Friday 9 November 2007

Who are the real totalitarians?

'Far from fading away, religion is on the ascendancy.' So claims Soumaya Gannoushi, citing a range of evidence to support her argument that belief in God is far from dead in contemporary Europe. Like other contemporary 'faith-ists', Gannoushi interprets the increasing interest in religion as an inevitable response to the 'meaningless' of modern society:

It is ironic that the further modern humans seem to move from religion and its many constraints, the more they thirst for it; the greater their sense of emptiness, and meaninglessness, the deeper their need for spiritual fullness and a moral horizon. In the certainty and coherence of religious belief, they find a way out of the wasteland of nihilism and the ruins of meaning.

Like many religious believers, Gannoushi is unable to imagine that life might have any meaning outside the 'certainty and coherence' of faith:

The truth is that while a few individuals, intellectuals and academics might co-exist with nihilism and even celebrate it as affirmative and Dionysian, the majority are unable to bear its icy grip on their souls or crushing burden on their lives.

This opposition between religion and nihilism is, of course, patently false and betrays a crass inability to understand the myriad ways in which the majority of people, who are not formally religious, find meaning in their lives.

Gannoushi characterises the recent revival of interest in religion as generally 'calm' but points to two 'aggressive' exceptions: 'The first is a Christian right rising in many parts of Europe - such as Switzerland and France - which across the Atlantic finds its most sinister expression in the evangelicals allied to neoconservatives'. And the second?

The other is no less totalitarian in its claims, but is secular rather than religious. It preaches absolute belief in science, reason and progress and calls for the eradication of religion and its "evil superstitions". Its proponents, who in Britain include Richard Dawkins and Anthony Grayling, are the new Jacobins, who are every bit as dogmatic and militant as their 18th century predecessors.

Yes, it's our old friend 'Enlightenment fundamentalism' aka 'aggressive secularism' aka 'militant atheism'. And it's the familiar rhetorical strategy of creating a false moral equivalence, to the effect that these new secularists and atheists are just as extreme as the religious fundamentalists they oppose. Except they're not, of course, despite Gannoushi's irrelevant reference to the excesses of the French Revolution. It's religious fundamentalists, rather than the likes of Dawkins and Grayling, who are 'totalitarian' in their calls for the expression of views hostile to their own to be proscribed, and who press for the 'eradication' of heretics and apostates.

Some readers will be astonished that Gannoushi does not mention, as one of her 'more aggressive trends', the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. It's the elephant in the room in her discussion of renascent faith, and it's the missing link explaining the renewed efforts of secularists to defend pluralism and freedom of expression against the aggressive claims of extreme religionists.

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