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In a recent appearance on Drew McCoy’s Genetically Modified Skeptic, Filip Holm of Let’s Talk Religion posed an interesting question: Is McCoy doomed to Hell in every religion?

To answer this, he talks to experts on each of five religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism). It’s a great video, both educational and entertaining. And Holm himself is the expert on Islam.

Their conversation made me think about something almost irrelevant: What is “controversial” when it comes to religions?

YouTube video

I wholeheartedly recommend Holm on the topic of Islam and religion and suggest that everyone subscribe to his channel. Holm is a true expert: incredibly informed, as unbiased as humanly possible, and a good writer to boot. When it comes to politics and Shia Islam, I am, slightly paraphrasing Green Goblin, something of an expert myself, and although I have frequent disagreements with Holm, I have never caught him making a factual error or a sloppy argument. This gives me the confidence to trust his works in areas I’m less familiar with as well (especially Sufi Islam, his main focus on expertise). Holm is an international treasure.

So let’s get to the conversation he had with McCoy.

McCoy begins the conversation by asking Holm what kind of a place Hell is in Islam, and also asks if there is a “diversity of opinion” when it comes to the subject. Holm explains that Hell is a place of punishment and gives some general information about it. He correctly points out that Hell is much more prominent in the Qur’an than in the Bible. He then goes on to say something which made me think: “Muslim scholars across history have—of course—interpreted this Hell in many different ways: Is it a physical place? Is the torment there a bodily torment or is it a psychological or spiritual torment? And scholars have been very divided on those kinds of questions as well as questions like: Is Hell temporary, or is it eternal?” (See 30:21-30:42 in the video).

My first instinct was to disagree vehemently. I don’t think that “scholars” (or more accurately apologists, whom I don’t recognize as real scholars) are especially divided on this issue. The prohibitive consensus among Muslim apologists is that Hell is both physical and eternal (as emphasized in the text of the Qur’an multiple times). But then Holm goes on to cite a few people who did believe in the idea of a spiritual Hell, and the caliber of names gave me pause. He cites Avicenna, perhaps the most influential Muslim philosopher of all time. Can I really claim that there is no controversy regarding Hell, I thought, even if someone as important as Avicenna had a dissenting view?

This led me on a mental path where I began contemplating the very concept of “controversial.”

Five kinds of controversy

I reached the conclusion that it’s better to not think of controversy as one thing. It’s better to categorize it, and actually think of different species of controversy as different social entities. I came to the conclusion that there are five kinds of controversy:

  1. Inherent controversy: When the evidence about a phenomenon is unclear, therefore it gives rise to disagreements within the discourse. I believe, for example, that the origin of the COVID-19 disease is such. Was it a lab leak or zoological? I don’t think anyone has access to enough evidence to give a very confident answer. The real evidence is shrouded in mystery right now.
  2. Discursive controversy: The controversy on this issue divides the populace along social, ethical, and political lines. Basically, there is no dominant discourse on this matter on a national or global manner. To demonstrate that this kind of controversy exists, you need to demonstrate that both sides are powerful to some meaningful degree. This might be political power, or simply social capital. For example, I would say that the following issues are controversial in the US: Should we tax the wealthy? The Democrats and Republicans disagree about this. Was the 2020 election legitimate? Even though a very small and negligible minority of elites believe in this conspiracy theory, there are enough adherents among the voters that they have to acquiesce somehow, and the position has some real power and leverage within the discourse. However, the position “women shouldn’t be allowed to vote” is no longer controversial, because it has no real impact and power.
  3. Intellectual controversy: This concerns thought leaders: the clergy (in the case of religion), teachers, scholars, experts, writers, public intellectuals, philosophers: those who basically shape the thinking about an issue. Sometimes it’s easy to demonstrate that there is no controversy. Vaccines are safe and climate change is real: there is no controversy among experts about this, although there is a discursive controversy. Sometimes the controversy manifests itself as schools of thought among these thought leaders. For example, you can make an argument that there is a real division among the scholars of International Relations about whether nuclear weapons are a good thing for world peace or not. Sometimes, a small minority or even one prominent person believes something, but I believe we can still call it a controversy if they force the established position to react and maybe reform itself. After all, for this kind of controversy, it’s much more important to focus on the intellectual merit of the thought and argument rather than the power it holds through number of adherents or political power.
  4. Historical Controversy: There used to be strong disagreements about this issue, but no more. This can be the first variety – something was inherently controversial until we found better evidence. Or maybe the other two kinds. I think the question of women voting is one example, and also slavery and whether it’s good or bad.
  5. Meta-Controversy: I bet when I used the origins of COVID-19 as an example of something that’s inherently controversial, many readers thought “No! Only those racist conspiracy theorists on the right think it can possibly be a lab leak,” or “No! Only those China shills among the woke left think it might not be a lab leak.” This is meta-controversy, which is also what this article has engaged in—a controversy about whether something is controversial or not. It happens a lot, simply because there’s a lot of power in being uncontroversial, and as the great philosopher Louis Althusser observed, all ideologies strive to mask their claims as “obvious” and “natural,” thus labeling everyone disagreeing as either marginal or even “insane.”

But why is it important to differentiate between these types of controversy, especially when it comes to religion? I think that’s because each claim of controversy carries with it an assumption of our reality. I believe that clarifying these will help us explain our own arguments clearer and engage in more transparent and constructive dialogue while muddying the water can either lead to confusion or worse, oppressive erasure.

Take the central issue of God. Does God exist? Engaging in meta-controversy, I would say that it’s obvious that there is a discursive and also an intellectual controversy surrounding this. I would say that if we define God as “an unknown creator or first cause”, then God is extremely unlikely, but it can be a bit inherently controversial, but the idea of the Christian or Muslim God is not – that is clearly false. By taking this meta position, I have made myself clear. People can now disagree or agree, but they know my claims.

But imagine if a religious person says “No one is truly an atheist, we’re all religious in our hearts,” or “the atheists are a very small and insignificant minority.” This religious person not only argues that there is no inherent controversy in the concept of God (which is completely fine) but also lies about the existence of intellectual and discursive controversies, trying to erase their opponent by claiming that their argument is so obvious that no person actually disagrees (which is unethical and a technique of silencing).

Meta-controversy can be used in other political ways too. Especially when people want to defend religions—chief among them Western defenders of Islam, or moderate practitioners of any religion—one way to advance your argument is to claim that there is controversy where there is none.

Take for example the idea of Hell.

I would say, there’s no inherent controversy when it comes to the question “Am I going to Hell in Islam.” Yes, you are. The text is completely clear, and anyone who disagrees is either lying to themselves or to you. (Furthermore, textual absolutism is completely dominant in Islamic discourse, which enables us to rely only on the Qur’an and say that there is no inherent controversy here).

Is there a discursive controversy here? Again, no. It’s not counterfactual to claim that Muslims who don’t believe in a physical eternal Hell are an exceedingly small minority who hold no real power, at least in the most prominent sects and movements of Islam that are globally influential.

Is there an intellectual controversy? Yes, you could say that. Avicenna is no chump, and he has forced Islamic clerics and philosophers to grapple with his arguments about a spiritual metaphorical Hell for centuries to this day. And prominent intellectual Muslim figures have made similar arguments throughout history.

I think you could say that about any of these claims where Islam has an outdated monstrous idea. Is Islam a feminist religion? Is Islam compatible with modernity or democracy? Is Islam tolerant of dissent and apostasy? Does Islam accept gay people? Have people misunderstood jihad, and it’s actually about struggle which can be nonviolent? With all of these questions, you can easily show that there is an intellectual controversy and find a prominent figure who has said something you liked. (Hell, I can think of a few Satanist Muslims off the top of my head). But you’d have a hard time finding actual textual evidence that points toward an inherent controversy—while jihad does mean struggle and can be nonviolent, you’re lying either to yourself or others if you pretend that anytime the word jihad appears in the Qur’an or the Hadith with no qualifier, it’s referring to anything other than war, or claim that 99.99% of the uses refer to something else—or a discursive one, at least in non-diaspora communities.

Also, there are many historical controversies when it comes to Islam. Islam has gone through many phases, and if you look at history, you can see many historical controversies about all manner of things. The unfortunate fact is that they’re mostly resolved and in most cases, the bad guys won.

A problem arises when defenders of religions, especially moderates or their misguided liberal protectors, try to use the existence of intellectual or historical controversies to claim that there is an inherent or discursive controversy. I think these are either silencing tactics or simply shoddy thinking and sloppy arguments. These people usually try to control what you say instead of debunking you.

I respect post-modernists, or any type of radical relativists. If you believe that no text can have a fixed meaning or a range of valid interpretations, all the power to you. However, I think when someone who is not a radical relativist says that the Qur’an can be read as a feminist text because this random person interprets it that way, then they’re engaging in dishonest meta-controversy. I think if someone says non-violence is a major component of Islamic discourse and they cite some Tunisian mystic whose influence has long waned and never extended beyond Africa, they’re mistaking historical or intellectual controversy with a discursive one.

I think we need to describe reality in an honest way. I think if you want to claim that ex-Muslims like me are mistaken about the extent of the problem when it comes to Islam and its hatred of apostates or its intolerant decrees, you need to do more than just give us an example of a philosopher who died nearly a thousand years ago. You need to provide evidence that this liberal and more tolerant position has some real power, and now.

So is Hell a controversial subject when it comes to Islam? Depends on what you mean by “controversial.” I know, an annoying answer, but it’s important to define the word.

An Iranian researcher, writer, and teacher who is an ex-Muslim atheist currently living in one of the theocracies in the world, Iran. Interested in literature, philosophy, and political sciences, especially...