A punch in the nose from Pope Francis (using religion to justify violence)
Pope Francis has made a couple of statements in response to the recent Charlie Hebdo killings that seem hard to reconcile. On January 13th he spoke in Sri Lanka and informed the world that religion must never be used to justify violence. Today he spoke en route to the Philippines and is reported as saying that making fun of religion was unacceptable and that anyone who does so can expect ‘a punch in the nose’. The punch in the nose comment is of course, in effect, an appeal to religion to justify violence. The underlying assumption here is that religion is deserving of respect and that at least some (low-level) violent responses are justified in response to displays of disrespect towards religion.
No doubt there will be well meaning people out there who will attempt to reconcile the two claims and perhaps try to argue that the Pope’s more recent words are somehow not a defence of violence conducted in the name of religion. My own view is that the Pope is backsliding, from a recent, and somewhat reluctant embrace of tolerance and freedom of expression, in the direction of a more traditional Catholic position. The Catholic Church has a long history of using religion to justify violence. The official Catholic view for centuries – which was explicitly defended by St. Thomas Aquinas – was that it was justifiable to torture and kill heretics and apostates. The Catholic Church conducted a series of violent inquisitions up until the mid-Nineteenth Century and regularly denounced religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and democracy until the early decades of the Twentieth Century. It’s not surprising that the leader of an organisation with such a history would only have a superficial commitment to avoiding using religion to justify violence.
The Catholic Church is hardly alone amongst religious organisations in having a history of appealing to religion to justify violence and nor are appeals to religion to justify violence a thing of the past. In the past three decades Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh groups have all appealed to their respective religions to justify killing. And Pope Francis is not alone amongst religious leaders in opposing violence on some occasions and endorsing it on others. Another religious leader with a similar history is the Dalai Lama who regularly preaches a doctrine of ‘non-violence’ but who has also argued that some violent acts, such as the assassination of Osama bin Laden, are justified.
In my 2014 book The Justification of Religious Violence (Wiley-Blackwell) I look at many of the ways religion has been, and is being used to justify violence. I argue that we should not expect well-meaning appeals to the value of tolerance to do much to reduce religious violence. If we are going to be serious about reducing religious violence we need to understand how and why religion is used to justify violence and we need to take the doctrines that the religiously violent endorse seriously. If we make the effort of understanding why some of the religious believe that they are justified in acting violently then we are in a much better position to try to persuade them to refrain from acting violently than we would be otherwise.