The group claiming responsibility for the deadly Paris attacks goes by the self-assigned name of Islamic State. Should their claim of doing the attacks in the name of their religion bring Islam into focus to determine if it is a safe, peaceful and helpful religion?
A lot of people feel that the question needs to be asked and answered. I don’t blame them. I do too, but not in the way you may be thinking.
Progressives say no, don’t question the religion as a whole
On the other hand, a popular response among progressive Western thinkers is to protect and quarantine Islam as a whole but just shine the torch on the extreme views of ISIS. I have heard convincing defences of this perspective. An interview by Reza Aslan comes to mind.
But I’m not entirely convinced or satisfied by this response. Finding other causative factors avoids the question of whether Islam is also a causative factor. It does not absolve Islam of responsibility.
Atheists say yes, but question all other religions too
I tend to resonate more with the response of the atheist, who questions not just Islam but all religions. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins argue that religious wars waged by people of all faiths have accounted for millions of deaths throughout history.
Yet I’m also not entirely convinced or satisfied by the atheist response, either.
The argument of other causative agents comes back
There are equally valid counter-responses to this criticism of all religion, too. The first is that atheists such as Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin and (arguably) Hitler were also responsible for genocide. And the second, even more convincing argument, is that wars waged under the guise of a religious cause were often more motivated by distinctly local, temporal and physical needs, such as resource scarcity. This has been documented in detail in the Encyclopedia of Wars by Philip and Axelrod.
Nobody to point the finger at?
So what can we reasonably conclude, then? I argue that we should probably think carefully before we either point the finger at Islam, or alternatively, before we shield Islam from critique along the lines of popular progressive, inclusive rhetoric.
Is this a self-contradictory approach? Sitting on the fence?
Let me explore this a little further.
Logical fallacy to ignore the question
Just because the various social problems and conflicts of Muslim majority countries have other causative factors does not logically preclude examining whether Islam itself is also a contributing factor.
The fact that Islam has existed for thousands of years and has billions of adherents is not a conclusive defence of its integrity. But that over-generalised historical overview does demonstrate that Islam probably isn’t violently destructive on a grand scale and in urgent need of preemptive military intervention lest imminent catastrophe should strike. We’ll come back to why this is not logically sufficient to let established religions off the hook.
Extreme religious groups that definitely deserve scrutiny
But first, let’s acknowledge that there are religious groups that most would probably argue do deserve proactive intervention to protect people’s lives and safety. Islamic State is one example of an extreme expression of an interpretation of Islam that, for many, probably falls into this category. I’d be happier if that ideology was eradicated completely. Yesterday.
David Koresh’s Branch Davidians also fits this category. It was an extreme and violent expression of the Christian faith that cost needless suffering and death.
Atheists aside, few would associate all of Christianity with such extremism. A similar defence of Islam logically has to be equally appropriate, at least from a secular religious rights perspective.
Extending the argument to scrutinising all religions
The atheist may beg to differ, claiming that the world would be better off without religion altogether.
And I have to agree with the atheist to a significant extent; but my partial agreement with the atheist is based on a biblical Christian prophetic worldview.
The Bible supports the atheist’s argument against traditional religion
You see, according to the Bible, for much of its history, Judaism missed the point of its religion. Read the scathing rebuke Jesus gave the leaders of the Jewish nation in Matthew 23.
Bible prophecies about the Christian church in our day say there will be false prophets (Matt 24) and an antichrist that sets itself up as though it represents God but actually opposes God (see 2 Thes 2, Daniel 7 & 8). The book of Revelation warns that this fallen religious system will bring untold suffering to a large proportion of the world’s population (e.g., see Revelation 18), despite its claims to be Christian. It describes this “Babylon” false religion as lasting at least a thousand years, and having numerous adherents (e.g., billions).
So Christians should hesitate before pointing the finger at Islam.
Also, the fact that a religion has been around for over a thousand years and has over a billion adherents does not give it protected status according to the Bible. In fact, the Bible shines the torch on corrupt Christian religion and calls it out in no uncertain terms as damaging to human life both here and now and for eternity.
While the Bible says very little about Islam, it clearly and boldly states that there is no other name by which we can be saved other than Jesus (Acts 4:12).
So where does Islam as a whole end up under scrutiny?
From a secular legal perspective, evaluation of Islam ends up no differently to evaluation of Christianity. I’ll come back to that point later.
But from a biblical perspective also, Islam should not suffer under scrutiny on any fundamentally different level to traditional apostate Christianity either.
The Bible encourages holding everything up to scrutiny, including Islam. It says to test all things and hold fast that which is good. There are a number of elements of Islamic beliefs, values and culture that are indeed good, and worth preserving. According to the Bible, however, Islam is not a path to God. Only Jesus is the way, truth and life (John 14:6).
There are also a number of Islamic teachings that contradict the Bible, and for that reason I hold to the Bible’s teachings over those of the Koran. Examples:
- Jesus is not Divine
- Salvation by merit not sacrifice
- Marriage and treatment of women
- Treatment of those who do not respect Islam
Note that there are a number of different interpretations of Islam, just as there are of the Bible. But it would be fair to say, in general, that the respective teachings in these areas are at least somewhat contradictory.
Does the Christian church fare any better?
There are numerous teachings of traditional Christianity that are clear contradictions of the Bible’s teachings, too. For example:
- Immortality of the soul
- Eternal torment in hell
- Worship of Mary
- Sunday worship
- Confession to priests
However, the Bible teaches that God loves all people regardless of their race, religion or past errors, and freely offers salvation for all – including apostate Christians, Muslims, atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, and so on (Gal 3:28, Tit 2:11).
God is calling us all out of these false religions (Rev 18:4, Jn 10:16).
So where do we land with this – to scrutinise or not?
To answer the original question, yes, the teachings of Islam can be productively scrutinized to see whether Islam is a helpful way of life. Just as all systems of belief should be.
But by who and for what purpose? This definitely should be done on an individual level, so that each person can make an informed decision as to their own belief system. There are many different belief systems out there!
But once we make our own personal choice we should respect the choices of others even if they are different to our own. This is consistent with the Bible (Matt 23:37) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Should there be government review of beliefs and intervention where beliefs are deemed unsafe? The general view in Western liberal democracies, and upheld by the Bible (Rom 13), is that secular governments have a right and responsibility of upholding law and order. But that does not give governments the right to forbid or even recommend systems of religious belief.
While Christians may take issue with statements in the Koran, atheists are just as likely to take issue with statements in the Bible.
Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is not up to secular authorities to evaluate belief systems or intervene over beliefs. Secular authorities only intervene to uphold law and order in people’s behavior as it affects the rights of others.
Experience throughout history suggests that people of all creeds and belief systems, or lack thereof, are capable of committing heinous crime.
What difference does this make to me?
In summary, I conclude that there is not much value in pointing the finger at Islam in isolation when traditional Christianity deserves similar scrutiny. In fact, as we saw, corrupt Christianity cops the lion’s share of criticism in the Bible.
I do personally see value in all individuals scrutinising all belief systems and choosing for themselves.
While I personally disagree with the teachings of Islam, I don’t see any value in condemning the people of Islam. I also disagree with the teachings of traditional Christianity, but open my heart and arms to all people of all faiths.
This is where the rubber meets the road. I also open my heart, wallet and the place I call home to refugees of all faiths. I’m all for shielding and protecting Muslims, even if not the religion of Islam, or any religion, for that matter.