Primitive Religion in a Modern World

  • Date / 15 December 2006

This article is difficult to write, more difficult still to bring before a large audience. But I need the input from an intelligent audience able to look both ways regarding the value of religion, and this organization must surely have the requisite audience. I therefore ask your indulgence to survey theoretical work developed over a thirty year period and make your comments freely available, with my sincere thanks in advance.

Here is one of those generalizations one loves to hate: we moderns, for all of our civility, are often the victims of latent primitivity owing to the vestigial trappings of a religious institution that we have talked ourselves into believing to be at one with our highest ideals and aspirations. Islam, however much developed out of a perfectly natural desire to escape a condition of cultural barbarity (Muhammad was quite sensitive to this apparently) nevertheless served in most ways as a glove to the hand of its culture(s). It was perfect for groups stressing individual honesty, honor and respectability—what we usually call these days “honor-based” societies.

Honor-based cultures, and most especially so the Mediterranean ones, are characterized today, as they have been for thousands of years, by a saying known to every Arab and doubtless to most Muslims: Brother against brother and both against family; family against family and both against community, and etc. The culture is one in which recrimination and vengeance are, if not the order of the day, at least a culturally disposed latency. Islam has done nothing to alter that reality. In fact, Islam has served if anything to positively enhance precisely that disposition.

There are honor-based societies and then there are “dignity-based” societies. The same applies to religion. Christianity was likely the world’s first dignity-based religion, the first religion fitted to that progress of the spirit toward the quest of human dignity. As the dignity-based society is more evolved, so also the dignity-based religion. This does not mean that either this society or its religion has escaped the capacity to work evil; far from it, as history again well indicates. But it does presuppose a gradual decrease in the disposition to resort to the “older methods” (still resorted to in Islam), and it further suggests that progress will gradually and more fully manifest dignity-based values–to do justice to others and to reach to equity as a device for achieving dignity for all.

Islam reinforces old and irksome traditions. For too many Muslims, as for those of other societies where the same sort of principles reign supreme, this results in serious chauvinism (Russia in particular), general touchiness, and a deep-seated need to strongly defend oneself against what we Westerners would consider a minor slight. As Salmon Rushdie put it, “What kind of god is it that is insulted by cartoons in Danish?”

One last terribly unpopular generalization. Islam is, by and large, neither forgiving nor tolerant. Mark those words.

Islam has known periods in which its faithful manifested the outward signs of tolerance, the outward signs of charity. But to say that a religion is tolerant is to necessarily allow the generalization that, at most times and most places, toleration is the rule rather than the exception. Otherwise it is not a matter of the religion but solely of its followers; and they may or may not, as circumstances may have it, be able to determine normative doctrine or normatively to exemplify it. In the Muslim world I cannot see that toleration meets these criteria today, or indeed that it ever has, or, as presently constituted, ever will.

In honor-based societies magnanimity is the equivalent both of charity and of tolerance and these latter ideas are brought together in the former as a chief virtue of one’s respectability and honor. But observe how magnanimity works, how it functions, in such a society: it is the sign, the indication, of the honor making possible the fruits of the ideal; thus as regards charity, magnanimity rather more indicates the capacity to give than the moral responsibility to feel that someone is deserving of it. Likewise of tolerance; plenary authority is as much to be manifested as distributed in the form of tolerance. But this clearly works only so long as interests are being served. All is forgotten the moment one’s interests are not forwarded by this tolerance, this forbearance (a better term by which to denote honor-based “tolerance”).

A religion that is neither especially charitable nor tolerant can hardly be expected to be forgiving. True, Muhammad and his followers desired, in the main, a religion that would do them credit. As such they (especially he) borrowed precepts from everywhere, to the end that Islam is a veritable grab-bag of “phrase bites” from this and that religion. But these many sound precepts risk becoming mere window dressing when the root core of the religion presses upon the root core of its culture (or perhaps I should have said vice versa), a core generously warmed by the spirit of Islam. Islam celebrates the culture, the culture of its faithful, not the cacophony of borrowings from every other culture. And when Islam makes fervent demands for brotherhood and dictates traditional forms of mutual aid, it is the bedrock of culture we are observing–clothed in religion–rather than religious precepts guiding otherwise obstinate humans regardless their culture.

At the extremity this results in suicide bombers with no true devotion to forgiveness. What they do represent is nothing less than a veritable dis-acceptance of the enemy’s right to so much as exist. Observe next that the families of these insurgents wield no control over them. This is for two reasons. First, the children are raised to be entirely under their own council (whether or not their parents would have intended this result)—standard fair in the honor-based milieu. What principally reigns in potentially obnoxious behavior is the presumed sense of “shame”, of the awareness of public opinion. But what, then, if they seem secure in the belief that the public in some sense supports them (whether in fact they do or do not)?

The upshot of all of this is a religion in which the individual is especially at liberty to interpret and apply as he will, so long as he can justify—to himself, largely—a communal rationalization for his decisions along the way. The Christian likewise knows of a spiritual freedom, but it truly is a spiritual free will, not a “voluntary” slavery to the spirit a Muslim more often feels compelled to obey (where for simply having but agreed to it, he can nonetheless demand that his assent be termed a ‘free will’ judgment).

This is different in fundamental ways from any of the other major religions, and frames many of the reasons why Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations: at p. 255, this—“While at the macro or global level of world politics the primary clash of civilizations is between the West and the rest, at the micro or local level it is between Islam and the others.”) could draw a map indicating where Muslim nations align with non-Muslim nations and at nearly all of these junctures (19 of them if I remember rightly) we encounter conflict.

It is therefore not surprising that when Muslims get together for ‘peace’ talks with other religions somehow it slips out that Islam will work with others only on its terms, with the conditions it establishes. We are, the rest of us, to respect Islamic nonsense, and maybe Islam will show perfunctory signs of toleration, though no more than necessary, and with the granting to others the least permission possible of acts not otherwise tolerated under Islam. Islam thus helps to ensure that modernity dawns only with difficulty, with a headache, as after a long night of hard drink.

Islam is, in my estimation, practically a proverbial yoke upon its people until or unless the majority of its faithful disown aspects of the scriptures that condone stupidity and viciousness and all the rest of the rubbish of which religions in general are capable (Christians, also, have had to renounce passages, as from Paul re women’s rights, and Leviticus re gay rights, and so forth—but this is like line editing, not copy editing as is necessary with the Koran and the hadith).

Arabs are normally fine and genuinely upright human beings. Most would be that way Islam or no. As for their religion, it all but threatens whole civilizations that would likely otherwise have enough in common to wholly embrace one another. Islam has thus been the very worst thing for the Muslims themselves, and it continues to caste a pall over their progress. Worse still, Muslims are steering their religion in the direction they would believe it to steer themselves, in and with a vision which can only compound error with more error.

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