My piece on “true faith” in The New Republic

September 15, 2014 • 8:34 am

My post from three days ago on what is a “true religion” has been condensed, edited, and now appears in The New Republic with the title, “If ISIS is not Islamic, then the Inquisition was not Catholic”  (subtitle: “There is no such thing as ‘true’ religion.”). Please go over and at least give them a click, if for no other reason than to see the comments (the text has also been considerably tightened).

Let me take this opportunity to thank the three editors I’ve worked with at TNR—Michael, Ryan, and Chloe—for their help. There’s nothing like a good editor to focus your prose!

Some of the comments are interesting. To wit:

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I’m starting to realize that if one sees you’re an atheist, that automatically invalidates all your arguments. And yes, I’ve criticized Judaism’s superstition and malfeasance as well; I think the whole panoply of Jewish belief (superstition if you will) is bunk. It’s no less bunky than Islam, but, right now, Islam is more dangerous. Does that satisfy you, Mr. Halleck? It’s nothing I haven’t said before.

Oh, and we’ve already disposed of the fiction that ISIS is nihilistic—at least if you look up the definition of the word. Nor was the Catholic Inquisition nihilistic.

47 thoughts on “My piece on “true faith” in The New Republic

  1. The catch in Christianity is that both liberal and conservative Christians can justify many of their beliefs by appeal to the Bible with its many layers.

    The better liberals say that the touchstone of real religion (& Biblical interpretation) is the Golden Rule or the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but they never adequately wrestle to the ground the issue of the presence of the difficult texts in the official canon of the Bible.

    1. Without knowing much about it, I’d bet that a liberal muslim with sound knowledge of the Koran could do the same thing – cite passages up and down that support a liberal interpretation of Islam.

      I’d bet that both books contain a massive amount of contradictory lessons, leaving it up to theologians and sects to decide which lessons trump which other lessons.

      I think Jerry’s point is spot on. ISIS is a religious organization. It may not be a religion we like, and it may not be all of Islam or representative of Islam, but calling it not-religion is just bunk. And to reiterate a point that at least two people made in the last thread (one being me), if Obama and Cameron want to characterize ISIS in a way that is honest but keeps us in good graces with our muslim allies in the area, you can truthfully label ISIS a ‘militant sect of Islam’ and get the same general point of “not our type of religion” across.

      1. Love your comment, Eric. I posted the article on my Facebook page and have an Islamist friend from Baghdad jumping up and down in anger against it.

        1. Now you’ve made me curious. Is he/she jumping up and down in anger because I count ISIS as Islamic, or because I count more liberal peaceful intepretations as Islamic?

  2. Awesome, as the kids like to say. I’m referring to the fact that The New Republic went with the title they selected (drawn, of course, from your original piece).

  3. From many of the comments, it does seem that being an atheist means you have no authority to speak about religion. Common bs argument, especially since so many atheists were at one time religious (including me).

    Sorry for the Muslims who are peaceful, loving, etc., but you can’t separate yourselves from ISIS. You can try, but the argument Jerry puts forth keeps you in their dogmatic realm. Your realizations of Islam are as “true” as ISIS’.

    1. Absolutely. Except they didn’t learn it properly. If there’s one thing these people are not, it’s nihilists.

  4. Well, if ISIS is not Islamic, then the Inquisition was not Catholic.

    It’s legitimate to say the Inquisition was not Christian because the church didn’t act in the spirit of Christ.

    Ha ha, I predicted this response the minute I read that first sentence. Because they can and do talk about the “spirit of” their religion it’s laughably easy to distance themselves from everything. “Being Christian/Muskim/Jewish/Hindu/youname it” is simply equated with “doing the right thing.” Which simultaneously rips the guts out of religion and establishes it as the standard. Nice.

    1. Seems to me that saying that this or that behaviour is against “the spirit” of a religion is just an implicit admission that there are no grounds in that religion to actually condemn it outright.

    2. “It’s legitimate to say the Inquisition was not Christian because the church didn’t act in the spirit of Christ. ”

      Right, right, whereas punishing billions of people with suffering and death because two people ate a piece of fruit, is. Sigh.

      Sometimes I wonder if any Christians really believe in the Trinity and that Jesus *is* Yahweh.

      Gotta love the No True Scotsman card every time they drag it out.

    3. They must’ve stolen that from interpretations of law as “in the spirit of the law”. You just know some religious person saw a judge or lawyer utter that phrase and thought, “hmmmm I think I’ll take that one for myself”.

  5. There are many Christians who believe that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. They believe in evolution. They take most of the bible to be metaphorical. They believe they are true Christians.

    Anyone can own true religion. Religion’s only limitation is human imagination, and how ghastly that can be.

  6. And now a word from an expert:

    Abul Ala al-Ma’arri C975-1058
    An atheist from the Muslim world.

    They all err, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians.
    Humanity follows two worldwide sects,
    One, Man intelligent without Religion,
    The second religious without intellect.

    or perhaps this:

    Had they been left alone with reason,
    they would not have accepted a spoken lie;
    but the whips were raised to strike them.
    Traditions were brought to them,
    and they were ordered to say,
    “We have been told the truth”;
    If they refused, the sword was drenched with their blood.
    They were terrified by scabbards of calamities,
    and tempted by great bowls of food,
    Offered in a lofty and condescending manner

    ISIS has nothing new to offer. It’s the same old Islam that there always has been.

    1. And one for you Jerry:

      If criminals are fated,

      It’s wrong to punish crime.

      When God earth’s ores created,

      He knew that on a time

      They would become the sources

      For sword blades dripping blood

      To flash across the manes of horses

      Iron-curbed, iron-shod.


  7. I looked at the New-Republic comments, Jerry, and I am not sure I fully understand the controversy. Whether ISIS is within or outside the realm of the central tendency of Islam?

    As an evolutionary biologist, you understand variation better than most. It seems futile to try and decide whether an extreme datapoint (= outlier) is within or outside the realm of the central tendency of a distribution.

    Within vs outside seem to have only a subjective, but not an objective boundary; is that your main point? Or that the “outlier” is much closer to the central tendency than most believe? These seem to be two very different points, with different political implications.

    1. I think the main point was pretty simple: ISIS is an islamic movement. Multiple, highly visible people have said it isn’t as a means of defending ‘religion’ (writ large), but they are wrong. They are putting a modern western interpretation on ‘religion’ by insisting that such bloodymindedness is not religious, in stark (and ridiculous) contrast to many of the historic acts of religious movements.

    2. No religion is the true one. An extreme form of any religion, an “outlier”, is a member of that religion nonetheless. The “central tendency of distribution” of the religion is irrelevant. The spectrum is inclusive of all.

      Christian snake handlers and the many other less prevalent Christian groups are still Christians whether we espouse their beliefs or not.

  8. A lot of well-meaning religious people insist that their faith is peaceful and respectful of the individual, and that those who do evil in its name are not truly following their religious tenets. These people, out of attachment to the faith they very likely grew in and had drilled in their skull at a very tender age, simply fail to realize that they’re projecting their own humanity onto what they would *like* their religion to be, and not recognizing it for what it truly is.

    Can any particular group, for good or ill, be truly representative of the religion it adheres to? No, never entirely. No matter what you profess, you will likely emphasize an aspect over others, leading to different results. Some will selflessly help the needy, while some will go to war against the infidels. Just as a house cat and a tiger are both true felines, both types of believers are “real” adherents to their faith. Sure, one type is more socially acceptable, but that’s not because it’s closer to any “real” interpretation of any given faith: it’s because it’s closer to humanist ideals. (Ideals which would remain constant even if we removed the religious variable from the equation, I’d like to add).

    1. If they just substituted “sect” for “faith,” they could reasonably justifiably say those things. The problem comes when someone in a specific sect starts using sectarian criteria for deciding who’s in and out of ‘the religion’ writ large.

  9. Great article!

    As for the G. Halleck comment, it follows a deplorable (but very popular) tactic: if you are unable to assail a person’s argument, attack the person.

    1. It’s funny the author says that about Sam Harris as well – clearly, he hasn’t read anything Sam has written. I even remember that famous debate with Deepak Chopra where Sam asked if Deepak would prefer he used a different example to make his point other than Islam and suggested Judaism.

    2. I have to say “Jewish tribalist” is a bit offensive, though I think the commenter meant “secular Jew.” If one’s opinion counts less for being in one class or the other – secular or Jew – I don’t see how it matters if one is of both classes. If the only opinions that mattered were those of believing Muslims it might not be much of a conversation – and one can guess up front that if the opinion were sympathetic to ISIS, believing Christians would say that opinion doesn’t count either. These Christian apologists are incoherent – but I repeat myself.

      1. I’d say there is something to this phenomenon of Jewish secular tribalism. People generally flinch at the suggestion that their ‘own kind’ are as bad as everyone else, and victimhood is tightly bound to modern Jewish identity, even though Jews have given as good as they’ve got in the last 100 years. Coyne, to his credit, has been critical of the excesses of Israeli policy, which is something, but I don’t expect to see him excoriate a rabbi on this website any time soon.

          1. There probably are “secular”, “cultural” people of all religions. Richard Dawkins has commented on the Anglican rituals he appreciates. Without looking for the quote, I believe that Christopher Hitchens did also. One can appreciate selections of the art, music, literature, architecture of religious expression without approving or partaking of the dogma. There are no doubt many atheists who “celebrate” Christmas and /or Hannukuh and/or Ramadan, enjoying the rituals, the feasts, the music and the gathering of family.

            1. Prof. Dr. Coyne,
              I read your article “If ISIS…” and thought it was the best piece ever written on religion (faiths that do bad things aren’t necessarily faiths that are false). Interestingly, I emailed it to people and posted it on FaceBook, and the ones who were adamantly opposed to the article were the deeply religious people of both Islamic and Christian faiths. Yes, being atheist means not being listened to and also criticizing religion is just as bad as talking politics. Sad commentary on our society.

  10. I’m glad that TNR published your piece and I clicked to give them some traffic, but I would rather low-crawl naked across a field of sand paper and then take a dip in a Jacuzzi full of Tabasco sauce than read the comments on that piece. When you grow up in the South, you learn not to invite the dumb-ass, ill-informed, bat-shit-crazy inside to sit a spell and have a nice glass of iced tea.

  11. Not only that, but where’s the love for nihilism?? “Corruption of Ethos…common enemy…scourge”?? Please! Who are these people?

  12. … Any pastor is free to cadge customers from the divines of rival sects, and to denounce the divines themselves as theological quacks.
    — H L Mencken, Minority Report (1956), quoted from Jonathon Green, The Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations

    So, where are all the moderate imams denouncing ISIL/S? Sorry, could you speak up?

  13. On Twitter, Bill Maher sort of borrowed your joke:

    “Sorry Mr President, but saying Isis isn’t Islamic is like saying Mel Gibson isn’t Catholic; religions don’t include just the ones you like”

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