The Samovar

Andrew Brown on religion
February 4, 2007, 10:17 pm
Filed under: Politics, Religion

Some interesting reading on religion, particularly the difference in what the words of religious texts say, and what people understand by them. The crucial paragraph as far as I’m concerned is (my emphasis):

The really important thing about the meaning of religious texts is that it is communally determined. As the American anthropologist of religion Scott Atran says, it isn’t poetry. Believers decide together what action the text demands, and then they do it. The decision is binding on everyone.

I’ll be returning to this theme when I get round to writing my big post about religion and anarchism.


i think that it is always important to understand that words gain or lose meaning based upon the community that uses them.

but i think that most of the heresies didnt come from people misunderstanding the meaning of the word, but rather forgetting what it used to mean in the former culture. especially when you translate the text from one language to another to another, etc. it becomes very hard to recreate the exact original meaning of the word in its context.

so when say arius read the Scriptures to mean that Jesus wasnt divine, he misunderstand the very hebrew notions of the speakers (and writers). he forgot that john speaks in the context of a jewish culture, where claiming oneness with God meant heresy, because it meant you believed you were God.

as an american i have seen this take place without even translation occuring and in a less than two hundred years. the first amendment of our constitution mandates the govt not interfere in “an establishment of religion”. in the writers’ mind 200 plus years ago, this meant the govt couldnt interfere with a church. now, in our postmodern culture, we americans take that to mean the govt will not establish an official religion (like church of england, etc). this was never the intent. in fact, in the early years there were official religions of some of the states until about 1800.

my point is that its very very easy to misunderstand language, even when we speak the same language and even when we have lived in the same country.

Comment by PB and J

PB and J, you make sense to me.

Comment by madmouser

Hmm. I’m reading “Muhammad: The Biography of a Prophet” by Karen Armstrong just now. She says much about the sacred status of The Text in some relgions. See also Guru Granth Sahib – the Sikh holy book is treated (and named!) as though it were a real person.

What I didn’t realise was that Muhammad didn’t receive the Qu’uran in one go. It was a series of ‘revelations’. Further, it’s his attempt to put in words what he himself admitted couldn’t always be expressed so. To some Muslims, the recitation itself has a holy, contemplative quality over and above the meaning.

Now, it’s obvious that there is much misinterpretation of the Qu’uran in western readings – like Islam doesn’t mean ‘submission’ and Jihad doesn’t mean Holy War…etc. etc. And, indeed, it’s probably meant to be an outline of basic principles to be interpreted, not a rigid set of rules. But that’s not what all believers think, is it? There are nuanced readings on the one hand, grossly simplistic readings on the other.

And isn’t that a general problem with religion? Any interpretation of anything can be justified, as is the believer’s wont.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo


i do agree that we in the west often misperceive islam and the q’ran.

but i dont agree that we are always so wrong. check out the princeton historian (a world-reknowned middle east historian) in his book the crisis of islam. he makes a very good case about the interpretation of “jihad”.

as a philologist, i agree with his perspective. the literal meaning of a word(in this case “struggle”) is important to understanding the etymology, but it doesnt completely define the word. we have to understand the cultural context of the word. we have to understand who the culture used the word then and how it is used today. you see historical “jihad” has always meant holy war as used by muslims from the days of mohammed to the present day. look at the terrorists worldwide (and many others like muslim guerilla fighters, etc), they invoke the word as meaning “holy war” as well.

and contrary to a politically correct, revisionist interpretation of the word, we must recognize it means “struggle” but the connotation is “holy war”. one might use the word in a different sense, but the muslim culture (minus a select few in more westernized countries) understand jihad to mean “holy war”.


Comment by PB and J

You’re right – violent interpretations of Islam are gaining ground. But what I’m arguing is that these aren’t inherent within the Qu’uran. Rather they’re a consensual expression within the current political context.

I’m not defending Islam here – I’m an Atheist Fundamentalist, opposed to all religions, in principle. My argument is that being founded on non-rational principles, they allow arbitrary justification of any and all interpretations. And these interpretations become ‘Holy Writ’ – after all, it’s what the Qu’uran says, isn’t it? But I don’t think this is any bigger a problem with Islam than it is with other religions.

I have much to criticise about Karen Armstrong’s book, by the way – excellent though it is – but that must wait for a separate post on my own blog.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo


i agree with you.

if you ever want to discuss your atheism, you are welcome to visit my discussions about such at would value an atheist’s perspective.


Comment by PB and J

Thanks for some interesting discussion everyone. I didn’t participate because I didn’t have anything in particular to add and I’m sadly quite busy at the moment.

Comment by Dan Goodman

I shall certainly check out ‘Mere Humanity’ – if only because I recognise the reference. 🙂

Comment by Edward the Bonobo


Under what circumstances would you say that violent content is an inherent part of a text? It sounds like multiple exhortations to kill unbelievers and sinners of various sorts in brutal ways is not sufficient. So what is?

Obviously we could take any text, redefine all the words it uses, and interpret it to mean something else. But that would mean that no text has any inherent content. Is this what you mean?

Even if it was the case that every text only has meaning relative to a current political context, isn’t it obvious that some texts are more likely than others to be given violent interepretations – in any political context? I don’t mean to single out the Qur’an – compare the old testament with Newton’s Optics say.


Comment by Simon Judes

Hey Simon, how’s it going? Turns out I definitely won’t be joining you in NY next year. No postdocs available.

I’ll leave Ed to answer as he sees fit, but one comment. You should compare like with like. Of course Newton’s Optics isn’t going to cause violence, it’s not about social relations. I think there’s a danger here of mixing epistemic and ethical claims and grounds and causing confusion.

Obviously as an atheist I find the epistemic claims of religion to be weak (nonexistent in fact). The ethical claims though (however they are grounded) are more comparable. I’ll take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights over “an eye for an eye”, but on the other hand I’ll take overturning the money lenders’ tables to Ayn Rand. I’m not arguing that we cannot compare religious and atheist texts, just noting that both religion and atheism have scope for ethical viewpoints which range from the atrocious to the excellent.

That doesn’t address all of the points in your post. I have a plan for an epic entry on all these matters which I hope you’ll comment on when I get round to writing it.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Hey Dan,

I’m sorry for not writing back sooner – by the time I got back from Thanksgiving the discussion had moved on, so I thought I’d wait a bit. It’s a shame you won’t be in NY, but it seems like you’re doing well at UCL – congratulations!

I think my post was slightly cryptic given what I intended to say: Clearly texts are given different meanings in different societies/time periods/etc., but I also think that that’s a red herring. We can still assess what the effect of the text is, was, and is likely to be in the future. I don’t think that statement involves a confusion of ethics and epistemology.

I agree that “both religion and atheism have scope for ethical viewpoints which range from atrocious to the excellent”. But in a way that’s a strange statement. I agree that religion an atheism are both consistent with a range of ethical positions, if religion is taken just to mean belief in God. But what’s important is not what’s consistent, but what ethical positions real people in the world actually take.

I think that comparing morality and atheism in this regard is buying into a false religious claim that these subjects are related. It’s a bit like discussing the relationship between morality and tennis. The reason is that atheists are not advocating atheism itself as a source of morality, in the way that religious people claim that religion (i.e. an authority) is a source of morals. You hear people (at least in the US) cite religious texts as justification for their views about homosexuality, but I’ve never heard a gay rights activist justify their position on the basis of atheism. Rather, the origin of their morals is something like compassion and reason, and the origin of that is difficult to trace – one might be tempted to turn to history, or perhaps further back to evolutionary psychology, but who knows.

The appropriate comparison is ethics based on compassion and reason, vs ethics based on revealed authority. Of course many religious people’s ethics does come from compassion and reason, but then it’s false to claim that they get their morals from religion. They may be able to cherry-pick biblical passages to support them, but taking judeo-christian-islamic texts as a whole, there is no doubt that cherry-picking is what they’re doing. And on what basis do they choose one passage rather than another? It can’t be a biblical reason.

It’s a fair objection that perhaps very few people really believe in revealed authority. It’s difficult to know whether people who cite religious texts to support anti-gay positions are `just following orders’, or were bigoted to start off with and are using religion as a support to justify themselves and persuade others to think the same way. I vaguely remember you phrasing this: which comes first, the bigotry or the religion? But it doesn’t matter. In neither case is religion functioning in a morally positive way. In both cases a good dose of reason and compassion is what’s needed, and in both cases it would likely be opposed by religious arguments.

To summarize, I think your statement “both religion and atheism have scope for ethical viewpoints which range from atrocious to the excellent” is true, but misleadingly kind to religion. No atheists (I think) are claiming that atheism is connected with ethics. Consider the following analog of your statement that really does compare two sets of morals: “both authority ethics and secular humanism have scope for ethical viewpoints which range from atrocious to the excellent”. I think that statement is false.

Sorry for the rant! I’m looking forward to your epic entry.

Comment by Simon Judes

Oh well the UCL thing is only 3 months to start with, but I hope to get a postdoc there afterwards.

I agree that religion doesn’t function in a morally positive way. I think it is morally neutral.

Looking at that last comparison you made between “authority ethics” and secular humanism: I don’t know enough about secular humanism to talk meaningfully about it. Does it take a stance on – say – poverty and inequality? I know that many progressive Muslims take the injunction to help the poor as the basis of their rejection of the more ruthless aspects of capitalism. If secular humanism doesn’t take a stand on economics then in my view it has a scope which ranges from the pretty atrocious (unregulated capitalism) to the excellent. But I’m only speculating…

Comment by Dan Goodman

Hi Dan,

It’s difficult to talk about religion in general. I’ve noticed though that a majority of religious people I’ve seen talk, blog, write, etc. think that divine moral authorship is one of the most important aspects of their belief, and that God’s authority and morals are intimately connected. I’d bet that the majority of religious people think so too, but I’m happy to be shown otherwise. Anyway, those are the religious people I’m talking about here, and I’m taking your claim that religion is morally neutral to mean that authority ethics is morally neutral.

You night have guessed that I’ll disagree! At best I think religion sometimes provides bad reasons to do good things. The main argument I have in mind here is the Euthephryo dilemma, originallly stated by Socrates as (via wikipedia): Do the gods approve an action because it is pious, or is it pious because it is approved? So far as I can tell, the majority of religious believers claim that the latter is true, and that the former is incoherent. The flip side is that various actions (homosexual behaviour, depicting the Prophet, etc.) are impious, because God says so. I think obeying injunctions like that is robotic and dehumanizing. What really is the difference between this and the Adolf Eichmann defense: ‘I was only following orders’?

Of course, the vast majority of religious people do not obey even a small fraction of the instructions contained in their holy books. This is true even if you take the subset of people (a majority in the US and much of the Islamic world) who consider those books to be inerrant. (How many of them stone adulterous women to death?) But then they are being dishonest about the origins of their morals. They are not coming from religion at all. Religion just provides a large text from which one can extract basically any lesson at all – they could just as easily use the works of Shakespeare. This is true even if they claim to interpret various passages as metaphors. Which passages should be so interpreted? There’s no key at the back of the bible.

All of this serves to distract from compassion and reason. First compassion. By secular humanism I had in mind something like the following from wikipedia: “Like other types of humanism, secular humanism is a life stance or a praxis focusing on the way human beings can lead good and happy lives (eupraxsophy).” It doesn’t say so explicitly, but leading a good and happy life seems to have a lot to do with poverty and inequality, and economic issues in general. This probably sounds very arrogant, but I think there is a big difference between working to eradicate poverty because you care about people, and working to eradicate poverty because your holy book says you should. And isn’t the former is morally better?

You might object that of course the progressive Muslims you mentioned care about people as well. In that particular case then the religious text is neutral, since those people have good reason anyway to fight poverty. But that’s surely the best case scenario. If we look at the range of actions that are justified on the bases of religious texts, and compare with the range of actions that are justified by compassion and humanism, isn’t it a hands-down victory for the latter?

Then there’s reason. You may have the best intentions, but if you stick to unreasonable dogma about what a stem cell is, or when a developing foetus starts to feel pain, then you won’t act in a way that’s most likely to produce the outcome you want. Consider for example the stupidity of abstinance-only sex education (Bush’s preferred method) as a way to prevent teenagers from the consequences of unprotected sex.

Paraphrasing Sam Harris, has there ever been a society that has suffered because its citizens were too compassionate and too reasonable?


Comment by Simon Judes

I’m taking your claim that religion is morally neutral to mean that authority ethics is morally neutral.

Authority ethics is a slightly misleading term given that even for a given religion, even for a quite narrow interpretation of that religion there is quite a diversity of ethical views that people who profess that belief hold. Personally, I think the ethics comes first and people fit their religious beliefs to their ethical beliefs. If they’re compassionate they’ll focus on the compassionate bits and if they’re bigoted they’ll focus on the bigoted bits. Just as, for example, when I read Proudhon I don’t focus on the bit that says that women are inferior to men.

Now for you and I, doing something for compassion is better than doing it because a “holy book says you should”. But for a religious person, doing God’s will and being part of His/Her plan is the highest aim in life.

Hmm, no time to write any more now, might be busy for a few days.

Also Simon, you might be interested to know that this blog gets a small but steady stream of visitors who googled for your name. No idea who they are though.

Comment by Dan Goodman

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