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I informed Robert Spencer recently that I had read his latest book, Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, and was preparing a review of it. He expressed some surprise over the fact that I liked it, pointing out a few earlier essays of mine indicating that I am somewhat critical of Christianity. I would describe my relationship with that religion as mildly critical, but for the most part positive. I am a non-religious person, but I appreciate the many good aspects of Christianity and think some of the criticism against it is unfair.
This book elegantly compares the attitudes of Muslims and Christians on a wide range of topics, from violence via anti-Semitism to the separation of religion and state. I had been writing about the history of science recently and took particular interest in the chapter on this subject. Spencer explores the important theological differences between Islam on one hand and Judaism and Christianity on the other hand regarding reason and natural law:
Muslims believe that Allah’s hand is unfettered — he can do anything. The Qur’an explicitly refutes the Judeo-Christian view of God as a God of reason when it says: ‘The Jews say: Allah’s hand is fettered. Their hands are fettered and they are accursed for saying so’ (5:64). In other words, it is heresy to say that God operates by certain natural laws that we can understand through reason. This argument was played out throughout Islamic history. Muslim theologians argued during the long controversy with the Mu’tazilite sect, which exalted human reason, that Allah was not bound to govern the universe according to consistent and observable laws. ‘He cannot be questioned concerning what He does’ (Qur’an 21:23). Accordingly, observations of the physical world had no value; there was no reason to expect that any pattern to its workings would be consistent, or even discernable. If Allah could not be counted on to be consistent, why waste time observing the order of things? It could change tomorrow.
Due to this notion of the absolute sovereignty of Allah, professor Stanley Jaki believes that “Relatively early in its history, therefore, science in the Islamic world was deprived of the philosophical foundation it needed in order to flourish.” Consequently, “the improvements brought by Muslim scientists to the Greek scientific corpus were never substantial.” Author Rodney Stark states that “Islamic scholars achieved significant progress only in terms of specific knowledge, such as certain aspects of astronomy and medicine, which did not require any general theoretical basis. And as time passed, even this sort of progress ceased.”
The twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides explained the fundamentally anti-rational Islamic cosmology in this way:
Human intellect does not perceive any reason why a body should be in a certain place instead of being in another. In the same manner they say that reason admits the possibility that an existing being should be larger or smaller than it really is, or that it should be different in form and position from what it really is; e.g., a man might have the height of a mountain, might have several heads, and fly in the air; or an elephant might be as small as an insect, or an insect as huge as an elephant. This method of admitting possibilities is applied to the whole Universe. Whenever they affirm that a thing belongs to this class of admitted possibilities, they say that it can have this form and that it is also possible that it be found differently, and that the one form is not more possible than the other; but they do not ask whether the reality confirms their assumption….[They say] fire causes heat, water causes cold, in accordance with a certain habit; but it is logically not impossible that a deviation from this habit should occur, namely, that fire should cause cold, move downward, and still be fire; that the water should cause heat, move upward, and still be water. On this foundation their whole [intellectual] fabric is constructed.
The great thirteenth-century Christian theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas was influenced by Maimonides in his quest to reconcile the Bible with Aristotle. Aquinas professed belief in a rational God which was very different from the Allah of Islam, and stated that “since the principles of certain sciences — of logic, geometry, and arithmetic, for instance — are derived exclusively from the formal principals of things, upon which their essence depends, it follows that God cannot make the contraries of these principles; He cannot make the genus not to be predictable of the species, nor lines drawn from a circle’s center to its circumference not to be equal, nor the three angles of a rectilinear triangle not to be equal to two right angles.”
Robert Spencer does not shy away from criticizing the Catholic Church when he deems this appropriate, but he also tries to balance out some of the myths that have become widely accepted in popular culture, for instance regarding the case against Galileo Galilei:
In fact, Jesuit astronomers were among Galileo’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters. When Galileo first published supporting evidence for the Copernican heliocentric theory, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini sent him a letter of congratulations. When Galileo visited Rome in 1624, Cardinal Barberini had become Pope Urban VIII. The pope welcomed the scientist, gave him gifts, and assured him that the church would never declare heliocentrism heretical. In fact, the pope and other churchmen, according to historian Jerome Langford, ‘believed that Galileo might be right, but they had to wait for more proof.’
According to Spencer, “that was the ultimate source of Galileo’s conflict with the church: he was teaching as fact what still at that time had only the status of theory. When church officials asked Galileo in 1616 to teach heliocentrism as theory rather than as fact, he agreed; however, in 1632 he published a new work, Dialogue on the Great World Systems, in which he presented heliocentrism as fact again. That was why Galileo was put on trial for suspected heresy and placed under house arrest. Historian J. L. Heilbron notes that from the beginning the controversy was not understood the way it has been presented by many critics of the church since then. The condemnation of Galileo, says Heilbron, ‘had no general or theological significance. Gassendi, in 1642, observed that the decision of the cardinals [who condemned Galileo], though important for the faithful, did not amount to an article of faith; Ricciolo, in 1651, that heliocentrism was not a heresy; Mengeli, in 1675, that interpretations of scripture can only bind Catholics if agreed to at a general council; and Baldigiani, in 1678, that everyone knew all that.’”
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Galilei’s encounter with the Inquisition in the seventeenth century is frequently cited as an example of the repression of science by Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. However, if Christianity had always been hostile to science, the scientific revolution would never have taken place in Europe. According to the scholar Toby E. Huff and his excellent book The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West, second edition, the situation was much worse in China. T’ai-tsu, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (r. 1368-98), considered the students at the imperial academy to be too unruly and appointed his nephew as head of the institution. Later he issued a set of pronouncements. As Huff says:
In the third of these proclamations (ca. 1386) there was a ‘list of ‘bad’ metropolitan degree holders,’ that is, chin-shih or ‘doctorates,’ along with the names of some students. ‘He prescribed the death penalty for sixty-eight metropolitan degree holders and two students; penal servitude for seventy degree holders and twelve students.’ The author of this account in the Cambridge History of China adds that these lists ‘must have discouraged men of learning.’ Appended to the edict was a further reprimand. The emperor ‘would put to death any man of talent who refused to serve the government when summoned. As he put it, ‘To the edges of the land, all are the king’s subjects….Literati in the realm who do not serve the ruler are estranged from teaching [of Confucius]. To execute them and confiscate the property of their families is not excessive.’ The trial and punishment of Galileo (confinement to his villa overlooking Florence) is nothing compared to this.
All things considered, the Christian West probably enjoyed more free speech than virtually any other major civilization during this period, which is arguably the single most important reason why its scientific progress surpassed that of both China and the Islamic world.
Spencer devotes some space to the sins of the Inquisition: “The medieval Inquisition that began in the thirteenth century was not the inspiration for the Inquisition of myth, the ecclesiastical reign of terror that allegedly murdered millions of innocent people for the crime of not accepting Christianity. That honor belongs to the Spanish Inquisition, which was established in 1478 by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella with authorization from Pope Sixtus IV. But by 1482, Sixtus had received numerous threats of abuses, leading to his appointment of the infamous priest Tomas de Torquemada as grand inquisitor in 1483.”
The Inquisition wasn’t a proud chapter in Christian history, but it should be remembered that its number of victims has been wildly exaggerated, and pales in comparison to the evils of modern totalitarian movements:
Estimates of how many people Torquemada had put to death during his fifteen years as grand inquisitor range from 2,000 to 8,800. Torquemada was also a key supporter of the decree of Ferdinand and Isabella expelling the Jews from Spain in 1492. The Spanish Inquisition continued until the early nineteenth century, although it was greatly diminished in its latter years. Juan Antonio Llorente, an Inquisition official in the late eighteenth century and a historian of the Spanish Inquisition, estimated that in all slightly fewer than 32,000 people were executed. However, more recently several historians have found that number immensely exaggerated and suggest that the actual number is closer to 3,200. As this covers a period of several hundred years, even the high number hardly amounts to genocidal proportions or comes remotely close to the millions massacred by the rapacious inquisitors of myth. Ultimately, the precise number is unimportant because it is jarring that the church of Jesus Christ acceded to the execution of even one person. It is jarring because it manifests a spirit so completely at variance with what Christ taught and how he behaved.
However, killing those leaving the religion is not condoned in the Christian Gospels, but it is condoned in Islamic texts:
The execution of heretics thus represents an aberration in the life of the church, at variance with the teachings of Christ and the early Christian thinkers. The contrast with Islamic apostasy law is sharp and unmistakable. While in the Islamic state as traditionally conceived, Jews and Christians have the right to practice their religion — with certain severe restrictions — the same relative generosity is not applied to Muslims who wish to leave Islam. Muhammad said, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him,’ and that remains normative for Islam. A modern manual of Islamic laws stipulates that ‘when a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostasizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed.’ This principle isn’t easily susceptible to reform because it is founded on a statement of Muhammad that Muslims generally consider to be authentic. The spirit of Torquemada is still alive in the world today, but not among Christians. Rather, it can be found only among the Muslims who demanded that [ex-Muslim] Abdul Rahman be put on trial for his life in Afghanistan in 2006.
Robert Spencer dismisses the idea, so frequently cited by international media, that Christianity is “just as violent” as Islam. At the same time as Muslims are colonizing Western nations while complaining about Islamophobia, the few remaining non-Muslim communities in the Middle East are being systematically eradicated: “Christian communities throughout the Middle East that date back to the dawn of Christianity are decreasing so much that they are on the verge of disappearing from the area altogether. In Iraq half of the nation’s prewar 700,000 Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Overall the Middle Eastern Christian population has dropped from 20 percent in 1900 to less than 2 percent today.”
In Christianity, a central tenet is that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In contrast, “While acknowledging that any human being is capable of evil, the Qur’an says that Muslims are ‘the best of peoples’ (3:110) while the unbelievers are the ‘vilest of creatures’ (98:6). In such a worldview it is easy to see evil in others but difficult to locate it in oneself.”
Whereas violent passages in the Bible do exist, for instance in the Book of Joshua on the conquest of Jericho, Spencer demonstrates that “throughout history, rather than celebrating such biblical passages, Jews and Christians have regarded them as a problem to be solved. While interpretations of these passages differ widely among Jews and Christians, from the beginning of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity one understanding has remained dominant among virtually all believers: these passages are not commands for all generations to follow, and if they have any applicability, it is only in a spiritualized, parabolic sense.”
These passages are not taken to mean an open-ended declaration of war against others: “In short, the consensus view among Jews and Christians for many centuries is that unless you happen to be a Hittite, Girgashite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, or Jebusite, these biblical passages simply do not apply to you. The scriptures record God’s commands to the Israelites to make war against particular people only. However this may be understood, and however jarring it may be to modern sensibilities, it does not amount to any kind of marching orders for believers. That’s one principal reason why Jews and Christians haven’t formed terror groups around the world that quote the Bible to justify killing non-combatants.”
The Islamic institution of Jihad, on the other hand, is a command to wage war against the unbelievers until the end of time: “The Qur’an says that the followers of Muhammad are ‘ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another’ (48:29), and that the unbelievers are the ‘worst of created beings’ (98:6). One may exercise the Golden Rule in relation to a fellow Muslim, but according to the laws of Islam, the same courtesy is not to be extended to unbelievers. That is one principal reason why the primary source of slaves in the Islamic world has been non-Muslims, whether Jews, Christians, Hindus, or pagans. Most slaves were non-Muslims who had been captured during jihad warfare.”
Slavery has for almost 1400 years been intimately tied to Jihad on three continents:
Historian Speros Vryonis observes that ‘since the beginning of the Arab razzias [raids] into the land of Rum [the Byzantine Empire ], human booty had come to constitute a very important part of the spoils.’ The Turks, as they steadily conquered more and more of Anatolia, reduced many of the Greeks and other non-Muslims there to slave status: ‘They enslaved men, women, and children from all major urban centers and from the countryside where the populations were defenseless.’ Indian historian K. S. Lal states that wherever jihadists conquered a territory, ‘there developed a system of slavery peculiar to the clime, terrain, and populace of the place.’ When Muslim armies invaded India, ‘its people began to be enslaved in droves to be sold in foreign lands or employed in various capacities on menial and not-so-menial jobs within the country.’
Slaves frequently faced pressure to convert to Islam. Thomas Pellow, an Englishman who was enslaved in Morocco for twenty-three years after being captured as a cabin boy on a small English vessel in 1716, was tortured until he accepted Islam. For weeks he was beaten and starved, and finally gave in after his torturer resorted to “burning my flesh off my bones by fire, which the tyrant did, by frequent repetitions, after a most cruel manner.”
As Spencer says, “Slavery was taken for granted throughout Islamic history. Yet while the European and American slave trades get lavish attention from historians (as well as from mau-mauing reparations advocates and guilt-ridden politicians), the Islamic slave trade actually lasted longer and brought suffering to a larger number of people. It is exceedingly ironic that Islam has been presented to American blacks as the egalitarian alternative to the ‘white man’s slave religion’ of Christianity, as Islamic slavery operated on a larger scale than did the Western slave trade, and lasted longer.”
For the record, it should be mentioned that even Islamic sources testify that some of Muhammad’s early followers sought refuge in a Christian kingdom in Ethiopia. Christianity was well-established in sub-Saharan Africa while much of northern Europe was still pagan. It is thus nonsense to claim that Islam is a more authentic “African” religion than Christianity.
Slavery involving peoples of all races was widely practiced in the Greco-Roman world. The most famous slave rebellion during the Roman era was led by Spartacus, a gladiator-slave from the Thracian people who dominated Bulgaria and the Balkan region close to the Black Sea in early historic times. His rebellion was crushed in 71 B.C., and thousands of slaves were crucified alongside the road to Rome as a warning to others. The retreat of slavery in Europe followed the spread of Christianity. In my own Scandinavian region, the Norse culture did practice slavery, yet this was eventually abolished by the Catholic Church.
Unlike the West, there never was a Muslim abolitionist movement since slavery is permitted according to sharia. When the open practice of slavery was finally abolished in most of the Islamic world, this was only due to external Western pressure, ranging from the American war against the Barbary pirates to the naval power of the British Empire. Spencer again:
When the slave trade ended, it was ended not through Muslim efforts but through British military force. Even so, there is evidence that slavery continues beneath the surface in some Muslim countries — notably Saudi Arabia, which only abolished slavery in 1962; Yemen and Oman, both of which ended legal slavery in 1970; and Niger, which didn’t abolish slavery until 2004. In Niger, the ban is widely ignored, and as many as one million people remain in bondage. Slaves are bred, often raped, and generally treated like animals. There are even slavery cases involving Muslims in the United States. A Saudi named Homaidan al-Turki was sentenced in September 2006 to twenty-seven years to life in prison for keeping a woman as a slave in his Colorado home. For his part, al-Turki claimed that he was a victim of anti-Muslim bias.
So, do I have no objections at all to this book? Well, I have one or two. I take issue with the simple assertion that the West is a “Judeo-Christian civilization.” The first recognizably Western people were Greek pagans who had absolutely nothing to do with Christianity and only marginally to do with Judaism. The fact that Christianity has had a profound, and in my view largely positive, influence on our culture is undeniable. However, the civilization that eventually became the West also carries with it a powerful Greco-Roman legacy, supplemented by Germanic and Celtic impulses, etc. This is not nitpicking. The West is too complex to be reduced to just one or two components, and if we want to defend something we have to first define exactly what it is we want to maintain.
Although I don’t hate Christianity, I do think legitimate, rational criticism of it can be made on certain issues. I feel some sympathy for modern Christians. It must be a difficult time for them: They are simultaneously accused of being Fascists and backward fanatics who are worse than Muslims, but also of undermining our culture by being too soft. The first claim is absolutely ridiculous, and Spencer does a fine job of demonstrating why. The second claim isn’t quite as easy to rule out, unfortunately.
The writer John Derbyshire reviewed this book, too. He understands virtually nothing of Islam, and I disagree with him on much of what he wrote about Spencer’s text. Still, Derbyshire did make one valid point: Christian tradition has been a great enabler of globalization. If all men are brothers, would it not be un-Christian to refuse entry to tens of millions of immigrants? “Perhaps the humane forbearance of the Prince of Peace, and the moral universalism that His teachings imply, bear the seeds of self-destruction. Those seeds were slow to germinate in the long centuries when great mass migrations of people into well-settled lands could only be military affairs. However, the globalization movement of the past fifty years has allowed millions of souls to move and settle peaceably into the old Christian lands.”
It is possible to claim that some of the ideas behind the globalist, open-border ideology that now permeates the West are ultimately derived from Christian universalism. It does represent a real problem, not an invented one, when many Christian leaders undermine our national borders by opening their arms to mass immigration, and too many Christian leaders are at the forefront of appeasing Islam in the name of peace and the brotherhood of man.
However, although Christians contribute to our problems sometimes, and they do, by far the worst enablers of Jihad within the West are found among the rabidly secular crowd who believe Christians pose a greater threat to freedom than Muslims and do everything in their power to undermine our traditional culture. On this, I agree with Spencer:
The most formidable and determined enemies of Western civilization may not be the jihadists at all, but the leftists who have located all evil in the Christian West of ‘theocrat’ conspirators, the late Jerry Falwell, the white man’s burden, the legacy of Western slavery, xenophobia, and the rest. These are people who even at a time of peril from global jihad think the chief danger comes not from militant Islam, but from their churchgoing neighbors, and who deride the very faith that set the course of Western civilization and established our basic values.
All things considered, I believe this book to be an excellent read. Spencer’s primary task was no doubt to refute the absurd, yet frequently repeated claims that Christianity is just as violent as Islam and that Christianity has always been an obstacle to freedom. In this, he succeeds rather well. Robert Spencer has a scholarly understanding of the differences between Christian and Islamic theology, yet he does a better job than most in explaining to a mainstream audience in a clear and lucid manner exactly why Islam is a religion with a uniquely high potential for violence. This book is bound to be an eye-opener for the millions of people still parroting the line about Islam being a religion of peace, and the equally numerous crowd of people who have accepted the anti-Christian bigotry presented by Western academia. If you have friends who belong to either of these categories or who simply want to know the true nature of Islam, Religion of Peace? is the perfect Christmas present.