How to Tame Religious Terrorists

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Wed, Nov 18 - 9:00 am EDT | 2 years ago by
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The Good Life - How to Tame Religious Terrorists

Defeating an enemy such as politicized Islam is a multi-front battle — police, military, diplomatic, cultural and philosophical.

Any fight is triggered by short-term, local disagreements. But long-term, generalized conflicts are always about abstract principles in collision. As with neo-Nazis, Communist revolutionaries, violent environmentalists, bomb-the-government anarchists and others – our conflicts with them are intellectual in origin.

Terrorism is first a mindset – committing to a cause that includes a willingness to kill anonymous others indiscriminately.

Put yourself inside the head of a terrorist. You must learn not to see other humans as individuals: It is my group versus your group. You must not be open to reasonable debate and peaceful resolution: I shut off discussion and commit myself to fear and killing. You must squash any concern for justice: I am willing to kill indiscriminately. In most cases, you must decide that your own life on Earth is insignificant: I am willing to die for the cause.

Politicized Islam is now widespread in many parts of the world. It is well-funded and well-organized. It has many articulate spokesmen and sympathizers. And it has proved willing and able to execute audacious terrorist attacks.

How does one defeat an enemy with such a mindset?

In the West, we have done it before. We had our religious fanatics – but we tamed them. We can learn from our earlier success and apply its lessons to the present crisis.

Not too long ago in history, the Christian world was riven by bitter and nasty internal conflicts. Persecution, torture and widespread slaughter happened everywhere that Christians encountered internal dissent and external disagreement.

This was not an accident, given Christian doctrine. Both intellectuals and activists were acting in accordance with their best interpretations of Scripture and the teachings of a long tradition of Christian authority.

Consider this roster of big names: St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin. Augustine and Aquinas are the two most important thinkers in the Catholic tradition, and Luther and Calvin are the two most important thinkers in the Protestant tradition. All four are without exception entirely in favor of killing those who disagree with them.

And Christians could cite Scripture and the words of Jesus himself: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Or they could re-tell the parable of conflict resolution, which Jesus ends this way: “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me” (Luke 19:27).

The point is not whether that is your view of proper Christianity. The point is that that view was dominant among Christians then, just as its analog is currently widespread among followers of politicized Islam.

As with Islamists, Christians were taught faith and obedience. They were taught to seek their identity in something larger than themselves. They were taught to minimize Earthly concerns and to focus on an afterlife and to honor the martyrs. They were taught that dissenters and unbelievers were threats to the fabric of everything holy. So they became active participants in a dysfunctional culture of threat, persecute, and kill and be killed.

Yes, that is a simplification, for Christianity was divided into many fanatical and more moderate sects. There were also Jewish and Muslim minorities in the mix. And the religious rivalries and hatreds worked along ethnic and political rivalries and hatreds, as the English and the Spanish and the Dutch and the Italians and the Germans and the French loathed each other over grievances that stretched back for centuries.

But the West did achieve a culture of tolerance, and it did succeed in marginalizing its religious and ethnic haters. Now Christians of many sorts live and work alongside atheists and Jews and Hindus and Sikhs and Buddhists. And the English and the Spanish by and large get along, as do the Italians and the Dutch.

How did that happen? Because of philosophy – and a long period of cultural education and debate inspired by the humanism reintroduced into the West at the beginning of the Renaissance.

The humanists taught – often against vicious religious opposition – that life on Earth matters and that we should enjoy it. They taught that we should be rational, using our senses and our reason to understand the world and ourselves. They taught, increasingly as the Renaissance made headway, that each individual’s life matters and that we should judge people according to their individual characters and actions. They taught that each person is responsible for his (and even her) life.

A long line of thinkers from Montaigne in France to Galileo in Italy to Spinoza in Holland to Locke in England waged a multi-generational debate and succeeded in establishing them as foundational principles of modern Western civilization.

The West tamed its religious fanatics only because humanistic philosophy prevailed. So the lesson for our time is that the way to tame religious terrorism is not by religious methods – we don’t need a “return to original Christianity” or to hope that Islam has a “Reformation.”

For the long-term, the currently-Islamic world needs to learn and internalize humanistic principles – just as we needed to learn them – and just as we need to continue to uphold them vigorously in our own culture.

Of course that is a huge task. Cultural education is a constant and ongoing project that each generation must accomplish. For our generation, being tested as we are by a resurgence of religiously-motivated brutality, we face a two-front challenge.

One challenge is internal. We must ourselves remain committed to humanistic principles of naturalism, reason, individual freedom and self-responsibility. We must understand them, believe them and act upon them consistently as matters of principle.

That is why what is going on in our schools and universities today is so disturbing, as so many of our intellectuals and professors are infected with jaded postmodern, anti-civilized ideology. That philosophy of irrationalism, collectivized race/ethnic/sex identity, and group conflict has done much to undermine a generation of young people’s ability to think rationally, debate constructively, and defend forthrightly the values of self-responsibility, freedom, and tolerance.

If we cannot defend those values, then we are defenseless against a committed Islamism.

The other challenge is external. Despite globalization, much of the Islamic world is still “Other” and is partially or totally closed off to our efforts to influence cultural developments within it. And that means that we must find ways to support its liberal, humanistic thinkers and activists. They are few and they are brave, and they are currently in the position that centuries ago the minority of Western humanistic thinkers were in – arguing and persuading for cultural change within a broader culture that is still often intellectually primitive, superstitious, fanatical and savage.

They deserve our support, as the survival and progress of both of our cultures depends upon it.

Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at

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  • mwdiers

    “Augustine and Aquinas are the two most important thinkers in the Catholic tradition, and Luther and Calvin are the two most important thinkers in the Protestant tradition. All four are without exception entirely in favor of killing those who disagree with them.”

    BS. Patently false. Please do your research before making such categorical statements. This is not history but hearsay.

    Having read and studied Luther extensively, both from the perspective of his own writings and the many excellent histories, I can speak to Luther in particular. At no time did Luther ever advocate the categorical slaying of non-Lutherans. There are two cases where Luther speaks of using the sword: against the Turks, and against the peasants during the peasant revolt. The Turks were attacking Vienna. The peasants were revolting and slaying clergy and nobles. You can read what he wrote about both, and you will search in vain for any place where he advocated their slaying for any reason other than that they were committing violence first, and their violence must be ended.

    Then there is the case of the Jews. That was indeed for religious reasons, but he did not advocate killing them. He advocated burning down their synagogues and schools, taking away their religious writings, forbidding them to preach, etc. But not to kill them. I do not excuse Luther for what he did advocate, but he did not advocate their being killed.

    • SRCHicks

      Dear MWDiers:

      If you follow the Martin Luther link in the article above, it takes you to Luther’s essay on the Jews, in which he says:

      “I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. For they have justly forfeited the right to such an office by holding the poor Jews captive with the saying of Moses (Deuteronomy 17:10) in which he commands them to obey their teachers on penalty of death”.

    • mwdiers

      Ok. I will give you that. And as I said, I do not excuse Luther for his statements regarding the Jews.

      That still falls far short of a categorical statement such as “without exception.” It is also true that there was no instance where Luther gave such counsel on an actual case.

      Luther tolerated the entire papacy and the rest of the Protestant world with which he had serious differences of doctrine, without once demanding or counseling that anyone be put to death for their different belief.

    • Taurevanime

      I think Hicks was making is that all four of the defining philosophers of the two great sects of Christian religion advocated violence in certain circumstances (Though I am curious to hear about Orthodox Christians but that is another point).
      The point being that because they said violence was alright, their adherents felt justified in their acts of violence. Even if they were outside the special circumstances prescribed. That’s simply the way religious interpretation works (or laws for that matter).

  • Kasimir Urbanski

    Excellent article, as usual! As for your list of four great religious thinkers, I guess it might have been more accurate to say that all four of them viewed religious murder as entirely justifiable in certain circumstances.

    That people quibble that Luther thought it was less often justifiable than Calvin did is just missing the forest for the trees.

  • JeffPerren

    “All four are without exception entirely in favor of killing those who disagree with them.”

    Quotes from their writings would bolster this point.

    • SRCHicks

      I agree, Jeff. Each figure’s name is also a hyperlink that takes one to the quotations.

  • Bret

    From the article: “But the West did achieve a culture of tolerance…”

    Hmmm. Did it?

    It looks to me to be a brief respite from centuries of ever increasing conflicts including two incredibly destructive world wars followed by the cold war where two superpowers enforced your “tolerance” with mutually assured destruction. That’s more or less gone now and tolerance is crumbling everywhere at an accelerating pace. For example, as you point out, there’s no tolerance on campuses for any free thought and speech, and those youths will be the critical mass of society in another couple of decades.

    No, it looks to me that this wonderful tolerance, supposedly enabled by humanistic philosophers is just a flash in the pan and were all rapidly heading towards being fried in that pan.

  • paul

    I fail to understand how ISIS and/or radical Islam can be defeated without IMMIGRATION REFORM! Seal the borders and start deporting…the solution is soooooo easy!
    The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America contains an extremely important phrase that is almost always ignored by those who appeal to it, or to the men who wrote it, in defense of immigration. It states:
    We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
    The key phrase is this: “to ourselves and our posterity.” The blessings of liberty are not to be secured to all the nations of the world, to the tired and huddled masses, or to the wretched refuse of the teeming shores of other lands. They are to be secured to our children, and their children, and their children’s children.
    To sacrifice their interests to the interests of children in other lands is to betray both past and future America. It is to permit an alien posterity, like the newly hatched cuckoo in another bird’s nest, to eliminate our own, and in doing so, defeat the purpose of the Constitution.

  • Classical Liberal Warrior

    Islam and the Ummah have been at war with the West and the world for over
    1300 years now. They ratcheted up the fight in the 1970s and even more
    so after 9/11. With all the WMDS around today, especially in Muslim
    Pakistan, Islam and its followers represent an immense threat to the liberty and happiness of humanity.

    This article correctly notes that we face a “multi-front battle” — part
    philosophical/cultural and part military/political. Prof. Hicks
    basically argues that the way to defeat Islam is with “humanism.” This
    reminds of the repeated claim from The Atlas Society that what we need
    is “modernism.” But I still think the clearest, cleanest, and best word
    and concept is “liberalism.”

    This is a broad-based and general fight that requires the Good Guys and forces for
    civilization to overall raise their philosophical and cultural game. The
    more the world in general, and the West in particular, embraces and
    practices an epistemology of reason, an ethics of individualism, and a
    politics of freedom, the more Islam and the activist Muslims will go
    into decline and torture mankind less.

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  • EscapeVelocity

    This is a misdiagnoses of the problem. Chirstianity and Islam are not two peas in a pod.

    • Edward Fox

      In being faith and revelation based, totalitarian in nature, not only recognizing no right of reason and conscience but making them capital crimes i.e. heresy and apostasy – and having no compunctions about using whatever force is necessary to maintain their hegemony including torture and genocide I find them very similar indeed. If Christianity in the West seems tamer it was because it was politically defanged, not because it reformed itself. The virtues Western Christians congratulate themselves on in contrast to Islamic e.g. their tolerance are Enlightenment virtues not Christian.

    • EscapeVelocity

      No, the issue is the base text…revelations. The New Testament vs the Koran & Hadiths/Sura.

      Christianity wasnt changed, Christianity evolved within it’s philosophical framework of it’s own accord. The Enlightement isnt Anti-Christian, the Enlightenment is part of the Christian tradition.

      This conlfict theory between science/reason and Christianity is bogus at it’s core.

      Science was create by Christians and developed to it’s highest rigor by Christians, supported by both lay and ecclesiastical Christian organizations. The Catholic Church being primary promoter of science via it’s university systems.

  • Edward Fox

    Excellent article.

    Bret: Good point. But if tolerance was a flash in the pan it was an incredibly powerful flash with immense consequences: the Western Enlightenment revolution that underpinned modernity. But by the time Middle Eastern scholars were in full gear in the effort to assimilate this tradition, primarily from European universities, it had been eclipsed by the supremely intolerant German reaction to it that produced modern totalitarianism right and left.

  • Edward Fox

    Sad but true: modern Western humanities have hardly inspired in Middle Eastern scholars an inspiring vision or compelling direction.

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