Sticking with the subject of receiving criticism from fellow freethinkers for being unkind to Islam, I believe it is useful to go over some of remarks that I received and explain why I disagree. The reason is not responding to comments on a blog; more broadly, the reason is that some of these arguments are commonly heard, and they were even part of the backlash Dawkins received for telling an inconvenient truth.
Starting with the easy one:
Increasing numbers of people are getting their moral standards from somewhere other than their religion and it’s increasingly only fundamentalists (rather than the generic Christian, Muslim, etc.) that are of real concern, to me at least.
It’s still an unpopular view among atheists (etc.), but poverty, illiteracy, scientific reasoning and the like are things worth getting animated about, as far as I’m concerned – fix those sorts of things, and gods will become irrelevant to many of those who currently care about them. But even now, the idea of a monolithic “Islam” or “Christianity” is a red herring.
While it is certainly true that religion is not the only source of moral standards, it is equally true that its influence is profound. But that is not the issue here; the issue is when “morality” is used as an excuse for harassment and violence (the “morality police” in Iran and Saudi Arabia is probably the best example). As it happens, when people bring up “morals” as a justification for discrimination and denying others their rights, religion is often the number one source that is named as the source of such “morals”. The reason for this is clear: morals that do not cause harm wouldn’t be controversial because they can be defended on secular grounds.
And while it is likely true that fixing issues of poverty and illiteracy erodes the power of religion over time, it doesn’t follow that harm done by religion is not worth getting animated about. There is no direct connection, for example, between poverty and homophobia. The link here is religion. Just as there is not direct link between either a hepatitis infection or excessive use of alcohol and huge fluid collections in abdomen. The link here is cirrhosis.
And religious homophobia cannot be left unaddressed while we wait for secularization to come.
Concerning the idea of a monolithic Islam being a red herring, emphasis is needed here, as this is an issue that keeps surfacing, albeit the wording is not the same. The hidden assumption here is that criticizing Islam without further qualification reduces it to a monolith and dismisses its internal diversity. This is absolutely not true. A comparison with evolutionary biology should help clarify the matter.
The diversity among mammalians is huge. Whales, rodents, bats (despite ignorance on this point by biblical scribes) and humans are all mammals. What is stunning, then, is the preserved features that point to shared ancestry among all these species. Hence, to say that “respiratory air exchange in mammals, and mammals only, is performed through alveoli” is not dismissive of unique features of mice and men otherwise. Likewise, the fact that there are tremendous difference among Islamic traditions and sects does not mean that there are a great many number of things on which they about all agree, and polls show that point, too. Hence, criticism of Islam does not mean considering Islam a monolith.
And here are some of the other criticisms that I have received:
You said that the existence of tolerant Muslims does not make tolerance compatible with Islam. That is a categorical statement about *Islam* not merely “Islam as these specific groups practice it”. Such a categorical claim can not be defended and it is laid to waste entirely if a single Muslim person sincerely declares “to me, Islam means tolerance and respect for all people”. Since religion is personal and not objective, one person’s Islam is equally valid as “Islam” as anyone else’s, whether one or a billion believe it.
To see the flaw in this argument it may be helpful to go over an important (but largely forgotten, outside Asia at least) historical event: the “Rape of Nanking“. In December of 1937, Japanese forced murders and raped thousands in the Chinese city of Nanking.
But there are also many who survived, thanks to establishment of a safety zone by the westerners living in the area. The head of this project was Nazi businessman John Rabe. He certainly deserves a lot of credit for saving lives. But National Socialism, the idea he officially subscribed to, doesn’t. National Socialism was all about destroying what the Nazis called “inferior races”, and the fact that men like John Rabe and Oskar Schindler didn’t go along with that reflects only on them, not the ideology.
The existence of a single gay-tolerant Muslim would certainly lay to waste the idea that human beings are not capable of mental gymnastics, but that is not the idea being defended here.
But this analogy is considered invalid:
I’ve already said as simply as I can why the analogy does not function: the “source” doctrine in one case is remote in space and time and poorly documented. The other case is entirely different. The source was not remote, it was present and the documentation was video, audio and recent books using modern printing technologies.
Fair enough, so Islam draws its rules from words and deeds of ancient guys (and many, many of them), not living, breathing ones…and the result? You still don’t have a single Islamic nation dissenting from the resolution of Organization of Islamic Conference demanding a ban on blasphemous speech-all 57 of them concurred! (Again, see the evolutionary analogy above).
It may help further clarify if we remember who exactly the gay-tolerant, freedom of speech-friendly Muslims are. Consider this example: there is an Imam in Washington, DC, who is willing to officiate gay weddings. Certainly a step forward, compared to none even 5 years ago, and my hat is off to him. But to say this makes “Islam” compatible with tolerance of gays sounds like a joke. Look at where the guy lives: in the US, and one of the most liberal areas at that. If there is something in the Koran and Hadith that allows for equality for gays, how come no Imam in Islamic majority countries has discovered it? Aren’t we justify in thinking this man’s behavior is influenced by the local culture, not his faith? I don’t think any Imam in Islamic majority countries would ever doubt that.
This, of course, doesn’t mean there are no people in Islamic nations valuing secular ethics. But as it happens (and likely not a coincidence, as Islam is about all these countries have in common) their voices are being collectively silenced. Again, see the OIC story above.
Religion does influence behavior, as well as beliefs which in turn affect political, moral, and legal views. But it is not the *only* thing, and it is not binary or direct, of X then Y. It is part of a complex web of causality.
Which is precisely how the tobacco industry (for decades) got away with lying about the dangers of its products: some people never smoke and come down with cancer. Others get cancer without smoking. So it is “part of a complex web of causality”. Don’t bother to stop smoking.
“Saying that it doesn’t inevitably lead to homophobia is a lot like saying smoking does not inevitably lead to lung cancer.”
Not really. Christianity was once seemingly fully stocked with homophobes. But today there are gay bishops.
Well I may change my mind the day one Muslim-majority country accepts full equality for gays…
Update: Aside from the first criticism mentioned above, the others are from Edward Clint.