Extremism in Religion – How many hoops are there?

This post was written in response to this post by my dear friend Rob DuBois, but extremism in religion and the ‘moderate’ response is a topic that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Rob correctly points out that often the religion is a secondary point, or at least not always the main driving force.

However, I think Rob misses the central point in his argument, that actually, NOBODY and NO single group represents an entire religion.

It is just as true to say that moderate muslims do not represent Islam as it is to say that jihadists do not. It’s also true to say that Southern Baptists are as generally unrepresentative of Christianity as are Episcopalians, Lutherans or indeed, The WBC. It’s true to say that Tibetan buddhists are no more buddhist than Japanese Zen buddhists.

The trap one falls into if debating whether a group or individual practice is ‘true’ to the religion is the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. Once you start to say that someone does not represent the ‘true’ religion, then you simply retreat further into factionalism, and you’ll find that there is no such thing as a ‘true’ believer. If you always find a way to excuse the uncomfortable parts of the religion that you personally (or your group) do not like on the basis that those who do believe those parts are ‘not true believers’, eventually, you must admit that neither you, nor they are the true believer. By claiming that only moderate versions of a religion are correct, one attempts to dismiss the very real problems that exist within religious belief systems, and inadvertently justify extremism in the process.

You (personally or collectively) can’t pretend that the bits of your religion practiced by others who hold up the same book and teacher as guide, are not the ‘real’ religion. If your book says it (no matter whether you want to argue it’s metaphor where it suits you), someone somewhere is going to believe it, and justify the belief on that same sheaf of papers as you justify yours. Therefore, the truth in the argument holds both ways – the extremist will argue that you, as a moderate don’t hold the true belief, and vice-versa. You’re both wrong.

Ultimately, it’s only you who believes the way you do (if you do), and you are no more representative than anyone else. In other words, there are as many religions and forms of a given religion as there are believers. Each person practices slightly differently (and has their own definition of ‘sin’), and everyone has a different interpretation of some part of his religion. This is convenient for religions which allow for ‘personal revelation’ as part of the experience (evangelical Christianity, some forms of buddhism, paganism etc), less so for the more rigid forms (Catholicism, Islam, Orthodox Judaism), but in all cases, the variation exists. This is why there is no monolithic, undivided type of any religion.*

Every major (and minor) religion has sects, factions and denominations. This happens because people disagree (politely or otherwise) about the nature of both God and the practice of his worship. One thinks God prefers slaves to honor their masters, the other thinks that whole slavery bit is not ‘true’ Christianity. Every faction is different – they argue over prophets, over forms of worship, over dress, over sexuality and sexual practice, over the role of women, over property and ownership, over governance, over childbearing and rearing, over marriage rites, over finances, over politics, over whether horses can fly, over which way the place of worship faces, over food consumption rules, over the nature of the afterlife, and over whether God made the whole world in 7 days or rather puked it out of a cosmic snake.

Almost anything you can imagine that people would fight about has been fought about, endlessly and pointlessly in the name of the religion formed on the back of the fight, often with much bloodshed in the process. And it doesn’t matter if you claim that it’s not ‘true to the religion’, if religion is used to justify the action, then the religion is a motivating factor, and absolutely it is part of the problem. Dismissing someone’s belief as wrong does not solve the problem of having that belief in the first place.

Religious belief thereby falls along a spectrum of personal comfort.
If you’re comfortable with being a murdering asshole, or picketing the funerals of suicided veterans with anti-gay slogans, then you’ll find that your religion justifies it just fine.
If you’re more into bake sales, macrame circles and feeding the homeless, then ‘God Bless Ya’ you’re a true believer too. There are African American preachers who preach against homosexuality because “the Bible tells me so” but I’m pretty sure they gloss over the parts where the same Bible also justifies slavery.

Religion has very little to do with God, and the only difference between the ‘major’ religions and sects or cults is the number of people who loosely subscribe (with individual differences in practice) to them, or have been forced to live under their rule. Religions are first and foremost political systems, but they have been personalized by every believer.
Therefore, religions have everything to do with justifying and controlling the lifestyles of a given ‘in group’ – no matter whether who considers those groups moderate or extreme. To the group, they are the true representation of their chosen belief. If it’s the same book, it’s the same religion, but infinitely varied among the population of believers, and it’s all about power over the ‘tribe’.

Consider this situation. What would you call someone who takes a child a few days old, and with a sharp knife (and no anesthetic) cuts away a piece of the child’s genitals? Then, while the child is bleeding the person places the child’s penis in his mouth, sucks it and spits away the blood (occasionally infecting the child with a fatal dose of herpes). In any rational sphere of thought, we would call that person a child abuser – possibly a pedophile and lock him away for life. In orthodox Judaism, they call that a Mohel, and their religion justifies it and the rite continues without any prosecution of its practitioners. You can’t argue that ‘well, that’s not true Judaism’, because the reality is – it is. The more complex a religion is, the more hoops believers will jump through to score ‘God points’. Religions are usually as complex as hell, because complexity obscures reality, therefore your belief is just a matter of how many hoops you believe there are.

As an afterthought, and before the onslaught of accusations of me being an angry, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic atheist start flying, let me make one thing absolutely clear. I don’t care so much what you believe, I care about what you do, and I don’t believe your religion forces you to do anything that you wouldn’t do otherwise as a decent human being, nor do I dismiss all believers as ‘as bad as each other’ because of the actions of a few. The problem is always that you probably don’t agree with me entirely on what being ‘a decent human being’ means, and I doubt I can agree with your definition of God either.

That said, there are those who argue that a world without any religion would be a perfect one, where entirely rational people go about their business without dissent, argument or violence. Poppycock. After all, it’s not where we agree that matters, its where we disagree that counts (and costs).

Having spent a lot of time interacting with both people of faith and unbelievers of all stripes, I have come to realize that conflict and tribalism is simply a part of the human experience. There are ‘moderate’ atheists and there are extremists – although hopefully nobody is having their heads hacked off over it. There are ‘in groups’ and ‘out-groups’ (Atheism+ anyone?). There are liberals, leftists, centrists, libertarians, conservatives, librarians, scientists, artists, pissants, assholes, trolls, idiots, and a whole spectrum variety of wonderful, thoughtful and friendly people.
JUST AS THERE ARE IN ANY SPHERE OF LIFE, INCLUDING BELIEVERS. (And, just because of that it doesn’t mean that atheists are wrong, nor that believers are right.)

From the moment we are born, we start to pull against the constraints that are around us. We say “no” followed by tantrums very early in life – and these are not arguments about whether God wants you to wear green on a Tuesday, but whether you can have candy sprinkles on your breakfast or not. Mom says no, your heart says yes. Then when you grow up and mom can’t stop you, you bloody well have candy sprinkles on your breakfast.

C’est la vie. You can either like it, or you can go form your own damn group with whatever beliefs you like, but you can’t claim a monopoly on the truth, because someone, somewhere will point out that you’re not the true believer.

(* Except perhaps the religion I just formed right now with myself, but I already disagree with parts of it so I’m going to form a breakaway group tomorrow…that founder guy is just an idiot.)

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One Response to “Extremism in Religion – How many hoops are there?”

  1. Rob DuBois says:

    An outstanding “deep dive” on the subject, Andi. I particularly agreed with the author you referenced at the opening (sounds like a hell of a guy!), but your points are good, too! 😉

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