By Rudy Barnes, Jr
Is religion reasonable or ridiculous? Consider this aphorism that is attributed to either St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas: Seek not to understand so that you might believe, but believe so that you might understand.
Belief and understanding correspond to religion and reason. While there is little place for reason in understanding the mystical nature of God, it is unreasonable—even ridiculous—to believe that God intended for ancient holy laws to deny fundamental human rights today. But apostasy and blasphemy remain crimes in many Islamic nations, just as they existed in Puritan (Christian) New England until the 19th century. They illustrate how religious fundamentalism can reject reason to preserve traditional religious doctrines and dogmas against change.
Religious fundamentalism is a belief system based on deductive reasoning that derives all truth or understanding from God’s immutable word as revealed in ancient scriptures. Such reasoning was used in medieval Scholasticism to understand and teach all truths until advances in knowledge ushered in the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Today inductive reasoning defines new truths based on advances in knowledge and understanding, and progressive believers inform their understanding of truth with such knowledge, reason and critical thinking, but they do not abandon deductive reasoning for those mystical matters of faith that remain beyond human knowledge and reason.
The inductive reasoning of the Enlightenment was exemplified by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, who derived their libertarian concepts of democracy and human rights from natural law, not holy law. As mentioned in the previous topic, those libertarian concepts are consistent with the greatest commandment and putting love over law1, but they were absent from the Mosaic Law of the Jews and the Shari’a of Muslims. Both ancient codes of holy law emphasized the sovereignty of God over man in all matters of law and politics, and both were intended to be a complete and immutable code of God’s laws that could not be amended. While those ancient holy laws may have been reasonable and relevant for their time and place, as a comprehensive code of laws today they are ridiculous and irrelevant since they are incompatible with modern concepts of justice, including democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.2
In modern democracies religion can be expected to influence politics, but in politics government should never seek to influence or promote religion, much less enforce holy law. For there to be free will in religion and freedom in politics, religious standards of legitimacy must be entirely voluntary and never coerced. Government power must be limited to the enforcement of the secular rule of law and human rights, but that is not possible in Islamist regimes where God is considered the only legislator and laws protect the integrity of Islam at the expense of the freedoms of religion and expression and the equal protection of women and religious minorities.
But change is a certainty. There are differing views among Islamic scholars on matters of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law, and just as the Enlightenment transformed Western cultures and religions with those libertarian concepts, over time similar changes can be expected in Islamic cultures.3 While most Muslims in the Middle East and Africa may reject libertarian democracy, most Muslims in Western democracies now embrace the freedoms of religion and expression and the equal rights of women and religious minorities. And fundamentalist believers who represent a vocal and sometimes violent majority in Islamic cultures are a decreasing minority in libertarian democracies.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the vast diversity in religious beliefs around the world, Judaism, Christianity and Islam can share a common word of faith that is both reasonable and relevant and that promotes religious reconciliation. The commandments to love God and neighbor were taken from the Hebrew Bible and taught by Jesus as the greatest commandment, and many Islamic scholars have embraced this great commandment of altruistic love as being at the heart of Islam. If and when most Jews, Christians and Muslims understand that they love God by loving their neighbors, including those of other faiths, then those religions will cease to be ridiculous and religious reconciliation can make the world a safer place.4
1. See the greatest commandment at pp 25-30 and love over law in the J&M Book at pp 31-42.
2. See the role of religion in democracy, human rights and the rule of law and God’s law or man’s law? A question of sovereignty in Religion, Legitimacy and the Law at pp 2-4. For selected provisions from the Qur’an and Mosaic Law see the Appendices to the J&M Book at pp 469-651; on love over law, see note 1, supra.
3. On the different perspectives of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, see where East meets West at pp 7-8; and on differing scholarly views of reason, freedom and justice under Shari’a, see Religion, Legitimacy and the Law at pp 10-17.
4. See Moses, Jesus and Muhammad and a common word of faith in Religion, Legitimacy and the Law at pp 5-7.