Putting in a Good Word for God

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by Neil Godfrey

No railway lines in West Bank and Gaza so trucks replaced trolleys in the narratives.

Speaking of the Devil or his doppelgänger, God, in my slightly flippant recent “trolley dilemma” post, what should appear in the serious social science research literature but that very trolley problem applied to Palestinian Muslims and Allah.

God usually gets a bad rap among us atheists but fair’s fair so when the research tips in favour of the Ineffable One integrity demands we duly acknowledge it.

Our findings cast doubt on the notion that there is something special about religious faith, including Islamic belief, that invariably favors promotion of violent intergroup conflict.

PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) has published Thinking from God’s perspective decreases biased valuation of the life of a nonbeliever by researchers Jeremy Ginges, Hammad Sheikh, Scott Atran and Nichole Argo. (The supporting data is also published as a supplement.)

Here is the article’s own statement of its significance (as usual, all bolding and formatting in quotations are my own):


Religious belief is often seen as a key cause of human conflict because it is said to promote preferential treatment of adherents and to harden group boundaries. Here, we examined a critical aspect of this link in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, a multigenerational violent conflict with significant religious aspects.

We find that although Muslim Palestinian participants valued Palestinian over Jewish Israeli lives when making difficult moral choices, they believed that Allah preferred them to make moral decisions that valued the lives of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis more equally.

Beliefs about God may promote more equal valuation of human life regardless of religious identity, encouraging application of universal moral rules to believers and nonbelievers alike.

Gulp! How can that be? Before I discuss details of the article, here’s the overview:


Religious belief is often thought to motivate violence because it is said to promote norms that encourage tribalism and the devaluing of the lives of nonbelievers. If true, this should be visible in the multigenerational violent conflict between Palestinians and Israelis which is marked by a religious divide.

We conducted experiments with a representative sample of Muslim Palestinian youth (n = 555), examining whether thinking from the perspective of Allah (God), who is the ultimate arbitrator of religious belief, changes the relative value of Jewish Israelis’ lives (compared with Palestinian lives).

Participants were presented with variants of the classic “trolley dilemma,” in the form of stories where a man can be killed to save the lives of five children who were either Jewish Israeli or Palestinian. They responded from their own perspective and from the perspective of Allah.

We find that whereas a large proportion of participants were more likely to endorse saving Palestinian children than saving Jewish Israeli children, this proportion decreased when thinking from the perspective of Allah. This finding raises the possibility that beliefs about God can mitigate bias against other groups and reduce barriers to peace.

Ouch! Possible that religion can be a force for peace? Well, “religion” is a loaded term. That’s not quite what the study is addressing. So here are some details. . . .

Most of us look at the historical record to determine how good or bad religion has served us. It didn’t take the New Atheists to point to the relationships between religion and both historical and contemporary wars, tortures, slavery, a host of other evils. Hector Avalos has given us a more economic/philosophical argument (focussing on scarcity of artificially created resources) to show the contribution of religious beliefs to violence in Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. Others like William Cavanaugh have used history to argue that religion is not so guilty (The Myth of Religious Violence) while the three volumes of Encyclopedia of Wars indicate that explicitly religious disputes or motivations have been responsible for very few wars indeed.

The study by Jeremy Ginges and colleagues takes a different approach to the question:

Debating the relationship between religious belief and violence via theological or historical inquiry is unlikely to yield a clear answer. Perhaps a more pertinent approach may be to ask how religious belief influences the judgments and decisions that ordinary people make about intergroup relations.

Previous studies on the same theme

Self sacrificing violence (suicide attacks) have been positively related to attendance at collective religious services but not related to individual prayer to God. This ties in, I think, with other literature on current terrorism finding strong comparisons between Islamist extremists and factors associated with more traditional anti-social gangs. It certainly syncs with the biographical narratives of Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain who contrasted their Islamist “gang” experience with the more prayerful piety of their Muslim elders who deplored the Islamists.

Ditto with another study [links to pdf] that

demonstrated that college students in the United States primed with God were more likely to help an outgroup member than an ingroup member, whereas participants primed with thoughts of a religious leader or religious institutions showed the opposite pattern of helping behavior.

The new study

These two studies compared the effects of different aspects of religion — i.e. very generally, strong group identity versus personal relationship with God — on altruistic and parochial behaviour. The new Ginges study, on the other hand, compared personal preferences with those of God. The question of interest is whether belief in God is likely to encourage or discourage intergroup violence. The target group for the study were 555 Palestinian Muslim youth (12 to 18 years), half female.

Thus, our experiments were carried out in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian dispute, a chronic and violent conflict. This conflict is divided along religious lines and many violent actors on both sides are religious. Indeed, Israelis and Palestinians seem partly motivated by attachment to sacred lands and sites (24). Our participants have grown up with persistent exposure to violence between Jewish Israelis and predominantly Muslim Palestinians (25). If religious belief promotes moral judgments associated with ingroup violence, they are likely to do so in the context of this dispute.

The trolley dilemma was modified because the young participants were unfamiliar with rail-lines — none in West Bank and Gaza. See the comment below for the actual narratives and dilemmas posed.

A random sample of Palestinians were presented with the trolley dilemma. There were two basic narratives to consider: a Palestinian man being pushed from a bridge of platform to prevent a runaway truck [no railway lines in West Bank and Gaza so trucks replaced trolleys] from killing 5 children; and a Palestinian man jumping from the bridge for the same end.

These narratives were subdivided so that the 5 children would at one time be Palestinians and another time Jewish-Israelis.

Those tested were asked if each sacrificial act was justified from their own personal perspective and then if it was justified from Allah’s perspective.


Overall, biased evaluation of human life was almost 30% lower when thinking from the perspective of God. This was consistent across different subsamples and experiments: It was not moderated by residence in the West Bank or Gaza, refugee status, age group, or gender. . . . . .

These results reveal that participants believed that they had preferences different from those of God when it came to answering certain moral dilemmas.

Rather than encouraging divisive tribalism, participants believed that God had relatively stronger preferences than they did to treat the value of human lives equally, regardless of religious identity. That is, participants believed that Allah preferred them to value the lives of Jewish Israeli and Palestinian children more equally.

Prior work suggests that the devout will constrain their behavior to fit in with supernatural preferences (23 – pdf link). If so, thinking about Allah (God), the arbitrator of religious mandates, might mitigate biased valuation of the lives of outgroup members.

One swallow, summer and all that

Still, we need to know more about how people deal with perceived differences between their own preferences and those of God. Although personal preferences are often constrained by God’s preferences, as with supernaturally imposed dietary restrictions or environmental practices, in other situations people may ignore or reframe supernatural preferences.

When does God agree with his followers?

A 2009 North American study showed a propensity for people to attribute their own beliefs to their God. The 2015 Ginges, Sheikh, Atran, Argo study discussed here does not support that study. Hence it would be worthwhile investigating under what circumstances egocentric beliefs are attributed to God. Is this more likely among the less devout? Are there consistent cultural variants? Do different communities have different interpretations of God’s will in contexts of war or other conflicts? Does a belief in God’s will encourage or discourage a sustained commitment to other issues that are central to intergroup violence?

These are questions for future research.


We think it is striking that despite the salience of religious violence in the Israel–Palestine conflict, a random sample of Palestinian Muslims recognize Allah as a deity who is more concerned than they are with the fate of members of a perceived antagonistic group, and more approving of sacrifice on the part of Muslims to save the lives of Jewish children on the other side of a violent conflict. . . .

[O]ur findings cast doubt on the notion that there is something special about religious faith, including Islamic belief, that invariably favors promotion of violent intergroup conflict.


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Neil Godfrey

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40 thoughts on “Putting in a Good Word for God”

  1. Our scientists failed to note that they were dealing with the current liberal religion or theology. Which is indeed somewhat transnational.

    I suspect their “random” sample actually favored those cooperative and calm enough to sit down and take a test. Thus overlooking the old style nationalist militant religionists.

    We need better science here.

    1. The predominant branch of Islam in Palestinians is the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam. Over 80% of the participants were “very religious, praying regularly”. Many were from the same regions (Gaza) where many voted for Hamas.

      I have not read the supplementary data files so am unable to comment. No doubt further research will work on isolating variables deemed questionable.

  2. “Allah is merciful.” And it is Allah, not men, who finally judges who is right.

    Still, I still suspect that the more militant and uneducated militants did not show up, and sit down for the tests.

    Or, if they are there as a minority, still they are after all, the more militant one. Hammas, believe it or not, is sometimes seen as moderate in the region.

    Further studies as you suggest, may follow. That’s how science works. Publish in a peer-previewed journal. Then stand back for the critique. The social sciences in particular are thought to be vulnerable to criticism.

    1. “Still, I still suspect that the more militant and uneducated militants did not show up, and sit down for the tests.”

      Terrorists/militants tend to be more educated than the average person in their societies. They are especially likely to have engineering degrees. They also tend to be good at keeping calm and remaining patient, because those traits help them remain undetected until they can carry out their mission, and so those traits are deliberately sought out by recruiters. Think about how some of the 9/11 hijackers spent more than a year in the US before carrying out their attack, or how Anders Breivik spent nearly a decade planning out his attack.

      “Further studies as you suggest, may follow. That’s how science works. Publish in a peer-previewed journal. Then stand back for the critique. The social sciences in particular are thought to be vulnerable to criticism.”

      Answer honestly: would you have had this same reaction if the study had found the opposite conclusion?

      1. Many terrorists are educated. But think of the ordinary grunt Isis soldier for a second. Who I would submit is also a terrorist.

        Having dealt with religiously biased research for two decades (including PEW), I feel it is wise to submit all reports to very, very close scrutiny. Today “science” is being used. To show say that the earth is 6,000 years old.
        “Figures don’t lie. But liars can figure.”

        Do I have a bias? Consider what science says about miracles, and then judge.

  3. What “allah ” , what “god” ?
    Muslim worship twinkle, twinkle little star : An- Najm 53:49 ” …and He [ Allah] is the Lord (of) Sirius .
    Biblical main deity of OT ” yhvh alhim” means “existing powers/forces” , idiomatically “forces of nature” , which is grammatically proper and correct translation from Hebrew .Theological misinterpretation rendered ” one god” idea .
    Perhaps my post is a little off topic but religious education may be the answer to bring some tolerance to the Middle East .

  4. I wonder whether it actually matters that the subject believe in a god to have this effect. Say something like, “pretend you believe in a god who is compassionate, righteous, and cares about human activities, what would this entity likely have you decide?”

  5. The participant group did demonstrate a bias to acting in a way they believed was morally inferior to the will of Allah. This sounds to me like Christians who say, “Yes, we know Jesus said we should love our enemies, but….”

    The test, by the way, used a truck in the scenario, not a train-track trolley, because there are no train lines in the West Bank or Gaza.

    Here are the two narratives presented to the participants:


    “Imagine that a man called Hadi is standing on a footbridge at night overlooking a truck as it speeds, out of control, down the road. It is clear that the driver is sleepy and out of control. If the truck does not stop it will kill five [Palestinian/Israeli] children playing on the road. Hadi realizes that the only way he can save the children is to jump (push the very large Palestinian) off the bridge in front of the speeding truck to stop the truck and warn the driver. If he does this the truck will hit him (the Palestinian man) and he will almost certainly die, but the truck will stop and the five [Palestinian/Jewish Israeli] children will be saved.

    What do you think he should do?

    1. He should jump off the footbridge to save the children
    2. He should not jump off the footbridge

    What do you think God would approve of more?

    1. Hadi Jumps off the footbridge to save the children,
    2. Hadi does not jump off the footbridge “


    “Imagine that a man called Hadi is standing on a footbridge at night overlooking a truck as it speeds, out of control, down the road. It is clear that the driver is sleepy and out of control. If the truck does not stop it will kill five [Palestinian/Israeli] children playing on the road. A very large Palestinian is standing next to him, leaning over the bridge. Hadi realizes that the only way he can save the children is to push the very large Palestinian standing next to him off the bridge in front of the speeding truck to stop the truck and warn the driver. If he does this the large Palestinian will almost certainly die, but the five [Palestinian/Jewish Israeli] children will be saved,

    What do you think he should do? What do you think he should do?

    1. Hadi should push the Palestinian off the footbridge to save the children .
    2. Hadi should not push the Palestinian off the footbridge.

    What do you think God would approve of more?

    1. Hadi Pushes the Palestinian off the footbridge to save the children.
    2. Hadi does not push the Palestinian off the footbridge.”

    1. On the positive side, everyone likes this now-standard experiment. Furthermore, I agree with the suggestion that there are many liberal, peace-loving Muslins. And I am pleased that today a liberal Islam exists, to encourage world peace.

      After allowing all that though, I would add that this new liberal group, though better than what we had, is still not perfect, or necessarily prevailing.

      1. The research does not address liberal or conservative, pacifist or violent, Islam or Islamism. It points to people (not any particular conservative or liberal Islam) conceding that Allah has more humane values than they do. One would expect that this applies more to those who are on the extreme/violent end of a religion than its more “humane” end. The participants are claiming to be more violent in their preferences than their religious ideals would allow.

        If anything, it suggests that violence and support for violence are more related to this-world calculations in the here-and-now than they are to religious beliefs.

        1. Yours seems like a fair reading of this experiment.

          Still, one other probably common – if not the only – Interpretation, would be one mentioned somewhere. That participants might feel that the religion they espouse, calls for them to be more cooperative. Or to seek the greater good for the most people?

          In which case the experiment is commonly read as encouraging people to support cooperative Islam.

          Are you are suggesting that reading is wrong? Still, if many believe that reading, in practical effect, it would tend to support the more moderate Islam that some advocate.

          Granted, it could indeed just prove a disconnect, between religious ideals, and actual behavior in the world.

          I guess I see something useful in both readings.

          1. I don’t see any reason to think the study is encouraging people to support “moderate Islam”. Rather, it appears to me to be saying that moderate/cooperative Islamic beliefs about Allah do not make people’s behaviour more moderate or cooperative.

            The way I see it, the perspective that there are “more cooperative” and “more violent” forms of Islamic beliefs about Allah has no bearing at all on the study. On the contrary, the study shows a uniformity of belief that human behaviour is more cruel than divine edicts. That is, religious ideas don’t dictate behaviour to the extent we might otherwise imagine.

            That is, it does not follow that if someone believes in the higher goodness of Allah that they are therefore more likely themselves to refrain from violence or support for violence.

            That is, in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Islamic teachings and beliefs about Allah appear to have little relevance to the attitudes of Palestinians towards Israelis.

            To date, from what I have been able to learn so far — it seems membership of religious/extremist gangs are a better predictor of participation in violence, and with respect to Western countries where minority Muslim groups live in a more welcoming and open societies, we are more likely to find “moderate/cooperative” Islamic beliefs and outlooks.

            1. ” … in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Islamic teachings and beliefs about Allah appear to have little relevance to the attitudes of Palestinians towards Israelis…”

              Aren’t Israelis aware of the historical fact that their ancestors were Palestinian Syrians ( Herodotus History , Greek Inscriptions ) and vice-versa ?
              It was ancient Assyrians who established LOM during Greco-Roman era ( Artapanus ,Philo , Talmud , Greek inscriptions …etc . ) and separated themselves by following this religion . Naturally , Islam emerged later , but religious ideologies definitely shaped politics and geographical territories of Eastern countries and it plays a huge role on Palestinians and Israelis attitudes towards each other .
              We should not be comparing Islamic extremists to the average ” moderate/cooperative” Muslim bread eater – it’s just not fair , specially there are Jewish terrorist groups as well .

              1. The study makes no implications that I can see for comparisons between Islamic extremists and moderate Muslims. That’s not what the study is about at all.

                It has to do with the role of a particular religious belief in relation to what people think of their own values.

                I don’t think we need to go beyond the study’s own conclusion:

                [O]ur findings cast doubt on the notion that there is something special about religious faith, including Islamic belief, that invariably favors promotion of violent intergroup conflict.

            2. Values of people , who are religious , are naturally shaped by their particular religion.
              Just because some people of one religious denominations ( Quran followers ) chose openly to demonstrate in recent years their violent acts and the other do it behind the closed door ( Torah followers ) , it doesn’t mean that the first group is more violent the other .
              Comparing apples to apples ; both “holy books” encourage violence on the same level .
              This so -called “study” sounds like anti-semitism towards Islamic believers , yes they’re Semites too .
              People who live in Middle East desperately need religious , historical , social and linguistic education ; 90% of them have no slightest clue what their worship or do not know the roots of their religion .
              And that’s a pitiful fact .

            3. Nothing in this study says one group of people is more violent than another. Nothing.

              If there is anti-semitism or bias against Muslims in the study then you would need to identify that from the details given in the supplementary material explaining the details and processes of the study.

              Studies like this help us learn what sort of impact, if any, religious beliefs have on behaviours. These sorts of studies can give us more reliable understanding than more general interpretations of multiple and variously selected events by historians.

              1. Applying reception theory though, I’m guessing that religious readers of this study, will read it, receive it, in a biased way. In the contrast between the scenario in which subjects state their natural beliefs, they say one thing. But when considering religion, Allah, they say something different.

                Different in what way? That is the interesting thing.

              2. In tis experiment, Palestinian subjects are found to more highly value say 5 Jewish lives over one of their own, but more when when considering religion. The rest of the time, they are a bit more partial – and also in effect note, more bloody. Being willing to sacrifice the five, for just one of their own.

                Or am I misreading?

              3. I really don’t understand what you are implying. The difference is between the personal values of the participants and what they believe are the values of Allah. The participants are saying their own feelings or values are not in agreement with the values of Allah. I don’t understand what you are inferring beyond that point. I see nothing problematic racially, politically, ideologically, religiously.

              4. You’ve lost me. I see nothing unprofessional about the nature of the study or conclusions that can be validly drawn from it. Certainly nothing to warrant putting the word scientists in scare quotes.

              5. Not overlooked but reiterated violent relations between these two participants , which should be a reason to carry such studies on a different ground .
                In reality , these children would be a history .

            4. These so-called “scientists” could pick up Hindus or Buddhists for control subjects .
              Using the two most antagonistic religious groups these days surly indicates bias and lack of professionalism , not to mentions puts bad light on peaceful Muslims – comments to this blog speak for themselves .
              It should be Mr Lucky Wok standing on this footbridge and trying to make a decision whether or not to save the children .

              1. You appear to have overlooked the reason the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was selected. See the quoted paragraph that begins with “Thus, our experiments were carried out in the context of ….”

              2. Your comment has fallen out of sequence. You wrote: “Not overlooked but reiterated violent relations between these two participants , which should be a reason to carry such studies on a different ground .
                In reality , these children would be a history .”

                What preferable ground would you choose to study the apparent impact of a particular religious belief on attitudes towards violence? Sounds to me like the most apt choice given that violence is far more prevalent there than in many other places — and given that the violence is ostensibly related at least in part to sacred values.

                You really do seem to be tilting at windmills, I think — the study actually puts the Muslim religion in a good light. So I don’t see why you seem to think there is anything anti-Islamic about the exercise.

                I expected the protests to come from the Islamophobes who would find all sorts of reasons to discount the results that put Muslim beliefs in a positive light .

              3. I’ve already explained my point of view why this experiment seems biased and unprofessional .
                Do you honestly think that these two highly religious groups of people , who have been fighting each other for years and killing each others children on daily basis , are proper ( and honest ) factor for such evaluation ?

                This ( article) doesn’t put peaceful Islamic followers in a positive light ; the readers here went off topic and switched the subject to discuss terrorism and one viewer started defending his faith – I wonder if Hadi and large Palestinian compelled them to so .
                I strongly believe that either non-religious groups or other religious groups would be more valuable subjects for similar studies and give better conclusion .

              4. The reason I have not found your argument satisfactory is because it fails to address the counter argument or expressed reasons for the selection from the experimenters. You have left their argument untouched.

                Of course selecting religious subjects in a high conflict zone is exactly the sort of target you want to study if you are looking at the role of religion in conflict situations. Any other targets would fail to address the point of the study. Again, you have failed to address this argument.

                You appear to me to be simply ignoring the arguments of what you are opposing and making your own claims (without refuting the counter arguments). That’s not advancing the discussion.

                If a creationist simply argued for the Bible’s account and ignored the arguments of evolution, we would be entitled not to be persuaded by the creationist. Arguments need to not only address an alternative view. They also need to show why the argument presented is wrong by explicitly addressing and dismantling the given arguments. You have left them untouched and simply said you disagree and then given your own viewpoint — a viewpoint that is already answered and refuted in the original article. You need to address those arguments in the original article, too.

              5. You have not explained how you can study the effects of religious belief in promoting or discouraging violence in high conflict contexts by avoiding subjects who are not in conflict contexts. You seem to oppose doing the scientific study of the question altogether for ideological reasons.

              6. By no means I would want to attach my name or reputation to such absurd testing .
                I’m pretty sure I would get better conclusion from little Palestinian/Israeli kid after presenting him with the case scenario . It’s not about any ideology , it’s basic logic and common sense .

  6. The inherent equality of all humanity is explained in Surah 4 of the Quran when it says that God created ALL human souls (“self”) from a “singularity”. This concept is also related to the Islamic idea of “Tawheed” which is central to Islamic ethics/morals. Tawheed (Unity) in its simple form is about “One God”—but it has ramifications—in that when thinking of One God in terms of Tawheed(Unity) one acknowledges that all humanity is created by the One compassionate, merciful God and his care and concern are for all humanity. The opposite of this type of thinking is called Shirk (Division) and this promotes the idea that there is “My (true) God” and all others are “false” Gods (many Gods)—-an egoistic exclusivity (tribalism) and this type of thinking is called “Takfirism.”

    Tawheed promotes peace whereas Shirk promotes discord.—The same principles apply without God as well because human nature simply works this way with or without God. Respecting others as having the same value and dignity (brothers in humanity) promotes peace but notions of superiority generated by pride, arrogance, anger, will create discord…..Nationalism can also work this way—it can promote social cohesion but it can also promote tribalism.

    1. These sorts of comments from you have become as trolling as those of Christian evangelicals that we routinely delete. Coming here to preach is not welcome. This is a place for discussion of ideas from a rationalist and naturalist perspective. I have been pouncing on those who take every opportunity to denounce the Quran but you are on the exact same spectrum, only from the opposite end.

      Take your Islamism and Islamic preaching elsewhere. It is not welcome here any more than Christian Fundamentalist or Spiritualist or anti-Semitic preaching that we routinely direct to spam.

      The only reason I have let you continue so long is because you tricked me at the beginning when I gave you the benefit of the doubt that you were really interested in rational-naturalistic-based discussion — as some other Christians and Spiritualists have managed to trick me at first from time to time — but it has finally become obvious you are as dogmatic as any of them and are only playing with rational argument to justify your faith-belief position and Islamist dogma about the West.

      1. My apologies

        Religious people will use religious language/expressions to talk about some ideas that non-religious people will express differently—even though the ideas themselves will be the same. Values too will be expressed differently if the paradigm one comes from frames it differently even if those values are “universal”. However, I do understand that the purpose of this space is not to explore such issues. Feel free to delete the offending comment.

        The ideas and discussions have been interesting….so, I may still drop by now and then for a glance.

  7. I can’t possibly be the only person who looks at this and wonders why there is no attempt to establish whether it’s thinking about God that makes the difference, or thinking about the question from any third-person viewpoint.

    What would the result have been if ‘God’ had been replaced in the question by some non-religious authority figure from the interviewee’s culture?

    1. If one is investigating the relationship between religious beliefs and violence what would be the relevance of a non-religious authority figure?

      (What non-religious authority figure would you think suitable for a study that was not about the relationship between religious beliefs and violence?)

      1. Is the problem really not obvious?

        If you want to isolate the effect of religion specifically, then you need to compare a religious and non-religious form of the same question, not two different questions one of which happens to be religious.

        In this case, the confounding factor is that one of the questions is priming an inside view of the problem: “what do you think”—while the other is priming an outside view: “what does [other person] approve of”. These two different questions might give different results even if the second one is not religious at all.

  8. IN MEMORIAM, January 8, 1697

    THOMAS AIKENHEAD was a young Scottish freethinker and well-read student who, claiming “an insatiable inclination to the truth”, concluded that Christian theology was a “rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras”. On this date he was the last person in Britain to be executed for “blasphemy”.

    He said he “preferred Mohammed to Christ” – an ironic preference in view of his fate, perhaps.

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