Islam, Fear, and Lies

I recently was in a discussion about Islam where a person said something like, "I had heard that the terrorists were just extremists, and the rest of Islam is peaceful, but then I got some e-mails that said that the goal of Islam is world domination, and that Muslims are allowed to lie about their faith if it serves the goal of spreading Islam, so how can you know what the truth is?"

I was a bit stunned into silence.  And the conversation moved on rather quickly, and before I gathered my thoughts, the moment was lost.  I'm still planning to go back to this person and see if we can have a longer conversation on Islam, one-on-one, or bring a presentation on Islam to this group that was meeting, but in the meantime, I'm, well, blogging...

I actually hadn't heard this particular myth that Islam was focused on world domination and that Muslims would lie to achieve this, so couldn't be trusted.  So I did a web search on "Islam world domination lie" and the first upteen sites that came up were like this one, which screams the headline: "Islam Permits Lying to Deceive Unbelievers and Bring World Domination!" 

What I'm finding is that these sorts of websites are very similar to, well, the "New Atheists."  Follow me for a moment here...

My major issue with the group of authors who call themselves the "New Atheists" is that they reject any sort of liberal religion as valid.  They point to the most extreme examples of religion, particularly Christianity, and say that this is what the scriptures literally says to do.  Therefore your extremists in Christianity are the real Christians, and your liberal Christians aren't really Christian.  Based on this logic, we can then condemn all Christianity as violent.

This view of Islam says, well, this is what the Qur'an literally says and if a group is interpreting, say, jihad as inner struggle, then they're not really following the Qur'an and not really Muslims and therefore all Islam is violent.

Folks, liberal religion exists in Islam, and it exists in Christianity.  And, yes, there are violent extremists in both.  There are people bent on world domination in both, and people who will lie to achieve this in both.

And the best way to fight extremism is not to fight the liberals of that faith, label them as equivalent to the extremists, and subject them to persecution. 

Here's an analogy to help out: Terrorists are to peaceful Muslims like Imam Rauf as that pastor in Gainesville is to Jim Wallis


Anonymous said…
I find it amazing that people who understand the varieties of Christianity can't understand that there is varity within Islam. I know people who can discuss, at lenght, the different types of Lutherans, but don't understand (or maybe they don't want to understand) that there are different viewpoints within Islam.
Steve Caldwell said…
Rev Cyn,

I don't think it's a matter of the so-called "new atheists" ignoring liberal religion.

It's simply a matter of liberal religion being so small in numbers and influence that's it's not relevant to the questions surrounding the harm that religion causes in modern society.

If most religious folks were religious liberals (e.g. UU, UCC, Quaker, Reform Jewish, Ethical Culture, etc), folks like Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, etc probably would not be the outspoken critics of religion that they are today.

For example, all one needs to do is look at the exit polling data after the California Prop. 8 vote in 2008:

For Protestants, they were supporting Prop 8 (65% in favor vs 35% against).

For Catholics, they were supporting Prop 8 (64% in favor vs 36% against).

Contrast that support against marriage equality with the "none" demographic (no religious affiliation) -- they were 90% against Prop 8 and only 10% in favor of it.

For most people, religion appears to get in the way of deciding an issue like marriage equality that promotes justice and fairness. And having no religion seems to help one in supporting justice and fairness.

Secondly, some of the so-called "new atheists" like Sam Harris think that the moderate and liberal religious members of the various religious traditions are generally ineffective at countering religious fundamentalists.

Finally, some of the so-called "new atheists" like Greta Christina are concerned with religion from a philosophical point of view. Even liberal United Church of Christ-style religion is suspect in Greta's eyes:

Greta thinks that religion is faulty from an epistemological point of view. And she would raise this philosophical objection even with moderate and liberal religious voices like the UCC.
Cynthia Landrum said…
"Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility. People tend to organize themselves into factions according to which of these incompatible claims they accept--rather than on the basis of language, skin color, location of birth, or nay other criterion of tribalism. Each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which are benign, many of which are not. All are in perverse agreement on one point of fundamental importance, however: 'respect' for other faiths, or for the views of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God endorses. While all faiths have been touched, here and there, by the spirit of ecumenism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error, or at best, dangerously incomplete." (Sam Harris, The End of Faith, 13)

Harris takes literalism as normative and anything less than literalism as not really emblematic of the faith. He says the central tenet of EVERY religions tradition is this exclusive hold on the truth. It ignores liberal religion as religion at all.

"In all the cases I have mentioned, there were those who protested in the name of religion and who tried to stand athwart the rising tide of fanaticism and the cult of death. I can think of a handful of priests and bishops and rabbis and imams who have put humanity ahead of their own sect or creed. History gives us many other such examples, which I am going to discuss later on. But this is a compliment to humanism, not to religion." (Hitchins, god is not Great, 27)

So if it's tolerant, it's humanism, and if it's intolerant, it's religion. That's the kind of logic I'm talking about here: If it's tolerant, it's humanism, if it's intolerant it's Islam or Christianity.
Your post misinterprets the new atheists. "they reject any sort of liberal religion as valid." Actually, they reject any sort of supernatural belief as valid. This still allows liberal religion. Further, they frequently say deism doesn't bother them at all, because the beliefs of deists don't make universal truth claims and don't try to impose these claims on others.

"They point to the most extreme examples of religion, particularly Christianity, and say that this is what the scriptures literally says to do." As Steve Caldwell points out, they point to religion as most people experience it. Christianity is only mentioned more because it is the dominant faith of America. As your comment quote from Harris shows, a general criticism of all supernatural belief is frequently made because the faiths are mutually exclusive.

"Therefore your extremists in Christianity are the real Christians, and your liberal Christians aren't really Christian." They do not claim this because that would require them to say some form of Christian theology is better / worse than another. New atheists say it's all wrong. However, they do say that fundamentalists are more intellectually honest than Christians who treat the Bible as a metaphor.

"Based on this logic, we can then condemn all Christianity as violent." They condemn all Christianity as violent because it is based on a blood sacrifice for substitutionary atonement.

As far as your comment, again, Harris is talking about the majority view, and use religion as meaning supernatural.

On Hitchens, read an interview with Marilyn Sewell for a better idea of his thoughts on liberal religion.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Hi Norwegian, thanks for your comment.

I have read that interview with Sewell before. In it he says, in response to her giving Tillich's definition of God, "I would classify that under the heading of 'statements that have no meaning—at all.'"

Over and over again, and it's in that interview as well, if something religion does is good he says it's not really because of religion, it's because of humanism. And if there's an example given of liberal religion, he says basically it's tied to the ills of conservative religion, because that's what the religion really is. For him, he keeps reiterating when given examples of liberal Christianity, that all Christianity is completely tied to and responsible for the worst part of Christianity, and that this is fundamental to what Christianity is. And if it moves too far from that, then he simply says it's not Christianity: "I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian."
Cynthia Landrum said…
"They condemn all Christianity as violent because it is based on a blood sacrifice for substitutionary atonement."

Um, no. That's SOME Christianity, not all Christianity.
You'll have to give your definition of Christianity, or the definition of your Christianity (?), for me to respond.

Overall the basics are clearer if when a New Atheist says "religion", substitute "supernatural belief", as that is the common understanding of "religion". BTW, it's not how I define religion (which is to bind together), but I can recognize the intent of NA when they use the term.

PS my signature link is to a post I wrote disagreeing with most NAs on the ground zero mosque.
Cynthia Landrum said…
You write:

Sam Harris, What Obama Got Wrong About the Mosque, instantly goes off the rails:

"Should a 15-story mosque and Islamic cultural center be built two blocks from the site of the worst jihadist atrocity in living memory? Put this way, the question nearly answers itself."

It only answers itself in the way Harris wants it to if you equate Islam with jihad.

Bingo. Right on the money. I believe they do the same with Christianity, essentially, and with religion in general. And to define "religion" as "supernatural belief" is similarly narrowing the scope of religion to set yourself up with a straw man.
Wait a minute, Islam:jihad is not religion:supernatural belief. Jihadists are a tiny fraction of Muslims; supernatural believers are the vast majority of the religious.

How about this: Would you say the almost all Christians believe in a personal God?
Cynthia Landrum said…
You're right that lumping the majority in with the minority is not the same as lumping the minority in with the majority, but in both cases they're lumping in the liberals with the conservatives.

My point is not so much with how they treat supernatural beliefs as being the whole of religion (which I do think is flawed), but how with all religion they treat scriptural literalism and fundamentalism as being the true example of the religion, relegating liberal religion to either not really the religion, or only an example of humanism in religion, or non-existent, etc.

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