Monday, 7 May 2007

An equivalence of extremisms?

Last week the British Library hosted a discussion between Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to celebrate the library's current exhibition of sacred texts from the three religions. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg, the event seems to have been a fruitful exploration of commonalities and differences between the faiths.

However, some of those involved couldn't resist a dig at the supposedly secularist media for not broadcasting the event. According to the Independent Catholic News website, Lord Bragg 'voiced disappointment at how faith is sidelined in public debate in the media' and suggested that 'mainstream radio programmes were not interested in broadcasting the discussion'. Faith sidelined in the media? Does that sound right? What about the guaranteed slots for Thought for the Day, Songs of Praise, Sunday Worship, not to mention the regular discussion of religious issues on programmes like Bragg's own on Radio 4? Surely this is something of an over-reaction to not getting your event broadcast?

The Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks agreed with Melvyn, accusing the media of not wanting to hear stories of believers of different faiths getting along:

They want to know something that resembles the public spectacles of Rome in its decadence, they want to throw Christians to lions, or lions to Christians, and so the voices that gain resonance in our culture and in the media are extreme secularists or religious extremists. And they're very comfortable with one another because the extreme secularists can point to the religious voices and say they're fanatics and the religious extremists can point to the secularists and say they're totally atheist decadentsetc, etc.

He may be right - 'Religious leaders get along' doesn't sound like much of a headline. But I hate the way he falls into the 'plague on both your houses' approach that is becoming a lazy rhetorical trope among anti-secularists (rather like 'aggressive secularism'). Seems to me like a neat way of avoiding having to condemn specifically religious extremists ('Ah well, there are fundamentalists on both sides...').

These sideswipes are instances of two key features in what I have defined as 'faith-ism' or religionism: firstly, a blurring of the differences between religions in order to present a united front to defend Religion plc or Faith Inc, and secondly the need constantly and defensively to pick a fight with the common enemy of secularism, mistakenly perceived to be growing in influence and vociferousness.

Coincidentally Martin Amis' review of Ed Husain's new book about his time as an Islamist foot-soldier (via Mick Hartley) also picks up this point about a false equivalence of extremisms. Amis likes the book but accuses Husain of painting a 'false dichotomy' :

He wants to be “free from the fanaticism of secularism or religion”; he wants to “oppose hatred of all forms, secular and religious”. In this view, fundamentalists are on one wing, atheists are on the other, and the supposed centre is occupied by moderate believers and a few laconic agnostics.

Amis takes issue:

Secular fanaticism, secular hatred – these equivalences are fictions. The humanist pitbull Richard Dawkins, I am confident, has very few affinities with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. One can afford to be crude about this. When Islamists crash passenger planes into buildings, or hack off the heads of hostages, they shout, “God is great!” When secularists do that kind of thing, what do they shout?

'Nuff said, I think.

As a footnote, today's Guardian carries a long diatribe by Madeleine Bunting against the 'New Atheists' (Dawkins, Dennett, et al) who just don't understand religion. As someone who is keen to keep clear the distinction between secularism and atheism, I don't want to get in the middle of this one. However, I found Bunting's defence of religion avowedly 'faith-ist', in that she didn't argue in favour of a specific religion, but for 'religion' generally. Moreover, like most religionists these days, she didn't attempt to argue in favour of religion because it might be true, but because it's good for you. Arguing for faith in these utilitarian, consumerist terms seems to me to be a slippery slope.