On the very lengthy ‘charge the Pope‘ thread, there was some discussion in the comments of the moral content of different religions. There were suggestions that some religions may in fact be superior to others with respect to their social and institutional effects, even if on an epistemological level, all of them are equally untrue. To say this is unfashionable these days. Just as the 1960s was the heyday of seeing all religions as different paths towards the same truth, among modern atheists there is a widespread tendency to reject them all out of hand as equally pernicious, and thus worthy of identical mockery.
I have long suspected that this is a moral cop-out, involving as it does a refusal to compare and discriminate between categories, something at the core of any evidence-based discipline, be it science, law or history. Different religions affect societies where they predominate differently. Some of these effects are plainly deleterious. The ‘New Atheists’ point most often to conflicts between religion and science, but in terms of religion inspired conflict, the ‘religion v science’ shit-fight is relatively new and, as conflicts go, not particularly vicious. Far nastier are vast wars of conquest and subordination, alongside theological incompatibility with liberal institutions. Far more than in Buddhism, Judaism or the various historical and modern paganisms, Islamic and Christian claims to a monopoly on moral truth have always struck me as very dangerous and something to be fought as part of what I consider to be a wider ‘liberal project’. Part of living in a liberal world involves a gracious acceptance that one ought not try to bend the laws (or other institutions) to one’s religious will. Islam and Christianity, in a modern liberal democracy, have to give something up.
For a long time, I always paired Islam and Christianity as missionary monotheisms whose claims to a monopoly on moral truth were equally destructive. I thought that the only reason that Christianity was less horrid in western countries was because it had been domesticated by the Enlightenment, liberalism and markets. I looked back at the long periods of history when it had been in the ascendant, tallied the destructiveness of the various wars of religion and thanked my lucky stars that we had learned the error of our ways. I always assumed that the reason that Islam was so much worse was because it tended to predominate in countries that were poor or which lacked appropriate institutional frameworks. I was sure that, in time, Islam would also be ‘domesticated’ and rendered benign.
I no longer think this.
I was not persuaded of the nastiness of Islam by such books as The Clash of Civilisations, however. Just as Islam now has bloody borders, it is perfectly possible to track back through history and find other religious groups with borders as bloody. At various times, Jews, pagans and Christians all had bloody borders. People tend to forget that the all-conquering Mongols were often Buddhists and that the Romans were pagan. Indeed, at various times those who lived under threat from these two singularly warlike peoples referred to them as ‘the fierce people’, an epithet made famous by Napoleon Chagnon when writing about the violent Yanomamo.
What convinced me that Islam and liberal democracy will mix only with great difficulty was a lengthy stay in Turkey (which involved discovering Kemal Ataturk’s extraordinary measures to weaken the religion) and a growing awareness of Islamic theology. It really is different from Christian theology, not to mention Buddhist doctrines (I hesitate to call the latter theology). I don’t have the skill to conceptualise these differences neatly, but Lorenzo — who, as a medievalist, has the requisite period knowledge — does have that skill. Over at his place, he has written a detailed three(1) part(2) review(3) of Rev. Dr Mark Durie‘s The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom. At first I thought that a book written by an Anglican clergyman would be needlessly partisan, concerned only to criticize Islam from his own side’s perspective, but Lorenzo’s reviews and detailed understanding of the historical context have convinced me otherwise. For those interested, Durie also maintains a blog.
Durie’s book focusses particularly on the institution of the ‘dhimma‘, a subordinate status imposed upon Jews and Christians and later extended to Zoroastrians and Hindus (pagans) in lands that Muslims conquered. Significantly, Buddhists were almost always slaughtered; they were not even worthy of dhimmitude. The dhimma involved (among many other things) the payment of a tax (jizya), handed over in lieu of having one’s head chopped off. It often involved a symbolic act of ‘head loss’, where dhimmis would be hit or scratched on the neck when they went to pay it. It was a way of reminding members of subordinate faiths that, this year, they got to keep their heads. Durie considers the theology underpinning this, which Lorenzo discusses in detail. I haven’t yet read Durie’s book, but Lorenzo’s commentary stands on its own merits. I cannot recommend it too highly. It collects in a short space all my concerns with Islam, as well as echoing Richard Dawkins’s remarks to the Times not so long ago:
There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death. I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse.
Religions do have different social and institutional effects. The sky-fairies in question may be equally fake, but some sky fairy systems kill and oppress more people than others. In short, if we want to keep our heads, we liberals may have to avoid feeding Islam, in part because it won’t domesticate.