Sunday, November 20, 2016

Who Determines

It's Sunday, and that means that, as someone who is neither spiritual or religious I'm doing something other than attending a worship service. Actually, pretty much every day of the week means that, but since the United States likes to tout itself as a "Christian" Nation, a lot of people are attending the church of their choice at some point during the day today. Me, I'm sitting in front of my computer, giving my keyboard a workout, and worrying that I'm developing carpal tunnel.

I read a blog posting, a little bit ago, that takes on a comment by President-Elect Donald Trump's National Security Advisor, Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn. "Islam is a political ideology. It is a political ideology. It definitely hides behind this [idea], this notion of it being a religion." It's an interesting piece, but it kind of buries the lede and skirts the main issue, which it deals with only briefly:

So is Islam a religion? I guess it would depend on how you define a religion and who gets to do the defining.
And in that sense, the real question about Michael Flynn's comments becomes: Is Lieutenant-General Flynn enough of an authority on religion that he is a credible source for questions of whether or not a particular group that understands itself as a religion objectively qualifies for that distinction? And independently of that is a secondary question: What is Lieutenant-General Flynn's definition of "religion," and is it accurate?

And for all that Mr. Cole's posting is an interesting, if apparently somewhat ideological, read, it never takes the time to address these questions. If we divide the post into two sections, the first section deals mainly with presenting a brief refutation of "Flynn’s arguments is that Christians don’t kill people in the name of Christ." The second section gets closer to the point, laying out definitions of religion by Anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the Internal Revenue Service. Which is all fine and good, but it doesn't answer the questions that we need to, if we are going to come to the conclusion "So everything Flynn said is false," based on anything other than gut feeling and/or preconception.

In my general opinion, time taken to refute the idea that "that Christians don’t kill people in the name of Christ," is always wasted in the Western world. For many Christians, especially American (and in my limited experience, British) evangelicals, the moment one commits an act of violence, or even petty vandalism, in the name of Christ, that person has automagically stopped being "Christ-like" enough to be termed a Christian. Such people are, at best, misguided and at worst fabrications, lies constructed to maliciously discredit the universal Truth that Christianity professes to proclaim. And even if it didn't inspire impassioned gatekeeping on the part of many believers, the point isn't relevant to the question at hand, unless one accepts an underlying assumption - that whether or not a group uses violence to advance its goals is germane to whether or not that group may be legitimately be called a religion. And if we accept that the use of violence precludes a group from being viewed as a legitimate religion, then we must also accept that religion is a relatively new concept. Quite a bit of blood has been shed in the name of religion over the years.

But even given that, we don't know one important piece - is a renunciation of violence part of Lieutenant-General Flynn's definition of "religion," it is simply a way of making the point that "Christians good, Moslems bad?" Or is it both or neither? From context, it's reasonable to assume that the former Lieutenant-General does consider whether or not a group is willing to use violence to meet its ends to be part of his definition, but that's still just an assumption, and, more importantly, it doesn't tell us if this is the be-all and end-all or what the rest of his definition might be. And to circle back for a moment, it's entirely possible that Lieutenant-General Flynn is doing the same thing that it seems to me that a LOT of American Christians do - conflating "Christianity" with "Religion." Hank Green, the presenter/instructor of Crash Course Philosophy on YouTube, doesn't strike me as being in the Lieutenant-General camp as far as ideology goes, but pretty much every episode of the webcast that has dealt with the philosophy of religion has focused exclusively on Christianity. You may make the point, and it would be a valid one, that for an American audience, Christianity is the religious tradition that people are most familiar with, but that doesn't get you around the fact that it may create a problem when one treats "Christianity" as a synonym for "Religion," in that it encourages people to judge other faiths on their superficial similarities to American Christianity. In the end, the problem becomes that we have nothing but conjecture to go on, because the snippet of his remark given doesn't provide us with enough information to be sure.

Likewise, the second section of the posting doesn't treat "how you define a religion and who gets to do the defining" as a question that requires serious engagement. It simply selects Anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the Internal Revenue Service and lays out their respective understandings of "religion" and "church," and then effectively declares that the philosophical proof has been completed. But I'd never heard of Clifford Geertz before this point, and the single quote from Goodreads does nothing to establish is bona-fides as a legitimate definer of what is and is not a religion. So I'm somewhat in the dark as to why I should accept his particular definition of a religion.
A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
And the various constituent pieces of the definition are not defined, and so even though Mr. Cole declares "Islam would obviously fit this definition," I'm not sure that I understand why "patriotism" and "television" don't obviously fit this definition. And this is, apparently, another of those circumstances were "obviously" means "not requiring any further explanation," because no effort is made to lay out the characteristics of Islam that show it to be a qualifying "system of symbols" or to demonstrate that it acts as advertised.

And this is odd, in light of the fact that Mr. Cole does attempt to tie specific attributes of Islam to the Internal Revenue Service's definition of "church." What struck me as interesting about this section of the post is that Mr. Cole states "In American law and practice, it is the Internal Revenue Service that defines a group as a 'church,' i.e. organized religion, because it has to determine whether groups are eligible for tax exemption." To be pedantic for a moment, i.e. is a Latin abbreviation for "it is," and is effectively an equal sign in common usage, that is to say in stating "'church,' i.e. organized religion," Mr. Cole is saying that a church is an organized religion and vice versa. But the IRS says nothing of the sort, noting "The IRS generally uses a combination of these characteristics, together with other facts and circumstances, to determine whether an organization is considered a church for federal tax purposes." Now, I will admit to not being a scholar of federal law, jurisprudence or the Constitution, but I don't recall "for federal tax purposes" and "in fact" being one in the same. Because consider the following, is a faith community that lacks IRS designation as a "church," therefore ineligible for protection under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution? Because while I understand how most Judeo-Christian and Islamic groups fit the definition that the IRS uses, does every "system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic" fall under the IRS definition? Would Islam still qualify as a religion were it not organized enough to satisfy the IRS that its institutions should not have to pay taxes? In other words, since Mr. Cole has selected Clifford Geertz and the Internal Revenue Service as the authorities to be appealed to, are they themselves in agreement? Because while they might give is useful means by which to define a religion, I still don't understand why they are allowed to do the defining - in essence, why the fact that whatever definition Lieutenant-General Flynn is using flies in the face of those definitions means that he is wrong and they are right.

Ever since the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, there has been a background "debate" on the legitimacy of Islam. And, as I see it, part of that debate is based on the false premise that if one does accept Islam as a legitimate religion, that implicit in that is acceptance of behavior that one might otherwise consider out of bounds. And this, to me, is the problem. I, for my part, don't link these two. Neither, it turns out, does the IRS, which says: "The IRS makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious, provided the particular beliefs of the organization are truly and sincerely held by those professing them and the practices and rites associated with the organization’s belief or creed are not illegal or contrary to clearly defined public policy." But the ghosts of the Crusades linger on, and the attempts to disentangle the violence of the past from the violence of the present continue, despite their futility.

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