Religion has to be subjected to criticism

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

The Book of History

In the previous pages we have been concerned with revealed Scripture as a source of information about the characteristics of a religion. But, as I have said before, a religion is not only what is “in the books.” It is also as it manifests itself in history. That is why we should not only read from the “book of revelation” but also from the “book of history.” In other words, we have to read Joseph Hoffmann on The Just War and Jihad (2006) if we want to be informed about “violence in Judaism, Christianity & Islam,”[151] as the subtitle of his book reads. Or we must consult Efraim Karsh (1953- ) on “Islamic Imperialism” (2006).[152] Or we should read the classic books by Lecky (1838-1903) on the history and the rise of rationalism in Europe to inform us about the history of Christianity (1865).[153]

It is only these books that can give us an idea of the connection between religion and violence. The major problem, however, is not that these books are contested, but that they are ignored by many people. The vast majority of people reading about religion prefer to read literature that places religion in the most favorable light, such as the books by Karen Armstrong.

To assess the violent aspects of religion is not, of course, to overlook the fact that religion has stimulated many positive developments in world history. The American Declaration of Independence starts with the ringing words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” (italics mine). Here we find the basis for the American system of law: all men are created equal. Because of their status as creatures of God, the drafters of the Declaration state, human beings are in possession of inalienable rights. This is a great idea! Every single human being is the bearer of certain fundamental rights that cannot be denied by the government.[154] This idea changed the whole course of history and, we can safely say, this was a change for the better. Pragmatists might say: “You see? The idea of God as a creator is extremely useful. It brought us the idea of inalienable rights.” This pragmatist is right, to a certain extent. But we can, of course, also consider the question of whether it would be possible to defend the idea of inalienable rights without the idea of a Creator. Is that possible too? If the people in 1776 accepted inalienable rights as a gift of God, does that imply that we, living in the twenty-first century, still have to believe in the same connection to sustain the notion of human rights for the future? Or can we adopt inalienable rights and proclaim our own non-theistic foundation? This is a question I will try to answer in Chapter 4, where we will be dealing with moral autonomy: the attempt to develop a theory of ethics that is not based on religion. As we will see in the latter part of that chapter, there is a long and impressive tradition in European thought that is based on the presumption that autonomous ethics are perfectly possible and desirable. As I said in the preface to this book, the great Dutch scholar of international law Hugo Grotius was one of the first thinkers to proclaim that natural law does not rest on a divine foundation, which, at least from the perspective of moral secularism, allows us to claim him as “the true father of modern ethics.”[155]

This is important, because, as we have seen in this chapter, religion has an evil side that ought to be criticized. The attempt to argue that the evil sides of religion are simply “not religious,” as Herbert Spencer and many others have done, is not convincing. Religion has to be subjected to criticism because only when this is accomplished can religion be purified of its nastier features.

Religious criticism should be fair (as all criticism should), but straightforward. Limiting religious criticism within the confines of what liberal interpretation is prepared to acknowledge is too restrictive. If we maintain the myth of authoritative scripture, as “moderate” or “liberal” believers also do, we will make little progress.

Now, the frame of mind that is essential for religious criticism to be effective has been described only partially. It is certainly not necessary to subscribe to the atheist position, as I have made clear in Chapter 1 (although atheism is more consistent than agnosticism).

In Chapter 2 I have made clear what could be seen as the most important challenge in the confrontation with religious violence. This is the challenge of religious terrorism: people perpetrating terrorist crimes and claiming to be religiously motivated. This phenomenon forces us to understand the specific connection between violence and religion. And if we want to take religious terrorism seriously, we must engage in an analysis not only of terrorism, but of religion as well. The great scholar of Middle Eastern studies, Bernard Lewis (1916- ), formulates this ambition in his book The Crisis of Islam (2003) in the following words: “Terrorism requires only a few. Obviously, the West must defend itself by whatever means will be effective. But in devising means to fight the terrorists, it would surely be useful to understand the forces that drive them.”[156] Although Lewis goes too far in saying that we may use all means in the fight against terrorism,[157] his last words can hardly be challenged: we need to understand the forces that drive the terrorists. The effectiveness of all our policies to combat terrorism is dependent on whether we succeed or fail to understand these forces. If we fail here, we will fail in our counter-terrorist strategies.

It will now be clear why Spencer’s attitude toward religion is not only unjustified from a scholarly point of view, but disadvantageous for social policy as well. The reluctance of liberals or moderates to acknowledge anything wrong in religion is not only incoherent but inimical to an effective counter-strategy to the forces that undermine our society as well. The persistent attempts by the advocates of religion to cover up the religious roots of contemporary religious terrorism can have serious consequences. Religious terrorism can only be conquered if we understand how and why violence receives religious sanction.

This approach is rejected by the “true believer,” of course. But what is more surprising is that it is not only rejected by the “true believer,” the orthodox believer, or the fundamentalist; it is also rejected by those who are called “the moderates.” “Moderates” and fundamentalists have one thing in common. That is that they are determined to ignore and deny the dark side of religion.[158] For the fundamentalist those dark sides have to be accepted because they are justified within a wider framework that transcends our capacity to understand. By the moderate those dark sides are construed as something that has nothing to do with real religion, religion “per se,” which will remain a precious and pristine phenomenon no matter what believers do “in the name of religion.”

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


[151] Hoffmann, Joseph R., ed., The Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2006.

[152] Karsh, Efraim, Islamic Imperialism. A History, Yale University Press, New Haven 2006.

[153] Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe.

[154] See Grayling, A.C., Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights that Made the Modern West, Bloomsbury Publishing, London 2007.

[155] See: Larmore, Charles, “Beyond Religion and Enlightenment,” San Diego Law Review, 30 (1993), pp. 799-815, p. 808.

[156] Lewis, Bernard, The Crisis of Islam. Holy War and Unholy Terror, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2003, p. xxviii. The same idea is to be found in: Guiora, Amos N., Fundamentals of Counterterrorism, Wolters Kluwer, Austin TX 2008, p. 2: “What motivates individuals to commit acts of terrorism? Theories abound, some predicated on research, others on anecdotal evidence. ‘Know thy enemy’ must be the guiding light for any nation-state in developing operational counterterrorism policy.” Guiora also states “that religion is certainly a primary motivator for modern day terrorists.” Another author who does not underestimate the religious factor is Christopher Catherwood. See: Catherwood, Christopher, Making War in the Name of God, Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing Corp., New York 2007, p. 163: “If we are to deal effectively with the threat of terrorism, we need to understand that millions of people around the world think in a entirely different way from us.”

[157] See on this question: Guiora, Fundamentals of Counterterrorism and Ignatieff, Michael, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, The Gifford Lectures, Princeton and Oxford 2004; Grayling, A.C., Liberty in the Age of Terror: A Defence of Civil Liberties and Enlightenment Values, Bloomsbury, London 2009; Holmes, Stephen, The Matador’s Cape: America’s Reckless Response to Terror, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2007; Wilson, Richard Ashby, ed., Human Rights in the “War on Terror,” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005.

[158] That seems to me the case also in: Abou El Fadl, Khaled, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Harper, San Francisco 2007, a plea for a “moderate Islam” and: Esposito, John L., and Mogahed, Dalia, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, Gallup Press, New York 2007.

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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