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Passive and Active Readers

October 3, 2009

One of the things that really makes me angry is when Christians point to the violent instructions in the Qur’an and assume that because there are instructions to take violent action all Muslims must do that. All the while, these Christians ignore the violent instructions in their own authoritative texts.

It’s easy for them to see themselves as active readers or interpreters but to see others as passive inheritors of texts. If there is violent stuff in “our” texts, we can see that as having only applied at a certain time or place, but if there is violent stuff in “their” texts, well, they’ll all be violent.

The fact is that there is no such thing as a truly passive reader: everyone actively engages and sorts through what is in their authoritative texts (although arguably to greater and lesser degrees). Even conservative Christians who believe the Bible is literally true and must be completely followed obviously don’t follow all of it. No one does, in part because it would be impossible, given the contradictory rules prescribed.


In addition to the fact that many conservative Christians see Muslims as passive readers, it seems like all the new atheists see all religious practitioners as passive readers. Because they (stupidly) think this, they think they’re saying something profound when they point out the really bad stuff in Leviticus, for instance.

But what they’re doing is not profound—this is about as dumb as pointing to the 3/5 rule in the original American constitution and coming to the conclusion that all Americans must believe, support, or follow that rule or risk hypocrisy. That is, this sort of “look at Leviticus” rhetoric is about as sophisticated as 3rd grade boys shouting “so’s your mom” on the playground at recess.

To give credit where credit is due: I’m just elaborating on one of the things Talal Asad says in Formations of the Secular.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2009 3:53 pm

    Surely the Bible and the Quran are both to be interpreted from within a tradition? It’s pretty pointless to comment on the “pure” Bible or the pure “Koran” because without the context of (one of) the tradition(s) which utilise the text it can basically have any meaning drawn out of it?

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    October 4, 2009 9:16 am

    Yes. Exactly.

  3. October 4, 2009 11:12 am

    The more sophisticated right-wing fundamentalist shitbags would of course argue that “our” tradition (I’m not a Christian btw) is more peaceable, democratic and so on. And they’re probably right – but the problem is assuming that either doctrine creates the sort of actions which have global effects, and for which one or other might be condemned. This is erroneous.

    Islamic fundamentalism is not dependent upon what it says in the Qu’ran anymore than Christian fundamentalism is dependent upon what it says in the Bible. The sort of forces which underpin ‘Christian’ imperialism or Islamist terrorism are forces that go far beyond a paltry exegesis by some angry individuals, to the forces unleashed by the progressively global system inaugurated by capitalism some five hundred years ago.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    October 4, 2009 11:55 am

    Dave, you’ll get no argument from me ;)

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