Ryan Cooper makes an interesting point today at The Washington Monthly:
The case for jihad as some kind of special radicalizing force is rooted in the fact of Islamist terrorism and analysis of the more violent parts of the Koran. I don’t buy this. From my nonbeliever point of view, the major religious traditions have very many potential interpretations, and which ones are dominant depend greatly on the social conditions of the age. Indeed, Razib Khan makes a persuasive case that the content of religious texts is essentially irrelevant: “The key insight of cognitive scientists is that for the vast majority of human beings religion is about psychological intuition and social identification, and not theology.”
That may be too strong. But it is surely the case that the social context of a particular religion is enormously influential over which doctrines are expressed in mainstream religious circles and which are forgotten. Who today bothers with Leviticus 19:19, which forbids planting two kinds of seed in the same plot?
The answer to that last question is, of course, some people. But it is hardly viewed as being a central religious teaching, even among Jews. There are other aspects of the tradition that are far more central to Jewish self-identification.
And this has always been the case with Christianity as well. The internal tensions among the texts of the Christian tradition have produced multiple interpretations that are often mutually incompatible. What creates a particular dominant tradition has far more to do with the social context in which the interpretation takes place than with any objective assessment of what the core elements of Christian identity are. When, in 1oo years, opposition to homosexuality seems as backward and antiquated as support of slavery seems today, it will not be because Christian discovered that they had always been objectively wrong on the question, but because they will be asking questions of Christian responsibility in a changed context.
And of course this pertains to Islam as well, as the quote above indicates. As a scholar of religion, this strikes me as so self-evident that I'm often surprised it needs stating, but we keep coming back around to the same questions again and again, buffetted by loudmouths on both the left and the right, and so periodically, it does need restatement.