Fairy Tales and Horror Stories
The other night I was having a philosophical disagreement with an acquaintance at a bar (which, contrary to popular belief, is less reckless than it sounds) over the subject of comparative religion- Islam and Christianity, in particular. Much to my expectations, the position of guilty white liberalism was immediately assumed from the opposing side; Islamic violence, so I was told, is not only the result of misreading and misinterpreting the holy texts, but Islam itself is also preferable to its Abrahamic contender. Of course, I gently countered this assertion with my own argument, which I shall now elaborate in finer detail. But first, I must lay the moral and philosophical background for the discussion at hand.
As an ex-Muslim secular humanist and libertarian, I am morally opposed to all organized religions and absolutist ideologies. In the words of the great Dutch enlightenment thinker and inventor, Christiaan Huygens, “the world is my country and science is my religion”. As someone who is the son of immigrants, I could care less about hereditary nobility or national pride. I could fare well in any society, state or community, granted that my individual rights are never to be compromised. Likewise, I am also bound by my own code of ethical hedonism to live a life enriched with pleasure and devoid of pain. The Epicureans of Athens, who also believed in maximizing this pleasure-to-pain ratio, argued that human beings ought to emancipate themselves from the terror and enslavement of tyrannical ideas. I happen to be in violent agreement with the ancient Athenians here. A life predisposed to the mercy of authority and ownership is ultimately one spent in fear and torment.
Yet, the great irony of our existence is that we are really prisoners of our own rotten nature. Organized ideology only exploits this prearranged idiosyncrasy against our greater moral and rational capacities. In fact, this calibrated repression is most efficiently achieved by tapping into those very primal and reptilian impulses that foreshadow our need for authority and hierarchy. Such native instincts, however apparently provincial, even extend to nonhuman and non civilized agencies as well. For instance, the Macaque monkeys (from Asia and Africa) live under a social organization of hierarchy, where distribution of food resources and even sexual roles is determined by social status. With the supposedly more rational ape, otherwise known as man, the same behavior is observed and mostly triggered by the instrument of ideology. The 20th century experiment with fascism and communism offered us a treasure trove of empirical data on this very point: unclothing the very ordinariness of human nature and exposing those inner demons which can be stirred up by the switch of zealotry and certainty.
If there were ever a marvel of something called psychological engineering, human nature would be its most lucrative market. For one thing, the sorcery of belief is even powerful enough to warp the minds of its beholders into making decisions that often go against their own interest and wellbeing. Just consider the detrimental effects of self-mutilation and ritualistic sacrifice- a fact the Aztecs were generous enough to demonstrate for us- and many of the other forms of voluntary masochism that still persist today. In certain places and times, people have been willing to mutilate or kill their own children (e.g. child sacrifice in Africa, compulsory circumcision, etc.) in order to appease the heavens. By the enchantment of conviction, people will assume the most irrational and insane duties under the impression they are actually doing it for totally rational and sane reasons. This is the moral paradox of blind belief.
Much like any biological or chemical pathogen, the nature of belief can be contagious and sometimes deleterious to its intended subject or host. Therefore, rationality is the best and only vaccination we have against a world infected with such destructive certainties. All confident belief systems, regardless of their philosophical leanings, must ultimately reckon with critical and interrogative inquiry. Skepticism is the only insurance policy we have for guaranteeing our civilization doesn’t spontaneously collapse into nebular chaos.
The collective salvation of mankind must begin with the liberation of the individual from those oppressive dogmas that have kept it in chains. As the wise Epicurus wrote and discussed with his disciples, true moral enlightenment requires one to release their mind from all mental suffering and agony, especially of the kind induced by anticipation of some dreadful fate (e.g. authoritarian punishment, mortality, material inequality, etc.). To this end, I consider Abrahamic monotheism, socialism, nationalism and all other irrational anti-human cults an impediment to the pursuit of individual happiness.
The Islamic ideology, however, is especially deserving of my antiauthoritarian contempt. The reason for this attitude is not even because the Quran is littered with scores of violence and barbarity or that Muhammad was a less than scrupulous mortal. Islam is uniquely problematic because the infallibility of the Quran (the revealed word of God) and the ethical integrity of Muhammad can never be questioned. But the same criticism does not necessarily apply to Christianity, despite its inherent flaws. Even the most unhinged Christian fundamentalist is capable of meeting the nonbelieving skeptic halfway on the issue of scriptural epistemology; that is to say, theologically at least, the Bible can be both divinely inspired and humanly influenced. This is why Christians may reconcile their faith with seemingly obvious scientific and historical errors in scripture. On the other hand, the worst and best parts of the Quran are dogmatically crystallized by the Islamic criterion of infallibility. When one notes this theological distinction, the violence and absurdities of the Quran suddenly become more clearer and frightening. Furthermore, if the claims of Islam and Christianity are normalized to the Epicurean standard of rationality discussed so far, then Islam fails with red marks. Islam tickles that inner demon of our reptilian complex as it restlessly hungers for authority and hierarchy. After all, we’re talking about the same religion which boasts submission to be some kind of inspirational virtue.
In this sense, Christianity is more of a Hellenic religion, a monotheistic creed animated by neo-Platonic precepts of human understanding. A quick review of Greek philosophy will help elucidate this point further. According to Plato, we beings are nothing more than imperfect modulations of a singular, unitary and irreducible reality (i.e. God). Therefore, one can deduce that all sentient knowledge of this underlying reality must itself be flawed and dogged down by human error- including the Holy books. Islam, on the other hand, has comfortably cushioned itself at the opposing end of this diameter of thinking. According to Islamic theologians- even the most moderately inclined- every letter and word of the Quran is the verbatim dictate of the creator of the universe. Muslims believe the divine revelation is eternally codified and ontologically uncreated in time. So when the Quran instructs the community to amputate the hands of a convicted thief, it is not being metaphorical or proverbial. Indeed, in the universe of absolute truth, there can be no coexistence with, or tolerance for, such interpretive liberties. Christianity, therefore, greatly benefits from its admitted humility of knowledge, whereas Islam ultimately suffers from a strain of epistemological arrogance. In saying all of this, I do not wish to make an apologetic defense of Christianity- far from it. As the reader will note, my views on Christianity (and religion) have already been summarized in the introduction of this essay. My only concern here is examining the relative standing of Islam against its sister religions in the Abrahamic family of ideas.
A second point I wish to address is the foundational difference between Islam and Christianity. If one takes Christianity as an institution- i.e. the Church, the clergy, the suffocating influence of its variant theological doctrines, etc.- and strips it of all its ecclesiastic parcels, then one is left with a quintessentially naked center of spirituality, in the personification of someone whose only flaw was being an obnoxious preacher during the Roman era. This is the most incriminating thing one can say about Jesus of Nazareth. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Muhammad who, in addition to preaching against the Meccan aristocracy, also had no moral qualms about eliminating his political enemies by brute assassination- if not occasionally exterminating their entire tribes as well. Jesus preached the naive virtue of loving your enemy; Muhammad bragged about being made victorious with terror. This fundamental difference may not distinguish Islam and Christianity institutionally, but it seriously sets them apart foundationally.
Furthermore, asserting that “Islam and Christianity are two competing fairy tales” is suspiciously ambiguous and incomplete. Contemporary Christianity is a slowly exhausting fairy tale; Islam on the other hand is more like a perpetual horror story.
Consider Santa Clause, perhaps the most famously innocuous myth to date. Millions of children are cheered and uplifted by the false proposition about the old man who can, in spite of the laws of physics, travel enormous distances, multiple destinations and at superluminal speed to bring joy to so many people one night a year. This is a weightless fairy tale without question. But contrast the fluffy nonsense of St. Nicholas with a Norse-myth that is still celebrated in Europe today. This latter tradition revolves around a creepy character called Krampus who, unlike Santa Clause, is a formidable specter of fear and terror for children; his image is semi-demonically haunting, almost monstrously Halloweenish on a scale of horror only reproducible by Hollywood cinematography and the goodwill of Wes Craven. Krampus comes to collect and punish those naughty little children who have misbehaved, and does so in a rather sadistic and twisted manner, an application of what child psychologists may refer to as “cruel parenting”. But regardless of your personal parenting philosophy, the myth of Krampus is more than just a fairy tale- it is a disciplinary horror story.
By the same measure, to compare Islam and Christianity today, with the same moral yardstick, is to compare Krampus to Santa Clause, to draw a false equivalency between horror stories and fairy tales. The latter is just nonsense, while the former is pernicious and even dangerous nonsense. But make no mistake, this is exactly what you get when you confuse murky nomadic ignorance with received wisdom.
At the risk of sounding too Hegelian, I posit that Islam is a dialectical synthesis of the worst elements of Christianity and Judaism; it cements together the terrestrial, genocidal cravings of the Old Testament with the softer psychological torture of the New Testament: a unitary matrix of one of the worst possible ideas on human nature and ethics to have ever been conceived. Epicurus would probably have recoiled at the sight of such moral insanity. The author Sam Harris has often stated that bad ideas incur bad consequences. Well, Islam is a textbook example of a bad idea, a spiritualized Krampus that happens to be worshipped by 1.6 billion people. It is a false idol which- notwithstanding the Meccan irony- needs to be smashed. The time has come to slaughter this sacred cow.