Rules for a Discussion about Religion


In this blog I present four simple guidelines (but which may not be simple to follow) which, in my opinion, must be respected if a discussion on a religious topic is to be productive.

Sommaire en français Je présente quatre préceptes simples (mais dont la mise en application n’est pas nécessairement simple) qui, à mon avis, doivent être respectés pour qu’une discussion sur un sujet religieux puisse être fructueuse. Ces règles sont :

  • La critique des idéologies, y compris des religions, est nécessaire.
  • Il faut distinguer les croyances des croyants.
  • Il faut distinguer la religion de la race.
  • L’extrémisme religieux est une réalité.

In order to have a productive discussion or debate on a subject concerning religion, the following guidelines must necessarily be respected by all parties to the discussion:

  1. Criticism of ideologies, including religions, is not only legitimate but imperatively necessary. Many religious beliefs and practices are incompatible with principles of human rights as set out in various charters and declarations. For example, the so-called “sacred” scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain misogynistic elements. All three religions have homophobic elements which deny rights—and sometimes even life—to some sexual minorities. In particular, mainstream Islam considers apostasy, i.e. leaving Islam, to be a crime for which the punishment may even be death, and many Muslim-majority countries apply this rule in their legislation. Thus, if one cares about human rights, then criticism of these aspects of religion is imperative.
  2. It is critically important that a distinction be drawn between beliefs and believers. To criticize the beliefs of a particular religion is not an attack on all believers associated with that religion. There are many variants of all major religions. Two different Christians may hold completely different views concerning, say, sexuality, or reproductive rights, or other issues of religious doctrine. Often we cannot know what a person’s motivation or thoughts are. For example, a niqab-wearing woman may be obligated by family or community to wear that flag of radical Islam; on the other hand, she may choose to wear it of her own free will; or the reality may be a combination of the two. To criticize the niqab does not imply that we are criticizing all women—or even most—who wear it, because the majority are forced to do so. (However, in some special cases, we do know; for example Zunera Ishaq is clearly an agent of radical Islam considering her extensive legal action to win the “right” to wear the niqab practically anywhere.) This distinction between beliefs and believers is especially important in the case of Islam, because of the ban on apostasy in Islam. It is very important to be prudent when using the label “Muslim” as there may be many ex-Muslims who continue to pretend to be believers because of fear of reprisals. Our respect for the right of apostasy—which is an essential part of freedom of conscience—requires that the label “Muslim” be used with caution.
  3. Religion has nothing to do with race and it is unacceptable to confuse the two. To confuse religion and race is a deliberate strategy of some radical religionists, because they use this confusion to make false accusations of racism against their critics, in an effort to silence them. We must not fall into their trap. For example, in the case of Jews and Judaism, the target of any criticism must be clear: i.e. is the criticism directed at the religion Judaism, or at the Jewish people? The former is not racist, but the latter may very well be racist. This is a major example of why rule (2) is so important.
  4. Extremism in the name of religion is a reality. There exist, within many religions, currents of practice or belief which are fundamentalist, sometimes radical, often highly politicized and even extremist. These currents are the most dangerous and deserve particular attention as targets of criticism. This is particularly true for Islam currently: radical, extremist, political Islam does exist and must be dealt with. It is particularly important to distinguish between believers who subscribe to these radical currents as opposed to those who do not.

If the parties to a debate or discussion do not recognize and agree to the above four principles, then there is little hope of a useful conversation. Furthermore, in my opinion, anyone who does not accept these principles must be considered incompetent in religious matters.

Next blog: “Islamophobia”: a weapon against reforming Islam

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