The Thing We Call Religion

The Thing We Call Religion

Maya Bohnhoff (& Clancy)

On a forum recently, we fell to discussing what should be taught about Islam in textbooks. Several people opined that certainly we must not have “pro-Islamic” textbooks because Islam, as a evidenced by recent events, was clearly violent in nature and contributed nothing but violence to world civilization.

I once wrote a book that featured some rational and intelligent Muslim characters (THE SPIRIT GATE, Baen, 1996). My publisher’s assistant—a Christian—was appalled and complained that I was making the Muslims seem enlightened. This was fiction, and even a neutral tone toward Islam was considered too “pro-Islamic”.


In my years at school, I never saw a textbook that did not gloss over such “Christian” actions as the forced conversion of aboriginal peoples in the US and abroad and yet insist that Islam, alone, was spread by the sword. Meanwhile, these same texts neglected to note, as Bahram pointed out in his series on Islam, that our higher education system, library system, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, astronomy and other modern benefits owe much to Islam. Heck, I play my musical instrument of choice thanks to the development in Muslim society of the tar.

There is plenty of both blame and kudos to go around when it comes to religion, and I fail to see why one religious tradition has to be put down in order to raise another up. I respectfully suggest that people who think religious belief is a competition or an “either/or” situation ought to check their assumptions against the teachings of their professed faith. It seems downright un-Christian not to accept responsibility for one’s shortcomings nor give credit where credit is due.

A correspondent in the textbook discussion wrote that “something went wrong in the Muslim world”.  Something certainly did go wrong. But it’s nothing that didn’t also go wrong in the Christian world or the “atheist” world or the political world or in any other “world” within society. For example, what went wrong in the Communist world that Joseph Stalin blithely wiped out millions of my fellow Poles? What went wrong in Germany that caused an entire nation to allow Hitler to come to power (I know—it’s the economy, stupid) wiping out countless thousands of my Ashkenazi forebears?

Here’s reality, for ya: The monolithic institution some refer to as “religion” does not exist in the real world. And while it is not intolerant to struggle against dogmatism and irrationality, it IS intolerant (and irrational) to assign all religion “a grave with the wicked” regardless of the myriad forms religion takes or the good religious precepts and adherents have done.

I might think it is not intolerant to observe that Joseph Stalin was a monster. You might agree. But would it not be intolerant to insist that because Joe Stalin was an atheist, therefore all atheists are monsters and atheism, itself, is a monstrous ideology?

As a person of faith, that is the sort of “reasoning” I face every day. All sorts of whacky assumptions are made about my beliefs simply because there is a cadre of folk who believe the Straw Zealot evoked by the word “religion” is an accurate representation of all beliefs and believers.

It is not.

Naturally, our discussion of textbooks took in the Crusades. My own point of view was that any coverage of the Crusades ought also to allow the student to appreciate that while the Arab Empire extended itself into Christian lands, it did NOT—as a rule—force conversion of the peoples it conquered to Islam. The forced conversion carried out under Christian rule was institutionalized and sanctioned by church authority. The incidents of forced conversion in Islam have been the exception rather than the rule and were carried out by sectarian groups with more zeal than obedience to their faith.

A balanced view of the Crusades would need to note, I think, that the splendor Spain had under Muslim rule went into decilne when “Christians” once again wrested control and expelled and slaughtered the Jews and Muslims living there. The Spanish economy was wrecked, the agricultural system collapsed and the level of education guttered. Students should also be aware that the Crusaders destroyed countless volumes of scientific, philosophical and historical importance. BUT they should also be taught about enlightened Christians such as Roger of Sicily, who protected the vast libraries the Muslims had established,  guarded the rights of the Muslims and Jews in his realm, and continued to allow the interfaith study of the texts by Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars.

As I said, there’s plenty of blame and praise to go ’round on all sides.

The point really is that textbooks shouldn’t be pro or anti anything. Intolerance and irrationality are no prettier when practiced by secularists than when practiced by religious people or vice versa. As Abdu’l-Bahá notes, “hatred is darkness”—period. No ideology can redeem it.

I find it ironic when atheists display passionate intolerance of religion because “religion” is so darned intolerant, dontcha know?. But it’s downright disturbing when people of faith show such intolerance and hostility. Why? Simply because the teachings of their faiths so clearly call upon them NOT to be intolerant, hostile or fearful of others, but rather to love in response to hatred, to repay even cruelty with kindness, to give rather than take.

Clearly and unambiguously, demonstrating antipathy and intolerance of another group is a rejection of faith, not a demonstration of it. Recognizing that fact could go a long way to improving the dialogue between people of all faiths and no faith.

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5 thoughts on “The Thing We Call Religion

  1. One of my great pleasures in life is my involvement in inter-faith and multi-faith organisations and activity in the UK. As a result of this involvement, I have learned a great deal about the different faiths over many years. I consider it a great privilege to count amongst my friends sincere and committed followers of a range of faiths, all of whom are quite capable of rational thought, none of whom promote hatred of “the other”, all of whom draw on the wells of loving kindness that draw on the limpid stream of the spirit that flows beneath all the great traditions.

    I have also found much to agree with in what some of my humanist friends, committed as they are to an ethical life and the promotion of human rights, say.

    However, there is a tendency amongst the various traditions and philosophies to wish to defend their territory – rather as if religions were sovereign territories facing invasion. We can converse and learn face-to-face; we can work and collaborate side-by-side, but still some are anxious that others may be out to convert their followers away from their family faith or tradition.

    So the question is, how do we encourage genuine openness of thought and heart, how do we educate people not to make the “straw zealot” kind of assumptions that Maya refers to and which can so damage relations between communities.

    I suspect that the question reaches far beyond overcoming stereotyped views of religion. It has something to do with moving away from our deeply embedded tendency to adopt an adversarial mode of discourse. If I am right, you MUST be wrong!

    1. I honestly think the key is in a core principle of the Baha’i Faith: the independent investigation of reality.

      When discussing faith with those who do attack it, I often find that the person mocking me for my beliefs has no idea in the world what they actually are. I have but to say I believe in God and I am assailed by a barrage of sarcasm based on assumptions about what “a religious person” believes.

      Clearly, a principle of independent investigation would go along way to stop the barrage before it even started. Rather than relying on a bullet list of convenient assumptions and conditioned responses to same, the investigator would have to ask questions about particular beliefs and respond to those, not to the straw faith.

      It’s hard to get past that, though, with some folks. They want to have a dialogue about faith (yours, not theirs) but they’re not comfortable moving past what they believe they know. I’ve had atheist correspondents tell me that the Baha’i Faith was not really a religion because it lacked the “silly bits” of dogma that, of course, ALL religion had.

      Beyond truly independent investigation, I think we all need to remember that the people involved in the dialogue are just that: people. We are alike in many ways. We are not ideologies or points-of-view. We are not theologies or institutions. We are all human beings with feelings, dignity, and sacred places that we trample at our peril.

  2. Like the post Maya.

    Because of the recent (last 200-300 years) stunning decline in the fortunes Islam, together with the now well established fact that the West has downplayed and in many cases omitted the significant contributions of Islam to modern civilization, it is a challenge to change the perceptions you mentioned in your post.

    Yes the atrocities under Christian rule are many, such as the holocaust against women (I am referring to the practice of burning of “witches”).

    From an evolutionary point of view these can be attributed to the period of humanities childhood. We are at the age of adolescence and we have the capacity to act mature. I just hope that this transition to maturity will be a smooth and painless one.

  3. In my World History class in high school we skipped the Crusades entirely. And most of WWII as well, including the internment of Japanese Americans. We had one class period (one!) devoted to world religions, in which our teacher asserted that Muslims don’t believe in God. As an outspoken teen who had lived in many places (the school I went to in 7th grade was in Botswana and there was a mosque next door – we could hear the call to prayer go out periodically throughout the day), I couldn’t just let that pass, of course, and I strenuously objected to this assertion. He amended his statement with “Well, not our God.”

    I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t talking about “my God” either.

    But I try to keep it in mind, that most of my fellow Americans have probably received this kind of education without the contrasting experiences that I had. Most of them may have never even had a friend who wasn’t either some flavor of Christian, agnostic or atheist, never learned of the many atrocities committed in name of all kinds of beliefs (I had no idea about the atrocities committed in the name of Buddhism and Confucianism until I got deep into my Japanese degree program at SFSU – I mention this specifically because I’ve heard many people assert the idea that Buddhism is the only peaceful religion that exists).

    1. I had the same sort of educational gaps. My idea of Islam came from a couple of years in Morocco as a child, but it was filtered through my Christian assumptions about Islam and Muslims. I distinctly recall that our “fatima”, Arkayyih—who was mom’s helper and my “nanny’—had slits in her ears. When mom asked her how they’d happened, Arkayyih told her proudly that her husband had been so jealous that another man had looked at her that he ripped her earrings from her ears. Her take on this was that it meant he loved her very much.

      That’s the sort of prejudice I had to overcome. It was only when I read the Qur’an for myself that I realized that Muhammad had striven by word and deed to teach his followers to respect and even revere women. It takes a lot to overcome the sort of cultural baggage we bring to a faith, though. Somehow the veil—which was intended to protect Muslim women from harassment—has become a means of oppression instead.

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