With ISIS claiming lives in violent atrocities across the globe, most recently hitting an iconic Western city, Paris, discussion has renewed on the role of Islam on these terrorist organizations. Some are quick to point out that this is further evidence that Islam itself is deeply flawed, violent, and dangerous. Others have cautioned against making a sweeping judgment of Islam, delivering memes that if you can differentiate between Christians and the KKK, you should be able to distinguish between Muslims and ISIS. To do otherwise is to be prejudicial, discriminatory, “Islamaphobic,” and, interestingly enough, racist.
As I have noted before in passing, New Atheist liberals such as Sam Harris and Bill Maher despise this equivalency despite their contempt towards religion in general, especially Christianity. Maher has called it “liberal bull****” and repeatedly takes people to task for trying to equate Muslim violence with any other faith’s. Harris has stressed that ideas matter because they are consistent causes of behavior (I would actually be interested to see how Harris deals with the problem of epiphenomenalism for materialists like him who don’t even believe in free will, but I’ll pass that by for now). He even famously called Islam “the mother lode of bad ideas,” much to the displeasure of Ben Affleck. They are joined, ironically, by people that they dislike: Social, often religious, conservatives who view Islam as a violent religion that threatens to undermine Western values. On the other side, their fellow liberals have attacked them and have called them names, an amusing spectacle because these same liberals are pretty darn silent when Maher or Harris blast Christianity.
Is the issue as simple as comparing the distinction between ISIS/Islam and the KKK/Christianity? Do Maher and Harris have a point here, and does Islam itself contain pernicious beliefs that inevitably lead to such violence? How do we discern when someone acts badly in spite of their beliefs or because of their beliefs?
Beliefs do matter
Maher and Harris are right about this: Beliefs definitely influence behavior, especially deeply held beliefs about the world, existence, and ethics. Such beliefs are certainly not the only “things” that determine behavior; everyone has had the experience of choosing to do something despite one’s deeply held beliefs. Still, deeply held beliefs seem to be general predictors of behavior, especially over large groups of people. Someone who thinks adultery is wrong is rather less likely to commit adultery than someone who thinks it is not only acceptable but good to do (though again, the former person is certainly not guaranteed to never commit adultery).
Therefore, it may be the case that if we consistently see bad behavior from people, it’s fair to ask if something is very wrong with the belief system that they hold. However, as I have argued before, it is neither logically nor evidentially convincing to simply tally up bad things that a certain group of people have allegedly done. It’s not even enough to show that people do bad things in the name of their religion or worldview; it is possible, after all, that they gravely misunderstand the beliefs that they claim to hold or even intentionally use those beliefs to justify bad behavior they want to do for other reasons. To indict a religion, worldview, or belief system, one has to show that an accurate understanding, or at least a very plausible understanding, of that belief system will consistently lead to horrible behavior.
Christianity and the KKK
With this test in mind, it is easy to see how the KKK does not hold to orthodox Christian ethics and beliefs, no matter what they claim. Even if you visit their websites, they give lip service to God, Christ, and the Bible but have precious little to say about them, having to resort to perhaps a handful of out-of-context Scripture references. The KKK has been categorically rejected by all orthodox Christian denominations in no uncertain terms. The whole idea of the Bible teaching white supremacy is absurd on the outset, considering how the New Testament was written by a bunch of Jewish Christians and began in Judea. It really does not take a deep view of the Bible to see how the KKK is nowhere near an accurate representation of Christian doctrine, and people like Harris would most likely concur even though he obviously has a low view of Christianity.
Islam and ISIS
However, does this test easily distinguish between Islam and ISIS? It depends on what the proper understanding of Islam is. Maher and Harris are very clear that they do not believe that most Muslims would do anything like what ISIS or Al-Qaeda do; what they are arguing is that even though most Muslims would never do such things, the fundamental flaws of Islamic doctrine will inevitably lead to a subset of people acting in these ways. They contend that many Muslims around the world, even though they do not resort to violence, do not disagree substantially with the doctrines of these terrorist groups. For example, Maher argues that many Muslims agree that those who draw pictures of Mohammed or are apostates deserve a violent death.
If liberals want to answer this charge from people like Maher and Harris, they’re going to have to do more than say that most Muslims don’t go around suicide-bombing others or go on shooting sprees. They’re going to have to show how Harris’ argument that people like Osama Bin Laden gave a straightforward, plausible reading of the Quran is wrong. Ironically, while many non-Muslims struggle to come up with answers here because they know next to nothing about both Islam and Christianity but are only concerned about being “tolerant” and politically correct, there are actual Muslims who come from different interpretive traditions and do have arguments that these extremist groups interpret the Quran wrongly. This is where it seems both Maher and Harris err because they don’t seem all that willing to engage these positions. It will then boil down to this: What’s the most faithful interpretation of the Quran, based on its own context? If it really is anything like what these terrorists espouse, then Harris and Maher are right that Islam itself deserves criticism, no matter how many confused liberals in the media throw a hissy fit. If it is not, then such a case needs to be heard and not silly accusations of racism or intolerance.
Christians need to exercise wisdom here. It can be easy to let our fundamental disagreements with Islamic doctrine automatically make us blame Islam for violence, but we need to do so with careful argument and understanding of Islamic doctrine if we’re going to do that at all. If you do not have enough knowledge about Islam and its doctrines, then it may be best to avoid entering into the debate. However, what all Christians can do is challenge these silly liberals who try to make equivalencies: Do they know anything about Islam? Christianity? Have they studied enough of either to make such bare assertions, or are they just fueled by this self-important desire to feel “enlightened” and “tolerant”?
Maher and Harris can be accused of being overly-simplistic, but again, they are right about this: Beliefs matter. This is where the discussion needs to be, not about feelings or goofball internet memes.