What is a “true” religion?

September 12, 2014 • 6:42 am

As ISIS slaughters its way though Syria and Iraq, it became inevitable that we’d hear from the apologists who claim that ISIS is not in fact “true Islam,” and that its depredations are due to something other than religious motivation.  Those motivations, say the apologists, are political (usually Western colonialism that engendered resentment), cultural (societal tradition), or anything other than religion.

These apologists, of course, which now include President Obama, are motivated by two things. The first is the desire to avoid criticizing religion at all costs—expecially Islam, some of whose proponents have a nasty history of retaliating with extreme violence. And, in America, criticizing religion is political suicide. Further, the apologists cling to a double standard, whereby Middle Eastern Muslims are not expected to behave according to the same standards, as, say, Israel. They are treated like little children whose tantrums are simply fobbed off on their age, or, in this case, their ethnicity.

In a post on his website, Sam Harris dispelled the ludicrous claim that the actions of jihadis like those of ISIS aren’t motivated by religion. As he noted:

Our humanities and social science departments are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other diverse fields, who claim that where Muslim intolerance and violence are concerned, nothing is ever what it seems. Above all, these experts claim that one can’t take Islamists and jihadists at their word: Their incessant declarations about God, paradise, martyrdom, and the evils of apostasy are nothing more than a mask concealing their real motivations.

As I mentioned to one of my Chicago colleagues, who had argued that Islamic violence was due to colonialism, “Listen to what they tell you are their motivations! What would they have to say to convince you that their motivations really do come from religion?” In his case, nothing, for the man was blinkered by his weakness for faith.

The apologists have yet another form of denial. Yes, they say, jihadis may be motivated by Islam, but it’s not “true” Islam. True Islam is peaceful, and its adherents would never slaughter apostates, behead journalists, or forcibly convert non-Muslims.  Their religion is simply a perversion of “true’ religion. This is what Obama said the other night when explaining his plan to dismantle ISIS (or “ISIL,” as he calls it):

Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim…. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple.

And here’s what Obama said in response to the beheading of journalist James Foley:

ISIL speaks for no religion… and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day.

Well, the beheading did happen, meaning either that God is not just, or there is no God—something Obama clearly doesn’t accept. The alternative, which is even more frightening, is that America must become the agents appointed by God to take care of ISIS. (We’ll ignore for the moment that both the Qur’an and the Bible do indeed teach people to massacre innocents.)

The claims that ISIS is not a form of true Islam are repeated incessantly by those who coddle religion. Here are Igor Volsky and Jack Jenkins explaining “Why ISIS is not, in fact, Islamic.” After quoting one of the few verses from the Qur’an that seems to promote harmony among the world’s people, they note:

But ISIS clearly has little regard for this or other fundamental tenets of Islam. They have sparked the rage of Iraqi Muslims by carelessly blowing up copies of the Qur’an, and they have killed their fellow Muslims, be they Sunni or Shia. Even extremist Muslims who engage in warfare have strict rules of engagement and prohibitions against harming women and children, but ISIS has opted to ignore even this by slaughtering innocent youth and using rape and sexual slavery as a weapon.

They quote Senator Rand Paul:

“I think it is important not only to the American public but for the world and the Islamic world to point out this is not a true form of Islam. This is an aberrant form that should not represent most of the civilized Islamic world.”

Volsky and Jenkins conclude, apparently by fiat, that ISIS is not a “true” faith:

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not one is or isn’t religious is left up to God. But we are all tasked with religious life here on earth, where the opinion of a religious community should matter, and Muslims the world over have made their position clear: No matter how many people they kill to gain power, how many fellow Muslims they terrorize into submission, or how loudly they scream their self-righteous blasphemy to the heavens, ISIS is not — nor will ever be — Islamic.

Well, if ISIS is not Islamic, then the Inquisition was not Catholic. The fact is that there are no defensible criteria for whether a faith is “true,” since all faiths are man-made and accrete doctrine—said to come from God, but itself man-made—that becomes integral to those faiths. Whatever “true faith” means, it doesn’t mean “the right religion: the one whose God exists and whose doctrines are correct.” If that were so, we wouldn’t see Westerners trying to tell us what “true Islam” is.

No, if “true” means anything, it must mean “true to some principles.” As far as I can see, there are only two such principles: true to scripture or true to some code of conduct that the writer approves. But these definitions often contradict each other, so no “true” religion can be specified.

First, the truest religion could be that which sticks the closest to scripture.  In that case the “truest” Christianity and Judasm would be literalist and fundamentalist. They would adhere to the creationism set out in Genesis, as well as the immoral behaviors sanctioned by God in the Old Testament. These include killing those children who curse their parents, as well as adulterers and those who work on the Sabbath.  Although these are clear moral dictates of God, no modern Christians or Jews obey them, for they are reprehensible. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made that a fundamentalist Southern Baptist is a “truer Christian” than a liberal Unitarian, and a misogynist Orthodox Jew a truer believer than a modern reform Jew.

Since most Muslims see the Qur’an as literal truth, this distinction doesn’t hold so much for Islam, so that the “true” versions must be construed in other ways. Nevertheless, you can cherry-pick the Qur’an as easily as you can the Bible: for both are filled with calls for violence and genocide that distress us. While Volksky and Jenkins quote one verse from the Qur’an that calls for harmony, there are a far greater number of verses calling for violence, characterizing the Jews as “apes and swine,” dictating the killing of infidels and apostates, and dooming nonbelievers to hell. Why shouldn’t adherents to those views be considered “true” Muslims?

In the end, what people like Obama, Paul, Volsky, and Jenkins consider “true” faith is this: “faith that promotes the kind of behavior that I like.” So, as do all believers, the apologists pick and choose from scripture the dictates that they find congenial, ignoring the bad ones.

Yet every religion has theologians and believers who either accept some of the bad dictates of scripture or accept some of the morally dubious interpretations that have grown up around it. William Lane Craig, a Christian, says that the genocide God decreed for the Canaanites was just—even killing the women and children.  Conservative Christians justify their demonization of abortions and homosexuality, and even the repression of women, through interpretation of Biblical statements. Those are their dogmas and their revelations, and who can say that their faiths are not “true”?

Many beliefs of some Muslim sects,  like female genital mutilation and devaluating a woman’s testimony in court (according to sharia law, it’s worth only half of a man’s), are not explicitly given in the Qur’an, the word of Allah supposedly dictated to Muhammad. Rather, they have become associated with Islam through the hadith and the Sunnah (reported sayings, practices, and beliefs of Muhammad), or through simple tradition. ISIS has an extreme and fundamentalist interpretation of Muslim doctrine. But in exactly the same way, dogma about the immorality of abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, and divorce have become part of Catholicism.  They are theological interpretations of scripture that appeal to some people’s sense of morality. Others disagree. Whose faith is “truer”?

Everyone who is religious picks and chooses their morals from scripture.  And so, too, do religious apologists pick and choose the “true” religions using identical criteria: what appeals to them as “good” ways to behave. The Qur’an, like the Bible, is full of vile moral statements supposedly emanating from God. We cherry-pick them depending on our disposition, our politics, and our upbringing.

In the end, there is no “true” religion in the factual sense, for there is no good evidence supporting their truth claims. Neither are there “true” religions in the moral sense. Every faith justifies itself and its practices by appeal to authority, revelation, and dogma. There are just some religions we like better than others because of their practical consequences. If that’s what we mean by “true,” we should just admit it. There’s no shame in that, for it’s certainly the case that societies based on some religions are more dysfunctional than others. Morality itself is neither objectively “true” nor “false,” but at bottom rests on subjective preferences: the “oughts” that come from what we see as the consequences of behaving one way versus another. By all means let us say that ISIS is a strain of Islam that is barbaric and dysfunctional, but let us not hear any nonsense that it’s a “false religion”. ISIS, like all religious movements, is based on faith; and faith, which is belief in the absence of convincing evidence, isn’t true or false, but simply irrational.


250 thoughts on “What is a “true” religion?

    1. The fact that you have a private definition of religion is not really of any help in this or any other discussion.

  1. The Christian new testament doesn’t speak of “true” religion per se, but it does mention “pure religion.” It’s a pity they didn’t leave it at that:

    Jam 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

  2. If anyone can be said to be true moslems then surely it is the armies of the arab conquest who spread islam in the first place. Warriors who conquered swathes of Syria and Iraq that had been weakened by years of war.

    Hmm, who might be their modern equivalent?

    1. The Christianized Roman Empire and the Persian Empire had essentially beat each other senseless and had also suffered much from the plague not too long before Muhammed and his successors decided to go about building their own empire and took all of Persia and huge chunks of the Roman Empire, which somehow managed to hang on for another few hundred years before being swallowed up by the Ottomans. Not that there was much left of it outside of Constantinople by that time.

  3. I agree with everything you say, but I would like to add that, to me, it seems rather obvious that Obama and others say these things also for strategic reasons. They hope that it helps moderate, relatively sane, Muslims to distantiate themselves from this flavor of Islam.

    1. Strategic and political reasons perhaps. I agree with your point but I’m in no way convinced by our host’s statement that Obama doesn’t accept that there is no god. The guy is clearly smart and thoughtful, I seriously doubt that his faith is more than a politically necessary facade, he’s just not about to say it publicly. This just reflects the sad state of US politics and the general need to kowtow to the concept of “faith”.

      1. We will have to wait long after he leaves office for his autobiography. In it we will find a chapter called, “Religion, and other things I was just kidding about.”

      2. I think Muslims should actually feel ashamed and defensive about their religion. Especially for the fundamentalist tenets of it. The problem with moderate religion, as Sam Harris correctly points out in ‘the end of faith’, is that they do provide a friendly environment for the ‘extreme’ forms of religion. They can not disagree with the Islamic ideas at their fundamental level. It’s not that moderate religious people disagree with the rationale, it’s just that some parties impose those ideas with greater violence. The basis is the same doctrine, they can only disagree with the excessive violence. I must say that many Muslims have in fact turned their back on IS and are fighting back. Not for religious but for tribal reasons. IS is a very dangerous religious organization which needs to be stopped immediately. The problem is that this will lead to an even more dangerous organization and so on.

        1. “Not for religious but for tribal reasons.”

          These are not mutually exclusive. You’ve got Sunni tribe vs. Shia tribe. The challenge for the “fight against ISIS” is to get Sunni tribe to fight Sunni tribe. We’ll see how that goes.

        2. “I think Muslims should actually feel ashamed and defensive about their religion.”- they DO! Although they’d never admit to the “ashamed” part: why do you think they react so violently to the slightest criticisms or perceived insults to it? The problem is that their cultural structure has suppressed their ability to CHANGE for the better as the result of rational criticism or the poking of fun at ridiculous beliefs.
          We need to mind our OWN house, as well- the other day, Ted Cruz was urging the passing of legislation making it illegal to “mock” politicians or issues on shows like “SNL”- 1984, here we come!

          1. Sounds like Cruz would rather live in a totalitarian society with no First Amendment, at least not one that has any meaning for anyone aside from mega-wealthy corporations willing to buy his influence.

    2. I believe you are exactly correct. I don’t think world leaders want to get one billion muslims feeling defensive about their religion right now.

    3. That is my opinion as well, I just don’t think it’s working. The list of excuses for the violence of ISIS is as long as it is irrational, while simultaneously, Israel is castigated for returning fire when rockets are fired at them from across their borders. There are more stories every day about young westerners being recruited to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. If apologism is a PR strategy, I think even a causal perusal of the media would suggest that it is failing. Miserably.

    4. I think a big part of it was not offending the ten Muslim countries he’s got on his side for this initiative too. One good thing about Obama’s approach is that he’s working with the countries in the region, rather than imposing a solution on them. I also think he wants to try to prevent anti-Muslim violence at home. Another factor is he has to pander to his own supporters on this; as has been pointed out on Jerry’s website many times, liberals have a tendency to make excuses for Islam.

  4. Most probably we need to stop referring to this fight as counter Terrorism and treat it as it is – counter religiosity. We would then be addressing the truth and find some purpose in this mess. Unless all the Islamic countries in the region line up on this, we accomplish nothing.

  5. a religion claimed to be true e.g. reflective of reality, is exactly what any variant of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Wicca, Zoroasterianism, etc is. They cannot be anything else by definition by those believers.

    The hope that “moderate” believers will distance themselves and attack “radical” beleivers is in vain. Just look here in the US. “Moderates” here so rarely raise their voices. In my estimation, the problem is that both “moderates” and “radicals” depend on nonsense for their beliefs and realize that if they attack the other, their claims also come under scrutiny.

    Now, we could have an altar contest to see who has the “true” version. We have TrueChristians making offers to ISIL (see Keller, Bill). Alas, when asked to actually participate in such a contest, there are never any one who wants to accept, not even poor bill who made the offer in the first place.

    1. I think “moderate” religious people in the US openly and frequently criticize more extreme believers when these get political and turn into the Religious Right. The tacit acceptance of any dubious claim as long as it’s mantled in “faith” does seem to disappear whenever it goes aggressively public.

      1. I also think that it is the case, that is must be “aggressively public”, so they find themselves under threat too. Even then, it is rare to see anything in the news. This doesn’t strike me as a good thing, that it takes this much to get them to do anything.

  6. “Listen to what they tell you are their motivations! What would they have to say to convince you that their motivations really do come from religion?”

    This is a naive question. It is well-known to anyone with a cursory knowledge of psychology that the reasons for our actions are often different from what we claim them to be.

    1. Not when what they say is reflected completely in what they do: killing apostates and non-Muslims, enforcing sharia law, and so on. And neither is it the case that our actions NEVER reflect the reasons we give for them.

      1. “And neither is it the case that our actions NEVER reflect the reasons we give for them.”

        True, but social scientists deal with the unreliability of self-reports all the time. They’re able to construct more objective data by watching behavior behavior to indicate beliefs, such as measuring church attendance rather than self-reports of religiosity.

        The scientists who have done this for terrorism (e.g., Scott Atran, Robert Pape, James Feldman) seem to agree that the correlation is low between religiosity and Muslim terror activities. Surely it’s a problem for one’s position when it conflicts with the greatest experts in the subject.

        I’m not sure that even Harris would say that religion is the ONLY motivator for terrorists. I find it plausible that a mixture of religious and political views are at work here.

        1. The claims of folks belonging to ISIS go far beyond what psychologists would include in self reporting. It isn’t like they are thinking they are less attractive than they are. Being this invested in their religious belief is a completely different situation than you want to admit.

        2. Is it (solely? mostly?) socio-cultural-political when, e.g., Muslim females are disciplined – by males – for inappropriate dress?

          Are there any experts who take issue with Atran et al?

          “It is well-known to anyone with a cursory knowledge of psychology that the reasons for our actions are often different from what we claim them to be.”

          Is it possible that those actions include the observations of sociologists?

        3. I hear this claim a lot. ‘Those people just use religion to justify murder’ or ‘it’s a political view, religion is peaceful’. That would mean you are dealing with highly intellectual, very developped people who could have used all kinds of doctrine and ‘happened’ to choose religion to satisfy their sick and depraved lust for murder. This solution seems way more complicated than taking things at face value and Ockham’s razor prescribes prescribes to go with the simplest of doctrine. The idea that religion has little to do with it poses many problems and seems to be based in religious apologism rather than rational science. Not in the least place because there is no distinction between politics and religion in IS.

  7. I find it odd that religions get judged by the absolute best, ideal, perfect interpretation of what they themselves say they should be, but nothing else is afforded that luxury. Do Democrats and Republicans judge each other based on reality or based on what the other party says their perfect ideal is? Would all those “true religion” apologists praise “true Communism” and ignore the USSR and Maoist China?

      1. Yes, it’s the “No True (fill in the philosophy/ideology/religion/politics of your choice)” fallacy.

        Fundamentalist christians have honed this fallacy to a keen, sharp edge, and anyone who’s been going to to a fundy church for more than a few years can easily dismiss anyone else whose doctrine, interpretations, or practices they don’t like as “Not a True Christian” (the key technique is to find any point of disagreement, no matter how small, and use it to indicate the inferior spiritual status of your adversary). They thereby set their own personal beliefs, interpretations, and practices as normative.

        The amusing part of this is that their “Lord” (wink wink, nudge nudge) indicated that perhaps that wasn’t quite the appropriate mindset for this particular religion; Luke 18.9-14, beginning: “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others”.

      1. TBH, as a leftie (kinda) that is pretty much true. However, I also think the same of something resembling theoretical capitalism/libertarianism.

        Neither will work due to people.

        And that’s the problem with religion. Folks think that their dogma somehow overrules reality.

        1. Perhaps John’s point might be refined by saying that some may defend an ideology based on their idea of what it could be in principle. For most ideologies you’ll find at least as many people that will criticize the ideologies based on their practical faults.

          But with religion, not only is no one willing to take up the “con” argument (aside from us gnus), you’re actually expected not to.

      2. I might be considered a “lefty” but my position is that communism could never work any more than any other proposed utopian society could work. They are all based on the fantasy that humans will behave in an ideal manner for an indefinite period of time, which has never happened in the past and will never happen in the future. Karl Marx was divorced from reality when he proposed his particular version of utopia.

  8. Indeed, the people who are not carrying out the violence of their holy books are the less “true” adherents to their religion.

  9. You have got the wrong end of the stick completely when it comes to Obama’s message.

    The powerful define and control the religions around them. When Obama tells you what Islam is he is telling you what he wants it to be. Behave differently and you can expect to be treated badly or killed for not doing as you are told.

    There is nothing new about this. Henry VIII did it. Phillip IV of France did it. Constantine The Great did it. Alexander The Great did it. It can be seen very obviously in ‘primitive’ societies. The powerful always shape and re-shape religions to their own will.

  10. The whole reason Obama lies about this is because there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and they must be encouraged to liberalise. If it’s widely believed their religion is peaceful, then Muslims are more likely to be peaceful. If it’s widely believed that ISIS are false-Muslims, then western Muslims are less likely to support them and oppose America.

    What would you have Obama do, declare war on Islam? If he told the truth, that ISIS are the real face of Islam, and the US is at war with such Islamic ideology, that would be a strategic blunder making it harder to win that war.

    1. I agree with your additional motivation for Obama’s statement, but I highly doubt that telling Muslims that their religion is a religion of peace will lead them to liberalize. What, to my mind, is more effective (at least in the long run) is to show that believing in the Qur’an is believing in superstition. Besides, even more liberal strains of Islam are ridden with beliefs and behaviors (like the oppression of women) that I find offensive. Enabling “liberal Islam” is tacitly approving of these.

      I’d tell Obama to just shut up about what is true Islam and what is not. Did I say that I would urge Obama to say what I said publicly? Nope. I’m just giving my opinion here.

      1. Seems to me Obama could trivially sidestep the whole religion thing by simply substituting “civilized people.”

        There is at most one “true religion” per person on the planet. But there are certain standards of conduct agreed upon by the overwhelming majority of civilized people today, and the Caliphate is intentionally engaging in explicitly uncivilized behavior for some perverted and ultimately self-defeating strategic purpose.

        Who cares what their imaginary friends really do or don’t want of them? What matters is how well they get along with their neighbors. In this case, they fail that test miserably painfully.


    2. If it’s widely believed that ISIS are false-Muslims, then western Muslims are less likely to support them and oppose America.

      IMO this is wishful thinking. Believing heretics to not be true-to-the-faith has never prevented a religious war. It is at the root of religious war.

    3. Here’s the reality behind Obama’s remarks. Obama is soliciting the support of the Arab countries in fighting ISIS (indeed, even Iran has given some indication of its support). If Obama were to go on record as saying that the root cause of ISIS’s atrocities is Islam, his efforts would be perceived by Muslims as a new “crusade” against Islam and there is no conceivable way that the governments of any Arab country would or could support him. Like it or not (and I don’t), it’s really that simple.

      1. Why do people keep presenting this false choice. There are at least three possibilities. You only recognize two.

        1) Lie and take the “ISIS” isn’t Islamic position.
        2) Publicly attack Islam as the root from which ISIS has grown
        3) Keep publicly silent about this matter.

        Why is #3 systematically ignored?

        1. Again, for practical reasons, my answer is the same. Given the Islamic animus in the United States, in order to have any credibility with other Arab leaders Obama needs to officially distance himself from that animus — exactly as Bush, Jr. did. Obama’s remarks also provide important cover for the Arab leaders, so that when challenged they can say to their people “See, the president of the United States has made clear that the campaign against ISIS in which he has asked us to participate has absolutely nothing to do with Islam!”

        2. Because when ISIS very prominently claims to be promoting the cause and ideals of Islam, it is not possible to stay silent about this. The name of Islam must be counter-claimed for the majority of the Muslims that we want to fight on our side. Turning the people of the Middle East into atheists is not a short term solution. We will likely bee vacationing in Mars before that happens. Reinforcing the moderate version of Islamic identity is part of the realistic solution now.

  11. The culture of hatred and violence spurred by colonial oppression and agitation is not mutually exclusive with the fact that these actions are religiously motivated. You and your “Chicago colleague” are likely both correct.

    The rest is easy to agree with, although it’s unfortunate that (as Sam Harris has mentioned) the people that point out these issues in the media are largely conservative and motivated by fearmongering rather than critical thought.

    1. “…people that point out these issues in the media are largely conservative and motivated by fearmongering rather than critical thought.”

      And this is the great shame of modern liberalism. Many conservatives are saying the truthful thing for the wrong reasons. The liberal response is to lie. Shame.

  12. From the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28082962)

    “…Isis has said it is establishing a caliphate, or Islamic state, on the territories it controls in Iraq and Syria.

    It also proclaimed the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph and ‘leader for Muslims everywhere’.”

    A caliphate is (https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caliphate):
    “… the Islamic form of government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world.”

    Seems pretty clear to me that ISIS are driven by a religious agenda – and their interpretation of Islam in particular.

  13. I’ve spent this week seeking out “moderate” muslims and trying to engage them in a conversation about the differences between “radical” islam and their particular innocuous version of it. Most wouldn’t talk about it, and those that did wouldn’t answer specific questions regarding sharia that were troubling in a secular pluralist society. They are quick with the denials, and fuzzy on dogma. This includes those who supposedly have skin in the islamophobia game, CAIR, et al. Perhaps my rep as a fearsome anti-theist precedes me or something.

  14. I agree with most of this. It is necessary, however, to ensure that Muslims are not held collectively accountable for the actions of extremist groups like Isis and al Qaeda, and it is important to note that the vast majority of Muslims don’t support such groups. Using the “No true Scotsman” approach is not the way to do it, because it’s ultimately dishonest, so likely to backfire.

    1. It’s funny that you are the only one to mention No True Scotsman, but you seem to be mistakenly attributing this fallacy to the wrong people. The fallacy is committed by people who publicly claim that those others who say they are with us are not with us. Atheists can’t claim this for Muslims, or Christians, or anyone else.

      In any case, the reason people commit this fallacy is that they are afraid of being victimized by the most powerful sect of “Scotsmen”. So the only real way to dispense with this fallacy is to disempower *everyone* who identifies themselves as “True Scotsmen”.

        1. Perhaps not, but their reason to do some must extend from some desire to protect (or attack) someone claiming No True Scotsman, to be clear it is never *because* anyone actually *is* a True Scotsman.

    1. I tend to have the same suspicions about him. He’s a politician and one universal characteristic of politicians is that they say what they need to say to win public favor. His responses are still vastly different from his predecessor, who declared his own Holy War post-9/11.

    2. A coworker of mine is a deacon at his church in Chicago. He’s been going there as long as he’s lived here.
      Can I honk your nose?

  15. When people pray one can say, “Well, they’re really just talking to themselves.” However, that person probably believes they’re actually having a conversation with the divine. Likewise, when an ISIS associate says, “We don’t care about international law because we care about God’s law,” he may very well be engaging in compensatory adaptation for loss aversion (but he doesn’t think that’s what he’s doing and his wellspring of emotion depends heavily on his primary perceptual objective). In the end, one cannot begin to talk about the speculative psychological underpinnings of various behaviors until one removes the manifest belief system that is currently driving the hardware.

  16. I’ve very much said that what we get from a religion in our society, is either a “good” or “bad” practice, rather than “true” or “false.” It’s simply what fits in.

    I have also replied to an article, much like this one, in agreement, simply stating that religious scripture (in general terms) can be used by anyone for any purpose, and we are witnessing this happening with Islamic scripture. What did I get for my opinion on how original scripture can be used? (and that’s all I said). I was called a racist over and over, by someone who kept on referring to “whites” !

    I’m of the opinion that the likes of David Cameron say the sort of things that President Obama has, simply to try to keep peace on the streets. He might have a point, but what should really be pushed is the, possibly cliched term of “The vast majority of Muslims in the UK are decent law-abiding citizens,” which should be the default thinking, but at the same time, an honesty about the source of ISIS ideology, which should also be recognised by Muslim leaders.

    By the way, whenever I hear a radio presenter agree with a phone-in caller who says, “ISIS are not Muslims,” I want him/her to ask what the caller actually thinks they are, but they don’t, or they can’t. I suspect some radio stations have a policy of not linking ISIS with Islam, and if anyone does, shut them off swiftly.

  17. Am I the only one who finds it odd that so many people make distinctions between killing women and children and the implicit assumption that it is better to kill men? What did I do by virtue of being an adult male that makes it okay to kill me? (Assuming I am not posing a threat). I don’t see any ethical difference in the unjust slaughter of any human.

    What I can’t figure out is whether this kind of thinking is some strange symptom of misogynistic thinking. Are women to be protected because they are too feeble and/or are the property of men? Or is it that women don’t need to prove some kind of manliness? I suspect that misogyny plays into it somewhere, but it is an odd symptom that in this case, it results in the protection (or at least proposed protection) of women from pointless massacres.

    1. What I can’t figure out is whether this kind of thinking is some strange symptom of misogynistic thinking. Are women to be protected because they are too feeble and/or are the property of men?

      I think that is mostly it, as well as the notion that women don’t have any agency on their own, and therefore are “innocents”, just like children. (I’m not sure how this squares with viewing women as evil temptresses, but then again Christianity isn’t terribly consistent in its views of women, except to consistently treat them horribly.)

    2. The rationale is that women and children are assumed to be civilians, whereas men are potentially combatants. Of course, the assumption that women and children are not combatants isn’t always true, but they are far less likely to be.

      1. I don’t think it is only an issue of potential combatants, as the whole “women and children first” principle that was applied to disasters and similar events doesn’t involve combat.

        1. Most likely it is a paternalistic hang over appealing to instincts of men to protect women and adults to protect children.

          I was once offended when someone I worked with expressed fear that one a co-worker could die driving in hazard conditions because he had children but didn’t see my death as relevant since I was without progeny.

      2. The problem with that rationale lies in the word “potentially.” As you point out, all humans who are physically capable are potential combatants. In that regard, we’re all potential murderers too in that humans are capable of murder. The test should be whether someone is a combatant.

  18. I’m reading the Koran (spoiler: it’s very preachy, although I’m not into it very far) and have read some passages which would justify ISIS.

    Of course most Muslims ignore or explain away those parts, just as most Jews and Christians do with their holy texts (as Professor Coyne says). In fact, I had to switch translations of the Koran because the introduction to the Oxford one was so full of apologia about the unflattering verses in the Koran — I thought, I don’t want to read this guy’s biased translation. I want a disinterested translator.

  19. Honest question: If you took away the Koran from these people would they be less violent? Would they channel their violence through some secular orthodoxy?

    My take:

    The capacity and desire for violence precedes what ever system of symbols/texts the group subscribes to. As the author notes, the Bible also condones great violence; why aren’t there hordes of Christians in Tennessee running around lopping off the heads of disbelievers?

    We’re violent apes who love bonding into groups and waging war against other groups for domination. This is why we love rooting for sports teams or playing world of warcraft online or starting a militia and toppling the government.

    1. The argument is that religion makes violence more intractable.

      If you think God is on your side — or, worse, you believe you are on God’s side — then rational negotiation breaks down. It’s no longer one tribe vs. another (with the possibility of merging on common ground of humanity.) It’s one tribe vs. GOD — who is never wrong.

      Diplomacy can now easily be translated as “compromise with Evil” and how does one demonstrate good will if earthly appearance don’t count?

      1. Replace “God” with “Stalin” and you still end up with millions dead. Both entities were fictional constructs who men would fight and die for because of what they symbolized; the sacralized moral values of a herd of people.

        1. But Stalin made claims which were demonstrably wrong — and that told in the end. As it always will. Communism was treated like a religion, but it wasn’t. It was bound to earth and ultimately measurable by reality.

          It seems to me that having a Spiritual Wildcard always trumps the evidence. Not only are you bringing in the supernatural and denying the world, but in a faith-based system you don’t even need to give lip-service to being ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ or ‘accurate.’

          1. Another difference is I don’t think people were necessarily devoted to Stalinism – at least not a lot of people. Most people capitulated under force and many found themselves thrown into a mass grave for the most whimsical of reasons. The only thing Stalinism & religion has in common is authoritarianism and dogma. The zest to follow are different.

    2. Most Christians don’t pay much attention to the Old Testament, and (with limited exceptions) the New Testament is primarily “love your neighbor as yourself” and “turn the other cheek.” In my view, that’s the reason Christians aren’t “running around lopping off the heads of disbelievers.” Maybe it would help if Muslims had a New Testament for the Koran. On the other hand, New Testament notwithstanding, I don’t discount the possibility that if fundamentalist Christian groups were in control here in the USA, you might well see the heads of infidels like us lopped off.

    3. Honest question: If you took away the Koran from these people would they be less violent? Would they channel their violence through some secular orthodoxy?

      But then you’re left wondering why people in Yemen seem to be more violent than people in Sweden. Even if “we’re violent apes” who “wage war against other groups for domination”, that doesn’t explain huge differences in behaviour from country to country, political system to political system, and religion to religion. Cultural context and historical factors must have a good degree of push and pull on people, just as local microclimates and weather patterns have a good degree of push and pull on the behaviour of different species.

  20. Look, real Islam is not what ISIS practise, it’s what is peacefully practised in the enlightened home of the religion, in Saudi Arabia. Er…no…maybe that has become perverted. It’s what is practised in Yemen. Oh…that can’t be right either. It’s what is practised in Iran, I mean Afghanistan, no Pakistan…Egypt…Sudan…er…Libya…erm…Syria. Er…erm…Turkey then. Nothing nasty happens in Turkey…except for honour killings and heavy censorship. Well, how else are Muslims supposed to react to the Western intervention in Iraq if not by killing their sisters?

    1. My understanding is that “real Islam” is what Karen Armstrong peacefully practices. Not that she’s Muslim … but still.

      1. Real Islam is what you find when you are locked in a room with only a table and mirror…no doors and no windows. You look into the mirror and see what you saw. Take the saw and cut the table in two. Two halves make a whole. Go through the whole and you will find true Islam.

  21. The argument for whether ISIS is motivated by god or the politics can never be resolved. Either way I am reminded of a quote by physicist Steven Weinberg.

    “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

    In the presence of political tensions religion often gives one a ready excuse for executing human atrocities.

  22. Obama’s comments are the emperor’s new clothes and it is irritating to be expected to participate when I can clearly see he is naked.

  23. Does anyone besides me see the similarity between the misguided arguments of those who say that Islam isn’t the cause of the atrocities that have been attributed to it, and those that say “guns don’t kill people — people kill people”?

  24. Muslims the world over have made their position clear: No matter how many people they kill to gain power, how many fellow Muslims they terrorize into submission, or how loudly they scream their self-righteous blasphemy to the heavens, ISIS is not — nor will ever be — Islamic.”

    Really? That sounds like an empirical claim easily answered by polling. What are the actual data that Volsky and Jenkins use to make this statement about what “Muslims the world over” believe?

    1. We could have a case where a close analysis of the gruesome positions of ISIS matches up very well with the Koran and the dogmas of Islam, but the majority of Muslims nonetheless reject ISIS because they reject much of the Koran, or are completely inconsistent in how they assign veracity to the verses of the Koran.

      That would mean that we have large numbers of “cultural Muslims”, or Muslims that only pay lip service to their faith. My guess is that there will be more or less a direct correlation b/t the degree of devoutness and support for ISIS, i.e,. the more invested and serious the Muslim is about his/her faith, the more they are sympathetic to ISIS.

      1. We could have that situation, true, but again, that would be an empirical question, and Volsky and Jenkins simply asserted the truth of their claim without any evidence at all.

  25. Whether or not there is a “true” islam or catholicism I think is still correct to say that the reasons behind ISIS behaviour are not strictly coming form their faith. Or saying “look what faith can lead to”. f you trace the history of Arab hopes and ultimate disappointments from the early 16th century till today, you would realised that Arab fear of the west and resentment at the humiliating and socially damaging effects of westernisation fuels Islamism and the spread of terrorism. Not to mention colonialism and nationalist regimes that have failed to deliver prosperity.
    I’m not an apologist for religion. In fact, I’m an atheist. But ill-judged pronouncements in the world of academia can certainly have a negative effect on the streets.

    1. What would it take for you to change your view and conclude that the primary and by far most significant motive driving ISIS is religion?

  26. “First, the truest religion could be that which sticks the closest to scripture. In that case the “truest” Christianity and Judasm would be literalist and fundamentalist.”

    “Literalist and fundamentalist”…I would agree to this as long as is clear that the intent of the author was a literal one. In most cases, especially in the more primitive OT books of the Bible, the intent is indeed literal.

    But even if there is a metaphorical interpretation that is truer to the author’s original intent, we would still have the goal of sticking closest to scripture as you state if we want the truest religion. After all, the religious tell us the Greatest Mind Ever had some very important things that He wanted to convey to humanity, and that these books are a major source of this wisdom, so we had best treat their contents seriously if we want to know the mind of God.

    1. I would say that the “truest” religion would be the one that the believers really believed. They live it like they mean it. That’s the only measure.

      The criteria of ‘sincerity’ lets in the good, the bad, and the ugly. When people believe in wicked nonsense then we definitely prefer them to be phoning it in.

    2. Ironically literal reading of the Old Testament is pretty much exclusive to certain Christian denominations. The position of mainstream Judaism is that the ‘written Torah’ was always accompanied by ‘oral Torah’ providing context and interpretation.

  27. Nobody ever bothers to explain what “true Islam” is. Given that Islam has many sects, ranging from Sufism to Salafism, with varying interpretations of Islamic law and theology, and no centralised authority, barring a few Shiite sects, on what grounds do western apologists, most of whom aren’t Muslims themselves, decide who the true Muslims are?

    1. Apparently, the more moderate Islam of India is largely due to the influence of Sufism. That this is not shared by Pakistan is due to the influence of the Islam of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States since independence in 1947.

      Yes, there are differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims as well as other more minority strains, but jihad is always genocidal, aimed at either killing or converting the kuffar.

    1. Thank you for this link to a penetrating analysis of the way the West has played into the hands of jihadists. These three points are of great importance:

      1) The West is damned if does intervene, and damned if it doesn’t.

      2) The West, and indeed, all non-Islamist inclined polities, are rendered culpable not for what they do, or do not do, but for what existentially they represent for the ideology of jihadism: infidel, kuffar states, lost in a condition of secular and pagan ignorance.

      3) The mere fact of their jahaliya (pre-Islamic ignorance) status confers a duty upon the jihadist to seek a violent, non-negotiable showdown.

      Also of note is the following:

      Moreover, if citizens of a democracy commit themselves to an enemy entity, like the Islamic State by joining the jihad, they necessarily forfeit the rights of political citizenship that assume consent to government authority as a condition for enjoying those legal rights and the security they afford.

      If we would only etch these thoughts on our minds we might be a lot closer to beginning to deal with the problem of militant Islam. What is developing amongst many Muslism, some of whom live amongst us, is a hoped for second great period of Muslim expansion, an empire-building, colonial enterprise which characterise Islam for its first 1000 years.

  28. <blockquoteThe Qur’an, like the Bible, is full of vile moral statements supposedly emanating from God. We cherry-pick them depending on our disposition, our politics, and our upbringing.

    This is completely inappropriate, Jerry. The Bible (whether Jewish or Christian) is a very different body of work than the Qur’an, and it is simply inappropriate to equate them in this way. The genocidal passages in the Jewish scriptures are only doubtfully historical, but the genocidal passages in the Qur’an not only reflect the practices of Islam across the centuries, but are applicable her and now to identifiable persons, that is to non-believers or the kuffar. The Jewish scriptures as well as the New Testament have not been interpreted simply by means of cherry-picking, but by reference to the reasonably believed deliverances of these scriptures as a whole. If the Qur’an could be taken as a whole, that would be one thing, but Islam has included a tradition of abrogation in which the most peaceful sayings (such as “There is no compulsion in religion”) are abrogated of nullified by the later, much more hair-raisingly violent passages. One cannot read the Hebrew Bible without remembering the nullifications of law and ritual by prescriptions of justice and mercy, or the New Testament without noting its emphasis on love and forgiveness, the separation of the things that belong to Caesar from the things that belong to God. This is not just cherry-picking; this reflects traditions of interpretation which give to the Jewish and Christian scriptures a meaning totally opposed to the message of the Qur’an in Muslim interpretive traditions.

    1. Just because Judaism and Christianity have gone through a period of modern enlightenment doesn’t whitewash the obscene core of scriptural injunctions. None of these historically tendentious texts would incite violence if they were truly manifestations of an omnibenevolent source.

      1. I am not denying violence of God traditions in the Bible, but I am also saying that these traditions, while occasionally very active amongst Christians and Jews, have not been, since the start, a dominant characteristic of either Christian or Jewish polities. The first Christians were pacifists, and were not permitted to bear arms. The Jews continued to fight for their homeland, which they are still doing, but it is not genocidal. The earliest genocidal traditions of the Bible are, it seems, not reliably historical. It was not just modern enlightenment that gave Judaism and Christianity a concern for justice and mercy. These are prominent themes in both scriptures. One of the chief causes of Christianity’s divagation from these themes was its gaining of political power following the reign of Constantine. Anti-Semitism is unfortunately prominent in some Christian texts, and this added to Christianity’s addiction to power. Nevertheless, the separation of church and state has never been denied by the church, despite its departures from this norm, and it is this which has informed government in the West since at least the Renaissance. Popes may have occasionally humiliated Emperors and Kings, but they have never, except in the papal states, for very long held secular power. It did not begin with the European Enlightenment.

        1. These are interesting points and I’ve heard others argue the same but I’m not an expert on pathetic ideologies of the big 3. You make an interesting case however and I’m wondering how one could cite things to prove this so.

          I for one, accept that Christians were indeed passivists (my evil ipad wants to correct that word to pessimists – see, it does make its own jokes) and I use this to explain why they weren’t thrown to the lions in the Roman spectacles as nearly as often as people proclaim because they were boring to watch anyway.

        2. Ah yes, “metaphorical” genocide. Keep in mind that the “justice” and “mercy” of Christian theology is just as arrogant and conditional as the parsimonious allusions to such virtues in the Quran. Whatever innocuous features or incidental prescriptions for peace that religious traditions may have promulgated before enlightenment would certainly not have been democratically maintained without enlightenment.

          1. Keep in mind that the “justice” and “mercy” of Christian theology is just as arrogant and conditional as the parsimonious allusions to such virtues in the Quran.

            Nonsense! That doesn’t mean that Christians were always just, forgiving or merciful, but that is what they are called to, nonetheless. Unfortunately, there are anti-Semitic texts which have been the direct cause of great violence, and, indirectly, through fascism, to even greater violence. Nor is this to deny the violence of God traditions in the Bible, but there are significant differences, and a false equivalence with the Qur’an is an unfortunate attack on the Western tradition which does the preservation of Western culture no good at all.

            And it wasn’t “metaphorical genocide.” Historical studies have determined that the genocides and the consecration to destruction that some of the stories of the Israelites claiming the promised land have no historical basis. It may be that its being the promised land, and the exodus from Egypt required a conquest, but there is no sign that this was ever an aspect of Jewish law, or that it actually took place in fact. Nor is there evidence that the Jews carried this over into genocidal violence at any point in their history.

            You are straining too hard to make an equivalence amongst religions, which is no tribute to your ability make distinctions.

          1. No, because the merciful verses are abrogated by later revelations. Allah cannot reveal contradictions, so a later verse which allows the wholesale slaughter of infidels cancels out the verse about no compulsion in religion. Of course, the theme is repeated that Allah is merciful and forgiving, but that is only to those who submit.

            1. Then “justice and mercy” are important themes ever in the later passages. It’s just not the sort of “justice and mercy” which would be recognized and accepted by infidels. It’s more real.

        3. earliest genocidal traditions of the Bible are, it seems, not reliably historical.

          But how is that at all relevant? Exodus is also not reliably historical, and for that matter there is a lot of debate about the historicity of most of the Gospels. The point is whether the genocides actually happened, but whether there were later seen as part of holy scripture, and with all the implications that that has.

    2. Oh, good grief, Eric. Where in that quote is “equating” them? What Jerry said there is perfectly true. Both are full of vile moral statements and both get cherry-picked by people who want to pretend otherwise.

      1. As I say, GBJ, what would the day be like if you didn’t disagree with something I had said! Nevertheless, by remarking on both the Bible and the Qur’an in the same context and attributing violence to them an effective equivalence is made between them and their tendency to violence. Only cherry-picking, we are told, will help negate this equivalence. I deny this. I do not think is true. Christianity (and possibly Judaism in its earliest years) has been guilty of violence, true, but it is not a pronounced part of the Christian message which, if you read through the NT or the Jewish Scriptures, is not predominant. A concern for justice, forgiveness and mercy characterises both religions, with some notable exceptions. Jesus’ doctrine of hell does not exude love and forgiveness, of course, and that is a great fault, but in general Christianity has been committed to helping the sick, the poor, orphans and widows, right from the start. Indeed, from contemporary testimony, this is one of the things that attracted many to Christianity.

        1. You are going off on many thing that Jerry didn’t say. You’ve loaded his very specific comment with much else in order to make a totally unrelated point. (Which may or may not be correct, I’m not addressing that here.)

          Some guy mentions that vanilla and chocolate ice cream are both sweet and tasty. Your reaction would be to rant about how one contains the product of a cocoa bean and the other doesn’t.

          1. Sorry, GBJ, you’re wrong. Jerry specifically speaks about cherry picking, and intimates that the Bible can be, with cherry picking, made as violent as the Qur’an. I do not think this is true. It’s a bit like saying that vanilla and chocolate ice cream taste the same.

            1. Read what you quoted, Eric. The HTML got garbled, but I’ll repost it for you here:

              The Qur’an, like the Bible, is full of vile moral statements supposedly emanating from God. We cherry-pick them depending on our disposition, our politics, and our upbringing.

              To claim that this is “completely inappropriate” is, well, completely inappropriate.

              1. Well, I’m sorry, but I disagree. Notice: “The Qur’ran, like the Bible … .” (my italics) (The “garbled” text is, I think you will see, a quote from a comment, or the fact that I didn’t close the blockquote) You don’t need to respond. I do not think that the Bible, either Jewish or Christian, is full of vile things in anything like the way that the Qur’ran is, and so you cannot so easily cherry pick them (according to our disposition or politics) to get anything like as horrible a morality as is (I believe) actually required by the Qur’an and its interpretive traditions. I read an implied equivalence here, but you do not.

              2. The equivalence is there. It is not implied. They are equivalent in that both contain vile material. They don’t need to both contain the same numerical count of vile things to both contain vile things. The vile things don’t need to be equally vile. Jerry’s point, and I think you are purposefully ignoring it, is that the vile things, whether large or small in number, are cherry-picked by believers.

                You are too quick in your expressions of christianofondness. Sometimes it doesn’t apply.

              3. Once again, for the umpteenth time. The equivalence is a false one. Also, so-called cherry-picking is a repeated atheist trope, but scriptures are not generally read this way, but are subject to canons of interpretation, in which cherry-picking is not possible. And if you examine the interpretive traditions of the Jewish scriptures, and compare them with the interpretive traditions of the Qur’an, you will find that they are not only very different, but do not produce the same quantity of morally appalling results. But obviously, you will continue to read the books as though they are full of literal beliefs to be literally held, without any distinction between one reading and another. I agree that fundamentalism is open to this kind of haphazard reading, but it is not true of the historical traditions of the various religions, which have fairly determinate canons of interpretation.

              4. “…scriptures are not generally read this way, but are subject to canons of interpretation…”

                You’re just making shit up. Scripture is always read that way. What do you think “interpretation” is?

    3. It’s irrelevant whether some of the genocides in the OT actually happened or not. The point of highlighting the violence in it is showing that some xians believe their god can order and therefore sanction certain kinds of murder, just like Muslims think Allah can. It doesn’t matter to those believers whether it actually happened or not. Surely you understand how religion works? How closely their scriptures actually hew to legitimately established history is not a matter of particular import for most theists.

      1. Muscial beef:

        It’s irrelevant whether some of the genocides in the OT actually happened or not. The point of highlighting the violence in it is showing that some xians believe their god can order and therefore sanction certain kinds of murder, just like Muslims think Allah can.

        This is nonsense, and that “just like” is simply linking two unlike things simply because they are religions and all religions, we are to suppose, are equally pernicious. But, to take the example of genocide in the Jewish scriptures, this is simply not anything that has characterised Jewish history, and what we need to ask is: if they did not do it, why did they record it? And it’s hard to say, since there is no clear evidence of widespread religious violence amongst the Jews, that is, violence prompted by religious motivations. Despite the claims of a Davidian or Solomonic Empire, there is no evidence of any such thing, and the contemporary struggle for a Jewish homeland, prompted by the Holocaust (and without the Holocaust it is unlikely that Zionism would have been so successful), cannot be called, except obliquely, religious violence. Some Hasidic Jews in Israel, I understand, have tried to associate the Arabs with the biblical enemies of the Israelites, but not, so far as I can tell, with much success. The texts simply do not apply, cherry pick them how you will. The idea that Christians believe that their religious beliefs sanction murder is simply not there in the text, and is an extremist expression of an extreme fundamentalism. Even the crusades were called in defence of Christians who were suffering Muslim genocide, enslavement or maginalisation. Compare Christianity and Islam in Nigeria, for example, where Boko Haram is killing Christians by the hundreds, but where we have no news of responding Christian attacks on Muslims. Comparing the Bible to the Qur’an in respect of violence is comparing apples and oranges, I’m afraid, however much you would like to equate the two.

        1. “But, to take the example of genocide in the Jewish scriptures, this is simply not anything that has characterised Jewish history…”

          This is exactly what I was trying to say is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if stories in scripture aren’t historically accurate. As atheists, we all understand just how made-up scriptures are, which is to say pert-near 100%! The point is that Muslims look to their scriptures for justification of certain kinds of violence just as xians do – and they do, even if not to the same extent as Muslims. You can’t look at only your own Anglican experience e and make generalizations about all of xianity. Consider Craig’s Divine Command Theory. Those historically dubious accounts of genocide are what he uses to exemplify it!

          1. I don’t make generalisations about all Christianity, but I do think that Craig is honestly straining at gnats. He’s been caught out in a simple moral contradiction, but rather than accept that the Bible is not in every word inspired (as stupid a belief as ever occurred to the human mind), he accepts the moral appropriateness of genocide, in that context. In other words, Christianly speaking, genocide is ruled out, but for the ancient Israelites it was okay. Give the man a cigar!

            1. Or you might say, in another register, that Craig is attributing the practice of genocide to the Jews, but that Christians have received a better revelation. Once you go down the literalist road, you have to make apologies all over the place. Again, the fundamentalist refusal to recognise that the Bibles, Christian or Jewish, are historical documents, and are liable to the faults of any historical document.

        2. Some Hasidic Jews in Israel, I understand, have tried to associate the Arabs with the biblical enemies of the Israelites, but not, so far as I can tell, with much success.

          That is correct. Many fundamentalist Jews in Israel equate the Arabs with the Amalekites and consider Arab leaders to be the descendants of Amalek. Since there several passages in the Hebrew Scriptures calling on the Hebrews to slaughter the Amalekites, this makes it AOK to kill their alleged descendants, the Arabs.

          1. There is, however, in the text, no support for this interpretation, and it does not strictly apply. Indeed, such fundamentalist Jews will not obtain a widespread consensus about this very unhistorical reading of their scriptures.

  29. There’s no such thing as a true (as in, correct application of a) religion. Religion is not like science, in that there is a correct methodology to arrive at some predicted outcome. It’s not even like something more mundane like a set of instructions for baking a cake or tying your shoes. It’s not like math or logic, where, again, you have a set of axioms where the destination is true by definition.

    Religion is more like a culture; it’s like claiming someone isn’t a true American. Or that they don’t speak proper English. What is proper English? Is it the English of 1920s New York City? Or the English of 1920s London? Or the English of 2120s New York City? The English of 1980s Harlem (where I grew up) is appreciably different than the English of the 1980s Upper East Side. What about the English of Beowulf or Shakespeare?

    As someone who studies religion, it would be crazy to say that the Ebionites weren’t “true” Christianity, anymore than it would be correct to say that Marcionites weren’t “true” Christianity. All of the multitudes of Christians that have called themselves Christian over the past 2,000 years are just as much Christian as the Westboro Baptist Church or Joel Osteen. I would hazard to guess the same applies to Muslims and their various “heresies”. Claims of orthodoxy are power grabs, not an honest description of religion/culture. Religion, just like language and culture, changes and evolves and is always in a state of flux. To take a snapshot of it at a particular time and particular place and say “this is the true version” is bound to upset someone of that religion.

    When members of ISIL are told that they aren’t true Muslims, they probably do their cultural equivalent of a groan or rolling their eyes like when an American conservative calls an American liberal (or vice versa) “not a true American”. It would be the height of absurdity even further if someone from Saudi Arabia claimed I wasn’t a “true American”. Which is probably more equivalent to Obama saying ISIL are not true Muslims.

    1. On the other hand, I agree with the “scholars and pseudo-scholars deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other diverse fields, who claim that where Muslim intolerance and violence are concerned, nothing is ever what it seems.” There are a multitude of psychology experiments that demonstrate that the reasons why we do things are largely opaque to us, and we make up socially acceptable reasons why we do them. It’s one of the reasons why I think free will doesn’t exist:

      We have little idea why we do things, but make up bogus reasons for our behavior…

      Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester playe[d] traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.

      Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them.

      In other words the part of our brain that ‘reasons’ and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions…

      If the go-to socially acceptable rationale in your social circle is “Islam”, then that’s what you’re going to tell people. Regardless of your actual decision process.

  30. “But we are all tasked with religious life here on earth, . . .”

    I’m here to tell ya. Just like Captain Kirk tasked Kahn.

  31. Although I generally agree with you, it seems to me — a lifelong non-believer — that it isn’t religion that produces monstrosities. It’s monstrosities that produce religion.

  32. To my way of thinking, a true religion would be one based on a deity that actually existed. Since there is no evidence that any deities exist, there are no true religions. They are all based on falseness.

    I do think it is important to make a distinction between violent, fanatical fundamentalists and the rest of the Moslem world if only to keep the bigots from victimizing innocent Moslems as a reaction to the atrocities carried out by Islamic terrorists.

    1. To my way of thinking, a true religion would be one based on a deity that actually existed. Since there is no evidence that any deities exist, there are no true religions. They are all based on falseness.

      Agreed. It’s like wondering which pseudoscience is the “true” one. They’re hogwash either way.

  33. I once had a group of liberal ecumenical believers explain to me that religion” (or maybe it was “spirituality”) accepted all paths to enlightenment and faiths as manifestations of the divine and refrained from proselytizing. Genuine religion doesn’t deal in true or false so never say that you’ve got God “right” and someone else has got God “wrong.” Cue story of “The Blind Man and the Elephant” illustrating the Unity behind the Diversity. Even atheism is okay with God.

    So I asked whether the many believers who proselytize and believe that there IS a right and wrong in religion are wrong — that YOU understand God and THEY don’t? What’s the difference?

    They were seriously taken aback. Why would an atheist be against what they were advocating? No converting, everyone allowed to believe what they want, no religious wars, atheism okay? It made no sense to them.

    This I think illustrates the difference between considering the process and looking only at the outcome. The people insisting that ISIS is not “true Islam” are ignoring that, in the category of faith, the rules are very flexible when it comes to interpretations of murky ancient scriptures. Secular scholarship will only go so far because that’s worldly reason which one must rise above.

    As I said up thread, the criteria which thus takes over is sincerity. Yeah, good luck on that. ISIS seems pretty damn sincere.

    1. Genuine religion doesn’t deal in true or false so never say that you’ve got God “right” and someone else has got God “wrong.”

      I doubt the folks with whom I used to say the below every Sunday would agree:

      We believe in one God,
      the Father, the Almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all that is, seen and unseen.
      We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      eternally begotten of the Father,
      God from God, light from light,
      true God from true God,
      begotten, not made,
      of one Being with the Father;
      through him all things were made.
      For us and for our salvation
      he came down from heaven,
      was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
      and became truly human.
      For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
      he suffered death and was buried.
      On the third day he rose again
      in accordance with the Scriptures;
      he ascended into heaven
      and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
      He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
      and his kingdom will have no end.

      We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
      who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],
      who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
      who has spoken through the prophets.
      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
      We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
      We look for the resurrection of the dead,
      and the life of the world to come.

      If those aren’t actually truth claims, I don’t know what they are…

      1. Oh, I bet I can tell you ..

        I think the most-likely-counter from the liberal apologists is that they’re not making any claims … they’re just saying what they believe. What they believe. That’s not a fact claim because they’re not trying to convince anyone. They’re not getting into any arguments.

        Yes, they do indeed equivocate like that on the word “claim.”

        1. It’s not an equivocation in the minds of those who repeat those words Sunday by Sunday (or day by day). Understanding of faith changes, indeed, must change, but people still think of themselves as belonging to the same historic community, and so they use the same words. There are limits to that, I know, and I think I’ve reached them, but I never said those words as they were originally meant by the Church Council that drafted the Nicene Creed (actually finalised in Constantinople in 381). Indeed, it is doubtful if we can fully understand the Hellenistic philosophy that underlies some of the words used in the creed, or whether it makes sense to say that God became man. That’s why creeds are often called “mysteries” of faith. But it’s hard to know what that word ‘mystery’ means in connexion with something expressed as a belief. So it was never so much an expression of belief, as a mysterious expression of what it meant to worship God (who cannot, as the words of the creed themselves testify, be known). That may sound like obfuscation, and perhaps it is, but I think it accurately reflects the minds of those who say the creed. There’s a difference between faith and belief (pace Boghosian), and the creeds provide an example of that difference. Their uses are ceremonial and devotional, not cognitive. As much is expressed in the music to which the creed is often set as in the words. Indeed, I think the truth is, precisely, that religion is expressed more in love than in being right or wrong, true or false. And lest you immediately question this, remember the devotion that is expressed by many a graveside, even though the person buried there is no longer a person, and cannot be spoken to; yet the faithful heart pours out love in full measure. God is most God, you might say, when the thought of God disappears, and only love remains (with debts to Don Cupitt). Not far from Sam Harris’s notion of spirituality. Religion that is bogged down in doctrine ceases to be religion, and becomes self-congratulatory pride in possession of a supposed truth, rather than what is most important, according to the commandment, to love God with all your heart, mind, strength and will, and your neighbour as yourself. This is why a lot of atheist criticism of religion goes astray, just like a lot of religion does.

          1. Well, it sounds like obfuscation AND belief in belief. Symbols are neither true nor false; they are useful or not useful — like “Santa Claus” (I believe in Santa =/= I believe in a literal Santa, it means I believe in the happiness of giving to others.) When “God” is a Clausian symbol for a worshipful attitude towards the act of loving expressed in ritual, believers should be careful of adopting a self-congratulatory pride in avoiding atheism.

            I think your response though went in a deeper and different direction than my comment on equivocating on the word “claim.” It was meant to be a bit of snark pointing out that confusing a fact claim with whether or not you’re trying to convince someone is a very useful dodge for getting out of epistemic responsibility. You can consider its use outside of religion if you want:

            “Reiki can cure diabetes.”

            “There is no good evidence for the claim that reiki works for anything, including diabetes.”

            “I wasn’t making any sort of claim. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone. Believe me or not, I don’t care, it’s up to you. I’m just sharing my own view and allowing you to have yours.”

            I find that sort of thing tiresome.

          2. I find that deeply hurtful, Eric. Even the godless can express devotion by the graveside, and even a faithless heart can pour out love in full measure.

            To claim that essentially human experience for religion is to rob me of what I felt when I buried my father.


            1. Indeed. I had missed that gem in the over lengthy excess of verbiage.

              I’d add… And at the graves of my sister and my father and my mother.

              What utter rubbish. I’ve about had it with all the pious belief in belief. My stomach is beginning to recoil.

      2. Tulse, I’m not at all sure about that. This is taken, by many who use it, as an historic statement of faith, not all of which makes sense in today’s language, and much of which may justly (even must) be understood differently today.

        1. When I was going to Catholic Mass, that statement was not taken as poetic or metaphorical or historic, but as what we were supposed to believe. That’s at least what Sister Dorothy taught me in Sunday School.

          1. I agree and there’s ample evidence the majority of Churchgoers believe this stuff. Just head over to Catholic Answers Forums or hell, go to Church and discuss these things with the people there, or ask the 32% of Catholics who are Young Earth Creationists…

            1. Almost your entire project in this thread has been to try to assert that xians of a more literalist/fundamentalit stripe are either Not True Christians™ or, in the instance with Tulse above, to imply that they don’t exist, at least in any appreciable numbers.

              1. No, that’s not my project at all. I don’t want to use the language of true or false anything. I’m just saying that there are different ways of holding religious beliefs. Some of them make more sense to me than others, that’s true. But this doesn’t serve to define true this or false that. I think there are ways of expressing religious beliefs that are not so open to the kinds of refutations that atheists commonly use. But in no sense am I claiming that there are not different kinds of religious believing, or that only one kind of religious believing can be held to be the true one. Far from it. I simply want to make distinctions that can be made and perhaps should be made. Surely, a liberal religionist who does not find his belief conflicting with science is more reasonable, overall, than someone who insists that the world is 6000 years old and that all known species were created separately at the beginning. That doesn’t mean that the liberal religionist is more a true representative of his religion than a fundamentalist one. It may be quite the reverse. But the distinctions still seem worthwhile making, for all that.

              2. Eric, when you wrote that Craig’s problem is that he thinks he’s a true xian, that is a blatant and unarguable instance of asserting the No True Scotsman fallacy.

                When you told Tulse, who was saying that many xians take the Nicene creed literally, you wrote that you’re not at all sure about that, and that those who recite it do so out of tradition, implying that they take it symbolically rather than literally.

                We all know there are tamer, more progressive strands of theism out there. I don’t see the utility of chiming in with “bunny rabbits don’t attack humans” when the topic of conversation is “what are we going to do about this rash of bear attacks”.

              3. Come, come, I said that the creed is used, by some who use it etc…. About Craig I said (although the qualification got separated from the original, that Craig thinks that he is a true Christian, “and that it makes sense to say so.” Aren’t you straining just a little too hard?

              4. I don’t see how that qualification changes the meaning at all. You said it didn’t make sense to call Craig a true xian. That is functionally the same as simply saying Craig isn’t a true xian.

                And if you said something like “some varieties of pie are delicious” and I responded with “I’m not at all sure about that”, the meaning you would take would be that I don’t think there are delicious varieties of pie. Why on earth would anyone interpret my response only as “there are some that are not delicious”. That wouldn’t argue with your original statement.

                Which brings me to the point I made in my third paragraph. Even if we allow your backpedaling on the issue of whether or not you’re prepared to admit that fundamentalist xianity has a substantial presence in the world, I don’t see the relevance of saying “but, hey, look over here at these totally benign xians!” Great. There they are. Now we will return to discussing more problematic insantiations of the faith.

              5. No, that’s functionally the same as saying that it does not make sense to speak of any particular person (as opposed to some other person claiming to be a Christian) is a true Christian. Craig thinks that it makes sense to claim to be a true Christian (as opposed to others who differ from him in belief). I think that is false. There are hundreds of denominations of Christians, and no particular one has the right to claim that “true Christian” applies only to members of that one. So Craig is as true a Christian as those who disagree with him yet claim to be Christians too.

        2. I was supposed to be a Lutheran. They even got me through the confirmation. I stood up there in my white gown in church and everything. I was too young to rebel and tell anyone I thought it was all hooey.

          We were never told that any part of The Creed was to be taken as a “historical statement of faith”. There was no mention that I remember that parts of it were to be taken as metaphor. I was taught that this is what Lutherans believe and attest to. If you go to their web site you can see that “The Lutheran church recognizes three ancient creeds as accurate expressions of Bible teaching: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.” [emphasis added]

          Maybe you have a different definition of “accurate” than I do?

            1. Hmm… I think I maybe responded to the wrong level… My response was intended for Eric’s comment to Tulse suggesting that maybe people didn’t really believe this stuff.

              1. No, I was trying to be funny and fell flat (again.) I meant that quotation marks around a word often signify something dodgy, not up to the mark, not genuine. Eric would use this too.

                As in oh, I see .. you made a “joke.”

              2. Sometimes WordPress seems to do odd things with the sequencing of comments. It’s showing my 3:06 pm comment after chrisbuckley80’s 7:46 pm one. I wonder where this one will be placed.

          1. So? No one ever told you. That’s all I ever told anyone who asked. Some think it’s the cats whiskers. Some think it is unintelligible in relation to what it is possible to think now. All kinds of different approaches, just as we are finding about atheists and sexism with the latest about Shermer and Dawkins’ idiotic tweets. As for the Lutheran statement, I would not myself have said any such thing. In fact, I believe it is demonstrably false, and is known to be false by anyone who has read the Bible and knows anything at all about the early formation of Christian doctrine. The Nicene Creed is so far away from specifically Bible teaching that it is impossible to find any such expression of Christian faith anywhere in the Bible.

        1. This thread is nicely underscoring the futility of the “true believer” argument and why theistic claims are addressed as they are made. If there’s no God backing the supposedly inspired word, we’ve reduced the whole conversation to assertions that need something other than divine backing to hold water. This isn’t the religion most believers accept and certainly not the religion that is dogmatized in the Roman Catholicism, which is still the largest Christian sect on the planet. Sure, individual members ignore things as they see fit and we’re right back to where we started with this silly question.

          1. Yes. Accusing someone of not being a “true” member of a given sect amounts to accusing them of using their imagination wrong. How can you say who is and who isn’t toeing god’s line when god doesn’t exist?

            1. There’s also the common trope when flaws are pointed out that to put oneself in the place of God is anathema, we cannot fathom God’s will, and so on. This kind of response is not only used against atheists when a theist tries to place religious teaching above criticism (which is of course question begging in assuming the holy book of choice is divinely inspired), but I recall from my religious days that it is used even more often by religious people against each other.

              The example that comes to my mind is the Catholic prohibition on birth control. “So what if 99% of Catholics disagree with it? God has deemed it evil.” So, yes there is a very big problem here when these claims are backed on the authority of God and God cannot in fact be demonstrated to exist, which isn’t even in the same category as the burden of showing what he wants from us. It would seem in every day language that “true Christianity/Judaism/Islam” relies on a god existing. It’s just incoherent babble without accepting that premise.

  34. It’s time philosophers stepped up and took responsibility for all the hatred and violence they cause. Think about it. Hitler and Stalin both used philosophy to justify what they did. So did Mussolini. Fascism, Marxism and the new evil of Neoliberalism are what happens when philosophers preach their message of hate. I guess most philosophers would argue that they never intended their work to bolster the likes of Hitler, but they’re just ducking responsibility. When Pol Pot murdered all those Cambodians on the killing fields he was promoting a philosophical agenda. Really we should not put up with these philosophers. Of course liberal philosophers will claim that Hitler’s philosophy was not the true philosophy, but time and again history shows that philosophies are the motivation for evil. Philosophy really is behind most of the violent confrontations of our age. WWI, the Cold War, Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc. Neoliberalism is wrecking the world’s economies and producing undreamt of levels of inequality. We need to stop teaching our children these hateful philosophies and stick to the known facts. All this metaphysical speculation just creates divides and polarises already difficult political situations. It won’t end until we stop blindly allowing ourselves to be lead by philosophers. It’s been thousands of years and they are still arguing about the same things! That kind of sloppy speculation has no place in the modern world. It just leads to violence as history has shown.

    1. Sorry, doesn’t work.

      “Philosophies” are up for debate.

      “Religion” is a matter of faith.

      Dogmatic philosophies are, as you point out, dangerous. They act like they’re a religion.

      1. Religion is also up for debate, interpretation and reinterpretation. That’s what theology is about. Both philosophies and religions can become totalising ideologies. Then they become dangerous.

        1. But when religion is up for debate between theists and atheists, that’s when you say that atheists have gone astray and don’t understand that religion isn’t about what’s true or not, it’s about expressing love. What then is there to debate?

          1. No, I didn’t say that. I was just exploring some ideas about religious faith. Religious believers tend to say, on the one hand, that God is unknowable, but, on the other hand, that God has such and such characteristic and commands such and such things. I think, if we reduced religion to its barest essentials, since it is impossible to discern the qualities of an unknowable God, that religion, in the end, reduces to devotion, the kind of devotion that might be expressed by a survivor at the grave of someone deeply loved. This might not be assailable by atheism, but it would not have any substantive content, except, in the end, ways of expressing love for God (so understood). But God, so understood, would not be one who could divide people, because, if all we can express towards that God is devotion, all we can reasonably express towards others in response to that devotion is some level of personal regard, whether we want to call it love or respect or concern for justice. I think some “believers” (or people of faith) understand religion in precisely this way, and from my point of view, anyway, this would be unexceptionable, because it could not make particular claims about God, and God, like departed loved ones, becomes that which is honoured and often loved. I suspect a ethic could be derived from this, but it would not come from God, for God would be, on this understanding, as if God did not exist, and is therefore, after all, unknowable. The view is, on the whole, I think, Wittgensteinian, and it is none the worse for that. And there is, in a sense, nothing at all to debate, although we might raise the question whether this attitude towards life is or is not reasonable. On this please see Ronald Dworkin’s Religion without God.

      2. I debate religion all the time.

        If I decode your language what you are against is not religion but dogmatism. Which is fine by me.

        1. We debate dogmatism all the time, too.

          Since religious faith is a form of particularly intractable dogmatism I’m not sure there’s the distinction here you want. When “faith” is invoked the debate is now over because a limit has been imposed on reason and common ground.

          Sort of a passive-aggressive version of force.

  35. Great article but something stuck out for me:
    First paragraph “Those motivations, say the apologists, are political (usually Western colonialism that engendered resentment), cultural (societal tradition), or anything other than religion.”
    And then second last paragraph “We cherry-pick them [bible verses] depending on our disposition, our politics, and our upbringing.”
    I think an apologist’s argument could be “It is not because of religion, it just provides fuel for the fire.”

    1. Good point, Scott. I hadn’t noticed it myself. But that does rather change the meaning of the whole, for it really amounts to saying that we do interpret things depending on our social, cultural, historical traditions. Which is true for everyone, and is not specific to scriptures. This is, of course, one of the points that postmodernists tried to make, though taken to extremes it makes it impossible to say anything without saying everything. I think the same caveat is in order regarding the so-called “cherry-picking” of scriptures. It’s true that this can be done, but there are traditions of interpretation in most religious traditions which make some interpretations more doubtful than others.

    2. “It is not because of religion, it just provides fuel for the fire.”

      I love that analogy.

      It perfectly demonstrates why religious progress ( aka theology, apparently ) relies on self-defeating reasoning. It simply can’t progress unless we help it.

      They’re pouring water on the fire with one hand, supplying a steady flow of gasoline with the other. All the time wondering what the heck is going on… It’s marvelous.

      A mental “stop hitting yourself” disorder elevated to glorious virtue by majority of delusion.

      Hallefuckingluja and pass me the opium, please.

      I’m going all in.

  36. An interesting perspective, however, it would seem to me that there is some confusion regarding ultimate and proximate cause/effect. The propensity for primate violence precedes both religion and humankind. There are many theories as to why evolutionary process would favor such behavior, too many to mention here. It would appear that religion is simply one very popular justification for this most primitive behavior rather than its cause.

  37. True religion can be anything that is not science.

    Consider: “I worship a post-it note once used by my grandmother to remind her to take her Metamucil every morning. It is the Holy Post-it note.” Dude, whatever sails your boat.

    Or, one of Patton Oswald’s definitions (NSFW):

    Magic Cities of Cake

    1. This is such a ridiculous dichotomy. Are you saying history, water, the earth, chairs, commas, the internet and a whole host of other random things are “religion” simply because they aren’t science?

      1. Religion is ridiculous. It can claim anything without evidence. History, water, chairs, etc., those are, in principle, things which science can help explain.

        What is to prevent my neighbor telling me that dark energy is god? There is no law against it, not natural or human made.

        1. I don’t think you get my point. History, water, chairs etc. are not science nor are they religion. I am not talking about an explanation for chairs and water or whatever it is you think I’m talking about. I’m talking about the things themselves. A chair is not science or religion because a chair is a physical object and science and religion are abstract concepts. I’m sure you understand that and you probably weren’t being too literal when you said “true religion can be anything that is not science” but if you’re gonna make such an audacious statement you might want to try being less vague so people can know what you’re actually trying to say.

          1. I revise my claim. True religion can be anything, even falsifiable claims. There is nothing in a religious mind to necessarily prevent it from believing that anything can be part of religion.

  38. I would accept the following distinction: a “true” religion is something private and happens privately, within a person’s subjective experience. As soon as they open their mouth about it in public it stops being religion and starts being politics.

    It’s much less problematic to distinguish between good and bad politics, than between “true” and “false” religion.

    1. If someone who has discovered significant truths about the nature of reality through private experiences alone cannot speak of it to others, how can they check themselves against error without appealing to their skeptical peers? Or are they peerless?

      In situations where we are allowed to self-affirm and subjectively validate, we almost always self-affirm and subjectively validate. That shouldn’t be a feature for discovering what’s true.

      Also — given your definition, even an authentic Jesus Christ Son of God would have had a false religion because he preached.

      1. Thanks for your thoughts…

        I didn’t mean to imply that no one should speak publicly about their private experiences, rather that when they do, it becomes politics — at least in as much as it is intended to influence the behavior of others. A true Jesus or a true prophet would still be allowed to speak, but he’d be seen as engaging in politics, rather than religion, and the effects of his actions would be judged according to standards of universal rights and reason, rather than given a free pass to grant special status to some and deny it others.

        I would argue that as soon as one speaks about ones subjective experiences, hoping thereby to influence others in some way, that is a qualitatively different act from whatever they’re doing privately. It’s a better place to draw a distinction, I think, than this public charade of trying to decide what the “true” form of a religion.

        ISIS, I think, uses the “free pass” granted to religion in public (in the UK at least) to use that “public” space as a recruitment area. Politicians are trying to find a way to close that space down to them, without upsetting any of the “true” religions. I don’t think that’s possible.

        1. Thanks for your reply.

          You failed to address the first part of my post, however. Under your definition people with “true” religion would be unable to properly determine for themselves whether their beliefs were true, “truthy,” or just true-for-them. This inability entails that even the believer is putting quote marks around the word “true.”

          Your definition also entails that there could potentially be millions of religions, all very different, and all equally “true” (by assuming a hypothetical world where each person who has had a revelation is content to keep this most important discovery concerning everyone’s reality a private secret.)

          1. It looks like I expressed myself quite poorly.

            I was trying to focus purely on the state — that it need take no position on the truth claims of any religion. I didn’t mean to imply that no one else should care either — quite the opposite. I was in fact hoping to implicitly remove the chance for religions to “play the God card” and claim exemption from reasoned evaluation.

            Declaring religious claims to be identical to politics the instant they enter the public sphere, would be preferable to Obama’s attempt to distinguish between “real” vs “unreal” (or “moderate” and “extreme”), because moderate religions should keep their noses out of the running of the state to exactly the same degree as extreme ones.

            I would have preferred him to say “No religion has the right to usurp the power of the state”.

            (I hope I’ve stated it a bit more clearly and addressed the problems you were indicating!)

            1. Yes, I think I understand what you mean now. It’s an argument for political secularism, not a claim that religions which respect the separation of church and state are actually more “true” or “genuine” than those which don’t.

              And I agree — but still find your definitions problematic because I think they themselves are confusing.

  39. I understand your frustration with people claiming ISIS aren’t true Muslims for political correctness but I think there is a relatively straightforward way of distinguishing an act that is due to religious devotion and an act where religion is used as an excuse. If someone is following what their religious book claims they should do then they are carrying out a religious act. So the question regarding ISIS should be, does the Koran tell Muslims to go kill non believers?

      1. I’m sure it is well established since the book has been around for at least a thousand years (I don’t know exactly when it was written) but the fact that people still argue over whose truly a muslim or not shows that people are overlooking whatever the book itself says when any argument could so easily be solved by quoting the Koran (assuming the quote is not taken out of context since that seems to be a common practice when religious books are quoted).

        1. “…any argument could so easily be solved by quoting the Koran…”

          Because sacred texts are always internally consistent! Why hasn’t anyone thought of that? It could have saved centuries of conflict!

  40. An “aberrant” version of a religion is still a part of that “true” religion. In Christianity, Roman Catholicism is held by Roman Catholics to be the universal form of Christianity. Yet, there are many forms of Catholism. Which is true? Which is “aberrant”? They are all Catholicism.

    Protestantism of numerous kinds split off from Roman Catholicism, other forms of Catholicism, and Protestant beliefs until there are hundreds of variant Protestant Christian belief systems. Which is “true”? Which is “aberrant”? They are all Protestant.

    All religions may have as many variant interpretations of what is true vs false in their faith as they have congregants. “The center will not hold” in any of the faiths.

    Documents defining the dogma of any church group are not agreed to, or adhered to, by all members of the faith. The Torah, the Old Testament and New Testament (the Bible), the Koran, et al, have been interpretted variously from origination to their present greatly divergent complexities. As time goes on, more “aberrant” versions of “true” faiths will be generated.

    Debating “true” faith vs “aberrant” faith is a lost cause. There are no factual, rational bases for any of them. Why count angels on the heads of pins?

  41. Well written article. It shows how eager people (and especially theists) are willing to distance themselves from the craziness of terrorist groups that clearly have a religious foundation. I think the best rational I have heard for this is that these people only distance themselves while the are in a minority.

    Personally, I do not believe the west should get involved as these groups will just use it as a chance to incur further violence. Maybe its time to withdraw everything and leave them to their own devices. If they then kill each other off they cannot turn around and blame anyone.

  42. Not sure if this cartoon has been posted here yet or not.

    In the end, what people like Obama, Paul, Volsky, and Jenkins consider “true” faith is this: “faith that promotes the kind of behavior that I like.” So, as do all believers, the apologists pick and choose from scripture the dictates that they find congenial, ignoring the bad ones.

    Once again, Professor Ceiling Cat nails it.

  43. Maybe what Obama wanted to say is that
    the bombing of ISIS/Irak is not motivated by human rights or democracy but western colonialism.

    See Saudi Arabia.

    1. “Buddhism or Zen”? That’s like saying “Christianity or Catholicism”.

      Well, not quite. And it depends on your definition of religion. Anthony Grayling would classify Daoism and non-theistic forms of Buddhism (including Zen) as philosophies rather than religions, and Alan Watts (a celebrated Western writer on Buddhism) would agree with him re the latter.

      But, for example, Tibetan Buddhism is infested with supernaturalism from earlier local religions (iirc).

      But even some non-theistic forms of Buddhism have supernatural elements, such as reincarnation. So, not pernicious, but still maybe problematic.

      At least the Dalai Lama has explicitly noted that science trumps religious beliefs. And recently suggested that he might not be reincarnated … but there are some political issues there.


      1. (Zen) Buddhism, as I understand it, strives to be realism. Some Buddhists don’t believe in reincarnation, like Brad Warner. I personally think it’s bullshit. You’re right however, certain strains of Buddhism was diluted itself by mixing with native belief systems.

        1. I don’t see how a coherent definition of reincarnation can be made without invoking dualism. Or the incredibly unlikely odds that the molecules of your brain at some point rearrange themselves, memory intact.

  44. Saying ISIS is not Islamic is like me saying “Taylor Swift isn’t a true guitar player because she doesn’t play metal.”

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