Dangerous Religious Ideas

The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

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Rachel S. Mikva
  • New York: 
    Beacon Press
    , November
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With a title like Dangerous Religious Ideas, the unsuspecting reader could be excused for mistaking Rachel S. Mikva’s monograph for another “new atheist” polemic against the moral failings of religion. The subtitle, however, reveals that the author has a very different purpose. Rather than condemning religion as hopelessly destructive, Mikva introduces her readers to the long tradition of self-critical faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which she presents as an effective prophylaxis against the dangers inherent in religious ideas.

All religious ideas, Mikva argues, are dangerous. The danger lies, however, not only in their interpretations by religious extremists but also in ideas such as God, scripture, peace, and love “embraced by moderates and progressives” (5).  Like fire or electricity, religion has both constructive and destructive potentialities. In its diverse expressions, religion is experienced as a source of pleasure, power, meaning, human community, and culture, each one a potent force that can motivate both beneficial and harmful behavior (21–23). In spite of its acknowledged dangers, Mikva contends, religion “has too much to contribute to be ignored, and it is too thickly woven through human existence to disappear” (11). Religious ideas and rituals have evolved as responses to deeply embedded individual and social needs, and have proven to be surprisingly resilient (25).

Recognizing that “what makes religion a powerful force for good is to a large extent the same as what makes it potentially dangerous,” Mikva proposes that religious adherents can “reckon with the harm committed in God’s name and refine religion in a crucible of critical inquiry” (6).  Fortunately, this is not a new project; many of the world’s religions have already developed long traditions of self-criticism.

Illuminating these self-critical traditions in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the task of the second and third parts of Mikva’s book. In these sections, she identifies two themes that “typify the existential bundle of danger and possibility” core to the three major Western monotheistic faiths (12). The focus of part 2 is the idea of authoritative scripture; part 3 focuses on the interconnected ideas of chosenness, election, supercession, and salvation. In both parts, Mikva begins with a brief introduction of the selected idea, identifying its constructive potentiality and possible hazards.  She then devotes individual chapters to amplifying religious thinkers and schools of thought that collectively demonstrate the diversity of thought and approaches to the ideas in each of the three religions. These chapters are well researched and demonstrate Mikva’s generous affection for the religions she engages. Part 3 concludes with a chapter addressing “enduring challenges,” demonstrating how the concepts of election and the exclusivity of salvation continue to fuel imperialism, racism, and nationalism in a variety of contemporary global contexts.

Part 4 departs from the methodology employed in the previous two sections. Under the heading “Good and Dangerous,” Mikva explores how religious ideas can contribute positively to debates in the public square. She challenges the liberal position associated with John Rawls that limits legitimate arguments in policy debates to those based on public reason, rather than religious beliefs. Instead, Mikva proposes a “conversation” model for public discourse, in which religious ideas are brought to the table without the expectation that they will be treated as authoritative or the “final word” on any matter. To Rawls’ question, “How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable though incompatible religious, philosophical and moral doctrines?” Mikva responds, “with substantive and civil conversation that seeks to have all our sources of value interrogate and augment one another” (177). Using criminal justice reform in the United States as a case study for this approach, Mikva identifies teachings from each of the Abrahamic faiths that, she argues, could productively be brought to bear in current public policy debates.

Dangerous Religious Ideas presents a hopeful vision for the possibility of diverse religious practitioners respectfully engaging the deep wisdom of each other’s traditions. By emphasizing the necessity of self-critical faith, however, the book idealizes a particular kind of religious adherent, one who demonstrates “the willingness to grapple substantively with the potential harm their ideas may inflict” (199). “Substantive grappling” may be second nature to the naturally curious or highly educated, but is less likely to be embraced by the many religious believers who value moral clarity over ambiguity and simple faith over doubt.  By making self-critical faith the “litmus test” for religious ethics, Mikva’s analysis seemingly condemns those believers who hold their ideas uncritically as unethical, regardless of whether or not those uncritically held ideas result in beneficial or harmful behavior.

Similarly, although Mikva acknowledges that “what I define as dangerous” is not universal, her argument presumes that her own progressive, pluralistic values are “liberative,” in contrast to the “oppressive” beliefs she attributes to religious Others (see page 196 in particular). Her analysis may have been more compelling had she subjected these values to the kind of critical evaluation that she exhorts for religious ideas, or more clearly acknowledged how our limited frames of reference inhibit self-criticism. What one generation considers liberative has very often been condemned by future generations as oppressive.

Dangerous Religious Ideas succeeds in clearly presenting the double-edged nature of religious ideas. While acknowledging the reality of the dangers identified by religion’s vocal critics, Mikva presents a compelling argument for constructive engagement with the “good and dangerous” ideas that have evolved within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the public square. It is surely beneficial for adherents to take the shadow side of the ideas at the core of their religions seriously, even if such grappling ultimately proves insufficient to prevent future harms.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer Otto is assistant professor of religious studies at University of Lethbridge.

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rachel S. Mikva is Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman Chair and Professor of Jewish Studies, and Senior Faculty Fellow of the InterReligious Institute.


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