Honestly confronting the failures of your own religion

There’s been a bit of curfuffle online recently concerning Bill Maher’s statements concerning Islam which garner accusations such as ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobe’ that are not really logically valid if you pay attention to what Maher has actually said. When he criticises Christianity, some Christians will say, ‘You are wrong.’ To my knowledge, most of us don’t think Maher is a racist or bigot for thinking our religion is a lot of hooey. We think he’s just plain wrong.

And that’s the way things are supposed to work in a just, liberal society. People can criticise my religion all they want. And I, in response, can offer reasoned refutation of their position or perhaps a clearer explanation of my own. But it’s not the Carolingian age anymore. People shouldn’t and, in most countries, don’t go to jail for criticising Christianity. And that’s a good thing. I can’t remember which Late Antique or Early Mediaeval Christian said it, but you can’t force people to believe. Not truly. If we truly want people to love Jesus, everyone needs the legal and social freedom to be able to reject him as well.

What some people do when their religion is criticised by a person such as Bill Maher is simply state contraries, with no evidence, that this fellow is wrong. That there is nothing in Islam that would promote the subjugation of women or the beheading of prisoners.

Or that there is nothing in Christianity that would promote, say, slavery…

Oh, wait.

Well, that’s awkward. There is.

What shows intellectual maturity in how you defend and view your own faith is when you meet something like, say, 1800 years of Christian slavery, you don’t explain it away, you don’t say that those people weren’t true Christians. You admit that this is a thing that went on.

Oh, and you don’t blame Constantine. Can’t play the Constantine card here.

Instead, admit the truth. Say, yeah, most Christians for most of history were pro-slavery. It’s one of those things in the ancient world — you wouldn’t want to be a slave, but almost no one makes the logical conclusion that no one else should be, either. Some do, and some of them, I’ve been told, are Christians. Some are ‘pagans’.

Maybe mention the anti-slavery ancient Christians, if you have a chance. Mention also that a great many of the earliest Christians were themselves slaves.

But admit that, yeah, Christians were slave owners.

Also, don’t act like there’s no slavery in the Bible.

Disagree with Sam Harris’ interpretation of how Christians should apply those passages, but don’t act like they aren’t there. They are.

17th-c Quaker John Woolman opposed slavery

But then, if you do want to show that Christianity is good for human rights, talk about the early Quakers who were abolitionists as early as the 1600s and who made pacts to avoid acquiring goods involved in slave labour. Then talk about the biblical basis for Quaker opposition to slavery — that, yes, there is slavery in the Bible, and, yes, you’ll even hear a few people to this day using those verses to support it, but there is a thematic thread running through the entire Old and New Testaments that points to the emancipation of slaves to a position of legal freedom that parallels their spiritual freedom.

This is how to look at your religion’s history full-on. Own the moral and intellectual failures of your predecessors. And then show the way out of this difficulty.

Such should be the response of moderate Muslims when people such as Bill Maher criticise the extremist and conservative practices of many Islamic states — acknowledge the weight of history and the errors of the past, but then show a way out. It will do a few things:

  1. Free up intellectual debate and conversation about Islam so that critics do not hide in corners but can speak their minds and have a real conversation about religion, and be corrected when they are wrong rather than shouted down by Ben Affleck.
  2. Show Muslims who may sympathise with more extreme visions of the religion a way forward that is still Islamic.
  3. Address the real Islamophobes and their problems, rather than attacking Bill Maher, and demonstrate to them that, while they may fear certain things, there are real Muslims who share some of their fears and who are seeking alternatives.

This is how debate is meant to work in free, just, liberal societies. And this is how people of faith should engage the failures of their own religions.