Pope Francis and killing in God’s name

Pope Francis. (Photo credit TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis. (Photo credit TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

A response to Pope Francis’ lamentation of ‘distorted religion’ and others killing in the name of god

Pope Francis recently spoke in Albania condemning people who kill in the name of a god. He said, “To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege” – that “authentic religious spirit” is “perverted” when “extremist groups” appeal to a “distorted use of religion” to justify violence.

While Pope Francis is right to condemn violence, I can’t understand how he — as a Christian — can condemn religious-inspired violence when other religious people use similar thought processes a la divine command theory to arrive at moral conclusions. Further, how ought one establish what a ‘perversion of religion’ is considering that thousands of religions exist in the world containing adherents whose devotees are the next person’s blasphemers?

Divine command theory is the view that morality is grounded by sanction from a god. Religious individuals of various sects claim to have access to the word of a god through scripture, personal experience/revelation, and religious traditions. Although the Christian and the Muslim, for instance, hold competing beliefs, both generally claim to acquire knowledge and endorse divine command theory via similar mechanisms.

Pope Francis will say that the “authentic religious spirit” is not killing in the name of God while a member of Islamic State will say that the “authentic religious spirit” is killing in the name of God – that scripture, personal experience/revelation, and religious traditions call for individuals to murder. How can we determine who is right in this instance? Is is possible?

Scriptural interpretation leads to a tremendous amount of disagreement within religious sects; individual believers — including the most esteemed theologians/scholars — point at similar verses and arrive at wildly different conclusions. Personal experience/revelation is almost always wholly subjective; there is almost always no external verification for such experiences. Religious traditions, like scriptural interpretation, leads to vast disagreement and is subject to subjective interpretation.

Different groups, too, have competing ideas about what religious people ought to strive for whether it be reaching personal enlightenment, wholly submitting to an alleged divine being, bringing about a supposed divine being’s plan on earth and killing those who oppose it, alleviating suffering on earth, etc. Even within Christianity and Islam there is vast disagreement about what devotees ought to strive for.

Pope Francis interestingly focuses on what he considers to be the “authentic religious spirit” [not violence in the name of God] and wholly ignores atrocities said to have been committed and/or ordered by God throughout the Bible (a global flood slaughtering countless humans and animals, commands to commit genocide, command for a father to kill his son, a pact for a man to win a war in exchange for the death of a person who walks through a door…). History, too, is filled with Christians killing in the name of God. Are fellow Christians prepared to argue that their ancestors’ religious experiences/interpretations were not genuine while also believing that their religious experiences/interpretations are? Is the Muslim believing he has orders to kill in the name of God really much different than the Christian?

Since Pope Francis [and please correct me if I am wrong] believes that morality stems from God — that something is moral because God commands/endorses an action (divine command theory) — Pope Francis is in no position, unless he rejects divine command theory, to reject conclusions of people who believe that it is moral to kill because God commands killing. Francis says God considers killing to be wrong while some Muslims say Allah endorses killing in some circumstances. Under divine command theory, we are at an impasse. Why should Pope Francis’ knowledge claims about religious conclusions be taken more seriously than Islamic State’s? Can we show one conclusion as being more legitimate than the other?

Francis and others can surely argue that one religious tradition is wrong — that the personal experiences/revelation claimed by other religious adherents are not genuine i.e. explained through means other than supernatural interventions — but in doing so they are arguing against similar thought processes/justifications they use to defend their religious beliefs.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia.

He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events.

Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.