Are monotheistic religions inherently violent?

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

Part I: How to Discover a Relationship between Religion and Violence

From Chapter 2: Freethought I: Criticism of Religion

Religion “per se”

There is a second point that Ramadan addresses. This second point is only made in passing in the first quote from his article, more by way of suggestion than as an explicit argument. He seems to insinuate that, although it may be possible to quote violent passages from holy books and holy traditions, one is not justified in concluding from this that those religions are violent “per se.” This may seem an insignificant distinction but, in fact, it is very important indeed. Ramadan suggests that we should distinguish between, first, the actual consequences that are drawn from a religion and some passages in its holy book and, second, that “religion per se.” A “religion per se,” in his worldview, seems to be something that remains untouched by the social manifestations of that religion and the possibly violent passages in the texts of revelation. I therefore propose to dub this the “metaphysical conception of religion” in contrast to what one might label the “empirical conception of religion.” What worries Ramadan is that Hirsi Ali apparently refuses to subscribe to the metaphysical notion of religion, to the religion “per se.” Hirsi Ali is indicted with playing a false game: she wants to judge and possibly reject a religion on the basis of its unwelcome manifestations, the contents of its holy books, and the attitude of its believers, whereas, according to Ramadan, we have to judge a religion on what might be called its “per-se character” or its metaphysical dimension.

It seems Ramadan is under the same spell as Herbert Spencer in the passage I quoted before: “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.”[86] This is also the case of the loving father who cannot believe that the apple of his eye has done something atrocious. The belief that religion is in essence good, whatever the social manifestations of that religion may be, is so tenacious that it resembles the religious position itself.

This phenomenon – or something similar to this – has also been analyzed by Theodore Dalrymple (1949- ) in his book Life at the Bottom (2001)[87] with regard to people from the “underclass.” Dalrymple was struck by the fact that people living on the lower rungs of society frequently share a common worldview. They are all determinists who think they are not responsible for their own lives and their own actions. “The murderer claims the knife went in or the gun went off.”[88] Dalrymple noticed that criminals, when explaining their deeds, often use the expression “It wasn’t me.”[89]

Here is the psychobabble of the slums, the doctrine of the “Real Me” as refracted through the lens of urban degradation. The Real Me has nothing to do with the phenomenal me, the me that snatches old ladies’ bags, breaks into other people’s houses, beats up my wife and children, or repeatedly drinks too much and gets involved in brawls. No, the Real Me is an immaculate conception, untouched by human conduct: it is that unassailable core of virtue that enables me to retain my self-respect whatever I do.[90]

This sounds familiar, does it not? We find this also in the work of Karen Armstrong (1944-). Her book The Case for God (2009) has an interesting subtitle: “What Religion Really Means.”[91] The crucial word here is “really.” What does it mean? Is there a difference between “what religion means” and “what religion really means”? I think there is. The word “really” tends to suggest that Armstrong will be not presenting us with all the manifestations of religion, but only with those which put religion in a favorable light. Those manifestations that do not put religion in a favorable light are seen as not “really” part of religion.

This is also the way Ramadan talks about his religion. In introducing this pristine and metaphysical “per se” notion of religion, always unaffected by the vicissitudes of religion in this empirical world, Ramadan makes several metaphysical claims that need to be studied and analyzed thoroughly. It is certainly not only Ramadan whose commentaries are based on this distinction. Although far more critical than Tariq Ramadan even as accomplished an Islamic scholar as Abdelwahab Meddeb (1946- ) seems to be under the spell of that dubious metaphysical idea that a religion has a pristine core (l’islam en tant que tel [Islam as such]) that remains uncorrupted by its social manifestations in this world.[92]

Muslim Indonesian woman caned for getting ‘too close’ to her boyfriend. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP)

We should be on our guard with this distinction. In contrast to the “metaphysician of religion” (Ramadan), we may distinguish the “empiricist of religion” (the freethinker or in this discussion Hirsi Ali). The empiricist of religion will say: there is no “religion per se” apart from the manifestations of that religion. A religion is what is written about in the holy book and what the believers act upon. There is no mysterious entity “religion per se” distinct from the texts of the holy book and the behavior of its devotees. The metaphysical approach to religion must be rejected.

There is a famous quote attributed to Gandhi: “God has no religion.” There are many interpretations of this paradoxical but also witty expression. The one I would favor is that what God means by “religion” we will never know.[93] We have to deal with the religion of man, not with the religion of God; with what man has made of religion. What we “see” of the Jewish religion, the Christian religion, the Muslim religion is all “man-made.”

Perhaps these distinctions will strike the reader as overly subtle, scholastic or whatever you want to call them. The fact that I have to introduce them, though, is because that “per se” notion of religion is enormously influential. As a matter of fact, these distinctions are not specifically mine. They are made and held by writers like Ramadan himself, although unconsciously and with no idea of their dubious character. That there is a “religion per se” apart from the social manifestations of a religion is simply presupposed by many people active in this debate.

Textual Relativism

That brings me to a remark about the British historian and social critic Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) made by the Catholic writer and essayist G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton wrote of Carlyle: “he startled men by attacking not arguments but assumptions.” Chesterton continued: “He simply brushed aside all the matter which the men of the nineteenth century held to be incontrovertible, and appealed directly to the very different class of matters which they knew to be true. He induced men to study less the truth of their reasoning and more the truth of the assumptions upon which they reasoned.”[94]

This is an important observation because both Chesterton and Carlyle appear to have understood that people are deeply influenced by ideas that they do not explicitly argue for but that are presupposed in their reasoning. That is no different in the twenty-first century than in the nineteenth. One of the most widespread assumptions of the twenty-first century in the Western world, and one which pertains to our topic, is that Scripture has no authority over us in the sense that we are not forced into this or that interpretation of a text on the basis of the content of the text itself. In the Western world, under the aegis of postmodernism, we are almost all “textualist relativists,” in the sense that we think that we can interpret texts any way we like. This textual relativism is intimately related to a more general form of relativism disseminated by intellectuals like Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and among the earlier thinkers Friedrich Nietzsche.[95] That Ramadan also writes under the spell of this typically post-modern conviction is clear from the rhetorical question that follows the introduction of his “per se” notion. “Is it difficult to understand,” so he asks rhetorically with regard to the matter of the violent character of religion, “that this is a question of interpretation …?”

At the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche criticized positivism on the grounds that there were no “facts,” as positivists supposed, only “interpretations.”[96]


It may safely be said that these words had a disastrous influence on scholarly discourse in the twentieth century. Chiefly because Nietzsche added that we do not even have to try to establish facts.[97] This led people to believe that words can mean anything we want them to mean. It made the semantics of Humpty Dumpty current.

Humpty Dumpty is a character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871). Humpty Dumpty uses the word “glory” in a highly idiosyncratic manner.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t know – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’ ” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything.[98]

So Alice was too puzzled to present an adequate reaction to semantic relativism. But should we all be too puzzled to say anything? Should semantic laissez-faire have the final word? The most straightforward answer to Ramadan would be that it is difficult to understand that it is all a matter of interpretation because this simply is not true. As human rights scholar Jack Donnelly says: “We need not – and should not – hold that all ‘interpretations’ are equally plausible or defensible. They are interpretations, not free associations or arbitrary stipulations.”[99] Philosopher John Searle (1932- ) is even more critical of semantic relativism. If, as Nietzsche says, “There are no facts, only interpretations,” then what makes one interpretation better than another cannot be that one is true and the other false, but, for example, “that one interpretation might help overcome existing hegemonic, patriarchal structures and empower previously underrepresented minorities.”[100] Nietzsche’s “Humpty Dumptian” remark, endlessly repeated and ruminated by whole departments of literary studies,[101] is not convincing. Nevertheless, it is hugely influential. According to the famous French philosopher Michel Foucault “Truth is a thing of this world. It is produced only by multiple forms of constraint and that includes the regular effects of power.”[102] So Humpty Dumpty is right: the only question is “which is to be the master?” When you claim to have truth, you are trying to get power and control over other people, that is how Timothy Keller (1950- ) summarizes this way of thinking is his book The Reason for God (2008).[103] “Foucault was a disciple of Nietzsche,” as Keller says. And a disciple of Humpty Dumpty as well, as I would like to add.

Ramadan seems also to be under the spell of these postmodern convictions. Most often, these are not explicitly argued for, but are presupposed in every kind of discourse. People are under the spell of unarticulated presuppositions, like the people criticized by Carlyle in the nineteenth century. And these presuppositions are highly questionable. It is simply not true that we can interpret away all problematic texts.[104] The reason is that some texts are quite clear. There may be an element of ambiguity or vagueness in some texts,[105] but the unarticulated notion of postmodernism that Ramadan and many others bring to the conclusion that texts can have any meaning we want them to have is simply unconvincing.[106]

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

Part III: Can Translation Mitigate All Immoral Passages in Scripture?

[86] Spencer, “The Reconciliation,” p. 3.

[87] Dalrymple, Theodore, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago 2001.

[88] Ibid., p. ix.

[89] Ibid., p. 10.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Armstrong, Karen, The Case for God: What Religion Really Means, The Bodley Head, London 2009.

[92] Meddeb, Abdelwahab, “En terre d’islam” [On Islamic Soil], in: André Glucksmann, Nicole Bacharan, Abdelwahab Meddeb, La plus belle histoire de la liberté [The Most Beautiful History of Freedom], Éditions du Seuil, Paris 2009, pp. 123-167, p. 134: “les archaïsmes que l’on attribue à l’islam appartiennent bien plus souvent aux sociétés patriarcales dans lesquelles la religion opère ou s’invente qu’à l’islam en tant que tel” [The archaisms that are attributed to Islam more often belong to the patriarchal societies in which the religion operates or was made up rather than to Islam as such].

[93] Which also finds some support with believers. See: McGrath, A Brief History of Heaven, p. 3: “Our knowledge of God is accommodated to our capacity.”

[94] Chesterton, G.K., “Thomas Carlyle,” 1902, in: The Essential G.K. Chesterton, introduced by P.J. Kanavagh, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1987, pp. 3-7, p. 5. See also: Searle, John R., “Rationality and Realism, What is at stake?” Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 122, no. 4 1993, pp. 55-83, p. 60: “We cannot discover the essential elements of the Western Rationalistic Tradition just by studying the doctrines of the great philosophers. Often the important thing is not what the philosopher said but what he took for granted as too obvious to need saying.”

[95] See on this: Scruton, Roger, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, Encounter Books, New York 2007, p. 75 ff.

[96] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Werke IV, Aus dem Nachlass der Achtzigerjahre, Briefe (1861-1889) [Works Vol. IV, From the Remains of the Eighties, Letters (1861-1889)], ed. Karl Schlechta, Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main 1969, p. 495.

[97] Ibid.

[98] Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking-Glass, in: Lewis Carroll, Complete Works, Vintage Books, Random House, New York 1976, pp. 138-277, p. 214.

[99] Donnelly, Jack, “Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly, 6 1984, pp. 400-419, p. 408. See also: Dundes Renteln, Alison, “The Unanswered Challenge of Relativism and the Consequences for Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly, 7, no. 4 1985, pp. 514-540.

[100] Searle, “Rationality and Realism, What is at stake?” p. 71. See for a good example of the kind of views that Searle had in mind in writing his critique: Goldstone, Brian, “Violence and the Profane: Islamism, Liberal Democracy, and the Limits of Secular Discipline,” Anthropological Quarterly, 80 no. 1 2007, pp. 207-235.

[101] See on this: Young, R.V., At War with the Word. Literary Theory and Liberal Education, ISI Books, Wilmington, DE 1999; Windschuttle, Keith, The Killing of History. How Literary Criticism and Social Theorists Are Murdering our Past, Encounter Books, San Francisco 1996; Kimball, Roger, Tenured Radicals. How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago 1998 (1991); Tallis, Raymond, Enemies of Hope: A Critique Contemporary Pessimism, Irrationalism, Anti-Humanism and Counter-Enlightenment, Macmillan, Basingstoke 1997 and Sokal, Alan and Bricmont, Jean, Impostures Intellectuelles [Intellectual Impostures], Éditions Odile Jacob, Paris 1997. In French postmodern studies the influence of Nietzsche is so pervasive that philosophers who do not enter the fold feel compelled to declare why. See: Boyer, Alain, ed., Pourquoi nous ne sommes pas nietzschéens [Why We Are Not Nietzscheans], Grasset, Paris 1991.

[102] Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, Pantheon, New York 1980, p. 131.

[103] Keller, Timothy, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Riverhead Books, New York 2008, p. 37.

[104] See on this issue also: Thatcher, Adrian, The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden 2008.

[105] See: Bix, Brian, Law, Language, and Legal Determinacy, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1993.

[106] See for a criticism of postmodern relativism: Gellner, Ernest, Reason and Culture. The Historic Role of Rationality and Rationalism, Blackwell, Oxford 1992; Searle, “Rationality and Realism, What is at stake?”

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

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