Liberal Islam: Is it real? Is it Islam?

Religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists agree on one thing: Fundamentalism is the real religion. Every form of “liberal” or “moderate” religion [see endnote 1] is just some kind of watered-down compromise with secular humanism.

If you’re fundamentalist, you see this watering-down as heresy, a drifting away from the true Word of God. If you’re a New Atheist, it’s either the sheep’s clothing worn by dangerous wolves (who would be theocrats if they thought they could get away with it), or a convenient form of self-deception (practiced by people who are smart enough to realize that their religion is bullshit, but not courageous enough to reject it). In The End of Faith, Sam Harris boiled the thesis down to this:

Religious moderation is the result of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism.

Plenty of Americans — many of whom are anything but ignorant of the scriptures of their traditions [2] — are liberal Christians or liberal Jews, so it’s not hard to find defenses of the liberal versions of those faiths. But the idea that there is no authentic liberal Islam is fairly widespread in this country.

As a result, while almost everyone acknowledges that some Christians or Jews take their religiosity to crazy extremes, craziness and extremism are often attributed to Islam itself. Liberal reform of Islam is something Americans simultaneously wish for and claim is impossible, because the heart of Islam is necessarily violent and intolerant.

In Harris’ controversial appearance on Bill Maher’s TV show (which I discussed in detail at the time), he mapped the Muslim community as a set of concentric circles, with terrorist jihadis like the Taliban or ISIS at the center of the faith. At the far outside fringe

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So any effort to liberalize Islam comes from “nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously”. Mullah Omar couldn’t have said it better.

But Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol is a liberal and a Muslim who seems passionate about both liberalism and Islam. I can find nothing “nominal” about the faith he expresses, describes, and justifies in Islam Without Extremes: a Muslim case for Liberty. These are a few of the conclusions he comes to:

  • Islam will thrive best under a secular government that neither mandates Islam nor tries to suppress it, because an Islam of the heart cannot be forced. “Had God willed,” says the Qur’an [3], “He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you.” A society that suppresses either Islam or competing views is trying to invalidate that test, and so is doing what Allah refused to do.
  • The best form of secular government for Muslims would be liberal democracy, where the majority rules but respects minority rights.
  • People of all faiths should be free to practice their religion as they see fit, including the freedom to change or abandon their religious identification.
  • Government should punish crime (offenses against the legitimate rights of others), not sin (disobedience of religious injunctions).
  • Insults to Islam or its prophets should be met with reasoned arguments and non-violent responses like protests and boycotts. “In this free world,” Akyol writes, “there will certainly be ideas that Muslims, including me, will not like. What we need to do is respond to them with reason and wisdom.”

He doesn’t arrive at these positions by saying “We just have to ignore what the Qur’an says and adapt to the modern world.” Akyol never expresses any doubt that Allah is real or that the Qur’an is a revelation that Muhammad received from Allah. Instead, he argues from within the Islamic tradition that there have all along been multiple interpretations of the Qur’an, and that the fundamentalist ones currently popular are corruptions due to unfortunate historical circumstances of the post-Qur’anic era.

In particular, he distinguishes between the Qur’an and the Hadiths — sayings and stories of Muhammad that are not part of the Qur’an, but were told and codified in the centuries immediately after the Prophet’s death. Conservative Muslims regard the Hadiths as authoritative, but Akyol does not, for two reasons. First, some Hadiths were probably put in Muhammad’s mouth by later caliphs who wanted to justify their own policies. And second, the message of the Qur’an is what speaks with divine authority, not the messenger. When he was not reciting what had been told to him by the archangel, Muhammad was a man of his time. Akyol believes he was a good and wise man, or Allah would not have chosen him to be His messenger. But, unlike the common Christian view of Jesus, Muhammad was not himself divine.

The Prophet brought a message relevant for all ages, in other words, but he lived a life of his own age. … In fact, expecting from Muhammad a perfect universal wisdom, totally unbound from his time and culture, would not be consistent with Qur’anic theology.

At least one traditional story makes this distinction explicit: During a military campaign, a general questions whether the spot the Prophet has chosen to camp comes from divine revelation or just war tactics. When Muhammad answers “war tactics”, the general proposes a more favorable camp site, which Muhammad accepts. In other words, in his lifetime Muhammad could be criticized and corrected. So saying “Muhammad did it this way” — even if we could be sure he did indeed do it that way, which is not always clear — does not by itself prove that a practice is best in all times and places. [4]

The status of women is a good example. The early Muslim community treated women far better than the Arabian tribal societies that preceded it. (In fact, Muslim women in India lost their property rights when they came under British rule.) But freezing or exaggerating its practices and applying them today stands out as repressive. Which aspect of Muhammad’s example should today’s Muslims follow: Should they raise the status of women above the practices of their day, as Muhammad did in his day, or should they do exactly as Muhammad did? [5]

Akyol argues that the Qur’an itself contains mostly abstract principles, and does not spell out a legal code or a system of government. Those were added later, often by fallible humans trying their best to be good and just, but also occasionally by rulers who wanted to maintain their power, and by scholars and jurists who wanted to curry favor with those rulers.

For example, the injunction to kill apostates is based on a Hadith in which Muhammad says, “If someone discards his [Muslim] religion, kill him.” But the Qur’an says:

The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and him who please disbelieve.

The different religions and sects should “compete in doing good”, and trust God to sort it all out in the hereafter.

Such a liberal reading of the Qur’an is not some innovation Akyol came up with himself, but is part of an Islamic tradition as old as any other. He points to an early school known as the Postponers, who taught that ambiguous or obscure Qur’anic verses could not be decisively adjudicated in this life, so Muslims with conflicting interpretations should tolerate each other until Allah revealed the truth to them after death. Another school elevated reason above tradition as a means of understanding the Qur’an. It was eventually suppressed, but its greatest thinkers became known in the West as Averroes and Avicenna, who had a profound influence on Christian rational thought by way of St. Thomas Aquinas. [6]

The 19th-century Ottoman caliphs attempted to liberalize Islam, granting (for a time) equal rights to religious minorities, and expanding the rights of women beyond what was common in some European countries.

Even shariah, the Islamic law code, is not necessarily the draconian system advocated by the Taliban. Like English common law, shariah developed through the legal interpretations jurists used to decide specific cases, and contained multiple schools of thought, ranging from the liberal Hanafi to the conservative Hanbali. The Ottoman code was closer to Hanafi, while the Taliban version is based on Hanbali.

Akyol attributes the failure of these liberalizing movements to a series of historical circumstances, rather than to some inherent flaw in Islam.

  • The temptations of power politics corrupted Islam in much the same way that Christianity was corrupted after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.
  • In the medieval war of ideas between reason and tradition, reason became associated with the merchant class and tradition with the landlord class. When the landlords won the political/economic conflict, the Islam of the merchants was suppressed. When Europe reached a similar point centuries later, the merchants won.
  • Ottoman liberalization came too late, and the Empire fell before it could finish reforming itself. The post-Ottoman nationalist movements identified liberal Islam with the bad old days, and distinguished themselves either by turning to conservative Islam (as in Wahhabist Arabia) or to an Islam-suppressing secularism (as in Ataturk’s Turkey).
  • Between the world wars, the British and French dominated the heart of the Muslim world. They propped up conservative extremist governments like the House of Saud, while lecturing Muslims about liberal values. As a result, any liberalizing Muslims seemed to be aping the hated West and denouncing their own culture.
  • The vast oil wealth of Arabia was a historical accident that provided near-infinite resources for the spread of Wahhabism. In addition, the oil wealth of other Muslim-majority countries has influenced history in a different way: Economies in which wealth derives from resource extraction rather than enterprise are inherently conservative.

Akyol finds great significance in the history and current state of his own country, Turkey. Turkey is one of the rare parts of the former Ottoman Empire that was never occupied or dominated by the West. The government that rose after World War I was a secular tyranny that did its best to suppress expressions of Islam. (One of Akyol’s earliest memories is of his father being taken away by the secular government.) Ever since, its politics have revolved around conflict between the secular army and the Muslim-majority electorate. So in Turkey, Islam has been the democratizing force.

Democracy seems to be winning in Turkey, so the next conflict is whether the country will be a liberal democracy (in which minority religions are protected from the Muslim majority), or an authoritarian democracy (in which the majority does whatever it wants). That conflict is still playing out, but Akyol feels that the momentum is on his side, the liberal side. [7]

The reason for his confidence is that Turkey is revisiting the merchant/landlord conflict that came out so badly in the Middle Ages, but this time the merchants are winning. The state-dominated economy of Ataturk is increasingly giving way to a market economy, dominated by Muslim businessmen who want closer ties to Europe (and who have never been under the European thumb, unlike the business classes of most other Muslim countries). The everyday experience of merchants favors tolerating others, talking to others, and trading with others. Akyol believes that a Turkey of economic freedom and prosperity will empower both liberal democracy and liberal religion, as it has everywhere else.

If that happens, then the Muslim world will have an example unlike anything it saw in the 20th century: a Muslim country where economic, political, and religious liberty developed indigenously, without foreign invasions, imported constitutions, or puppet governments.

An interpretation of the Qur’an that makes such a thing possible might be very tempting.


[1] Liberal religion is not just religion combined with liberal politics. Instead, this is the Enlightenment sense of liberal, i.e. free. The liberal version of a faith tradition is non-authoritarian, non-dogmatic, and respectful of the individual conscience. A typical liberal belief is that religious truth can’t be boiled down to a creed or catechism that covers all eventualities. Instead, the essence of the faith is in abstract principles (i.e., “Love your neighbor”) whose application requires discernment and may change from one era to the next.

Consequently, liberal faiths tend to be open to new interpretations and tolerant of divergent ideas. Though this openness and tolerance does make the religion more amenable to secularism, it arises out of the faith itself rather than through compromise with secularism. In the West, it is easier to make the opposite case: that liberal Christianity and Judaism came first, and secularism arose from them.

[2] By coincidence, Christian theologian Marcus Borg died this week.

In general, arguments with Harris’ followers tend to go round and round the following circle: Why do you think fundamentalists are the most authentic Christians (or Jews)? Because they’re the ones who take the scriptures literally. Why is that the determining characteristic? Because that’s what the most authentic Christians do.

In reality, the idea that fundamentalists are the “true” believers is just a prior assumption, based on nothing.

[3] Over the years, I’ve used many transliterations for the Muslim scripture. In this post it is the Qur’an, because that’s how Akyol spells it. I apologize for any confusion.

[4] A Christian analogy would be to the infallibility of the Pope. The Pope is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. But if he says in casual conversation that strawberries are better than watermelons, he’s just expressing a personal opinion.

[5] Christians will recognize this conflict from the arguments over what Paul’s epistles say about women. Was the apostle writing to tell Timothy how women should behave in the specific churches Timothy might found in the first-century Roman Empire? Or was he laying down ideal practices for all times and places? Or was the epistle itself written later and attributed to Paul, to authorize practices already in place?

[6] So if you buy the argument in [1], Western secularism owes a debt to Islam.

[7] He is not claiming that present-day Turkey is a utopia of freedom, which would be indefensible. For a view of Turkey from the point of view of racial minorities like Kurds and Armenians, see another recent book There Was and There Was Not by the Armenian-American author Meline Toumani.

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Comments

  • Carol Wheeler  On January 26, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Between the world wars, the British and French dominated the heart of the Muslim world. They supported conservative extremist governments like the House of Saud, while liberal ideas became associated with the Western colonial oppressors.

    This post was so enlightening and so well-thought-out that I want to thank you (as usual) but the above point is one I do not understand. Aren’t the “British and French” and “the colonial powers” one and the same?

    • weeklysift  On January 26, 2015 at 10:22 am

      Yes. Sorry if that was confusing. The point was that they simultaneously kept conservative extremists in power, while lecturing the locals about liberal values. Any liberalizing Muslims seemed to be choosing Western culture over their own.

    • weeklysift  On January 26, 2015 at 10:25 am

      I just updated to make that clearer.

  • daniel  On January 26, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    The connection between MINO and RINO started to resonate as I read your post.
    People often attempt to define the ‘meaning’ of an open group – thing X is ‘about’ Y – and it’s unspeakably pointless to try. For each self-identified Xer, it’s ‘about’ whatever they want it to be about (on any given day)… The Catholics I find to be an interesting case – if you want to be a Catholic but you don’t believe in three impossible things before breakfast, and the Pope says ‘you’re out of the club’… are you still a Catholic?

  • Michael Wells  On January 27, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    “In general, arguments with Harris’ followers tend to go round and round the following circle: Why do you think fundamentalists are the most authentic Christians (or Jews)? Because they’re the ones who take the scriptures literally. Why is that the determining characteristic? Because that’s what the most authentic Christians do.”

    I’m sorry but you are trying too hard. This statement reflects not only a straw man argument but also a category error. I am trying to defend neither “new atheists” or “old atheists” mainly because they need no defense. They are not defending an orthodoxy or theology because they reject them. It is the province of the believers to defend their beliefs because they are explicitly claiming to base them on a sacred text that is the revealed truth of a supreme being. I am not the first to point out that those believers who believe some but not all of the passages in their sacred text do so without any principled basis. Do they have faith that some passages are more true than others?

    It took me less than ten minutes of research to find two passages (“suras”) in the Qur’an that instruct Muslims “not to take the Jews and Christians for friends” suggesting that they are “unjust people” and that Jews were devolved into swine. See 5.51 and 5.60.

    Believers of all faiths can (and will) argue that there are problems with the translation or interpretation, all in an attempt to minimize or change the plain meaning of problematic passages. But then why is the sacred text so ambiguous when from an omniscient being? It doesn’t help to say that “…the message of the Qur’an is what speaks with divine authority, not the messenger.” That means that nothing in the sacred text can be relied upon for any guidance because all of the sacred texts are given to us by messengers.

    • weeklysift  On January 28, 2015 at 7:31 am

      “I am not the first to point out that those believers who believe some but not all of the passages in their sacred text do so without any principled basis.”

      I think this statement reflects ignorance of liberal theology. Different theologians have different principles of interpretation, but it’s just false to call them “unprincipled”.

      • Michael Wells  On January 29, 2015 at 1:31 pm

        I seem to have touched a nerve. You claim I am ignorant of “liberal theology.” I certainly don’t claim to be an expert and didn’t suggest it in my post but I am aware of progressive or liberal theology. Your response did not cite any of the “principles of interpretation” used by liberal theologians. To take merely the example of Marcus Borg you cite, his belief in God seemed to have been based on his mystical experiences, not on any reference to the Bible and his theology admits that the Bible is not to be taken literally but is to be interpreted through the lens of the historical Jesus. However, using history regarding events in the Bronze Age among desert tribes who were largely illiterate is a slim reed on which to base one’s beliefs. In any event, his theology is less about an exegesis of a sacred text than a view of a historical figure.

        Your second comment confirms what I attempted to say about the interpretations of sacred texts. Believers will claim problems with the translations or interpretations of those problematic passages. Those problematic passages will be found not simply in an Hadith but also the Qur’an itself contrary to your suggestion. The question I stated remains unanswered: Why would an omniscient being reveal these truths in an ambiguous manner?

        Finally, if your aim is to provide a forum for rational discussions of the issues you raise in your thoughtful posts, you might be better served by not insulting those who attempt to participate.

      • weeklysift  On January 29, 2015 at 2:16 pm

        I’m not sure where I’m supposed to have claimed that passages from the Qur’an don’t require interpretation. And the point of my second comment is that you have not found an example of liberal Muslims believing “some but not all of the passages”.

    • weeklysift  On January 28, 2015 at 10:32 am

      Another ten minutes of research might have produced some knowledge about how non-jihadi Muslims interpret such passages. The Press Enterprise asked an imam about 5.51: “Muzammil Siddiqi, a Garden Grove imam who chairs the Fiqh Council of North America, which interprets the Quran, said ‘friend’ is an incorrect translation from Arabic. The verse is intended to teach Muslims that they should defend themselves rather than depend on others to protect them, he said.”

    • Sal  On June 7, 2016 at 4:13 am

      The texts are ambiguous so that we learn to find our path ourselves and ourselves decide to interpret it as good or as evil. Based on your own interpretation and understanding you can come to a decision of which side you’re on. There cannot be good without evil and this ambiguity makes sure that they are there for each other to exist. It entrusts you with a solid path that’s what I’m trying to convey.

      jk I’m high.

  • Daniel  On January 31, 2015 at 8:09 am

    I think I have some kind of handle on why many atheists would see fundamentalism as the more authentic kind of religion; and I think it’s not a core assumption but is based on some other assumptions that come naturally to a literal-minded person. (Speaking as a literal-minded person and an atheist.) (I’m fumbling to try to express this. And first of all I want to suggest that most American atheists have a clearer idea of Christianity than of Islam because they deal with it more often; this probably shapes their ideas about religion generally. Anyway:)

    Assumption: the point of communication is to get ideas from one being to another, as intact as possible. Corollary: good communication is clear communication, whereas if your audience is left wondering what you meant or arguing about it with each other, that’s bad communication. (Obviously, this standard would take nonfiction books as a more typical and important example of communication than, say, song lyrics. I think it’s natural for literal-minded people to assume that clear communication is the best communication.)

    Assumption: A big part of what it means to be God is that a God is better at what He does than humans are. (If the word is to mean anything.)

    Assumption: if the Christian God exists, then the Bible is a message from God to humans. (Actually not a basic assumption either: the reasoning process here goes: -the Christian God, by all accounts, cares about humans and what they do, and is not totally satisfied with their natural behavior; -it would be reasonable for such a God to communicate with humans, letting us know what He would like us to know or do; -the Bible is the most obvious candidate for a message from the Christian God to present-day humans.)

    Now, an examination either of the Bible or of the centuries-long history of arguments about its meaning should rule out any idea that the Bible is a superhumanly clear message applicable to present-day humans. Given that, and the assumptions above or something similar, a natural conclusion is that the Christian God doesn’t exist. But then, how to understand Christians?

    I think many atheists of this sort would naturally form a kind of a priori taxonomy of Christians like:

    -Anyone who holds the assumptions noted above, but holds on faith a fourth assumption that the Christian God does exist, will pretty much have to conclude that the Bible is a clear message from God and that it’s humans’ fault whenever we don’t understand it. This is the path leading to fundamentalism–which in this light looks like a fairly desperate and untenable place to be.

    -Another possibility is to drop one or more of the noted assumptions. These are some paths leading to liberal Christianity. You could believe that the Bible is a message from God that needs to be “interpreted”, but that seems to imply that humans are clearer communicators than God, and looks like not taking God seriously.* You could believe that God communicates clearly and sufficiently with humans, but through other channels than the Bible; but in that case, it’s not obvious why you would want to call yourself a Christian; Christianity has centered itself around Bible-based lore for almost all of its history, and by calling yourself a Christian you identify yourself with that history. You could believe that God had no need to tell humans anything, and is completely happy with us as we are, but in that case it’s again unclear why you would want to identify yourself with the history of Christianity which has always said the opposite.

    (You could also drop the assumption that good communication is clear communication, and believe that God did the best possible thing by giving us this unclear book and then letting us flounder and argue and kill each other over it. I think this is alien enough to the literal mindset that it would tend to get ignored as a possibility.)

    -Yet another possibility is not to have thought enough about this stuff to have noticed a problem.

    Basically, as a non-Christian, if I try to list the most obvious reasons people would want to identify as Christian, my first thoughts are:
    -you agree with much of what has been said and done in the name of Christianity, historically
    -habit or tradition
    -you like the prestige and privilege associated with that name.

    I don’t say that only the first produces “true Christians”, but I can see why people would be inclined to say that.

    So basically, I don’t think it’s a standalone assumption based on nothing that fundamentalists are the true believers. I think it’s a fairly natural conclusion to reach as the result of (1) trying to understand Christianity from the outside (2) when you have a literalist mindset.

    * Ambrose Bierce joked about this in _Fantastic Fables_:

    An Aerophobe

    A Celebrated Divine having affirmed the fallibility of the Bible, was asked why, then, he preached the religion founded upon it.
    “If it is fallible,” he replied, “there is the greater reason that I explain it, lest it mislead.”
    “Then am I to infer,” said his Questioner, “that _you_ are not fallible?”
    “You are to infer that I am not pneumophagous.”

    • weeklysift  On February 6, 2015 at 6:32 am

      One story about Gurdjieff has him explaining the limitations of omnipotence like this: “Not even God can beat three-of-a-kind with two pair.” In other words, when God chooses to enter into a human system, he is bound by the limitations of that system. (Obviously, an omnipotent God could change his two pair into a flush and win. But then he’s playing a different game entirely.)

      That principle applies like this: Even if God dictated a scripture word-for-word, that product would then be subject to the limitations of human language. If a notion couldn’t be said clearly in language, it wouldn’t be said clearly in the scripture. And if the language changed with time, as languages do, the scripture’s meaning would become increasingly blurry.

      One liberal view is that ultimate truth can’t be expressed in human language; it can only be alluded to, in the manner of poetry. When reading poetry, you can’t just look at the literal meaning of the words, you have to reach out with inspired part of your own mind, to see if you can make contact with the higher truth that inspired the poet.

      • Daniel  On February 13, 2015 at 6:49 am

        A straightforward answer is that for these and other reasons a perfect God wouldn’t write a human-language book in the first place; and that if He were going to write one He wouldn’t delegate all the transcription and editing and publishing and distribution to humans (who didn’t bring the Bible to the Americas for more than a thousand years!); and that He wouldn’t let His chosen languages drift linguistically and almost die out (a stronger objection against the Bible than against the Qur’an). It’s almost axiomatic that when God does things, they get done right; if He wants to give people a message, they’re going to get that message.

        Beyond that, though–speaking, again, as an outsider–the God of the Bible, and especially of the Old Testament, bears deep and obvious markings of (A) human frailty and (B) ancient human culture. (This also is not as obvious in the case of the Qur’an.) If the Bible is God’s work, it’s a disgrace to God, and if it’s the work of ancient humans, it’s hard to see why (apart from custom and tradition) people would spend thousands of years tinkering with interpretations, let alone fighting over them.

        At this point, people have to disown the vast majority of what has historically been called “Christianity” in order to reach a position that’s morally and intellectually defensible by current standards. And that’s where the suspicion arises that many people are keeping that label more because it’s generally assumed that being Christian is a good thing to be than because it’s the clearest description of their positions. (If you say “I’m a Deist who finds certain parts of the Bible inspiring” people will look at you funny.)

  • coastcontact  On January 31, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    I don’t pretend to be religious. I stopped my religious training at 13. I respect those who hold strong religious beliefs because those beliefs give their lives meaning in a way that nothing else can. The orthodox or fundamentalists of every religion are the total believers. Based upon their behavior, fundamentalist Muslims believe it is their duty to make the entire world comply with their beliefs. Christians, Jews and moderate Muslims need to stand guard against those killers. In this century most terrorists are Muslim BUT most Muslims are not terrorists.

  • Alexander Burrington  On November 30, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Akyol does not consider the Hadith authoritative. Ok. But a huge number of Muslims do; and that is a core problem with this article from the off. Akyol’s PoV regarding the Hadith is a bit like not watching half a play (incidentally the half that some people think is the best bit) and thinking you can make a judgement about what everyone thought about the performance.

    What is a religion? How do we judge it? By the texts? What is Islam? Aside from semantics what does that concept mean in the real world?? The truth is there is no such thing; the term is meaningless. It all means completely different things to different people.

    Platonic methods of thinking force us to grapple with the notion of finding a one true form or interpretation of Islam that can co-exist and flourish with a liberal democracy. But that doesn’t exist. In truth, there are as many differing versions of any religion as there are believers, because no two people will ever think and believe exactly alike. BUT, and here’s the crucial part, they will no ALL think that they are the ‘good muslim’ or the ‘good Christian’ or the ‘good Jew’.

    And that’s the problem. Religion gives people certainty when they need doubt. It gives them belief when they need scepticism. It gives them hubris when they need humility. It gives them group-think when they need to think for themselves. And all of this, albeit in varying degrees, comes from texts so ancient and so conflicting they don’t even agree with themselves, let alone the world around them.

    All that said, articles like this will help turn the tide. The more critiques that exist like Akyol’s, the more likely liberty is to win the day.

  • H.Gangadhar  On December 1, 2015 at 2:34 am

    I am reacting to the opening sentences of the essay.Indian religious thought does not have a concept of HERECY or BLASPHEMY.Millions of Gods compete each other in a religious free market and those surviving the test of popularity will remain.The rest will go n to history.An atheist can very well live along with faithful on a personal level.Sociial hiararchy however will see to it that the Gods of powerful people/communities will get prominance over gods of poor and lower caste people.unlike Abrahamic religions,the Gods,religious principles,method of worship even theology undergoes changes.Sometimes u don’t know what your religion stands for.Don’t you find such a religious space quite interesting?

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