Over at The American Conservative Noah Millman and Rod Dreher are having a discussion over the basic premise that founding texts (e.g., Bible, Koran) and individuals (e.g., Jesus, Muhammad) have a deep influence upon the nature of a religion. Long time readers will be aware that I side much more with Millman on this. In fact I recall that years ago in the comments of Ross Douthat’s old blog at The Atlantic (alas, comments are gone from their archives) I took the more maximalist position that theology and logical coherency are not particularly relevant toward understanding religious phenomena in an exchange with Noah (he made an analogy with law, and I responded that that proved my point about the pliability of religious ideas).
The basic axis of the debate is simple enough. Observers, such as Andrew Sullivan, point out that Muhammad’s life was characterized by a level of directed violence due to this actions which has no analog in the life of Jesus. As Muslims view Muhammad as the perfect man, worthy of emulation, the logic would be that a violent man would result in a violent religion. As Islam is probably the most violent religion today (though yes, Christians commit the most violence because of the simple fact that the United States is a superpower; but Christianity is not particularly relevant to the rationale), the logic is eminently plausible. Conversely, Jesus’ life was one of passivity in the face of violence. Therefore, any violence in the history of Christianity is in contravention to the basic spirit of the religion.
There are two primary issues, one relatively concrete, and another more abstract but fundamental. The concrete one is that it is trite but true to state that Muhammad was his own Constantine. That is, he was not simply a spiritual teacher, but also a temporal ruler. More broadly, while Christianity became an imperial religion, Islam was born an imperial religion. This makes comparisons between the early years of the faiths difficult, because one could argue that Islam recapitulated in 40 years (going from an persecuted sect to the imperial ideology) what took Christianity 400 years! Since founding texts and canons tend to crystallize in the early phase of a religion’s life cycle it stands to reason that their character would be shaped by their local historical-social context. The project of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the late 4th and early 5th centuries was in large part to refashion Christianity from a counter-cultural cult whose base consisted of the urban lower middle class to a universal imperial religion suitable for aristocratic patronage and adherence (see: Through the Eye of the Needle). During the Protestant Reformation, and down to the Second Great Awakening, this turn toward the elites has been asserted by radical Christians of a “primitive” bent to have been an error, at variance from the fundamental core of the faith (see: Restorationism)). That may be true, but until the Enlightenment the general outline of the Christian relationship to the political order was exactly the one promoted by St. Augustine and his heirs in the 5th century. That was Christianity. For non-believers what Christianity should have been is irrelevant. What Christianity was and is is the primary concern.
In other words, what Dreher, Sullivan, and many others see as the cause of social and cultural phenomena may actually be the product of that phenomena in the first place (e.g., the oppressive and Machiavellian aspects of Muhammad and the early Muslim community being a function of the fact that early Islam had to deal with almost immediate profane temporal power). Jesus may have been born in a violent Roman Empire, and ultimately the subject of violent acts from the Roman authorities and his enemies among other Jews, but he was heir to a relatively non-violent tradition among the Pharisees (what became Talmudic Judaism and later Orthodox Judaism) which eventually achieved near total acceptance among Jews* after the defeat of Simon bar Kokhba. It is famously pointed out by many that many of the more conciliatory Surahs promulgated by Muhammad date to the period when the Muslim community was weak, while the more hegemonic ones were when the community was hegemonic. This goes to the point that specific context influences the weight of values which are expressed at the founding of a religion. The early Christians and Jews lived under a Roman dominion which was far more powerful than the tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia, and there was no realistic possibility that they could overturn the pagan order (as evidenced by the outcomes of the quixotic Jewish revolts of the 1st and 2nd century, which totally obliterated Jewish militancy).
But this brings me to the more fundamental issue. Theology and texts have far less power over shaping a religion’s lived experience than intellectuals would like to credit. This is a difficult issue to approach, because even believers who are vague on peculiarities of the details of theology (i.e., nearly all of them!) nevertheless espouse that theology as true. Very few Christians that I have spoken to actually understand the substance of the elements of the Athanasian Creed, though they accept it on faith. Similarly, very few Sunni Muslims could explain with any level of coherency why al-Ghazali‘s refutation of the Hellenistic tendency within early Islam shaped their own theology (if they are Sunni it by definition does!). Conversely, very few Shia could explain why their own tradition retains within its intellectual toolkit the esoteric Hellenistic philosophy which the Sunni have rejected. That’s because almost no believers actually make recourse to their own religion’s intellectual toolkit.
This is the hard part for many intellectuals, religious or irreligious, to understand. For intellectuals ideas have consequences, and they shape their lives. Their religious world view is naturally inflected by this. And most importantly they confuse their own comprehension of religious life, the profession of creeds rationally understand and mystical reflection viscerally experienced, with modal religiosity. This has important consequences, because intellectuals write, and writing is permanent. It echoes down through the ages. Therefore our understanding of the broad scope of religious history is naturally shaped by how intellectuals view religion. In a superficial sense the history of religion is the history of theology, because theology is so amenable to preservation.
To give a concrete example of the confusions that false theoretical commitments can entail, one can model the Reformation as being caused in a necessary and sufficient fashion by Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses. And yet what of radicals such as John Wycliffe and Jan Huss? Arguably Catharism was theologically and institutionally more radical than any Christian mass movement before the 19th century (the Munster Rebellion failed, abortive attempts before Mormonism to reshape Christianity’s Nicene root never took). An excessively materialist reduction of the Reformation is that the arrival of the printing press meant that the Roman Catholic church’s ideological monopoly was no longer enforceable. This seems entirely too pat. Not only that, but though the Reformation resulted in greater ideological diversity at the institutional level, the pre-Tridentine Renaissance Church was quite theologically diverse (this was one of the major criticisms of the “reformers”!). A more thorough understanding of the forces, inevitable and contingent, which led to the outbreak of Europe’s religious fracture in the 16th century surely has to include the diverse social and culture forces shaping people at the time, as well the specific personality of Martin Luther and his confederates.
And yet though Luther’s personality may have had some effect on the initial shape of the Reformation, it seems that to some extent a reordering of the Renaissance Church was inevitable, and if not Luther, then someone else. In other words personalities and ideas are necessary, but the Reformation was frankly not rate limited in terms of theology. There are always many ideas floating around suitable for selection. Theological innovation can not operate on the historical scale without much broader social forces which enable it to flourish (e.g., Hungarian Unitarianism, which has Italian intellectual roots, owes it existence to the patronage of a prince). And importantly the institutional Protestant movements themselves imposed severe checks as excessive theological innovation once intellectuals began to turn against the historic traditions of ancient Christian church (e.g., the Trinity, which is not derivable sola scriptura in any obvious sense).
Ultimately my own personal revelation on these issues occurred in the mid-aughts. Though I have always been skeptical of God, and an explicit and self-conscious atheist from childhood on, I found religious beliefs peculiar and difficult to comprehend in any intuitive sense. This led me early on to reading the source texts and scriptures, as well as theological commentaries (e.g., Summa Theologica, and I’ve read the whole of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament multiple times, and Genesis dozens). In this way I felt I understood on some deep level why people were religious. But I was wrong. When I read Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust it opened up a whole landscape of cognitive anthropology which explained with much greater accuracy the paradoxes of religious belief and behavior with which I was confronted. The key insight of cognitive scientists is that for the vast majority of human beings religion is about psychological intuition and social identification, and not theology. A deductive theory of religion derived from axioms of creed fails in large part because there is no evidence that the vast majority of religious believers have internalized the sophisticated aspects of their theologies and scriptures in any deep and substantive sense. To give a concrete example, Sri Lankan Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims can give explicit explanations to at least a rudimentary level as to the differences of their respective religious beliefs. But when prompted to explain their understanding of the supernatural in a manner which was unscripted, and which was not amenable to a fall back upon indoctrinated verbal formulas, their conceptions of god(s) were fundamentally the same! (see: Theological Incorrectness). The superficiality of theological system building is also evident in the fact that when confronted with radicalism derived from the logic of shared axioms during the Reformation prominent Protestant thinkers fell back upon tradition and revelation to defend the common creeds inherited from the early Roman church.
And that is why one should always been cautious of taking theology, textual analysis, and intellectualism too seriously when it comes to religion. Mathematicians can derive proofs from logical analysis. Those proofs are invariant across individuals and subcultures. They are true in a fundamental sense. Though natural science attempts to validate and refine theories and formal models which are robust, it fails when there is no empirical check upon the model building. Outside of pure math our powers of ratiocination are overwhelmed by subjective decisions along the chain of propositions. Separate theologians and have them derive from first principles, and there will be no similarity in their final inferences about the nature of God and the universe. Elite theological conformity is a function of social conformity, not the power of intellectual rigor. When isolation is imposed upon a community of religious believers for any given period of time they are almost always defined by a rapid shift toward heterodoxy, as they lose contact with the broader elite consensus (see: Dao of Muhammad as an example of how strongly an alien milieu can totally transform a familiar religious group unless that subculture remains in contact with the broader community).
Theology is not a cause of any great robustness on the macro scale. Nor does it explain much of micro scale behavior. Where does that leave us to be “serious” about religion? As Noah Millman stated it requires a deep program of empirical analysis and research of massive multi-disciplinary scope. Almost no one is interested in such a program from what I have seen. In my post below several readers ask why I think Islam is inherently violent. After reading this I think you now understand I don’t think this at all, I don’t think Islam is inherently anything. When it comes to religious phenomena I am very much a nominalist. One could say that I’m a nominalist when it comes to the species concept, and I am, but species have much more clear and distinct bounded phenomenological structure than religion does. Rather, when I say that Islamic extremists are qualitatively not like Christian extremists, I am making a descriptive and empirical observation, without much theoretical baggage. My interlocutors have a difficult time comprehending this because to be frank I don’t expect many of them to have thought about religious phenomena in more than a superficial fashion in ideologically motivated arguments. Or, more often, ideologically motivated quorums of consensus.
On many specific issues I agree with Rod Dreher a great deal when it comes to Islam. I do think too many Muslims and their liberal fellow travelers attempt to squelch justified critique of the religion by making accusations of bigotry (I’m on the receiving end regularly). Obviously I disagree with that. But, where I part with Rod is his “theory of religion.” As a religious believer with a deep intellectual predisposition I doubt Rod Dreher and I will be able to agree on the primal point at issue. Not only do I believe that the theologies of all religion are false, but I believe that they’re predominantly just intellectual foam generated from the churning of broader social and historical forces. Some segments of the priestly class will always find institutional politics exhausting, mystical experience out of their character, and legal commentaries excessively mundane. These will be drawn to philosophical dimension of religious phenomena. Which is fine as far as it goes, but too often there is an unfortunate tendency toward reducing religion to just this narrow dimension. But I have minimal confidence that most people will accept that the Christianity church has little to do with Jesus and that Islam has little to do with Muhammad. And yet I think that’s the truth of it….
Addendum: I don’t write these posts often to clarify my viewpoints because I’ve written them before. Here’s one from 2006. Between then and now I have no sense that people have bothered to actually read and understand the phenomena which they have such passionate and confident views of.
* Naturally Hellenistic Jews went even further in reconciling themselves with Roman power, by assimilating into Greco-Roman culture more thoroughly.