Reductionism, Not Western Civilization, is the Great Satan

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Those currently in opposition to the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero don’t seem to want to understand the whole picture.  They will not even entertain anything other than views stepped in prejudice and fear, seeing an enemy in the face of every person of Middle Eastern descent.  While in stuck in this merry-go-round that passes for substantive discourse, they are trusted supporters of a system that sees the sum of its parts as more important than the whole.  Today’s believers in preemptive prejudice take stock in reductionism, a theory that justifies bigotry nicely.  Indeed, their system of belief relies more on personal bias and illogical rationales rather than outward truth.  The spread and growth of this, its own near-religion upsets me more than that of the genuine terrorists themselves.

As a person of faith, I find myself frequently put on the spot when others assume that my social causes must certainly be contradicted by my religious views.  “How can you believe in women’s rights,” they say, “if The Bible says this?”  Or, “How can you believe in marriage equality if The Bible says that?”  They speak from a reductionist framework that strains to simplify, for the ease of argument, a very complex text.  What is printed on one page of thousands should not be considered “The Bible”.  A theological disagreement with one verse out of a multitude of others does not invalidate Christianity as a whole, either for individuals or for larger gatherings.  

Christian denominations have disagreed about interpretation of certain passages for a long time, which is why we happen to have different faith groups and not one singular Church which speaks for all.  By contrast, Radical Muslims use the Koran to justify their violent acts, passages that other Muslims interpret far differently.  These disagreements do not invalidate Islam, the Koran, nor does one group’s interpretation certainly speak for all of Islam.  It seems presumptuous to me to believe otherwise.  

Before 11 September 2001, many Americans were utterly ignorant of Islam.  I myself took a class a couple years before which spent nearly three months focusing exclusively on the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions, and what I remember most about it was how I noted the strong similarities that existed between all three.  I finished the course feeling a sense of shared kinship with both Jews and Muslims, which is why I find such blatantly Anti-Islamic sentiment so out of bounds and predicated on nothing more than outright lies.

Returning to the idea of potential scriptural conflict in Christianity, one verse alone does not contradict a huge work that spans thousands of years, contains many authors, was written for different purposes, and was itself a product of whichever particular historical and culture issues were raging during its composition.  If we were speaking of an anthology, would we believe that one author’s contribution on page 3, paragraph 2 speaks for the entire volume?  The Bible is an anthology, not a novel.  No two authors are the same, and indeed other books exist that were not included in the general canon for entirely man-made reasons.    

Regarding this discrepancy, one oft-quoted passage in 1st Corinthians states,

Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says.  If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.

This, it must be mentioned, was part of one Pauline Epistle and directed to one particular church.  Other passages in other books by the same author speak to a universality of belief and authority not separated by sex.  But, as is often the case, certain people, probably power-hungry men, decided to take these two verses out of context and apply them uniformly to all women.  Here below is one interpretation of these verses, though I take some liberty with a few of the author’s conclusions, so I’ve notably left them out.

The context of this passage, and much of 1 Corinthians, is the order and structure of the church. The Corinthian church was noted for the chaos and lack of order that was rampant in that assembly. It is  interesting that no elders or pastors are mentioned, and the prophets  were not even exercising control. Everyone was participating with whatever expression they desired “whenever” they desired.  Apparently, certain (emphasis mine) women in the Corinthian church were out of order in disruptively asking questions publicly in the chaotic services.

Certain women were out of order.  Not all women, just certain women.  I can think of certain men who have taken the same liberties.  Again, this was a command directed towards a handful of people in a very specific circumstance and at a very specific place.  But such is the way of power.  It will distort anything to keep itself in control.  I don’t fault the writer of the text as much as I fault those who took it out of context to suit their own purposes.  Such is the way of reductionism.  Religion is more complex than a draconian power grab, but some only want to see it in such terms.

Consider this verse in Galatians, by contrast,

There are neither Jews nor Greeks, slaves nor free people, males nor females. You are all the same in Christ Jesus.

Same author, different time, different church.  The contrasts are marked.  Enclosed below is a brief definition of reductionism, religious or otherwise, included to emphasize my greater point.

Religious reductionism generally consists of explaining religion by boiling it down to certain nonreligious causes. A few examples of reductionist attempts to explain the presence of religion are: the view that religion, could be reduced to humanity’s conceptions of right and wrong; the belief that religion is fundamentally a primitive attempt at controlling our environments; or in the opinion of religion, as a way to explain the existence of a physical world.

Sigmund Freud’s idea that religion is nothing more than an illusion, or even a mental illness, and the Marxist view that religion is “the sigh of the oppressed,” providing only “the illusory happiness of the people,” are two other influential reductionist explanations of religion.

Even as Progressives, how many of these do you hold true these days?  Beyond liberal opinion, I myself have observed similar tropes even within conservative discourse.  Such is the pervasiveness of cynicism, reductionism, and skepticism today.  My heart is heavy as I contemplate how willingly we cast aside critical thinking.  Reductionism doesn’t just keep us separated, it’s also fundamentally lazy logic.  Why would we want to believe in a perpetual argument machine?  I thought debates were undertaken to establish a clear winner and a clear loser once and for all.  What’s good about never-ceasing conflict based on ignorance?


  1. Ever read the intro to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy?  It’s available on the web in pdf.  He speaks of the continual historical oscillation between rationality and dogma which liberalism (the enlightenment) was hoping to damp by providing a rational basis for social cohesion while providing optimal individual autonomy, e.g., freedom of religion.  Back in 1945 he considered liberalism an ongoing experiment.  I wonder what he’d think now.

    • banger on August 18, 2010 at 15:56

    We can’t help make shorthand assumptions for the convenience of our mental functioning. It takes a lot of compassion to take things as they come–to accept people on their own terms, for example. Non-religious people, particularly now, have a need to dismiss religious feelings because they don’t understand them and haven’t experienced them thus they ascribe it to some failing on the part of those that have those feelings. Part of the problem, of course, lies in the state of our public education which is, in a few words, wretched and utterly inadequate to prepare people to live in the modern world so that the plethora of excellent literature on the subject of religious experience is largely ignored. Since religious belief is one of the critical aspect of life and always has been this seems more than a little insane.  

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