Deborah Orr: Assaults on religion are all too easy; what we need is to define human rights

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The Independent Online

You'd imagine that Tony Blair might have had enough of the narcissism of small differences, having shared the Downing Street compound with Gordon Brown for a decade. But clearly, as his conversion to Roman Catholicism illustrates, he hasn't.

Much has already been said about the inherent contradictions of a liberal politician a supporter of abortion choices for women, embryonic research, gay rights and even Sunday trading submitting to the Catholic creed.

Yet Blair's conversion sits every bit as uneasily with his future plans as it does with his past enthusiasms. The new year promises the launch of the former prime minister's foundation for the promotion of inter-faith understanding between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the three Abrahamic religions which he argues without much contention theoretically at least have a great deal more uniting than dividing them. It's wise advice, but advice that he appears even himself to be unable to follow. Which is a pity.

It's so easy to be cynical about this messianic politician's future ambitions so easy to snort about the millstone of his involvement in Iraq, or to more broadly castigate his promotion of religious belief when so many pay heed to the compelling voices arguing that it is the last thing we now need that it is hardly worth bothering to do so. The rise in religious fundamentalism has tarnished the concept of religious tolerance, not least because it can easily be dismissed as the apocalyptic rantings of belief systems in bankrupt freefall. But that is precisely why we dismiss those systems at our peril.

It has become fashionable to believe that religion is for losers. Richard Dawkins wowed critics and readers alike with The God Delusion, his effortless demolition, through the agency of evolutionary science, of theistic belief systems. Christopher Hitchens did the same, just as comprehensively, in God Is Not Great, but from a historical perspective. And these are just the most high-profile in a vast recent outpouring of anti-faith argument, from AC Grayling's philosophical trouncing in Against All Gods to Sam Harris's passionate assertion, in The End Of Faith, that only by adopting a zero tolerance approach to religious tolerance can we create an earthly paradise that is free from terrorism.

As a fully paid-up atheist, I need no persuasion that God is neither great nor real. But, at times, as I hear for the umpteenth time the assertion that religion is the cause of all human strife, I start to find myself thinking that blaming religion for war is like blaming coloured bibs for school netball. The belief that religion is the root of all human evil is as blinkered and simplistic as the most unquestioning faith of religious adherents. I don't want to worship God, but I don't find a secularism that champions individual rights with reasonable success, yet finds it much more difficult to inspire the sense of reverence that inspires individual responsibility, so intensely worthy of genuflection either.

Anyway, I can see that a worldwide conversion to secularism just isn't going to happen, not in a world in which the individual finds it so hard to discern personal meaning. Religious belief, at its most useful and benign, simply offers an individual inoculation against primary narcissism the childish idea that one's own self is at the centre of the universe. Secularism struggles to provide an abstract and accessible framework whereby individuals can achieve this simple acceptance in a meaningful and universal way.

In my own unwritten book, Blair's inter-faith approach to the "problem" of religion is more reasonable than reason itself, because the rejection of reason and the cleaving to faith is what attracts people to such systems in the first place. Indeed, looked at in this way, Blair's own conversion, in the context of his commitment to inter-faith dialogue, can be seen as the purest illustration of the futility of seeking logic in what seem like practical attempts to wrestle with the difficulties of finding a place for religion in the modern world.

Already, it is plain that the assault on religious belief is merely calcifying believers in their perceived righteousness. We may laugh at, and fear, the lack of compassion, the judgemental pride and the sheer hectoring bossiness that the Abrahamic right so uniformly tends to display. We may even see perfectly clearly that Hitchens is correct in his assessment of monotheistic belief as a perfect environment for the growth of totalitarianism.

But viewing such extremes of religious belief as the thin edge of a wedge that can ease religion out of public life is in itself fundamentally wrong. Clearly, this is the place where faith resides at its most unshakeable. Religion invites humans to reject reason and believe in myth. Fundamentalism is itself a frighteningly stubborn celebration of that to many unfathomable choice. Therefore, any attempt to demolish faith through reason is going to have limited, even counterproductive, effects.

Cathal Courtney, a Unitarian minister who works in Scotland, has written a book, Towards Beloved Community, which looks at the ways in which religious faith can be used positively, and protect itself against the dangers of dogma which can also be seen in the more extreme and intolerant assertions of secularism.

Courtney suggests that "a sizeable portion of religious communities suffer from a form of corporate neurosis, so the task is not simply one of reasoning out a way forward. Neurosis seldom listens to reason in the first instance at least. Tony Blair's first task, then, is to really listen to what people are saying, in the same way that a therapist would listen to their patient. I predict that he will hear lots of noise about religious people feeling powerless and marginalised. Another way of saying this is that they want power neurotics often do...

"Having listened to all this,... the real challenge will be to give a fair framework on which religious communities can talk and listen to the world at large. This is difficult. On a national level the opt-out given to faith groups in the recent employment legislation is a perfect example of what not to do. Rather than say, you know what, there are basic rights which all our citizens have and if you want to run a business in this country you have to honour those rights, the government pandered to the homohaters who use holy books and direct lines to God to justify their attitudes. The opt-out might have made a few bigots happy, but to the vast majority of reasonable people in this country the rift between sense and religion just widened.

"The best hope we have of avoiding this is the well thought-out corpus of human rights legislation, which, it seems to me, gives everybody a chance at leading lives unencumbered by the metaphysical speculations of others." All of which sounds exactly like the sort of stuff Blair ought to be having a serious think about right now.