Selectively labelling particular positive or negative manifestations of religion as ‘real’, however well intentioned, undermines pluralism, privileges particular unevidenced beliefs and bolsters both religious supremacism and anti-religious bigotry.
All religion is ‘real religion’. That may seem a counterintuitive position from an atheist perspective. However, such a statement makes no claim about truth. There are uncountable supernatural creation myths, each are real religious beliefs regardless of their factual content. This blog also comes from a secularist perspective, challenge the privileging of any one or set of religious perspectives, and a humanist understanding of the roots and evolution of religions.
Somewhere round the world right now:
A Christian, based on their religion, is persecuting a gay person, and another, also based on their religion, is volunteering at a foodbank. They are both ‘real’ Christians.
A Muslim, based on their religion, is calling for the death of a cartoonist, and another, also based on their religion, is struggling to make zakat. They are both ‘real’ Muslims.
A Hindu, based on their religion, is oppressing a ‘lower caste’, and another, also based on their religion, is delivering dana. They are both ‘real’ Hindus.
A Sikh, based on their religion, is punishing a relative for ‘marrying out’, and another, also based on their religion, is working tirelessly to house the homeless. They are both ‘real’ Sikhs.
A humanist can argue that any positive manifestation of religion can be achieved through humanistic means, but that the negative manifestations rely on religion. An anti-theist can argue that negative manifestations of religion have sounder scriptural and traditional grounding. A religious scholar can argue that either the positive or negative manifestation is more representative.
In the UK, research shows that most RE teachers view it as their job to promote a positive view of religion and to frame negative manifestations as false or twisted versions of religion – a trend that most politicians and the media follow. There is also a tendency among some atheists to malign more rational, tolerant or progressive manifestations of religion as not being ‘real’.
Tied to this is the old apologist platitude that the perpetrators of religious violence or bigotry are ‘just using religion as an excuse’. Notably, we rarely hear of charitable endeavours by people of faith that they are ‘just using religion as an excuse’. This is despite the latter possibly being more accurate. Many ex-Christians leave homophobia behind, very few abandon concern for the poor.
Much of this is well intentioned. In December 2015 during an Islamist terrorist attack. John, a good upstanding citizen, security guard and apparently armature religious scholar gained fame for shouting at the attacker “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv”. We can all understand what motivated John and his desire not to see ordinary British Muslims maligned by, or subject to bigotry for, being unfairly associated with this terrorist. John went on to say “Isis should be wiped out, because they’re not Muslims, because Muslims don’t do that.”
Well intentioned this may be and with the greatest respect to John’s deep knowledge of theology, religious history and foreign affairs, it just isn’t true. After every Islamist attack specifically motivated by religious beliefs, we hear that Islamism has ‘nothing to do with Islam’. As well as being insultingly obviously false, it gaslights the victims of Islamist violence, does nothing to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry and upholds the idea that there are true or false versions of a religion. An honest conversation about how unrepresentative or extreme Islamist interpretations of the religion are, may be more productive.
Mainstream apologists continue to push this line with little care for honesty, or the victims of Islamism. The most charitable thing you can say is that this is a misguided attempt to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry by shielding Islam from criticism. The followers of a religion are not stained with the sin of everything bad done in the name of that religion, but framing such manifestation as not ‘real’, absolves the religion of any responsibility. It upholds supremacist ideas about certain religions being all good, and encourages reactive prejudices.
Because of the extent of Christian privilege in the West, we often see Christianity or ‘real Christianity’ used as a substitute for good, in a way that white once was. Well intentioned Christians hearing of an atheist’s charitable work or opposition to discrimination, may say something like “you’re a better Christian than many Christians I know”, many atheists even use such language. But this reveals a subconscious Christian supremacy and anti-atheist bigotry. Calling an atheist Christian as a compliment reveals that you can’t easily reconcile atheism with positive characteristics. I think that Chrissy Stroop is one of the best authors on this topic.
Conflating ‘real Christianity’ with goodness or virtues many Christians may hold, is an attempt to appropriate such virtues and avoid responsibility for vices. Victims of Christian homophobia are frequently gaslit, their lived experiences invalidated, and their abuse perpetuated by claims that this is not ‘real Christianity’. Those Christians working to rid their faith of homophobia, may be edging closer to the mainstream in many places, but they aren’t any more or less ‘real’.
We can’t differentiate between ‘real’ and not real religion based on specific beliefs as this inevitably privileges certain interpretations, when in reality all religions are subjected to a vast array of interpretations. When Christians abandon creationism in favour of a scientific (or at least more naturalistic) understanding of the world, do they become any more or less ‘real’? Are Muslims more or less ‘real’ if they treat one set of contradictory religious obligations more seriously than another? Are cultural Jews who abandon any form of supernatural belief less ‘real’? Modifiers and descriptions to differentiate between different manifestations of religion given their narrower definition, allow us to more fairly differentiate between ‘real’ or accurate uses of the label. But we should be careful to avoid such labels replicating the essentialism of the ‘real religion is good/bad religion’ framing.
All manifestations of religion, liberal or authoritarian, faith based or allegorical, good or bad cherry pick. Unless a religion is consciously created in a specific narrow way, then there is no such thing as scriptural literalism. The difference with humanism and other secular belief systems, is that their consensus beliefs are not claimed to be discovered by scripture or faith, but acknowledged as human and naturalistic.
Pointing out the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalist, that their claims to religious literalism are false, that that too cherry pick, and their ignorance of more liberal traditions within their own religion, are all powerful tools in the hands of religious liberals and humanist. There’s a scene in the West Wing, beloved by religious liberals. Even if you’ve not seen the show, you may be familiar with it. President Bartlet exposes the hypocrisy of a right-wing anti-gay bigot’s use of the Bible to justify her homophobia. He eloquently points all the other biblical laws, from slavery to stoning people for working on the sabbath, that she ignores. The writers were apparently unaware how much the scene exposes Bartlet’s own hypocrisy in turn.
It is fair, and important, to point out where a form of religion is so far removed from the mainstream of that religion that we are tempted to say it is not ‘really’ that religion. Unfortunately, this is manifestly not the case with either Christian Nationalism or Islamism. And even if we were to take that as a standard, how would it be applied? There was a time when Christian support for African slavery was completely mainstream, and anti-slavery positions a progressive fringe, at what point did one become, or cease to be, ‘real’ Christianity?
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Photo information: Close Up Photograph of Person Praying in Front Lined Candles, Rodolfo Clix