Tag: Religion

What’s Belief Got to Do with It?

Angela Bonavoglia, “Why Go To Church if You Don’t Believe Anymore?” Religion Dispatches (4/6/2015) http://religiondispatches.org/why-go-to-church-if-you-dont-believe-anymore/.

This week, just after Easter, Religion Dispatches published a rather moving personal essay by Angela Bonavoglia, a writer and journalist whose work focuses on Catholicism and women’s issues (see her webpage).

The essay describes the author’s Easter habit of doing the stations of the cross at the (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The question asked by the title of the essay, “Why Go to Church if you Don’t Believe Anymore?” receives no explicit answer. But by standing at the top of the post, it does serve to help shape how the reader might understand Bonavoglia’s own self-proclaimed identity as “a Catholic lapsed and lost, an unaffiliated spiritual seeker,” a person who once did but no longer attends church, except “every year at this time.”

Bonavoglia’s reflections on the brutal death of Jesus as depicted by the “Stations of the Cross” are poetic and moving. The Stations is a ritualized narrative tour of the Cathedral space (the church classifies the event as “liturgy-worship”) existing apart from ordinary Sunday services. At each “station” the walkers hear texts read aloud by volunteers; as she describes them they are texts “about love and loss, sin and goodness.” Placing herself among the walkers, Bonavoglia says they pray: “we pray for the sick and healers, the powerful and the powerless, the good and the evil, for ourselves.”

She lights a remembrance candle for her mother, and places it in the “American Poets Corner,” beneath the words of Walt Whitman, “I stop somewhere waiting for you.” Having done this, Bonavoglia says that she cries, and closing the essay, claims the following series of actions: “I pray to my mom. I thank her. I ask for forgiveness. I tell her I love her. Then I head for home, to await the resurrection.”

The article’s title turns out to be disingenuous, an editor’s click-bait. Bonavoglia doesn’t use words like “believe” or “belief.” Not once. If we, the readers who happen to study “religion,” wanted to hypothesize about what she “believes” (everybody has beliefs as I understand the term), I suppose we could indulge that impulse. But doing so would involve speculating about the contents of another person’s psyche. One could argue that active participation in the institutional Catholic “religion” can fall by the wayside, while atavistic practices and habits continue to be articulated in the life of “a Catholic lapsed,” but that grants too much power to a construction of—to a set of assumptions about—normative versus abnormative “Catholic” practice. And in any case we cannot neglect the fact that she’s written up the piece at all, to be published in Religion Dispatches, and that the author is a writer concerned with “all things Catholic” (to quote her personal website).

I’m trained not just to accept the author’s self-representation at face value, as a window into her soul. Essays like this function much more so as self-positioning speech in a social matrix rather than as perspicuous self-disclosure. The title of the article turns on the idea that “belief” is an essential component of religion. But the essay, implicitly, and correctly, I believe, suggests that belief is beside the point. Her reflections force us to allow for a more complex and nuanced understanding of what religion is and how it functions. The fact is that the student of religion will never really know what other people believe, but can only see what they do, and hear what they say. Even then we normally see and hear only what people want us to observe, as they construct their own selves before our gaze (and in turn participate in the complex interpellation of our own selves).

Tweet Jesus

Bruce Lincoln described religion as “that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal,” but I think it needs to be added that for Lincoln discourse, together with its partner force, effects the construction of society and perhaps even subjectivity itself.

As an example of how this works “on the ground,” consider this tweet:

Floating out there on a few thousand twitter feeds (twitter user @blackamazon has about 15k followers at the moment), this short text offers a portrayal of Jesus, invoking assumed narratives of his miraculous powers, and relying on a prediction that appeals to his example will have the status of appeals to a figure of “divine” (or eternal and transcendent) value and authority. Such an appeal to Jesus is made with purpose: it serves to sanction a particular critique or construction of normative social practices or expectations. It is argumentative, an interest arguing for your interest. “Feed the poor. Like Jesus would.”

With respect to putatively historical questions, for the student of religion it doesn’t actually matter if any particular idea of Jesus is “accurate” to some accepted academic standard or criterion. From the standpoint of the history of religions, there can be no normative Jesus.

There is an invitation on offer here. A tweet like this offers an invitation to affiliate and identify with a particular “system of mediations” (a system involving ideas of Jesus constructed by plausible appeals to prior traditions and ideas). In response, one could take up and bear this particular construction of Jesus. Mere assent to the idea expressed here—let alone marking it as a favorite with a star, or retweeting it—aggregates forces, forges links of identification, in part by actively criticizing and satirizing those presumed disaffiliated others who for some reason would deny this idea of Jesus. The person who actually does reject the idea of Jesus found here thus actively disaffiliates, presumably through a counter-aggregation or identification. And so discourse organizes and identifies people along lines drawn through concepts of Jesus.

What is interesting to me about any given Tweet Jesus is not whether its vision is true to some hypothetically perfect idea of ‘Jesus,’ but rather how such discourse about Jesus appeals to the leverage or force of divine power in pursuit of social and political ends; the invocation of Jesus’ example in a stream of texts brings into a larger discourse a topic, an ethical dilemma, a positive standard for mimesis, and behind it all, the implied threat of a transcendent rule of judgment applied to individual and collective behaviors. In other words: the transcendent and eternal authority invoked by religious discourse is hoped to be an effective sublimation of force in pursuit of particular and historically contextual human (social) interests. The answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” is always, “what we want other people to do.”


Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method.” The University of Alabama Department of Religious Studies keeps a copy of this text online.

Houston Sermon Subpoenas: Timeline and Links

Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Timeline and Facts

• Wednesday, May 28th, 2014 — Houston City Council passes HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

• Tuesday, Aug 4th, 2014 — Opponents of HERO submit petition for a ballot initiative to repeal HERO in November election; City Rejects Petition.

• Tuesday, Aug. 5th, 2014 — Opponents of HERO sued the city of Houston for rejecting petition; ask judge to verify it.

• August–October: Lawsuit ongoing? news reports are slim.

• Tuesday, Oct. 14th — news surfaces (reported in Houston Chronicle) that city attorneys had subpoenaed five local pastors who are considered as “tied to the conservative Christian activists who have sued the city.” The subpoenas, which ask for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to [the equal rights ordinance], the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” are widely criticized with immediate reactions from the left and right.

• Wednesday, Oct 15th, 2014, about 00:12 AM, Houston Mayor A. Parker tweets “if the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.”

• Wednesday, Oct. 15th, 2014, in the afternoon: Houston Mayor A. Parker issues a statement stating that she was “surprised” by the subpoenas, withdrawing them, and stating that the city will seek a narrower scope of discovery during a hearing yet to be scheduled.


Bailey, S. P. “Houston subpoenas pastor’s sermons in gay rights ordinance,” Religious News Service (10/14/2014) http://www.religionnews.com/2014/10/14/houston-subpoenas-pastors-sermons-equal-rights-ordinance-case-prompting-outcry/

Driessen, L. “City subpoenas sermons in equal rights case,” Houston Chronicle (10/14/2014) http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/City-subpoenas-sermons-in-ERO-court-case-5822800.php

Gershman, J. “Houston Mayor Says City’s Sermon Subpoenas Came as a Surprise,” Wall Street Journal (10/15/2014) http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2014/10/15/houston-mayor-says-citys-sermon-subpoenas-came-as-a-surprise/

Morris and Driessen, “Equal Rights Ordinance Opponents Sue City: Group asks judge to verify petition for a referendum,” Houston Chronicle (08/05/2014) http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/article/Equal-rights-ordinance-opponents-sue-city-5670743.php

Parker, Tweet of 10/15/2014 https://twitter.com/AnniseParker/status/522238662033956866

Posner, S. “Houston’s Pastor Subpoenas: A Meme Made For Fox News” Religion Dispatches (10/15/2014) http://religiondispatches.org/houstons-pastor-subpoenas-a-meme-made-for-fox-news/

City of Houston Webstie, “Equal Rights Ordinance,” http://www.houston.org/equalrights/

Armstrong on “The Myth of Religious Violence”


Karen Armstrong is famous for her popular writings on religion. However, in this week’s Guardian, her essay “The Myth of Religious Violence” makes a bloody mess of the subject.

In this political era where rhetoric about what is and is not properly called religious can determine where we will drop our bombs, it makes no sense to let this fail of the famous writer pass without comment.

Armstrong’s instincts seem laudable. Motivated by the nurturing impulses of the caretaker, peacemaker, and healer, she writes to defend religion in general, and Islam in particular, from charges that it is somehow “primitive” and “atavistic” (her words). Militant atheists point to religion as the root of all evil. They might argue that we can stop religiously inspired violence if we uphold western ideals of secularism, embracing political toleration of minorities along with the intellectual authority of science. In contrast, Armstrong wants to make a wider space in the intellectual landscape for those who embrace religion as a force for good in the world. She also wants to question the very existence of “religious violence,” as such, and to express serious doubts about the viability of “secularism” as a governing principle for human societies.

Her project thus belongs to a constructive and ecumenical liberal theology. Insofar as that is Armstrong’s goal, we can’t fault her for pursuing her aims as a caretaker of religion, and a critic of its secular enemies.

We can, however, criticize her for defending her thesis on the basis of muddy, incoherent concepts and bad history. We can fault her for deploying the language of historical and religious studies in a way that conveniently turns the notion of “the secular” on its head, while writing off reactionary violence that is usually interpreted as a manifestation of religion as somehow not really religious.

So let’s examine Armstrong’s argument. The following assumes you’ve read her piece (linked above).

The basic structure of the first movement of Armstrong’s appeal is this: you can’t separate religion from politics, so, in all the classic examples of religious violence (mainly the wars and crusades that have been fought over religion or in its name), it wasn’t really religion, but politics mixed with religion that is to blame. Therefore, “religious violence” is really a mythical beast.

Did you see what she did there? One hand deconstructs an allegedly false dichotomy, while the other reinstates it in order to exculpate its more important half.

In the second part of her argument, Armstrong contends that “secularism” (and the promotion of “secularization”) was never even possible to conceive before it was dreamt up by the (inherently flawed) political theorists of the (white, male, European) 18th century Enlightenment. By the end of the 18th century, she believes, at least in France, secularism itself had become “a religion;” its new gods were “liberty” and “nature”; the resulting “terror” of the French revolution is the poster child of Enlightenment secularism. Its apotheosis if you will. Ever since, Enlightenment secularism has been exported by these same western societies in their terrifying project of world-colonization, where it has everywhere been allied with intolerance, racism, and violence against those who resisted it. It has ignited and even cultivated a hostile counter-movement we call “fundamentalism.” The violence of fundamentalism is thus strictly a reaction against this European import, secularism. Of these two beasts, “fundamentalism” and “secularism,” fundamentalism is perhaps the less culpable. But they are at least equally problematic; there is moral equivalence between them in their violence. Secularism and Fundamentalism alike are, in some sense, both distinct from “religion,” or can both be described as false or anti-religions. And though secularism poses as liberal, like its flip side, fundamentalism, it lacks tolerance, is marred by a history of oppression, and is thus fundamentally illiberal.

On this account, because politics is the real cause of violence in “religious violence,” and because fundamentalist violence is not really religious, but is just an understandable reaction against the violence of secularism, there really no such thing as “religious violence.”

I leave it to those scholars who are involved in “secular studies” to sort out whether Armstrong is right to dismiss the idea of the secular as a modern invention (assuming such research survives what Jacques Berlinerblau has called “The Crisis in Secular Studies”). I will only pass along what Russell McCutcheon wrote this morning on Facebook, namely that Armstrong apparently assumes (along with many others) that “religion” is a part of the very nature and essence of human being, but “secularism” is a “recent invention foisted on the pious soul.” Instead, he suggests, perhaps religion and the secular arise through the “co-constitution of binary systems.”

Politics and Religion for Armstrong, Redux

I want to make one final point. In the first movement of her argument, as Armstrong is appealing to the notion that politics (a term which means for Armstrong both state power and worldly concerns) cannot be separated from religion (which appears to mean only abstract, spiritual practices or beliefs), she suggests the following:

Jesus’s famous maxim to ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to ‘give back’ to Caesar.

Can I be the only reader who finds this both puzzling and ironic? Of course she means for her example to undermine the ideal of modern secularism, by suggesting that it shows how inseparable politics and religion are, and that therefore secularism must be impossible or undesirable. (This is not a logical conclusion, but it is her point.) Yet consider the example: this point of evidence is an appeal to one of the most violent religiously inspired wars in the history of humanity.

When Josephus wrote the Antiquities of the Jews and the Jewish War (around AD 90), he did so ultimately in order to defend his own people, and their religion, from further Roman persecution, and from Roman charges that Judaism was a backwards, primitive, anti-social, potentially violent religion. Judaism, as Josephus portrays it, is instead a philosophical, respectable, and peaceable faith. The recent unpleasantness of the Jewish War with Rome could be blamed on fanatical zealots who actually rejected the reasonable religion of their heritage.

I guess the debate between the caretakers and the critics goes back millennia.

To side-step that debate, I would suggest that we stop essentializing concepts like “religion,” and “the secular,” and admit instead that religions and religious traditions (along with other ideological systems and political institutions) are streams of competing ideals that offer resources which can motivate and sustain human beings in all of the great varieties of their worldly strivings.

Unfortunately, that means, yes Virginia, there is such a thing as religious violence. But rest assured, there is also religious peacemaking.

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Religion, Public Policy, and War: The Case of ISIL

“To Degrade and Ultimately Destroy”

On September 10th, 2014, President of the United States Barack Obama announced to the nation and the world his intentions to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the so-called “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” or ISIL. The group, also known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” (ISIS) prefers to call itself merely the “Islamic State.”

Obama’s remarks were designed to win support for this effort from both the American public and from Congress. In short, Obama is taking us to war. War, you may have noticed, is not very popular with the public. The public needs convincing. And so, early on in his statement, as a part of his rhetorical strategy Obama decided to assert that the so-called “Islamic State” was in fact, neither of those things. Instead, he wants us to understand, ISIL is a “terrorist organization, pure and simple.”

I have already posted this interesting quote in a prior blog entry. But it is worth reposting here in full, for the sake of analysis, and I will do so below.

First, however, let there be a few words about why examining Obama’s rhetoric more closely matters so much. Obviously, it matters how we think about, characterize, categorize, and understand the threats and problems that we face in this world. If you don’t know the difference between an electric fire and a grease fire, you won’t pick the right extinguisher; with potentially fatal consequences. If we don’t understand what ISIL really is (if we even can understand that), then we have little chance of responding to it in a productive fashion.

“No Religion Condones the Killing of Innocents”

Why don’t we take a closer look at the exact words of Obama’s statement? Here is what Obama said about ISIL on September 10th:

«ISIL … calls itself the “Islamic State.” Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.» — Barack Obama, 9/10/2014

If I may ask for the patience of my readers, I want to take up these words piece by piece and offer commentary.

ISIL is not “Islamic.”

A listener who is, like myself, professionally engaged in the study of religions, will probably find this statement problematic.  I think it should surprise every listener to hear our president utter this phrase. It immediately raises a number of questions.

Question #1: how can our president, an American Christian—pace all those who claim he is a crypto-Muslim—presume to identify who is or who is not “Islamic” in this world? What criteria is he using?

Answer: religious identity is a matter of self-affiliation and internal boundary setting within groups. Outsiders to a group do not get to say who or who does not “count” as a member.  Even if the president were a Muslim, he would not have the standing to pronounce so definitively on the question of what is or is not Islamic. But he is not.  He is a Christian leader of a state, speaking about a group that bills itself as “Islamic.”  It is a group whose adherents and participants are made up either entirely or nearly entirely of Muslims, people who grew up in this tradition and identity.

Presumably, Obama knows this, yet he still believes he can speak on behalf of some people—somewhere—who are themselves insiders to Islamic traditions, and who would yet deny the label “Islamic” to this group. (Tawfik Hamid and Qasim Rashid both come to mind.) Indeed, there are Muslims who would assert their right to make a normative statement about what is or is not properly Islamic. But the problem is, those of us who study religion know that the content and boundaries of all religious traditions are contested, socially constructed facts. Particular believers or organizations may claim to speak in totalitarian terms, and may appeal to the contents of their traditions and texts to support for their claims, and may even enjoy near universal support from other believers who accept their arguments. But that doesn’t make them “right” in some universal, God’s eye perspective. There will always be another perspective to argue with.  Sectarian Muslims may attempt to speak for all Islam.  Scholars at least should recognize the complexity of the socio-rhetorical situation.  But it becomes downright ridiculous when non-Muslim politicians enter into that space of contest over Islamic identity.  Obama’s words attempt to drag the mostly non-Muslim American electorate into the middle of an insider’s debate, concerning Muslims and Islamic scholars of various sectarian backgrounds who themselves face a complex and unresolved field of questions, claims and counter-claims.

Question #2: what is at stake in the identification of ISIL as Islamic or not? Why does it matter whether we name ISIL as an Islamic group?

Answer: political concerns—as opposed to historical, metaphysical or theological concerns—must have motivated Obama’s statement. Muslims make up an increasing, though small, percentage of American society and the American electorate. Also, Muslims of a wide variety of political viewpoints and allegiances make up a sizable percentage of the world’s population. When some Muslims abroad array themselves as enemies against the United States, then those Muslims who are here at home tend to face more discrimination, hate crimes and violence. Innocent, law abiding American citizens, loyal and patriotic, may be treated as internal enemies, much as Japanese (and German) Americans were treated during World War II. The current president, like president George Bush before him, is concerned about the potential backlash against American Muslims. Obama’s statement probably assumes that if ISIL is officially recognized as “Islamic,” then American Muslims may be in danger of being identified with the enemy. One must admit that such things happen, even if they shouldn’t.

Beyond the domestic sphere, Obama can also be worried about international relations and strategic problems. If ISIL is admitted to be an Islamic organization, then our potential allies in the fight against ISIL, many of whom are also “Islamic States,” may find their loyalties divided. That cannot be allowed to happen, and so Obama’s claim “makes sense.”  America must not be perceived as declaring war on “Islam.”

ISIL_and_the_KlanJust as it would be a mistake to claim that the Klan represents “no Christians,” since they represent themselves at least, and they consider themselves Christian, so it would be a mistake to claim that ISIL is “not Islamic.” Traditions are made by people in their lives, not defined by abstractions that appeal to their critics.

Maybe so.  But the result here is an absurd denial of the obvious and clear facts of history. This denial may be politically expedient, but it is based on a misrepresentation of ISIL and religion. And yet that hasn’t stopped other Americans of Christian heritage, people who should lack all standing in the debate, if such a debate is even possible, from agreeing with the president.

In order to secure political loyalties and the safety of citizens (both laudable goals in themselves), a rhetorical strategy has been chosen which tries to deny prima facie facts.  That strategy must ultimately fail. If we try to safeguard American Muslims and to keep the loyalty of Muslim allies by falsely claiming that there is one true way of being “Islamic,” then we are trying to play the same game that ISIL is playing (more on this, below). We are claiming that Islam is “one thing,” and that ISIL isn’t in the category. But Islam isn’t “one thing.” In fact, there are multiple (if not endless) ways to be Islamic (Shi’ite, Sunni, Sufi, Amadiyya, Yazidi, Alawite, liberal, moderate, conservative, etc.). And so, as long as we claim otherwise, we are setting up the very problem we are trying to fix. If we claim otherwise, if we say Islam is one thing, then all Muslims are the same, here and elsewhere.  We undermine our own argument, which depends on the diversity of Islamic viewpoints.  If Islam is one thing, then all American Muslims are that one thing. It’s manifestly untrue, and potentially dangerous to think this way.

The religious tradition of Islam is very complex. The real solution to our difficulties in the world lies in dealing with complexity. Deal with complexity! Don’t try to paper over it.

No religion condones the killing of innocents.

Obama’s next words, a blanket statement about “religions” in general, also raise questions. These are questions about definitions, history, and values. It also raises questions about our self-awareness and ability to think through the consequences of our foreign policies.

Question #1: What is a religion, anyway?

Answer: Obama’s phrase “no religion” implies the existence of more than one religion in the world. And because this world does contain and has contained more than one cultural institution that has been called “a religion,” this particular implication seems uncontroversial. There are religions. But what phenomena are to be included in the term? If you spend some time thinking about it, it is far from obvious what we mean by the term. Famously, in this era where “religious studies” (meaning “the study of religion”) is considered an academic discipline in its own right, scholars usually employ provisional or heuristic definitions of the term, suitable to the examination of whatever particular historical or social phenomena are being construed as religious. My own preference is, in most cases, to follow the definition proposed by M. E. Spiro, in his 1957 essay, “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation” (see Yinger 1957): a religion is “an institution of culturally patterned interactions with culturally postulated super-human beings.” According to this definition, religion is a cultural phenomenon, focused on ritualized ways of behaving (“culturally patterned interactions”) towards “superhuman” entities, the existence of which is “postulated” by culture. A religion doesn’t have to be true or right, metaphysically speaking, to be real, historically speaking. It only has to be an institution with a grounding in culture, that follows certain patterns of “interaction” with (possibly imaginary) superior beings.

Question #2: What does it mean to claim that a “religion” may “condone” something?

Answer: not much. A “religion” is not a being that condones one thing or another. It is not an agent. It is an institution within culture, and as an institution it is made up of individuals, many of whom commend, condemn, condone or forbid a wide variety of actions. It has texts, traditions, etc., all of which are manifestations of individuals who have embraced the institutional identity offered by “membership,” that is, by belonging to the institution. Now, certain religions may have ethical codes and normative rules that are shared so broadly by adherents that we can speak, using a figure of speech known as metonymy, of “the religion” as promoting or condoning certain things. But strictly speaking, it’s not the religion that “does” anything, but the people who make up its ranks. They condone or forbid things, and by participating in the culturally patterned institution that they themselves create, they transmit or reproduce (forensically) the “code” of the religion to other adherents.

Question #3: is it really true that no religion condones the killing of innocents? At first blush, that sounds reasonable; but a moment’s reflection will reveal that this resembles a concrete claim about historical institutions, and it requires verification.

Answer: of course this statement is not true. There have been many religions that “condone the killing of innocents.” It’s all about context, definitions, and the purposes that are served by those “culturally patterned interactions” that all religious adherents employ. Arguably, the claim is falsified by the widespread existence of animal sacrifice, which was nearly universal among religions of the world until about 1500 years ago, and is still practiced in places today. But if you reject the notion that the sacrifice of innocent animals constitutes “the killing of innocents” condoned by adherents to a religion, there are nevertheless plenty of examples of religious killing of innocent human persons (virgins, children, etc.), both in ritual sacrifices and in war. In case you cannot simply accept my word for it—I would list as many as I could but the list would be too long—let it only be said that the prophets of ancient Israel repeatedly excoriated their fellow Israelites because they knew that some of them were sacrificing their own children to the Canaanite deity Molech (see Lev 18:21, and many other locations). Let it be added that the lawgivers of Israel passed along the commands of the Israelite God to kill all inhabitants of certain “banned” cities, including women and children—these were the rules holy war (see Deut 20:15-16; and compare Josh 8:24-29). In later centuries, after they experienced a humiliating defeat by the Babylonians, at least some Israelites of the exile intoned a solemn rebuke to their conquerors: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9). In this instance, the religion isn’t so much condoning as celebrating; but of course, as I pointed out above, it’s not the religion that condones, but rather, the historical people who make up the religion. The bottom line is that yes, Virginia, some “religions” have condoned things that Obama himself would never condone. Right? There may be no doubt that ISIL has killed “innocents;” we have seen at least three videos of western journalists being beheaded, and heard of the killings of non-Muslim refugee populations, etc. But the fact that these things have been done does not mean that the people who have done them are not “Islamic” or “religious.”

Question #4: what does Obama really mean by this phrase? If the claim is so easily falsifiable, historically, then surely Obama must mean to be making something other than a historical claim here. What exactly is he saying?

Answer: Obama seems to be making a sort of philosophical, metaphysical or ethical claim about the nature of religion, or rather, the ideal of religion. There is a notion, going back several centuries in the west (at least to Schleiermacher’s On Religion in 1799), that the term “religion” should be used to refer not to cultural institutions, but to the interior, emotional, rational or spiritual, always ethical piety of idealized individuals. In that case, saying “no religion condones” killing innocent people is actually like saying, “no mature ethical philosophy acceptable to a contemporary sophisticated person would condone killing innocent people.” And surely, that is true.  Unless you think that drone strikes are usually acceptable within a contemporary and progressive ethical framework.

It is a slight of hand to use such an argument to imply that, because they have killed those we think are innocent, there’s nothing “religious” about ISIL. It’s far too limited of a definition of what counts as religious, or as Islamic.

And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.

Question #1: What difference does it make that ISIL’s victims have been Muslim?

Answer: none. While apparently true, this statement seems to be irrelevant. How can this be a decisive test, relevant to the question of whether some organization belongs to a particular religious tradition? This is a smokescreen. Besides, it overlooks the question of how ISIL would interpret its own actions. If experience is any guide, while we see that the members of some Islamic groups would teach that Muslim should not kill Muslim, we also see that for some Muslims, it is believed that those who admit or condone certain forbidden doctrines or practices are not really Muslim, and so can be killed. Besides, in the real world, where we can see and must admit a complexity to Islam, we see that Sunnis and Shi’ites have been fighting each other, killing other “Muslims” (even though neither side wants to dignify the other side completely by admitting that they are, in fact, “Muslims”) for centuries. We, coming from the outside, have absolutely no reason to call into question either group’s self-reported identity as “Islamic.” But our categories may not be their categories.  When we say that ISIL are “not Islamic,” we are just playing a different version of the same game as is played by the militants who justify killing their co-religionists, using othering discourse that is basically just the rhetorical application of the so-called “narcissism of small differences.”

Question #2: so what does Obama mean by this?

Answer: he means to appeal to potential allies who are Muslim, by appealing rhetorically to a well known ethic that is in fact espoused by many Muslims, because it is in fact rooted in some passages of the Qu’ran and Hadith, to the effect that that no “true” Muslim would kill another “true” Muslim. This statement is again Obama trying to speak to the Muslim world as an insider. Never mind that he has no business doing so, and holds no prayer of speaking with authority on this or any other point of Islamic doctrine. But he is trying. And failing. As I began to argue above, no “religion” has a stable central essence. No one, not a Muslim, not a non-Muslim, can just open the Qu’ran and make a pronouncement about what all Muslims do believe; they can make statements about what all Muslims ought to believe, but these statements are argumentative and enter into the contested space of Muslim identity.  Indeed, all beliefs are socially contested and constructed; they are arrived at in practice, through historical forces, through the “culturally patterned interaction” that is the constant give and take of argument rooted in interpretation of tradition. The Jewish and Christian bible includes a commandment, “do not kill;” this is usually interpreted in a limited fashion, as forbidding murder. Many believers do not think it applies to situations of warfare or self-defense. Do you? Did the Rabbis? Did Jesus? This is a matter of debate for Jews and Christians, not a question that can be settled by appealing to a “once and for all” essentialized notion of Judaism or Christianity.

The fact that ISIL has done what it has done, while calling itself “Islamic,” only shows that they feel justified, and I have no doubt that they would reject any arguments that they should not slay their opponents who happen to be, nominally, fellow Muslims.  Yes, this means that even atrocities can be justified within logic that is “religious.”

And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates.

Because this post is primarily interested in the study-of-religion questions raised by Obama’s comments, I will pass swiftly over his argument that ISIL, besides being “not Islamic,” is also “not a state.” As a lawyer, as a scholar of constitutional law, and as the head of a government, I suppose, Obama actually is in a position to make a pronouncement about what “a state” is or is not. Never mind, though, that the name “ISIL” is clearly meant to signify the aspirations and vision of the group, rather than the actuality of it. “The Levant” is an area much larger than is currently controlled by ISIL. Their name signifies their intention and their goals, i.e. “(we want to establish an) Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” To legalistically claim that ISIL isn’t a state because other governments haven’t recognized them, or that, allegedly, those over whom they rule do not welcome them, is, at best, petty. Can heads of states that do not recognize the state of Israel claim that Israel is not a state? (They can.  But this just shows that the concept of “State” is just another locus of socially constructed and contested identity.)

Another viewpoint would argue that a state is a state by virtue of its exercise of power: political power and military power. By that measure, ISIL is a state, and will be one until they are degraded to the point of destruction.

So, Obama’s statement actually speaks to the question of whether ISIL can be called a legitimate state. But once again, this is a matter of perspective, and of pragmatic experience.  From our perspective, no, they are not. But such appeals to standards of legitimacy are bound to fail; the standards are, at best, conventions of a world order that, in any case, ISIL decisively rejects. So what difference does it make for Obama to assert this? Can he really think that Americans, or potential allies in the Arab and Islamic world, would refuse to do battle against ISIL if we happened to think that they were really “a state”? It seems unlikely.  But now that I think about it, perhaps that is so. Because, if it did turn out that, contrary to Obama’s contention, ISIL really was “a state,” then perhaps they would be deserving of that privilege which we usually tend to extend to states: security within their borders, respect for their sovereignty.  It seems to me that this is not really an issue when it comes to ISIL, since, if they can be called a state, they have shown themselves to be an aggressive and invasive sort of imperialistic state, and as such, it seems that we could easily come up with arguments for stopping their advance.

ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

Question #1: is it really true that ISIL has “no vision other than… slaughter”?

Answer: clearly, this is hyperbole. It is simply not true, and is easily falsified. See below for details, but the bottom line is that even a modicum of investigation into the ideals and vision of the adherents and partisans fighting for ISIL can prove that they live for more than slaughter. In a word, the aspirations of ISIL are to reestablish an Islamic Caliphate, an Islamic State, governed by Islamic laws, for Islamic citizens. That is their vision. American, British, and European enemies of ISIL may reject this vision for “Iraq and the Levant,” may argue that such a Caliphate would disrupt the security of the world, or violate the rights of minorities within its borders, or oppress its citizens, or in other ways be VERY VERY BAD. But our argument against the idea of a new Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, even if we are right, doesn’t make it true that ISIL has no vision other than slaughter.

What is this, a comic book? Our nation is poised to put young people in harm’s way and the commander in chief is claiming that our enemy “has no vision other than… slaughter”? It is laughable.

Question #2: why did Obama call ISIL a “terrorist organization, pure and simple”?

Answer: because we have already embraced a “war on terror.” If ISIL can reliably be called “not Islamic,” then going to war against ISIL will, thank Allah, not be a war against Islamic people. Instead, if they are a “terrorist organization, pure and simple,” then we are already, in fact, at war with them, because we are in a “war on terror.” If we really are in a “war on terror,” then this statement about ISIL makes it clear that we are already, in fact, at war with ISIL, not because they are (allegedly) “Islamic,” but because they are “terrorists.” The addition of the phrase “pure and simple” makes it sound as though this “terrorist organization” may in fact be easy to eradicate. They are without ideology, possessing only a vision of slaughter. Since nothing sustains their hatred except hatred, the only action we need to take is to destroy the haters.  The claim is made not so much to convince us to go to war with ISIL—though it tries to do that—but to convince us that this is a war we can win. The phrase “terrorist organization, pure and simple,” implies that their appeal and membership is necessarily limited, and relatively “simple” to destory.  ISIL has no reason for existing other than to do their nasty terrorism, and so all we have to do is take out the terrorists who staff and organize the “terrorist organization,” and the threat will be gone, with no residue. Pure and simple.  Most people are religious.  But most people are not terrorists.  The phrase is meant to suggest that ISIL enjoys only the limited appeal of those groups who just would like to do some terrorism for its own sake.

This is, of course, a complete fabrication. This enemy is not pure and simple anything. If we examine any actual evidence for what actual adherents of ISIL or residents in their territory think ISIL is up to (evidence such as video footage, on which, see below), that evidence will expose as a fabrication this notion that ISIL is “pure and simple” anything.

If we must generalize, let us hypothesize that most of the membership of ISIL believe they are warriors engaged in Jihad on behalf of Islam; they recruit, train, and deploy troops who are not motivated by a vision of slaughter or the practice of terror, per se.  Those kinds of activities do have a certain appeal, to be sure, especially to certain people who harbor resentment or desire revenge on perceived enemies. But slaughter and terror are just tactics in service of a goal; it is the goal, the vision, the image of a final victory, that attracts adherents to the institution. The partisans of ISIL are motivated by a particular vision of how a state version of Islam could be instituted in the ancient homeland of Islamic culture.

“So that All Religion is For Allah, and that his Sharia is in his Land”

So, how can we investigate, for ourselves, what people associated with ISIL really think they are doing? To me it seems important to take their views into account, and not to listen only to their critics, whose first step is to deny that they are Islamic, and who go on to deny their significance or power, and who finally wish only to “degrade and ultimately destroy them” as enemies.

Let’s listen, however briefly, directly to someone who can plausibly represent at least some of the views of those people associated with ISIL.  That seems fair, does it not? It also seems an important step to take, if we are to understand what we are actually up against, and plan accordingly with suitable realism.

One way to do this is to try to find media reports in which the voices of “ISIL” come through. Considering how long this post has already grown, I will make no attempt to undertake such an investigation in depth.

Rather, in the remainder of this post I will rely only on a brief analysis of two short videos discovered through YouTube.

A word of caution is in order. It is impossible for me, working alone, to “verify” what is real, and what is fabrication, in these videos. And so, rather than claiming that these represent “the truth” about ISIL and its adherents, I would prefer to argue only that, when compared with Obama’s simplistic propaganda about America’s newest enemy, these videos provide some limited evidence that at least some of the people who are propping up ISIL (or attempting to construct an image for it) have deeply religious motives that go far beyond his claim that they know only a “vision of … slaughter.”

The two videos embedded below were both (apparently) posted to YouTube by a Syrian opposition figure who is aligned against both Assad and ISIL. Assuming this self-representation is accurate, then, obviously, it is a difficult time in the life of “Eretz Zen.” He (I assume it is a single man, and not actually a media group, or network, although I could be wrong) is far from a neutral observer. According to Eretz Zen, two of the videos he has posted feature a man whom he alleges to be a Saudi Arabian propagandist working for ISIL. Eretz Zen has posted many videos relating to the civil war and rise of ISIL in Syria.  Both of these videos feature interviews with people in places (one is allegedly in Aleppo) that were under ISIL control in late 2013.  These two videos were posted between 10 and 11 months ago as of this writing, well before the current crisis.

By embedding these videos and discussing them, I am not claiming that the voices that are represented in them stand for “all ISIL” (let alone “all of Islam”) but only that they are what they are. Are they propaganda? Of course. Can they be used to reflect on the possible motives of people involved in ISIL? I would argue, yes. But decide for yourself.

In the above video, listen to the words of the first man interviewed, who is represented as a Tunisian 47 year old who has come to the city of Aleppo, in late 2013, to add his support to the creation of ISIL. In response to a question about what brought him to “al Sham” (the Levant) Abdul Rahman says the following:

What brought me here is ‘there is no God but Allah’ … ‘Mohammad is the messenger of Allah’ {N.B. this is the standard Muslim “confession” of faith} so that all religion is for Allah and his Sharia {Islamic law} is in his land.

The man claims that his motives are entirely rooted in his religious devotion, his Islamic convictions and identity. He claims that his support for ISIL is based on his belief, we suppose, that they can and will impose Sharia law in “al Sham.”

In response to the question about his advice for the young men who have not joined in the fight for ISIL, he states:

they should come to the Levant because the master of creation has spoken of it, and that they should help their brethren who have already beaten them to jihad.

Clearly, this man’s words are saturated with religion, with culturally patterned interaction with a culturally postulated superhuman being. Not to mention with socially constructed roles and relations among people. If this old man can come do jihad, why not you, lazy young man back home? The aim of the “Saudi propagandist” seems to be to spread this message, this song of recruitment, in an effort to draw more fighters to ISIL. The recruitment pitch is 100% rooted in (a particular expression of) Islam.

In fact, the propagandist, leading the man on, urges him to go further in this social construction of roles within a culturally patterned system of interactions: he conjures up the figure of the “evil scholar” (very familiar to us in the west, as the “liberal professor”) and asks Abdul Rahman to to comment. He suggests they need to see for themselves what is happening in the Levant, and get out from under their air conditioners! In “al Sham” there are Muslims who need to be defended, he suggests. This is the appeal of the Jihad. His home country he says, responding to another question, “is a land of tyranny and infidelity, ruled by democracy and secularism.” The appeal of ISIL is that the “Islamic State” will be a true Muslim homeland. That is his vision. ISIL speaks to his aspirations to live in a land where Islam is the first and last principle.

A terrorist organization, pure and simple? I don’t think so. There is a deep, centuries old ideological fountain that feeds this stream.

In this next video, which is filled with material rich for this same line of reasoning, I will quote only the young man featured at the beginning of the video. Styled a “Syrian Wahhabist” by Eretz Zen, the man articulates a vision for ISIL in words that seem suffused with a passionate religious feeling:

May Allah bless the Muhjahideen who came from far away lands. We should not specify… from Islamic countries… Whether it’s Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Iraq… we are brothers in Allah! We all love each other in Allah. We will eliminate these borders. We will become one, with Allah’s permission.

Such rhetoric of unity, brotherhood, and love, “in Allah,” will be familiar to those of us who study Christian Evangelicals—who promote unity “in Christ”—though the words may be unexpected when coming from someone we think is a terrorist whose only supposed vision is one of slaughter.

The video goes on and on, of course. I leave aside detailed discussion of the rest of the views expressed, and leave aside further textual or contextual criticism of this “representative” evidence.  The very existence of these propagandistic utterances out there in “cyberspace” falsifies the simplistic rhetoric of Obama regarding ISIL.

“How to Win a Cosmic War”

Obama, who came to office opposed to the “Iraq War,” is now poised to involve the US military in a fresh wave of conflict in the region. Formerly eager to end our involvement there, he now proposes to “degrade and ultimately destroy” a “terrorist organization” by involving us in a fresh wave of warfare.  If ISIL really is just an “organization” of “terrorists,” then we can also keep our strategy “pure and simple”: take out the bad guys with evil motives, and the conflict will be over.  But it’s not that simple, and the enemies we make in this fight will not just go home, chastened and wiser, when we get to the end of our struggle.


We’ve been here before, and we’ve seen what happens when leaders underestimate the complexity of the theater of conflict (see meme at right, which I captured from Facebook last week).

It’s important to respond to challenges with our eyes wide open, using the best available models for understanding the human (and natural) world that we have at our disposal. What I have argued here is that, based on a close reading of his statements about who and what ISIL is, Obama is either leading us into war with his eyes closed, or is trying deliberately to misrepresent the facts so that we will not object that his proposed war is unwinnable.  Not believing Obama to be stupid, I suggest he is deliberately misleading, hoping to conceal the true difficulties that lie ahead.

We the public deserve better.  Whether we support his plans for war or not, we ought to think as clearly as we can about what we are doing, to whom, and why.

Reza Aslan has argued, in his book How to Win a Cosmic War, aka “Beyond Fundamentalism”, that we cannot win in a struggle with religious extremists if we engage them at the level of their cosmic religious rhetoric.  We must not enter this war in the hope that our struggle will help the “true Muslims” defeat the “false Muslims.”  That puts us into the midst of a sectarian struggle to which we are in fact outsiders.

If we fail to recognize the forces that are assembling our enemies, motivating them, and sustaining them in the fight, we cannot win.  We also cannot win if we duplicate their ideological mistakes, in our own idiom.  Let us not choose the wrong weapons, the wrong battlefields, and the wrong devices.

ISIL isn’t some hornet’s nest of pure and simple haters that can be fixed by finding it, pouring on gasoline, and lighting a match.  This is a complex social manifestation of a powerful ideology, a force of human culture, transmitted from mind to mind in forms and images and articulated among individuals in the language of hopes, dreams and aspirations.


The White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by the President on ISIL” (9/10/2014) http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/10/remarks-president-barack-obama-address-nation

Yinger, J. Milton, ed. Religion, Society, and the Individual: an Introduction to the Sociology of Religion. New York: MacMillan, 1957. Contains the famous essay by M. E. Spiro, “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation.”

Obama on ISIL: Not Islamic, Not Religious, Not a State

Who Put the IS in ISIL?

«ISIL … calls itself the “Islamic State.” Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.»

— Barack Obama, 9/10/2014

Obama’s words need to be taken apart and examined. I’ll do that later. For now, I post this quote for the simple purpose of highlighting the absurdity of this public statement. It’s a funny joke to say that the “Holy Roman Empire” was neither holy nor roman nor empire. But it’s neither as funny nor as accurate to debate the IS in ISIL.


The White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by the President on ISIL” (9/10/2014) http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/10/remarks-president-barack-obama-address-nation

The New York Times on YouTube, “Obama ISIS Speech [FULL] Today on 9/10/2014: ‘Ultimately Destroy’ Militants | The New York Times” (9/10/2014) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spIWGoNZnaU

UPDATE: 9/19/2014

I did write a more extended critical examination of the above quote, “Religion, Public Policy, and War: The Case of ISIL”.

After Iowa: Ralph Reed on the evangelical vote

Ralph Reed opines on what the media doesn’t understand about evangelical voters:

Ralph Reed Laughing All the Way to the Bank

“Consider this: 61% of self-identified evangelicals who attended a caucus Tuesday night in Iowa voted for a candidate who is either Roman Catholic (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum) or Mormon (Mitt Romney, who won the caucuses, besting Santorum by eight votes ).

“Here’s how the evangelical vote broke down: 32% for Santorum, 18% for Ron Paul, 13% each for Romney, Gingrich and Rick Perry, 6% for Michele Bachmann and 1% for Jon Huntsman.

“This suggests a more nuanced and complex portrait of voters of faith. They are often crudely portrayed as voting based solely on identity politics, born suckers for quotes from Scripture or “code words” laced in the speeches of candidates appealing to their spiritual beliefs.

“Evangelical voters, it turns out, are a more sophisticated bunch, judging candidates on a broad continuum of considerations from their personal faith and character to leadership attributes and electability.”

As usual, Reed has a point. But of course, there are a core of issues that do appeal to Christian evangelical voters. Also, I wouldn’t simply dismiss the idea that 32% of the evangelicals, a plurality, favored Santorum. He may be Catholic, but he does speak in terms readily understood by the right wing of American evangelicals; and some Catholics openly question how Catholic Santorum really is.

Perhaps these complex caucus results show only that Evangelicals make their decisions based on hope. Hope that they can find a candidate who will address the greatest number of their concerns in the most sympathetic manner. And furthermore that, because the candidates do mainly stick to “code words” (and other forms of propaganda) voters are always forced to hold their noses and take their best guess.

Source: CNN Religion Blogs

After Life in Roman Paganism (Cumont, 1922)

A few days ago I finished reading After Life in Roman Paganism by legendary French historian of religion Franz Cumont. The book publishes lectures originally delivered in English at Yale University in 1921.

My copy, a Dover Publications paperback edition from 1959, originally cost $1.35, was designed to last for a long time in a library, and is “an unabridged and unaltered republication of the first edition published by Yale University Press in 1922.” There is a stamp on the cover page which reads “The University of Chicago / Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion.” And the volume is signed J. M. Kitagawa / U of Chicago in blue pencil. Kitagawa is still a legendary name around the University of Chicago, although he is not very well known.

Back to the volume itself. There are no annotations in the book… at all. Nor was there sign of a lot of reading. Now, I don’t think that means Kitagawa didn’t read it, because my reading of it, which occurred on two coasts and included quite a few nights that ended with dropping the copy on the floor of a beach house, left very little trace as well, and I also did not make marginal notes. It’s a sturdy book, designed to be clothbound and reside on a dusty shelf (unread) for generations.

Concerning the contents of the book, I found Cumont an ingenuously knowing historian, but also a friend to knowledge. He offers discussion of a treasure trove of evidences taken from the Roman era of the broader Mediterranean world, and thus his purview encompasses Greece, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and even further afield. He loves the subject and conveys his love quite vividly. For instance: long flights of fanciful dreamlike prose extol astronomical immortality as the ultimate achievement of pagan eschatological thought. Other passages convey his own deep fascination with the existential problem of human life, namely, it’s apparent end. But such follies of a brilliant scholar are more than matched by the immense learning he brings to the task. Here is a teacher who will for years continue to master many of us students of religion. Cumont gives a variety of learned citations to ancient authors, monuments, and inscriptions from a spectrum of traditions and geographical regions. One could learn a great deal, chasing down the sources cited by Cumont.

Ultimately, Cumont’s approach is the problem. The variety itself cannot be sustained. Cumont uses a safely vague (and so totally implausible) tissue of statements implying causal and actual connection between his scores of points of evidence. He cites so many modes of piety, varieties of belief, common practices, popular expressions, poetic and dramatic utterances, epitaphs, myths and prayers that he apparently has no time left for offering a plausible case that the words things and images he discusses all properly relate to one another, or a common subject, historically. Which is not to say that they don’t — often they clearly do. For example, in the first half of the book, the Pythagoreans appear to have enormous and far reaching influence on many thinkers, and much of his exposition is at least plausible. But the details of the relationship remain unclear in his exposition. So, this book is untamed and speculative, but sometimes right.

More about this book on strata.

Read it on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=VC4VAAAAYAAJ.

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