Tag Archives: Western religions.

My public talks currently scheduled for 2018

Public Talks for 2018

“American Philosophy: it’s originality, and practicality, from progressive education to science, law, and democracy.” Gold Coast Library, 1/17 7pm.
There is much that is unique about the development of the United States of America, as well as much that is not. Original visions have struggled with quite traditional values and attitudes throughout our history. American Philosophy, in giving voice to the possibilities of America has made original contributions to Western Philosophy, developing our ideals while critically analyzing our limitations. Touching on a wide range of areas, from education and politics, to religion and science, we will provide a perspective on this development, and suggest some of the fault lines that mark contemporary experience.

“Making Sense of Recent Elections: what can we learn from the unexpected election results in America, Britain, and elsewhere?” South Huntington Library, 1/24 7pm
First the British vote to withdraw from the European Union, then the American election of Donald Trump startled experts and deranged established political expectations and institutions. Similar forces have seemed to be at work at other European countries, though with modified results. What are we to make of these election results, and what do they portend for the future of Western liberal democracies? These are the kind of issues we will seek to address.

“Trump’s America: what is its vision, program, and the nature of its support.” Gold Coast Library, 2/7 at 7pm
We will explore the significance for America of the election of Donald Trump. What were the conditions that laid the groundwork for his election? Who voted for him, and why? And what are the possible consequences?

“Fantasyland: Reflections on America’s Character and Culture”
3 lectures at Hutton House, LIU Wednesdays 2/14-28 from 1-3pm.
In these Reflections on America’s Character and Culture, we will explore:
Who we are. The cultures, ethnicities, and belief systems that have built the U.S. How we developed. Some of the major challenges we have faced, and how we addressed them. Our growth, expansion, and Manifest Destiny. The emergence of the “cultural Cold War” that has come to dominate our politics. The Trump phenomena. And the divergent paths now before us.

“Manifest Destiny and the Meaning of America: thinking about our history and its contemporary relevance.” Syosset Library, 3/1 at 2pm.
Americans have always believed that we are an exceptional people. From the Puritans landing at Plymouth Rock, seeking to build “a city upon a hill” that all the world would view as an example of how all should live, through the 19th Century notion that we had a “manifest destiny” to occupy the entire North American continent “from sea to shining sea.” As a nation, we continue to believe “that God shed his Grace on thee.” We joined WW1 “to save the world for democracy,” and continue to believe that we are the beacons of “The Free World,” with an obligation and responsibility to preserve the values that have made us great. What is that belief system? What are its origins? How has it operated to guide our history? And what are its implications for us as a nation today? These are the issues I hope to address.

“The American Dream: what it means and what are its prospects.” Elmont Memorial Library, 4/6 12:30 pm
Since its inception, one of the central meanings of America has been the opportunity to make something of one’s life. America offered the promise, and quite often the reality, of a continually improving standard of living for oneself and for one’s children. This sense of individual possibility, rooted in personal freedom and basic human rights became a beacon for people across the world. That became the wider significance of the claim that we were « as a city upon a hill » for all the world to see what life could become. In recent times, however, this vision has become increasingly uncertain. What has been happening to the American Dream? Why is that? And what can we do about it?

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On The Conceptual Extermination of Secular Religion

On The Conceptual Extermination of Secular Religion.

At the recent convention of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association I picked up a book on “Living the Secular Life” by Phil Zuckerman. Since Dr. Zuckerman is a “professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California,” and the book comes with endorsements from Susan Jacoby, Greg Epstein, and David Brooks, among others, I thought this book would be useful in developing the theory and practice of our Ethical Humanist congregation on Long Island. But, to my profound chagrin, and even annoyance, I found from the outset, that rather than contributing to our efforts, Professor Zuckerman had defined us out of existence. Without the slightest degree of self-awareness, this “expert” on secular studies simply treats as interchangeable the words secular and anti-religious. Thus all of his facts and arguments presuppose that to be secular you must be anti-religious, and to be religious you must be anti-secular, that is, I suppose, you must believe in the divine and the sacred. I say “suppose”, because I must admit I could not get much beyond the first few pages, so put off was I by this casual conceptual extermination.

But I think the deeper point that calls for comment, is the fact that Professor Zuckerman’s approach is quite representative of the views and attitudes of the vast majority of Americans — and perhaps of many people around the world. As an expert in “secular studies” you would think that Professor Zuckerman would have known better. But that he reproduces conventional prejudices does call for, at least, a response and a clarification.

The word religion may be seen as coming from the Latin religio (or perhaps religare) which refers to being bound. There need be no reference to the divine, sacred, or transcendent in its meaning, though, of course, often there is. But quite to the point, religio speaks to one’s being bound by belief and practice to a shared community – similar to the root of yoke, from which Yoga is drawn. (According to Wikipedia: “yoga (from the root yuj) means “to add”, “to join”, “to unite”, or “to attach” in its most common literal sense. By figurative extension from the yoking or harnessing of oxen or horses, the word took on broader meanings such as “employment, use, application, performance” (compare the figurative uses of “to harness” as in “to put something to some use.””)I need not appeal to Buddhists or Confucians, however, to underline the point that one can be bound up with a community of believers and practitioners, who celebrate life’s passages together, while “ministering” to the needs of one’s fellow congregants, without having to make any appeal to “higher authorities.” In fact, one may well be committed, as are we at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, to building a community of “caring hearts,” living an ethical life, attributing dignity to all human beings, and seeking to promote human respect and social improvement throughout the world, without making the slightest appeal to the divine or sacred. And to do all of this as a secular religious community, that is at least recognized as such by the US government, if not by Professor Zuckerman. If he had made that distinction, I would have loved to see how his factual analyses would have changed, as well as his consideration of the personal and social values of such secular religious communities — with their commitment to science and human betterment — as well as the social and institutional role that such secular organizations might play, more particularly, in the policies and programs of the United States.

On The threat posed by radical Islam

On The threat posed by radical Islam to the civilized world

Recent events have made starkly clear that radical Islam has become a serious threat to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. After 9/11 and the killings at Charlie Hebdo, among many other such acts, no one can doubt the threat posed by radical Islam to the West. But the killing of three Muslims in North Carolina — purportedly over a parking space dispute — is only the most obvious recent sign of the way increasing numbers of non-Muslims in the West — egged on by some demagogic media figures — are coming to perceive all Muslims as a threat, and may experience social support in discriminating against them, or even engaging in anti-Muslim violence. This is occurring in a world context in which non-Muslins have seen the emergence of an apparently growing radical Islamism that is more than willing to kill unlimited numbers of innocent civilians in the pursuit of its fundamentalist religious agenda. That is an inescapable reality. This movement is real, morally indefensible, and truly frightening. No wonder many have called for intensive scrutiny of all Muslims, and some have even sought to justify completely unjustified attacks at Islamic institutions. This reality has created a very dangerous and potentially unnerving reality confronting innocent, law-abiding Muslims, of which there are many, possibly a large majority, who are placed in the extremely uncomfortable, and possibly even dangerous, situation of having to continually worry that they may be discriminated against, or even targeted for attack, by members of a frightened non-Muslim world.

Thus, this reality of systematic Islamic terrorists presents vital challenges that cannot be avoided, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It must be addressed, directly and without equivocation. Non-Muslims must honestly confront the factual reality of an international culture of Islam that has not yet experienced an “enlightenment,” and all too often remains rooted for the most part in a pre-scientific mindset of religious fundamentalism. It is not enough for well-meaning, and even humanist Westerners, for example, to defend the freedom of religious beliefs and hence the rights and liberties of all Muslims — however important and legitimate that is — and to criticize those who raise serious criticism of the religious beliefs and practices of an Islam that claims to be following the direct divine — and hence, non-questionable — directives of Allah. Such Western humanists and defenders of religious toleration must face seriously the current historical reality of, and propose practical strategies to address the challenge posed by, the current status of the religion and practice of the religion of Islam across the world. We must take seriously an Islamic religious reality that has created, and sustained, an international culture of Islam that can generate massive local protests that have taken place across the Islamic World, from Algeria to Indonesia, and practically all places in between, against the very depiction of the prophet Mohammed. More dangerous than even the horrendous violent extremism of groups such as Al Quada and the so-called Islamic State, is the support that such terrorism has received from the Islamic masses. Such mass protests and overt expressions of support, even involving many middle class individuals and professionals, have been approved, encouraged, and celebrated by many Islamic religious leaders. Some have explicitly justified the murders at Charlie Hebdo and called for the beheading of any others that commit similar “crimes”. These attitudes are in fact the soil that nurtures radical “Islamism”, that fundamentalist expression of Islamic values that justifies terrorism in the name of religious purity. It is not sufficient for individual Muslims to separate themselves from such views. It is essential for the organized Islamic community, with its religious officials in the forefront, to systematically challenge such beliefs and practices. And they must do that publicly, and regularly to their own congregations. But it seems that that is quite difficult for them to do, given the Koranic claim of direct divine revelation for Islamic beliefs.

For there are basic aspects of Islam that make it particularly susceptible to such radical fundamentalist beliefs and practices. At least that is my impression — and I will suggest what I believe some of those are — but I would love to be talked out of my views, and convinced of the contrary. It seems to me that there are problems specific to Islam, as opposed to all the other major world religions, that make its adaptation to the modern world particularly problematic, and tend to feed fundamentalist beliefs and practices among its adherents. But I am no expert on Islam. I only wish to share my concerns, with the intention of stimulating thought and inviting criticism and the presentation of alternative perspectives.

First, there is the issue of the Koran, and the revelations of Allah through his Prophet, Mohammed. As I understand it, it is the contention of Islam that Mohammed is the vehicle through which the unadulterated words of Allah are presented to the world. That means that these words are not debatable, or modifiable. They are the direct revelations of god’s truths. This is different, for example, from the Christian or Jewish Bibles, in which most of the divine revelations are presented by others, and are thus more open to interpretation and challenge. The statements in the Koran, on the other hand, can easily be taken as unquestionable, unmodifiable directives as to what one must do, and how one must live. This makes it increasingly difficult to flexibly adapt the religion to the exigencies of a modern era that is far different from that in which Mohammed lived.

Second, the Koran envisions a unitary politico-religious community, that does not provide for distinct political entities, such as states. Thus it has an inherent tendency not to recognize political boundaries, rather to be inherently international and expansionist. From the recent lead article in The Atlantic Magazine article comes the claim “that Islamic law permits only temporary peace treaties, lasting no longer than a decade. Similarly, accepting any border is anathema, as stated by the Prophet and echoed in the Islamic State’s propaganda videos. If the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error. Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin.” And that, of course, also militates against recognition and acceptance of any separation of church from state.

The truly Islamic character of the self-proclaimed Islamic State was well expressed in that article. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”

For example, continuing from The Atlantic, “…the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, … [observed that] the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam [is] … preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. ‘People want to absolve Islam,’ he said. ‘… [But] Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,’ Haykel said. Islamic State fighters ‘are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.'”

“The Koran specifies crucifixion as one of the only punishments permitted for enemies of Islam. The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews ‘until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.’ The Prophet, whom all Muslims consider exemplary, imposed these rules and owned slaves.

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. ‘What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,’ Haykel said. “’There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.'”

“Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “’The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,’ Bernard Haykel says. ‘That really would be an act of apostasy.'”

However inevitable and necessary, therefore, for the non-Islamic world to energetically oppose such views — and in so doing, to carefully and effectively reaffirm their commitment in word and deed to freedom of thought, discussion, and association, freedom of the press, and respect for the dignity of all people — that will hardly convince Islamic true believers. Only sustained, public and effective action by the organized leadership of Islam, and that internationally, across the Islamic World, can begin to turn the tide. But that is something many seem quite unwilling, and perhaps, unable to do. It would, no doubt, open them to serious internal criticism, and possibly to real physical danger. And, with the Islamic world not having undergone an Enlightenment that recognizes and accepts the truths of natural science and the legitimacy of an independent secular political order, that would probably be seen as an illegitimate Western profanation of the True religion of Islam. Hence, truly, an apostasy, worthy of death. And yet, unless and until that is done, it is inevitable and understandable that all Muslims will be under some suspicion, and their personal freedom and respect will be on the defensive. And that threat to non-violent and law obedient Muslims, is also a very serious, and probably growing, threat to Western values of human rights and dignity, and to the institutional protections which are vital to the continued existence of free, democratic self-governance.