What is a Religious “Radical” – A Quick 3 Questions Test

On every media source you care to name, everyone is quick to blame the “radicals” among the religious for any crimes committed as an expression of that religion. But what no one ever explains is “what is a radical”? If it’s only someone who actually kills others, then it’s a meaningless definition, as you can only put someone in that category after the commission of the crime. But “radical” is typically held as an attempt to define a state of mind. If that is the case, then there should be “radicals” out there who plot the violence, who incite others to it, who glorify it, and even those who dream about it but are too scared to put their desires into actions. And what about the people who agree and sympathize with religious murders? Are they “radicals” too, but just ones without the opportunity to manifest their hostile intentions?

My own view is that when you are talking about a person’s state of mind, it should apply to everyone with a similar intent and perspective, and not just to those who actualize it. No one wakes up one morning with a sudden desire to slaughter other people for religious reasons. It’s a process of mental rationalization, and it takes time. In some cases, especially with young or mentally vulnerable people, it can be as fast as a matter of months. These are the same sort of personalities who are attracted to cults, which are considered to be detrimental to them. But when they are attracted to mainstream religions, or in some cases strident nationalism1, it’s considered to be a positive development2.

Radicals are not just the ones who plant bombs, or fly at innocent people with knives or axes. They are equally, and often more destructively, the people who vote for politicians or parties which want to restrict the rights of one group of people, for whatever specious rationale. They are the ones who won’t rent to someone of the wrong skin color, religion or ethnicity. It’s not that they won’t save someone who is drowning, it’s that they will throw them an anchor. Most people won’t knowingly kill another person, which is why the military needs to train you to do it. It doesn’t come naturally. But they are willing and able to do many other things to marginalize the lives and hopes of others, just because they don’t like the way they think. And quite often they will lionize and venerate those who are willing to commit murder.

I am not a psychiatrist, but I find it reasonable that people who have a mindset predisposed to certain views and prejudices are more inclined to sanction, justify, or even commit actions deemed as “radical.” Think of all the “good” people who stood by in American communities which practiced lynching3. Who was guilty of “radicalism” in those cases of bigotry? Just the people who committed the murder? What about the ones who assisted? The ones who stood by and cheered? The ones who stood on the sideline and took pictures? The ones who stayed away, but still accepted the people who participated as friends and refused to testify against them? At what point do you draw the line, and declare someone as “radical” and therefore a danger to society?

My own view is that someone is radical as soon as they believe that they have a right to kill another person4, deprive them of the means of sustaining a reasonable life, or enjoy substantial societal benefits otherwise denied to others. These mindsets can occur from two basic beliefs: either that a person is superior to others or that someone else is inferior to the norm. If someone is superior, they believe that they have a right to do as they please. Think of the Japanese Shintoists on the eve of the Second World War, or the people of Judah believing themselves to be the “Chosen Ones” in the Hebrew Torah. In both cases they believed themselves to be above the laws that might apply to others.

More usual5 is the idea that someone else is inferior, and eligible for or demanding of death or denigration. Many times this designation applies because of actions deemed reprehensible to one group of people, as with doctors who perform abortions to certain American Christian Groups, homosexuals in certain African communities, and apostates in most Islamic countries. These are people who have fallen out of the social mainstream, and are sometimes designated as outcasts. Think of the Europeans who upon witnessing the horrors of the African slave trade in the sixteenth Century abhorred it, yet justified it on the grounds that slavery would allow the heathens to be introduced to Christianity and therefore obtain the benefit of eternal salvation. If you really believe that eternal happiness awaits you, then a brief lifetime of slavery is a pretty good deal. But as you will see, I do not consider any justification to merit such discrimination.

Again, we are not talking here about everyday feelings of superiority or inferiority. The working person may feel superior to the homeless drug addict, but they are very unlikely to consider that this gives them a reason much less the right to kill or harm the addict. Similarly, the Orthodox Christian may feel superior to the Roman Catholic, but again it does not translate into an attitude that they therefore have the right to enslave, segregate or murder those who follow the Pope. Also, I am not talking about a positive obligation to provide charity or support. If you walk down the street and give money to the male beggar but not the female one, that is not being radical. Bigotry is not radical. You can think whatever you want, hold whatever prejudice you find comforting, it’s a question of whether you are willing and, indeed, anxious to see such beliefs made manifest through intentional action.

So, to find out if your friends are “radical” or on the proverbial slippery slope to radicalism, here are 4 questions to ask:

1. Is it ever right to kill, imprison or deny equal legal rights to someone because of what they think?

This includes cases like blasphemy, apostasy, atheism, and any belief in other gods. But it also includes any belief in other political or economic systems.

2. Are some people, because of their beliefs, entitled to land or water rights, economic rights, social privileges or other essential legal entitlements denied to others?

This includes rights to sacred or “god given” land (whether you’re Navaho, Jew, or Serbian Orthodox), limits on the ability to hold public office, or restrictions on the ability to engage in a trade (like pig or cow butcher). Restrictions on the rights to live in certain areas is a prime example of this, or the establishment of ghettos for people of specified ethnicity or religion (like the Romany).

3. Should people’s rights to make important life decisions be limited because of what they think?

This goes to issues like restrictions on who you can marry, whether you can leave the community without economic or legal penalties, and what you are allowed to learn.

If someone answers “yes” to anyone of these three questions, I would contend that they are “radical” in as much as they feel that they have rights of control over others based on what those other people believe. Many people answering “yes” to some of these questions will provide rationales, usually related to security, or historic rights, or a need to protect their own ethnic rights/purity, etc. If you want to hear the entire litany, ad nauseam, just try attending a AIPAC conference, or listen to any politician from a country where Islam is the official religion, or attend a Ku Klux Klan meeting in some American State.

From feeling that you can restrict what people learn, to where they can live, it’s all part of the same mindset that would allow you to justify, on whatever grounds, that they also deserve to be harmed or even to die. Once you think you have a right to any element of social control over another person, because of what they believe (rather than because they pose a clear and present danger – but groups NEVER fall into this category, only individuals), then I would classify that person as a radical.

Most radicalized murderers blame the victims for their actions6, their sinfulness, inferior ethnicity, etc. The murderer merely brings about a “judgment” of which the righteous perpetrator is the agent of a greater power or morality. Often these extreme actions are the result of the perpetrator being unsatisfied with the degree of social control the State exercises over the despised group.

A good example of this is the American Ku Klux Klan terrorizing or lynching people who were trying to register African Americans (negroes back then) to enable them to vote, or African Americans who refused to act with the expected level of social deference. Another example which is burning today is the growing intolerance in Indonesia to different sects of Islam, such as the Ahmadiyah7. Conservatives feel that the Government should interpret the Constitution which allows religious freedom and specifies six designated religions8 to define ‘’Islam” in such a way so as to exclude the various minority sects (including Shi’ite Islam) which have been present in the country for generations.

Radicals are not just the ones doing the killing. They are the ones who believe that some people, because of what they think, are less equal or are inferior to others. Once someone believes that another person is inherently inferior because of their beliefs and discrimination is therefore justified, it’s just a question of the degree between limits on home ownership and the right to life. They are responsible for the climate which encourages, justifies, and incubates those who kill and try to destroy competing beliefs with censorship and book burning. Human beings are entitled to equal rights under their laws. Any belief to the contrary is the first step on the radicalism road. As Heinrich Heine9, a German poet and writer who lived from 1797-1856, famously said: “Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”


1 Think of the rush to enlistment see by many countries in supposedly moral Western Europe at the eve of the Great War. This sort of thing would not have happened if the public had not been indoctrinated well in advance with nationalist propaganda.
2 Think of recent Christian convert American Kim Davis who refused to issue same sex marriage licenses, and French Hasna Ait Boulahcen, who a year before becoming a suicide bomber as part of the Paris team in 2015, was a local party girl by all accounts.
3 For a good account of this, see “Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America” by Manfred Berg (2011).
4 I am not talking about a State instituted death penalty, which is meted out by a Governmental apparatus, but the right of someone personally to murder another.
5 People might wonder why I am not mentioning the Nazi regime as an example. Frankly, it’s just because it’s too complex. They both believed themselves to be superior as part of an Aryan race (however, this included the Scandinavians and Brits) and they also believed others to be inferior, such as Jews, Gypsies and Slavic people. Americans were hard for them to classify, as the largest ethnic group in America by that time was German.
6 Cf. “The Myth of Martyrdom” by Adam Lankford (2013) which views suicide agents as being mentally unbalanced and acting out violence against themselves as a first cause, and using the rational of religion or bigotry as justification and a means of self-aggrandizement. I’m not sure I agree with this, but it may apply in some cases. It really seems too simplistic. If you look at countries with serious depression leading to suicide, Japan is a prime example, but suicides there do not translate into mass killings.
7 See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/06/indonesias-growing...
8 Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism (someone forgot to tell them the last one is not really a religion, but it’s a nice thought).
9 Heine had a sharp wit and political views which were considered dangerous (to an entrenched monarchy and nobility) and many of his works were banned in Germany, and he lived much of his life in Paris.

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