Nuance is hard (cont’d.)

Rabia Chaudry offers a liberal Muslim perspective in response to Bill Maher.

Putting aside the unavoidable optics and dynamics of a conversation about Islam that excluded Muslims (oh, and women too), it’s vital to point out what Maher seems to be missing: the absolute inefficacy of an argument that he could win only if 1.6 billion people suddenly decided to abandon [their] religion….
Under Maher’s construct, Islam itself is the culprit. It’s not an issue of terrible Muslims, it’s an issue of a terrible system, or as he put it “the motherload of bad ideas.” As if racial equality, women’s rights, social justice, charity, minority protections, and the avoidance of conflict were ideas generated in the liberalized West that Islam missed completely 1,400 years ago. To those of us who are countering social and political ills using Islam as our authority and foundation, Maher’s understanding of Islam is not just profoundly myopic, it is dangerous and hurts our work….
Likewise, as Maher and others step up attacks on Islam, it feeds directly into the narratives used by terrorists and extremists abroad to justify attacks on any Muslim person or institution seen as a Western apologist. Those of us who firmly believe that “liberal” Western values are part and parcel of Islam are viewed as apostates by extremists, and Maher is evidence that Islam is indeed under attack by the West.

Getting it backwards

What’s wrong with religion isn’t religion; what’s wrong with religion is people. Or, more precisely, what’s wrong with religion is people doing religion really badly.

One sentence wonders

Calvin and Hobbes - Academic Writing

Distilling an MA thesis or PhD dissertation down to a two or three hundred word abstract is difficult enough. But this … this is the academic equivalent of the technical skill required to compose a really memorable Very Very Short Story, combined with a steely resolve for Truth In Advertising. Go to and see for yourself what a timesink it is, with gems like

It usually helps when people take their medicine.
Social Work, WCU
“Remote Medication Management Systems: Potential Benefits for Polypharmacy and Rural Populations”


Powerful people want your personal data because $$$.
Sociology, San Diego State University
“The Surveillance Network”

and my current personal favorite,

Sometimes when people don’t say things, they don’t say things differently.
Linguistics, University of California, Santa Cruz
“Beyond Deep and Surface: Explorations in the Typology of Anaphora”

Nuance is hard.

The Bulletin for the Study of Religion‘s current Religion Snapshots focuses on Reza Aslan’s recent interview on CNN, offering four points of view on how he did there. The discussion between Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher on the Oct. 3, 2014 episode of Maher’s HBO show Real Time covers a good bit of the same territory.

One of the most important things that both Aslan and Harris bring to public discourse about religion in these clips, precisely in their role as scholars of Religious Studies, is concern for nuance. Even scholars have their own blind spots, of course, as both of them clearly do (that Female Genital Mutilation is an African, not a Muslim, problem, e.g., or that Islam is the “motherload of bad ideas”), but their significant contribution, as I see it, in this pair of media discussions about Islam, is the argument that we need to guard against reifying Islam (or any religion, for that matter), that what tends to be missing from public discourse about religion is nuance.

Islam isn’t ever Just One Thing. It isn’t even a thing; no religion is. What Islam is, is particular sets of practices and beliefs that the people doing them regard as Islamic, and these sets differ considerably across time and territory (however much they have in common in terms of sources of authority: Qur’an, Hadith, consensus, analogy, etc). It’s no good saying “All Muslims believe/do X” or claiming that “X is what real Muslims believe/do”; somewhere there will always be a significant population of Muslims you’re ignoring who won’t toe that line.

Aslan arguing that we’re better off distinguishing between, say, Saudi and Indonesian or Turkish and Iranian ways of doing Islam is one way of bringing nuance into the discussion. Sure, “most Muslims” “believe in” “Shari’a law”; but what counts as Shari’a differs from time to time and place to place. Consider that, strictly speaking, only about 350 of the Qur’an’s 6,236 ayat/verses explicitly deal with legal issues; scripture hardly offers a complete, self-contained legal system: hence the need for interpretation and extension via Hadith, consensus, analogy, etc. Much of what might count in some places as Shari’a (FGM, e.g., or honor killing) is in fact quite arguably only nominally Islamic (where is the justification in the Qur’an and Hadith, e.g.?), if at all.

Harris arguing statistics, that X percent of Muslims are violent extremists, X percent are various shades of fundamentalist/conservative (some more sympathetic/supportive of violent extremism than others), X percent are only nominally Muslim, X percent are liberal/progressive, is another way of bringing in nuance. Sure, statistically, a much larger percentage of the Muslim than the Christian world certainly continues to be what most Americans would call fundamentalist (=anti-intellectual, anti-modernist, anti-secularist, not to mention anti-Western and post-colonialist). And sure, historically, fideism and anti-rationalism have dominated Muslim thinking pretty much across the board since the demise of Islamic philosophy and science with the Abbasid Caliphate back in the 13th century, only partially compensated by the rise of Muslim progressivism since the 19th century. Still, to argue that what the majority of Muslims believe counts as some kind of gold standard would be like arguing that Roman Catholics are the standard by which to judge all Christians because there happen to be more of them. Quakers and Mormons and Baptists will beg to differ. Clearly, Islam is many things, but one thing it is not is Just One Thing. No religion is.

No religion is inherently violent or peaceful (there are Buddhist terrorists in Myanmar, for crying out loud!). Rather, violent or peaceful people do religion in violent or peaceful ways, with whatever resources they happen to find at hand. Of course statistically any given religion’s population may trend more or less toward political conservatism or liberalism, acceptance or suspicion of secular/modernist culture, rationalism or anti-intellectualism, etc. Even so, significant differences will always continue to defy reification, and helping to keep things grounded in What People Actually Do by pointing this out from time to time is an essential part of the role of Religious Studies scholars in public discourse about religion.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

Shades Of Amy Winehouse …

Homo narrans

“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our days’ events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths.”

– Reynolds Price, “A Single Meaning: Notes on the Origins and Life of Narrative” in A Palpable God (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 3-46: 3.

“[S]tory is for a human as water is for a fish.”

– Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Boston: Mariner Books, 2012) xiv.

Religion Video of the Day

Moses: action figure edition.

Jesus mythicism

Did Jesus exist? I had never seriously considered the question before (of course he existed!), until getting swept up in a heated conversation about it in a discussion thread on Facebook. And then articles like this one and this one and this one kept showing up in such an untimely manner Right Where I Could See Them. So I gave in and decided to do some catching up on the subject, and at this point—somewhere in the neighborhood of halfway, if that, through all the reading I ever plan to do on it (for the time being, if I can help it)—I have to say that I’m not any more impressed with the scholarship against the historical existence of Jesus than I was with the scholarship for the existence of planet Nibiru as the alien source of ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations that my students so enthusiastically brought to my attention back when I was teaching a course in Ancient Near Eastern Literature several years ago, which I also wasted more time than I care to admit vetting ( but h/t to Zecharia Sitchin for making it at least entertaining).

Why? I’ll make just this one point for now, and save others for later: “mythical” is not the opposite of “historical”. No Religious Studies scholar with any crediblity uses “myth” to mean “falsehood”. In Religious Studies, to be sure, mythology (like other seminal terms) is always already also a contested term, but the obvious meaning of “myth” in the title of that culturally iconic TV show “Mythbusters” isn’t even in the running. Mythology is, like art, aesthetics, language, and ritual, a complex symbol system for the social and cultural construction of meaning. If you want to make a start toward understanding what mythology is, you might do worse than with the vivid illustration of it provided by this episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (in lieu of the full episode, these YouTube excerpts from “Darmok” (season 5, episode 2) will have to do) …

In short, and in general, a myth is a traditional story that tells us something true about the way things are (from our cultural perspective, that is). Euhemerism, allegory, personalism, pseudo-science, etc., are various ultimately unsuccessful attempts to explain the origins of myth, and I’m going to have to add the historicism (!) of Jesus mythicism—weaving various mythic topoi together to invent a pseudo-historical figure to embody them, essentially the polar opposite of Euhemerism—to this list as well. What myths are, instead, is axiological: they concern what we value (and what we don’t), what we regard as virtues (and what we don’t). The kinds of stories we tell about ourselves (and others) influence the (cultural, personal, social) values we hold dear; and the (cultural, personal, social) values we hold dear influence, in turn, the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves (and others). This reciprocal relationship between narrative and life is essential to human social being, and is less relevant to the question of the existence of Jesus than it is to the question of the meaning of Jesus as a figure in history.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

Even at second hand …

How’s your religious literacy? (cont’d.)

Although it’s four years old already (ancient in terms of news cycles these days), the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey is still making waves. Montclair State University sociologist Jay Livingston offers an explanation for why Atheists/Agnostics, Jews, and Mormons all performed better on the survey than Christians.

(h/t to The Dish for the link)

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