Why does the Left oppose criticism of religion?

August 17, 2014

It seems to me that the political left has generally got its thinking about religion badly muddled. Too often people on the left adopt the role of religious apologist, both attacking critics of religion and defending religion itself. I think they have misunderstood the nature of religious criticism; misunderstood the aim of religious criticism (namely a secular state in this case); and probably misunderstood the nature of religion itself along with it.


It is indeed necessary when criticizing religion to emphasize that freedom of religion is a basic human right. It’s abhorrent, stupid and self-defeating to see all Muslims as potential terrorists. But the left seems to be so fearful of even appearing to make this mistake, that it ascribes any negative aspects of religion to fanatics alone, as if their religion had little or nothing to do with it.

This approach stifles an important debate about secularism: the separation of religion from the power of the state.

Such a broad accusation like the one I make here is in danger of being too vague, so for the sake of clarity and brevity I’ll focus on one example of what I’m talking about.

This article from Jonathan Freedland, a senior editor at the Guardian newspaper, deals with the Islamo-fascist group ISIS, (now calling itself the Islamic State). The headline and sub-heading explain Freedland’s intentions:

This Islamic State nightmare is not a holy war but an unholy mess

It isn’t religious zeal but the collapse of state power that makes the clash in Iraq feel like a return to the dark ages

It is a typical and convoluted piece of religious apologetics from the Guardian. And typical for the left in being swift to blame all conflict in the Middle East on the US and neo-colonialism, while denying that religion plays any role much at all. Rather than making excuses here, they should step back for a moment and look at the phenomenon of religion as a whole.

All the main religions of the world are a system of ideas that grant special status to some people, and negate the rights of others. While the majority of religious believers may not always abuse the powers their system implicitly grants them, it is still a readymade system that can be swiftly utilized by those who seek power over others

The sudden rise of ISIS is an obvious example of this. Cutting off hands, stoning adulterers, declaring war on Shiites, Jews and Infidels… Although their success has clearly been enabled by a power vacuum, they are religious in character from start to finish.  

Freedland, however, sees it differently:

Yet neat though it is to see return to holy war as the motif of our age, it might be wrongAccording to Toby Dodge [scholar of Iraqi politics], what’s driving IS, or at least making its phenomenal success possible, is not pre-modern religious zeal so much as a pre-modern absence of state power.

Let’s look a little more closely at the wording here. First, he implicitly accuses critics of religion (“enlightenment types” as he calls them) of resorting to “neat” or simplistic explanations. Well, in what way is an openly declared Jihad not a holy war? And the insistence on the term “pre-modern” is also rather curious. Who is Freedland targeting for criticism here? As if these “enlightenment types” are rushing to write off the whole of Islam a mere relic from the dark ages. As if criticism of religion amounts to nothing more.  Also, why not refer to “religious fanaticism” instead of “pre-modern religious zeal”?

But most importantly, it’s a false dichotomy. There is no reason for it to be either religious “zeal” or the break down of the state that has brought about the rise of ISIS. Could it be any more obvious that it’s both? But the whole point of the article to deny the obvious. 

And there is no reason why the collapse of law and order is necessarily “pre-modern” either, so why insist on it? We may find out when we read further:

The state structures of both Iraq and Syria have all but collapsed. The result is a power vacuum of a kind that would have been recognised in the lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago – and which IS has exploited with the ruthless discipline of those long ago baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.

Such is the fear of sounding like a bigot when discussing Islamic fanaticism that ISIS must be compared to “baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.” Why “European” specifically? Why not Chinese? Or, for heaven’s sake, the old imperial warlords of the Caliphate, who ISIS are so keen to emulate in word and deed?

And why specifically “lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago”? Doesn’t a more recent analogy spring to mind? Like pre-Nazi Germany, with German society standing for Iraq and Syria, and Nazism for ISIS.  The similarities and differences would be revealing if Freedland or Dodge would allow them. 

Nazism was hate-driven, with a racial/religious hierarchy built in to its ideology. The same with the ideology of ISIS. Both of course are deeply anti-semitic and equally committed to the obliteration of their rivals as well as their enemies.

One important difference, however, is that ISIS comes complete with a highly detailed and ferociously strict set of pre-installed rules to govern every aspect of the daily lives of its subjects, carried over directly from the Koran. It was a bit different with Nazism. While being broadly determined by Christian anti-semitism, Nazism was in fact rather vague about most matters of public policy, especially at the start. Hitler often decided policy disputes by letting the various factions fight it out for a while and then simply back the strongest, subordinating policy to political expediency. This would be unthinkable for the ISIS leadership. All the rules are already there in the Koran (more or less), commanded by God, and rolled up and ready to go. This fact is too uncomfortable and inconvenient for Freedland and most of the left. The totalitarian nature of these rules needs to be criticized and openly condemned, regardless of whether or not the left deems Muslims likely to enforce them or not.

The point of all this is not for people like me to smugly gloat over the “pre-modern-ness” of Muslims, as Freedland seems to think. There is an important argument to be had here, about the separation of religion and state. I don’t care how “moderate” or trustworthy any member of any religion is. The most effective way to prevent the spread of ISIS and their followers is to close their door to state power and nail it shut with clearly worded legislation.

There would be no need to decide who is moderate and who not. How absurd. But it would mean reducing the powers of all those who have gained it by virtue of their religion. The only religious “moderates” who are upset by this idea are the ones who are in power (permanently installed in England’s House of Lords, for example), or who benefit in other ways (the state-collected Church Tax in Germany, for example). And of course it would anger those groups who are not currently thus privileged but would like to be — like religious fanatics, for example! 

The left has failed to comprehend this and has thus ceded important ground in the struggle for civil rights. And, incidentally, once you agree to grant “moderate” religious institutions a hand in government, you have simultaneously granted yourself the power to decide what a “moderate” is — a back door to the very kind of neo-colonial arrogance the left is trying to avoid.

Update 18 Aug ’14: Perhaps I should have referred to “many in the secular left” rather than just “the left”. I do know that not every single person on the left shares the perspective of Freedland, but I didn’t feel the need to add other examples because I’m not “accusing” the left holding such views — many hold them quite openly, especially at the Guardian. I am simply arguing with those who do hold such views, and arguing that we can avoid looking like bigots by focusing on separation of religion and state, for all religion. That also allows us to avoid getting tangled up in the question “Is it religion or politics” like Freedland does. If it happens in public and affects others, it’s politics. Religion is often politics.

Posted by Yakaru



  1. Good post Yakaru, I’ve always been frustrated at how religious ‘moderates’ seem to leave ‘religion’ out of the blame for so many things, blaming extremists, but never religion.
    As if they can accept no connection between their belief system and that of the fundamentalist nut-jobs. I see, in my humble observations of moderate religious belief, a more-than-adequate launching pad for those who will reach to extremism. The dependence on faith, belief without evidence … the virtual celebration of faith, without evidence, how this trait is held high in religions of a most moderate nature. Just believe, as long as you believe, you will be saved. This view covers the irrational, the illogical and the evil inherent in violent radical factions.
    I understand your comparisons with Nazism as well. Hitler was, or at least started as, a Catholic. The campaign of his controlling fascist views included powerful speeches linking the tenets of Christianity with the strangely pagan-based Nazi ideology. His reign included shaking hands with the pope, new racist educational programs with a big pinch of Christian dogma in the mix, even a new version of the bible. Later during his Reich be also turned against religion to an extent. While it played a large part in his movement, it was larger at different times, smaller at others and not the core feature of his rule.

    All the best,

  2. They only defend religion when that religion is Islam. They wouldn’t think of defending the Catholic Church’s stance on reproductive health. True story.

  3. Hey – I would like to post this on IFHP but I have one suggestion/question – the second-from-last, very short paragraph – it seems to come from nowhere. Do you mean that they “reject” those rights in that their holy books suggest capital punishment for apostasy, or that they have religious wars? It was the one part of the article that I can imagine some of our readers will jump on because, unlike the rest of the post, it doesn’t feel backed up, somehow. I’m sure I agree with you though…could you add a couple of sentences to justify it?

  4. (Really great article, btw)

  5. @Woody,
    I’d never heard of the Nazi Bible — interesting. I just looked it up. Apparently they changed Jewish words and tossed out the idea that Jesus was a Jew. There are several churches here in Berlin which still show signs of their support for the Nazis. I might write a post about one of them soon. Rudolf Hess described Hitler as a “good Catholic”, and he never left the church, which is something you still have to explicitly do here to stop paying the Church Tax I mentioned in the post.

    And one reason why both Catholic and Protestant Churches in Germany were so keen to deal with Hitler was because there’s been previously so much religious infighting and oppression (Protestants oppressing catholics in Prussia, for example).

    And yeh, the Nazis also were keen to invent their own religion so they certainly weren’t simply implementing Christian dogma in the same way as ISIS does with Islam.

    At the best of times religion is a bad way to approach reality.

    Yep, anything that doesn’t fit the narrative “privileged white folk oppress poor brown/black people” doesn’t seem to get on the radar. Sadly, it’s a pretty accurate narrative for much of the time, but it’s not a law of nature.

  6. @IFHP
    You’re right. I’ve deleted it. No need to introduce new ideas so late in the post. I also edited the last paragraph a bit too, for clarity. Thanks.

    For the record, this sentence, appearing very late in the post got deleted:
    “Ironically, freedom of religion is one universal human right that nearly all religions overtly reject.”

  7. A good column. Two thoughts:
    * I thought it was interesting that Toby Dodge/Freedland concur that ‘state power’ is fine. Religious fanaticism is not really the problem with the IS, apparently. Maybe now that they’ve raised their little flag, if they’d make deals with oil companies, they’d be OK with USUK?
    *Islamofascism is really an unfortunate coinage. Fascism is a political philosophy that marries militarism, paternalistic authoritarianism and business interests. Calling anything that’s brutalitarian ‘Fascist’ contributes to making the blurring the real meaning and menace that fascism represents. The IS is more like the Khmer Rouge.

  8. Ah, glad you agreed! I’m posting it within the hour, so look out for it. I can almost guarantee there’ll be some comments you’ll want to respond to. Thanks again for a great post.

  9. Good post with some great insights! I don’t really see a link between the `lefties` and `defending religion` (Although you do use the word `generally` implying that you’re not throwing all the lefties in together as religious nuts!)

    I think the only people who defend religion in any way are them self religious… I don’t think it has much to do with your political compass. (although that is an assumption based on experience, and i’m happy to be proven wrong!)

    Infact, statistics relating religion and political stance would be pretty interesting!

  10. A good piece, but I think it’s too simpistic to hold the feet of the political ‘left’to the fire here – when this is one problem that vritually all sides of the political debate, those that carry any real political weight at least, fail to address. My challenge would be that those that need to be held to account are the religious apologists who insist on saying, ‘this is not what our religion is about…’ whilst simultaneously there are millions who practice that very same religion in the mode of the zealot and extremist. It is the religious leaders that fail to truly address their own diaspora adequately and we need to hold all of our politicians to account for their failing to take real leadership over the question of religious influence on the state.

  11. @hatepseudoscience,
    Thanks for the editing suggestion, and thanks for the coverage on your excellent site https://www.facebook.com/hatepseudoscience !

    It’s a difficult to define a “tendency”, so I was banking on readers either having already encountered it, or being pissed off with the post and putting themselves in that category! I could or should have added a few more examples to signal the tendency, but basically it will have to stand or fall on the single example I chose.

    But basically the article is just an excuse to promote the idea that secularism is the battleground against religious interference.

    @Gary Walker,
    Yep, it’s the religious and religious apologists who are the biggest problem here, as you say.

    I picked on the left, (or more specifically those on the left who side with religious fanatics while opposing secularism), because I’m a leftie too and we’re supposed to be the good guys.

  12. […] Too often people on the left adopt the role of religious apologist, both attacking critics of religion and defending religion itself. [Read more] […]

  13. Nice to find this post.

    I am struggling with this since months. It is time for some left ones to face the fact that yesterdays claims are no longer effective to adjust to the huge changes in the world. Past theories become a kind of ethnocentrism deserving freedom as it deserved others in the past.

  14. Yes, it’s a tricky issue. Here in Germany, Muslims are discriminated against, and bigoted Germans would jump on any criticism of Islamic doctrine as a chance for even more discrimination. So Muslims wind up getting more and more isolated in society. Radicals can then use that isolation as cover for spreading their ideology.

    The idea of separating religion from state is strongly opposed by the church here (who get €11 billion a year collected for them by the tax office). But that’s the most important place to start. I think that’s the first place we need to oppose these fanatics.

  15. ever thought of writing the sister article to this in regards to the secular right who use criticism of islam to fuel their own views of muslims? there are those from both the left and the right who like to blur the borders between islam and muslims, christianity and christians in order to push their own predetermined beliefs.

  16. Thanks for commenting.

    I’m not entirely sure who you mean by the “secular right”, but I am in fact working on a post which is something along those lines. (I don’t know if I’ll post it.)

    I noticed one or two commenters on a site where this article was re-posted objecting to this passage —

    “It is indeed necessary when criticizing religion to emphasize that freedom of religion is a basic human right. It’s abhorrent, stupid and self-defeating to see all Muslims as potential terrorists.”

    I would have thought that statement was completely obvious, but some are so keen to attack religious people, and try out their newly found critical thinking skills, that they forget that civil rights is also an issue here.

    At times some well known atheists have been guilty of clumsiness in this regard too. Dawkins for example once said (in a documentary) that people going to Lourdes are “on a slippery slope to terrorism”. He actually didn’t mean it the way he said it, but he said it. He went on to imply some distinctions, but like many critics, some of his fans didn’t notice it either.

    Sam Harris also appears at times to be saying similar things too (I don’t know if he is. I find his arguments too convoluted to follow at times and I lose interest.) But both Dawkins and Harris do support religious freedom and human rights and have often spoken clearly about that.

    I don’t think disagreement about God’s existence should obscure the common ground — secularism and human & civil rights. That shouldn’t get lost in leftist religious apologetics, nor in the insistence to drive any discussion of religion into a war of words.

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