Giles Fraser: Terrorists aren’t religious enough (!)

Giles Fraser is described by the Guardian as “priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.” He writes regularly for the Guardian, but it’s nothing that is edifying. It’s apologetics, Jake! Fraser has appeared on this website several times before (e.g., here, here, and here), and never in a favorable light.

But his piece in yesterday’s Guardian (he has a column), may be the worst yet. You can tell that from its title, “How to defeat terrorists? True extremism.” Now what on Earth can he mean by that? He starts by talking about the truck that killed people in Berlin’s Christmas market. (The suspect, Anis Amri, has now been killed in Italy, and there’s a video of him pledging allegiance to ISIS.)  As a true apologist, Fraser argues that Amri, and other religious terrorists like him (at least Fraser admits religion was involved!) wasn’t a true believer, for a true believer would have trusted Allah to do his own work, rather than enlist a truck driver to do it for him.

The problem with the person who drove a lorry into a crowded market of Christmas shoppers wasn’t that he was too religious, but that he wasn’t religious enough. It was the action of a half-believer, the sort of thing done by someone who doesn’t so much believe in God – but rather believes in the efficacy of human power exercised on God’s behalf, as if God needed his help. As Rowan Williams once put it: “For the person who resorts to random killing in order to promote the honour of God, it is clear that God is not to be trusted. God is too weak to look after his own honour and we are the strong ones who must step in to help him. Such is the underlying blasphemy at work.”

This is about as bogus an argument I can imagine. First of all, it ignores the fact that God, if He exists, allows horrible things to happen to innocent people—children killed by leukemia, tsunamis, and so on. If God was doing his own work, he would be holding back the tides and curing the kids, with no doctors required. The fact is that the whole basis of Christianity, which is clearly laid out in the Bible, is for people to do God’s work: to act in a Godly fashion. Jesus, after all, was setting about his Father’s work.

Christians and their missionaries regularly say they are “doing God’s work.” Nobody calls them “half-believers” despite their conviction that they’re doing what God wants. It’s only when God requires bad acts, as he did regularly in the Old Testament, that one who performs them is called a “half-believer.” Let God commit his own genocide. But in the Qur’an there are repeated calls by Allah (through Muhammad) to smite the unbelievers. Allah tells them to do that. And that is what Amri did.

“The great aim of all true religion,” wrote William Temple, “is to transfer the centre of interest from self to God.” Religious terrorists don’t get this because they still think it’s all about them, and what they can achieve. That’s the heresy. The man who shot the Russian ambassador to Turkey shouted “Allahu Akbar” – that God is great. The thing is, if he really thought that, he wouldn’t have shot the ambassador. His mistake was to think that God was somehow dependent on, and grateful for, his violent assistance.

Oh really? How does Fraser know that the guy who shot the ambassador didn’t think God was great? I suspect that Turkish policeman thought that he was acting as an extension of God.  And that’s not a mistake if you interpret the Qur’an in certain ways.

I don’t want to go on with this, as there is nothing a theologian can’t argue from scripture. But in this case Fraser ignores both the Old and New Testament’s call for believers to do God’s will.

Indeed, what Allahu Akbar surely means (and Arabic speaking Christians use the phrase too) is that God needs nothing from me in order to be God. And when this is recognised, I can (sometimes with quite considerable relief) drop all my desperate schemes and arguments that try and keep him going in the face of opposition and disbelief. Indeed, in order to seek to transfer the centre of interest from self to God, to achieve other-centredness, you can’t make it all about you, your spiritual struggle, your religious heroism.

. . . But as Jonathan Swift famously explained: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Which is why I want religious people to be more extreme in their faith, not less; to put aside their own boiling inadequacy and to trust in God’s greatness and that he knows what he is doing.

Moses and Jesus and Muhammad were all extremists. They trusted in God over their instincts. And the shorthand for this is Allahu Akbar – a phrase the terrorists will never understand.

Umm. . . . I think they understand it better than Fraser. And his call for Muslims to be more extremist is one not likely to have good results.

Here’s an exchange Matthew (who does Twi**er) sent me, along with the note, “Tom Holland – historian, Christian, and honest man – points out some problems to sophisticated theologian Giles Fraser.” That’s Tom Holland the author and historian, not Tom Holland the actor, and you might read his Wikipedia bio.




  1. kevind
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    It was odd that the guardian decided not to open that particular item up to comments.
    I think it would have ended in tears.

  2. Richard Jones
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Fraser is one of those who presumes “religion is good” therefore any evil inspired by religion must not be actually inspired by religion. He doesn’t understand that asserting absolute truth can go any direction.

    • Jeremy Tarone
      Posted December 23, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      In my experience, trying to convince these folk of this is akin to battering ones head against a tow-truck bumper.

      Perhaps we can persuade him to go convince Muslims in Islamic countries and spread his theories face to face.

      I’m willing to throw in $5 to a Kickstarter to fund his trip so he can try to convince the Taliban, Boko Haram, or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines.

  3. GBJames
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink


  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Such a an apologetic approach does he make. The degree of religious belief is unimportant, it remains the cause.

  5. Stonyground
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Disabled comments are a tacit admission that the OP is utter nonsense. Giles is just using the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

    • Posted December 23, 2016 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. He always gets taken down so the Guardian just bottled it.
      He’s not worth reading anymore except to comment.

  6. Frank Bath
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Tom Holland’s ‘In the shadow of the sword’ on the Arab conquests and the forging of Islam is a comprehensive and enjoyable read.

    • Craw
      Posted December 23, 2016 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. A good intro to some of the issues in the early history of Islam, and the unreliability of the traditional narrative.

  7. Historian
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Almost every sentence in Fraser’s article is an absurdity. But, let’s look at this one:

    “Indeed, in order to seek to transfer the centre of interest from self to God, to achieve other-centredness, you can’t make it all about you, your spiritual struggle, your religious heroism.”

    The implication of this sentence is that people who pray for the purpose of asking something of God are not engaged in “other-centredness,” but rather making prayer about themselves, which to Fraser is nothing something a true Christian would do. Perhaps, then, for Fraser the purpose of prayer is to continually tell God how great he is. This would be an act of “other-centredness.” Of course, I have failed to find a convincing argument by Christians as why God always needs to be told how great he is? Is his ego that fragile?

    This sentence is also bewildering:

    “Moses and Jesus and Muhammad were all extremists. They trusted in God over their instincts”

    Didn’t Moses (if he actually existed) and Muhammad do what Fraser disdains: take actions that killed many thousands? They believed they were following God’s will as does every person who follows a religious life. It is curious how God’s will means something different to every person.

  8. Posted December 23, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  9. Kiwi Dave
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    If God doesn’t need human help, why then does she need Fraser to deliver her message? Presumably, an omnipotent and omniscient God would be fully able to persuade me into true belief without any priest’s help.

    • Posted December 23, 2016 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

      Does Fraser use medicine or wear a seat belt?

      Expecting god to work other than through a human medium is putting god to the test – and for Christians that’s a sin.

  10. Posted December 23, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    I can recognize different theologies, where one group favours a hands-on approach, while the other thinks believers should trust in their deity and do nothing. And it is fine for a proponent of one theology to make their case — even if utterly silly.

    But to pretend that Deus Vult! crusaders are typically less religiously extreme, and without hedges, veers into propaganda and history revisionism (at least). Though Hanlon’s Razor probably applies, this isn’t a triviality if published in a major outlet like the Guardian. It’s extreme, even if it tries to come across as a fluff piece. How is this possible?

  11. Posted December 23, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Excellent reasoning Giles! From now on, every charitable act done by a Christian is .. err .. not done by a Christian, but by someone who doesn’t really believe!

  12. Tom
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Obviously the Bible, the New Testament,the Pauline Letters, the Koran etc were all written by true believers, so whatever god says is what they wanted god to say.
    It is really unfortunate to quote any passage from this literature to support or refute any argument unless the quotes are accepted to be the real opinions or instructions of a god otherwise the quotes have no validity.
    Why should an atheist/agnostic feel the need to quote a particular passage when the whole thing is a contradictory nonsense anyway, the bits really don’t matter.
    Let the believers haggle over the “true doctrine”
    Much of this literature will eventually be teased apart and the various political factions, sects and historical background come to light.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 23, 2016 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      Regardless of the interpretation, people of faith promote the idea that faith is not only a virtue, but a valid means of interpretation.

      • Tom
        Posted December 24, 2016 at 2:05 am | Permalink

        Agreed, however to argue using the internal metaphysical contradictions of this literature shifts the argument onto their ground.
        We really need to reveal evidence of forgery, political motivation, inept translation and above all backdating.

        • Sastra
          Posted December 24, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

          Maybe, but to me the tactic of undermining the validity of scripture looks more like it’s taking place on their own comfortable ground. They love this sort of debate, they do it among themselves and with people from other religions. As long as they’re operating on the assumption that faith is a virtue and you can be absolutely sure of God it’s going to be a constant sand of details which constantly shifts into pile after pile.

          You could be right, I really don’t know what works best with extremists. It may depend on the extremist. But undermining the idea of certainty — and faith entailing sacred certainty– might be a tactic which goes deeper than sacred scripture.

  13. sshort
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    “The great aim of all true religion,” wrote William Temple, “is to transfer the centre of interest from self to God.”

    Which is conspecific with “the great aim” of any tyrannical or dictorial system as well. Transfer the interest of the self to the interest of the movement and the interest of the leader.

    I have frequently expressed concern to my evangenical friends that, though they are preparing their child for christ, they may be inadvertently preparing their children to be unquestioning fodder for cults and tyrants.

  14. keith Cook ¿
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    one thing for certain if they act as he has claimed they should we can be sure their gods are going to do stuff all, as how can a non entity act on anything. Perhaps we should encourage this behaviour, believers can extreme themselves out of existence or to some passive state.

  15. macha
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Giles Fraser is an idiot.

    Sorry, I must apologise for saying that.

    Giles Fraser is an arrogant, pompous, bullying idiot.

    Phew! I now feel better.

  16. Posted December 23, 2016 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I find it very hard to parse Fraser’s arguments because I don’t think he is really in the business of producing internally coherent points. As he says, he likes the sound of his own voice, and I think he should just treated as one of those people, rather like Milo, who enjoy spouting iconoclastic ideas (and who one suspects does not actually believe a majority of them) and who basks in the attention it brings.

    In Fraser’s case, I think that as an ex-member of the Trotskyist groupuscule, the Socialist Workers’ Party, he enjoys using that language which wallows in the joys of contradiction – ‘extreme religion is moderate’ – and which he confuses with Hegelian dialectics: he still enjoys the post-60s frisson of cool which his use of sub-Marxist terminology evokes.
    We often say that theologians are capable of thinking anything, but in Fraser’s case it is overlaid with his politically sectarian past – a double whammy explaining the arbitrariness and rapid turnover of his ideas.

    In the end, given the brittleness with which he seems to hold to an opinion, I don’t think he is worth debating with, but rather to be pitied. There is something of the oblivious narcissist about him.

    • somer
      Posted December 23, 2016 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

      the problem is a lot of his readers seem to think its cool too or a major outlet like the guardian wouldn’t have persisted in this regressive left vein for a number of years now.

  17. ashdeville
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Giles occasionally pops up on Radio 4’s execrable Thought for the Day which is when religionists of all types are allowed 3 minutes to give you a slice of personal philosophy from their chosen deity.

    Over the last couple of years it has become evident that Giles is a mentally ill individual who needs to be taken out of the way of the media exposure he seems to court and he should be given the space to recover.

    When I read his articles I get the image of him frothing at the mouth when he speaks this stuff.

  18. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    I tend to agree with giles fraser. What we need is for all terrorists to be far *more* religious. Instead of indulging in all the sordid business with guns and explosives themselves, can’t we just persuade them to pray to their God to smite the unbelievers and leave the smiting to Him?

    In fact, doing it themselves surely shows a lack of faith in the omnipotence of their pet deity. Now if we can just convince them of that…


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 23, 2016 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

      Oh, I see Giles Fraser did say exactly that. Oh bugger.

      But I was being sarcastic.


  19. Posted December 24, 2016 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    With any luck Fraser will now also petition for Christians to stop indoctrinating kids with their dogma since, you know, God is quite capable of letting the kids know all about it. Priests and teachers; be more religious and don’t mention Her! Trust in Her greatness! This new argument from Fraser offers us plenty of opportunity to get religion out of our lives.
    Thanks Giles.

  20. jay
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    A bit of a side point, but apparently when the German police were still searching for the Christmas terrorist, they were not permitted to publish his picture…. because ‘racism’.

    • Posted December 24, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      It seems that the well-being and even the safety of Europeans isn’t a high priority for the European establishment; political correctness is a higher one.

  21. Dominic
    Posted January 3, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Giles uses the sort of facetious argument that I would use in trying to make fun of the absurdities of religious belief – but I would not be being serious.

    Disappointed to discover Holland, who I follow on Tw*tter, is a christian…

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