This past Friday there was a terrorist attack in Paris coordinated by the Islamic State. As is usual in these cases, political and religious leaders around the world moved swiftly to condemn the attacks. One thing I noted among many of the condemnations, including those by Catholic leaders, was to emphatically state that these actions were not consistent with “religion” and that no religious thought would support them.
Is that true?
It seems to me that this kind of thinking is the other side of the coin from atheists who claim that all religions – Islam, Christianity, etc. – advocate for terrible things and support violence and evil in the name of their religion. There is no nuance to the argument – all religions are evil in the same way. In both cases, people are painting with a very broad brush, equating all religions into one big religious mush.
But if you look more closely, you see that different religions are, well, different. They can have radically different theologies, which lead to radically different teachings. In the case of almost all religions, it is easiest to look to the founder to see the model members of that religion follow. If the founders live very different lives, then it makes sense that their followers will live very different religions.
For example, if we look at the life of Jesus, we see that he committed no acts of violence, and in fact, even let others commit violence against himself, and told his followers to “turn the other cheek” when they were struck.
Muhammad, on the other hand, was a warlord, and led his followers into battle, commanding violence in order to spread the Islamic religion. (If you think this is some type of controversial statement, please read “The Life of Muhammad“, a biography written by one of his early followers and considered sacred in Islam.)
Clearly these two men were not identical, and it stands to reason that their followers will not have identical religions.
Both Christianity and Islam teach that their founders were the “perfect man” (Christianity even goes further, claiming Jesus to also be divine), and that disciples of their religion must attempt to model their lives on these founders. So is it really “not religious” when members of Islam commit violent acts in imitation of Muhammad? Isn’t saying that trying to redefine Islam against its own belief system?
It does no one any good to equate all religions as the same, and it doesn’t matter if it is believers or atheists who do it. In each case it does an injustice to the religion in question. We need to be willing to be honest about the teachings of different religions, and realize that they are not all the same.