I have taught Religions of the World for over thirty years. I’m teaching it again right now. I once declined to join a secular humanist educational project because their approach toward the religions was shrill and snotty. I couldn’t take that approach and retain my scholarly integrity. The first principle of teaching World Religions is to try to represent the religion, each religion, from the inside, as (you imagine) it seems to its adherents. I always assign an essay requiring students to choose one of the religions we cover and imagine how their lives would change if they converted to it. This approach to teaching Comparative Religion tends to incline those who take it to embrace a personal belief that, even with all their differences, the various faiths are all “true” in some sense. Each seems to do its job for those who embrace it. One thus becomes a supporter of all religions, savoring their artistry (including the cognitive artistry of their theologies), their exoticism, and their idioms of spirituality. I have long affirmed this approach, even as an atheist and humanist. But I am learning to make exceptions.
I have always taken a dim view of the pothead Rastafarians. Not much of a fan of the murderous Thugee (though that’s safe to say since their sect is extinct). Satanism is not an issue here: the pulp fiction stereotype is, appropriately, a fiction. Real Satanists are just theatrical humanists, believing in neither god nor devil. Om Shinrikyo was a nasty bunch, dedicated to clearing the earth of human beings to prepare the way for the return of ancient gods (which also sounds like pulp fiction, but it’s not: these creeps pumped Sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system).
Then there are sects that have undeserved bad reputations because of media vilification, like the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon. (They receive the same treatment as the Tea Party.) These folks get slandered for the same reason groups like Om Shinrikyo get ignored or not taken seriously when the issues of religious pluralism and relativism come up. They are not “our” religions, not mainstream religions with large constituencies that we don’t want to offend. But I think these faiths must be factored into the equation.
Think of the parallel situation in party politics. Our Constitution has nothing to say about a two-party system, but it defines democracy as we practice it. There are all kinds of political parties out there, some of which manage to garner enough signatures to make it onto the ballot: Socialist, Progressive Labor, American, Communist, Natural Law, Libertarian, you name it. But they get no air time. Because they receive no coverage, we end up with a skewed view of the democratic system. A high school history teacher of mine (Mr. Faller at Bloomfield High, I think it was) once remarked on the irony of our criticizing the Soviet Union for being a one-party state. You could choose from a slate of candidates—all of them Communists. Okay, in the USA, you can choose between candidates representing a big two parties! Big difference. Libertarians make this point all the time, adding that Democrats and Republicans are pretty much one party anyhow.
So is our democracy really what we say it is? Maybe not. Likewise, is our respectable, liberal religious pluralism-relativism what we think it is? Does its apparent viability depend upon a convenient oversimplification? We have to deal the barbaric religions into the game and ask if we can give them all equal honor, as we do Judaism, Buddhism, etc. Because if we had to admit some of them are unacceptable, wouldn’t that render invalid the whole “super-ecumenical respect for everything” (as my Montclair State professor Steve Johnson called it)? I think it would. I think it does. And it is Islam that has forced me to face this question. For I am thinking more and more that Islam is more like Om Shinrikyo than it is like Christianity or Hinduism.
There. I said it. And I will say more.
I regard Islam as a religion of barbarism, a self-confessed death cult, a great step backward in the evolution of religion. It marks a return to the bloodthirsty fanaticism of Joshua and Samuel in Bronze Age Israel. One cannot separate a religion from the culture for which it forms the ideological glue. Islam arose amid scimitar-swinging, slave-trading Arab barbarism. I’m not saying it simply stopped there. When a religion spreads beyond its cultural cradle, it mutates. It moderates. It begins to shed some of the features that once fit best (or at all) in its original milieu.
This means its members, amid new surroundings, try to assimilate, downplaying (by reinterpreting) the newly offensive aspects of the religion that no one found scandalous back home. You see this, for instance, in Jewish documents from the cosmopolitan Hellenistic world. The Epistle of Aristaeus, for instance, written in Greek for Gentiles and assimilating Diaspora Jews, tries to make kosher laws look less silly to outsiders by interpreting them as customs aimed at shielding ancient Israelites from corrosive pagan influences in their environment.
(This was probably true, by the way, but to admit it is already an accommodation to intellectual secularism. This is the issue between Pauline and Jewish Christians in the New Testament: the former viewed Torah regulations as Jewish identity markers unnecessary for Gentiles converting to Christianity, while Jewish Christians deemed those “customs” as the non-negotiable Word of God binding upon all Christians, Jewish or Gentile.)
Other Hellenized Jews took it even further, allegorizing ceremonial laws (like the ban on eating mice!) as if they taught moral lessons in some way. Some even thought that, once you understood those lessons, you needn’t bother with literal observance. How convenient! Nothing standing in the way of going to that pig-picking in your Gentile neighbors’ back yard! “Sure we’re Jews! And, er, damn proud of it. Gimme another shrimp cocktail, will you?” The more you were a good Roman, the more you had to shave from your Judaism. That’s the logic of assimilation. And that’s why assimilation is such a contentious issue in religions today. Faced with it, some will double down on tradition, since they can see it slipping (or stampeding) away. This is what occasioned the Hasmonean revolt against Jewish cooperation with the Seleucids’ Hellenization program. And this accounts for the rise of militant Islam in the world today (in case you hadn’t noticed).
Once you understand this dynamic of evolution-via-assimilation prompting a recrudescence of the original tradition, you can see the fallacy in one of the major arguments of apologists on behalf of both liberal Christianity and moderate Islam. Marty E. Marty (the very poster-boy for namby-pamby, “standing for nothing, offending no one” liberal Protestantism) refers to what he calls “the Walter Kaufmann Fallacy.” Kaufmann (The Faith of a Heretic) ruthlessly criticized theologians and clergy, scripture and creeds. Marty felt Kaufmann was being unfair and trying to make it easy for himself by employing the Fallacy of Bifurcation: he sought to force his readers into eliminating any “third option” of moderate, reasonable religion, so they’d see the choice as between superstitious stupidity on the one hand and unbelieving rationalism on the other.
Moderates, Kaufmann argued, were just diluting their faith into a “safe” pretense. Liberal apologists like 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher tried to launder Christianity to make it acceptable to “the cultured despisers of religion.” Neo-Orthodox theologian and preacher Rudolf Bultmann insisted that the New Testament must be demythologized to make Christianity amenable to “modern man.” You see where this is headed. Conservative Christians like C.S. Lewis mocked this approach as “Christianity and water.” J. Gresham Machen measured the vast distance between historic Christian belief (what Clark H. Pinnock would call “classical Christianity”) and liberal Protestant Modernism, concluding that Modernism was Christian in name only (and that it was, in effect, a case of trademark violation). Ultra-liberal theologian Don Cupitt has admitted as much, proposing that “Christianity is our Old Testament.”
Postmodern apologists for liberal, moderating approaches to religion mount an argument similar to Marty’s. They reject what they call an “essentialist” approach. Who is to say what is “Christianity proper,” “true Buddhism,” or “essential Islam”? They bemoan books like Harnack’s What Is Christianity? (in the original German, bearing the same title as Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity). There is no “essence,” no “proper” or “true” version, of Christianity, Islam, Marxism, or anything else. To say that there is, is merely to claim the crown for one’s own favorite version.
Today, when Multiculturalist apologists (excuse-makers) for Islam hurl accusations of “Islamophobia” against anyone who dares to criticize Islam, they try to discount Islamic savagery as some kind of distortion of “true Islam” (as witness our theologian-in-chief: “ISIS is not Islamic.”). No, they say, “real” Muslims are gentle folk quietly running falafel stands on your local street corner. This is of course itself an essentialist argument. Consistent essentialists say there simply is no “true Islam,” but this is really saying the same thing: that you can’t condemn “Islam” since there is no such thing. Sure, there are mass-murdering rapists who carry a pocket edition of the Koran in their ammunition belt, but that’s pretty much a coincidence. You wouldn’t want to “profile” Muslims as terrorists—or terrorists as Muslims!
What gives the lie to this nonsense is the dynamic of assimilation-and-reaction. Religions moderate by virtue of assimilation and accommodation. In other words, jettisoning their original principles, no longer being true to themselves. That’s the whole point of it!
Moderate Muslims in America (like the innocuous, head scarf wearing teenager in the i-phone commercial, or smiling giant Shaquille O’Neill hawking Gold Bond, whatever the hell that is) are good Americans precisely insofar as they take Islam less seriously. Just read the damn Koran. Look at Islamic origins and history. When mealy-mouthed “moderate Muslims” tell us that jihad has nothing to do with killing infidels but refers only to the pious individual’s spiritual struggle, we are hearing either disingenuous spin (cynical PR worthy of Josh Ernest and Jay Carney) or hopelessly naïve ignorance.
Consider the claim that Islam is “the religion of peace.” The word “Islam” does mean “peace” but in the sense of “pacification, submission.” Submission to Allah, which of course means submission to his self-appointed representatives. It’s not abstract, but concrete. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to submit to these cavemen. Nor did the people whom the first, founding generation of Muslims conquered. Today’s Jihadis are merely returning to the roots of their religion, in contrast to “moderate” Muslims who have modernized, i.e., compromised, accommodated.
Look where all liberalizing religions inevitably and logically end up: approaching closer and closer to humanism. They increasingly slough off all that once gave them a distinctive character. They come ultimately to see their identity in terms of (sentimental) liberal politics, moral permissiveness, and watered-down beliefs. As far as I can see, from my forty years of study, all that is left to them is “faith” as permission to ignore the practical results of their favorite policies. (I call it “political snake-handling.”) Self-righteous “people of faith” endorse utopian courses of action, heedless of real-world consequences, since taking them into account would be “worldly.” Faith means they can be as innocent as doves, but no longer as wise as serpents.
I have come, very reluctantly, to award the title of “real Islam” to the savages, that bubbling lava pit of primitives howling for the blood of cartoonists, beheading passers-by, “honor-killing” rape-victims, mutilating female genitalia, suicide-bombing Israeli schools, machine-gunning people for getting Western haircuts, and so on. The great shame of the decadent West is our pathetic kowtowing to such virulent barbarism. “Thank you, effendi! May I have another!”
And here is another sense in which “Moderate Muslims” are well-assimilated Americans: they are just as cowardly. They have fled the field of the contest for the right to define Islam. They have surrendered the copyright to the savages and the primitives. Thus they just don’t count. They are like the Germans who, while not actually card-carrying Nazis, knew about the deportation of Jews but raised no note of protest. By their silence, they say, “It’s okay with me.” They have taken the mark of the Great Beast.
But even these cowards (and secret sympathizers) are not as bad as “useful idiots” like Ben Affleck, Karen Armstrong (who surely ought to know better!), and others who regard “Islamophobia” as a greater menace than Islamo-fascism (which, unlike the former, actually exists).
A few years ago I was out in Dearborn, Michigan, where I strolled with great interest through a sprawling street fair run by the large local Islamic community. I was (and remain, despite all I have said here) fascinated with Islamic history and theology, and I rejoiced to see the shining pride of these people, showing off the tokens of their heritage. For a long time, the memory of this experience ameliorated my increasing antipathy for Islam. But then I started hearing that some Muslims at one of these fairs stoned a group of (admittedly obnoxious) Christian evangelists. Oh well…
So says Zarathustra.