Michael Brendan Dougherty remembers when the English state and its religious manifestation, the Church of England, behaved like ISIS toward the Irish:

Convert, leave, or die. That’s the trio of awful options ISS is giving to Christians in Iraq.

Sadly, there’s an all-too-familiar ring to this ultimatum. These were the exact options given to all Catholic clergy in Ireland when England instituted the penal laws against Catholics several hundred years ago.

When William of Orange defeated his father-in-law, the deposed King James II, along with his Irish Catholic allies at the Boyne in 1690, Parliament was determined that an Irish Catholic uprising never threaten their rule again, and so they passed penal laws, or “papist codes.” As author Thomas Keneally put it, these codes were “aimed at keeping the native Irish powerless, poor, and stupid.”

The details of these laws should still shock us.

Read his column, and you’ll be shocked, I guarantee. I hadn’t realized the laws were so harsh (nor had I realized that the Penal Laws also applied to Presbyterians). MBD says that the parallels with ISIS are not perfect, but close enough to make us reflect.

I do hate the knee-jerk attitude many left-of-center people take toward stories of Islamist atrocities. I offered a definition of this phenomenon a while back, based on observations about the phenomenon made by this blog’s frequent commenter, Erin Manning:

Manning’s Corollary to Godwin’s Law: In any online conversation about an incident of violence perpetrated by adherents of Islamic fundamentalism, the conversation will inevitably devolve into claims that Christians commit the same type and degree of violent acts, regardless of how demonstrably false that is; further, the claim will be made that past historical violence involving Christians means that present-day Christians are morally incapable of denouncing current violence involving Muslims.

I don’t think MBD is at all engaging in Manning’s Corollary in his column. He points out that the process of expelling the spirit of religious hatred that manifested itself in the Penal Laws took hundreds of years to be accomplished:

Over 300 years passed between the Boyne and the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which seems to have been the final extinguishment of violent religious hostility and counter-attack in Ireland. If the past teaches us anything, we have many generations of misery to go in the Middle East.

And we could talk about the Catholic French crown’s persecution of the Huguenots, if you like. Or the Russian Orthodox Church’s persecution of the Old Believers.

The point is not to engage in an intra-religious neener-neener contest, but rather to reflect, as MBD does, on humanity’s chronic penchant for religious violence.  I think it should also be noted, and noted strongly, that the absence of religion doesn’t make people less likely to murder the Other. The Catholic-vs-Protestant civil war in Northern Ireland — the Troubles — was not really a religious conflict at all, but an ethno-nationalist one. (The original IRA was Marxist.) The anti-religious French revolutionaries, those paragons of Enlightenment, were utter savages toward Christians. Messianic secular ideologies — Nazism and Communism — killed far, far more people in the 20th century than did any religious ideology ever did.

But then, Nazism and Communism were political ideologies that had all the trappings of religion. The English political philosopher John Gray points out that ISIS has more in common with 20th century secular political fanaticism than with traditional religion. Excerpt:

Though al-Baghdadi constantly invokes the early history of Islam, the society he envisions has no precedent in history. It’s much more like the impossible state of utopian harmony that western revolutionaries have projected into the future. Some of the thinkers who developed radical Islamist ideas are known to have been influenced by European anarchism and communism, especially by the idea that society can be reshaped by a merciless revolutionary vanguard using systematic violence. The French Jacobins and Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guards all used terror as a way of cleansing humanity of what they regarded as moral corruption.

Isis shares more with this modern revolutionary tradition than any ancient form of Islamic rule. Though they’d hate to hear it, these violent jihadists owe the way they organise themselves and their utopian goals to the modern West.

Gray makes an important point here (emphasis mine):

It’s sometimes suggested that ideology played no real part in the invasion of Iraq – grabbing the country’s oil was what it was all about. No doubt geopolitical calculation played a part, but I think an idea of what it means to be modern was more important. The politicians and opinion-formers who clamoured for the invasion believed that all modern societies are evolving towards a single form of government – the type that exists in western countries. If only tyranny was swept away in Iraq, the country would move towards democracy and the rest of the Middle East would follow. Until just a few months ago, some were convinced that a similar process could take place in Syria.

The truth that Gray sees is that ISIS is not a throwback to the seventh century; it is in fact very modern. We in the West can’t see that because our idea of what it means to be modern has to do with secularism, and the separation of Church (Mosque) and State. I think Gray, an unbeliever who has been highly critical of the Ditchkins-style atheists,  would argue — see his book Black Mass — that modernity has been characterized by utopianism shorn of its religious trappings and reified as a political goal. Gray recalls that Lenin once said that the failure of the French Revolution was not to have guillotined more of its opponents for the sake of creating a new France. Writes Gray, “Russia’s misfortune was not in failing to absorb the Enlightenment but in being exposed to the Enlightenment in one of its most virulent forms.” He calls Islamic radicalism in our day not Islamofascism, but “Islamo-Jacobinism.” In his criticism of the Iraq War, Gray characterized liberal democrats like George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and their followers as utopians whose idea of utopia is universal liberal democracy. Just because a crusade is not framed by its architects in religious terms does not mean it lacks a religious core. The communists who preached and who advocated worldwide revolution were every bit as religious in their mode of thought and being as any Muslim revolutionary ready to fight and die for the worldwide caliphate.

It’s hard to know quite how to characterize Muslim groups like ISIS, given that Islam itself sees no distinction between mosque and state. Is ISIS the same old Islam in a new, vicious, and paradoxically modern form? Is it something different, and only superficially religious? Or is this a distinction without a difference? Something in me recoils whenever I hear a bien-pensant, Muslims and non-Muslims both, react to this or that Islamist atrocity by saying that such people are not true Muslims, and their deed is un-Islamic. Oh? Let’s turn that around. In 2005, a video emerged of Bosnian Serb militiamen murdering six Muslim prisoners near Srebrenica a decade earlier:

The video begins with a Serb Orthodox priest blessing the camouflaged paramilitary troops in a boot camp in Bosnia. Later, it shows members of a paramilitary group called the Scorpions taking six emaciated young men out of a truck with their hands tied behind their backs. They are led to a clearing where at least three are shown being shot at close range.

The faces of the perpetrators can be seen and their insults to the scared young Muslims can be clearly heard. The video was shot by a member of the Scorpions.

It grieves and sickens me that a priest dirtied himself by blessing these murderers. True, there is no justification for it in the Christian scriptures, which is not something you can say about the Quran (note here a Muslim scholar arguing that jihad can be something one does to free people “oppressed” by unbelief). But in one sense, that is a meaningless distinction. ask the Christians and the Yazidis of northern Iraq what they believe about Islam. Ask the Bosnian Muslims what true Christianity is. As the Irish Catholics of the Penal Laws era what Anglicanism is. And so forth.

Is a religion what its adherents say it is, or is a religion what its adherents do? When a political entity — the State, let’s say — appropriates the authority of religion to press for a political goal, as the English state did in Ireland with the Penal Laws, to what extent can the acts resulting from that religious claim be justifiably interpreted as an authentically religious act? The line between authenticity and inauthenticity in such matters is blurry and porous. I think it is crucially important to attempt to sharpen it, because it really does matter whether or not a religion sanctifies violence in its name. This is why Catholic Christianity came up with just war theory. Islam also has its own rules about when a war is just. In the United States, Christian abolitionists used Christian arguments to justify waging war on the South to free the slaves, while Southern Christians used Christianity to justify slavery. Which one was authentically Christian? If the South had won the Civil War, would we think differently about that question today? These are important questions to ask, and to attempt to answer.

But it’s easy to do this from the perspective of distance, geographically, culturally, and historically. If I am a Chaldean Christian in 2014 or a Bosnian Muslim in the 1990s or a 17th century Irish Catholic, I don’t have the luxury of teasing out the theological distinctions within the religion of the men who want to oppress and even kill me.

I can’t settle on answers to these questions that satisfy me one way or the other. What do you think? The religious craving in man — that is, a need for transcendent meaning — never goes away, even if formal religion does. A religious community has to set boundaries among its adherents, borders that delineate what is authentic thought and behavior, and what is inauthentic thought and behavior. Again, we return to a fundamental question: is a religion what its believers think, or what its believers do? The late sociologist Robert Bellah believed the latter, and explained in his magisterial 2011 book Religion In Human Evolution where religion comes from, and offered a theory of how it is to be understood. But I digress. As usual. Over to you, readers.