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Among the faithful and the fanatics

08 January 2016

A new attempt to depict mainstream religion is flawed, writes Paul Vallely

FORGET about fanatics and fundamentalists. Focus instead on the vast majority of the faithful — Muslim, Christian, and Jew — whose religious life contributes to making the world a better place rather than a more fear-filled or dangerous one. This was the brief that the broadcaster Adrian Chiles set himself at the start of his two-part BBC2 series exploring what the monotheistic faiths had in common, My Mediterranean With Adrian Chiles. The first episode was broadcast last Sunday.

The former Match of the Day presenter will be heartened by work just published by the New School for Social Research in New York, which added a religious twist to the old ethical dilemma in which a lorry is running into a group of five children. You can save the five if you choose to push an innocent bystander into the path of the truck. The choice is classically between a consequentialist and a deontological response.

But this time, the researchers, who did the test in Israel, offered three variations. What if the children were Jews, or if they were Muslims? And what if you allowed your decision to be influenced by how you thought God would prefer you to act? More than half of those tested said that the religion of the children would make no difference, and that bias became more pronounced when God was invoked. The findings seem to support Mr Chiles’s contention that religion does more good than harm — even if, as he put it, “The meek may inherit the earth, but will get little media coverage along the way.”

At first, it seemed that the broadcaster might succeed in his intention. In a prologue with his atheist mother, set in her native Croatia, Mr Chiles spoke of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. He then travelled to spend Eid with a Muslim family in Istanbul, and joined a Jewish family for Sukkot in Jerusalem. The festivals were different, but in both the love and warmth of family spread out beyond their respective communities, in a practical underscoring of their shared insistence that the three faiths worship the same God.

Sadly, Mr Chiles was then seduced by the location. He had an unsympathetic encounter with the great sites of worship in Jerusalem, feeling untouched and alienated by the bustle and shoving at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and bewildered by the parallel praying of Jews at the Western Wall. (Oddly, he avoided the al-Aqsa mosque, in favour of a diverting digression into Jewish atheism, which took him even further from his central thesis.)

But what was most disappointing was that, instead of finding an equivalent ordinary Christian family, he plumped for a gathering of Evangelical extremists who had turned up at the Dead Sea in a highly political gesture of support for Zionism, while declaring “Our God is alive, and theirs is dead.”

Despite his protestations at the outset, Mr Chiles blundered straight into the usual media trap of selecting the extreme rather than the mainstream to represent Christianity. Perhaps he will rectify that in part two on Sunday. But for a programme that began with the avowed intent of presenting “the majority; the nice, normal, gentle people who happen to be religious”, it was a signal failure.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.

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