MCNELLIS: Judging religions fairly

In the past week, two startling stories about Islam have dominated the news. The New York Police Department’s paranoid monitoring of Muslims throughout the Northeast, including at Yale, has sparked a much-needed discussion about the persistent Islamophobia that infects our nation. Such an abuse of power — especially so far outside the proper jurisdiction — by any government agency against any group is detestable and antithetical to American values, and many people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, have rightly stood up to defend the Muslim community.

The other story, even more appalling, took place on the other side of the world. After discovering that American soldiers at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan had burned copies of the Quran, Afghans rioted massively with deadly consequences. As of Sunday afternoon, over 200 people have been wounded and 30 killed because, apparently, those lives are less important than a book.

Now, I don’t support book burnings of any kind, in particular of a text so important to so many people. It doesn’t matter whether the soldiers didn’t realize that they were burning the Quran, as the White House has claimed, or what they thought the books were being used for. But the reactions to the Quran burning far outweighed the offense. Books can be replaced; lives cannot.

None of that, however, excuses the overreaction that is unfortunately only the latest example of extremism among a dangerous minority of Muslims. The reactionary tendencies of many in the Muslim world demand scrutiny and criticism, but when it comes to religious issues, our discourse is often dominated by fear. In the course of becoming a more tolerant society, we seem to have forgotten that criticism of religious ideas is not the same as criticism of religious people.

A religion is a set of ideas, and like any ideas, religious ones are subject to reason. The problem is that unlike a scientific theory or a work of philosophy — both of which are clearly human ideas meant for criticism and discussion — religious ideas are, supposedly, messages delivered by humans from the divine. Therefore, in the view of fundamentalists, criticism of their religion is an affront to God.

This becomes a particular problem when moral and legalistic proclamations that are thousands of years old are thought to still be the rules by which we should live today. Take the Old Testament, for example. There’s much in the Old Testament that was quite advanced for its time, but to claim that it is a progressive tome is simply to ignore reality. The Ten Commandments make no mention of slavery or rape, but coveting gets two whole commandments. Elsewhere, homosexuality is declared an “abomination,” adultery is a capital crime and God demands the genocide of the Amalekites. None of this is meant to imply that believers of the Old Testament are necessarily evil or immoral people, but the Old Testament, being thousands of years old, expounds a morality not suited to the modern world.

Similarly, no one would suggest that the Christianity of the Middle Ages was peaceful. Bloodthirsty depictions of hell abound, and the Inquisition engaged in systematic torture and persecution of non-Catholics. Fundamentalist Christians today are as great a threat to American values as Islamic extremists.

Islam and the Quran, likewise, should be subject to fair criticism in public discourse without fear of sparking ridiculously outsized overreactions and violence. Any system of beliefs, no matter the source, in which women are systematically treated as inferior to men, slavery is allowed and apostasy is punishable by death, is immoral and a worthy target of criticism. But critics must also understand that most Muslims do not follow such an evil and absurd moral code.

Much good can be found in the morality of almost any religion. But we cannot accept the good without at least considering the bad, and everyone must be willing to accept fair criticism of their beliefs. The power of reason to improve the state of human life and to bring dignity to all people has been demonstrated time and time again. As long as we cling to fundamentalism and closed-mindedness, we are forever doomed to the darkness of the past.

Brian McNellis is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at brian.mcnellis@yale.edu.

Comments

  • CharlieWalls

    The last sentence, “As long as we cling to fundamentalism and close-mindedness, we are forever doomed to the darkness of the past,” would have made a nice start into a discussion of problems here at home. One of the leading Republican candidates has a mind set and coordinate system disturbingly afloat in a religious boat. His sort of thinking leads to the social structure accepting: ‘their religion is suspect, not ours’.

    • lakia

      Except his religion affirms life, it does not destroy it or bring it to a grinding halt.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Easier said than done.

    PK

    Mi.Div.’80

  • RexMottram08

    Moral relativism at it’s best (worst?):

    > Fundamentalist Christians today are as
    > great a threat to American values as
    > Islamic extremists.

    Who are these Christian fundamentalists? Are they Saudi-funded conspirators with the capacity to bring down skyscrapers?

    Rural Kentucky’s snake handlers are the equivalent of nuclear Iran?

    This is not an intellectually serious column.

    • public_editor

      To be fair, McNellis argued that fundamentalist Christians were a threat to American *values*. Saudi-supported fundamentalist Muslims may threaten American civilians, but there’s an argument (although perhaps not an incredibly strong one) that can be made that fundamentalist Christianity is inherently antithetical to American liberalism. In the end though, you’re right: there’s more to fear from plain-flying terrorists than deluded and hateful Christians.

      • RexMottram08

        Agreed. Fair point.

  • ac826

    People practically riot in the US every black friday. We riot after sporting events. People don’t behave rationally during riots, and judging any culture by it’s action during a mob mentality is just silly.

    • RexMottram08

      Why do millions gather in St. Peter’s Square peacefully and without incident but several people are trampled to death at Mecca every year?

      • ac826

        Probably because it’s 3 million people in a cramped space where nobody wants to get trampled on, so a stampede happens. That and the catholic church is probably better at crowd control. Are you seriously suggesting that in a gathering of three million people, what determines whether or not people will be trampled is the particular holy book they happen to take as fundamental?

        Correlation does not and never has equaled causation. If you or Brian McNellis would like to provide anything more than a correlation between Islam and violence, I’ll happily shut my mouth.

        • RexMottram08

          I am seriously suggesting that there is a difference between being Catholic and being Muslim and that the consequences of that difference are evident in many places.

          Both Islam and Christianity make claims on material spaces. Is it not informative to observe what occurs at those places?

          I also note that the major incident of violence in St. Peter’s Square was a Muslim fanatic shooting a peaceful elderly Polish pope.

          • croncor

            It is absolutely intolerable to see someone claiming that there are differences between distinct groups of people. People like you, Rex, are the biggest obstacles to progress today. May all your kind be wiped from the face of the earth.

          • ldffly

            Good one croncor. I just hope the YDN censors don’t misunderstand.

  • eli1

    I will (maybe) respect Islam when my own religion (Catholicism) is respected on this campus. One only has to look to the desecration of the cross last Easter season to know that even the most peaceful religions are disrespected time and again by nonbelievers.

    • ac826

      I refuse to respect the religion of people who practice different religions until everyone who practices different religions respects my religion!

      Give it to get it, Eli1.

  • ElizabethGrayHenry

    I mean I guess it’s good to know that a fellow Yalie thinks I am just as big a threat to the freedom and promise America stands for as suicide bombers are.

    I bet George Washington would be shocked to learn that the values of his country–life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness–are more threatened by Elizabeth Henry, Yale sophomore and Southern Baptist, than they are by jihadists who think it is their god-given purpose to die in a suicide bombing, killing as many Americans as possible.

    • alsoanon

      Jihadists are certainly a bigger threat to American *lives,* as others have pointed out in the comments. But I would argue that terrorist attacks ultimately only strengthen American unity and American values because people come together to oppose them and support each other in their aftermath (arguments about the Patriot Act notwithstanding), whereas fundamentalist Christianity, because of its viability in the current political sphere, offers real threats to freedoms of religion, choice, etc–things that terrorist attacks can never hope to actually impact. I mean, you don’t have to look much further than the possibility of a Santorum presidency to see fundamentalist Christianity threatening things like the separation of church and state.

      • RexMottram08

        Rick Santorum = fundamentalist Christian?

        He’s a JPII Catholic…

        • alsoanon

          That’s not incompatible with fundamentalism. I didn’t say “born-again.” Any religious person can be fundamentalist.

          • RexMottram08

            But what I’m really sensing is that for you “any religious person IS a fundamentalist” (Although I assume you would make a nice exception for Unitarians, Democrat voting Episcopalians and green neo-pagans)

            A belief in objective truth is not sufficient for the label “fundamentalist.”

        • River_Tam

          Don’t expect Yalies to know the difference.

        • ldffly

          Thanks Rex. Despite their now long held agreement on the matter of Roe v. Wade, there are considerable differences between Protestant and Catholic, particularly on matters of authority. Let us remember that the early modern justification of popular resistance to tyranny came out of Calvinism not the Church of Rome. (For more reading, just look into a number of writings by John Knox.) If you’re looking to Protestant or fundamentalist Christianity as a source of advocates for growing governmental authority, you will be sorely tried in your pursuit. So please folks, do a little more study both of the old texts and the politics of today. I think you will be surprised at what you find.

          Just to point out one other matter, the issue of abortion, mentioned by alsoanon, can be and has been argued on secular grounds. The late Christopher Hitchens being one example of an entirely secular opponent of Roe. Admittedly, most opponents of Roe have come out of the Christian churches, but not all.

          • RexMottram08

            Ronald Knox > John Knox

          • ldffly

            Not clear. I’m not sure who Ronald Knox is. I guess I’ll have to check. Of course, John is regarded as the father of the Presbyterian Church.

          • RexMottram08

            Ronald Arbuthnott Knox

    • penny_lane

      I would argue that the Christian right is a far greater threat to American values than radical Islamist extremists. You don’t see brainwashed 14-year-olds racking up delegates in the primaries for a major political party, but you do see Rick Santorum doing it…his views on most issues, including his religion-influenced interpretation of the bill of rights and the role of government in people’s personal lives, are about as anti-freedom as it gets.

      • River_Tam

        > I would argue that the Christian right is a far greater threat to American values than radical Islamist extremists.

        Only if you define “the Republican Party winning elections” as “worse than 9/11″.

        • penny_lane

          You’re trying to compare a disastrous and unprecedented act of terrorism with the erosion of the basic tenets of a free society. Both are deeply concerning, but only one has any effect on American values.

          Unless you’re trying to argue that the collapse of the towers caused Americans to sympathize with the Islamo-Fascists, but I think you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who agrees with you.

      • RexMottram08

        This is how hysterical the Left has become:

        Rick Santorum, a moderate, generic Republican from a blue district in Pennsylvania who loves earmarks, sweater vests and manufacturing is considered the devil incarnate.

        I bet Penny Lane thinks George W. Bush actually governed conservatively!

        • penny_lane

          Mitt Romeny is a good example of a moderate, generic Republican. Santorum is not. Sweater-vests and earmarks have nothing to do with believing that religion should inform policy, that citizens need the government to hold their hands, and that the government has any business interfering in a citizen’s private life. There’s more where that came from, all more in line with fascism than democracy.

          I don’t think Bush governed terribly conservatively aside from his economic neoconservatism (NCLB says it all), nor did he govern particularly well, but that is neither here nor there in this conversation.

  • River_Tam

    I think the difference between Christianity and Islam is about 600 years.

    • RexMottram08

      I love you.

  • The Anti-Yale

    RT:

    There’s a very BIG difference: I don’t think the prophet of Islam was ever enshrined as God incarnate.

    PK

    • River_Tam

      Perhaps, but Islam makes up for it: depictions of the Prophet are forbidden by Sunnis, his name is followed with PBUH, Shias believe him to be free from sin. Criticism of Mohammed is considered blasphemy. Etc.

      • The Anti-Yale

        These formulae are small potatoes compared with hubris of claiming your prophet is ,alakazaam, God made flesh.

        • River_Tam

          It’s not hubris – it’s the central tenet of the faith.

  • croncor

    The obvious point is that fundamentalist Christians are the best remaining representation of early American values. The rest of the country has decided to ditch old school Americanism to hunt the snark in the nihilistic wetlands of emotivism/pragmatism. Not exactly what William Bradford was writing about.

    If the fundamentalists were actually hostile to (contemporary, popular) American values (they’re not), I’d be glad. What’s so good about these values? What are they grounded in? We trumpet the importance of freedom constantly but no one in the mainstream has any honorable use for their freedom, nor does the culture suggest one beyond accruing wealth, perfecting one’s appearance and finding an attractive sex partner. If that’s it, then why not just let the country burn?

    • penny_lane

      “Pursuit of happiness,” as the term was understood when Jefferson penned it, refers to the ability to provide economic security for oneself and one’s family. How is accruing wealth, therefore, antithetical to freedom?

      • croncor

        Didn’t say accruing wealth was antithetical to freedom. Just that it was a poor use of it. Of course, avarice is contrary to freedom, but that’s even further from the point.

        • penny_lane

          What do you suggest as a good use?

    • CharlieWalls

      I believe ‘croncor’ has a narrowed view of life here and now. The three aspects of culture are straight from TV or high school, and what does an “honorable use” of freedom mean? Take a walk or visit the library just to read something of interest — or sit and think. Try a train ride and talk to the people you meet. Often you might be surprised at the simple pleasures of an aimless freedom.

  • ignatz

    McNellis is right in urging that criticism of Islam is part of free speech and must — must — be tolerated, something that CAIR and other Islamic groups have yet to learn. But McNellis is dead wrong in equating all “ancient” religions and suggesting they must all be found wanting by today’s “enlightened” moral standards. Fortunately, only one religion today routinely slaughters or maims those who criticize it. Details (including an up-to-date body count) can be found at thereligionofpeace.com/

    • penny_lane

      Hmm. Maybe we should make a site that counts the gay people murdered in the street or the doctors injured in abortion clinic bombings. Christianity’s body count is admittedly much lower these days, but their ticker is still climbing…

  • The Anti-Yale

    “The obvious point is that fundamentalist Christians are the best remaining representation of early American values.”

    @Croncor:

    Slavery?

    Pahllocentric , male chauvinistic, patriarchal family structures, education, and government, suffrrage ?

    Corporal punishment?

    Anti-Semitism?

    HRRRMPH.

    PK

    • Luke_Bavarious

      Let me remind you (lest you forget) that “male chauvinistic patriarchal family structures” have been the cornerstone of civilized society.

      Luke Bavarious

  • The Anti-Yale

    They have been the “cornerstone” of all wars; of American slavery; of the age-old suppression of women; of women’s use as breeding machines (aka as “wifely duty’) and of the twisting and perversion of sacred tests to justify the aforementioned.

    I am ashamed to be a male, and wouldn’t want to be a female.

    A fine kettle of fish.

    PK

    M. Div. ’80, etc.

    • YaleMom

      We just cooked a fine kettle of fish last night! Tilapia! Scrumptious!

      • YaleMom

        Just goes to show you: us ladies ARE good for something!

    • The Anti-Yale

      sacred “texts” not “tests”.

  • lakia

    so much for freedom of speech

  • lakia

    so much for free speech