The past couple of decades have spawned numerous interfaith initiatives and centers for interreligious (sometimes, more narrowly, “Muslim-Christian”) understanding. Their premise: to understand is to forgive, and by knowing more about one another, we’ll learn that all religions share a fundamental interest in universal human flourishing. But now and then, we would be better off with less understanding instead of more. The Islamic State’s understanding of Christians has only confirmed its view that the Trinity is a fancy name for polytheism; haters of Islam read the Koran and find that its author commands punitive amputation. The conviction that every sacred text is a long-winded paraphrase of the Golden Rule requires, among other things, a rather low regard for those texts—and not much understanding of them, either. As the events of the past year suggest, they all contain recipes not just for peace but for conflict, which means that as long as there are literal-minded people, religion will likely remain as much a force for the latter as for the former.
Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.