Why We Need to Acknowledge the Ways that Religion Sucks

In recent weeks, and perhaps months, I feel as though I’ve seen a spike in the number of really off-putting Islamophobic posts popping up in my social media newsfeeds. Of course, my newsfeed is not necessarily a good indicator of social climate, but considering that the majority of Canadians supported a niqab ban and screening new immigrants for Canadian values, and the recent hate crimes against Muslim communities in Canada and the USA, I’m left wondering if my newsfeed is on to something.

The sentiment behind most of these anti-Islamic posts I encounter is that the religion of Islam itself is to blame for a variety of awful things, an idea that Reza Aslan attempted to counter in an interview several years ago:

“Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace, it’s a religion. Like every other religion in the world it depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person your Islam, Judaism, Christianity or Hinduism is going to be violent.”

While I largely agree with this statement, as well as Aslan’s assertion that:

“To say ‘Muslim countries’ as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same or Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same, as though what is happening in the most extreme forms in these repressive countries… is representative of what’s happening in every other Muslim country, is frankly… and I use this word seriously, stupid,”

I also feel as though there’s an implication rolled in to the first statement that actually makes the Canadians I know and love, and interact with daily, more susceptible to harboring Islamophobic sentiments. While he comes short of explicitly stating it, it sounds as though Aslan is suggesting that religion has absolutely zero role to play in determining the way in which people view themselves in the world, has no impact on the way in which people behave, and thus, cannot be held at all accountable for any awful action performed under its banner.

But the thing is, that’s crap, isn’t it?

As an acquaintance pointed out in a discussion on social media, at the very least, religion gives people licence to do some horrible things, and normalizes the idea that horrible things can actually be OK to do. One of the earliest stories young Mormon children learn about involves a young man being prompted by God to chop off another man’s head in order to steal a book. A passage in the Quran appears to justify killing a boy out of concern for the burden his behaviour would place on his parents. The Old Testament records a command from God to murder women and children.

I also believe that religion promotes tribalism, and judgement of those that are different than we are. I find support for this belief in passages from both the Bible and Quran, as well as from personal experience. When my son was 3 years old, we drove past a shirtless man who was jogging on a sweltering summer day. My son immediately piped up to inform me that, “that man is doing something bad!” I tried to engage my son in a discussion about how the Mormon idea of modesty that he learns about at church is heavily influenced by a particular culture (I didn’t use that language of course, but rather tried to chat about how different people have different ideas about what is appropriate for different situations, and provided some examples that would be familiar to him). But try as I did, I couldn’t seem to get him off of the idea that he absolutely knew the correct standard by which everyone should dress, having learned about it at church, and that anything else was unequivocally WRONG. Due to my continued challenging of these sorts of ideas, I think my son has a somewhat more nuanced view of the world at age 7 than he did at age 3, but the conversation definitely left me with the impression that it was exposure to our religion that had supported his dogmatically judgemental attitude, and that without that being challenged, such an attitude could easily persist beyond childhood.

And am I the only one who thinks that the 3 big monotheistic religions placing the stamp of divine approval on racism, misogyny, and slavery had a significant role in the perpetuation of these evils up to the modern day?

All I’m saying here is that I do believe religion has and does cause some significant harms, and I feel like the majority of thinking people would have to agree. Is Aslan correct in suggesting that people bring an awful lot of who they are based on other influences to the embodiment of their religion? Absolutely. Is it reasonable to describe it as a one way street, where the existing body making up a religion doesn’t influence the person practising it at all? Absolutely not. And the fact that people know that is why trying to tell them otherwise actually makes them more susceptible to Islamophobia.

If I tell someone that, “[with every] religion in the world [what that religion is like] depends [only] on what you bring to it,” when they encounter an article telling them that the worst ten countries in the world for gender equality are Muslim majority countries, and featuring several verses from the Quran that seem to show Islamic support for these characteristics, they’re not going to believe me.

And they shouldn’t. Because there are elements of Islam and Christianity that do promote gender inequality. Just as the above referenced article does with Islam, I might point out that the New Testament places men in a position of authority over women, and instructs women to be silent and submit to their husbands as to God, and that 3 of the 4 worst US states for gender equality are also the states with the highest proportions of Mormons.

Instead of trying to tell people that religion bears no responsibility for the awful acts committed in its name, wouldn’t be a bit more authentic to acknowledge that religion has an ugly side? I feel like if we did, that people wouldn’t get so freaked out when the Islamophobes of the world make statements indicating just that. And maybe, just maybe, we could even help the Christian majority of Canadians identify something they have in common with Muslims: membership in a religion that is not entirely good or entirely bad in the impact it has had on the world.

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