Course notes on Religion and Morality for students of the Edexcel syllabus – Part Two: Religion and Terror

From the syllabus for Religion and Ethics (Paper 2):

4.2 The relationship between religion and morality

a) Dependence, independence, autonomy, theonomy, heteronomy, divine command ethics, challenges from atheist and anti-theist perspectives, moral arguments for the existence and nonexistence of God.

b) Contemporary focuses, including the Westboro Baptist Church, religion and terror, conservative movements, including Quiverfull, biblical parenting.  

With reference to the ideas of R Dawkins and R A Sharpe.

NOTE: this post only deals with the highlighted section above. However, there are significant overlaps with this Paper 1 (Philosophy of Religion) topic:

5.1 Context to critiques of religious belief and points for discussion   a) Respective strengths and weaknesses of religious beliefs.

b) Alternative explanations, issues of probability and postmodern interpretations of religion.

c) Key terms, types of atheism and agnosticism.

With reference to the ideas of R Dawkins and M Westphal.

Additionally, there are links with this topic for Paper 4B (Christianity)

4.2 Secularisation (2)  
Religion in today’s society, declining numbers, the role of the Church in formal worship and in modern life and the strengths, weaknesses and impact of the teachings of popular atheists.

The rise of New Religious Movements and definitions of ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’.

Disillusionment with some aspects of traditional religion compared to hard line atheism.  

With reference to the ideas of C Hitchens and R Dawkins.

ANTHOLOGY: (2) McGrath A, McGrath J C – The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, Chapter 1 Deluded About God?, pp. 1–13 (SPCK, 2007)


The artist Mimsy’s ‘ISIS threatens Sylvania’ was removed from the 2015 Passion for Freedom exhibition at London’s Mall Galleries, after police raise security concerns.

First of all, it should be noted that the very title of this topic might be construed as assuming that there is a direct or heteronomous relationship between religion and acts of terror, just as supporters of heteronomy imagine that religion and morality are intrinsically related. Certainly this is an assumption made by New Atheist critics of faith like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, who point to acts of terror committed by organisations like al-Qaeda and ISIS in the name of Islam as evidence that religion and terror are causally connected.

Note that the arguments of the New Atheists have already been analysed in detail HERE. Their general tactic has been to focus on cases where religious extremists have engaged in violence in order to portray religion itself as an irrational, violent and dangerous phenomenon, one that is out of synch with our modern, secular, rational world view. In Dawkins’ case, in his book The God Delusion, this leads him to portray Islam as ‘analogous to a carnivorous gene complex’, while the very title of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great*: How Religion Poisons Everything indicates that both authors see Islam as a faith that is beyond repair, one that has morphed into an ideology that is hateful and destructive.

Memorably, the philosopher Daniel Dennett commences his book Breaking the Spell with the true story of a tiny parasite (the lancet fluke) that hijacks the brains of ants, causing them to climb to the tops of blades of grass, where they can more easily be eaten by grazing animals. The behaviour is suicidal for the ant, but beneficial for the lancet fluke, which requires the digestive system of a ruminant to reproduce itself. Dennett’s ingenious analogy is then deployed to suggest that religions survive because, like this parasite, they compel their hosts do things that are bad for themselves (e.g. suicide bombing) but good for the parasite (e.g. radical Islam). 

Although Islam is obviously singled out for special attention by the above authors, they all appear to have no particular regard for any religion that is focused on the worship of a supreme being (or beings). For Dawkins in particular, this is certainly the case when it comes to Christianity, and one of the most significant interviews that he has conducted in relation to acts of terror takes place in the second episode of his documentary series The Root of All Evil? with the Reverend Michael Bray, a representative of the Army of God, a fundamentalist anti-abortion Christian organisation that were responsible for 8 murders, 41 explosions and 173 arson attacks at abortion clinics in the USA during the 1980’s and 90’s.

This interview can be viewed below. In its edited form it is only five minutes long and starts just after the 30 minute point. Additionally, a longer and unedited version can be found HERE.

Note how Bray unusually invokes the first part of Matthew 19v14 (‘But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me; for of such is the kingdom of heaven’) as a defence for the actions of his compatriot Paul Hill. Presumably, by performing abortions, the doctors that carry out the procedure are preventing this from happening, an odd justification if the souls of these unborn children are believed to subsequently pass on to be in heaven with Jesus.

Islamic extremists (typically referred to as salafi-jihadists) also appeal to scripture to justify acts of terror. For example, they argue that the Qur’an permits violence under certain circumstances and typically cite one or more of the following passages as evidence for what they believe :

‘Whoever transgresses against you, respond in kind’ (Surah 2: 194)

‘When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them’ (Surah 9:5)

‘Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers in fight, smite at their necks.’ (Surah 47: 4)

Additionally, the principle of qisas is also sometimes invoked as a theological rationale to support the use of force. This principle is similar to the famous lex talionis or law of retributive justice found in the Bible (e.g. see Exodus 21v24 ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’)

O ye who believe! the law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand, and compensate him with handsome gratitude, this is a concession and a Mercy from your Lord. After this whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave penalty.’ (Surah 2:178)

We ordained therein for them: “Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal.” But if any one remits the retaliation by way of charity, it is an act of atonement for himself. And if any fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are (No better than) wrong-doers.’ (Surah 5: 45)

For example, in an interview conducted by the journalist Sean Langan with Sheikh Yassin, the late leader of the Palestinian organisation Hamas that can be viewed via this LINK , it would appear to be the qisas principle that Yassin appeals to in his defence of the use of suicide bombing against innocent Israelis, a tactic that was deployed by Hamas back in 2001.

As Anna Bigelow has pointed out, ‘Interpreting the Qur’an in matters of its treatment of conflict remains one of the most complex arenas of debate among Muslims and has obviously garnered much discussion outside of Islam among those who assume that militant interpretations are both the most common and the most correct.’

For a brief but nevertheless detailed and authoritative article that specifically looks at violence in the context of the Qur’an (authored by Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of Islamic studies at Indiana University), see HERE.

Suffice it to say that for the vast majority of mainstream Muslim intellectuals and theologians operating from a variety of perspectives ranging from conservative to liberal utterly reject both militancy and the adoption of suicidal terrorist tactics by militants. In particular, they interpret the Quranic passages mentioned above in a very different manner.

To take one example, as has already been noted, movements like ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hamas try to justify their terrorism by framing qisas as a law of revenge with a wide remit: if someone does something to you, you have the right to do something similar back to them. And so because western countries (and Israel) have been responsible for murdering innocent civilians in places like Iraq and Palestine, ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hamas think they should be allowed to do the same thing. This view was taken to its logical – and most extreme – conclusion by one Saudi cleric (Nasir ibn Hamad al-Fahd) in a now infamous book justifying the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction against enemy states. ‘Anyone who considers America’s aggressions against Muslims and their lands during the past decades, wrote Fahd, ‘will conclude that striking her [with WMD] is permissible merely on the basis of the rule of treating as one has been treated (qisas). No other arguments need to be mentioned.’

However, the range of this principle has traditionally been very limited. The qisas rule is usually only meant to apply to private individuals seeking justice in situations where they have been physically harmed by someone else. Typically, within the Islamic penal code, it has therefore been applied to cases of murder, manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation. It was not meant to apply to international affairs in a way that holds innocent civilians responsible for the crimes of their governments.

Moving on, more generally there has been a longstanding tradition in both politics and academia that attempts to dissociate ‘religion’ from ‘terror’. This approach typically involves the claim that ‘ true religion’ is something intrinsically good and peaceful, while ‘terror’ is the result of deviations from mainstream teaching and interpretations of scripture. For example, after 9/11, both US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair made speeches emphasising that Islam is a religion of peace whilst portraying those who had committed acts of terror in the name of Islam as fanatics.

It is this portrayal of religion as an entity that is essentially and always good and opposed to violence that has provoked writers that are hostile to religious faith like Dawkins and Hitchens to respond as they have.

So who is correct?

In a chapter on religion and violence in Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformations (one of the books recommended by Edexcel in their scheme of work for 4B Christianity), Ian Reader observes that ‘both perspectives present one-dimensional views of religion: the former based in apologetics that represent any bad actions as deviations from ‘true’ religion, and the latter in seeing the essence of ‘true’ religion in those very self-same bad actions.’

As an alternative to these simplistic narratives, Reader then explores another position, one that is maintained by scholars who contend that it is simply not possible to differentiate religiously motivated acts of violence from secular or political actions of the same type. In particular, Reader pays close attention to William Cavanaugh’s book The Myth of Religious Violence, which serves as an example of a publication in which the author pursues this line of argumentation. Here is the gist of Cavanaugh’s thesis:

‘For Cavanaugh, the category of ‘religious violence’ has been developed in Western secular thought to portray ‘religion’ (especially that of other peoples) as a highly problematic and dangerous entity that ‘needs’ to be controlled by the ‘rational’ (and military) forces of the West, whose violence is thus portrayed as rational and reasonable. Cavanaugh argues that there is a distinct political agenda to this construction of categories – one that ‘justifies’ the ‘war on terror’ and Western military control of large swathes of the world. He develops his argument also by showing that many of the characteristics commonly attributed to ‘religion’ can also be seen in nationalism, which portrays notions such as serving one’s country country militarily and being prepared to die for it as noble and even sacred acts. Yet while dying for (and killing for) one’s country is thus portrayed in such terms, killing and dying on behalf of one’s religion is, he contends, portrayed as highly dangerous. In effect, such arguments suggest that religious, political, and other motivations share similar ideological groundings and that hence, ‘ideology’, rather than, for example, ‘religion’ should be seen as a causal motivating factor in acts of violence.’

This is a reasonable summary but neglects some other aspects of Cavanaugh’s argument that are potentially damaging to the New Atheist conception of the relationship between religion and terror. There are actually two additional aspects to Cavanaugh’s position that also need to be described.

First of all, Cavanaugh argues that we cannot define ‘religion’ with enough precision to differentiate it sufficiently from secular ideology and violence. This is a point taken up and developed further by John Holroyd in an online article for Philosophy Now magazine that can be read in full HERE **.

According to Holroyd, although there is some dispute about the origins of the word ‘religion’, it seems to derive from a Latin word religare, which means ‘to bind together’. However, there is no precise equivalent of the word ‘religion’ in many languages. For example, in Sanskrit, the nearest equivalent is a word like darsana, which can be translated as ‘way of seeing [reality]’. This is significant because Buddhism, Jainism and the Carvaka/Lokayata movement in Indian philosophy are darsanas or ‘ways of seeing’ that reject belief in an omnipotent, omniscient creator. So if religion is defined as something that boils down to ‘belief in God’, that will not do.

Holroyd then continues:

‘Therefore many ‘religious’ cultures – so-called by Western scholars – do not apply this self-ascription. To speak of ‘religion’ and without dialogue apply this category to other cultures, is then a Western conceptual imposition. To go on from there, and say that this imposed category is something that means, for example, that Vietnamese Caodaism is harmful, when Richard Dawkins has possibly never heard of Caodaism, is high-handed and presumptuous in the extreme.’

Secondly, and by extension, it is therefore not possible, according to Cavanaugh, to distinguish religious from secular violence. This is, again, a point taken up by Holroyd in a later publication:

‘On the other hand, more inclusive definitions of religion that define it as involving a belief in the transcendent carry the opposite difficulty of involving too much. For example, some ethnic nationalisms, with their beliefs in imagined communities [the Ku Klux Klan or the Nation of Islam might be examples that Holroyd is thinking of here]; and forms of Marxism with their beliefs about historical determinism and a future communist destiny, both hold onto a form of non-empirical truth about the way things are.’

This explains Cavanaugh’s preference for the term ‘ideology’ as the motivational force behind acts of violence and terror. But perhaps it is possible to go further than Cavanaugh does in his explorations. In another chapter of Religions in the Modern World on ‘Religion and Gender’, Linda Woodhead states that, ‘Religion is ‘sticky’. There is probably no ‘pure’ religion that is not bound up with other aspects of human life such as politics or economics.’

If we import Woodhead’s helpful observation into the debate about religion and terror, it can possibly help to clarify the nature of this relationship. Let us now return to the two examples that we have looked at above, acts of terror apparently committed in the name of religion by the Army of God and Hamas, taking them in reverse order.

First of all, Scott Atran has conducted research among Palestinians about the killing on non-Muslims. 91% of those he surveyed believed that Islam did support the killing and the suicide bombing of Israelis in some circumstances. Yet of that 91%, only 4% believed that it was the duty of Muslims to fight and kill non-Muslims in any general sense. According to Atran, the more belligerent interpretations of the Qur’an were not driving their views. Neither did they focus on concepts of jihad. From Atran’s interviews, what caused his respondents to say that they thought it was a Muslim’s duty to kill Israelis, including by suicide bombing, were basic (non-religious) desires for retaliation within a theatre of assymetric conflict. So in one of the most violent and fraught parts of the Muslim world, the Muslim population there are not, it would seem, motivated exclusively by the offensive concept of jihad against non-Muslims.

Additionally, the same point could be made about the Army of God. Part of the motivation is religious, but as they are trying to avert what they consider to be a ‘Holocaust’ of aborted children, assymetry may have a part to play here too.

In Reason, Faith and Revolution, Terry Eagleton arguably goes still further with his assertion that violent and terrorist forms of radical Islam are not primarily a religious phenomenon. The dynamic has rather more to do with the development of post-colonial identities in Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere. The Israel/Palestine conflict also perpetuates a smouldering sense of injustice that is political, territorial and economic as much as it is religious. Yet this crucial perspective tends gets lost against the kind of generalised moral condemnation of religion that anti-theists like Dawkins and Hitchens make.

In other words, even when appeals are made to scripture (or any other kind of ideology) to justify acts of terror by those perpetrating them, it is simply not good enough to take these statements at face value. Instead, this only becomes the starting point for any enquiry about what has inspired them. And as we have seen, there are usually compelling non-religious factors over and above any ideology that foment the grievances which then cause terrorists to look to sacred texts to find support for what they get up to if they happen to be religious.

Again, this becomes clear if we take one last look at Islam as an example and some comments made by the author of this publication:

According to Peter Neumann, a Professor of Security Studies within the War Studies Department at King’s College London and Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation ‘…a religion which has existed for more than 1400 years – and now has more than 1.5 billion followers – cannot be sweepingly accused of being prone to violence. I would not argue that the new jihadists have nothing at all to do with Islam, but it would be just as false to present their extreme interpretation as the sole, true version of the faith, as many so-called critics of Islam are now doing. 

Anyone who reads this book through to the end will understand that the target audience from whom the new jihadists do their recruiting is not ‘Muslims’; it is a shrill but numerically tiny minority: the Salafists. The ‘average Muslim’ is as unreachable for the jihadists as the ‘average German’ is for violent neo Nazis.’ (P5). 

Elsewhere, he writes, ‘It is hard to say to what degree… the overall philosophy of the Islamic State can be described as ‘Islamic’, because Sunni Islam has neither a Pope nor any other absolute authority who can rule on matters of belief. To assert that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam is well-intentioned but misleading. Its members consider themselves Muslims and draw on the same sources referred to by the majority of (non-extremist) Muslims…But for all that, it is wrong to lump together the Islam of the Islamic State with the Islam that is practised by hundreds of millions of (deeply observant) Muslims. Not only because there is no such thing as a single, supposedly ‘true’ Islam, but also because the Islamic State’s interpretations are considered extreme even by the standards of the jihadist spectrum. If even al-Qaeda brands the Islamic State an apocalyptic sect, it is obvious just how far outside the theological mainstream the group is operating.’ (P.69)

In summary then, the claim that is made in New Atheist literature that religion causes terror is suspect and questionable. Although terrorist actions may certainly be motivated in part by religious ideology and teachings, for example by what is known as Wahhabism or Salafi-Jihadism in the case of Islamic terror, other factors also have a considerable part to play. In particular, when passages from sacred texts are referred to, it is important to then ask why these passages have been weaponized by the terrorists who appeal to them, in order to identify what these factors are so that they may hopefully one day be addressed by the political leaders, military strategists, intelligence services and other experts who are tasked with dealing with them.

And finally…..

This music video by the Taqwacore (Islamic punk rock) band The Kominas serves as an amusing rejoinder to Islamaphobes (or ‘anti-Muslim bigots’ if Ali Rizvi’s*** preferred term is adopted instead):

* as opposed to the expression ‘Allahu Akbar’ or ‘God is great’, frequently declared by Islamic terrorists at the moment they embark on an attack.

**Some minor amendments have been made to Holroyd’s article in the presentation of it here.

*** See this publication: