What’s So Special About the Cheesemakers?

On tv the other night I saw a couple of pundits debating whether Islam is a religion of peace or a religion of violence. Each side of the question was supported, easily enough, by quotes from the Qur’an and Hadith. Yet neither debater drew the obvious moral: namely, that Islam – like just about every religion I’m familiar with – contains both peaceful and violent strands, so that which sort of religion it “is” depends on which strands one emphasises.

And this points to a broader conclusion: the impossibility of “fundamentalism.”

moses-frenchFundamentalists are supposed to be people who embrace every provision of their religion’s scriptures and traditions in its most literal meaning. But any religion old enough or complicated enough to have left any sort of mark on the world is almost inevitably going to contain strands that cannot be reconciled except by interpreting one strand or the other in something other than the most obvious and literal sense, be the striving elements “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day” and “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” or “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one” and “They that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” or for that matter “Congress shall have power … to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” and “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

sacredtextoAnd that means that every religious believer, so-called fundamentalists included, always chooses some provisions to interpret non-literally. Interpretation is inevitably made in the light of some vision of what is worth believing in: for example, is one’s religion to be essentially a doctrine of peace, with some oddball violent passages to explain away, or essentially a doctrine of violence, with some oddball pacific passages to explain away? The answer isn’t a given; it’s a choice. So the would-be fundamentalists’ trick of trying to evade reasoned arguments about right and wrong via appeals to authority of the form “Odin/Vishnu/Cybele said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it” are fooling themselves (unless they can find a god who said so few things that all its pronouncements are easily reconciled in their most flat-footedly literal form, but how many gods are that dull and taciturn?). You need to have some independent idea of what a worthwhile God would command in order to decide what he did command.


14 Responses to What’s So Special About the Cheesemakers?

  1. IEIUNUS December 6, 2015 at 8:17 am #

    I understand that my comment will seem immature, unsophisticated, and irrelevant, but the picture of Moses looks like a very aged SImon Pegg. http://bit.ly/1Nz5oDO

    And, is there some reference by “Cheesemakers” that I, to my own detriment, am missing?

    • Brandon December 6, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

      There was no such person as Moses, so I suppose the artists can use whatever model they want. I don’t know if there was a description in the text, or how specific it was, but anyway, it doesn’t matter much. It looks to me like the model was not middle-eastern enough, but that’s in keeping with depictions of other fictional characters from the bible. They all seem to be wasps.

      Obviously these characters have to look like us for us to relate to them. They can’t appear to resemble Osama bin Laden for chrissake.

      • Roderick December 9, 2015 at 8:40 pm #

        Also, the Ten Commandments were not originally written in French (I assume).

        • Adam December 10, 2015 at 11:53 am #

          And given that Jesus was English, and he came from the same ethnicity as Moses, well….

    • E.H. Munro December 6, 2015 at 3:36 pm #

      That’s funny, he does look like Simon Pegg in medieval drag. As for the cheesemakers thing, it’s a reference to The Life of Brian. Part of it features a bunch of people struggling to hear Jesus while he’s giving the Sermon on the Mount.

      “Blessed are the cheesemakers? What’s so special about cheesemakers?”

      • Roderick December 9, 2015 at 8:41 pm #

        And the reply another listener suggests is: “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” Which is why I used it.

  2. Joseph Hertzlinger December 13, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

    Religious traditions are the accumulated experience of a community. Sometimes part of an early version of that experience didn’t work out and a tradition is abandoned but still remains in the holy books. In that case, it makes sense for the community to ignore the tradition (e.g., the way the current Christians ignore the tradition of not eating shrimp or the way current Jews ignore the requirement of centralized worship). It still makes sense for the community to adhere to a “fundamentalist” attitude towards those traditions that did turn out to be important.

    Next question: Why keep the laws on the books but reinterpret them instead of just dumping them? It’s quite simple. Keeping the laws on the books enables rapid backtracking.

    Sometimes the above-mentioned accumulated experience goes awry. For example, the story of the Exodus is obviously about the rescue of a people from the unjust system of slavery. For centuries, it was reinterpreted in Judaism and Christianity to be about a special case with no lessons for any other situation. (After all, everybody KNEW that slavery was a necessary part of the economy.) A few centuries ago, a handful of evangelical Protestants (which is embarrassing to those of us in other religions) went for a more literal approach and declared that slavery could not be tolerated. This actually worked.

    In a system that keeps ignored laws on the books, there will be occasional attempts to “turn back the clock.” When backtracking is needed, those attempts can be used to fix the system. If we simply dump apparently-obsolete laws, it will be harder to fix.

  3. Irfan Khawaja December 14, 2015 at 4:10 pm #

    I agree in a general way with the point you’re making here, but I don’t think it’s relevant to interpreting the Qur’an’s pronouncements on jihad. The issue there is not so much literal versus non-literal reading; the injunctions to warfare in the Qur’an all call for a literal reading. The question is what the literal reading means or implies.

    The vast majority of injunctions to warfare in the Qur’an are injunctions to retaliatory, not initiatory force. There may be an exception here or there, but the generalization holds for the vast majority of cases. If there are exceptions, I would chalk those up to occasional lapses from omniscience (inconsistency being a lapse), or else scribal error.

    If you take the vast majority of cases, however, you run into an obvious interpretive problem. God is typically speaking to the Prophet Muhammad. His prescriptions are prescriptions to that one person in the particular contexts in which he’s called for divine guidance (or it’s come unbidden). Suppose God says something like, “They’re fighting YOU, so don’t just stand there, you idiot–FIGHT BACK! And by the way, if you do, you’ve got one ticket to paradise.” Fast forward to the year 2015.

    You’re a Muslim in, say, Jerusalem today and you read that. In one sense you’re not the addressee of the prescription. It was intended for Muhammad in Mecca or Medina in the early 600s AD. In another sense, you are. The book as a whole is intended as “guidance” for you. What’s totally unclear is the level of specificity at which the guidance operates, not whether the guidance should be interpreted literally or metaphorically.

    If you read the Qur’anic prescriptions in historical context, you have to find a way to make your situation analogous to that of the addressee. That requires a huge raft of unarticulated background assumptions and a lot more work than anyone realizes. Just think of the analogous task in the American constitutional context (e.g., “What would James Madison say about net neutrality?” and other pointless conundrums).

    If you read it out of historical context, as an ahistorical doctrine, the doctrine is relatively uninformative. It’s: fight those who fight you. Whoa! Radical stuff. Question: is that an appeal to mere sandbox wisdom or is it an anticipation of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard? (Or are Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard just sophisticated theorists of the sandbox?) The text doesn’t say. The real interpretive action is taking place offstage. Paranoids read “fight those who fight you,” see threats everywhere, and conclude that Muslims have to wage pre-emptive jihad to create a “defense in depth.” Pacifists read “fight those who fight you” and conclude that someone or other has historically had to fight someone or other when God commanded it, but that was then and this is now, and God isn’t saying anything right now, so we don’t have to fight anybody. (There are pacifist sects of Islam, like the Ahmadis.)

    The funny thing is that the Islamic predicament mirrors the libertarian one. (Well, I find that funny, but maybe I’m the only one.) Ask libertarians what they have in common and the answer is “the non-aggression axiom” or some analogue. Then ask them what it entails and you’ll get answers that range from “Nuke em” at one extreme (Leonard Peikoff et al) to, well, I don’t know…the views of Roderick Long at the other (passing through the Golden Mean of views like mine). I think the problem in both cases is that we have a verbal formula that’s taken literally but lacks sufficient literal or determinate content to guide action where it’s supposed to.

    • Roderick December 16, 2015 at 11:55 pm #

      I think Robert Lefevre, rather than me, would have to be the opposite end of that spectrum.

      • Irfan Khawaja December 18, 2015 at 12:11 am #

        Have heard the name, but have never read a thing by him.

        So you have a wrathful and militant side after all! I dub you Roderick “Militans” Long, Knight of the Austro-Athenian Order, who wrestleth against principalities [including states, obviously], against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians, 6:12).

        Rise! By this sign you shall conquer:

        Gah, tried to cut and paste an anarchist “A”, but it didn’t work. I hate when this happens.

        • Brandon December 18, 2015 at 8:29 am #

          Lefevre was a pacifist libertarian. He was a great speaker. Mises.org has some audio lectures by him somewhere, taken from cassettes I think.

        • Roderick January 4, 2016 at 4:39 pm #

          Yeah, LeFevre thought force in self-defense was immoral. But you were allowed to mislead an aggressor into believing you were in favour of self-defense, including disproportionate self-defense. (I can’t remember if outright lying was OK, or just misleading). And you were allowed to keep a dog (or — his example — a goose!) to do your self-defense for you. If i recall correctly he also recommended letting poisonous snakes loose in your store at night (and advertising that you’d done this) in order to deter burglars, rather than calling on the police. I think he was silent on the problem of collecting the snakes each morning.


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