Why we need a Humanist Reformation
Our response to religious radicalism should not be to plea for moderation, but rather to inject some real radicalism into politics.
The apparent rise of religion, and the crisis in secular thinking that it implies, has been a recurring theme at discussions held by the Institute of Ideas in recent years. One of the most intriguing aspects of this is the fact that the mantle of ‘radicalism’ seems to have passed from secular politics to religion. This is the focus of the second in a series of three debates on religion and secularism organised by the Institute of Ideas in partnership with the Bishopsgate Institute in London, which takes place tomorrow evening. I’ll be arguing that the best response to religious radicalism is not a plea for moderation, but rather a dose of radical thinking in politics.
Karl Marx famously described religion as ‘the opium of the masses’, something that gave solace to the oppressed and downtrodden, but which offered little in the way of solutions to their problems. Indeed, in modern history religion has generally been a conservative force, reconciling people to the status quo and their place within it, and with a few exceptions religious leaders have either endorsed secular authority, or acted as a pacifying influence on rebellious elements. It is historically unusual, then, that religion today is associated with political radicalism.
The spectre of radical Islam, or Islamism, is never far from the surface in any discussion about religion, and just about anything else, today. Of course, we all know that this is not really about Islam, which continues to be practised peacefully, and indeed to act as a conservative influence on the overwhelming majority of its adherents – in the Middle East as well as the UK. What is less often recognised is that ‘radical Islam’ is not really about radicalism either. It expresses disillusionment with the culture and institutions of Western society, but it doesn’t constitute a meaningful critique, let alone a radical alternative.
Rather than posing a threat to our way of life, Islamism simply tells us what we already know: that there is something missing at the centre of Western society, and its institutions are unable to inspire a new generation. ‘Radical Muslims’ tend to echo the same sorts of complaints made by everyone else: capitalism is soulless; the Iraq war has been a disaster; people drink too much and throw up in the street. The rhetoric may be anti-Western, but it is anything but un-Western.
The other current phenomenon sometimes discussed along with political Islam is the religious right in the US, allegedly a pernicious influence on American politics, threatening to introduce theocracy at home and bring about Armageddon in the Middle East. But again, while large numbers of Americans do identify themselves as Christian conservatives, there is a strong case that this has more to do with disaffection with the anti-religious ‘liberal elite’ than any positive belief in Creationism, for example. Tellingly, the supposedly powerful religious right made little impression on the campaign for the nomination of the Republican presidential candidate. Like ‘radical Islam’ in the UK, ‘fundamentalist Christianity’ in the US is a sentiment born of frustration, and without a coherent political agenda.
The last time religion was a truly radical force in Western society was during the Protestant Reformation, when radical Christians began to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and the feudal arrangements associated with it; this presaged a profound transformation of the European way of life, involving often violent social upheaval. It is ironic, then, that a recurring response to ‘radical Islam’ today is the call for a ‘Muslim Reformation’. What this typically means is that Islam needs to ‘modernise’ (in the New Labour rather than historic sense) and bring itself into line with contemporary secular values. This is pretty much the opposite of what the Protestant Reformation did – the reformers challenged secular corruption in the name of an otherworldly authority – and speaks volumes about how contemporary secular society understands itself.
What is really objectionable about the mainstream response to the supposed threat of religious radicalism is that it basically boils down to a rehashing of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that There Is No Alternative. A generation on from the collapse of Communism and the apparent triumph of liberal capitalism, politicians of all parties share a common, essentially managerial, political outlook, and a concomitantly uninspiring moral framework. Worst of all, we are all expected to adopt this insipidly pragmatic worldview without so much as a debate – any other beliefs or convictions simply have to be brought into line with the way things are.
So-called ‘secular liberal values’ are not negotiable, and yet nobody really knows what they are. Free speech is mentioned when radical Muslims or Christians threaten it, but the authorities and critics alike are quick to forget the principle when it comes into conflict with other buzzwords like ‘respect’, ‘tolerance’, or ‘responsibility’ – allowing religious radicals to rail all the harder against secular hypocrisy. But the most revealing hooray word in discussions about religious radicalism is ‘moderation’, and this goes to the heart of what really is wrong with contemporary Western culture.
When religious critics complain about the moral relativism of contemporary Western culture, they have a point. And yet they have that relativism thrown straight back in their faces: ‘You can believe anything you want just so long as you believe it moderately.’ Western political authorities and other established institutions don’t especially care what people believe, and they are not interested in winning a battle of ideas, since they have no particular agenda of their own apart from a basic desire to keep things ticking over.
The time is ripe for a reformation all right, not in Islam but in secularism itself: a humanist reformation. Rejecting religious superstition and irrational belief does not have to mean accepting the world as it is. Those of us who believe that human beings should be the authors of our destiny need to confront the conservatism of contemporary Western culture more urgently than the supposed radicalism of its religious detractors.
Dolan Cummings is a co-founder of the radical humanist campaign group The Manifesto Club and editorial director at The Institute of Ideas. He is speaking at Still the opium of the masses? Religion and radicalism on Thursday 6 March 7pm at the Bishopsgate Insititute. Other speakers include Rashad Ali, head of research & policy at the Quilliam Foundation, Maryam Namazie spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims and Andrew Scott of the Student Christian Movement For more details visit the Insitute of Ideas website.
Dolan Cummings asked to be counted out of atheism’s creed. Mike Fitzpatrick attacked the secular critics of religion for losing their own faith – in progress and liberation. Frank Furedi accused the Archbishop of Canterbury of hiding behind the veil of sharia law. Brendan O’Neill took apart the notion that London was a hotbed of radical Islam. Mick Hume suggested we end this Muslim-mania. Or read more at spiked issue Religion.
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