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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Johann Hari reviews Does God Hate Women?

A great review of Does God Hate Women? (Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom).

Johann Hari is a true voice of reason - we're lucky to have him. My only complaint is that the bastard is still so young; I see that he turned 30 in January. No, that's not a point against him: I'm just expressing sheer naked envy (and a degree of awe) when confronted by someone who has already accomplished so much, so early in his life. :)

But that's good, of course, since there's all the more time for him to make a huge, positive contribution to our culture.

Johann Hari rocks!

26 comments:

Ophelia Benson said...

I know, isn't that annoying? When I think how dim and absent-minded I was at thirty...

Brian said...

I agree, that bastard! Obviously he must be painted as a militant atheist who holds an extreme position so that we can feel less envious and raise our self-esteem with this negative ploy. We can paint ourselves as centrists. Seems to work for everybody else, so why not us guys?

Parrhesia said...

I'm 31, and I really only started emerging from my self-imposed intellectual dormancy a couple of years ago. I'm so frikkin' jealous of Johann Hari, people like him remind me of how much valuable time I wasted in pursuit of ephemera.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"So, in order to defend their God, the apologists often have to lie about what He and His Prophets “say” in the texts. Cherie Blair, for example, claimed in a lecture: 'It is not laid down in the Quran that women can be beaten by their husbands.' But it quite plainly is. The Quran says: 'If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them.'"

I'd be careful about accusing Clerie Blair of lying when she may be simply reading the Quran differently. Apparently, there is controversy about whether the word translated as "hit" really means that, and Blair may have taken the side that favored her view. I'm reminded about what Taner Edis said about trying to use the Quran to understand Islam:

"Certainly. If you want to criticize the Quran, knock yourself out. (It's like shooting fish in a barrel, really.) What I have been emphasizing is this: don't assume that picking up a copy of the Quran from your local bookstore and highlighting the disgusting passages gives you much insight into how Muslims respond to their sacred text."

Brian said...

don't assume that picking up a copy of the Quran from your local bookstore and highlighting the disgusting passages gives you much insight into how Muslims respond to their sacred text."
Don't have to. It's a plain as the nose on one's face how literally some Muslims take these passages. And that's all that is needed for the argument to succeed. I think.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Brian: "And that's all that is needed for the argument to succeed."

Depends on the argument. Do you have any particular argument in mind?

Brian said...

Do you have any particular argument in mind?

That Essendon are in a rebuilding phase, and the loss to Collingwood was to be expected, given that Collingwood will challenge for a spot in the top 4 this year.

But it proves that Cherie Blair is being disingenuous at best, and lying more likely with the her claims about the Quran. It doesn't really matter how she interprets said book. All that matters is does the book give sacred backing to misogyny for those that seek it? And it does, and many do interpret hit as we read in translation. She know this.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Brian: "That Essendon are in a rebuilding phase"

Nice evasion.

Brian: "But it proves that Cherie Blair is being disingenuous at best"

Not really. She could very well believe what she is saying.

Brian: "All that matters is does the book give sacred backing to misogyny for those that seek it?"

All that matters to what? Again, you are being evasive about the claim that you are trying to support.

If, for example, you were trying to claim that Islam as practiced is misogynist, then your claim is a partially true, since different Muslims practice it differently. If your claim is that religion as practiced lends misogyny a "penumbra of righteousness," and that Islam is a example of this, well, again, Islam isn't unified on lending that penumbra, and when you throw in additional kinds of religion, well, it starts to show why Jonathan Haidt referred to the effects of religion as an "ambiguous dataset from which it is so easy to cherry-pick evidence in favor of one's desired conclusion."

Ophelia Benson said...

We don't in fact accuse Cherie Blair of lying. There's just a parenthetic '(incorrectly)' to gloss what she says.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Benson: "We don't in fact accuse Cherie Blair of lying."

Thank you for clarifying. I wasn't sure how much of what Hari said was from your book or not. It's not like he was giving an exact quote from your book.

BTW, did you take the sort of issues that Taner Edis talked about into account in your book?

Greywizard said...

Religion is an "ambiguous dataset from which it is so easy to cherry-pick evidence in favor of one's desired conclusion." This cuts both ways, and the truth is that Islam, in many instances, is misogynistic, and is so interpreted. If the Qu'ran doesn't prescribe beating the ahadith do. But the Qu'ran seems pretty clear, giving a graded series of punishments for wives, ending with beating. Women, as Mohammed says, are wards of their husbands, and have no control over their lives. (This is in his farewell address, Ibn Ishaq's "Sirat Rasulallah".) If Cherie Blair does not know this, and did not lie, then she should be better informed before she ventures to lecture publicly about Islam.

Greywizard said...

Ramsey strikes again. Come on Ramsey. I went over a read some of Taner Edis' stuff, and that's just what it is, stuff. Read this, for instance:

"What I have been emphasizing is this: don't assume that picking up a copy of the Quran from your local bookstore and highlighting the disgusting passages gives you much insight into how Muslims respond to their sacred text. If you're careful, pay attention to serious scholarship, and are willing to listen to Muslims themselves, you can come up with devastating criticisms of the notion that the Quran is any sort of divine revelation. (Few devout Muslims will be moved by such criticism, but that's another matter.)"

Now, what is that supposed to say? Serious scholarship would show that the Qu'ran is a mishmash of borrowed texts and traditions from Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and no doubt shards of local animism as well. Devout Muslims will have none of that, since the Qu'ran is the word of God, who speaks in Arabic just like King James.

How Muslims respond to their sacred text differs from person to person no doubt. Many of them are insulated from the text by layers of interpreation, in the same way that many Christians are likewise insulated from the biblical text by layers of interpretation. Very few Christians have ever read a scholarly book on the Bible, and most of them are offended when they hear things that scholars have said about their holy book. But if you look at the way that the devout behave you'll have plenty to criticise, and most of it comes straight out of a literal reading of the text.

Scholarship has virtually nothing to do with religious practice. And criticising a religion by engaging with the most knowledgeable scholars will not even get close to the religion, which is largely about power and relationships of influence and social control. But read the scholars all you like. Many of them will pretty the whole thing up for you, so that you will think you are dealing with the most morally exalted discourse in the world. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, most of Sam Harris' criticisms ring true.

Ophelia Benson said...

J J Ramsey

Please stop asking me insultingly patronizing questions about the book. If you want to know what's in it, read it; if you don't, don't; but stop cross-examining me on the subject as if I owe you an explanation. I don't owe you jack.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Greywizard, I suggest looking at the parts of Taner Edis' work where he points out how Muslims generally don't read the Quran directly but have it interpreted through clerics. This is why pointing out bad stuff in the Quran doesn't help that much in predicting what bad stuff will be done in the name of Islam, because what bad stuff gets attenuated, amplified, displaced by tradition, etc. depends heavily on the clerics. That's the important bit.

Greywizard said...

Mein Gott! Ramsey. That's what I just said. But the important point is that the message that is interpreted for people by clergy is almost always as close to a literal reading of the text, or at least selected parts of it, as you can get. So, I got the important bit, and it's that bit that leads me to say, without hesitation - because I played the religious game for awhile - that, paying attention to what devout people do, listening to what they say, and reading the text as an interpretation of that behaviour, is probably the best way to understand what a religion is all about.

In general, for your information, scholars don't preach, and only a few clergy are scholars. So, in general, scholars are about as far away from a religion as it's possible to get. Young people (and increasingly older people) enter a seminary (or whatever the training establishment is called); they read the scholars and pass the exams; and then they go on believing what they did when there were children. And that's what people hear, nine times out of ten.

Reading the scholars, real scholars - I'm not talking about Muslim 'scholars' who will give you a fatwa on anything from hour long marriage contracts to beating your wife - won't help you understand a religion at all. Of course, then there are historians of religion who try to give us some understanding about what it was like to be Christian or Muslim or whatever then. But that's just like looking at religion now. We just have more evidence to go on. In both cases, observe the behaviour, listen to what they say, compare it to the holy crib text.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Greywizard: "But the important point is that the message that is interpreted for people by clergy is almost always as close to a literal reading of the text"

And your evidence for this is what? Your experience with Protestant clergy, who deal with congregations that read what they are reading and can call B.S. if the clergy departs from it? Don't expect me to buy a claim simply because you assert it.

Greywizard: "Reading the scholars, real scholars ... won't help you understand a religion at all."

That depends on the kind of scholars that you are talking about. If you are talking about theological scholars, sure. If you are talking about, say, scholars who do field studies and have a role similar to what historians of religion do, except that they deal with the present rather than the distant past, that is a whole other story, and they can be helpful for pointing out when what "everyone knows" about Islam is wrong. One of the YouTubes that has stuck with me is Scott Atran, who is such a scholar, admonishing his fellows at the Beyond Belief 2006 conference for, among other things, saying ignorant things about Islam that were "worse than any comic book statement."

J. J. Ramsey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greywizard said...

Ah well, don't take my word for it then. It's of no matter to me. I listened to Scott Atran, and I thought he was simply horribly wrong, and that the theory of religion that he proposes would be deeply threatening to any ordinary religious believer, and he doesn't seem to realise it. But understanding In Gods We Trust. His chastising of his fellow atheists was a bizarre display of lack of understanding of the group of people he was with, and what motivated them.

There are so many people prepared to say, on the basis of what they consider serious scholarship, that what Christians believe is completely different from the points of view addressed by, say, The God Delusion. So far, I have heard or read not one reference to what Dawkins got wrong, in this respect, though Feagletosh was sure he had them pinned down in a specimen drawer. Of course, we're not bound to accept everything that Dawkins says as 'gospel truth'. Well of course not. Trouble is, his critics seem, on the whole, a pretty silly crew, and no one seems to be able to say what Dawkins did get wrong.

Instead of pointing out what is wrong, we are treated to ad hominem arguments against his 19th century stance, his stridency, and his simplistic understanding of religion, but no one says what is simplistice about it. The Archbishop of Canterbury's beliefs, for all their obscurity, seem to be basic Sunday School stuff about Jesus, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and reigning in glory. In what way is Dawkins wrong? And why should he read theological tomes on resurrection and atonement in order to catch up? Catch up to what? They are still no further along trying to explain religion or the reasons for religious beliefs. Of course not. There's no way into religion this way. But Scott Atran has ways of eviscerating religion from within. Why he chided his colleagues still puzzles me.

My evidence for the claim that I make is anecdotal, if you like, but it is based on a lifetime of experience. Believe it or not if you like. It's of no real consequence to me, since your MO is spinning "discussions" along on tracks of your own choosing, as long you possibly can. Do you count the words or the column inches to guage how successful you have been? (The scare quotes are needed.)

We're not discussing. I object and you patronise me. I don't respond well to consdecension. Oh, by the way, for comic book statements, read the Qu'ran, the Bible, the Talmud, the Granth Sahib, the Book of Mormon. Scott Atran was just wrong, in my view. Like his book, but not the man himself. Did he really think he wasn't going to meet any atheists there?

J. J. Ramsey said...

Greywizard: "I listened to Scott Atran, and I thought he was simply horribly wrong, and that the theory of religion that he proposes would be deeply threatening to any ordinary religious believer, and he doesn't seem to realise it."

Oh, I highly doubt the last bit. Of course what Atran has to say is threatening to the believer. The interesting thing is that it is also threatening to the non-believer as well, since the implication is that the seeds of the kinds of irrationality that cause religion are in all of us.

Greywizard: "In what way is Dawkins wrong?"

There are two main problems with Dawkins:

1) Sometimes he is simply sloppy and gets his facts and even his logic wrong. Chris Heard pointed out several problems on this front. In one case, he attacks Thomas Aquinas' fourth way with a strawman, even though attacking it on its actual merits would be trivial.

2) Treating religion as the enemy without rather than the enemy within. His rhetoric tends to imply that believers are stupid or crazy or evil, that is, Not Like Us(TM). This is what is suggested by his "Gerin Oil" metaphor. (The religious are on a "drug" that we are not.) Dawkins' games with the word "delusion" make a similar implication as the "Gerin Oil" bit. Those who make nice with the Ken Millers of the world are Chamberlains, an analogy that implies an attempt to appease a Hitler-like evil. Orac let loose the Hitler Zombie for that goof. Now all this is great for rousing up like-minded crowds, giving them an enemy on which to focus. However, it is utterly terrible for encouraging the self-reflection needed for skepticism. When the religious are readiliy (as opposed to grudgingly) acknowledged as having very intelligent people among their own number, it invites the obvious question: "If they are at least as intelligent as me, yet come up with what look like the wrong answers, how do I know that I I have the right ones?" Answering that question can help clarify why one believes as one does, and also encourages one to be more tentative in one's beliefs. It also helps one avoid making mistakes similar to the ones the religious make.

Greywizard: "My evidence for the claim that I make is anecdotal, if you like, but it is based on a lifetime of experience."

Anecdotal evidence is sketchy for a whole host of reasons, and your "lifetime of experience" doesn't mean anything without saying what was in that experience and why it should be representative.

Greywizard said...

JJ Ramsey. It's really hard to know whether to respond to you or not. For instance, I've read "In Gods We Trust", and I don't find it threatening, nor, I suspect, did most of those who attended the conference in California. Atran came across there as arrogant and dogmatic, yet I think his interpretation of religious belief would not be comfortably shared by most religious believers. Indeed, why Atran himself does not see his theory as subverting religion is really beyond me. In fact, this goes for quite a few theory of religion scholars.

Regarding my anecdotal evidence. Since I used the word I meant that it was not a scientific sample, and did not intend that it should be treated as one. But I have lived amongst religious people all my life, and I have learned a thing or two about how they think, and how they respond to instruction and interpretation. Clergy, in my experience, have a kind of general influence over belief, but belief itself is formed over years and years of participation in liturgy and life, and it is closely tied, despite the fact that very few Christians, for example, know their Bible well - and some not at all - to biblical stories and their interpretation in the liturgy and elsewhere as this has been absorbed over years. And the 'faithful' are very alert to apparent changes in emphasis or interpretation, and are reluctant to consider issues of faith from a remotely critical point of view. But, as I said already, that is anecdotal, so don't come over heavy with me about it.

Indeed, that is what is so tiresome about you. You pick and pick and pick as though you were some kind of an expert, and then, in the end, it turns out, you know very little at all.

For instance, your criticisms of Dawkins, in the one case for a straw man argument - I haven't bothered to check, by the way - and by piggybacking on Chris Heard, whose criticisms are about as picayune as your own, really doesn't help very much. I did jump over to Chris' home page, and, I must say, if this is the best he can do, he really does need a course in thinking.

That isn't to say that I think Dawkins is either always right or always felicitous in the way he expresses himself, but he isn't all that wrong either, and no one has really shown him to be so. Chris Heard certainly hasn't, even though he's pronounced himself very strongly and often foolishly on the topic of the 'new atheism.'

As for Dawkin's relationships with religious people, I don't know. Apparently, he is friends with some Anglican bishops, so, while he is very dismissive of religious believing, he is not, as you claim, disposed to call all religious people stupid. Some are, of course, and the young earth creationists are perhaps to be numbered amongst them, but some, as Dawkins has reason to know, are very intelligent, but wrong. It's possible, you know.

Greywizard said...

I should have added, JJ, since you brought it up, that those who do not believe are as aware of the traps of unreason as Atran, and, while that should make us cautious, it should not make us uneasy.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Greywizard: "But I have lived amongst religious people all my life, and I have learned a thing or two about how they think"

You have learned a thing or two about the religious people with which you live. As you said, you do not have a scientific sample. However, that is all the more reason for you to be cautious about devaluing scholars studying religion who do deal with scientific samples.

"Apparently, he [Dawkins] is friends with some Anglican bishops"

So some of Dawkins' best friends are religious? :)

Stuart said...

"J J Ramsey

Please stop asking me insultingly patronizing questions about the book. If you want to know what's in it, read it; if you don't, don't; but stop cross-examining me on the subject as if I owe you an explanation. I don't owe you jack."

heh heh ophelia rocks

Greywizard said...

Enough already JJ. The scholars you were speaking about earlier were not social scientists studying religious phenomena, but religious scholars explaining the nature of religious meaning. These are two different things. I do not ignore scientists working with scientific samples.

This is the last of my comments. You are too erratic. It makes no sense to continue with this 'discussion' (heavy scare quotes).

J. J. Ramsey said...

Greywizard: "The scholars you were speaking about earlier were not social scientists studying religious phenomena, but religious scholars explaining the nature of religious meaning."

Take a closer look at the comments. The first one to mention religious scholars was you, in an extended quote from Edis. I had cut off what you had later quoted from Edis for good reason. Edis was making two points: 1) that the text of the Quran was a poor guide to what Muslims actually believe, and 2) that serious religious scholarship shatters the idea that the Quran was divine revelation. There was obviously no need to quote the second part, since we all agree that the Quran is false, and since I was dealing with the issues of the reviewer quoting the Quran in the first place. Again, you were the one who first broached the matter of religious scholars.

The first time that I had spoke about scholars studying religion, I had pointed out the difference between theological and social science scholars of religion, and clearly preferred the latter. The charge that I had earlier spoke of theological scholars and then equivocated later in the comments doesn't wash.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Benson: "If you want to know what's in it, read it"

Well, morbid curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to see the bad argument I've seen from you so far is representative of the whole book.

(It's not available from Amazon, but I could get it on eBay.)