ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to https://twitter.com/NazNazarian for helping to check over the aspects of this dealing with the quran and the history of islam, and for helpful extra details she added.
I’ve been thinking about this question for a while now: which is worse, in a pragmatic sense (not an ethical sense): christianity or islam? Recently, I became involved in a brief discussion of this with Shawna Lenee on twitter. I greatly respect Shawna’s intellect, and I follow her because she is an insightful atheist. However, I do not always agree with her, and on this topic, we had different answers. Unfortunately, twitter is a bad medium for in-depth discussions, but I had intended to write a blog on this topic anyway, and this spurred me to finally get it done.
Now, both religions believe that those who disagree with them deserve to, and will be, tortured for all eternity in a hideous manner. So, ethically, both religions are quite awful. And yes, I realize not all members of these religions believe this. My wife is a christian, but believes that ultimately everyone will be saved from hell, or at least have the opportunity to leave hell. However, the vast majority of people who follow these religions agree that all non-believers will suffer horrible torture for eternity.
However, the question that I want to discuss is not the moral details of these religions, but which religion is scarier, sociopolitically. Now I will say that political christianity and political islam are both very scary. However, between the two, sociopolitical islam scares me far more. And here are some reasons why.
Now, I recognize that different believers of these religions take different interpretations. For example, the Ahmadiyya (or something along those lines – I don’t recall the exact name) muslims believe in secular government. Various christian denominations have vastly differing beliefs on how they should be involved, politically. In fact, individual denominations have differed from one time to another in how they should be involved politically. Both religions have been spread using violence at various times through history. However, I maintain that the origins of a religion, and its original practice, have a big influence upon what that religion means, because while interpretations of a religion can vary, people who turn to that religion will always be drawn to look to its original practices. Also, the dominant modern interpretations have a big influence upon how believers today follow those religions.
So I am going to focus upon three points:
- The example of the founders of these religions, as these religions tell it (both religions claim their founders to be perfect examples). Also the examples of their early followers as history tells it.
- The instructions in the scriptures of these two religions: the bible and the quran, as a sensible reader might understand them.
- The modern example of these religions when they dominate a nation.
Now, here is the short version:
- Jesus is portrayed in the bible as apolitical, saying his kingdom is not of this world, and being largely nonviolent (with an exception being when he beat up some bankers in the Jewish temple). Mohammed is portrayed as using violent war to spread Islam, and establishing a theocratic state.
- The New Testament encourages apolitical submission to the government, and also encourages nonviolence. The Quran encourages establishing Islamic caliphates everywhere, and also spreading Islam through violence.
- Today, most christian nations are tolerant of non-christians of all types, and their laws do not require christian behavior of their citizens. Islamic nations require Islamic behavior, such as the wearing of islamic dress by women, and tend to be based around quranic sharia law.
PRELIMINARY: WHAT ABOUT JEWISH LAW?
Okay, Jewish law is pretty bad. Jewish law, like islamic law, allows sex slaves. It allows stoning adulterers. It encourages establishing a theocracy.
However, Jewish law only says to establish a theocracy in a very small geographical area, not the entire world. More importantly, Jewish law was superceded by instructions in the New Testament. Although some christians believe the Jewish law still applies, their only argument in favour of this is a statement recorded in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says that anyone who breaks the least of the commandments of Jewish Law or teaches others to do so will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. Otherwise, the gospels present an example of Jesus breaking Jewish law and saying that the Jewish Law does not apply (see for example his statement about unclean food). The apostle Paul’s attributed writings declare the Jewish law to be obsolete. And the first council of Jerusalem, recounted in Acts, says that the only parts of Old Testament law to apply are a prohibition upon fornication and eating blood (the latter seems to conflict with Paul’s and Jesus’ statements that all foods are acceptable).
So, I am going to take it that most sensible readers of the New Testament will assume the Old Testament is superseded and that the New Testament should be focused upon.
By the same token, islam suggests that the bible is superseded by the quran, even though it acknowledges Moses and Jesus as prophets.
The Examples of the Founders
According to the bible, Jesus was nonviolent, except when he chased the traders out of the Jewish temple with a whip, and when he cursed a tree to die. When he was being arrested and Peter tried to defend him with a sword, he told Peter to put the sword away, and healed the slave whose ear Peter had chopped off. He tells his followers to turn the other cheek (although this may be only in the context of a private citizen in a conflict, as C.S. Lewis argued).
When asked if he was a king, Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world.
All Jesus’ commands and admonitions were apolitical in nature.
In other words, a person following Jesus’ example has nothing that would suggest they should engage in politically forcing people to follow Jesus’ teachings, or to engage in politics in any way. And they have an example of being basically non-violent.
Meanwhile, Mohamed, in the Quran, engages in religious war to spread Islam and to establish a theocratic state, in which Islamic law will rule over muslims and non-muslims alike.
Both religions hold their founders to be perfect human examples. Which is scarier, from a sociopolitical perspective? I have to say Mohamed.
The Teachings of the Scriptures
All the New Testament contains no political suggestions, except that christians should ‘fear god, honor the king.’ But there are no admonitions to make a christian theocracy. There is nothing forbidding such a thing either, of course. But nothing saying that it is the duty of a christian to pursue such a thing.
Meanwhile, the Quran says to follow the example of Mohamed, establishing an Islamic state wherever you can.
The Example of Early Followers
For their first couple of centuries, the christians were apolitical and non-violent. Not that they lacked resentment; just read Tertullian to see an example of a total asshole, who celebrated the fact that, while he could not visit the gladiator pits because he was a christian, he would get a far better spectacle of torture in the next life, watching non-believers tortured in hell! Nonetheless, it was not until Constantine that the followers of christianity got involved in a political dimension, and not until Augustine that a theological justification was put together for forcible conversion (‘compel them to come in,’ a quote from a parable of Jesus, was used by Augustine to justify forcing people to convert to christianity).
On the other hand, Mohamed and his followers from the start used war and violence to force people to convert to islam, and to spread a theocratic state.
Sexual Slavery and Marriage
Whereas christanity does approve of slavery without condemnation, and Jewish law approved of sexual slavery of women, christianity condemns all sex outside marriage, and hence implicitly condemns sexual slavery.
Mohamed on the other hand approved of taking sexual slaves via conquest (‘the women taken by your hand’). This is attested to in the quran. A large section, which as I understand it is called a ‘surat,’ and corresponds roughly to a biblical chapter, discusses the treatment of ‘what your right hand possesses,’ which includes the women taken as sex slaves in war (explicitly allowing sex with women captured in war – it is known as the Surat an-Nisa, or chapter on women), and Mohammed himself sold sex slaves to pay for his religious wars.
However, the New Testament does not condemn polygamy. Now, I do not personally object to polygamy, as long as polyandry is also allowed (although for evolutionary psychology reasons, I expect polyandry to always be much rarer than polygamy). The monogamy tradition appears to have entered christianity from the Greco-Roman culture. In any case, all christian branches (I do not consider mormons christians, since they have a separate holy book) condemn polygamy and polyandry. However, islam only condemns polyandry, not polygamy, which is allowed.
In addition, Mohamed gave the example of marrying a six year old girl, rubbing himself to orgasm on her legs, and taking her virginity when she was just nine years old. However, this may or may not be attested to in the quran, so I will leave it out of the consideration. CORRECTION (thanks to Abdullah Sameer!): This is NOT in the quran, and as I am unsure of the source of this story (I have only heard it second hand from several ex-muslims), I’m going to say it may not be correct. I’m leaving the original text here as a matter of consistency, but without further evidence, the story should be disregarded. Not to mention that in islam, husbands are told to beat their wives to elicit obedience (Quran 4:34).
The Religions Today
There are certainly christians who want to see a christan state today. My sister-in-law went to college with christians who argued that we should stone gays to death. So I am no stranger to how christianity can be bad, sociopolitically, today.
However, islamic states (and not just ISIS) today actually kill gays. Christian states do not. Islamic states actively allow polygamy without polyandry; christian states do not. In every way, islamic states are worse for individual freedom than christian states. Even Russia, which has become a pseudo-Orthodox state which has made violence against female spouses legal, is not as bad as islamic states (which allow beating wives).
Meanwhile, the worst thing that christians today threaten is: to end gay marriage as a legal contract and make abortion illegal. While I am strongly in favour of legal gay marriage and am strongly pro-choice, these are points upon which islam and christianity are in agreement – and in fact, many christians do not agree with the normal christian position on these issues, anyway. So islamic political efforts today are worse than any christian efforts today. At best they are just as bad as the very worst, most extreme, christian efforts.
ADDENDUM: Some christians do commit violent acts motivated by their religions, such as the Planned Parenthood shooting a year or two ago. Also, some have made death threats in response to LGBTQ-positive messages. The latter example was kindly pointed out to me by Abdullah Sameer. It should also be noted that in some places, notably parts of Africa, there are very violent christian religious groups, and there have been efforts to punish homosexuality made by Ugandan christians.
I have known perfectly nice muslims (I’m sure there were perfectly nice nazis and perfectly nice communists too – Fidel Castro was said to be incredibly charming, socially). But the examples of the founders of these religions, the teachings that are plain to an impartial reader of their holy books, the examples of their early followers, and the examples of those nations dominated by these religions today, all combine to convince me that from a sociopolitical perspective, islam is far more to be feared than christianity.
That does not mean I wish to ban islam. Far from it. I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of thought, including freedom of religion. I do not want to see islam made illegal. I do, however, wish to see those who love individual freedom call islam out for its abominable nature at every turn (as we should do to every religion and every ideology). And I wish that those who see the harm in theism in general would recognize how islam is the most harmful form of theism that we face today.