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Is Islam a Cancer?

According to a recent news item I read, Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has called Islam a “cancer”. It’s an interesting claim, and one which most people would either agree or disagree with depending on their political persuasion, without really thinking about it.

But at this blog I like to think about a claim before passing judgement on it, so let’s have a look at the idea to see if it has any merit.

First of all, I don’t think anyone thinks this claim should be taken literally. I mean, obviously Islam isn’t actually a cancer, because a cancer is “a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body” according to the Oxford Dictionary. But there is a more metaphorical sense, which is “an evil or destructive practice or phenomenon that is hard to contain or eradicate”. Clearly, this sense is more interesting.

The next problem is what do we mean by “Islam”? Are we referring to the religion, or the political view, or the group of people who follow certain beliefs? And are we referring to the whole of those phenomena or just the extremes, or more literal parts? I’m guessing we mean the religious belief system based on the ideas attributed to Mohammed in the Koran, and supplemented by material in the Hadith, and to all parts of that worldview apart from where the ideas have been so liberalised that they are virtually unrecognisable.

So is the traditional form of Islam (the religion) an evil or destructive practice or phenomenon that is hard to contain or eradicate? I think a very good case could be made to say that this is true, although I probably wouldn’t use the word “evil” because it has too many religious connotations, but surely destructive isn’t over-stating the case.

The next question is, do the good parts of Islam (because every belief system has good and bad parts) outweigh the bad? That is difficult to evaluate because as an atheist from a country which has a small number of Muslims it’s hard to get a fair idea of what the good parts are. Clearly many people find it compelling because they base their lives around it, and in the past Islamic scholars have made huge contributions to the world, but whether that is enough is debatable.

Next we must evaluate whether other religions are just as bad, which might indicate that Islam is being unfairly singled out from the others. Interestingly there are a wide variety of opinions on this. Only a small fraction of violence in the US is initialed by Muslims, but if you look at the list of international terrorist incidents on Wikipedia the vast majority have a direct link with Islam (although I sometimes suspect that if Islam is involved in an act of violence it is more likely to be categorised as terror, therefore this isn’t entirely fair).

And not only do Islamic groups cause a large number of incidents, they also seem to be responsible for the most horrendous and violent acts. Groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, Jundallah, Al-Shabaab, Taliban, and others, are not only mindless killers, they are also sadistic torturers of innocent people.

It seems very clear at this point that Islam is the source of far more problems than any other religion. I agree that it has not always been like that and may not be that way in the future, but it is now.

So I think that any religion – when taken too seriously – could be thought of as a sickness. But it is better to say what we really think, without the shortcuts, or memorable sound bites. Let’s say this: “any irrational belief, including religion, when taken to extremes, is clearly bad for both the individual and society as a whole.”

It’s not quite as catchy as calling a whole belief system a cancer, but it’s a lot more accurate.

  1. December 1, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    So I think that any religion – when taken too seriously – could be thought of as a sickness.

    This statement is contradictory to psychiatric science. The practice of religion on the whole leads to numerous benefits, both physical and mental. For example, the work by Koenig, McCullough & Larson in 2001 (covering over a thousand studies and hundreds of reviews) came to this conclusion.*

    The obvious implication is that the rise of secularism is more accurately described as a sickness because it does not lead to these positive benefits. Worse, because much secularism is hostile towards religion (either actively or in the form of the passive-aggressive “when taken too seriously”), it is actually anti-good.

    …when taken to extremes, is clearly bad for both the individual and society as a whole.

    Define what you mean by “extremes.” It may be that extreme (whatever that means) religious expression leads to negatives for individuals and society, but that is clearly not the case for mainstream religious expression, especially Christianity. If anything, religious extremism (?) drags down the efficacy of religious expression as a whole, meaning it is even more effective when correcting for extremism.

    any irrational belief, including religion

    Christianity is not an irrational belief, so it isn’t valid to say all religion is irrational.

    * The study does not factor in Islamic religious belief because very few such studies exist on Muslims. It is not known if Islamic religious belief has the same mental and physical health benefits.

  2. OJB
    December 1, 2016 at 8:14 pm

    Notice that I did qualify my statement when i said “taken to extremes”. Let me give you some examples of when extreme religion leads to bad consequences: obviously terrorism would be at the top of the list, but how about refusal to use real medicine and dying after religious options failed, or religious dogma around birth control leading to overpopulation and the spread of STIs, or blocking reality based education and imposing religious mythology instead, I could go on all day with this.

    Religion can give benefits to some people, and can do the opposite for others. Whether the balance is positive or negative is partly a matter of opinion, but I would say it is towards the negative. Either way, you have to take both sides into account.

    And what is “extreme”? Well that is a tricky one, of course, and the definition can be a bit circular. But I would say religion is extreme when it leads the believer into doing things which are irrational by reality-based standards (see the list above).

    Oh, and Christianity is totally irrational, but let’s get the other issue dealt with first!

    • December 2, 2016 at 5:20 pm

      I did qualify my statement

      You stated that too (?) serious and extreme religion are both bad. Is “too serious” the same as “extreme”? Is this a minority, a majority, or all of religious belief? I and millions of others are extremely serious about religious belief, enough to make it a focal point of life.

      …examples of when extreme religion leads to bad consequences: …

      Shall I list all the cases where secularism leads to be bad consequences? Because the list will be just as long, but it will include a wide range of mainstream views, not just extreme ones.

      Religion can give benefits to some people, and can do the opposite for others.

      Professor Andrew Sims commented on this issue specifically: Most of the benefits have been shown through epidemiological research while most of the negatives have been found through single case studies. Your examples of terrorism and dying from withholding medicine are of the anecdotal case study variety. You hold an opinion that is counter to the evidence in psychological scientific research.

      Either way, you have to take both sides into account.

      The research does exactly this. What I won’t do is underweight evidence of religious efficacy against a few anecdotal exceptional counterpoints.

      religion is extreme when it leads the believer into doing things which are irrational by reality-based standards

      You’ve declared extreme those political viewpoints that are contrary to your own (e.g. population controls, birth control, and scientific discourse). Disagreeing doesn’t make someone irrational.

      There are few meaningful exclusively ‘reality-based’ standards, as the various op-eds on #Rationalia pointed out. Value-based standards are unavoidable.

      A much more sensible definition of extreme is those viewpoints held by a tiny minority of adherents in a field of belief, but that isn’t your goal. You wish to paint mainstream religion as extreme(ly bad). But you don’t have the moral absolutes to make that claim while simultaneously killing the source of moral absolutes. That’s why your definition is circular.

      dying after religious options failed

      I’m curious: under what moral framework can you object to this?

  3. OJB
    December 2, 2016 at 9:00 pm

    These disagreements often get back to different interpretation of words. In this case the words “serious” and “extreme” could be thought of as meaning the same thing, especially since they are both preceded by “too”. As soon as “too” is involved it is extreme by definition.

    I hear this excuse (secularists are just as bad as believers) from apologists all the time. It’s nonsense, for 2 reasons…

    First, if non-religious people are just as bad as religious people, that doesn’t say much for the alleged moral superiority of religion, does it?

    And second, it’s not true anyway. The number of bad events caused *because* a person or group is a non-believer is practically zero. Almost no one does bad things because they don’t believe in god. They do bad things for political or other reasons, and the fact that they don’t believe in god is entirely or mostly irrelevant. Compare that with believers who do bad and stupid things as a direct consequence of their superstition. It’s not the same at all.

    So the challenge is to find some systematic research which shows the bad aspects of religion? OK, I’ll see what I can find. How hard could it be? :)

    If we look at the world rationally we can increase people’s quality of life by doing certain things. But irrational religious beliefs stop those actions form being carried out. Why? Not because there is a good reason, but just because of some myth in an old book which can easily demonstrated to be full of inaccuracies. That’s irrational.

    If a parent stops a child form being treated properly because of a superstition they foolishly think is real, and that child dies, I think that could be said to be bad by any reasonable moral standard. Note, that it isn’t bad by many (irrational) religious standards.

    • December 17, 2016 at 1:08 am

      At the macro level religious belief is markedly more positive than the alternative. You have to go to the micro level to find evidence to the contrary. It is not true that “non-religious people are just as bad as religious people.”

      Maybe religious and non-religious humans are all humans and thus share the same basic behavioral potential (i.e. a sinful nature)? The moral superiority of religion cannot be judged on the basis of genetics.

      Almost no one does bad things because they don’t believe in god. They do bad things for political or other reasons

      So secularism doesn’t influence actions, but religious belief does? Clever how you’ve defined away any evidence against your viewpoint. Secularism certainly does influence actions, including political beliefs. Most of the time there is no reason for adherents to mention the influence of their lack of belief in God (Why would they need to? Would they even recognize it?). Other times it is critical, such as Karl Marx saying “The first requisite of the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion”. The notion that Marxism and its philosophical and political offspring have ‘practically zero’ bad events associated with it is patently false.

      If we look at the world rationally we can increase people’s quality of life by doing certain things

      You obviously did not take my point when I mentioned #Rationalia. Euthanasia, assisted suicide, eugenics, racial cleansing, abortion, infanticide, capital punishment, and war can all be considered rational under purely rational-based standards. Some of the worst things are rational. Both religion and rationality are essential.

  4. OJB
    December 2, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    Oh, and by the way, I will call your bluff on that list of “cases where secularism leads to be bad consequences”.

    • December 17, 2016 at 1:43 am

      Cases where secularism leads to bad consequences

      Just a quick list in no particular order without much explanation:
      1) Belief in overpopulation (e.g. China)
      2) No-Fault Divorce
      3) Abortion
      4) Title IX (rape and bathrooms)
      5) Pre-martial sex, co-habitation, and STIs.
      6) Euthanasia (e.g. Netherlands)
      7) Lying
      8) Political correctness (as leads to censorship, etc)
      9) Totalitarianism (e.g. Progressivism/Socialism/Communism/Facism)
      10) Adultery
      11) Birth Control

      I’m sure I’m missing some obvious stuff, but I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. Secularism in the context of this whole discussion is the common systems of belief that do not include (and especially reject) religion, especially Christianity.

      • OJB
        December 18, 2016 at 3:33 am

        I’ve got to say I can’t remember the last time I heard anything quite so absurd. Let’s have a look at your list…

        1. Overpopulation? Like that caused by religious beliefs where Catholicism has prevented birth control, or where Muslims are encouraged to increase the numbers in their faith? Compared with the least religious countries like those of Europe? Are you for real?

        2. If two people don’t want to live together and agree to separate what is the problem? Are you saying it’s better for them to continue to live unhappily together just for some philosophical preference religious people might have? Are you for real?

        3. I have stated my opinion in the past that abortion is one area where I haven’t got a firm opinion but we do know that if well organised abortion services aren’t available people resort to dangerous alternatives. Is that what you want? Are you for real?

        4. Title IX appears to relate to gender equality, including use of bathrooms for trans-gender and other people who don’t identify with the traditional gender roles. In what way is this a problem, and how does is it relate to atheism anyway? Are you for real?

        5. When you say pre-martial sex, co-habitation, and STIs are you referring to the greater proportion of those occurring in religious populations, such as Catholics? And what is wrong with that anyway (apart from the STIs which can be avoided using condoms which religions forbid). Are you for real?

        6. I can see how euthanasia might be mis-used but with sensible rules it’s the only humane option a society could accept. Do you really believe a society should force a dying person to live through a horrible illness when they don’t want to? Are you for real?

        7. So atheism encourages lying? Really? Considering religion is the greatest mass lie the world has ever seen? Are you for real?

        8. I can’t quite see the link between atheism and political correctness. I don’t like PC but I know just as many religious people who take it too far as atheists who do. So, again, it looks like you got this wrong. In fact: are you for real?

        9. Totalitarianism is a result of atheism, is it? And progressivism and socialism are forms of totalitarianism? Are you for real?

        10. Adultery is discouraged by many people. In many religions it is punishable by death, such as stoning. This is a good idea? Are you for real?

        11. What? birth control is a bad thing? What about point 1, overpopulation. Isn’t that also a bad thing? I just can’t see your logic. Are you for real?

        Wow, I can’t believe your list was so ridiculous. Even for a religious person, you are totally out of touch with reality. It’s sad that such irrational and intolerant beliefs can be held by someone who has an obvious good level of intelligence. Still, that’s what religion does!

  5. December 18, 2016 at 4:25 am

    Oh, you really did make me laugh.

    You asked for a list so don’t blame me. Do you really think you can judge a complex viewpoint on the basis of a one or two word description without engaging me on what I actually believe? Apparently you do.

    You very plainly don’t have the foggiest idea why I listed each of those points, because you jump straight to assumptions, generalizations, and sheer nonsense. Is there a specific point you would like me to expound upon, or are we just going to keep diving down the rabbit hole?

  6. OJB
    December 18, 2016 at 4:32 am

    Well I’m glad I made you laugh because I was trying to keep it light (hence the repetition of my catch phrase). I’m not sure which point is the most relevant so let’s just start with 1: overpopulation is caused by atheism (I know we used “secularism” before but I wanted to extend it a bit, if that’s not OK, stick with secularism).

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