‘Respect’ for religion is often simply tyranny backed by violence

Jeremy Fox*

UK, January 30, 2014 (openDemocracy): Of the many reactions to the recent terrorist events in Paris, perhaps the most controversial concerns the degree to which it is permissible to pillory religion and religious institutions. Should free speech extend to mockery of the great faiths, or should respect for their followers stay the hand of satirists and silence the scoffers? Do those who fail to show “appropriate” respect deserve, if not a bullet in the head then at least, as the Pontiff seems to believe, a punch on the nose? “You cannot,” his holiness tells us, “insult the faith of others.” Implicit in this pronouncement is that religions are and should be inviolable and therefore unlike other kinds of human institution.

Let’s begin by recognizing that spiritual beliefs tend to come in two basic varieties: polytheistic which accommodate multiple deities, and monotheistic which worship only one.

Hindus, Buddhists, followers of Tao and the philosophy of Kung Fu-Tzu (Confucius) belong to the first variety. They make no claims to exclusivity. Their adherents seldom demand that others should worship as they do, nor insist on their superiority to others. Above all they don’t stipulate that theirs are the only beliefs worthy of veneration. Hinduism is notably generous in its readiness to acknowledge multiple incarnations of the divine, as many as three hundred and thirty million in some accounts, meaning an infinite number, the more the merrier, bring yours along, He or She will do as well as any other – for all are ways to reach Brahman, the sacred power that sustains all things.

Monotheists belong largely to the Abrahamic faiths. They tend to view infidels (that part of humanity that doesn’t share their version of God) as at best misguided and at worst inferior and even contemptible. And they have a long history of making war both against the heathen and notably against each other.  Overtly jealous[1], their God enjoins  them to destroy “false” idols, shrines and other evidence of competing deities. Here is Moses issuing orders to his troops on how to deal with the Canaanites: Ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire.[2] King Josiah of Judah swept away Baal with no less enthusiasm:…the images that were on  high above them he cut down; and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images, he brake in pieces, and made dust of them, and scattered it upon the graves of them that had sacrificed unto them.[3]

Though acolytes may think of themselves as peaceful, the Abrahamic faiths are grounded in violence and war. God may have awarded the Holy Land to the Israelites, but he seems to have expected them to fight for it. Here they are, conquering the land of milk and honey:

…Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.[4]

…And Joshua took Hazor….And…smote all the souls that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them.[5]

And so on until Israel had wiped out the main opposition and occupied the country. Too bad about the folk who lived there before; but since they weren’t God’s people they didn’t matter too much.

By the same token, killing individuals seemed almost a routine matter in biblical times. Voltaire provides an entertaining list of Old Testament (Torah) murders: “David killed Uriah… Absalom killed Amnon, Joab killed Absalom and so on. “If the Holy Spirit wrote this tale, he concludes, He didnt choose a very edifying subject.[6] And here are the generous sentiments (much approved by Christians) of the exiled Jews of Babylon in the famous Psalm: “O daughters of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.[7] Hard to believe that any book purporting to holiness could recommend smashing babies against rocks.

Such splendid examples of divine spleen engendered many imitations. Protestant Henry VIII of England tore down Catholic monasteries whose ruins still litter the English landscape like a collage of public follies; the Moghul emperor Aurengzebe (1618-1707) razed as many Hindu temples as he could lay hands on – thereby dismantling the tolerance that had prevailed under Akbar The Great (Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Akbar 1542-1605) and embedding a hostility between Hindus and Moslems that not even Gandhi could placate; Spanish conquistadors smashed the temples and idols of the Aztecs; Germans burned 200 synagogues on kristellnacht[8] as a prelude to the Holocaust, Afghanistan’s Taliban shelled the Buddhist sculptures of Bamiyan after the latter had gazed serenely on humanity for 1400 years; and so on.

All these acts of destruction took place in God’s name or with His unqualified approval. For, as one of Christianity’s noblest thinkers makes clear,  He cares only for those with correct opinions: “Pagans have no one to redeem them, nor do they expect one. Jews have no one to redeem them either; they await one in vain. Only Christians have a redeemer.[9] And even then you have to be the right kind of Christian: “The Jesuits have tried to join God to the world and for their pains have earned the contempt of both.[10]

The Abrahamic God demands subservience and a great deal of bowing and scraping. Christians—sinners by definition—spend much time on their knees begging forgiveness. Muslims bow in the direction of Mecca five times  a day.[11] Jews don’t kneel but, as readers of the Torah must know, their Lord, Yahweh, all too often loses His cool, threatening—and sometimes visiting—catastrophe on the world and on His chosen people as punishment for their misdeeds.

Of the three great monotheisms, only Islam formally tolerates “alien” versions of the faith.[12] Hence why the Jews were able to live peacefully for 800 years in Muslim Spain. Judaism, by contrast, is exclusive: its adherents defined by race as well as by God.[13] Other faiths are relevant to Jews solely because, after millennia of persecution, pogroms and the Holocaust, they understandably inspire fear. Christianity’s God, notably in its Western version, has been steadfastly intolerant, with a memorable record of burning heretics, torturing infidels, persecuting Semites and forcing people to convert on pain of death.

Christian taste for repression and vindictiveness towards errant humanity has rested on a conviction that we are by nature irremediably wicked.  Saint Augustine sums up the situation with exemplary rigour:

Banished (from Paradise) after his sin. Adam bound his offspring also with the penalty of death and damnation, that offspring which by sinning he had corrupted in himself, as in a root; so that whatever progeny was born… from himself and his spouse… would drag through the ages the burden of original sin, by which it would itself be dragged through manifold errors and sorrows, down to that final and never-ending torment with the rebel angels… the damned lump of humanity was lying prostrate, no, was wallowing in evil, it was falling headlong from one wickedness to another…[14]

Insisting that we are vile creatures and disgraceful in God’s eyes provides plenty of excuse for His holy representatives on Earth to punish whoever fails to submit and repent. Victims of divine wrath are too numerous to count. Among the most celebrated are the Oxford martyrs, Bishops Latimer and Ridley, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer – all three burned alive in 1555-6 for not being Roman Catholics. And lest we are tempted to think only Catholics indulged in such practices, it is worth recalling that John Calvin one of the leaders of the Reformation and the virtual ruler of Geneva was happy to arrange for Michael Servetus , a brilliant physician and theologian, to die at the stake in 1553 for no other reason than that Calvin didn’t like his ideas.

For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church dominated Europe as much by terror as by compassion. Obedience to God meant obedience to the Pope – God’s mouthpiece on Earth. And while it is no longer acceptable for Popes to condemn free inquiry—as they once condemned speculation about the Trinity[15]—they still like to lay down the law, as Pope John-Paul II did when he publicly humiliated members of the Latin-American clergy who held political views that differed from his own (a moral auto-da-fé that in earlier times would likely have ended in the stench of burning flesh).

Despite the pacifist tone of the New Testament, Christians became aggressive as soon as their ranks had swollen sufficiently to furnish armies. During the Middle Ages, Christian Europe happily sent troops to the Holy Land, convinced that God approved of slaughtering Muslims. When the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, they massacred the inhabitants”butchering everyone in sight, Jews and Moslems alike.[16] On the fourth Crusade, they turned aside from Palestine—their intended destination—and instead sacked Constantinople, then the centre of Eastern Christianity.[17] No doubt that was also God’s will. In the sixteenth and seventeenth  centuries, North and South Americans were similarly slaughtered or enslaved and their lands expropriated with God’s approval. Then it was Africa’s turn. And India’s. And South-East Asia’s. The slave trade was a speciality of monotheism: a demonstration of superiority over the heathen.

Having first sanctioned despoliation, rape, pillage and murder, the Christian Church reserves the right subsequently to repent and to insist that such acts could never have been committed in God’s name nor be acceptable in His eyes. Eight hundred years after the sack of Constantinople, for example, Pope John-Paul II issued an apology, having apparently decided God had changed his mind about that particular atrocity.

Doubtless the world is much relieved to know God’s revised opinions on such issues. But armies still go to war with clerics in tow; and the leaders who send them assure whoever may be listening that He is ever on their side.

Violence is not, of course, absent from the story of Islam. The Prophet was a military as well as a spiritual leader and in bringing the Word to Arabia he also conquered it by the sword – though the slaughter appears to have been slight. God is merciful, the Quran tells us, to those who believe and to those who repent of their sins. On the other hand “God will render of none effect the works of those who believe not” and thus “When ye encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads until ye have made a great slaughter among them[18]

After Muhammad’s death, militant Islam went on to conquer vast territories in Asia, North Africa and southern Europe and by 1530, under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent, had reached the gates of Vienna.[19] When Islam later receded from Europe, it left behind bodies of the faithful who would clash repeatedly with their Christian neighbours: Kosovans against Serbs, Chechens against Russians, Turks against Greeks. The Moghul conquest of 1527 embedded Islam firmly into the Indian sub-continent’s religious and political life. Millions have since died in localized conflicts between Muslims and Hindus.

What we learn from the history of the Abrahamic tradition is that its symbols and doctrines can be used to justify pretty well any kind of behaviour. Gottfried of Strasbourg, the great medieval poet, spotted the problem: “the most virtuous Christ swings to every wind like a weathercock and takes any fold like a mere cloth… He lends himself and can be adapted to anything, according to the heart of each, on behalf of sincerity as on behalf of cheating… He is ever what it is wanted he should be.[20]

For the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim world, the struggle for theological supremacy embraces a parallel and even more ancient struggle for freedom of speech. Since the beginning of recorded history, and even deep into our mythological past,  authorities have sought to control what we may say or depict. Mostly, they have succeeded through command of the means of repression: weapons, armies, instruments of torture, the threat of execution and the fires of hell.

Socrates was an early victim, but readers of the Torah (or the Old Testament) will know that the first creature to make free use of their tongue appears to have been a serpent. If God, the first recorded censor, had put a few angels on patrol in the Garden of Eden before knocking off for the night,  the serpent would have slithered away and we’d have been left in stupefied but contented ignorance. By the time of Deuteronomy, God had understood His mistake and set about correcting it. He saw that if His children were allowed to express themselves freely, sooner or later they might come up with something unpalatable – maybe even a call to worship some other deity. Best to forestall them:

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or they son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is thine own soul, entice thee, saying Let us go and serve other gods…”…Thou shalt surely kill him[21]

Evidently, in matters of blasphemy, apostasy, and irreligion, the Scriptures grant a licence to put offenders away. Fortunately, most people seem disinclined to visit injury or death on fellow human beings regardless of their religious persuasion, or the occasional bellicose diktat of a spiritual leader. Were it not so, we would be living the nasty, brutish and short existence that Hobbes described.[22] Fundamentally, there is no reason to deny respect to the vast majority of believers whose intentions are peaceful and whose God is benign. If Freud was correct in stating that individuals are natural enemies of civilization,[23] then the discipline of religious observance can arguably be a force for peace, although a humanistic education can doubtless work just as well. In the end, the quality of our behaviour does not appear to depend on whether or not God occupies a place in our world view. Regardless of what we believe, respecting each other as human beings would seem to be a no-brainer.

Respect for institutionalized religion is a different matter as I have tried to suggest, since all-too-often it has functioned as an intellectual, moral and even a political tyranny. In place of the doctrinal rectitude of monotheism with all the savagery to which it has given rise historically, perhaps it would be better to embrace the uncertainty of the Vedas: “Whence has this creation arisen? Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. The one who looks down on it from the highest heaven, only he knows; or perhaps he does not know.[24]

Pope Francis possesses the charisma of a superstar. He is charming, eloquent, and a moving defender of the poor and the dispossessed. Nevertheless, his public advocacy of belligerence in matters of faith, even if he was joking,  exposes him to conclusions of the kind we might expect from certain terrorists. Rather than pay attention to the opinions of spiritual leaders—no matter how elevated—perhaps we  would do better as sentient beings to consider the evidence and judge for ourselves.


[1] Exodus 20:4-5

[2]  Deuteronomy 7:5

[3]  2 Chronicles 34.

[4] Joshua 8:26

[5] Joshua 11:10-11

[6]  Voltaire, Dictionnaire Philosophique, H: Histoire des Rois Juifs et Parlipomènes, Geneva 1764.

[7]  Psalm 137:8-9

[8]  9th November, 1938

[9] Pascal, Pensées and Fragments Divers XXXV (Pléiade Ed.)

[10]  Ibid. Pascal was a Jansenist – hence his distaste for the rival Jesuits.

[11]  “If I were God, I wouldnt let people kneel before me. Id ask them to stand, look me in the eye, treat me as an equal, speak to me as a brother. Why should they humiliate themselves in my presence since Im the one who made them what they are? Am I responsible for their obsequiousness? Could it be that Ive fashioned a bunch of slaves? If so, the fault and the shame are mine alone.” – Maurice Maeterlinck, Devant Dieu, Paris 1937.

[12]  “We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples.” Yuqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (d. ca. 870) quoted in Karen  Armstrong, A History of God, London 1993.

[13]  Conversion to Judaism is possible but Jews have shown little interest in spreading the faith.

[14] Augustine, Enchyridion 46:47

[15]  Father, Son and Holy Ghost: a concept embedded in Christianity though unmentioned in the Bible.

[16] Robert Payne, History of Islam, p.221

[17] In 1204.

[18]  Koran: Chapter 47.

[19] Despite the setback of 1256 when Mongols sacked Bhagdad.

[20] Tristan und Isolde, circa 1200, lines 15733-15747.

[21] Deuteronomy 13:6-9

[22] Hobbes: Leviathan, 1651

[23] See Freud: The Future of an Illusion, 1927

[24] Rig Veda, 10.129 Nasadiya, circa 1200-900 BCE.

*Jeremy Fox is a writer, businessman, and consultant.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Categories: Conflict, Culture, Religion

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