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Islam According to Wright 
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Post Islam According to Wright
I thought at this point in the discussion of The Evolution of God, we might as well collapse the 5 Islam chapters to a single discussion thread. These chapters seem to have less clearly distinguished subject matter than most of Wright's other chapters. What follows is a slightly random sampling of Wright on Islam.

As already stated in the "Koran" thread, Muhammad saw himself as similar to both Jesus and Moses. One of the points of similarity with Jesus is especially significant to Wright, that of rejection by the people he was trying to reach. While Jesus' rejection early in his career was not a major theme in the Gospels, and was downplayed in the later books, rejection just about defines the career of Muhammad and the Koran makes no attempt to hide this. As the personal expression of the prophet, we wouldn't expect the book to do that. Remember that with the Koran we have something that to a degree accurately reflects the real thoughts of the person named Muhammad. As geo has said already, the Koran is alternately ecumenical and exclusive concerning the worthiness of other faiths. This alternation roughly corresponds to Muhammad's status of either rejection by the Meccans or acceptance by the Medinans. When he had little influence, he naturally avoided riling authority unnecessarily, emphasizing getting along with these groups that could make trouble for his own faction. When installed in Medina and able to call the shots, he took a more aggressive stance toward the beliefs of people whom he felt it was prudent to conquer. The Koran contains suras that reflect the difference in these sets of facts on the ground.

As an example of Wright's ability to arrive at interesting and provocative perspectives, he tells us that with Muhammad we know what the enactment of his social and religious agenda looked like, whereas with Moses and Jesus we don't. He implies, though, that since Jesus and Mohammad were both prophets of the left-wing, apocalyptic mode, greatly concerned with social justice, that Jesus' later career might have been similar to Muhammad's.

This fact about the spread of Islam is amazing: "In the quarter century after Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina, possessing less power than the mayor of a small town, an Islamic state formed and became a multinational empire" (357).

Despite all the controversy about Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses 20 years ago, I never comprehended that the Satanic Verses refers to verses expunged from the Koran when, according to the tradition, Mohammad realized they had been inspired by Satan. The verses showed Muhammad making overtures to popular gods of neighboring areas, probably in an attempt to form business relationships. The original verses said of three goddesses that they were "exalted,' and that "truly their intercession may be expected." Today's Koran calls the goddesses "mere names" and says nothing about them interceding.

Wright tackles the thorny problem of the Koran's justification of violent jihad. Many in the U.S. today believe the Koran gives explicit orders to kill any infidels whatsoever, especially in the so-called sword verse: "kill the infidels wherever you find them." I won't summarize Wright's reasoning here, but he decides that the Koran definitely does not sanction actions such as Bin Laden's. The interpretative traditions that have grown up around the Koran's many belligerent verses are a different matter, but the book itself is more restrained than fanatics claim. While Wright may be technically correct, it seems reasonable to look at the Koran somewhat like an explosive that can be used for either benign or destructive purposes. The sheer volume of violent verses in the book makes it easy to misread which way a user should employ it.

Wright considers which tradition is worse in terms of advocating that unbelievers need to be slaughtered, the Muslim or the Judeo-Christian. He judges the "embrace of genocide in Deuteronomy" to be "unrivaled" (392), but says that in proportion to its volume, the Koran is the more violent book. So it's a draw.

An indicator of Wright's ability to see both sides (which at times in the book he might carry too far), is his pointing out a positive aspect of the Koran. He says that although people in general might see the Koran as even more primitive than the Old Testament, in one aspect, at least, it is more modern. Muhammad does nothing miraculous and claims no miraculous power. When asked to show his power by some demonstration of magic, he declines and says that we have only to behold the creation around us to see the miracles of God. This is not that far from the thinking of rationalists today, who say that if the human need for the wondrous needs to be fed, just look at life and consider how it evolved over the eons. (That said, it doesn't appear to be true that Muslims are more accepting of the theory of evolution than are strict Christians and Jews.)


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Last edited by DWill on Tue Oct 19, 2010 8:49 am, edited 2 times in total.



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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
I always wondered about the Satanic verses too. It seems Muhammad overstepped his bounds in reaching out to potentially new non-zero-sum relationships and painted himself into a theological corner. No problem. Just tell everyone to disregard those passages because he was under the influence of Satan at the time.

In that sense, we can imagine how the early Christian mythologists would have been able to easily manipulate the texts that would eventually become the Bible. Naturally, they would have left out the texts that didn't fit with their theological vision and it's a good bet they had a lot of material to choose from. In particular, the decades after Jesus's death was rife with expectations of the coming apocalypse, a time when mystery religions flourished. Inventing religions seems to have been very much in vogue in those days. Remember a few years back when the gospel of Judas was "rediscovered"? It was supposedly written by Gnostic followers of Jesus and portrays Judas in a very different light than the official gospels that comprise much of the New Testament. These texts depict Judas' delivering Jesus to his enemies not as betrayal, but in obedience to the instructions of Jesus. This obviously didn't fly with the official doctrine, so it was left out.

Wright talks about the Koran as a good scholarly test case. Because it was written by one man, during a relatively short period of time, it well demonstrates the malleability of religious texts as they are influenced by socio-economic conditions on the ground. Wright's overriding thesis that moral concerns ride the ebb and flow of zero-sum and non-zero-sum relationships are evident in the Abrahamic scriptures, but even more so with the Koran.

"In no other scripture do you so quickly move from "To you your religion; to me my religion" to Kill the polytheist wherever you find them" to There is no compulsion with religion" and back again. All of the Abrahamic scriptures attest to the correlation between circumstance and morals consciousness, but none so richly as the Koran. In that sense, at least, the Koran is unrivaled as a revelation." (405)


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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
I've wondered what I would think of the Bible if somehow the gnostic texts got voted in, or if for any reason the mystery cults had had their say. Of course, it's probably a dumb question in the sense that apparently it just couldn't have happened. I'm guessing, though, that I'd be dissatisfied with it for some other reasons. As far as I know, very little is known about the process of selection of texts for the Bible, but it would be really interesting to see how it was done. I suppose the first thing I should do is to read the books included in the Catholic Bible but not in the later Protestant Bible. That would at least be closer to what first emerged as the Bible (the word,according to Kristen Swenson in Bible Babel means "little library.")

I've never been able to understand the demonizing of Judas, anyway, in terms of the theology. If it hadn't been him, then somebody would have had to make happen what was always destined to happen and needed to happen in order for the world to be saved. Why isn't he a hero? Why aren't all the Jews, for that matter, if it was also they who were responsible for the murder of Jesus? That's what I find more irrational than simple belief in the divine.

"In that sense, at least, the Koran is unrivaled as a revelation." That line of Wright's is a true, ironic zinger.


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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
DWill wrote:
Muhammad saw himself as similar to both Jesus and Moses. One of the points of similarity with Jesus is especially significant to Wright, that of rejection by the people he was trying to reach. While Jesus' rejection early in his career was not a major theme in the Gospels, and was downplayed in the later books, rejection just about defines the career of Muhammad and the Koran makes no attempt to hide this. As the personal expression of the prophet, we wouldn't expect the book to do that.
I don't get how rejection was not a main theme for Jesus. As Handel points out in The Messiah, the line from Isaiah 53:3 was seen as a prophecy of Christ: "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not." . We also see in the prologue of the Gospel of John "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." Then the great rejection of Christ is Holy Week, going from entry as king to refuse pile as crucified criminal, with comprehensive rejection by all, even Saint Peter who denied he knew him.

This theme of the rejection of Christ became somewhat distorted in Christendom, projected on to the Jews. The issue is that spiritual integrity requires a vision of salvation for the long term, following the ways of truth rather than the corruption of the world. How I have interpreted the rise of Islam is that when Christianity was taken over by the Roman Empire it lost what integrity it previously had. Effectively, acceptance of Christianity amounted to submission to Rome or Byzantium. After the fall of Rome the writ of Constantinople extended only so far, with faith as precursor of the Westphalia doctrine that the prince decides the religion as a basis of social stability. In the Middle East it was not possible to go backwards to a merely tribal religion, so Islam stepped in to the vacuum.

Historically, I think Christianity has been more violent and intolerant than Islam. The conquest of the Americas and Australia involved an aggressive doctrine that all the beliefs of the original inhabitants were satanic and had to be eliminated from the face of the earth. Yes Islamism now presents an intolerant face, but Islam also has a tradition of respect for people of the book, with Christian and Jewish communities living in Islamic lands until the American/Zionist aggression of recent years produced a backlash.



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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
Robert Tulip wrote:
I don't get how rejection was not a main theme for Jesus. As Handel points out in The Messiah, the line from Isaiah 53:3 was seen as a prophecy of Christ: "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not." . We also see in the prologue of the Gospel of John "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." Then the great rejection of Christ is Holy Week, going from entry as king to refuse pile as crucified criminal, with comprehensive rejection by all, even Saint Peter who denied he knew him.

Thanks, Robert, for that perspective. Wright also covers the importance of rejection in the theology that grew around Jesus, the ultimate rejection being the crucifixion. Somehow that rejection had to become a sign that Jesus was the Messiah rather than a pretender, and by using some scriptural passages as prophetic (while ignoring others) and scapegoating the general population, it worked well. Wright also views rejection more narrowly as the part of Jesus' life when he couldn't get anyone to to recognize him as special because he had no power in his own hometown. Moving out from there, he did rather quickly gain a following as the Bible has it. Muhammad, in contrast, had a tough time for 10 years in Mecca, a fact that is reflected in the scripture dictated to him, then decamped to Medina and started to catch on. Rejection had no place in the theology finally, of course, because Muhammad unlike Jesus was able to carry out his vision on a political level.
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Historically, I think Christianity has been more violent and intolerant than Islam. The conquest of the Americas and Australia involved an aggressive doctrine that all the beliefs of the original inhabitants were satanic and had to be eliminated from the face of the earth. Yes Islamism now presents an intolerant face, but Islam also has a tradition of respect for people of the book, with Christian and Jewish communities living in Islamic lands until the American/Zionist aggression of recent years produced a backlash.

Overall as well, Christianity appears to have supplied a more progressive (used for lack of a better word) ethos for Europe, resulting eventually in the age of exploration and the confrontation with native peoples. Or maybe religion can't account so simply for the difference in ambition and aggressiveness between the two cultures.


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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
Robert Tulip wrote:
DWill wrote:

Historically, I think Christianity has been more violent and intolerant than Islam. The conquest of the Americas and Australia involved an aggressive doctrine that all the beliefs of the original inhabitants were satanic and had to be eliminated from the face of the earth. Yes Islamism now presents an intolerant face, but Islam also has a tradition of respect for people of the book, with Christian and Jewish communities living in Islamic lands until the American/Zionist aggression of recent years produced a backlash.


If religious doctrine parallels socio-economic conditions "on the ground", couldn't it be argued that Christianity—more or less the religion of the West—is more advanced than Islam? Islam is the religion for a region typically not as culturally or technologically advanced as the West. It also got a late start, some 500 years after Christianity. One could make the argument that Islam in some ways is right where Christianity was a few hundred years ago and likewise more inclined towards violence. The conquest of the Americas was justified on religious grounds. Probably those conquistadors really believed that they had an imperative to "spread the word of God" and it was just as well that those interests were aligned with imperialist expansion.


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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
DWill wrote:
Overall as well, Christianity appears to have supplied a more progressive (used for lack of a better word) ethos for Europe, resulting eventually in the age of exploration and the confrontation with native peoples. Or maybe religion can't account so simply for the difference in ambition and aggressiveness between the two cultures.


I would argue that Christianity in medieval Europe was a conservative force and the Rennaisance and age of exploration took place in spite of Europe's hidebound religious tradition, not because of it.


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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
geo wrote:
If religious doctrine parallels socio-economic conditions "on the ground", couldn't it be argued that Christianity—more or less the religion of the West—is more advanced than Islam? Islam is the religion for a region typically not as culturally or technologically advanced as the West. It also got a late start, some 500 years after Christianity.


Advanced in what sense? The Islamic cultures of the Middle Ages were more advanced in many respects than the contemporary Christian European culture(s). From the 1200s to the 1500s or so, at a time when European culture had been relatively stagnant for centuries, the Islamic empire reached its zenith and Arab and Jewish doctors, philosophers, and scientists preserved and advanced the work begun by the ancient Greeks. At the time, most Islamic states were more tolerant and enlightened than corresponding entities in Europe.

So, in what sense would you say Christianity is more "advanced" than Islam? I think they're equal. They both teach a mythical cosmology alongside reasonable ethics, and they can both be perverted into justification for attacking others.

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One could make the argument that Islam in some ways is right where Christianity was a few hundred years ago and likewise more inclined towards violence. The conquest of the Americas was justified on religious grounds. Probably those conquistadors really believed that they had an imperative to "spread the word of God" and it was just as well that those interests were aligned with imperialist expansion.


One could make the argument (and I think I have, actually :) -- but that's not what I think right now), but I would say that religions aren't inclined toward or away from violence. Only individual people have inclinations. Some people who profess to be Christians act violently, as do some people who profess to be Muslim. Most human beings in my experience are not inclined toward violence at all. My understanding is that both religions teach similar ethics -- that we should treat each other well. However, I also think that both religions have been used to justify doing violence to others. It's amazing what we humans can rationalize when we put our minds to it.


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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
tbarron wrote:
geo wrote:
If religious doctrine parallels socio-economic conditions "on the ground", couldn't it be argued that Christianity—more or less the religion of the West—is more advanced than Islam? Islam is the religion for a region typically not as culturally or technologically advanced as the West. It also got a late start, some 500 years after Christianity.


Advanced in what sense? The Islamic cultures of the Middle Ages were more advanced in many respects than the contemporary Christian European culture(s). From the 1200s to the 1500s or so, at a time when European culture had been relatively stagnant for centuries, the Islamic empire reached its zenith and Arab and Jewish doctors, philosophers, and scientists preserved and advanced the work begun by the ancient Greeks. At the time, most Islamic states were more tolerant and enlightened than corresponding entities in Europe.

So, in what sense would you say Christianity is more "advanced" than Islam? I think they're equal. They both teach a mythical cosmology alongside reasonable ethics, and they can both be perverted into justification for attacking others.


My comments are based on what Wright would call conditions on the ground as they are right now. In terms of economy, the West seems to me to be more advanced. I know I'm overgeneralizing and I don't know much about Islamic economies except that in many Arab countries the economy is not very diverse, depending a great deal on oil profits.

I'll confess some ignorance as to Islamic culture during the 13th through 16th centuries, but that's obviously a significant point that works against my time lag theory.

tbarron wrote:
Quote:
One could make the argument that Islam in some ways is right where Christianity was a few hundred years ago and likewise more inclined towards violence. The conquest of the Americas was justified on religious grounds. Probably those conquistadors really believed that they had an imperative to "spread the word of God" and it was just as well that those interests were aligned with imperialist expansion.


One could make the argument (and I think I have, actually :) -- but that's not what I think right now), but I would say that religions aren't inclined toward or away from violence. Only individual people have inclinations. Some people who profess to be Christians act violently, as do some people who profess to be Muslim. Most human beings in my experience are not inclined toward violence at all. My understanding is that both religions teach similar ethics -- that we should treat each other well. However, I also think that both religions have been used to justify doing violence to others. It's amazing what we humans can rationalize when we put our minds to it.


Yes, we can make the same comment for religion as we do guns: "Guns don't kill people. People do." But where things stand right now, Islamic extremism seems a good deal more dangerous than Christian extremism. Or, in other words, Islams are more inclined to use religion as a pretext for violence than Christians. And how do we account for that? Certainly not that Christianity is "better" than Islam, but that socio-economic inequities on the ground are creating the kinds of zero-sum situations that foster conflict.


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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
tbarron wrote:
DWill wrote:
Overall as well, Christianity appears to have supplied a more progressive (used for lack of a better word) ethos for Europe, resulting eventually in the age of exploration and the confrontation with native peoples. Or maybe religion can't account so simply for the difference in ambition and aggressiveness between the two cultures.


I would argue that Christianity in medieval Europe was a conservative force and the Rennaisance and age of exploration took place in spite of Europe's hidebound religious tradition, not because of it.

Wright might agree with you in the respect that he believes that people respond to some basic urges in reacting to the facts on the ground, and then religion makes adjustments to the inevitable. Belief doesn't call the tune. So it would have been that "something else" that accounted for the age of exploration and the birth of modern science. Religion, Christianity, just happened to be there and went along for the ride.

That is, I think this is what Wright would say. I'm not sure because he also tells us that from religion come all of our other social institutions. The degree to which religion should be "credited," if at all, is a question that has puzzled me for a while, and it's a controversial one. Is religion then to be castigated for the bad stuff in a given era but never credited for anything good? If it didn't cause the good, could it really have caused the bad?

Taking science as an example, we know that early on the Church did some persecuting of people like Galileo, and that today there is still much inexplicable denial of evolution in the U.S. But some make the claim that Christianity provided a fertile medium for science to develop despite these counter-examples. So this is a claim that religion can be a positive force for progress. The attitude, say some, is that the church in Europe encouraged investigation into the wonders that God had created. Darwin's recommended career choice was the clergy, the passion for naturalism being no impediment. Gregor Mendel of course was a monk.

I think we can never answer the question of the nature of our debt, if any, to Christianity. We can only have beliefs not based on enough evidence. To answer it would require a point of view that no individual could ever command. One of my favorite passages is from Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote: "The whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management."


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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
DWill wrote:
. . . The degree to which religion should be "credited," if at all, is a question that has puzzled me for a while, and it's a controversial one. Is religion then to be castigated for the bad stuff in a given era but never credited for anything good? If it didn't cause the good, could it really have caused the bad?

Taking science as an example, we know that early on the Church did some persecuting of people like Galileo, and that today there is still much inexplicable denial of evolution in the U.S. But some make the claim that Christianity provided a fertile medium for science to develop despite these counter-examples. So this is a claim that religion can be a positive force for progress. The attitude, say some, is that the church in Europe encouraged investigation into the wonders that God had created. Darwin's recommended career choice was the clergy, the passion for naturalism being no impediment. Gregor Mendel of course was a monk.

I think we can never answer the question of the nature of our debt, if any, to Christianity. We can only have beliefs not based on enough evidence. To answer it would require a point of view that no individual could ever command. One of my favorite passages is from Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote: "The whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management."


I have heard too many times that science owes a debt to religion, specifically Christianity, and it makes less and less sense to me. It's true that the ancient scribes painstakingly copied many of the Greek texts that would have otherwise been lost. But I think we can view this simply as different people at different periods of our history saw the value in copying them down. Did it really have anything to do with religion which is only a cultural extension of ourselves? And the idea that Christianity created fertile ground for science to take root seems silly to me. It's human nature to seek ways to understand the world. We've been doing it from the beginning of time. Both religion and science seem to arise from our innate curiosity.

Going off on a tangent here, but Stephen Hawking, in his new book, argues that traditional philosophy is dead and that it is up to science to come up with answers. This may be true to a point, but I think a better argument is that theology is dead and always has been. If our concept of god is something that resides only in our imaginations, then theology would be nothing more than a series of thought experiments. These thought experiments in of themselves can yield nothing in the end. What truth or meaningful fact was ever derived from theology? Even if God was real, theology has not yielded a single truth about him or the universe in which we live. And so it seems to me that theology exists only to rationalize our (probably imaginary) concept of God. And though religion provides a kind of framework that lends cohesion to like-minded social groups, it is nothing more than a cultural extension of ourselves, and is neither responsible for the hatred and violence nor morality and peace. It seems sort of schizophrenic to talk about it as if it were some separate entity.


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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
geo wrote:

I have heard too many times that science owes a debt to religion, specifically Christianity, and it makes less and less sense to me. It's true that the ancient scribes painstakingly copied many of the Greek texts that would have otherwise been lost. But I think we can view this simply as different people at different periods of our history saw the value in copying them down. Did it really have anything to do with religion which is only a cultural extension of ourselves? And the idea that Christianity created fertile ground for science to take root seems silly to me. It's human nature to seek ways to understand the world. We've been doing it from the beginning of time. Both religion and science seem to arise from our innate curiosity.

Going off on a tangent here, but Stephen Hawking, in his new book, argues that traditional philosophy is dead and that it is up to science to come up with answers. This may be true to a point, but I think a better argument is that theology is dead and always has been. If our concept of god is something that resides only in our imaginations, then theology would be nothing more than a series of thought experiments. These thought experiments in of themselves can yield nothing in the end. What truth or meaningful fact was ever derived from theology? Even if God was real, theology has not yielded a single truth about him or the universe in which we live. And so it seems to me that theology exists only to rationalize our (probably imaginary) concept of God. And though religion provides a kind of framework that lends cohesion to like-minded social groups, it is nothing more than a cultural extension of ourselves, and is neither responsible for the hatred and violence nor morality and peace. It seems sort of schizophrenic to talk about it as if it were some separate entity.

Thanks, geo, for your response. You appear to be saying that neutrality concerning the effect of religion--good or bad--is the position most consistent with the facts. I think of the "debt" question somewhat in the manner of the debt that amphibians owe to fish--that the latter built on the former to a considerable extent. It doesn't make sense to me that cultural evolution would occur without the distinct imprint of previous forms on succeeding ones. This seems to be Wright's position as he states it early in his book. Not that that is decisive in any way, but just to relate the post to the nominal topic. In the second half of the "Moral Imagination" chapter, he also says that one benefit of religion is that it can direct or activate the moral imagination, which often doesn't work without a boost of some kind once a level of social organization beyond the hunter-gatherer is reached. This has nothing to do with science, obviously, but might relate to the second half of your post. I don't know what exactly we are to call theology. I think I know what you mean, the metaphysical system that a religion says defines ultimate reality. I agree that these might be interesting but are irrelevant. I wouldn't agree that everything a theologian says is irrelevant, though. I found quite a bit of insight in Reinhold Niebuhr's book The Irony of American History, a book that inspired Andrew Bacevich as well as Barack Obama. Hitchens views some theologians of past eras as intellectual giants on whose shoulders we stand, despite what we can see as the limitations of their worldviews.


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Post Re: Islam According to Wright
DWill wrote:
Thanks, geo, for your response. You appear to be saying that neutrality concerning the effect of religion--good or bad--is the position most consistent with the facts. I think of the "debt" question somewhat in the manner of the debt that amphibians owe to fish--that the latter built on the former to a considerable extent. It doesn't make sense to me that cultural evolution would occur without the distinct imprint of previous forms on succeeding ones. This seems to be Wright's position as he states it early in his book. Not that that is decisive in any way, but just to relate the post to the nominal topic. In the second half of the "Moral Imagination" chapter, he also says that one benefit of religion is that it can direct or activate the moral imagination, which often doesn't work without a boost of some kind once a level of social organization beyond the hunter-gatherer is reached. This has nothing to do with science, obviously, but might relate to the second half of your post. I don't know what exactly we are to call theology. I think I know what you mean, the metaphysical system that a religion says defines ultimate reality. I agree that these might be interesting but are irrelevant. I wouldn't agree that everything a theologian says is irrelevant, though. I found quite a bit of insight in Reinhold Niebuhr's book The Irony of American History, a book that inspired Andrew Bacevich as well as Barack Obama. Hitchens views some theologians of past eras as intellectual giants on whose shoulders we stand, despite what we can see as the limitations of their worldviews.


The debt question would be a good topic to explore in a separate thread. I realize how ignorant I must sound when I say theology is dead and always has been. I've read some Augustine and I generally find many of these theological concepts to be fairly nonsensical, particularly the idea of the holy trinity. I realize, of course, that pre-Darwinian philosophers and theologians were missing a major piece of the puzzle.

I'll have to check out that Niebuhr book sometime. I've read Bacevich's The Limits of Power and I have a lot of respect for him as well as Hitchens.


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Mon Oct 25, 2010 2:56 pm
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