We live in uncertain times, socially, politically and culturally.
I read a rather gloomy piece the other day asserting that established denominational churches are closing all over Europe, whereas the mosques are full to overflowing and people often resort to praying in the street. Dire warnings about hijrah followed. I wondered whether the author was suggesting that this was because Islam is true and Christianity is not, and why does the Christian Church seem so powerless in the face of the Mohammedan onslaught? Will a paradigm shift as fundamental as this create cultural fissures, irreparable cracks in the social masonry? A few thoughts, then, as to why this might be happening beginning with the appeal of atheism, the ‘baby and the bathwater’ argument.
Atheism is fashionably postmodern, its high priests and bishops are articulate, verbally persuasive and personable. It ridicules all religions in the assumption that all religions are the same. They are not. Different faiths make different claims about what is true, and about what is right and wrong and produce radically different societies with very different laws, indeed it seems inconceivable that a country of wealth and privilege like Saudi Arabia can legally behead people for apostasy. The same is true for different political ideologies: consider the different trajectories of North and South Korea. Atheists have helped entrench this belief that ‘all cats are grey in the dark’, because to acknowledge material differences between religions would undermine the atheist (and radical secularist) narrative.
It is an increasingly prevalent belief that religion is causally irrelevant. According to this view, religion can be exploited or hijacked as an excuse or an instrument of oppression – such as an ‘opiate of the masses’, but not an underlying cause of anything. Marxist ideology has made a significant contribution to establishing this belief and in accordance with this assumption, security analysts all over the Western world presuppose that religion per se cannot be the cause of terrorism therefore they assert that terrorists have ‘hijacked’ religion.
Do we all worship the same God, irrespective of what format our religious practices take? My view on this has been published elsewhere, but for argument’s sake some suggest that we do – the assertion that ‘all roads lead to Rome’. Furthermore, if there is one God, why not many? If we believe in the existence of one God then there is little intellectual barrier to our holding to a pantheistic belief that there might be a lot more, much as some hold to the idea of ‘multiverses’ rather than just one Universe. Instead of us all joyously skateboarding to Valhalla, there are thousands of different gods with all their confusing characteristics and making different demands, and the social constructs surrounding them make for very different communities. Islam has no such scruple, submission is the only objective and heresy is harshly punished. Some modern Christian theological teaching buys into a postmodern fallacy that all meaning is in the eye of the beholder, a thesis the Muslim scholar would be appalled by.
It is surprising to reflect on the fact that the Christian Reformation was not a progressive movement; the Reformers’ objective was to return to the example and teaching of Christ and the apostles. Throughout the whole medieval period reformatio always meant renewing the foundations by going back to one’s origins. I was once told at theological college that Islam needed its own reformation to extract it from medieval, seventh century thinking towards an enlightened and more contemporary worldview. But, the truth is, Islam has had a reformation, beginning in Saudi Arabia with Wahhabism and spawning Al Qa’eda and its many-headed daughters in an attempt to return to the example and teaching of Muhammad, no less radical that the Christian equivalent.
Those who hold that interfaith dialogue is a good thing and generally increases tolerance believe that dispelling ignorance will increase positive regard for the other- the message of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Although it is true that antisemitism or racial hatred, for example, can feed on and exploit ignorance, accurately dispelling ignorance sometimes rightly increases the likelihood of rejecting the beliefs or practices of another rather than the reverse. For example, it requires a knowledge of the Islamic notion of abrogation in the Qu’ran where early peaceful verses are superseded by their later more aggressive counterparts, which is a much less attractive prospect. Radical interpretations of the Qur’an, such as are used to support terrorism, almost always involve an appeal to a rich understanding of the context in which the Qur’an was revealed, including the life of Muhammad. On the other hand, many have taken peaceful verses of the Qur’an out of context to prove that Islam is a peaceful religion. The belief that putting something in context will always produce a more innocuous interpretation is not true. Attending properly to context can make a text even more offensive than it would otherwise have been.
It is illogical to assume that those opposed to a belief are the ones who are most ignorant about it. Ignorance can breed positive regard for what is wrong just as easily as it can breed prejudice against what is good.
The ecumenical and interfaith dialogue movements historically hold to the belief that everyone is good and decent, and if we just make a sincere effort to get to know someone we will always come to respect them. On a personal level, this may well be partly true but on a societal level is not universal. Those who have experienced life under evil governments or in dysfunctional societies are shocked at the naivety of this assumption.
Politicians in the West are fond of asserting that extremism is the problem, and consequently moderation is the solution. Warnings against taking things to extremes are as old as Aristotle. More recently, the idea was promoted by Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer that mass movements are interchangeable, and an extremist is just as likely to become a communist or a fascist, for example voting interchangeably for either Jeremy Corbyn or UKIP, Sanders or Trump. He claimed that it was the tendency to extremism itself which is the problem. We are then faced with the notion that ‘moderation’ or ‘laxity’ in belief or practice is undesirable – witness the atavistic aversion the Labour Party has for Tony Blair, the centrist prophet of moderation. The rhetoric of the activist therefore overcomes measured caution and pushes us towards the thesis that ideas that we suppose are good and true deserve unwaveringly committed support, and the best response to bad ideas is rarely lukewarm moderation.
The West, especially Germany, is still enslaved to collective guilt which may underlie Angela Merkel’s open door refugee policy. It is essentially a silencing strategy, sabotaging critical thinking. Hand in hand with this is the ‘two wrongs make a right’ reasoning. Someone says the Qur’an incites violence, to which someone else replies ‘But there are violent verses in the Bible.’ This kind of reasoning is a tu quoque fallacy, meaning you can’t challenge someone else’s beliefs or actions if you or your group have personally ever done anything wrong. A Catholic argues that violent jihad is bad, but someone else counters that popes supported the Crusades.
Mankind, it seems, has a childlike belief in progress; everything will always get better in the end. This is seductive but false wishful thinking since bad ideas usually have bad consequences – witness Stalin’s purges or Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In summary, good but flawed societies can easily become disastrously repressive if they jettison good ideas for bad ones, an example being the rise of the Taliban. Bad situations can last for a very long time, and may very well keep getting progressively worse. It is not true that ideologies or religions will inevitably improve or become more ‘moderate’ as time passes, as if by some magical process of temporal transformation.
The Chinese curse their enemies by saying “may he live in interesting times”. Looking back on these days with the reverse telescope of the future will determine whether we have been cursed or blessed. As the doors on old European certainties are closing, we should realise that a fissure is created in our society and we therefore should make every effort, as on the London Underground, to ‘mind the gap’.