Category Archives: Philosophy

Noah’s Flood, and how to talk to creationists about it

“Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren” Saint Augustine of Hippo, Commentary on Genesis, ca. 400 AD

How do you discuss evolution and Earth science with biblical creationists, in such a way as to lead them to question their beliefs, rather than digging in deeper? This is the central problem for the book that I am now at last writing, and I would greatly value comments.

If we want to engage biblical literalists in meaningful discussion, we need to use arguments that make sense from the literalists’ point of view. As Lakatos pointed out, scientists will not abandon a position, despite anomalies, until a more satisfactory one is offered. Why should the creationist be any different? It is not enough to point to the scientific evidence. It is not even enough to point out that Noah’s Flood, using biblical chronology, would have come just in time to drown the pyramid-builders. We need to do more than simply raise objections. We must offer a better alternative, better, that is, on the creationist’s terms, emotionally and spiritually. Such an alternative, I argue, is what emerges from textual and historical analysis.

It helps, I think, to dispel the myth that religious belief requires belief in a young Earth, and the rejection of evolution, and one way of doing this is to point out that most religious believers, in the West at least, do accept, and have contributed to, the science. Since the early 19th Century, biblical believers have been among prominent proponents of scientific geology and, later, of evolution. Most Christians belong to denominations that accept the fact of evolution, and there is an organisation, the Clergy Letter Project, dedicated to the celebration of evolution as part of God’s handiwork, a position sometimes referred to as theistic evolution. There are organisations, such as the American Scientific Association, devoted to accommodating religious beliefs to the science, and a large literature on the subject. Creationists, however, are either unaware of this activity, or reject it as incompatible with their more fundamental beliefs.

The creationist argument is simple: the Bible (including in particular Genesis) is the word of God, God tells the truth, therefore the Bible is true. What could be wrong with that, from the point of view of the believer?


However inspired the writers of Genesis may have been, they were of necessity people of their own times, expressing themselves within their own cultural context. This is hardly a novel observation. It goes back at least to Maimonides, 12th Century biblical commentator and philosopher.

And what a context! The Old Testament text itself refers to many books that are now lost to us. The biblical Flood narrative itself shows signs of being formed from the welding together of two separate accounts written from different viewpoints, while its literary antecedents, and the antecedents of numerous other biblical passages, go back long before the date ascribed to Moses.

File:Sargon of Akkad.jpg

Bronze head of Sargon(?), unearthed at Nineveh. Public domain via Wikipedia

You are probably familiar with the story of Moses in the bulrushes, and may have wondered where on earth it came from. Here’s your answer. It is a direct echo of the story of Sargon of Akkad (2270 – 2215 BCE). Sargon’s mother, he tells us, was a priestess, and therefore had no business having children. So she made him a reed basket sealed with bitumen, and placed him in the river, from which he was rescued by a farmer drawing water.

Consider also the Code of Hammurabi, around 1754 BC. This code, and many subsequent cuneiform tablets, resemble in their “If a man…” format the codes of Exodus and Deuteronomy, including the notorious “an eye for an eye”, which the Jews by rabbinical times had reinterpreted as a right to financial compensation for injury. And the part-mythical, part-historical Sumerian Kings List (ca. 2000 BCE) assigns enormously long lives of the pre-Flood rulers, as Genesis does to its pre-Flood patriarchs.



F0182 Louvre Code Hammourabi Bas-relief Sb8 rwk.jpg

Hammurabi receiving insignia from a seated god (Shamash, the Sun God, or Marduk); from Louvre stele of the Code, ca. 1750 – 1790 BCE. Image Mbtz own work via Wikipedia

The Flood story itself exists in numerous versions, the oldest ones known to us being the Sumerian Flood of Ziusudra and the Old Babylonian (Akkadian) of Atrahasis, from around 1600 BCE, although the story may by then already have been ancient. We should also remember that our cuneiform libraries are sadly incomplete, and in several key texts the ending is missing. Even so, the resemblance is clear, and sometimes extends to specific details. On one Old Babylonian tablet, the god who warns Atrahasis says that he will send him the animals to wait at his door to be rescued. Compare Genesis 6:20, where two of every sort will come of their own accord to Noah, thus answering the question of how he would have been able to round them all up. The same tablet even uses the expression “two by two”, as in Genesis 7:9, as does another recently translated tablet, the “Ark tablet” from around 1750 BCE, that shows the Ark as an enormous coracle.

Coracle on the Tigris in Baghdad, 1914. Freddy Khalastchy via Wikipedia

Closest to the biblical account among the surviving materials is the story of Utnapishtim, embedded in the Assyrian Epic of Gilgamesh, which I finally got around to reading this year. part of the great library of Ashur-bani-pal that was buried in the wreckage of Nineveh when that city was sacked by the Babylonians and their allies in 612 BCE. Gilgamesh is a surprisingly modern hero. As King, he accomplishes mighty deeds, including gaining access to the timber required for his building plans by overcoming the guardian of the forest. But this victory comes at a cost; his beloved friend Enkidu opens by hand the gate to the forest when he should have smashed his way in with his axe. This seemingly minor lapse, like Moses’ minor lapse in striking the rock when he should have spoken to it, proves fatal.

Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh, unable to accept this fact, sets out in search of the secret of immortality, only to learn that there is no such thing. He does bring back from his journey a youth-restoring herb, but at the last moment even this is stolen from him by a snake when he turns aside to bathe. In due course, he dies, mourned by his subjects and surrounded by a grieving family, but despite his many successes, what remains with us is his deep disappointment. He has not managed to accomplish what he set out to do.

On his journey, Gilgamesh meets the one man who has achieved immortality, Utnapishtim, survivor of a flood remarkably similar, even in its details, to the Flood in the Bible. This includes the central figure acting on orders from a god, taking samples of all living things into the Ark, sealing it watertight with pitch (which is abundant in Mesopotamia), sending birds out of the Ark to test for dry land when, after the flood, it runs aground, and offering up sacrifice on emergence. In Genesis, famously, we have God pointing to the rainbow as a sign that He will never again bring on a universal flood. In the parallel passage in Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar displays her bejewelled necklace and says that she will never forget this time. There is a final element in Gilgamesh that is completely absent in Genesis. Enlil, who was primarily responsible for the Flood, is persuaded by the other gods that he has rather overdone it, goes down into the Ark, takes Utnapishtim and his wife by the hand, and grants them eternal life. (In Genesis, you may recall, Noah goes and gets drunk.)

One dramatic difference between the Genesis story and its Mesopotamian precursors is the length of the Flood; a year, rather than a few days. Another is the shape and composition of the Ark, which changes from a round coracle woven from reeds in Atrahasis to square planking in Gilgamesh to a giant gopher wood longboat in Genesis, although one feature (the use of pitch for waterproofing) remains constant throughout. Then there is the reason for the Flood. In Gilgamesh, none is given, but in other versions we are told that the gods, and especially the ill-tempered and arbitrary Enlil, think that humankind is making too much noise for their comfort.1 The gods are, among other things, personifications of natural forces, and Enlil as sky god is responsible for storms. In Genesis, humankind is destroyed, by the God who created them, because they deserve it. We can debate the relative merits and degree of realism of these two approaches.

Schoolroom cuneiform tablet, Babylon, describing Baby Sargon in his cradle. From Finkel, p. 254

From very early times, the Israelites must have been familiar with the literature of their powerful neighbours to the East. They would certainly have come into contact with it during the Babylonian Exile. The Book of Daniel tells us (and why should we not believe it?) that selected Judaean youth were given three-year courses in Babylonian language and literature, during which provision was made for their food and wine. A university education, complete with maintenance grant! And we know from the recovered debris of Babylonian schoolrooms that the King List, Sargon, and Gilgamesh were part of the curriculum.

Other interesting things were happening in Babylon around this time. One remarkable tablet seems to describe all the other gods as attributes of Marduk, the god particularly associated with Babylon. So we are told that Urush is Marduk of planting, Nergal is Marduk of battle, Nabu is Marduk of accountancy, and so on through a total of 14 equivalences. If Marduk-worship really was moving in the direction of monotheism, this might help explain the puzzling fact that the Jewish hero of the book of Esther is called Mordechai.

The Flood story may have entered what was to become the Jewish tradition more than once, and from subtly varying sources. The Genesis account gives the strong impression of being the fusion of two slightly inconsistent narratives, using different ways of referring to God.2 One of these has Noah taking one pair of each kind into the Ark, while the latter has him take in seven pairs of clean animals, presumably in order to have some available for sacrificing, or perhaps to restore agriculture after the Flood. The degree of distinctiveness of these two narratives, and their dates of composition, remain fertile areas for study and debate.

Thus, placed in context, the Flood story fits into a picture of intellectual and spiritual ferment as people, and peoples, develop their descriptions of the Deity. By contrast, the doctrine of verbal infallibility offers nothing but a single sterile rootless revelation. Genesis deserves better.

The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the FloodSources: This piece was triggered by reading Sanders’ 1960 translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Reading this sent me back to Genesis, and hence to two other books, The Bible [actually, just the Pentateuch] with Sources Revealed,   by Friedman, and The Ark Before Noah,  by Finkel. Friedman is Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, while Finkel is curator of the British Museum’s collection of cuneiform tablets. Most of the material here derives from these two sources.

1] Sandars interpolated this reason from the Atrahasis Flood story into her translation of Gilgamesh; see her introduction for details.

2] Some readers will recognise these as P (in some authors, E) and J respectively, two of the four sources proposed in the Documentary Hypothesis, for which Friedman lays out the evidence in the work already mentioned and, at greater length, in Who Wrote the Bible?  For a powerfully dissenting view, however, see Rendsburg, “The Biblical Flood story in the light of the Gilgamesh Flood account,” in Gilgamesh and the world of Assyria, Azize, J & Weeks, N., Peeters, 2007, p. 117, open access here (Publication 119), and How the Bible Is Written (scheduled for 2019).

Maimonides image via O Jardim de Epicuro. I would welcome information about its source. I thank Professor Gary Rendsburg for helpful correspondence and access to unpublished material. Some of the material in this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily

Read the rest of this entry

Can Curiosity Kill The Sciences?

I am in the middle of a series of posts about scientific method, so this seemed very much to the point. especially, how to avoid acting like a Doctor Authority Figure Type (DAFT), while still defending the value of expert evidence over anecdote (and, I would add, over ideology)?

The Grumpy Geophysicist

There’s a book out there that seems to be attracting lots of lightning bolts (Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!).  GG is not interested in reading or discussing that, per se. It sounds as though logic and empirical observation got confused in there (they are not the same). What got his attention was one of the responses by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who essentially argues that smugness by those who purport to know better will stifle real science. The nub of the argument is in this quote:

I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: If you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the…

View original post 1,180 more words

In praise of fallibility; why science needs philosophy, with examples from astronomy and chemistry

[Adapted from 3 Quarks Daily] More recent strata lie on top of older strata, except when they lie beneath them. Radiometric dates obtained by different methods always agree, except when they differ.  And the planets in their courses obey Newton’s laws of gravity and motion, except when they depart from them.

As Isaac Asimov reportedly said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ [I have found it], but ‘That’s funny …’ ” And there is nothing that distinguishes so clearly between the scientific and the dogmatic mindset as the response to anomalies. For the dogmatist, the anomaly is a “gotcha”, proof that the theory under consideration is, quite simply, wrong. For the scientist, it is an opportunity. If an idea is generally useful, but occasionally breaks down, something unusual is going on and it’s worth finding out what. The dogmatist wants to see questions closed, where the scientist wants to keep them open. This is perhaps why the creationist denial of science can often be found among those professions that seek decision and closure, such as law and theology.

The rights and wrongs of falsification

Karl Popper

Karl Popper (LSE Library photo, 1980s)

Dogmatists regularly invoke the name of Karl Popper, and the work he did in the 1930s. Popper placed heavy emphasis on falsifiability, denouncing as unscientific any doctrine that could not be falsified. Freud’s theories, for example, Read the rest of this entry

The “scientific method”, a needless stumbling block. With a note on falsification

Science does not have a separate special method for learning about the world, the “scientific method” as taught in schools is a damaging illusion, and the falsifiability criterion has itself been falsified

Below, R: How not to; “The Scientific Method”, as inflicted on Science Fair participants. Click to enlarge

Consider this, from a justly esteemed chemistry text:

Scientists are always on the lookout for patterns.… Once they have detected patterns, scientists develop hypotheses… After formulating a hypotheses, scientists design further experiments [emphasis in original]

Or this, from a very recent post to a popular website:

The scientific method in a nutshell:
1. Ask a question
2. Do background research
3. Construct a hypothesis
4. Test your hypothesis by doing experiments
5. Analyze your data and draw conclusions
6. Communicate your results [emphasis in original]

Then, if you find yourself nodding in agreement, consider this:

Since a scientific theory, by definition, must be testable by repeatable observations and must be capable of being falsified if indeed it were false, a scientific theory can only attempt to explain processes and events that are presently occurring repeatedly within our observations. Theories about history, although interesting and often fruitful, are not scientific theories, even though they may be related to other theories which do fulfill the criteria of a scientific theory.

If you are familiar with the creation-evolution “controversy”, you may well suspect that last example of being so much creationist waffle, intended to discredit the whole of present-day geology and evolutionary biology. And you would be right. This quotation is from Duane Gish, a major figure in the twentieth century revival of biblical literalist creationism, writing for the Institute of Creation Research.1

L: Mike Pence, ” [N]ow that we have recognised evolution as a theory… can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species?”

Such nonsense isn’t funny any more, if it ever was. The man who may very soon find himself President of the United States is an eloquent spokesman for creationism.

And yet Gish’s remarks seem to follow from the view of science put forward in the first two excerpts. What has gone wrong here? Practically everything. Read the rest of this entry

Socrates is still mortal, but fallacies aren’t fallacious

Updated repost of The Fallacy Fork and the Limits of Logic, at 3 Quarks Daily

No quiet moment; Theresa May calls snap UK election (BBC)

I had been waiting for a quiet moment to write about this, but there isn’t going to be a quiet moment, so now will have to do. [Update: these words went up on 3 Quarks Daily last Monday. On the Tuesday, Theresa May called a snap UK General election]

Debaters regularly accuse their opponents of using fallacies. These can be formal fallacies, such as simple errors of logic, or informal fallacies, such as appeal to authority, ad hominem and strawman arguments, among others. If a piece of reasoning depends on any of these fallacies, so it is claimed, the conclusion does not really follow from the premises, and while it might still be true we have not been given any good reason to believe it.1 And so books that discuss logic, and science-promoting blogs (including one I follow), regularly include descriptions of informal fallacies, with stern instructions to avoid committing them.

Sagan warns us against fallacies. But is exposing fallacies enough to shield us from the demons?

In an article entitled The Fake, the Flimsy, and the Fallacious: Demarcating Arguments in Real Life, Maarten Boudry, Fabio Paglieri and Massimo Pigliucci (henceforth BPP) challenge this view. BPP is written for the perusal of trained philosophers, which I am not, but I use it here as a jumping off point, while mixing in further content of my own. (For a discussion by one of the original authors, see here.)

BPP apply what they call the fallacy fork test to accusations of informal fallacy; either the reasoning is obviously erroneous, in which case no one would really use it, or else it is not obviously erroneous in context, and we still have all the work to do. In the first case, formal analysis is redundant; in the second, the facts of the matter need further consideration. Read the rest of this entry

Socrates: ancient Humanist? (reblogged from Footnotes to Plato)

If you want to know more about Socrates, or Humanism, or anything else that really matters, this is for you.

And the horns of Euthyphro’s Dilemma, described here, are as sharp as ever. This morning, February 2nd, a committee of the Scottish Parliament is considering the Scottish Secular Society petition for the removal of the church representatives who sit, immune from electoral scrutiny, on Scottish Local Education Authority Committees. Defenders of the status quo argue that they have an important role to play in transmitting Christian values. The petition (which I helped write) argues that if a value is specifically Christian, it will not necessarily be shared by the non-Christians who now form a majority among young Scots, while if it is not specifically Christian, we do not need a church representative to instruct us in it. The derivation from Euthyphro is obvious.

More on the petition on this blog and on the Parliamentary website. Updates as available. Massimo Pigliucci’s essay, below, speaks for itself, and I am flattered that he approves the use that the petition made of Socrates’ argument.

Footnotes to Plato

MNR-Socrate Socrates, Roman National Museum, photo by the Author

As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).

View original post 3,777 more words

The Church, education, and “Christian values”; another bad reason for denying democracy

Reminder: there is still time to show support for our petition to abolish Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees; just click here and fill in your details

Summary: Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

The Churches refer to “Christian values”, in order to justify their uninvited presence on Council Education Committees. Like other reasons offered (see earlier post), this one repays closer examination.

The Church of Scotland enjoins its appointees to assert their presence  “by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools”. I have already discussed the implications for the curriculum and for religious and moral education and religious observance. Here I would like to concentrate on the concept of Christian values, and, indeed, religious values in general. Read the rest of this entry

You don’t really know your mind, or do you?

Reblogged from Plato’s footnote; a partial corrective to my own pessimism.

I commented, we ignore uncomfortable knowledge about our own minds, but then we ignore a lot of uncmfortable knowledge. But it is possible to be unconsciously influenced by a bias that one rationally reects, which is why orchestras audition beind screens to conceal the gender of the performer.

Footnotes to Plato

Recent psychological research has been interpreted as casting serious doubts on many crucial aspects of the human experience: that we have “free will” (it’s complicated, hence the scare quotes), that we are at the least capable of rational thinking, and even that we are conscious. Indeed, it has become both fashionable and a bit of a cottage industry to “show,” scientific data in hand, that all those facets of mentation simply do not exist, they are illusions, figments of our imagination (though nobody has really provided an account of why on earth we have them, as metabolically costly as the apparatus that makes them possible is). All of this, of course, despite the staggering crisis in the replicability of results from psychology, which ought to make anyone reading anything in that field a bit cautious before agreeing that we are lumbering rationalizing and self-deluded robots.

View original post 1,123 more words

9 questions atheists find insulting? Bollocks

No one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts

I’m an atheist, and I’m feeling insulted

Greta_Christina_at_SkepticonInsulted by Greta Christina’s article, “9 Answers to Common Questions for Atheists – So You Don’t Insult Us By Asking”, Insulted by the condescending and preachy answers offered on my behalf. Insulted that the author presumes to speak on my behalf at all, as if she were the privileged custodian of some kind of atheist credo. But above all, insulted by the suggestion that I am so intellectually fragile as to find the questions insulting.

For an atheist – correction, for me as an atheist, since I have no mandate to speak for others – it is a matter of deep principle that all questions and (unless there is reason to do otherwise) all questioners should be treated with respect. This is one of the ways in which, as I see it, atheism is morally superior to many kinds of religion, in which even asking certain questions is regarded as sinful, or even blasphemous.

Why am I discussing this?

Read the rest of this entry

Islam Evolving, by Taner Edis, Prometheus Books, June 2016

Cover(Reposted from 3 Quarks Daily)  This is an excellent review of an important but difficult subject, and a welcome change from the ill-informed bluster of a Sam Harris,* or the limp apologetics of a Karen Armstrong. It is the work of an author who is exceptionally well placed to appreciate the context of the mass of information on which he draws. Lucidly written, it is also a work of broad scholarship (there are more than 500 references and footnotes), and provides an overview of one of the most important developments of our times. Overall, it is a much-needed corrective to the popular view that these times are particularly violent, and that the roots of this violence lie within Islam.

It is also a very disturbing book, and I mean that as a compliment. While fully committed to secular Enlightenment values, Edis recognises that this cannot be the starting position in any worthwhile discussion of committed Islam. Secularism is neither historically inevitable, nor a logical necessity, nor a moral imperative. In his native Turkey, for example, secularism was the founding principle of the modern State, but has lost out to an Islamic pious modernity, whose advocates cannot simply be dismissed as deluded or wicked. Secularism cannot claim to be the more democratic option, where it is not what people would prefer. The secular ideal of rule of an impartial law is not neutral, since it places judges, members of the power elite, as arbiters. Moreover, Edis turns a critical searchlight on the ostensively secular United States, where he now lives and works, finds echoes there of much of what concerns him about Islam today, and challenges the West’s air of injured innocence in the face of violence. Ultimately, he regards Islam as a far smaller peril than a rampant neoliberalism that values individuals only as producers and consumers, sells political influence to the highest bidder, and still sponsors the denial of the world’s most urgent problem, global warming. He shows how the rhetoric of the “war on terror” is used, in the West as in his native Turkey, to suppress dissent, and is contemptuous of how western defenders of freedom have accepted the facile and counterfactual narrative of an inherently violent Islam. Most disturbing of all, he critically examines his own Enlightenment assumptions, which his readers, and mine, will generally take for granted. For instance, why do we regard free speech as good? To what extent do our own institutions follow this ideal in practice? And should we not be more aware of the degree of coercion implicit in our own social order?

Taner Edis is a Turkish-American professor of physics. He is also a philosopher, having published highly technical material with Maarten Boudry of the Ghent school of critical analysis, and he manages to bring a philosophical evenhandedness to a worldview as far as possible from his own naturalism. He repeatedly argues that secular liberals need to be more critical of their own positions. Secularist emphasis on the freedom of the individual has left us without defence against the excesses of neoliberalism and the realities of the economic power that has usurped political power. There is much to be learnt by examining thoughtful Muslim alternatives, and indeed, if we are not prepared to learn, there is little point even in discussion.

His parental family were freethinkers, so that his position towards Islam has always been that of the concerned outsider, but one who seeks productive ways of engaging with believers. His earlier books include The Ghost in the Universe (2002), in which he contrasts supernaturalism and naturalism, and discusses critically how his preference for the latter can be justified, and An Illusion of Harmony (2007), concerning the ways in which the Muslim world has reacted to the challenge of scientific modernity.

The present volume pursues these themes in a time where the questions raised have acquired a new urgency. There are times when I would have liked more specific details (how, for example, was Turkey, our ostensive ally, encouraging radical Islamist factions in the Syrian civil war?), but perhaps this would have led to a much longer book. Even as it is, it is not possible to do justice here to the author’s detailed arguments, and what follows is an amalgam of some of his main points, and my own responses.

The first chapter is entitled “Varieties of Islamic experience”, and I was surprised to learn how varied these experiences are. As well as Sunni and Shia, we have, among others, Alevi (mainly in Turkey) and Ahmadis, whose right to call themselves Muslims is contested (I would add the Alawis whose presence greatly complicates Syria’s current civil wars). Islam can also be linked to national identity, as Shi’ism is to Iranian nationalism, a fact with delicate consequences for Iraq and the other Gulf states.

Next, Edis discusses the special position of the Quran. This is a difficult book, written in the now-archaic Arabic of its time, and with no clear structural or chronological order. Nonetheless, Muslims bestow on it an authority that only the most conservative of Jews or Christians grant the Bible. Part of this enduring appeal of the Quran, Edis argues, is due to its powerful affirmations of monotheism, and to its concern for social justice.

The text of the Quran jumps about, its literary style is inconsistent, and its cosmology, referring to 7 heavens, was already centuries out of date when it was written. Its relationship to the accepted version of the early history of Islam is unclear, and relies heavily on later traditions and histories, even for such important episodes as the Night Journey. It is authoritative, but its application involves interpretation, and there are layers of tradition and legal ruling, of varying authority. Nonetheless, historical or “higher” criticism of the Quran, in the sense that we have now had two centuries of such criticism of the Bible, is in its infancy. So even modernising Muslims tend to defend their position by reinterpretation of the sacred text, rather than by treating it as a human artefact, product of its time and place. [1] Thus feminist Muslims argue, not that the lesser role of women in the Quran was addressed to an outdated patriarchial society, but that it is overridden by a more general appeal to justice within the Quran itself.

The addition of new layers of commentary is an on-going activity. Attempts like Turkey’s Nur movement to hark back beyond tradition to the original meaning of the text end up being theologically quite conservative; I am reminded here of the “Reformed” religion still very much in evidence in Scotland.

These introductory chapters lay the groundwork for the main theme of the book; the ways in which the Muslim world has responded to its ongoing confrontation with the technologically and militarily advanced West. These responses initially included secularism. The early twentieth century saw the establishment of a secular state in Turkey, whose borrowings from the West had worldwide influence on Muslim elites. Pakistan also was originally a more secular state, with “Muslim” being more of an ethnic than a religious identity, while the Arab nationalists in the ascendant mid-century restricted orthodox Islamic rules to personal and family law.

[Note added in haste: In the last few days, the already complex situation in Turkey has undergone further dramatic developments. Historically, the army had been the committed defender of secularism, even if this commitment was less thorough than claimed, and has used this more than once to justify imposing military rule. Last week’s reported attempt at a miitary coup against the current elected government might perhaps be regarded in this light. Nonetheless, the government blames Fethullah Gulen, whose support for political Islamism is repeatedly mentioned in the book. Gulen, now living in the US, has been at odds since 2013 with the government, which he accuses of corruption. He has denounced the coup, but that was after it had already failed, and if his movement really was involved, then this time the army units concerned were acting on behalf of one religious faction against another.]

This is not how things have since worked out. Modern Islam is a successful religion. Mosques are crowded, televangelists famous, and technology adopted within a world view based on divinely inspired design. Modernisation has not led to theological modernism. The Islamism of the last half-century has adopted Western technology while avoiding what Edis calls “the disenchantment of the world spearheaded by modern science.” Scientific naturalism offers us an uncaring universe where what happens, happens as the result of physical causes, and not at the bidding of some deity, let alone a deity that pays any attention to us. To a traditional believer, such a view is at best uncomfortable, and at worst blasphemous.

Far easier then to adopt a pious modernity that accepts the fruits of technology while still subordinating the scientific spirit of inquiry to the constraints of religion. This religion need not be theologically modernist.  Nor need it be hostile to organisational modernisation. The West has long had a powerful institutions, companies, and corporations, including ultimately the State itself, independent of religion and capable of long-term accumulation of wealth and ideas. Islamic law recognised no such entities. However, today, corporations have been absorbed into the religious framework. In the case of Turkey, this pious neoliberalism is strengthened by relationships with the United States and Europe. It is the ideology of Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) whose very name combines the concepts of economic development, and Muslim morality. The disciplined workforce and the (ideally) socially conscious employer will share the same mosque.

In Turkey, urbanisation has meant greater popular knowledge of the more orthodox forms of Islam. At the same time, we have the view that since science and religion both tell the truth, science must be consistent with religion. So the Nur movement finds inspired prefigurings of modern science in the Quran, and embraces “Creation science”. It was systematic policy, and not, as I had thought, an aberration, that in the 1980s led Turkey’s Education Minister to invite contributions from the Institute for Creation Research [2] to the biology curriculum. We now have the spectacle of Turkish creationism, in the form of the Atlas of Creation by Adnan Oktar (“Mehmet Kaya”) uncritically absorbing Christian evangelical creationism of all kinds, including a Young Earth Creationism alien to Islam itself, and feeding it back into the West.

There are important differences in the status of religion between Turkey and the United States, which is the most religious among the advanced nations. Religion is strong in America, but American religion has a long tradition of religious modernism, and indeed the rise of fundamentalism in the early twentieth century was a response to this. Creationism may be popular among the uneducated, but US high culture is almost uniformly supportive of evolution, and regards creationism as disreputable. None of this is true in Turkey. There is not, or has not been for many centuries, an influential modernist movement within Islam, and creationism is common within the academy. Even relatively liberal thinkers are unwilling to accept total disenchantment, and tend towards views such as guided evolution.

The discussions of the role of sharia law, and the status of women, show the range of diversity of Islamic practice. There is general agreement that legal systems should accommodate sharia law. This may be no more than a vague sentiment, akin to the appeal to the Bible as a source of values in the West, but at the other extreme we have the Saudi barbarities of flogging, amputation for theft, and the death penalty for adultery and apostasy. Outside Saudi Arabia, the general attitude is that the Quran was addressing a society that lacked modern law enforcement and penal institutes. It is also worth remembering that the Quran itself does not specify a worldly penalty for apostasy, and that the Quranic penalty for adultery is 200 lashes. But of course everyone knows that the correct penalty for adultery is stoning, so presumably the verse justifying this was lost.

Worldwide, young Muslim women are dressing more traditionally, even as they become more likely to take up employment outside the home, and to dispute traditional patriarchal interpretations of the sacred texts. Fertility rates have been decreasing, and historically this also goes along with weakening of the patriarchy. There is even a specifically Islamic feminism, which appeals to the universal principle of justice that it finds in the Quran, and regards this as overriding specific prescriptions intended for a particular time and place. But all this is in the context of religious politics and cultural conservatism, and such conservatism within Islam (as elsewhere) tends to see the roles of men and women as complementary rather than equivalent. However, as Edis points out, “Islamic feminism can help support tangible improvements in the lives of women. This is no small thing.”

The distinction between the legal status of religion in Muslim majority countries and the West is less clear cut then we might imagine. With the exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Iran, governments do not attempt to equate general law which sharia law, and even in Iran the identification with Islam, in this case specifically Shia Islam, is a matter of nationalism as well as religion. Moreover, religion has embedded privileges throughout the West, including tax advantages even in the United States, Government collected tax revenues in Germany, involvement with publicly funded education in many countries including the UK, and, I would add, formal representation in the UK’s Upper House of Parliament. However, I think that Edis overstates the similarities. Laws against blasphemy, for example, have been repealed or lapsed throughout the West, but remain on the books (and are often supplemented by murderous direct action) in many Islamic countries.

When accusing Islam of justifying barbarity, we should remember that the US has with the approval of most of its citizens indulged in torture, the indiscriminate killing of civilians, surveillance, and entrapment within suspect communities, and that Muslim communities have of late been the victims of these activities. Human rights organisations have gained credibility among Muslims for protesting against these actions.

Moderate traditionalists defend Islamic law as protecting the family, which they regard as a cornerstone of society, and criticise the libertine behaviour condoned by secular legal codes. Individuals are presumed to live within their various religious communities, deriving their human dignity from God, and this is very different from the libertarian concept of individual rights. However, divine law is seen as granting protection to the individual from oppression by the State (and, I would add, the Corporation). Edis contrasts this with the minimal role assigned by western neoliberals to the State, which “appears to cripple our ability to collectively decide on and institutionalise moral convictions about the good life.… The law becomes a device to make markets run smoothly, and where considerations of economic efficiency are decisive.” By contrast, “for many believers divine law is inseparably entwined with justice and order.”

Here I have a problem with Edis’s argument. He repeatedly tells us that modern Islam in countries like Turkey has formed an alliance with the very neoliberalism whose excesses he deplores. So how can he at the same time claim that respect for the divine law helps maintain more humane concerns of justice and order? After all, there is no shortage in the West of politicians who pursue neoliberal policies while loudly proclaiming their devotion to Christianity. And while Edis correctly deplores the hollowing out of public institutions, and the replacement of human by commercial values (here he explicitly mentions the lost ideal of a liberal education), these processes are clearest in the US, which is by far the most devout of all advanced nations. Moreover, there is nothing to prevent socially conscious secularists from arguing, as they do, that the State has a moral duty to safeguard the welfare of its citizens, and should use health and welfare programs, taxation, and minimum wage laws to counteract the brutality of market forces.

Sharia law impinges directly on marriage and family law, and this will be true even for Muslims living in the West, to the extent that they accept the values of their own community. I would point out that the problem is not confined to Islam. Devout Catholics will not consider themselves free to marry after divorce, whatever the law of the land may say, and the ability of a Jewish husband to obstruct religious divorce can lead to serious difficulties. A Muslim testator in the West is free to follow the sharia requirement that sons inherit twice as much as daughters, and defenders of this practice point to dowries as evening out this inequality.

In its treatment of women, the Quran is true to its roots in a fiercely patriarchal society, but once again the realities are more complex than they might appear. For instance, the Quran specifies that a contract may be witnessed by two men, or by one man and two women. However, some Islamic practice, such as the law that allows a man to divorce a wife at will, while a woman requires the consent of a judge to divorce her husband, is not Quranic but based on later traditions. These traditions take the same approach to women as the Victorians; they are more sensitive, more delicate, lest suited to public life, and in need of protection and guardianship. Thus in Victorian England married women did not acquire the right to dispose of their own property until 1882. Iran has public parks that only women are allowed to enter; do we consider this restrictive, or liberating? Pakistan, a fiercely Islamic state, elected a woman head of Government in 1988. [3] The UK had not done this until 1979, and at the time of writing the US has yet to do so. Women’s purity is essential to family honour, but the same was true until recently in Sicily. Edis also cites one recent honour killing in Turkey, where the family concerned were Assyrian Christians.

Consider a woman’s headscarf.  Islam demands modest clothing of both men and women. An observant Muslim man will not wear shorts. Definitions of modest clothing for women vary wildly, and reflect traditions and local attitudes. The Quran speaks of female modesty and covering of breasts, and covering of hair, let alone of the face, goes beyond this. Covering up can be said to make it easier for women to take part in public life, without being relegated to the role of sex objects. So when we ask whether a woman wears her headscarf voluntarily, or as the result of community pressure, the question is not well formulated. What if she is wearing it in response to community norms, but these are the norms of a community whose membership she values?

As Edis points out in a detailed careful discussion, some conflict between the ideal of a secular State, and the demand for religious freedom, is inevitable. And we cannot resolve such conflict merely by appealing to human rights, since actual arrangements must always be a matter for accommodation between competing rights. Should hospitals in receipt of public funds be required to provide contraception and abortion services, in violation of the principles of religious organisations that may be running them? Should State schools teach evolution, or facts about human sexuality, when doing so offends the religious views of some parents and students? And if they respond by retreating to private education, is it right that they are nonetheless forced to pay taxes for a service that they do not use and consider morally objectionable?

One solution is multiculturalism, state sanction of the exercise of power by religious authorities over their adherents. If Muslim parents object to their children learning about evolution or the Holocaust, and to female participation in sports, separate schooling can meet these objections. (Edis does not discuss, perhaps because they are too obvious to mention, the resulting dangers of communal isolation.) In the Netherlands, the state funds Muslim schools where the language of instruction is that of family origin, and separate Muslim housing, and consults with community leaders. In predominantly Muslim countries, multiculturalism would lead to the recognition of diverse communities, which some Muslim political thinkers regard as a strength. In the Ottoman Empire, different people congregated in different areas and managed their affairs as they saw fit. Noam Chomsky sees advantages to this over the “very unnatural system” of the European nation-state.

For many reasons, Edis is committed to the promotion of secularism, but he regards this as a personal political preference, rather than the expression of a universal ideal. Here many readers, including me, will depart from him. The religious are free to identify as deeply as they choose with their religion, but I see it as tyranny – even if, in some times and places, the tyranny of the majority – when religious organisations acquire any power beyond the power of persuasion. Moreover, as Edis points out, if the state compromises with private religious beliefs that run contrary to fact, this can cause public harm. People who rely on faith healing, or have religious objections to vaccination, undermine public health. So, I would maintain, are those who would censor teaching about sex, and in Scotland, where this aspect of education in state-funded Catholic schools is under the control of the Council of Bishops, this is not a trivial matter. And as Edis points out, those who, like creationists, feel free to ignore or subvert the scientific evidence for religious reasons may well feel free to do so for political and ideological reasons, like the US Religious Right denying global warming.

One huge difference between Muslim and secular attitudes arises when it comes to freedom of speech and belief. In the Quran, unbelievers are condemned to hellfire, but no earthly punishment is invoked, and Jews and Christians are at times spoken of as allies. Yet even in Turkey today, criticising religion can be classified as “hate speech”, while blasphemy laws up to and including the death penalty are in place, and widely supported, throughout the Muslim world, cartoons ridiculing Muhammad have provoked assassinations, and an epidemic of brutal assassinations of atheists and secular bloggers has claimed nime lives in Bangladesh since 2013.

Despite the lack of direct Quranic sanction, atheism is widely equated with apostasy, which in all traditional schools of Islamic law is punishable by death. If community cohesion depends on shared religious beliefs, then abandoning those beliefs is desertion. If the State possesses an Islamic identity, then atheism is a direct challenge to its legitimacy, and is indeed now equated with terrorism in Saudi Arabia.

There is also the problem of heresy. as seen in the exclusion of Ahmadis from public life in Pakistan, and the role of separate religious community identities in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

The replacement in the last half-century of nationalist by Islamist politics has not been good for Christians, while the Jewish populations of Arab countries have almost entirely emigrated to Israel. Today in Arab countries there is a vicious anti-Semitism, backed by bloodthirsty traditional (non-Quranic) sayings, but essentially politically motivated, and linked to bizarre conspiracy theories. The attitude of religious leaders towards Jews and Christians is highly variable, with the influential Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar (“Mehmet Kaya”) having switched from promulgating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, to reaching out to Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem. (Disclosure: for reasons I never understood, I was at one time on his mailing list.)

For Edis, as I am sure for most readers here, freedom of expression is fundamental. But for many Muslims, disrespect towards religion is an abuse of that freedom, seeking to disrupt the social fabric. The freedom to criticise religion then runs counter to a claimed freedom to participate in public debate without being offended. So by a curious inversion the toleration in the West of criticism of the Prophet is portrayed as violation of Muslims’ human rights. And some discussions of Islam are indeed gratuitously offensive, characterising the religion shared by over a billion people as fundamentally and peculiarly evil. We too have our no-go areas, such as desecrating the flag to which American school children regularly pledge allegiance. Edis also cites the example of nudity; nudity does no harm, other than causing an outrage which is its own sole justification, and yet because of this outrage we confine it to restricted designated areas. To some extent, Academia functions in the West as a designated area for free speech, but even here, there are things that cannot be said and words that cannot be used.

Here I feel that he is reaching for a symmetry that does not really exist. The US Supreme Court has struck down legislation against flag desecration, and nowhere in the West is the use of racist rhetoric punishable by death, although in some countries hate speech or Holocaust denial is illegal. He does, however, have one very important point. If I put forward views strongly disruptive of current political and economic arrangements, I will not be censored, but nor will I be widely or sympathetically reported. On the contrary, I can expect to find myself ridiculed, marginalised, or simply ignored by all organs of mass communication, whose owners are, after all, doing very nicely with things the way they are.

Discussion of the treatment of non-believers leads on to the painful topic of sacred violence. This is the topic closest to the surface in the minds of many Westerners. After all, even while I was writing this review there were suicide bombings killing, between them, over 350 people in Istanbul and Baghdad, and as I prepare to post it I learn of more than 80 Bastille Day celebrators murdered in Nice. All the more important, and difficult, to keep a sense of proportion. The deaths at such outrages as those in France are comparable in number those every week there from traffic accidents, and so we might perhaps compare Muslim terrorism with IRA terrorism; nasty, but something that the UK learned to live with. I would unfashionably point out that the numbers murdered in the most spectacular and horrific of these crimes, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, are comparable to the numbers “normally” murdered in the US in a month. And the Western response completely dwarfed the initial outrage, and has done more to advance the aims of the hijackers than they would have dreamed possible.

What does the Quran say about violence? As usual, the answer is unclear. The bloodthirsty texts quoted by hostile commentators come from later traditions, which are also the only source of accounts of the numbers killed or enslaved by Muhammad’s armies, and there are verses in the Quran condemn fighting beyond what is necessary. And yet it is undoubtedly true that Muhammad was a successful military leader. Of course, we are told the same of Moses. Islam does not claim to be a religion of peace, as Christianity does, and Muslim scholars have not until recently devoted much attention to the concept of a “just war”. However, this has made little difference to either religion in practice, and one could say that Islam is simply less hypocritical.

There are many who criticise the core doctrines of Islam for making violence possible, but would not dream of blaming Judaism as such for reactions of the Netanyahu government, or Christianity as such for the widespread abuse practised by Catholic clergy. One soothing way to deal with this asymmetry is to declare that Islam is a religion of peace, perverted by those who commit violence in its name. It might be more honest to reverse the process; to acknowledge the influence of the Old Testament on Jewish nationalism, and the insult to human nature of the Catholic doctrine of priestly celibacy.

There is a long history of mutual violence in the relations between Christianity and Islam, and as Edis points out it would be futile to keep the score. Islamic terrorists have had links to Chechnya, victim of brutal attack by Putin’s (mainly Russian Orthodox) military, and when Greek Orthodox Serbs slaughtered over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, NATO troops failed to protect them. Secular ideologies, both left and right, have also been content to inflict massive death tolls by starvation, as in Ireland and in British India, in Stalin’s Russia and in Mao’s China. Most recently, the West (and the US in particular) has been responsible for torture, kidnapping and internment without trial, and a war that left at least 150,000 Muslims dead, and probably far more, all with strong public support. For me, claims to have done all this in defence of our values ring hollow while we are selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.

Islam originally expanded through war, and claimed to be legitimised by this military success, as did later Muslim empires. However, the spread of Islam in Malaysia, Indonesia, and until recently in sub-Saharan Africa has been based on influence rather than violence. Within the Muslim heartland, there was generally little occasion to invoke sacred violence, which has most credibility where Muslim majorities live under the control of foreign invaders, as in Kashmir, Chechnya, or Palestine. Its worst excesses are where extreme Islamist movements are seeking to take over power in failed Muslim states, especially Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Iraq, and the vast majority of the victims are their fellow-Muslims.

Suicide bombing may horrify us, but it is a rational way of pursuing asymmetric warfare. As Edis puts it, suicide bombers are the smart bombs of those without the wherewithal to deliver smart bombs. Nor do I find Muslim suicide bombers qualitatively different from the secularist Tamil Tigers or the Japanese kamikaze pilots, or even from those conventional warriors whom we praise for self-sacrificing bravery.

There is no denying the religious zeal of Islamic terrorists. And yet religion is neither necessary, nor sufficient, as an explanation of their actions. Acts of terror are not necessarily linked to religion, as I have already mentioned. And the vast majority of devout Muslims are not terrorists. Perhaps we should see the situation not as a crisis of religion, but of identity, with devotion to the point of self-destruction as the ultimate in selfless identification with the sacred cause.

Religious terrorists have one tactical advantage denied to their secular counterparts. They are much more difficult to infiltrate or subvert, because it is difficult to fake piety. And religious terrorism is frightening for another reason, namely its very unreasonableness. We can negotiate with a political extremist group, or persuade it that terrorism is not helping it attain its objectives (we have seen a mixture of both of these in Northern Ireland). But no such discourse is possible with a group whose aims are apocalyptic. Meantime, in what seems to me a strained comparison, Edis contrasts the situation of a mainstream Muslim with that of a secular liberal in the West. The Muslim will, like most of us, feel that fighting is sometimes justified, and will seek group loyalty and personal self-discipline while avoiding fanaticism. The secular liberal now has no difficulty in rejecting fanaticism, but faces the opposite problem of avoiding the complacency of disillusion, and keeping faith with the ideal of improving the world.

Meantime, we must retain perspective, and consider the effects of our actions on those most strongly affected by them. Our protestations of injured innocence are misplaced. Our visceral reaction to current horrors may well do more harm than good, and aerial bombing wins few allies.

True enough, but it is possible to under- as well as to over-react. Citing a 2009 source, [4] Edis writes of born-again warriors that “they are marginal actors who find themselves continually driven further from mainstream Islamic discourse.” One would not know from reading him that the intervening period has seen the emergence of a powerful organisation claiming the status of a state or even superstate, describing itself as the restoration of the caliphate, with control over millions of people and large areas in Syria and Iraq and with sympathisers in a dozen different countries, controlling major oil reserves and with sufficient acquiescence from its neighbours and the financial markets to export its oil and enjoy the revenues, and where dissent leads to beheading, homosexuals are thrown off buildings, and women are openly bought and sold as sex slaves. That this organisation is able to recruit by the thousand even (or especially) within Tunisia, one of the least fiercely Islamist of all predominantly Muslim countries. And that its devotees consider it virtuous to immolate themselves if at the same time they can kill a sufficient number of non-Muslims, or the wrong kind of Muslims, or Muslims who just happened to be visiting a mixed Shia-Sunni area of Baghdad. Through the long lens of history, which Edis habitually deploys, this may not amount to much (and for me, when we talk about gratuitous civilian deaths, Dresden comes to mind). But right now, to treat Daesh (a.k.a. “the so-called Islamic State”) as if it were just one more aspect of fanaticism, seems to me like discussing Europe in the 1930s as if Nazism were just one particular local variant of fascism.

Finally, Edis considers the future, starting from the present state of Islam in countries like Egypt and Turkey. Here Islamism has had no difficulty in coming to terms with neoliberal ideology and the pursuit of wealth. Was not the Prophet himself a successful merchant? While the previous Islamised generation studied science, the present one studies finance. Televangelism flourishes, as does well funded creationism. There is a Muslim management and self-help literature, similar to that based on Christianity in United States, and offering as little resistance to a dominant free-market ideology. Religion of any kind is better at injecting self-righteousness than self-criticism into the power structure.

Imposing our supernatural hopes on our view of the actual world invites disasters, such as creationism, alternative medicine, and climate change denial, which in the US is closely linked to biblical creationism. The denial of reality has consequences. And so, Edis argues, the defenders of scientific fact must shed their political naivety and find ways of relating to a general audience. I agree.

1] In the Shadow of the Sword, by the writer Tom Holland, presents a radical form of this historical criticism, in which both Muhammad and the Arabian origins of Islam are dismissed as political fabrications. For a critical discussion of this book, and references to scholarly work covering the same ground, see Glen Bowerstock’s blistering review in The Guardian.

2] The Institute for Creation Research argues that since the Bible is literally true, any science that appears to show the contrary must be misguided, and replaced with better science. And attempts to do so in its publications, in tediously contorted detail.

3] Benazir Bhutto, elected 1988 and 1993; assassinated in 2007 during an election campaign that she would almost certainly have won.

4] Islamic Radicalism and Global Jihad, D.R. Springer et al., Georgetown University Press, pp 28-29.

This piece first appeared on 3 Quarks Daily on July 18 2016, four days after the coup attempt in Turkey, and I have decided to present it here unaltered. Meantime, of course, events continue to unfold.

*I regret using these words, since they have proved a distraction. I hold to my opinion; compare e.g. his much simplified discussion of violence in the Quran (End of Faith) with the chapter-and-verse analysis of the Quran’s confused position (as discussed by Edis), and his view of terrorism with that of Robert Pape at Others will differ.


%d bloggers like this: