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Oct-22-2010 15:07printcomments

'Burning the Holy Books is a Loathsome Act'

Professor John Hare talks to writer Kourosh Ziabari.

Yale Professor John Hare and writer Kourosh Ziabari.
Yale Professor John Hare and writer Kourosh Ziabari.

(TEHRAN) - Prof. John E. Hare is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at the Yale University's Divinity School. A British classicist, philosopher and ethicist, he is the author of several well-known and best-selling books in religion and morality including "God and Morality: A Philosophical History", "The Moral Gap", "Ethics and International Affairs", "Why Bother Being Good" and "Plato's Euthyphro".

John Hare has in his background the experience of teaching philosophy at the University of Lehigh from 1975 to 1989. In his "God's Call" book, Hare discusses the divine command theory of morality, analyzing texts in Duns Scotus, Kant and contemporary moral theory.

John joined me in an exclusive interview and answered my questions on the necessity of establishing a universal inter-faith dialogue between the followers of Abrahamic religions, the impacts of materialism on the decline of ethical and moral values and the role of religion in solving the problems of contemporary man. He also answered my special question on the objectionable incidence of Quran burning in the United States on the anniversary of 9/11 attacks.

Kourosh Ziabari: on the anniversary of 9/11 attacks, we witnessed the unprecedented incidence of Quran burning in the United States. Several copies of the holy book of Muslims were set ablaze in different cities of the U.S. Some politicians justified the act as permissible under the U.S. constitution and defended it as lawful according to the First Amendment. What's your take on that? Is it compatible with the teachings of Christianity to insult the holy books and sacraments of different groups of people blasphemously?

John Hare: I think that burning the sacred book of another religion is a loathsome act. I think the same is true of destroying the sacred sculptures of another religion. It is not compatible with the teaching of Christianity, as I understand it, that we should behave in these ways. This is especially true when we recognize, as we should within the Abrahamic faiths, that we worship the same God. I am pleased that the pastor in Gainesville, Florida, who was threatening to burn the Quran on 9/11/2010 was in fact persuaded not to do this, and no Quran was burnt by him or by his very small congregation. We should do everything we can within the law to prevent this kind of action. However, we should not think that we can violate the law. The law in the United States preserves free expression. This is a hard law to interpret, and it does not allow the freedom to incite violence against any group or any individual. But it does sometimes allow even loathsome acts, on the theory that the country in which freedom of expression and freedom of religion is curtailed does not fully respect the God-given dignity of each human being. I recognize that there are two values in conflict here, what we might call the virtue of the citizen body and its freedom, and we have to try to work out the right balance between them.

KZ: we're witness to a growing wave of Islamophobia in the Western countries. Muslims are being deprived of their social and political rights. Mosques and Islamic centers are being destructed in various European states. Pagan artists and cartoonists who ridicule the prophet of Islam receive honorary awards from the European governments. It seems that these provocations apparently add to religious intolerance and widen the gap between the followers of divine religions who are supposed to be united with together. What's your viewpoint in this regard?

JH: I agree that there has been a rise of Islamophobia in Western countries, and I agree that this makes the gap between the religions wider and harder to overcome. On the other hand, there has at the same time been a great increase in the attention paid to Islam both within Western academic institutions and by Western governments. Where I work, at Yale, there is now a Center for Reconciliation, with active participation by Christian and Muslim scholars, and there are many similar examples. Another one that springs to mind is the Tony Blair Foundation. I think your being willing to contact me on these issues, and my being willing to reply, is a sign of this change. I predict that this sort of dialogue is going to increase. I hope, however, that it will be based on the intrinsic value of the increased understanding that will come from the dialogue, not on fear or any kind of desire for control on either side. The exchange will be most fruitful if it comes from the heart of each community, and does not try, as some liberals have proposed, to abstract from our differences before we begin. We should not pretend that we agree when we do not. But I think that if we engage each other from within the theological resources of our own traditions, we will discover many more points of fruitful contact than we imagined at the beginning.

KZ: Many religious scholars and intellectuals are adamantly following the path of alienating the followers of divine religions and setting them against each other. They disregard the commonalities of monotheistic religions and advocate the separation of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. How is it possible to benefit the international community by bringing the Muslims, Christians and Jews together and reuniting them?

JH: I agree that some scholars and intellectuals are trying to increase the discord between the religions, setting them against one another. On the other hand, as I said in response to the previous question, there are also many scholars and intellectuals in the West trying to decrease the discord. I think the most important single doctrine that will bring Muslins, Christians and Jews together is the recognition that we worship the same God. It is also important to recognize that we have a shared history of reflection on Greek philosophy, particularly Plato and Aristotle. Our knowledge in the West of this philosophy came to us through the Muslim commentators, and they have been very influential in our history. I want to give one example from my own work of what this means. I write books about the relation between God and morality. Within Christianity there have been two main views about this relation, namely natural law theory which holds that the moral law can be deduced from human nature, and divine command theory which denies this, and holds that what makes something morally wrong is that God forbids it. I have been reading Muslim scholars on this same question, and I find a very similar dispute between the Ash'arite and Mu'tazilite schools, though I do not claim to be an expert in this. I think we can learn a great deal from each other on this question. There are important distinctions made by the Muslim scholars that will help Christian scholars with their work, and I dare to think the reverse might be true as well. I hope that the future will bring a chance for us to pursue this further.

KZ: Enchanted with the representations of modernity and materialism, our world is moving toward immorality and corruption. Religious values are fading away and people tend to disregard them neglectfully. The foundation of traditional family has become shaky and individualism has extended its roots deep in the global culture. How should we employ religion to get rid of this predicament and return to our moral values?

JH: It is true that the world is tending towards the loss of some important values, both moral and religious. My own view, and Heidegger's, is that when we see some new value, for example the equal dignity of women and men, we tend to lose sight of an old value, for example the solidarity of the family. The new tends to hide or obscure the old. I think religion has great potential to help us hold onto what is good in the old, without losing the good that is in the new. This is because God, who is the author of revelation, is not confined within our cultural history. If we are faithful, God will remind us of the virtues of our ancestors in the faith as well as challenge us not to confuse mere human history with God's own word.

KZ: Religion has been historically considered as a moderator. It moderates the sentiments and desires of the man so as to prevent him from crossing the borders of morality and modesty. Given the numerous benefits of religion, why do some people reject it as unconvincing and insufficient in responding to their questions?

JH: Our faith in God does indeed give us discipline, so that we are not the slaves of our desires and passions. In my books I have defended the view that morality is rationally unstable without belief in God. This is because God's command is the final justification for our attempts to lead a morally good life, and gratitude for God's work is the motivation for our obedience. If belief in God declines, commitment to morality will tend to decline, as Nietzsche already foresaw in the nineteenth century. So why do some people reject this faith? This is a mystery that I am not able to explain. Both some parts of Islam, in as far as I understand it, and some parts of Christianity hold that God makes the final determination of whom God will save. This is another area in which Christian and Muslim scholars can learn from each other, because there is a rich history of debate within each religion, which makes use of many of the same considerations and arguments.

KZ: In line with naturalistic scientists, some people tend to believe that the Earth and the Universe has come into existence artlessly and as a result of Evolution. How is it possible to persuade these people to believe that there's an intelligent designer behind the Universe who determines the destiny of the World and is aware of what we think and do? To put it more precisely, how can we bring up a convincing argument for the existence of God?

JH: I myself believe that there is an Intelligent Designer behind the universe. I distinguish this belief, however, from what in the United States we call the 'Intelligent Design Movement.' The Intelligent Design Movement holds that there is no macro-evolution. I believe, in contrast, that God can use any means, including evolution, to bring about God's purposes. I am not myself a biologist or a cosmologist. I am a philosophical theologian. So I do not try to pass judgment on the scientific merits of my colleagues who are professionals in these fields. However, I do pass negative judgment on scientists like Richard Dawkins or 'new atheists' like Christopher Hitchens who try to draw metaphysical conclusions from scientific premises. From the premise that there is an evolution of biological species nothing follows metaphysically about whether there is or is not a God who is running the universe. To say that atheism follows from biological science is to make a category mistake. I think, by contrast, that there are many good arguments from our experience of the world to the existence of God. My own favorite is the moral argument that I have already mentioned, namely that we are under the moral law and that it is rationally unstable to try to combine this obedience with disbelief in God. But there is also the fine-tuning argument, that the conditions for the development of intelligent life are overwhelmingly unlikely in the absence of a Designer and in the absence of an infinite number of parallel universes. Another strong argument is the Kalam argument that you will know from Muslim scholars. Here is a third area where Christian and Muslim scholars can learn from each other. Christians have recently been giving scientific sophistication to this argument, but we got it from Islam and we can learn from its original formulations.

KZ: For the final question, I would like to ask you to share with us an insight of Christianity which can help the mankind, independently of his religious belongingness, to live in peace, stability and tranquility. How does Christianity help us live a decent, fruitful and productive life?

JH: What insight does Christianity offer to humankind? I will choose just one that seems to me most significant. It is the doctrine of God's forgiveness. If we set the demand of righteousness as high as we should, there is going to be a gap between what we ought to do, how we ought to live, and what we in fact do, the way we in fact live. If we deny this, we are deceiving ourselves. Christianity offers the doctrine that Christ died so that God could forgive us when we fail and restore fellowship with us without compromising the divine justice. Thank you again for the opportunity to do this interview.


Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian media correspondent, freelance journalist and the author of Book 7+1. He is a contributing writer for websites and magazines in the Netherlands, Canada, Italy, Hong Kong, Bulgaria, South Korea, Belgium, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. He was once a member of Stony Brook University Publications’ editorial team and Media Left magazine’s contributing writer, as well as a contributing writer for Finland’s Award-winning Ovi Magazine.

Kourosh Ziabari was named the winner of winners in the category of media activities at the National Organization of Youths festival. He was honored by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, receiving the honorary mention signed by him and the silver medal of Iran's Superior Youth. The media activities category did not award the Gold and Bronze medal to any participant.

As a young Iranian journalist, Kourosh has been interviewed and quoted by several mainstream mediums, including BBC World Service, PBS Media Shift, the Media Line network, Deutsch Financial Times and L.A. Times. Currently, he works for the Foreign Policy Journal as a media correspondent. He is a member of Tlaxcala Translators Network for Linguistic Diversity and World Student Community for Sustainable Development. You can write to Kourosh Ziabari at:

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ARL October 23, 2010 10:05 am (Pacific time)

Leading questions much? This interviewer makes some pretty nasty assumptions: "...our world is moving toward immorality and corruption." Oh, really? Let's see! Slavery: was everywhere, now illegal in the West Treating women as chattel: was everywhere, illegal in the West Racism: was everywhere, now seen as bad in the West, discrimination illegal Blasphemy a crime: was everywhere, now you can say what you like in the West. Hmmm.... our values? Getting better all the time, thanks!

Douglas Benson October 23, 2010 6:11 am (Pacific time)

How do educated people still hold onto this religion mythology ? The premise that there are no morals without religion is insane. There is in every person the basic desire for fairness,equality ,justice compassion ,and freedom . Religion on the other hand works on the premise that people are basicly evil at heart without god.Can you really say that in all honesty ,I dont think so Funny how most of the violence ,greed ,tyranny,discrimination,killing,wars etc. have been done throughout history by religous nuts and those they support. Mabey the real evil is religion. Peace

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