Sunday, August 27, 2017

Back to the desk

Eastside Road, August 27, 2017—

Ali A. Rizvi: The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason
New York: St. Martin's Press,
ISBN 978-1-250-09444-5
pp. 226     read 8/24/17

Frans de Waal: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
New York: W.W. Norton & Co.,
ISBN 978-1-250-09444-5
pp. 275     read 8/26/17
THE LAST FEW MONTHS have not been the best, as readers of this blog — and particularly the other one — will have suspected. I'm not complaining: plenty of others have it a great deal worse. It's largely a matter, I suppose, of aging: I've just gone past 82.

Nor is it simply a matter of fatigue, lack of stamina, and a chronic backache, serves me right for always suspecting those who announce that complaint of malingering. Nor is it only the political situation, extremely depressing — I am convinced we are on our way to dictatorship, perhaps a new form of it with puppet congress and courts, and publicly owned lands and other goods (museums, libraries, post offices) turned over to private business. Perhaps even the military.

So I've taken a vacation of sorts from the blogs, spending my time on baseball games (only a couple of them live in ball park) and writing. (The last two posts here offered you peeks at the process.) This has occasioned reading through pocket calendars, journals, and reviews from the 1960s and '70s, and the difference between those times and the present has been striking to say the least. To bring me back to the present, two books caught my eye in the last week or two.

Ali Rizvi's The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason was recommended somewhere online, I no longer recall where. (I haven't been keeping up with my usual book review sites: The Nation, NYRB, and so on.) The title promised a good fit to the mood I've been in since the election. Dedicated readers of mine may recall my writing last April about this:

Belief, faith, knowledge : I began this month’s musings planning to contemplate my feelings about religion: past and permanence, decay and defiance, self and society, faith and belief, fact and facticity, life and death. Maladjustment of my own cells has made me more than normally aware of mortality. And what have the trams and ruins of Rome brought me to contemplate? Cats and garbage heaps on which grain had taken root over the years. Gardens and palazzi ; conversations with strangers; public behavior; the embrace of family; a toy boat; a pile of broken pots. The events and detritus of everyday life, in short. Nothing special, but constant reminders that there are things we see and so believe we know, transactions we share and so know we feel, concepts (and constructs) we hear or read about and so strive to understand. And I keep coming back to Montaigne: Que sais-je, What do I know?

Rizvi's book is far from perfect (I am hardly the writer to complain of imperfect books), but I think it is worth reading; perhaps even imperative reading in these times. Born in Pakistan, brought up in Libya and Saudi Arabia before moving with his parents to Canada and the United States, he observed the doctrinaire Muslim culture of Saudi Arabia from a protected position as the son of professionals living in a protected enclave.

This did not prevent his close reading of Quran and hadith, the twin written foundations of Islam. The internal contradictions in those writings, and their uneasy applicability to life in a post-Rationalist world, set him on the course described by his subtitle: a (personal) journey from religion to reason. Rizvi is a physician, hence a scientist; and he holds Islam — and Judaism and Christianity — up to a scientist's skepticism. As I myself think we must all do in these times when the inherently authoritative desert monotheisms seem increasingly at war, figuratively and literally, with contemporary society as it has evolved.

After a couple of hundred pages describing his own growing rejection of Islam, in the course of which Rizvi cites scripture as well as personal experience, he comes to the point: the solution to much of the present war in the Middle East — and the growing problems in the US with radically fundamentalist Christianity, though that's a bit outside the scope of his book — is reformation. He suggests a four-step process: Rejection of scriptural inerrancy, Reformation, Secularism, and Enlightenment.

But even the first step is dauntingly difficult in societies whose very identity — and whose individuals participate in this identity — is bound from birth with a sacred text. Muslims may be fundamentalist, lax, or even (as in Rizvi's case) atheist (or at least agnostic), but they are Muslims because of their common cultural grounding in Quran and hadith. It took Christianity some 1600 years to reach the Enlightenment, and a lot of blood was spilled along the way; there's no reason to think the path will be any easier for Islam.

IT WAS A RELIEF to turn from "faith" and "belief" to cognition — scientifically verifiable examples of memory, invention, and reason. Even if the examples were not from the doings of men and women, religious or not, but those of other primates, of octopodes and dolphins, of elephants and corvids. When I was a boy it was taken as fact that the lower animals were incapable of reason, of language, even of feeling pain. De Waal's book persuades otherwise, relying on his own experience with primates and the work of colleagues and forerunners in this fascinating field.

Much changed in that work over the last few decades, beginning with the suspension of the axiom that we humans are an essentially different and nobler animal than all the others. Observations in the wild (think Goodall) and experimentation in the laboratory revealed, once that prejudice was relinquished, that all animals communicate and many understand, or at least work with, memory, even with the concept of futurity. Such social animals as chimpanzees and bonobos, elephants and whales clearly have evolved language skills and evidence of economic and political methodology.

De Waal is a scientist and does not take up the question of religion. Perhaps this is the one thing that separates us humans from the other animals. I like to think that in this respect they may have evolved beyond us, to a stable point in their own evolution which dispenses with religion. Or perhaps Homo sapiens has evolved to need religion in order to externalize the intrinsic tribalism he shares with certain other apes, to justify irrational action when he knows better. We may hope for another book from de Waal:

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart WE are?

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