MOT for religions

10 May 2011

Is your belief benign, asks Ronan Head


Good and Bad Religion
Peter Vardy
SCM Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

PETER VARDY’s new book is an admission to the new atheists that much religion is indeed bad, and that, rather than rush to defend faith, believers should use this criticism as an opportunity to root out the bad.

For Vardy, a feature of “good” religion cannot be that it has the “truth”, as that is a claim that will also be made by demonstrably “bad” religions. Vardy proposes that we judge the goodness (or not) of religion against Aristotle’s notion of human flourishing and to the virtues which characterise this alignment. Vardy identifies three ways in which “bad” religion limits human flourishing: authority, at least of the kind that opposes independent thought and encour­ages unquestioning obedience; fundamentalist readings of sacred texts; and the fear of science and philosophy.

“Good” religion promotes justice, freedom, and equality. Abraham’s appeal to God to spare Sodom if righteous people could be found was an appeal to justice and made Abraham “good”. Furthermore, for humans to be responsible for their actions, they must be free to choose them. Vardy discusses religious education, noting that, in a British educational context, faith schools are good if they are also teaching religions other than their own, and allow children the freedom to “question accepted orthodoxy without fear of criticism”. Religious education at Anglican schools passes this test; some Islamic schools do not.

On his concern for equality, some readers might dismiss Vardy as too liberal. But his concern is for “human flourishing”, and he is willing to admit that, when concern for equality leads to a concern to “have it all”, “women’s interests as mothers and, even more, the interests of their children, are not well-served.” On homosexuality, Vardy’s instinct seems to be for gay rights, but he allows that, even if religions hold that homosexual behaviour is sinful, it is only “bad” if they force those views on others.

If all of this seems a little tepid, it is because Vardy is not quite able to balance the right of religions to proscribe sin against the need for agape-love and tolerance. But who is? What Vardy is able to offer is a sensible baseline of goodness: if you are open to an honest examination of your view, you are on your way to good religion. It is easy to condemn al-Qaeda, but harder to admit that some of the seeds of extremism may exist in our own traditions.

Vardy offers certain rules for judging between the good and bad. Some will be disputed and tend at times to be hard to distinguish from secular humanism, but for those looking for this argument to be had on terms sympathetic to faith, Vardy’s book will be welcome.

Dr Ronan J. Head teaches religion and philosophy at Loughborough Grammar School.

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