On one hand, people of faith are far too eager to distance themselves from extremists in their community, often denying that religious violence has any religious motivation whatsoever. This is especially true of Muslims, who often glibly dismiss those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam as “not really Muslim.”
On the other, critics of religion tend to exhibit an inability to understand religion outside of its absolutist connotations. They scour holy texts for bits of savagery and point to extreme examples of religious bigotry, of which there are too many, to generalize about the causes of oppression throughout the world.
What both the believers and the critics often miss is that religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices. The phrase “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Christian,” “I am a Jew” and the like is, often, not so much a description of what a person believes or what rituals he or she follows, as a simple statement of identity, of how the speaker views her or his place in the world.
As a form of identity, religion is inextricable from all the other factors that make up a person’s self-understanding, like culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity. The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia. The differences between Tibetan Buddhists living in exile in India and militant Buddhist monks persecuting the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, in neighboring Myanmar, has everything to do with the political cultures of those countries and almost nothing to do with Buddhism itself.
No religion exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, every faith is rooted in the soil in which it is planted. It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives…
The same Bible that commands Jews to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) also exhorts them to “kill every man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey,” who worship any other God (1 Sam. 15:3). The same Jesus Christ who told his disciples to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) also told them that he had “not come to bring peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34), and that “he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). The same Quran that warns believers “if you kill one person it is as though you have killed all of humanity” (5:32) also commands them to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5).
How a worshiper treats these conflicting commandments depends on the believer. If you are a violent misogynist, you will find plenty in your scriptures to justify your beliefs. If you are a peaceful, democratic feminist, you will also find justification in the scriptures for your point of view.”
“Bill Maher is right to condemn religious practices that violate fundamental human rights. Religious communities must do more to counter extremist interpretations of their faith. But failing to recognize that religion is embedded in culture — and making a blanket judgment about the world’s second largest religion — is simply bigotry.”
Reza Aslan: Bill Maher Isn’t the Only Person Who Misunderstands Religion