I couldn’t sleep last night, so I decided to write this.
This starts with Mein Kampf, just because….
I am always curious to know who has read the book, and I am surprised by how few have even made the attempt. I slogged my way through it many years ago, but I was driven by curiosity and the hope of gaining some morbid insight into the mind of such a derange human being. Unfortunately, the book is so dull that the horribleness of it was easily lost on me as I read the same sentences over and over before dozing off.
I returned to Mein Kampf as a graduate student, out of some desire to write an article about political religions for a seminar I was attending. I didn’t write the article, but I finally found disgust in Hitler’s bullshit. The scholarly commentary was extremely helpful in nourishing my anger because even as a graduate student I did not fully appreciate everything that Hitler was up to in the book. Fortunately, I do not need to convince you that the views Hitler expresses in Mein Kampf are ominous, but imagine if I did. Imagine if National Socialism was an acknowledged religion and Mein Kampf was its holy text. The fantasy I am suggesting is not so far from the reality. Under these circumstances, what would I need to do to convince you that Nazism is a bad religion? Could I point to Mein Kampf and use examples from that?
We already have some idea of what it means to criticize a text to get at its ideological horror. With all do respect to Oscar Wilde, a great many people think there are immoral books or at least stupid, inane, absurd, and “problematic” books. If I wanted to be cautious, I could say that Mein Kampf is nothing more than a book of bad ideas, but that doesn’t quite capture the intensity of how wrong the book is. An annoying question keeps coming up: does the meaning of a text have any connection with its author?
If we strip Mein Kampf of its history, what is left? I suppose it could be a work of fiction about a madman. Taking this approach, even as a thought experiment, seems disrespectful to the lives ruined by Nazism. The author as God may be dead, but that doesn’t mean we need to embrace solipsistic individualism.
When it comes to “real” religion, we assign priority to the reader. I won’t go into why that’s the case and how strange it is given the history of the social sciences, but it suffices to say that this is a relatively recent development in sociology of religion. Focusing on the reader leads to relativistic accounts of texts. Go back to my thought experiment about Mein Kampf, and we might imagine some person taking joy in Hitler’s work, while ignoring the bad bits and the wider social and historical implications of celebrating such a text. I think many people would be justifiably enraged by the love of Mein Kampf above all other books. Although I am no expert in theological matters, I am aware that theologians debate the role of the reader in the interpretation of religious texts. Many theologians reject the reader-centric view, recognizing the need for communal intervention. This, however, does not go quite far enough.
Hitler’s book is a curious case because it’s an autobiography with many other moving parts. The line between nonfiction and fiction in Mein Kampf is blurry to many who accept individualistic and relativistic accounts of texts, religious or otherwise. It is true that texts need something from the reader, especially if the texts are assumed to be “true” in some sense. The autobiography is an obvious example of a text that calls on the reader to decide which parts match reality. With Mein Kampf we have the advantage of comparing the Nazi program’s horrors with the later thought processes of their architect. No need for caution, however, as some people did expect what would come, even if they were unable to do anything about it.
A Christian friend of mine often argues that although the Bible is open to interpretation, it’s not open to an infinite number of interpretations. Many secular scholars agree, regardless of their own private beliefs. Nevertheless, absent an author to clarify, we have no way to give a religious text a secured meaning. But, even if we had the author, many relativists would dismiss the author’s advice.
Just as the fiction reader is encouraged to be creative with literature, religious believers are encouraged to be creative with their faith. The expression of this creativity is clear with the much maligned phrase “cherry picking.” Religious moderates of any faith select sections of their texts, traditions, and histories to reinforce their modern dispositions, often ignoring the parts that seem antithetical to a genteel worldview.
Various verses in the Qur’an and the Jewish and Christian Scriptures can be used by believers to promote and justify violence. One approach to this problem is to recognize that scripturally based religions have other avenues for religious exploration. The problem is that while adherents do not necessarily have to rely on the texts for their faith, they often do with real consequences in the world. The history of Islam is closely tied to Muslims taking those verses seriously. In fact, it is hard to imagine the current sociopolitical climate without doctrines of holy war. The majority of Muslims today may not be interested in ancestor worship or reliving the mayhem of history, but this does not give them a pass in contemporary debates about religious extremism.
Being a good Muslim or a good Christian does not absolve a believer of responsibility to that history any more than each of us is absolved of responsibility for the legacy of colonialism. If you agree, this raises an important question: why does the accomodationist seek to rebuild a true religion in the first place? Why are we ready, on the one hand, to accept benign interpretations, but on the other, condemn the immoral Bible or Qur’an? Although the moderates of any religion are preferable to the fundamentalists, they are sipping from the same cup, regardless of their individual virtues.