It was a line few people would notice. It came in the first panel of “Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease”, an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Man has done great things in the last few decades to fight the diseases that affect the poorest parts of the world. Polio is gone, and other horrible diseases like guinea worm and river blindness may be gone soon, and many others like elephantiasis can now be treated. It’s a triumph of Western science and a Western concern for others not so blessed with a robust economy and a large scientific establishment.
It was one sentence, giving examples of the challenges we still face. “In Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, for example, religious fundamentalists have raised vocal — and sometimes violent — opposition to Western-backed vaccination efforts.” The last two countries appear in almost every map in every section of the exhibit as places where the diseases remain, when they have been eradicated in so many other African and Asian countries.
You look at the pictures of the diseases’ victims and think, “What kind of sadistic moron would want people to suffer like that? Who would do that to children?” These fanatics, whether they’re primitive, stupid or evil (like Boko Haram in Nigeria) force other people to live in horrible pain. And they do it, they claim, for religious reasons, because they claim to know what God wants.
Who are these people?
And who are these horrible people? “Religious fundamentalists,” one of the greatest museums in the world tells us. Generic examples of an extreme version of religion in general. In other words, our first cousins.
But who are they really? They’re Muslim fundamentalists. Members of a distinct religion with specific and unique beliefs, at a particular point in its historical development. Beyond the general belief in some divine force and superficial similarities in practice, they have nothing in common with the world’s Christians — Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox — or with India’s Hindus and Sikhs, or Thailand’s Buddhists — nothing that would justify combining their religion with ours in a category like “religious fundamentalists.” For that matter, they don’t have that much in common with most Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan, whose version of Islam has been refined by its encounter with the modern world.
You may ask why I’m making such a fuss about this. Because under that almost hopelessly broad heading “religious,” Christians get blamed for the evils that other religious people commit. When people speak of “religion” as if it were a single thing with different forms, they assume that what’s true of one religion must be true of the others. Keeping people from being vaccinated is just another example of what religion does. Christians in America persecute homosexuals, Muslims in Pakistan keep people sick. All because they think they know what God wants, and their God is a sadist.
As a writer, I can see why the people who wrote the text for Countdown to Zero chose the word “religious.” To use “Muslim fundamentalist” redirects the readers’ attention from the subject of how hard the work can be to the fact of Muslim resistance. “Muslim” is a word that sticks out. It asserts itself. Readers are easily misdirected and the shrewd writer avoids sending them off on the wrong track. Fair enough. I would have thought about this were I writing the text.
But still, as a Christian I really wish people would stop using “religion” in this generic way. It’s not very useful as a descriptor. That two religions both believe in God doesn’t mean they believe in God in the same way, or even in the same God. It doesn’t mean they have anything in common other than the belief — important as it is — that we are not alone in the universe and that we are not our own final authority. What one religion is and does doesn’t tell us much if anything about what another religion will do.
To blame one religion for the sins of another is like blaming John Smith of Boston for the sins of his fifth cousin three times removed, Percival Hortensio Smith of Los Angeles. They share some genes and some family history but you would have to look very hard to find any similarities in their character. And you certainly can’t jail John when Percival robs a bank.
All Religions Together
But the world throws all the religions together. On the subway over to the museum, I read an interesting article in the Village Voice on the legal problem of selling allegedly haunted houses. (Warning, if you read it, rude language.) The Voice is the city’s decades-old alternative weekly, the kind of paper that has pages of ads in the back for “escort services,” lots of movie reviews, and many articles on sex mixed with leftist politics.
The writer treated not just the possibility of ghosts but of the supernatural in general as so obviously wrong that believers should be treated with contempt. It was all religion and it was all ridiculous. He was blunter and ruder than the usual writer, because he was writing for the Village Voice, but you will find the same sort of thing, more gently expressed, in the New York Times and on network television.
Like this, from the Marxist pop star Slavoj Zizek, writing in The New York Times: “Religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world,” he declares. Not a particular religion. Just “religion.” And: “The lesson of today’s terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations.”
It’s all “religion,” and all religions are basically alike. What Muslims in rural Pakistan will do, American Christians will do in their own way. That’s not what the writers of “Countdown to Zero” were thinking when they called Muslim fundamentalists “religious fundamentalists,” but that’s what they said.