The Problem of ISIS and Religious Fanaticism

Demilitarization would be nice, of course. Blow up all those munitions in far-flung deserts, toss the rifles into the sea, put the B-52s and Hornets and Raptors on display at the military museums, noting them all as relics of the bygone, violent infancy of human history.

But on the way to that rather starry-eyed but ultimately necessary development, it may be even more important that we engage in a process of deliteralization. Meaning that we learn to take all sacred texts and their often contradictory guidelines for human behavior with the proverbial grains of salt they require if we are to finally quell the fanaticism of religious zealots like ISIS, now that they’ve figured out how to organize armies and deploy big guns and use social media to spread their toxic message of hate around the world.

These thoughts occur as I grapple with the most recent essay (Sleepwalking Toward Armageddon, available here) by noted atheist Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, among others. Harris is perhaps alone among the vaunted “new atheists” in acknowledging the power of a “spiritual” perspective toward life while yet vilifying most all specifically religious expressions of it.


Does it matter at all that we can count up the calls for love and generosity in our sacred books and match them against calls for hatred and violence and then say, ‘See, love wins, 982 to 647!’? I don’t think so. Why are there calls for hatred and intolerance at all in the supposed Word of God?

He argues rather persuasively, I will admit, in his essay that far from the violence of ISIS and our own homegrown abortion clinic bombers being aberrations and misapplications of religion, they are part and parcel of many religious texts, writ large in black and white, available and even justifiable for use by the twisted minds who can quite “correctly” point to them in defense of their heinous crimes.

Harris sets the table with this provocative assertion, uttered in his usual plain-spoken way:

Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran. The reality of martyrdom and the sanctity of armed jihad are about as controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under Christianity. It is not an accident that millions of Muslims recite the shahadah or make pilgrimage to Mecca. Neither is it an accident that horrific footage of infidels and apostates being decapitated has become a popular form of pornography throughout the Muslim world. Each of these practices, including this ghastly method of murder, find explicit support in scripture.

In his own essay, Harris doesn’t offer representative samples of the Koran’s calls for violence, but here are but two of the more than 100 sprinkled liberally through its pages:

5:33: The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.

 8:12: I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.

Any glimmers of metaphor you can glean from those passages, anyone?

Me neither.



Now, good multiculturalist liberals, among whose number I would generally include myself, will point out that Christianity has its own issues with calls for violence, those messy “eye for an eye” and “every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth” proclamations being what they are. And they will also say, as I have said, that these need to be understood in the context of their times, in the graphic and overheated terms of the fairy tales that they truly are.

And good liberal interpreters of every tradition’s holy books do just that in quietly setting aside all such calls to unspeakable violence, pretending (or silently agreeing) they have no relevance in the modern world. Except that they very much do for ISIS, and abortion bombers, and Branch Davidians, and end-time gun nuts railing against all institutions of government and the collective good.

They’re so relevant, in fact, that they help supply inspiration for entire armies to march across Arab lands confiscating territory, attempting to annihilate or enslave whole populations and, not coincidentally, beheading, crucifying and amputating the limbs of hapless victims whose crime is they do not subscribe to the same severe strictures ISIS wants to bring to dominance across the whole world in order to properly fulfill the proclamations of their beloved Allah.

Murder, maim and make merry in order to enact the vision of the Lord of All Creation.


Can we point to other passages in both the Koran and the Bible to suggest completely opposite ways of life, imploring us to love and forgive always to the end of time, with overflowing generous hearts? Of course we can—this is precisely the point.

Which reading “speaks” to you? From which reading will you take your marching orders: to wage “jihad” as pure metaphor for the examination and cleansing of your inner soul, or as a dictum to go slay your agnostic neighbor and sexually enslave his wife and daughters?

The choice of preferred interpretation is up to any given individual—the point is that they are both available to be cherry-picked as they will. The fact that consensus opinion in the world sees ISIS as enacting a twisted vision doesn’t bother them in the least in this war of competing religious narratives, with one side pointing to one set of prescriptions for how to live and another side pointing the opposite way. Does it matter at all that we can count up the calls for love and generosity in our sacred books and match them against calls for hatred and violence and then say, “See, love wins, 982 to 647!”?

I don’t think so. Why are there calls for hatred and intolerance at all in the supposed Word of God?


So: we know what the answer is here, yes? On one level, humanity can and should take religion seriously as a powerful force shaping civilization, sometimes for ill, but very frequently and powerfully for good as well. But it cannot afford to take religion “seriously” in the sense of believing its texts lock, stock and barrel as some sort of definitive statement by the Creator of the Universe.

Indeed, the vast majority of humanity doesn’t do so already. Even Christian fundamentalists in the peaceful suburbs who vociferously claim the Bible as the inerrant word of God simply deliteralize or even ignore all manner of biblical passages that no longer fit the sensibilities of modern civilization. (Heard lately of anyone gouging out his eyes for entertaining an impure thought?) This is how they fit into the larger deliteralized fabric of modern culture, even as they claim fidelity to an imagined strict interpretation of the Bible. The armies of ISIS? Not so much.


Where does this leave us? It is not irrelevant that most literalists across every persuasion lack exposure to broadening perspectives such as higher education, wide travel, and the arts. These are all inherently deliteralizing activities, actually serving to destabilize the ignorance and ancient prejudices that act as a bulwark against the inevitable change and evolution that characterize the life force. Education is always and again the answer.

Not that education makes perfect, since there will always be highly educated ignoramuses among us. But it most always makes better, in the kind of steady, inexorable drip drip of one person and action upon another helping to cumulatively change our world.


Make no mistake—change is coming to the Mideast, and to Islam, just as it has to Christianity in the centuries since its adherents burned witches and enslaved black people in the name of their Lord. The fear of that change (and who doesn’t fear change to one extent or other?) is the very reason ISIS and other groups are fighting with such ferocity to hold onto the ignorant ways of the only life they know.

But the genie of repression and ridiculous application of mythological texts to support fear and ignorance is long since out of the bottle in the western world, and it is leaking profusely in the Mideast now, too. Our borderless media and the ubiquity of its technology are guaranteeing it.

We may suffer greatly still in paroxysms yet to be unleashed by ISIS and their ilk in future years. But if we can manage to prevent them from blowing everything to kingdom come in the meantime, their days too, are numbered, just as they have always been for those seeking to keep humanity in the Dark Ages, with our spirits dulled and eyes cast to the ground.

History hasn’t worked out very well for those forces over the past few thousand years, and it doesn’t appear to be on their side now, either.

Dar Williams says it all here—and with a rollicking good tune besides.

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5 comments to The Problem of ISIS and Religious Fanaticism

  • Rev. Robert Gutleben  says:

    As a Christian minister for the last forty years I too have strongly believed for a long time now, that the only sensible approach to the interpretation of Scripture is a mythological one. The great and paradoxical power of myth is that is does not have to be factual to be truthful. When Scripture is viewed as an inner-world message, i.e. mythological, dramatic imagery can be understood as hyperbole and metaphor rather than commandments to be acted out literally. But an even greater problem for the Christian Church is the arrogance of the righteous. To be sure, ISIS and all fundamentalist religions suffer the same problem. Nevertheless, as a Christian I believe the Church has an obligation to acknowledge its history of such atrocities as the Inquisition, the annihilation of Albi, France over the Cathar heresy, the murder of several million women condemned as witches in the middle ages, slavery, and the murder of abortion doctors before we in the West can speak out with any moral authority against the brutality of ISIS. The big question, I believe, for Western culture, is whether or not the Church can find the strength to humble ourselves. This is, on the moral front, the effective way we can take the high ground.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robert, you touch a serious cultural/political nerve with calling for humility, which seems to beget only red-faced militancy among a certain swath of the population, many of them, interestingly enough, calling themselves Christian. Jesus’s emphasis on walking humbly were exceeded perhaps only by his calls for love and service to the poor, but any hint that apologies may be in order for certain heinous acts in the past are always dismissed as showing “weakness.” So instead of, say, apologizing to Native Americans and making things aright with massive education and renewal programs, we give them…gambling casinos! Which simply feed the culture’s addictions, and then we make schools and roads and water projects dependent on their revenues. These are the distortions that refusal of humility and accountability bring.

    • Jim C  says:


      I appreciate your contribution, but I wish to correct one error of fact. The story about the church being responsible for “the murder of several million women condemned as witches” is a gross exaggeration that multiple historians (including Wiccan and women historians) are trying to correct. The real story is rather long & complicated since it stretches over 13+ centuries, but the basics are as follows (references to follow).

      Persecution of certain people as “witches” was a common pagan (pre-Christian) practice in Europe. As Europe converted to Christianity, the church worked to stamp out the persecution of witches because, under the Christian theology of the time, witchcraft was seen as impossible (see the “Background” section of the Wikipedia article, below). The church was unable to completely stamp out the popular belief in witches, and in some places anti-witchcraft laws remained on the books. But from the 8th through the 14th Centuries, the church opposed any persecution of people as witches. The church probably saved many lives (it would be impossible to know how many) during that seven-century period as, with the church saying witchcraft couldn’t exist, civil authorities found it much more difficult to prosecute witches.

      In the 15th century, Christian theology changed to allow the idea that witchcraft could exist. Church people then became involved in witchcraft trials, but church courts rarely imposed death penalties. However the change in Christian theology opened the gates for civil authorities (kings, nobles, local magistrates, etc.) to prosecute people suspected of witchcraft and to execute many of those who were found guilty. In many areas, the property of the person found guilty of witchcraft would be confiscated, so there were economic reasons to prosecute someone as a witch as well as religious or social reasons. This period of witch trials with the tolerance of the church lasted for a bit more than three centuries (1428-1750).

      In terms of “whom to blame”, the church is on the list, but so are civil authorities, the common population, healers & doctors (including female healers who would accuse others of being witches), and witches themselves (people who self-identified as “white witches”, or, good witches, would sometimes accuse others of being “black witches”, or bad witches).

      Wiccan sites, among others, discuss many myths about these trials, such as the myth that millions of women were killed. Historians now estimate that between 40,000 and 60,000 people were executed as witches, with 20+% of those executed being men. The majority of the people executed were Christian themselves. Their accusers were often women, not men. Some were executed by civil authorities for purely political reasons (example: Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII).

      Volumes have been written on this subject. For a general (if long) introduction, see Wikipedia (which includes lots of references):

      The most thorough discussion I’ve seen on a Wiccan site begins at this page (click on all three links on the page for the details):

      The author of this material is Jenny Gibbons, who is both a Wiccan and a trained historian. Her bio is at:

      Two other Wiccan sites which discuss the “falsehoods” about witch trials are:

      The first of these ( speculates about why contemporary Wiccans may want to believe that millions of witches were executed. I won’t repeat the theory here.

      Unfortunately, these Wiccan sites include few references to their sources, but the Wikipedia article includes detailed footnotes & references.

      Sorry about the length of this comment. I collected a lot of material on this subject three years ago for a colleague who was writing a novel which touched on this subject.

  • loweb3  says:

    Perhaps most disturbing to me is that Muslims who have been “educated” in America or England also seem willing to participate in jihad. If ” Education is always and again the answer” why did it fail to change these people.

    Of course, I’m also aware of some rather unChristian acts perpetrated by my fellow troops in Vietnam, more than a few I’m afraid. Of course, I still wonder how someone as brilliant and educated as President Obama can find it acceptable to use drones so extensively.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Loren, I definitely think education is the answer in general, but that’s not to say that it provides guaranteed immunity from idiocy in every particular. (Note my “educated ignoramuses” comment.) We are all a mixed bag, but education mostly gives a leg up on learning to think, and evaluate, and tolerate…And I’m also talking about the best kind of education with at least some emphasis on the humanities. One can be “educated” in memorizing the Koran and Bible front to back and then propagandized in which interpretations are “correct,” but that’s hardly the same as being armed with critical tools and encouraged to think for oneself.

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