Islam, Christianity, Secularism
I never thought the day would come when I would admonish Americans to show understanding and forbearance towards Islam. In fact, Islam is neither a religion of violence nor a religion of peace: it is an ambiguous set of doctrines from which Muslims may choose peace or violence as they will. To penalize all Muslims for the actions of those Muslims who choose violence is as morally misguided as it is strategically stupid: It repudiates those Muslims who explicitly embrace a peaceful interpretation, for example the president of the largest Arab country, Egypt’s president Fatah al-Sisi. Western countries in their own self-defense need to draw a bright line between peaceful and violent Islam.
With that in mind, consider Ross Douthat’s Sunday column, in which he ponders the fear and loathing many Americans have of Islam. He says that Islam, to Western eyes, presents a stark either-or: Either Islam, as many conservatives believe, is radically incompatible with Western liberal democracy, and can never be reconciled to it; or, as many liberals believe, it is capable of assimilating to become as tame and non-threatening as most forms of Christianity and Judaism in the West. The problem with the first, says Douthat, is that it sees religion as incapable of change; the problem with the second is that it would render religion as inert and as toothless as it has become in secular Europe. More:
The good news is that there is space between these two ideas. The bad news is that we in the West can’t seem to agree on what that space should be, or how Christianity and Judaism, let alone Islam, should fit into it.
Devout Muslims watching current Western debates, for instance, might notice that some of the same cosmopolitan liberals who think of themselves as Benevolent Foes of Islamophobia are also convinced that many conservative Christians are dangerous crypto-theocrats whose institutions and liberties must give way whenever they conflict with liberalism’s vision of enlightenment.
They also might notice that many of the same conservative Christians who fear that Islam is incompatible with democracy are wrestling with whether their own faith is compatible with the direction of modern liberalism, or whether Christianity needs to enter a kind of internal exile in the West.
Read the whole thing. (By the way, the “internal exile” hyperlink will take you to the “Benedict Option FAQ” page.) Douthat suggests that Evangelicalism may provide a model for Muslims in the West to bridge the gap, but renouncing violence must be done. Not sure how one does that given the central role jihad plays in Islam, but I hope Muslims can pull this off.
I very much sympathize with Muslims living in the West who do not want their children to secularize and become deracinated consumers, like so many Western Christians, or former Christians. Yet the secular establishment cannot bring itself to state plainly that the problem of religious violence in this time in the West has overwhelmingly to do with Islam. In the UK, the Cameron government’s “counter-extremism” plans will make the state an inspector of religious content in the all the nation’s religious out-of-school organizations, not just Islamic ones — and this has British Christians in an uproar:
[A white paper under consideration by the government] says that the plans [are] “not about regulating religion” but goes on to say inspectors would be on the lookout for “undesirable teaching” including anything deemed to go against “fundamental British values”.
Anyone judged to be promoting “extremism” would be banned from working with children.
The paper argues that the fact that schools and nurseries are registered and inspected “helps ensure that pupils are properly safeguarded, including from the risk of radicalisation”.
But because other groups are not regulated in the same way, children “may be more vulnerable to the risk of extremism and other types of harm”, it insists.
Christian groups emphasised that they strongly support countering extremism but said the sweeping approach to registration envisaged in the proposals could mean that church summer clubs, youth weekends, camps, bell ringing groups or even rehearsals for nativity plays would be included.
The Cameron proposals would requite out-of-school religiously affiliated groups that meet with young people aged 19 and under for more than six hours a week to be registered with the government, and subject to state inspection to make sure they aren’t teaching the kids un-British values, whatever that is. More:
In a letter to Mrs Morgan, Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, called for a “targeted, intelligence-led approach” to combating radicalisation instead.
“There is a serious risk that the universal approach suggested in the DfE consultation will capture vast numbers of moderate and mainstream religious activities such as traditional Sunday schools, confirmation classes, choir practice, bell ringing and performing nativity plays,” he said.
“All of these meet the department’s suggested criteria for what constitutes an ‘out-of-school’ educational setting.
“The church running these activities will pass the six-hour threshold cumulatively where they involve, as they often do, the same children.”
So legitimate fear of terrorism, and legitimate concern about radical Islam, is providing the government with a justification to extend the reach of the state massively into the lives of all religious people in the UK, to make sure religion teaches what the state wants it to.
Peter Hitchens notes the recent publication of a blue-ribbon panel studying religion in contemporary British public life, and is frustrated that it recommends further de-Christianization in Britain as a fact of living under secularism and multiculturalism. Hitchens writes:
Now, these modernisers have a point of view. I have a lot of time for atheists, humanists and members of other religions from my own. At least they’re interested in what seems to me, more and more, to be the most important question we face – what sort of universe is this? (Full disclosure: I am an old-fashioned Broad Church Anglican, 1662 Prayer Book, King James Bible and all.) But the idea that we should carry on adapting Britain and England to ideas and religions from elsewhere seems to me to be a mistake. All we have and are is based on the Christian faith, which has shaped law, government, morals, music, landscape and education here for a thousand years. Abandon it, and what holds up the trust which keeps us from chaos?
I accept that Christianity is dying fast in this country. I know that many schools teach religion badly, if at all, and that ignorance is everywhere. But there is more than one response to this. You could say, as this ‘report’ does, that we should accept that this isn’t a Christian country any more, and adapt it to become a sort of religious salad of all faiths and none.
You could give up trying to teach Christianity as a living faith, and instead get children to study it as a quaint, eccentric curiosity. Or – and the weeks around Christmas are a good time to say this – we could say that we still have a chance to rebuild and restore what has been lost.
Why do we so lack the confidence to do this, and readily abandon a heritage of such power and beauty, which has brought us so much good, for a multicultural wasteland in which a dozen competing faiths squabble in the ruins, and everyone else bows to the neon gods of consumerism?
Because non serviam.
And if Cameron’s “counter-extremism” plans go through, the government will now have its inspectors poking their noses into every religious group in the country, however innocuous, to make sure there is no exposure to thoughts and beliefs not approved of by the State.
These cosmopolitan liberals of the British establishment are going to use this against Christians, mark my words, on the grounds of fighting “extremism” and establishing “British values.” What constitutes “British values”? What if a church teaches that no one comes to God except through Jesus Christ? Is that un-British, because a violation of multicultural dogma?
We have a First Amendment in the US that offers us a lot more protection, but we face the same question being put to UK Christians (and all religious believers there) more strongly by their government. To paraphrase Douthat, “Is religious faith compatible with where modern liberalism is headed?”
My answer, as you will have guessed is that no, it is not — at least any religion that refuses to assimilate and thereby sign its own death warrant.
The Establishment — the state, the media, the academy, the law, corporations — will grow less and less tolerant as America becomes more secular, as is likely to happen given the stark falling-away from religion of the millennials. And then what will we Christians do? British Christians are facing this calamity because 70 percent of Britons say they have no religious belief, and therefore likely don’t see a problem with the government’s proposal, or even support it.
Now is the time to start thinking and talking about this, an acting on it. If you think voting Republican is going to solve this long-term problem, you are deluded. Politics has a role to play, but in the end, politics reflect the will of the people, and if a majority of the people lose their faith, and with it goes an appreciation for religious liberty, politics will avail us nothing.
UPDATE: Good comment by Big Al:
What most discussions overlook is that the questions we are dealing with involve matters that normally lie under the surface of our day-to-day political concerns. Here we are dealing with fundamentals, basic worldviews that normally, because they are the ways that we look at things rather than the things we look at, go unnoticed and hence unquestioned.
Or, to put it another way, all of this Muslim-Christian-Secular stuff is forcing us to answer theologian Robert Jensen’s question: “What is the world’s ‘true story’, or is there no ‘true story’ at all?” Modern secular conservative-liberalism declares that the very notion of a true meta-narrative that explains the “from where”, “whereto”, and “why’s”, the ultimate meaning of human existence, is bogus. Since every religion, especially the non-metaphysical, “historical” religions– Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–ask and answer this basic question, secular conservative-liberalism must declare these religions, insofar as they purport to give a true answer to a genuine question, illegitimate. These religions must change by accepting the secular answer: there is no genuine “true story”, the question is meaningless and all of the answers are illegitimate and, worse, presumptuously prejudicial. Rather, these religions must redefine themselves in secular terms. They must accept that they represent various equally right AND wrong ways that weak (non-“enlightened”) people try to make their way through life. They are, that is, versions of myth, and, as only as myths can they be respected and admitted into the world of proper Enlightenment or post-Modern society.
Ultimately, that is what secular thought is demanding of Muslims. It is what it demanded of Christians and what unfortunately many Christians accepted in order to be considered modern and respectable.
The other interesting side of understanding things this way is to be able to recognize precisely what is at stake in the question of Muslim violence. Does the basic Islamic worldview, the fundamental narrative the Koran and the Muslim tradition tells about God, humans, and history, intrinsically contain an explanation for and a justification of the kinds of theocracy, intolerance, and political violence being advanced by certain proclaimed spokesmen for Islam today? Or not? Or, to put it another way, is contemporary Islam in a roughly similar historical position as, say, medieval Western Christianity was, where political intolerance and violence was often justified by what almost all now recognize as a false and falsifying understanding of the basic Christian worldview and narrative? One in which the fulfillment of the prophetic promises in the Messiah and Lord Jesus ultimate means a world awaiting the Final Return that promotes the Resurrection Kingdom Way of humility, forgiveness, and justice, and for whom murder, rape, and persecution of non-Christians ultimately represents a refusal to accept the Cross of Christ.