It’s a natural consequence of my living in the United States that I write about Christianity more often than any other religion. The majority of religious people I encounter are Christian — and a significant portion of them are trying to push their religion on others using guilt, sheer volume, or even the government — so when I come up with post ideas, they’re often related to that dynamic.
I really don’t intend to imply with my blog that any one religion or any particular flavor of supernatural belief is more irrational than any other. I try to mix it up when I can, usually with Judaism or Islam because those are the next two religions in my list by familiarity, and also because their beliefs are more well-defined than, say, Hinduism or Buddhism. But I don’t do it as often as I’d like.
I got a bit of a reminder recently about why this happens. I was walking through the student center on my campus, past the place where various clubs and organizations can reserve tables to pass out flyers, have bake sales, and the like. This time, the Muslim Student Association had a table, and since I always stop to ask the Christian kids (from any one of their unnecessarily-many fellowship groups) why it is they believe what they believe, I was excited for the chance to talk about Islam. They had a little poster advertising free Qur’ans and other free literature. I walked up to the guy at the table, mentioned that the sign about free Qur’ans caught my eye, and asked if we could discuss his beliefs in some detail because I had some questions about Islam for him.
He greeted me and asked earnestly, “Have you heard of Islam before?”
I was stunned, and probably laughed. “Um, yes, I just said … I wanted to ask you … Do you really meet people here who haven’t heard of Islam at all?”
He seemed pleasantly surprised, thanked me for pronouncing “Islam” correctly (how do other people say it?!), and mentioned that he had a teacher in high school who didn’t know what it was. He then explained some basic facts/beliefs about Islam and Mohammed, which made me wonder what he would have said if I hadn’t heard of Islam before, and then he asked me, “Have you ever heard of the Qur’an?”
Had I ever heard of the Qur’an?! I came over to see about getting a free one! I told him that of course I had, that I’d read maybe a quarter of it online in bits and pieces but never the whole way through at once, and I thought that might be interesting. I told him that I was an atheist myself, but that I was really interested in understanding why other people held the beliefs that they did.
We went on having a conversation for a bit — he described the Qur’an as the perfection of God’s word which had also been revealed in the Bible, where it had gotten corrupted, so I asked him about why he supposed God would have allowed his word to get misunderstood and misinterpreted for thousands of years and only in the seventh century C.E. decide to correct it and actually protect it from alteration this time. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t have an answer except for God’s mysterious plan … but it was a pleasant conversation, and I think I gave him something to keep thinking about.
I went away sort of shaken, though. He thought I wouldn’t have heard of the Qur’an. He thought I might have no idea at all what Islam even was. When Christian groups advertise on campus, it’s never by saying, “Have you ever heard of Christianity?” There’s so much stigma in the US against Islam, as well, that I’m sure many of the people who think they know what Islam is have gross misconceptions. And that’s why he looked like a frightened puppy.
I haven’t come across any supernatural beliefs that I think are correct. I don’t think this undergrad should be a Muslim, in the sense that I think that everyone should believe things that are true and I don’t think Islam is true. But I respect everyone’s right to make those evaluations for themselves, and it really seemed like he was feeling marginalized and getting discriminated against because he came to a different conclusion than the majority-Christian population (whose beliefs make no sense for the same reasons). So, I felt bad for him. It was difficult to take a hard line against his beliefs the way I do with the Christian evangelists. And I think that’s why I don’t write about Islam that much. It feels like they have a hard enough time as it is.
At the same time, the way religions fade away is for them to seem ever more ridiculous to the population as a whole. (I realize that Islam isn’t fading away on a global scale, but I think this argument still applies locally.) It’s inevitable that the last few people in any fading religion feel marginalized. Does that mean we should coddle them and encourage them until their religion grows enough to be worth criticizing again? That would be silly.
This post isn’t about why I shouldn’t write about Islam. It’s about why I don’t. What I have to remember is that asking critical questions isn’t disrespectful, even though some people may see it that way. It’s worth questioning and debating with those who hold implausible, unwarranted, or morally reprehensible beliefs, whether they make up 75% of the population or 0.5%.