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

What Do We Mean By “Religion”?: Religions Have No “Heart” November 5, 2012

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., 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 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”.


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