Imagine that you have been asked to join an organization founded by a man who claimed he was visited by angels sent by god and ascended into heaven on a winged horse before he married a six-year old girl.
Not only would you not join this organization, you would be outraged at its very existence, and would denounce its founder as a madman and a pedophile. Yet, when such madness is cloaked in the protective shroud of religion — in this case, Islam — an unconscionable moral ambiguity is introduced, and great pains are taken to explain such ugliness as simply a routine occurrence in the era in which it was founded. While this is true, this is exactly the kind of bar-lowering that prevents us from talking honestly about Islam and religion in general.
This is what I kept thinking about as I watched Bill Maher and Sam Harris spar with Ben Affleck over Islam on HBO’s Real Time, as the actor desperately tried to muddy the waters by deeming Harris “racist” without trying to rebut Harris’ claim that right now Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas.” That’s because it’s undeniably true that to our modern minds, Islam, as it’s set forth in the Quran and hadith, contains many bad ideas, which is to be expected. Just like the Bible reflects the prevailing norms of ancient Judea, these texts are the byproducts of 7th century Arabian culture. Hence Muhammad’s marriage to a six-year old, the Quran’s blatant misogyny, and the prescription of death for anyone who leaves the Islamic faith.
Thankfully, most Muslims do not emulate Muhammad in these respects. Yet he is the most revered person in the Islamic world. Even non-Muslims display a nauseating amount of respect for him, which is obviously troubling given that most of us would not want to associate with someone who behaves like Muhammad — a man who oversaw the beheadings of hundreds of people.
At bottom, Islam (like religion in general) is grounded in an unproveable, non-falsifiable premise, for which there is precisely zero evidence. The Quran does not even attempt to provide proof of its claims, purporting, as it does, to be the immutable word of god as told to Muhammad. But when measured against the prevailing moral norms of today, many of the words and actions of Muhammad are neither moral nor conducive to equality and tolerance.
This is why efforts to paint religious fundamentalism as a “perversion” of religion are wholly unconvincing. It’s called ‘fundamentalism’ for a reason, and those who adhere quite closely to the commands of their holy texts can much more plausibly claim that those who do not take the faith so seriously are the ones engaging in a “perversion” of the religion. The problem isn’t that Islam is being perverted. The problem is that by 21st century standards, Islam is perverted. When religious people refuse to engage in the sort of barbarism and intolerance their holy books would have them perform, they show that they’re capable of knowing what’s moral without consulting a book that is actually morally inferior to them. Put another way, people are not good because of religion, but good despite religion.