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I’ve heard a lot of arguments recently by people who insist whatever they believe about Islam is the “real Islam” and Muslims who don’t follow it aren’t “true Muslims”. Some critics are willfully ignorant of all the varying sects who ironically use the same argument to persecute each other. Each see themselves as the “true” followers of the “correct” interpretation of the Quran and other venerated scripts, e.g. the Wahabiists condemn the Shia as heretics. But to the typical social media swimmer, Islam is a single, homogenous, monolithic (and fanatically ominous) belief system, and the hinting is that Islam somehow is a cohesive authoritative organization, one that you either follow exactly or don’t belong. This thinking is a rhetorical separation of the goats from the sheep so Islam itself can be vilified without the accusation of bigotry.

Being a Roman Catholic, I intimately understand the weight of such wholesale judgment. People who use this thinking would never, ever think of themselves as bigots, and there’s always the “I have dear friends who are …” and other caveats. But in the end, to them we are either human beings with our own minds and free will, or we are puppets to the Pope, the Nicene Creed, the Bible (or their interpretation of it rather), and every damning statement that ever came out of the Holy See. We are either hypocrites or automatons — there is no in between — and therefore the Church is an evil cult.

Like with Islam, the accuser stacks the deck with a reasoning that keeps the mind closed tight — Catholicism (or Islam, or anything for that matter) becomes defined by one’s prejudices. By logical error, you cannot demonstrate any case in which a person or incident contradicts the assumption, because the moment it does, it’s labeled outside the definition.

The accuser also uses their own string of bad logic, where if scripture says something that leads to some conclusion (in the accuser’s mind) that people who don’t accept the conclusion cannot be believers. This mindset denies that scripture can be interpreted many ways, and people can choose to reject it’s authority as infallible altogether (gasp!) and still follow the general meaning, traditions, and culture that fall under the umbrella of the religion. This also denies that people who follow a religion have free will to follow it their own way, and differing sects or denominations are aberrations instead of an obvious norm.

The insistence of one’s definition is just plain offensive, since it cannot possibly be unanimously accepted by all those being labelled. It is telling other people how they should define themselves, including how they should interpret their own scriptures. Imagine going to a non-denominational Christian gathering and telling all the people who don’t believe the world was created in seven 24-hour periods they have to leave because they aren’t “truly” Christian. Sure, some Christians would agree, but others would rightfully take offense. That would be like saying climatologists who don’t believe enough in AGW aren’t scientists. Sadly, that game is being played as well, in an arena that otherwise depends on dissent and new theories for progress. The evil comes from both ends. We have bigots forcing their definition onto huge numbers of people and “undefining away” anyone who doesn’t fit their expectations, and fanatics within pressing the same argument onto their flock, persecuting all else as apostates and heretics. Can there be a middle ground, where people are neither assembly-line believers nor outcasts?

Earlier this year, Stern magazine published a poll that showed only 39 percent of Germany’s Catholics trust the pope and 34 percent trust the Catholic church as an institution. And yet they are Catholics by any ordinary definition. They call themselves Catholics, may faithfully go to church, may even be clergy. But in a black-and-white view, they could be considered hypocrites and therefore “don’t count”. Within the Church itself, there are those who insist that if you don’t accept everything the Church declares as infallibly unquestionable, then you’re playing games picking and choosing what you want and what you don’t — a “Cafeteria Catholic”.

Ironically, it is the very existence of “Cafeteria Catholics” that PROVES the Church is not an oppressive shepherd of sheep all cut from the same cloth. People can point to excommunication, but only in principle, since you’re more likely to meet the President of the United States than anyone who has actually been given the papal axe. You can selectively quote passages and encyclicals until you’re blue in the face, but it only proves what YOU think Catholics should and do believe. Yes, there are hard-nosed conservatives in the clergy, and like any gathering of two or more, you can probably find fanatics in the pews if you look hard enough. But when is all is said and done, there is no policy of oppression or practice of disenfranchisement toward the countless divorced and remarried, the unwed or abortive mothers, gays, or those who eat meat on Good Friday.

Today, imams and other Muslims who speak out against terrorism are considered exceptions to the rule. But hundreds of millions of Muslims do not consider killing non-believers as part of their religion, and are proof that Islam is not the either/or proposition put forth by “experts” whose only expertise is the half-truths of hate speech.

But let’s not give everyone a free pass. Fanatics do exist. Cults very much exist. There are groups that habitually do not allow doubt or dissent, take their scripture literally, their leader’s mandates with authority, and the consequence is exile, persecution, or shame. There are extremist groups that are Islamic, Christian, Atheist, corporate, political, New Age, pseudo-scientific, and combinations thereof. This alone tells us cultism is the extremism, not the preferred form it takes. The biggest error is to condemn the larger ideology for the specific fanaticism, since by that standard, there is no one alive that could not be condemned by his associations.