Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Christianity and Islam

One of the more inane comments made in the wake of the recent massacre in Paris, according to Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, is that Islam is not inherently any more violent than any other religion. Tracinski, who is himself an atheist, argues cogently that when people cite the alleged misdeeds and atrocities committed by Christians they actually prove that in fact there's really no comparison. In order to find anything in the history of Christianity remotely comparable to the horrors being perpetrated by contemporary Muslims the critic has to go back 500 years to find them.

In any case, there are vast differences between the Christian religion and Islam that account for the fact that no one fears violence at the hands of Christians, but people throughout the world have ample reason to fear violence at the hands of Muslims.

Tracinski's column is a little long, but it's very good. Here are some excerpts:
The Charlie Hebdo massacre once again has politicians and the media dancing around the question of whether there might be something a little bit special about this one particular religion, Islam, that causes its adherents to go around killing people.

It is not considered acceptable in polite company to entertain this possibility. Instead, it is necessary to insist, as a New York Times article does, that “Islam is no more inherently violent than other religions.” This, mind you, was in an article on how Muslims in the Middle East are agonizing over the violent legacy of their religion.

As an atheist, I have no god in this fight, so to speak. I don’t think the differences between religions make one more valid than another. But as the Charlie Hedbo attack reminds us, there is a big practical difference between them. In fact, the best argument against the equivalence of Christianity and Islam is that no one acts even remotely as if this were true. We feel free to criticize and offend Christians without a second thought — thanks, guys, for being so cool about that — but antagonizing Muslims takes courage. More courage than a lot of secular types in the West can usually muster.

So it’s a matter of some practical urgency to figure out: what is the difference? What are its root causes?

As I see it, the main danger posed by any religion to its dissenters and unbelievers lies in the rejection of reason, which cuts off the possibility of discussion and debate, leaving coercion as an acceptable substitute....But all religions are different and have different doctrines which are shaped over their history — and as we shall see, that includes different views on precisely such core issues as the role of reason and persuasion.
Tracinski proceeds to discuss some of the differences between these two faiths, the first and perhaps most important of which is the difference between the life of Christ and the life of Mohammed:
Mohammed was a conqueror who gained worldly political power in his lifetime and used it to persecute opponents and impose his religion. He also fully enjoyed the worldly perks of being a tyrant, including multiple wives. Jesus, by contrast, was basically a pacifist whose whole purpose on earth was to allow himself to be tortured to death.

He even explicitly forbade his followers to use force to defend him. Here’s John, Chapter 18: “Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear…. Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?”

This does not imply that all Christians ought to be pacifists. But it certainly sets a tone for the religion. The life of the founder of a religion is held up to his followers as a model for how they should live their own lives. The life of Mohammed tells the Muslim that he should expect to rule, whereas the life of Christ tells the Christian he should expect to sacrifice and serve.
Another difference that Tracinski didn't cite is that between the teaching of Jesus in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Mat.13:24-30) in which Jesus emphasizes that it's not for his followers to punish those who reject the faith. Contrast this with the belief of many Muslims, based on passages in the Koran, that infidels should be put to the sword.

Another difference is that Christianity teaches that each individual is loved by God and of enormous worth. Tracinski contrasts this view with Islam which has no such notion of the value of the individual:
This is a very profound idea that goes against the grain of most of human history. I’m a big fan of the Classical world, but the pagans still regarded it as normal, right, and natural that the physically strong set the terms for everyone else. Thucydides famously summed it up in the Melian Dialogue: “The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Thucydides was clearly critical of that view, but the Classical world didn’t have a clear alternative. As far as I know, Christ was the first to insist that even the lowest, least significant person has value and that we will be judged by how we treat him.

Islam has no corresponding idea. The news is constantly bringing us a story of some imam somewhere declaring it consistent with Islam for a man to beat his wife, and the rise of the Islamic State in Syria has provided us current examples of Islam sanctioning slavery, including the capture and systematic rape of sex slaves. This is a religion that is still very much in the “rights of the conqueror” mode, in which the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
There's much more of interest in Tracinski's essay which would certainly repay an investment of fifteen minutes of the reader's time. For those who know little about either Christianity or Islam It's quite an education.