He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fair Questions: Does the Bible or the Quran have more violence in it?

Recently, a friend of mine posted a link to an article about using text analytics software to examine and compare the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The article was pretty hilariously quick to draw conclusions from the results that were favorable to the author's views without any discussion of the limitations of the analysis which were explained by the person actually running the analysis.  It was a delightful parade of confirmation bias.

The article that was cited as the source for it wasn't trying to put on a parade of the worst sort of confirmation bias (which I always appreciate), and actually linked to the original source, which is always a wonderful thing to do when it comes to data analysis.  The gentleman conducting the analysis seems to be aware of the difficulties in choosing the text to be analyzed.  He asked questions like, "What language should it be in?" and "Which translation is better to use?" and "Should the Tanakh and New Testament be analyzed together or separately?"

He even issued a strong warning before he got into the analysis to try to keep people from over-stating the conclusions we can draw from the data.

"Due to the sensitive nature of this subject, I must emphasize that this analysis is by no means exhaustive, nor is it intended to advance any agenda or to conclusively prove anyone’s point.
The topic and data sources selected for this project constitute a significant departure from the consumer intelligence use cases for which clients typically turn to text analytics, so we thought this would be an interesting opportunity to demonstrate how this tool can be much more broadly applied to address questions and issues outside the realm of market research and business intelligence.
Again, this is only a cursory analysis. I believe there is more than one Ph.D. thesis awaiting students of theology, literature or political science who want to take a much deeper dive into this data."

The second part of the analysis had other interesting assumptions, including that the books of these texts were in chronological order and that emotions could be straightforwardly determined from the text.  That was a problem for the results that relied on chronology, I think.  Though the broader implications were that it is not easy to assign all the positive emotions to one religion and all the negative emotions to another.  The textual analysis leaves that situation complicated.

And the data analyst warns us again of the complicated nature of the analysis as he begins the third part of the analysis.

"First, I want to make very clear that we have not set out to prove or disprove that Islam is more violent than other religions.
Moreover, we realize that the Old and New Testaments and the Quran are neither the only literature in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, nor do they constitute the sum of these religions’ teachings and protocols.
I must also reemphasize that this analysis is superficial and the findings are by no means intended to be conclusive. Ours is a 30,000-ft, cursory view of three texts: the Quran and the Old and New Testaments, respectively.
Lastly, we recognize that this is a deeply sensitive topic and hope that no one is offended by this exercise."

The data analyst's warnings were of course ignored by many people who wanted to put forward evidence that could confirm their existing beliefs, and the article I was linked to originally at the top of this post is certainly a good example of that.  Strangely, the author of the piece on ReverbPress never mentioned these points:

"The concept of ‘Love’ is more often mentioned in the New Testament (3.0%) than either the Old Testament (1.9%) or the Quran (1.26%).
But the concept of ‘Forgiveness/Grace’ actually occurs more often in the Quran (6.3%) than the New Testament (2.9%) or the Old Testament (0.7%). This is partly because references to “Allah” in the Quran are frequently accompanied by “The Merciful.” Some might dismiss this as a tag or title, but we believe it’s meaningful because mercy was chosen above other attributes like “Almighty” that are arguably more closely associated with deities."

The fact that there were more than twice the amount of references to love in the New Testament than in the Quran wouldn't have fit his anti-Christian narrative, and so it was conveniently excluded.  And you might think that citing the prevalence of "Allah the All-Merciful" in the Quran would bolster the argument that Islam is not a violent religion, but that isn't the argument the author cares about.  He just wants to poke a thumb in the eye of conservative Christians in the U.S.  Which, though admittedly in much milder form, I don't mind doing occasionally myself as a matter of fraternal dialogue.

As someone who has written much more positively about Islam than many Christians in the United States, I think it's good to counter the simplistic narrative that equates every bad behavior with Muslims and every good behavior with Christians. I just don't think this project accomplishes that task at all. The OdinText data analysis project is very cool, but it has a lot of limitations and drawing conclusions from it is tricky.

"A look into the verbatim text suggests that the content in the Quran is not more violent than its Judeo-Christian counterparts. In fact, of the three texts, the content in the Old Testament appears to be the most violent.
Killing and destruction are referenced slightly more often in the New Testament than in the Quran (2.8% vs. 2.1%), but the Old Testament clearly leads—more than twice that of the Quran—in mentions of destruction and killing (5.3%)."

At best, it shows that Islamic revolutionaries and terrorists are not violent because there are lots of violent passages in the Quran, and it does this by showing that there really aren't very many violent passages in the Quran.  Which is a good point to remember, but doesn't get us very far.  And it doesn't get us very far because of another stark limitation of the data analysis.

As someone who has read all three texts analyzed by the OdinText software (as well as many other religious texts), it was my impression before ever looking at any data analysis that the Tanakh had far more references to violence in it than the Quran, and that the Christian New Testament is a tougher call to compare to the Quran by that metric.

But a huge difficulty with having software do a textual analysis (even very good software) is that it misses literary context. Much of the violence in the Tanakh (the Old Testament to Christians) is there because it is in part a history of the Jewish people as a tribe and nation at war with other tribes and nations in that part of the world. The Quran isn't written that way at all; it's not a parallel nation-building narrative of the same type. If it had been written as a history of, say, Muhammed's Quraysh tribe and the building of the Islamic Caliphate, then the references to violence would go up dramatically and we would be having a different discussion that could actually compare literary apples to literary apples.

And with the New Testament, we have the same problem. Much of the violence in Revelation, for example, is an allegorical record of Roman persecution of the early Christian community and others. Once again, there is no parallel narrative of this type in the Quran, and so the comparison isn't a very good one. It would be like trying to compare the Tao Te Ching and the Pali canon in Buddhism to see which is more tranquil; the literary differences make the comparison impossible to do validly with a textual analysis alone.

In the end, there is significantly less violence in the Quran than there is in the Tanakh, but this doesn't tell us as much as we might like to think because the texts are not easily comparable forms of literature.  As usual, I have the same problem with how anti-religious fundamentalists interpret these texts as I do with how religious fundamentalists interpret these texts: they both often ignore really important things like literary form, the limitations of language, and the relationship between the religion and the text when evaluating the text.

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