The Abuse of Religion in
the Contemporary World
Rev. Dr. Herman Roborgh S.J.
People come to religion with all kind of personal agendas. Some people expect religion to provide answers for the mysteries of the universe while others think religion can provide a blueprint for social and political life. Some people expect religion to take away human suffering and to free society of man-made injustice while other people even use religion to justify the use of violence to attain their objectives.(1) Pointing to the way religion is used to justify inhuman behavior, modern atheists take the next step and condemn religion as backward and oppressive. However, these modern atheists assume that their own perception of religion accurately conveys its true nature and purpose.
This paper seeks to respond to two approaches to religion. On the one hand, it addresses the fundamentalists of Judaism, Christianity and Islam who insist that the pristine faith of their forefathers, the first believers, is the only true religion. On the other hand, it also responds to the modern atheists, who make a parody of religion before rejecting it as irrational and contrary to human dignity. In my view, both the fundamentalists and the atheists share the same intolerance that is characteristic of modernity and misunderstand religion as an ideology.
Modernity has its roots in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, with its demand for empirical verification, and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which gloried in an autonomous reason, freed from the constraints of biblical supernaturalism, theological dogma, and Church authority. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists have interpreted their Scriptures with a literalism that has become a characteristic of modernity. Christian and Muslim modernists considered God to be the logical and reasonable explanation of the perfect design they found in the universe. Various forms of Deism took the place of traditional faith in the transcendent God, who could henceforward be explained as a superhuman Being and Designer.
The Modern Atheists
Although the 'death of God' movement in the 20th century rejected this human construction of God, the contemporary atheists focus exclusively on the concept of God developed by the fundamentalisms of recent centuries and go on to insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion. They continue to read Scripture in an entirely literal manner that disregards the long tradition of allegoric or Talmudic interpretation and is unaware of recent developments in the hermeneutics of the Bible. In his book, God is Not Great, Hitchens assumes that the discrepancies in the Gospel narratives prove the falsity of Christianity. "Either the Gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that."(2) Similarly, Dawkins has a simplistic view of the moral teaching of the Bible, taking it for granted that its chief purpose is to issue clear rules of conduct and provide us with 'role models'.(3) He describes God as a supernatural Designer God, only to demolish the concept as inadequate. He simply assumes that this is "the way people have generally understood the term" God.(4) Modern atheists use an Enlightenment discourse according to which God is reduced to a scientific hypothesis.(5) Like many other fundamentalists, they presume that since the Bible claims to be inspired by God, it must also provide scientific information. Having misunderstood the basic purpose of Scripture and religion, they reject both as products of human imagination.
Typical of the fundamentalist mindset is an exaggerated confidence in the ability of reason to speak of God as a 'clear', 'distinct', and self-evident idea. Descartes had said that the existence of God was even clearer and more obvious that one of Euclid's theorems. Religious fundamentalists claim that a pure form of religion will solve all problems and the power of reason will yield practical results. Similarly, modern atheists regard scientific rationality as the only acceptable source of true statements. Their concept of reason conveniently disregards the place of intuition and symbol and excludes the presence of mystery and the unknowable. Ultimately, this model of reason is not open to the possibility of transcendence and becomes a dangerous idol since it is very intolerant of other interpretations of the world.
Modern atheists present a distorted concept of religion that has no connection with the traditional intellectual tradition of Judaism, Christianity or Islam. They discuss notions of religion they have fabricated themselves and apply principles of interpretation that are severely flawed because they take no account of the social, historical and political context of society. The only model of religion they describe and analyze is the extreme expression of it propagated by the fundamentalists. However, the fundamentalist version of religion differs from the religion practiced for centuries by the majority of Jews, Christians and Muslims, who have understood religion as a force for harmony and peaceful coexistence. Hitchens' oft-repeated phase: 'religion poisons everything'(6) refers to some kind of abstract religion devoid of morality and spirituality and without any concern for human rights.
In the Muslim world, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and helped to produce an ideology, which still has a large influence today. According to Qutb, modern forms of democracy and government are indications that society no longer respects the sovereignty of God and has become the victim of various forms of servitude. Qutb advocated a return to the pristine form of Islam that acknowledges God as the only sovereign in all spheres of life. Because God alone is sovereign, a citizen is no longer obliged to obey a ruler who contravenes the Qur'anic demand for justice and equity. Qutb had been influenced by the writings of another modernist, Abu Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), who urged Muslims to struggle against all forms of Western imperialism. Modernist thinkers such as Qutb and Mawdudi developed a form of Islam that claims to be all embracing, affecting every aspect of a person's life. They reduced the law of God (shari'a) to a code of rules and prohibitions, which all pious believers were expected to accept and obey. Their stress on the transcendence of God made God into a remote being.(7)
Abu Bakar Ba'asyir is an influential Muslim teacher in Indonesia, whose approach to Islam resembles that of Qutb and Mawdudi. Like them, Ba'asyir maintains that Muslims will be able to revive the quality of their life only by going back to models provided by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions in the seventh century. In line with the modernist thinkers before him, Ba'asyir understands Islam as an ideology, a complete package of rules and guidance for all aspects of life.(8) The basic concern of this kind of modernist thinker is the effort to explain Islam in its pristine or purest form.
It seems to me, however, that whatever the perfect or pristine expression of religion may be, we know only the imperfect and flawed expression that limited and imperfect human beings have made of it. All religious communities have taken shape within history and the authority of a Scriptural text, even if considered absolute, has always been mediated by fallible human beings whose interpretations change and who constantly disagree with one another. Although the religious fundamentalists and the modern atheists refer to religion as a perfect code of life, they have different views about the encounter between the unchanging nature of religion (as they see it) and the changing conditions and challenges faced by people living in modern society.(9)
Traditional Language about Religion
The fundamentalists and the atheists discussed religion according to narrow categories derived from the Enlightenment and modernism. They reached their extreme conclusions by bypassing the intellectual tradition of the Abrahamic religions. However, traditional religious discourse has always been familiar with realities that take us beyond empirical observation and measurement. For this reason, traditional religion has recognized and respected the experience of myth and mysticism. Moreover, because it was not locked in its own limited rational categories, traditional religious discourse was able to evaluate and incorporate elements from other religious, philosophical and cultural traditions that were enriching or illuminating. Traditional religious discourse is, therefore, very different from the intolerant discourse of the modernist thinkers.
Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages, for instance, discussed and adopted certain philosophical categories from the Greeks that were passed down to them through translations done by Muslims and Christians. Muslim societies have always been ready to debate the validity of knowledge borrowed from the Greeks, the Indians, the Persians and especially Aristotelian philosophy and Neoplatonic mystical knowledge. The Muslims were able to evaluate and incorporate Greek knowledge in the ninth and tenth centuries because they had a basis from which to evaluate all knowledge that came from outside their own tradition. The modernist thinkers, however, abandoned their own religious tradition and were left without a criterion with which to evaluate new intellectual concepts.(10) This prevented them from incorporating new developments in Biblical hermeneutical into their analysis of religion.
God is Transcendent
Traditional Christian theology was a process that began from faith and led towards understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). Tradition Christian thinkers knew that human reason was incapable of understanding the unknowable God. Faith itself was an affair of the heart, not an assent to rational principles or doctrines. Faith was a commitment to God who transcends any object that the human mind could ever imagine. Moreover, for the monks of medieval Europe, Scripture was not simply a source of information about the universe or about God. For them, the contemplative reading of the Scriptures (lectio divina) was a spiritual exercise that led to personal transformation.
Similarly, for traditional Muslim thinkers, theology (kalam) was a method of acquiring knowledge based on faith:
This is not knowledge of facts and information, but knowledge of things as they are in themselves, a knowledge in which everything is given its proper place because everything is seen in relation to God, and the relations between things are understood on the basis of their relationship to God. From this point of view, to know things outside of God is not to truly know them, for nothing can exist outside of its relationship to God; no existent exists outside of its dependence upon the Absolute.(11)
However, many of the Muslim modernists were so taken up by the progress of science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that they adopted the empirical, scientific method in their religious discourse. The result was that they lost contact with their own intellectual and spiritual tradition (ihsan), which explains all scientific knowledge in relation to its origin in God, who is transcendent - utterly beyond human comprehension. As Abu 'Majd Sana'i said:
Whatever comes to your mind that I am - I am not that!
Whatever has room in your understanding that I would be like this - I am not like this!
Whatever has room in your understanding is all something created - In reality know, O servant, that I am the Creator.(12)
According to Nasr, traditional and orthodox Sufism was part of orthodox Islam. In fact, "Sufism is as much part of Islamic orthodoxy as Franciscan or Dominican spirituality was part of Catholic orthodoxy in the Middle Ages."(13) Karen Armstrong says that during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries,
Sufism ceased to be a fringe movement and remained the dominant Islamic mood until the nineteenth century. Ordinary lay men and women practiced Sufi exercises, and these disciplines helped them to get beyond simplistically anthropomorphic ideas of God and to experience the divine as a transcendent presence within.(14)
While today there are many authors, influenced by Wahhabi agendas, who believe that Sufism has always led to a somewhat marginal existence in Islam, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the classical scholars were actively involved in Sufism.(15)
However, Sufism has always been utterly different from modern, wild extremism in that it is rooted in mercy and justice, forbidding the targeting of civilians, and conforming to the ethical ideal of the just war. Sufism forms no part of modern terrorist radicalism.(16)
If Sufism has been so respected a part of intellectual and political life throughout the history of Islam, why is there so much opposition to it within Islam today? One reason for this opposition is the influence of Orientalist scholarship on some of the leading Muslim modernists. The other reason for this opposition to Sufism is the emergence of the Wahhabi form of puritanical, legalist and militant Islam. Since Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab was raised in the wastelands of Najd in Central Arabia, he had no adequate access to mainstream scholarship and was, therefore, unaware of the influence of Sufism in traditional Islamic life and scholarship.
Lumbard concludes that when Sufism is separated from the rest of Islam, religion is reduced to Enlightenment ideology:
In Medieval Islam there were no hard lines between the Sufis and the 'ulama, nor between the madrasa and the khanqah. The lines which have been drawn by secularist and revivalist Muslim interpreters, as well as Orientalists, are more a result of the modern mind, which imposes Enlightenment and Protestant Christian notions of mysticism upon the medieval Islamic world: a world in which most intellectuals participated . . . in the same discourse.(17)
The Task for the Religions Today
The task for religious believers today is to present religious faith in terms that are not determined by the categories of modernism and the Enlightenment, which reduced the reality of God to one being among others. Religious language should create a space in which human beings are constantly urged to respect the otherness and transcendence of God, a God of mystery and symbol. Faith in a truly transcendent God is not reluctant to acknowledge the limits of human reason. Such faith frees the believer from a literalist and a dogmatic attitude. Religious discourse should enable believers to move beyond an all-encompassing ideology and be respectful of various interpretations of the divine mystery. A religious discourse of this kind will enable us to learn from one another's religious beliefs instead of competing for the correct formulation of the truth. It will lead to a society of peace and harmony between the many religions of the world.
1. Commenting on religiously-related violence that occurred recently in Pakistan, Asif Iftikhar writes: "The way religion has been misused by our 'religious' political parties and agencies of our government and of the international community is the primary cause of ever-growing trend of lynching in the name of religion." Renaissance, A Monthly Islamic Journal, Pakistan, September 2009, p. 42.
2. Hitchens, C., God is Not Great, New York: Allen & Unwin, 2007, p. 120
3. Dawkins, R., The God Delusion, London: Black Swan, 2006, pp. 237-67.
4. Dawkins, ibid, p. 31.
5. Ibid, pp. 31-73.
6. Cf. Hitchens, chapter one.
7. "Puritanical reformists have distorted theology so as to deny the immanence and closeness of God, affirming only the transcendence and remoteness of the Divine." Joseph Lumbard, J., (ed.), Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, Essays by Western Muslim Scholars, World Wisdom, 2004, chapter two: "The Decline of Knowledge and the Rise of Ideology in the Modern Islamic World," by Joseph Lumbard, p. 41.
8. Islam & The West Post 9/11, Geaves, Ron (ed.), Ashgate, 2004, ch.11: "Perspectives on Radical Islamic Education in Contemporary Indonesia: Major Themes and Characteristics of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir's Teachings," by Muhammad Sirozi, p. 176.
9. During the course of his long investigation into the meaning of ideal Islam, el-Zein concludes: "If in traditional society Islam defines the meaning and order of social reality, in modern society, the actual empirical conditions of social life determine the meaning of Islam." El Zein, Abdul Hamid M., "Beyond Ideology and Theology: The Search for the Anthropology of Islam," in Defining Islam: a Reader, Rippin, Andrew (ed.), London: Equinox, 2007, p. 93.
10. "When, however, one intellectual tradition is abandoned outright, there is no basis for the evaluation of another intellectual tradition and none of the fertile ground that is necessary for effective assimilation." Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, p. 40.
11. Ibid, p. 44.
12. Quoted in Boase, R. (ed.), Islam and Global Dialogue, Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace, Ashgate, 2005, p. 254.
13. Nasr, S.H., The Heart of Islam, Enduring Values for Humanity, San Francisco: Harper, 2004, p. 86.
14. Armstrong, K., The Case for God, What Religion Really Means, London: The Bodley Head, 2009, p. 136.
15. According to Lumbard: "There has been a tendency among Western scholars and modern Muslims to see Sufism as an esoteric, mystical movement disengaged from the rest of the Islamic community, rather than an integral part of it, even though the primary historical sources do not support this view." Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, p. 46.
16. Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, epilogue, pp. 291-292.
17. Lumbard, ibid, p.56.