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

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.