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Sep 16 2012

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.

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  1. 1
    julian

    Agreed 100%

    One of the most annoying aspects o arguing with liberal believer is how eagerly they’ll coopt religion to exclude anyone who doesn’t agree with their politics. A “true” believer could never do x y and z. I feel nothing but disdain for fundamentalism and totalitarian religious ideas but they are no less valid an expression of religiosity than the moderate who supports abortion or gay rights.

    It’s reprehensible, no doubt, and something the public sphere should look to curb but that’s not enough to erase someone’s entire religious culture and beliefs. They are still believers whether they hold onto archaic ideas about sex, gender and violence towards blasphemy.

  2. 2
    Sally Hansen

    Very interesting video. One thing I would like to point out is that religion didn’t just appear out of a vacuum. If we don’t acknowledge the historical foundations of religion then we are not acknowledging the reasons people do atrocious things. People aren’t simply adhering or not adhering to religious doctrine, they are SHAPING it. Because religion is completely man-made, its easy to see how one could plausibly create a religion in order to justify atrocious behavior that was already ongoing before said religion was ever created. Its not just that religion inspires people to do terrible or wonderful things. Like you said, people would be doing terrible or wonderful things without it (as is the case with someone who identifies as an atheist). We have to ask how did religion come about? People created religion because they wanted to EXPLAIN their lives and explain the world around them, but they also wanted to use it to maintain power. The fact that its a false interpretation of reality says a lot about the mentality that already existed before the religion became prevalent in society. Lets say one religion holds the value that women should be subjugated to men. How did this society come to this conclusion? Surely it didn’t just drop out of the air, right? Someone didn’t just one day come up with a religion and in their head say “well one value I want my religion to have is that women should be subjugated to men” out of nowhere. Women in the particular society had to have already been subjugated to men in order for the religion to catch on in the dominant group. The religion was merely a reflection of behavior that already existed, even though it gives a false explanation for why these things are supposedly “the truth”. So yes, it is “true religion” whether its bad or good like you said, but I feel like you are ignoring a huge aspect if you want to explain why a religion is bad for subjugating women (or any other number of terrible things). If the religion didn’t actually create this value since the religion is merely a reflection of the value that already existed, how exactly did this value come about in the first place and how can we address that? We have to look deeper to find the answer. As you mentioned, people create loopholes in their religion to justify bad behavior (flying into towers), so blaming the actual religion isn’t actually fully addressing the issue, even though the religion is definitely in some part to be blamed. Structuration is an example of this. People shape their social reality, and in turn their social reality shapes them. Its a two way process. If somehow, someway religion were completely done away with in the future, would social equality suddenly come about? Probably not. We would still need to address the underlying causes that created the atmosphere conducive to the spread of such religions. Although perhaps for all I know you’ve addressed this issue pretty thoroughly in your other videos. I haven’t watched in a long time, to be honest :)

    1. 2.1
      douglaslm

      I agree with your line of reasoning here, if religion went away today we would still have to deal with the underlying behaviors. What religion does, it acts as as enabler. People use religion as an excuse to practice and perpetuate their own brand of behavior. IMO if religion were to “magically” disappear today it would be much harder (personally and as a culture) to continue practicing most of the more irrational aspects that current religions foster.
      Thanks for reading.

  3. 3
    rilian

    I don’t get the thing about beards.

  4. 4
    Robofish

    I believe this is known as the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. (As in: “No Scotsman would eat cereal rather than porridge for breakfast.” “What about your Uncle Jimmy?” “Well, he isn’t a *true* Scotsman then!”)

    The point being, if you keep redefining a group to exclude those about whom a statement doesn’t apply, the statement becomes trivial and meaningless. If you say that no one who inflicts violence on another is a ‘true Muslim’, then it’s trivially true that no Muslims are violent, because you’ve defined it that way. But that’s not the usual understanding of the word ‘Muslim’. If you use it as most people do, to mean all those people who identify as Muslims and try to live their life according to Muslim principles, then a significant minority of Muslims *are* willing to use violence.

    If members of a group you’re part of are behaving in a way you don’t like, the more responsible reaction isn’t to try to separate yourself from them and say “we’re not with those guys”; it’s to accept that like it or not, they *are* part of your group, and to try to persuade them to act otherwise. That, or leave the group entirely and call yourself something else. But don’t try to use Muslim (or whatever) to mean ‘only those Muslims whose behaviour I approve of’.

    1. 4.1
      baal

      I agree, you do own your neighbors whether you want to or not.

    2. 4.2
      Abbey

      Islam+ ?

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