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Monday, March 27, 2006

Is it "Insane" to "Embrace" Martyrdom?

Ann Althouse has an interesting post (check out the comments, too) on the Abdul Rahman case, and on what appears to have been the Afghan court's solution, i.e., dismissing the case on the ground that Rahman is mentally unfit.  At the end of her post, Professor Althouse identifies as a "useful idea" the idea that "anyone who embraces martyrdom for religion is insane."  Is this idea "useful"?  I suppose a lot depends on whether "embrac[ing] martyrdom" includes "refusing to abandon one's religion, even if one knows that the refusal will result in death."  Or, do we think that this is, actually, "insane" also?

Posted by Rick Garnett on March 27, 2006 at 12:00 PM in Religion | Permalink


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I apologize to Professor Althouse for the "sensibly" remark. In mitigation, not defense, Ameritech/SBC/ATT chose that time to degrade the signal to my computer and I was neither able to link nor to preview and edit my post. I should have simply refrained from hitting the post button but who am I to deprive the world of my brilliance.

Back to the subject, martyrdom seems to be the tradition in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Even to pursuing death in order to prove their faith to others. I know that most Christian saints were martyred. These are monotheistic, exclusive (one could even say intolerant) religions and Christianity and Islam extremely proselytizing religions. (I suppose that although Judaism does not proselytize some Jewish martyrs may have thought that they should do all in their power to prevent apostasy by their example. John the Baptist, for one, was protesting Herod's Hellenistic ways.) Can we say also say that they look to please their God not through animal and human sacrifices as the pagans did but by sacrificing themselves? To look at it from the other side, the auto da fe is no less insane. Or the Soviet insane asylums that Professor Litvak pointed to.

Posted by: nk | Mar 28, 2006 8:13:13 PM

I should make clear that my post was not intended to associate Professor Althouse with the idea that "accepting", as opposed to "pursuing", martyrdom is insane. On her own blog, and here (above), I think she has made clear her view. I would think, though, that even to "accept" death rather than change one's religious affiliation or profession must seem so dramatically out of line with contemporary thinking about what religion is, and about is really at stake in the religious arena, as to appear, to many people, "insane."

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 28, 2006 10:24:03 AM

That is:

I'm saying that it would be good....

Posted by: Ann Althouse | Mar 28, 2006 8:13:46 AM

NK: Perhaps you should read a little more carefully and think a bit before commenting. My point is about embracing martyrdom, seeing martyrdom itself as the end, as opposed to accepting it as a consequence of doing something else. I never say that Rahman did that. I'm said that it would be good for those within the tradition of Islamic interpretation, like the judges in Afghanistan, to propogate the idea that the pursuit of martyrdom is wrongheaded. You accuse me of blogging too much, but your low comprehension suggests that I should have been verbose and spelled things out laboriously so careless readers like you could not get it wrong. Sorry, but concision is my style. Get used to it.

Posted by: Ann Althouse | Mar 28, 2006 8:11:47 AM

Professor Althouse prefers to blog prolifically instead of sensibly. Even with her clarification, I fail to see the relationship to Abdul Rahman. The man has been a Christian for 16 years and he did not turn himself in -- he was turned in by his relatives in retaliation over a custody dispute.

I suppose the Al Aksa (possible misspelling) Martyrs' Brigade is insane. They strap explosives on themselves and detonate them among innocent people. But they are mostly teenagers. From an adult point of view all adolescents may be insane. Mousaoui also certainly seems insane to me.

Without any intended ad hominem, Professor Althouse has no point. To a non-believer a believer's adherence to his faith even without the threat of death may be insane. Even from a strictly secular point of view, belief as opposed to knowledge may be considered irrational. As I have commented before on this site, religion is a powerful and dangerous thing. Even theocratic governments cannot repress it or co-opt it. At best they can only achieve a fragile truce with it.

Posted by: nk | Mar 27, 2006 9:22:26 PM

FWIW, Prof. Althouse clarifies in the comments to her post that by "embracing" martyrdom, she didn't mean to stigmatize the willingness to die for religious beliefs, but rather the eager seeking out of such a death.

Posted by: Plainsman | Mar 27, 2006 4:33:09 PM

The Soviets used to share Althouse’s view. They too announced that “anyone who embraces martyrdom for religion is insane,” except in their case “religion” was deep anti-communist beliefs. Soviet doctors even invented the name for this peculiar form of “insanity” – “slowly-proceeding schizophrenia” – a psychiatric ailment unknown to the rest of the world and diagnosable only by a patient’s irrational willingness to question authority despite deadly threats. Thousands of dissidents were destroyed in psychiatric hospitals under this medical theory.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Mar 27, 2006 3:49:35 PM

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