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Problems with Hitchens and Islam

Modern atheists in the West and modernist Muslims in Islam are both abusing religion. Since the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, some Western writers on religion and also some Muslim thinkers are interpreting their scriptures with a literalism that has become a characteristic of modernity. Their discourse about God has been influenced by the popular demand for scientific empirical verification, and they have lost confidence in the ability of figurative language to open a way to truth.

Modern atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens make use of Enlightenment discourse to reduce God to a scientific hypothesis. Like other modernist writers, they presume that the Bible must provide scientific information since it claims to be inspired by God. Having failed to understand the nature of scripture and religion, they reject them both as products of the 'God Delusion'.

Both modern atheists in the West and Muslim modernists in Islamic countries adopt an abstract notion of religion that remains unaffected by the historical and social changes taking place in society. Hitchens' oft-repeated phase, 'religion poisons everything', refers to an abstract religion devoid of morality and spirituality and with no concern for human rights.

In the Muslim world, Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966) advocated a return to the pristine form of Islam that acknowledged God as the only Sovereign in all spheres of life. Abu A'la Mawdudi (1903–1979) developed a form of Islam in Pakistan that reduced the law of God to a code of commands and prohibitions that all pious believers were expected to accept and obey. An influential teacher in Indonesia today, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, maintains that Muslims will be able to revive the quality of their life only by going back to models provided by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions in the seventh century.

Modern atheists and modernist Muslims reach their extreme conclusions by bypassing the intellectual tradition of the Abrahamic religions. Traditional religious discourse has always been familiar with realities that take us beyond empirical observation and measurement, respecting the language of myth and symbol.

Traditional Christian theology, for example, kept coming back to faith, trying to reach some understanding based on faith (fides quaerens intellectum). Faith itself was an affair of the heart, not just an assent to rational principles or doctrines. Believing implied a commitment to God, who transcended any concept that the human mind could ever imagine. For the monks of medieval Europe, scripture was not simply a source of information about the universe or about God. Their contemplative reading of the scriptures (lectio divina) was a spiritual exercise that led to personal transformation.

Similarly, for traditional Muslim thinkers, theology (kalam) was a method of acquiring knowledge arising out of faith because everything was understood in terms of its relationship with God. Many of the Muslim modernists of the 18th and 19th centuries, however, were so impressed by the progress of modern science that they adopted the empirical, scientific method in their religious discourse. As a result they lost contact with their own intellectual and spiritual tradition, which pointed to God as utterly transcendent but not remote from human life.

Moreover, because it was not tied to its own limited rational categories, traditional religious discourse was able to evaluate and incorporate elements from other religious, philosophical and cultural traditions which they found enriching or illuminating. Traditional religious discourse was, therefore, very different from the intolerant discourse of the modernist thinkers.

Muslims, for example, were able to evaluate and incorporate Greek knowledge in the ninth and tenth centuries because they had a basis from which to evaluate all knowledge that came from outside their own tradition. Modernist Muslim thinkers, however, abandoned their own religious tradition and were left without a criterion with which to evaluate new intellectual concepts.

Moreover, Muslim modernists rejected the mystical dimension of Islam (Sufism), which had always been an integral part of orthodox Islam. In Medieval Islam there were no hard lines between the Sufis and the scholars, nor between the learning centres and the spiritual centers. The lines drawn by modernist Muslim thinkers are a product of the modern mind, which imposes Enlightenment notions of mysticism upon the medieval Islamic world. Sufism has always been rooted in mercy and justice, forbidding violence towards civilians, and conforming to the ethical ideal of the just war. It is therefore quite different from the aggressive theories of jihad advocated by modernist Muslims.

The task for religious believers today is to develop a religious discourse that is not limited to the categories of modernism and the Enlightenment, which reduced the reality of God to one being among others. Religious language should create a space in which human beings can respect the otherness and transcendence of God through symbol and ritual. Faith in a truly transcendent God will readily acknowledge the limits of human reason. Such faith frees the believer from a literalist and a dogmatic attitude.

A truly religious discourse should enable believers to move beyond an all-embracing ideology and be respectful of various interpretations of the divine mystery. A religious discourse of this kind will enable us to learn from one another's religious beliefs instead of competing for the correct formulation of the truth. It will lead to greater respect and harmony between the many religions of the world.

Christopher Hitchens and ethics without God (Andrew Hamilton)
When Hitchens met Brennan (Peter Kirkwood)
Christopher Hitchens' illogical atheism (Neil Ormerod)

Herman RoborghHerman Roborgh SJ lived in Pakistan for eight years before going to India where he completed a PhD in Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University. He currently resides in Australia.

Topic tags: Herman Roborgh, modern atheism, richard dawkins, chrisopher hitchens, islam



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Existing comments

Roborgh's article clarifies the poetic and symbolic as pathways to life, transcendent and otherwise. It also move the current thinking beyond the dangerously simplistic.

Barry Bell | 10 October 2009  

Hitchens' reference to an abstract religion devoid of morality and spirituality and with no concern for human right is precisely the religiosity of so many modern adherents. These unthinking, uncritical adherents have no parallel in earlier times, their only models are the "true believers" of the Great Totalitarianisms of the twentieth century.

Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Marxist, Leninist, Nazi, Ba'athist, neoliberal/neoconservate fundamentalists, even the mindlessness of voters who imagine that the ALP will save us, when the ALP is hell-bent on destroying the last refuge of the Queensland Lungfish ... blaming "religion" for so much of the world's ills is an overstatement. So many other pernicious creeds compete to infect.

Hitchens sees part of this problematic modern dissatisfaction, and he is right to see religiosity as being poisonous (even if he mistakenly identifies it as religion).

I wonder what Hitchens would make of John Carroll's "Wreck of Western Culture", and his "Existential Jesus". Carroll spells out no answers, packages no solutions.

The most reverential presentation of Jesus that was ever screened was "The Life of Brian". To the throng in the alley, Brian gave a sermon along the lines of "Go away, I'm not the Messiah ... Go away, you've got to work it out for yourselves. You're all individuals."

I look forward to Hillsong Megachurch stocking Carroll in its bookshop.

David Arthur | 10 October 2009  

This is what this article seems to imply:

1. The truly transcendent i.e. God is impervious to reason

2. The modern Muslim has got it all wrong. The “real” religion is actually about acquiring knowledge based on ‘faith’.

3. Traditional religion was able to incorporate elements from other religions and cultural traditions because of an emphasis on the intellectual religious tradition (??)

What are you selling Sir?

I will judge Islam by its adherents that I meet every day and not by a Utopian ideal of what the religion really means. Did you really spend 8 years in Pakistan and not realize the effect of religion on the people. They ‘know’ they are in the right and it is their faith that enables them to know it. That is the knowledge that faith bestows and you are asking to surrender reason which is the only weapon that has a chance against this evil.

A few years ago, I would not have minded people like you; but it is moderate Muslims and people like you who give legitimacy to the religious zealots that are bent on destroying this world so that they can build palaces for themselves in the next world.

Zeeshan Waheed | 25 November 2009  

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