Blog 079: Religious Essentialism is a Fraud

David Rand


I define “religious essentialism” as the idea that religious affiliation is an essential trait of a person, and that members of a particular religious community share certain characteristics which are “essential” to that religion. We can observe that religious essentialism is implicit in the way that some people refer to, say, Christians, as a monolithic group. But this habit is even more pronounced when referring to religious minorities. (Although I remark in passing that, while Christianity has traditionally been the majority religion in Quebec and in Canada, practising Christians now constitute a minority.)

In fact, use of the word “Muslim” has unfortunately become corrupted by this assumption of essentialism, as if Muslims constituted a monolithic block with more in common among them than what they have in common with non-Muslims. This evolution in the meaning of the word is at least partly by design. Treating the Muslim affiliation of an individual as an essential part of that person’s identity is exactly what religious apologists–especially fundamentalists and radicals–want us to do, because it suits their purposes and their political goals.

Blurring the Distinction Between Acquired and Innate

But religious essentialism is completely false. A religion is not an ethnicity or “race.” Rather, it is an ideology, a set of beliefs, similar to political opinions. A person may or may not adopt that system of beliefs. Or if one has adopted it, one may decide to abandon it in favour of another religion or no religion. Being an adherent of Islam or Christianity is not an innate, immutable characteristic. Religious affiliation has nothing to do with genetics or race. Even sexual orientation, which is subject to some flexibility and fluidity, is far more innate than religious affiliation.

The non-essential nature of religious belief and affiliation becomes obvious when we consider how individuals become believers. The religion to which one belongs, if any, is in general completely determined by the milieu in which one is raised as a child; i.e. it is the result of the indoctrination of children, except for those few who convert as adults. (Here I am excluding forced conversions which are commonplace during the period of expansion of a religion by wars of conquest.)

It is of primordial importance that we make this distinction between the acquired characteristics of an individual and his or her innate attributes. To fail to do so is to deny that individual’s freedom of conscience, because if a person’s beliefs are immutable, then that person is not free to choose those beliefs. For example, the word “Jewish” is used in both contexts, to describe both a belief system and an ethnicity. This confusion of terms is a source of much misunderstanding–a critic of the religion may be unfairly accused of antisemitism–so it is very important that it be properly distinguished from the ethnicity. That is why I prefer to use terms such as “Judaism” or “Judaic” to refer to the religion while reserving the word “Jewish” to refer to the ethnic group. There are many Jews who are atheists and do not believe the tenets of Judaism.

When dealing with religion, it is always important to distinguish between believers and beliefs, between people on the one hand and ideas or ideologies on the other. The former have rights, but the latter do not. Human rights apply to human beings, not to the ideologies they may adopt or the religious beliefs they may follow.

Religious apologists, on the other hand, would like us to continue blurring the lines. Indeed, in the case of the word “Muslim” they would like us to erase the distinction completely.

Islam and Islamism

It is common knowledge that Islamism is a radical political variant of Islam, a politico-religious ideology based on Islam. It is not distinct from Islam but rather a subset of it. Islamism is compatible with the tenets of the Islam, taking the worst of it, the most backward, obscurantist, inegalitarian, anti-democratic and totalitarian aspects of that religion and imposing them intransigently.

By promoting Islamic essentialism, that is by treating Muslims as a monolithic community (as do both bigots like Donald Trump and complacent dupes such as Justin Trudeau), any public anxiety caused (quite justifiably) by Islamist radicalism becomes transformed into antipathy towards Muslims in general. This in turn consolidates the misconception of essentialism. This is precisely what radical Islamists want, because their goal is to generate resentment among Muslims in general, so that they will see themselves as victims and targets of hostility, thus moving the Muslim mainstream towards the radical end of the spectrum.

Apostasy and Islam

The condemnation of apostasy in Islam is another indicator that religious belief and affiliation are not essential., an Egyptian Islamic theologian and prominent luminary of the Muslim Brotherhood, has admitted that Islam would never have survived without punishment for apostasy, up to and including the possibility of the death penalty. This is an absolute denial of freedom of conscience for any person unfortunate enough to be born into the Muslim religion. It is also an extreme example of the imposition of the essentialist mentality.

To make matters worse, many non-believers, even some atheists, fall into the trap of accepting the essentialism which underlies the condemnation of apostasy. They implicitly accept the misconception that religious practises and clothing are somehow obligatory and unquestionable–and therefore must be accommodated. We thus have the pathetic spectacle of people who claim to be secularists opposing secularism in practise by promoting religious communitarianism ‎(a.k.a. multiculturalism), an essentialist ideology which attaches greater importance to the ethno-religious affiliation of the individual than it does to his or her freedom of conscience. This ethno-religious determinism is a light version of the ban on apostasy. Both weaken or threaten freedom of conscience.

The “Islamophobia” Hoax

On October 26th 2016, the Canadian parliament unanimously adopted a motion, proposed by NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, condemning “Islamophobia.” Similarly, on October 1st 2015, the Quebec National Assembly passed a similar resolution authored by Françoise David of the Québec Solidaire party. Each of these actions constitutes what is probably the most harebrained measure ever adopted by either legislature. In the case of Quebec, the motion also denounced calls for hatred and violence, which undoubtedly helped it pass. However, in both cases, we can be certain that legislative members were intimidated into voting in favour of the motion for fear of being accused of “racism,” “intolerance” or similar nonsense.

Once again, essentialism confuses the issue and works in favour of religious radicalism. So-called “Islamophobia” is a nonsense term because a phobia is an irrational fear, but there is nothing irrational about fearing an ideology or a religion. The word is simply an invention used by Islamists to censor criticism of Islam, criticism which is not only legitimate but indeed necessary in any society which purports to be free. The members of both the Canadian parliament and the Quebec Assembly were duped because they failed to question essentialism.

When Islamofascists and their dupes slander critics of Islam and Islamism with specious accusations of “Islamophobia” or “racism,” they are deliberately blurring the distinction between acquired personal attributes such as religious belief or political opinion on the one hand, and innate characteristics such as genetic inheritance on the other hand. Their goal is to make it impossible to criticize their ideology, as if it should enjoy the same rights as human beings. They want to dupe us into thinking that being an adherent of Islam is an innate and immutable characteristic–indeed, that is why they have draconian punishments for apostasy–when in reality being a Muslim is an acquired characteristic of the individual and readily changed if the freedom of conscience of that individual is respected.

The Veil is Not Muslim; it is Radical Islamist

The Islamist veil in all its variants–hijab, tchador, niqab, burqa, burkini, etc.–is an article of clothing imposed by Islamists, not by Islam in general. It is associated solely with the radical political subset of Islam. To say that the veil is “Muslim” is thus a serious misconception which validates essentialism, as if the mere fact of being Muslim obligated a woman to wear the veil, as if it were an essential aspect of her identity. This is exactly what Islamists want everyone to think. We must not let them fool us.

Political Islam is current waging a campaign to impose its symbols and values wherever it can find a opening to do so. The promotion of the various forms of the Islamist veil is part of this campaign of provocation and identity exhibitionism. Any woman who willingly wears the veil participates in some small way in this campaign and thus associates herself with the most backward and fanatical currents of Islam. Hence, any woman who willingly wears an Islamist veil is a religious fanatic; if she wears the full veil, such as a niqab, then she is an extreme religious fanatic (such as Zunera Ishaq, infamous for winning the “right” to wear her niqab during her Canadian citizenship ceremony).

Similarly, non-Muslim women who foolishly adopt the Islamist veil temporarily as a gesture of “solidarity” are acting irresponsibly, making themselves objective allies of political Islam.

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