Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Religion vs Religionism: The Case of Islam

Predictably, Western responses to the terror attacks in Paris have sparked ongoing discussions that amount to a kind of Western forum on Islam.

I have been actively engaged in some of these conversations. Through those conversations, I've encountered more than once a view that I want to address with some care on this blog. It goes something like this:
"Islam as a religion is bad, but Muslims as people are not. In fact, most Muslims have a basic decency that causes them to resist the pernicious teachings of their faith. But they are capable of displaying moderation only because their conscience and humanity have led them to reject what Islam really teaches. The majority of Muslims are decent people in spite of Islam, while the minority are terrorists because of it." 
A good example of this perspective can be found here. In many ways, the reasoning is similar to the "love the sinner, hate the sin" rhetoric that many conservative Christians invoke with respect to homosexuality. But in this case, it's "I love Muslims but hate their religion." They say it's Islam that needs to be opposed, not Muslims (who are victims of a bad religion along with the rest of the world). They resist the "Isalmophobia" label (just as Christians who condemn same-sex intimacy resist the "homophobia" label), and they generally concede that the majority of Muslims oppose the violence of ISIS and Al Qaeda.

What are we to make of this stance towards Islam?

First of all, I think there is something initially suspicious about defining a religion's essence in terms of something that the majority of that religion's adherents repudiate. But I don't want to explore that issue directly here. What I want to focus on are the serious pragmatic dangers I see in this anti-Islam perspective. I say anti-Islam, instead of Islamophopic, for a reason. I think it is too quick to simply lump this perspective in with more overt expressions of Islamophobia. But precisely because it is less obviously pernicious, I think this view has the potential to do harm in ways that overt Islamophobia can't.

Let me develop my concerns in terms of a distinction I made in my first book, Is God a Delusion? There, I distinguished between religion and religionism. By "religion," I mean a way of life and way of seeing our world meant to offer a distinctive understanding of ultimate reality and a path to orienting our lives in relation to that reality. By "religionism" I mean an ideology of division that uses religious identity markers as the basis for distinguishing in-groups and out-groups and representing them as locked in a zero-sum struggle that allows no quarter.

In other words, religionism sees the chosen group--selected by religious identity markers--as pitted against another group in something like the way racism sees different races as pitted against each other. Any gain for the "other" is a loss for the chosen group (and vice versa). The chosen group has a mission--to usher in the good and the right--whose achievement demands that the other be put down, marginalized, or destroyed.

Most religious traditions have, among the authorities to which they appeal and the historical and cultural resources from which they draw, a range of elements they can use to delineate a way of life and a way of seeing the world. But their traditions also contain elements that can be exploited by those who seek to build ideological communities of hate.

In other words, they contain elements suited to constructing a religion, and elements suited to constructing religionism. This mix of elements is certainly evident in Islam. There are those who will claim that the resources for religionism are especially strong in Islam. I am not expert enough to speak to the relative degree to which such resources are present in different faith traditions, and dwelling on these differences strikes me as a distraction--a way to chest-thump and say, "My faith is better than yours," rather than focus on the more urgent task.

And what is the more urgent task? It is the task of discouraging religionism, of encouraging faith traditions to focus their resources on building a religion rather than an ideology of hate.

This task cannot be pursued without due attention to those features of a faith tradition that lend themselves to religionism. As such, we cannot be naive. We must avoid rosy glasses. We do no one a favor by pretending that features supporting Islam's brand of religionism don't exist, by obscuring them or hiding them under the rug. In my own faith tradition--Christianity--I try to be conscious of how religionism can creep in. It is only by being realistic about the dangers that I can stand against Christian religionism from within.

Likewise, there are many Muslims who are determined to stand against Islamism from within. The vast majority of Muslims attach their allegiance to Islam not to Islamism, to religion not religionism. As such they can, without denouncing their religion, denounce the use of their tradition's resources to cultivate divisive ideologies that motivate terrorism and violence.

Moderate Muslims are committed to opposing Islamism, to attacking it in terms of the very religious resources that Islamism invokes. To the extent that they do so, they are probably the best hope for overcoming Islamist extremism--and certainly the best hope for overcoming it with minimal bloodshed and pain.

If we ignore their efforts, we cannot honor or support those efforts. And it seems to me that honoring and supporting those efforts is utterly crucial.

Again, let us not be naive or unrealistic. Honoring the work of moderate Muslims does not preclude frank conversations and earnest debates about the challenges of reconciling certain elements of Islam with the values and practices of Western democratic liberalism. Those who respect and honor each other can debate and discuss differences and even offer forceful criticism--because the purpose of such debate and criticism is to help each other grow and pursue the goal of living in community together.

But if we say that all of Islam is the problem, we play into the Islamist us/them division, providing fodder for the narrative that all of Islam is threatened by the West and that the survival of the former requires the latter to be brought low.

If we say that moderate Muslims have betrayed the essentials of their faith, we do nothing to help moderate Muslims in their effort to stand against extremism from within. In fact, we make their efforts more difficult. Instead of honoring them, we label them as sell-outs who don't represent their faith.

And we essentialize the problem of Islamist extremism. We say, in effect, "Extremism is so essential to Islam that there is no way to eliminate extremism without eliminating Islam itself."

Once you have adopted that kind of absolutizing stance towards Islam as a whole--in the face of the majority of moderate Muslims who disavow extremism--you force moderates to rush to the defense of their faith.

At best, you distract them from the task of fighting Islamist extremism. At worst, you fuel the divisiveness that drives religionism, thereby strengthening the extremists and weakening the moderates.

People do not easily give up their religious identities, their traditions, their communities of faith. For people of faith, these things are central to who we are.

It is one thing to invite people to build their identities around those elements of their faith tradition that are about religion rather than religionism, to encourage them to see those elements as what is truly essential, and to celebrate and support the internal efforts of a faith community to fight extremism in those terms. If you do that--if you cheer the message of those who would build their faith tradition around its messages of peace and coexistence--you are not their enemy. Peaceful coexistence is possible (even though you might disagree strongly about many things).

But what if, as an outsider to a faith tradition, you slap the label of "inauthentic sell-outs" on those who would build that faith tradition around peace and coexistence? What if you insist that the "real core" of their faith is its endorsement of us/them extremism?

What if, when confronted with the majority of moderate Muslims, your message to them is this:
"You cannot with integrity be a moderate Muslim. As an outsider to the faith, I understand the faith better than you do and know that it is inherently violent and extremist. If you want to disavow violent extremism with integrity, your only option is to disavow your faith. If you don't disavow your faith, I will conclude that you are lending cover to extremism and implicitly supporting evil." 
If you adopt that view, what are you doing?

You are demanding that they give up their religion.

You are expressing a commitment to wiping from the world something central to their identity.

And when you do that, you help the extremists to construct the picture of zero-sum struggle that defines religionism and feeds cycles of violence. You help to fashion a world in which peaceful co-existence becomes progressively harder to realize.

This is the pathway to spreading the cancer of extremism rather than cutting it out. This is what I fear. This is what I pray we will resist.


  1. This is right. I have seen a bunch of articles arguing, "We need to admit that Islam in itself supports violence, even if some Muslims don't."

    The problem with that is that basically it is demanding that over a billion people give up their religion. That is not going to happen, and there is no better way to cause more violence than to ask for that.

  2. Hi, Eric-

    You have chosen a particularly challenging topic here. Islam as a religion is, if you read the Quran, quite religionistic. The infidel comes up on practically every page, in terms usually dripping with bigotry. It is a rather shocking scripture, from that perspective, and clearly relates to what we are seeing among the extremes of Islam today. The early Muslim history corroborates this richly. Whether this is a matter of the revelations themselves and the word of god, or the Arab tribal culture from which it sprang, it is enshrined right there in the Koran and related writings.

    Yet, as with Christianity the tradition, as apart from the scripture, is highly complex, diverse, and full of good as well as bad. Islam has had many reformations, and every time they take a fundamentalist turn, they go to a well that is, in my view, poisonous. When they take reformist turns, like the modernists, or the Sufis, or the Bahais for that matter, then more positive cultural results happen.

    Ideally, everyone would give up all religions.. that is the true way to resolve religionism, since religions each turn on claims of special knowledge that (some) others do not have, which leads naturally to the tribalism you criticize.

    As a thinking person, all we can do is diagnose the reality as we see it. Whether that is inconvenient, blasphemous, counter-productive, etc.. that is secondary. It is like global warming. Would it help make the oil companies feel more comfortable with new regulation to say that global warming was (possibly) not happening, but as a precaution, we would like to switch to solar anyhow? When does politeness get in the way of intellectual honesty?

    Also, one might ask why asking people to give up their religion is a recipe for violence? If we asked a physicist to give up her belief in gravitation, she would just laugh and go on with her life. Religion occupies a particularly unstable epistomological position, uncertain, yet clutched with such weird and unwarranted devotion, which, again, leads naturally to tribalism and, yes, violence.

  3. After reading Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer's book "Is Religion Killing Us? Violence in the Bible And the Quran", I deducted that Christians and Muslims are pretty much in the same boat as far as the sacred violence espoused in each's traditional scriptures. Perhaps, its all about admitting the reality that God's "inspiration" can't be contained in a certain time period and it is very much about us all adding our own verse to the powerful play. Wow, imagine a God that would allow that...