Wednesday, 11 February 2015

When does religion lose its authenticity?

For the last ten years or so, the words “Islam needs to change” or “Islam needs to develop” have been repeatedly hurled about the stratosphere with little consideration of their real implications. It is certainly true a few Islamic sects, like IS and Al-Qaeda, and Islamic extremists, need to turn their backs on some of Islam’s more vehement doctrine (particularly some of the hadiths: “Take not the Jews and Christians for your friends and protectors” or “And fight them until there’s no fitnah (polytheism) and religion is wholly for Allah”), so that it can become a religion that can thrive peacefully in a multi-cultural society and world. This is what has happened to various sects of Christianity and Judaism; but is this a valid choice? Can a religious group simply decide to abandon part of its holy scripture?

Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer literalist Christians who take Genesis as a word-for-word account of the world’s creation. This is because the belief is categorically absurd, negated by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the Big Bang and other sciencey-things. Most modern Christians interpret the book metaphorically: it simply shows God’s omnipotence and his agape love for humanity. But can we say the same for these words in Numbers 31: “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.” Can we say that Jesus was speaking metaphorically in Matthew 10 when he ordered us to hate our fathers, mothers, wives and children? No, we cannot, and so we just ignore these teachings, we pretend they don’t exist. We eat lobsters and prawns, we wear clothing with two kinds of material, we go to the barber’s for a fresh trim every now and then, all of which is forbidden in the Old Testament.

We have discarded these ludicrous teachings for precisely that reason: they are ludicrous, solely the product of their time. But there is surely something strange in the idea of pressing delete on certain doctrine: are you still a Christian if you eat crustaceans, or if you sleep with someone of the same sex? Is it okay to believe in the Resurrection, but not in the Genesis story? And if belief in the Resurrection diminishes, is that the end of Christianity? Why do we sometimes believe what is supposedly the word of God, and sometimes not? If we can remove certain doctrine or scripture, can we add doctrine too, as in the end of Mark 16, which describes Jesus’s appearances? Is religion still authentic if one only believes in half of it, or a quarter of it? This thought came to me in a school Chapel service: 1000 kids robotically declaring their faith in God, whose son was “conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary,” and who “was crucified, died and was buried” but then “rose again.” The reality is that, although a vast majority of these mind-bogglingly-bored teenagers would claim to be Christians, few of them believed in everything they were saying.

So what does it mean to be a Christian or to be a Muslim? Does it mean that you believe in every word of the Bible or the Qur’an? Or does it simply mean, for Christians, that you believe Jesus existed, and that there is some sort of a divine being that might or might not be the same as the creator in Genesis? So many beliefs recorded in the Bible, once believed to be the word of God, have been forgotten, and so my question is this: is the Christianity we believe in today, still an authentic Christianity? If extremist Islam ignores some of its more dangerous hadiths, then we will live in a safer and more unified world. But, with these hadiths abandoned, will these people still be Muslims? And who is to say that these beliefs are extremist in the first place? After all, what is extremist for us in Western countries may not appear like that in their eyes.  

This seems to me to be one of the inherent problems with organised religion: the fact that hundreds of years ago a load of important men sat down and said “Right, this is what being a Christian means” and that, ever since then, this definition has, for many, been diluted. Of course this is a good thing: religious tenets should not be mindlessly adhered to, and gay marriage, for example, should be allowed in our modern world. But is that not one of the main reasons for religion: to give us moral guidelines by which to live? Obviously, many Christians would argue that “Love thy neighbour” is the central teaching and that this overrides all other teachings, but do other religions have such a fundamental law? Also, what happens when religious teachings conflict, as they often do? It is this contradiction of teaching that has led to the formation of various opposing sects in Islam, for example.

It is a very tough question, and all answers must surely be conjectural. Development in religion is vital, but do developed religions retain their original statuses and authenticity? Perhaps what is needed is a universal adoption of Individualism: a more personal and intimate involvement with one’s own faith, so that beliefs no longer need to be branded as Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, and so that tenets don’t need to be ‘cut out’, as such. Since so many alleged Christians do not really believe in the entirety of the Bible or in the Holy Trinity, but simply believe in some sort of divine being, surely faith is and should be a more individual affair? Recent events, and indeed the entirety of history (the Crusades are an obvious example), have proved that organised religion is a very dangerous thing. Perhaps a movement away from the Church, the Mosque, the Temple, would lead to a more peaceful world. Perhaps a quasi-pluralism, where people practice their own beliefs in their own unique and private way, is the way forward.


  1. "a few Islamic sects, like IS and Al-Qaeda, and Islamic extremists, need to turn their backs on some of Islam’s more vehement doctrine... This is what happened to Christianity and Judaism;"

    I think you are on very dodgy territory here - I know it's not your intention but this comes across as rather condescending and Western-supremacist, suggesting somehow that Western religion is more "developed" than others. It's also blatantly untrue: there are a huge number of absolute maniacs in Christianity and Judaism, who are not above committing exactly the same kinds of extreme violence as Islamic extremists:

    "Nowadays, there are very few literalist Christians who take Genesis as a word-for-word account of the world’s creation."

    Not at all true. Creationism isn't that widespread in the UK - most of whose "Christians" are only nominal anyway - or in Catholic countries (due to Papal decree) but it is the default view of a great number of Christians in the US, Africa, parts of Eastern Europe etc. - I've met some otherwise perfectly intelligent and rational people from these places who are creationists without necessarily being particularly devout in terms of church attendance etc. - it's only in some places where it's a fringe view, it's very much in the mainstream in others.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Adam. I have edited!