Passages in religious texts
advocating violence & genocide
This is a strongly worded essay that
many Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. may well believe apply to other religions,
but not to their own.
It deviates from most of the essays on this web site, which avoid criticizing
religious beliefs. However, because violent passages in the Bible, Qur'an and
other holy books continue to inspire violence, murder, mass murder, and
genocide, we feel that criticism is warranted.
One cannot describe how violent passages in holy books motivate violence
in today's world without criticizing the books themselves. To those who believe
that God inspired the authors of their holy books, this essay may be interpreted
as a criticism of their deity.
If you are easily distressed at religious criticism, please do not read this
About religious texts:
There are a number of conflicting religions in the world whose beliefs are
largely closed, immutable, and frozen. Their teachings are embedded in Scriptures, which are books that religious
communities accept as holy and authoritative: The Christian Bible; the Jewish
Torah and the Talmud; the Book of Mormon; the Muslim Qur’an and the Mathnawi of
Jalaluddin Rumi (mysticism); the Bahá’í Kitáb-i-Aqdas; the Sikh Adi Granth; the
Zoroastrian Avesta; the Hindu Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Yoga-sutras
of Patanjali; the Buddhist Pali canon; the Taoist Tao-te-Ching; the Confucian I
Ching and the Lun-yü (Analects of Confucius); the Shinto Kojiki or Furukotofumi;
etc. Revelations from these religions disagree with each other.
The truth or falsity of these religions' incompatible teachings is
In each case, the relevant Scripture is commonly accepted as an reliable authority
committing the believers to a specific faith. It provides its own answers to the
ultimate questions, recommends a way of life, and encourages allegiance to
particular moral principles.
While the authority of a particular
Scripture is considered total within the respective community of faith, it is
disregarded outside that community. One exception is Islam: Muslims accept the
Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as holy texts. However, they believe that those
texts have been seriously altered over time so that the original message has
been seriously distorted.
A text that is sacred for one religion may well be offensive to members of
other religions, and even become a cause of intolerance. If somebody believes his particular religion to be the
one, she/he blinds himself to the truth found in the others and also commits an
act of spiritual chauvinism.
As long as each religion keeps insisting that
only its revelation and teachings are true, we will not be able to come to any
consensus in religious matters. Dogmatic rigidity also means that every
discovery and every novel idea is likely to pose a threat to a religion that
looks back in time to revealed truth "once delivered unto the saints".
Notes on violent passages:
While religious truth must ultimately be taken on faith, this faith need not
be blind. Reason may have its limits in matters of religion. However, any
religious teaching that cannot
stand rational scrutiny must be viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism.
While interpreting most sacred texts, we are examining words that have been arrived at over
centuries of time. The final form of the Scripture is determined by a selection process
in which some individuals decide which of God’s messages are to be included into the final canon, and
which are to be left out. In spite of the many mistakes and contradictions in
the final product, followers are asked to believe that:
||The chosen original source material spoke
for the divine and reproduced God’s words with utmost perfection.
wording has not been corrupted as the message was passed on over centuries or
||The selection process was flawless.
With doubts on all those points, how
can one talk about inerrancy? We are knowledgeable
only of the final interpreted
version, not of the original one.
We have to
bear in mind that nobody can be isolated from the cultural and historical
setting in which he or she is or was embedded. As a result, many of the passages
in the holy text bear
the imprint of the time when they were conceived. Some of them were formulated
in a pre-scientific age and were based on assumptions that current science
cannot endorse. Others date from times when humanity followed moral codes that
the conscience of our present age would not tolerate. All this, of course, contradicts
the claim that the individual religious answers are never outdated – that their
validity is beyond question.
It is difficult to believe that any religion is the
word of God, if it could be shown that it reflects and repeats prejudices, or
even false beliefs, that were active at the time and place of its revelation.
The validity of the answers
arrived at in times long past, when the scientific background was minimal and
the level of general knowledge was relatively low, are still promoted today.
A particularly vigorous defense of this situation was mounted by the Catholic
Church: In the Syllabus of Errors, the beatified Pope Pius IX declared that the proposition:
"The method and
principles by which the old scholastic doctors cultivated theology are no longer
suitable to demands of our times and to the progress of the sciences"
reprobated, prescribed, and condemned. 3
Believers are asked to accept on faith that revelations made within the last six thousand
years apply to the full life span of the universe. Since, in the
Abrahamic faiths, there will no new revelations, the original message must apply
forever, regardless of the changes which will
take place in the billions of years to come. This is beyond belief. On the
cosmic scale the human species has reached the present level of knowledge in a
very short time. Archaic forms of Homo Sapiens appeared 500,000 years ago, the
Neanderthals came to Europe 100,000 years ago, and the Cromagnons painted their
cave walls and performed burial rites 30,000 years ago. It was only during the
last five to six thousand years that the continuous intellectual development of
humanity has occurred. This time-span has to be compared with the billions of
years still to elapse before the Earth will be consumed by the expanding Sun.
Translated into terms of human life, the level of maturity humanity has reached
so far corresponds to that of a child that has just started to consciously react
to the outside world. What level of knowledge can we expect of such a child to
We have no hope to assess how the next millennia will shape our religions. And
what do we know about the millions of years to come? To say that we have not the
slightest idea would be an understatement. And yet, the Scriptures produced
during the last few thousand years are considered not only
inerrant, but also to
remain unchanged for the billions of years to come. To believe this requires a
huge portion of faith.
The role of all religions as a force for good appears to be in decline. Only some religions are inherently pacifist:
Buddhism, the Bahá’í faith,
Universalism, and the Anabaptist wing of Christianity fall
into this category. However, the tradition is very old. The very early Christian
movement was pacifist. A second example was the Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu (c. 470-439
BCE) who argued that universal
love for all was in accord with the will of heaven and was to the benefit of
In religions where images of violence, warfare, and martial exploits are
prominent (such as in the Abrahamic religions), the elimination of all passages
in the holy texts that incite to violence would certainly go some way towards rectifying the
situation. But more should be done. Religion should be a positive force and not
to stay on the sidelines in situations like that in Rwanda in 1994, where about
800,000 people were massacred even though 93% of the population
are Christians. Also, regretfully, the world has no specific safeguards to
prevent the misuse of religion in such tragedies as the Jonestown suicide, the
Branch Davidian resistance in Waco, and the Solar Temple and the Heaven’s Gate
Unfortunately, there is little or no hope that the sacred scriptures of the
world's religions will be edited to remove offensive commandments promoting
This concerns passages that provide a ready-made pretext for all shades of
Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu fundamentalists to engage not just in
intolerant rhetoric but also in violent actions they consider just. The
alternative to removing the respective statements from the Scriptures would be
to accept the following comment by Peter B. Medawar: "The only certain way to
cause a religious belief to be held by everyone is to liquidate non-believers."
Only religion can justify the destruction of human life
sanctimoniously. It is a serious mistake to downplay the problem of
religious violence in 'sacred' texts. The violence-of-God tradition in the
Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Qur’an must be
understood and challenged if we are to have any realistic hope of building a
peaceful and tolerant world. Change, of course, is profoundly difficult for
those who believe in God's inspiration of the authors,
and the inerrancy of the entire text.
The willingness to trample on the rights of those who believe differently may
best be understood as the consequence of two fundamental misconceptions:
for one religion to be true all the other ones must be false, and
religious doctrines and practices considered false must be destroyed.
consideration of both these notions is long overdue.
Unless the religious traditions leading to violence and intolerance are named,
exposed, and countered, there is little hope that the opposite traditions
conducive to peace, compassion, justice, understanding of others, and tolerance,
will find meaningful expression.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- From Jude 1:3: Christian Scriptures, King James
Johannes J.G. Jansen, "The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism," Hurst,
Pope Pius IX, "Syllabis Errorum (Syllabus of Errors)," Contained
in the encyclical Quanta Cura, (1864-DEC-08). See:
http://www.ewtn.com/ This encyclical is unrelated to an earlier
encyclical in 1741 with the same title; it discussed alms giving.
Peter B. Medawar, "The Limits of Science," Oxford University Press,
Copyright © 2006
by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-SEP-25
Latest update on: 2006-SEP-25
Author: Vladimir Tomek