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Does religion do more harm than good?

29 March 2019

Rupert Shortt weighs up the evidence in a new book. Here is an extract


A young member of the Muslim community on Westminster Bridge on 29 March 2017, during a tribute by the Metropolitan Police and faith leaders to the victims of the attack that took place there the previous week

A young member of the Muslim community on Westminster Bridge on 29 March 2017, during a tribute by the Metropolitan Police and faith leaders to the vi...

THE thesis that religion does more good than harm, being a set of overlapping and broadly positive principles and practices, has been eloquently summarised by Keith Ward:

God is not some sort of arbitrary tyrant . . . [but rather] is apprehended as one who has a purpose in creation, and who gives human beings a part to play in realising that purpose. The purpose of God is . . . that societies of finite personal beings should . . . grow in knowledge and understanding, in synergy and empathy with one another, and in the creation and appreciation of the beauty and intricate structure of the world. This is a growth towards greater conscious appreciation of love, beauty and truth.

Those with doubts about such a sunny assessment may counter that it is too abstract. Given that faith communities are always culturally embedded, you are unlikely to convince the doubters by relying on general statements floating free of context.

Sociological spadework is also needed to give the insights expressed by defenders of religion a securer foundation — and also to unearth some flaws in their arguments.

A good example of Ward’s flawed approach is his idea that Islam, as a monotheistic faith without incarnational belief, essentially resembles an offshoot of Christianity such as Unitarianism. Islam’s monistic picture of God is certainly shared by Unitarians in some respects. The point of our ground-clearing so far [in this book] has been to demonstrate that this and other conceptions can indeed be reasonable and fruitful in theory. But we are still some way from establishing whether this or that faith does more harm than good in practice.

ON THE fundamental question of attitudes to violence, for example, Islam and Christianity are not at all the same. A broader view of the landscape comes in the work of a figure such as David Martin, who grasps in effect that the difficulties implicit in Ward’s arguments mirror those in the New Atheist camp.

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Philip Pullman, and other godless standard-bearers avoid argumentative subtlety through an identification of evil with religion as such. So the “proof” that religion causes violence is seen as a simple matter of identifying “facts” such as the Crusades.

Again, little or no effort is made to lay bare the social structures through which religion is filtered. Pullman’s linking of evil with “the Authority” — namely, religion in light fictional disguise — is even more telling. The vision grows from a large seam of politics which proclaims innocence and pins all that is toxic on a particular structure — capitalism or patriarchy, say — which must be eliminated. We are not a million miles from the saving conflagrations of Marxist rhetoric here. Destroy in order to save.

ALAMYMuslim protesters at the Saudi embassy, accusing the Saudis of funding terrorism, in 2014

Dawkins’s weakness is reflected in his revealing assumption that “true” science can be distinguished from sordid examples of abuse on the ground. The truth, in Robert Bellah’s memorable expression, is that there is no perfume without mustard gas. We have also noted that scientific knowledge put to good account in curing disease can assist the torturer in causing even greater pain. As Martin has argued, if Christianity can be blamed for Torquemada, then biology must carry the can for nuclear weapons, sociology for neo-Darwinian eugenics, and the Enlightenment for Stalin.

For all their protestations of innocence or objectivity, the Enlightenment’s secular heirs themselves stand in a tradition steeped in the language of utopian violence. If you doubt this, just consult the lyrics of the “Marseillaise”.

PERHAPS the most pressing topic to be faced in these pages is that of contemporary Islamist violence, and what it says about the martial aspects of Islam. Many Muslim-majority societies are plainly in ferment. Despite grave errors in Western policy towards Iraq in particular, the blame for this strife cannot be laid on the shoulders of foreign agents alone. Iran and Saudi Arabia are battling each other aggressively via proxies.

Two influential responses to all this evidence, along with a torrent of terrorist atrocities on several continents, strike me as mistaken. One, associated with conservative polemicists, sees the bloodshed as reflecting a pure — indeed, the most orthodox — form of Islam. This view betrays ignorance of Muslim thought in the round.

The other, voiced by one-sided commentators on the other side of the argument, plays down the religious factor in relation to others. Since there is so much else which propels the terrorist, according to one proponent of this view, Medhi Hassan, “the role of social networks and family ties; issues of identity and belonging; a sense of persecution; mental illness; socio-economic grievances; moral outrage over conflict and torture; a craving for glory and purpose, action and adventure”, faith can be discounted as a driving force.

Wrong. When a militant screaming “Allahu Akbar” drives a lorry into the path of shoppers, common sense suggests that a religious narrative has galvanised the other elements listed above. Read Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God, a survey of rising religious violence around the globe, and you see the ingredients — political, certainly, but also irreducibly theological — animating a figure such as Mahmud Abouhalima, one of the conspirators behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. He is hardly untypical of his kind.

Those who think that Islam represents a less acceptable face of religion tend to quote this or that passage from the Qur’an out of context in support of their claims. The command to kill idolaters (sura 9.5) is widely rehearsed. More searching questions are overlooked: notably, why Muslim societies have, on the whole, been better than their Christian counterparts at absorbing minorities (at least before the 20th century); and why the vast majority of Muslims, yesterday and today, have no truck with violent extremism.

A large part of the answer is that relevant passages of the Qur’an — like verses in Hebrew scripture which represent God as violent or vengeful — have been contextualised by a sophisticated body of reflection. Some Qur’anic passages are considered permanently binding; others relate to specific circumstances in which Muhammad’s early followers were under military threat. For this reason, the practice of jihad was regulated. Its lawful expressions do not include terrorist violence.

This does not mean that politicians such as Barack Obama, desperate to paint Islam as a religion of peace, have been right to discount the Islamic element in Islamist violence. Violent jihadists resemble Christian fundamentalists in leap-frogging schools of interpretation through a regression to “unmediated” scripture.

TODAY’s crisis in the Muslim world derives from Wahhabism, the puritanical strain of the faith which arose in 18th-century Arabia in opposition to notionally idolatrous practices such as praying at the shrines of holy men. Wahhabism, in turn, draws inspiration from Ibn Taymiyya, the 14th-century cleric who was widely criticised in his day. We have seen that the broader Islamic landscape is much richer. One might cite an Arab-Muslim humanist tradition dating back at least to the tenth century. Thinkers in the Graeco-Arabic constellation contributed greatly to scholastic philosophy. The jurisprudential schools of the Muslim world display great pliancy.

Wahhabism has spread for reasons including Saudi Arabia’s economic importance. Before the discovery of oil there, the peninsula was a relative backwater. Wahhabists and their Salafist allies have sidelined other forms of Islam in the Saudi kingdom: among other severe measures they have replaced the four pulpits at the base of the Kabba in Mecca (each representing a school of Sunni Islam) with a single one for the exclusive use of Wahhabi preachers. They have abolished the veneration of saints, destroying shrines used by other Sunnis as well as Shias.

Conflating Wahhabists with Islam is thus as unjust as confusing Christianity with the Inquisition. The late Shahab Ahmed’s baggy but important book What Is Islam? traces an immensely rich cultural genealogy in what the author terms the Balkans to Bengal strand of the faith: tolerant, undogmatic, hospitable to science and other forms of secular learning, unfazed by wine-drinking and erotic — including homoerotic — verse.

Though very important, however, a textured awareness of Islam does not serve to sweep away legitimate questions about the world’s fastest-growing faith. The caveats spelt out above must be balanced by recognition that Islam is a theocratic project programmed for success. Since Muslim pre-eminence was assumed during the evolution of Islamic law, virtually no Muslim-majority society has ever treated non-Muslim citizens on terms of full equality.

ALAMYThe rack during the reign of Queen Mary I. From Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs”

Turkey today retains its Ottoman stamp by restricting Christians, Shia Muslims, and other minorities in numerous ways. Conversion from Islam to other faiths in Muslim-majority societies can be highly perilous: sharia law prescribes harsh punishments for women and even more severe penalties for men.The blasphemy laws are being grotesquely abused in several Muslim countries, especially Pakistan — a disaster portrayed with power and lyricism by Nadeem Aslam in his novel The Golden Legend.

The debate in France between Gilles Kepel, who talks of “Islam radicalisé”, and Olivier Roy, whose emphasis is on “radicalisme islamé”, brings focus to this subject. Both are right up to a point: to see this is to get beyond the rigid dichotomy of “Islam is inherently violent” versus “Islam is a religion of peace”.

The wisest prescription for Islam in my view is not that it needs a Reformation. It has been undergoing a Reformation of sorts for more than 200 years. The results have been as blood-soaked as the European Reformation. Rather, Muslims would be well advised to excavate resources that are already available. This was the path taken by progressive Catholics (Joseph Ratzinger among them) eager to regenerate an often stagnant ecclesiastical culture before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65.

Just as Christianity has evolved through fertile engagement both with its own traditions and those of wider society, there are grounds for hope that Islam will develop in analogous ways. But we have registered that Islam lacks the structures of authority that would make it easier to rein in extremism. No Muslim cleric has the influence of a pope. For this and other reasons enumerated, the process is unlikely to be smooth. The tools exist, but they want repairing.

It seems right, nevertheless, to finish on an irenic note by re-emphasising that the points of contact between the two faiths are at least as significant as the differences. When they are true to their guiding principles, both insist on the sanctity of the person as a seeker of God, and from this should duly follow a recognition of religious freedom as the first of human rights.

SOME secularists may still see this as an essentially defensive argument. In other words, given the tendency of human beings to cling to their mythologies, then the least worst option is to accentuate the positive. But for the undeceived, of course, secular humanism remains the truest path. I have already suggested that this stance is vulnerable to attack, partly because secular visions of the good life often borrow from theology without due recognition — and thus reject religious resources at their peril.

Consider a vivid example. Joel Feinberg, a philosopher, broadly speaking, in the liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill, has enormous problems with examples, including a voluntary gladiatorial contest. He points out that there are people who will engage in such combat for a sufficiently large sum of money, with an assurance that the millions earned will go to their family if they lose. The spectacle would be available only to paying customers behind high fences. What would be wrong with that on libertarian grounds?

For the strict secularist, it is very difficult to say. It is likewise very difficult to spell out what is wrong with bestiality on libertarian grounds. The only way to do so would be by holding that it is incompatible with a strong sense of the dignity of the person. Ever since Kant, opinion-formers have been trying to give a “rational” account of such dignity without theological underpinnings.

The political philosopher Andrea Sangiovanni has recently tried to do this in his book Humanity without Dignity, but many are unconvinced by his arguments. You still require a sense that there is some value which cannot be fully explicated in purely naturalistic terms. In essence, human-rights discourse cannot be disembedded from broader philosophical — and theological — traditions.

Rights divorced from an innate sense of human dignity can easily descend into a battle over rival entitlements. (We might add in passing that if civil society is ever fully secured in China, it will have much to do with the vast spiritual revival now unfolding in a land where religion was said to have been expunged as recently as the 1970s. The moral vacuum left by Mao is thus being steadily filled.)

Another problem with secularism worth sketching in brief is its own gods — all the more contentious, perhaps, because they are not even recognised as such. Tom Wright, among others, has observed that nature abhors a vacuum (philosophical as much as physical), and that three pagan deities from antiquity — Mars the god of war, Mammon the god of money, and Aphrodite, goddess of erotic love — are still worshipped in fresh guises.

Explicitly so, in fact, since the hermeneutics of suspicion set out by Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud respectively locate fundamental human urges in the will to power, economic drives, and sex. Wright’s verdict is astute: “. . . our society, claiming to have got rid of God upstairs so that we can live our lives the way we want . . . has in fact fallen back into the clutches of forces . . . that are bigger than ourselves, more powerful than the sum total of people who give them allegiance — forces we might as well recognise as gods.”

GRANTED all these factors, a viable conclusion in three parts is that religion does more harm than good when its practitioners are intolerant or violent. Religious bodies are not incapable of error; their representatives can easily make statements going far beyond the basic natural perception of the mystery of existence.

Such statements can lead to mistakes, conflict, and other evils, including the idolisation of community identities. In certain respects, the history of religion maps on to the entire social history of humanity. The problem is especially felt in significant sections of the Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist worlds today; Christian societies were deeply marked by such stains as recently as the 1930s and ’40s, but are now on the whole much more tolerant: true to a combination of their direct roots, and to secular Enlightenment — soil itself partly watered by Judaeo-Christianity. Two conspicuous exceptions are the Russian Orthodox Church, the leaders of which are under the thumb of Vladimir Putin, and the American fundamentalists who oppose science and legitimate political diversity.

ALAMYNicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter, a powerful, evil member of the Church’s hierarchy, in the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

The second part of this verdict could be that religion does more good than harm when it evinces love of neighbour — especially when definitions of neighbour are stretched to include the stranger — through magnanimity towards other belief systems, as well as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Secularists tend to take their creed too much for granted, forgetting its theological underpinnings. Reason can transport us to the domain of prudence; it is the spiritual dimension which can advance us further, towards goals including grace and forgiveness.

Score draw? Not quite. Thirdly and ultimately, I think that religion does more good than harm because, like science or music, we need it. Tone-deaf people can go through life without delighting in songs or symphonies. But most of us feel enriched by music at some level. You can shun technology by going to live in an Amish-style commune; the majority would avoid such a drastic step. Religion is the most contested element of this triad. But most people in most cultures, present as well as past, would accept my premise.

Beyond this stands an especially important notion — that human understanding is not exhausted by mapping the world of nature. People will always ask larger questions about what the good life consists in. And through seeking answers, they will stumble upon moments, places, relationships, and experiences that have a numinous character — “as though removed from this world and in some way casting judgment upon it”, in Roger Scruton’s resonant expression.

For pastors and other spiritual leaders, the need is for public expressions of faith which are broad enough to be inclusive, fostering the ability to live and move within a given spiritual heritage and not be narrowed by it, but also firm enough to be rooted in what has been received from the past, and to cast necessary judgement on the spirit of the age where appropriate.

Although the vision is not easy to implement in every particular, it can nevertheless be spelt out with reasonable clarity in headline terms. Conviction and dogmatism are not the same. There is a difference between having seen some truth, and claiming to speak in the name of all truth; between knowing what one believes, and refusing to respect the beliefs and experiences of others.

People of faith should speak with a humble authority combining real knowledge with an awareness of the limitations of that knowledge. Their authority, to coin a powerful image used by John Habgood a generation ago, is not that of the wise woman or man and the scholar, important though wisdom and scholarship are, but that of lovers who express their delight in what they love, even though they have scarcely begun to glimpse its full extent.

Rupert Shortt is religion editor of The Times Literary Supplement. This is an edited extract from his book Does Religion Do More Harm than Good?, published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).

Read our review here.

Listen to the author talk about his book at churchtimes.co.uk/podcast

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