Thursday, December 03, 2009

On insults and religion   posted by Razib @ 12/03/2009 09:59:00 AM

When I was a younger man I recall watching a documentary on missionaries in Mississippi. They were Southern Baptists who were on a mission to "save" everyone (this included Roman Catholics and Protestants who had not had a "Born Again" experience). At one point the missionaries encountered a man from Pakistan, who was a Muslim. They confronted him aggressively as to whether he worshiped "idols." From what I saw their tactics seemed more a way to allow these individuals to act out and be obnoxious than convert people (social science research shows that conversions usually happen through networks of friends, not from encountering the random missionary). Later that year a friend of my younger brother, who was Baptist, saw my dad praying. He asked me whether we worshiped idols. He even slipped a little doll in front of my dad's prayer rug, an act which my brother found really offensive. At the time I wondered if conservative Baptist churches around the country were sharing literature and tactics which verged in this obnoxious direction (I also had another friend inquire if I was Hindu after there was a sermon on Hinduism. I told him I was not, at which point he still regaled me with the gist of how horrible demonic Hinduism was).

This sort of behavior is very boorish. On the other hand, it brought home to me the importance of intersubjectivity. As an atheist to me all religion was human-created, so the behavior of my Baptist friends and acquaintances when it came to other religions was boorish, but not offensive. But religion is important for most humans. Religions, and societies more generally, tend to share explicit and implicit norms and values. They allow individuals to differentiate between the acceptable and unacceptable. In a society where there is pluralism this is a more difficult task.

The importance of intersubjectivity is why I roll my eyes when Egypts grand mufti talks about an "insult to Islam". It is important to remember that Islam by its very nature is an insult to many religions. That is, the core beliefs of Islam are an offense. There is a lot of exegesis on exactly what Islam says about the People of the Book, but there is little doubt about what it says about "idolatry." For example, Hindus who revere idols and consider themselves polytheists are insulted by Islam constantly.* The holiest books of Islam are basically hate-texts against polytheists and those who revere idolts. Among South Asian Muslims the "idolatrous" practices of Hindus are fodder for much humor in social situations.** Even the command to convert the world is offensive to many.

At one point I was a regular participant on the comment boards of Talk Islam and Sepia Mutiny. It was interesting to contrast the two, for though Sepia Mutiny is not explicitly a religious weblog, most participants are from Hindu or Sikh religious traditions (Dharmic). On Talk Islam I repeatedly explained, and made the argument, that one could be sincerely religious, and, accept a common underlying and equivalent truth of all religions. Aziz found this an implausible or false assertion, as for him the nature of religion is such that you adhere to a faith you believe the closest to the truth, and you wish others would also adhere to the nearest approximation of the ultimate truth. By contrast, on the Sepia Mutiny it was clear that many simply could not comprehend why Christians and Muslims had to proselytize by the nature of their faith. For them, it was a given that all religions express aspects of the ultimate truth, and attempts to convert individuals to another tradition is simply cultural aggression which sows discord and is an implicit affront. From long discussions it was clear that the two groups had a very primitive or non-existent understanding of the perspective of the other. Some of the concerns of adherents of Indian religions also emerge among Jews. They perceive Christian attempts to convert them as a form of cultural genocide, but that is because their presuppositions about religion are fundamentally different from those of Evangelical Christians. Jews also have issues with Christians who "compliment" their tradition by asserting that their own religion is simply a "completion" of Judaism. Muslims often prove their pluralist bona fides by observing that they respect all prophets who have come before, and view the People of the Book of having received a true message from God. Of course, these traditions are less than flattered, because most Muslims also believe that their traditions are distortions and degenerations from Islam (Muslims view their faith as the "primal religion." This view is shared by many conservative Christians as well), ergo, the necessity of Muhammad as the seal of prophets.

As an atheist with no strong emotional connection to any religion I view this with some curiosity and intellectual interest. But, I also think that it brings up a pragmatic issue: genuine religious pluralism has to lead toward religious segregation. The Ottoman millet model, which also existed in Europe in the relationship of Jews to the polity, is in some ways the "natural" state of religious pluralism. But what about the United States? I think we have turned Catholics and Jews into operational Protestants. To assimilate then Muslims have to cede ground on the importance of orthopraxy and Hindus have to accept the ubiquity of religious defection. In Muslim countries Christians no longer act out on the injunction in the New Testament to preach their faith, because they've been turned into People of the Book, who exist as religious fossils. The Parsi attitude toward conversions is probably shaped in part by their inculcation of Hindu attitudes. And so forth.***

Addendum: For many religious people I've found that the very avowal of atheism is somewhat offensive to them. At least judging by their negative and uncomfortable body language. A few times people have even asked if atheism is too strong of a world, and perhaps I'm just "not religious" or "secular."

* Many Hindus reject idol reverence and consider themselves monotheists. Perhaps most in the West. But many Hindus will assert that they are polytheists, and accept the importance of the representation of gods in worship.

** When I was a child some old guy at a party where everyone was a South Asian Muslim started talking about how Hindus consumed cow feces. I really hated this stuff, since this was invariably before we ate, but people always thought this was really funny. But at this party there was a younger man who was offended by this. He asserted that in fair play Muslims should not mock other religions, even in private. I recall everyone was shocked and dumbfounded. It was clear they'd never even run into this sort of argument, and the conversation moved to other topics. I have been told by Hindus that the inverse mockery also occurs. No surprise.

*** There was always an implicit ethnic Persian aspect of Zoroastrianism. But the historical record attests to Zoroastrians among many non-ethnic Persians, from Armenians to Turks, to converts from Christianity.

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