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IslamQA: When does religious belief become toxic?

In what condition does a religious belief becomes dogmatic and toxic to its follower?

When a person thinks that Islam is meant to replace their humanity. Below is an excerpt from my book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims on this question.

George Orwell and George Eliot

George Orwell, in his Road to Wigan Pier, has relevant things to say about this discussion:

for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years onto the life of his carcase; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity.1

In Orwell’s time, the food-crank was what the extremist vegan is today, someone picky about food and willing to inconvenience, insult and look down on those around them for the sake of their ideas about eating. His critique for the preference of ideology over common humanity among certain types of people extends to Catholics, in a passage that could equally apply to some Muslims today:

One of the analogies between Communism and Roman Catholicism is that only the ‘educated’ are completely orthodox. The most immediately striking thing about the English Roman Catholics – I don’t mean the real Catholics, I mean the converts: Ronald Knox, Arnold Lunn et hoc genus— is their intense self-consciousness. Apparently they never think, certainly they never write, about anything but the fact that they are Roman Catholics; this single fact and the self-praise resulting from it form the entire stock-in-trade of the Catholic literary man. But the really interesting thing about these people is the way in which they have worked out the supposed implications of orthodoxy until the tiniest details of life are involved. Even the liquids you drink, apparently, can be orthodox or heretical; hence the campaigns of Chesterton, ‘Beachcomber’, etc., against tea and in favour of beer. According to Chesterton, tea-drinking is ‘pagan’, while beer-drinking is ‘Christian’, and coffee is ‘the puritan’s opium’. It is unfortunate for this theory that Catholics abound in the ‘Temperance’ movement and the greatest tea-boozers in the world are the Catholic Irish; but what I am interested in here is the attitude of mind that can make even food and drink an occasion for religious intolerance. A working-class Catholic would never be so absurdly consistent as that. He does not spend his time in brooding on the fact that he is a Roman Catholic, and he is not particularly conscious of being different from his non-Catholic neighbours. Tell an Irish dock-labourer in the slums of Liverpool that his cup of tea is ‘pagan’, and he will call you a fool. And even in more serious matters he does not always grasp the implications of his faith. In the Roman Catholic homes of Lancashire you see the crucifix on the wall and the Daily Worker2 on the table. It is only the ‘educated’ man, especially the literary man, who knows how to be a bigot. And, mutatis mutandis, it is the same with Communism. The creed is never found in its pure form in a genuine proletarian.3

Many expect Muslims to act exactly like this minority of Catholics Orwell describes, seemingly eating religion for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Orwell contrasts this religion-obsessed mindset among certain Catholic intellectuals with the mindset of ordinary Catholics, who better represent real, embodied Catholicism.

For the average Catholic living in a Catholic society, religion is not something to bring into every discussion. It is, in fact, something that is very rarely talked about. Real Catholics embody Catholicism as humans, rather than ignoring common humanity, things like politeness and decency toward others, in the name of religion. A religion-obsessed Catholic, similar to a recent convert to an extremist form of Islam, tries to make their religion replace their humanity, making it explain everything and be everything to them. This causes them to join a class of bigots that are out of touch with the rest of society.

A Catholic like that, instead of enjoying the loving atmosphere of Christmas morning at a relative’s house, uses the occasion to lecture the family about how Christmas is really pagan. A Muslim extremist, too, if one makes the mistake of inviting her to a birthday party, will likely end up giving her friend a lecture on how a true Muslim should not celebrate such heathen practices. In this way, those who make religion replace their humanity insult many other people around them due to their belief that their being religious exempts them from common decency and make themselves a nuisance in society. This is not merely a problem of the religious; the same scenario is repeated whenever a person embraces any ideology strongly enough. A “true believer” in Marxism is going to be perfectly happy to offend everyone around them in the name of fighting capitalism.

Orwell contrasts the self-conscious, recently converted Catholic intellectuals with the millions of Catholics who have been practicing this religion for centuries. The first is a tiny minority that has a total view of religion as a replacement for common decency and culture. The second group forms the actual representative group of Catholicism, which very much respects common decency and culture. The first group is radical and wants to abolish everything in the name of religion. The second group is conservative and is happy enough to enjoy life as it is. The first group thinks mankind is raw material that can be remade. The second group understands that humans by and large remain the way they are no matter what one tries to make out of them.

The majority of Muslim men and women are like that Catholic majority. Tell any educated Muslim that their love for science fiction films makes them less “Muslim” and they will either be insulted or laugh at the foolishness of the statement.

Many Western writers about Islam are unfortunately often incapable of conceiving of a faithful Muslim who is as intelligent and independent-minded as themselves, believing that a proper Muslim is one who is a nuisance in polite society just like an extremist vegan. It is inconceivable that a man or woman of their own caliber could enter into a covenant with God to abide by His commandments and ethics, acting as His steward while maintaining a fierce individuality and independence of mind. To them, being a devout Muslim is always associated with some sort of sickness of the mind; the most devout is the most stupid because he or she is going to be the one who is best at acting like a scripture-controlled robot. They think that the only reason a Muslim can be intelligent and independent-minded is if they abandon parts of Islam.

Thus in books like Lost Enlightenment by S. Frederick Starr4, the writer does his best to stretch the evidence so that all Muslims who accomplished some great work are dismissed as actually freethinkers who did not take their faith seriously, while also having a rather snarky attitude toward great Muslim thinkers like al-Ghāzalī who were clearly orthodox. A Muslim must supposedly first give up the stupidity-promoting total religion that is Islam in order to become partly human and achieve something of human worth. Al-Ghāzalī, despite his great achievements, is worthless because he made the unforgivable sin of defending orthodoxy, which to Starr is proof that he was subhuman and twisted, since no proper human could ever be fully religious in his view.

1 George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958, 136.

2 A popular communist publication at the time.

3 Ibid., 209-210.

4 See S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press2013. See Frank Griffel’s devastating review in Die Welt des Islams 56, no. 2 (2016): 272-278.

And God knows best.
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