Religious Violence

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 2: Freethought I: Criticism of Religion

Religious Violence

This choice of topic will hardly surprise the reader. There is a growing stack of literature on the topic of religious violence nowadays. It is not difficult to gauge where this literature finds its sources of inspiration. Many countries in the East and West find themselves under terrorist threat. Terrorists are prepared to use violence to realize their aims, intimidating the state and its citizens. With the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York, of March 11, 2004 in Madrid, of July 7, 2005 in London and with the murder of the Dutch writer and filmmaker Theo van Gogh (1957-2004) on November 2, 2004, the association of religion with violence is less strange than it used to be in the 1990s. When a scholar like René Girard (1923- ) in La violence et le sacré [Violence and the Sacred] (1972)[49] focused on the relationship between religion and violence his ideas might at the time of writing have been considered intriguing but a bit eccentric. Nowadays this is demonstrated before our very eyes.[50]

Nevertheless, the situation is ambivalent. Although there is a wide literary canon on religion and violence, at the same time there is a great reluctance among scholars and the public at large to acknowledge that relationship. The “friends of religion” (and these are not only believers themselves) simply cannot accept that religion also has a dark and violent side. To illustrate this let us see how they usually react to what is commonly called “religious terrorism.”[51]

In earlier times violence and intimidation were regarded as necessary for the preservation of religion. A religious war or the torture of a heretic or an infidel was not considered to be morally outrageous, but necessary for the preservation of belief and ultimately the social order. This attitude is not very common nowadays, at least not in the Western world. Nevertheless, that does not mean that people take religion to task when it seems to be connected with violence. What the advocates of religion usually do, is simply deny that religion has anything to do with the violence perpetrated, for example, by religious terrorists. They say: “Religion is only superficially involved in this new type of violence. Terrorism is caused by exclusion, racism, personality disorders, social and economic inequality and lots of other things, but one thing is sure: this violence has nothing to do with religion.” That means that the terms “religious violence” or “religious terrorism” are misnomers.[52]

When freethinkers point out what, according to their analysis, the relationship between religion and violence amounts to, the advocates of religion, in most cases, react with dismay and even indignation. How can anybody be so stupid as not to see that religion is only “superficially” connected with the behavior we all reject? How can we fail to understand that bad men and women “misuse” religion for their own petty ends?[53] If the freethinker persists in his indictments, the advocates of religion usually get more impatient. They accuse him of “insulting” believers and try to silence him through blasphemy laws. Terms like “religious terrorism” or “religious violence” are invented by the enemies of religion, they say, by the secularists, the atheists, people who want to scoff at religion – but religion itself is, by its very nature, pure and pristine. However, as the prominent Islamic scholar, political scientist, and professor of international relations Bassam Tibi (1944- ) rightly stresses when referring to the sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer (1940- ),[54] “Jihadism as ‘terror in the mind of God’ is based on ‘ideals and ideas’ which are ‘authentically and thoroughly’ religious.”[55] Time and again Tibi warns us against the common mistake of underestimating the relationship between contemporary terrorism and its roots in Islamic doctrine, because the Islamist challenge can only be met if we first acknowledge that parts of the Islamic tradition are vitiated by Islamist ideology. Tibi contends this as a Muslim because it is necessary to separate violent tendencies from peaceful tendencies within the Islamic tradition.

Even stronger in her rejection of Islamist radicalism is Nonie Darwish (1948- ), an Egyptian-born American who writes about her experiences in Egypt under sharia law. In her book Cruel and Unusual (2008) she writes:

The West doesn’t get it; they can’t understand this kind of crime [religiously motivated murder]. They cannot call it “terrorism” because the individual Muslim is not linked to al Qaeda. But it is a special kind of terrorism that can be perpetrated under Islamic Sharia by just one individual who feels he is killing in the name of Allah.[56]

These kinds of comments on religion are as unpopular nowadays as the study of the Inquisition in relation to Catholic doctrine used to be. The pioneering work by Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909) was frustrated in this respect by the same opposition as critics and reformers of Islam have to deal with nowadays.[57]

It is one of the ambitions of The Secular Outlook to understand the nature and the implications of the opposition to what might be called an open attitude toward scrutinizing religion. A candid perusal of religion is often rejected as being “merely negative” or motivated by feelings of spite on the part of the researcher. Great pressure is exerted to portray religion only from its most positive side. And the analysis of religion is severely damaged by the reluctance of the general public and the scholarly community alike to treat religion as a phenomenon like any other. The aim of this chapter is to present an analysis of the theistic religions that is fair, which means that it has the ambition to avoid the pussyfooting attitude that is usually taken for granted.

About 2,000 Waldensian Protestants in Calabria, southern Italy, were massacred in 1560 by Catholic troops under Grand Inquisitor Michele Ghisheri, who later became Pope Pius V and was sainted. (Library of Congress print collection)
About 2,000 Waldensian Protestants in Calabria, southern Italy, were massacred in 1560 by Catholic troops under Grand Inquisitor Michele Ghisheri, who later became Pope Pius V and was sainted.

Let us first cast a glance at some classic discussions of this theme in the past.

Father and Daughter

One of the most important historical documents on the subject of religion in relation to the autonomy of morals is a dialogue by Plato, the Euthyphro.[58] This starts with a dramatic scene. Euthyphro has just deposed murder charges against his own father for the death of a servant. Prosecuting your own father on such a charge is quite uncommon and Socrates seems very surprised: “Good heavens! … Euthyphro, most men would not know how they could do this and be right.”[59] Socrates further inquires: “Is then the man your father killed one of your relatives? Or is that obvious, for you would not prosecute your father for the murder of a stranger.”[60] Now Euthyphro is shocked: “It is ridiculous, Socrates, for you to think that it makes any difference whether the victim is a stranger or a relative. One should only watch whether the killer acted justly or not; if he acted justly, let him go, but if not, one should prosecute, even if, that is to say, the killer shares your hearth and table.”[61]

From a perspective of abstract justice Euthyphro may be right. But, at the same time, it seems realistic to suppose that not all of us would act in accordance with his high morals. Philosopher Brand Blanshard (1892-1987), the twin brother of Paul Blanshard whose definition of freethought was quoted at the beginning of this chapter, may have been more realistic when he wrote: “Mothers at murder trials are notorious witnesses that their sons are white souls incapable of such deeds; and the son whose mother has been insulted is not likely to pause for a reflective reply.”[62] Not many people will react with the same witty detachment as Lord North (1732-1792) when confronted with deadly insults aimed at his wife and daughter. It is said that Lord North once, in a theatre, was addressed by someone who said: “Who is that plain-looking woman?” “That, sir,” said the noble lord, “is my wife.” “Oh, no,” said the inquirer, “I mean the one next to her.” “That sir,” said Lord North, “is my daughter. And let me tell you, sir, that we are considered to be three of the ugliest people in London.”[63]

This is superhuman. Most fathers (or husbands) would react differently. Imagine a father who has a lovely daughter, eighteen years old. (This is not particularly difficult to imagine, of course, because most daughters are lovely in their father’s eyes.) One gloomy day the police arrive at this man’s front door. “What’s happened?” he asks. “Your daughter has committed a very serious crime,” they inform him, “homicide.” What is his reaction likely to be?

Every father’s first reaction will be one of indignation and disbelief. This cannot be true. The people accusing his daughter (bystanders, the police, the whole world) must have made a terrible mistake. Why? Because his daughter is no murderer, of course. Every loving father knows that for sure. So his state of disbelief automatically transforms itself into a state of denial.

Now let us take the step over to religion. What do religions have in common with daughters? Every believer knows for sure that God is love, and that religion is the most holy thing in the world. That is the reason why the believer is a believer in the first place. Now here are some strange people who have suddenly come up with stories about the violent aspects of religion: scientists, scholars, free-thinkers, secularists, atheists, and other critics. Their accounts cannot be true. They must be prejudiced by their negative attitude towards the faith. “If my religion had a violent tendency then I myself would be a potential criminal,” the believer will tell us. This is too absurd even to contemplate.

And so the loving father (or loving husband) and the true believer will never accept that their favorites are in any way implicated in gross violence or other atrocious acts. As philosopher Brand Blanshard put it: “Next to romantic love, religion is the area of human life where reason is most easily swept away. Against faith, reason has little chance with the great majority.”[64]

Yet there are differences between fathers and true believers too. In the state of denial that both share, the father is in a less fortunate position than the true believer. That has to do with the nature of reality. Daughters are humans, that is, physical entities. So homicide, as punishable by law, is also something that can be empirically verified. And that means the loving father, however reluctantly, may have to face the dreadful fact of his daughter’s guilt if the evidence is as strong as the police contend, and, in particular, if that evidence satisfies a judge and jury.

The situation of the true believer in a state of denial is more promising. That has to do with the nature of religion. Religion is not – as daughters are – something that can be empirically perceived. Religion is a mental, not a spatiotemporal thing. Religion is mental, because ideas are mental. So, whether the motives of religious terrorists are truly “religious” is a matter of interpretation. And for the true believer, so it seems, there are always escape routes. He or she can always (and will often) say: “it was not religion, it was someone’s culture, social position, mental condition and or any one of a host of other things”; it was anything but religion that was the cause of the trouble.[65]

This attitude was aptly formulated by the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), himself an agnostic, when he said:

The truly religious element of Religion has always been good; that which has proved untenable in doctrine and vicious in practice, has been its irreligious element; and from this it has been undergoing purification.[66]

This is a revealing sentence. Religion is good, according to Spencer. What seems bad in religion is simply “irreligious.”

What distinguishes a freethinker from the true believer – and also from the agnostic of the Spencerian[67] kind – is that he is not automatically prepared to do what Spencer proposes. Freethinkers take a different stance. They say: “What socially manifests itself as religion is part of that religion.” In other words: if people who profess to subscribe to a religion commit violence and refer to their religion in legitimating that violence, we should at least make a serious effort to analyze whether there is a relationship between that violence and that religion.

Of course, numbers count. You cannot say a religion is violent because only a few believers make a totally unwarranted connection between their criminal behavior and their religion. But if, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, witches, heretics, and infidels were burnt at the stake and religious and political leaders adduced theological reasons from scripture in support of such punishments, you cannot say: “that had nothing to do with religion.”[68] In those days Christianity was a violent religion. Because nowadays witches, heretics, and infidels are no longer burned, we can say that contemporary Christianity is much less violent than its sixteenth- and seventeenth-century predecessor. But what we should not do – as the apologists of religion want us to do – is to say that because nowadays Christianity has lost many of its violent characteristics the violence perpetrated in earlier times had nothing to do with religion.

I personally think that freethinkers, adopting the critical attitude, are on firmer ground than the believers and those who have “belief in belief” (a phrase introduced by Daniel Dennett)[69] who categorically deny any relationship between religion and violence. A religion does not simply exist in the fantasy of some of its enlightened followers, it also manifests itself in the real world.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[49] Girard, René, Violence and the Sacred, translated by Patrick Gregory, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1977.

[50] See on this: Selengut, Charles, Sacred Fury. Understanding Religious Violence, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, 2003; Haught, James A., Holy Hatred. Religious Conflicts of the ’90s, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 1995; Haught, James, A., Holy Horrors. An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 1990.

[51] Guiora, Amos N., Fundamentals of Counterterrorism, Wolters Kluwer, Austin, TX 2008, p. 8 defines terrorism as: “the killing, injuring, or intimidation of, or causing property damage to innocent civilians by an individual or group seeking to advance a social, political, economic, or religious cause.” In most of the commentaries the “religious cause” is underestimated or even flatly denied. Not by Guiora, though, who states that “religion is certainly a primary motivator for modern terrorists” (p. 3). For the definition of terrorism, see also: Coady, C.A.J., “Defining Terrorism,” in: Igor Primoratz, ed., Terrorism. The Philosophical Issues, Palgrave, Macmillan, Basingstoke 2004, pp. 3–15 and Primoratz, Igor, “Terrorism,” in: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu, 2007, pp. 1–31.

[52] See for another approach: Phillips, Melanie, Londonistan. How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within, Gibson Square Books, London 2006; Laqueur, Walter, Krieg dem Westen. Terrorismus im 21. Jahrhundert [War on the West. Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century], Propyläen, München 2003; Tibi, Bassam, Kreuzzug und Djihad: Der Islam und die christliche Welt [Crusade and Jihad: Islam and the Christian World], Goldman, München 2001 (1999).

[53] An intermediate position is defended by: Steffen, Lloyd, Holy War, Just War: Exploring the Moral Meaning of Religious Violence, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham 2007.

[54] See: Juergensmeyer, Mark, Terror in the Mind of God. The Global Rise of Religious Violence, third edition, University of California Press, Berkeley 2003; Juergensmeyer, Mark, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to Al Qaeda, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2008.

[55] Tibi, Bassam, Political Islam, World Politics and Europe: Democratic Peace and Euro-Islam versus Global Jihad, Routledge, London 2008, p. 98.

[56] Darwish, Nonie, Cruel and Unusual, Thomas Nelson, Nashville 2008, p. 146.

[57] See on Lea: Tollebeek, Jo, Writing the Inquisition in Europe and America: The Correspondence between Henry Charles Lea and Paul Fredericq (1888–1908), Koninklijke Academie van België, Brussel 2004.

[58] See: Taylor, A.E., Plato. The Man and his Work, Methuen & Co, London 1977 (1926), p. 151 and Kretzmann, Norman, “Abraham, Isaac, and Euthyphro: God and the Basis of Morality,” in: Eleonore Stump and Michael J. Murray, eds., Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions, Blackwell Publishers, Malden 1999, pp. 417–427.

[59] Plato, Euthyphro, 4a, in: Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1997, pp. 1–17, p. 3.

[60] Plato, Euthyphro, 4b.

[61] Plato, Euthyphro, 4c.

[62] Blanshard, Brand, Four Reasonable Men: Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Henry Sidgwick, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT 1984, p. 259.

[63] Lucas, F.L., The Art of Living: Four Eighteenth-Century Minds: Hume, Horace Walpole, Burke, Benjamin Franklin, Cassell, London 1959, p. 139 n.

[64] Blanshard, Four Reasonable Men, p. 105.

[65] This is clearly noticeable e.g. in: Gresh, Alain, L’Islam, la République et le Monde [Islam, the Republic and the World], Fayard, Paris 2006, p. 54 and 59.

[66] Spencer, Herbert, “The Reconciliation,” in: Andrew Pyle, ed., Agnosticism. Contemporary Responses to Spencer and Huxley, Thoemmes Press, Bristol 1995, pp. 1–19, p. 3.

[67] Spencer’s agnosticism should be carefully distinguished from agnosticism as understood by Huxley. See Huxley, Thomas Henry, “Agnosticism.”

[68] On witchcraft and its suppression see: Lecky, W.E.H., History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe, Vol. I, Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, London 1865, pp. 1–150.

[69] Dennett, Daniel C., Breaking the Spell, p. 200 ff. See also: Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, p. 20: “These people may not be religious themselves, but they love the idea that other people are religious.”

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

The Dark Side Of Religion – Hitchens

What Are the Arguments Against Religion? A. C. Grayling on the Case for Humanism

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here