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A recent article in Britain’s New Statesman magazine warned that, as Britain’s culture war heats up, the religious groups that threaten public tranquility are mostly being supported either by the United States or by Saudi Arabia, two nations that the magazine assumes to be equivalent in extremism. “Puritanical yet wealthy, convinced of their God-given mission to the rest of the world, sure of a divinely inspired history,” the article, titled “Faith Invaders,” declared,
Saudi Arabia and the United States are surprisingly similar in their mixture of religion, politics and interference in other countries’ affairs. Saudi Arabia has Wahhabi Islam, Middle America has evangelical Christianity. Historically, they hate each other. Yet both see themselves as exponents of the purest version of their faith. Both are suspicious of modernity. Both see no distinction between politics and religion.”
The equating of Christians with Wahhabis is reminiscent of the assertion of the moral equivalence of the West and the Soviet Union that we so often heard from the European and American left during the Cold War.
Such relativism sees little difference between the religious tyranny of the Wahhabi-backed Saudi monarchy, which violently oppresses not only non-Islamic religions but other forms of Islam, and the thriving religious pluralism of the United States, where Muslims have far more freedom than they have in Arabia, and where formerly bitter religious differences, such as the chasm that once separated Protestants and Catholics, have become more like amiably held differences of opinion.
Viewing the subject from a strictly secularist perspective, the article tended to see any cooperation among religions as a threat to its own values rather than as a welcome step towards civil peace.
A new, cross-faith conservatism is in the air: witness how Catholics, Anglicans, Jews and Muslims supported the Conservative Party Leader’s call for a cut in the time limit for abortion; how Muslims joined Christians in the unprecedented protests against the BBC’s screening of Jerry Springer: the opera; how evangelical Christians supported the banning of a play offensive to Sikhs; how Jewish leaders opposed the BBC’s cartoon series Popetown.
Plays should not be banned just because some group takes offense, but it is encouraging to learn that Catholics, Anglicans, Jews, Muslims, and Evangelicals can agree on so many important issues, and that they are solicitous of each other’s feelings.
The article concluded with a different warning, this time about the possible effect of overzealous secularizing in sparking corresponding excesses in religion. Britain has entered “uncharted territory” with a growing and politicized Muslim community and a Christian community “fed up with seeing its values trashed by the metropolitan liberal establishment.”
It is for the secular establishment to meet the challenge of stopping the attack on our way of life. It has to recognise that religion now identifies many people in the way race once did; that ignorance of religion is therefore dangerous; and that marginalising people of faith will simply push them towards extremists who are eager to take over them, and ultimately the rest of us.
Telling Good from Bad
Britain faces a serious religion problem, as does the rest of the world. Ignorance of religion is therefore dangerous—including the ignorance that equates Wahhabism and Evangelical Christianity. But I wonder how much help knowledge can provide, unless it enables us to distinguish good religion from bad religion, dangerous religion from the benign form.
To do this requires that we agree upon or impose a standard by which we can determine which religious claims are true or benign, and which are false or harmful. Put another way, we must identify the reasonable people in each religious group and make common cause with them against the fanatics. That assumes that reasonable people are to be found in each tradition, and that they are not completely intimidated by the fanatics.
These assumptions may be incorrect. Extreme rationalists like Richard Dawkins may tell us that fine distinctions are impossible, that all faith in a supernatural reality is false and harmful, and that reasonable religious believers are therefore nonexistent. If that is so, then the only course for rational people is to hold unswervingly to a dogmatic faith: faith in scientific rationalism, if that is not a contradiction in terms, counting on their ability to dominate the presumably irrational religious believers. This approach inherently marginalizes people of faith, so it is ruled out if we don’t want to marginalize anyone.
To many of us, Dawkins-style rationalism is one of the extreme religious positions, not a deliverance of reason that is self-evidently valid or backed by consensus. A better alternative has to be found, but intractable differences and the enduring legacy of nineteenth-century positivism make finding any criteria for judgment very difficult. Any standard we select for distinguishing good from bad in religion may appear to be derived, however indirectly, from one of the competing religious traditions, and may thus look like an establishment of that religion, although I have heard that the Koran itself says that there is to be no coercion in religion, widespread Muslim practice to the contrary notwithstanding.
In a world where the impact of religious activity is enormous and growing, a society can’t do without a standard for distinguishing true or benign religion from false or malevolent religion, but this standard itself may be hard to distinguish from an established religious doctrine, and may be resented as oppressive by those who feel thereby marginalized.
I certainly hope we are not in for a repeat of the religious wars of past centuries, but I do know this: If there are to be rules instead of chaos, somebody has to have authority to make the rules. What I don’t know is how that authority can be established other than by force, unless God should speak in such a tone that everyone recognizes his voice.
I don’t know what hope there may be for a peaceful agreement, but I can tell one story. A Turkish Muslim man named Mustafa Akyol contacted me about my book The Right Questions, written just after the September 11, 2001 attack, to challenge some things I had written about Islam. I was nervous about this encounter, but as we continued, the conversation grew steadily friendlier and more mutually appreciative.
When Mustafa at last came to my home, we became dear friends, and now are hoping to work together to encourage better relations between Christians and Muslims, starting from what we have in common. I do not know if this personal coming together can be repeated by others on a larger scale, but there is a basis for hope when we consider how some other seemingly irreconcilable religious conflicts have been overcome or at least ameliorated.
“ Faith Invaders” may be found at http://www.newstatesman.com/200504180017.
Contributing editor Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. His most recent book is The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press).