Islam and Religious Violence

This month, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a fascinating discourse on the question of whether Hellenic rationality is essential or incidental to Christian religion. Philosophical and theological subtleties being unable to sustain the interest of our mass media, we have instead been delivered sensationalist reporting of the Pope’s citation of Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

The purpose of the citation was to show how the emperor’s “brusqueness which leaves us astounded” results from a conviction that God cannot act contrary to His essentially rational nature. The accuracy of the emperor’s assessment of Islam as a whole is immaterial to the Pope’s discourse, which immediately turns to a discussion of Hellenic rationality, not Islamic jihad. If journalists were more sophisticated, they might have faulted the Pope for asserting that Muslims do not require God to behave rationally, but here he is merely following noted Islamist Theodore Khoury and the medieval Muslim theologian Ibn Hazm.

Sooner than admit their own illiteracy, our demagogues have argued that Pope Benedict has been tactless in his choice of citation, if not ignorant and bigoted, as they fall back on kneejerk anticlericalism in place of library research on previous works of Ratzinger. The latter option would have revealed a much more nuanced, respectful approach to Islam than, say, your average journalist’s approach to Catholicism.

In absurd irony, many Muslims have turned to violence in response to the perceived accusation that Islam encourages violence. Mainstream Muslims have demanded an apology since, unlike their Christian counterparts, they are unaccustomed to having their religion publicly ridiculed. However, the tide is turning as even the president of Iran has acknowledged that the Pope’s comment was taken out of context, while our secular press continues to feign outrage on behalf of Muslims.

I would be disappointed if the secular media missed an opportunity to vent its rage against organized religion. Surely enough, the usual checklist is ticked off:

  • Failure to believe in secular liberalism or religious indifferentism is a sign of intellectual limitation or intolerance, no matter how erudite the speaker. That’s obvious, isn’t it?
  • Christians have been just as violent as Muslims, as evidenced by the Crusades. Tell that to the people of India, who suffered one of the worst genocides in history at the hands of the Muslims. The Crusades, as I have discussed at length, were motivated by a combination of secular and religious causes quite distinct from the rationale of an Islamic jihad, and were not an attempt to convert by the sword. “Conversions by the sword” were statistically insignificant to the spread of Christianity, to the chagrin of secular commentators who would like to insist no reasonable person would freely assent to this religion. In Islam, on the contrary, “conversion by the sword” was no aberration, but an explicit command of the prophet, and a key to the early success of Islam, though it later thrived on its own merits.
  • Religion in general causes violence. This takes extraordinary chutzpah, considering that we just emerged from the bloodiest century in human history, filled with atrocities committed by secular and atheistic regimes. There hasn’t been a religious war in the West since the Thirty Years’ War, yet secularist demagogues still invoke the specter of religious warfare to prove the evils of religion. If this anticlerical posture were motivated by courage rather than cowardice, perhaps they would just as forcefully reject the religions of money and the state, which have caused and continue to cause far more bloodshed than any religion of the supernatural.

It’s Official: Pluto Is Not A Planet

Finally, the International Astronomical Union has produced a definition of a planet, and Pluto does not qualify. This demotion of the “ninth planet” has been long overdue, and will make possible a more coherent description of our solar system.

Predictably, many have protested this decision, based on sentimentality or nationalist bias (since its discoverer was an American), as well as criticisms of the ambiguous and arbitrary nature of the definition. None of these criticisms can escape the fact that there is no consistent physical description of a planet that could include Pluto without also including several other existing asteroids, as well as potentially dozens of other trans-Neptunian objects yet to be discovered. Pluto has met the same fate as Ceres did in the nineteenth century. Originally thought to be one of a kind, it has been found to be smaller than initially thought, and but one of many objects in an asteroid belt.

Of course, in one sense it is certainly arbitrary to make a distinction between a planet and an asteroid, since both may have similar composition and orbital behavior. Nonetheless, the distinction that a planet dominates its orbital neighborhood suggests a further stage of development and greater prominence in a solar system. It is no argument to complain that with this new definition we may not know the true status of an object until we have explored the area around it. Many objects are necessarily classified ambiguously or erroneously due to lack of information upon discovery.

When we consider that there are only eight planets, we find many striking similarities among them that are not shared by other objects, such as Pluto. All have metallic cores, and all orbit the sun in the same direction, in the same plane as the sun’s rotation within a few degrees, in ellipses with low eccentricities that all have the same perihelion-aphelion orientation. The fact that the planets have such striking orbital similarities suggests that they formed around the same time as the solar system. We have four terrestrial planets, followed by a rocky asteroid belt, then four gas giants, followed by an icy asteroid belt. The asteroid belts are probably leftovers from planetary formation. Lastly, the comets, with their extremely eccentric orbits, are possibly stray interstellar objects caught by the sun’s gravity. At any event, this model is much more conducive to examining the problem of planetary formation than one that makes no distinction between the elegantly aligned eight planets and the chaotic asteroid objects that failed to attain this harmonious state.

The Myth of Neutrality

After dabbling in Wikipedia for several months, it has finally become clear to me exactly what is wrong with its neutral point-of-view (NPOV) policy, reflecting a similar problem that pervades modern liberal discourse. In order for an article to maintain NPOV, every popular position on an issue needs to be presented, often at the expense of properly expressing their relative likelihood or importance. Not only does this make articles read like haphazard assortments of facts, but the discussion is vulnerable to the demands of every advocacy group. When a structured article does occur, it is often because one advocacy group has won the day and imposed its editorial judgments about what is important.

Editing, in the traditional sense, has been one of Wikipedia’s weakest points, because there many Indians and no chiefs, and the NPOV is often interpreted to preclude making editorial judgments about what is significant. When I read an encyclopedia, I expect more than a collection of facts. I expect the author to have exercised judgment in using his limited space to provide me the most relevant facts in a meaningful structure. That is what makes an encyclopedia a useful springboard for research. I am not advocating opinionated articles, but simply pointing out the practical necessity of editorial judgments that necessarily come in conflict with NPOV as commonly interpreted.

More broadly, liberal discourse suffers from self-stultification through its aversion to making judgments about what is significant and relevant, out of concern for radical egalitarianism. This relativizing tendency ignores the inescapable fact that all genuine intellectual activity involves making judgments. Anything less is just data collection, without understanding the data’s meaning. This debases human discourse and lends credence to notions like artificial intelligence and collective intelligence, only because the notion of human intelligence has been dumbed down.

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