Freethinkers are right to contend that religion deserves to be criticized

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

Some Objections

This chapter on religious criticism as the second pillar of freethought would not be complete without a discussion of some objections to what has been argued. The aim of Chapter 2 was to show that freethinkers are right to contend that religion deserves to be criticized. One of the most important reasons for religious criticism nowadays is that there appears to be a relationship between religion and violence. With regard to “religion” I have to make a caveat though. This is that, strictly speaking, I am not talking about religion in general or even about all religions in general, but about one specific type of religion, viz. theism.[159]

Theism has already been analyzed provisionally in Chapter 1 because such an analysis was necessary to the understanding of the nature of “atheism,” or rather “non-theism,” as we have seen. Atheism, in the sense that I have defined the concept, is intimately linked with theism. It is not simply a critique of religion in general; it is a-theism, so a denial of theism. The nature of theism will be further discussed in the opening section of Chapter 4, where some of its elements will be delineated by reference to an important Christian document: the Apostles’ Creed.[160] Nevertheless, we already have a rough idea of theism on the basis of what has been said in Chapters 1 and 2.

One of the things that make theism problematic is that it is easily interpreted as the doctrine that a personal god exists who has revealed his will in Holy Scripture, which must be followed no matter what the consequences may be. I have illustrated this by referring to some examples derived from two important Holy Scriptures: the Qur’an and the Bible. The first example was Qur’an 24:2 stating that an adulterer and an adulteress should each be punished by whipping (the subject of debate between Ramadan and Hirsi Ali). A second example was a text from Deuteronomy 13:5-6, indicating that a prophet who seduced the people of Israel to adore strange gods should be put to death.

The example from the Bible was backed up by another passage from the Bible, but this time a “story”: the story of Phinehas, as told in Chapter 25 of the book of Numbers. Phinehas is an interesting figure, because he murdered two people (one of his fellow Israelite men and a woman from a different tribe) whom he deemed guilty of adoring false gods (i.e. not the god of Israel). The legitimate authority, Moses, did not act in the manner that Phinehas thought appropriate, i.e. did not carry out a swift execution without legal process. So Phinehas took the law into his own hands and did precisely that, killing those who had violated the law of God. We have also seen that the Lord, according to the story, did not disapprove of what Phinehas had done but had even rewarded him.

By referring to the story of Phinehas I have not only tried to demonstrate that Holy Scripture sometimes advocates atrocious acts (this point could be illustrated by other examples as well),[161] but to give an idea of the sort of person who could be called a “religious terrorist.” A religious terrorist is someone who defies the legitimate state authorities, does not acknowledge the law of the state, and, based on Scripture or some other religious source, draws his own conclusions, even if these are radical indeed.[162]

(Credit: Phillip Medhurst Bible Pictures / Flickr)
(Credit: Phillip Medhurst Bible Pictures / Flickr)

So far, I have simply given a summary of the argument developed in Chapter 2. Now, there are three more or less common reactions to my argument, and we have to discuss those reactions before we can proceed to the next chapter.

Those reactions are: first, “I am convinced because your argument is flawless”; second, “I am not convinced because you overestimate the role of religion”; and third, “I am not convinced because you underestimate the difference between Islam and Christianity.”

Let me start with the reaction that I myself would favor most. It is possible that someone takes cognizance of my arguments and is really convinced. He or she perhaps says: “I had not canvassed the matter thoroughly, so I was inclined to go along with the common prejudice that all the evil that is done in the name of religion is in reality external to it. Now, however, I am convinced that religion has a part in evil. There is something in the theistic religion that stimulates or invites some immoral acts. We had better acknowledge this, because only when we do, will we be able to purify religion of those elements. If, on the contrary, we turn a blind eye to these elements and stubbornly refuse to take notice of them, we will find that we have religious terrorists in our midst who perpetrate terrible acts that we can only consider with utter amazement, while we should have been warned by what we had seen before.”

Such a reaction would be wonderful, of course, because it would testify to the fact that my arguments have been convincing. There is no greater compliment one can pay to a philosopher. People who have this reaction will doubtless be curious to see what solutions I will present for the precarious predicament we are in.

Yet it is perhaps not very realistic to expect this to be the reaction of the majority of the people who read this book. What I expect is that many people will have one of the two other reactions I have suggested, because they are common reactions and, I fear, perhaps more common than I consider justified and fair.

The second reaction my book may elicit is that of those people who think religion has no real influence on what happens in the world. They will say that it is not a problem that old books sometimes tell strange stories or advocate some highly dubious behavior because no sensible person would take these stories seriously anyway. This group is composed of believers and unbelievers alike. Why unbelievers tend to think along these lines is clear: unbelievers tend to underestimate the importance of Holy Scripture. They are unbelievers, after all. They find it difficult to understand that people are seriously convinced that mingling should be punished by lashes simply because this is prescribed in an old book. And that people should be killed because they have changed their religion (“Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord,” Numbers 25) will be considered by many people as utterly repulsive. Similarly, taking the law into your own hands and carrying out these cruel prescripts, as Phinehas did, is something that most moral agents would never dream of doing. But here comes my point: this is in fact so far beyond the wildest dreams of ordinary people that they tend to think that nobody takes Scripture seriously if it prescribes immoral conduct. And so they are not in the least worried by the draconian measures prescribed in Scripture. They belittle the significance of this cruelty by telling us that it is only a “matter of interpretation.” The overwhelming majority of believers, so they will tell us, are not inclined to perpetrate immoral acts on the basis of Scripture.[163] The conclusion they draw from this fact is that because numerically the extremists are such a small group we should not worry too much about those stories, which are considered to be “just stories” or “just texts.”

What should we say to this second group of readers? In fact, they have already been answered. I have shown that Sura 24:2 certainly has a modicum of influence in some places of the world (to put it cautiously). There are places in the world, for instance, where Sura 24:2 is even more important than the law of the land. That is because the law of the land has always to be interpreted in light of Sura 24:2 and, if it contradicts Sura 24:2, is considered illegitimate.

That brings me to a third group of readers. Like the members of the second group, they are not convinced by my argument – but for different reasons. The members of this third group have not been answered yet, and will more or less argue as follows. They will say: “All right, you made your point with Sura 24:2, but with the biblical passage from Deuteronomy and the story of Phinehas you were less convincing.” This group will point out that there is a “great difference” between the Qur’an and the Bible. They are both called “holy books” and at a superficial level there are some similarities, but the differences are greater than the similarities. And these differences are especially important for the matter of religious violence.

There is a host of differences that one can refer to, and my list of these disparities will not be exhaustive, but sufficient to understand what the matter is all about.

It may be possible to say: “The Bible is not one book, but two. And the second book, the New Testament, has mitigated the stern passages from the first book, the Old Testament.”

It is clear that Christians (though not orthodox Jews) are likely to refer to the “two-books-argument.” So in response to the story of Phinehas from the Old Testament it would be possible to point to Romans 13:1-8 from the New Testament. It is an important passage so I will quote it at length:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

This seems a good answer to the “anarchistic” story of Phinehas who rebelled against the legitimate authority of Moses. If Phinehas had read Romans 13, he could have known that he should not have resisted the authority of Moses who was governing him.

It would also be possible perhaps to point to the well-known passage on Caesar and God. Matthew 22:21 formulates it as follows: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In taking this passage as our point of departure and not Romans 13, it might be possible to argue, perhaps, that Phinehas was a kind of “spiritual authority” and that Moses was the worldly leader. Phinehas should not have become involved in anything as worldly as the administration of earthly justice. That was the province of Moses. Phinehas should only have proclaimed that the Israelites who prayed to the wrong gods forfeited their place in heaven or became liable for punishment in the world hereafter. But by claiming worldly power he violated the principle of the separation of church and state that Jesus Christ had so famously inaugurated.

A second difference between the Bible and the Qur’an that is often referred to is that the Bible does not speak directly to people in our time. Its message is, so to speak, more indirect. To substantiate that contention one can, again, refer to the story of Phinehas. This is a story. And stories have to be interpreted. The Bible does not tell contemporary Christians or contemporary Jews that they should now kill all the apostates or those who want to change from one religion to another. The story from Deuteronomy tells us something about Jewish history. And perhaps not even that.

The same could be said about the story of Abraham, which will be analyzed in Chapter 4 of this book. This is nothing more than a story. God did not address every reader but only Abraham, just this specific person in a specific situation. It is impossible to draw general conclusions from this.

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio ca. 1601-02.
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio, circa 1603.

Is this a convincing argument?

I do not think so. The story of Abraham has an unmistakable moral purpose and so – I am afraid – does the story of Phinehas.

“Why is the willingness to sacrifice one’s child the quintessential model of faith, why not the passionate protection of the child?” Carol Delaney asks us in her book Abraham on Trial (1998).[164] She is not satisfied with the “just a story” argument.[165] Nor is she convinced by the explanation that child sacrifice was an accepted practice in the ancient Near East and that Abraham put an end to it. Such interpretations fail to recognize that Abraham is revered not for putting an end to the practice but for his “willingness to go through with it.”[166]

That is what establishes him as the father of faith. That is what I find so terrifying. The story is not about substitution, symbolic or otherwise, but about a new morality; it represents not the end of the practice of child sacrifice but the beginning of a new order.[167]

The foundational story of Abraham is central to the belief systems of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.[168] Why didn’t Abraham argue with God as he did when Ishmael was to be banished, or as he did to try to save Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction (this subject will be discussed further on in Chapter 4)?

A third difference between the Bible and the Qur’an that some people put forward is that we have to take the attitude of believers into account as well. There may have been one Yigal Amir killing one Yitzak Rabin whilst referring to a divine mission.[169] But if that is the Jewish counterpart of the Islamist suicide bomber, the example of Amir dwindles into insignificance compared with the examples from the Islamist tradition.

A fourth response from this third group will be to point out that the Bible is mitigated by many other books and commentaries. If we want to understand the Torah, we have to read the Talmud as well. And the Talmud will teach us how to interpret the Torah. Once we engage in this type of study it will be clear why Jewish terrorism pales in comparison with Islamist terrorism.

What should our reaction be? Isn’t this type of criticism fairly convincing?

I beg to differ. Actually, those who think along these lines have missed the gist of the argumentation that has been developed here. I am not engaged in a kind of empirical study of the dangers of Islamist, Jewish, and Christian terrorism respectively. What I am trying to understand is religious terrorism as an important manifestation of religious or rather theistic evil. That the actual danger this religious terrorism poses in some varieties of theism is much greater than in others is true, but at the same time it is irrelevant. I side with Bernard Lewis (1916- ) and other commentators[170] in contending that the similarities between the three theistic faiths on a doctrinal level are important for our analysis, even if the actual manifestations of vulnerability to terrorist influences differ significantly.[171]

A last point that is often alleged is that the story of Phinehas is just a “story.” That may be true, but, like the story of Abraham, it is a story with an unmistakably clear message, as has been emphasized by Carol Delaney whom I quoted before. So I do not agree with Robert Spencer (1962- ) who writes that the traditional understanding of the Qur’an is “far beyond the biblical idea that God inspired human authors. Allah dictated every word of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel. Allah himself is the only speaker throughout the Qur’an, and most often he addresses Muhammad, frequently telling him what to say to various adversaries.”[172] In my view Spencer underestimates the similarities between the three theistic faiths.[173]

The problem is that if Holy Scriptures are, indeed, considered “holy,” even though they contain only a small number of passages that incite violence,[174] they can still cause much harm. I have already quoted Bernard Lewis’s dictum: “terrorism requires only a few.”[175] He referred to the fact that we only need a few firm believers who are prepared to do the dirty work. But we can also say: “terrorism requires only a few passages in the holy book.” If the holy book contains only a small number of passages inciting violence, they still pose a problem if the whole book is considered to be holy and the word of God.

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

[159] See on Indian fundamentalism for instance: Fernandes, Edna, Holy Warriors: A Journey into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism, Portobello Books, London 2007. And on terrorism in other religious traditions than the theistic: Rapoport, David C., “Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions,” The American Political Science Review, 78, no. 3 1984, pp. 658-677; Rapoport, David C., “Messianic Sanctions for Terror,” Comparative Politics, 20, no. 2 1988, pp. 195-213.

[160] Other creeds that are referred to are: the Nicene Creed, framed in 325, and the Athanasian Creed. See: Martin, Michael, The Case Against Christianity, Temple University Press, Philadelphia 1991, pp. 7-8; Freeman, Charles, A New History of Early Christianity, Yale University Press, New Haven 2009, p. 238 ff.

[161] Other examples are to be found in: Nelson-Pallmeyer, Is Religion Killing Us?; and Harris, The End of Faith.

[162] For instance killing the head of state, see: Faraj, Mohammad ’Abdus Salam, “Jihad: The Absent Obligation,” in: Laqueur, Walter, ed., Voices of Terror: Manifestos, Writings, and Manuals of Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Other Terrorists from around the World and throughout the Ages, Reed Press, New York 2004, pp. 401-403 and Jansen, The Neglected Duty, p. 38 ff.

[163] This is emphasized by Esposito and Mogahed in Who Speaks for Islam? and Karen Armstrong in The Case for God.

[164] Delaney, Carol, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1998, p. 5.

[165] Ibid., p. 6.

[166] Ibid.

[167] Ibid., p. 6.

[168] Ibid., p. 8.

[169] See on this: Laqueur, Walter, No End to War. Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, Continuum International Publishing, London 2003.

[170] See e.g. McInerney, Peter K., “God,” in: Introduction to Philosophy, HarperCollins, New York 1992, pp. 9-2, p. 21: “The main traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share the conception that there is only one God, who is self-existent, eternal, the creator of all things, transcendent, all-powerful, all-knowing, personal, all-good, and holy.”

[171] See: Lewis, Bernard, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2003, p. 4; Murray, Douglas, “Studying Islam has made me an atheist,” at:, Monday, December 29, 2008. See also: Sultan, Wafa, A God who Hates, p. 193 who somewhat mitigates the similarities between the three theistic faiths when she points out: “Jews and Christians, according to Islam, believe in the same God as Muslims do, but this does not work in their favor. Islam defines its relationship with them by their attitude to Muhammad, not by their attitude towards God.”

[172] Spencer, Robert, Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington 2003, p. 127.

[173] See also: Ali, Daniel, and Spencer, Robert, Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics, Ascension Press, West Chester, Pennsylvania 2003; Spencer, Robert, Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington DC 2007.

[174] Something that is always emphasized by the adherents of “liberal Islam.” See e.g. Gresh, Alain, L’Islam, la République et le Monde [Islam, the Republic and the World], Fayard, Paris 2006, p. 73 who, with reference to Alfred Morabia, tells us that the term “jihad” appears in 35 verses of the Qur’an. In 22 verses it is in a non-military context, in 10 in a military context, in 3 in a spiritual sense.

[175] Lewis, The Crisis of Islam, p. xxviii.

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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