I am writing on the fourth anniversary of the 7/7 suicide bombing attacks in London. In a chilling videotaped statement, one of the bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan, explained that his motivation was inextricably linked with his Islamic faith:
“I and thousands like me are forsaking everything for what we believe. Our drive and motivation doesn’t come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer. Our religion is Islam, obedience to the one true God, Allah, and following the footsteps of the final prophet messenger, Mohammed PBUH [1. This stands for “Peace Be Upon Him” and is a mark of respect (Khan said this in Arabic).]. This is how our ethical stances are dictated… We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.” [2. BBC news website (http://news.bbc.co.uk).]
The link that Khan draws between his Muslim faith and his violent actions confirms to many people the commonly held view that religion just causes violence. In the opening paragraphs of his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins encourages his readers to
Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers’, no Northern Ireland ‘troubles’, no ‘honour killings’, no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money… [3. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Bantam Press 2006), p. 1.]
This sounds like a good sort of world to me: no terrorism, no wars, no persecution and even no bouffant hair-dos! Of course we all want a world without violence and oppression (I’ll leave the hairstyles to your discretion). But does the blame lie principally with religion? Whilst there are few people who take Dawkins’ view to its logical extreme (advocating the abolition of all religions) there are many who retain a deep-seated belief that, actually, religion does – or has the worrying potential to do – more harm than good. How might we respond to someone who has these kinds of concerns?
Beliefs beget actions
One of the first points we might make is to affirm the truth that what you believe will affect what you do. So if you believe, along with millions of people in Britain today, that happiness, satisfaction and a good life is to be achieved by material gain, you will spend time, effort and money on buying more and more and better and better things. It seems to be a simple fact of human experience that our beliefs affect how we behave.
What, then, if you believe, as Mohammed Sidique Khan did, that certain verses of the Qur’an are to be taken literally, such as Sura 9:5 “…slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.”?[4. Sura 9:5, Dawood, N. J., The Koran (Penguin, 1995).] Just look at Khan’s video statement again: “Our religion is Islam…This is how our ethical stances are dictated.” Khan makes it clear that his actions are based on his particular interpretation of Islam. Such beliefs are without doubt dangerous. But does that apply to all religious beliefs?
People like Mohammed Sidique Khan are often called fundamentalists. A fundamentalist could be described as one who adheres to the fundamental teachings of a religion and bases their actions entirely on that basis. From this description we can see why there is an increasing tendency for people to equate Islamic extremism with evangelical Christianity: both groups claim to base their beliefs and actions on the words of a holy book. But the logical connection is flawed because the teachings of the two faiths, particularly on this question of violence, are fundamentally different.
Using the above description of a fundamentalist, what would a truly ‘fundamentalist’ Christian look like? What is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching? The golden rule of Christianity is love: loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and loving your neighbour – and your enemy – as yourself. Jesus rebuked Peter for attempting to defend Him with a sword and doubtless shouts a similar “Put your sword away!” to any Christian who would seek to take up arms to defend His honour. An Islamist can point to certain verses in the Qur’an as a justification for his violent actions, but a Christian will receive no such commendation from Christ. Christian faith should generate gracious, self-sacrificial, loving, Christ-like behaviour – never violence or oppression.
The fact remains that there are many terrible atrocities committed in the name of religion – and, as an aside, this includes atheism. [5. Just think, for example, of the atrocities committed in Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China.] It is worth asking whether the followers of a certain religion are behaving in a way which is a product of the teachings of that religion, or is against the teachings of that religion. You can never judge a system by its abuse.
We might also want to consider the many good humanitarian efforts which have sprung out of religious belief. Charities such as Christian Aid and Oxfam have their roots in Christian principles.
Another concern is that religious beliefs cause people to act in an unreasonable, irrational manner. It is a sad fact that some religions and cults operate by brainwashing. I recently heard a talk by a man who used to be a leader in the Ku Klux Klan and experienced a life-changing conversation to Jesus Christ whilst in prison for terrorist crimes. He said that during his Klan days he was completely blinded to any attempt to show him the irrational and immoral nature of his racist and anti-Semitic views. He was entirely indoctrinated and there was no room for questioning his fundamental assumptions. This is not a Christian view of faith.
Biblical faith has a truly reasonable basis which can stand up to scrutiny. It is trust in a God who has made Himself known to us. It is based on evidence: we trust God because we know His character, His actions throughout human history and His supreme revelation of Himself through Christ’s death and resurrection. There are strong philosophical arguments for God’s existence, overwhelming textual evidence for the accuracy of the Biblical manuscripts and historical evidence from an array of sources about the person and works of Jesus. Christians are commanded in 1 Peter 3:15-16 to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have. This strongly implies that there is a reason to be explained!
At the heart of this question lies fear about the way the world is going. Mohammed Sidique Khan said that, “Our words are useless until we give them life with our blood.” For the Christian, Jesus’ blood is the only blood that matters; there should be no blood shed in His name. We have such hope to offer the world: the offer of forgiveness and new life from the God whose perfect love casts out all fear. This question should challenge us to make sure we’re really living out what we claim to believe, so that instead of being concerned that religion is dangerous, people look at us and long to know more about the Christ whom we serve.