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