The Quran and critical thinking

Irshad Manji: “I’m not a moderate Muslim. I’m a reformer.”

God, I admire this woman. Or, should I say, “Allah, I admire this woman”! So brave, so right-on.

The Quran contains three times as many verses calling on Muslims to engage in critical thinking rather than blind submission. And, in that sense, reformist Muslims are at least as authentic as the so-called moderates, and, quite frankly, usually more conservative.


“A college education […] significantly decrease[s] the chance of an officer using force.”

Carolyn posted this article (in a message to a few of us) on Facebook: Study: Educated Cops Less Likely To Use Force.

[…] Researchers have long argued that officers with a higher education tend to hold beliefs that are “less authoritarian” and less punitive, according to the study. Having a degree could also help make officers better at critical thinking and more fluent in test-taking, which is required to make rank, White said. 

[…] Using observational data gathered from two cities — one similar in size to Albuquerque — researchers found education has no effect on the probability of an officer making an arrest or of conducting a search in an encounter with a suspect. A college education does, however, significantly decrease the chance of an officer using force.

Makes me want to clamp down / get more serious about getting students to get serious about school.  Talk about important work.

faith is like a fire

from Islamic terror is real, as is Jewish and Christian terror.

We need to admit that faith is like a fire – it can warm a home or burn it down. It’s not the fire; it’s how it is used. We need to simultaneously call out those who use their faiths as destructive fires and also remind people that just because terror is an expression of some people’s faith, it is not the only expression of that faith, or even an essential part of it.

Reading this got me thinking about my English 101 religion theme (that I’ve taught twice — last Winter and Spring). In the last essay, students are to write a persuasive essay on the question, “What is the value of religion to society?”  The majority end up picking an aspect of religion and using that to argue that religion helps or hinders society. I want to find a way to get them thinking more of the complexity of the topic. I haven’t emphasized that enough in class before. I’ve focused on the rhetorical “moves” academic writes make (using They Say, I Say by Graff and Birkenstein).

I’ll probably use Elbow’s “Believing and Doubting Game(s)” as a way to help them deepen their understanding by doubting what they believe and believing what they doubt.

But, overall, need to do some more thinking.

Peter Elbow: “believe everything, particularly what seems strange or unpleasant”

The doubting muscle’s sensitivity to dissonance is not so trustworthy till you work out the rules of logic, transform assertions logically into as many forms as possible, extricate the self, doubt particularly those assertions that seem reasonable, and get opposing propositions to fight each other. Similarly, the believing muscle’s ability to project isn’t so trustworthy till you build its use into an orderly game and follow the rules: never argue; believe everything, particularly what seems strange or unpleasant; try to put yourself into the skin of people with other perceptions; make metaphorical transformations of assertions to help you enter into them. Most important of all, you must get other people to do it with you, and do it for a long time.

— Peter Elbow, from “Believing and Doubting as Dialectics” (Writing Without Teachers, pp. 169-170)

I am a little bit in awe of how simply-stated but true to reality these sentences are. I especially like the parts about the need to practice believing “what seems strange or unpleasant” and making “metaphorical transformations of assertions to help you enter them.” It’s almost as if I could take these sentences and expand them into steps for my students to follow while researching or thinking about something.

“You’ll have more tolerance for people [if you use] your mind correctly”

Lately, I’ve been coming across brain researchers talking about the personal/spiritual growth involved in self-reflection. Nothing new there, but sometimes I want to collect those kinds of statements, since together they’re more persuasive. This morning, I watched part of a Joyce Meyer interview with Caroline Leaf, PhD. She goes one step further when she mentions that “[T]he isms come from a lack of using your mind correctly. The minute you use your mind correctly and you think more deeply, those will go away.” Very cool.

That’s almost common sense (or should be), but I’d be curious to see if she has specific scientific research to back it up. That would be exciting.

Here’s the context of the quote [begins about 4:00 in the video]:

[…] as you enjoy your life, you actually become more intelligent. They’ve proved it scientifically. That[‘s why] one of my detox steps is play and laugh a lot. And it’s part of that whole process, your attitude, the state of your mind, the state of your neurological trees needs to be detoxed. You need to be in a happy, positive attitude because that causes a release of chemicals that will actually make you function in a more healthy way. So it’s a very real thing.

[… ]the minute that you release your gifting, the minute you get into your gifting and you start releasing intelligence through applying the principles of God, through enjoying your life, through all the chemicals flow, and you’re going to become brilliant. If you’re intelligent, you can think; if you can think, you’ll go back to the Word. You’ll have more tolerance for people. People, the isms, come from a lack of using your mind correctly. The minute you use your mind correctly and you think more deeply, those will go away.

NOTES ON Susan Handelman, “Emunah: The Craft of Faith” (1992, 2000)

NOTES ON … Susan Handelman, “Emunah: The Craft of Faith.” The Academy and the Possibility of Belief: Essays on Intellectual and Spiritual Life. Eds Mary Louise Burley-Meissner et al. Cresskill, New Jersy: Hampton Press, 2000. 85-104. [originally published in 1992 in Cross Currents]

Defines emnuah, uses biblical text, to define FAITH as “not a sentimental matter,” but a craft, a skill, one that needs to be educated, trained, nursed, not blind, not something some have but others don’t, but “a long process of education” (87).

— > Ex of Moses leading people. Helps H integrate skepticism and faith (not nec opposites) – Ex of man who became orthodox Rabbi after being raised by secular socialist parents, he said, “because I was a skeptic” (88). [Yes! :)]

History of Literary Theory
Before English lit, was classics (in which philology, lower text crit, mss editing). English lit did same, applied to Bible, too (desacralized). Lit became sacralized. Matthew Arnold quote – religion = poetry.  New Criticism asserted autonomy of lit text, ignores history. Lit = special kind of knowledge, special kind of language, so do close reading, not history.  1970s – intense theorizing re lang, text, meaning.  Now – New Historicism (aka cultural materialism). We have access to the past only through texts.  power/knowledge, all material, truth relative, connected to social practices / power rel. Then Handelman adds, “Go try and talk about faith to these people” (91). Cardinal sin = appeal to transcendence.

Judasim and Mod Lit Theory
How to integrate faith…? Studied Hebrew text at Yeshiva, found the similarities of Jewish commentators to lit crit. Wrote _The Slayers of Moses_. Postmodern theories are connected to theological issues. Literarcy criticism as substitute theology. Rabbinic methods resurfaced. Lacan admired Jewish habits of interpretation, connected Midrash and lit theory.

Midrash and Meaning
93 Midrash = to seek, search out, demand (Deut is midrash on first four books). 95 Ex of midrash on Ps 89:9, sharp criticism of God’s silence, “almost like sacrilege” but based on faith, not simple piety, “a very complex faith that incorporates despair and questioning within itself” (95).  “very aggressive” interpretation also describes postmodern interp. 96

What is fascinating to me is how the rabbis make these twists and turns, in what are very aggressive modes of interpretation. There is no simple literal fundamentalism here. Indeed, to some, these intepretations may appeal a bit outrageous. For the rabbis seem to create problems in the simple, literal meanings of the text; they make odd and anachronistic juxtapositions of verses; they break up the flow of the narrative, atomize verses and words, fragment the cannon and collapse time. These practices, however, also describe postmodern interpretation. In its critique of modern forms of reasons and coherence, postmodernism delights in fragmentation, rupture, and play. These are part of its project to subvert what it considers to be oppressive notions of identity and history.

Were the rabbis postmodernists? No. But the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment form of reason has opened a path for renewed relation with religion. By criticizing the “Dogma of Immaculate Perception” – the idea that there is a neutral, detached, observer who sees things objectively as they are “in themselves” – it enables us to return to the language of theology and religious texts with a new seriousness – to study how they signify and construct meaning. […]

Implications for Bib as Lit – don’t have to focus so much on the historical background. We can, once again, look at the text as a whole, “as it is given to us – as a construct of the communities or editors who put it together. Here is an example of postmodern theory helping us, ironically, to appreciate the premodern view of the Bible as a unity” (96). Rabbinic interp – self-conscious, elicits/recognizes gaps, problems, questions.

Not easy with undergrades. Bib as Lit, trying to distance one’s self, but may be going too far when separate emotional response from reading [cf Swearingen]. May be too much emph on critical thinking. H leaves the teaching part of this whole integration of faith and skepticism as “a difficult question” 102

thinking about campaigning and believing

Oh, wow, I am impressed, Jon Stewart.

It just sends me thinking about the non-truth-seeking nature of campaigning, of its “do whatever it takes to win” nature. Campaigning is about just that: campaigning.  It’s not about evidence, consistency, logic, truth. It’s about ideology, about already-determined belief, not about a digging deeper or exploring or continued truth-seeking. It’s about trying to implement one’s already-determined assumptions. It’s critical of others, not of self. By its own definition, it CAN’T be critical of self — that would weaken the belief, and the belief is everything.

The belief is everything, the particular circumstance (e.g., the VP candidate) is nothing. Or the particular circumstance (e.g., the VP candidate) is always used in service of the belief, BENT or SPUN in service of the belief.

It’s belief as a Rock of Gibraltar, as something you just don’t try to move or change.

Sometimes it seems as if if we can only get people to think critically of their own political (and religious) views — about ALL their already-decided views — then we’ve accomplished something really needed.

Hmmm, reminds me of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” He talks about how ideology manipulates language, takes particulars and makes them so abstract and meaningless that they lose their particularity, and thus their power. Particulars, details, concrete details, vivid reality — these things all by their nature stand up against ideology. Particulars, specific people, specific events… these all are like thorns in the hand, things that make it hard to squeeze down, things that force the hand (and mind) to stay open.

Not that I’ve said anything new here. :) But this is just one of those points that I’ll probably harp on my whole life. I’ve had my point of view changed significantly quite a few times in my life. It’s a powerful experience. It’s a “set you free” kind of experience — realizing you see things almost-completely differently than you did before. It’s a little disorienting for a while… but after that it’s just a lot of fun. Life will never be boring. And besides, stability, security, and all that is not in one’s beliefs. It is in what one believes in. So the beliefs can change, and OUGHT to change, if the object of the belief is found to need to change.