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Killing in the Name of God

Killing in the Name of God

Part 2 of our series, Robin Gill explains why he wrote the Theos report, ‘Killing in the Name of God’, 18/07/2018

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This is part of a series of blogs on the relationship between religion and violence from Theos. The series also marks the launch of the new Theos report ‘Killing in the Name of God’.  All the authors are expressing their personal views on this subject rather than necessarily the views of Theos.


Why did I write this Theos report?

Quite simply: because since 9/11 religiously inspired violence has become both a global political issue and a specific problem for religious faith in a modern pluralist society.

It is obviously a global political issue in the 21st century. Many political commentators in the 1960s assumed that religious factors were largely irrelevant within modern pluralist societies. Most sociologists at the time concluded that religious institutions, religious beliefs and religious practices were being rapidly eroded by an ineluctable process of secularisation. And among philosophers there was a widespread assumption that metaphysical beliefs were simply meaningless. In an age of science and technology religious phenomena lacked any credibility and had become anachronistic and redundant.

The rise of religious fundamentalism within apparently secular societies – especially within the United States and, puzzlingly, within ‘secular’ Iran in 1979 – offered a brief challenge to these assumptions. Yet this rise could still be categorised as a temporary phenomenon. Iranians would soon tire of their theocratic politicians and Americans would soon marginalise their politically active fundamentalists. As a result religious beliefs and practices would mostly be removed from the political domain and would continue to be privatised.

However numerous reports of global religiously inspired violence in the 21st century have suggested otherwise. Such violence has deeply disrupted tourism and considerably increased security and armed policing in many otherwise peaceful countries. Residents and tourists alike in London, Paris, Madrid and many other major cities around the world will be fully aware that religiously inspired violence is something to be feared rather than ignored.

In turn, this fear has become a major problem for religious faith within pluralistic societies. As the recent Theos survey has shown there is now a widespread conviction, within Britain at least, that the world would be safer without any religious faith.  Just as the Troubles in Northern Ireland did nothing to promote religious faith elsewhere in the British Isles, so resurgent (and potentially violent) Islam within many Western countries has done little to encourage a resurgence of Christianity. Such violence might, instead, more readily promote secularity.

In this polemical context I believe that a cooler analysis is needed and that is what I hope to have provided in Killing in the Name of God. There is a growing scholarly literature on religiously inspired violence that I have attempted to summarise. I have focused specifically upon Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  What becomes evident is that there are some texts within the sacred writings of each of these faith traditions that could indeed inspire violence, especially if read outside their historical context.  I give specific examples drawn from the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible and the Islamic Qur’an. I then show how scholars in each of these traditions have put these texts into context and argued that they should not be seen as invitations to violence in the modern world.

Of course politicians still need to address urgent issues about security and containment. Yet what theologians and religious leaders might be able to do is educate their faithful about how to read and interpret their own sacred writings – containing as they typically do a tension between peaceful and polemical texts. I also argue that a New Ecumenism is already emerging, and should be encouraged, between Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders and theologians in pluralistic countries.  I see this as an essential 21st century task for myself and for my theological colleagues. 

Image by Jonas Jordan, United States Army Corps of Engineers. Image in public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia

Robin Gill

Robin Gill

Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent. He has published extensively in sociological theology, the sociological study of churches, Christian and religious ethics, and health care ethics.

Posted 13 July 2018

Religion, Security, Terrorism

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