bookmark_borderThomas Friedman gets it Right on Islam and Terrorism

What is the connection between Islam and terrorism? Any answer you give will likely draw strident and intemperate criticism. If you say that there is a connection, you will be charged with Islamophobia. If you say that there is no connection and that terrorism has only political, social, and economic causes, then you will be castigated as a dupe who worships at the altar of political correctness. It is hard to articulate both a refusal to condemn the religion of 1.7 billion people and yet to hold responsible those elements, sects, or factions of Islam that preach a pernicious and poisonous doctrine. Today’s Houston Chronicle, carried an editorial by syndicated columnist Thomas Friedman that is the most satisfactory and eloquent expression of what needs to be said:
…year after year, we keep seeing young Muslim men drawing inspiration and permission from Islam to kill large numbers of civilians in the West and, even more so, killing other Muslims in Muslim lands.
I’ve lived too long in the Muslim world, and experienced the decency of Muslim communities, to believe that this is the essence of Islam. But I have seen too much of this suicidal violence for too long to believe that it has nothing to do with the puritanical, anti-gay, anti-transgender, anti-female, anti-religious-pluralism versions of Islam that are too often promoted by sources in the Arab world, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The websites, social networks and mosques that promote these intolerant ideas can “light up” lost souls anywhere in the world. Until that stops, we’re just waiting around for the next Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino or Orlando.
Exactly. This is neither a blanket condemnation nor a blanket exoneration, but an observation by someone who knows the Muslim world about as well as any American.

bookmark_borderGodless Spellchecker Reports on What’s Being Said About Atheists in Arabic

The blogger and podcaster Godless Spellchecker has a disturbing post about what’s being said about atheists in Arabic. Twitter user @Ahmedaa1k posted a tweet (in Arabic) which said, “Atheism is not a crime.” The responses (also in Arabic) contained many variations of “If I could, I would kill or torture then kill atheists.”
I don’t know if there were any self-identified Muslims (or other Arabic-speaking theists) who criticized the threats against atheists. I’ve asked Godless Spellchecker if there were any such responses. I’ll update the post if/when I get a reply.

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 2

One objection to my cognitivist view of religion and Christianity is this popular little bit of stupidity:
“Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
I have three initial responses to this statement: (1) read your freaking bible, (2) read your freaking dictionary, and (3) use your freaking brain.
In Chapter 26 of Acts, the apostle Paul defends himself before King Agrippa and speaks of “our religion”:
1  Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and began to defend himself:
2 “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews,
3 because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg of you to listen to me patiently.
4 “All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem.
5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.
(Acts 26:1-5  New Revised Standard Version)
Clearly, the phrase “our religion” in this passage refers to the religion of the Jews, which we now call “Judaism”.
But in a letter that is attributed to Paul, and that is also part of the Christian scriptures, the phrase “our religion” is used to refer to something else:
15 if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.
16 Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.
(1 Timothy 3:15-16 New Revised Standard Version)
The pronoun “He” in this passage clearly refers to Jesus.  So, the “religion” that Paul (or whoever the author of this letter was) refers to here is clearly NOT the religion of the Jews, because the Jewish religion did not include any beliefs about the life and (alleged) divine mission of Jesus.
What “religion” does include beliefs about the life and (alleged)  divine mission of Jesus?  Not Judaism. Not Hinduism.  Not Buddhism.  Not Confucianism.  Not Zoroastrianism. Not Taoism.
Islam, however, does say something about the life and (alleged) divine mission of Jesus, but Islam did not yet exist at the time that the New Testament was composed, so this is clearly NOT a reference to Islam.  The reference of the word “religion” here is obvious: it is referring to CHRISTIANITY.  Thus, according to a letter that is part of the sacred scriptures that Christians believe were inspired by God, CHRISTIANITY is a RELIGION.
The biblical case for viewing Christianity as a “religion” is not actually as clear and straightforward as the above comparison of passages from Acts and 1 Timothy makes it seem.  The New Testament was written in Greek, not English, and the English word “religion” did not exist when Acts and 1 Timothy were composed. The English language itself did not yet exist at that time.
Furthermore, the Greek word translated as “religion” in Acts 26:5 is different than the Greek word translated as “religion” in 1 Timothy 3:16.  Most translations of Acts 26:5 translate the Greek word θρησκείας in that verse as “religion”, which makes a lot of sense given the context.  However, a number of translations of 1 Timothy 3:16 do not translate the relevant Greek word εύσεβείας in that verse as “religion”.  For example, here is how the New American Standard Bible translates the initial phrase of 1 Timothy 3:16:
 Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
Nevertheless, one can argue that “religion” is a better translation of the Greek word εύσεβείας than “true godliness”, based on the context of this particular passage.  The general context of this passage is Paul’s concern about Christian believers being fooled into accepting false teachings or doctrines.  Part of his solution is to emphasize the use of memorable creeds, such as the one quoted in the rest of this verse.
The Oxford Bible Commentary on 1 Timothy 3:16 supports understanding this passage to be about the Christian religion:
The ‘mystery of our religion’ is described in the quoted formula which follows.  For similar passages, see 1 TIM 2:5-6.  The word translated ‘religion’ is eusebeia; normally in the Pastorals eusebeia and its cognates  denote piety or godliness, here it carries a sense of the system of belief that inspires piety.  (Oxford Bible Commentary, p.1225, emphasis added)
Because the context is a concern about Christians being tempted to accept false doctrines, and because the key phrase relates to a brief creed that reinforces what Paul (or the author of 1 Timothy) believed to be true and important Christian doctrines, it makes good sense to translate the Greek word εύσεβείας as “religion” in 1 Timothy 3:16, rather than to translate it as “true godliness”.  Thus, the New Testament does provide Christians, who view the N.T. as sacred scripture, with a good reason to believe that CHRISTIANITY is a RELIGION.
Let’s start simple.  At Cambridge Dictionaries Online, you get a single definition of “Christianity”:
the ​Christian ​faith, a ​religion ​based on the ​belief in one ​God and on the ​teachings of ​Jesus ​Christ, as set ​forth in the ​Bible
(Definition of Christianity from the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary © Cambridge University Press)
What sort of a thing is “Christianity”?  According to the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, it is “a religion”.  This definition says nothing about “Christianity” being some sort of “relationship”.
If we turn to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, we get a “simple definition” of “Christianity”, which is similar to the above definition:
the religion that is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ
What sort of a thing is “Christianity” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary?  It is a “religion”, not a “relationship”.
The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary also provides three different definitions:
Full Definition of Christianity
1: the religion derived from Jesus Christ, based on the Bible as sacred scripture, and professed by Eastern, Roman Catholic, and Protestant bodies
2: conformity to the Christian religion
3: the practice of Christianity
What sort of a thing is “Christianity” according to these Merriam-Webster Dictionary definitions?  Definition (1) tells us that it is a “religion”, not a relationship.  Definition (2) speaks about “conformity” to a “religion”, namely “the Christian religion”.  Thus, although the second sense refers to some sort of “conformity” (which might be either intellectual conformity or conformity of actions); the specific sort of conformity is qualified in relation to a “religion” not to a “relationship”.
Definition (3) is, strictly speaking, circular since it uses the word “Christianity” to define the word “Christianity”, but in the context of definition (2), one naturally reads the word “Christianity” here as meaning “the Christian religion” thus making definition (3) parallel to definition (2).  So, definition (3) refers to a specific sort of “conformity”, namely conformity of one’s actions to a “religion”, namely to “the Christian religion”.  Definition (3) refers to a set of actions that have a certain character, namely the character of conforming to “the Christian religion”.
An even fuller set of definitions of “Christianity” can be found at
1. the Christian religion, including the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches.
2. Christian beliefs or practices; Christian quality or character:
Christianity mixed with pagan elements; the Christianity of Augustine’s thought.
3. a particular Christian religious system:
She followed fundamentalist Christianity.
4. the state of being a Christian.
5. Christendom.
6. conformity to the Christian religion or to its beliefs or practices.
Definitions (1), (2), and (3) support the view that Christianity is a religion and not a relationship.  Definition (5) is consistent with Christianity being a religion, and does not fit well with the idea of Christianity being a relationship.  Definition (6) is similar to previous definitions we looked at from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and it is logically tied to the concept of “the Christian religion”.
Definition (4) is the ONLY definition here that could possibly be connected to the idea of having a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Many Protestants have the view that conversion to Christianity puts one into a “state” in which one has a permanently good relationship with God and Jesus Christ.  From a Catholic point of view, conversion to Christianity puts one temporarily into a “state” in which one has a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ, but that positive “state” can be damaged or destroyed by sin, especially by serious (i.e. mortal) sins.  From a Catholic point of view, one must be in a good “state” or good relationship with God when one dies in order to obtain eternal life in heaven.
I think that the Catholic view could reasonably be stated this way:  “A Christian believer can die and go to hell for eternity, if that Christian believer commits a mortal sin and dies before repenting and returning to a state in which he/she is in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ.”  In other words, being a Christian, accepting Christianity or the Christian religion is not sufficient for salvation and eternal life.  If this is an accurate representation of the Catholic point of view, then from this point of view the “state of being a Christian” is not sufficient for salvation and eternal life from a Catholic point of view.  What matters is the state of being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ, particularly at the moment of death.
In this case “Christianity” does NOT mean “being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ”.  However, since from a Catholic point of view what matters MOST is whether one is in a state of having a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ at the moment one dies, from a Catholic point of view CHRISTIANITY or the Christian religion teaches that what matters MOST is whether one is in a state of having a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ at the moment one dies.  Thus, for Catholics, there is a close connection between Christianity and having a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ, but being a Christian, accepting Christianity, is something different from being in that good relationship with God and Jesus Christ.
What about Protestants who believe that salvation is a once-for-all-times event?  For such a Protestant being a Christian or accepting Christianity, entails being in a state in which one is, and always will be, in a good relationship with God and Jesus.  This makes it harder to distinguish between the “state of being a Christian” and the state of being in a good relationship with God and Jesus, because such Protestants believe that the two states always exist together.
However, from a Protestant point of view, one state is the result of the other state.  Accepting Christianity is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ.  Thus because there is a relation of dependency between the “state of being a Christian” (or of accepting Christianity) and the state of being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ, these must be considered to be two different and distinguishable states.  Therefore, although “Christianity” in sense (4) has a causal or logical connection with having a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ, “Christianity” in sense (4) is something that is different and distinguishable from the state of having a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ.
Thus, from a Catholic point of view as well as from a common Protestant point of view “Christianity” in the sense of “the state of being a Christian” is NOT equivalent to the idea of “the state of being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ”.
Furthermore, for both Protestants and Catholics, their views about the connection between “the state of being a Christian” and “the state of being in a good relationship with God and Jesus Christ” is spelled out in central Christian doctrine, is spelled out in their understanding of the Christian faith or “Christianity”.  The religion or theological doctrines that they accept provide them with a point of view about the relationship between these two states.  Catholics and Protestants, obviously, have differing views about the relationship between these two states.  Nevertheless, from a Catholic as well as from a common Protestant point of view, “Christianity” even in sense (4) is directly connected to a religion, and only indirectly connected to a relationship.
No matter what definition of “Christianity” we look at, all definitions in respected dictionaries point to the view that CHRISTIANITY is a RELIGION, and not a relationship.
In the next post, I will cover my third point:

bookmark_borderAtheist Scholar Phil Zuckerman: OK to Criticize Christianity, but Not Islam

You should read both the article and the comments.
I could be wrong, but my hunch is that Zuckerman is probably right. Also, I don’t know this for a fact either, but I suspect that the same fear which stifles atheist criticism of Islam also stifles Christian criticism of Islam. Yes, there are atheist and Christian critics of Islam, but it seems very easy to believe that there are less critics than there would have been if Islam did not have the kind of reputation it does.
Speaking only for myself, I’ve written almost nothing about Islam. I know very little about it, don’t come from a Muslim background, and don’t live in a Muslim country. But supposing I were an ex-Muslim living in the United States, I would probably have to think twice before openly criticizing it.
What do you think?
(H/T: Joe)

bookmark_borderMore Open Questions for Muslims

Note: These are not rhetorical questions. I really would like to know.

Q: What is blasphemy against the Prophet? Is any criticism of Islam or the Qur’an or Mohammed considered blasphemy? If not, can you cite any instances of such critiques that are not blasphemous?

Q: On the other hand, if even the mildest and most respectful critique is considered blasphemous, does this mean that non-Muslims may not, respectfully, express their reasons for not accepting Islam?

Q: What about a religious pluralist such as John Hick who is willing to accept Islam as a legitimate religious response to the transcendent, but denies the exclusive claims of all religions, including Islam? Is that blasphemous also?

Q: Why isn’t freedom of speech a sacred principle for Muslims?

 Q: Is blasphemy so serious a sin that it merits the death penalty, as in Pakistan? If so, why?

Q: How can you prevent blasphemy laws from being used to persecute innocent members of minority religions—as occurs in Pakistan?

bookmark_borderOpen Question to Muslims

Let me preface this post by saying I know very little about Islam.

After reading the news about the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya and the U.S. embassy in Egypt, I’m really starting to wonder about how the attacks fit together with “mainstream” Islam. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are the facts as I understand them.

  • Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-born Christian who lives in  the U.S., made a movie which shows the prophet Muhammad having sex and calling for massacres. At the risk of stating the obvious, Sadek’s movie does not represent the views of the U.S. Government.
  • This “movie” is not being shown in movie theaters, but is available online.
  • Many (all?) Muslims consider any depictions of the Prophet to be offensive.
  • In response to this video, armed protesters in Libya, presumably Muslim, stormed the U.S. Consulate there, killing a U.S. State Department official and burning much of the consulate. Additionally, some 2,000 protesters in Cairo, Egypt stormed the U.S. Embassy, hauled down the U.S. flag, ripped it and burned pieces of it. They tried to raise a black flag with the words: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.”

Here, then, are my questions for any Muslims who happen to read this.

  • Do the actions of these protesters represent “mainstream” Islam? If not, do you condemn their actions?
  • If you are an American, do you believe Islam is compatible with the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and of the press, even if that means someone like Sadek has the freedom to insult the Prophet?
  • Why does it seem that, whenever sometime burns a Koran or insults the Prophet, there are some Muslims who retaliate by destroying property or killing people that have nothing whatsoever to do with that?

bookmark_borderNew Mosque opens in Dogpatch

I see that after much opposition, including vandalism and arson–committed by “good Christians” I’m sure–a new mosque has finally opened in Dogpatch, er, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The article notes that the ambient idiots did hire some lawyers (I guess they paid them with chickens and jugs of moonshine). The lawyers argued that Islam is not a “real” religion, and so does not deserve Constitutional protections. Wow. I would just love to hear their criteria for “real religion.”

bookmark_borderFree speech for Muslims?

I often complain about how conservative Muslims’ overdeveloped sensitivity to religious insult erects barriers to the freedom of speech, and particularly speech criticizing anything Islamic. That’s a serious problem for nonbelievers and anyone who cares about freedom of expression.

But here in the US, where we so love to posture about how we’re so much freer than those benighted Muslim countries, our paranoia about terrorism has created an environment where American Muslims cannot feel free to speak their minds for fear of the possible consequences.

These consequences unfortunately include imprisonment for nothing but speech. The recent conviction of Tarek Mehanna is an illustration, already remarked on by civil libertarians.

I can predict some of the Muslim responses, especially those accusing Western critics of hypocrisy when they call for Muslim governments to loosen up on the freedom of speech.

But I’m also curious about how atheists, particularly atheists convinced that conservative Islam is a major barrier to certain political liberties, are going to respond. Are we really concerned about freedom of speech, including speech we think is thoroughly obnoxious, or are we going to figure Islamists deserve everything coming their way?

bookmark_borderIslam and Evolution discussion from 2010

I just found that the video of a discussion about Islam and Evolution that I took part in 2010 is available on the web. It turned into a more general discussion about science and religion as well. Ehab Abouheif, a biologist, leads off by explaining why evolution and Islam are compatible for him; I come in with a more skeptical point of view.

Anyway, since I enjoyed this event, and I think of it as a good example of what can happen in the context of a dialogue between a believer and a nonbeliever, I thought I’d post it.

Ehab Abouheif & Taner Edis on Evolution and Islam from evolutionandislam on Vimeo.

Hampshire College | Night QA Panel Darwin and Evolution in the Muslim World from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.


I’m visiting Turkey right now, and two days of my stay will overlap with Ramadan, starting tomorrow.

It’s a country where it’s very hard to get away from religion in the best of times. (Plus everyone always assumes everyone else is Muslim.) Now, on the eve of Ramadan, it’s all Islam all the time. I’ve already had enough. At least I’m in a big city, so I expect I’ll still be able to get some food and drink during the daytime in areas tourists are likely to hang around in.