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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Gasoline on the Islamic Fire

After Greg Borse of pointed me towards a fascinating interview with the Islamic expert, Bernard Lewis, I spent some time thinking about Lewis’ remarks. The conclusions I reached were not encouraging.

Lewis points out that the current suicide bombing frenzy is a new thing under the sun for Islam. For centuries, Muslims were taught that suicide was a most heinous sin, guaranteed to merit hell. It is only within this last century that the teaching changed to embrace suicide.

This new interpretation combined with another new interpretation to create the current havoc. According to Lewis, non-Muslims have traditionally been only lightly punished if they blasphemed Allah or Mohammed.

In times past, non-Muslims living under non-Muslim rule (such as Americans, the Dutch or the Pope), would not be held to standards of blasphemy appropriate only for Muslims. Even dhimmis, those non-Muslims who were permitted to live as second-class citizens under Muslim rule, were generally not threatened with serious injury or execution for such actions. It was understood that all of these people were pagans, and blasphemy is all anyone could expect from pagans.

But this has all changed. Within the last few years, Muslims have begun treating non-Muslims, even non-Muslims living in traditionally non-Muslim countries, to standards that used to apply only to followers of Islam. Worse, they have taken to punishing us pagans with a kind of violence that used to be entirely proscribed.

And herein lies the rub.

Pagans, Muslims and Christians
I have discussed in numerous other posts how the Judeo-Christian worldview differed radically from the pagan worldview.

Recall that pre-Christian pagans saw the universe as cyclic, with no beginning and no end. Everyone was on an eternal wheel. Most pagans accepted reincarnation, most accepted the idea that there was no point to deep investigation of any event, because every event merely repeated something that had already happened before and would eventually happen again. All of humanity was chained to an endless, meaningless circle with no real hope for escape, no hope that something new under the sun might ever occur.

Christianity changed all that. For Christians, the universe had a definite beginning (Creation) and a definite end (the coming of the Messiah and the Last Judgement). Everything was building, progressing, moving towards a very definite and clear-cut end. Mankind did not live in a circle, endlessly staring at its own tail, but in a story, in which the actors were expected to mature towards a definite goal.

But Christianity and paganism weren’t just two different ways to look at the physical world. The theology was fundamentally different. Pagans saw the gods as quirky, arbitrary. It was necessary to constantly please their vanities, to stay on their good sides lest the gods become angry with you and smite you down. Gods changed, and men had to be nimble enough to follow their caprices.

Christian philosophy, at least Christian philosophy up until the Reformation, took a radically different view. Christians saw God as unchanging Love. He was not vain, He did not anger, no man could get on His good side by being theologically or physically nimble. Rather, you either used the gifts He gave to become like Him, learning to love as He does, or you chose not to love. If you chose against love, then you would spend the rest of eternity without love.

Six hundred years after the first Christians began later, Islam combined Judeo-Christian monotheism with pagan ideas of the quirkiness of the gods and thereby changed a fundamental rule of theology.

According to Islam, God is one but God can change. He might decide tomorrow that idolatry is acceptable and incest is, indeed, best. Whereas Christian theology understands that God holds creation in existence from moment to moment out of sheer love, Islamic theology assumes God keeps existence going simply because He hasn’t gotten bored with it yet (although He might change His mind on that at any point).

So, whereas a Christian strives to imitate God’s love, a Muslim trains himself to blindly and willingly submit to whatever his capricious God may choose to do next.

Reformation theology, coming nearly a millennium after Mohammed made his mark, added a further twist to theological rules by retaining not only Hebrew monotheism and Catholic Trinity, but also the capricious aspects of Allah.

For the Reformationists and their theological descendants, God is love except when He isn’t. He changes at times. For instance, for non-Catholic Christians, God pours out divine wrath on Himself as He hangs on the Cross because man’s sin has alienated God the Father from God the Son. God gets angry at Himself, opposes Himself.

The Problem
And herein lies the problem. Capitalism, at least capitalism as the West currently promotes it, is primarily a Protestant phenomenon. At this stage of the game, the entire system is designed to create highly emotional consumers, men and women who do not think very clearly but who do feel very strongly. The reason is simple: it is easier to pry money out of the hands of highly emotional people than it is to get it away from essentially rational, stable individuals.

Now, as we have seen, most pagans were not enormously enamored of rational thought. For people ruled by a pantheon of capricious gods in a cyclical universe, rationality has not much use.

Similarly, while Muslims clearly don’t believe Allah is as capricious as, say, Zeus, he has his moments. He can and has cancelled some verses in the Quran and “sent better in its place.” He can change his mind. Allah is beyond rationality, not bound by it.

As for non-Catholic Christianity, Martin Luther essentially set the standard for their theology when he declared reason to be the whore of the devil.

So, as anyone who turns on a television can attest, capitalism is not great at promoting rationalism. It claims to operate according to rational principles, but it actually promotes raw emotion. To put it bluntly, the same kind of raw emotion that drives men and women into car dealerships also drives Moslem crowds into frenzies and suicide bombers into cafes. The only difference is the direction of the emotion.

Given Lewis’ comments on the radical changes in Muslim theology, changes that occurred as Western oil money flowed in during just the last few decades, a rather disturbing thought arises.

We invaded Iraq, we support Israel, because we want to bring Western-style capitalism and democracy to the Middle East. But, while it is possible that Islam can be reformed, it is likewise possible that capitalism, at least as currently practiced in the West, is actually antithetical to that most necessary reform.

The cultural system, particularly the educational system, by which capitalist societies produce emotionally immature, grasping consumers is also perfectly suited to create emotionally immature, violent Muslims – exactly the kind of Muslims we are seeing today. Capitalism is designed to create and appeal to pagans; like Protestantism, Islam possesses a partially paganized worldview.

Thus, it is possible that these Muslim crowds look like 1960’s student radicals because the Western occupation of the region after World War I allowed Western methods of education, i.e., training in consumer-oriented emotionalism, to be widely introduced throughout the Arabian territories. This possibility is especially intriguing given that the most violent Muslim demonstrations have taken place within the most highly educated Middle-Eastern population, by Western standards: the Palestinians.

As Protestant capitalism infiltrates Islam, as secular emotionalism stokes religious emotionalism, it may not break the back of the local religion, as it has in the West. Rather, it may act like gasoline on a fire, causing Islam to erupt into a flame that will destroy them both.

In short, Pope Benedict’s plea to marry faith and reason together, a plea directed towards both the West and Islam, is somewhat more urgent than anyone thought.


tpellman said...

Steve, I have noticed you occasionally referring to capitalism disparagingly. Is there an economic system which you consider preferable? And if so, could you point me to an online resource that elaborates the position you align with?


Steve Kellmeyer said...

No, actually I don't much like any of the economic systems. Capitalism beats socialism and communism into the ground in terms of virtues - it's a much better system than either. It is simply the case that capitalism has its own inherent weaknesses that we should not ignore.

I know GK Chesterton came up with distributism as an alternate system, but it's not clear to me that it would work, even assuming we could convince people to try it.

What is clear to me is this: any system which does not consciously recognize and take into account man's concupiscence, in all its forms, will be deeply flawed. Capitalism is concerned primarily with self-interest and nothing else, thus we have the results we do.

tpellman said...

Thanks, Steve. I was just curious. Since we're on it, you might find the work of Catholic Libertarian historian Thomas Woods interesting. Columns here and audio here Can't say that I am persuaded by Libertarian thought yet, but it is interesting to see it from a Catholic perspective.

Patrick said...

Libertarianism is not very christian in its basic form. It basically believes that nothing is forbidden if it harms self, only if it physically injures or inhibits others. Its basisc philosophy is that the absolute least should be done to help (or hinder) others. It believes in social and moral neutrality in nearly all things. In its absolute form, it would lead to chaos with no societal value base. It believes that people are inherently responsible beings answerable to no one, which our prison populations would lead us to believe is not usually the case. A Libertarian used to be referred as a "classic liberal", but changed their nomenclature when the liberal base moved towards government being responsible for their representatives entire well being.

Jordan Potter said...

Yes, as I was going to say, if "Libertarianism" can be used of a political system compatible with Catholic social doctrine, then I suppose "Libertarianism" can mean just about anything.

tpellman said...

Patrick writes Its basisc philosophy is that the absolute least should be done to help (or hinder) others. It believes in social and moral neutrality in nearly all things. Not so. At least not in the case of proponents like Woods. Their form of Libertarianism is strictly political Libertarianism. It says nothing about what individuals ought and ought not do. It advocates that the government should do the least to help or hinder people. For example, it would say that whereas it may be good for people to voluntarily organize charitable actions, it is immoral for people (gov't or otherwise) to threaten people with force and imprisonment to relinquish their wealth (taxes) even for a charitable act. (Ends don't justify means.) These Libertarians are basically against the initiation of force. I am not necessarily convinced they are right yet, but let us be clear about what they advocate. I am leaning in their direction though. It is hard for me to imagine our Lord telling the rich young man, "After you sell all your possessions and give them to the poor, organize an armed mob and force other people to give their wealth to the poor."

Dave said...

I love reading your columns, Steve, but I think in this case you are being quite disingenuous in giving a short history of irrationalism mainly in terms of pagan, Muslim, and Protestant influences.

First of all, it is clear that all Western European rationalism, particularly Roman Catholic rational philosophy, rests on pagan Greek philosophy. This is nothing to be ashamed of, so why ignore it?

Secondly, to place the origins of doctrinal inconsistency on the heads of the Muslims is quite unfair. I don't think there are any more cancelled Quranic verses than there are cancelled papal bulls. This flexibility, in fact, has been cited as a significant advantage for Roman Catholicism over the inhuman abstractions of some Protestants.

Finally, I will note that there is no trend in Protestantism that has not been paralleled, often earlier and to greater effect, in Roman Catholicism. This is certainly true of Protestant emotionalism as much as any other religious phenomenon.

While I applaud Benedict's statement, I think you have gone too far in your speculations because of it.

Patrick said...

tpellman, You are confusing the terms. You are referring to the (in this case) political movement called Pacifism - totally unrelated. You can be a pacifist anything, politically. Per the Libertarian Party website: "Libertarians believe that you have the right to live your life as you wish, without the government interfering." A Libertarian is not so much against the use of force as against another's will. Most of the Libertarians that I have read and that are trying to get elected in my area say that even taxes are wrong (that is the government placing its will on you about what you can do with your wealth). So, you end up with a non-functioning government that cannot control its chaos because it has no single will of its own - no laws (except to hinder harm to others but allows it to self), no judgements. They support euthanasia and suicide, even by people with mental problems - not very pacifist. And hardly christian.

tpellman said...


Depending on your definition of pacificim, libertarianism and pacificism are not mutually exclusive terms, such as capitalist and communist. Some libertarians are pacificists, some not. From the Wikipedia entry on libertarianism:

"Libertarianism is a [i]political philosophy[/i] advocating that individuals should be free to do whatever they wish with their person or property, as long as they do not infringe on the same liberty of others. Libertarians hold as a fundamental maxim that all human interaction should be voluntary and consensual. They maintain that the initiation (or threat) of physical force against another person or his property, or the commission of fraud, is a violation of that principle. Some libertarians regard all initiation of force as immoral, whereas others support a limited government that engages in the minimum amount of initiatory force (such as minimal taxation and regulation) that they believe necessary to ensure maximum individual freedom. Force is not opposed when used in retaliation for initiatory aggressions such as trespassing or violence. Libertarians favor an ethic of self-responsibility and strongly oppose the welfare state, because they believe forcing someone to provide aid to others is ethically wrong, ultimately counter-productive, or both."

Which is basically what I said.

I agree that there are some gray areas, such as suicide and euthanasia. The question is not whether these things are wrong--they are--but rather what is government's role in interfering with the free will given to us by God? And the Libertarian Party does not speak for for all libertarians. Catholic Lew Rockwell (whose site I linked to above) is opposed to the Libertarian Party on many positions.

Steve Kellmeyer said...


I agree that Greek rationalism undergirded Catholic rationalism, which is why the essay says "most pagans" and not "all pagans". However, it is pretty clear that the Greek philosophers who most advanced rationalism were also closest to monotheism and farthest from the cyclic universe which is typical of pagan philosophy.

Second, papal bulls are neither Holy Writ nor are they cancelled. They are often place and time specific, and therefore a 13th-century bull cannot be read with a 20th-century frame of mind, but what aspects of the bull CAN be used are, and those aspects cannot be cancelled. Protestants frequently fail to realize this, and thus believe they can be cancelled.

Take usury, for instance. It is still illegal to charge interest on money, as the medievals defined "interest" and "money." However, it is likewise clearly the case that our modern definition of "money" (an electronic cipher with a mutually agreed on, albeit fluctuating, value) is not what a medieval would accept as money. Thus, interest is also not the same. We use the same words, but they no longer mean the same things.

The Muslims, on the other hand, specifically say "the Holy Surah X is not valid because Holy Surah Y has replaced it."

Catholicism requires rationalism to moderate emotionalism because She understands what it means to be a person. Protestants and Hebrews have an incomplete understanding of "person" while Muslims essentially deny the concept. Capitalism has, in most essentials, also come to deny personhood.

Dave said...


I would agree that the denial or diminution of personhood is the central problem of modernity. Also, it is fair to say that it is one of the worst features of modern Islam.

The issue of balance and integrity is more significant than emotionalism itself, which is simply a tool for demagogues. The way of the crowd is always broad.

Jordan Potter said...

"For example, it would say that whereas it may be good for people to voluntarily organize charitable actions, it is immoral for people (gov't or otherwise) to threaten people with force and imprisonment to relinquish their wealth (taxes) even for a charitable act. . . ."

"Libertarianism is a _political philosophy_ advocating that individuals should be free to do whatever they wish with their person or property, as long as they do not infringe on the same liberty of others. . . ."

Yes, when it is put this way, it is absolutely clear that Libertarianism and Catholicism are irreconcilable. The Catholic faith believes that human government is a good thing, something of divine origin, but Libertarians see government as at best a necessary evil.

tpellman said...

jordan, from a practical standpoint, I think most Libertarians would happy we just rolled back to its much more limited scope of the Middle Ages, when the Church exerted its strongest influence. :-)

I have started a discussion thread about this question at if anyone is interested.

tpellman said...

I need to type all the words I think.

I meant to say,

jordan, from a practical standpoint, I think most Libertarians would [b]be[/b] happy [b]if[/b] we just rolled back [b]government[/b] to its much more limited scope of the Middle Ages, when the Church exerted its strongest influence. :-)