Biblical Violence and Modern Legal Practice

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: The Bible on Apostasy
Part II: Biblical Terrorism: The Story of Phinehas

From Chapter 2: Freethought I: Criticism of Religion

Biblical Violence and Modern Legal Practice

What is the conclusion we have to draw from the previous section? Theologian Raymond Hammer (1920-1994) cites the words that are used when the Bible is presented to the British monarch in the course of the coronation ceremony: “Here is Wisdom; this is the royal Law; these are the lively oracles of God.”[139] They illustrate, so Hammer argues, the value “ascribed to the Bible and indicate that its authority is ultimately the authority attributed to God”: “Because God was held to be holy, the Bible too is described as holy, and terms like ‘holy scriptures’ and ‘sacred writings’ become commonplace.”[140] As Origen (c. 185-254 CE) put it: “The sacred books are not the works of human beings; they were written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at the will of the Father of all through Jesus Christ.”[141]

Now this is all very well as long as we have to deal with precepts such as: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36). But what if the Bible tells stories like those of Phinehas? What if the Qur’an says: “The adulterer and the adulteress shall each be given a hundred lashes” (24:2)? What if the Bible says that the dreamer of dreams “shall be put to death” (Deuteronomy 13:5-6). Can we then say that these are “just stories”? Or that “most people” do not take these passages and stories seriously? But even if that were the case (that most people do not take those stories seriously) do we not have a problem on our hands as long as the authority of some scriptures, based on their “holiness,” is left intact?

That brings me to the question to be found at the opening of this paragraph: what should our conclusion be? A reasonable conclusion, so it seems to me, is that the problem with the idea of a “Holy Scripture” (used as a comprehensive term for the Qur’an and the Bible as well) is that there is always a danger that it fails to educate responsible citizens. There are many passages in Holy Scripture that define people exclusively as members of a religious community. It tells them that their highest moral commitments are those formulated by their own god. As long as the moral injunctions of the religious community are the same as the laws and morals of the national community, the inherently problematic nature of this point of view is obscured. But once they diverge, a problem arises. What should the sincere believer do? What precepts should he follow? Here we have the essence of the religious believer’s problem. This problem is clearly described and also furnished with a solution (although it may not be a good solution) in the biblical and Qur’anic stories. The primary moral responsibility of man is towards his religious community or – what amounts to the same – his God.[142]

Although contemporary states in the Western world are not directly based on religious Scripture they have been developed against the background of theistic culture.[143] And that makes them susceptible to a type of logic that inheres in the great theistic creeds. Not only is Sura 24:2 influential in contemporary Saudi Arabia but Deuteronomy 13 also has some bearing on the actual course of events in the Western world. However, the passage from Deuteronomy probably has less influence in a Western country such as Great Britain than Sura 24:2 has in Saudi Arabia. There are no Christian states (the United States of America, for instance) or Jewish states (Israel, for instance) where the freedom of religion is directly curtailed on the basis of Deuteronomy 13.[144] But let us phrase the question in a slightly different way: is it likely that Deuteronomy 13 still has a degree of influence on our penal law, for instance in clauses about blasphemy? If we phrase the question in this way, the answer is probably affirmative. The Dutch penal code, for example, still has a provision for blasphemy in article 147. This article is almost a dead letter because the Central Prosecutor’s Office does not bring blasphemy cases before the courts. But the possibility still exists and this has something to do with Europe’s religious past. So Deuteronomy 13 (and other passages) certainly exerted an influence in suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the Christian world, although that influence was much more pervasive in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than it is now. From 1559 until 1966 the Catholic Church maintained an Index librorum prohibitorum.[145] Until 1820 the Inquisition was active and deterred many dissidents from heterodoxy and heresy, as we saw in Chapter 1.[146] Should we say that those practices were not in any way related to Christian Holy Scripture? Is there no relationship between passages such as Deuteronomy 13 and the Inquisition? That is hardly credible. Jesus says: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:30).[147] Once we identify society with the “body” and the individual with the “hand” the suggestion arises that the heretic should be eliminated from society in order to forestall the perdition of the whole community, precisely as was advocated in Deuteronomy 13.

Of course, other interpretations are possible. But that is not the point. The point is that an interpretation of the kind that I have presented here is not ludicrous, and this is the way this passage has been interpreted in the past. We may feel more comfortable forgetting this, but that is not a sensible course to follow. In a time when radicalism is on the rise we have to be prepared to accept that some religious believers envisage such radical interpretations.

The same relationship as between the flogging of women in Saudi Arabia and Sura 24:2 is probably also at work here. Again, religion does not exist “per se” (Ramadan) or “en tant que tel” (Meddeb).[148] Religion is not a metaphysical entity in a transcendent realm of ideas, but is a social force that acts on the morals, politics, and judicial system of its believers. Yet, many apologists of religion vehemently deny this. Their reaction is similar to Ramadan’s. Any supposed relationship between the actual suppression of freedom of conscience and the scriptural passages enjoining that course of action (e.g. Deuteronomy 13) is flatly denied. Those practices are “cultural,” and have nothing to do with “religion per se,” most people say. The French author and public intellectual Guy Sorman (1944– ) is probably right when he writes that the contemporary, almost entirely atheistic, West has great difficulties in comprehending a worldview that is almost completely based on religion.[149] But we may wonder whether the apologists of religion are not simply fooling us and, in the first place, themselves. If some believers declare their Scripture to be “holy” it is likely that they really mean what they say: “holy.” And one of the consequences of this is that they consider the content of their Holy Scripture as relevant to their ethical convictions.

Although that insight is not very popular, this should not scare us off. The only thing that should guide us is the truth. The British Germanist, lawyer and mathematician Karl Pearson (1857-1936) once described freethought as “the single-minded devotion to the pursuit of truth.”[150] Whether this is a fruitful definition of “freethought” may be doubted (it is much too broad for one thing), but as the formulation of a noble ideal it may be more convincing.
That ideal should be pursued not only because of the loftiness of the ideal in itself but because an effective reformation of religious thought can only be accomplished on the basis of a realistic estimate of what the problems are.

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


[139] Hammer, Raymond, “Authority of the Bible,” in: Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, The Oxford Guide to Ideas and Issues of the Bible, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2001, pp. 51-54, p. 51.

[140] Ibid., p. 51.

[141] Origen, De principiis 4.9, quoted ibid., p. 52.

[142] A meticulous analysis of what is implied when murder is seen as a religious duty we find in Jansen’s analysis of the theological justification of the murder of Anwar Sadat in October 1981. See: Jansen, Johannes J.G., The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East, Macmillan, London 1986.

[143] See for an overview: Freeman, Charles, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, William Heinemann, London 2002.

[144] This point is forcefully made by Robert Spencer in: Spencer, Robert, Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington DC 2007. For a critique of the thesis that the Christian religion is tolerant see: Assmann, Jan, The Price of Monotheism, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2009.

[145] See: Putnam, George Haven, The Censorship of the Church of Rome and Its Influence upon the Production and Distribution of Literature: A Study of the History of the Prohibitory and Expurgatory Indexes, together with Some Consideration of the Effects of Protestant Censorship and of Censorship by the State, Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish, MT 2003 [1906-1907].

[146] See on heresy in general: Evans, G.R., A Brief History of Heresy, Blackwell, Oxford 2003; Bradlaugh Bonner, Hypatia, Penalties Upon Opinion: Some Records of the Laws of Heresy and Blasphemy, third edition, Watts & Co., London 1934. For a sociological analysis: Kurtz, Lester R., “The Politics of Heresy,” American Journal of Sociology, 88, no. 6 (May, 1983), pp. 1085-115. For heresy in the ancient world: Demant, V.A., “Ancient Heresy and Modern Unbelief,” The Journal of Religion, 27, no. 2, (April, 1947), pp. 79-90.

[147] The Islamic counterpart is here: “Those that deny Our revelations We will burn in Hellfire” (Qur’an 4:56).

[148] Meddeb, “En terre d’islam,” p. 134.

[149] Sorman, Guy, Les Enfants de Rifaa: Musulmans et modernes [The Children of Rifaa: Muslim and Modern], Fayard, Paris 2003, p. 58.

[150] Pearson, Karl, The Ethics of Freethought and Other Addresses and Essays, Abraham and Charles Black, London 1901, p. 107.

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

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