Thursday 29 March 2007

A rather long post on religion and liberalism

I promise to post about other topics soon, honest, but as a newcomer to the blogosphere I have a backlog (backblog?) of things I've been wanting to say for a while around these currently hot issues of faith, liberalism, secularism, etc. Please also forgive the fact that, in this post anyway, I'm writing about events that have happened over the past year or two, before I started blogging, so I'm not able to include too many precise references or links. What I want to write about here is the response of some liberal Christian commentators to recent outbreaks of fundamentalist rage. If you're interested, you can track back through the detailed week-by-week coverage of these issues at other blogs, especially normblog and Harry's Place.

What I hope I can add here is the perspective of someone who is not an out-and-out unbeliever, but who sees himself as straddling (often uncomfortably and uncertainly) the sacred-secular divide (see earlier post on secularism and atheism). I'm also interested in doing something that I don't think has been attempted elsewhere, which is to try to understand why some liberal and progressive Christians have taken the positions they have, to the disappointment of many of us (well, me, anyway).

What I'm referring to here is the way that, in the wake of events such as 7/7 and the Danish cartoons row, some liberal Christian commentators have reacted not with outright condemnation of religious fundamentalism and unqualified support for freedom of expression, but rather with attempts to 'understand' and empathise with the rage of the fundamentalists. I'm thinking in particular of the Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting, but (again, forgive the lack of specific references) I recall her fellow liberal Catholic Paul Vallely writing in The Independent in the wake of the cartoons row, along the lines that westerners should seek to 'understand' the offence caused to Muslim sensibilities. (More recently, other prominent liberal Catholic writers, such as William Dalrymple and Christina Odone, have also cast themselves as advocates on behalf of the interests of Muslims and as critics of western attitudes to Islam.) What was disappointing at the time was not so much this display of empathy, but the fact that it was rarely accompanied by a vigorous defence of the right to freedom of expression, including the right to criticise religion. Of course, religious liberals were not alone in this reaction: one looked in vain in the columns of the liberal press for a defence of the Danes' right to publish (at least in the UK: the progressive press in France was much more forthright in its defence of liberal values in the wake of fundamentalist threats).

To some of us, it seemed that the 'liberalism' of many liberal Christians crumbled too easily in the face of fundamentalism and threats to freedom of belief. This was deeply ironic, given these believers' lifelong opposition to fundamentalism within their own faith tradition. To the more cynical non-believers, it must have seemed as though, having taken 200 years to get round to supporting Enlightenment principles, it had taken Christians a mere couple of decades to ditch them. It could also have seemed as though solidarity with other believers (even believers in a different faith, and the most extreme among them) trumped solidarity with secular liberals and liberal values.

At one level this development can be seen as a result of the basic liberal (and laudable) Christian instinct to understand and empathise with, rather than condemn, 'the Other'. So liberal Christians have been in the forefront of inter-faith dialogue, seeking to find common ground with believers of other faiths, rather than (like their more conservative co-religionists) representing their own faith as the sole repository of truth. The trouble is, in cases such as that of the Danish cartoons or plans for a law against giving religious offence, this instinct conflicts with - and threatens to undercut - another of their instincts, which is to seek dialogue with humanists and draw on the best of secular thought.

As I've noted in other posts, the longstanding instinct of progressive Catholics and other Christians (particularly since Vatican 2) to seek commonality with all 'people of goodwill' has been replaced recently by a tendency to identify instead with other 'people of faith' - whatever that faith may be. Tracing this new sense of 'believer identity' is complicated, but it is partly the product of joint campaigns around blasphemy laws, faith schools, etc. If you wanted to be cynical, you could argue that Christians have realised that the only way of rationally justifying a place for religion in the public sphere - whether in the education system, the House of Lords, or in legislation - is to justify it for all religions, not just Christianity. Thus Christians have an interest in defending 'faith' as such, against a secularity which would void the public sphere of any confessional presence. (There's a link here, which I'd like to explore at a later time, with government interest in 'faith-based' welfare, which has tended to lead to a bland 'faith-ism', devoid of specific content and glossing over very real differences between faiths - very much a case of 'Any dream will do', to quote the great Lloyd-Webber).

At the same time, you have to feel sorry for liberal Christians. There just is no legitimate position from which they can criticise fundamentalism in other religions, and get away with it. If secular liberals are hampered by post-colonial guilt and understandable fears of being thought racist, then thoughtful Christians are further constrained by what we might call post-missionary guilt. There's no way they can be publicly critical of elements in Islam, for example - from their position as Christians - without being cast as latterday crusaders, or at the very least Christian triumphalists. There's just too much history there. Much easier to be an atheist and proclaim a plague on all your houses, rather than have to imply, however indirectly, that your own faith might be just that little be more tolerant and compassionate than someone else's.

But there's something else at work here besides liberal or Christian guilt - and this is where I allow my cod-psychoanalysis full rein. Some Catholic commentators have already made an explicit comparison between the experience of Muslims in the UK today, and the experience of (particularly Irish) Catholics a century ago. In both cases we see a migrant community, bound together by strong religious belief , their traditions and practices facing suspicion from the 'host' community, seeking refuge in community identity through communal religious institutions and faith schools. When Catholics look at Muslims today, there's an undoubted element of recognition and fellow-feeling, even if it's not consciously acknowledged. The danger, of course - as the history 0f colonialism shows, time and again - is of misrecognising oneself in 'the Other', seeing only similarity and glossing over key differences.

But as well as recognition, there may also be an element of unconscious envy. At a time when church attendance is in freefall, and when Christian belief is neither as fervent or as marked by dogmatic certainty as it was in the past, the spectre of a strong and fervent Muslim community unworried by post-Enlightenment doubt must hold a certain wistful appeal for some Christians, and perhaps for Catholics in particular. And because this fervour and dogmatism is bound up with the mystique of 'otherness', it can appear far more attractive than the fundamentalism within one's own tradition: thus the spectre of liberal Christians, despite a lifetime of opposition to conservativism and dogmatism in their own faith, attracted by the glamour of renascent Islam. There's a possible parallel here with the way in which the secular radicals of Respect and the Socialist Workers' Party have been seduced by the pseudo-revolutionary glamour of radical Islam.

So as well as a sense of 'the Other' as somehow 'like us' - but with the exotic sheen of otherness - there may also be an element in liberal Christians' response to renascent Islam of wishing to be more like 'the Other' - wishing that your own faith community was as fervent and and as certain of itself. But, as the history of colonialism and occidentalism shows, there are enormous dangers in seeing the racialised (faith-ised? communalised?) 'Other' through the prism of your own experiences and longings. Crucially, there is a danger of reinforcing a colonialist and - yes, possibly - racist sense of the 'others' as the passive objects of western actions, rather than as having any agency of their own.

Hence the tendency among some western progressives to cast Muslims as victims, and to see even the terrorism of 9/11 or 7/7 as a reflex, a 'response' to 'western foreign policy' (as in the New Statesman's notorious front page headline 'Blair's Bombs' after 7/7), rather than as the product of a coherent ideology and deliberate decision-making. Similarly, many liberal Christian commentators characterised the often threatening and violent demonstrations following the publication of the Danish cartoons in terms of a 'response' to 'provocation'.

Is there an alternative 'liberal Christian' response to the new fundamentalist threat, one that is true both to Christian values of tolerance and understanding, and to liberal values of free speech and pluralism? That's a question for another time.

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