"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Happy Chocolate Egg Day

There's been a fair bit of comment on it already but Madeline Bunting takes a line that is now becoming familiar by arguing that the 'New Atheists' such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are the mirror image of the fundamentalists they criticise.

I am, if I've understood him correctly, inclined to agree with Norm: it might be fair enough to say, for example, that someone like Dawkins tends to assume religion is only about giving intellectual assent to a set of doctrines which have no rational foundation and that he misses other stuff about 'practice', 'love' and 'commitment' and so on. But it certainly is not fair enough to claim that it is the latter that religion is and always has been about, which is what Bunting is trying to do:
"Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths. What "belief" used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of "love", "commitment", "loyalty": saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles. Faith is something you do, and you learn by practice not by studying a manual, argues Armstrong."
It doesn't help Madeline Bunting that she's citing two sources - Karen Armstrong and John Gray - that I have very little respect for. I'm not sure if she's using them accurately but what kind of 'historian of religion' imagines that codifying faith into a set of doctrines that people were expected to assent to intellectually is a recent event in the history of Christianity? I personally find it impossible to believe that the ex-nun Karen Armstrong is either ignorant of, or has forgotten, the history of the Inquisition, for example - and am therefore inclined to dismiss her argument as completely disingenuous.

Or maybe merely ignorant? The reference to doctrinal dogmatism 'infecting other faiths' is, one assumes, an allusion to the sort of Scripturalism that we see from evangelical Protestants being aped by Islamic fundamentalism. But surely she can't possibly imagine either of these phenomena can be placed in 'recent decades'?

No. Certainly it is true that religion is and has been historically much more to people than the acceptance of intellectual propositions about the cosmos for which there is no evidence. But it is ahistorical nonsense to pretend that the latter has not always been part of the story of religion. Organised religion has always attempted to codify the doctrines of the faith. These in turn have been mediated through a priestly class that have in the monotheistic faiths used them to separate the saved and the damned, the orthodox from the heretic - often to literally lethal effect: whenever the guardians of orthodoxy have been married to the state, these categories have been enforced using the full range of sanctions and punishments that governments have available to them - including imprisonment, exile, torture, execution and the declaration of war. This, along with 'commitment', 'faith', 'charity', 'piety' and everything else that has to do with finding one's place in the world, is part of what faith in its organised and politicised forms has always been about and anyone who fails to give a proper account of these dark and brutal stories in the history of religion immediately forfeits any serious claim to our attention.

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