Is religion a stumbling block to integration?

I want to argue in favor of the motion that religion constitutes a stumbling block to integration. By this I mean: integration in our modern, secular, liberal, democratic order. I will distinguish two types of reasons: one concerns some fundamental features of religion as a cultural phenomenon. The other reason has to do with the vagaries of history and sheer coincidence.

But first religion itself. Let me start with the most general characterization of religion. Religions are belief systems, bound up with certain practices and rituals, which proclaim some supernatural truths. In the case of revealed religions these truths are described in a number of holy books, which are infallible and should not be questioned. In my book Illusions for the Advanced I described the evolution of religious belief systems and wondered whether religions can play a useful role in our society. In the end I arrive at the conclusion that religions are byproducts of our brains, which serve no useful function for humans or for society. If they have a purpose at all, it is mainly to spread and to sustain themselves. Based on this evolutionary perspective, I think I can develop an argument for why religions are, almost by definition, opposed to integration or assimilation. In the course of history, people have worshipped countless gods, which now lie in the graveyard, as H.L. Mencken once put it, because no one is afraid of them any longer, and no one is left to pray to them. You can see this process as a form of natural selection, but in a cultural sense. Gods survive as long as the human imagination keeps them alive. Some are exiled, rejected or forgotten. Others perish along with their faithful, when the latter are conquered by other groups. Still others wither away in contact with other gods and other cultures.

And that brings me to the main point. The religions that were too malleable, too easily accommodating to changing circumstances, too prone to compromise, have disappeared in the folds of history. Numerous gods have failed, precisely because their supporters too easily blended in with other cultures. The religions that have endured long enough to still be around, are the religions that managed to forge close-knit groups that actively resisted assimilation, and didn’t tolerate any questioning or doubt. Religious doctrines, at least culturally successful ones, are not open to critical scrutiny, but must be accepted on blind faith. By its very nature, religion creates a dichotomy between those who live in the ‘Truth’, and the outsiders who are deprived of it. In other words, religion is the mother lode of Us-vs-Them thinking. Blind faith is divisive, whereas doubt and critical thinking unites and bridges our differences.

Take the remarkably long life span of the Jewish religion, which managed to survive and preserve its identity for almost three millennia, even in strange and often hostile environments (although it has fractionated internally). By founding a close-knit community, including initiation rituals and shared myths and traditions, it has fostered strong social bonds. By cultivating the idea of being the ‘chosen people’, it has created a sense of superiority and specialness with regard to the rest of the world. One savvy trick to promote and enforce group cohesion, described in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is to mandate the death penalty for apostasy, for worshipping other gods besides God, and for failing to obey the commandments of the one true God. Is that not a great trick to ensure that no one defects the group, nor blends in or integrates with other groups, and thus to protect the belief system?

The two illegitimate children spawned by Judaism – Christianity and Islam – have adopted and refined some of those mechanisms for promoting group cohesion and fostering Us-vs-Them thinking. The main innovation, to make a shortcut, is that they began to “assimilate” other groups into their faith: proselytism became a sacred duty. Not only did the members of the group initiate all children into the faith as soon as possible, but they also started spreading their beliefs far and wide. Sometimes using gentle persuasion, sometimes brute force. Proselytizing religions (Islam and Christianity) are an obstacle to integration in our modern world, precisely because it is part of the religious duty to actively oppose it, and turn the tables on the other party. This, of course, precisely explains their overwhelming success in world history.

But that was back then. Through globalization and modern communication technology, there is a lot more contact nowadays between religions and cultures—a lot more mutual influence. Ever since the advent of the Enlightenment, with its values of free and critical inquiry, religions have been exposed to threats that they did not encounter before in their history. Myths clash with scientific knowledge, traditional practices are being questioned. In more and more countries people enjoy the freedom, enshrined in laws and constitutional rights, to change their religion, to learn about other religious traditions and cultures, and to criticize, or even, ridicule religious beliefs. The beliefs and practices of old are being threatened.

Now there are basically two things that can happen: religion may lose its hold over our human minds, group cohesion may weaken, rituals and traditions become less strictly observed, and belief in doctrines slowly withers away. Rough edges may be smoothed, despicable practices abolished or no longer carried out, and bizarre doctrines discreetly abandoned. Religions may also become more modest. Believers may accept the separation of church and state and make divine laws subordinate to human laws. They will no longer try to impose their faith on the rest of the world, and they engage in more contact with people of other persuasions. In Western countries many religions in recent centuries have been modified and sculpted by the values of Humanism and Enlightenment. Sociological research shows that this process continues unabated. After a few generations, the power of God has eroded so much that he is only a shadow of what he used to be. Some people end up losing their faith altogether, some still keep the rituals and symbols, devoid of any doctrinal content. Many turn their backs on religious institutions and develop a form of private spirituality.
But there is a different, opposite possibility. In confronting the threats of modern culture, some religions may retreat in their dogmas. Time-worn tricks for promoting group cohesion may be deployed to resist the temptations of the modern world: consumerism, freedom, earthly pleasures. The gods who are still alive today, are struggling like devils in a holy water font. The resurgence of religion, of which we hear sometimes, concerns especially these persistent, aggressive and radical forms, which are not easily tamed by Enlightenment. Those gods have lost none of their power, or have even grown stronger facing the challenges of modern life. Precisely these religions tend to achieve cultural success, and form a stumbling block for integration. Now I would like to give some examples of how religion hinders integration. I will talk mostly about Islam, since this is the faith that is of greatest concern in our modern life. To some extent, however, my remarks also apply to fundamentalist strands of Christianity and Judaism.

– Homophobia and gay bashing. All three Abrahamic religions have traditionally been obsessed with what we are up to in our bedrooms. The sexual norm professed by Islam, Christianity and Judaism is explicitly heterosexual. In Holy Writ, homosexuality is condemned in the strongest terms, as a heinous sin, often punishable by death. Most forms of Christianity are now “assimilated” into modernity, and have somewhat toned down their invective against homosexuality. They still find it horrible, but no longer think it should be punished. Or they find the act sinful, but have compassion for the sinner. In Islamic circles, this accommodation to enlightened values is still far away. Research by sociologist Mark Elchardus shows that a quarter of young Muslims in Ghent and Antwerp find violence against gay people legitimate, three times as many as among Flemish students. A survey of 500 Muslim youth from the United Kingdom points out that no one (!) deems homosexuality ‘morally acceptable’, and 61% wants it to ban it. Among Western-European Muslims, 55% do not want a gay person as a friend. Those who deny that Islam provides fertile ground for homophobia and a stumbling block to integration, are willfully blind.

– Interreligious marriage. There is a taboo in Islam on marriage between a Muslim woman and someone outside the faith community. This is a very concrete obstacle to integration. Marriages between a Muslim male and someone outside the community of faith occur quite frequently, but the reverse is much less common. Again, this provision has a religious motivation. According to the Qur’an, men are allowed to marry Christian or Jewish women, but Muslim women can never marry a non-Muslim man (Sura 60:10). If communities continue to live apart, then there is no question of genuine integration.

– Outgroup hostility. Both in Christianity and Islam we see that religious groups see themselves as a beleaguered and oppressed minority, even if they have gained power. Christians in the U.S. imagine that there is a “War on Christmas” going on. Muslims imagine that European civilization is out to destroy Islam, that Muslims are regarded as inferior, that they are discriminated against and excluded. That sense of frustration and paranoia is of course exploited by Jihadist groups as a recruitment tool. But the persecution complex and the Us-vs-Them thinking is not limited to ISIS and Al Qaeda. The Qur’an constantly warns against the enemies of Islam, against the hypocrites who undermine the faith from within, and the book exhorts Muslims not to befriend Jews and Christians. Unbelievers, it goes without saying, are pure evil. More than 50% of Muslims living in Europe, according to research by Ruud Koopmans, think the West wants to destroy Islam. Policy measures such as a ban on religious symbols, in official functions or in the classroom, are seen by many Muslims as a deliberate strategy to oppress and eradicate Islam. Those who imagine that such views do not stand in the way of integration, are willfully blind.

– Ideological affinity with radicalism (Jihadism). Islam today suffers from a serious reputation problem, because of the relentless stream of Islamist terrorist attacks worldwide, and also because of the sympathy some Muslims in Europe still feel for Jihadism. The majority of Muslims are not to blame for this, but both moderates and radicals invoke the very same sacred texts and use similar symbols. That this would muddy multicultural waters was written in the stars. Explicit denunciations of IS by religious leaders are still urgently needed (and happen thankfully) but moderate Muslims must also come to terms with the deep religious roots of Islamic terrorism, and stop repeating the mantra that this “has nothing to do with Islam”.

I could continue this list, but I promised to also say something about the historically contingent circumstances that make religion today a barrier to integration. The main problem is the accidental but unfortunate association between religious faith and ethnic background, which results from the vagaries of history and the geographical distribution of religions. Religious fundamentalism can be found in all religions, but at this moment in history Islam wreaks most havoc. A significant proportion of immigrants in European society are Muslim, and most Muslims simply happen to have a darker complexion. That unfortunate association distorts the debate on integration. On the one hand, critics of Islam are branded as “racists” or “xenophobes” because they inadvertently target an ethnic or cultural minority. Inspired by a misguided notion of “respect”, especially for foreign religions of people with a different skin color, all kinds of abuses are condoned. Islamists exploit our fear of racism as a protective shield to propagate their noxious ideology with impunity. On the other hand, we must also recognize that genuine racists are hiding behind the cloak of Enlightenment values to appear more respectable. This happens in Flanders, especially by the right-wing ‘Vlaams Belang’ party. Because criticism of Islam was for a long time a taboo from which other political parties have shied away, Vlaams Belang has been allowed to claim and appropriate the issue. Progressive voices, with some brave exceptions, were afraid of tackling Islam the way they used to tackle Christianity, for fear of being accused of racism. That dynamic is self-fulfilling: eventually the criticism of “foreign” cultures and religions is left to those who have no such misgivings and use religion critique as a cover for racism.

And there are other complications. Because of this perceived association between fundamentalist Islam and ethnic background, some will indeed develop (or strengthen) racist ideas. But that is misguided. Religions are not races and have no color. Anyone can endorse despicable ideas, regardless of ethnic background. If we should be grateful for anything to the white converts who have joined the ranks of the caliphate, it is that they have inadvertently showed that radical Islam has nothing to do with skin color. Islamic Jihadism is a toxic ideology, regardless of who adheres it. Nevertheless, the race association lingers in the minds of many. Not only are moderate Muslims today, especially after the horrific attacks in Paris, regarded with suspicion, but non-Muslims people with dark skin face the same prejudices, because they are associated with a religion that is not even theirs. In this way religious fundamentalism can breed and foster racism.
Religion is not the root of all evil, but it is divisive and polarizing, it breeds mutual distrust and Us-vs-Them thinking. The most successful gods, on the cultural level, are precisely the gods that don’t make any compromises, that close ranks and close minds, that demonize the outgroup and resist outside influences. Increasingly, these are the gods that we must reckon with today. The others languish or rot in their graves. And that is why religion indeed forms a stumbling block to integration.

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(Published at 3 Quarks Daily. Adapted from a speech at Utrecht University on 11.20.2015. Translation by Rik Delaet and me. Thanks to Bill Flavell for proofreading.)