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Pastor Terry Jones and the rioting Afghan mob believe in a religion without reason

They have something in common, apart from anger: they believe in a religion that has no connection to morality

By on Monday, 4 April 2011

Pastor Terry Jones is surrounded by supporters at a news conference in New York (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Pastor Terry Jones is surrounded by supporters at a news conference in New York (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Everyone must feel dismay at recent events in America and Afghanistan. I refer, of course, to the burning of a copy of the Koran by Pastor Terry Jones, and the subsequent rioting in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar. But it may be worthwhile analysing why these events are so very depressing.

No one, and no one in America, with its enlightenment constitution, can dispute that Pastor Terry Jones has the right to free speech and freedom of expression. Hence, there seem to be no legal grounds on which one can base an objection to his ridiculous stunt of putting the Koran “on trial”. Any legal attempt to stop this happening would surely have failed, or might have played into the pastor’s hands – this was after all the second time he had planned to stage a book-burning of this nature. The decision by almost everyone to ignore the stunt this time round was certainly the right one.

But while the pastor’s actions were certainly legal, they were certainly immoral as well. In a liberal society, which gives extensive freedom to the citizen, the citizen’s rights are accompanied by duties and responsibilities. These latter cannot be exhaustively covered by legislation. It is impossible to formulate laws that lay down in full just what your duties and your responsibilities are to your fellow citizens. A law can tell you what you can or cannot do, but it cannot compel you to do good deeds out of the kindness of your heart, or to refrain from using your rights out of consideration for others.

By burning a copy of the Koran, the pastor has almost certainly endangered the lives of Americans at home and abroad, and he has certainly endangered the lives of other human beings – indeed, his action has sparked off rioting that has killed at least seven UN employees in Mazar-e-Sharif. Thus his action is reckless, irresponsible and immoral. But it would be impossible to point to a law that the pastor has broken, apart from the moral law of “love your neighbour”, which cannot be covered by statute.

In a liberal society, freedom of speech and expression has to be tempered by self-control. We may be free within the law to do as we please, but because we are not alone, we cannot do exactly as we please, we also have to think of others and how our actions may affect them. Self-control is a liberal virtue, without which liberal society becomes intolerable. As there can be no social life without loss, we accept a limit to our self-indulgence as the price we pay for living in society. A liberal society would rapidly turn into a coercive society, indeed a police state with repressive laws, if the citizens failed to exercise self-control.

Self-control, this liberal civic virtue, is also a Christian virtue, praised by St Paul in Galatians 5:23 as one of the fruits of the Spirit. Pastor Terry Jones is not just a bad citizen, he is also a bad Christian. Indeed the entire Christian ethic is an ethic of self-sacrifice, inspired by the example of Jesus on the Cross. Self-indulgent and self-righteous, the pastor seems far indeed from the example of Christ the Lord.

Incidentally, this illustrates how Christian virtues, good in themselves, are also good for the secular state, and how secular liberal society can make use of a Christian ethic to safeguard liberal values.

As for those rioting in Afghanistan, where to begin? Mob violence, so horrifying in the Age of Enlightenment, is horrifying today as well, and for the same reason. The murderous irrationality of the mob, stirred up so easily by those who make use of them, is the sort of thing that brings democracy into disrepute. How can we allow individuals to vote if they are so seemingly immune to reason, so entirely without detachment, so completely devoid of judgement? The victims of the mob, who worked for the UN, had nothing whatever to do with Pastor Terry Jones or his actions.

Yet the pastor and the mob have something in common, apart from the anger that drives them both. Both have turned their back on reason. Any attempt to try and reason with them seems destined to fail. Likewise, they both seemingly believe in a religion that has no connection to morality. Just as morals without religion can become attenuated, so religion without morals can become a hollowed out creed, something you believe but which in the end means exactly and only what you want it to mean. Morality keeps religion on the straight path, because the truth of religion is moral, and once the morality disappears, religion becomes an empty shell that can be filled as you choose.

Professor Karl Josef Becker SJ, a theologian supposedly much valued by the present Pope, says that what God reveals to us in revelation is his moral splendour, and it is this moral splendour or goodness that is his glory. Terry Jones and others want to glorify God and at the same time ignore the substance of that divine glory, God’s goodness and love. They believe in a God emptied of the content of divine revelation; that makes them idol worshippers.

Just as religion cannot do without morality, so the converse is true: morality must have religion if it is to function effectively. Iris Murdoch had this to say in her book Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals:

High morality without religion is too abstract, high morality craves for religion… Religion symbolises high moral ideals which then travel with us and are more intimately and accessibly effective than the unadorned promptings of reason.

It might very well seem absurd at this point to claim that religion is the source of a solution to the problem presented by Pastor Jones and the rioting Afghans, when both parties are acting in the name of religion. I take that point. But the crucial fact is this: both Jones and whoever was behind the riots have effectively done the same thing – separated their religion from all morality. When this happens religion becomes a caricature of itself. What is needed here is not less theology, but a deeper, real theology, a true appreciation of the way reason and religion can join forces and strengthen each other.

God preserve us from fundamentalism; but preserve us from an attenuated secularism as well.

  • shahrokhi

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  • Louisa

    Father, I totally agree with you on Terry Jones, but I don’t understand why you seem to draw a parallel between his burning of the Koran and murderous riots? Surely, there is a huge moral gulf between these two sins. Perhaps Pastor Jones’ sin was more than venial, but murder is worse than lack of self-control, surely? Pastor Jones may be a bad Christian, but he will find an audience as long as more sensible people refuse to differentiate between provocative acts like his and murderous violence at the hands of a people who seem, collectively, unable to respond to provocation without resorting to murder.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I do take your point, Louisa, that these are materially different sins. I think what I was trying to say was that the pastor and the rioters are both self-indulgent and lacking in self-control and irrational – so in that sense they are similar, though of course their actions are different. I think Terry Jones ought to have known what the results of his provocation would be, given recent history; his action was grossly irresponsible. While the perpetrators are always responsible for their actions, those who stir them up deliberately (in Afghanistan) or even from afar (in America) must be to blame as well. The good news on this front is that in the US Terry Jones is a very isolated figure. In Afghanistan, whoever stirred up the mob to attack the UN was far from isolated, sadly.

  • Mr Grumpy

    Father, my problem with your argument is that by accusing Pastor Jones of “endangering” lives you seem to imply that he caused the actions of the murderers in Afghanistan. How can this be so? Are they not free moral agents? Are you not implicitly drawing up a blackmailer’s charter? And would not your reasoning force us to accuse Pope Benedict of having caused the mayhem which greeted his Regensburg lecture?

    Please note that I am not defending the Koran-burning stunt. It was immoral in that it caused gratuitous pain to peaceable Muslims. As Christians we have been there too, have we not? Since we are unlikely to react with murderous violence we are fair game. So, is it more immoral to offend a Talibani than to offend a Quaker?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    The answer to this must lie in the intentions of Pastor Jones, which are unknown to us. Did he deliberately hope to spark riots in Afghanistan? Or was his action an “innocent” action, i.e. one that was not intended to have such consequences?

  • Anna

    The fact is that the number of ushers in my parish exceeds the number of members in Pastor Jones entire congregation. He is only significant because of his presence in the media. Americans abhor his ignorant rants and bigoted practices that endanger the lives of our soldiers and Christians around the world.
    Perhaps if we ignored him he wouldn’t have such an impact.

  • Weary Convert

    Father Lucie – Smith – I have only recently discovered the CH website and the opportunity of “blogging (horrid word!). You make some excellent points in this article and especially your final comment “God preserve us from fundamentalism; but preserve us from an attenuated secularism as well.” But, sadly, if you or others look at other blogs on this website, you will swiftly see amongst the comments from fundamentalists, whom I have called ultra-Catholics because they remind me of the Ultras after the Bourbon restoration, limitless shrill hatred of anyone who dares to argue with them from a rational (and may I say, modern) position so that the writer soon finds him or herself flooded by irrational abuse.

    For example one such blogger has in a couple of days claimed that when she was teaching RE (dreadful thought) she refused to teach the “lie” of evolution and has also stated quite clearly that all bishops are apostates. It seems that your colleague William Oddie seems to agree with much of this nonsense but perhaps even he baulks at agreeing with the latter comment although he is quite willing to agree – at least in part – when the same person who describes priests saying Mass facing the people as ” the Presider-cum-stand up comic.”

    I hope that our mostly secular constitution will protect us from the sort of murderous fanaticism that is regularly seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan etc, but, quite honestly, if those secular restraints were removed, I do wonder if the ultra-Catholics (or Ultra-Christians generally) would take Mary Tudor as a useful role-model for action.

    I find it a tragedy that the CH which I bought with excitement and awe during the Council has degenerated from the reforming paper of 40 and 50 years ago years ago into a journal of near fundamentaism which I had ceased to buy for many years until I found this website which – yourself excepted – justifies not spending my pension on it.

  • Confused of Chi

    Fr A., Would not the Koran define one code of morals and “Pastor Jones” another? (presumable Biblical morality!)
    So do we have two moral codes here, both correct to each….

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Moral values are universal, are they not? And moral language is universal too.

  • Anonymous

    “They both seemingly believe in a religion that has no connection to morality” – are you implying that Islam is to blame for the actions of the Afghan ‘mob’?

    These events are symptomatic of the serious issues of underdevelopment affecting Afghanistan which have been exacerbated by decades of conflict and occupation. The burning of the Qur’an is another in a series of perceived insults to their people – for example, last week photos were released online detailing the killing of civilians by American soldiers for their own entertainment. The rise of violent fundamentalism is inseparable from this, and must be seen in this context. The actions of the mob, though indefensible, are not the actions of those who have chosen to turn away from reason, but the expressions of outrage and frustration of a severely undereducated and impoverished population.

  • ms catholic state

    Weary…..your secular government will most certainly protect you from murderous fanatics……but what they won’t protect you from is the gradual Islamisation of the UK through mass highly fertile Islamic immigration coupled with the disasterously low birthrates of the UK’s ‘Christian’ population.

    That’s what you have to worry about…….not murderous fanatics so much.

  • Weary Convert

    So what should we do about them?

  • ms catholic state

    Well… could start by saying the Rosary each day to the Immaculate Heart of Mary……

  • Anonymous

    ms catholic state: Incredibly disappointing to see this kind of argument on here. Could you point out any symptoms of this ‘gradual Islamisation of the UK’? This is an argument employed continually by the likes of the British National Party and the English Defence League but has no base in reality.

    These concerns largely represent the anxieties of some English communities, struggling in harsh economic conditions, to achieve the same sorts of social cohesion which neighbouring Islamic communities manage to. It takes only a surface glance at those who support the political parties representing these concerns to realise that they are entirely misdirected.

    However, if you’re really interested in predicting long term demographic trends, then Eric Kaufmann’s ‘Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?’ should reassure you that the secular state may well not be around forever! (

  • Anonymous

    Mary is of great importance in Islam too – the nineteenth surah of the Qur’an is named after her, the Surah Maryam.

  • Jeannine

    I disagree w/ what Pastor Jones is doing but I think I may understand some of his reasoning behind his Koran desecration.I have heard & read interviews of evangelical preachers such as Pat Robertson & Billy Graham. I have also had a serious theological conversation with an evangelical Christian.

    Evangelical Christians derive most of their main beliefs from the Southern Baptist religion in the USA. They don’t curse, drink, Catholics are damned to hell, they ultimately believe in sola scriptura to the extreme, etc….

    How they derive their beliefs is very reasonable but how they start the process w/a biblical passage is sometimes incorrectly interpreted. For example everyone who is not baptized before they die will go to hell. (Jews are the exception.) Another example is worshiping or paying homage to anyone or anything besides the Triune God is satanic & will also get you to hell. As a result the Koran is the work of the devil. I have heard Pat Robertson say words to that effect a few yrs back. Again, the starting point was a biblical passage that was taken out of context but the steps to that conclusion was perfectly reasonable. Politically-minded Pat Robertson would not burn the Koran but an extreme Pastor Jones would.

    Evangelicals zealously want everyone to go to Heaven. To them, if that means showing the world how satanic the Koran is; so be it. I bet Pastor Jones sincerely believes that what he is doing will bring more people to Christ. Who knows it just might. Any religion that drives people to kill Christians because an extremist burns a representation not the actual book Mohammed used to write down the “divine” words a half a world away, has got to readjust its priorities, IMHO.

  • Lamentabili Morris

    The point is surely that the actions of the pastor and the mob are not being equated,but that both are examples of the same indifference to morality,the bearing with one another which St Paul praises.Burning a Koran and murder are not of the same magnitude of sinfulness,but of the same contempt for Divine morality.

  • ms catholic state

    Of course I could. The rising UK Muslim population….with a young demographic…..coupled with the low fertility rate of the UK ‘Christians’……added to which is the constant stream of Islamic immigration to fill the population deficit. That will eventually give you an Islamic society…..don’t you think?!

    Secular socities are doomed. Too much abortion…..too much contraception…..too few children.

  • ms catholic state

    Yes…..but she is not seen as the Mother of God by Muslims.

  • Daniel Dixon

    Bullshit with the self control. Why is American society the one that has to “self control?” Other countries do what they will. In our country we can burn flags, books, whatever. Deal with it, we are Americans and this is out country. Wanna fight about it? We have a real big army and navy. Bring it.

  • In Our Times

    I feel people can be forgiven for their zeal Weary; in assuming that what may be best for them & theirs, by extension; be best for the entire nation, or the world even. Idealism, whereas somewhat naive & grandiose at times; can have it’s uses in propelling us forward & improving society. But accepting the fact that contemporary religiosity has it’s flaws (& dangers) & can only really be slotted into a post-modern plural; must feel threatening to many. That is clearly apparent to see on this site.

    I don’t know much about Vatican II either, which you mention in a previous post, but if ‘reform’ means continuing with such vile denegration of homosexuals (outside of the Catholic/Christian vision regarding how they are “called” to live their lives); along with continued exclusion of women within hierarchies: it would never be enough in my book anyway. It’s just not nor ever will be cricket. And sometimes it actually is for the best, to leave a bad (esoteric) marriage when the facts come to light.

    Anyway, at least I’ve seen enough to put me off for life! Thanks to people like you however, I have the good sense not to tar all Catholics with the same brush, so my exit is slightly more illumined. I rather irrationally fell in love with a poet one last year, whom I barely know. These things are sent to try us it seems.

  • Andrew

    Wake up. The problem is not a pastor burning the koran but the shameful and murderous reaction to it. Burning a book – of paper and ink – might be offensive but it is no reason to maim and murder.

  • Martin

    Firstly, it would have been better for the Pastor to demonstrate the Fruit of the Holy Spirit as a model of christianity rather than carry out an action that he knew would probably result in violence.

    Secondly, proving that muslims can be and ofter are murderous when having their quran burnt proves nothing other than they hold the value of their sacred book over the value of human beings. (this of course does not justify their actions, but they were fully predicatable).

    Thirdly whilst demonstrating the absolute need for freedom of speech within America (the world?), he only carried out the action in a country that would protect him from reprisal attack. He was willing to make his point at the expense of others lives. This is the mark of a coward.

    Forthly, this once again has probably done more damage for those trying to reach out with the gospel of our Lord Jesus and love to Muslims than was necessary. Once again, his point is made at the expense of others.

    Fifth, if Catholic/christians as a whole spent as much effort in working for the Kingdom of God as they do in building their own kingdoms, we would have a far more effective witness in the world.

    Finally, any Christian? group that is forced to make its point through shock tactics or insult/injury/death of others/my way is better than your way/designating others evil ect in order to gain attention, or single themselves out, is probably failing to live the christian life in the first place, that is what should be singling the out! It is love in action which allows the Holy Spirit to speak into human lives rather than sounding off and love which will bring people to Christ….See how they love each other!

    I dont see it here?! i see only confusion, hate, discord…… Fruits of the flesh

  • Dcruz

    No dobbt what so called Christian Pastor Terry Jones has done is wrong from a christian point of view, he should have thought about the after effects of the violence.Christians are living in fear in some muslim countries in normal times and one can imagine at this time.Muslims should take notice of their own acts on christians, churches , bibles and the christian faith is constantly attacked out of ignorance.Inter faith diaologue is all effected .It is difficult to dialogue with muslims because they think they are absolutely right and believe that they belief is the only truth.

  • ms catholic state

    Personally for the benefit and safety of Christians….the establishment of a Catholic State is more effective than dialogue. Dialogue is fine…….but I wouldn’t bank on it.

  • Weary Convert

    Sorry, what does that mean? You have claimed that we are on the way to an Islamic society and you are concerned at mass immigration by fertile Muslims. I agree that there is genuine concern amongst the mass of the population but what are prayers to Mary supposed to do? Make them all want to go and live in Muslim countries? Have a revelation and all become Christians at Friday Prayers? Or maybe the Stalin approach – lie down and die, remembering his dictum, “No man, no problem.” Or maybe your answer would be to encourage birth control amongst Muslims while excluding it for Catholics.

    Perhaps I have missed it but what does your nom de plume “Catholic state” imply – something like the old and utterly discredited Papal states? Or a resurrection of the rule of Mary Tudor?

  • Raza

    Thank you for the great article. Leaving aside the violent mob killing (which everyone condemn), I would like to say as a Muslim, that all muslims very much respect the Bible and all other holy books and cannot even entertain the thought of burning them. We expect very much the same respect from other religions. It does not do good that news of a pastor burning the quran reaches the muslim world. It forms a wrong false impression in the minds of many. I would repeat that everyone condemn the killing of the UN staff.

  • Peter

    I trust Pastor Jones and his associates, colleagues and congregation will make a substantial contribution to Aid to the Church in Need in order to compensate the suffering which his public burning has caused to Christians in Muslim lands.

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