"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Tony Blair and his futile ecumenicalism

The Telegraph has an interesting interview with former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. Since leaving political office he has converted to Catholicism, the religion of his wife Cherie, and set up his Faith Foundation which “aims to promote respect and understanding about the world's major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.”
His personal approach is unrelentingly ecumenical and he seems to me to have an almost naïve expectation that dialogues between moderate representatives of different faiths can achieve a rapprochement that will stifle religious extremism.
Under the benign influence at Oxford of the Anglican priest Peter Thompson, young Tony came to believe that faith and reason could be reconciled. From this he concluded that different faiths, especially the ''Abrahamic’’ religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, could build on what they have in common. Now he reads the scriptures of other faiths, and finds his own enriched. In particular, he reads the Koran. ''I see the Koran very much as an outsider. It stands in the great prophetic tradition of trying to return people to the basic principles of spirituality. Taken for its time, it was an extraordinarily progressive declaration of principle. It is also extraordinary for a Christian to read: for example, there are more references to Mary than in the Gospels. The tragedy is that it has been so warped and misapplied.’’
The problem with this is that the people who don’t share his particular view of the Qu’ran presumeably won’t think their understanding is “warped and misapplied”, any more than Christian fundamentalists believe that their literal interpretations are incorrect.
The fault lines in religion are immense; the only thing they have in common is the belief that a supernatural entity is in ultimate control of the world and that they alone have the key to understanding the rules it wants us to live by. Unfortunately they don’t agree on the rules which is where the problem lies.
Blair has experienced this himself:
Mr Blair cites a meeting at the Davos Economic Forum a few years ago. There were representatives of four different faiths on the platform, each with what he calls ''an exclusive truth claim’’ for their religion. He asked them if they thought that only their faith led to salvation. ''It was interesting to see them reacting as politicians react. I spotted all the techniques of walking round it.’’
The fatal flaw with ecumenicalism is exacty this. No religion will give up its exclusive claim to the truth and none of these truth claims can be empirically verified to anybody’s satisfaction. It is impossible to settle the dispute and there is no middle ground, even for the most moderate of faith leaders.
This is not to say that individuals cannot concede that many paths to salvation may exist and indeed liberal interpretations are lived within many faiths. Blair himself is avowedly one of these:
As a Catholic convert, he ''accepts the doctrine of the Catholic Church’’, but ''I’m not a doctrinal ideologue’’. He feels ''no great revulsion, quite the opposite’’ for the Church of England, which he left. He became a Catholic because of his Catholic wife, Cherie, and their family: ''I didn’t really analyse a great deal. I just felt more at home there.’’
But he has thrown in his lot with an organisation that under Ratzinger has become, if anything, more doctrinal, more entrenched and more out of tune with liberal religious sentiment than ever. His personal support for gay marriage for example will not find favour in the Vatican any more than it has with the Anglican Church.
Faith leaders know that paying lip service to ecumenicalism is a requisite for keeping their positions of influence in civil and political society, but they must also be mindful that accepting too much liberal theology weakens the unique selling points of their individual faiths. The C of E is constantly wrestling with this very problem as its creeping concessions to liberalism lead it dangerously close to schism time and again.
Tony Blair has, correctly, identified religious fundamentalism as one of the biggest threats to global society and to give him credit he is using his skill and reputation to try to effect a change. But he is seeing religion through the eyes of a liberal believer and what he sees is not the picture I get looking from the outside. Religions may have some beliefs in common but they posses no truths, merely claims they cannot substantiate and high minded and high level discussions only serve to lend unwarranted credibility to those claims. Secularism, the only possible solution that values individual belief while protecting society from sectarian oppression would be a better goal for him to apply his energy and experience towards, but unfortunately he has fallen victim to the “straw Dawkins” argument:
he also believes that the anti-religion, Richard Dawkins crowd make everything worse. The extreme atheists ''require religious fundamentalists’’ to make their argument for them, so ''We must push back against aggressive secularism’’.
None of the new atheists to my knowledge argue entirely from the narrative of religious fundamentalism; secularism is not dependent on the actions of terrorists, as though they were a ‘necessary evil’ for the movement to exist. Secularists, Dawkins among them, see reason and verifiable data as the route to a fair and decent society. This is not calling for state imposed atheism, people of religious conviction can still argue for the kind of society they want, but religion itself cannot be the raison d’etre because Tony Blair’s ecumenical vision is unattainable, an ineffable carrot offered by religion to match their claims of salvation.

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