Let’s talk about the word religion.
Talking about religion is painful for me. It’s painful because it’s a huge, complicated topic and it’s layered. There’s a personal experience of religion and its long term harm to me. There’s the way to look at religion from within that religion. There’s a greater philosophical perspective on the topic. There’s my personal outlook, too, as a person who has left the faith. There’s my familial outlook on it, as a man whose family is religious and to whom religion as a practical and political component of just conversation.
There’s also a greater conversation about atheism, and its legitimacy as a worldview, and then that leads to another conversation about, well, Reddit Atheism. These are challenges I can’t easily struggle with, and all of these ideas are interconnected, tangled up in one another. I may forgive philosophical flaws in religious outlooks, just because, well, my dad is part of this storm, and so is my sister.
There is a lot to talk about here.
What I’d like to talk about is Islam, but I can only do that in the context of Christianity. To talk about that, though, I have to first talk about language and meaning.
I am white.
This is not true and it is true. I am not, in fact, the colour white; I am not the abstract concept of a merger of all coloured forms of light. I am not culturally in the social order represented by Alabaman rednecks. I am not coloured white. But I am an Anglo-Saxon European with pale pink skin who speaks English and lives in a colonised nation with a lot of money to go around and institutionalised racism and patriarchy and genocide and a lot of guilt that we pretty much deserve to carry. The term has some inherent ambiguity to it. This is true of almost every word.
Hang onto this at the start of the conversation.
Let’s talk about the word Shibboleth.
In the Bible the story of the word Shibboleth is where faction A wanted to prevent spies and traders from faction B. Without a high metal fence or a sky-patrolling army of killer drones, the only means they had to protect their border was to test everyone who tried to cross it (ha ha ha, Bible stories are literally true, ha ha ha). They asked them to speak a word that existed in their language, that could be pronounced correctly, only if you were born in and amongst them, raised up, and grew with the components of the word. The word is shibboleth, and it has since become a common parlance amongst erudite hoity-toity pricks like me for a password.
The story is often used to represent the idea that there are things that cannot be faked, that there are some lies that cannot be made convincing. There is no password, there is no miracle description. There is no true signal that a Christian is a Christian.
Now let’s talk about the word Christian.
Christian is a term that doesn’t have any particularly robust definition. Even a dictionary definition won’t work. I was personally reared in the Independent Baptist movement, and have a friend who was raised Catholic; to his childhood environment, he was going to heaven, and I wasn’t, and vice versa. Yet both of us followed a religion, as per our interpretations, that declared the other doomed, and non-Christian. I looked into this – desperate to learn how I could possibly reconcile this problem.
Doctrinally, it can be very easy to accept a Christian; the broadest definition possible is in John 3:16 – a verse that to this day, I can quote from memory. For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. That’s all you need. Someone can argue that the Bible also adds to that – some argue that in John 14:15, Jesus’ simple If ye love me, keep my commandments represents a rule rather than an aspiration. You can even turn to Matthew 7:24, Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock, but again, that might be aspirational. It’s not necessarily mandatory for salvation.
The Arminian view of Christianity, juxtaposed with the extreme Calvinist perspective, is that asking Jesus into your life saves you, but that just enables you to live a good life; after that, you can sin your way into hell, you can reject your faith and become an apostate. Calvinism goes a step further than that, and argues that you can’t even choose to be saved, you are just chosen, and you can never know if you are chosen.
Most Christian sects fall between the two; it’s often held to a traditional view that once saved, you are redeemed and while you can sin, you shouldn’t want to. Thanks to the widespread Americanisation of the faith in English speaking communities, this view, which is often known as Episcopelean is more or less the accepted norm. You’ll see most Christian media pegging things broadly in this way, with very little precise doctrinal points.
If you’ve been following so far you’ll realise that defining being Christian is a total mess. Paying too much attention to what makes others Christian is a challenge that the Bible cannot prove. Heck – the Bible even warns against it, in 2 Thessalonians 3:11 – For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.
What it falls to is individual interpretation.
So let’s talk about the interpretation.
The Bible is a messy book. Being a Christian is a messy business. Check it out – David supposedly penned in Psalm 18:1-2 – I will love thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.
Now, if you accept that David wrote this, David wrote it some four hundred years before Jesus was ever born. The verses speak of the Lord his God, Yahweh. David was not saying that the Lord was a rock that he owned; a fortress he owned, a buckler, a shofar horn, and a tower. This is the most basic, simple form of poetic language. Right?
Why in the world am I bringing this up?
I’m bringing it up because I believe literally no Christian believes the Bible literally. What they believe in is their interpretation of it. Everyone. The most assiduous priest interprets phrases one way and his brother the next. I have heard numerous sermons on this psalm from many different priests, and while there’s a gist in common, there are individual points that vary wildly.
So, words have inherent ambiguity. A religion represents a form of self-identity that is even more hard to interpret. Christianity, from its ‘source’ the Bible, has many different interpretations and threads, such that the only possible way to identify a Christian is to accept when someone says they’re Christian. You can, if you want, pick at other people’s ability to operate within the faith – but if you start telling them they’re not of that faith, you face a new challenge. Where is that authority coming from? There really is no shibboleth.
So let’s talk about the word Muslim.
I’m not an expert in the Q’ran. I don’t know many Sura, or many interpretations of the book. I’m no expert on the matter. All I know about that book is that it is a religious text on par with the Bible in its overall complexity, in its editorial happenstance and, yes, in how parts of it ambiguously overlap with and contradict other parts.
Individual Muslims – people within that faith – can argue what does and does not account to one another as being Muslim. But people outside that faith? The people who have nothing to do with it, directly? We have no tool, no test. You can point to a Sura that says ‘hey, you, Muslim person, don’t follow this’ but so what? You do that sort of crap to Christians and you just look like an ignorant buffoon. Christians interpret the Bible, and have their own perspective on what it means to be Christian. The exact same thing is true of Muslims.
Which is to say… sure. A person can be a feminist and a Muslim. It’s up to how they interpret feminism and Islam. Don’t get pissy about the labels a person chooses for their identity. There are other, greater ideas here – I personally believe individuals should be considered, socially, to have more rights to define themselves. But when it comes to practical issues, the actual reordering of a social structure, of fixing things and helping people and being nice?
Well, I like in these times to quote Matthew 7:16 – But by their fruit you will know them. Do they gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles?
Editor’s Note: This blog post was inspired by watching retweets from Jay The Nerd Kid about the topic of Islam, arguing with some jackwagon or other.