07/01/2015 10:50 GMT | Updated 09/03/2015 05:59 GMT

'Bad Theology' and Religious Terror

The journalists and policemen murdered in Paris are the latest tragic victims in an ongoing war of ideas and belief. To win this war theologians must get involved, abandoning relativism and, as blunt as it sounds, take sides.

On the morning of the 7 January 2015 heavily armed gunmen burst into the Paris office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and murdered at least 12 people. The dead were journalists (including four of the most popular cartoonists in France) and two policemen, one of whom was shot at close range while appearing to surrender.

Early reports suggest that the gunmen shouted 'Allahu Akbar' during the shooting but links to Al-Qaeda, Islamic State or other Islamic terrorist groups have yet to be established.

If any of the horrible variety of Islamic terror groups do claim responsibility, or if it turns out to be a 'home grown' attack, journalists are once again on the front lines in an ideological war. Seen through the eyes of the 'West' this conflict is mediated through the terms of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité' versus the monochrome vision of groups like Al-Qaeda and IS where ideologies are imposed and enforced at the end of a Kalashnikov and (loosely defined of course) 'offense' to the prophet is considered a capital crime.

Journalists are on the 'front line' of this battle. However, in the war of ideologies, missiles, bombs and cartoons are as effective as shadows on a wall. We know only too well that even a well-aimed missile risks spawning more willing jihadists than it kills. Satirical cartoons are a good symbol of defiance at being told what is or what is not acceptable to sketch but they make few converts. No, to really win this fight theologians must join the trenches.

The term 'Bad Science' was coined by the journalist and doctor Ben Goldacre. He uses the memorable phrase to refer to people or organisations who abuse the scientific method to mislead the public. In this bracket he includes the pharmaceutical industry, homeopaths and nutritionists. I wish to appropriate and adapt his term for my own scholarly and academic discipline. Just as there is 'Bad Science' there can also be 'Bad Theology.'

Bad Theology is any theologically supported viewpoint that misunderstands and abuses its source materials to serve a political or personal agenda. Any religious person can be guilty of this - whether Christians in the US murdering abortion-providing doctors or Islamic State militants executing journalists.

Exegesis in any religious tradition is an arduous and difficult process. Languages must be learnt, genres understood, idioms grasped and compromises made. Theologians from all faiths are confronted by a wealth of apparent contradictions within their holy books. Passages that encourage the massacre of the infidel (be that in the Koran or Deuteronomy) are read alongside verses that attempt to describe the infinite love of God.

Guiding principles are therefore sought. In most major religions these principles are remarkably similar, be it Hillel's pithy phrase to a questioning disciple, 'That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary,' or Jesus's 'Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets,' or the Koran's '...if anyone killed a person, it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind...'.

Any intelligent reader will have spotted problems with what I have just written. But that is almost exactly the point. Good Theology is not easy, it is complex and there are many grey areas. But, perhaps more importantly given today's events, it welcomes inquiry and questioning. Good Theology is open to debate, argument and disagreement (just like Good Science). Good and fruitful theology is a complex, questioning and discursive discipline. Bad Theology is the opposite: debate closed down at the barrel of a gun, the world seen in reductive black and white and questions met with assertions.

Bad Theology is easily spotted, the Dead Sea Scrolls warn against 'The Seekers after Smooth Things': those who look for simple and easy answers rather than engaging difficult questions.

The journalists and policemen murdered in Paris are the latest tragic victims in an ongoing war of ideas and belief. To win this war theologians must get involved, abandoning relativism and, as blunt as it sounds, take sides. The senseless murder of innocents, from the Islamic State to France, will only stop if theologians of all faiths who value freedom of speech and the sanctity of life stand together and attack Bad Theology saying, in the words of Martin Luther, 'Here I stand, I can do no other.'