Why Biblical Religions Are an Obstacle to
Shadia B. Drury
The following Op-Ed is from Free Inquiry magazine,
When I speak about biblical religions, I mean the Jewish, Christian,
and Muslim faiths. It is fashionable in the West to speak about the
"Judeo-Christian" tradition, as if Christian civilization has not been
killing and persecuting Jews for two thousand years. The term
Judeo-Christian gives the impression that Christianity and Judaism are
somewhat allied and compatible. In contrast, Islam is regarded as the
enemy-the incomprehensible and irrational other. But this is not the
case; the difference between the "Judeo-Christian" civilization and the
Muslim one is not as significant as we are inclined to believe. It is
my contention that there are at least three aspects of biblical
religion that present obstacles to freedom: (1) the depravity of human
nature; (2) the singular conception of virtue; and (3) the collective
conception of guilt.
First, biblical religions are suspicious of freedom, because they
assume that human beings are severely flawed and, therefore, unlikely
to use their freedom well. They assume that freedom can only lead to
licentiousness, decadence, and disorder. When Joseph de Maistre, the
reactionary critic of the French Revolution, said that "man is too
wicked to be free," he was speaking candidly on behalf of the whole
biblical tradition. A liberal society, a society that regards freedom
as its supreme value, is therefore antithetical to the biblical
understanding of humanity as radically flawed.
There is no doubt some truth in this biblical understanding of the
human condition. In a society that places freedom above virtue in its
hierarchy of ends, there will always be some individuals who will abuse
their freedom. But if a society is to be free, it must have some
tolerance for private vice-vice that does not involve harming others.
Religious fundamentalists -- Jewish, Christian, and Islamic -- have
zero tolerance for private vice. They prefer a society in which virtue,
not freedom, is the supreme value.
Virtue is no doubt a wonderful thing. But it cannot be the supreme goal
of social and political organization. The reason is that there is more
than one conception of virtue and more than one way to live a righteous
life. Politics is about how different people with different conceptions
of virtue and different beliefs about ultimate truth can live together
peacefully. But biblical religions are singular and autocratic when it
comes to virtue, and this is the second reason that they present an
obstacle to freedom.
The Christian tradition is a particularly good illustration of
intolerance. In the Christian tradition, sin is defined as unbelief.
Jesus set the stage. He identified righteousness with believing in him
and considered wickedness to be the reverse: "for if ye believe not
that I am he, ye shall die in your sins" (John 8:24). The assumption is
that there is only one way to be righteous and only one route to
salvation: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh to the
Father, but by me" (John 14:6). Not surprisingly, Christians followed
Jesus in defining wickedness as not believing what Christians believed.
Aquinas was true to Jesus when he said that "unbelief is the greatest
of sins." This assumption has been the source of untold wickedness in
the history of the Church. It explains the profound intolerance that
has led Christians to persecute others, not for doing harm, but simply
for being unbelievers or for harboring what Christian authorities
thought were false beliefs. The Inquisition and the burning of witches,
heretics, and Jews are some examples of what happened when the Church
had political power. It is not a question of bad people perverting a
good religion. Far from being an aberration that is not representative
of Christianity, the persecution of heretics follows logically from the
connection of faith and salvation as presented by Jesus in the Gospels.
When virtue becomes the supreme value in a society, the result is the
criminalization of "sin" as defined by the sacred texts-and as these
texts are interpreted by the powerful. You end up with a society that
resembles the reign of the English Puritans in seventeenth-century
England-they abolished Christmas because it was too much fun and there
was too much pleasure and indulgence associated with it. Or you end up
with a society that resembles the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan
of recent memory: no music; no dancing; no kite flying; no films; no
female voices singing on the radio; no female voices broadcasting the
news; and no female arms, ankles, or faces seen in public. All these
harmless freedoms and pleasures are supposedly too obscene-unlike
public executions, stoning, burning witches, or tormenting Jews.
The third reason that biblical religions are an obstacle to free
societies is their attachment to the concept of collective guilt. The
biblical God tends to punish the whole community for the sins of the
few. In fact, the biblical God brags about his penchant for that kind
of justice: ". . . I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the
iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth
generation of them that hate me . . ." (Exodus 20:5). Time and again,
the anger falls on the whole community for the transgressions of some.
Some of the Hebrew prophets, such as Jeremiah, rightly objected to this
divine justice and looked forward to a new covenant in which "everyone
shall die for his own iniquity" (Jeremiah 31:30). Ezekiel echoed the
same principle (Ezekiel 18:20), but to no avail. When Jesus came,
things got even worse. Jesus took it for granted that all men and women
are justly condemned for the sins of their ancestors-Adam and Eve.
Jesus supposedly came to bear the punishment that we justly deserve for
original or inherited sin.
The story of Samson's attack on the temple of the Philistines is
another example of the collective nature of biblical justice (Judges
16:26-31). Samson's terrorist act on the Philistines is presented by
the biblical authors as an act of God, who wished to punish the
Philistines for their iniquity. The biblical God punished the
Philistines as a people. He was indifferent to the innocence of
individuals. Supposedly, there are no innocent Philistines.
After the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11,
2001, some Muslim clerics denounced the terrorists as people who are
using religion for their own political purposes. But saying that the
terrorist attacks had nothing to do with Islam is like saying that the
Inquisition and the Crusades had nothing to do with Christianity. It is
certainly true that the Qur'an bids every believer to embark on a jihad
against evil in his heart. But it also bids believers to fight against
the evil of the infidels. More honest Islamic clerics and commentators
declared that Muhammad Atta and the other terrorists were instruments
of God punishing the Americans for their iniquity and that there are no
innocent Americans. Christian fundamentalists Jerry Falwell and Pat
Robertson agreed that the terrorist attack was a deserved punishment
from God for America's sins. They singled out the sins of feminists,
gays, and lesbians as the reason that God decided to punish America.
This is a candid expression of the classic biblical view of collective
guilt. The Bible is tribal in its perspective; its authors think in
terms of peoples and not individuals.
There is no doubt that the biblical concept of collective guilt
encourages extremism in dealing with the "enemy." It certainly makes it
easier to target unarmed and unsuspecting civilians. No declarations of
war are necessary; no rules of war need to be observed; no distinctions
need to be made between soldiers and civilians. But what interests me
is the obstacle that the concept of collective guilt poses to domestic
If you believe that God will punish you collectively for the private
vices of some of the members of the community-by using hurricanes,
floods, famines, earthquakes, or terrorists-you will naturally take a
lively interest in the private affairs of others. The notion of
collective guilt promotes a meddlesome style of politics that is an
obstacle to a free society. Freedom requires a private domain of
conduct that is of no concern to others-a domain that does not threaten
the interests of others or their equal freedom. But
fundamentalists-Jewish, Christian, and Islamic alike-deny the existence
of this domain of freedom, and that explains their aversion to secular
liberal society. If they had their druthers, Pat Robertson and Jerry
Falwell would create a ministry for the promotion of virtue and the
prevention of vice akin to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In my view, the hard-won freedom of the West is precarious-it has
biblical enemies inside and outside. If the majority of Americans begin
to agree with their Islamic enemies that freedom is nothing more than a
decadent surrender to pleasure, they will launch a jihad against
freedom in the name of biblical religion. In the end, America will
become more like her enemies-a society where a particular conception of
virtue has primacy over liberty. This will not necessarily happen
quickly in an apocalyptic manner; but quietly, gradually, and subtly,
liberty will be eroded.
is Canada Research Chair in Social Justice
and Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at the University of
Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is Terror and Civilization:
Christianity, Politics, and the Western Psyche (New York:
Macmillan at St. Martin's Press, 2004).
This page was last updated
Copyright notice: The copyright for
the contents of this web site rests with the Council for Secular Humanism.
You may download and read the documents. Without permission, you may
not alter this information, repost it, or sell it.
If you use a document, you are encouraged to make a donation to the Council
for Secular Humanism.