What People Don’t Get.


Islam, Religion, and How The West Doesn’t Get It.

I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say: ‘all religions are basically the same’. The idea behind this view is that Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism etc all fall into this box called ‘Religion’, and thus are all on about the same thing: which is usually interpreted as love, compassion, tolerance for others etc.

Of course there’s some truth to this: most religions are asking similar questions. 

Questions like: Where did we come from? Why are we here? What happens after we die? 

However, (and here’s the key point), each religion comes up with (radically) different answers to those questions. 

And that’s precisely what the modern western secular mind just doesn’t seem to get:

Just because you ask similar questions, does not mean you come up with similar answers. And it’s the answers that make all the difference. 

Let me illustrate by way of political example:

Adolf Hitler and Nelson Mandela were both leaders of their respective countries, and both of them grappled with the question: how do I lead my country well? 

However, they came up with radically different answers to that same question.

Would you therefore say that Adolf Hitler, and Nelson Mandela, were basically on about the same thing? Were they ‘basically the same’?

Of course not.

In answer to the question of how to lead their country well, Nelson Mandela decided it would be best to forgive his enemies. Hitler thought it best to destroy them.

Just because you ask similar questions, does not mean you come up with similar answers. And it’s the answers that make all the difference. 

Now, a friend of mine, Gavin Crossley, (a Christian who lives in a Buddhist majority country) recently put up a great status update on his Facebook wall, illustrating this from a religious perspective. He compared three of the major religions of the world (Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam), by noting that they all ask a similar question (what is wrong with the world?), but come up with radically different answers to that same question.

And it’s only by listening carefully to the answers each religion gives, that we can come to a true understanding of each religion.  

My previous blog post was all about the Lindt Cafe Siege, and I suggested that this tragedy should at least get us asking questions about religion in general, and Islam in particular. But I don’t think the secular western mind, as it currently stands,  is capable of engaging in such a mature conversation about Islam: simply because the modern western secular mind has bought the lie that ‘all religions are basically the same’.

Anyway, here’s Gav’s status update, which will hopefully help people see just how different each religion is. I hope this will help start a mature, adult conversation on the differences between the religions, and the implications that this has for society in general:

If you think a little about the basic answers to the big questions of life that each religion offers, it’s easy to see how the answers shape the character of that religion. By the big questions I mean, what is wrong with the world and how can it be fixed. According to Buddhism, the big problem with the world is the trap of physical existence (the first noble truth of Buddhism is “All life is suffering”) and so the goal of Buddhism is to escape the world. When Vietnamese die, for example, they hold a ceremony for the dead called “Lễ Siêu Thoát” which means “Escape Ritual”. They hope that the soul will escape from trap of physical existence and fly away. That means Buddhists, on the whole, are fairly mellow people. They are just doing their best not to get reincarnated and stuck here for another round of suffering.

According to Christianity, the big problem with the world is us. More specifically, sin which is a power at work within each and every individual that makes us corrupt and powerless, guilty and ashamed before our creator. Sin draws along with it the righteous judgement of God. Because the nature of sin is so comprehensive and because we are under the judgement of God for it, only God can solve the problem for us, which he has done in sending Jesus as our saviour, an act which demands the personal response of love, repentance, trust, gratitude and humility from us. That means that Christians, on the whole, are fairly mellow people. They are just doing their best to share the good news around so that other people can also enjoy what they have found in Jesus.

According to Islam, the big problem of the world is non-Muslims (the infidels), those who do not submit to Allah and his Prophet, Mohammad. The infidels harass and persecute Muslims and stand in the way of the Islamic agenda – the spread of Shariah law until the whole world is brought into submission to Allah. The solution to this problem is obvious: the infidels must either be converted, killed or placed under forced submission. In short they must become Muslim (submitted). That tends to make Muslims, on the whole, not very mellow. They see the world in “us” versus “you” terms, with the underlying tension that is often energised into violence.

We should not hate Muslims. We should love them and respect them. We should also speak respectfully of their religion and their prophet. But we must also understand them and the reason that Muslims have such difficulty living harmoniously along side others. It’s because the basic world view of the Muslim is a binary conflict: Muslims (the solution) and non-Muslims (the problem).

To those facebookers who would hasten to call me a religious extremist and a hater of Muslims, please read the paragraph above one more time then come back here. I am attempting to give an account of why there is so much Muslim violence in the world and so little violence of a religious origin from any other corner. I am not attempting to provoke religious violence but to understand its causes. Of course, there is a lot of other violence, mostly political, but that is not my concern here. If you care to offer a better account for this phenomenon than I’m more than willing to hear your case and consider it. If convincing, I’ll change the above diagnosis but, for the moment, this one seems to best fit the evidence and the reading I’ve done on Islam (which includes the Quran).

Well said, Gav.

Steven Turner, a poet, summed it up this way in his poem ‘Creed’:

We believe that all religions are basically the same,
at least the one that we read was.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of
creation sin heaven hell God and salvation.

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4 thoughts on “What People Don’t Get.

  1. “But I don’t think the secular western mind, as it currently stands, is capable of engaging in such a mature conversation about Islam”

    While there is much insight in your post, I disagree with this statement in particular. We are ready to have this discussion, the only problem is that such discussions these days have a tendency to rapidly head towards the “actually, now that you mention it, all religions are deeply flawed and should be abandoned” territory. I can understand why a theist would prefer if it we weren’t quite ready to cross that bridge just yet!

    The heart of the matter is that all religions *are* the same, if not in their teachings — “answers”, as you put it — but in their methods for arriving at those answers.

    Religions, practically all that I’m aware of, teach that we should rely on authority to obtain answers. The details vary, of course. That authority may be supernatural, handed down as oral tradition, scripture, divine inspiration, or simply ritualized tradition, but the end result is the same: do this, think that, act like so, all because someone said so.

    This is the problem: trying to understand the world through theological authority. The western world is ready to overthrow this outmoded style of thinking. We’re already well on the way. Most world governments are largely secular, and the few theocratic ones that remain serve merely as an example of just how bad things used to be when we did whatever the priests told us to do.

    As a Christian Akos, you have no business questioning Islam, because you arrived at your beliefs using exactly the same methods as they did. You accept the authority of the Bible in exactly in the same way a Muslim accepts the authority of the Qu’ran. You can’t question the end results of this without questioning your path to your own faith! If it’s wrong to accept the inherent violence in the Qu’ran merely on divine authority, then it’s wrong to accept the Bible on the same basis.

    Sure, you can claim that Christianity is in some way superior, and that you have made the “right choice” in some sense by ignoring the teachings of Muhammad and following Jesus instead. But then, how can you know what you have made the choice that best represents reality, instead of the choice that simply pleases you best? How do you know you’re not just following the local herd instead of accepting the universe and its creator for what they actually are? After all, Muhammad came *after* Jesus, just like Jesus came after Moses! What if he had better information that’s more up-to-date with what God really wants?

    This is the horrifying truth of religion: what if God really does want the Islamic Caliphate? What if violence against the infidels really is divinely mandated, and hence morally acceptable?

    What if you’re wrong and the terrorists are right?

    You have no *reason* to think otherwise. You have *authority* and *opinion*, that’s it. From where I stand, given two sets of whole scriptures to be accepted on divine authority alone, the Muslims look exactly as legitimate as you do.

  2. Hey Pete!

    Thanks for your comment. A couple of quick points:

    1) Just to clarify, my point in saying: “But I don’t think the secular western mind, as it currently stands, is capable of engaging in such a mature conversation about Islam” is simply that the western secular mind (in general) still sees all religions as going on about the same thing. It sees little difference between them, and thus is unable to see that particular worldviews (whether true or false) have differing consequences. You see this working itself out in the whole ‘Islam is inherently a religion of peace: it’s just the extremists that give it a bad name’.

    Well, as I asked in my previous post, why do so many terrorist organisations claim to be acting in the name of Islam (e.g. Boko Haram, Taliban, Al Qaeda, etc)? And why are there comparatively very few comparative terrorist organisations that claim to be acting in the name of other religions (e.g. how many Christian terrorist organisations have you heard of, that also have followings and support from some of the world-wide Christian community?).

    As to whether particular worldviews are true or not: for the purposes of this discussion, that is beside the point (although obviously that has a very important place as well in the cultural conversation!).

    2) As to your comment: ‘The heart of the matter is that all religions *are* the same, if not in their teachings — “answers”, as you put it — but in their methods for arriving at those answers.’

    I take your point: both Islam and Christianity claim to be a revelation from God. That is certainly true.

    But it’s more than that: at least as a Christian, I came to believe in Christianity not simply because ‘somebody told me so’, but because of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At that point, it’s a question of historical evidence: If the historical evidence does not lean towards the view that Jesus rose physically from the dead, then quite frankly, it’s not worth believing, not matter what any particular authority figure (or Scripture etc) says.

    In other words, using the historical method, one can come to a *reasonable* view as to whether Christianity (in terms of it’s core belief of Jesus’ resurrection) is true or not. It’s not a question of ‘blind faith’, or mere ‘authority’: it’s a question of historical evidence.

    3) As to the question of ‘authority’, I think we need to recognise that all disciplines have authority embedded in them. I’m sure you accept the authority of certain scientists/organisations/texts etc, without doing all the scientific verification to show that those scientists/organisations/texts etc are worth accepting.

    Not only so, but when you fly on a plane, and put your life in potential danger, you do it *only* because you accept the authoritative word of the airline/manufacturer/government etc, when it tells you that the aircraft is safe. I’m sure you don’t carry out any stress tests on the one million or so pop-rivets, to ensure that they’re all technically airworthy!

    (Pete, in the Aerospace engineering world, aircraft are signed off as ‘serviceable’, in large part because of the authority of the engineer or organisation that has done the manufacturing, or maintenance. Without ‘authority’, aircraft would not fly).

    I’m guessing you do the same when you hop in a taxi, a train…you name it: you accept authority as a valid way of coming to a reasoned view of what is ‘true’ and what is not true…is that correct?

    So in other words, it’s not a case of ‘authority’ vs ‘reason’. Rather, it’s always a case of: is this authority *trustworthy*? Is is *reasonable* to accept the view of this particular authority?

    • There was plenty of Christian religious violence going on in Ireland quite recently! Even if that was partially politically motivated, so is most Islamist violence, so there isn’t any substantive difference that I can see. I’ve even heard of Buddhist violence, where monks retaliated against invasions. You don’t think of Buddhism as a religion of violence, but it’s there. Anyway, that’s not my point. Even if Christianity was pure as the driven snow, and never did a single Christian ever lift a finger against another human being in anger, that’s irrelevant.

      So just pretend I never mentioned Ireland.

      To reiterate the actual point:

      You don’t know, and given the available information, have no way of knowing if peace is actually what God wants. There is exactly as much (actually, quite a bit more) evidence for the existence of Muhammad than there is for the existence of Jesus, and the former was most certainly into violence in a big way. Secondly, Muhammad is quoted *verbatim* in the Qu’ran, unlike the Biblical record, which was made decades after Jesus made his speeches, and he doesn’t muck about. The punishment for apostasy is death, and infidels should be converted to Islam at the point of a sword.

      The authoritative “evidence”, as you put it, strongly favors the accuracy of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, and is hence pro-violence. There is nothing at all of substance that you can say to counter this. At the end of the day, whatever you do say would be nothing more than a personal preference. You might like it if God was peaceful, but since when is it up to you to decide what the creator of the universe does or does not want? If the creator of the universe wants his word spread by any means necessary, including terrorist attacks, who are you to question this?

      I put evidence in quotes, because there is nothing of the sort in either case. Nobody has evidence for God wants, or if he exists at all. Nobody! Everyone, you, your congregation and even the Imam down the road, all got it either from: a) someone else, or b) a book written by… someone else, based on what they heard from … someone else.(1) Nobody bases their faith on evidence from an actual deity or some supernatural source. They get their faith either from a holy man, or that holy man’s books. Remove the book, remove the holy man, and you are left with *nothing*. There is no way for you to find any kind of independent evidence specific to your religion.(2) You can only find authority. This is why you never find random un-contacted tribes that have developed Christianity independently.(3)

      But isn’t that odd, Akos? Why wouldn’t you expect independent re-discoveries of the gospel? It describes the fundamental nature of the world, its inhabitants, its creation, and its creator, right? Right? So then why does nobody else ever write down the same book independently, never having see or heard the original? I mean sure, I wouldn’t necessarily expect the exact phrasing to be identical, but the general gist of it, surely, right? Why can billions up billions of people *confidently* lay claim to a faith that is materially different to Christianity, if Christianity is right? Why aren’t they all coming to the same conclusions, with only minor variations? Why are they all getting it so… “wrong”?

      Why is it that the only group that does find things out independently, with terms like “co-discovered” and “race to publish” bandied about on a regular basis are the scientists? Why is it that they virtually never agree on anything from any religion, but agree with each other? Why does the real world insist on agreeing with the scientists?

      I’ll give you a hint: notice that “evidence” and “authority” are two distinct words for a reason. Authority is not evidence. Authority is someone saying that something is so. Evidence is the actual facts on the ground that anyone can verify for themselves, without anyone’s opinions, biases, politics or greed getting in the way. The two cannot, and must never be confused, but theists do on a daily basis.

      THIS is the problem with ALL religions Akos. Conflation of Authority and Evidence, or the prioritization of authority over evidence.

      Muslims blow themselves up because they take it on authority that this is a good thing, despite all evidence to the contrary.

      Christians vote for conservative parties that quite evidently do not have their best interests at heart for the same reason.

      Jews forced themselves back into a country where they were never going to fit in without bloodshed based on the authority of the Torah and its prophecies.

      Lastly, by now you should know full well that it’s false to say that science (and by extension, engineering) is based on authority at a fundamental level. I mean sure, there’s some reliance on authority on a practical day-to-day basis, but the ability to bypass the authority and go straight to the evidence is always there, and you know this. I know this because I’ve *done* it. I studied Physics, and *repeated* the same experiments and came to the same conclusions as what the textbook said. That was part of my education: convincing myself, instead of accepting what I was told on face value.

      If you get a spare part from Boeing with a claimed Brinell Hardness of, say, 200 HB, then you always have an *option*: you can either take their word for it, and install it in a plane based on your trust in their reputation, or you can place it in a hardness tester machine before installing it. At that point, you *know* that it meets specifications, and you no longer need trust, or authority, or any such thing. Even if you don’t exercise the option every time, it’s *there*. It affects the reliability of their reputation as well. If you test just one part in a hundred, you’ll still notice sub-standard parts eventually and call them out on it. You know this. THEY know this. They’re taking a huge risk by doing anything other than shipping quality parts, because their customers can independently verify their quality.

      All science is fundamentally like this: I can ignore Einstein and put a clock on a mountaintop, then compare it to a clock at sea level and see time dilation with my own eyes. I don’t need to trust some long-dead person.

      Moreover, imagine if Einstein had never lived. Physics today would almost certainly be based on relativity theory. It might have a different name. The fine details of the mathematical symbology would likely be different, but the actual theory would be the same. Lorentz was already half-way there at the time that Einstein lived, and many aspects of relativity theory are named after him, not Einstein. The evidence was there for all to see, Einstein just made it clear before anyone else could put two and two together.

      Unlike my earlier hypothetical example of independent tribes failing to re-discover the gospel, independent groups regularly co-discover or re-discover science. One is based on hearsay, authority, and conversion by violence, the other is based on evidence.

      1) Which reminds of a slightly mean-spirited but hilarious thing some Atheist pranksters like to do, which is to post quotes from the Qu’ran, Mein Kampf, or the Satanic Bible on Christian forums and see how many upvotes they can get before someone does a Google search and notices the substitution. I’ve seen some quotes with 100K or more upvotes.

      2) Christians love to point to wishy-washy hippy-sounding things like the “beauty of nature”, “love”, “obvious design in creation”, or whatever. This says absolutely nothing at all about the flood, Jesus of Nazareth, Christian ethics, or anything *specific* to Christianity. There’s no connection.

      3) I love the apologetics for this one! Yeah, yeah, okay, sure, God loves one particular tribe of middle-eastern Jews more than anyone else in the whole wide world. Everyone outside that dusty little corner will just have to wait their turn for the knowledge to be passed down to them, even if it takes literally thousands of years. Lol.