Tag Archives: Islam

Secular vs. Religious Solutions for Europe: Tom Holland

First Things is a conservative intellectual Catholic magazine.  I read it for about a year when I worked with a very devout Catholic physician who challenged me to read it.  First Things authors, in my experience, love to show off their erudition, often at the expense of a coherent message.

I was surprised when The Browser, a nonreligious on-line article aggregator, recently recommended the First Things article “All the East is Moving“. The article is by Tom Holland  and its opening blurb it says, “No longer at war with Islam, Western Europe had less need to define itself as Christ­endom, and could favour secular values over religious ones. We have come to believe that secular values will always prevail in modern societies: Is it time to revisit that assumption?”   Later in the article, he supports his thesis saying, “We don’t have too much Islam,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, “we have too little Christianity.”

It is a long article with some interesting historical information but disappointingly little support for his main thesis.

Interestingly, I found an article in the British site, “The New Humanist” where the author, Alom Shaha, interviews Tom Holland (a historian, writer and broadcaster) saying , “Tom Holland is a Christian who – by and large – doesn’t believe in God.”

Shaha states further about Holland,

When I ask him if he actually believes in the existence of a god he replies “There’s a sort of nagging, god-shaped hole in the back of my mind and the simulacrum of a god that I use to fill it is a Christian one. I could read the account of the passion, go to church on Easter and feel this is true, feel that it is articulating truths that affect me far more profoundly than I could possibly put into words, I feel myself in communion with the vast inheritance of Christian faith, I find that moving and at moments like that, I think “is this what it’s like to believe in god?” However, he also tells me that “I have seen no evidence that would satisfy me that anything supernatural exists. I have seen no proof for god.”

Tom Holland, seems to identify with an idealized version of Christianity — and he says he does so out of gratitude for his upbringing and inheritance. Tom’s article at one moment shows he knows the problems in Christian history, at the next he blindly idealizes what Christianity has to offer.  Readers can see if they agree. 

Holland’s Christianity involves an idealized non-historical Jesus’ supposed Sermon on the Mount which can be seen when he says, “no text has done more to underpin the construction of a new and multicultural identity for the [European] continent than the Sermon on the Mount.”

But the Sermon on the Mount seems to be a mishmash of sayings (probably even prior to a supposed Jesus), some contradictory to other sayings and some just nonsense. Several authors have pointed out these problems with the Sermon on the Mount, but see this article for an example “Iron Chariots“.

Holland’s article talks about the fascinating connections between Tolkien, magic weapons and the Nazis.  So if you want to read a typical Catholic “First Things” article which shows off erudition, rambles a bit and all the while it does not show the best evidence for their thesis, read Holland’s article (a non-believer in god(s) but who embraces Christianity in his identity).  I actually enjoyed the Nazi and Tolkien stuff.

Questions for Readers:  Do any of you non-theist readers have a “ simulacrum of a god” that you use.  Holland does, and uses it to label himself a Christian.  What do you think of that move?

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Your Death Theology

death-cult-leunigThe horrors of fundamental and even of moderate Islam are obvious. But when Christians criticize the supposedly sacred ideas and writings upon which these Muslim’s support their horrible ideas (the Qur’an and Hadith), the Christians’ ignorant irony is laughable.  The above cartoon by the famous Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig captures that same tragic irony that I also expressed in my 2010 post “Your God is weird!”.  Death theology, Exclusivist theology, Tribal theology and all such wrong thoughts must be fought constantly — sacred or secular.  Freedom from stupidity is not a right, it is the tenuous fruit of constant effort.


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Djinn & Muslim Mental Illness

I made the above poster after being inspired by this short, interesting post in www.livescience.com entitled Supernatural ‘Jinn’ seen as Cause of Mental Illness Among Muslims which begins:

It may be common for psychiatric patients who are Muslim to attribute their hallucinations or other symptoms to “jinn,” the invisible, devilish creatures in Islamic mythology, researchers in the Netherlands have found.



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Mazin & Wadjda: a friend and a film

Mazin's Tree

Mazin_and_SabioThe above photograph is the family tree of my good friend Mazin. Mazin and I have known each other for 30 years.  We first met in Taiwan and later in Japan, China and England — where he lives now. My daughter and I visited him and his wonderful family in England this summer. And here, on a walk through a park, we took a picture of ourselves.

When I first saw Mazin on this trip, I greeted him with the standard Arab greeting, to which my daughter responded by whispering to me in astonishment, “Dad, you kissed Mazin!”

“Mazin is a dear friend, honey, and that his how Arab friends greet each other” I replied. She nodded.

wadjdaMazin is an Iraqi Arab whose father married an Welsh woman. Mazin was raise in Iraq until he was thirteen and then spent the next 8 years in England and then 5 years in China, where we met. During our summer stay with Mazin, he proudly showed me his family tree. It was wonderful as he used the tree to guide me through many of his family stories.

Today, back in the USA, my daughter and I watched the fantastic Saudi film Wadjda (2012). I was amazed such a film could be made in Saudi Arabia — it subtly criticizes much about Saudi culture. Watching this and other foreign films reminds me of couchsurfing where I get to step into other lives and cultures which I may not otherwise see. I get to taste experiences far different from my own.

The picture below is from the film.  Here you see Wadjda looking at her father’s family tree as her mother tells her “You aren’t included, it only includes men’s names.” Later in the movie, Wadjda tapes her name to the tree, only to have it removed by someone else later. Saudi Arab culture has its very dark site.

Wadjda_family_treeThough very Arab in wonderful ways, Mazin is not a typical Arab by any stretch. In fact, you will note on his family tree that he has pictures of women members taped on. He proudly bragged about the women in his family as he told me stories.  And Mazin has a fantastic relationship with his incredibly talented and beautiful Swiss wife, Pia.

But having met Mazin, and seen his family tree, I felt more involved in the film about Wadjda because I now knew the family tree tradition personally.

Wadjda is a great film — slow, with subtitles, but you’ll learn about Saudi Arabia in ways books and articles can’t teach you. Though I had to continually explain parts of the film to my daughter, she thoroughly enjoyed it. If you are more interested in the film, google around for proper reviews.


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Eid Sa’id, to the good side of Islam

Indonesians Celebrate the Eid (source)

Indonesians celebrate Eid-al-Fitr (source)

Here is wishing peaceful Muslims around the world “Eid Sa’id” (Happy Eid). Today is Eid-al-Fitr which is a feast day ending their month of day-time fasting (Ramadan).

Festivals, sacred and secular, can be a joyous experiences. Depending on rhetoric and propaganda, people can use that joy to improve and of the following:

  • their inner life (like peace, love or taqwa -the ultimate goal of Ramadan)
  • their generosity and other virtues
  • their community

But joyous religious festivals can be used to also build negative attributes like:

  • a holier-than-the-pagan idea
  • a us-vs-them idea
  • their subservience to their government or religious rulers
  • licentiousness and lawlessness

Mind you, even secular holidays can do the same. So I only offer “Eid Sa’id” to the healthy side of Islam and hope the ugly practices in the name of Islam fade a little more today.

As an addition to my sacrilegious post here which proposes a fictitious medicine for constipation experienced during Ramadan, clicking here you will see a Saudi article about the complaint of weight gain that Eid-al-Fitr brings to doctor offices among many binging celebrates.  So next week, I may see folks for that.  Heck, my proposed medicine may work for that too (sorry, just can’t help myself).



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Ramadan Constipation

Allah_LaxMore than 450 students from Saudi Arabia attend a University near my clinic and in the last few days I have seen several of these young men complaining of constipation. “Odd, I thought,” but then I remembered, “Ah, it is Ramadan!”  The change in their diet during Ramadan is binding them up. Don’t believe me? Read Islam 101 here.


Realizing that Ramadan Constipation is a worldwide problem I’ve thought of this product as both a financial opportunity and a service to the spiritual and physical needs of Allah’s devote followers at this time of year.  Above I have created the brand name and packaging.  Dear readers, can you think of other halal ingredients besides senna that could help our Muslim brothers?

And so that readers don’t think I am picking on just Muslims, please click on this picture to the right to see how I also offer Buddhists relief from their spiritipation also.


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Iraq: More than Religion

Iraq_landHuge numbers of Americans barely know where Iraq is, yet alone know anything about her. And of those who do, most have a simple impression of the conflict in Iraq. Their media-fed view is that an evil jihadi militia is gruesomely sweeping through Iraq turning the country to convert Iran into an Islamist oppressive state. More sophisticated Americans supplement this view by actually knowing the two words “Shiite” and “Sunni” and thinking that the problems has something to do with a centuries-old conflict between these two sects. Some even know a bit of the Islamic history behind these two sects. But according to this excellent NYbooks post, the Iraq conflict is not fundamentally about a conflict between Islamic sects, but is “mostly about politics: access to government revenue and services, a say in decision-making, and a modicum of social justice.”

It is this level of analysis that I also push for when we study religion in general. Sure, looking at theological arguing points may seem important, but to truly understand religion is to see how doctrines serve politics, relationships, decision-making, and the human psyche. Sure, many believers may think that real religion is about metaphysical truth propositions, but they too are misunderstanding the large part of how such ideas work.

So, be suspect of the media when they dumb down events. Be suspect of simple labels as they tempt you to understand a country, a religion, a person or even yourself. The under workings of reality are much more interesting that the easy-to-remember labels.

This post is not necessarily meant to discuss Iraq, anyone’s lack of understanding, Islam or any such thing.  There is too much to understand in this world, ignorance is inevitable. Instead, I am merely pointing out how easily we buy into simple, convenient explanations — and worse yet, how we take our own superficial understandings seriously.



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Boyer: Is there such thing as religion?

Pascal_Boyer-2Most of you have a full reading list, but if you don’t read anything else by anthropologist Pascal Boyer, please read these short paragraphs I have copied below from the opening to his new book, “The Fracture of an Illusion: Science and the Dissolution of Religion.” (free on-line).

On reading it this morning, I heard a succinct version of what I often try to communicate here on Triangulations. Maybe Boyer will make it clearer for some of you.

The point of this book is not to argue that religious ideas are creations of the mind. That point was conclusively argued more than two centuries ago byvKant and other Aufklarung scholars. We are all in debt to the Enlightenment – and conscious enough of that debt, that we need not restate what was so lucidly demonstrated at the time.

No, the point here is to carry on where these scholars left off- this time with the use of a better science – and show that the very existence of some thing called “religion” is largely an illusion. What I mean by “illusion” is actually very simple, but also rather counter-intuitive and therefore difficult to present in a succinct yet persuasive manner. Most people who live in modern societies think that there is such a thing as “religion”, meaning a kind of existential and cognitive “package” that includes views about supernatural agency (gods), notions of morality, particular rituals and sometimes particular experiences, as well as membership in a particular community of believers. In all this, each element makes sense in relation to the others. Indeed, this is the way most major “religions” – Islam and Hinduism for instance – are presented to us and the way their institutional personnel, most scholars and most believers think about them. By considering, studying or adhering to a “religion” one is supposed to approach, study or adhere to that particular package : an integrated set of moral, metaphysical, social and experiential claims.

All that is largely an illusion. The package does not really exist as such. Notions of supernatural agents, of morality, of ethnic identity, of ritual requirements and other experience, all appear in human minds independently. They are sustained by faculties or mechanisms in the human mind that are quite independent of each other, and none of which evolved because it could sustain religious notions or behaviors. What would seem to be integrated wholes, the Shinto system or the Islamic world-view, are in fact collections of such fragments.

So why do religions, and by extension religion, appear to be such integrated wholes, such systems? That is largely a matter of stipulation. That the package is a package is not a fact but the wish expressed, or rather the slogan put forth with great animus by the members of many religious institutions – the priests, the ritual officers, the office-holders in religious institutions. There is no reason to take this postulate at face-value. Indeed, there is every reason to think that the notions of a religion (the Hindu religion, the Islamic religion) and of religion in general, are the main obstacles to the study of why and how people come to have what we generally call “religious” notions and norms, that is, why and how they find plausible the existence of non-physical agents, why they feel compelled to perform particular rituals, why they have particular moral norms, why they see themselves as members of particular communities. These phenomena cannot be understood unless we first accept that they do not stem from the same domain, they do not actually belong together, except in what amounts to the marketing ploys, as it were, of particular religious institutions.

The notion of “religion” as a package seems so plausible that even people who intensely dislike what they see as the supernatural fantasies, odd rituals or extravagant moral exigencies imposed by religious institutions, still assume that there is such a thing as religion – which they see as nefarious set of thoughts and institutions, the influence of which has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. Framing the conflict as a struggle of reason or lucidity against the obscurity, indeed obscurantism, of a single enemy, “religion”, simply perpetuates the illusion that there is a domain of religion – a single fortress for the militant rationalist to assault. That it is an illusion may explain why the best efforts in this epic struggle are often in vain.

Pascal Boyer is a French anthropologist who teaches and researches at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He is presently finishing a leave in France where he is working at the “Evolution, Cognition & Culture” team at the University of Lyons.

Boyer has written many articles (see here) and his book have been.

  • 1992 Tradition as Truth and Communication
  • 1992 Cognitive Aspects of Religious Symbolism
  • 1994 The Naturalness of Religious Ideas
  • 2001: Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (amazon)
  • 2009 Memory in Mind and Culture
  • 2010: The Fracture Of An Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion (amazon)

See my other posts on “Defining Religion“.



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Do you like this Muslim?

Abdur Raheem Green

Abdur Raheem Green

Abdur Raheem Green is a British convert to Islam who does a great deal of speaking on his religion. Here is one entitled “How I came to Islam” (90-min).  I think conversion videos, like ghosts, can be another touchstone to distinguish certain types of atheists from others: some atheists will can feel empathy for well presented faith conversions and some certainly won’t.  Which one are you?

I found Green’s talk touching, funny and inspiring — I could feel his zealous sincerity.  But with only a little searching, the not so pretty side of his Islam is easy to find.  Apparently Green admitted that back in the 90s he said that Muslims and Westerners cannot live peaceably together and that dying while fighting jihad is one of the surest ways to Paradise and Allah’s good pleasure. Though he now swears off his former radical views.  Those supposedly rejected views was why in 2005 he was banned from speaking in Australia. But has he given up his fundamentalism?  Here he vehemently preaches hell and brimstone to put to shame a Christian fundamentalist. And here he speaks against Sufism (5-min) where he sounds all too much like an Evangelical Christian belittling Pentecostals.  Ah the in-fighting in Islam is as complicated as that within Christianity.

My experience with Islam is limited. I lived in Pakistan with a Muslim (Shiite) family for a season studying language (Urdu) and religion (Islam). During that time, I would occasionally visit mosques (masjids) with my favorites being Sufis shrines where I participated in some swaying prayers. Prior to living in Pakistan, I had an American Urdu professor who was a Muslim convert and he would tell me stories of why he loved Islam. Later I other nationalities of Muslims during a few weeks in Java and in China where minority Muslims were in one of my favorite parts of Chengdu. I have also read a few books on Islam and love some Irani films.

Books critical on Islam abound.  But in understanding any faith, it is important to seek both critical and sympathetic material. As far as readings, I really enjoyed reading Karen Armstrong’s “Muhammed: a biography of the Prophet“. After reading it, I remembered saying to myself, “Wow, I can feel how a Muslim could love his faith”. I can easily feel my self flux between empathy and antipathy depending on the material.

The main point in this post is not to discuss the pros-and-cons of Islam. I am talking about religious empathy.  I am trying to point out that I don’t think every mind is built for religious empathy though mine certainly is. Religious empathy is absent in many atheists and I think this may be a temperament issue that causes people to talk past each other. I was amazed watching empathy rise in me as I watched Green’s video, given all my other knowledge. And though another part of my mind is built to see through the self-deceptive and dangerous aspects of religion, I am still OK holding both of these apparently contrary feelings (empathy & antipathy) simultaneously.

So, before arguing on religion with an atheist, ask them if they have ever felt religious empathy (not sympathy).  Likewise, before arguing with an exclusivist religious person, it may be useful to see if they can feel empathy with a faith expression of someone their faith tells them is bound for hell.

Question to readers:  So, what does the religious sympathy touchstone reveal about you?


See: my other posts on Islam here.


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Walk Behind Me, Woman

pakistan-TeaIn my late twenties I received a university graduate fellowship to study in Pakistan for one year where I studied the country’s national language (Urdu) and national religion (Islam). I lived with a Pakistani family in a Shiite village (religious minority) outside of Lahore and I would ride my bike into Lahore for lessons daily.

It took me a few months to get comfortable in my village. But shop owners in the market were finally more friendly, conversant and helpful. I could even go to local males-only tea shops and have men join me for conversations. My home life was wonderful. I have always been an earlier riser, and broke tradition there by joining my Pakistani “mother” in the kitchen in the early mornings to help her cook. My Pakistani father loved to sit around at night and debate about what he saw as Western corruption. And their two young sons often kindly joined me on walks in the village — I am sure that helped locals warm up to me.

pakistan_woman_behindAbout three months into my stay, my US girlfriend decided to visit me. Interestingly, she was born and raised in India but was the daughter of caucasian Mennonite missionaries in India — I met her at my Christian college in the USA. She spoke the Hindi fluently (which is very close to Urdu) and so could chat with folks much better than I could — I was envious.  But we had problems because she never liked prudish Muslim ways — she preferred Hindu customs. For in my part of Pakistan, a woman, at minimum, should keep her arms and legs totally covered — my Pakistani mother, for instance, wore a full burka in public. And, a woman should walk several paces behind her man — not next to him.

Well, my girlfriend rightly thought this was ridiculous — not just because she was an American, but even her Hindu self thought it horrible. But if for the two weeks she was visiting, she ignored these cultural habits, her behavior would do large damage to my reputation in the village where I would be staying for many more months to come. Even my Pakistani mother begged me to ask my girlfriend to be more modest.

So I told my girlfriend that either she obeyed these rules or we could not go out in public. She was furious. But I explained, “Look, you aren’t going to change the Pakistani way of treating women here during your two week stay. But you will destroy the quality of my stay.” She begrudgingly assented and complied. And though my village reputation was preserved, our strolls for the rest of her stay were no longer fun.

Question to readers: What would you have advised that younger Sabio?


Image credits:  Tea Shop, strolling man and women


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