In America's struggle with radical Islamists, who believe in Mohammedan supremacy to all other religions, few issues are as important as the issue of evaluating Islam as a religion. Whether we look at the martyrdom motivation of individual Islamist suicide bombers or at the cultural values of violence and peace in Islam broadly, we must accurately assess the nature of our enemies to craft our own policy. We are limited in our capability to undertake this evaluation, however, by a generation of post-modernism and the interfaith movement. Their intellectual positions of complete cultural relativism, moral equivalence, and apology for the history of Christianity have become deeply engrained in the European-American political class and secular elites. Most of the West's leaders have been left without the values, philosophy, analytical tools, and will needed to revise the Western world view for the "long war".
Any evaluation of Islam, as with any evaluation of religion* in a conflict situation, should include an assessment of whether the religion is false. While we can choose to respect individual religious commitments on the basis of our respect for the existential needs of individual human lives, we cannot solve the larger problems of religious conflict between religions collectively organized as societies and cultures without deciding whether the religions--our own and those of our enemies--are worthy of preservation and encouragement, or containment, or reformation, or suppression. We do not have to conceive of our present struggle as a war of cultures or civilizations to realize that we might well face decisions about what to do with Islamism wherever it exists as a state-affiliated religion. We do not want to be in the situation of defeating Islamist terrorists and semi-organized armies, only to face resurgent Islamist conflict a decade or generation later, because we did not deal with its underlying religious qualities. Surely, our policies would be different if we respected Islam as a true religon (for want of a better term, for the moment) or if we were compelled to understand it as a violent perversion of human religious needs.
I do not pretend to have any solution to the issue I raise. I know little about the history and sociology of religions, and nearly nothing about the history and doctrine of Islam, and little about the Middle East. I have some sense of the intellectual landmines surrounding the issue. Someone must, however, put the issue on the table for discussion; since this issue worries me, I shall try.
Let's start by seeing what kind of a question we are asking and what vocabulary we must use to discuss it. First, of all, when we ask whether a particular religion is a true or false religion, we are not asking a scientific question. A religion cannot be a true or false religion in the same sense that a scientific theory can be true or false, or that a science can be a true or false science. Scientific truth involves controlled experiment and empirical testability, which religion cannot. All religions recognized today as such involve faith in a way that ultimately denies scientific knowledge.(1)
We are not, second, asking whether a religion is different from an ideology or a philosophy. A false religion is not necessarily a ideology or a philosophy. If a true religion is to be establishe as an independent human phenomenon, not reducible (but not unrelated) to "philosophy" or "ideology", a false religion should be, simply, a false religion, not a disguised philosophy or ideology.
Third, whether a religion is a true or false religion cannot be established solely by reference to the phenomenology of religious experience (think of Heidegger's ambiguities in _Being and Time_ regarding authenticity; or James in _Varieties of Religious Experience_). Religious experiences have much in common across all recognized religions, as comparative studies have long shown (a premiss of the interfaith movement). They also have much in common with non-religious experiences, including those described in ancient non-religious mythologies and those reported in contemporary accounts of extra-terrestrial abductions.
Fourth, a true religion or false religion cannot be established simply by self-attestation, as in its theological doctrine and apologetics. All religions claims to be true; those claims by themselves are not necessarily persuasive. Assessment involves evaluation that is convincing to someone else, to third parties, and to disbelievers. It involves demonstration, in the sense of persuasion, though not scientific proof.(2)
A true or false religion cannot be identified be examining its doctrines or central beliefs alone. Most secular observers would probably argue that any religion must express belief in a supernatural deity (or deities or demiurge or creative principle). Other persons would argue that any religion must embody an ethical philosophy. Still others would say that a religion, to be considered a true religion, must involve spiritualism. Sensible as these requirements seem, some observers, Darwin in _Expression of Emotions_, for instance, think that religion can involve emotional postures alone, such as awe or wonder in the face of the universe, or a emotion of dependency upon a higher power. Here we would have religion without intellectual content.(3)
Eliminating assessment of religion scientifically, experientially, and doctrinally would seem to leave litte basis for evaluation; but there are other ways of approaching the issue. We could look at religion behaviorially (or pragmatically). We might ask whether a true religion behaves (so to speak) differently from a false religion. For instance, how do religions conceptualize and treat nonbelievers and believers of different religions? Could we expect a true religion to think of and treat infidels differently from a false religion?
We could examine a religion's intellectual relationships with non-religious knowledge. Would a true religion relate to non-religious knowledge differently from a false religion?
We could also look at the intellectual function of religion. Does religion have ideational functions particular to itself, or perhaps that originated with itself before being shared by other systems of thought? For instance, all religions situate human activity within a universe by defining boundaries and dividing up the universe into regions (man's home, places inhospitable to humanity, god's domain, etc.). Religion thereby provides foundational values. Some thinkers think the basic function of religion is to provide a foundational narrative about humanity. Would a false religion lack such intellectual functions?
In closing this introduction to the issue, we should also look at the vocabulary we are using. Discussing true religion and false religion, on the surface, implies an essentialist approach to religion. When we mention "true" religion, we seem to be implying that there a set of essential characteristics that must be present at all times, throughout history, for all religion that are true religions. If we reject truth as essence, we are thrown upon the notion of truth as used in the sciences; we have already decided this useage is not completely helpful.
We could avoid the vocabulary of truth by using a vocabulary of authenticity or genuineness. We might say that the issue is one of establishing the qualities that point to an authentic or genuine religion. The term, authentic, would not take us far in solving our issue, however. Either we would define religion phenomenologically, or we would require an ideal type of religion by comparison to which authenticity could be determined, or we would be unable to distinguish religion from a political ideology that confers authenticity on its followers (e.g.,Marxism).
We might adopt a utilitarian vocabulary. We could say that any religion must be effective by bringing benefits to many people. A religion is a social phenomenon, whatever else it is. It has its existence in the social life of human groups; consequently, religion could be identifed in terms of its social organization. This tactic seems unsatisfying, however, because it seems to remove all criteria that would distinguish religion from, again, political ideology. Many thinkers have reduced religion to political ideology, thereby (often intentionally) denying religion any independent basis to be discussed as true or authentic. This approach would solve the issue by eliminating it.
* I will use the term, religion, to refer indifferently to collectively organized believers as an institution and as individual believers. The context should distinguish these two subjects if the need arises.
1. Whether Islam is the religion it purports to be is a scientific question. Did Mohammed actually exist? Who wrote or transcribed the first Islamic religious texts? What is the relation of current texts of the Koran to the original texts? Such are scientific questions. These questions are of high interest, even if they do not help us decide whether Islam is a true or false religion. Western scholars have only recently begun to examine Islam's early history, between the time of Mohammed and the transcription of the earliest texts purported to have been his revelations (he was illiterate and did not write them down himself). Some of the disoveries of Western scholars are reviewed in a brief blog article at Gates of Vienna, "Which Koran?" (June 25, 2009). On the basis of textual criticism and of archaeological discoveries, scholars suggest, e.g., that Islam originated as a sect of Christianity and transmuted into a replacement religion and theology (for both Christianity and Judaism) when Islamic warlords began conquests which they needed to legitimate in religious terms.
2. The Bereans define a cult as promoting false religion; Cults 101.
3. Cf. how the US Supreme Court treats religion; "Religion," Answers.com.
Revised. June 25, 2009.