Aaron Taylor spent seven hours arguing with Irish convert to Islam Khalid Kelly as part of a documentary called Holy Wars. After the debate was over, he was troubled by Kelly’s conflation of religion and the state and endorsement of war as evangelization. This book lays out his pacifistic theology.
When I signed up to review this book, I though more of it would be focused on the debate itself, but the confrontation is mostly limited to the first chapter, and in Taylor’s telling, Kelly isn’t particularly responsive to argument. So the rest of the book is mostly Taylor alone.
I didn’t like it. To be honest, I found Taylor’s case for pacifism (to which I have sympathy!) to be dense and shallow. The pages are peppered with scripture quotations (opening to random pages to confirm just now, the unusually large font pages often have 2-4 refernces). The clustered citations don’t leave much room for exegesis, so the reader has to mostly take Taylor’s word on interpretation.
So, let me leave off a detailed critique and just pull out one strand of the argument that I found interesting. During their initial argument, Kelly tells Taylor that Christianity is a pale shadow of a religion because it’s not prescriptive enough. Kelly runs down a list of sins (adultery, blasphemy, etc) that have well defined punishments in his interpretation of Sharia and challenges Taylor to name the equivalent penalties in Christianity. When Taylor falters, Kelly concludes:
“You still haven’t described how you would implement the Bible as a way of life or in government. I’ll be honest with you. I’m gonna pin you down. I don’t think you can… This is Islamic Sharia. It’s comprehensive.”
Kelly seemed to be describing religion as a big moral and legal lookup table, the more detailed the better, and I was reminded of this quote from Overheard at Yale Div School, “Any faith tradition worth its salt will tell you what to do with your food, your time, your genitals, and your money. Otherwise it’s not a real religion.” But what I was also reminded of was the Chinese Room thought experiment. Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes it:
[S]uppose that there is a program that gives a computer the ability to carry on an intelligent conversation in written Chinese. If the program is given to someone who speaks only English to execute the instructions of the program by hand, then in theory, the English speaker would also be able to carry on a conversation in written Chinese. However, the English speaker would not be able to understand the conversation. Similarly, Searle concludes, a computer executing the program would not understand the conversation either.
In the dialogue, Kelly seems to be clinging to the comfort of a comprehensive rule-based system for laws or morals. Kelly doesn’t need to be confused, he can just consult his moral law program and implement the correct answer. To me, he sounds like the person in the Chinese room.
We tend to value human judges for the sake of the person judged. A human can take into account context that might not have an input field in your sentencing program. But a good system of law seems like it would be good for the judge as well. Figuring out how to properly apply a good system of law would help the judge how to exercise and develop her virtues.
The certainty and precision that Kelly doesn’t leave room for the development of human judgement and character. It’s the difference between having a list of formulas for your stat exam and understanding the theory well enough to be able to rederive them if needed. Ultimately, we’re trying to grow our moral faculties so that we are the hypothetical lookup table, and we don’t need to consult an external one.