Criticizing Religion

I am generally intolerant of intolerance.

There is a limit to multiculturalism. As a Jew strongly affirming Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world, as a Humanist defending our right to believe what we believe and live by our values despite popular conventions or objections, I certainly celebrate diversity. And many people agree with the cliché, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” whether or not they really mean that to the point of actual death. But must that diversity and tolerance include those whose cruelty and criminality claim the defense of culture and religion?

Women’s bodies are the battlefield on which the dispute between religion and secularization, tradition and modernity, are being fought. The despicable behavior of Boko Haram in Nigeria (famous recently for kidnapping over 250 girls, having committed much violence for over a dozen years), political battles in the United States over contraception or abortion or the HPV vaccine, increasing rigidity and strictness of women’s “modesty” and “family purity” regulations in ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism – all examples of traditionalist religious groups who feel their way of life threatened, and so they clutch what they can control (their women) that much tighter as they feel their hold slipping away.

This spring, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a courageous secular critic of Islamist treatment of women who herself left Islam for a secular life, was offered an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University. The offer was withdrawn after controversy arose regarding her past remarks on Islam. Sometimes she does paint with too broad a brush (from 2007):

Hirsi Ali: Only if Islam is defeated. Because right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.

Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?

Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace. . . .

I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they’re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, “This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.” There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.

Reason: Militarily?

Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed. . . . .

There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.

On the other hand, a recent interview (2014), while still critical of using Islam to oppress women:

“honor killings, denying girls an education, denying women the right to leave their homes without permission from a male relative, performing marriages on girls as young as age 9, the continued practice of female genital mutilation for “purity,” the stoning of homosexuals…”

also offers more nuance:

Muslims who do not want to live under sharia law are attempting to separate religion from politics. But they won’t be able to do that unless they address these doctrinal issues. They won’t be able to win the argument against the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, because like every other Islamist or jihadist organization, the Brotherhood is delivering a message consistent with what’s really in the Koran and the hadith. If you want to stand up to these people, you have to address the doctrine. You have to look at the Koran and say that there are parts of it you don’t consider moral anymore.

The first step to correcting problems in your religious tradition is to admit that you have a problem in your religious tradition! Religious moderates are not helping when they deny that their religious tradition can be used in the terrible ways it is actually used. As Ali put it in that same interview, “Some moderate Muslims hate me…because I make them feel uncomfortable. The things I talk about put them in a state of dissonance that they can’t live with.” In my own experience, I can still connect with Jewish tradition and values even if I disagree with and criticize some of them. But it is manifestly false to claim that my liberalized version is “real” Judaism while anti-feminist versions are “distortions” – they can all be divergent evolutionary descendants of a common cultural ancestor.

At the same time, critics of religion are inaccurate when they condemn ALL Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Jews for the sins and excesses of SOME. The battle over teaching evolution in schools is also between liberal interpretations of religion that accept science and their fundamentalist counterparts. Must secularists agree with the fundamentalists that only fundamentalist versions of religion are “real” Christianity, Islam, etc.? Wouldn’t we do better to make common cause against a shared anti-modernist, anti-feminist foe rather than declare that anti-modernism or anti-feminism is inevitably part of any true version of a religion, even those denominations now ordaining women clergy?

Any theory of religion must include both the Inquisition and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., arranged marriages and women rabbis, jihad and toleration. Both Conservative and ultra-Orthodox Jews claim to follow “Jewish law,” and I fear no oppression from the liberal articulation and enforcement of halakha in Conservative Judaism and its rabbis of both genders, straight and gay. It remains to be seen if a liberal shari’a  [Islamic law] can yet emerge. But if it does, we should welcome Islam to the experience shared today among Christians and Jews: the Joy of Sects.

More thoughts on this subject can be found in my contribution to
Jews and the Muslim World: Solving the Puzzle (IISHJ, 2010).

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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1 Response to Criticizing Religion

  1. John says:

    How do you know anything about the broadness of the brushstroke with which she paints? Not a thing Rabbi.

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