I’ve been frustrated by a recurring defense that Christians will make for the faith when I suggest that our track record on peace and mercy is not altogether that great, a criticism often made in response to some Christians claims that Islam is an evil religion devoted to war and terror. “But those aren’t real Christians” they say. “The terrorists are the real Muslims who are faithful to their religion”.
But, I’ve asked, couldn’t the Muslims say the same thing about those who commit terrible acts in the name of Allah? That they aren’t real Muslims? God knows (and is probably not too happy) that there are plenty of instances in both the Bible and the Quaran where God is advocating violence.
Perhaps both responses are correct: that Christian crusaders and Muslim jihadists are not real followers of either faith – that they are stepping dangerously outside of the bounds of both sets of doctrines.
Denying the authenticity of those Christians who act poorly must be pretty common because other people, like Stephen Prothero, have met it as well. In his book “God is not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter” he tells us about this problem but his approach is a bit different, and a bit braver than mine:
When I was a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I required my students to read Nazi theology. I wanted them to understand how some Christians bent the words of the Bible into weapons aimed at Jews and how these weapons found their mark at Auschwitz and Dachau. My Christian students responded to these disturbing readings with one disturbing voice: the Nazis were not real Christians, they informed me, since real Christians would never kill Jews in crematories. I found this response terrifying, and I still do, since failing to grasp how Nazism was fueled by ancient Christian hatred of Jews as “Christ killers” allows Christians to absolve themselves of any responsibility for reckoning with how their religion contributed to these horrors.
After 9/11 many Muslims absolved themselves too. The terrorists whose faith turned jets into weapons of mass destruction – who left Qurans in their suitcases and shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) as they bore down on their targets – were not real Muslims, they said. Real Muslims would never kill women and children and civilians. So they, too, absolved themselves of any responsibility for reckoning with the dark side of their tradition.
Is religion toxic or tonic? Is it on one of the world’s greatest forces for evil or one of the world’s greatest forces for good? Yes and yes, which is to say that religion is a force far too powerful to ignore.
So, according to Prothero, it’s not just a simple matter of writing off some violent Christians and Muslims as being posers – not real adherents to their faith. It might very well be a problem that lies deeper, and ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Meanwhile the atheist audiences of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Bill Maher will continue to grow.