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Jack Weinstein

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I always tell my students that there is no such thing as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, that there are only Judaisms, Christinaities, and Islams. For example, I am a Reform Jew and while my tradition overlaps quite significantly with Hasidism, we have many fundamentally different beliefs. Any religion I commit to has to treat men and women equally. It has to welcome both gay and straight marriages, and respect modern scientific discoveries. It has to be tolerant and celebrate mixed-faith relationships. Hasidism does none of these things. It is mystical. It is messianic. It is reactionary. It makes no sense to me and when push comes to shove, besides our common historical roots, the religion I practice has much more in common with that of modernist Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians than it has with Hasidic Judaism. Many Hasids feel the same. It is not infrequent for ultra-Orthodox Jews to publicly assert that people like me are not really Jews at all.

All religions share this same tension. There are liberal Catholics who do not believe the Pope is infallible, who are pro-Choice, and who believe that all-religions are equally divine. Yet, there are many pre-Vatican II Catholics who think that the Church is the only path to redemption and that the Pope has absolute moral authority. There are Protestants who reject Martin Luther’s antisemitism and others who welcome climate change because they long for the apocalypse. Many from each group have been quoted as stating that the others are not “real Christians,” and from their own perspective, they are correct. Their religions have an internal logic. There are standards that have to be met.

We are used to thinking of these differences as simply denominational, but they are not. There is a certain point when beliefs diverge so much that the only way to make sense of them is to accept the fact that Sarah Palin and the Westboro Baptist Church simply do not share the same religion as Jimmy Carter and Quakers. The gun-toting Christian capitalism of Fox news is not the same as Martin Luther King’s pacifist Baptism. It’s just not.

I write all of this because there are people all over the Internet who want to claim that the bombings in Paris have nothing to do with religion. They argue that the terrorists are ideological, that they are sociopathic, that they are power-hungry, and they are fascistic. These things, the writers say, eclipse the terrorists’ religious beliefs and are thus better explanations for their monstrous actions. Terrorism is not Islamic, they claim, and to think they are is to do a great religion unacceptable harm. Just as Jews and Christians have said before them, they are claiming that the terrorists are not “real Muslims.”

I understand why they say this. These internet writers have noble goals. They want tolerance and acceptance, a celebration of religious diversity, and a world in which no Muslim is discriminated against or victimized. I want these things too. But however much I agree with their intent, when they claim that the terrorists’ motivations are not religious, they are wrong. The terrorists are Muslim. They use scriptural justification and they have theological intent. Their worldview only makes sense if you accept their eschatology and no amount of argumentative gymnastics is going to erase their religious motivations. We will never beat them if we don’t accept them for who they are: theological monsters who murder in the name of a corrupt God.

Thankfully, their God is not the same God as the Muslims whom we live with, whom we love, and, in many cases, who we are. (Many Muslims read this blog.) The terrorists’ interpretation of the Qur’an is so perverted that it bears no resemblance to the scripture that many Muslims in the world hold dear. Their way of treating women, strangers, and non-Muslims, is so shockingly different than mainstream Islam that it is bizarre to even think of them in the same train of thought. They are Muslim and they are religious, yet simply subscribe to a bad, unjustifiable morality.

Religion is one of the greatest of human inventions. It is responsible for tremendous beauty. It ushers in awe-inspiring works of art, powerful moral advances, and unifies disparate communities. Critics like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Bill Mahar, misunderstand religion, just like they misunderstand the history of ideas. They don’t see how religion and inquiry are necessarily intertwined. And the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist who asked us not to pray for religion because “we don’t need more religion,” is blind to all the good that religion has done, although nobody should blame him. He has every right to be angry and myopic.

Yes, religion sometimes justifies great evil, but so does science and so does atheism. The choice between good and evil is a human problem. Religion is just one of the tools that helps us make sense of the relationship between culture and free will, between the fact of life and the meaning we want our experiences to have. Rituals help provide structure. Traditions offer continuity. Religions codify worldviews.

Because of all of this, I propose that we give up on the idea of discussing denominational difference and start speaking in terms of discrete religions instead. This will be difficult philosophically, since it may be impossible to create a single criterion to determine when divergent beliefs are one religion and when they are more, but what’s a new philosophical problem among friends? In fact, scholars have been arguing about how to define religion for a very long time. The most important thing to remember is that the terrorists’ Islam is a completely different religion than the Islam almost all of us live with. It’s just that their names are spelled the same way.

Follow the author on Twitter at: @jackrweinstein

8 comments on “Yes, the attacks in Paris were about religion. Stop saying they weren’t.

  1. Bill Caraher says:

    Hi Jack,

    Thought provoking post. The good folks at NDQ have responded here:

    (Hope it was ok to link to your post).


  2. DigiDave says:

    A great post. Very thoughtful (as usual). I disagree though on one point: “Critics like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Bill Mahar, misunderstand religion, just like they misunderstand the history of ideas. They don’t see how religion and inquiry are necessarily intertwined.”

    To me, this seems like an un-generous view of these critics. I'm speaking mostly about Dawkins and Hitchens (Maher is more from the entertainment side, let's put him aside for the moment).

    I think Dawkins and Hitchens (when he was alive) would agree that religion plays an important role in the history of ideas. They recognize the bible as literature. As a book to get values from even (in private space) but they also recognize (as you seem to as well) that this book isn't taken as literature by some, but as “gospel truth.” And they point this out as a fundamental problem. That human civilization has progressed because of our ability to agree on what is true and what is false – but these books, when taken literally, fundamentally cripple our ability as a species to agree on what is or isn't true.

    That, to me, seems like a worthwhile philosophical inquiry: Can we as a species come up with a methodology by which to come to truth. Let's start with the physical world. YES! We have such a method. It's the scientific method.

    But some people reject this method because it contradicts [insert holy book or interpretation of holy book], which is their method for getting the truth.

    When it comes to the truth about how the physical world works, as a species we have to come to an agreement. Will it be 100% correct? No. But ideally it maps as closely as possible to an objective reality as possible and we improve on it over time.

    And I think you agree with all this (hence your reform Judaism. I actually consider myself an atheist of Jewish ancestry which is somewhere in that spectrum). So for Dawkins and Hitchens to not only call out that some people are literalists but also add that this literalism creates a cataclysm problem (we have no methodology to agree) seems philosophically justified to me.

    But I'm happy to be steered in a different direction. Would love for you to dive deeper.

  3. So as far as I can tell the god of the “theological monsters who murder in the name of a corrupt God.” must be worshipping the real god, because it happened and a real god would have prevented this atrocity instead of allowing it to happen!

    Am I right?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Generally speaking, anyone can claim to be a member of any religion, just by saying so. However, the cults started by psychopaths are seldom anywhere near commonly observing the principles that well established main-stream religions value. Thus while ISIS is considered a branch of Islam by the media, many observers point out that they don't really give a damn about any moral principles and are basically using the animosity between world religions in order to further their own political ideology.

    Because there is a common conception about what religions teach, (like how to live in harmony with our fellow men), I have no doubt that ISIS does not do this at all, and therefore is not truly a spiritual organization. We can always paint religions using an ridiculously broad brush, and then claim that the Davidians in Waco Texas, or the disciples of Charley Manson, also represent valid theological groups which practice general ethical principles. But in reality none of us who are really sane would approve of legitimizing these cults, or giving them tax breaks for being valid ethical organizations. To me it's a matter of basic perception—such as the way one judge famously defined pornography. He said it's hard to define it, but I know it when I see it! (or words to that effect).

    What Often fits neatly into generalized filing slots, is publicly known to epitomize nothing more than organized insanity. So, perhaps I cannot specifically deny that such cults have nothing to do with religion, but my common humanity knows better. Granted, I cannot easily define “common humanity either— it's just something that among those of us who value humanity, we know immediately what the term means and have no need to revolve on a philosophical carousel indefinitely, simply to affirm it!

  5. Anonymous says:

    I agree with and appreciate your general point here, but I do ask respectfully that you develop a better understanding of Vatican II before you casually imply that any Catholic doctrine was changed by the council. It was not, and individuals who point to Vatcian II as justification for supporting ideas contrary to the magisterium's teachings (such as supporting same-sex, so-called “marriage” or denying papal infallibility) do so in active opposition to Catholic doctrine. In the spirit of not misleading people regarding Church teaching, it would be best if you studied up on these issues (even cursorily) before utilizing them in your examples.

  6. I appreciate your point of view, but we don't agree on this point. Many traditionalists will try to argue for a continuity of the Catholic tradition, largely to preserve the notion that Catholicism holds onto the truth. This is a valid conservative position. However, a more liberal position holds that church doctrine changes, that rituals evolve over time, and that interpretations are modified as the modern world requires it. This is the position I hold, especially given that I am in a department of philosophy and religious studies and not a theology department.

    I respect that you and I disagree. But you should be aware that disagreement does not necessarily suggest that one person is ignorant or unprepared for the discussion. I'm not misleading anyone; I just hold to a different interpretation of the Catholic tradition than you do.

  7. Anonymous says:

    President Obama is right to describe the war against terror as a war against Jihadist radicals, not against an entire religion. So that's why he is hesitant to use the term, “Extreme Muslim radicals.”

    From what I've heard, ISIS only uses religion as an excuse to accomplish its mission of creating global instability, and is actually hoping to start a war between Christians and Muslims. Other than that, they bear no resemblance to the Islamic faith. So if they really care little about religious doctrines, why should we play into their hands and conceive of our current situation as one which pits one religion against another?

    America and the rest of the civilized world are directly opposed to the ruthless Nazi-like violence perpetrated by ISIS, and we need to keep foremost in our minds the fact that it's basically a criminal enterprise purposely used to create religious and political discord.

    I suppose many causes have used religion in order to rationalize spreading destruction and violence, but at their core they also convey much of the Wisdom, compassion and love, that their founders intended. If we truly realized the difference, no Muslim, Christian, or Jew would ever dream of condoning any of the reprehensible acts that human beings frequently use to rationalize their hatred! One of the first things GW Bush did after 911, was to attend mosques and inform the public that we were not fighting a war against Muslims–just against thugs, criminals and madmen, who care little about love, compassion or violence. We need to avoid entertaining the tendency to lump all terrorists together as people who are acting on the edicts of the Muslim faith. The situation is really comparable to thinking that the KKK and White Supremacists represent the core of the Christian faith. No Christian could accept that unwarranted characterization, just as no real Muslim could ever even think that ISIS has anything to do with the actual teachings in the Quaran!

  8. Anonymous says:

    I should have said, “the reprehensible acts that human beings do by rationalizing their own hatred.” And a little further into my comment I should have said, “madmen who care little about love, compassion or NON-VIOLENCE.” Sorry.

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