August 04, 2004

Fear of Violent Death and Desire for Commodious Living

Robert Waldmann writes from the untroubled paradise on the shore of the wine-dark sea that is northwestern Sardinia:

The thing that shocked me most [about the 911 Commission Report] is that the suicide terrorists had lives (like al Mihdhar, who left the US without permission to see his newborn child). I assumed that suicide terrorists were people who might otherwise have killed themselves without killing others. Instead it seems that many had something to live for...

As Thomas Hobbes wrote long ago, Religion with a capital R and Belief with a capital B in what priests tell you are a terrible things. The promise of Eternal Paradise in Heaven, if believed, upsets the rational calculus by which a man scared of violent death and desirous of commodious living signs the Social Contract and bends his neck to the Sovereign Leviathan. Thus religious fanaticism--in Hobbes's case the Roundheads who shot out the stained-glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral for target practice, or the followers of Archbishop Laud who were willing to kill to move the communion table up to the back of the church--breeds large-scale death and destruction.

The more I think about it, the more terrifying the parallels become between our age--when the first literate generation of urban Arabs have direct unmediated access to their Holy Book--and western Europe's sixteenth century--when printing gave the urban literate their first direct unmediated access to their Holy Book.

Only they had pikes, armor, horses, and gunpowder. While we have nuclear weapons.

Posted by DeLong at August 4, 2004 02:26 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

Brad, you have put your finger on it! I have for quite a while thought that those looking for an Islamic Reformation don't know much about the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (not to mention the Witch Hunt) in the 16th century.

If they really want it, they've already got it.

Posted by: sm on August 4, 2004 02:37 PM


So, the West would have been better off without the Reformation, & stuck with a corrupt, autocratic, and superstitious RC Church squatting atop medieval society?

Certainly it would have been nicer to go straight to the Enlightenment & skip the religious wars, but would that have been possible?

Could France have skipped the head-rolling blood-soaked part & gone straight to the era of Jacques Chirac & Nouvelle Cuisine?

Posted by: Marcus Sitz on August 4, 2004 02:59 PM


Question for commenters: I had thought that a knowledge of the Koran was required for all believers. One of the five pillars, nearly since Muhammed. That even though Muslims may have been illiterate, they learned the Koran through oral repetition, which, IIRC, is actually the preferred method of transmitting the Koran. So that the appropriate accents and pronunciations in the correct Arabic dialect are part of what is taught in madrassas.

Prof DeLong's larger point is still well taken, and important.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on August 4, 2004 03:13 PM


Speaking of R-eligion and B-elief being terrible things:


Posted by: ogmb on August 4, 2004 03:14 PM


These unhappy facts are why killing off about 20 percent of the adult male population is the only solution to Fundamentalism.

Posted by: Moe Levine on August 4, 2004 03:15 PM


The painful irony of the situation is missing from your appreciation of the current situation of our Muslim cousins. Direct engagement of the Muslim masses with their holy text may be, as you indicate, one of our greatest dangers. At the same time, as Nicholas D. Kristof points out in today's column,(
it's also one of our only hopes.

Posted by: Aaron Guriwtz on August 4, 2004 03:17 PM


What a silly and reductionist argument. A rational calculus would have led Martin Luther King Jr. to stay at home and enjoy a peaceful life as a middle class preacher rather than to put his life and limb on the line, to go to jail and suffer indignities, in the service of his cause. Fortunately for the U.S., he believed that his God, the God of Moses and of Paul, bid him give up a chance at a comfortable life and bear the burden of fighting injustice.

We wouldn't call MLK a fanatic - even though he clearly believed that his Faith compelled him to put aside a rational calculus of his own utility function. We call him a great man, and rightly so. Why? Well probably because he didn't kill 3,000 people in so doing.

The problem, it seems to me, isn't with religion - either in the small "r" or capital "R" varieties. The problem is with murdering lots and lots of people. And that, the 20th century has taught us, is a behavior not limited to those who think that their lives ought to be guided by a deity in the sky.

Brad's argument is a variant of a very common - and very bad, argument against religious belief taken seriously. The argument goes something like this: look at all of the people killed and butchered throughout history in the service of Religion - Religion is a bad thing.

But if you want to make a tally of the effects that Religion has had on mankind, you're dis-honest if you also don't put on the opposite side of the ledger all of the lives saved in religious hospitals. All the children educated in religious schools. All the firmments of civilization itself defended at the cost of life and limb by people who saw themselves as protectors of the Faith.

You can't have it both ways. You can't say that driving a plane into an office building in the name of Allah is evidence that an absolutist religious belief is a terrible thing without also saying that giving up all of your possessions, joining a religious order and moving to India to care for the sick in the name of Jesus is evidence that an absolutist religious belief can be a good thing. Its simply wrong to argue that without capital "R" Religion, Mohammad Atta would have been an unassuming engineer on a work visa in Germany and then to turn around and argue that without capital "R" Religion Mother Teresa would have still devoted her life to helping the poor of Calcutta. You might believe, as a relatively secular person, that the former is alien and monstrous, and thus quite impossible without a worldview very different from your own. And you might believe that the latter is noble and kind, and thus quite a good fit with a worldview very similar to your own. But that doesn't change the fact that humanity has suffered great pains, AND received great comforts, from people who would not have done what they did had they not believed that God above demanded it of them.

The same Puritans who burned witches in Salem also founded Harvard (To train ministers!). The same Southern Evangelicals who want to ban gay marriage also give a higher proportion of their incomes to charity than any other demographic group (And often spend Saturday afternoons building houses for Habitat for Humanity.). The same monks of the Middle Ages who taught an oppressive political philosophy also kept alive the learning of classical Rome for centuries without any hope of material gain for themselves (And in so doing quickened the coming of the Enlightenment by centuries.).

Posted by: sd on August 4, 2004 04:03 PM


sd is of course right to argue that religion has benefits to all. Note that in each case of good that sd describes, we are dealing with acts of individuals or small groups, and decisions they make which make a difference in their communities.

What Brad is talking about is the insistence that many religious have to impose their views on others with force rather than with example and argument. When people try to move religion from a personal response to the Divine to operation of a nation state, they run the enormous risk of justifying large-scale murder. So, the religious wars of Europe, as Protestants and Catholics warred over control of nations, and any number of current examples. The same thing is true of any true believer, as witness Lenin and Mao, just to pick two of the many examples from our own century of secular ideologues.

Please do not compare this analysis to the tv pictures of armed and armored men and women standing around airports, buildings and subways in New York. That is just sensible precaution.

Posted by: masaccio on August 4, 2004 04:19 PM


When 9 or 11 nuclear weapons explode simultaineously in Western capitals or large cities what will be the response of the West? During the cold war we told the Russians that one explosion would mean the end of our civilizations. That response was fairly well disscussed - MAD and such. I don't hear any discussion of what our response would be to the use of NBC weapons, mostly N by the islamists. Am I just not reading those memos or what? Could someone point me to where that discussion is taking place.
Is there any discussion of this in the islamic world?

Posted by: dilbert dogbert on August 4, 2004 04:22 PM


This is an interesting parallel...but is it really the literacy and the holy books? Maybe it's actually not enough literacy that's the problem, or so little literacy that people are susceptible to misinterpretations of the "holy books", and to charismatic manipulation for fundamentalist political ends. It's a complicated world, with vexing problems, but if people can get answers that don't require extensive education and analytical tools, only a simple unwavering belief in an annointed god, does political manipulation become simple childs play?

Nicholas Kristof mentions several of the misinterpretations of the Koran in his Op-ed article today in the NYT called "Martyrs, Virgins and Grapes". Briefly, the title refers to the mistranslation of the word for 'white grapes' to mean 'virgins', he reports, hence the '72 black-eyed virgins'. The article gives a few more details. Similiarly the "virgin" Mary, was also mistranslated according to some bible scholars. Hmmm....time for some mixed sex translating teams.

But, aside from fantasy after-lives, rapture and heavens with grapes or heaven, many are quite motivated to bring down the most powerful country in the world.

Here is the URL for the NYT article (subscription)

Posted by: Jen on August 4, 2004 04:32 PM


"The form of magic that I shall discuss is the notion that there is a way of having power over nature which simply depends on hitting the right key. If you say "open sesame" then nature will open for you; if you are an expert then nature will open for you; if you are a specialist of some kind or if you are remote, if you are esoteric, if you are an initiate there is some way of getting into nature which is not accessible to other people.
"Now this was the dominant theme of all those centuries up to the fifteenth. ... [They] all come back to this notion: there is a way of having power which is esoteric and does not depend on generally accessible knowledge. Now I think that is fundamentally false and I also think, of course, that it is terribly dangerous, because it recurs in every generation." -- Pp. 20-21. Jacob Bronowski, "Magic, Science and Civilization", 1980.


"If I might give you one spectacular example, who would have thought in 1569--when they were well on the way to this concept--that if you really wanted to make the biggest bang that you ever made on earth, you would not in any way call up the sun, call up the volcanoes, call up the mystic power; you would just take ordinary atoms of uranium and you would put the U238 atoms in one box and the U235 atoms in another box and that this simple rearrangement of nature by her own laws would blow up 120,000 people in Japan." -- Pp. 34-35.

Posted by: sbw on August 4, 2004 04:34 PM


Brad writes: when the first literate generation of urban Arabs have direct unmediated access to their Holy Book

That would be, like, a thousand years ago?

Posted by: a on August 4, 2004 05:34 PM


"When 9 or 11 nuclear weapons explode simultaineously in Western capitals or large cities what will be the response of the West?"

My guess: nuke some random unpopular country with no nuclear capability (perhaps Cuba?), then create a "Nukular Czar" sub-cabinet level position to provide budgetary input.

Posted by: Kuas on August 4, 2004 05:36 PM


There have always been religious nutters, but they had trouble starting wars before the invention of printing presses. Printing presses didn't so much increase the number of religious nutters as give those nutters a means to unify large numbers of people behind their ideas. Fighting doesn't break out when you distribute bibles, it breaks out when you distribute pamphlets.

As other commenters have pointed out, the pamphlets don't need to be about religion, any concept that gets people hot under the collar will do.

So, I think the important parallel between the sixteenth century europe and the twenty-first century middle east is not about religion, it's about access to the means of mass-communication.

Posted by: Alan Green on August 4, 2004 05:56 PM


Dr. Bronowski was a much more intelligent person than I could hope to be, but it would appear that he suffered from the same intellectual blind spot as Will Durant and so many others: he could not see the achievements of the medieval West with anything like clarity.

Of whom was he speaking when he said: "Now this was the dominant theme of all those centuries up to the fifteenth. ... [They] all come back to this notion: there is a way of having power which is esoteric and does not depend on generally accessible knowledge. Now I think that is fundamentally false and I also think, of course, that it is terribly dangerous, because it recurs in every generation"? Certainly Dr. Bronowski could not be thinking of Thomas Aquinas, who took common-sense observation, in the tradition of Aristotle, and built the finest exposition of realist thought ever constructed.

Nor did the leaders of the Church endorse this notion of magic which Dr. Bronowski describes. All Catholic teaching and theology was available to any educated person, and all that was expected to be believed, by Pope or peasant, was taught to all.

Dr. Bronowski also ignores scientific work done during the Middle Ages, but this is hardly unusual. If one believed the typical textbook on the subject, nothing was done in science between the ancients and, I suppose, Galileo. Dr. Bronowski, and many others, appears to be unaware of the origin of modern physics, which is to be found in the work done at the Sorbonne in the 14th century by John Buridan and Nicholas Oresme, work encouraged by the official attitude and teachings of the Church.

Posted by: Kevin Salmon on August 4, 2004 06:00 PM


The flavor of the current round of nutters is somewhat different than the previous round (Communist, Fascist, National Socialist). Whether they are better or worse or equivalent is perhaps a matter for debate.

A similarity between today's Islamists and the Reformation of Europe is that Islamists tend to eject traditional interpretations by traditional religious elites and their traditional schools, for a fresh reading of the Quran and a revision of what it demands of believers today. In the Reformation in Europe, scholasticism, the universities as they then existed, and the traditions of the church as laid down by popes and bishops were rejected in favor of a fresh and literal reading of Scripture. The Decretals -- the accumulated papal legislation of centuries -- were ridiculed and denounced, and burned by the students at Wittenburg at the same time as Luther's papal bull of excommunication.

In both Reformation and Counter-Reformation camps, the other side was seen as "enemies of God" (as one Huguenot said about the Duke of Guise when he was assassinated -- served him right). Thus the connection with witch hunting, an effort to crush a supernatural conspiracy of evil.

Some of today's Islamists in their great certainty of what the Quran and hadith mean, are pretty free in calling infidels other Muslims who don't measure up, especially rulers they disapprove of.

Posted by: sm on August 4, 2004 06:09 PM


"Imperial Hubris" by Anonymous makes it clear that, far from being fanatics, bin Laden et. al. would just as soon live and let live. Their complaint is that we (1) challenge God's word over Muslims, (2) attack the Islamic faithful and their resources, and (3) occupy and dismember Muslim lands (pp.11-14). In response, "jihad" is a sacred and liberating obligation, in which martyrdom is a virtue. It might be time for Americans to listen to why the other side is fighting, and understand why bin Laden has become "the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history." (p. 19). We need a very different psychological strategy than the one the Bush Administration has pursued.

Posted by: Lee A. on August 4, 2004 07:14 PM


My hat is off to Lee A. for mentioning that which conveniently is left unsaid all too often. Namely, that the US is hardly innocent and undeserving of the enmity that it has accrued. Bush has taken things to a new level but he isn't the originator. It is about time we took a long hard look at ourselves instead of merely chalking it all up to religious fanaticism.

Posted by: Dubblblind on August 4, 2004 08:01 PM


SD says DeLong's argument is silly, reductionist, and dishonest because in passing judgement on religion and the religious, DeLong fails to consider, along with their minuses, their pluses. But, religion is SUPPOSED to benefit mankind. Persons acting on the belive that their God above demands these acts of them are SUPPOSED to perform good, selfless deeds. That is the default mode of religion and that is the default mode of the religious. Religion can't receive points for doing what it is expected to do, but it can lose points for doing what is not expected of it--in the same manner that a citizen is expected to obey the law without reward (in excess of a functioning social compact) but disobeys with the expectation of lost liberty, diminished citizenship, or lost life.

Posted by: s on August 4, 2004 09:17 PM


For a fascinating look at Religion and Belief, take a look at Benjamin Christensen's 1922 film Haxan (umlaut over the first a, but I doubt that comes through in url-text). There is a Criterion Edition DVD with the full film plus a great commentary by a Danish film scholar. Haxan means "The Witch" and you get a pretty strong reenactment of the well-meaning lunacy the "Church" (and I mean that term with the utmost contempt) brought to Europe (and America!) for a good 300 years.

Posted by: bushwahd on August 5, 2004 04:47 AM


I think this July 19th column by Canadian Gwynne Dyer is also worth considering when it comes to "Muslim rage":'s%20Wrong%20with%20Arab%20World_.txt

Posted by: David W. on August 5, 2004 08:39 AM


Brad, I hate to take issue with you, but I have to on this on two things. Regarding Robert Waldmann's assumptions: although the guarantee of paradise for martyrs in jihad *is* an incentive, suicide bombings have always been justified within Islam as military operations. Suicide is haram, or forbidden, but favorable Islamic interpretations of suicide attacks say that a suicide bombing is, for purposes of salvation, no different that pressing an attack that one knows will kill oneself. One of the reasons that suicide bombers are not generally suicidally-inclined is because culturally the act is aggressive and outward-directed; to ask if a suicide bomber is "suicidal" in the traditional sense, one must also ask if, say, Hemingway's Robert Jordan is also suicidal. Suicide bombers believe that they die so that others may live.

As for the idea that we are going through an essentially Calvinist period in Islam, I have to disagree. First of all, very few Arabs have unmediated access to the Qur'an. The Arabic it is written in is notoriously difficult and, in a land where Arabs from different nations can scarcely comprehend different dialects, that is not a trivial barrier. Second, unlike the Bible, the Qur'an has been available to Muslims for its entire history, originally through the "living Qur'ans," followers of Muhammad who memorized the Qur'an, and then later through the written compilation set down by Zaid ibn Thabit (or, depending on the tradition, Khalif Uthman, Hajaj ibn Yousaf, &c.). Throughout the history of Islam, special status has been accorded the Hafiz, the Muslim who memorizes the entire Qur'an. *However*, memorization is certainly not comprehension -- think of medieval priests who couldn't understand Latin but conducted their masses in it. If you look at a Qur'an, you'll notice a large number of intertextual marks that tell non-Arab speakers where they are permitted to pause when reciting the Suras.

Moving on, Islam itself, though based on a small number of texts -- the Qur'an and the Sunnah/Hadith -- has a very deep intellectual tradition of disputation, analysis and argumentation that stretches back to the beginning of the religion and which became particularly entrenched since the 10th century. Practicing Muslims are encouraged to exercise taqlid (literally, "yoking of the neck"), the submission in ehtical and religious questions to the opinion of scholarly experts without demanding proof or explanation. Scholars, on the other hand, are permitted to engage in limited ijtihad, critical application of Islamic principles to actual events or disputes, but will not only adhere to the foundational texts, but also view Islam through whatever legal schools (madhabs) they belong to. A Hanafi scholar will view things very differently than one who follows the arch-conservative Hanbali interpretation of fiqh, but both are building upon a massive corpus of extant law and interpretation. To refer to a Qur'anic passage or a hadith without discussing the history of its interpretation, the linguistic elements of its text and the historical context in which it was laid down is, in Islam, as ridiculous as an academic paper without references.

This isn't to say that there aren't *political* parallels between, say, Salafist Riyadh and Calvinist Geneva, but the religious parallels are, I think, spurious.

Posted by: WatchfulBabbler on August 5, 2004 09:38 AM


I've seen evidence that suicide bombers, at least those involved in the 9/11 attacks are less motivated by the promise of virgins than they are by the thought that they are helping their families and their comrades.

This is pretty much what motivates all soldiers, by the way, at least, in the heat of battle. You can make plans and train in the name of patriotism, but most people can only pull the trigger to help people they know.

Posted by: Jay on August 5, 2004 11:42 AM


..."But, religion is SUPPOSED to benefit mankind."

Does anyone know of a cost benefit study of a religion or religions?

Posted by: bncthor on August 5, 2004 12:10 PM


Re: Picketing in residential areas: If the lady doesn't want Operation Rescue to picket her home in a residential area, all she needs to do is get the City Council to pass an ordinance prohibiting it. This has passed Constitutional muster. The Church of Scientology nutcases tried to picket the brother of a friend in Scottsdale, Arizona, after he wrote some articles critical of their cult. The cops came out, told them that they had to leave because picketing in a zoned residential neighborhood was illegal in Scottsdale, and they had to leave. The Scientologists tried to challenge the law, and lost. The courts said that residential neighborhoods were for people to live and play, not for disruptive activities. The Scientologists had a right to make their views known -- on the commercially-zoned street a few blocks away, where pretty much everybody who entered the neighborhood had to pass. They did not have a right to disrupt the everyday life of the neighborhood and interfere with people's enjoyment of their neighborhood. That was pure harassment, and the free speech equivalent of punching someone in the nose. Your right to throw your fist stops at the tip of my nose, and etc.

To me, that seems like a reasonable compromise. Speech is speech. Harassment is harassment. We should never confuse the two.

Posted by: BadTux on August 5, 2004 10:31 PM


I wonder if Brad and all the participants in this discussion are aware of the arguments put forward by James Q. Wilson in "The Moral Sense". He draws together much anthropological and sociological evidence to show how the concept of a social contract is flawed. In short, the skills required to enter into the social contract are obtained in early childhood and, thus, one must, by the nature of things, enter the contract before he is mature enough to evaluate that contract's worth. Religion comes into human behaviour much later in life and has correspondingly less impact on behaviour. Religion is great, however, for covering one's lust for power by borrowing God's mantle. That much was evident to Aristotle, but the Enlightenement, perhaps in antipathy to Aristotle's Medieval intellectual dominance, lost that knowledge. Thence followed today's dysfunctional nation-states with a legal and institutional structure based on a supposed social contract. Worse, this form of organisation was exported by the civilising influence of the West on societies that fit the form even less that the Western ones. It is not hard to see how resentment at such a level could fail to flow out to other parts of the world, given globalisation and the empowerment offered the individual by technology.
The Bil Laden followers would have been just as murderous, had they been atheist Communist insurgents in 1927 Shanghai (as Malraux depicts them in "The Human Condition"). Thucydides thought that "the cause of it all" is "the lust for power fed by greed and ambition" and that "such ravages have occured and will continue occuring, as long as human nature remains the same". Who knows ? The humans that survive a nuclear cataclysm, if any survive, might mutate into something better and thus break the great cycle that Thucidides thought he discerned.

Posted by: George J. Georganas on August 6, 2004 03:35 AM


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