The Philosophy of Religion in an Age of Terror: What Is To Be Done?

Beverley Clack
Brian R. Clack


Philosophy of religion as a discipline seems peculiarly resistant to change. A glance through the plethora of textbooks in the field gives one the impression of a subject largely cocooned from events within the world, a subject, the focus of which, is on timeless otherworldly realities and problems. As Oxford philosopher Tim Mawson argues in a recent introduction to the subject, philosophers of religion are (and should be) “loath to engage with…empirical facts” (Mawson p. 176).

The assumption Mawson makes, in line with many analytic philosophers of religion, is that philosophical conclusions are best arrived at when the purity of rational argumentation is unsullied by the messiness of practical considerations. Mawson has no intention of challenging this position. We have no such reservations. The analysis of religious beliefs requires an understanding of their grounding in the particularities of human life and experience, and this necessitates considering the role religion plays in the contemporary world. Our time is one defined in no small part by the events of 9/11 and the resulting War on Terror. These disturbing and horrific occurrences are increasingly shaping legal arguments, political and historical reflections, and the broader intellectual scene. The so-called ‘New Atheists’ (Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) have no qualms about addressing the religious foundations of these events. It seems bizarre in the extreme that philosophers of religion – those in the academy who most of all should be thinking critically about the nature of religion and its relationship to those passions that lend to themselves to atrocity – resolutely refuse to engage with such events. Presumably these philosophers would adopt the default position that religiously inspired terrorism is a perversion of true religious feeling and not significantly informed by more mainstream religious notions. We want to suggest, however, that to ignore the relationship between religion and terror is an abrogation of responsibility, and that there are two core issues in the philosophy of religion which must be addressed and settled in the light of the terrible events of our time.

First, the perennial issue of the relationship between religion and morality, so often treated as a merely academic exercise, gains greater urgency in an age of religiously inspired violence. A common way to consider the tension between religion and morality is to consider Soren Kierkegaard’s rendition of the story of Abraham and of Abraham’s willingness to obey the divine command to slaughter his son Isaac. Abraham’s faith is presented by Kierkegaard (and, indeed, the monotheistic tradition as a whole) as the highest form of religious commitment, for Abraham is prepared to submit unconditionally to the will of God even if it means denying commonly held moral principles. But the fairytale ending of the Abraham and Isaac story conceals the fact that Abraham is far from alone in being prepared to suspend his moral duties to other human beings in the name of commitment to a higher power. It is, of course, possible to see Abraham as an exemplar of faith – but only if we are prepared to ignore the impact of really holding such a position. Events of the recent past reveal all too well the consequences of enacting the “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Kierkegaard p. 85).

Examples are, sadly, not hard to come by. In 1984 Brenda Lafferty and her fifteen- month old baby Erica were murdered – their throats slit – by Ron and Dan Lafferty, two fundamentalist Mormons who believed that they had received a revelation from God that they should kill their kin. And,while there may have been other contributing causes for the events of September 11, the hijackers led by Mohamed Atta undeniably believed that the slaughter of thousands of people was in accordance with the will of Allah. Against the contempt that such positions reveal for other human beings, we believe that it is more crucial than ever before to embrace wholeheartedly the Kantian prioritising of morality over religious enthusiasm. This principle is succinctly stated in Kant’s Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason: “Apart from a good life-conduct, anything which the human being supposes that he can do to become well-pleasing to God is mere religious delusion and counterfeit service to God” (Kant, p. 166).

Kant’s position is most powerfully articulated in Stewart Sutherland’s inexplicably neglected book God, Jesus and Belief, in which he states that: “a religious belief which runs counter to our moral beliefs is to that extent unacceptable” (Sutherland, p. 16). More than ever before, adherence to this principle is an absolute requirement. Doubtless many believers – and philosophers of religion – will also resist the conclusion that religion should supersede ethics, though it is a mark of the times in which we live that this point needs to be made at all.

The second position that we wish to criticize is one that theists (and many philosophers of religion) will be more reluctant to give up. This position concerns the division of reality into two worlds. While this is often seen as being of enormous comfort to believers – the world of pain that we inhabit is contrastable to a world of bliss that awaits us in the hereafter – we are of the view that this belief is inherently nihilistic and needs to be excised altogether. Religious extremists will invariably justify their appalling actions by denying the value of ‘this merely earthly life’. Hence the Al-Qaeda instruction document given to the 9/11 hijackers exhorted them to: “forget and force yourself to forget this thing which is called the world” (cited in Ruthven, p. 36). In case we are tempted to consider this sentiment to be merely the preserve of Islamist terrorism, we should note St John Chrysostom’s contention that Christians should “learn to despise the things of this life”. The dismissal of all worldly things that echoes in these statements is also, disturbingly, found in contemporary philosophy of religion.

Tim Mawson, for example, proffers a similar disregard for the sufferings of this world when viewed in the light of the hereafter:

After our finite lives here an infinite life awaits us hereafter. For every creature who suffers, there will come a day when they say that as individuals their suffering has been more than adequately compensated for and on which they will be able to see how their suffering fitted into a greater whole that was overall worth it. On that day, even those who were broken on the wheels of the machine as they turned will thank God for it.
(Mawson, p. 215)

The denial of the reality of suffering is one of the worst excesses of traditional Christian theodicy. The perpetrators of religiously inspired violence also seek to trivialise the sufferings of their victims in the light of a commitment to divine justice. The lack of compassion that emanates from the actions of terrorists and the theories of such philosophies of religion is rooted precisely in two-worlds thinking, and it is this refusal to value the lives of others that must be resisted wherever it is found.

Lenin’s famous question – “what is to be done?” – must, then, be asked of the philosophy of religion. Mainstream philosophy of religion refuses to accept the situatedness of philosophising and in the process ignores the need for a critique of those aspects of religion that are far from conducive to human flourishing. The subject is, indeed, well-placed to explore the reasons for religious terrorism. An overriding concern of the philosophy of religion is the consideration and critique of belief. Figures like R B Braithwaite emphasised the way one’s beliefs affected one’s actions. It is this claim that can be extended when considering the sources of religious terrorism. Understanding the religious beliefs of the terrorist is of paramount importance, for they contribute to the sources of those actions, creating a predisposition to treat the lives of others lightly. The interesting work comes, not from thinking of the beliefs of terrorists as distinct, but from considering the common ground that such beliefs occupy with what would be considered mainstream religious notions. Central to this enterprise must surely be the criticism of that recalcitrant idea which consistently informs religious theorising: the notion that there is another and a better world. In place of such beliefs we need, more than ever, a philosophy of religion that is “true to the earth” (Nietzsche, p. 42), which engages with the transient world in which we find ourselves, rather than seeks to deny its significance. That is the task.


Braithwaite, R. B. ‘An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief’. In Mitchell, B. The Philosophy of Religion. Oxford: OUP, 1971, pp. 72-91.

Clack, Beverley, and Brian R. Clack. The Philosophy of Religion: A Critical Introduction. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008.

Kant, Immanuel, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Tr. A. Wood and G. Di Giovanni. Cambridge: CUP, 1998.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. Tr. A. Hannay. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. New York: Random House, 2004.

Mawson, T. W. Belief in God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Tr. R. J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Sutherland, Stewart R. God, Jesus and Belief. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.

Ruthven, Malise. A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America. London: Granta, 2002.

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5 thoughts on “The Philosophy of Religion in an Age of Terror: What Is To Be Done?

  1. Pingback: The Philosophy of Religion in an Age of Terror: What Is To Be Done?

  2. The misunderstanding lies in the term or in the meaning of forget worldly things. That in itself is going to extrems. We evolve as does our thought and when the thought does not evovle with us then it has the pontancial of causing confusion. There is nothing worce then a confused spirit of a collective which has no choice but to follow or even at times is forced to follow and practice such extrem leading to our distruction.

  3. Almost religions seem to be in crisis, primarily because they do not:
    1 recognize and discuss the many reasons why people get involved in religion and how those reasons change over time;
    2 come to grips witht he fact that many people who say they are Christian, Muslim, etc., do not really believe in that faith, but in their own ego-driven purposes (beware the Devil quoting scripture);
    3 spend more time presenting the essential spiritual messages of their faith, rather than dogma and the need for money or preservation of buildings, etc.; and,
    4 come to grips with the need to discuss the impact of those who say they belong to their own or another religion and do the opposite to the central messages of thoose faiths (the essential spiritual messages of all major religions are very similar).

    If we are not honest (ingtegrous) about the state of our religions, both to ourselves and the rest of the world, we will continue to lose those who need religion but cannot accept what is being done in the name of religion.
    Jim H. White

    God is Great, God is Good, God is Love – all the rest is irelevant

  4. Given the terrible crimes committed by atheists it is clear that the beliefs of Nietzsche and Lenin are not the place we should go to if we want to put forward the kind of argument put forward in this article. It is as if the twentieth century never happened. One might as well argue that it is only a belief in judgement after this life that prevents the worst excesses of human behaviour, as perpetrated by those who would appeal to Lenin and Nietzsche.

    You appear to be confusing Christianity with Christian Science. I thought the objection to Christianity was that it was obsessed with the suffering, and that Christians wished to escape this ‘vale of tears’ for a better place. Christian theodicy, beginning with Saint Paul is based around the reality of the suffering of the cross.

    Here is a couple of empirical facts for you: the largest provider of health care in Africa is the Catholic Church, whilst the atheist Chinese regime encourages war and prevents a resolution to the Darfur conflict. Doesn’t fit with your argument does it?

    You say: ‘Doubtless many believers – and philosophers of religion – will also resist the conclusion that religion should supersede ethics,…’. I say: ‘Will they? What do you mean?’

    In one sense I agree with you, that practical considerations are important, but this leads me to the position that atheism is a very dangerous world view and atheists should have to justify themselves and their beliefs (including their objection to a belief in a moral system the origins of which is external to humanity) in the face of the realities of atheism.

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