Tag Archives: Islam

On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism

I recently read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. It was an interesting, albeit uninformed, manifesto against religion, but one aspect of the author’s fundamental argument struck me as particularly poorly conceived and communicated: the notion of “scriptural literalism.” In an effort to marginalize and dismiss the experiences and perspectives of more liberal and progressive religionists, Harris must build a case for the purity of the lived religion of fundamentalists, as well as the centrality of “scriptural literalism.” That is, Harris insists that those who adhere to the “literal” meaning, or the “letter” of the scriptures, are more pious and genuine practitioners of their faith. Those who reject that “scriptural literalism” are feeding off of secular insights and so are not true practitioners of their religion. “The doors leading out of scriptural literalism,” he insists, “do not open from the inside” (18–19, emphasis in original). Liberal religion is just religion mixed with non-religion; it’s corrupt religion. This is a rhetorical attempt to invalidate the contributions made to this debate by moderates and liberal religionists. Harris need only concern himself with the fundies, which makes everything so much easier to criticize and condemn.

The problem is that there is no such thing as “scriptural literalism.” It simply does not exist. It’s a fundamentalist claim that has no basis in reality (more on why Harris is adopting fundamentalist ideologies later). Here’s why:

First, we don’t really know precisely what the “letter of the texts” really mean. Texts don’t carry inherent meaning. They carry symbols that signify broad ranges of semantic senses for groups who have loose agreements about those signifiers. When we read a text, we call up in our minds our understanding of that agreement and use a variety of methods to try to whittle the possible meanings down to the one we think was intended by the author. This means the meaning of a text resides in and originates from our minds, not the text. The text just provides fuzzy outlines of semantic fields within which we think the intended meaning is to be found, and there are even a variety of ways that an author can actually undermine the expected meaning, violating those semantic fields. It’s a guessing game, really, and the further removed from the cultural and literary context of a text’s composition, the more it is a guessing game. So when we talk about the “letter of the texts,” we’re pretending that the letter and the meaning have a 1:1 correspondence, which they simply and objectively do not.

Next, in order to move from the letter to the meaning, we have to impose some lenses that help us focus on certain semantic fields over and against others in our attempt to whittle that potential meaning down. Our lenses come from our experiences with language and with literature and with culture and other things. This is why when an American reads the noun “boot,” depending on the region they live in, they will most likely impose lenses that whittle the potential semantic fields down to something like a cowboy boot. For someone living in Great Britain, though, the most likely whittled down meaning will be something like an army boot, if not the trunk of a car. Our experiences govern those lenses, and we best interpret texts from other times, languages, and cultures when we can approximate the lenses they would have been using. This is also a guessing game and thus makes it incredibly difficult—and sometimes impossible—to interpret ancient texts.

Conservative and “literalist” readers of the scriptures, whether of the Bible or the Quran, overwhelmingly tend to take one of two approaches to interpretation. One is to presuppose the ahistorical function of scripture and read them as if they were a contemporary composition directed specifically at them, in which case their lenses have them light years from the authors’ intended meanings. The other is to impose an historical set of lenses that serves the religious ideologies of the reader. In other words, they attempt to approximate the lenses used by the authors, but they do so in ways that attempt to protect (or legitimize) their presuppositions about the text’s meanings. For instance, conservative Christians often interpret the word elohim (god/s) in Psalm 82 and Exod 22:8 as references to human judges, and they claim that the word was honorifically bestowed in ancient Israel on judges and other special authorities. It wasn’t (see pp. 49–56 here). Elohim refers to gods, not to judges. There is no fundamentalist Christian anywhere that even approximates literalism when it comes to Psalm 82 (or the Song of Solomon, or 2 Kgs 3:27, or Matt 5:29, or Gen 6:2–4, or James 2:14–26, or dozens and dozens of other passages). To do so would be to contradict their reading of other portions of scripture that they believe deny the existence of other deities. This brings us to the next consideration: univocality.

Univocality means a single voice. It is the dogma that holds that the scriptures (Bible or Quran), as the inerrant and/or inspired word of God, represent God’s consistent and unified position and message. It does not contradict itself. This is a dogma. Both the Bible and the Quran, however, are thoroughly inconsistent. They are collections of texts composed by numerous different authors with numerous different viewpoints over long periods of time that have been edited and redacted by numerous others. They are empirically and objectively not univocal. In order to maintain the concept of univocality, however, “literalists” must massage their interpretation of certain texts to serve that concept and the overriding ideologies of their groups. If a seeming contradiction is identified, the passage that supports an existing ideology will be used as a lens through which to reinterpret the passage that conflict in a way that makes it agreeable. This absolutely precludes literalism, and it brings us to the final consideration:

Literalists are not literal about scripture, they’re literal about their ideology. Scripture is secondary. Religious groups don’t derive doctrine from the literal interpretation of scripture, they derive doctrine from negotiating between their group’s past, the needs of the present within a cultural context, and their interpretation of scripture. It’s very important to keep in mind that that last item serves the other two. Scripture is the authority to which religionists appeal for their beliefs. It is not the source of their beliefs. It is flexible and ambiguous and malleable enough to say what religious groups need it to say. There are ideological literalists, and scripture is their paint and palette. There are no scriptural literalists.

The irony of Harris’ claim is that he has to adopt a fundamentalist dogma in order to serve his own ideology (“Religion bad!”). This is a habit with a long and storied history in ideological bickering. It’s a lot easier to criticize religious traditions if you adopt the fragile and brittle worldviews of the most fundamentalist and uncritical groups within that tradition. Then the more reasonable and informed and complex perspectives can be dismissed before they complicate your arguments and make you think too hard. This is a tactic employed frequently by apologists of all kinds, including, evidently, the dogmatic and belligerent apologists from the New Atheist movement. Dogmas, whether religious or anti-religious, are a lot easier to proliferate when they’re black and white and reducible to small conceptual chunks that are easily digestible for young white males in trilbies who are infatuated with the transcendence of their own genius.

EDIT: Added some links and cleaned up some syntax.

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Richard Dawkins Needs to Check His Privilege

Dr. Richard Dawkins recently linked to an article about a woman at a UK university who challenged the UUK (Universities UK) regarding guidelines allowing for voluntary gender segregation during certain kinds of gatherings. Fair enough, but a Muslim woman replied to his tweet with the following:

Many people have expressed the same concern with a very, very wealthy and influential white male telling minorities how they’re supposed to feel about their worldviews and religious community, and one of Dawkins’ sycophants (the white male to whom Salya was responding) decided to make it worse:

In other words, unless her position on the matter matches that of these two white males, yes, Salya absolutely does need to be told how to feel about Islam. Salya returned the volley:

To which Dr. Dawkins replied with his characteristically naive rhetoric:

What Dr. Dawkins apparently doesn’t know is that racism and sexism are about power and oppression, not about judgments and insults. When Salya says you cannot be racist to a white person, or sexist to a male, what she’s saying is that those comments cannot reflect or reify oppression. Salya’s words can never oppress Richard Dawkins, but Richard Dawkins’ words can absolutely oppress Salya, particularly when he insists that the right to represent Muslim women belongs in the hands of white atheist males. Just look at how many of his 879,500 Twitter followers came out of the woodwork to rhetorically brutalize her. Who has more social leverage in this situation? Who needs to be aware of the effects of that leverage? This is made all the more ironic by the fact that it’s just that power and oppression against which Dr. Dawkins ostensibly fights. That he’s willing to leverage his white male privilege directly against the perspective and integrity of one of those for whom he pretends to advocate in the interest of defending the inerrancy of his own broad characterization of Islam shows his interests lie not in the people, but in his own opinion. His conceptualization of Islam is the priority, not that of actual Muslims, and certainly not that of a Muslim woman, who evidently needs to be told how she’s supposed to feel about her religion by these white males, who—in their etic and antagonistic perspective—know better.

I’m not trying to step in and protect Salya. She’s capable of doing that herself, and she knows much more about this than I do. Dr. Dawkins, however, appears to know as little about racism and sexism as he does about the sociology and psychology of religion, and I suggest he learn to check his privilege.


Update on “Religious Bigotry in a University Classroom?”

A little over two years ago I published a post sharing comments made by an adjunct professor at Tarrant County Community College (Paul Derengowski) regarding his final exam for his World Religions class. He was highlighting something a student wrote in response to one of the questions. Here are that teacher’s comments:

As part of the Final Exam in World Religions I have all the students answer two short essay questions at the very end. 1. What did you enjoy most about the class? 2. What lesson did you learn that made, or will make, the greatest impact on your life?

One of my student wrote in answer to the second question:

Going to visit the Mormons taught me that there are many counterfeits out there to beware of and they all sound very good to try and draw you in or change your own philosophy. Trust in your faith and don’t be trusting of that in the world that has been derived from man alone.

Please note that all my students are required to visit two religions outside their comfort zone, and it is purely up to them where they go. They write a five-page paper on the experiences, and then get up in class and briefly discuss their findings. It is one aspect of the class that the students repeatedly tell me how much they appreciate and enjoy.

The student’s comments above are priceless. Why? Because she made the visit to the local Mormon meeting house on her own, long before we ever discussed Mormonism as a religion in class. In her words the Mormon church is (1) a counterfeit, and (2) a worldly religion derived from man alone. I couldn’t agree more.

The neat thing about teaching World Religions is not the pay, the long hours of preparation and study, but the lives that are changed for the better when I read comments like those above. They “get it” in a postmodern world of relativism, narcissism, and nihilism, all of which Mormonism espouses at different levels of thought. And because they “get it,” they won’t end up in a cult like Mormonism. Thank God for that!!

Btw, the jury came back with a unanimous decision that Mormonism was not an accurate representation of Christianity, and that after I placed the only Mormon in the class on the side attempting to prove that it was. Unfortunately, after the trial was over, the Mormon quit coming to class (not that she had a stellar attendance record anyway), and she’ll end up failing, sorry to say.

Several people in the field commented that this was entirely and completely inappropriate. I  shared in the comments section some responses from the teacher and a year later shared another post related to his bigotry.

It  has now come to my attention that Paul Derengowski recently resigned from his position at Tarrant County Community College as a direct result of his bigoted approach to teaching. Apparently two Muslim students who had had enough (one of whom commented on my blog) repeatedly interrupted his class during a lecture and one made threatening remarks that made Paul and several students quite uncomfortable. Both students left the class a couple minutes early. Paul filed a report with campus police, and several students also filed grievances. In the end, however, the students don’t appear to have suffered any disciplinary actions. One of them sent an email around linking to a bunch of Paul’s comments about Islam, Mormonism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses elsewhere on the internet, and the admin didn’t appreciate what they found there. You will find many different versions of the story from many different angles if you google the keywords of the story (often describing Paul as a victim of “Sharia Law”). A news report is here. Another report is here. Paul has posted a long letter on his own blog explaining his side of the story and his resignation. Read through it if you have the stomach, but note he suggests in one place that all mosques should be under 24-hour government surveillance and all Muslims should be profiled and immediately deported or executed for any crimes whatsoever, including spitting on the sidewalk (what if they were born in the US?). This is the tone that accompanies Paul wherever he goes. It simply defies logic that he does not consider himself bigoted in the least (although he defines a bigot only as someone who has dogmatically made up their mind without looking at the data).

Now, as far as I’m concerned, the actions of the students were completely and totally inappropriate, and the one who made the threat, if it did happen, should have been disciplined. There’s simply no call or excuse for continued interruptions or threats toward teachers or students. I disapprove of those actions unilaterally. They should have gone to an administrator. Having said that, Paul says they should have come to him with Quran in hand to prove to him he’s wrong. That illustrates how useless it would be to try to approach him directly about his teaching style or to at all reason with him. An outburst of some kind from students was inevitable. It appears the school did not take the action Paul wanted because it was made aware of Paul’s phenomenally bigoted approach to teaching about religions. They cancelled a class he was going to teach while they were investigating the matter and he felt they didn’t want him around anymore, so he resigned. He’s still angry and feels having his syllabus and approach left alone for three years indicates his syllabus and approach were perfectly legitimate, but that’s obviously because they just didn’t vet him very well or look at his syllabus. That’s the school’s fault, although they’ll probably shuffle the blame around.

I leave you with Paul’s parting words to the school administration:

To the TCC administration—Barbara Coan, Josue Munoz, and Rusty Fox—who mishandled this case terribly, what a disappointment you have been.  You all were given the opportunity to serve God, but chose to serve mammon instead.  And by choosing to protect your bellies, you jeopardized, and will continue to jeopardize, every other student and employee associated with TCC.  In fact, the precedent you set by failing to act appropriately in quashing this terroristic act of jihad by these two Muslim students may cost someone his/her life someday.  God forbid if that happens.  Nevertheless, if it does, you won’t have to look far to see the bloodletting, because it will already be on your hands.  But, then again, maybe it will be your head they will want next, so it won’t matter then, just like it doesn’t matter to you now.  You will have your reward and so will they.