Muslims and Christians and fundamentalists and progressives: why our arguments are missing the point

ISIS 2We have this little Point/Counterpoint going today in posts from Josh Booth and Otherwise, and in a lot of respects they are reproducing a debate that has raged for a very long time.

The problem with this argument, writ large, is that it fundamentally sidesteps a critical question – perhaps the question. We argue about whether religion X advocates Y or Z, and we frequently hear proponents of one side or another contend that proponents of the other view aren’t “real” members of the religion. The Sacred Text says thing A unambiguously, and the other faction contravenes A at every turn. The apostates then do the same thing, using thing B as evidence. Lather, rinse, repeat, and the bloodbath goes on for centuries.

Let’s consider “Christianity,” for instance, since it’s the one I can speak to with the most authority. I use quotation marks because there are at least two distinct religions claiming the term in the US today: the fundamentalist, tribal, hate-based faith of the religious right and the progressive social justice-focused faith of the left. These two are not, in any sense beyond some pro-forma mystical dogma, related. The former is rooted in the Old Testament and while they love talking about Jesus, it’s more clear with each passing day that they don’t believe a damned word he had to say. The latter is based in a certain take on the New Testament – mainly they take their cues from the red letters, the things that Jesus is alleged to have actually taught, and the better among them waste little time on the administrative/institutional/political monstrosity constructed out of the whole mess by Peter and Paul.

If you don’t like how I’m carving the pie, your alternative is to accept as a unified, coherent vision a belief set that:

a) believes you should love everyone as you would yourself and your god, and also

b) thinks genocide and slavery and rape are okay.

If those things coexist neatly in your head, seek help.

Don’t like this? I grew up Southern Baptist and I still have my Bible. We can trade scripture if you like.

This is where we are. There are two sets of people who imagine that they are struggling over the soul of a religion. They are not. They are two very different sets of people who adhere to mutually exclusive ideologies who are struggling over legal control of a brand.

How did we get here? Well, for millennia you had these tribes wandering around the Middle East, and like all such tribes they transmitted their culture through the centuries via oral tradition. You know that party game where you pass a whispered story around a circle and when it reaches the end of the chain it’s nothing like where it started? Imagine that times thousands of miles of territory, millions of people and a few thousand years.

Eventually they started writing some of it down, and a bunch of years later it was decided to round up all the texts and decide which were in the sanctioned canon and which were out. As it transpired, not much attention was paid to whether or not the stories thematically belonged together.

So now we have two groups of people – some interested in love and harmony, others committed to the vision of a positively psychotic mass murder deity – who pretend they’re all one religion.

I’m no expert on how the Quran got pulled together, but from where I sit the same dynamic seems to exist. There are Muslims who are enlightened, brilliant, progressive and are in every conceivable sense the very model of what a human should be. Then there’s ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taliban. All – again – pretending to be the same thing, and all quoting scripture that seems to support their actions.

Which brings us to the articles from Josh and Otherwise, two people I know and respect a great deal. They appear to be in violent disagreement. In truth, they’re very much on the same side. Josh is a religious man, but he’s clearly of the enlightened social justice camp. Otherwise is an atheist, but if all religious people pursued their beliefs the way Josh does you’d never hear a word out of him about it. He might think their beliefs were irrational and a little silly, but in practice he’d salute the energy they spent promoting equality and the well-being of those around them. Josh might wonder how you could truly be an atheist, but he’d mark the effort Otherwise has devoted to progressive political causes and he’d recognize a kindred spirit bent on making the world a better place for everyone, regardless of race, religion, socio-economic status, sexual preference, nationality, etc.

In today’s post, Otherwise is clearly and unarguably right in describing how Islam is at odds with Modernity. One strand of Islam, that is. Josh is clearly right in pointing out that there’s this other strand of Islam that is in no way like that. This argument is happening because around the world billions of people are claiming a brand and we’re sitting here refusing to reject their silliness.

In other words, this argument is over labels, not underlying realities.

Let’s blow the labels up and assign new ones, for the sake or analysis. So the OT Christians we’ll call Samsonites. The NT Christians we’ll call Jesusites. The ISIS crowd we’ll call Jihadites. And the enlightenment Muslims we’ll call the Edessites.

Now, let’s start over. There’s not even the possibility that we’re arguing right now, is there? The Samsonites and Jihadites are basically the same people, although they haven’t figured it out yet, and both Otherwise and Josh despise everything they stand for. The Jesusites and the Edessites get along really well, and in addition they’re natural social and political allies with atheists and neo-pagans. All of a sudden the real battle lines are clear: Fundamentalism vs Modernity.

Bad things happen when we adopt the labels, preconceptions and biases that other people assign to things, especially when those people aren’t very bright and have agendas that do not square with the goals of an enlightened society.


  • joseluisgomez

    Reblogged this on Arte y Cultura Perú.

  • Well, yes.


    I’m not quite sure that members of any group can be divided as neatly as you think. I suspect it’s a bit like the 14th Century history I’m re-reading right now, where if you asked a monk whether he believed in “peace, charity and kindess toward all mankind” or “in slaughtering Jews,” he’d say “Yes.” That is, every member of the religion probably has some of both, depending on the situation. But let’s for argument sake assume that it divides almost as you say: kind, good Christians and Muslims; bad, nasty Christians and Muslims; and a large apathetic group in the middle that don’t do much one way or the other.

    The problem is one of arithmetic.

    Christianity is an aging, tired religion. Like your brand analogy, it’s now late in the product life cycle, with lots of fragmentation, low growth and minimal innovation.It’s already had many of the fights that Islam is going through now (think of the slaughter of Orthodox Christians by Catholics, and the later battle of Catholicism with Protestantism and tell me how that’s so different from Sunni and Shiite.) Christianity has faded into sort of a nice, fuzzy, slightly frayed state where most of its adherents are willing to live and let live. You might bring up the abortion clinic bombers, etc, etc, but the truth is that in terms of actual violence attributed to Christianity, the numbers are pretty small. Let’s argue, just to put numbers on it, that 99 of every hundred Christians are kind, good (or at least apathetic) Christians and 1 of every hundred is bad and nasty.

    Islam on the other hand, as I said to Josh, is a teen-ager on the religion timescale–passionate, over-sexed, impulsive, incapable of logical thought. A far larger proportion of its adherents are bad and nasty or in the middle group where they won’t commit atrocities, but won’t stop them either. Again, just making up numbers to make the point, let’s say 20 of every hundred Muslims are kind, good, 70 are sympathetic to or at least unwilling to stop the bad and 10 of every hundred are bad and nasty.

    The numbers are obviously made up, but I think that reflects the reality. Islam is a less tolerant religion solely because of where it is in its lifecycle (nothing to do with the relative merits of the Bible vs. the Quran) It has a higher proportion of what you call Jihadists. And while Christianity’s middle group leans toward inaction, Islam’s leans toward bad action, e.g. the very real example I gave of moderate Muslims whose proposed compromise to the Charlie Hedbo situation is to outlaw free speech.

    You and Josh are being woolly minded. Saying that Islam isn’t inherently worse than Christianity because Christians did bad things in the crusades is irrelevant. The question is who’s doing bad things now. And you trying to reframe the debate is just intellectual fiddling. These assholes are chopping off people’s heads, raping girls, and blowing up buildings. Come on for goodness sake.

    I’m a liberal. I’ve been one most of my life.

    • I don’t recall saying that Islam isn’t worse than Christianity on these counts at the moment. Now, a great deal of my dissertation addressed the whole relationship between Christianity and technological development, especially through the Enlightenment, so if you’d like the insanely long boring lecture proving that I understand this issue a bit let me know and next time you’re out I’ll spend a couple hours making you wish you’d never been born.

      And I hope I didn’t need to actually say that my categories are generalizations, that there are significant gray areas, and that I know not every single human fits neatly into one or another.

      Your analogy about Christians being geezers and Muslims being teens is an interesting one. Not sure I know enough Muslim history to participate meaningfully in that conversation, but I suspect there’s some truth to it.

      However, I’d also point to Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph and the dozens of Christian terrorist acts against churches (Muslim, Sikh and Christian), public sites and women’s clinics as a reminder that while one of these may be a bit older than the other, we’d do well to recall that they’re the same species.

      • Look at the nums. I did. You just pretty much named the whole list of Christian terrorists, and it’s a much, much, much, much, much smaller number than the Islamic list.

  • The argument goes that the Quran itself is a much more streamlined book for jihad, whereas the bible has plenty of contradictory passages where people can pick and choose from more readily. In other words, while it is possible to be progressive in Islam, it is just harder just due to the Quran’s text itself. It just a numbers game, with so many billions of Muslims, there are bound to be proggresives, no matter how violent the book is, it is just a matter of percentages. Much lower percentage compared to Christians. (I am Chinese, not affiliated with either side, so I think I have the most impartial view of these things)

    In other word’s, the Quran’s text itself is actually a large part of the problem. It isn’t all just povery, etc, thats causing the problem, but actually the text itself. In fact, most of the 9/11 bombers were Western Educated Doctors, Lawyers with PHD’s etc.

    Sam Harris does a great job of explaining this.

  • jstephenobrien

    Otherwise: Christianity is quite robust, and is growing quite aggressively in Africa and China. You are equating Christianity with Western Europe and, potentially, the US, though Mormonism is growing in the US and the world quite aggressively, as well. And it is in Africa that Christians are persecuting Muslims and beheading them with machetes (see “Central African Republic, the”).

    Part of any set of growth figures depends on the base. One can grow the numbers from a small base much more rapidly than from a large one. It is much easier to attain higher percentage growth from a hot start up in Silicon Valley than from Exxon, for instance.

    There are valid arguments for why Islam inherently puts the brakes on adopting modern, Western Enlightenment ideals, but … with respect … I have yet to see you articulate a single one. There is a wealth of information on the history of Muslim theology, its interaction with Greek philosophy and the backlash to Greek philosophy, the rise and fall of the Umayyads and the Abbasids, the growth of the four, major schools, the schism of Shi’a, the rise of the Sunnis and the various forms they took, the role of the Assassins, the reaction in Islam to the relatively minor invasions of the Crusades, and the much more devastating Mongol invasions, the separation of roles and responsibilities in Islam among Arabs, Persians, and Turks, the three approaches of the modern age to modernity, and much, much more.

    There are also compelling counter arguments.

    Seriously, why not make THESE arguments instead of mucking about in generalities that are, often, either incomplete or simply untrue?

    • JSO, you’re offering anecdote in lieu of analysis.

      Christianity is low growth relative to Islam, period. Yes, it’s growing in Africa and perhaps in Communist/formerly-Communist countries, but it’s very possible that the latter is a reporting issue which is inflating Christianity’s growth numbers.

      It may also be inflated because in the US at least, there’s an enormous gap between things like self-reported church attendance vs. actual church attendance. Now I’m sure the same thing exists in all religions, but I hypothesize that religious intensity tends to decline as religions age–although that’s just a hypothesize.

      (By the way, Yasa is right, Sam Harris has also made the same argument I made in even stronger terms. And he’s no apologist for Christianity. The link between Islam and terror is an empirical fact.)

      Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
      John Adams, ‘Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,’ December 1770
      US diplomat & politician (1735 – 1826)

    • Sorry, JSO, got caught up in the nums and forgot to hit your main point. I don’t care why Islam “puts the brakes on,” the point is that it does. Now if you want to explain the underlying reasons, good for you, especially if that understanding helps change it. But my point is simply that it does and that it needs to change.

  • jstephenobrien

    Otherwise: I think I’m done. As much as I generally respect what you write, there is a tendency I’ve noticed over and over again when you respond to anti-theses: You ignore or discount those things that are inconvenient to answer, because your position is weak. I find that … I can’t think of a nice way to say this … intellectually dishonest. In the end, honest argument is futile when dealing with this sort of thing.

    Over the past 18 months, I have read … oh, I don’t know … maybe 18-20 books dealing with some aspect of Islam, middle world history, recent middle world history, Afghan history, Iranian history, the history of the Afghan wars and Iraqi wars, Pakistani history, oil history, the history of interactions between Europe and the middle world, middle world philosophy, art, politics, and what have you. I’m published on a small part of pre-Islamic history in the Levant. I try very hard to understand things, because I know that not understanding is the very best way to craft an unworkable solution.

    In the end, though, you’re right. What can all the good intentions and scholarship in the world do against pulse-pounding, uncomprehending, blind rage? Nothing. Never has. I’ll keep trying to learn, to add my pathetically small voice to the public discourse, but it won’t matter. The West will do what it always does: Cut off the hydra’s head and turn its back on the bloody stump.

  • Nailed it, Sam! You have articulated everything I have been thinking. A very insightful book built on the same thesis is The Battle for God by British historian of monotheism Karen Armstrong, who argues that jihadism, Zionism and the Christian Right all have more in common with each other in reaction to modernity than to any of their more liberal iterations.

    • Of course Sam is right about beliefs. The natural result of all religions is nastiness–superstition, limits on thought and speech, etc, etc. But beliefs don’t really matter. Actions do. (Exactly the opposite of Calvinism.) And the actions of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim fundamentalists are different.

      • Of course Sam is right about beliefs. The natural result of all religions is nastiness–superstition, limits on thought and speech, etc, etc.

        I’m glad you think I’m right about something, but I never said this. I said rather the opposite, sorta. If you look at the four hypothetical groups I lay out, that “Jesusite” social justice Christianity is home to some of the best human beings I have ever known in my life, people without a shred of ill will in their hearts anywhere. That doesn’t describe them all, but it describes enough of them that we can safely negate your nastiness assertion as being a necessary thing.

        Now, that said, I would never deny that what you say is often, if not usually the case. If we look around the modern world and then back through history, I’d certainly allow that what you say is the rule and what I’m saying is the exception.

        Also, it’s very important to remember what Sam Harris says: there is no good thing you can do in the name of religion that can’t be done just as well without religion. This is the single truest idea he has ever presented us with.

  • “What would Jesus do?” is he’d be sitting back shitfaced in a grim vapor-flashpoint bar in King City, California thinking “Goddamn, these people are fucking this all up and I died for nothing” before slamming back another absinthe sour with an Everclear chaser.

  • I think you’ve pretty much nailed it.

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