Islam, 9/11, and "True Religion" (Or "What Could George W. Bush Mean When Talking About True Islam?")

What did it mean when George W. Bush talked about Islam really being a “religion of peace” and argued that it was not to blame for the murderous actions of terrorists? Bush was (and is) a true believing Evangelical Christian. How could he argue for a “true” interpretation of Islam when Islam is a falsehood in the first place?

Islam, like any religion, is no one thing. It is a centuries old tradition which manifests itself in a diversity of beliefs and practices all around the world. “True Islam” is not some “accurate” interpretation and application of the Koran. If every Muslim tomorrow became a non-literalist or, even better, became suddenly willing to actually repudiate the Koran where it is clearly false or immoral, they could nonetheless remain Muslims if they retained various other historical cultural identifiers of Islam and understood themselves to be Muslims and were understood by others to still be Muslims.

There is no truth to a religion itself. It can be whatever those who identify with it and belong to its myriad practicing communities evolve to understand it as. Wahhabism, Osama bin Laden’s version of Islam, is an 18th Century invention, so for a millennia there was Islam without there being the Wahhabism that Islam’s fiercest contemporary Western enemies want to conflate with “Islam itself”.

Wahhabism is a form of Islam. It is false to deny that. Insofar as Wahhabism is a form of Islam and insofar as Wahhabism inspired 9/11, Islam is to blame for 9/11. It is false as a historical and sociological matter to deny that. But Wahhabism is far from all of Islam and there is much of Islam that has nothing to do with it or with al-Qaeda and so to indiscriminately blame Islam for 9/11 is equally false and simplistic.

So, there are different strands of Islam, why does it make sense for Bush to talk about “True Islam” as different than Wahhabism even though Wahhabism is part of Islam. On what grounds can he argue that “True Islam” is only the non-violent, “religion of peace” parts? Is that just denial of reality? Is it a conscious lie? Is it only political strategy? Should the rest of us also say “True Islam” is only the parts that are good?

Here is what I think is going on and what we should say about what “True Islam”:

I think we can look at “true religion” the way we look at “true morality” and “true science”. Not every system of morality people have called “morality” is truly good or worth calling “morality”. We cannot whitewash that, we can say of 19th Century Southern American morality that explicitly approved of and promoted slavery “in those days, their morality approved of slavery but now we understand more clearly that slavery should be considered immoral”. In this one sentence we both acknowledge the fact of historical institutions of morality which can deviate from our normative judgment about what true morality requires.

Let’s take another example, we can say of some theory which previously seemed to look like the best scientific account of something but which has since been supplanted by a better theory, “The best scientific understanding of the time indicated that x was the best theory but now we know that y is the best theory and anyone who still believes x is ignoring the best science and so is now being pseudo-scientific and not doing ‘true science’.” Again we can acknowledge that what historically what might have counted legitimately as science today is pseudo-science, from a normative perspective.

Can we make a similar distinction between normative “true” religions and historical “pseudo-religions” which should be acknowledged as truly existing historical manifestations of religions but not be confused for “religion itself”—just as we say a past morality was a genuine historical instance of a morality but is not “true morality itself” or that a past science was a genuine historical instance of science but is not “true science itself”? How could we do this with religion? How could we say there is any truth in something so historically enmeshed with ludicrous falsehoods?

Let’s look at how we distinguish true science from past science and from contemporary pseudo-science. We isolate the empirical methods which most reliably lead to the surest truths and we say, “these methods and anything derived from them are ‘true science’”. Any practices which eschew these rigorous methods are not “true science” given what we know about what the best normative methods for being scientific are, even if in the past the most scientific people confused them for scientific. And the conclusions which the best methods of science once thought were truest but now realize are false, are to be discarded.

With morality, there are several ways to do this. My way (in a brief nutshell) is to sift through all our psychological dispositions and historically received practices for making moral judgments and all of our historically received moral judgments themselves and to test them for how well they encourage maximal human flourishing in excellence for the maximum number of people, with minimal exploitation of the least flourishing. Moral feelings and received moral rules should be considered normatively binding to precisely the extent that in the long run they will effectively contribute to that total flourishing in excellence.

So, what about religion? What is it such that it could be done well and encouraged to keep doing that? To me a “true religion” is one which is consistent with and does not violate or undermine the norms of true science or true morality. It does not reinforce superstition, authoritarian deference to arbitrary political or intellectual authorities, faith-based thinking, or outdated stagnating or regressive traditions, etc.

Positively what true religion does is it provides people with communities, rituals, meditative practices, symbols, traditional identities, and rich and euphoric states of conscious experience all compatible with, and sometimes in the service of, what can be known rationally to be the truth—true morality, true philosophy, true meaning, and true science.

So just as a theory is truly scientific to the extent that it is rigorously vindicated by the most reliable empirical methods and just as a moral rule is truly moral to the extent that it genuinely contributes to widespread high quality human flourishing, so a religious practice is truly religious to the extent that its practices help connect people to true meaning, true ethics, true metaphysics, etc.

So, I think we can hear (and ourselves echo, even as atheists) Bush saying that true Islam is a religion of peace the idea that “only religions of peace are worth being called true religions”.

We should vigilantly hold religions accountable for the myriad ways that in practice they fail to uphold truth—philosophically, ethically, scientifically, epistemologically, politically, etc. We cannot let the flawed, corrupt, anti-rational historical institutions be equated only with their ideals or let them be judged only by their emptiest words about truth and love and goodness. We must hold their feet to the fire and demand they root out everything about themselves that corrupts people’s minds, hearts, and practices.

But in doing so we can say that it is true religion that demands this of them. That people deserve truer religions-either truer versions of their present traditions or newer religions without so much baggage, that provide all the rituals and meanings that people want from religion but in a way vigorously and rigorously progressive morally, intellectually, and politically.

So, is Islam responsible for 9/11? An existing sect of Islam is the most influential cause for 9/11, so partially yes. Would “true Islam” lead to 9/11? No.

To the considerable extent that one billion Muslims worldwide live a true Islam—one that in practice leads to goodness and truths, Islam is good. To the also considerable extent that Islam leads to badness and falsehood, it is bad and needs to become a truer religion—a truer and more moral one. On balance is Islam good or bad? That’s an impossible question to answer of any religion. The better, more practical question is, “how can Islam, or any other religion, be made more truthful and more ethical?”

I developed this thesis initially in a longer, more thorough piece called True Religion?

Your Thoughts?

The Moral Imperative Not To Dehumanize When We Criticize #MuslimLivesMatter
City on a Hill
“The History of Philosophy” and “Philosophy and Suicide”
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.

  • kraut

    “Positively what true religion does is it provides people with communities, rituals, meditative practices, symbols, traditional identities, and rich and euphoric states of conscious experience all compatible with, and sometimes in the service of, what can be known rationally to be the truth—true morality, true philosophy, true meaning, and true science.”

    That is you definition of “true religion”. In Christianity the “true” definition of religion is condensed in the Pater Noster. T begins with: I believe God, the almighty Father…nothing of community, personal growth etc.
    No, true religion by itself is defined not by what you want it to be by your definition, true religion is defined by the first principle: the acknowledgement of a prime supernatural mover and acknowledging his existence as a matter of faith, without any evidence and against reason.
    By that definition alone there can be no “true” christian religion, and there is none. By your definition almost all religions (maybe with the exception of Buddhism) are “false”.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Yes, by my definitions almost all religions are in many ways false (though not in all of them). So what? For thousands of years almost all politics was unjust and authoritarian in general form, but true justice still was an ideal. For thousands of years, true science as we have now figured it out did not exist. in most ways, in most times and places true morality has been far from realized.

      My definition of true religion is not a historical definition of what religion truly has been, I acknowledge explicitly that that is a different thing.

      My definition of true religion is what it should be to be normatively true, i.e., worthy of being associated with truth. And present religions, like past and present moralities or empirical investigations, if they want to have truth must be practices that teach people about truth and not about “supernatural beings”, etc.

      I don’t care how some or most or even all members of a specific religion define what it means to truly be a member of their community at present. I care about what it would take for their religion to be consistent with the truth. And the only extent to which they have true religion, normatively speaking, is the extent to which they also inculcate true morality and true belief through their religious practices. There is an extent to which each does that and an extent to which each does not. They should be praised or condemned accordingly.

  • Daniel Schealler

    Something about this was making me uneasy, and I think I finally put my finger on what it is.

    In my head the term ‘true’ invokes the notion that the concept or statement under discussion has passed the test of thorough critical examination.

    Despite the fact that you have stated very clearly that this is not the sense in which you’re using the term ‘true’ in this context, I still cannot stop myself from equivocating back to my intuitive understanding of the term during my subsequent re-reads of the essay.

    It has a very peculiar feel to it – sort of slippery.

    • Camels With Hammers

      I understand the feeling. The connotation of true I mean is another familiar one though—the sense of a real version of an activity. That’s why “true” science and “true” morality are the real practices worth calling science and worth calling morality. This is a familiar sense of the word “truth”, so I don’t think I am mangling the language. My goal is to say that we should dream bigger about what practices should be called “true” religion—what practices do what religion aspires to well and start calling the actual, historical superstitious instantiations the counterfeits. I want to fight for the word and the norms for religion. Rather than allow those who promote ignorance and regressiveness to lay claim to “true” religion just because they are the ones who cling to its outdated, traditional forms.

  • Lord Shplanington, Not A Frenchman

    You’ve defined “True” religion out of existence. When you remove defining characteristics like “Superstition” and “Faith”, the thing you’re left with can’t really be defined as a “Religion” in any meaningful sense of the term.

    • Camels With Hammers

      That’s precisely what I want to challenge. There is much more to religion than superstition and faith. There is ritual, meditation, communal identity, ecstatic experience, “spiritual” highs, liturgical calendar, moral and metaphysical discussion and training, myth, symbol, performative enactments of concepts, awe, wonder, gratitude, reverence, celebration of mystery, accounts of the meaning of life, etc. While other institutions have picked up some of these things, no other institutions beside religion merge them all so that they all mutually enhance and reinforce one another as they do in religion. This is a potentially good and distinct complex of very good parts of human life that deserves to be disassociated from the faith and superstition that spoil it so badly at present.

    • Lord Shplanington, Not A Frenchman

      Then I would have to say that you’re challenging something that it makes no sense to challenge. A better statement than “Religion is better without faith and superstition” is “*Insert list of things you like that usually get packaged with religion here* are better without religion”. None of that list requires religion, and none of it is any more worthwhile if you glue the word “religion” to the top of it.

      I would even argue that many if not most of those are rather worthless. “Ritual” is a great way to waste your time. “Communal identity” is a great way to alienate people that don’t meet the standards of your community. “Celebration of mystery” is a great way to become the Insane Clown Posse. “Accounts of the meaning of life” are a wonderful way to pretend that everyone should find the exact same meaning in their life, and fuck anyone who wants a different one. “Reverence” is a far more powerful form of respect than almost anyone deserves, and that certainly should not be given to any religious institution or cleric.

      The others just don’t need to be jammed together, and often do poorly when they are. Myth doesn’t always have to be attached to awe. Moral discussion has little to do with wonder. Meditation need not be involved with any sort of performance. These ideas stand on their own perfectly well, and it really isn’t that great of an idea to jam them on top of each other like a four year old who just got his first set of Lego’s. Sure, they fit together sometimes, but not always, and certainly not always well.

      It honestly is just better to abandon religion, and find the good and useful parts somewhere else. You’ll get a better product, and won’t have to deal with sifting out all that pesky magic horseshit.

      Man, I’m going to have to go say some good things on some other part of your blog. Otherwise this relationship just isn’t going to work out.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Man, I’m going to have to go say some good things on some other part of your blog. Otherwise this relationship just isn’t going to work out.

      hahaha, no, no! This is a philosophy blog I need good vigorous, thoughtful, civilly leveled challenges to my ideas. I am even thinking that if there is time, I might write a whole post in reply to your comment here in the coming days (not sure if or when I will though given the slate of things I still have to write about and the demands of my jobs, but I want to!)