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