vapid and spurious criticisms of Sokal the stupidest was that “wah wah wah HE IS SO SMUUUUG“.

(By the way: I read Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax, but not his first book — yet. I too, thought he was rather full of himself. However:)

Allow me to enlighten you: he pwned the pomos* epically. It was a one-in-a-hundred-years, Iliad-scale epic pwnage. Probably no one will get to pwn anybody like that for years, if ever.  It was awesome. It was spectacular. It was effective.

Therefore, Sokal has a right to be smug.

As a matter of fact, I think that fake modesty, and the emphasis on not being smug or even a little bit proud of one’s accomplishments has a lot to do with that sort of Christianity that was pervasive in Europe and beyond for a long long time, and in which one is never allowed to feel good about oneself, basically.

(A somewhat traumatising**** exchange between Sendai A and her grandmother, when Sendai A was a little kidlet, and her grandmother was still alive:

Sendai A: Look! Look! Look what a pretty princess I sculpted in clay, getting the whole room dirty and clayey in the process! Even the curtains! And so what if it doesn’t look like a humanoid, least of all a princess, I SCULPTED IT YAY! SHINY!*****

Grandmother: Yes, it’s pretty.

Sendai A: IT IS ISN’T IT!

Grandmother: But don’t be so full of yourself. If it weren’t for the talent given to you by God****** you wouldn’t be able to sculpt princesses, or maybe even move your hands and legs or speak. You should pray and say thanks more often.

Sendai A: Whaaaa???

Suffice it to say, the relations became somewhat strained between me and the grandmother since then, until she realised she can’t stop neither me from, um, being me, nor my parents from “worshipping the devil and bowing to the idols”******.)

But I digress.

The thing is, when you do something as epic as Sokal, you are entitled to feeling smug. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  We’re  entitled to feel good about ourselves when we do something well. We’re entitled to feel good about our accomplishments.

The ridiculous emphasis on always playing down anything you do in western culture is intrinsically bound to the concept of always being grateful for imaginary help to an imaginary bearded sky-fairy. We don’t need that, guys. This might be also why, at least in my experience, the accusations of  smugness usually come from the Xian, right-wing side of an argument*******.

Not to mention that if you consider the accusation of smugness in your opponent a valid argument, interesting things are bound to come up, like here:

They’re really charming, aren’t they? It is as if everything arrogant about the academy and everything sneering about cable news culture is combined into one big snarky smugfest.

And a few lines later:

Maybe they will remind people that between these atheist bigots and these fundamentalist bigots, the appeal of the Christianity of the Gospels shines like the sun (emphasis mine)

Or not, really.

(Naturally, swiftly followed by a nonapology. Classy, Andrew Sullivan, really classy. But then, I guess you’re just a smug theist engaging in a typical smug theist snarkfest, huh?)

(Also: not agreeing with Andrew Sullivan is bigotry now? Good one. Almost had me there. Awesome trolling!)

* postmodernists.

** OMD I read it, so I know. It makes you head all achey when you realise that at least 20 people must have thought it was a brilliant idea to publish it. Ow! (I do realise Social Text had no peer review policy at that time. Yet, somebody had to read and approve, so.)

*** Fortunately, confirmation bias and complete ignorance saved them from the uncomfortable necessity of revising their views in such a way that they conform to reality or any such nonsense.

**** For both participants, not the reader.

***** Obviously, I haven’t changed at all since then.

****** She might have said “the Holy Spirit”. Batshit Catholic theology is not my area of expertise.

****** My parents are Buddhists.

******* Apart from the pomos*. They’re a separate wing all on their own.