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Define “Muslim” (UPDATED)

UPDATE: See the comments section, particularly Liadnan’s comment and my reply to it. Maybe the news report was even less competent than I thought!

Richard Dawkins has been taken to task at times for his assertion that raising a child in one or another religious tradition is a form of child abuse, as it constitutes an abuse of the trust given one with a child. My friend Marvin and I have been discussing the intricacies of this issue over at his LJ (in the comments, but do read the post!) but I ran across an article online that demonstrates how right Dawkins is about the silliness (and, in this case, outright idiocy) of labeling children by their parents’ religion.

The article in question is titled Pope rejoices over conversions on Easter and in the snippet included where I found the link, it’s claimed that a “prominent Muslim newspaper editor” was baptized on Saturday night. But look a little closer, and you see:

The converts included Magdi Allam, a prominent journalist and commentator in Italy who has received death threats for his denunciations of Islamic fanaticism.

Allam, 55, deputy editor of Corriere della Sera newspaper, was born a Muslim in Egypt, but was educated by Catholics and says he has never been a practicing Muslim. (emphasis mine)

Is this even coherent? If he has never been a practicing Muslim, then what has he been? A non-practicing Muslim? A hereditary Muslim? It just doesn’t make sense. It might make sense to say he was born to a Muslim family but never practiced the religion himself. It might make sense to say he was raised by Muslims, but never practiced Islam. Did he even consider himself Muslim? That’s a tougher question, of course: perhaps he did, but only as a child, when his malleable identity was warped by religious parents. Or maybe his parents urged him not to get too wound up about Islam, but the society in general mandated that Islam was the polite, natural default — like the default Christendom that Kierkegaard railed against so harshly in letters and articles. As I don’t know, I can’t say what a better formulation of that information could be.

But I do know that the above is both nonsensical, and that the fact so few see it that way reflects something very odd (and rather nonsensical, really) about how we think of religion, something Dawkins speaks directly to.

He’s not the first, of course. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill observed that:

…the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes into contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age. Nor is faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same cases which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. (emphasis mine) Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.

What can you say to that?

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