A summary of the Church and School Lecture 2002 by Professor John Hull.

The lecture was sponsored by the Church of Scotland Committee on Education and given at Pollock Halls, University of Edinburgh on Thursday 12th September, 2002.


What does it mean to have a religion to fall back on?

Radio Netherlands commented recently on a controversial court case which involved the imam of the Rotterdam mosque. Apparently the imam had made some critical remarks about gay people and an action had been taken against him on the grounds that he had infringed the Dutch law which forbids defamatory and abusive statements made in public about gay people. In his defence, the imam claimed the authority of the Qur’an. This defence was accepted by the court and the case was dismissed. The radio commentator remarked that if he had been in court, he would have been found guilty because he did not have a religion to fall back on.

This little incident invites us to consider the changes taking place in attitudes towards religion in western societies, and perhaps throughout the world. In the nineteenth century to have a religion to fall back on was to be assured that one’s sins were forgiven and that eternal life was guaranteed. In the twentieth century to have a religion to fall back on meant having a symbolic focus of commitment and identity, providing one with a sense of purposeful living. Today the meaning seems to be changing again. To have a religion to fall back on means being exempt from the normal standards of human rights. In the name of religion one can express all kinds of strange opinions and the secular democratic society accepts such idiosyncrasies, not because of the sacredness of religion but because of the dignity of democratic freedom of speech.

In the following remarks questions will be raised about these changes of attitude and some responses from Christian faith will be outlined.


Part 1. The ambiguity of religion

Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud are regarded as the modern masters of suspicion because they revealed the ambiguity of religious faith, in politics, ethics and in the history of the individual. Functional interpretations of religion have shown how religion can become an ideology of class oppression, a process of self deception, and a neurotic defence.

Not only has the rise of the social sciences given us this critical insight into the way religion operates in social and individual settings, but the movements of population, the character of modern education and above all the rise of modern communications have led to an understanding of the plurality of religions. This plurality can no longer be regarded as merely an opportunity for evangelism or a question of social coherence but as leading to the pluralisation of the religious consciousness itself. In other words, the multiplicity of religious alternatives is not only experienced as otherness but is internalised as confusion, ambiguity or relativity. Of course, resistance to both external and internal plurality is a possibility of faith today, and it is in the character and consequences of such resistance that we may begin our search for the link between religion and terror.

It is sometimes said that politics in the nineteenth century was a politics of empire, and that in the twentieth century politics was largely the politics of the nation state. Today politics has become the politics of identity. Rapid social change, higher levels of educational attainment, affluence, the media and many other factors have created a challenge to individual, national, tribal and racial identity. Ethnography and social psychology have helped us to understand the contribution made by religion to identity, and thrown light on the relationship between religion and tribalism. Erik H. Erikson has distinguished between the identity of wholeness, which is inclusive, and the identity of totalism, which is exclusive. Religion may play a part in both kinds of identity formation. Religion may enlarge the boundaries of human solidarity, leading in its highest form to an identity which includes all human life, or it may bend in upon itself, preserving internal pure identity by means of negative descriptions of people with different identities. Elsewhere I have described this as religionism – the process whereby threatened individual or social identities retain their integrity by creating negative images of people who belong to other religions. The link between religionism and terror is another clue to the problem we are discussing.

Another contribution toward understanding the ambiguity of religion has been provided by the history of religions. Here our focus will be mainly upon the Christian tradition. Historical research has uncovered the ambiguity of the history of Christian missions, showing how closely they were related to the various imperial ideologies of Europe and America. Christianity as a source of terror was all too familiar to the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands, Central and South America who perished in their millions before the advance of the Christian empires of Europe. Recent historical and biblical interpretation has shown the close connection between the Bible and colonialism, whether we consider the biblical justifications for the colonisation of the Americas, the rationale provided by the Bible for racism in southern Africa or the impact of biblical images of conquest and possession upon the modern Zionist movement. This is not to deny the beneficial character of much of the influence of Christianity upon the non-European world in earlier centuries, or to minimise the heroism and self-sacrifice of many of those who became missionaries in foreign lands, nor is it to disregard the role played by many missionaries in resistance against oppressive colonising governments. Nevertheless, the history of these events can no longer be written in the style of hagiography. It is to realise that we are the inheritors of a flawed tradition, a tradition both glorious and terrible, which has both healed and wounded, and which continues to manifest its power to do both.

These reflections demand theological investigation and evaluation. It is clear that what we call Christianity, a term not found in the Bible nor in the first one thousand years of Christian theology, has itself become ambiguous. The expression "Christianity" represents the self-understanding of Christian faith during the modern period when it found itself in the presence of other forms of response to the divine, and was associated with a competition for economic and political power. Christianity may thus be regarded as referring to a certain phase in the history of the self-understanding of Christian faith. It may be distinguished from the period which preceded it, which we may call Christendom, and the period which is now dawning, for which we have no adequate description, but for which Raimundo Panikkar has suggested the expression "Christian-ness".

This attempt to understand the situation of Christian faith in terms of a series of periods may help us to grasp the connection between religion and terror. Christian life today is a mixture of consciousness in which all of these periods are represented. Christendom represents the desire for territorial integrity and dominance in which the "civilised world" is contrasted with the rest of the world. Christianity represents the religious system of the Christian tradition in so far as it is in a comparative and competitive relation with other somewhat similar systems. Christian-ness represents a renewal of discipleship to Jesus the Muslim, Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Christian, the one who regarded all men and women as his brothers and sisters if they sought and performed the will of God. Christian-ness will attempt to interpret discipleship of Jesus the life-giver, the one who laid down life in order to share it, and who took it up again in a scarred and broken form to mark the divine solidarity with human brokenness. In that brokenness, Christian discipleship seeks for the vulnerable wholeness which casts out fear.


Part 2. Religion and terror

Having drawn attention to some of the factors which help us to understand the way religion functions and the possibilities of religion as a source of terror, and having noted some aspects of the history of the Christian tradition which are already associated with terror we can now move on to consider some of the features of religion as terror in the contemporary world.

The first thing to notice is that every major world religion and many minor ones are associated with terror. The Catholic children entering the Holy Cross primary school in Belfast last year, passing through lines of Protestants shouting abuse and spitting, certainly knew the meaning of terror. The association between Islam and terror is documented almost daily on the media. In the Middle East, Jewish terror is exercised upon Palestinians and Muslim terror on Israelis. In the Punjab we see several groups of Sikhs using terror to advance their religious and political ideas. Even Buddhism rightly associated with peace and compassion is not without its terrorist movements, as the poisonous gas attack some years ago upon the Tokyo subway reminds us. Particularly horrific are the murderous attacks against places of worship – Christian worshippers are attacked in Pakistan, Muslims in prayer in the shrine of Abraham in Hebron are gunned down by a Jewish fanatic. Women and children are slaughtered in an attack upon a Hindu temple in Gujarat. A funeral in a Catholic church in northern Ireland is violated by Protestant extremists.

When we respond to attacks upon places of worship with the question "Is nothing sacred?", we misunderstand the connection between religion and violence. The point is that places of worship are attacked not in spite of their holy character but because of it. It is no accident that sacred buildings are seldom attacked when they are empty. The point is to attack and kill the worshippers in the very act of worship and in the place most sacred to their faith. This violation of the holy place as a refuge arouses terror, because it shows that the holy is attacked in the name of the holy. Terror acknowledges no sanctuary, least of all that offered by the secret heart of that which is the object of its hatred. Other attacks are directed against symbolic centres of power, such as the World Trade Center, or against representative buildings such as embassies or against places which symbolise the crossroads or the nerve centres of modern society such as supermarkets, air terminals, railway stations and of course airplanes. These attacks are not utilitarian in the sense that they are intended to paralyse or disrupt; rather, they are symbolic in the sense that they are intended to reveal the essential vulnerability of secular power.

This is not to claim that these actions are always motivated by religious zeal. Not all members of the IRA or the Basque liberation movement are religious. There is political terror but it is noticeable that the number and the proportion of acts of terror and terrorist groups explicitly associated with religion has increased dramatically since about 1980. Since terrorism is not confined to any one religion but appears to be a cross-religious phenomenon, we can inquire as to any characteristics of religion which might produce and jjustify terror.

It is possible to observe some general features. Terrorists almost never act alone. They are seldom psychopaths or crazy individuals, twisted by hatred. The people who commit these actions are almost invariably members of movements dedicated to certain objectives. The terrorists themselves, and this includes the so-called suicide bombers in Israel, are often rational, articulate, well educated and pleasant enough as people. Indeed, we misunderstand these actions if we regard them as merely maniacal – they are not irrational but are the products of a rational view of the world – a view which is if anything exaggerated in its rationality to the point where the perfect coherence which rationality demands is no longer available. Terrorist actions represent the rational mind at the end of its tether, the desperation of the attempt to retain reason in a mad world. This is the point at which religion, the outstanding example of the human need for a complete world view, makes its contribution. The rationality of religion produces the irrationality of terror by setting desperation in a frame of cosmic meaning.


But under what conditions does the more or less rational religious world view become susceptible to terrorist appropriation? Examination of cross-cultural religious terror reveals certain patterns.

First, the group or society which is on its way toward terrorist actions conceives of itself not as attacking but as defending. These groups regard themselves as representing a culture or an idea which is itself experiencing remorseless and overwhelming threat. Secondly, all other avenues of protest or self-protection seem to be closed. The group feels itself to be on the edge of a calamity. Religion arises out of the crisis created by weakness and despair. Third, in their despair, the group finds hope and consolation in the promise of religious victory. Since God is on their side, it is impossible that their cause should ultimately fail. This provides religious groups with an eschatological dimension; the terrorist attack is but a small part in a process of cosmic conflict which may endure for centuries but the end of which cannot be in doubt. In many cases, the attack is regarded as itself being an eschatological moment, a spark which will ignite the powder keg, an awakening call, the first sign that radical change is about to burst open. Fourth, the group of activists, often quite few in number, is supported by a wider circle of fellow believers who generally interpret their cultural and moral situation along similar lines. The terrorist has company both on earth and in heaven.

If we are correct in regarding such circumstances as being the conditions in which religion may become activated as terror, we can now go on to list some of the characteristics of the religious imagination as terror. First, as is implicit in what has already been said, the group committed to terror perceives the world as a conflict between good and evil. There is war in heaven; the archangel Michael and his angels fight against the devil and his angels. Second, the identification of the terrorist group with the forces of goodness leads to the demonisation of the opponent. We might also speak of this as a process of Satanisation. One thinks of the posters which depict George W. Bush and Tony Blair with red eyes, like devils. The effect of this is to deprive the opponent of humanity and thus to open the way for all kinds of atrocities, conceived of as acts of purification. Third, the terrorist actions are ritualised. This gives murder and dismemberment a cosmic significance, lifting it out of the ordinary moral code and turning the victim into a sacrifice. At the same time, the terrorists who are killed are sanctified and given the status of martyrs. Fourth, the terrorist group, although supported by its wider society, remains a small minority within the religious tradition as a whole, whether this be Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim. The minority group regards itself as a remnant, an elect group of ultimate witnesses, while the religion as a whole is thought to have betrayed its own ideals and to have already succumbed to the power of the opposition, whether this be a government, an immoral world, secularity or America.

These features of the religious views of the terrorist groups are almost always accompanied by skilful handling of the media and careful planning. The symbolic character of the action is pointless unless it spreads terror, and this requires publicity and careful choice of both target and time.

Part 3. Educational response of the church

Our first responsibility is to deny denial. Frequently on the religious slots of the broadcast media one hears representatives of various religions insisting that the extremist groups who claim the name of the faith have no right to it. The religion itself is pure and holy; the terrorists are cynically using religion as a pretext for their atrocities, or are totally misguided about the character of the faith. While this defensive reaction is understandable on the part of those who see their task as commending religious faith to the public in a situation of acute embarrassment, it does not really help insiders to face up to certain tendencies within their tradition, and it leaves the outsiders unconvinced. On the other hand, some heroic religious broadcasters are honest enough to acknowledge the roots of terror within their faith tradition. "if you spurn my statutes, and abhor my ordinances,…I will bring terror upon you" (Lev 26:16)."a terror from God fell upon the cities" (Gen 35:5)."You brought your people Israel out of the land of Egypt…with great terror" (Jer 32:21) To the insider, the elements of threat and terror in scripture are hardly noticeable but to the outsider, coming to these texts without previous acculturation, they are quite striking. Moreover, the features of religion which lend themselves to terrorist mentality are deeply ingrained into the tradition – the cosmic drama: the ethical command, the distinction between us and them, the hope of final victory, the sense of being a minority in the great society which threatens to submerge us – could we conceive of any major faith tradition without these elements? Is not this gloomy yet glorious sense of being an embattled minority in the midst of the powers of darkness a typical feature of much Victorian hymnody?

But if we acknowledge these characteristics of the religious world view, we are left with the thought that religious commitment can take socially constructive or destructive forms. This is something with which most ministers and spiritual directors are quite familiar: the religious faith of the individual may become parasitic upon the personality, leading to rigidity and closure, or it may lead to a personality orientated towards inclusive love. Religion is like sex – it may nurture life or may make life barren. Is it possible that this ambiguous character of religious identity might be incorporated into ministerial and adult education in the churches? Will it not be damaging to the naïve and tender faith of many people? But if it is not acknowledged and dealt with will it not leave people in a false innocence? This is the dilemma which confronts the theology and practice of Christian education today.

It is worth noting that in this situation there appears to be a growing divergence between the two professions open to theology graduates: the ministry or priesthood and the religious educator. As an insider and a representative of faith, the minister will often feel bound by the defensive requirements but the religious educator, although a theological graduate, is a secular professional, whose task is not the advocacy of religion or its defence but the deepening of critical understanding. Indeed, the role of the religious educator occupies a position of unique importance in Europe. Religious education as part of the heritage of the Enlightenment is particularly committed to the dialogue between faiths and to the development of personal and social maturity. There is no other profession that carries this responsibility, which is both curiously neutral towards faith and yet committed to the values of mature democratic religion.

In the light of the crisis we have been discussing, we need to look again at such popular courses of education as the Alpha programme of Christian adult instruction, and the present generation of agreed syllabuses and other curriculum guidelines used in Scotland and England. It is doubtful whether a course of Christian instruction which presents faith as unambiguous, and in a context where other faith traditions are at best ignored or at worst regarded with suspicion can be regarded as an adequate stimulus to complex Christian maturity. Perhaps it will do as a starting point, but a starting point toward what? Similarly, the agreed syllabuses inspired by the 1994 English so-called model syllabuses for religious education in schools now appear strangely old fashioned. Religions are presented mainly in distinct blocks with little or no attention given to the phenomenon of religion itself. It is as if the fact that phenomenologically religion appears as a series of religions has swamped any realisation of the common roots of religiosity in individuals and societies. It would be good if the social sciences which helped us in the first place to realise the hidden potential of religion were utilised more explicitly in the religious education of children and young people. Religion does indeed generate both peace and terror, and an appreciation of one must be superficial without the other.

As for the general educational policy of church congregations, we need to ask how the distinctive features of the Christian tradition can be retained in the midst of plurality. We must ask whether congregations of the Christendom type do not lend themselves to prejudice and hostility – the characteristic shape taken by Christendom toward the outside world is the crusade. The problem with the Christianity type of congregation is that it relates to the outside world and especially to other religions in a competitive manner. After all, the mission of Christian faith is not Christianity. Are there similar distinctions to be found in other religions between these types of faith? Is there a Hindustan, committed to territory, and a Hinduism, locked in rivalry, and a Hindu-ness seeking liberation and compassion? If through education religious faith can be moved away from sectarian exclusion and paranoia toward more comprehensive understandings of the mission of faith for all humanity, perhaps religion will be less available for the fanatical mind, and less vulnerable to terror.


John Hull is Professor of Religious Education at the University of Birmingham. His most recent publications are Utopian Whispers (RMEP 1997), On Sight and Insight (One World reprinted 2001) and In Beginning there was Darkness (SCM Press 2001). Those interested in reading more of his articles are invited to consult his web site:


Copyright: John M Hull 2002.