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