Theology of Terrorism: Exploring the Roots of Religious Violence

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a speech at the University of Regensburg that focused on the relationship between faith and reason. It was a wide-ranging lecture that referenced ancient Jewish and Greek thinking, modern secularism, Christian conceptions of God, and Islam. Unsurprisingly, the Islamic portion of the speech drew the most controversy. During the speech, the then-pope quoted the early 15th-century Byzantine emperor Manual II Palaiologos, who commented the following during a dialogue with an educated Persian:

Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.[i]

That quotation, especially when taken out of context, set off a firestorm of controversy throughout the Muslim world that included strong public condemnations by Muslim leaders and outcry from millions of Muslims, many of whom took to the streets to protest the remarks. There is no doubt that the pope’s words touched a nerve—both in the Islamic world and the Western one. This is unfortunate, since the Regensburg Address, when taken in its entirety, is more of an indictment against particular conceptions of God that subsume divine reason into divine will. Properly understanding this distinction can go a long way to further understanding how and why religious terrorism continues to fester in many areas of the world.

Framing This Analysis

It is important to preface this analysis with a clear declaration of what it is not: a thesis regarding whether a particular religion is intrinsically susceptible to terrorism. Religious terrorism comes in many forms. Islamic terrorism is the most prevalent mode of terrorism today, and the brutality and scope of these terrorist acts cannot be denied. Christian terrorism, while vastly less common, has also been an issue over the past decade in developing nations such as the Central African Republic and Uganda. The list can go on, which only serves to emphasize that a causal analysis between a particular religion and terrorism is extremely difficult, and while this analysis is not impossible to conduct, it is beyond the scope of this article. For instance, one could derive conclusions based on the relative frequency of such acts in a particular religious denomination, or one could use proof-texts to support the notion that a certain religion justifies terrorism to its adherents. Still, such studies already exist in many volumes. The purpose of this article is not to determine whether a terrorist organization is properly representative of the religion it claims to follow. Instead, this article aims to construct a philosophical-theological framework that can apply equally to all religions and explain how certain ideas about God can predispose any monotheist—Muslim, Christian, and Jewish alike—to commit terrorist acts under the right circumstances.

Similarly, it is also important to establish a definition of “terrorism,” since different forms of terrorism have their own moral nuances and implications. Unfortunately, the question of what “terrorism” actually means is a surprisingly difficult one, considering its near-constant use by the media today. After all, there is surely a moral difference between killing officials in an oppressive government and planting a bomb in a hospital in order to kill innocent people. And yet, both actions have been routinely labelled as “terrorism.”

These situations have led philosophers to distinguish between two types of terrorism. According to its “wide” definition, terrorism includes any violent actions of an individual or group which are aimed at intimidation or the furthering of some political, social, or religious end. According to its “narrow definition,” terrorism includes only acts of violence and intimidation performed against innocents.[ii] This article will presume this narrow definition of terrorism for two reasons. First, a wide definition of terrorism is too morally nuanced for a sufficient analysis in this article—depending on one’s views on political and religious resistance, terrorism against certain individuals may be justifiable. For instance, political historian Brian Brivati argued that the Umkonto we Sizwe (the military wing of African National Congress) was a terrorist group whose actions were morally justified, since they “deployed terror for the political purpose of destroying an obscene system that would not have been defeated otherwise.”[iii] Because of the countless moral ambiguities in the wide view, an extended debate on this topic is beyond the scope of this article. Secondly, the narrow definition of terrorism more closely reflects what the West typically thinks of as terrorism, especially with regards to the morally repugnant actions of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). When ISIS beheads ten villagers indiscriminately, we do not wonder about the moral status of those actions. What we do wonder about, however, is why members of groups like ISIS commit such acts. This article attempts to diagnose one important reason why this might be the case.

Following a Capricious God

One of the central themes of Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Address is that abandoning reason as an essential feature of God’s nature has profound implications on the way a believer might judge the morality of a particular action.[iv] The context in which Pope Benedict quoted the Byzantine emperor’s controversial comment was in fact a discussion of a theological mistake called voluntarism, a view which some prominent Muslim thinkers defended in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Voluntarism is a theory that conceives of God as some form of a supreme will.[v] To put it philosophically, God’s will is so transcendent as to be metaphysically prior to God’s intellect.

To better understand what “metaphysically prior” means in this context, consider this analogy: imagine that the universe is a game, and the laws of physics, mathematics, and ethics are rules about what is and is not prohibited in the game. God, in this analogy, is the game-maker. Voluntarism states that the rules of the game are fixed by a decision of the game-maker, while the non-voluntarist would state that the game-maker simply knows the rules and then wills that the players abide by them. Thus, to say that the will is metaphysically prior to the intellect is to say that the will of God (the game-maker) that determines the relevant facts (the rules of the game) is prior to the intellect (of the game-maker) that grasps these facts. For the purposes of clarity, then, this article will define voluntarism as the following:

Voluntarism: The belief that God’s willing that p is what makes it the case that p for some domain of facts D (e.g., moral facts, logical facts, natural facts, etc.)

The type of voluntarism that I am concerned with in this article is the voluntarism that considers ethical facts and reasons to be determined by God, although this article also applies to forms of voluntarism that encompass all domains of facts. According to a voluntarist conception of ethics, also known as Divine Command Theory (DCT), a good action is good merely because God wills that it be done, and bad merely because God wills that it should not be done.[vi] Or, to put it in philosophical terms, God’s willing that p, where p is some ethical fact (e.g., murder is wrong), is what makes p to be an ethical fact.

If it is the case that God’s will determines ethical facts and reasons, then it is plausible to infer that God’s ethical will is ultimately unintelligible, or without reason. To elaborate, if God’s will constructs a complex ethical paradigm that presumably encompasses many ethical situations, there must be some primordial ethical principle that grounds this paradigm. Imagine, for the purposes of argument, that this ethical principle is “Do unto others as others would do unto you,” and all other ethical commands are derived from this primordial principle. But if God’s will determines ethical facts, then it must also determine the primordial principle. The answer to the question: “Why should we ‘do unto others as others would do unto you?’” is simple—God wills it. There is no further reason why God endorses this ethical principle in particular rather than something else. Thomistic philosopher Edward Feser characterizes this predicament quite well—if God’s will lacks reason, since the will itself determines what is or is not a reason, then God “simply wills what he wills, arbitrarily or whimsically, and there is ultimately no sense to be made of it.”[vii]

Thus, a voluntarist conception of God has profound ethical implications, not only in terms of the metaphysical status and origin of moral content, but also in terms of the practical ethics of day-to-day life. If ethics is ultimately grounded in divine fiat, then it is ultimately just as unintelligible as the will and actions of the God who creates it. It is common for people to ask why a particular action is good or bad. We often think equality is good because it promotes the virtue of justice. Similarly, the prohibition of violence is explained by invoking the right that humans have to life.

On the contrary, DCT implies that God could, in principle, command us to perform cruel actions and that would be a positive moral principle. If God decided to change the primordial ethical principle to something more nefarious, he could command us to lie to our parents, steal from the poor, or murder the innocent; those commandments would be intrinsically no different than God commanding us to honor our parents, feed the poor, or respect life. If altruism is morally superior to murder, it is not because of a coherent ethical framework grounded in objective, necessary facts but rather God’s arbitrary decision to endorse altruism rather than violence. In turn, the only reason why humans should follow such commands is not because they are an essential component of human flourishing but rather because God’s commandments have an obligatory force that compels us to follow them.

Terrorism De-Rationalizes Interpretation

Under ethical voluntarism, morality is fundamentally unintelligible. This means that any study of God’s ethical commandments through a rational lens (such as theology) is bound to be fruitless, since God’s commandments (the most basic ethical principles in particular) are ultimately transcendent over rationality and cannot be even remotely understood by it. Therefore, any study of ethics merely consists of interpreting what God has commanded, either through personal revelation or sacred texts, since rational morality has been supplanted by the sheer will of God. Taken together, these consequences often lead to a hermeneutical framework that prioritizes a literal interpretation of sacred texts and disregards philosophical and theological reflection. Religious terrorism feeds off this hermeneutical framework because it needs to discard reason in order to justify its morally repulsive actions.

Before elaborating on this point, first consider the modern example of ISIS, which has its roots in Wahhabism, an ultraconservative form of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia during the 18th century. Religious scholar Paul Marshall noted how the “Wahhabis… seem to believe that they can start the process of interpretation of the Koran and the hadith anew, without reliance on traditional Islamic schools of law, theology, and philosophy.”[viii] The founder of Wahhabism, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, sought to use this methodology to uncover the true Islam that had been abandoned by his contemporaries. He wanted to return to the fundamentals of his faith by rejecting materialism and worldly ambition and by putting God back on top of the political order. But by proclaiming that only his form of Islam had validity, Ibn Abd al- Wahhab inadvertently sowed the seeds for radicals who use violence against those whom they consider heretical. Subsequent generations of Wahhabis oscillated between merely religiously conservative and explicitly militaristic applications of the ideology.[ix] But underlying these trends was a broader movement of Wahhabis that proceeded “in a mechanical way from the ancient text to its present application in sheer disregard of the myriad hermeneutical problems over which they glide,” thereby leading to the conclusion that their pure form of Islam was exclusively true.[x] It is no surprise, then, that extremists such as Osama bin Laden, who were influenced by Wahhabism, developed violent and intolerantly sectarian interpretations of the Quran, since they had rejected all the hermeneutical traditions that preceded them.

Perhaps the greatest irony behind ISIS’s extremism, not to mention religious terrorism generally, is that the extremist thought process of moving from theology to violence is relatively rational, even though their underlying ethical theology is fundamentally arational. A voluntaristic God determines what the moral facts are. If one holds this view of God, then one cannot rely on an independent grasp of what the moral facts are to check one’s interpretation of God’s commands. If God commands X (e.g., murdering innocents), then, according to voluntarism, X is morally right. Moreover, one cannot deny or dispute that X is right on the grounds that X is intrinsically wrong or contrary to the independently-holding moral facts, since the voluntarist holds that nothing is intrinsically wrong and that the moral facts are just what God commands (which, in this case, is to murder innocents).

If fundamentalists believe that God’s commandments are expressed through sacred texts, then it is not far-fetched to see how voluntaristic thinking can affect their reading of these sacred texts. After all, if God is voluntaristic, then his word ought to be voluntaristic as well. Thus, rather than trying to figure out what truths are being expressed in the texts by checking them against what one knows to be true by experience, empirical inquiry, or rational reflection, the fundamentalist takes the texts themselves as the sole authority and source of evidence for how one should act. If the Muslim believes that the Quran says X, then X is true. Similarly, if the Christian believes that the Bible says Y, then Y is true.

Of course, a lot of terrorists do not operate independently—Al-Qaeda operated for years under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, and it is doubtful that members of the group saw themselves as the sole authorities over sacred texts. Regardless, this same sort of voluntaristic thinking might be involved in the way terrorist groups organize under leaders. If leaders are seen as spokesmen of God and are followed in a voluntaristic spirit, then these leaders’ interpretation of the sacred texts cannot be questioned, since the interpretation promulgated by the leader simply is the correct interpretation. For instance, Joseph Kony, leader of the Christian terrorist group called “The Lord’s Resistance Army,” developed a cult of personality around himself after claiming that he received prophecies from spirits. It was through these prophecies, as well as his claimed mantle as the spokesman of God, that he ordered his followers to commit violent atrocities against the people of Uganda.[xi] It is likely a similar scenario played out in other terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda. It is doubtful that Al-Qaeda’s followers would have followed bin Laden so fervently had they not believed that bin Laden was the true interpreter of God’s word. Moreover, had they believed that interpreting God’s commands requires an independent grasp and application of moral facts, they would have been more likely to closely analyze and question bin Laden’s violent ideology. Thus, voluntarism is undeniably a significant factor in religious terrorism, because it encourages a non-reflective reading of holy texts (where interpretations are undoubtedly influenced by personal vendettas), eliminates the need to find a rational justification for putative divine commandments, and encourages unquestioned loyalty to leaders who claim to be God’s voice.

Rediscovering Logos Within Transcendence

Many theologians, such as Scholastic philosopher William of Ockham, believed in voluntarism without becoming hardened terrorists, which suggests that the existence of terrorism on the basis of voluntarism does not intrinsically invalidate voluntarism as a whole. Indeed, the purpose of this article is to provide an explanatory account of terrorism, not to delve into the complex philosophical debate between voluntarism and non-voluntarism. Still, the fact that voluntarism provides a significant justification for terrorism should at least give pause to those who support the theology. Similarly, the fact that voluntarism ultimately reduces all the ethical facts to an arbitrary divine decision appears to contradict moral experience and could lead to a form of ethical nihilism that is highly undesirable.

Pope Benedict knew that the growing trend of implicit voluntarism has led to the unraveling of rationality and the proliferation of religious violence. The best way to avoid this violence, therefore, is to reject the theological worldview that underlies many terrorist paradigms. His address sought to propose an alternative theology by reiterating the commitment of the Catholic Church to reason and the implications of this commitment for conceptions of God. He began by studying the first verse of the Gospel of John, which provides the clearest validation of this approach:

Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the λόγος”. This is the very word used by the [Byzantine] emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logos. Logos means both reason and word—a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.[xii]

Benedict’s solution to the problem of voluntarism aimed at recovering a theology that understood the God of the Bible as Divine Reason. Reason is not just a fact that God constructs arbitrarily, but rather an essential aspect of his nature. To act against God, the Logos, is to act against reason itself. But conversely, it also means that to act against reason is to act in defiance of God.

A God that is fundamentally rational, rather than voluntaristic, completely flips the fundamentalist approach to religiosity on its head. It profoundly changes the believer’s hermeneutic approach to sacred texts from one that uncritically follows its sayings to one that attempts to discern an underlying exegetical framework that renders these sayings consistent with the rest of one’s theoretical and experiential knowledge. After all, if God’s ethical commandments are ultimately intelligible, then his word is subject to rational inquiry. And if his commandments are grounded in divine reason, then morality is grounded in a natural law that is accessible to all who possess the capacity to reason. Benedict sought to rehabilitate philosophy in the eyes of modern Christians who had since relegated Christian philosophy to the ivory towers of academia. In the words of one commentator, Benedict’s point was to reemphasize that the “Christian faith needed philosophy. It needed the tools of rational inquiry inscribed into man’s very reason: the same reason which itself is derived from the same God revealed in the Scriptures.”[xiii]

But Christianity need not have a monopoly on the intellectual God. The Mu’tazilites, a school of Islamic theology dominant in the 8th-10th centuries, “sought to enrich their religious reflection through the study of Greek philosophy.”[xiv] In doing so, they argued that the will of God was subject to rational thought and inquiry, subsequently seeing reason as the final arbiter of knowledge, whether it be natural or divine. Centuries later, “the greatest minds of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—such as Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Al- Farabi, and Averroes—were engaged in fundamental debate about the nature of revelation, faith, reason, law, and political authority. In their disagreements they created a common discourse across their religious boundaries.”[xv] There is no reason why Islam or Judaism cannot participate alongside Christians in the pursuit of divine truth through reason. A God of logos bridges the divide between the Abrahamic religions, as well as that between theists and non-theists, by providing a common avenue to debate and discuss important issues with civility and respect. But more urgently, by incorporating reason into faith and by applying this reason to ethics and exegesis, one can avoid the dangerous conclusions that many religious terrorists have unfortunately made.

Obviously, not every single terrorist is consciously pondering the nature of voluntarism when performing his or her atrocious acts, nor are all terrorists voluntarists. But it is the case that an implicit voluntaristic mentality pervades some schools of religious thought, many of which adopt such viewpoints solely for the innocent purpose of elevating God’s transcendence. This quest, however, has led to such a major distortion of the way monotheists view God’s transcendence that God’s ultimately unintelligible ethical commandments provide the means to justify otherwise irrational and immoral actions. A God without logos is a terrifying God, and not a God worth worshipping.[xvi]


i. “Papal Address at University of Regensburg,” Zenit, 12 September 2006, accessed 19 May 2016, <https://>.
ii. Igor Primoratz, “Terrorism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 21 March 2015, < spr2015/entries/terrorism/>.
iii. Brian Brivati, “Yes, terrorism can be justified,” The Guardian, 19 August 2009, <https://www.theguardian. com/commentisfree/2009/aug/19/terrorism-miliband-taliban-anc>.
iv. Dr. Samuel Gregg, “Regensburg Revisited: Ten Years Later, A West Still in Denial,” The Catholic World Report, 4 April 2016, <http://www.catholicworldreport. com/Item/4686/regensburg_revisited_ten_years_ later_a_west_still_in_denial.aspx>.
v. “Voluntarism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 15 June 2016, < voluntar/>.
vi. Edward Feser, “Voluntarism and PSR,” Edward Feser (blog), 2 November 2014, <http://edwardfeser.>.
vii. Feser, “Voluntarism and PSR.”
viii. Paul Marshall, “Islamic Counter-Reformation,” First Things (August 2004).
ix. Karen Armstrong, “Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism,” New Statesman, 27 November 2014, accessed 28 June 2016, <>.
x. Marshall, Islamic Counter-Reformation.
xi. “Joseph Kony,” Encyclopædia Britannica Online, accessed 19 August 2016, <https://www.britannica. com/biography/Joseph-Kony>; “The deadly cult of Joseph Kony,” The Independent, 7 November 2008, accessed 19 August 2016, <http://www.independent.>.
xii. “Papal Address at University of Regensburg.”
xiii. Gregg, Regensburg Revisited: Ten Years Later, A West Still in Denial.
xiv. Marshall, Islamic Counter-Reformation.
xv. Marshall, Islamic Counter-Reformation.
xvi. Special thanks to Chris Hauser ’14 and Hamza Abbasi ’16 for their helpful comments.


Joshua Tseng-Tham ’17 is from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a double major in Economics and Philosophy.

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