From: Joe Dees (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Wed Jan 16 2002 - 13:20:07 MST
Or read below.
BY MATTHEW PARRIS
Has God had a good war this year? Has the new century started well for
religious belief? As the last closed, politicians were talking about what
they called the “faith community”; after September 2001, how is that
community doing? How high, at the end of this strange and shocking chapter,
is deism’s stock? The smoke has cleared in New York. Western man has
witnessed a mad tragedy actuated by faith. But it is not clear whether for
most people this only underlines the need for a true God — to save us from
the false ones — or whether gods, all gods, were the problem, not the
solution. Never mind me: I am a convinced unbeliever. But what do my
countrymen think? I listened to two old men, I would guess from lower
middle-class backgrounds, talking on the train to Derby last month. Their
discussion was typical of many I have overheard. They were discussing the
day’s news: more violence in the Middle East.
“Them Israelis ...” began the one.
“Zionists,” added the other, by way of elaboration.
“Zionists, as you say. They’re just stirring it up, like, when they should
be cooling it down.”
“Exactly. Their religion, innit? God’s chosen people, they think. Can’t see
no argument other than their own. Mind you, them Palestinians, they’re not
much better. That man — you know ... the one with a tea-towel ...”
“Yes, him. No better, is ’e? Thinks Allah’s on the Arabs’ side. Won’t bend.
Little children throwing stones in the name of religion — I ask you.”
“Fierce people those Muslims — from birth. Stop at nothing.”
“Fanatics. Look at that Osmara — Osama — whatever — Ben Laden. Thinks there’
s virgins waiting for ’im in Paradise. ’Ow many? 72 was it? Or 77? Bloody
“Cause of all these wars and terrorism and things. Christians too, just as
bad, some of ’em. Look at Ireland. Grown men chucking rocks at little girls
walking to their school ... sane men and women, or so they’d have you
believe, claiming it’s God’s will ...”
“Y’know, Mick, I think religion’s at the bottom of all this. Don’t do no
good at all.”
Or that was the drift. The sentiments are not new — they come muttering
through history — but the confidence with which they are being expressed is
fresh, voiced widely by morally conservative people from whom you would not
expect it. Winter 2001 is not a time to express visionary religious views at
dinner parties. Religion took a knock of sorts, in 2001.
I do mean religion — all religion: the generic term.
Critics might excuse the local vicar and his congregation of six kindly old
ladies, but otherwise tend to lump together the Church Militant, Islam of
every sort, Jews in hats on the Sabbath, Hindus with their caste system,
Mormons and Adventists, people with tambourines, Roman Catholics and their
views on contraception.
This is of course unfair. Hardly had the dust from the World Trade Centre
settled before every responsible leader, from Tony Blair down, was making
the point that this was “not about Islam”. We were all but told to believe
it was not about religion at all. We were to understand (variously) that
this was about fundamentalist as opposed to mainstream Islam; that this was
not even about fundamentalist, but about about madcap Islam; that this was
nothing whatsoever to do with Islam but the work of pure evil which had
“hijacked” a religious argument; or that this was not about Islam properly
interpreted, but that unfortunately some Muslims had misunderstood — and it
would be helpful if mainstream Islam would condemn a little louder, and so
Very similar arguments are made by moderate Jews and Christians about the
Likud Party and their policies in Israel: that Ariel Sharon’s beliefs and
the militancy of the West Bank settlers are not inspired by Judaism properly
understood; that they are not inspired by the Judaism most Jews follow; or
that they are not inspired by Judaism at all.
And so it is with the Christians: sectarian hatred in Ireland (we are
variously told) is based on warped versions of Christianity; based on
authentic but extreme versions of Christianity; or not based on Christianity
Fair as some of these arguments may be, they spit into the wind of popular
understanding. The word which public imagination selects to describe the
relationship between a faith which brutalises, and a faith of the same name
which does not, is “extreme”. In the public mind, mainstream religions may
exhibit “extreme” (or “fanatical”) versions engendering fierce belief; and
“moderate” versions engendering less passionate belief, whose practitioners
are therefore prepared to act reasonably. In other words, “extreme” religion
is a strong version of the weaker mainstream variety. Reasonableness in
religion comes from a lack of total commitment.
The logic here makes some unfair jumps. We all know good people whose faith
is theologically mild, yet fiercely held. Even in the theological middle it
is possible to be passionate and devout.
But that is not the rule. Faith as observed in practice usually supports the
popular simplification: the more consuming is a person’s religious
commitment, the more likely he is to hold views we think “extreme”. Tony
Blair and the Archbishop of Canterbury may insist all they like that
“fundamentalist” versions of faiths do not “besmirch” the mainstream
version; the public will see it differently. We will see fundamentalism as
the full monty, the mainstream as Religion-Lite. History suggests the same:
the world’s great faiths have tended to be reformed and reinvigorated by
sects driven by a zeal to return to basics. You therefore cannot just
dismiss fundamentalists as irrelevant weirdos: their beliefs will often be
telling you about something hard at the core of the softer, mainstream
versions of the religion.
That, at least, is what (I believe) most people suspect. In the public mind
in Britain, Islamic fundamentalism — and to a lesser extent sectarianism in
Ireland and the Religious Right in Israel — have done much damage to the
reputation of three of Britain’s major faiths.
If you doubt it, look at recent parliamentary and public reaction to the
Cabinet’s plan for the proliferation of “faith schools”. I simply observe
that national disquiet at the whole idea has taken the Government by
surprise. In the Commons the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, has looked
quite winded at the attacks from behind her and across the floor.
There has been a strong anti-clerical streak beneath this anger. The same
streak is discernible in opposition to the Government’s plans to protect
religion from those who would incite hatred against it — plans the Home
Secretary has been forced to drop. Read the debates: Voltaire would have
been proud of the scorn expressed.
I believe there is something quite new in this anti-clericalism among the
political class, or at least in its confidence. Agnosticism (for that is
what it is) used mostly to be expressed rather apologetically in Parliament,
or left unexpressed. A few years ago you would not, by two small measures
calculated to protect and foster faith, have roused anything like such
Yet I hinted at the start that my question — How is religion faring? — was
not easy to answer. Nor is it. I write this from America. Here, clear and
uncontestable published evidence points to a revival of public interest in
religion since September 11, especially in the more evangelical versions of
Stronger commitments from some, then, and stronger antipathy from others.
Could things be coming to a head? Could we be seeing a polarisation of
public attitudes to faith? For more than a century now the dominant attitude
in the Western world has been an apathy which I would describe as covert
agnosticism masquerading as weak observance. Is Osama bin Laden flushing
this agnosticism out? If so, we may see an increase both in the religious
enthusiasm of the minority, and the avowed scepticism of the majority. When
it comes to the relationship between modern man and religious faith, the
century now beginning may prove make-up-your-mind time. I hope so.
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