Christians and Muslims Assess their Holy Books Differently: a Polemic

Hi! I’m Sendai Anonymous. Recently, Daniel and I have been having a bit of a back and forth about Christianity and Islam, and the way the believers choose to interpret their holy books here, and I thought it’d be best if I briefly summarised my views, too.

In his post, Daniel writes that

Islam is, in general, inherently more recalcitrant to secularization because of the sorts of limits the religion places on rational criticism of the faith or the Koran. Christianity offered just enough latitude to eventually allow enough knowledge to destroy faith after some hundreds of years. I worry Islam is more authoritarian at its core and in its practices and more immune to secularization. But, I should hasten to add that I know quite little about Islam, so I speak most tentatively here and would love illumination from educated Muslims, ex-Muslims, and students of Islam.

Before I start, I’d like to say that I do believe that having a discussion about the more intellectual or theoretical Islam (or any other religion) is important, and that the debunking of the most bigoted and erroneous views of its believers is important, too. We should after all, try to communicate with believers, and not wait till they come around on their own. Bringing to light the hate-filled passages from the assorted holy books is something we absolutely should engage in, too.

However, in the end, whether there is a tradition that permits free discussion or not, doesn’t actually matter at all in practice when it comes to the formation of a secular society.

Pascal Boyer, in his absolutely brilliant book Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors, while demolishing the widespread belief that it’s holy books and religions that shape our morals and outlook on the world, makes an argument that because we learn about morality and what constitutes acceptable social behaviour from our parents, friends, and from authority figures in our social environment, and later, when we are somewhat older, and we actually gain the knowledge of what is written in the holy texts, it’s the values that are accepted in our social environment that shape our worldview, and eventually, our interpretation of the holy texts, too.

The way we think about the world, and what we think about what the world *should* be like is not based on our holy text, but rather on the views that are predominant in our social environment. What matters in practice is not what the Bible or Quran or any other holy book says about, let’s say, evolution (or lack thereof), but what your parents taught you, and what your friends believe, and what your teachers tell you. Of course, many people find the courage and intellectual honesty to think for themselves, and kudos for them, because, they are awesome. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to be brought up with certain values and opinions, and then realise that most likely much of that is, oops, drivel.

I think that this is the reason why we often see puzzling discrepancies between the official views of a church and the actual practice of the believers.

For instance, look at this survey about the Catholics in the US and their stance on abortion and stem cell research. Despite the Catholic church’s strong official opposition towards both, most Catholics’ views do not differ from the mainstream views of the Americans.

Stem cell research, and even more so abortion, are issues that are being criticised as immoral by the pope every other week. It is almost inconceivable that a Catholic would never hear about that. And yet, the Catholics are not 100% against stem cell research, and abortion, as the official stance of their church would require them to.

What matters, I think, is what the prevalent attitudes are in the society, and the attitudes are not the result of religion and its official interpretation. What happens is that the official interpretation slowly but steadily starts conforming to those prevalent attitudes and not the other way round.

There are large differences between the official, intellectual theology, and the stuff people actually believe in practice. I think that the theory that religion never comes first explains this phenomenon best.

I don’t mean to say that the debate with the “intellectual Islam” – or any other religion – is unimportant; it certainly is. We do need to communicate. However, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, I’d say that the correlation of the existence of intellectual theological discourse with the degree of permissibility of a more secular set of beliefs in a society is often overplayed.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.