The Times calls it like it is on Islam: there’s no “true” version

November 14, 2014 • 7:40 am

While the Guardian and the Independent are busy exculpating Islam from any misdeeds that we deluded “Islamophobes” attribute to the faith, we must to go to the Times of London—a conservative paper—for the truth.

Reader Coel was alert enough to notice that an article on the nature of “real Islam,” once behind the Times’s paywall, has now been published for free by Britain’s National Secular Society: “Who are the true Muslims—all or none?“, by Matthew Syed. It’s a great pity that to find honest statements about the dangers of Islam, or even the mundane conclusion that, in all its variety, there’s no “true” version of the faith, we must go to right-wing venues. (One exception: I reached the same conclusion in a September piece in The New Republic, “If ISIS is not Islamic, then the Inquisition was not Catholic“.)

And here is the truth (from Syed’s article):

Who are the real Muslims? Who are the bona fide, authentic, true-to-the-core followers of the Islamic faith? Now, that might seem like an easy question. Surely, the people who are Muslims are those who say, when asked: “I am a Muslim.”

But there is a problem with this approach. As you may have noticed, Sunnis, many of them, tell us that they are the real Muslims and that the Shias are impostors. The Shias tell us the exact opposite. The Sufis have a quite different perspective: they reckon that both the Sunni and Shia brigades have it wrong, and that they have it right.

Some Muslims are pretty ecumenical. There are moderate Muslim groups in the UK who say that Islam is a broad church. They say they don’t really have a problem with Sunni or Shia. But guess what? They don’t extend this embrace to Islamic State (Isis). They describe its approach as “a perversion of Islam”.

Barack Obama and Tony Blair have it in for Isis, too. Blair said that Isis possesses “an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message” while Obama went even further, saying: “[Isis] is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of [its] victims have been Muslim . . . [it] is a terrorist organisation, pure and simple.”

But what is their evidence for this? Members of Isis say that they are real Muslims. They say that they are inspired by the Koran. They say that they are killing and maiming people because that is what Allah wants them to do. They talk about their love of God and the glories of martyrdom. I reckon that, if we are going to take other Muslims at their word, we should take members of Isis at their word, too.

I like the way Syed draws distinctions between how science finds truth and how religion, since it’s based on faith and dogma, is unable to discern any “truth”, for reliance on faith leads to thousands of different religions with conflicting dogmas. This is one of the themes of the Albatross. It’s hardly novel, or even controversial—except to believers and faitheists:

You see, the idea of “real” and “false” Muslims is ephemeral. With something like science, people who disagree with each other examine the evidence. They debate, they argue, they perform experiments. Sadly, this approach is not available for religious disputes. People with theological differences tend to appeal to divine revelation and differing interpretations of manuscripts that were written centuries ago. This is a problem when it comes to resolving differences, particularly when those manuscripts contain passages that seem, on a cursory reading, to condone violence.

It is no good Blair or Obama, or anyone else, saying that Isis has got it wrong, or that it is distorting Islam’s “true message” because, when it comes to religious truth, there is no such thing as “wrong” — unless, of course, you happen to be the one person, one group, one faction, that is wired up to God. And think of the hypocrisy, too. Blair is a Catholic. He doesn’t believe in Allah (unless he is the same as Jehovah/Yahweh/the God of Moses). Nevertheless, he feels entitled to rule on the question of who are Allah’s chosen people. In other words, he is happy to second guess the views of a deity he thinks is fictional.

Finally, while I dislike reproducing a lot of other people’s text without giving some added value, what can one add to this?:

Instead of pontificating on who are the real Muslims, isn’t it time to acknowledge that the entire debate
is senseless?

Moderate Muslims would not like such a stance, of course. They would hate to be told that their interpretation of Islam is no more legitimate than that of Isis. But the alternative is far worse because it perpetuates the idea that there is a rational means of figuring out which of the subgroups has a hotline to God.

This takes us to the elephant in the room. The fundamental problem in the Middle East today is not with the Sunni or the Shia or even with Isis. The problem is with religion itself. It is the idea of received wisdom, divine revelation, the notion that “I have heard the Truth” and that everyone else is deluded. This is the corrupting, anti-rational, distorting engine of religious violence in the Middle East, just as it once triggered Christianity into a bloody civil war.

Truth divorced from evidence (or anything that counts as evidence) is perilous. Religion is not the only cause of violence, of course, but it has a particular virulence.

Members of my family have argued for jihad, not because they are crazy or unsympathetic, but because they think this is the will of God. They think this because the Koran, a bit like the Bible, has elements that can (rather easily) be interpreted as authorising violence.

Christianity has improved its record on violence in recent centuries, but only because it has become less religious. The farther it has retreated from the idea of revealed truth, the less it has killed people who take a different view. Most Christians today associate truth with evidence, reason and other Enlightenment ideals.

For all the debate over foreign policy, this is the only solution to the bloodshed in the Middle East, too.

And that is one reason why people like Maajid Nawaz are trying to get Muslims to become less extremist, to take the Qur’an as more allegorical than factual.  I wish them luck, but have little hope—given the data on how many Muslims take the Qur’an as the literal word of God—that such “metaphorization” will succeed. Only centuries of immersion in the world’s rising tide of secularism—and not a few lectures on how Islam can be interpreted benignly—will turn those believers around.

Here are some depressing data from the recent Pew Survey on the world’s Muslims:

The survey asked Muslims whether they believe there is only one true way to understand Islam’s teachings or if multiple interpretations are possible. In 32 of the 39 countries surveyed, half or more Muslims say there is only one correct way to understand the teachings of Islam.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 8.24.42 AM

And this:

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 8.26.00 AM

So here’s a quiz question on all the above:

Q: How are Steve Gould, the National Center for Science Education, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science like Tony Blair and Barack Obama?

A: They all claim they know what “true” religion is.

It’s time for politicians and science organizations to stop their endless nattering about what “true religion” is. Many science organizations, for instance, often issue statements that real religion has nothing to say about the character of the natural world, and therefore is distinct from and harmonious with science (usually evolution). That, of course, is pure hogwash. Such pontification is also a form of theology: scientists telling believers about the nature of “true faith.” Science organizations (and politicians) have no business doing that. Leave the dirty and inconclusive lucubrations of theology to the theologians. Trying do discern which religion is “true” is like trying to discern which is the truer fairy tale: Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, or Jack and the Beanstalk.

In his book Rocks of Ageswhich proposed the infamous “NOMA hypothesis” for reconciling science and faith, Gould said the same thing about “true” faith, adding the equally ridiculous claim that any discussion of meaning, morals, and values falls purely in the bailiwick of religion. Surely Gould, a polymath, knew of the long history of purely secular discussion of philosophical and ethical issues. But, like Blair and Obama, he had no problem with distorting the truth in the interest of osculating the rump of faith. Sadly, as Syed realizes, osculation won’t end the disasters in the Middle East.

112 thoughts on “The Times calls it like it is on Islam: there’s no “true” version

  1. I like Matthew Syed’s writing, always clear headed. (He even managed not to mention table tennis / ping pong in this article for a change)

    1. Yes, this is refreshingly clear-headed, and, especially, frank. No apologetic tap-dancing.

      It’s vanishingly rare to see this kind of spade-calling in major media outlets. I bet he gets a lot of criticism.

  2. Hmmm… if Tony Blair thinks Islam is or has a ‘true message’ why does he remain a Roman Catholic? Surely all these faiths really believe the other ones are going to a version of Hell? Can they all be right? In the words of Highlander, “There can only be One…”

    In fact, the one truth is that there is no god, so we have the advantage for we are the ones who are not hoodwinked by the vague ecumenicism of Blair & his ilk.

  3. I do not think we can improve on what is said here. There is no “True Faith” and the term is an Oxymoron.

    It is a great piece and should be the last word from science on this.

  4. Small oddity on the table: I guess “Turkey” listed in the “Central Asia” group with the other stans should probably be “Turkmenistan” — though that would leave Turkey unrepresented on this table; an important omission. (I also suspect Turkey’s percentages would be more balanced than this.)

    1. In fact I see Iran, Sudan, and Saudi are also omitted; presumably countries where it was simply impossible to gather data safely.

      1. I can see the scenario: “We’re taking a poll= do you think that the Koran should be considered the literal word of God?” Pollee: “How could it be considered any OTHER way? Die, infidel!”

    2. I think it more likely to be Turkey, even if oddly placed… there’s no “Western Asia” category.

      I can imagine that some countries would have been reluctant to permit the survey… 


  5. He doesn’t believe in Allah (unless he is the same as Jehovah/Yahweh/the God of Moses). Nevertheless, he feels entitled to rule on the question of who are Allah’s chosen people. In other words, he is happy to second guess the views of a deity he thinks is fictional.

    Overall, I think Syed hit the nail on the head but this part of his argument is weak. I’ve always understood Allah (Arabic for God) to be referring to the same supposed entity or non-entity/ground-of-being as Yahweh and God; i.e. the Creator of the Universe who is all powerful, all knowing and will judge humanity. It would be much more poignant to illustrate the complete contradictions between Catholicism and Islam in terms of what this entity wants us to do. There’s no reconciling them. At this point, Blair, who advocates Catholicism to be true would have to say that there is a form of Islam, which is false, that is true. True falsehoods; that should be religion’s slogan.

    1. I don’t think it’s that weak.

      The “Abrahamic” deities may share a historic origin, but in practical terms, I doubt many xians or Muslims today would agree that they are worshipping the same god, just with different methods. And as Syed points out, what individual theists actually think about their religion is what counts. There is no objective external truth to which to appeal in saying “no, you all actually worship the same god”. If they don’t think they do, then they don’t.

      1. Trying to discuss this turns into something like nonsense without much effort, but here goes anyway. These are all monotheistic religions, so there is only one god, and in that sense the “same” god. Some people are in error or are heretics regarding what the one god wants or the nature of that one god. All worship and follow the same god, but many if not most of them are wrong about how to do it from the point of view of any one sect. Maybe they don’t realize what they’re saying but if they really say they do not worship the same god, they’re speaking figuratively or they’re suggesting that there is more than one god, contradicting their own beliefs. Does that make sense?

          1. Not to be picky but that’s the sort of cryptic comment that makes me despair over trying to discuss something in a comment string. An example of alternate definitions wouldn’t hurt, given that you don’t suggest any source for the definitions. The only definition that I and my dictionary are aware of is that the term refers to the belief that there is only one god, which, as best I understand it, is true of Islam and Xtianity.

            1. Christians generally talk about “3 in 1”, and 3 being greater than 1 causes a person to question the definition of “mono”theism.

              Then add to that the myriad demi-deities that faithful Catholics pray to. And innumerable varieties of other spirits in the form of angels and djins that inhabit the spirit-world of the faithful.

              Did I mention Satan?

              Using the word “monotheist” to describe these faiths stretches the meaning of the word.

              1. Well, yes, which is why schools of Islamic thought reckons that triune Christianity is not monotheistic whereas those Christians are claiming that it is.

                Fantastically nonsensical!

              2. Chris, it’s even worse than that. Muslims vehemently deny that Muhammad is a god, though he can’t possibly be anything but according to any definition any anthropologist would recognize. And that’s long before we get to Gabriel and Satan and all the other gods in the Islamic pantheon….


              3. The closest I’m aware of is Spinoza’s reformulation of Judaism and the Deism of the Enlightenment (and their modern descendants, including Einstein’s dice-playing God and Karen Armstrong’s Ineffability). But those’re both as close to atheism as makes no difference.


              4. @ GBJames And so we have different Christians sects (Trinitarians v. Unitarians) worshipping not-the-same God!

                @ Ben Goren Except that Deism endorses belief (or belief in belief).


              5. The “belief in belief” of Deism is disappointing, sure…but the belief they themselves believe in is of something as irrelevant as one can imagine. But, yes, they do still give cover to those whose beliefs are wild and wacky.


        1. Well, no, not really, I don’t think.

          My point was that the average xian will say that Allah and Islam are complete fictions, the same way we atheists do, but that Yahweh/Jesus is totally real. They will also say that Muslims are not simply worshipping Yahweh the wrong way; rather, they are in fact worshipping an entirely different, made-up deity.

          1. (NB: I say “average xian” because there are, as Sastra alludes to below, the “many paths, one god” type xians, but they are in the distinct minority. At least here in the US.)

              1. Perhaps, but never forget that the web of life arises and subsides in formless miracles as the unpredictable unfolds through the expansion of love. Indeed, greatness embraces new energy as the unexplainable experiences boundless external reality; emotional intelligence corresponds to positive life. Your movement nurtures unparalleled silence. Orderliness shapes cosmic photons but nature is entangled in potential positivity because quantum physics is mirrored in great opportunities.

                Which just goes to show that existence is reborn in the barrier of brightness as eternal stillness explains spontaneous truth.

                Gotta run — the sophistication afterburners are starting to glow….



        2. These are all monotheistic religions, so there is only one god, and in that sense the “same” god.

          That doesn’t pass the smell test:

          “These are all monouniverse cosmologies, so there is only one universe, and in that sense the “same” universe.”

          So an expanding universe = a static universe = an imploding universe; a FRW universe = a newtonian universe; a Tegmark mathematical universe = a physical universe; and on and on.

          This doesn’t make sense.

          But it old apologetics, so why would anyone expect it to make sense? It just has to sound good, be a deepity, to appeal to the religious.

    2. I once heard a Muslim cleric explain, with mind-numbing repetition, that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same god, since the Bible says that he rested after spending six days to create the world, whereas the Koran is quite clear that their god has no human weaknesses or foibles.

      1. Seems mindnumbing repetition is the hallmark of their religion. I had reason to, for the first time, pick up the Quran, and it is as clear as the Bible is lying (two different creationist histories) that the Quran is intended for brainwashing. It posits 3 mythical beings as interlocutors, who then goes on to repeat every salient point 3 times with little variation.

        Why the magic number 3? Because 2 is too little repetition, and 4 is a tad too much to keep people awake.

        Besides making it unreadable (try scan it for details!), it is blatantly moronic.

        1. Besides making [the Quran] unreadable (try scan it for details!), it is blatantly moronic.

          Not to swing all pendantic on you, but the Koran is Kuhrazy; it’s the holy text of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that’s Moronic.

          …easy mistrake to make, for what it’s worth….


          1. But Dianetics is L-Ronic, which is at least as dumb. The Baghavadgita is Hairy – at least Zarathustra spake thusly. And any Jew can tell you: none of them is kosher!

            It’s Friday at WEIT so the puns are in full effect!

          2. And that isn’t even necessarily a pun.

            Moroni was Mormon’s son, and the one who visited Smith to show him where the golden plates were buried.

            So, Moronic. Literally.

            1. Ayup. And if the Morons want to get upset over people reminding that they worship the Angel Moroni, then maybe they shouldn’t be so moronic in the first place to fall for such an obvious fraud.

              I mean, dude! It’s right there in the freakin’ name! How much more in-your-face could Smith possibly have gotten with this one!?


    3. There is much disagreement on the issue of whether Allah is the same deity as the christian god. According to what I’ve read on the subject, muslims believe allah to be the same deity as the christian god, but the catholic church does not regard allah as the same deity.
      So, even when trafficking in the absolute basics of religious faith, and I feel that “who is god” is pretty basic, there is disagreement. Which I think supports Syed’s argument about the fruitlessness of arguing about what is “true faith.” It always comes back to the interpretation of the individual believer and no interpretation can be accurately regarded as more correct than another.

        1. My understanding, limited as it is, has always been that muslims regard Judaism and Christianity as corrupted and error-ridden versions of the “true” monotheism that is now represented by Islam. That’s why muslims insist on claiming all the Old Testament “prophets”, plus Jesus, for their religion. They were all “really” muslims, only their messages and stories were misunderstood and debased by later chroniclers, giving rise to the lamentable heresies of modern Jews and Christians – the former with their navel-gazing obsession with the “Law” (neglecting their obligation to spread the true faith to the infidel), and the latter with their pagan import of a “3-in-one” polytheistic trinity.

          From that perspective, muslims might argue that Jews and Christians are worshipping the same god as them, only lost in a welter of hopelessly incorrect and deplorable beliefs.

          1. Well, as you can read in Peter N.’s comment above, there’s at least one Muslim cleric who doesn’t toe this line.

            Again, what counts with religion is not what is historically or theoretically the case. What counts is what the actual, individual adherents think.

            1. True. And even what the actual, individual adherents think tends to jump around, depending on mood, need, and I suspect audience.

              From what I can tell from the “man’s way distorts God to their own ends” rhetoric which usually surrounds the explanation for why there are so many gods, the people who worship a different version of God are not so much worshiping a different God as they are worshiping themselves.

              Or Satan. Or both, because they’re the same thing.

              Syed did not make any reference to Calvinball, but he could have.

      1. This thread has definitely proven that you don’t have to go very far from the definition of one creator god to get into a mess of inconsistencies. I did point out in my original post that the idea Syed is attributing to Blair that there is a true version of a falsehood is, of course, ridiculous.

        However, whether Blair believes that Allah and God are different hasn’t been demonstrated, which is why I thought this point was somewhat weaker. It’s easy to demonstrate once you get past the creator god definition that Blair believes many things that utterly contradict what Muslims believe.

        Secondly, whether Blair thinks Allah and Yahweh are the same god or not really doesn’t matter. We know that religions are full of inconsistencies and contradictions, but this is one case where it is plausible that one could objectively demonstrate that people talking about God and Allah are talking about the same thing. They are the same word, but in different languages and in the sense that they say there is only one of these beings (set aside all the bafflegab about whether gods are beings or not for now) and this being created the Universe. By definition, if there is only one god and that god created everything, one cannot talk about different instances of this thing, even if the thing is fictional.

        The fact that many religious people decide that Allah and God are different is of no consequence; it’s just another case where they’re making contradictory and illogical claims.

  6. “Only centuries of immersion in the world’s rising tide of secularism—and not a few lectures on how Islam can be interpreted benignly—will turn those believers around.”

    True. And scarier yet because in an age of nuclear missles, we can’t afford to wait that long.

  7. Kudos to both of you; well said on every point.

    One of the most popular liberal ecumenist ways to proclaim what “true” faith and “real” religion is tries to go back and use the core definition of “God” (or “Spirit”) as the touchstone, thereby hopefully reducing any and all of the additional embellishments (“religion”)to minor quibbles. What do the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Baptists and the Quakers and Deepok Chopra all have in common? They deny that the material, physical world is responsible for mental things like mind and its values — and insist it is the other way around. Pure Sky Hook. The Supernatural. That’s real religion — excuse me, Spirituality.

    And the Pure Sky Hook is also Pure Love.

    Problem solved. Any self-proclaimed pious group or individual which in the name of God does something which can be judged “not loving” is thereby not really religious (excuse me, spiritual.)

    And what standards do we use to judge whether or not something is “loving?” If they’re secular standards then we’re removing and diminishing the contribution of God, which is supposed to be the whole freaking point. But if they’re religious standards — anything goes. Ask ISIS if it isn’t a deep and true love of God which impels them. We’re back to square one.

    Going back to basics and proclaiming everything else a “manifestation” of the same thing sounds like such a promising strategy for creating harmony — until you realize that the simplest, most basic, plain, unadorned version of God is too impersonal for any use, including forming an identity or following tradition or even worshiping. With no God to come down and set everyone straight, the only thing we’ve really got to go on is sincerity.

    All those ‘false’ religions (excuse me, spiritualities) are nothing if not sincere.

      1. Thanks, but I think a bl*g would be an albatross! I’m amazed at all the energy Jerry and others put into theirs. 🙂

      2. I agree with Peter. When I don’t have time to read all the comments (or am just too lazy), and skim through them, I always stop to read Sastra (and certain others – I’m sure you know who you are ;)).

  8. It’s remarkable how many conflicting or at least inconsistent ideas a person can hold in his or her head at once: my god is the true god, the bible is true, some of the bible is allegory, this God or that is true for other people, but other people’s gods are false because reasons, science is true but god is behind it, all religions seek the same ground of being … you’d think it would be exhausting yet it’s not. Maybe none of the ideas are deeply held, maybe it’s a lot of “for the little people” thinking. But boy oh boy is is it uncouth to call BS on them! How many letters to the editor are calling Syed an islamaphobe I wonder …

    1. Oh, there’s nothing to it if you’re comfortable not thinking about the issue and don’t really care about objective truth. Such folks could easily, like the White Queen, believe as many a six impossible things before breakfast!

    2. “other people’s gods are false because reasons”

      I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
      — Stephen F. Roberts, 1995


  9. “I like the way Syed draws distinctions between how science finds truth and how religion, since it’s based on faith and dogma, is unable to discern any “truth”, for reliance on faith leads to thousands of different religions with conflicting dogmas. This is one of the themes of the Albatross.”

    Science: convergent.

    Religion: divergent.

    I’m not sure why the faithful can’t recognize that is the expected difference between evidence based investigation and bald assertion.

    1. I suspect it’s because they’re looking at the end result and reading it back into the process. God does and will unite everyone and everything. God is harmony, God is holistic, everyone has their source in God and their eternal being rests in God. God is the all-encompassing reality and the foundation of love.

      Holy moly, this is UNIFYING, not ‘divisive!’ How can atheists say or even think it’s divisive?

      Method, method, method. If your goddamn method is based on privileging an elite enlightened who have had revelations of another, higher reality which can’t be checked by reason or examined on the common ground or falsified by new evidence, then NO, you are not going to bring together all the people of the world.

      Apparently this is rocket science. Or brain surgery.

  10. A very clear and concise piece. Syed is a good writer and I don’t recall ever having the privilege of reading his words before.
    My fear though is that simply because Syed’s article first appeared in a conservative publication those in most dire need of this information will refuse to read it or accept it because of its provenance. I still can’t understand why other liberals can’t figure out that we’re only hurting our own cause by reacting to right-wing reactionaries. Every time someone like Chris Hayes or Cenk Uygur categorizes any criticism of islam as a faith as racism, simply because of bigoted nonsense at Fox News or Newsmax, they are allowing those same right-wing reactionaries to define the entire narrative surrounding this issue.

    1. I agree entirely. There is too much judgement based on the source of information, rather than its content. It annoys me intensely that so many make their decisions this way. There’s also the idea that because someone has one a major prize for their writing, such as Greenwald, what they say must be true or correct, or we must at least take them seriously. More and more people have at least a bachelor’s degree which should at the least enable them to make independent critical decisions, but instead they rely on some form of partisanship to do it for them e.g. religion, politics, economics.

      1. While I would be willing to bet that there is a higher incidence of adequate critical thinking skills and their application among people with bachelor and higher degrees, I’d also be willing to bet that the difference is moderate. That is my experience anyway.

    2. I think that’s largely because the concern of Greenwald et al is not first and foremost to deal with “the issue”. I think their reactions are mostly signaling of the “I am not part of that tribe” variety.

      1. Exactly. Basically they care more about being associated with who they think are the “cool kids”. I think it’s one of the biggest problems of religion. It teaches from birth this type of mentality and also not to question those on authority in your clique.

  11. I agree with this post. Having said that, and in the spirit of being the (fictional) Devil’s advocate: I think when most people say that Isis is not “true Islam”, what they MEAN is that ISIS is not run-of-the-mill Islam. It’s certainly not Islam as practiced by most Muslims in the USA (say). And so, these people advocate attacking Isis and leaving “regular” Muslims alone, because “regular” Muslims are not quite as dangerous. The fact that they say “true” Islam may just be sloppy language on their part.

    1. I disagree; I don’t think it’s sloppy language at all. What they’re saying is that the form of Islam practiced by Isis is not a VALID FORM OF RElIGION, not that it’s a minority view. It’s made manifestly clear by the statements of many politicians that “real” Islam is not defined as the majority view (and if it was, that would also include approbation for killing apostsates!), but as a “religion of peace.”

      1. Again I agree, and what you describe very well might be the intention of (most) people who speak like this…however, it is not logically inconsistent to both (1) believe that all fictional religions are equally valid (i.e. equally nonsense) but also (2) believe that some religions are more harmful to society in general than others. As I believe that Obama (say) is actually a closet atheist, the language he uses is sloppy (intentionally?) in the sense that it doesn’t really convey what he really thinks. Maybe what he MEANS is to say, “All religions are nonsense. But I like mainstream Islam better than the ISIS variety because it’s easier to live with.” Even if Islam is not a religion of peace, it still may be true that most Muslims are sufficiently inconsistent in practicing their own religion that they are inadvertently peaceful.

      2. Exactly. I don’t know if I would use the word “sloppy”, but it seems to me one thing the non-Muslim apologists for Islam are trying to say is “don’t hate on your neighbors just because they are Muslims” and “the West is killing ISIS and Taliban people for geopolitical reasons, not because they are Muslims” and “we are at war with ISIS and the Taliban, not the whole Muslim world” in more and less direct language. Not holding my breath waiting for a public figure to offer the same rhetorical love to non-believers.

  12. Asking which is the real religion, denomination, or sect is like asking which of the My Little Ponies is the best one. It might be a fun question but in the end it doesn’t matter because it is all fantasy.

  13. My own thinking is that Blair and Obama make those statements about “true Islam” in order to prevent the moderates from feeling that the war on terror is a war on Islam. They need the active participation of Muslim countries in the region to give military action legitimacy, and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Iraqi invasion. ISIS and other extremist groups often use “us versus them” rhetoric to turn moderates into extremists for their cause. By using such mollifying language, they hope to cut ISIS off from a seemingly endless stream of freshly radicalized reinforcements.

    1. See my comment re the definition of “true’, above.

      I cannot see why, to keep others on side, they cannot just say that is “not a form of Islam [or religion] that is acceptable to the vast majority of people of faith” or some such.


  14. I guess that few students will get to hear Matthew Syed’s words, though, as he almost certainly would be prevented from speaking at most UK universities… These are ugly times we live in.

  15. “It’s a great pity that to find honest statements about the dangers of Islam, or even the mundane conclusion that, in all its variety, there’s no “true” version of the faith, we must go to right-wing venues.”

    The left has been a perpetual disappointment when it comes to Islam. And they seem very stubborn to continue this way. I have had a leftist telling me that wishing for secularization of the Islamic world is racist because it would “destroy their culture”. Apparently the non-racist position is to wish for the Islamic world to remain stagnant.

    This is a very good illustration that as skeptics, we should reject any allegiance to either the political left or right. Both of them get it right sometimes, both of them fail a lot of times.

  16. With something like science, people who disagree with each other examine the evidence. They debate, they argue, they perform experiments. Sadly, this approach is not available for religious disputes. People with theological differences tend to appeal to divine revelation and differing interpretations of manuscripts that were written centuries ago.

    I’ve come to favor framing this dilemma by identifying what standard one’s ideas are compared against in order to determine their truth or utility.

    Science is all about checking ideas against observations of reality. Is it any wonder, then, that it does such a good job of aligning itself with said observations?

    Philosophy and especially religion don’t care about observed reality, and instead consider some sort of subjective aesthetic value supreme. Philosophers might go for “elegance” or “logical necessity” or some form of Platonic ideal of how they think the universe should work or how they’d personally go about designing the universe were they in charge; the religious rely on hallucination and the authority of those who (claim to) have hallucinations in addition to a substantial amount of philosophy. Is it at all surprising that neither has even the slightest prayer of recognizing reality even when it hits them in the face?



  17. That is a powerful and beautifully written essay. Thanksh to the NSS (and reader Coel!) for rescuing it from the paywall for us.

  18. It shouldn’t be a surprise that ideologues are able to spot the inconsistencies in the revealed truths of religions they don’t accept, without applying them equally to the religions they embrace, leading to ironies like conservatives spotting the roots of Islamic extremism in a way they are unlikely to regarding the history of western Christianity.

    As an atheist I would agree that all religions have their feet planted firmly in the quicksand of propriety “truth,” but on the historical side I have to take issue with Jerry when he wrote that “Christianity has improved its record on violence in recent centuries, but only because it has become less religious. The farther it has retreated from the idea of revealed truth, the less it has killed people who take a different view. Most Christians today associate truth with evidence, reason and other Enlightenment ideals.”

    There is no reason to think that modern Christians believe any less in “revealed truth” than their 17th century counterparts who burnt heretics, or that the 45% of American antievolutionists think they aren’t using “evidence” and “reason” in their arguments.

    The Kulturkampf conservative core of modern antievolutionism isn’t keen on “Enlightenment ideals,” though, and there lies why contemporary Christians don’t hunt witches or heretics: modern secular governments have developed that cannot be called on to enforce extremist orthodoxy as the Inquisition could, or as totalitarian states from Nazis to North Korea have, functioning like theocracies in this respect.

    Christian “revealed truth” still matters a very great deal among liberally minded social justice Christians who can still have problems with gay marraige, though, and whether most Islamic countries can shift into secular governments that defend individual conscience and human dignity remains to be seen.

    Concerning Jerry’s characterization of Gould’s “infamous” NOMA hypothesis and its “ridiculous claim that any discussion of meaning, morals, and values falls purely in the bailiwick of religion,” Gould erred in thinking that science and religion covered distinct domains. These stomp on one another’s turf all the time, but there is a quite legitimate and fundamental divide between empirical knowledge that science can address by establishing sufficient evidence for its claims, and the normative belief claims of morality, ethics and esthetic, where philosophers (secular or religious) are never able to establish what sufficient evidence criteria could settle them.

    Compared to reasoned belief informed by (but necessarily not limited to) empirical history and scientific knowledge, the known tenets of religions are an inept guide to resolving these issues of belief, and on that take home point I think Jerry and I should be able to heartily agree.

    1. I think one of the most dangerous aspects of ceding morality, ethics, aesthetics and even philosophy to the side of ‘religion’ is that it feeds right into the popular tendency to think that atheists therefore have no capacity or right to morality, ethics, aesthetics, or philosophy because these secular systems not only come from God, they provide the best evidence for God’s existence. Theology is the very art of category confusion. If they can misunderstand, they will. For gawds sakes, don’t feed it to them.

      Gould, the usually cautious and careful thinker, fell right into the “But Can You Prove Love?” Argument for God, Toddler Apologetics 101.

      1. I would totally agree that morality and ethics are not to be ceded to religion (and in fact they do a poor job in the area), religion being a clumsy branch of philosophy that mush the baggage of history and claims about the decidable universe along with their normative assertions. You might be interested in my Secular Global Institute posting on the NOMA issue and how secularists can navigate in the area, applying scientific reasoning and evidence while being mindful of its limitations in dealing with the “undecidable”

        1. Interesting essay, and if I’m not mistaken it emphasizes my point re theology’s category confusion: they want to place “the existence of God” into the philosophical bin and treat what’s actually a more-or-less decidable fact claim as an undecidable proposition. There are no standards when investigating the ‘metaphysical’ (it’s Gool) and thus we get the fuzzy confusion of every person choosing for themselves and the ‘necessity’ of ‘faith.’ Believing that God exists is like believing in the value of love, etc.

          Though to be honest to their point they ought to be just as eager to use analogies which don’t accidentally happen to make them the good guys and the atheists the bad ones. I’ve never seen that, though. A neutral analogy won’t work either, and for that reason.

          1. Indeed, one of the reasons why I like the NOMA revised caliper is that it helps me isolate the times religionists stomp across the decidable/undecidable line by trying to slip theological interpretations of factual areas (say Genesis for life’s origins & paleontological history or Exodus for the Egyptian & Near East record) without the labor of them paying attention to the geological or archaeological evidence that makes those claims exceedingly problematic, as I had a lot of fun laying out in the “Dinomania” and “Cuz the Bible Tells Me So” sections of TIP (Troubles in Paradise: The Methodology of Creationism) in the book section there at Secular Global Institute. A revised NOMA doesn’t hamper our argument, it strengthens it by having everyone attend to what can be “proven” and in what context.

              1. Nice essay (and how will PZ react to it?) Regarding that diversity issue, I have another diagnostic tool: the “Tortucan” idea (from Latin for “turtle” it describes people whose cognitive landscape is predominately constrained by an ability not to think about things they don’t think about). Religion & politics are Tortucan-friendly activities, and there are atheist tortucans as well as religionist ones (and they can be comparably annoying). I summarized the idea recently in a mini-vid based on a 2009 lecture, text again at Secular Global Institute,

              2. You are using at least half of your posts to tout your pieces at the Secular Global Institute site. Please don’t do that; my site is not here to draw traffic to yours. You’re welcome to comment, but you’ll have to stop trying to get traffic from here.

              3. Byzantine? No, I think Jerry only meant that there were too many links, not that you can never link to another site. People do it all the time, including to their own work, and it’s not considered a problem in reasonable doses. As a reasonable commenter, you’ll figure it out soon enough 😉

  19. There are few different meanings to the word “true”. Obviously, as nicely put here, no version of any religion can be judged to be “true” as a scientist or even an honest historian interprets the word. For religion, perhaps the only sense of the word “true” that has any meaning is the sense the Beach Boys had in mind when they asked “are you true to your school?” Are you “true” to the Word of the Lord? To the original scriptures?

    So it comes back to whether you are a “true believer”, meaning that you are are brain-dead fundamentalist automaton who tries not to deviate from the dictates of the con-men who invented the whole ridiculous load of garbage – in a time and under circumstances no sane modern person would want to live.

  20. William James described the essence of fanaticism in any religion so well, over one hundred years ago:

    “When an intensely loyal and narrow mind is once grasped by the feeling that a certain superhuman person is worthy of its exclusive devotion, one of the first things that happens is that it idealizes the devotion itself. To adequately realize the merits of the idol gets to be considered the one great merit of the worshiper; and the sacrifices and servilities by which savage tribesman have from time immemorial exhibited their faithfulness to chieftains are now outbid in favor of the deity. Vocabularies are exhausted and languages altered in the attempt to praise him enough; death is looked on as gain if it attract his grateful notice; and the personal attitude of being his devotee becomes what one might almost call a new and exalted kind of professional specialty within the tribe…. An immediate consequence of this condition of mind is jealousy for the deity’s honor. How can the devotee show his loyalty better than by sensitiveness in this regard? The slightest affront or neglect must be resented, the deity’s enemies must be put to shame. In exceedingly narrow minds and active wills, such a care may become an engrossing preoccupation; and crusades have been preached and massacres instigated for no other reason than to remove a fancied slight upon the God.”

  21. A pithy demolition of religion worthy of Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, or H. L. Mencken, I don’t care if it was published in a conservative newspaper. Religion is the Elephant In The Room.

  22. I agree with everything Syed says, but this:

    “The fundamental problem in the Middle East today is not with the Sunni or the Shia or even with Isis. The problem is with religion itself.”

    It’s not that the statement is wrong so much as incomplete. Particularly with regard to ISIS, the other fundamental problem is that western intervention has helped create the conditions for them to flourish. John Pilger says it better than I can:

    It is a fact that too many people ignore religion as an important motivator. It is also a fact that too many ignore the importance of politics. To talk about the Middle East and mention only one of these causes is wrong and dangerous.

  23. Insisting that the immorality of those who practice forms of Islam is attributable to Islam is at odds with Matthew Syed’s position:

    “The fundamental problem in the Middle East today is not with the Sunni or the Shia or even with Isis. The problem is with religion itself. It is the idea of received wisdom, divine revelation, the notion that “I have heard the Truth” and that everyone else is deluded. This is the corrupting, anti-rational, distorting engine of religious violence in the Middle East, just as it once triggered Christianity into a bloody civil war.”

    The problem is not a specific religion, it is religion in general and how it is interpreted and used by various subcultures. Instead of criticizing the Islamic religion, thereby facilitating dismissal of criticism with claims of bigotry (often erroneously referred to as, racism), we should criticize religion in general and acts of immorality in particular. In so doing, we pre-empt the tactic of using claims of bigotry as a distraction from the real issue of atrocities. Religion, any religion (not just Islam), is a tool which any group can wield as a weapon.

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