Chris Hedges, Abrahamic supremacism, Plato

Chris Hedges wrote in 2007 that…

“…individualism—the belief that we can exist as distinct beings from the tribe, or the crowd, and that we are called on as individuals to make moral decisions that at times defy the clamor of the tribe or the nation—is a gift of the Abrahamic faiths.”

He then goes on to give an analysis of a selection of scripture to support his view that the “Abrahamic faiths” do advocate this sort of individualism.  He however cannot rightly argue for the further point that this is somehow a unique contribution from this tradition, as any adequate comparison with other traditions would reveal counterexamples.

As one such counterexample, read what Plato wrote, in the voice of Socrates arguing against the sophist-in-training, Polus (Gorgias 472):

“And so now you will find almost everybody, Athenians and foreigners, in agreement with you on the points you state, if you like to bring forward witnesses against the truth of what I say: if you like, there is Nicias, son of Niceratus, with his brothers, whose tripods are standing in a row in the Dionysium; or else Aristocrates, son of Scellias, whose goodly offering again is well known at Delphi; or if you choose, there is the whole house of Pericles or any other family you may like to select in this place. But I, alone here before you, do not admit it, for you fail to convince me: you only attempt, by producing a number of false witnesses against me, to oust me from my reality, the truth. But if on my part I fail to produce yourself as my one witness to confirm what I say, I consider I have achieved nothing of any account towards the matter of our discussion, whatever it may be; nor have you either, I conceive, unless I act alone as your one witness, and you have nothing to do with all these others. Well now, this is one mode of refutation, as you and many other people understand it; but there is also another which I on my side understand. Let us therefore compare them with each other and consider if there is a difference between them. For indeed the points which we have at issue are by no means of slight importance: rather, one might say, they are matters on which it is most honorable to have knowledge, and most disgraceful to lack it; for in sum they involve our knowing or not knowing who is happy and who is not. To start at once with the point we are now debating, you consider it possible for a man to be happy while doing wrong, and as a wrongdoer, since you regard Archelaus as a wrongdoer, and yet happy.”

Is Plato here not representing the exact sort of individualism which Hedges credits to the “Abrahamic faiths”?  Socrates is saying that in order to determine matters of ethics, it matters not what the rest of society at large says, but that it only depends on what truth itself reveals.

I might suggest that Hedges is taking part in a bit of Abrahamic supremacism.  Hedges plays loose with the history of philosophy is order to make his point that Abrahamic monotheism is unique in the profundity of its moral rectitude, that without the Abrahamic “prophets” to teach them, all people would be at some ethical disadvantage. The example of many such as Plato, who were writing completely independently of any Abrahamic influence, are enough to refute this supremacism.

It would be interesting to look at the first part of Hedges argument as well:  That the scriptures actually teach this individualism as he claims. For example, Hedges says:

“God exists in the word and through the word, an unprecedented conception in the ancient world that required the highest order of abstract thinking.  “In the beginning,” the Gospel of John reads, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This is why the second of the Ten Commandments prohibits Israelites from making concrete images of God.”

So, the reason that that community in exile in Babylon which wrote the Book of Exodus did as they did, is because they shared the same conception of God that the author of the Gospel of John had?  That seems radically pseudo-historical.  Without some positive evidence for uniting two authors as if they had the same concerns and conceptions, it would be better to address each on their own terms.  Especially when these authors are vastly separated by time and place and language.

Perhaps Hedges places too much faith on a set of premises including his statement that “God is that mysterious force—and you can give it many names as other religions do—which works upon us and through us to seek and achieve truth, beauty and goodness.”  That is, perhaps Hedges is depending on the assumption that both of these authors (of John 1:1 and of Exodus 20:4) were worked upon by this “mysterious force” such that they were both brought to the same conception of this divine entity.  Perhaps he could give some argument for this hypothesis, but to use it as an unargued premise renders his argument very unconvincing to anyone who does not share his faith in such a holy spirit.

A final thought:  It seems that the ethical competitiveness of pagan Greek philosophy was well-recognized by antique “Abrahamic” thinkers.  And they too took part in pseudo-historical musings in order to ground their views of the supremacy of their own traditions.  Many Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian writers erroneously claimed that Plato had read the Pentateuch, including Josephus and Augustine. This claim is made in the fascinating Exhortation to the Greeks a probably fourth-century CE work by Pseudo-Justin (previously believed to be by Justin the Martyr, which actually may still be Roman Catholic doctrine).  In Exhortation to the Greeks literally every bad idea can be identified as coming from Homer or some other pagan source, and every good idea can be identified as coming from Moses or some other prophet, no matter how strained the arguments must become.


Reza Aslan, Bruce Lincoln, violence and transcendence

Frank Zappa was on Larry King once, and he suggested to a young caller looking for advice on how to write lyrics that he should just watch CNN for a couple of hours. According to this comment from a regular, Zappa would indeed dedicate a certain amount of time to watching news programming. While I do not usually care for Zappa’s lyrics (but I think “Food Gathering in Post-Industrial America” works well), nevertheless I just watched a bit of CNN. I did not come up with any lyrics, but I did come up with some thoughts about religion.

What I watched was this CNN talk with Reza Aslan from September 29, 2014. What I found most suspicious from Aslan was his claim that religion can neither promote violence nor peace, but politics can. The premise which Aslan is depending on is that religion is sufficiently separate from politics.

Why would I be suspicious of this claim? Well, the context of the discussion is the actions of the newly-formed Islamic State under this Ibrahim (or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or some other pseudonym). Does Ibrahim separate politics from religion? I would wager not. For him, his “religion” (or Arabic دين din, meaning more generally, “way of life”) includes his politics.

If it is the politics of Ibrahim (and other members of the Islamic State) which promote their violence (which everyone seems to agree), and their politics are encapsulated by their “religion” (as they themselves claim), then Aslan cannot rightly say that their religion does not promote this violence.

That’s the doubt anyway. But, maybe Aslan can give some account which separates their religion (properly conceived) from their politics. That is, even though they identify their religion as political, there is a (putatively) adequate, more proper, definition of religion which excludes the political aspects.

Aslan goes some way to such a definition in a 2010 article for Faithstreet, “Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett: Evangelical atheists?”. There he says, “Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence–by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented”.

I would also be suspicious of this claim, however. I can think of two ways of understanding to what “that which lies beyond the manifest world” refers: an epistemological way, and an ontological way.

On the epistemological meaning, “that which lies beyond the manifest world” refers to matters which are not made manifest by our normal mechanisms for obtaining knowledge.  The problem with this:  We cannot know that religion is occupied with such things, if we don’t know anything about such things. And we cannot know anything about such things unless we have some extra-normal mechanism for obtaining knowledge about them.  If we do have knowledge of such things, then there needs to be some extra-normal mechanism for obtaining such knowledge.  But there’s no reason to think we have any such extra-normal mechanism unless there is some adequate, special account for such a mechanism that goes above and beyond the standard accounts of knowledge.  Aslan does not supply nor reference any such account. We don’t appear to have one. Aslan cannot rightly just assume that such a mechanism exists; he would need sufficient evidence for it if he’d use this epistemological meaning.

The second option is that it is an ontological distinction:  “manifest world” refers to a substance of one sort, and “that which lies beyond the manifest world” refers to a different sort of substance.  On this meaning then Aslan would be saying that religion is occupied with a substance or substances “beyond” the “manifest” substance or substances. The problem here is this implies that physicalists could not have a religion, when they do in fact often have a religion. Physicalists hold, of course, that there is just one sort of substance, making up the physical world. A physicalist’s religion therefore would not be occupied with a substance beyond the physical world, because the terms of her religion would never refer to such a substance, because she would always deny that such exists.

While J.P. Moreland in a 2012 post hermeneuticallytheologically argues that a Christian cannot rightly be a physicalist, he of course recognizes the existence of, and tries to refute, those who do identify as both.  Two examples he documents are Nancey Murphy and Joel B. Green.  If Aslan is left to argue that Murphy’s or Green’s Christian identities are not examples of identities that are really religious, but merely appear so, then I think Aslan is left to argue a No True Scotsman fallacy.

What’s the alternative?  I would cite Bruce Lincoln’s Holy Terrors (2nd edition; 2006, University of Chicago Press) as giving a plausible alternative framework.  First let’s look at one of Lincoln’s conclusions. Speaking about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he says, “It was their religion that persuaded Mohamed Atta and 18 others that the carnage they perpetuated was not just an ethical act, but a sacred duty” (p. 16).  Is Lincoln making some sort of bigoted remark that the religion of so many Muslims throughout the world is violent? No.  He’s saying that the hijackers had their own religious identity (whether you want to call it a version of Islam or not), and this identity was very much functional in their actions.

This conclusion is barred on Aslan’s view.  Lincoln however can get there, because he accepts more “maximalist” religious identities as a part of religion as a topic, just as much as the more “minimalist” identities which Aslan’s sort of view accepts.  Minimalist religious identities, Lincoln says, see their own religion “as limited to an important set of (chiefly metaphysical) concerns, protects its privileges against state intrusion, but restricts its activity and influence to this specialized sphere” (p. 5).  Maximalist identities instead see their own religion as something which “ought to permeate all aspects of social, indeed of human existence” (ibid.).  And there can be identities which fill the spectrum between these two extremes.  Lincoln argues that a minimalist position is very much a product of European Enlightenment thinking rather than being a universal trait of religions.  A proper account of religion that is anywhere near thorough, then, must be well ready to accept more maximalist religious identities as part of its subject matter. If this is the case though, then political actions can in many cases be religious actions, just as long as the actor has a religious identity maximal enough to ground some of his politics in religious concerns.  I don’t see any good reason to doubt this.

I cannot go so far as to say that Lincoln is certainly right, although he may well be.  But I can say that Aslan’s theory has a lot to answer before I could take it as seriously as Lincoln’s.