Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Fundamental Problem with Religion

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr. 

            Religion is prepackaged faith, promoted and sold by institutions that measure their power by the number of their believers.  Recent polls indicate that religions are growing globally while declining in the West, where more and more Nones are disclaiming their religious preferences, but without abandoning their faith in beliefs that no longer conform to their former religion. 

            Both Christianity and Islam are growing in Asia and Africa with young believers, while in the West (America and Europe) older Nones have found religion increasingly irrelevant.  But even as traditional Protestant denominations decline in the West, off-brand evangelical churches catering to the young continue to grow; and like their traditional predecessors, most of these new variations of the Christian church proclaim their brand of religion to be the one true faith.

            In 1831 Alexis De Tocqueville visited the U.S. and reported an amazing variety of religion interwoven with politics.  Later Henry James extolled the virtues of a variety of religious experiences.  Perennialists assure us that all religions share universal and unifying principles, but Stephen Prothero has challenged that comforting principle.  Today competing religions are interacting globally with increasing complexity and conflict.  Is there a problem with religion?

            There is a fundamental problem with religion, but it is not with the increasing variety of religions.  The problem is with those religious fundamentalists who proclaim the absolute truth of their ancient scriptures and exclusivist religious doctrines and dogmas, and who condemn all unbelievers.  To make matters worse, religious fundamentalists seek to impose ancient holy laws on others that are wholly unsuited for modern times.

            There are religious fundamentalists in the West, but they are a minority in their religions, and religious conflict and violence are restrained by democratic institutions, libertarian human rights and a culture of religious tolerance.  That is not the case in the Islamic East, where most Muslims are fundamentalists and militant groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Hamas and Hezbollah are unabated in their promotion of hate and violence in the name of God.

            Religious diversity can be a positive force in defusing the hate and violence of religious fundamentalism.  With the freedoms of religion and expression to protect unorthodox believers, religious diversity encourages progressive believers to cross religious boundaries and relate to those of other religions who interpret their doctrines and scriptures in the light of advances in knowledge and reason.  In the process progressive believers often find more in common with those in other religions than with fundamentalists within their own religion. 

            A majority of progressive believers in Judaism and Christianity reject fundamentalism, but in the Middle East and Africa there appear to be more fundamentalist Muslims who support sectarian violence than those who oppose it.  That is not the case in the West where there are more moderate and progressive Muslims than fundamentalists.  Muslims in the West represent the potential to shape Islam into a religion of peace and justice that is compatible with modern concepts of libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.

            Islamist fundamentalism is at the heart of the sectarian violence in the Middle East and Africa, where governments are either incapable or unwilling to provide law and order and enforce the human rights that protect the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech and the equal protection of law for women and minorities.  Those freedoms are meaningless if those who violate them are not prosecuted for the crimes of murder, assault and rape.

            Islamic law, or Shari’a, is problematic when imposed as positive law.  It preempts the freedoms of religion and speech with apostasy and blasphemy laws and subordinates secular law to Shari’a as the immutable law of God.  In the Middle East there is little religious diversity and no freedom of religion or expression to mediate against the comprehensive and immutable dictates of Shari’a.  The result is that democracy has produced a tyranny of a religious majority. 

            Egypt illustrates the problem.  After ousting an elected Islamist regime, a military regime now holds political and economic power and violates human rights with impunity.  Egypt is considered the bellwether of Sunni Islam, but its religious leaders have yet to challenge the oppressive politics of the military regime, and in Islam there is no separation of religion and politics.  The U.S. is also providing aid and assistance to the military government of Egypt, as it is to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where after years of U.S. aid, military assistance and intervention, there is little religious tolerance and sectarian conflict continues unabated.

            Africa has also seen its share of religious conflict, but unlike the Middle East where most people are Muslims, many Africa nations have a substantial Christian population.  While sectarian conflict in the Middle East is between Sunnis and Shiites, in Africa it is most often between Christians and Muslims.  Religious tolerance is the only way to combat religious conflict, and the diversity of religions in Africa make it more conducive than the Middle East to accept the freedoms of religion and expression. 

Fundamentalism is the fundamental problem with religion, and it is at the heart of the religious hatred and violence that motivates Islamist terrorism in the Middle East and Africa.  The freedoms of religion and expression are needed to neutralize religious fundamentalism and encourage the reconciliation of religious differences.  Promoting the tolerance of religious differences in Islamic cultures is a better long-term defense against Islamist terrorism than aiding oppressive regimes or deploying U.S. military forces to combat terrorists in a hostile cultural environment.

Notes and References to Resources:

For related blogs, see Faith and Freedom, posted December 12, 2014; Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy, posted December 29, 2014; and Religion and Human Rights, posted February 2, 2015.

On future projections of the growth of Christianity and Islam, see Raziye Akkoc, Mapped: What the world’s religious landscape will look like in 2050, The Telegraph, April 8, 2015, at
On the growth of Nones, see Tobin Grant, 7.5 million Americans lost their religion since 2012, Religion News Service, March 12, 2015, at

The 2013 International Religious Freedom Report of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the U.S. Department of State reported increased violations of religious freedom around the world (see  Of the nine countries identified as engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom, five are Islamic nations: Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, with Burma, Eritrea, China and North Korea the exceptions.  Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh and Indonesia were also mentioned in the report as having serious violations of religious freedom.

On the problem of providing aid to Egypt’s military government while ignoring human rights violations, see Jackson Diehl, Fulfilling the Arab Spring, Washington Post, April 26, 2015 at

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