Religion as a Consumer

Note: This post is the last in a series prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Baker Institute Center for the Middle East and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, both at Rice University.


By Abdulkarim Soroush

Institute for Epistemological Research, Iran

Modernity has offered humanity a number of precious wisdoms whose value for promoting religious tolerance is beyond measure. These include: fallibilism, humanism, and the importance of individual rights. Fallibilism teaches us that we all are fallible human beings and that certainty is unattainable except perhaps in the abstract fields of logic and mathematics. Humanism teaches us that humans are more important than religion, and that life is more precious than belief, so no one should die because they have the “wrong” beliefs. Finally, the priority of rights over duties tells us that piety and religiosity are not prima facie duties of rational animals; therefore impiety, disbelief, religious change, conversion, apostasy, and heresy are human rights whose practices should not carry punishments.

However, these seemingly “self-evident” liberal ideas are not widely accepted by staunch religious followers, who tend to believe that their particular tradition reigns supreme and that it is their absolute duty to firmly hold to their faith. Such followers are often certain about the truth of their particular religion, and they think that changing or leaving it would be committing the sin of betraying their faith. Given these tendencies towards absolutism, many religions seem prone to intolerance and violence. Single-mindedness, the exclusivity of truth, prejudice, and the preparedness to sacrifice life for one’s exclusive truth are supposedly the main sources of disruption and conflict.

The solution therefore seems to be to ask believers to not be so absolute about the truth of their respective religion; to see that it is not necessarily their duty to be faithful to their creed; and to be more understanding about others who choose to follow a different faith.

These are the foundations of pluralism of course, but is it not too much to ask pious people to simply convert to the “religion of pluralism,” and abandon their traditional belief? Appreciating the struggles of pluralists and inclusivists like British philosopher John Hick and German theologian Karl Rahner, it is clear that we do not yet have philosophically unanimous foundations for religious pluralism. This humble pen has been one of many playing this game for years now without reaching palpable results. Where have we gone wrong?

In fact, I think that external elements are more responsible for religious violence, intolerance, and irreverence than internal religious doctrines and creeds. In other words, religions are consumers of violence rather than the producers of it. When believers are scared, they can become scary. When they feel the threat of extermination and enmity, they can use their religion as a weapon. Let us be careful not to force a given community to employ its religion as weaponry.

I speak here for the Muslim community. The political and economic pressures of colonialism in the past and Zionism in the present have forced some rogue elements in Islamic societies to use their faith as a justification for resorting to violence. This is a hermeneutics of violence, which expands under violent conditions. Under less severe conditions, a hermeneutics of peace will blossom.

Politicians and religious leaders are the main parties responsible for bringing peace, both externally and internally, to sincere religious followers. Religions are great powers even in the modern times, and they can move mountains. They can both promote democracy and produce violence. Why not adapt them to promoting justice and reverence?

The crux of the matter is that scripture is silent, but we make it speak—we read into it what we wish. This is because it is historically constituted, and it has different parts, verses, and chapters belonging to different phases of revelation. There exist verses of war and of peace. When believers feel threatened by external enemies, they will resort to the verses of war. But in peaceful conditions, they prioritize peace over violence. The whole history of Islam, with some exceptions, is witness to that.

Let me cite two very interesting examples of how a part of the text can die in oblivion while another part may become notoriously prominent. Verse 23 of chapter 21 from the Qu’ran explicitly says that “God is not accountable. People are.” This ostensibly implies that He is an authoritarian ruler who is beyond questioning, and even beyond justice. This was how the verse was interpreted by Ash’arite theologians who inadvertently paved the way for the authoritarian rulers and Khalifs during the long history of Islamic civilization.

On the other hand, we come across an entirely different face of God when we read in verse 165 chapter 4 that “Prophets are sent by God, because He deems Himself accountable to the people.” Put differently, God is not beyond questioning. He needs justification for His actions. He is accountable to people, and to the extent that if He does not fulfill His “duties” properly, he will justifiably be condemned and defeated! This God supports rationality. This was how the ill-fated rival school of Kalam understood the verse. Needless to say, an entirely different set of politics and human relations can be raised on these grounds.

The unfriendly, unjust, and ungraceful conditions that Muslims around the world face have induced a small group of them to resort to violence and interpret the religious text in a way that justifies their actions.

Religious leaders are undoubtedly responsible for this unbalanced reading of the Qu’ran, and it is incumbent on them to fix it. But the problem is not solely intellectual and hermeneutical. It is more importantly social and political as well. The text is not only a consumer of external intellectual assumptions but also a receiver of sociopolitical intruders. Fixing these conditions is the unavoidable responsibility of peace seekers.

I will end with a piece of wisdom from Jalaloddin Rumi, who says: “Scripture is like a rope; you can use it to descend to the bottom of the well or alternately you can use it to free yourself from the darkness of the well.”