The following is from How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism by Brian Malley.
|Now it is a curious situation when an unclear idea has clear consequences. — Malley, 136|
Evangelicals (or fundamentalists) believe that the Bible is authoritative and declare that the reason it is authoritative is that it is the “word of God” or “inspired by God”.
Uncertainty about the idea of inspiration
However, as Malley demonstrates, the same believers in biblical authority do not know exactly how inspiration worked. Evangelicals uniformly believe in the doctrine of biblical inspiration but disagree about the meaning of inspiration: Is the Bible inerrant in all matters or only in spiritual matters? When asked, evangelicals are “quite vague about the process” of inspiration.
That the Bible is inspired is generally found in statements of faith but it is rarely discussed in Bible studies or sermons. When asked about the meaning or process of inspiration, believers will respond with phrases like the Bible’s authors were “mentally stimulated through a spiritual force”, that God had the writers “attuned” or that “God guided their thoughts” or “impressed their minds.”
When I pressed for further details, most informants said that they did not know. I eventually thought to ask a few informants whether it bothered them that they did not know, and, as one man told me, “Not really. I mean, I probably should find out, just so I would know what to tell people, but I’m not worried about it.”
It is important to note that my informants’ responses were quite variable in their wording. Apart from those few who used the words θεόπνευστος and “God-breathed,” they did not seem to be drawing their answers from any common source. And indeed this may be the case because, although there are frequent allusions to the doctrine of inspiration at Creekside Baptist, I never heard it explicitly discussed. (p. 134)
On the concept of Plenary Inspiration, the teaching that the whole of the Bible is inspired, most of Malley’s interviewees declared that the entire Bible is God-inspired. There was less agreement on whether the Bible was the only book inspired by God.
. . . some thought that there were degrees of inspiration, and that other texts might be inspired, but less so than the Bible; some thought that there were kinds of inspiration, and in this way differentiated between biblical and other inspired texts. All informants, however, agreed that the Bible is inspired differently than any other text. One of the most interesting notions came from a man who, in addition to differentiating the Bible with respect to extent of inspiration, also said, “Other texts might be inspired, but we know the Bible is inspired.”
Most fundamentalist and evangelical theologians will say that they believe in Verbal Inspiration, that the very words in the Bible are inspired. Most of those Malley surveyed ticked their agreement with the statement that “The words of the Bible are inspired.” Yet . . .
. . . in interviews, few of my informants expressed strong views on this, and several said that it did not make any practical difference whether the words or the ideas were inspired.
When pressed, some respondents were found to say that the original autographs were inspired but over time errors have crept in through translations and copying. They will insist that the details are unimportant and that despite some limited corruption the main ideas inspired by God have been preserved.
Certainty about the authority of the Bible
When informants said that they did not know exactly how inspiration worked, I followed up with questions about the implications of the doctrine: Does it entail that God is the author of the Bible? Does it entail that the Bible is true? Does it entail that the Bible is authoritative? Each of these questions received an unhesitating, confident yes from all interviewees. Whatever uncertainty they had about the nature of inspiration did not extend to its implications. (p. 136)
Evangelicals will say (Malley empirically demonstrates that they do) that because the Bible is inspired by God it is therefore authoritative. The doctrine of biblical authority is said to be “a consequence of its divine inspiration.”
The doctrine of inspiration is indeed often invoked as a justification and explanation of the authority that evangelicals attribute to the Bible.
Inspiration as rationalization
Here is the interesting observation of Malley:
Yet the relative certainty and uniformity of informants’ views of biblical authority suggests that it is in fact biblical authority that is primary, and that the doctrine of divine inspiration functions psychologically as a rationale for prior belief in the Bible’s authority.Psychologically, it is authority, not inspiration, that is the premise, and inspiration, not authority, that is the consequence.
In fact, practically speaking, there is no need for any theory of biblical authority. At the beginning of his argument for a postmodern theology of biblical authority, Darrell Jodock (1989, 5) writes:
A worked-out view [of biblical authority] is important in order to discern appropriate implications and explain them to others but is not required in order to make the Scriptures significant for Christian living. On the contrary, individuals or groups can experience the claim of the scriptural message without thinking through all the ramifications involved in their approach to the Bible; they need not, in this sense, possess any theory of biblical authority. If persons can find the Bible useful without having any theory of its authority, then surely agreement among Christians about a single theory is not necessary either.
Jodock’s observation is stated without evidence, but aptly synthesizes the results of my empirical work: the people of Creekside Baptist can and do “experience the claim of the scriptural message” without having a clear, well-developed, or uniform theory of biblical authority. They are able to do so because the practice of biblical authority turns on psychological mechanisms that are quite different from those involved in speculative theology. (136f. Bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)
I bypass in this post Malley’s anthropological analysis of the function and roles of biblical authority in the church communities and hew to the question of how this authority is rationalized.
Clearly “the practice of biblical authority invites the question, Why is the Bible authoritative? Why should this ancient text be regarded as so important? It does not demand that this question be answered, but it does create an interest in hearing what answers might be available. More precisely, it creates a situation in which justifications of biblical authority are relevant enough to be attended to and repeated. The doctrine of biblical inspiration is just such an answer. The average layperson does not know what it means, but is nonetheless very sure that, whatever it means, it explains the Bible’s authority: the Bible is authoritative because it is the inspired word of God. The implication is clearer than the premise because the premise came to be entertained precisely to provide an explanation for the “implied” belief. (p. 142)
Advantages of a mysterious explanation
A rationalist will object that a “mysterious answer” or explanation is not an explanation at all. But Malley suggests that practically the mysterious answer has three distinct advantages:
1. It defers the problem by one inferential step. Rather than having the mystery rest on the doorstep of an institutionally foundational belief, it is moved at least as far as the front sidewalk. As I pointed out above, the doctrine of biblical inspiration is seldom discussed at Creekside Baptist, and people are free to get on with using the Bible as an authority without immediately confronting the mysterious nature of that authority.
2. It changes the critical term. The question “Why is the Bible authoritative?” focuses attention on the Bible: What about the Bible makes it authoritative? A direct answer to this question must turn on distinctive and relevant features of the Bible, and this list—probably quite short—would have to justify adequately all community uses of the Bible. But if one says that the Bible is authoritative because God inspired its human authors to write his message for humanity, attention focuses on the term inspire, which can be left mysterious without threat to the community, and which, precisely because of its vagueness, can justify many different uses of the Bible.
3. Finally, it distances the problem. Rather than explaining present biblical authority by reference to the changeable present, the justification is pushed into a closed and inaccessible past: it is simply impossible now to know how inspiration might have taken place, and its location in the past makes any expectation that one should be able to know unreasonable.
In brief, the doctrine of biblical inspiration is nearly an ideal rationalization, socially and psychologically speaking, for biblical authority.(p. 142f)
Another benefit Malley observes is that the doctrine of divine inspiration
helps to raise expectations of the text’s relevance and suggests that God may be particularly likely to speak through this very special work. These expectations do not, strictly speaking, depend on the doctrine of inspiration, but they resonate with it and give it additional relevance. (p. 143)
All of the above gels with my own experience. After I had left the teachings of an authoritarian fundamentalist church and turned back to mainstream congregations, I was discussing my experiences and spiritual journey with a Baptist minister and declared to him my absolute conviction that even if I was uncertain about the “truth” of all church doctrines, I knew one thing with unshakeable conviction: that the Bible was true, the authority! That belief, I emphatically stated, was absolute. No question! (But I did keep asking questions and exploring and that unshakeable conviction was happily shaken enough to fracture and finally vanish entirely. Belief in divine inspiration of the Bible was no longer tenable when I came to discern the fallibility of the “good book”.)
Malley, Brian. 2004. How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism. New York: Altamira Press.
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25 thoughts on “How Believers Rationalise Biblical Authority”
Thanks Neil for this brief and helpful essay on so called “biblical” authority.
Those looking for a good book in this field as well is an older work by the late and great OT scholar Robert P Carroll. All of his works are super insightful. I recall it was called -Wolf in the Sheepfold or something like that.
Back when I was a hermeneutics professor I used Clark Pinnock’s book The Scripture Principle… Pinnock spends a lot of time dealing with this question and started to get in trouble shortly after he wrote that book. So did I , for using it in my classes.
He points out though in an infamous line as I recall , that Evangelicals don’t really like the Bible that has come down to them the way it is, and so they constantly feel the need to change much of it for their own purposes. Furthermore, rather than reading its actual lines, they read between the lines to rationalize the things that bother them in the texts or the things they want to fight for in it.
Interestingly, when I question people’s reading of the Bible they think I am attacking the Bible itself, and that I don’t love the Bible. I tell them I do love it but for different reasons than them. Plus I tell them that I am not questioning the text per se necessarily but the ” authority” attributed to a given text. I don’t get into arguments over “inspiration” . I usually try to understand “what kind of authority” the readers are referring to in the text and how does that “authority” work practically for life and education and knowing the world.
I look forward to getting the book sometime. Sound fascinating.
Thanks again Neil.
Stay well and safe. I am doing okay. Hope you are as well.
One major issue is the lack of uniformity among the authors in the “Bible”, i.e. that believers read only their translated versions and don’t realize when a writer refers to “God” (in English) in their “Bible”, it may be a reference to a deity totally different from another writer’s “God” in the same “Bible”, as well as from the “God” he or she has in mind wwhom
they believe to have “inspired” that anthology called “Bible”.
Ah yes, the matter of inspiration. Now that’s a very sensitive area and we will step on toes here, but that’s OK as many Christians have steel tipped shoes, while some have blisters and will definitely let out a cry or a whimper. Coming to a realistic view on inspiration was a huge milestone in my journey. Originally I held that the Bible IS the word of God (1974), then that it CONTAINS the word of God (1994) then that the Bible is words ABOUT God (2010) and now that the Bible is a relic of PROPAGANDA.
Martin it’s difficult to identify with you in “loving” the Bible. I know that is a loaded term. I am fascinated by it as it has been a pillar in my former Christian conversion and so is full of the spiritual experiences I may share with you, but as it has been used by the powers of empire and religious institutions to control, exploit and mislead many, there is a certain stigma attached. I just love people whether Christian or atheist and I am respectful of our common need for meaning, purpose and forgiveness which is promised by the belief in the inspiration of Scripture : as a perfect and innerant guide to life.
I like your comments Peter. As far as loving the Bible. I mentioned I had reasons for “loving” it.. I mean I am extremely interested in it and the way it works. I have invested money and time and guts in studying it seriously for close to five decades. I know it has caused harm, no matter how it has been interpreted but the better we understand it in its own context and circumstances the better we may be able to avoid the claims made about by others, including agnostics and atheists, and whoever.
FYI I am very firm on believing that not one word of it was written to us today. It was written to continue the traditions and texts of Israel and essentially to them and for them, not for anyone today. It holds no authority for me. I am not its contextual recipient despite many of the worthless and silly attempts to apply it to people today.
A “responsible use” of the Bible today is quite problematic, not many how many hermeneutic and homiletic courses one has under one’s belt. The infighting caused by hermeneutics among the faithful in the Bible itself is what I find interesting and relevant perhaps to address aspects of religion and life today and for goodness sake it is a very human anthology as my former professor Dr. Thomas Thompson used to say . So “love” is a loaded term and I don’t love how people have used the Bible for their own agendas. It is a collection of books that I simply find downright and damned “interesting” so I made a career as a scholar and pastor getting to know as best as I can. I find it has wisdom as well and its human touches are quite relevant to me at times too.
I also don’t take the term “unbeliever” as a synonym or indication of it meaning “atheist” in the NT. There are no atheists in the Bible as far as I can tell. They were all “theists” of some sort.. Jews fighting with others over whether or not they got the latest and truest “revelations” from texts or from claims that God or Jesus or the Spirit was at work. No one has to believe the Bible or obey it or even study it. It depends on your motives and agendas for using it or getting into it.
I don’t “believe” or “obey” ancient texts simply because they are old and claim to have been written by some alleged messenger from some god. So when people try to pawn off the Bible on me I simply ask why it makes any difference whether I believe it or not and why should I care they don’t usually give a satisfying response or answer.
Btw , at Marquette Univ. when I was working on my diss. I took up the task of finding out how Christianity stayed alive and functioned without a “Bible” until the 4th century…under Dr. Julian Hills (my doc advisor). They had “scriptures” no doubt but surely nothing like we have today. Long ago Francis Schaeffer raised the question…how do you talk to the man on the street today without a Bible? And who couldn’t care less about the Bible , whether believer or not?
Thanks again Peter for your comments.
Hi Martin, thanks too for your kindly reply.
I was waiting for a notification that my comments had been accepted in this blog but it did not come by email so I checked and just found it, and your reply. Sorry for the delay.
It must have been fascinating to study under Thomas Thompson. I studied under Rex (G.R.F.) Ellis (d. 1980) at the then Churches of Christ Theological College in NSW in Sydney. I recall vividly his illustrations of Biblical concepts such as that of the Scriptures i.e. the words of the prophets, being inspired by the Holy Spirit. Rex used to say the prophets were “carried along” by the HS as if passengers in a car. Naturally this exegesis is based on the original Greek word used in 2 Peter 1:21. Strong defines it in 5342. The context of Peter’s writing it reveals a backdrop of politics and division with several groups of Messianists with differing emphases and goals; I see the author wanting to identify as a true believer, or the redactor of the NT modifying the letter to appear as approved canonical material.
Looking back, I now read into this an esoteric meaning based on the assumption that there is a HS. Often I find Christian views are based on such assumptions and are circular arguments.
I wish you well.
In my interactions with my Christian friends, I have found this also to be true. ‘Inspiration’ is certainly treated as a shield from addressing the problem of authority. However, I think to conclude that inspiration only has the utility of self-deception is not quite fair. In order to understand ‘inspiration’ more fully one also needs to look at how people form certain perceptions – they do so based on a type of empiricism. Many create patterns from coincidental stimuli – sort of like finding elephants in the clouds. Even superstitions form like this. They become convinced with the flimsiest correlating data that something is happening. Inspiration have you – it creates a confirmation loop.
What is somewhat lacking is a critical loop – that in order to assess feedback and stimuli often people are not evaluating the data critically and instead choose to be blind to that parts that go against their ideas and selective ‘see’ the data that supports them.
As a believer, who is not Christian, who holds the Bible with somewhat some level of respect, can see parts I can agree with and parts I suspect and details I can choose to incorporate in my belief and other parts I leave out. I am at liberty of doing that. I also believe much of this article is very specific to a sort of Christian and may not apply to all.
What’s under inspiration and authority in turn? What holds the earth up? Turtles? Then? “Turtles all the way down,” mythographers say.
Ask 100 women how a sperm fertilizes an egg and then divides like mad and becomes a human being 9 months later, and you can be certain you will receive varying opinions. Yet, everyone of them knows that she got pregnant, that life lived inside of her and she gave birth. Her knowledge regarding how it all came about isn’t necessary.
Some race car drivers who can fly down a track at 225 mph, cannot explain why points are so yesterday, why EFI is all they use today, how a safety harness works, but they can win races.
Even if believers cannot explain or agree upon how, “inspiration breathed” is defined precisely, doesn’t prove it isn’t. Other factors weigh in.
We know what being pregnant and being born mean without understanding all the scientific details; but what does “the bible is inspired” actually mean? That is the problematic question. Malley suggests that there are benefits for believers in not knowing, exactly, what it means.
But we do indeed know exactly what is meant by pregnancy and birth. So your analogy misses the actual problem Malley is addressing. The question is “what” does inspiration of the bible mean, exactly, not “how” does it happen.
There are benefits to unbelievers who make this, “not knowing” an argument against its accuracy/reliability, too. How important is it to be able to define the term perfectly?
What can we learn about “inspiration” if anything? Can we take steps that point to its meaning without coming to a perfect understanding? How far can we go using a piecemeal approach and might it be worth a serious effort?
Scientists look for statistically significant data when they test and analyze the impact of new medications. They employ double-blind, controlled experiments to try to discover if a particular combination of chemicals generates changes beyond the placebo effect. If they achieve results that are statistically significantly better or greater than the standard differences produced by the placebo, they are confident they are on the right track.
Likewise, scientific evaluations of large and varied groups of people using similar standards to measure whether or not significant alterations in one’s philosophy, outlook, emotions, drive, perspective, cognitive functioning, genuine feelings of love, etc. occur through an alleged encounter with the divine can be useful to define “inspiration” within a biblical context.
Big Pharma has invested and made billions of dollars to find combinations of chemicals designed to improve subjective experiences in the depressed, in the manic-depressed, people with narcolepsy and borderline personality disorder to name a few.
To give you an idea: children in China will express they have had the same kinds of changes/experiences in their young lives as old people from India claim to have had and teenagers from the inner-cities, middle age truck divers, historians, Hindus, men and women on death row, nuns, football players, shut-ins, communists, terrorists, black folks, whites, American Indians, Japanese, intellectuals, illiterate, bank presidents and more. We can test them. People who had no prior knowledge of the claims made by spiritual people, who never attended a church, people without expectations about encountering a God of some bible and compare them to any and all others, to see if there are unique statistically significant and consistent variations in the results. Thereby, we can take a step in the direction of understanding what “God-breathed” and “inspiration” mean in a biblical framework.
“For me, at the time, it felt like an enormous relief, a lifting of burden, a sense of connecting with the universe in a way I never had before. Very powerful!”
“At that point Jesus became not only my Lord and Savior, but also my best friend and closest ally.”
“Jesus was my model of self-giving love…” Bart Ehrman
Many are familiar with the work Dr. Ehrman has done in the field of textual criticism. Although he is an /atheist/agnostic today, his own version of his experience with the God of the bible is echoed throughout the world and through time. Hundreds of millions have described exactly the same kinds of phenomena.
No, you have misread the post entirely. Malley at no point makes any “argument against the accuracy/reliability” of the Bible. You cannot find anything like that in the post or in his book. The question of the Bible’s accuracy/reliability is a nonissue in the discussion.
The study is an empirical anthropological and psychological investigation into the relationship between evangelicals and the Bible.
I am always interested in sociological, anthropological, historical, psychological studies that help me understand myself and my communities more deeply, especially in relation to various media in our midst.
Presumably for you people with God’s spirit living God’s breathed words are exempt from such worldly studies.
reply to Charles Kemp:
Your attempt at comparing knowledge of embryology and engine mechanics with what is essentially psychology of theological belief invokes false equivalence in profoundly superficial and glib ways, as are your references to medications, chemicals, Big Pharma, scientists, peoples, etc., below. You’re essentially Gish Galloping around the subject of the post
Charles Kemp, like so many other evangelicals or fundamentalists who have visited here, began with pious sounding objections to a post but who then, when I refused to bite only degenerated further in their comments and so joined my moderated list, resorted to a series of some very lurid insults. Anything more from him will be directed straight to spam.
“How Believers Rationalise Biblical Authority”
It seems to me based on the topic that there is an assumption made that believers necessarily must rationalize, “Attempt to explain or justify (one’s own or another’s behavior or attitude) with logical, plausible reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate.” in order to find biblical authority; that they must contrive ways of making sense of the bible and its authority that appear to be sound but are not and can not be.
“The question is “what” does inspiration of the bible mean, exactly, not “how” does it happen.”
I tried to explain briefly “what” inspiration might mean by using examples of those who have been inspired by it. If it is true that people are inspired by the bible in ways that are unique, profound, consistent and unlike any other written body of work, a logical next step would be to examine if its authority derives from the supernatural without the need to rationalize.
If you don’t accept our assumptions and methods about empirical research then this discussion is not for you. We are not interested in going to you to tell you that you are all wrong so we do expect the same courtesy from you when we undertake our own inquiries for our own sakes and for any others interested in our approach.
If the arguments made are not empirical then the Malley’s hypothesis fails empirically. Believers who reject empirical investigation into their faith (answered prayer, faith healing, conversion experiences….) have no part in this conversation. We are not interested in attacking you or undermining your faith, but in understanding you according to our own lights. We treat you no differently from any other religious group of believers (Hindu, Judaic, Animist, Shamanistic . . . . ). I don’t know why you seem to object to our interest any more than other religious groups object to scholarly studies of their religions — unless you are somehow trying to convert us or something to your way of thinking.
As for your other point, to speak of being inspired by something or someone is using the word “inspired” in a different sense from what is meant when we say that a text, whether Qur’an or Bible or something else, is inspired by God.
Courtesy? Presenting ideas to debate what is proffered is discourteous? I had no intention of doing anything other than stimulating discussion. I was unaware you would interpret my thoughts and questions on the topic to be rude attacks on your beliefs. That didn’t occur to me. I thought this was an open discussion, an opportunity for people interested in the subject to present various objective challenges.
Empirical evidence is exactly what scientists must find and present to the FDA, as an example, to receive approval to develop and market new medications often at tremendous expense. Scientific evidence that human beings respond to different stimuli in predictable ways is empirical.
Do you feature a disclaimer that if one would like to join the discussion here, he must agree with your assumptions? I recommend you include that prohibition up front. You will appear less belligerent and insecure to strangers who in good faith decide they would like to participate.
I would not go to a Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist site simply to tell people there that they are wrong in their beliefs because I would consider that pointlessly aggressive and rude behaviour with no possible good purpose. Your disingenuous protests notwithstanding that it exactly what you are doing here with one worse fault — you fail to take the trouble to seriously comprehend the posts you are responding to and impute into them arguments and agendas that are not there.
I have deleted your crude political attack (not “discussion starter”) on another post and placed any future comments of yours on moderation. Read the Comments Policy here before posting again.
You are so paranoid, you can’t begin to examine truth. You are so defensive, you can’t begin to be challenged. I am sorry for whatever trauma has left you unable to relax and have a civil conversation. Whatever damaged you so severely, is not God’s doing.
“When it comes to Islam, many in our society are either naive or dishonest. So, for example, recently, while waiting for a train connection from Marseilles, I noticed the memorial plaque for the victims of the Islamic attacks outside the station – “to the victims of the terrorist attacks”, as if “terror” was the underlying ideology, not the instrument. Others speak of religiously motivated terror – although this activity seems largely limited to Islam in a structural sense.”
Hearst, Can I call you Mark or would you prefer Wayne? The article you link to is from a Catholic revivalist movement that clearly has kept itself ignorant of the serious scholarly studies into terrorism and Islamism. Islamism is not Islam — they are different words with different meanings. In fact, it is Muslims who are more often the targets of Islamists. The dishonesty is on the side of those who remain culpably ignorant of the reasons for terrorist attacks as researched and demonstrated by serious research on the part of psychologists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists. The best predictor of terrorist movements among the powerless is the factor of occupation by greater powers. As for the terrorism waged by the powerful, that is another factor that needs to be added to any serious and honest analysis. I invite you to do a word search on this blog for posts that have dealt with the scholarly research into terrorism and Islamism, and see what the actual motivations really are.
INARAH has kept itself ignorant?
Inârah is a research institute devoted to the scientific historical-critical, philological investigation into the Qur’an, the origins of Islam and its early history. By and large, hitherto the traditional account of Islam’s rise and spread is accepted uncritically, although the sources upon which such claims are based are both late and of dubious historical quality. Similar scientific uncertainty also applies to the language and the theology of the Qur’an, for which source, textual, form and redactional criticism, vis-à- vis e.g. biblical studies, are still in their infancy. Hitherto our researches have clearly shown that the traditional account of Muhammad, the Qur’an, and the emergence of Islam actually have little or nothing in common with historical reality, nor does it fit into the well-established parameters of Late Antiquity.
So Inarah says. The article you extracted from and linked to by Kerr is nothing but a piece of anti-scholarly Islamophobic tripe promoting a form of Roman Catholicism that I suspect even many lay Catholics would be embarrassed to endorse.
So Inarah shouldn’t undermine and implode Islam through the same sort of studies Gmirkin and Wajdenbaum have done to skillfully undermine Judaism and Christianity?
You miss my point entirely. It is the malicious Islamophobic agenda that so clearly comes through with certain types of criticisms that has led me away from posting as much as I could have done on the history of Islam. You initially quoted one person whose words plainly evinced such a bigoted agenda. Enough said. I have posted extensively on the nature of terrorism, on the perpetrators of it, and above all on the motivations and reasons persons affiliate with such acts. Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum, are not part of any cause that seeks to fan hatred for Christians or Jews and none of their words can be so construed, at least not with any honesty. Ditto for some very good studies of Islamic history. But neither you nor the person you initially quoted seem to have the first notion of the difference between Islam and Islamism — or the difference is ignorantly elided. Given the amount of studies into both concepts on the web it must be concluded that that ignorance is not innocent.