Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Let's Begin a Conversation about Islam

I have been thinking about Islam lately. I’ll admit that this present interest comes from watching Body of Lies, with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio. (The movie was OK, but not incredibly successful.) However, this religious question has been on my mind for much longer.

I suppose the major question I have been posing and churning goes something like: Is there an inherent connection between the violence of terrorism – and all that goes along with this – and the religion of Islam? I know that I need to read up on this. I don’t know how long the Koran is, but I feel like I should begin here. All of this is simply to say that my spouting here is really critically unexamined and un-researched. However, most of my points aren’t final points or conclusions; they’re simply common-sense observations, most of them making analogies to my own understanding of Christianity and Catholicism.

Observation #1: Perhaps there are certain hostile and violent words, commands, or themes in the Koran or other important Islamic texts. I’m not sure, but let’s accept for now that there is. Well, there are certain things in the Bible that we outright reject, at least in its literal, contemporary interpretation. For example, the Bible says to kill adulterers and homosexuals, as well as other potentially disturbing things. As a believing Catholic, I know that we need to understand the social context of these Biblical passages, as well as other important interpretative information granted me by being Catholic and understanding Catholicism. However, why wouldn’t this be the case for the Islamic texts? Why are we willing to accept that certain hostile Biblical passages aren’t inherently hostile, but aren’t able to do this for Islamic texts?

Observation #2: There are incredibly violent and disturbing things done by people living now and recently in the name of Islam. But let’s remember our Christian history, particularly the Crusades. There was a lot done that was outright horrible in the name of the Christian God. We are able to see that these actions aren’t really connected to the Christian religion. However, we are hesitant to do this for the actions of the Islamists today, perhaps because it’s more present to us. But the Crusades were present at one time. Why are we able to separate the actions of specific Christians – the Crusades, sex-scandal, etc. – from their religious beliefs, even when these beliefs informed the action (according to the misinformed Christian), but not do this for Islam?

Observation #3: To combine #1 and #2, aren’t there specific passages in the Koran that disallow the killing of innocent people? Should we see the actions of certain contemporary Islamists as in contradiction to their religion? If not, why not?

Observation #4: I’m not sure if you took a poll throughout the whole world, what percentage of Muslims would consider themselves extreme, or extreme in our sense of the word. However, I’m pretty positive that this would only apply to a very small percentage in America. Therefore, in terms of a national dialogue, why are outsiders allowed to make assumptions and conclusions based on other peoples’ religion, people who disagree with these assumptions and conclusions? To make another analogy, I vehemently hate when people make claims about Christianity or Catholicism. When people say that my religion is oppressive or sexist or irrational or other such things, I like to say or think, “No, you don’t understand the religion if you think that. In fact, who are you, a non-Christian, to make claims about my religion?” So who are we to make claims about Islam, as outsiders? Why would I trust my word, even if it were more researched, over the word of someone in my own country who actually practices the religion?

Observation #5: I think one of the problems with this whole discussion is the lack of centrality in Islam. They don’t have hierarchy and structures like Catholicism. For example, it’s pretty easy, even if the answer is nuanced and complex, to find out what the Catholic Church teaches on a specific topic. We don’t have this with Islam. However, we treat Islam as if it were centralized, as if it were one static set of doctrine and dogma. I’m not sure where I’m going with this observation, other than saying that this is an important piece of information that we need to recognize and respond to in a critical manner.

Observation #6: In all of my analogies (I think there were 3), there are differences between the Islamic and Christian examples. Every analogy limps. So I know someone can respond and say something like, “Yeah, but Christianity is different than Islam because of X; and therefore, your argument fails to make its complete point.” I’m sure this is true at times. However, are we faced with differences to the extent that we, as outsiders of a multi-faceted world religion, can properly and reasonably conclude that this religion is inherently violent, basing our ideas on the actions and words of flawed and sinful people and the potentially inaccurate interpretation of another religion’s holy book?

Observation #7: When it comes to this discussion, I think the public and political focus should be on the things that we see as incorrectly practiced by people of this religion, and not on the religion itself. For example, probably most Muslims in America disagree with the statement that Islam is inherently violent; but they would agree that whipping or killing a girl that is raped, instead of supporting her and punishing the man, is seriously disturbed. We might disagree whether Islam “gets you” to this social practice or not, but we all agree it is wrong. (Side note: I see this sort of social practice as a “holding on” to ancient social ideals more than a religious thing. For example, a raped girl in ancient Greece (and Rome, too, I think) was defiled and better off dead.) The discussion of the inherent qualities of Islam should be explored, but in a more theoretic, philosophic, and theological manner, rather than a constant conversation in current political discourse. This leads to misinformed and/or lacking discussions.

Observation #8: Of course, what I need to do now is research more. I need to read the Koran, or pieces of it; and I need to read commentary from all perspectives: biased and attempted objectivity.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Is Cognition All That Important?

I’m on a bit of a “knock Descartes” tear, but this isn’t a bad thing. Of course, this Frenchie is someone people love to hate; it’s cliché to pick apart the problems in his “Western” mode of thought. Still, there is often, perhaps subconsciously, a train of thought that runs through my mind as follows: “You don’t want to believe in Descartes’ ideas and conclusions because it would mean that you cannot and will never really know anything for sure; and you don’t like that idea, do you?” Therefore, when I arrive at real issues with Rene, I chose to write them out; and since I’m writing them out, I may as well post them on the blog.

Let me get back to the Cartesian cogito. There is nothing incredibly wrong or illogical in saying, “I think; therefore, I am;” there’s nothing quite incorrect in saying that our cognition is a possible mode for proving our personal existence. However, what the cogito does not prove is that cognition is the only mode of proving things exist, that cognition is necessary for existence – or that cognition is what gives value to existence. Now, I don’t think Descartes thought that these were the case; however, it seems to be a byproduct of his intellectual endeavors. If cognition is necessary to prove existence – which I’m not saying is true; but Descartes thought so – then we can’t be sure of the existence of anything else without cognition. What happens here is an undue focus put on cognition. We can value it too highly; we can end up thinking that cognition is somehow necessary for the sake of value itself. This is logically false.

Here’s a faulty and probably stupid analogy. Let’s imagine that I have taken my undergraduate at Seton Hall University. One of the major modes of proof for this fact is my transcript. I can take this information and convince others and myself that I have indeed attended Seton Hall for 4 years, from the years 2001-2005, and that I earned a college degree. But is there any real connection between this piece of paper and my actual 4-year experience at Seton Hall? Not very much: the piece of paper simply happens to be a decent mode of proving that I was actually at Seton Hall for 4 years. Let me apply this to the cogito. Cognition is a nice mode of proving that I exist. However, there’s no real connection between my existence and my cognition. Yes, cognition is part of my existence, but only in the sense that it is one part of my present state of being. If I went into a coma tonight and lived for 5 more years, I would be existing without cognition.

I think the modern world unconsciously accepts some of this Cartesian falseness. How can we, as a global community that is moving toward equability and recognition of human value and freedom, be so callously ignorant in our discussion of the unborn? Somehow since the baby is out of sight and unable to think and reason, it is easier for us to think its existence isn’t proven – or, to be more appropriate, its value as a human person is not proven, since it has no cognition.

Let’s look at the other groups of people we tend to disvalue: the elderly, the handicapped, and the terminally ill. In many of these cases, cognition is hugely lacking. Old people who can’t think: Is this even life, we ask? But value does not come from cognition. One of the fears of accepting this fact is accepting that value comes elsewhere. When we think value comes from the chemical and biological processes involved in the brain that ensure consciousness, we have no need to look for value in anything that isn’t material. We have rightfully placed even value within a material category. Recognizing this error means either accepting the nihilism of valuelessness, or looking beyond the material for the sake of value.