by Rebecca Bynum (July 2010)
The following is the speech Ms. Bynum delivered to the 2010 New English Review Symposium, Decline, Fall & Islam on June 19th, 2010.
Last year I spoke to the issue of whether Islam should be classified as a religion or given a separate category of its own. I concluded that because Islam does not function in society in the way we expect religion to function, that it should not be classed along with the other religions of the world. It is like the duck-billed platypus of belief systems and because Islam is so unique it deserves its own category – some Latin word combining politics and religion perhaps.
Unfortunately, because Islam is presently classified as a religion, there are those who view the present Islamic assault as confirming all their worst fears and negative assumptions about religion in general and have taken up the ideological sword not just against Islam, but against all religion, especially Judaism and Christianity.
We are constantly bombarded with the chant that fundamentalist Christianity is just as bad as fundamentalist Islam, that Christians if they had their way would impose a theocracy on the United States and that the real danger to liberty in America comes from these Evangelical Christians. This has become the standard party line of the hard left who even liken Orthodox Jews in Israel to Hamas, as though they were morally equivalent. It seems that for many Jews, Israel is an embarrassment. And Israel, by insisting on its right to exist, is endangering all the rest of us and our comfortable, complacent lives. If Israel were to disappear, goes the thinking, all our problems with the Muslim world would likewise go away.
If jihad is being waged on Israel, it is Israel’s fault. If jihad is being waged on America, then obviously, it is America’s fault. This, of course, is the argument of Islam – the infidel is always guilty. Because the hard left is always ready to view the Western world as guilty and responsible for all the ills of the rest of the world, they are already predisposed psychologically to begin the process of imbibing the dhimmi mentality, so eloquently described by Bat Ye’or in her work on Islamic history. The process has already begun.
The view that Christianity and Islam are ideologically close is supported by two factors. One is the fact that some Christians and most Muslims are united in opposition to the way evolution is taught in the schools. This alone leads many secularists to put Christianity and Islam together in the enemy camp. This view is also supported by the pervasive use of the word “conservative” to describe Islamic attitudes and nations, as though King Abdullah and William F. Buckley were ideologically aligned. In this view, conservatives are all enemies of progress, so if one believes in evolution and in progressive social change, one has no choice but to oppose both conservative Muslims and conservative Christians.
Secularism, however, as we have known it in the past has been characterized by indifference to religion. Its attitude was that religion and politics should be separate. But in recent years these self-described secularists have become much more radical and have turned on religion with surprising hostility and seem to be using the present crisis with Islam to hammer nails in the very coffin of God. But if one examines both Islam and the new atheist movement, it becomes clear that these radical secularists are actually much closer philosophically to Islam than either one is to Christianity or Judaism. It is no accident that both Islam and the new atheists are vehemently anti-Christian.
In Islam, God’s will is defined both as the rules of Islam for humanity and as everything else that happens in reality. God’s will literally controls everything and God employs evil as part of his work. There are elements of this kind of thinking in Judaism and Christianity as well, but not to the same extent and not as universally as is found in all schools of Islam. In fact, I believe the book of Job can be read a a criticism of this kind of thinking that ends in the creature becoming morally superior to the creator. In Christianity, God’s power is not usually elevated over his love or his desire for our love to be freely given in return.
In Islam on the other hand, if the planes hit the towers, it was God’s will, not the will of men alone. If a tsunami hits Indonesia, killing tens of thousands, that is God’s punishment for not following Islam closely enough. Islam consistently reduces God’s will to simple brute determinism and since nothing happens that isn’t God’s will, there is no difference between that and the idea that there is no God. God is force. And if everything is immediately, not just ultimately, predetermined, there is no free will for mankind – there is no choice to make between that which is God’s will and that which is not God’s will. According to Islamic thought mankind’s only source of security is to cling to Islam in order to avoid divine punishment.
This is paralleled in the modern scientific idea of material determinism. According to this position, matter and force are all that make up reality. What we experience as mind is simply a “secretion of the brain” to quote Darwin himself and what we experience as value is nothing more than the evolutionary genetic encoding of cultural convention which has allowed some groups a greater chance of survival over others. According to this view, even our virtues of duty, honor and charity are simply disguised selfishness. We are genetically predetermined to have such illusions as the values represented in art, literature and music. They give us comfort, but the ultimate value of virtue, or of value itself, is in the selfish genetic survival value it confers – there is no other value intrinsic in Truth or Beauty or Goodness, for these things do not exist in reality.
Morality, then, is indistinguishable from conformity to the social mores just as it is in Islam. Islam has the advantage here because at least in Islam, morality, such as it is, is stable, whereas in the view of the material determinists, morality is merely an ever-shifting set of cultural conventions. Even our exalted ideal of human rights can be altered at the “drop of a law,” to quote Theodore Dalrymple, because there is nothing higher than human will. Islam elevates the will of one human being to divine heights. The new atheists elevate their own in the same way.
Of course, we have seen the outworking of this kind of thinking before. America risked all to oppose it twice in the last century, but this time it is within, pushed by our Universities, and absorbed by our colleges, high schools and grade schools and it pervades society generally as political correctness and the smug self satisfaction of those who believe in nothing higher than themselves.
Like Islam, material determinism attacks the very core of our culture, the thing that provides what remains of integrative power, the common conviction that God exists, that he is good, and that we have the choice to become like him in a universe which is a benevolent place in which we belong. There is no greater integrating or unifying force than religion. Without religion, we have absolutely nothing with which to counter Islam. Muslims cry: we have the truth in Muhammad and the Koran. Materialists reply: there is no truth. Muslims are strongly unified in loyalty to their ideals and are willing to die for them. Materialists maintain there are no ideals worth dying for and all idealists are sentimental fools.
Islam and material determinism stand on either side of nihilism. Islam saves society from the anarchy inherent in its philosophy by imposing ultra-strict totalitarian social regulation. Material determinists promote the idea of a world shorn of all meaning and value, and imagine that society will be more peaceful, just and tolerant without them. Both break man down to the animal level, and thus both are fatal to civilization.
Civilization is the product of both morality and imagination: it represents the distance between human society and the jungle. We cannot maintain that culture, that imagination, as represented in art, music and literature by reducing man in his own eyes from something a little less than the angels to nothing more than a selfish brute, king of the beasts, or even worse, to a glorified material machine. The effect of this philosophy is evident in the overall decline in our culture, even as our technology, with all its creative and destructive power advances apace.
Materialists are systematically disarming the West ideologically and trying to remove the greatest source of its unity, its religion, at this most critical juncture the West has faced since the fall of Rome. Even the Soviet Union had the wisdom to re-open its churches during the war. It would be prudent to save this internal fight for another day, but prudence, unfortunately, does not characterize the new atheist movement.
Therefore we are facing an ideological war on two fronts. Islam has amply demonstrated its power of cultural annihilation, but so has material determinism. What was Nazism, but Darwinism taken to its logical extreme? What was communism, but the effort to create a totally rational society, shorn of all religion? The effect of both these ideologies was to destroy more human lives and possibly more civilizational potential than all the previous wars in history combined. Islam has certainly racked up its share in body count over the centuries and its effect on human creativity has been even more devastating. Those who care about art, science and culture, must oppose all efforts to remove the greatest source of both civilizational unity and the greatest font of civlizational creativity, our religious faith in the reality of transcendent value, our faith in the reality of God’s Love.
Reverence for democracy and respect for secularism will not be enough. Only faith in a loving God and the conviction that Truth, Beauty and Goodness are real can oppose faith in a God of hate, a God of untruth, ugliness and cruelty. Religion is not the enemy.
Ms. Bynum’s post speech interview is here:
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Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.
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