By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The words faith and religion are often used interchangeably, but there is a real difference in the distinction. Religion requires faith, but faith does not require religion. Faith is what we believe to be sacred, and has been described as “…being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Religion is an institutional and pre-packaged form of faith, complete with a holy handbook, doctrines that define orthodoxy (right belief), and immutable standards of legitimacy that define what is right and wrong.
Most believers begin their journey of faith with a traditional religion and at some point question their religious doctrines and dogmas based on advances in knowledge, reason and experience. This transition from religion to faith can be illustrated by the four elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, tradition, experience and reason. Orthodox religious beliefs are defined by doctrines and dogmas based on scripture and tradition. Experience and reason can cause believers to question religious doctrines and dogmas and challenge the boundaries of orthodox beliefs. That is typical in libertarian democracies where believers have the freedoms of religion and speech, but rare in Islamic cultures where those freedoms are restricted.
A believer’s journey of faith from orthodoxy to heterodoxy is only natural and should not be discouraged, but most religious leaders condemn those who question their orthodox doctrines and dogmas. The result is that many nones (those who claim no religious preference) have left religion, but few have abandoned their faith. The transition from religion to faith is a positive development in a globalized world of increasing religious pluralism since it lessens the likelihood of religious conflict. Christians and Muslims who once sent missionaries to convert the heathens and infidels of other religions now struggle to live with each other as neighbors.
Christianity and Islam are exclusivist religions that encourage polarization and hostility, since each claims to be the one true faith. Since the Reformation, the Christian religion has mutated from the original Catholic and Protestant division into a panoply of competing faiths or denominations, a trend aided and abetted by critical biblical scholarship and the freedoms of religion and speech. This process has diffused the contentious nature of exclusivist religion in libertarian democracies of the West but not in the Islamic East, where sectarian religious conflict predominates and apostasy and blasphemy laws prohibit the freedoms of religion and speech.
Islamism is fundamentalist Islam, and Salafism and Wahhabism are two prevalent strains of Sunni Islamism. ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab have promoted particularly radical and oppressive forms of Islamism to justify their terrorism, and they will continue to attract disaffected Muslims to their violent cause until Muslims define Islam in a way that denies radical Islamism its legitimacy. That will require Islam to reject apostasy and blasphemy laws and embrace the libertarian principles of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.
The fragmentation of Protestant Christianity into numerous denominations that continue to be exclusivist in matters of salvation but libertarian in their politics illustrates that the freedoms of religion and speech can mitigate the hostility between exclusivist religions and minimize virulent religious conflicts like those now plaguing the Middle East and Africa.
Until Islam has embraced the freedoms of religion and speech, it must find the common ground needed to minimize sectarian conflict; and Islamic scholars have already identified that common ground. In 2007 they offered the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike; but there is a question whether loving one’s neighbor—especially one’s unbelieving neighbor—is an accepted norm within Islam. The enforcement of apostasy and blasphemy laws and sectarian conflict in Islamic nations since the Arab Spring of 2011 has indicated there is no tolerance—much less love—of one’s unbelieving neighbors within Islam.
The rigid and exclusivist religious doctrines of Christianity and Islam encourage religious conflict and discourage the growth of individual faith. Making a distinction between faith and religion is of my own doing, not that of Webster, who defines the terms as synonymous—as is my use of experience and reason as a means of transcending the limits of religion with faith. My purpose is to illustrate how exclusivist religious doctrines based on scripture and tradition discourage the growth of faith based on experience and reason. Advances in knowledge coupled with experience and reason will always challenge the boundaries of orthodox religion, and when enough believers move beyond those boundaries religious conflict is minimized.
The world needs more faith and less religion. The freedoms of religion and speech have enabled believers in libertarian democracies of the West to transcend the rigid constraints of orthodox religion, and believers in Islamic cultures can experience the same religious and political liberation once they eliminate apostasy and blasphemy laws and embrace the principles of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law. Those libertarian principles can bring diversity to Islam just as they did to Judaism and Christianity, and that would minimize sectarian religious conflict and debunk the legitimacy of radical Islamism.
Notes and References to Resources:
Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation into the Family of God, January 4, 2015; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? January 25, 2015; Promoting Religion through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness? February 8, 2015; Jesus: A Prophet, God’s only Son, or the Logos? April 19, 2015; An Introduction to God is Not One, by Stephen Prothero, April 26, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing, June 7, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 14, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; and Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015.
The four components of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—scripture, tradition, experience and reason—are described in Our Theological Task in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012 (The United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville Tennessee) at pages 78-91. See https://www.cokesbury.com/forms/DynamicContent.aspx?id=87&pageid=920. It should be noted that reason includes critical biblical scholarship that relates to interpretations of scripture that are part of tradition, illustrating how the four components are interrelated.
On how nones have left religion without abandoning their faith and spirituality, see the interview of Kaya Oakes, author of The Nones are Alright, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/kaya-oakes-the-nones-are-alright_560d8787e4b0af3706dff3b1.