Battle in Print: Is the rise of religion and faith-based politics a problem?

Martin Summers, 29 September 2006

For whom does religion create problems? It belittles the consequences of some religious beliefs to say that the actions inspired by such beliefs cause problems, whether one is talking of the victims of suicide bombers, gay men and women persecuted and murdered, women marginalised and denied contraception, educators forced into teaching questionable ‘science’ or history, and scientists prevented from undertaking life-saving research – all because a religious text, belief or authority has sanctioned or inspired such behaviour.

It is, however, still rare that the blame for such issues is laid at the door of religion per se, even though there has been a recent increase in the number of book-length critiques of religion. More typical are criticisms levelled at particular manifestations of religious belief – attributed to mistaken interpretations of certain passages in key religious texts, or to failures within certain religious traditions to come to terms with the modern world in some regard. According to this view, shared by many people who are loathe to criticise religion per se, the main problems of religion today are only problems of extremism or fundamentalism.

Unfortunately, these concepts – of religious fundamentalism, moderation and extremism – do not serve debate well. The use of ‘fundamentalism’, understood primarily in terms of the literal interpretation of religious texts, leads us to focus on the literalism of interpretation, rather than the fact that particular religious texts, however loosely interpreted, are used to justify certain beliefs or actions. Most religions are fundamentalist insofar as they take their authority from certain texts that are given unassailable superiority over secular texts.

The accusation of mistaken literalism distracts us from the greater error of privileging certain texts at the exclusion of others. As Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, writes: ‘most…people…believe that the Creator of the Universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility’.

Harris is equally critical of the notion of religious moderation – and by turns the notion that it is the right response to religious extremism:

Religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others…The very ideal of religious tolerance – born of the very notion that every human being should be free to believe what he wants about God – is one of the principal forces driving us towards the abyss…Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemably sectarian truth claims of each.

It is worth noting that the concepts of extremism and moderation are used in a very different way when applied to politics: a political extremist is typically defined in relation to where he stands on a particular linear scale, between authoritarianism and freedom or between left and right; a political moderate is thus defined as occupying the middle ground. Neither the political extremist nor the moderate is defined, as the religious moderate or extremist is, by the strength of their beliefs or their tolerance for non-believers. This is important, because the criticisms that are levelled at religion – and the accompanying desire for beliefs based on evidence and open discussion – can also be levelled at many political movements and beliefs.

The religious dimension of political movements, especially communism, Nazism, most forms of nationalism and indeed some green politics – with man’s despoiling of Nature functioning as an equivalent of original sin, with mankind now having to atone and repent for our (environmental) sins – has been noted before.

The faith-based politics of the title need not be taken as a reference only to politics that is explicitly underpinned by a particular religion or set of religious beliefs. All politics ideologies have some faith-like elements in them, if one understands faith to be the ‘unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern’, as goes Sam Harris’s definition of religious faith. Political discourse may offer, or be able to offer, more justifications of certain political beliefs than religions do for religious beliefs, but it is hard to say that many core political beliefs – such as competing claims for the primacy of freedom, or democracy or equality as political values – are in practice justified on a regular basis or that they are indeed ‘evidence-based’ (‘evidence-based decision making’ being a current mantra in technocratic political discourse).

The rise of religion should not be seen as a problem that secular politics somehow needs to solve; while there are particular political problems that certain religious beliefs create, concerning equality and tolerance and the rule of law, the bigger challenge that religion and faith-based politics poses for secular politicians and commentators is that they cannot presume politics will lapse into a vaguely defined consensus around democratic capitalist regimes of one form or other.

Post-war consensus politics in the West, based primarily on an ideological opposition to Soviet communism on the one hand and the delivery of material progress and welfare on the other, has proven incapable of summoning up the passion and ability to persuade populations of core liberal democratic values in the face of stronger, more confident and committed faith-based movements. Nationalism has traditionally provided that passion and conviction, but this is only sustainable around times of internal or external conflict and its threat. With fervent nationalism increasingly in decline, what hope is there for secular politics to reclaim its confidence and win widespread support, particularly at a time when voters seem to reject ideological politics?


Martin Summers is a public affairs advisor

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