What Do We Mean By “Religion”?: Religions Have No “Heart”

Part of a Series: What Do We Mean By “Religion”?

What do we mean by “Religion”? I find that whenever I’m in disagreement – either with a person of faith or with another atheist - it frequently boils down to a disagreement over the meaning of “religion”. Someone will begin with “The problem with religion is X” or “What religion offers which atheism doesn’t is Y”, and we can argue for hours without realizing that what we both mean by religion is radically different.

One signal difficulty is a tendency, on both the religious and atheist side of debates, to engage in unhelpful generalizations: ones which serve religious purposes by papering-over troubling aspects of their faith tradition, and ones which serve atheists’ purposes by obscuring complexities within religious traditions or excluding from the realm of the “religious” positive aspects of human experience. This problem often manifests itself in a statement intended to capture to “heart” of some religion as regards a particular point.

An example:

“Islam is a Religion of Peace”/”Islam is a Violent Religion”

“Islam is a religion of peace” is a form of generalization which became common after the 9/11 attacks, a sentiment which has been expressed by none other than the former Prime Minister of Malaysia and George W Bush:

“Clearly Islam the religion is not the cause of terrorism. Islam, as I said, is a religion of peace.”
-  Mahathir bin Mohamad, former Prime Minister of Malaysia

” The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”
- President George. W Bush [Thanks to Wikipedia]

I’ve also seen this statement on billboards around Boston and heard it from the lips of many Muslims.

A common counter from atheist critics of religion is that “Islam is a violent religion”. It promotes terrorism, we will aver, and promises death to the infidel in the Koran. There are whole websites dedicated to promoting the idea that Islam is a violent and dangerous faith. TheReligionofPeace.com, for instance, dedicates itself to “present[ing] the threat that  Islam poses to human dignity and freedom, and document[ing] the violence that ensues as a direct consequence of this religion’s supremacist teachings.”

What’s the problem with this? The problem is that it is very difficult to know what either statement is supposed to mean. What does it mean to be to be a “Religion of Peace” or a “Violent Religion”? It is a very non-specific statement. The force of Bush and Mohamad’s statements seem to suggest they believe that the terrorism of 9/11 is not representative of the “heart” of Islam as a religious tradition: “That’s not what Islam is all about.” While the folks at TheReligionofPeace.com think the opposite. But how do you know what the “heart” of a religion is? How do you know what Islam is “all about”?

Is it what the majority of self-identified Muslims believe on the topic – and, if so, how on earth do you know the answer? Is it what the central scriptures of the religion say on the issue – and, if so, which are the central scriptures and whose interpretation do you use? Is it determined by how the adherents of the religion actually live their lives: what they do, rather than what they believe? Can you find what a religion is “all about” in its history, following threads back millennia to reveal the central truth? Is the core of a religion to be found in the mouths of its prophets and the lives of its saints, the poetry it inspires, the music to which it gives birth?

All of these ways of discovering the “heart” of a religion will give you a different answer to the question “Is Islam a religion of peace?”, and they may give you multiple, contradictory answers. It is clear that there are calls to peace within the Koran, and calls to violence. It is clear that the majority of Muslims are not by any definition terrorists, but also that some terrorists find moral mandate for their actions in their faith. There is Islamic poetry which celebrates the peaceful life, and some which valorizes war and conquest. And all the same can be said of Christianity. So what is Islam “all about”? Is it a religion of peace or of war?

As so often when answers are unforthcoming, the problem is in the question. The question presupposes an essentialist definition of religion which assumes that a religious tradition can be reduced to some single and relatively simple statement of values or ideas. It is the very presumption that Islam – or any religion – has a “heart”, that there is something that it is “all about”, that is wrong. Religions, in truth, don’t have simple, unproblematic “hearts”. They are not “all about” one thing or another, and they become less “all about” one thing or another as they age, grow, shift and change.

Sam Harris likes to draw a parallel between religion and sports: there’s not one unified thing called “religion”, he says, but rather “religion” is a category like “sports”: “There are sports like badminton, and there are sports like Thai boxing – and they basically have nothing in common apart from breathing.” And in this he is right: he is knocking down the idea that “religion” is one unproblematic and distinct category with an identifiable essence which can be discussed as a whole. However, he falls prey to another sort of essentialism when he essentializes religions themselves: “We have to be honest about the actual doctrine of Islam, specifically about the doctrines of martyrdom and Jihad.” And it becomes clear that he identifies the religion of Islam with its doctrine, such that, since the doctrine of the religion says  about martyrdom and Jihad, the religion itself says X about martyrdom and Jihad.

But religions are more than doctrines. They are more than scriptures. They are more than practices and leaders and temples and songs. They are many-tentacle beasts, and they have no “heart”.


About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • ImRike

    You are right, there is no “heart” to religion – no “one heart”. Religion, in my opinion, has “many hearts”: thousands, millions! Religion is what each adherent makes it. There are peaceful Muslims, as there are peaceful Christians. There are friendly and joyful religious people, and tolerant ones. And then there are the hateful ones, the violent kind, and those in between. And so, when I speak of religion as an atheist, religion takes on my “heart”, and in Sam Harris’ case, his “heart”. So, we are not really “essentializing religions themselves” but we do the same that religious people do: we “heart” it (“heart” in your words, not heart=love). Is there any other way?

  • Michael R

    Robert Spencer: “all of the schools that are considered orthodox teach, as part of the obligation of the Muslim community, warfare against and the subjugation of unbelievers.”

    I don’t know how anyone can conclude that Islam is peaceful when considering (a) the head-chopping, raping, terrorist life of the prophet Muhammad, (b) the bloody history of Islam that held up Muhammad to be al-insan al-kamil, the Perfect Man and (c) the violent doctrine to spread Islam by the sword. All the peaces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

    Sam Harris: “Osama bin Laden… is giving a truly straightforward version of Islam, and you really have to be an acrobat to figure out how he is distorting the faith”.

    James is an acrobat for Islam. The question is: why has James abandoned reason under the guise of “complexity”? Is he too lazy to do a comparative study between Islam and Christianity? Does he just want to get along with everyone?

    Wafa Sultan – The Repulsive Prophet Muhammad

    Islam: What the West Needs to Know – Trailer

    A Rational Study of Radical Islam, by Dr. Bill Warner

    Dr Andrew Bostom: Jihad – Academic View

    To compare Islam with Christianity is nuts (and I’m not a Christian).

    Robert Spencer, Bible and Qur’an: equally violent?

    “… certainly Christians have committed violent acts in the name of Christianity. But have they done so in obedience to Christian Scripture and the teachings of the various Christian sects, or in defiance of those Scriptures and teachings? During the Crusades, it became customary for those who joined the effort to be referred to as “taking up their cross,” echoing Jesus’ statement: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

    But on its face, of course, this says nothing about war or violence of any kind, and has been understood throughout history as referring primarily to the Christian’s struggle to conform his life to the demands of the Gospel…

    The fact that he must instead resort to the physicalization of passages about spiritual warfare only makes more obvious the fact that can have no recourse to any Christian martial tradition, or doctrine of warfare against and conquest of unbelievers.

    In Islam, however, the situation is quite different.

    … in contrast to the Bible, the Qur’an exhorts believers to fight unbelievers without specifying anywhere in the text that only certain unbelievers are to be fought, or only for a certain period of time, or some other distinction. Taking the texts at face value, the command to make war against unbelievers is open-ended and universal.”

    Tina Magaard PhD – The Texts in Islam Distinguish Themselves

    “Islamic texts encourage terror and fighting to a far larger degree than the original texts of other religions, concludes Tina Magaard. She has a PhD in Textual Analysis and Intercultural Communication from the Sorbonne in Paris, and has spent three years on a research project comparing the original texts of ten religions. “The texts in Islam distinguish themselves from the texts of other religions by encouraging violence and aggression against people with other religious beliefs to a larger degree. There are also straightforward calls for terror. This has long been a taboo in the research into Islam, but it is a fact that we need to deal with,” says Tina Magaard. Moreover, there are hundreds of calls in the Koran for fighting against people of other faiths. “If it is correct that many Muslims view the Koran as the literal words of God, which cannot be interpreted or rephrased, then we have a problem. It is indisputable that the texts encourage terror and violence. Consequently, it must be reasonable to ask Muslims themselves how they relate to the text, if they read it as it is” says Tina Magaard.”

  • Michael R

    Robert Spencer: Islam – What the West Needs to Know

  • Michael R

    Robert Spencer – Bible and Qur’an: equally violent?

    “But aren’t you just cherry-picking violent passages?

    … when I list Qur’anic passages that counsel violence, I am often accused of “cherry-picking” the worst of such passages in order to try to portray Islam in the worst possible light, and ignoring similar material in the Bible. In both cases, however, the question of whether or not one is “cherry-picking” can only adequately be solved by recourse to the mainstream interpretative traditions that have guided believers’ understanding of their respective holy books. And as we have seen, mainstream Bible commentators on both sides of the Reformation divide do not consider the Bible’s most violent passages to contain anything like marching orders for believers to make war against unbelievers.

    In regard to the Qur’an, on the other hand, the situation is very different. It is not Gary Frazier – or Robert Spencer – who is “cherry-picking” violent passages from the Qur’an. Muslims themselves are doing so, or rather, have recourse to a venerable and mainstream mode of Qur’anic interpretation that exalts the violent verses at the expense of the peaceful ones — and this is one reason why the jihadist movement is growing all over the Islamic world today…

    Related to this idea of three stages of development in the Qur’anic concept of jihad is the Islamic doctrine of abrogation (naskh). This is the idea that Allah can change or cancel what he tells Muslims: “None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?” (Qur’an 2:106). According to this idea, the violent verses of sura 9, including the Verse of the Sword (9:5), abrogate the peaceful verses, because they were revealed later in Muhammad’s prophetic career: in fact, most Muslim authorities agree that the ninth sura was the very last section of the Qur’an to be revealed.

    In line with this, some classical Islamic theologians asserted that the Verse of the Sword abrogates no less than 124 more peaceful and tolerant verses of the Qur’an.
    Anyway, even if you allow that Islam is open to interpretation (which I don’t), that still makes it infinitely more dangerous than Christianity.

    • James Croft

      You can certainly argue that one religion has more exhortations to violence in its central texts than another – that’s the sort of much more specific criticism for which I am advocating. What I want to suggest is that to simply identify “Islam” as “a religion of peace” or “a violent religion” is an unspecific and general statement which would be better replaced with a more specific critique like the one you offer.

      As for the question of whether Islam is “open to interpretation”, in a strict sense all religions are interpretations. Even those living at the time of Muhammad would have to interpret his words and actions and, as we all know from our own lives, people can have varying interpretations even of people who attempt to be extremely clear about their ideals. There is no way to avoid interpretation. The questions are “what is the material to be interpreted?” and “whose interpretation is best justified?”

      • Laurence

        I just wanted to say that I think that there are interpretations that are definitely better than others. My own Hermeneutical style tends to be much more focused on authorial intent than a lot of other people’s. Hermeneutics is definitely an area where there is much contention, but I don’t think it’s a free-for-all where everyone’s interpretation is equally viable (and I’m not saying that you are saying that it is a free-for-all).

  • baal

    I agree with your central idea – the definition of ‘religion’ is too broad and gets used to elide actual arguments. I make a similar argument (usually as a rant) about the word ‘best’. The TL;DR is that ‘best’ is only meaningful if you define in what way or for what purpose.