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Category: Islam

Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 2

Both Christians and Muslims had a great challenge in learning how to cope with Aristotelian ideas.

One Islamic approach to dealing with a comprehensive and reasonable system that didn’t include God was to further develop the “Theory of Two Truths”.  This was done by primarily by the brilliant Muslim philosophers Avicenna and Averroes.  This approach considered there to be two bodies of truth, religious and secular.  By creating incompatible sets of truth so solve the problem of Aristotle being so secularly awesome, a new problem was created.  Why adhere to the secular body of truth when the religious one is equally true but given by God?  This ended up stunting Islamic thought because truth that was reasoned to was harder to attain than truth revealed.  Why work through reason when revelation will give different but just as true answers?  This stunted growth in thought is one reason why Christian countries pulled ahead of Islamic ones in production of science, whereas before the development of the Theory of Two Truths the Islamic societies were more advanced and developed.

The theory of Two Truths is very useful if kept within limits.  Erving Goffman’s work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life touches on the idea that even in our own lives, we present different versions of the truth to different people.  Scripturally this means that various passages aren’t all meant to be understood in the same way.  Some passages are poetry, some are history, some are myth (I’m looking at you, Tobit), but all are used to portray an accurate picture of God.  The single truth of God, just like the single truth of ourselves, are presented in a variety of different and sometimes superficially contradictory ways.  Simply put, there is a truth in the story of say, Noah, about who God is.  Changing the story to make it more historically factual would lose that truth.  However, changing the story to express the truth of God can mask the truth of what historically happened.  Two truths — both contradicting each other, but neither wrong if understood within its own context.

Just as secular people are doing today by ignoring the context of scriptural truth, a la below:

Bible conntradictions according to some atheists.

Bible contradictions according to some atheists.

So too do some religious people do when they ignore the contexts of scientific truth, a la below:

dinofeedingThis is the downfall of the Theory of Two Truths.  It becomes easy to ignore one truth for the sake of another.

So why did Christian countries not end up with a similar incompatibility between faith and reason?  Why is the Theory of Two Truths a fringe theory in Western society today?  The answer is in that great dumb ox, Aquinas.  He synthesized Aristotle and Christianity by applying Aristotelian reason to Christian truths.  In this way neither faith no reason was separated from the other, so that both could flower together rather than one supersede the other.  One major way he did that was by utilizing the four causes of change that Aristotle came up with and showing how they can fit within Christian belief.  The five proofs of God Aquinas gives aren’t so much to prove God exists (Aquinas already believed that), but rather to prove secular reason isn’t incompatible with God.  This was a big question in his day, as Islamic scholars had only recently introduced Aristotle to Western Europe; whose scholars seldom had any training in Greek (this again shows how much more advanced Islamic society was then Christianity society was at that time).  Had Christian scholars taken the approach of their Islamic brothers, we might never have had the scientific revolution.  Therefore the five proofs of God Aquinas came up with mark quite a turning point in our intellectual history: not because they definitively proved God exists but because the definitively proved faith and reason can intermingle.

Next Time: The first cause of change.


Is Islam theolgically more violent than Christianity?


With great relief I can write that it appears the hostage situation in Kenya is over.  Sadly, at least 62 innocent people have died.  Because of the reports that those reciting the Muslim creed were set free, it seems appropriate to look at whether the differences theologically between Islam and Catholicism lend any more violence to Islam.

By looking at the distribution of violence, we can learn about one possible aspect of it.  The National Counterterrorism Center gave a 2011 report suggesting that extremist Sunni Muslims commit 56% of all terrorist violence and 70% of all terrorist related deaths.  Also in the report is that Muslim countries had the largest amount of attacks involving more than 10 deaths and that attacks on Christians dropped 45% since 2010.

Against this backdrop of information, we can see that the violence is predominately Sunni Muslim against other Muslims.  To help fill in the background, of the two major sects of Islam, Shias are more like Catholics and Sunnis are more like Protestants.  I say this because Shias and Catholics both believe our clergy to be divinely guided in determining the truth.  There is a sense of certainty about the truth that Protestants and Sunnis don’t share.  This works out in such a way that Shia have a stronger hierarchy than Sunni, just as Catholics have a stronger hierarchy than Protestants (of which some denominations have no hierarchy at all).  Also, Shia have an sort of intercession of the saints (limited to 14 “saints”, but still…) whereas Protestants and Sunnis don’t.  There are also many foundational similarities between Sunnis and Shias just as there are many foundational similarities between Protestants and Catholics.

From this perspective, the initial violence between Sunni and Shia can be seen as similar to the initial violence between Catholics and Protestants.  Because it took 1500 years for the Catholic-Protestant split to occur, it was much more bloody than the split between Sunni and Shia, who split almost immediately after Muhammed died.

The counterterrorism report suggests that most violence is within Sunni majority communities, but it doesn’t tell us if the deaths are predominately Sunni or Shia.  There is no substantial history of interdenominational violence among Protestants, so I would guess that what we see with the Sunni’s and Shia’s is similar: A majority Muslim community is beating up on a minority Muslim community just as majority Christian communities would beat up on minority Christian communities after the Protestants split from the Church.  This fits well with the fact Afghanistan and Iraq both have large splits in their populations and face the largest amount of attacks and deaths.

Sunni are light green, Shia are dark green

Majority Sunni are light green areas, Majority Shia are dark green areas.

This is not to suggest these branches of Islam were always at war, rather it is to suggest that Islam is no more inherently violent than Christianity.  Even in the 1920’s there was still Anti-Catholic violence going on in America, which was 400 years after the split in Christianity.  For there to be intermittent violence in 1400 years of split between Sunni and Shia makes sense against this comparison.


Hence, from this very limited comparison, I find no reason to assume Islam is theologically more violent than Christianity, even if current Islamic practice is more violent than current Christian practice.  I am, however, open to be proven wrong.  I’ve looked at parallels between Islam and Christianity and how they have coped with internal heresy to come to this conclusion, and any analogy so broad is bound to have errors.

Europes’ Responces to Muslim and Arian Migrations

I don’t know much about the EDL (English Defence [sic, because they are English and not American] League), but their protest against Muslim immigrants in England reminded me of another period of time in which people did great migrations, and to which some parallels can be drawn.

From 541 to around 750, a great plague beset Europe.  Each generation it would return to kill a new wave of people.  Procopius said it killed 10,000 people a day in the capital city of Constantinople.  Entire farming villages were emptied of their people.  Wikipedia suggests up to a quarter of the population was killed.  Combined with this, from 300 to 600 AD massive waves of barbarians began immigrating into and around the Roman empire to take advantage of the accumulated Roman wealth.  As the empire folded in on itself these migrants displaced the locals, causing the foundations to be set for modern nations.  The Huns settled in Hungary, the Anglos in England, the Franks in France, and so forth.  Many of these people were pagan or heretical Arians.  The Lombards established a kingdom in northern Italy and in central Italy the Visigoths reigned — which put the core of Christian lands firmly in heretical Arian hands.  Arians denied Jesus Christ was God and that God became man.

Another group in the 600’s also denied Jesus Christ was God and that God became man.  This group were the newly minted Muslims in the Arabian peninsula — the same religion that is worrying the EDL so much today.  In much of Europe the population has been dropping due to widespread birth control.  A birth rate of 1.59 children per woman was the 2009 EU average, but to hold a population steady it is necessary to have 2.1 children per woman.  Muslim immigrants are coming to Europe to take advantage of the accumulated wealth and work openings that a falling population brings.  To me, this sounds remarkably similar to what took place in Europe in the 500’s.  Declining population plus a group of people who deny Jesus was God moving into formerly Christian lands.  As place names changed in the former migration, there is already sense that place names might well change again:

In the 600’s the pagans and heretical Arians were converted due to the influence of the monasteries and missionaries.  St. Columbanus from Ireland went into what would become France and northern Italy and set up monasteries to Christianize these people who were Arians.  St. Benedict founded the famous monastery at Monte Cassino.  This was the age of monks working to save the souls in Europe.  The Christian love and order that came out of monasteries slowly won people to the faith.  These were lands that were formerly Christian, lost that when Christians couldn’t keep the land populated so non-Christian migrants came in, and then through missionary work regained Christianity.

Only time will tell if Europe will again do the missionary work necessary in their own homelands to evangelize the new migrants who don’t believe that Jesus is God.  History shows it is possible, but only time will show if Europe has the faith to do it once again.

Sam Harris is right (but I wish he wasn’t)

I read The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris a while back.  While I would enjoy the cash from refuting his argument, I would despise what I would become in that refutation: a heretic.

The core of his argument is that a reasoned understanding of experiences can help us determine what is good and what is bad.  This, regrettably for my wallet, is the Catholic position on reason and science.  While acknowledging the difficulties in practice, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining … the natural [moral] law written in our hearts”.  Further, “religious and moral truths .. are not beyond the grasp of human reason”.  In addition, it is the heresy of Ontologism (popular in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds) that teaches we attain knowledge of God separate from the created world rather than mediated by the world.  This means rather than just reason alone, we need reason interacting with the world, which is nearly the perfect definition of science and precisely what Sam Harris is arguing for.

Why such a well known atheist would hold such a Catholic view might be because Christianity in America is strongly shaped by the heretical view held by Luther that “Reason is directly opposed to faith, and one ought to let it be; in believers it should be killed and buried.”

Poor Ms. Reason, looks like Luther got to her.

This comes out of Luther’s idea that God is nearly entirely transcendent when it comes to morals.  God’s law, for Luther, was arbitrary and external to humanity rather than an expression of the fullness of humanity.  For Luther, this was largely because of his nominalist tendencies.

However, Luther was hardly the first to espouse the idea that God is so transcendent that his law is beyond reason.  Perhaps the most well known body of believers who espouse this idea are some denominations of Islam.  Their understanding is that God is so transcendent that he doesn’t need reasons for his law (the Akhbari and Ash’arite schools).  While this may be the perceived common view, it isn’t the only view that could be held by Muslims.  The Mu’tazila and Usuli schools of thought teach more of what Catholic teaching is: that we can learn about God’s law through reason.

Amidst all this complexity then, Sam Harris hold quite orthodox religious views upon reason and science helping one understand how to apply God’s law to their lives.  Rather than encourageing atheism, his book could be seen as a call to return to a Catholic life for Christians and a call for Muslims to return to the Mu’tazila and Usuli schools of thought.

Islam as new religion or old heresy?–plagued-sex-abuse-scandals–safe-daughter.html

Leaving aside the fact that priests commit sexual abuse at a far lower rate than the general public, it is interesting to consider that Islam was at first considered a heresy rather than a new faith.  Originally it was refered to as “Muhammadism”, much like Arianism is named after Arius.

The similarity between Islam and Christianity is quite remarkable.  Most obviously, both are monotheist.  But deeper than that, the five pillars of Islam might be equally valid of Catholics, who make a profession of faith every Sunday, who engage in ritual prayer (with monks and nuns even required to pray 7 times a day, twice more than Muslims pray), who practice almsgiving and have about a month of fasting (Ramadan and Lent are quite similar).  Last of the five pillars, both Muslims and Catholics practice pilgrimages.  Finally, another similarity between both Muslims and Catholics is that we all believe in a radical equality before God; with Muhammad writing “We are all equal in the sight of God” sounding a lot like all “enjoy an equal dignity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1934).

Where the serious differences begin is the the conception of Christ.  Muhammad agreed with Arius that Jesus could not be God — because how can one God be both Father and Son?  From this comes the idea that a new prophet (Muhammad himself) was needed to straighten things out both with the tribal polytheists on the Arabian peninsula as well as with the Christians in northern Africa and Europe.  To Muhammad, all seemed to practice polytheism.

With Muhammad’s conception of Christ as only man and not also God, it hardly seems coincidental that Arianism was thriving right near where Muhammad lived, as Muhammad’s belief was a type of Arainism.  From this perspective, Islam is a revival of an older form of heresy with some mild new twists.  Arius taught around three hundred years after Christ, and three hundred years after that Muhammad taught.  One wonders: perhaps if the Church did better explaining why Arius was incorrect, maybe Islam wouldn’t have started because Muhammad’s grievances against Christianity would have been addressed.  Difference in person but one in essence is hard to understand (it is a mystery), and maybe if there had been a better explanation for Muhammad, he would now be known as a Catholic saint instead of the founder of a religion.