Saturday 10 May 2008

The problem of faith: fundamentalism and theology

The majority of the godly are not fundamentalists. Nor are they esoteric theologians whose belief is so amorphous it can't be defined.

No, the majority of the godly are moderates whose faith is something they wear like an occasional accessory. It doesn't rule their lives, but it's comforting to have it there for times of need, or celebration, or rites of passage. This kind of faith is a quaint tradition that serves to identify groups and foster a sense of belonging. The tribal loyalty thus engendered should be commended, up to the point that it becomes unreasonable.

The point of unreasonableness is reached when the tribe seeks to impose its dogma on the rest of us. It doesn't happen often, because this particular tribe is more interested in the loyalty than the dogma.

It's not the moderates who are the problem (at least in the UK), but the two extremes - fundamentalism, and vacuous theology - which speak with disproportionately loud voices. The rantings of fundamentalists on the one hand - be they creationists, Islamic extremists or whatever - get far too much media attention simply because they shout loudest (it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease). Theologians, on the other hand, are afforded way too much influence in British public life, to the extent of automatic membership of the House of Lords if they happen to be Anglican bishops.

I've no quarrel with the moderates, as long as they stay moderates and leave me alone. But unfortunately religious moderates who take their religion seriously tend to become less moderate, veering towards either fundamentalism or vacuous theology. Indeed 'taking religion seriously' pretty much requires a degree of extremism - a 'serious' religious belief cannot help having repercussions throughout every aspect of a person's life.

A cursory survey of religious moderates is likely to suggest that there isn't much of a problem at all. But it's the vast majority of moderates who constitute the umbrella of normality and harmlessness under which the fundamentalists and theologians shelter.

Fundamentalism should be challenged at every opportunity, not because such challenges have any chance of swaying dogmatic fundamentalists - they haven't - but because public challenging of fundamentalism highlights its absurdity and shows the moderates why they should remain moderate.

Theologians should also be challenged, because despite theology's lack of validity, theologians occupy influential positions in society, where what they have to say is afforded undeserved respect. Such challenges need to be direct and uncompromising. It's no good attacking a theologian on his home territory - theology is a cloudy, indistinct field of contemplation that isn't susceptible to rational discussion, and any attempt to meet it half way is likely to lead to confusion and frustration. Worse, it will appear to give a theological argument some basis as an intellectually valid standpoint, when it clearly has none. By 'direct challenge' I mean a challenge to the first principle on which all theological discussions appear to be based - that God exists. Without that premise, all of theology crumbles.