We are having a massive, global communication problem. All because we can’t agree on what the word “religion” really means.
ISIS and Religion
It shouldn’t be that hard to describe a group’s religiosity.
ISIS or ISIL is a group, founded in a religious ideology. That is true at its most basic level. It is composed of religious people and has built a governing framework based on ancient Islamic teaching. It is Islamic in some pretty obvious ways. And we ought to say that.
ISIS also acts from principles that are inconsistent with tradition. It rejects much of mainstream Islam and most of its traditional teachings. For instance, to them, everyone seems to be a heretic:
Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection.
[As an aside, do you notice how that ideology could be used to describe most fundamentalist groups seeking ideological purity? Or see what happens when we substitute in “Constitution” for Koran?]
The question for us then isn’t whether or not ISIS is a religious group. The question is actually what do we mean by religion? And what do we mean by “a religious group”?
We need to get clear on this because it seems like we’re fighting over Islam itself when we should be talking about what kind of Islam ISIS practices.
Some excellent writing highlights this ancient brand of Islam ISIS is trying to push. But to hear it, we have to recognize the nuance in what we’re talking about when we talk about religion.
It is so easy to say “Christians believe…” and speak for all of us. And in big, broad, ridiculously vague ways, one can say things that all Christians believe with relative certainty.
- We follow Jesus.
- We believe in loving our neighbor as ourself.
- The Bible is our holy scripture.
But when we get more specific than this, we end up fighting about particulars. We claim to have common belief, but just get a random selection of 10 people together to go through the Nicene Creed together and see what happens.
As much as we want to believe that we can speak to what an entire religion believes, we can’t.
This doesn’t stop people from trying. But that’s why we need to get a handle on what we mean. Here’s a trick that helps me understand religions better.
Many Christian scholars speak, not of Christianity, but Christianities; not of the Church, but the Churches. They do this because there has never, ever, at any point been a singular Christian faith. No matter what your tradition teaches. Not once.
When Jesus left town, there were 11 disciples left to go
I don’t know about you, but this is what I’m going to do…
It is just as fair to say that this is more or less true of the three desert religions. So we don’t only have Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. We have Judaisms, Islams, and Christianities.
This helps because it prevents us from seeing a religion or religious tradition as monolithic. And more importantly, it helps us to see the various ways these traditions are populated with different leaders, beliefs, and practices.
So we have our Judaisms, Islams, and Christianities, each with their
- Different traditions.
- Different organizations.
- Different belief systems.
- Different goals.
So within the religion we call Judaism, we have many sects with their own stuff, their own leaders, their own goals. Islam has many sects with their own stuff, their own leaders, their own goals. And we all know Christianity has like, thousands of each.
So when one speaks of religion, it is almost never of much use. It is only at the vaguest, most esoteric level of understanding. Heed this, because there are really only two places people ever speak about religion at that level. Three if you count getting high in a dorm room contemplating the profundity of life itself.
- Talking with atheists about why there are wars.
- Attending a philosophy of religion conference.
Those are the only two places. Because in the case of the former, you’re only going to be talking about ridiculous generalizations anyway and in the latter, you are going to be talking about the particular functionality of the concept of a word each must redefine for him or herself as “religion”.
That’s why I’m convinced we should speak of religions instead.
So here we are, thinking of our religions with their myriad practices. What does this actually mean for us in practice?
This means that our religions operate with common principles, not rules; understandings, not laws. This allows for our widely differing views about Scripture, tradition, and doctrine to not only exist, but flourish within a religion and strengthen it through greater diversity.
It means one Christianity doesn’t dictate the terms for another Christianity or hold a third Christianity accountable to another one’s order. They are both independent from each other and mutually dependent on one another to be Christiany.
This is also why only a fool would think all religious people are identical or blame all Christians for the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church or yell that their own sweet grandmother because Southern Baptists focus on abortion and homosexuality as their particular core message. This stuff isn’t “Christianity” any more than being a jerk is “Atheist”. I’ve met some pretty obnoxious atheists, but I’d never give them the God’s Not Dead treatment.
This is elementary-level stuff, but for some reason it just isn’t part of our conversation right now.
The proof can be found in our rampant judging of all Muslims by the actions of ISIS and confusing refugees fleeing utter chaos and terrifying violence for closet militants. And it can be found in the call to close our borders to all but Christians or to watch Christian leaders ignore our holy scripture’s command to welcome the immigrant by instead calling for the closing of our borders.
We are having a massive, global communication problem. All because we can’t agree on what the word “religion” really means. It is as if we’ve flunked Kindergarten because we keep throwing blocks at Susie Weinberg’s head and when the teacher asks us to stop we say “I can’t, she has a stupid face.”
The problem really, ultimately, isn’t a religious one. But its religious element is inseparable from it. We want to understand each other, but as it is, we don’t.
This problem is compounded by a group, ISIS, which actually wants the West to be pissed off at all of Islam, not just them. Who wants us to see, not Islams but one Islam. This is their stated goal. And every time we fight about the religious character of ISIS, define all terrorism as Islamic, and treat the world’s innocents as potential terrorists, we are playing right into their hands.
So let’s do the world a favor and get this one thing right.