2016-03-02

Cults & Terrorists in Christianity and Islam

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by Neil Godfrey

Several scholarly works (and yours truly, too) have observed significant parallels between the mechanisms that lead people to join “extremist” Christian cults and those that lead others to join radicalised Islamic groups.

Many of us blame the religion of Islam and the Quran for terrorists. Should Christianity and the Bible be held to account for those cults that tear families apart and are directly responsible for deaths of children and others because of willful neglect of medical treatment and indirectly responsible for suicides, and a host of other financial, psychological and social pain and suffering?

Of course Islam is to blame for terrorism, many argue — Just look at those terrible verses in the Quran. And of course at one level it is self-evident that we could not have “Islamic terrorism” without Islam just as it is tautological to blame Christianity for “Christian cults”.

The critics I am talking about, however, mean something more than the obvious tautology. They dismiss the arguments of Muslims themselves to the contrary and point to the Quran or Hadith. Islamic terrorists justify their crimes by these Islamic works so it follows that the religion of Islam is responsible for terrorism, the argument goes.

I have run into this viewpoint most recently this morning in a post by “apologist James Bishop”. James attempted in vain to argue that a Muslim speaker was actually “lying” about her religion by trying to dissociate it from terrorism. James instead pointed to the passages that he believed the terrorists would use to justify their own religious beliefs. Others in his class replied that there are also terrible passages in the Bible. James wanted to argue his own interpretation (for him, the “plain reading”) of these “supposedly” terrible Biblical verses but was overwhelmed by the numbers opposing his claims.

Let’s compare this situation with a Christian cult. The cult to which I belonged emphatically took the Bible (so we sincerely believed) at its word. So much so that we believed other Christians were lukewarm or deceiving themselves (lying?) when they chose to respond differently to some of the Bible’s strongest demands.

  • All who followed Christ would suffer persecution, Jesus said. Most Christians were not being persecuted so “obviously” according to the Bible they were not truly following Christ. They may have been saying, “Lord, Lord” but Jesus said he would cast them out for not actually doing what he commanded.
  • Christ came to bring a sword; not peace. He promised divided families. He said anyone who loves mother or father more than him is not worthy of him. Leave the dead to bury their dead. We were commanded to leave and forsake all to follow God. And that’s what we did.
  • Have faith in God. Without faith we had no chance in the day of judgment. Could we trust God when he commanded us to keep the sabbath, to tithe, to rely upon him for healing — even to the point of losing one’s job, of being unable to afford decent food or clothes or pay the rent or petrol for the car to get to work, or death? If not, we had no chance of making it into the Kingdom of God. Would we refuse to be conscripted into the army and go to jail?
  • Would we live by every word of God in the Bible? Would we follow and submit to his ministry “as they followed God”? And knowing “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” would we submit even if we saw them sin?

Now most Christians would interpret and apply the biblical passages I refer to above differently from the way we did. Does that mean that most Christians are not “true Christians” or that they are “lying” about their religion?

Of course not.

It means that a person’s religious beliefs are to be found in the mind and practices of the person professing them, not in an outsider’s critical view of their holy book. In fact, if an outsider did accuse most Christians of “lying” or deceiving themselves about their own faith because they did not follow the Bible literally (or “fatuously” as someone preferred to describe it) they would in fact be asserting the prior truth of the cultist as the “true Christianity”. Maybe it was, originally. But that’s irrelevant for what it is and means for most Christians today.

Does it mean the Bible and Christianity are responsible for Christian cults. In a sense, yes, but indirectly, surely. To understand why some, a few, do become cult members we do better to look beyond the Bible and Christianity itself, however. That’s what my previous post (How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us) is in part about.

 

4 Comments

  • Albert Wubs
    2016-03-03 15:19:55 UTC - 15:19 | Permalink

    I really appreciate your blog on higher criticism of theology and biblical science, and I am feeling alienated at your articles on radicalisation in islam and maybe other religions.
    Can’t you split up your blog in (1) ‘scholarly biblical science’ and (2) ‘politico-religious radicalisation’?
    Albert

  • Neil Godfrey
    2016-03-03 19:59:34 UTC - 19:59 | Permalink

    What do you not like about the scholarly research into radicalisation? I attempt to bring my experiences with scholarly outputs to biblical studies and I suppose that appeals to some readers who are disposed to a critical approach to the Bible. I attempt to do exactly the same to other areas of public ignorance or misinformation where I have some specialist knowledge and experiences. (You may not have read the article here. If you did you would see I am drawing on my own experiences so I am sure you can understand my interest and concern over wider public ignorance.) I would like to think some readers are open to a new perspective, an informed one based on scholarly research, in those areas, too.

    Look at the byline of Vridar — it is about more than biblical studies, although for various reasons along the line biblical studies have tended to dominate. I never intended the blog to be about just biblical studies. It is about the things I have learned and found of interest as a result of what I have learned as a result of my own life experiences and studies.

    What disappoints me is that some readers can be so focused on scholarly studies and research into the Bible but throw specialist research to the winds in preference for popular talk from non-specialists appealing to public prejudices in other areas that very often have far more serious consequences for certain people.

  • Bee
    2016-03-03 23:08:41 UTC - 23:08 | Permalink

    Much biblical scholarship is probably created out of the group-think of one religion or another. Even a scholar like Chris Keith is currently being perhaps criticized for simply, piously assuming the general historicity of Jesus, in general.

    http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.com/2016/03/rbl-reviews-of-jesus-against-scribal.html?m=1

    Even scholars seem effected by social pressures and movements. And some discussion of them helps us understand the details of how cultural pressure effects even scholarly writing.

    Links between scholarly writing and terrorism would be particularly interesting to look at explicitly one day. Remember that for more than 2,000 years, writing or saying the wrong thing about religion, very often incurred the death penalty.

    So in effect, religious writers were terrorized by the churches. By the heresy hunters.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-03-03 23:30:19 UTC - 23:30 | Permalink

      Coincidentally I was reminded of James Crossley’s chapter on bibliobloggers in Jesus in the Age of Terrorism. It is quite relevant to the question raised here by Albert. I should do a post on it.

      (Crossley’s criticism leveled against biblioblogs actually does not apply to Vridar. Vridar is an example of the sort of blog that he would think is on better track in the discussion of political issues. Pity he hates me and this blog for entirely other reasons.)

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