Is Religion Really That Bad?

by Mark Movsesian

Thanks to Opinio Juris for inviting me to comment on Professor Guiora’s new book. I look forward to the interchange with him and the other participants.

Professor Guiora deserves credit for tackling the very controversial and timely topic of religious terrorism. Much of what he says is thought-provoking. He tries to be fair and avoid “religion-bashing.” He concedes that religion can have beneficial as well as harmful social effects and cautions the state against over-reaching in response to religious speech.

Yet I must disagree with his central assertion that religion constitutes a uniquely dangerous threat to national security and public safety. For example, he writes that “religious extremists are fundamentally, philosophically, and existentially different from secular terrorists for they claim to be acting in the name of the divine.” I don’t know about “philosophically and existentially,” but, practically, there is not much difference between religious and secular terrorism. In the last century, atheist state terrorism murdered many millions and suppressed whole civilizations. Atheist ideology motivated much “non-governmental terrorism” as well, as in Peru (the Shining Path) and Germany (the Red Army Faction). Indeed, in terms of sheer numbers, secular terrorism has been dramatically more successful than its religious counterpart.

It doesn’t seem, then, that religiously-motivated terrorism is qualitatively more virulent than the secular variety. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Terrorism can be motivated by many factors. Some religious beliefs encourage terrorism, but so do some secular ideologies. The key thing is the terrorist psychology: the terrorist’s emotional conviction that his goals, whether in this world or the next, justify violence against the people who oppose him. Society obviously needs to defend itself against such violence and I agree with Professor Guiora that religiously-motivated violence shouldn’t get a free pass. (Who argues that it should?) But focusing on “religious” terrorism distorts the nature of the problem.

Professor Guiora’s assumption that religion is uniquely dangerous also causes him to say some unfortunate things. For example, he states that “society has historically – unjustifiably and blindly – granted religion immunity.” This assertion is not correct. It is not even close to correct. Historically, society has persecuted religious dissent. The freedom that religion enjoys in the West today is the result of centuries of struggle. In many parts of the world, governments continue to suppress religious liberty. A recent Pew study revealed that 70% of the world’s population lives in countries with high or very high levels of restrictions on religious freedom. Even in the United States, believers who seek religious exemptions from generally applicable laws face an uphill battle, and always have. Under the old Sherbert test, courts routinely rejected religion-based claims for exemptions, and the current Smith standard is of course less accommodating. On an objective view of reality, religious communities around the world are more often victims than victimizers, a fact of which the reader of Professor Guiora’s often provocative work might lose sight.

One Response

  1. Mark Movesian’s reaction to Amos Guiora’s book is interesting, but also based on some mistakes about the basic argument as developed by Guiora. Let me focus on one specific and imporant issue: Movesian compares religious terrorism with “atheist state terrorism”. The problem with this comparison is that the terrorist threat that emerges from religious terrorism is intimately connected with a divine command ethics that forms an important element of the three monotheist faiths. But atheism as such is not something that legitimates violence, and nor is “secularism” (Movesian changes from atheism to secularism in his response). Stalinism was dangerous, but not because of its atheist character.

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