Is religion arbitrary? Hell yeah it is

I can’t reply to Yusra & Safiya, because Fatemeh’s stepped in and closed the comments on this post. I’d like to reply to them in my space, however, because both of their comments are interesting and well-argued, and, naturally, deserve a reply.

Safiya takes offense to my suggestion that religion is arbitrary. I firmly believe that it is just that. In fact, it’s a strong component of my very faith. I take a look at Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc., and say, ARBITRARY. Now, everyone, myself included, would like to point their figure at all those other religions and say – “but my religion isn’t like that. I believe! It’s a beautiful thing! There’s nothing arbitrary about that!”

But what we are talking about when we say that is not religion – it is faith. Religion is the shell and faith is the substance. There’s nothing more arbitrary than being born to a certain set of parents, being taught views (which may or may not differ from each other, yet bear the same outward shell), and being named in a way that might even reflect your particular religious affiliation which you then wear proudly, for example. There’s nothing more arbitrary than a religious authority figure excommunicating someone or declaring someone an apostate – usually based on something political (if all of us were punished each time we broke the rules, houses of worship would long stand empty). There’s nothing more arbitrary to the way in which some people are cast aside and others remain in the fold.

There’s nothing intimate about religion. It’s a way of branding people as if they are cattle. It’s a paradox, because it’s religion that usually gives birth to faith, but then again, I accept the fact that the universe we live in is paradoxical to begin with.

Yusra argues that we can’t compare Muslims to, say, secular and religious Jews. By contrast, some of the closest people to me are secular Muslims. They might believe in a God or even THE God (depending on what angle you’re looking from), but the majority have long been either chased out of the religion or else simply decided they don’t want to bother.

The lives of secular Muslims are still impacted by religious law and authority. You actively have to humour tradition, or else you might find yourself in trouble.

It is women in particular who bear the brunt of other people’s anxieties over a religion’s possible demise. This is why you’ll rarely find anyone shouting “APOSTATE!” at a Muslim man who just nipped in to the liquor store for a bottle of whiskey, but women are rigorously policed as to who they may or may not marry. Most religious figures accept that “boys will be boys,” and feed the errant women to the wolves. Men have room to stumble and search. Women do not. In a previous post I argued that the definition of religion is elastic, however, in most cases, this elasticity stops with women.

I don’t mean to imply that Yusra is feeding anyone to the wolves when she states that Islam forbids Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men. I do disagree with her claim that there is no legitimate debate on the subject, however.

Likewise, I think the statement that there can never be any confusion as to who is or isn’t Muslim is a bromide. After a couple of years of living in Muslim countries, it’s glaringly obvious to me that Muslims aren’t any different when it comes to the blurring of identity. The similarity tends to be erased in the name of politics, due to long-standing conflict in Palestine, for example, due to the trouble in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, due to the rampant Islamophobia abroad. It’s important for many people to unite under a common banner and proclaim that “we are Muslims, this is our way of life, stop fucking with us, please.”

Tariq Ramadan (image found via
Tariq Ramadan (image found via

Why do I insist on making such a strong distinction between faith and religion? Tariq Ramadan is to blame. I don’t know if he still believes this, and I certainly can’t say that I’m not at all misreading him here – but one of the things that really heartened me back in the day was when he said that you can’t really have a purely religious state. I was going through a crisis of faith at the time, looking at the cruel, crass and, yes, completely arbitrary way that most religious people treat one another, and it was as if Tariq Ramadan laid a warm, protective hand on my shoulder and told me that things were going to be Ok.

The dreadful hypocrisy of a supposedly religious state and the way that it grinds all faith into dust over time was something I could never face. Looking back on it, it was an actual corrupting force in my life – this idea that a religious state was necessary or even possible.

I began to make the distinction between my faith and my religion. The former was important to me, the latter was like having to attend barbecues at Asshole Country Club and smile at everyone as I munched on their stale scraps. I began to actively withdraw from religious life, and never felt better. It was, probably, one of the most important moments of my youth.

I bet Tariq Ramadan would be horrified, if he knew what he did to me. Or maybe not.

As a Christian woman, I also have no business marrying a non-Christian dude. Because I plan on having a civil marriage, however, the point is largely moot. I would never want the man I’m with to have some sort of meaningless “on paper” conversion. I would never want him to have to humour anyone, to pretend, to put up with the nagging relatives, or with some dreadful bureaucratic entity that assumes the duty of God’s voice on earth and bleats out platitudes about faith. I have that freedom, of course. It’s a combination of things – I was born in the USSR, I am financially independent, I disdain religious community (while others need it), I cherry-pick what’s meaningful to me and what is not.

Everyone cherry-picks what they believe, because following text that were written centuries ago for a certain audience is largely impossible. Some people are just better at glossing over this fact than others.

29 thoughts on “Is religion arbitrary? Hell yeah it is

  1. Beautifully said. 5 years ago, I abandoned religion, and my faith has never been stronger. I recognize that many people need the structure of religion. I also realized that it give me hives. I don’t fault them for it, but unfortunately many of them don’t understand my position and I am (how to say this…)misunderstood. I am not an apostate, I just can’t relate well to God in an organized setting. The centuries-old texts have great meaning to me, but not in the context that they are used in today’s religion. They are guidance, not hammers.

  2. This was one of the more honest essays I have read about religion in some time. Can you talk more about why Tariq Ramadan had such an effect on you?

  3. Thanks for your responses, guys.

    Omar, I think that Tariq Ramadan forced me to closely examine just what it was I wanted out of faith. I realized that my goals were not really compatible with the broader religious community (obviously, it’s different on an individual basis). The broader religious community tends to push agendas in the public sphere. I have no interest in that.

  4. I just added Tariq Ramadan to my much-too-long reading list. the gap (canyon?) between faith and religion has been of interest of me, especially since i left organized Judaism a couple of years ago, cos i saw how the religious structure was crushing the life out of faith.

  5. Very nicely written, but I still disagree. I think you are conflating several issues here.

    While intended as a reply to my comment, you’ve skipped over the bulk of it, which is that Islamic law clearly states what makes a Muslim and that faith and religion are dovetailed in Islam.

    As for personal identity, I agree this varies…but it doesn’t change what Islamic law says.

    Your point about women being held to a different standard is very true. This is the same every where, hence the horror whenever a women does A Really Bad Thing.

    A more mundane example is when a man deserts his children it is no big deal, but for a women do the same, not only she branded as wicked but as morally and biological deficient.

    Against all the evidence, a bad man is deemed as mischievous, a bad woman a threat to society.

    I understand that you find your faith is not aided or strengthened by religion and I accept that many people feel the same as you do. However, that is just your personal experience, which isn’t sufficient to brand all religion, for all people as arbitrary.

    Also, while I know you’re not a JAFI, I get very weary of non Muslims telling me what Islam is or isn’t. If that sounds cranky, it’s because I’ve just been reading the burqa thread on Feministe.

  6. I agree with you Natalia. I think religion is arbitrary. I live in a place where many people are mormons. LDS. Many people in my own family, and I’ve dated several mormon girls.

    I’m not a mormon and I’ve tried to make sense of why those who are, subscribe this religion and the only thing I can come up with is that it requires faith. Perhaps the two do go hand in hand, religion and faith, be it LDS or something else. Dovetailed together as Safiya says it is with Islam.

    Of course in the LDS religion women don’t have the same status as men. If I did subscribe to that religion, I’d have the upper hand as a man. If nothing else that’s a little arbitrary in my view.

  7. While intended as a reply to my comment, you’ve skipped over the bulk of it, which is that Islamic law clearly states what makes a Muslim and that faith and religion are dovetailed in Islam.

    I think they’re supposed to dovetail (as with all major religions I am familiar with), but that’s not now it always works out.

    If this was how it always worked, you wouldn’t have secular Muslims. But you do. Neda, the woman recently murdered in Iran and famous now due to that YouTube video I can’t bring myself to watch, was described by her friends as “more spiritual than religious” – “spiritual” being the usual code word for not really observant or else liberal in interpretation. And she is hijab-less in the photo released worldwide to the press. But she lies buried at a Muslim cemetery under a conservative, hijab-prescribing regime, however, and there ain’t nobody digging her up (I can only imagine what would happen if they did).

    Islamic secularism isn’t just a modern phenomenon either. It’s been there historically, but it gets thrown out of focus because it isn’t politically expedient. Secular Muslims get stuck between right-wing appropriators and their own communities that want nothing to do with them. Non-Muslim liberals, on the other hand, usually want “authentic” Muslims, none of that weird in-between stuff. For what it’s worth, I think most people are in-between on a given day, they just don’t talk about it or reflect upon it. I think that, as in the case of Socrates, it takes self-reflection to realize our own true ignorance. I guess that’s what makes Socrates wise and the rest of us not-so-wise.

    I think Islam, like any religion, means what it means to a given individual – which can be powerful or meaningless, beautiful or ugly. I think the rest is window-dressing. To me, the only thing that carries any sort of weight is whatever it is that’s in a person’s heart (or brain, if I’m going to be anatomically correct) and soul. For example, I don’t believe that religious community actually exists. I know this is harsh, but considering how harsh religion is on individuals, I’m sure it can take a few well-deserved knocks along the way.

    Religion, in my view, is a powerful, compelling force that uses its power like a cudgel. I subscribe to the view that most people are stupid jerks, and since most people are also religious… I don’t think religion causes the stupid jerkiness, for what it’s worth, though it can sure come in handy when the jerkiness is being justified.

    The Feministe thread is indeed balls, on the other hand.

  8. Let me give you some facts as you are ignorant!

    Fact number 1: Muslim women don’t appear outside without their hijab and Muslim families would not just send out a picture of their daughter without her hijab. This Neda is not a real Muslim but another lost soul. I hope she isn’t burning in helll! But I have doubts.

    Fact number 2: there is no such thing as a “secular Muslim.” This is something you invented because you want an Arab man to marry you and you know that no real Arab man would because girls like you are not good enough to marry! You want to tear away a good Arab man from the rest of his people and leave some sister downtrodden, but luckily for us you can only get a man who doesn’t have strong iman! Only a Christian woman who is pure and has good manners and will be ruled by her husband so the kids are Muslim is going to be considered by a good Muslim man. You are not any of these things.

    Fact number 3: people like are not good enough for religion anyway. Nobody in the religion wants you so why don’t you stop whining.

  9. Natalia – Yes, there are secular Muslims but it still doesn’t change Islamic law. Also, what you are saying is that they have more of a right to define the religion then those who believe in it and try to live by it.

    As for Islamic secularism not being politically expedient, are you being serious? There are many leaders in Muslim majority countries, past and present who would love their people to be secular.

    Just look at the way the Muslim Brotherhood is treated for proof of that. The most monitored buildings in any Muslim country are the mosques. In Todmor Prison and Hama, it wasn’t the secularists that were being massacred and those are just two examples.

    You opinion does not and should not discount the experience of others.

    I must reiterate that I am very uncomfortable with a Non-Muslim telling me what Islam is and isn’t. You mention what Non Muslim liberals want to see, but why should that have any bearing. Islam is for Muslims, not for those who don’t believe in it, so why should Muslim alter or cater to those who choose not to be a part of it?

    I would never dream of making a similar demand to a Jewish, Buddhist or an atheist person, as it would be very disrespectful and not my place to do so.

    I understand that you have in interest in and ties to the Muslim community, but that does not give you the right to dictate to it.

    While that might not be your intention, by trying to tell members of a community how they should be and how you think you have a better concept of their faith then they do, that is what you are doing.

    I have accepted your opinion as valid, but you have yet to do so with mine. Is that because subconsciously or otherwise, you feel Islam needs reforming? If so, then what gives you the authority to reform over those who are already in the religion?

    I’ll be blunt, your post is very well intentioned (I wouldn’t have engaged with it otherwise), but you are veering very close to White Woman I Wants

  10. Dina, does behaving like a moron ever get tiring? I don’t know what’s Islamic about being an Arab supremacist in the first place.

    Safiya, I don’t want to speak for Natalia and she is more than welcome to correct me at any moment but I think what she is actually saying is that everyone ultimately gets to define religion for themselves. I think if she said “this is what Muslims need to be doing” I would disagree, but I don’t see that anywhere. I see the argument that being Muslim can mean different things for different sets of people.

    I went through this issue in my marriage so I think I understand where this is coming from, maybe. I consider myself religious, my wife is not. She still goes through the motions to humor her parents but this is as far as that goes.

    She decides what’s important for herself and her faith; she is very private on this matter. Ironically, she’s makes a better Muslim than I do, so you wish that she was active in the religion, but things don’t always work out the way you wish them to.

    When we were younger, the one time I was naive enough to try to obtain Islamic marriage counseling, I was told in no uncertain terms that my wife has broken Islamic law and a divorce is the best option. You can picture how I reacted to that. Today, I strongly wish that the community was more tolerant of people like her, instead of so often pretending as though she doesn’t or shouldn’t exist.

    I know Natalia’s relationship situation is complicated. I think this is where she is coming from, a position just as valid as yours or mine. I agree with you about the political expediency though depending on the context. For example, I recognize that being a secular Muslim with political opinions, you can be painted as a tool of the devil easily.

    Anyway, my apologies for the rambling personal anecdote. It’s still early here.

  11. Since we’re having story time:

    You know, my first husband converted to Islam. We divorced because I wasn’t about to have one of the meaningless conversions we’ve been talking about lately. I have converts in my family and don’t consider myself bitter (it’s what you get for getting married at 19 while your parents are screaming at you about what a bad idea it is), and know the fact that Islam has laws. Like any religion.

    People respond to and experience these laws in different ways, I believe that.

    Another story:

    My Muslim cousin ended up as a single parent. If it wasn’t bad enough to have white folks with their goddamn opinions on a black single mother (with a college degree and her own house), she also got it from the people at the mosque. That kid is taken care of and being raised Muslim, but you wouldn’t think that from the way she got treated.

    But she’s sticking to it, ’cause her beliefs are stronger. Maybe I’m out of line, but respect her a more than the dumbasses who pointed their fingers at her. (I’m not comparing you to the dumbasses, Safiya, just saying, it’s a complicated business)

  12. P.S. I meant to add that I have no doubt that my cousin broke Islamic Law, she even says so herself, but the fact is that she has a good home and a good, stable and Muslim family. People can’t get over the single mother business and I wish they did.

  13. Hi guys.

    Hi Safiya – I’m definitely not talking about reform. I’m giving you a (admittedly harsh and paradoxical) take on religion in general. To put it simply, I think religion is a contradiction. It is and isn’t good. It is and isn’t a path you can follow. I know that sounds wholly irrational, but I believe that our interactions with the divine are irrational in and of themselves. I think that human nature ensures this. Many people are hurt and offended and bewildered by my views (including my relatives), and I’m genuinely sorry for that, but I am as passionate about them as you are no doubt passionate about yours.

    Omar – please tell you wife I say hi. It’s odd, but I feel like I know her, having heard so much about her.

    Lal – I don’t know much about being a parent, but it would seem that a stable, loving home is the best you can hope for. It’s odd, how people get away with all sorts of awful behaviour simply for wearing the outer shell of the “good married couple,” while perfectly decent single parents can get raked over the coals simply for being single.

  14. Safiya, you think I am comfortable with another Muslim telling me what Islam is or isn’t. Here you are discounting the opinions and experiences of other Muslims. Your a good example of those chasing Muslims out of the religion with your singular Islamic law, basically telling us to Shut Up or Leave. Try to keep in check your own White Woman I want to maintain the territory.

  15. Hi “AAA” – having known Safiya (at least virtually!) for a while, I sincerely doubt she’s trying to do anything of the sort. I think this is a sensitive topic, and people are bound to react, well, sensitively.

  16. She still doesn’t have a right to define the religion anymore than anyone else and she assumes others don’t believe in it because they don’t do HER way. She wants her opinion validated but dismisses the existence that Holy Quran can be interpreted in multiple dissimilar ways, and how this leads people to have different perspectives regarding Islamic Law.
    That’s Intolerant!

  17. Salaam Alaikum,

    AAA – In terms of Islamic law, from an aqidah and fiqh point of view, the majority opinion is that a Muslim believes in the six articles of faith. Natalia stated that she felt religion was arbitary, I was putting an opposing view.

    Nowhere did I deny anyone the right to identify as they wish.

    Nowhere did I accuse anyone of not believing in Islam, to do so would be takfir, something I am too fearful of the consequences of, to ever do.

    “dismisses the existence that Holy Quran can be interpreted in multiple dissimilar ways, and how this leads people to have different perspectives regarding Islamic Law.”

    Where have I done this? I’m fully aware that there are multiple different interpretations. Hence the different madhabs, branches of aqidah and so on.

    I think just because I mentioned Islamic law, you have began making assumptions.

    Please read what I have actually written, rather then what you think I have written.

    Michael Jackson R.I.P

  18. “I think religion is a contradiction. It is and isn’t good. It is and isn’t a path you can follow.”

    Irrational or not, this is actually pretty close to the way academics who study religion think about it–something that I have been struggling to do of late.

    I disagree, however, about the purported distinction between something called “faith” and something called “religion.” We can make this distinction only if we have essentialist notions about faith and religion. Part of the difficulty is that, as I previously mentioned in another comment, what we understand as religion today is thoroughly post-secular. To put it crudely and simplistically, “religion” is the invention of secularism.

    The impact of this conceptual shift is widely noticeable. Just as an example from the Islamic context: pre-modern Islamic discourse rarely ever talked about “Islam” in the sense we do today. Whereas today Muslim keep talking about what is “Islamic” or “un-Islamic,” the classical religious authors almost never thought about things in this manner. They didn’t use to think of fiqh or shari’a as “Islamic Law.” It’s almost as if there was nothing called “Islam”! (In contrast to today’s buzzword “Islam,” the key term for them was iman, roughly translated as “belief”).

    I say all this because, historically, it is only after the secular designation of religion as the domain of the spiritual that it becomes possible to talk about something called religion. And so although I acknowledge that “Islamic secularism” (in the sense intended) isn’t just a modern phenomenon, it also kind of is. And while “secular Muslims” may have always existed, back in the day they simply would have just been “Muslims.”

    In case I’m being misunderstood as creating a rosy past, let me clarify that that’s not what I’m getting at. Nor am I arguing what should or shouldn’t be, but simply attempting a descriptive understanding of religion, and of where our concepts are coming from. This is in the hopes of a better critique; even if we were to use the vocabulary of “practicing” and “non-practicing” to describe Muslims (as I was almost about to suggest as an alternative), we would carry a certain baggage of what it means to practice or not.

  19. I’m running out the door (was writing a eulogy for Michael Jackson last night – Rest in Peace indeed), but just wanted to say that I hope no one’s getting too upset with one another in my absence.

    I think I personally have a very essentialist view of religion. I’d like to expand on that further, when I’m not running in circles like a headless chicken.

    Peace. 🙂

  20. Rawi – That’s a really good analysis. Thank you.

    Natalia – I’m fine, just pleased to have escaped the strange forcefield around this blog which turns any criticism of you into bigoted trollery.

    See folks, you can disagree with Natalia without insulting her ethnicity, background or personal life. It can be done!

  21. This blog is statistically proven to attract weirdos. A linguistics student once told me that it can depend on the name. Because I narcissistically named it after me – I think I get a greater proportion of it than some other people.

    A lot of people search for “Natalia” & “Natasha” to get here, and then they have their troll eruptions all over the place.

    Sometimes, it’s amusing. Like Dina over here.

  22. Actually, lol, Dina’s Omar’s fault (like I said, I don’t blame you, Omar, I just think this entire thing is funny). He e-mailed to tell me he recommended this site to her so she may let go of some of her prejudice against Eastern Europeans. FAIL.


  23. Haha, yeah I probably see more amusing trolls here than on any other blog. I’ve had interesting debates with a friend of mine who also says she attracts a lot of weirdos (in real life, not virtual), about whether or not this kind of attention can be “flattering.” We’ve had mixed conclusions.

  24. “God is going to kick your ass you infidelic pagan scum!” – South Park.

    LOL, I’ve actually been told that I’m “too much of a pagan” to ever be called a proper Christian. I like to think of “pagan” as in the Goethe definition – someone who sees important messages in most faiths.

  25. The Goethe line reminds me of what I often say about the mystical traditions in religions:

    “Mystics all speak mystic.”

    I’ve heard of ecumenical or interfaith gatherings where all the mainline folks were just having major arguments with each other over points of doctrine and rules and stuff — the things you called ‘religion’ above — and the mystics all quietly congregate and talk about meeting God. 😉

  26. OK, sorry but i didn’t want to type for myself. (I can just think it instead). Religion a shell, faith the substance; I would concur. I would add love first though because without love you could have a hater of people because of their religion, skin color, culture, status, appearance, disability, etc. There are so many examples of all people carrying out their hate to the point of genocide that had faith please forgive me that it is only a small sample of even this century’s list but we have Nazi Germany, Bath Party of iraq, KKK, Khmer Rouge… These differ from American colonialism since scholars cannot cite systematic genocide throughout the nation and instead now think that 90 to 95% of native Americans died from smallpox and other diseases their immune system could not fight. That is NOT a statement meant to minimize the slaughter of innocent people on both sides but certainly the Colonists bear the brunt of blame even when considering the warlike and brutal nature of many Indian “nations”. So, faith of whatever God you believe in is not enough in my opinion. And while religion is arbitrary, God is not. We just don’t have a clear enough picture of Him where we can all agree on who He or She really is. My humble offering of that answer that God through Yeshua or Jesus who hated the hypocracy of religious people is the closest I’ve found. I do however agree that my faith is rooted largely in my circumstance of where I was born, etc. Nor do I believe that right and wrong is arbitrary or relative. You may believe that there are not dozens if not hundreds of radio, cell phone, wifi signals streaming through your body right now but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And just because something can’t be “proven” doesn’t mean it isn’t true hence my assertion that God and truth is NOT arbitrary or relative. The paradox of that is not the danger of one group believing that they’re belief is the truth, the danger is that they believe that with hate and not love for all people in their heart. I am sick and tired of the paradoxes of; 1 Religions looking down their noses at people who differ for whatever reason or worse, killing them. 2. “new age” people who think that “it’s all good” and qualities like honesty, faithfulness to a partner, willingness to defend the least of society, forgiveness, grace, mercy, righteous anger, personal discipline, humility etc. do not have absolutes within them. Otherwise, we can easily revisit the past even in a democracy to the point where we do unspeakable things for patriotism, or societal pressure.
    If any of this makes sense, then great, if not, thank you reading it just the same.
    Merry Christmas, happy Hanuka, etc. and may God bless you all

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