When Is a Religion Not a Religion?

When is a religion not a religion?  When you are an idealist.

The distinction between idealism and realism can be understood in many different ways, but in its most ordinary sense, an idealist understands the world in terms of how things ought to be, whereas the realist understands the world as it really is.

Let me begin with an example from my youth, the attitude toward rock and roll during the 1950s. I remember a lot of people who did not like rock and roll saying that it was not music. Sometimes they would soften this bald assertion with a qualifier, by saying, “Rock and roll is not really music,” thereby acknowledging that it had some of the features normally associated with music, in that sounds were produced with musical instruments, but that these sounds nevertheless did not rise to the level of actually being music.  At the time, I thought this was rather a strange way of talking.  I wondered why they did not simply say that it was bad music if they did not like it, rather than that it was not music at all.  Of course, one could go further and say that it is just a matter of taste, but that is a tangential point. What is important is that those who said rock and roll was not music were idealists.  They had a conception of music that was more important to them than the particular instances of music one finds in the world.  And if some of those instances did not measure up to that conception, they were not worthy of the name.  Realists, on the other hand, figure that music is whatever they find it to be, and while some of it is good, some of it is bad.

Sometimes the idealist takes the first instance of a thing in his experience to be its essential nature.  The first musicals I ever saw were Oklahoma! (1955) and The King and I (1956), for such musicals were quite popular in the 1950s. As a result, anyone my age who is an idealist is likely to take such movies as defining instances.  Years later, when I watched Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), I could see that this was a different kind of musical, and I subsequently learned that it is referred to as a backstage musical, where the music takes place on stage or during rehearsals, as opposed to expressionist musicals, where disembodied orchestras accompany people singing and dancing in ways never found in real life.  Rather than make this simple distinction, however, I have known people my age who, like me, were exposed to expressionist musicals in their youth, and who insist that backstage musicals were not really musicals.  Had they seen the backstage musicals first, they would doubtless have said that it was the expressionist musicals that were really not musicals.

But first instances do not always determine the ideal.  In matters of love, for example, early instances of this passion are usually short-lived and somewhat painful.  But the idealist does not take this first experience of love to be its essence.  When he gets older, he says it was not really love, not true love, but just puppy love.  In this case, the idealist separates the part about love that he likes from the part he does not like.  Then he purifies it some more by saying that true love never dies, and that it is devoid of all selfish feeling.  By the time he gets through with it, he begins to find that love is rare, and if he goes too far down this path, he will become disillusioned and say that there really is no such thing.  He would rather deny that love exists than forsake the ideal conception he has of it.  A realist, on the other hand, figures that love is what he finds it to be.  The world is full of love, as far as he can see, and while some of it is good, some of it is bad.  Sometimes love is selfless, but sometimes love is quite selfish.  Sometimes love lasts and sometimes it doesn’t.

The perennial question as to whether men and women can be friends breaks along the divide between idealist and realist.  The idealist purifies friendship so much that it scarcely exists between those of the same sex, let alone between the opposite sex, where sexual desire can be disruptive in one way or the other.  As a result, he is likely to conclude that men and women cannot be friends.  The realist, on the other hand, finds a world full of friendships between men and women, and he simply notes that such friendships are a little more tenuous on account of the ways in which sex can intrude.

As indicated in these examples, an idealist is likely to use words like “true” and “really,” to distinguish his pure conceptions of things from what might appear to be counterexamples.  It is the idealist who is most prone to commit the no true Scotsman fallacy.  An example of this fallacy would be a situation in which a person says, “All Scotsmen are thrifty.”  When someone points out that Duncan is a Scotsman but is not thrifty, the person who made the original generalization says, “Well, Duncan is no true Scotsman.”  The person who commits this fallacy cares more about his idea of what a Scotsman is than the actual facts of the matter, and that is characteristic of an idealist.  He reifies his idea of a Scotsman as an essence, which a person must have to be a true Scotsman.  A realist, by way of contrast, would admit that Duncan is an exception to the rule and modify his original claim, perhaps by saying, “Most Scotsmen are thrifty.”

Last year (September, 2014), during President Obama’s address to the nation explaining the need to go to war against ISIL (to use his preferred acronym), he made a point of declaring that ISIL was not Islamic:  “No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim,” he said.  Considering that Obama’s own religion of Christianity has a long history of doing precisely that, beginning with Joshua’s genocidal slaughter of every man, woman, child, infant, and assorted animals in the Promised Land, what are we to make of this claim?

The idealist begins with his own religion, purifies it, and makes this the standard against which all others are measured.  If they do not live up to his ideal conception, then they are not really religions.  The realist looks at history and present variations of religious faith, and he accepts that there are all sorts of religions, many of which he may regard as evil. And so, given this distinction, it is clear that Obama is an idealist.  He prefers to say that the ideology espoused by ISIL is not a religion, that it is not Islam or a sect or even a version of Islam.

But there must be more to it than that.  In an important fifteen-minute speech to the nation as to why we are going to war, he felt it necessary to express his idealist position that ISIL was not a religion, when he need not have brought the subject up at all.  In all likelihood, he wanted to avoid the characterization of this being a religious war, in part to protect Muslims in this country against discrimination and violence, and in part to mollify the nations of the Middle East that might be a little sensitive in this matter.

If so, there may be an unfortunate consequence in refusing to recognize the religious nature of  ISIL.  One of the disadvantages of being an idealist is that the failure to recognize the way the world is can lead to a serious miscalculation.  Let us reconsider an earlier example.  It may not matter much what people say about music and musicals, but in matters of love the idealist is more likely to be made miserable by love than the realist.  When a marriage results in divorce, the idealist may blame his wife or he may blame himself, but he never blames love.  As a result, he only learns that he should never have married her, not that he should never have married at all. Furthermore, by expecting more from love than is actually found in the world, the idealist is more likely to be disappointed.

By not recognizing that ISIL is religious in nature, we are underestimating what we are going up against. It is precisely because the members of ISIL are religious that they are so dangerous.  We may prevail against ISIL in this war simply because we are so powerful, but one thing we lack is their total commitment. I do not know whether Joe Scarborough, the host of Morning Joe, is an idealist, but I suspect he shares Obama’s view about ISIL not being religious in nature from what he has said on several occasions.  In particular, he has expressed amazement at the way these terrorist groups never seem to learn that when they anger Americans by attacking us, we end up destroying them. To me, the answer is obvious. They do it because they believe that they are carrying out the will of Allah. If we kill them, they die as martyrs, and they will be honored in Paradise.

I say this without irony.  They do not only half believe the way most people do, including, I suspect, Joe Scarborough and President Obama.  They believe completely, and with a faith so strong that we here in secular American can scarcely appreciate.

A long time ago, Fox News instituted the practice of refusing to use the expression “suicide bomber,” a policy I assume is still in place.  Instead, people who blow themselves up in a marketplace are referred to as “homicide bombers.”  The first thing that is striking about this is that the word “homicide” really adds no information to the word “bomber,” except perhaps to keep us from thinking about an airplane.  People who use bombs invariably kill people, or at least intend to.  Maybe in a movie like The Fountainhead (1949), Howard Roark can blow up a building without hurting anybody, but that is strictly a fictional fantasy.  The word “suicide” used to modify the word “bomber,” on the other hand, adds a great deal of information.  Someone who is willing to die to in order to detonate a bomb is far more dangerous than someone who is willing to set off the bomb provided he stands a fair chance of surviving.  Presumably, Fox replaced this very useful adjective “suicide” with the redundant “homicide” because they wanted to emphasize the harm that is caused to others, but in so doing, they suppress the much more important fact that these suicide bombers truly believe in their cause, believe that they have right on their side, believe that Allah will be pleased.

I am sadly one of the very small minority that is opposed to this war.  But if fight we must, it would be nice if we were a little more realistic about the nature of the enemy, an enemy who cares more about what they are fighting for than we do, because they are fighting a war of religion.

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