Sunday, March 23, 2008

Religion and association

Happy chocolate egg day, people.

On this day, we have somebody introducing readers of CiF to the theodicy problem. Here's my take on this ancient theological conundrum: one one hand, it is indeed difficult to understand how one can reconcile the idea of a supreme being who is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent yet allows evil to exist. On the other hand, if I were such a deity, I'd be firing off thunderbolts to many of the contributors to CiF on a regular basis, so if god exists, she's definitely more tolerant than me.

Then there's Theo Hobson. Easy to mock Theo, and worth doing from time to time, but despite the fact that he's written a post entitled, "Why I am a Christian", that leaves you none the wiser, I'm not going to because a) it was a liberal piece and b) it did stir up a couple of thoughts that have been rattling about for a wee while now. He writes:
"My eccentric view is that Christianity can only really be communicated in the context of freedom. The churches attack secular liberalism as a threat to their power bases, but actually it's the ally of true Christian culture. We need a secular state, in which we can develop a new sort of Christian culture that has left institutionalism behind."
Historically, I thought, he's wrong: the spread of Christianity, like Islam, has been achieved through violence and cannot be separated from the subsequent institutions that were put in place as a result of this violence. But then I started to think he might have something resembling a point, which is similar to the one I made here about democracy, what it comes to be associated with and the implications this had for the success thereof.

Why are Americans more religious than Europeans? You could argue that Americans are simply more simple-minded than Europeans but that would in itself be a simple-minded argument to make. More likely it is a result of the fact that this nation of immigrants, many originally fleeing religious persecution, formed a constitution that forbade the marriage of religion and the state. This has meant that religion for many Americans has never had the association with state-sponsored bigotry, superstition and segregation - to say nothing of pogroms and persecutions - that it does for many Europeans. This relationship between religion and its association with state power arguably goes back much further: I dimly remember it being argued by some church historian that one of the reasons Ireland took to Catholicism with such enthusiasm was that unlike elsewhere in Europe, it wasn't something that could be associated with empire (although I'm not sure about this because it wouldn't explain Poland).

This is why, I've argued before, in the present situation it is essential that Islamist theocracy has to be seen to have been tried and failed, rather than its defeat being precipitated by external forces, if at all possible. Because the religion and association thing works the other way too, as far as we can tell. Just as Bismarck's Kulturkampf proved from his point of view to have been rather counterproductive, the suppression of Islamist organisations Egypt-style is unlikely to work in the long-run. Secular dictatorships in the Middle East are bound only to give negative associations to the very idea of secularism. Hmmm, could be construed as a neocon observation to make so this being around the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, cue the sinister mood music and get ready to boo and hiss just like y'all have been doing for the past five years.

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