Can We Judge Religions?

From 9-11 to this day, callers to my syndicated radio show have asked: "Is Islam a religion of violence?"

And since 9-11, I have given the same response: "I don’t judge religions; I judge practitioners."

It is easy to dismiss this response as a politically correct cop-out, but there are good reasons for this response.

First, in medieval, or even parts of early modern, Europe, many people would have asked, "Is Christianity a religion of violence?" And 2,000-3,000 years ago, people might have asked, "Is Judaism a religion of violence?"

Second, the question is often impossible to answer because religions are almost never unified in their values (and often not even in their theology). For example, most evangelical Christians have almost no values in common with fellow Christians of the National Council of Churches (NCC). Conservative Protestant Christians share far more values with traditional Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Mormons than with fellow Protestant Christians of the NCC. And liberal Jews (not only secular ones, but many Conservative and most Reform Jews) share more values with liberal Christians and liberal atheists than with Orthodox Jews. So when assessing Christianity or Judaism, which Christianity and which Judaism are we assessing?

Third, when groups are violent, how much of their violence is directly caused by their religion — or by their irreligion? Alongside Hitler (who believed in no religion), Stalin and Mao were history’s greatest mass murderers, and they were atheists. Could one have asked, "Is atheism a violent ideology?" As for religious evildoers, did European Christians who supported the Nazis do so because of, or despite, their religion?

Fourth, even when a group does attribute its violence to its religion, as in the case of Muslim terrorists, does that mean the religion itself preaches violence?

Many people would offer a fifth reason not to judge religions — that doing so is inherently biased, even bigoted, and outsiders have no right to judge others’ religions.

But that objection to judging a religion is invalid.

We judge secular ideologies all the time; why not religious ideologies? Why is it permissible to say that conservatism is selfish and mean-spirited or to say that liberalism is naive and foolish, but one cannot say anything negative about a religion? I believe that the Judeo-Christian value system as devised largely by American Christians rooted in the Jewish Scriptures is the finest value system ever made — and many people label this view "bigoted" and "intolerant." Yet, many of these same people have no problem asserting that secular liberal values constitute the finest value system ever made. Why can one say that without any fear of being labeled "intolerant" or "bigoted"?

The problem with assessing religions is that many who do so are in fact prejudiced; they are often outsiders out to prove another religion false. Or they may have grown up in a religion and for whatever reasons come to hate the religion in which they were raised — some ex-Catholics, for example; or were merely born into that religion — such as some anti-religious Jews.

So, too, anti-Semites’ assessments of Judaism emanate from a hatred of Jews and their religion, not from honest questions about Judaism. On the other hand, not every critique of Judaism or Jews is necessarily anti-Semitic. Likewise many contemporary attacks on Christianity and Christians are bigoted — such as when Christian fundamentalists are likened to Islamic fundamentalists and radicals. There are no Christian groups comparable to Islamic groups that routinely murder innocents or seek to violently impose Islamic law on Muslims and non-Muslims. But here, too, not every criticism of Christians or Christianity emanates from anti-Christian bigotry.

There are also people who are prejudiced against Islam. But because in our time the vast majority of violence intentionally directed against innocents is perpetrated by Muslims in the name of Islam, and because freedom and religious tolerance are rare in countries that call themselves Islamic, one need not be prejudiced to ask challenging questions about Islam and/or Muslims.

So where does that leave us?

One: It is fair — and even necessary — to attempt to morally assess religions just as it is to morally assess any non-religious ideology.

Two: Ideally those criticisms should come from those within the religion being judged. The absence of Islamic self-criticism — relative to Christian and Jewish self-criticism — has been the greatest problem to many non-Muslims.

Three: It is very difficult to judge an entire religion for the four reasons offered above and because those making such judgments must be free of either a religious agenda (to "prove" another religion false) or an anti-religious agenda (to show religion in general as morally inferior).

For the reasons offered here, regarding Islam, I have decided to restrict my critiques to practitioners rather than to the religion itself. But those who offer reasoned moral critiques of Islam are not necessarily "Islamophobic," any more than all moral critics of Christianity or Judaism are necessarily "Christianophobic" (why is there no such word, incidentally?) or anti-Semitic. The word is used to intimidate the most necessary endeavor of our time — non-hostile, non-prejudiced, respectful, open discussion of Islam. And no one needs it more than good Muslims.