Sunday, February 15, 2015

Is Religion Good or Evil?

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            At the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, 2015, President Obama generated a flurry of commentary when he suggested that religions could be the source of evil as well as good and related ISIS to Islam, something Islamic nations have taken care to avoid.  It brought to mind Karen Armstrong’s recent book, Fields of Blood, in which she made an impressive argument to exonerate religion as the cause of the evils of war (see the blog on Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy posted on December 29, 2104).

            E.J. Dionne commented on the prayer breakfast and noted that the President affirmed the obvious when he said, “We’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.”  And when he condemned the Islamic State as “a brutal vicious death cult that in the name of religion carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism ...claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”  Obama cautioned Christians not to “get on our high horse” and to “remember that during the Crusades and Inquisitions people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”  He could have also cautioned Jews, since the story of Joshua at Jericho set a Biblical precedent for ethnic cleansing.

            Richard Cohen ignored historical precedents that associate evil with religion and argued that ISIS atrocities are not religious but caused by a universal force of evil that is totally detached from Islam.  Cohen cited the fact that ISIS terrorists are Sunni Muslims like many if not most of their victims.  He failed to recognize that intrafaith sectarian differences can generate as much religious hatred and violence—the essence of evil—as interfaith differences.

            Michael Gerson used political considerations to detach evil from religion, citing the “Bush/Obama approach [in which] terrorism is an aberration that must be isolated [from religion]” and Gerson recalled George W. Bush saying, “I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace.…And I believe that people who murder the innocent to achieve political objectives aren’t religious people.”  The problem with that reasoning is that Islam makes no distinction between religious and political objectives; but even in Western cultures that distinction can be blurred, as with Christian right-to-life zealots who kill abortion doctors.

            Eugene Robinson took the President to task for suggesting that Islam needs a Reformation or Enlightenment to conform its ancient laws to modern standards of legitimacy, and said that “…comparing the depredations of the Islamic State with those of the Crusaders is patronizing in the extreme,” implying that Muslims are “slow learners” when it comes to distinguishing between God’s will to do good and Satan’s will to do evil.

            Whether patronizing or not, Islam needs to follow the example of Judaism and Christianity and embrace the libertarian political ideals and reason of the Enlightenment to be compatible with modernity.  That would amount to a Reformation of Islam, and it would have to begin with the law.  Muslims consider Islamic law, or Shari’a, as God’s immutable law, and use apostasy and blasphemy laws to protect the sanctity of Islam.  The prohibitions of Shari’a conflict with the fundamental freedoms of religion and expression and also deny women and religious minorities the equal protection of the law.                                

            Michael Gerson acknowledged that Islamic law is problematic: “It is harder to separate divine law from  positive law in a faith where the founder was also a political and military leader.”  Gerson urged that Presidential rhetoric on this contentious issue of legitimacy “should not be theological but phenomenological” and should characterize the conflict with ISIS as the peaceful people versus the terroristsrather than the peaceful people versus the radical Islamist terrorists to avoid causing “…a global firestorm.” 

            It is a mistake to deny that Islam has a role in motivating the terrorism of al Qaeda and ISIS; but it is also a mistake to believe that mainstream Islam supports such terrorism, even as an increasing number of young disaffected Muslims are attracted to ISIS.  Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, includes great diversity of believers.  A primary objective of the ISIS Jihad is to polarize Jews and Christians against Muslims, creating the fear that Islam is threatened.  Such religious polarization must be resisted.  Only Muslims can determine the future of Islam, but Jews and Christians can support progressive Muslims in their battle with radical Islamists for the heart of Islam by engaging in interfaith dialogue that seeks to reconcile these Religions of the Book on common values, while acknowledging their differences.

             Is religion good or evil?  The President got it right when he said it can be both.  God’s will is to reconcile and redeem while Satan’s will to divide and conquer, and Satan does a superb imitation of God and does some of his best acting in the synagogue, church and mosque.  But God’s good can prevail over Satan’s evil if people of faith put love for their neighbor—including their unbelieving neighbors—over condemning and trying to convert them.  If Jews, Christians and Muslims promote religious reconciliation rather than division, it will help the forces of good overcome those of evil, and in the process vindicate religion as a source of good, not evil.      

Notes and References:
Related blogs are Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacyposted December 29, 2104, and  Promoting Religion through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness? posted February 8, 2015.

E. J. Dionne, Obama’s Christian Humility, Washington Post, February 8, 2015:

Richard Cohen, The Universality of Evil, Washington Post, February 9, 2015:
Michael Gerson, Step Up the War Against ISIS, not the Rhetoric Against Islam, Washington Post, February 9, 2015:

Eugene Robinson, At the Prayer Breakfast, President Obama Struck a Patronizing Tone, Washington Post, February 9, 2015:

On Joshua enforcing the Hebrew ban at Jericho, see Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and Joshua 6.

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