Religion Has No Answer for Sectarianism

June 23, 2014

In Iraq, we are witnessing yet again the tremendous harm caused by religious fanaticism.  One interesting aspect of the present conflict is that it largely pits Muslim against Muslim, with some fanatics in the Sunni tradition battling devoted adherents of the Shia tradition.  Both traditions, of course, rely on the Qur’an as the ultimate authoritative text.  So why the conflict? 

Well, why not?  History has witnessed many conflicts between religious groups who purport to rely on the same authoritative text.  For the most part, different sects of Christians no longer kill each other, but the bloodshed between Protestants and Catholics only dribbled to a halt in the early nineteenth century—that is, apart from Northern Ireland.

And this phenomenon should not be surprising.  In fact, the phenomenon of intra-religious strife highlights the key problem with using religious texts and doctrines to address ethical issues in general, and in particular, how we treat other human beings.  All holy texts, and the doctrines derived from such texts, are infinitely malleable.  Which is another way of saying that, in themselves, they are useless as ethical guides.  The Bible and the Qur’an represent a hodgepodge of thoughts and observations and, in the case of the Bible, a hodgepodge of thoughts and observations extending over centuries of time.  Believers who want to advocate a particular position can cherry-pick whatever scriptural passage or snippet of doctrine they find useful for making their point.  If the apparent literal meaning of the text does not quite fit the position, no problem!  They can make it fit by giving the text a “symbolic” interpretation or appealing to “context.”  Think of any position you want.  You can pick some passage in the Bible or Qur’an to support it. 

Do I exaggerate? I don’t think so. Just consider a few of the various issues on which Christians have taken opposing views based on their dueling interpretations of scripture:  slavery, women’s rights, desegregation, capital punishment, contraception, same-sex marriage—and on and on. 

Similarly, in less tolerant times, scriptural passages were used by Christians to justify their mutual slaughter.  The Pope was identified (and still is by some fundamentalists) as the Beast in the Book of Revelation and chapter 13 of Deuteronomy and isolated New Testament passages (see 1 Cor. 5: 9–13) provided ample justification for the Catholic Church to extirpate Protestant heretics.

Moreover, it was not some sudden realization that “Wow, we have been interpreting these biblical passages all wrong,” that stopped Catholics from killing Protestants and vice-versa.  No, there were two reasons, one derived from practical considerations, the other from secular ethics.  As a practical matter, by the late seventeenth century, it was apparent that neither Catholicism nor Protestantism could swipe the other away through the sword.  More importantly, certainly in the long run, Enlightenment philosophy, and with it the view that all humans have a right to certain fundamental freedoms, including freedom of conscience, slowly began to have an influence.  This was a secular philosophy and it gave birth to the first secular state, namely the United States. 

In a secular state, religion is supposed to remain a private matter, without any role in determining public policy. But just as religion has no role in government, government has no role in religious affairs, letting individuals decide for themselves what to believe, without any compulsion, pressure, or oversight by the state. Secularism hasn’t been implemented perfectly—in the United States, for example, there’s still far too much influence of religion on public policy—but overall the track record of secular states has been very good in preserving religious peace. 

There’s been much debate over whether Islam lends itself to religious strife more than other religions, principally because multiple passages in the Qur’an can be interpreted as exhorting believers to wage holy war against unbelievers, which, of course, can include those deviants who say they’re Muslims but really aren’t. However, the vast majority of  modern Muslims are not extremists and reject religious violence. They might point to different passages in the Qur’an that seem to urge peace and also prohibit killing except in self-defense.

The reality is that although Islamic extremists do currently pose more of a problem for the world than other religious extremists, the Qur’an is intrinsically no more belligerent than any other holy book—nor is it more irenic. Any holy book can be read to justify or condemn violence depending on its interpretation, and there’s no objective way to decide between differing interpretations.

One indisputable reason why religiously inspired violence remains more of a problem for the Islamic world is that most Islamic countries have never embraced secularism. They don’t have an ethics of natural rights based on secular considerations. They have not yet been driven to the secular solution that European and Western countries embraced after so much Christian blood was spilled in absurd disputes over transubstantiation, papal authority, and so on.

In other words, they have not yet learned that it’s a fool’s game to try to argue against religious violence that is justified by appeal to scripture by appealing to scripture. Religion doesn’t have the intellectual resources to deal with religiously inspired violence. To address religious violence, one must embrace secularism. One needs to think outside The Book.


#1 Jim (Guest) on Tuesday June 24, 2014 at 10:22am

Mr. Lindsay, I do not know what your background is however I know you never studied the Bible. You may have read it but never studied it. You commentary on the the different religions is quite amusing. How do I get a job like yours without having any credibility.


#2 Max (Guest) on Tuesday June 24, 2014 at 12:26pm

When Muslims can’t even make peace with each other, how can anyone expect them to make peace with non-Muslims?

#3 dewdds on Tuesday June 24, 2014 at 3:40pm

While I applaud most of Mr. Lindsey’s article, I think he is somewhat naive about the totality of what constitutes sacred scripture in Islam. While the Quran is considered the authoritative text, other traditions such as Hadith (Sayings of Muhammad) and Sira (Biographical material of Muhammad) have varying degrees of influence in directing Islamic interpretation. For example death for apostasy is not found in the Quran, but all the major schools of Islamic jurisprudence allow varied applications based on Hadiths.  Similarly all the major schools of Islamic jurisprudence allow for a violent and warlike interpretation of Jihad, as well as allowing for the institution of slavery as a norm in any Islamic society.

Muslims who adopt a more liberal and modern interpretation of Islam or members of less reactionary sects, such as Ahmadiyyah or Bahai, are too often subject to persecution and/or suppression by the mainstream religionists. Unfortunately for the peaceful Muslims and non-Muslims alike, toxic strains of Islam to include Wahhabism and Salafism are on the rise mostly due to export via the wealthy Gulf Arab states. The violence we see in the Middle East is becoming a danger wherever these ultra-conservative Muslim communities set-up shop and indeed most major Islamic terrorist incidents throughout the world in the last two decades are directly due to converts to these interpretations of Islam.

Can Islam be reformed to a kinder & gentler version of itself? In theory yes, but that would require such an extensive overhaul that it would make the religion almost unregeconizable to most Muslims. Also consider that major societal changes would need to occur too, most critical of which would be separating mosque and state. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

#4 Max (Guest) on Tuesday June 24, 2014 at 9:32pm

It’s hard to argue that violent Muslim fundamentalists are an aberration when they take over whole countries.

#5 Kritikos on Wednesday June 25, 2014 at 8:43am

The following piece by James Carroll was published about the same time as Dr. Lindsay’s but it reads as if it were the direct target of Lindsay’s criticisms:

Religious extremism: The answer is more religion” (James Carroll, Boston Globe, June 23, 2014):

What the holy warriors miss is how every religion includes — within its dogma and tradition — the principles of its own self-criticism. The universal prohibition of idolatry, for example, means that anyone who kills wantonly, no matter the justification, is claiming an absolute moral power that does not belong to human beings. The worship of God carries with it the prohibition against the worship of the self as God. Religion so emphatically insists on this precisely because something in the human heart wants to be God, and when that something prevails, all hell breaks loose. The ultimate sin always comes disguised as salvation — a self-deception against which religion rails.

What James Carroll misses is that the fact that a religion “includes” humane principles makes absolutely no difference to the fact that most religions also include inhumane ones, and that a religious outlook, being founded on credulity rather than critical judgment, provides no one with a basis for selecting and promoting the humane principles over the inhumane ones.

#6 Max (Guest) on Wednesday June 25, 2014 at 9:43pm

In a hole: The answer is more digging

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