Should we judge reli­gions?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

From 9-11 to this day, call­ers to my syn­di­cated ra­dio show have asked: “Is Is­lam a re­li­gion of vi­o­lence?” And since 9-11, I have given the same re­sponse: “I don’t judge reli­gions; I judge prac­ti­tion­ers.”

It is easy to dis­miss this re­sponse as a po­lit­i­cally cor­rect cop-out, but there are good rea­sons for this re­sponse.

First, in me­dieval, or even parts of early mod­ern, Europe, many peo­ple would have asked, “Is Chris­tian­ity a re­li­gion of vi­o­lence?” And 2,000-3,000 years ago, peo­ple might have asked, “Is Ju­daism a re­li­gion of vi­o­lence?”

Sec­ond, the ques­tion is of­ten im­pos­si­ble to an­swer be­cause reli­gions are al­most never uni­fied in their val­ues (and of­ten not even in their the­ol­ogy). For ex­am­ple, most evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians have al­most no val­ues in com­mon with fel­low Chris­tians of the Na­tional Coun­cil of Churches (NCC). Con­ser­va­tive Protes­tant Chris­tians share far more val­ues with tra­di­tional Catholics, Ortho­dox Jews and Mor­mons than with fel­low Protes­tant Chris­tians of the NCC. And lib­eral Jews (not only sec­u­lar ones, but many Con­ser­va­tive and most Re­form Jews) share more val­ues with lib­eral Chris­tians and lib­eral athe­ists than with Ortho­dox Jews. So when as­sess­ing Chris­tian­ity or Ju­daism, which Chris­tian­ity and which Ju­daism are we as­sess­ing?

Third, when groups are vi­o­lent, how much of their vi­o­lence is di­rectly caused by their re­li­gion — or by their ir­re­li­gion? Along­side Hitler (who be­lieved in no re­li­gion), Stalin and Mao were his­tory’s great­est mass mur­der­ers, and they were athe­ists. Could one have asked, “Is athe­ism a vi­o­lent ide­ol­ogy?” As for re­li­gious evil­do­ers, did Euro­pean Chris­tians who sup­ported the Nazis do so be­cause of, or de­spite, their re­li­gion?

Fourth, even when a group does at­tribute its vi­o­lence to its re­li­gion, as in the case of Mus­lim ter­ror­ists, does that mean the re­li­gion it­self preaches vi­o­lence?

Many peo­ple would of­fer a fifth rea­son not to judge reli­gions — that do­ing so is in­her­ently bi­ased, even big­oted, and out­siders have no right to judge oth­ers’ reli­gions.

But that ob­jec­tion to judg­ing a re­li­gion is in­valid.

We judge sec­u­lar ide­olo­gies all the time; why not re­li­gious ide­olo­gies? Why is it per­mis­si­ble to say that con­ser­vatism is self­ish and mean-spir­ited or to say that lib­er­al­ism is naive and fool­ish, but one can­not say any­thing neg­a­tive about a re­li­gion? I be­lieve that the Judeo-Chris­tian value sys­tem as de­vised largely by Amer­i­can Chris­tians rooted in the Jewish Scrip­tures is the finest value sys­tem ever made — and many peo­ple la­bel this view “big­oted” and “in­tol­er­ant.” Yet, many of th­ese same peo­ple have no prob­lem as­sert­ing that sec­u­lar lib­eral val­ues con­sti­tute the finest value sys­tem ever made. Why can one say that with­out any fear of be­ing la­beled “in­tol­er­ant” or “big­oted”?

The prob­lem with as­sess­ing reli­gions is that many who do so are in fact prej­u­diced; they are of­ten out­siders out to prove an­other re­li­gion false. Or they may have grown up in a re­li­gion and for what­ever rea­sons come to hate the re­li­gion in which they were raised — some ex-Catholics, for ex­am­ple; or were merely born into that re­li­gion — such as some anti-re­li­gious Jews.

So, too, anti-Semites’ as­sess­ments of Ju­daism em­anate from a ha­tred of Jews and their re­li­gion, not from hon­est ques­tions about Ju­daism. On the other hand, not ev­ery cri­tique of Ju­daism or Jews is nec­es­sar­ily an­tiSemitic. Like­wise many con­tem­po­rary at­tacks on Chris­tian­ity and Chris­tians are big­oted — such as when Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ists are likened to Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ists and rad­i­cals. There are no Chris­tian groups com­pa­ra­ble to Is­lamic groups that rou­tinely mur­der in­no­cents or seek to vi­o­lently im­pose Is­lamic law on Mus­lims and nonMus­lims. But here, too, not ev­ery crit­i­cism of Chris­tians or Chris­tian­ity em­anates from anti-Chris­tian big­otry.

There are also peo­ple who are prej­u­diced against Is­lam. But be­cause in our time the vast ma­jor­ity of vi­o­lence in­ten­tion­ally di­rected against in­no­cents is per­pe­trated by Mus­lims in the name of Is­lam, and be­cause free­dom and re­li­gious tol­er­ance are rare in coun­tries that call them­selves Is­lamic, one need not be prej­u­diced to ask chal­leng­ing ques­tions about Is­lam and/or Mus­lims. So where does that leave us? One: It is fair — and even nec­es­sary — to at­tempt to morally as­sess reli­gions just as it is to morally as­sess any non-re­li­gious ide­ol­ogy.

Two: Ideally those crit­i­cisms should come from those within the re­li­gion be­ing judged. The ab­sence of Is­lamic self-crit­i­cism — rel­a­tive to Chris­tian and Jewish self-crit­i­cism — has been the great­est prob­lem to many nonMus­lims.

Three: It is very dif­fi­cult to judge an en­tire re­li­gion for the four rea­sons of­fered above and be­cause those mak­ing such judg­ments must be free of ei­ther a re­li­gious agenda (to “prove” an­other re­li­gion false) or an anti-re­li­gious agenda (to show re­li­gion in gen­eral as morally in­fe­rior).

For the rea­sons of­fered here, re­gard­ing Is­lam, I have de­cided to re­strict my cri­tiques to prac­ti­tion­ers rather than to the re­li­gion it­self. But those who of­fer rea­soned moral cri­tiques of Is­lam are not nec­es­sar­ily “Is­lam­o­pho­bic,” any more than all moral crit­ics of Chris­tian­ity or Ju­daism are nec­es­sar­ily “Chris­tianopho­bic” (why is there no such word, in­ci­den­tally?) or anti-Semitic. The word is used to in­tim­i­date the most nec­es­sary en­deavor of our time — non-hos­tile, non-prej­u­diced, re­spect­ful, open dis­cus­sion of Is­lam. And no one needs it more than good Mus­lims.

Den­nis Prager is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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