Too clever by a half

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

On a recent BHTV Jeff Sharlet and Amy Sullivan discuss a recent trend in the conception of Islam among the military:

As I listened to them I got really annoyed. It is not accurate to say that Islam is an ideology and not a religion, but it is also not without foundation. Many Muslims would assert that Islam is a “total way of life.” Analogous to the lifestyles of Haredi Jews or Roman Catholic monks (the same “total way of life” is also used by conservative Protestants and Hindus, so it isn’t limited to Muslims).

Now listen to a more recent BHTV segment:

The attitudes described in this segment reflect perfectly the reason that some individuals might assert that Islam is not a religion, but a political ideology. They’re wrong, insofar as it is a religion, and can also be a political ideology. But the inference of American conservatives is not purely a product of their own fervid paranoia. If liberals (of which I am not one) want to communicate and persuade conservatives they would best actually understand the roots of right-wing logic, instead of dismissing it as pure fantasy.

12 Comments

  1. Perhaps I’m being too clever by half… the average Islamic group is not intelligent enough to be very religious, and when some individuals are they often tend to choose a better religion than Islam, or even atheism?

    While atheism might require a higher IQ than religion, religion similarly requires a higher IQ than base political ideology, or something closer to the default state of human mode of living. I suspect Islam, whilst having the structure of a religion (with a founder, deity, revered text and places of worship), is closer to the default state human mode of living – primal war of group against group – than other religions.

    As in Afghanistan where rival Pashtun families take pot-shots at each other across the valleys in an epic millennial blood-feud, this mode of living puts a lot of stress on conflict and honour, and less on cooperation with out-groups.

    Islam, because it developed to pacify warring nomads, offers little to high IQ urban individuals. In a more developed environment where there are superior belief systems available (a smörgåsbord of God’s compassion, non-violence, freedom, the ethical life, women’s rights) individuals with proselytizing religious zeal are skimmed off leaving Islam with an aggressive and boorish constituency that is indistinguishable from political ideology.

  2. Perhaps I’m being too clever by half

    i wouldn’t say your comment is too clever really. no offense.

  3. I’ve never seen a good definition of the word “Religion”, most attempts manage to leave out some major world religion or another. This vagueness is fine, there’s not much point trying to distinguish political ideologies from religions. There not usually the same thing, but sometimes they do meld together.

    This is why the the Americans were wise to protect both of them in the 1st amendment.

  4. “Too clever by half” means that you’re not being clever at all because what you are saying is unnecessarily complicated. That’s how I’ve always understood the phrase. I made up what I said above on the spot so I thought it would likely be flawed.

    The tiered-pyramid approach to world-views, and the “barrel scraping theory” of adherence to Islam, would predict that in an environment of intense world-view competition (e.g. printing presses, increase internet access), a large proportion of the smart fraction will leave to become atheist or another religion, leaving the religion – in this case Islam – to lower IQ individuals.

    This lower IQ group will use the religion more as a political ideology than as a religion. Because

    1. the religious leaders will dumb-down the religion to a level people can understand thus making it more like political ideology (which consists of ideas of how to run society dumbed-down for mass consumption)

    2. the adherents themselves will not be able to distinguish their religious ideas from their ideas of how to run a well-functioning society, which requires science; and thus a secular state, necessary for the latter, will be impossible.

    Thus Islam is simultaneously a religion and ideology depending on the IQ of the individual/group.

    However, there are passionate atheists who I cannot distinguish in personality from religious people. So there might be a general rule that when smart people obsess over atheism, or anything, it becomes more religious and faith based.

    Sorry if you think this is stupid – just throwing out ideas and if you tear them to shreds, so be it!

  5. Dialogues such as between Sharlet and Sullivan remind me of Gary Brecher’s comment about Nichols Kristof: “Kristof makes a living not even trying to understand how there are people in the world who don’t think like him. Nobody wants to see how other people think, it’s disgusting.” I occasionally have the urge to listen to Sullivan’s diavlogs because I’m interested in religion, but when I do, I always find them pointless. It’s a bit like the “Speaking of Faith” program on NPR (now called “On Being”), but at least Krista Tippett mostly ignores the stuff she doesn’t like instead of spending time clucking over how bad other people are.

  6. I’ve never seen a good definition of the word “Religion”, most attempts manage to leave out some major world religion or another.

    don’t think top-down, think bottom-up. that’s easier.

    Sorry if you think this is stupid – just throwing out ideas and if you tear them to shreds, so be it!

    not stupid, but not clever. working back:

    “I made up what I said above on the spot so I thought it would likely be flawed.”

    making things up on the spot are easy if you’re intelligent and knowledgeable. they also impress the stupid easily. but your arguments are too loaded on your inferences and not enough on facts. for example:

    Islam, because it developed to pacify warring nomads, offers little to high IQ urban individuals.

    islam was not started by nomads, it was started by urbanites. muhammed was a merchant, and the first muslims were based out of the entrepots of medina and mecca. a revisionist theory moves the early muslims to the margins of the levant. the bedouin were probably relative late comers to islam, and islam is a notably city-focused religion from the beginning. you can dispute this urban-narrative reasonably, but your comment doesn’t even indicate that you’re conscious of it. it’s like you took the propaganda of ferdowsi at face value!

    you lack sufficient grounding in the basics here to speculate interestingly to me. or at least your inferential ambition outruns the robusticity of your database. of course you know more than 99% of humans, so you’ll probably impress them with your erudition.

  7. You are right, I have not heard of the urban foundation narrative. It is self-evident there are strong urban connections to Islam, it being an Abrahamic religion. I think what I mean’t by “developed to pacify warring nomads” – possibly a glib phrase – was if Islam hadn’t then Muhammed’s Islam wouldn’t have taken hold and spread. Pacifying the Arabian peninsular was a precondition for the spread of Islam. As much as dust is the nucleus of a raindrop, I think of the Bedouin as the seed base of Islam. Now I’ll reconsider this popular nomad-centric narrative but it seems to me if Muhammed had not pacified the Arabian peninsular his religion could have been killed in the cot. That might be wrong. I should read more (because I’ve already been shown to have not read enough).

    you lack sufficient grounding in the basics here to speculate interestingly to me.

    True, and the more expert you get the more other peoples’ commentary must appear creative rather than factual, or creative with the facts. Even deliberate. Sometimes though, the mistakes of others can help those who know more. I’d like to think as long as someone who knows less recognises that fact and adapts they are not a problem.

    your inferential ambition outruns the robusticity of your database.

    Ambition is not a bad thing and it surely requires faith because the database is never complete. However, my own ambition has probably lapped the database and is making funny faces to it as it crosses the finishing line. In other words, there’s ambition and there’s taking the piss, and I’ve strayed out of the grey area into the latter territory. I will try to be less excitable when comment from now.

  8. If I’ve not provided enough inadvertent entertainment already… I happen to have Marshall Hodgson’s three volume work The Venture of Islam.

    On the subject of the creation of Islam what he (whom I take to be an atheist) says is compatible with the idea Islam scoops up those who do not have a better world-view. Due to Christian and Jewish communities in Mecca Islam faced world-view competition from the beginning and in the first instance Muhammed’s aim was to convert the pagan, non-monotheists.

    “Muhammed proclaimed himself the ummi prohet, that is, the prophet of those who had no sacred book – who belonged to none of the established religious communities.” p.178

    The problem was, from the beginning, that the existing communities didn’t like Islam. Islam had to attract those mostly less well-off who didn’t have a religion. Thus to attract these assumed lower IQ groups, Islam had to be similar in structure to a political ideology, of the sort that would become popular hundreds of years later in the large urban cities.

    So in a sense Islam was the first political ideology or a hybrid away from religion.

    If the existing communities of Mecca had to have a monotheistic religion according to my reading of Marshall Hodgson they would rather keep their own but for those who had none, Islam was an upgrade.

    “Directly after Badr, Muhammad expelled the Jewish clan of Banu Qaynuqa from Medina. This was in part an admission of defeat and a counter-measure thereto. Muhammad has won his converts aong the gentile clans and his first authority was in the gentile sector of Medina. But he had always expected that monotheists, whether Christians or Jews, ought to welcome his message and give him support in his work among the pagans. But just as serious Christians could not accept a timeless monotheism stripped of the Incarnations, so most Jews could not accept a universalism in which their history as the chosen people lost its unique significance” p.177

  9. first, the creation narratives of these religions are often self-serving, and may not be accurate, but:

    The problem was, from the beginning, that the existing communities didn’t like Islam. Islam had to attract those mostly less well-off who didn’t have a religion. Thus to attract these assumed lower IQ groups, Islam had to be similar in structure to a political ideology, of the sort that would become popular hundreds of years later in the large urban cities.

    the same could be said of hinduism, and the same has been said of judaism.

    obviously islam had to have a political ideology, it was a political religion from its inception. the orthodox would argue that the politics came right after the religion, while the revisionists would argue that the religion came after the politics. but i don’t see how this makes islam particularly strange. the relationship between politics and religion is cross-cultural. cakravartin and “vice-reagent of god” aren’t muslim terms. the roman state religion, as well as the chinese state religion, were clearly ideological. though supernatural and metaphysical elements existed in chinese state religion, its raison d’etre was an ideology of political organization on the broad scale (and personal self-cultivation on the individual).

    your observations about islam are in some sense true. but they’re trivial, because they’re true of all religions. even “apolitical” religions like primitive christianity were highly political. christians organized themselves in a cell structure and created a parallel system of self-governance in the roman empire. also, i believe you too close connect the original form of the religion to later forms. these phenomena are relatively plastic in my opinion.

  10. the same could be said of hinduism, and the same has been said of judaism

    Didn’t Judaism and Hinduism both emerge in a polytheistic environment? To a monotheistic religion, polytheism should be no competition because in such an environment monotheism can attract smarter adherents by being a much more simple, and better, reflection of reality, and a clearer moral code. In the same way, science will always attract smarter individuals than post-modernists, it’s less complicated and has results. So I suspect Judaism and Hinduism did not begin with the poor but with the more educated. Once the first monotheistic religions got established, however, the next ones along had to first appeal to the lower classes.

    Yes, all religions have been and are political. Christianity is an unquestionable authority among the Amish but the Amish are a throwback which would not survive but for the strong state surrounding it.

    Religions can be an authority without a territorial-state, as religious authority is enforced voluntarily or through peer-pressure (there are unofficial Jewish and Islamic courts in Britain). Political ideology, like libertarianism or communism, requires an elite class, a state and law enforcement mechanisms.

    Perhaps Islam is more political and less happy with secular government (and thus a role as a religious authority enforced voluntarily or through peer-pressure) because it finds it harder to enforce its rule without the help of the state. This might be less true of Christianity and Judaism. The adherents of these religions might be more happy to stay with it. Islam has explicit punishments to prevent believers leaving the religion – this would be what you’d expect of a religion that emerged among great world-view competition.

    BTW I did read all your comments even though I didn’t quote them all.

  11. Didn’t Judaism and Hinduism both emerge in a polytheistic environment? To a monotheistic religion, polytheism should be no competition because in such an environment monotheism can attract smarter adherents by being a much more simple, and better, reflection of reality, and a clearer moral code. In the same way, science will always attract smarter individuals than post-modernists, it’s less complicated and has results. So I suspect Judaism and Hinduism did not begin with the poor but with the more educated. Once the first monotheistic religions got established, however, the next ones along had to first appeal to the lower classes.

    1) the orthodox legend is that islam grew up in a polytheistic environment too. so again, true, but trivial (though the revisionists would dispute that islam grew up in a polytheistic environment).

    2) i don’t think that a american/protestant model whereby religious choice is driven through individual rational choice works very well for pre-modern religions. both hinduism and judaism almost certainly evolved out of their cultural environments slowly and over time. the hindu evolution is more widely known, but anyone who reads the hebrew bible closely can discern the layers of cultural accretion underneath the narrative which was fleshed out by the time of first exile.

    3) there’s a good argument that there’s really no much cognitive difference between ‘polytheistic’ and ‘monotheistic’ religions.

    Perhaps Islam is more political and less happy with secular government (and thus a role as a religious authority enforced voluntarily or through peer-pressure) because it finds it harder to enforce its rule without the help of the state. This might be less true of Christianity and Judaism. The adherents of these religions might be more happy to stay with it. Islam has explicit punishments to prevent believers leaving the religion – this would be what you’d expect of a religion that emerged among great world-view competition.

    christianity and judaism when in power had the same rules. because of the rarity of jewish temporal power after the classical period it isn’t manifested very often, but the terrorism of the maccabees and igal amir more recently were predicated on ideals of national-religious apostasy. as for christianity, the rules in pre-modern christian states were strict enough. judaizing christians are known to have fled to muslim spain, while judaizing muslims fled to christian areas. traditionally the dominant religion did not brook defection. the main issue is that when viewed on a whiggish sense islam is just at a more primitive state.

  12. In reference to IQ, isn’t the role of “scientists” coming from Islamic socities underrepresented? I mean isn’t the foundation of Western science built upon the ideas of people like Avicenna, Alhazan, Geber, etc? Do people not know of their contributions, or do liberal-minded individuals trump up their importance? Seriously, I can’t believe these folks don’t come up in discussions like these. Am I missing something?

Leave a Reply

a