The ideology of religion


‘Fundamentalism has replaced communism to become the new spectre haunting Western consciousness,’ British academic Stuart Sim has written and it is hard to disagree with him. One of the legacies of the Second World War was the displacement of the primacy of religious hatred with ideological contempt. Now inexorably, perhaps inevitably, ideology has once again become religious, as it has done so many times before in the history of human civilisation. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindi and even Buddhist fundamentalism are extracting a terrible toll all around the world.

The almost immediate and quite passionate argument by Christian and Islamic fundamentalists that the tsunami was god’s will – that such acts were written in the scriptures, that this was a sign that the second coming was imminent – was one of the most remarkable responses to the tragic event which took so many lives and gripped the world’s attention. The more usual religious response to catastrophes over the past century has been to wonder how a merciful god could allow such a thing to happen.

This time the focus was on a vengeful god, passing judgement on his people. Even as the scientists calibrated to the micro second and millimetre the cause and consequences of the great wave that destroyed so many lives, the fundamentalists scoured the scriptures for proof that this was a sign of the second coming.

There was considerable discomfort with the ‘act of god’ response – quite rightly – but it was the logical extension of the fundamentalist impulse which is so alive in the world today. Denying science, denying humanity, reducing complexity to simplicity – and quoting from an inerrant text for proof. This is what fundamentalism does, and why the consequences are so shocking.

Searching for the kernel of the passionate appeal of religious fundamentalism and its consequences has been an obsession for Murray Sayle, one of this country’s most distinguished international journalists. The rationale and texture of this grand narrative – religion and war – have gnawed away for half a biblical lifetime, ever since Sayle arrived at Lod Airport in 1967 to cover the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt.

He has returned many times, reporting the events of the day and wondering about the underlying impulses that so challenged ‘our tolerant world view’, which despite all it has built, ‘is now under its ugliest threat in the place where our travels began and civilisation evolved.’

In a major new essay in Griffith REVIEW 7: The Lure of Fundamentalism which will be published by ABC Books next week, Sayle reaches the uncomfortable conclusion that fundamentalist religion and war are old comrades in arms hard-wired into the human brain, destined to extract an enormous cost in the name of survival and with disputes over Israel at its core.

‘Painful to look at, impossible to look away – the Holy Land of half humanity holds us all in an agonising grip,’ he writes. ‘The huge detour to Iraq has barely slowed our daily dose of torn-up roadmaps, bombs, bullets and bulldozers, shrill charge and counter-charge. What is the curse on that small corner of the world, where three closely related faiths endlessly invoke peace? Was there a fork in the road to peace, and if so, where and when? The stakes go far beyond the Middle East – threatening us all with militant fundamentalism, an end to the toleration that has long kept religion and reason away from each other’s throats and has thus preserved our fragile civilisation.

‘Must strife in the Holy Land go on forever?’ he asks at the end of his essay. ‘If there is a way forward, it does not lie in our liberal-humanist compromise with the dark side of religion, namely that it is a matter for private judgement and toleration. Land claims based on Scriptural texts, especially if backed by atomic threats, rule this out. The same applies to the elimination of religion from our lives. When this solution was tried it led to the terror of the French Revolution, while the Stalin and Mao brands of rational politics – and no doubt Hitler’s, too, if he had survived – led to mummified leaders, sacred sites and infallible texts. Or turned, in other words, into religions.

‘Why? No human society has ever been found without a religion or some transparent substitute. This tells us that it must be a product of evolution, necessary to our survival in the long march from Africa, and hard-wired into our brains – the “God-shaped hole” Jean-Paul Sartre identified. Why? Because in all those million years we hunted and gathered in mobile groups, kept together by moral codes handed down from some mythical ancestor. That the same divine power caused lightning, thunder, fire, flood, birth, death and the other occurrences of the natural world was obvious and so was his (or her) support when we fought rival tribes for the best hunting and gathering grounds. War and religion were born together and are seldom far apart in the emotional, Stone-Age depths of our minds.

‘What is fragile is our attempt to tame these dark forces by reason, now barely three millennia old. Few of us are eager to make the supreme sacrifice for reasonableness, while many, young male idealists especially, can be persuaded by their elders to die for the tribal symbols of flag, faith and fatherland. The texts used by rival fundamentalists are all different and as mutually incomprehensible as tribal languages. What they have in common is a mind-set, the loving bond among insiders, hostility towards outsiders. It is this retribalisation of what are intended to be faiths – more than one, alas – preaching human solidarity that we know, and should fear, as fundamentalism. In their different ways they are rejections of what their followers see as our godless, aimless modern lives. Our tolerant world view, that has built for us (fundamentalists included) so much, is now under its ugliest threat in the place where our travels began and our civilisation evolved.’

The lure of fundamentalism is particularly compelling in uncertain times. The black and white certainty of fundamentalist belief provides a comfortable cloak – even a shield – when all around there is complication, conflict and chaos. As a description of an age this is as good as any.

The worldwide revival of religious fundamentalism is at once surprising and predictable. It is surprising because, after centuries of secularism, of concerted attempts to separate – by formal and informal means – religion and politics, of soaring materialism and crumbling ideologies, it is the old verities of religious belief that appear to be defining, if not driving, national and international politics.

The need to fill this ‘hole’, and its consequences, are addressed by the writers in The Lure of Fundamentalism. For some the lure is the heartfelt attempt to address an existential crisis and find meaning beyond the material, for others it is a more predictable consequence of economic disadvantage, the failure of the Enlightenment, a sophisticated rebadging of totalitarianism, a quest for moral certainty, power or an opportunity to add a spiritual dimension to secular values. The competing perspectives illustrate the complexity of this subject in a vigorous and confronting manner and are themselves likely to provoke further debate.

Even in Australia, one of the most irreligious of countries, a spiritual revival is under way. Much is private and personal, but a growing proportion is public and proselytising, a muscular fundamentalist religiosity that is as unsettling to the well-established secular consensus as it is to ecumenical believers who do not believe their god has a party-political preference or is vengeful.

The echoes of the Billy Graham campaigns are unmistakable in the rise of new churches in the suburbs drawing thousands of people every week. Hugh Mackay has spent his career listening to Australians, trying hard to hear the underlying meaning in the countless conversations he conducts with small groups. More than a decade ago, he predicted with admirable prescience the emergence of fundamentalism in this country. He wrote then, ‘The turbulence of the past twenty years has led to a craving for simple certainty which can lead, all too easily, to the delusion that simple certainty is justified – even when it is not. The present climate of instability and insecurity creates the very real danger of gullibility and in turn leaves the way open for a dream run by fundamentalists of all kinds – religious, environmental, political, cultural, astrological and economic.’

Predicting social trends is a hazardous business, but as Mackay now writes, his fundamentalist youth armed him with an emotional understanding of the nature of this emerging movement, which is taking new and unexpected forms: the challenging emergence of religion as a new ideology on university campuses, the fashionable appeal of Kabbalah and the fragile acceptance of Muslim women.

The diversity of this religious experience is far removed from the formative experiences of an earlier generation of Australians for whom religion and the social and economic division – Catholic or Protestant – was very much a part of politics and daily life, until its importance stalled in the 1970s. The emergence of Family First at the federal elections last year took many by surprise, but Michael McKernan’s memoir debunks the notion that religion is new to politics in Australia, recalling the way that the Catholic/Protestant divide defined politics in Australia for decades, often with distressing personal consequences.

Nick Earls was not aware of these decades of sectarian tension when he arrived in Australia with his parents from one of the epicentres of twentieth century religious violence, Northern Ireland. Rather than dwell on his childhood experiences he put the memories away, they seemed so fantastic and incredible – almost unreal – once he started at his Brisbane primary school. But, as he recalls, the ease with which the abnormal became normal in his childhood provides an insight into how easily people adjust to extraordinary circumstances and has fired his determination to improve the lot of children caught up in war.

The lure of fundamentalism can be understood on a number of levels – personal, psychological, political – yet the dangers of acquiescing to its simple certainties are profound. If the ground rules of public life change to respond to the undoubted threat of fundamentalist extremes by accepting new terms of engagement that jettison long-established values of tolerance, respect and the primacy of reason, we will all be diminished. As Stuart Sim notes, ‘There are those among us who are striving to make this a new dark age of dogma, in which everyone has to stick to the script and submit to a higher authority. But that’s just what has to be resisted Better to be prey to doubts…fundamentalism needs to be unmasked – it’s about power, power over others. Just say no to fundamentalism and keep saying it.’

Griffith REVIEW: The Lure of Fundamentalism (ABC Books) will be published next week.


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