Are they really religious? Yes!

Following widespread attacks and protests at US embassies in the Middle East in reaction to a film insulting Islam, several people have linked to a story from February by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany. In the article, titled “Are They Really Religious?”, Aswany criticizes Egyptian Muslims who follow the letter of their interpretation of Islamic law, but disregard basic human decency.

He cites the examples of a male pharmacist who refused to give an injection of insulin to an elderly diabetic woman because of “sharia”, hospital employees leaving their patients unattended for hours so they could pray at a mosque during Ramadan, and Egyptian police officers insisting on letting their beards grow as Muhammad commanded after they had raped, tortured and killed protesters during the revolution. Aswany says:

True religion requires us to defend human values: truth, justice and freedom. This is the essence of religion and it is much more important than growing beards or giving the call to prayer in the Parliament chamber.

So, are these supposed hypocrites “really religious”? Yes, they are still religious. When people insist on spending hours in prayer, or protesting any insult against someone they consider a prophet of their faith, this is obviously driven by religious beliefs, and it is religious behavior. Considering this an act of hypocrisy, or something other than religious in nature, requires redefining religion to mean an idealized “true religion” that upholds a certain set of universal moral values. And while it may sound nice to say “religion is good, and when it’s not, people are just doing it wrong”, that simply isn’t true.

If Aswany wants to denounce medical neglect, human rights violations, and “Egyptians who observe the superficial aspects of religion and pray regularly, but in their daily dealings are far from truthful and honest”, then this is all certainly worthy of criticism in its own right. But just because something is bad doesn’t mean it’s not religious. In reality, religion is not synonymous with respect, honesty, fairness, tolerance, peace, freedom, the golden rule, or anything else that people might insist is a part of “true religion”. Certainly, most sects of most religions will profess to hold most of these values, but in practice, their interpretations often leave exceptions wide enough to fly a plane through.

To claim that religion can only be responsible for good, and that anything terrible which results from it must not have been motivated by religion at all, would severely compromise our understanding of religion as a phenomenon and its role in shaping human behavior. If we recognize that people can be inspired to acts of extraordinary heroism and self-sacrifice by their beliefs about the foundation of existence and the ultimate purpose of humanity, what sense does it make to deny that these same beliefs could also drive people to commit acts of great evil which they think are actually good?

Even simply adhering to ideals of truth, justice and freedom still isn’t enough to prevent some people from completely screwing things up when they put this into action. Why is it so implausible that someone’s religious ideas about what’s inherently good could in fact be utterly atrocious? A society that values shallow displays of piety over respect for human life has absolutely been influenced by religion. Bad religious behavior by religious people doesn’t happen in spite of religion. It happens because of it, and it doesn’t stop being religious when it starts being a problem.

Equating religion with ethical conduct, and the absence of religion with immorality, implies that non-religious people do not share the basic, humane values that are attributed to this “true religion” – or that if they do, they must indeed be religious. Neither is true. People of no religion are fully capable of acting ethically, and their ability to do so is not hindered by the absence of religious faith. It doesn’t mean that they must be either secretly immoral or secretly religious. The lack of religion is not synonymous with a lack of morality, because godlessness and good behavior were never incompatible. The denial that religion could ever be responsible for any wrongdoing is not only false – it also unfairly maligns every person who doesn’t need religion to know right from wrong.

Those who put their prayers before their patients, kill protesters while defending their beards, and attack embassies in the name of Muhammad have not failed to be religious. They’ve succeeded. And just because that success is in the fields of inhumanity, ignorance, frivolity and violence doesn’t mean a lack of faith had anything to do with it.