When issues relating to religion are debated, especially in regard to people who identify with a particular religion committing violence, there seem to be some fundamental points of miscommunication and confusion that prevent people from understanding each other. This article tries to clarify these points.
1. What concept is referenced by using the name of the religion (e.g. 'Islam')
We need to all be clear on what we mean when we use the name for any religion, like "Islam" (or use a term like "the religion"). When people criticize a religion, at least in a way similar to myself, they are talking about the ideology as defined by the ideas espoused in certain holy documents like the Quran.
This means that when people with views similar to mine criticize Islam, we are referring to the specific notion that Muhammad is a messenger of God, and therefore that his words recorded in the Quran and the Hadiths are true and are accurate reflections of God's will and God's explanation of what is morally correct. That definition makes sense since Islam was an ideology created by Muhammad and thus defined by his own description of what it entails.
If we acted as though Islam is a meaningless word that anyone can define however they like, and has no constant themes among people who allege to follow it, then indeed we would not have reason to criticize that meaningless word. In such a case, we would instead focus on a particular strain of beliefs that we believe support untrue and harmful ideas.
But when people who defend Islam talk about "Islam", they seem to usually be referring to all people who self-identify as "Muslim" regardless of how closely those people adhere to doctrines laid out in the holy texts - or even how much they actually know about what they say.
For example, you will note that in the video linked in this article that Ben Affleck agrees that killing someone for leaving Islam is a terrible thing. But he does not seem to be aware that this is explicitly sanctioned in the Hadiths that record many of the sayings and commands given by the Prophet Muhammad.
Furthermore, it is important to note that the Quran and Hadiths are more ideologically cohesive and clear than the Christian Bible for example. The Quran is a much shorter text that is sourced primarily to one person and which is written in the style of a direct lecture or sermon, and the Hadiths are quotes attributed to Muhammad by people who knew him. However the Bible pertains to a figure being written about by multiple other people at different times, in their own styles, and with their own agendas, often in the form of stories with complex theological meaning hidden inside, who never even met the central figure of their faith.
The result is that the messages conveyed in the Quran and Hadiths are more direct, easier to understand, and less contradictory. It thus forms a stronger basis for influencing specific beliefs and attitudes.
2. Religion is not race
Many people develop a misunderstanding of religion by thinking of certain religions as linked to race. This causes them to view criticism of a religion - an ideology, a set of beliefs - as "racist" which in turn makes them feel very offended and hostile toward criticism of a religion's doctrines and holy texts.
In the video clip attached to this article, Ben Affleck can be seen making this exact mistake. He argues that criticizing Islam as a religion is "racist" and compares it to people using terms like "shifty Jew".
But what he is saying is nonsensical because Islam is an ideology, not a race. The people who adhere to the religious ideology can be, and indeed are, of many ethnicities. Criticism of the religious ideology has no intrinsic link to disparaging beliefs about any ethnic group of people.
I'm assuming that Affleck does not believe that all people who are ethnically Jewish also inherently believe in Judaism by their nature, nor that Christianity is solely followed by white-skinned people of European descent . However that is exactly what is implied by Affleck's view that criticism of a religion equates to racism, although I'm sure he does not realize it.
3. The spectrum of morality in Islamic texts
I have gotten the impression that many of the people who think we are unjustly criticizing a religion think that all its critics are saying that the doctrines in its holy texts such as the Quran and Hadiths are 100% extreme barbarism to the fullest extent with no nuance or variation. But that is incorrect.
What we are saying - at least what myself and others including Sam Harris are saying - is that the Quran and Hadiths establish many terrible beliefs and attitudes and that the overall influence of it is harmful, but not that every message and doctrine in them is as bad as can possibly be.
Our view is that if someone supports and promotes an entire book as the perfect word of God, and that book contains many awful ideas, then it needs to be criticized for those problems regardless of the neutral or positive ideas it contains that do not inverse the contextual meaning of the bad ones.
As Sam Harris pointed out in his interview with Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, the Quran could certainly have been worse by taking out certain verses or by adding others. But that does not at all mean that belief in the Quran and Hadiths in their actual state are overall positive influences.
4. Religion is to blame when religion is the cause, not in every instance of harm
When people with views similar to my own criticize Islam as an ideology we are not blaming Islam for all bad things that all people who identify as Muslims or all Christians have ever done.
What we are discussing are attitudes and actions they have been caused specifically as a result of the religious texts and ideas that people believe.
Sam Harris expressed this exact view in his interview on The Young Turks where he said this: "I'm never blaming Islam for all the bad things Muslims have done in history. I'm only blaming Islam for the things Muslims have clearly done on the basis of the doctrine of Islam; and so too with Christians, and so too with Jews, and Buddhists, and everyone else."
5. Bigotry against people versus rational criticism of ideas
There are indeed people who are hateful toward all people who identify as Muslims simply for identifying as such, rather than just criticizing an ideology and its influence. These people often merely have their own religious bias, which is also a problem.
That should certainly be condemned, because it is not only of course harmful to Muslims as people, but also because it does not reflect an accurate view regarding the nuances of how religious ideas factor into one's total beliefs or how much any given person even knows about their faith's holy texts.
But make sure that you recognize the fundamental difference between such views and criticism of the idea of believing in Islamic holy texts. Do not conflate criticism of Islam as an idea with being hateful or violent toward people who identify as Muslim. Doing so is illogical and hinders any discussion on the matter from being productive and rational.
6. Religion is one of many factors
Sam Harris summed up the issue of religious influence in this concise sentence: "Specific beliefs have specific consequences insofar as they're really believed." So the problem of religion is not that it invariably turns everyone who claims to believe in it into strict followers of its ideology and defines every aspect of one's identity. But rather, that if a religion is based upon a text containing many harmful ideas then that religion will tend to be a harmful influence.
People's beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are the result of many factors; religion is only one of the factors that influence a person's beliefs and actions. And the degree to which a person adheres to a religion's actual doctrines varies among individuals and cultures due to the other factors affecting their lives.
These factors can include other cultural traditions and attitudes, pluralism and the presence of other philosophies in the society, knowledge of the holy texts, and how difficult or violent that a person's country is due to outside factors. The religion's ideas have their own influence on people's beliefs and choices of how they want to run their own lives or their society, and also operate as one of the deciding factors in how people choose to deal with difficulty.
As a result, many people who identify with a certain religion often do not even know or care about all of the doctrines outlined in their faith's holy texts. In other words, not every person who identifies as a Muslim actually follows the doctrines of Islam. Everyone seems to be aware of this, including people like Affleck, since they accuse people who they consider to have immoral views as not really being Muslim or following Islam. Sometimes they are right, and I agree in those cases.
But everyone must also recognize that this issue does not only apply to bad behaviors but also to ones we consider good. That is, people who have views we like may not really be following Islam either. Whether a person can be considered to be accurately following their religion or not depends on whether the beliefs they hold align with the messages in the central documents they claim as holy in their religion.
These issues result in many people who self-identify with the same religion acting in a massive range of different ways and holding very diverse beliefs and attitudes.
This leads many people - both who identify with the religion and those who do not - to come to incorrect conclusions about what that religion's holy texts must preach and intend. They become unable to perceive the nuances and multiple factors at work, and this leads them to be unable to recognize the influence that believing those texts has on people's beliefs and behaviors.
They see the diversity of behavior and attitudes among self-identified "Muslims" and assume that all the kinder, harmless ones must be the ones following the faith's doctrines accurately.
But if we study the holy texts of those religions then we can see which attitudes and behaviors among adherents align with the doctrines and which do not. We must also look at the other social factors shaping people's attitudes, and look at the larger trends of attitudes that are disproportionately held by that faith's adherents. We can then discern which beliefs and behaviors are the result of the influence of believing in those texts.
In my experience, this reveals that each religion, including Islam, indeed preaches some good ideas and some harmful ones, and we can generally discern which they are for each faith.
So when people with views similar to myself criticize Islam, we are not claiming that there is a black-and-white difference between adherents of Islam and non-adherents where all people who claim to follow "Islam" have the exact same views or the same degree of conviction in their beliefs.
But what we can do in issues such as this is identify the source of certain harmful influences.
And this applies to all people and ideas, including atheism for example. There are some atheists who oppose homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
But we can analyze where such views are most concentrated (not exclusively concentrated), such as among groups of a certain faith identities and degrees of religiosity, and we can see if that group shares a certain doctrine that would act as a direct cause for the attitudes of behaviors in question.
This can indicate the source of a particular influence. In other words, although some atheists will have anti-gay views, we can determine if those views were influenced by cultural factors which include Christianity since it may have such a strong pervasive impact on their culture's attitudes.
And in regard to the above example, we find that some atheists indeed do oppose same-sex marriage etc, but the percentage is very small - smaller in fact than any other 'religious' group, while opposition to homosexuality is concentrated most among the most devout Christians.
We can do the same with Islam. We can analyze the concentrations of certain views among Muslims as compared with other groups, as well as consider the direct basis for certain views and behaviors within doctrines espoused in holy texts in which they share belief. This does not always reveal that Islam is at fault. But when it the evidence indicates that it is at fault, we should acknowledge it.
7. Extreme attitudes can be a factor in producing additional extreme doctrines
A belief system or holy book may not appear to be the cause of a certain instance of harm being done if the belief system or holy book does not explicitly command that such an action be committed.
However, a belief system or holy book can be responsible for an event in ways other than explicitly commanding an action. Doctrines like those espoused in the Quran are very extreme in regard to issues like respect for God and Muhammad, claims about future events, claims about the existence of God, claims about the intentions and morality of nonbelievers, condemnation of worshiping images and idols, condemnation of homosexuality, condemnation of disbelief in God and Muhammad's revelations, and so on. Furthermore, the book can inspire attitudes of fear of what God will do, extreme love and respect for God, etc.
So in the attempt to meet the demands of those original doctrines and as a result of the attitudes it has fomented in them, people may invent additional doctrines - such as never depicting Muhammad's face or body in an image - that they think help live up to the standard of the original doctrines - such as having the utmost respect for Muhammad and never worshiping images.
And since the holy book has created such extreme love and respect for the deity and prophet, like God and Muhammad, believers can take equally extreme offense to the topic of God, Muhammad, or their religion in general not being treated with the same type and degree of seriousness or respect that they treat it with themselves.
8. A person can inadvertently support a source of harm even if they do not advocate for that harm to be done
Many people hold the view that among believers who identify with the same religion and support the same holy book by asserting that it is entirely true and ethical, then those believers who do not advocate violence or harmful legal policies does not share any responsibility at all for the violence or harmful legal policies supported by another believer in part as a result of influence from that holy book.
But if a person supports a particular book that espouses ideas and doctrines that tend to have the effect of influencing believers toward supporting violence or harmful legal policies, then they share some responsibility even if they do not actually advocate, believe in, or even know what ideas and doctrines the holy book contains.
This is simply because the book itself, like the Quran, teaches that the holy truth and divine law it contains overrules secular principles and ethics. So if you praise, promote, and teach that this holy book is true, then even if your own views do not sync up with those expressed in the holy book, you can be part of unnecessarily spreading a dangerous belief system.
Note however, that there is a crucial distinction between A) someone inadvertently promoting a dangerous ideology through their support of a doctrinal book, but who does not otherwise support that ideology in their speech and actions; and B) someone who intentionally promotes that book and that ideology (especially if they commit violence as a result). Knowledge and intent are crucial factors in weighing moral culpability and how we view a person's goodness. So if someone supports a holy book that we believe has a harmful influence, that fact does not mean that person should be harmed or even looked upon as immoral.
9. Criticism of a religion does not entail support for Discrimination against those who identify with that religion
Acknowledging that a religion tends to be a harmful influence is a distinct issue from support for discrimination against people who identify as believers of that religion. There are two reasons for this:
Reason 1) As discussed earlier in a previous section, the fact that someone identifies as a believer in a certain religion (such as if they identify as a "Muslim") does not indicate how much they actually adhere to that religion's defining sacred documents.
While it is true that a person who identifies with a certain religion of course is more likely to hold beliefs espoused by their holy book like the Quran, the fact that they identify with that religion does not inform us of how strongly that any given individual believes any given aspects of the religious text, or how much they even know about what it says, or how well they understand it, or what factors may have counter-acted the harmful influence of the religious text for that person, or what their social and political views are.
This is all very important even if a person bears some inadvertent responsibility for directly harmful actions committed by others, because knowledge and intent are crucial factors in weighing moral culpability, and in deciding if legal action is ethically correct and necessary.
Reason 2) A person can criticize ideas they think are harmful and consider making that criticism to be preferable to discrimination or violence of any group of people because they adhere to the clearly-evidenced belief that discrimination is ultimately a dangerous behavior to everyone, makes the problem they are criticizing worse, can be used to suppress ideas and speech that may turn out to be correct, can be easily turned against ones own self, and it unethically punishes people on a basis that is insufficient to classify them as morally culpable for the reasons mentioned above.
By comparison, we should not discriminate against Nationalists, Conservatives, Keynesians, Anarchists, Marxists who praise The Communist Manifesto, Libertarians devoted to the ideas in Ayn Rand's books; nor should we discriminate against groups that people may find even worse. We all have different opinions on which ideas are harmful, but we can also understand the importance of respecting people and protecting their rights and the rights of groups to which they adhere.
10. Pro-Religion hypocrisy regarding nuance
Many people who identify as liberals and progressives have repeatedly accused critics and criticism of Islam of lacking nuance.
But such an accusation expresses severe hypocrisy, because so many of the people who level such accusations, such as Reza Aslan, defend Islamic ideology specifically by claiming that religious ideas and beliefs have no influence on anyone's beliefs and actions. That view is blatantly not nuanced at all.
Compare such a view with the one I am expressing in this article, considering all the points I have made - and the points quoted from Sam Harris - and the amount of explanation needed to ensure that my points are understood accurately.
In conclusion, it is crucial for communication, understanding, and problem-solving, for everyone to discuss issues of religion and ideology while being mindful of the nature of the issues I described above.