Diversity among religious believers

This is a topic that was going around the FTB backchannel, and now Ed and Natalie have written posts about it. Here’s my contribution:

I have no trouble recognizing that there is great diversity among what religious believers believe, and I even agree that some of what gets said about, say, Islam is just plain bigoted, like when Fox news host Brian Kilmeade claimed that, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims” (no: see Timothy McVeigh, Northern Ireland, the Tamil Tigers, etc.)

It is very hard to generalize about traditions that are as old, and have as many adherents, as Christianity or Islam. Generalizations about Christians and Muslims can be annoying in the way that the generalizations that some political commentators make about liberals, or about conservatives, can be annoying. There are, however a number of important differences between religions like Christianity and Islam, and vague political categories like “liberal” or “conservative.” A big one is that religions have holy books.

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein (or one of his characters at any rate) said that “The Bible is such a gargantuan collection of conflicting values that anyone can prove anything from it.” He has a point: the Bible is full of contradictions, and the list of things people have claimed to derive from the Bible is even more full of contradictions. However, this is the wrong thing to say if it’s meant to imply that all conclusions are equally easy to draw from the Bible. It’s really easy to read the Bible and conclude that we should have the death penalty for homosexuality–it’s right there in Leviticus 20:13. It’s much harder to derive the conclusion that we should have legal recognition of gay marriage. Some people have done it, but it takes a lot more work to get that conclusion out of the Bible.

And really, we shouldn’t have to be arguing about Biblical interpretation, or the interpretation of the Quran, or which hadith are sahih. That’s not how we should be deciding questions of gay rights, civil rights, women’s rights, or religious freedom. I think it’s reasonable to hope for a world where very few people so much as pay lip service to the authority of these texts. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris presents literally two and a half pages of nasty quotes from the Quran about nonbelievers, going on and on about how ours shall be a “painful doom” and so on. When I read that, I think to myself, “you know, even if most Muslims thought nothing but nice thoughts about nonbelievers, I’d still wish they wouldn’t even pretend to owe any allegiance to that book.”

Obviously, there are lots of folks who think that the nice, liberal, peaceful interpretations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the true interpretations of those religions. Unfortunately, they tend to just assert this without any argument. An exception is Keith Ward, in his book Is Religion Dangerous? who actually manages to say one thing I agree with:

If we look now at Al Qaida and its activities, it is perfectly clear that its ideology is founded on hatred and on a stereotypical idolization of Muslims and demonization of ‘Kaffirs’ (unbelievers)… The beliefs of Al Quaida are unequivocally evil (p. 34).

When I read that, I think they for Keith Ward, he recognizes the role that ideology and beliefs play in violence. But then he writes:

There are texts that can be found and used by those who are filled with rage and hatred. But they can be so used only by ignoring the scholarly traditions of interpretation in the religion, by a refusal to engage in reflective discussion of the whole scripture, and by basing a careful selection of texts on considerations of hatred and intolerance (p. 37).

Applying this to Islam specifically, Ward says, “The God of Islam is defined by the Qur’an, and the Qur’an defines that God as a God of compassion and mercy, of justice and righteousness.” And so, “Muslim militants… are demonstrably wrong, according to their own most holy text.”

This is nonsense. If you read conservative Christian thinkers from Augustine and Aquinas down to modern Evangelical apologists, you’ll find that they do not ignore arguments for nicer interpretations of their holy books, and they do not refuse to engage in discussion of those arguments. They just don’t find those arguments very convincing. And they think they can reconcile God’s compassion, mercy, and justice with his punishing the wicked eternally. They have to reconcile them, because both are found in the Bible. While I’m not well-read in the writings of Muslim fundamentalists, I assume the same is true of them.

Once you accept the premise that the scriptures or traditions of a particular religion are authoritative, it’s just too easy to arrive at an absolutely vile conclusion. The main thing the liberals have on their side is basic human decency, not anything they get from religion. This is why I would very much like to see the end of Christianity and Islam, period, no matter how nice individual believers may be.

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