Analyzing Away Religious Violence

Here’s an idea for a PhD thesis:

A major similarity between Christianity and Islam is the brutality and barbarism in their founding documents. The central difference, though, is that Christianity went through a process of enlightenment.

But by what philological and hermeneutic means did Christian theologians in the last 250 years manage to interpret away the brutality of the bible?

A possible title for a PhD Thesis might be:

  • Analyzing (Interpreting) Away Religious Violence in/from Theologically Founding Documents.

The formulation is certainly bumpy and tentative. And I myself don’t know enough about the different religions and their theological sources that I could be of any help. But from a semantic perspective it would certainly be interesting and valuable to inquire into the philological and hermeneutic methods by which Christian theologians paved the way to civilized religious belief. Given the international problems with Islam and the current migration crisis, the goal would be to develop a philosophical and philological suggestion that may also help Islam scholars to civilize the religious and political practices of their belief system.

Is this naïve? It sure is!

But in the face of the tremendous international problems with Islam it may well be worth a try.

So if you are studying philosophy, or theology, and if you are interested in philosophical semantics and hermeneutics this might be something for you. Feel free to use this idea at whatever university you’re studying.

* * *

Addendum Sept. 13, 2015: In response to the here presented idea it has been suggested on Twitter that religious belief should rather be viewed as a psychopathological phenomenon and should either be treated accordingly, or otherwise be fought against, as in Richard Dawkins, for instance. I largely agree as to the psychopathology of religious belief today. In its beginning, however, religions may well have had some epistemological function, that is, they were somewhat tools for explaining the natural world. Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell  is still a valuable source in this respect. This thread, or undercurrent, may still be present in modern religious believers. And since religions do not seem to go away, even have regained influence since 9/11 both in the Christian and the Islamic world, it may be more promising to develop suggestions that can help civilize them than to wholesale discredit or outright fight them. To fight religious brutality and barbarism is the task of law enforcement in countries that function by the rule of democratic law, and, if necessary and backed by the UN, of military intervention, as in the case of Islamic terrorism. To civilize religious belief and practice, by contrast, may be a task of philosophy, even theology, and of the political sciences. It’s the latter which the present idea is meant to support.


Excursus (I): Generalizing Over Religion

In what follows I pick up a discussion that took place on Twitter (Feb. 11, 2015) about whether we can, or should, generalize over religion. Since some participants thought that we can’t, or shouldn’t, here are some brief remarks from a logical point of view, and a suggestion:

  1. From yesterday’s discussion: What does it take to generalize over religion?
  2. Generalization is a very common, if not necessary, procedure in logic & science.
  3. Without it we wouldn’t be able to make any viable statements at all.
  4. In logical formalism we distinguish between genus & species; see Seminar, §§ 6.8 ff.
  5. The term ‘religion’ itself is a generalization already. From here we can go ‘upward’ or ‘downward.’ (For Seminar purposes you may want to check Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, Bk I, ch. 20: “I mean by upwards, towards the more universal; and by downwards, towards the particular;” Oxford Translation).
  6. In the upward case, the term religion subsumes under still higher genera; under terms like ‘belief system,’ or something such.
  7. In the downward case, we subsume under the genus religion particular terms. ‘God,’ for example, seems to be a decisive concept in this sense.
  8. There are all kinds of gods. In polytheisms there are many gods; in monotheisms there is only one.
  9. Since polytheisms play no big role anymore, we should concentrate perhaps on monotheisms.
  10. Under monotheism we subsume the specific religions, Christianity, say, or Judaism, or Islam.
  11. But what do we subsume under Christianity, Judaism, Islam? And what criteria do we use for the resp. concretizations?
  12. What can we say about the adherents (believers) of these religions?
  13. Or about the policies they favor? Can, or ought we, say something about them at all?
  14. It’s perhaps more interesting to ponder over possible criteria for further subsumption than to just list further subsumable terms.
  15. Any ideas? Yesterday I learned that there is a field called ‘analytic theology,’ maybe that can help too; see Martin Montoya’s Twitter profile.
  16. In any event, I am firmly convinced that we can generalize over religion, as we can over any other term or concept.
  17. And since words do have meanings that influence our practical behavior, how about a Twitter discussion: #GeneralizingOverReligion?

Thanks to NousNougat for participating in yesterday’s discussion. She/he had valuable remarks on the distinction between religions & persons.

* * * *

* * *

Here are some Preliminary Results of the Discussion so far [added 2/17/2015]:

  1. I agree with Martin Montoya that criteria, of whatever sort, tend to lead into infinite regresses (we had this in the Seminar in re (logical) reductions, §§ 6.11 ff.). But is this necessarily a bad thing?
  2. I also agree with Martin Montoya and Cathy that one of the central standards, or criteria, for #GeneralizingOverReligions should be the respective religion’s fit into a secularized liberal democracy, and not the other way around.
  3. Furthermore, I believe (here I disagree partly with Martin Montoya, tweets of 2/16/2015) that we can generalize over a religion without being familiar with the doctrinal specifics of the particular religion in question. How so?
  4. Perhaps by what the American philosopher W.v.O. Quine called “Saving the Obvious;” cf. Philosophy of Logic, 2nd ed., 1986, 82 f., 96 f., 102; compare also his Mathematical Logic, rev. ed., 1981, 166.
  5. This move is already present in Aristotle, Prior Analytics, Bk I, chs. 1 & 4, on what Aristotle called perfect or complete deduction; see also Metaphysics Bk IV, chs. 7 f., on the Principles of Non-Contradiction & Excluded Middle.
  6. The idea is that, besides being tautological (we’ll come to this in the Seminar at a later stage), every logical truth is obvious.
  7. Following this idea we may pick some first principles of any religion’s doctrinal body and apply to it the standard logical operations (we get to these at a later stage too), plus the logical Principle of Non-Contradiction.
  8. On this foil then we can see how the respective religious principles logically relate to each other, that is, whether they internally cohere with, or contradict, each other.
  9. An interesting question in this regard (again brought up by Martin Montoya) is the role secularization played in the process of making, say, Christianity logically more coherent.
  10. As in every monotheistic religion there is, for example, the tension between the posit or moral imperative of universal love, on the one hand, and violence as a means of the religion’s proliferation, on the other.
  11. Today we may say that this obvious (!) contradiction was resolved by civilizing Christianity’s doctrinal corpus through the secularizing of its universality claim, and by institutionalizing the separation of church and state in democratic societies.
  12. It is perhaps a central question for the project of #GeneralizingOverReligion whether—and if so, in what respects—we can say this for the (practices of the) other monotheistic religions as well.

Martin Montoya (private communication) disagrees with §§ 10 & 11, and would rather see a sharper distinction made between historical and logical judgments. A similar point, if I understood her correctly, was made by Cathy in her contribution to the discussion on Twitter.