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Faith, terror and gender

I was down in London at a meeting yesterday, and as I walked from Whitehall to Paddington, past the bomb-squad, SO-19 officers standing outside the MoD with machine guns, and closed-off tube stations staffed with cheerful community police officers, I had a little think about fundamentalism, life, and death.

My thinking was informed by Sam Harris's The End of Faith, which I've been reading this week. His central argument is that the world cannot afford to tolerate religion anymore, that the essential characteristic of the religious is a belief in the literal inerrancy of their holy texts, that Muslim discourse is a "tissue of myths, conspiracy theories, and exhortations to recapture the glories of the seventh century", that secular rationalism should be imposed via a world government, and that torture is acceptable(!).

Although some reviewers have liked Harris's call to atheist arms, I found it extremely muddled, and the overall thrust of his argument was weakened by the number of factual errors and baseless assertions he made in respect of both Christianity and Islam. Nevertheless, the book contains some salutary warnings about unreciprocated pluralist attitudes of liberals towards religion.

Christian fundamentalists in the UK, and particularly in the US, have adopted the rhetoric of a 'culture of life'. This is actually at odds with the internal logic of their theology, and with their holy book. Isaiah warns about the "day of the Lord" coming, and says that:
Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes;
their houses will be looted and their wives ravished.
I'm normally vehemently opposed to proof-texting but I find the idea of God-sponsored rape and murder oddly intriguing. Bertrand Russell had similar, although much more nicely articulated, concerns:
The Spandiards in Mexico and Peru used to baptize Indian infants and then immediately dash their brains out: by this means they secured these infants went to Heaven. No orthodox Christian can find any logical reason for condemning their action, although all nowadays do so. In countless ways the doctrine of personal immortality in its Christian form has had disastrous effects upon morals.
The reality is that an eternal perspective encourages a culture of death. As the rhetoric and actions of fundamentalists suggest, once an individual is convinced that they are going to live forever, and that they have a unique insight into absolute truth, then they are dangerous as almighty hell. They may not just load up their backpacks with explosives and cavort about the London transport system, but will also attempt to establish a theocracy (Christian fundamentalists in the US), attempt to prevent cultural expressions that challenge their faith (Sikh and Christian fundamentalists in the UK), and let little girls burn rather than allow them to appear unveiled (Religious police in Saudi Arabia).

Fundamentalists, invariably, attempt to control women's bodies. After all, what difference does it make if women are in pain from genital mutilation, controlled by doctrines that prioritise an unborn foetus over a real live woman, or infantilised by the dogma of wifely submission, as long as eternal hellfire is avoided? Human suffering, which happens in the blink of an eye compared with heaven-time, is made almost completely irrelevant.

So what do we do? Polly Toynbee writing in today's Guardian, suggests that a very practical policy step that the UK government can take to mitigate the risks of fundamentalism:
All the state can do is hold on to secular values. It can encourage the moderate but it must not appease religion. The constitutional absurdity of an established church once seemed an irrelevance, but now it obliges similar privileges to all other faiths. There is still time - it may take a nonreligious leader - to stop this madness and separate the state and its schools from all religion. It won't stop the bombing now but at least it would not encourage continued school segregation for generations to come.
A third of all state schools in the UK are religious. If the UK allows, as is its current intention, increasingly radicalised faith communities to segregate their young people and to flavour their education with their own brand of fire and brimstone, then the message of the culture of death can only gain in currency.

4 Comments:

  • At 4:31 PM, Chameleon said…

    Excellent post and I have just popped the book into my shopping basket at amazon to assess its merits and demerits, so many thanks for the reference.
    :)

     
  • At 7:06 AM, Cassandra Says said…

    I grew up in the Middle East. All this stuff about Islam being inherantly violent is bullshit. Islam is just like Christianity or Judaism - if you are a violent person and want to find a religious justification for your actions you can do so, because the religious texts are so big and contradict themselves so often. The only major world religion that doesn't contain any potential for justifying violence is Buddhism, and if you look at Sri Lanka there are a sect of Buddhists who use political violence. Sadly, it seems to be part of human nature. People can always find a way to justify their actions.
    That said, I think that we would all be well served by eliminating religion from public life. I've lived in two islamic countries, Libya and Saudi Arabia. One is secular (Libya) and one is a theocracy (Saudi). Despite the widespread poverty, dictatorship and other problems I'd still take Libya over Saudi any day. Theocracies are scary places and always seem to elevate exactly the sort of people who society would be better off without. I've yet to see one that didn't end in tyrany and oppression.
    Just FYI, be glad that things like Toynbee's article can still get published in the UK. If anyone published something like that in the US all the news networks would be calling for her to be fired and she would probably be getting death threats. It's getting scarier over here every day.

     
  • At 5:35 PM, Winter Woods said…

    Gosh yes indeed. We take our right to critique religion for granted here in the UK and sometimes forget it's not the same in the States.

     
  • At 8:10 PM, Emma said…

    Islam is just like Christianity or Judaism - if you are a violent person and want to find a religious justification for your actions you can do so, because the religious texts are so big and contradict themselves so often.

    I think that the difference in the Big 3 in terms of the way they treat their texts is that a smaller percentage of Qu'ranic commentary allows for the possibility of an errant text. There also seems to be far less diversity in interpretation of the Qu'ran than there is in either Christianity or Judaism. (America is probably not the best place to see this, as Wingnuttia is crammed to the gills with Biblical inerrantists).

    Just FYI, be glad that things like Toynbee's article can still get published in the UK. If anyone published something like that in the US all the news networks would be calling for her to be fired and she would probably be getting death threats. It's getting scarier over here every day.

    You're so right, and I feel really grateful that religion isn't a huge part of life here. It doesn't seem to make people any nicer to each other, which is surely the only thing to recommend it.

     

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