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(Blog post - 23rd November 2015)

'Violence in God’s Name' by Oliver McTernan (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003)

Never have I found a book, plucked by chance from a library shelf, more immediately relevant.  On Thursday November 12th, the day before the terrorist attacks in Paris, I came across Oliver McTernan’s Violence in God’s Name in the library of King’s College, London.  Although published 12 years ago, the issues it deals with are equally those that face us today, with the on-going violence of the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups. It should be required reading for all religious and political leaders, for it provides an honest and hard-hitting analysis of the phenomenon of violence carried out in the name of God, seeks to understand the phenomenon of religious violence, and how it may be countered. As we mourn the recent deaths in Paris, Egypt and Mali, feeling revulsion at the madness of the slaughter, we need to look honestly and carefully at such violence in order to understand it, and thus stand a more realistic chance of opposing it.


No brief summary here can do justice to McTernan’s research and arguments, but I would like to share just a few reflections of my own on themes that the book explores and which seem to me to be of the utmost importance:

Within all of the world’s major religious traditions there have been, at various times in their history, groups that have used violence in an attempt to impose their particular religious view.  Killing in the name of God is therefore a fact with which all religions need to come to terms.  Within a European and Christian context, for example, one has only to recall the terrible loss of life during the ‘wars of religion’ in the 16th century, or the merciless persecution of groups – such as the Cathars in southern France.   Therefore it makes no sense to blame Islam as a religion for what is now being done in its name by a fanatical minority, unless one is also prepared to say that such violence is a potential within all religion and thus that all religion is in some way implicated. Extreme religion thrives on confrontation and hopes to provoke it, because it takes a binary view of the world; we should therefore be very wary of falling into the trap of allowing extremism to drive a wedge between the broad religious and cultural traditions.  ‘Islam’ is no more to blame for the actions of these fanatics than ‘democracy’ is to blame for all that is done by political regimes that include ‘democratic’ within their title!

But that does not mean that the extremists are not religiously motivated. The post-Enlightenment tendency to see religion as a purely personal matter has never done justice to what religion is about, and has largely been used as a way of eliminating religion from the public sphere. All religions express their spiritual values in terms of morality and social justice. To suggest that one should never mix religion and politics is to fail to appreciate the scope of what religion is and has always been.  But it is equally important not to fall into the corresponding reductionist trap of suggesting that the religious element is simply a cover for political, social or economic aims.  Injustice, poverty and repression may serve to recruit disaffected young people to join such groups – but they are not in themselves enough in itself to explain the level of fanatical commitment and personal devotion extreme religious motivation.  If people say that they are acting in the name of God, we may argue that they are deluded, that their interpretation of religion is wrong-headed and narrow, that their idea of God is barbaric, and so on, but we cannot say with any certainty that they are being dishonest.  So religious fanaticism needs to be taken seriously as religion, if there is to be any chance of understanding and countering it. 

By taking a literal interpretation of narrowly selected religious texts, religious groups are able to justify violence.  They tend to refuse academic scholarship, or any attempt to contextualize or critically analyse scripture. They seek a clear mandate; one which will place them at the forefront of a new world order; one which will release them from the normal ambiguities of life and its limited aspirations; one that will purify and free them, even through death. An absolute conviction that one is right and the rest of the world – including the majority of those who share one’s own religious and cultural background – are wrong, and that God is on one’s side, is utterly empowering. 

My sad conclusion is that the very power of religion, which can be such a force for good, can also, if it takes this narrow and fanatical path, produce a hideous distortion of the very positive things - a sense of belonging, personal value and meaning, and the opportunity to devote oneself to a cause – that religion can offer.

One implication of taking the religious aspect of terrorism seriously, of course, is that military or political action against religious terrorists has its dangers. It is necessary to counter acts of violence and to prevent terrorism, but it is unlikely to be enough in itself to eradicate the problem. Worse, the use of military force inevitably runs the risk of civilian casualties, which is likely to feed the confrontation upon which terrorist groups thrive.

There are no easy answers here, and recent history has shown that the attempt to fix one problem may only serve to create another.  My few thoughts here are simply offered because – often for the best intentions – there is a desire to minimize the religious element in this terrorism. Since the Enlightenment, some have been too ready to assume that religion is in inevitable decline, to be replaced by science, reason and harmony among peoples.  I do not observe that to be the case. Religion is both powerful and dangerous. It can ignite deep feelings and provide motivation for great acts of heroism and self-sacrifice.  Sadly, however, it can also produce the very opposite. 

Political and military action will be needed to counter terrorism, but also education – for the best Religious Education offers the opportunity to examine the world’s religious traditions, the values they espouse and the way in which their scriptures may be interpreted.  Hopefully, it might also illustrate the shortcomings of the religious arguments of the extremists, but also of the larger fraternity of fundamentalists in every religion. Religious Education – if done well, and I have no illusions about the ability of RE to be done in a partisan and unhelpful way – gives young people the tools to understand and evaluate religious literature and traditions, and hopefully thereby to provide them with what they need to reject the claims of those who would ‘radicalise’ them.  To be a radical, in the true sense, is to get to the heart of the matter, the fundamental beliefs and values which a religion promotes. Sadly, the terms ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘radical’ have been appropriated by some who use them to indicate only a literal application of a very limited range of ideas, which fail to do justice to the broader traditions from which they are taken.

But, to return to where I started. McTernan’s book is a valuable contribution to the debate about how best to contain terrorism done in the name of religion. It’s examples may reflect the turn of the century and the aftermath of 9/11, but its arguments remain compelling.  It’s a reasonably expensive paperback, but I see that there are used copies available on Amazon, and some, like me, may be fortunate enough to find it in a library – and if it’s not there, order it!