On the Dangers of Literalism in Religion

People keep saying “Islam is a peaceful religion,” and then they follow it up with “ISIL isn’t Islamic” or “ISIL is not real Islam, but a twisted and warped version of it.” Or, these days it’s “Those people aren’t real Christians” or “real Christians would never vote for this or that or so-and-so,” or “no Christian would EVER support the KKK/Nazis/white supremacists.”

No, I’m sorry. They claim the same creed, the same book, and the same deity. They feel themselves to be every bit as devout and sincere as you do. You don’t get to disown them because you don’t like how they interpret your faith. The problem is that who gets to say which is the “twisted and warped” version of any faith? 

The extremists and fundamentalists in any faith all work from the same texts as the moderates. They tell the same stories, and reference the same ancient history. In fact, they believe they have the true, real, and correct interpretation of their religion. They believe the moderates are the ones who have lost or perverted the true faith, by accommodating “modern” or “progressive” views. So for everyone who says “X extremist isn’t a true whatever?” Guess what? They think the same thing about you. 

Both sides can find plenty of support in their texts and their traditions to support their claims. Who is qualified to say this one is right when this one is wrong? Oh, I know, you’ll tell me who is qualified. So will they. Their expert, inspired preacher, sage, or guru, will have just as much credibility as yours. That’s the problem with following bronze-age mythology: it’s ALL interpretation, and it can be used to support just about anything you want it to, and there is no authority behind any claim of the “correct” interpretation. 

And the bottom line is that all religions entail accepting claims without evidence, and elevating such claims over both facts and the competing claims of others. They also encourage the suspension of critical thinking at their core. Rather than promoting investigation, independent thought, critical thinking, or analysis, they command that the believer listen to the pastor/priest/rabbi/mullah/guru. Believers are taught to follow authority and not question. Once you convince someone to do that, you can convince them of anything at all. And every holy book has a verse or six to back it up, be it hate or love, murder or charity. 

It takes a particularly deft species of rationalization and apologetics to be able to ignore the outright calls for violence in all the major religious texts. That the “majority” of religious people do not commit atrocities in the name of their religion is a credit to them, not to their doctrines. Moderates in any faith who are decent, kind, and accepting people are not that way because they follow their books to the letter. They are the way because they have performed the mental gymnastics required to accept these parts of that book as true, and these others as ‘out of context,’ ‘no longer applicable,’ or whatever other rationalization they may use. It’s cherry-picking at its finest, and I’m truly glad they do this. I am glad that most people are, at heart, too decent to truly follow their faith as it’s presented in their texts. But those horrible texts don’t get the credit for it, basic human decency does.

Don’t get me wrong; I think all religions can be wonderful as forms of allegorical or metaphorical thinking. And as such, I have no issue with them. In fact, I think we as humans need to have allegory and metaphor and symbol; those modes of thought make our lives richer. It is perfectly fine to use Neptune as a way to envision or describe or ponder the fickle, treacherous, capricious, and powerful nature of the ocean. Or to have an affection for the icon of Ganesh as the embodiment of cleverness, joy in life, and benevolent mischief. I, personally, have both deep affection and appreciation for much of the Hindu (and Wiccan) pantheon as metaphorical archetypes that embody universal principles or truths. I am terrifically fond of Dante as a literary exemplar of the faith of his age and the core human struggle to discover who and what we have the potential to be. Mythology and allegory can genuinely inspire and enlighten us when we use them as tools of creative and imaginative thought. (In fact, there is growing evidence many ancient cultures, perhaps wiser than we, did just that – they understood their varied and all-too-human pantheons as allegorical.)

However, the moment one decides there is actually a guy down there with a chariot drawn by hippocampi, waving a trident around, and that he is the reason that some ship sank? Or the moment you decide there is an actual dude with an elephant’s head put there by his father to replace the one he too hastily chopped off, and you need to appease him to get what you want out of life? In that moment, you aren’t finding a greater understanding of some universal truth, you’ve simply divorced yourself from reality and accepted something utterly in defiance of reason and without any evidence. 

That’s the problem with making nice with religion: when populations start to take their claims and myths literally and suppose that they provide some sort of mandate for ethics or governance we have a problem. Because we are not working with reality or evidence, and because not everyone has chosen to embrace the same mythology. Then all manner of evil becomes possible in defense of this mythology or that. And then we’re back to the problem above: who gets to say which version is the right one? 

Think about it: if the Aztecs were still a thing, we’d be arguing with hardline fundamentalists who wanted to continue cutting the hearts out of living sacrifices, and they’d be insisting that those who call that practice barbaric are apostates swayed by heresy. On the other side would-be moderates preaching that Quetzalcoatl was a god of love and peace, the ‘sacrifice’ is just an allegory for the harvest of corn, and claiming the extremists aren’t really ‘Quetzalites,’ (or whatever), but have ‘twisted the true faith.’ No one would EVER be able to prove which side was right, because there was never a bird god to begin with, and it’s all just ancient mythology that can be used to justify anything. And of course, over here would be us atheists, shaking our heads, and telling the lot “you’re all still worshipping a bird, and you all need to grow the hell up.” 

That’s why I say humanity, if it is to survive and progress, need to keep ALL religions in the same box we keep Apollo and Odin, and Gilgamesh. Sure, maybe we can pull them out once in a while when we want to wax poetic or be all metaphorical, but then put them back and close the lid. The rest of the time, when we have real problems to deal with, real lives to live, real people to live alongside, let’s all use reason and science to navigate society and public life.

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