There's been a bit of a tiff over at Roberta's about Muslims and America, in which quite a few smart people have been defending the opinion that Islam is inherently evil, that Muslims are inherently dangerous (at least enough so that a Muslim should be assumed dangerous until he proves himself trustworthy), and that a "good Muslim" is a rarity because of the religion's inherent incompatibility with western values.
One semirepresentative comment from Mr.B says:
Have [your good and decent Muslim friends] explain to you (and if possible, to me) how they can exist in both worlds, and how they can be a good muslim, and follow the words of Mohammed, yet be a good citizen in the US.
One or the other has to fail.
On the drive to work today, it occurred to me exactly what was bothering me so much about these arguments: the people making them sound just like militant atheists. I know the tone and argments very well from my angry-atheist days. "The Bible says you must not suffer a witch to live, so if you call yourself a Christian you're condoning the murder of pagans." "The Bible says a father can sell his daughter into slavery, so if you call yourself a Christian you're condoning the exploitation of children." Repeat for less destructive but sillier things, like bothering yourself with others' sex lives or wearing clothes made with more than one fabric. The bottom line was that, because the religion's source material contains some intolerant, violent, and simply antiquated stuff incompatible with our western values, that fundamentally tainted anybody who professed to follow the religion. Sound familiar?
The problem with all these arguments is that they don't take into account the real-world complexity of human beings, and how those people integrate very old traditions and values into their modern lives. In the end, all religions with any time under their belts will have embarassing, outdated cultural mandates that believers either interpret in ways consistent with modern standards or simply downplay and ignore. In my experience, because of the amount of personalization and interpretation that all people do, a person's religion is a very poor indicator of what kind of person he'll be.
[* - I'm speaking factually, not playing the bigotry card.]